Network Tense: How to Approach a Contemporary, Technologically-Mediated World
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Editor’s Note: The talk embedded above and transcribed below was given a day prior to the Books in Browsers IV conference at Citris UC. It is a different version of the talk James Bridle delivered at Books In Browsers IV.
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Now, I would like to introduce you to the second speaker, James Bridle. James is a writer, artist, publisher, and technologist usually based in London, UK. His work covers the intersection of literature, culture, and the network. He has written numerous articles and exhibited his work all over the world. So, with that, I’d like to have you welcome James Bridle.
Good morning and thank you very much indeed for having me. As you just heard, I wear a number of different hats. I'm going to attempt to wear all of them this morning and go through a number of things that are basically currently occupying my mind, things that I'm thinking about as we try to think through a number of the issues that have presented to us: the intersection of literature and technology and a bunch of other disciplines as well. As we've noticed numerous times this morning, most of these questions aren’t new or not entirely new or they’re being differently phrased and working out which of these questions are radically new, which of them have been addressed multiple times before in history is kind of key. But for me, there are important distinctions to be drawn out.
I want to start with playing the history game. Usually at things like this I call it Gutenberg bingo, and actually no one’s done Gutenberg yet, which is interesting. I'm going to go back further. No, I’m going to start in the present day. I’m going to start here in Gurgaon, which is a new town on the edge in Delhi, a new city in fact, a vast kind of spoiling industrial and residential area. Gurgaon’s interesting to me because it’s where lots of the e-books come from, or it’s where literature goes to become an e-book. India has a huge digitization industry. There used to be a lot more this going on in the Middle East, but actually, in the last year, the political situation has meant the vast majority of english-language and other European languages for digitization services now go to India. They go to places that look like this.
If you’re not familiar with digitization process at scale, it's a pretty brutal process. People send boxes of books. We're not talking about valuable library books here. We’re just talking about the vast quantities of literatures we have accumulated over the last century and longer. They get sent out in big boxes to India where they are brutally separated from their spines and fed through large sheet scanners and digitized in a number of ways. That can be simply scanning the page and turning into an image PDF. It can go further using computer-based OCR, optical character recognition techniques, where the text is translated from image back into readable, at least machine-readable, text again. Or it can go even further than that in the process known as double keying, which is basically the most accurate way we have for creating an electronic text from a physical book. It is where you actually get two people to sit down and type up the entire text. You then run a diff on those things, and you eliminate most of the mistakes. You get about 99.9% accuracy, which is pretty damn good.
After that process, the text itself kind of sublimes. It goes up into the air. It becomes digital and is returned to us in the West in this kind of new, changed form. For me, this resembles a process that we have indeed seen before over a thousand years ago, in fact, in the transmission of the classics. After the fall of classicism in Europe, there was a centuries-long period in which European, Greek, and Roman texts circulated back to the Middle East. They spent time in places like the House the Wisdom in Baghdad. When the 9th century scholars in the House of Wisdom, under the Abbasids, brought together, collected, translated, worked upon huge sets of this knowledge. It took hundreds of years for these texts to return back to Europe. Of course, when they did, they essentially jump-started the Renaissance.
We owe most of second millennium culture to this extraordinary transmission and, very importantly, transformation of these texts. They didn't come back the same way that they left. They'd been changed on their journey in multiple ways and that process now I see happening again with this transmission of the physical text into digital again. They come back changed. Nothing remains unchanged by any interaction with it. That process now happens in days and weeks. For me, that, in some way, must be a fundamental shift in the understanding of these texts. These texts are representations of ourselves. That’s a fundamental reorientation of our place in the world.
For me, I’m constantly searching for evidence of new narrative shifts, of changes literature that are forced by this shift in format and understanding. For me, the technology doesn't necessarily always introduce new, entirely novel things, but it frequently brings them to light in ways that we haven't seen before. Many of the processes that are ascribed to network technologies are not necessarily radically new, but they are newly visible to us. They are things that we were simply not aware of before, and I look for those.
There's another concept here that I think is important. Well, I should explain the background of this interest as well. I used to be, and still am in various ways, a publisher. It’s my primary interest. I think it's one of the best rolls one can have in the world is to introduce books into it. I think that’s an incredibly valuable and honorable role. But while working as a publisher, and we're talking for almost a decade now, I was personally, also with a background as a scientist, fascinated by people's reaction to the probable coming of e-books then, immediately before they arrived. You saw it happening in the music industry, and the music is not a good guide to this stuff, but you can see the inevitability of the process. We were going to have e-books, and any argument to the counter was plainly ridiculous. If you asked anyone in the publishing industry or the wider reading communities what they thought of e-books, you often got this really aggressive, emotional reaction to it, which was pretty much outright rejection. In the industry, it was “La la la. We don't talk about this.”
In readers, it was this really complex, emotional problem in dealing with and understanding. I spent ages trying to work this out because I knew we were going to read e-books, and as has been proved, most people accept them pretty happily when they do arrive, having said that there was absolutely no way they would. What was the fundamental problem with that? What was the deep level misunderstanding that basically had people lying to themselves for a long time about their own emotional reactions to these things?
It was interesting, when you talked to people, they always talked about the physicalness. They always talk about the quality of the paper and the tangibility of it and the weight of it. Because we changed so quickly, it obviously wasn't quite that, so what was it?
For me, one of the key things is the kind of temporality. Books are one of the media that we spend the most time with the single thing, and they have this extraordinary life as an object, where they are adverts for themselves before we purchase them and then they become this thing that we go on a journey with, and after that, they become souvenirs of that experience. We embed all of that into the physical object, and the dissolution of that physical object was kind of terrifying to us. We’re learning, with various interesting strategies that you see all over network technologies now, how to deal that with, but we’re very much still working that out.
The thing I want to hit is that moment in which literature becomes something that’s also synthesized with the network, that becomes widely spread across this. For this, I turned to take a concept from software studies and architectural theory and the work a Rob Kitchen and Martin Dodge, who describe a thing called code spaces, and I love the concept of code spaces. It’s a really useful one. This is the canonical example of a code space. We all know what this is. It’s a big airport departure lounge. We also all know how we’re supposed to behave in the space. You go in. You provide some form of identification. The system registers you, and you move through the space in hopefully the ways you’re expecting to. We also know what happens when that system breaks down, when the software says no, when the system goes down. What happens in that space is not only the kind of service and your expectations of the place, but the space fails to be what it is supposed to be. It turns from being a departure lounge effectively into a big shed full of angry people. It fails not only as software but as architecture because the two are co-produced, essentially. This is a function of software and architecture working together. That's the concept of a code space, essentially, or coded space or various iterations thereof.
These things are not independent of one another. You can’t just have the architecture without the software or it ceases to function. I believe that literature exists as a kind of coded space as well. Again, this is kind of slower, non-linear forms from the moment we had the printing press, the typewriter, all these kind of things. The connection and the back and forth between them now tends to produce deeper and stranger effects.
I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to write in the style of the network itself and how to create literatures that are appropriate to this new form, one that is connected and well-distributed. I have this ongoing research project called “The New Aesthetic”, which takes place not just online in the form of blogs, but in the form of talks such as this and in the form of works that I'm very careful not to allow to coalesce into previous forms of knowledge production. This is often mistaken for an artistic movement, for example, and so I’m asked if I will produce a manifesto for the new aesthetic. I'm not interested in doing that, not only because it's too early to do so and we don't have a full understanding of this, but because that is not an appropriate form to the kind of network discourse that we are slowly, very slowly, developing.
I'm also interested, as Nicholas is, in the vernacular of the network itself and of the terms it uses to describe itself and the way that it talks. This is one of my favorite pieces of spam, essentially. This is not a person speaking to me here. This is a bot. This is some kind of weird assemblage of text, and yet it produces in me a valid emotional response, one that I respond to. It feels, to me at least, like that the network kind of calling out to me and attempting to communicate. We mustn’t over-anthropomorphize these things at all. In fact, that could be very dangerous, but sometimes it’s useful. Sometimes it helps to do that.
This is a project from a couple of years ago where I attempted to do that, to collaborate with the machines. It was a year-long journey powered by a physical weather station on top of a building in London that drove an imaginary airship through physical space, updating its latitude and longitude based on wind speed and wind directions in London. As it went along, the system was reading the Internet for information about its potential location. (Oh. Thank you very much. One second.) It was reading its potential location and then reading all the texts it could find information on the internet about that and returning it back to us in this spam-like language, the vernacular of the internet itself. Text that was constructed by us and by the internet, which has the stuff that Nicholas was talking about. This commonality and communication between technologically driven systems and human systems. Frequently in this talk, I’ll keep talking about what I call the network, not the internet, but the internet and us. The fact that the distinctions for most of our purposes between the physical and the digital, the real and the virtual, are essentially meaningless. We must continually talk about these things as being a community or commonality in which we are all involved.
I'm also interested, as I said, in the things that the network reveals about literatures. This is a project again from a couple years ago. I took a copy of Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a novel about the human effects of industrial revolutions and on forms of ———- and differences between facts and fancy, and created 50 identical-seeming editions of the book. In fact, each one contains some kind of small change. In my head, these would be changes produced by those digitizers sitting and typing up books in literary sweatshops in India or elsewhere. Some of these changes were small: maybe the color of a door or the name of the street. Others were larger: a character lived or died, the entire book took place on another continent. These are the same changes that are produced in text every time we transmit them. You see it happening in piracy now. You see it happen between different editions of books, but they are made more visible and more immediate by the network. We realize that the text has never really been as stable and authoritative as we have liked to pretend in the past, and we can no longer pretend because we have this extraordinary view.
My strong sense is that we need fundamental new ways of describing these changes. What everybody lacked in those conversations about e-books was effective and useful mental models for this process. The fact that we simply don't have the metaphors required to describe these changes that are happening to our literatures and therefore to ourselves. Our language at the moment lacks not only the concepts but also the person and the tense necessary for describing these network interactions. This is the type of talk of network tense, which is a concept I don't have a full articulation for yet but this idea that we lack not just words and metaphors, but actually descriptors for ourselves in this process.
I'm fascinated by other dialects and ways of thinking about this stuff, whether it’s the Rastafarian Iyaric dialect or ways of speaking, the repetition of I and I for I that applies not only an individuality, but a commonality. The Rasta scholar, ——- Cashmore, says that “I and I is an expression to totalize the conception of oneness. I and I as being the oneness of two persons. We are within us all, and we are one people.” We don't want to be appropriating Rasta modes of speak in order to describe this, but we do need to come up with possibly new ways of referring to us as part of networks. The Pirahã people, Amazonian tribes to which the American linguist Daniel Everett has written about extensively. The Pirahã dialects and ways of thinking because we live in a kind of ————- world where a language describes our reality and thus forms it. The Pirahã language has no conception of past and future. They have a tenses. They live in a kind of eternal present. One of the interesting results of that is that they have only direct truths, essentially. If one does not encounter oneself firsthand, then it can have no reality. For Everett, this was a problem because he went there as a missionary, and they weren’t very interested in learning about this bloke Jesus who lived two thousand years ago because Everett had never met him and therefore had no firsthand experiences.
As we increasingly store our memories and experiences offline, remotely in ways that we access differently to the ones that we either store in our head or in physical objects around us, we increasingly approach the kind of Pirahã quality of the world, where only those things that we can directly experience are meaningful to us. At the same time, we have an incredible breadth of the things we can experience directly.
My favorite example for this kind of stuff, and this is wrapping up again something Nicholas talked about earlier, is actually the writings of William Gibson. Gibson is oft over-quoted at futurology conferences for a number of reasons, but I actually want to talk about his literary style, which is fascinating to me. Gibson is important here because he coined the term “cyberspace”. He gave us one of the first mental models of this world we were moving into, though that space itself is kind of problematic. This is his description of writing a book a couple years ago that I love. He’s asked by an interviewer if he does the traditional writerly thing of withdrawing from the world and not being involved with it while he works on his book, and he says, “No, I’ve got Word open on top of Firefox.” He’s writing in this kind of ———— fashion where the writing is taking place within the network stream, and this produces crazy effects where you realize that something that appears incredibly extraordinary and science fiction in his works, like these silver flying penguins which appeared in Zero History, are actually real things in the world. He has this authorial network privilege that allows him to look further across network streams and the rest of us, and therefore produce things that would once appeared to be the future and now are things that are merely distant through knowledge. This is why I called and what ——— referred to as Network Realism. The ability to see through the network in different privileged ways that produce, I think, one aspect to this vernacular of the network. The ability to write through and across the network itself rather than necessarily relying on the old ideas of space and time to accumulate those literatures.
It’s interesting. I just finished the new Thomas Pynchon novel, as well, which if you haven’t read, I highly recommend, Bleeding Edge, which is a novel about the internet set 10 years ago. Pynchon does many of the same things that Gibson does in his science fiction of time stamping certain points in reality to give them a place not just in time but in knowledge as well. There's many anachronisms in the book, and I don't really believe that they're not deliberate in order to, in a book about the internet, underscore the fact that this does not take place entirely in our standard time and communities. It’s part about the vernacular of the network thing. Things get kind of confused and mixed up. I think it’s interesting that it’s Pynchon and Gibson doing it as well, as kind of older statesman of a couple of literary forms. I reject the privileging of youth in this kind of stuff. I don't think
actually that there's an age at which the ——— becomes apparent. Anyone can get into it.
I want to talk, just to finish, with one more example of how I think about the network. I want to introduce you to some friends of mine, the render ghosts. I'm sure you've seen images like this as you move around cities or elsewhere, these glossy 3D visualizations of unbuilt buildings. Perhaps you’ve seen them on the side of building sites and so forth. I'm fascinated by the way the built environment is produced these days, as well, and also through collaborations with software. I know people who can look at newly built buildings and tell me what version of AutoCAD software was used to produce it. This is a form of technological determinism in which software code produces large, pervasive, and long-lived objects in the physical world. It also, again, includes us. These are the people that I call the render ghosts, the people that appear in these environments. For me, they stand in for us in this immediate future, but an immediate future that never quite arrives, one that we find slightly confusing and strange much of the time because of our inability to fully describe the network is it appears to us.
I spent awhile tracking down some these people. This turns out to be very pervasive set produced about ten years ago, which at some point got pirated out and has basically been used by pretty much every architect who does visualizations at some point. This set of about 400 people photographed somewhere in the United States in around 2000. I see them all over the place. Here’s a couple of them walking down the High Line in New York. I photographed that late last year, but I've seen these same people reappear across the network in London, in New York, in Sydney, in California. I want to know who they are. I want to find out where exactly they live. I’ve been trying to search for them, running ads. The company that produced these images turned out to be based in Albuquerque, so I went there last week. It turns out that they are based there, but they weren’t based there when those images were taken. They won't speak to me, so I’m no closer to finding the original people.
While I was there, since I was in New Mexico, I became fascinated with another strand of history of thinking about the internet which ties it into U.S. scientific and military policy in particular through the internet’s close ties to the atomic program. Digital computers being originally developed largely to run simulations of hydrogen bomb explosions, and the internet itself being a ———- funded project to build a computer network that would survive nuclear war. The two projects are closely entwined and shouldn't be forgotten. As I was in that part of the world, I decided to take a couple of the render ghosts for a road trip to one of these sites of U.S. history, and we went to Los Alamos together. As a way of bringing these networked people, these objects, these avatars of ourselves in some sense, back to one of the original sources of where the world seemed to fracture a little atomically, but electronically as well.
I'm still piecing all of this together. I'm not quite sure what the hell I was doing here to be honest, but here’s one thing that I thought about. I thought that maybe the internet itself, the network, is like history, and history is like the network. You can go right to the site of it, right to the center. I went to this physical point on the Earth's surface where the story starts, and of course, that's not where it is. It’s diffuse. It’s everywhere. It's the structure and not the event. I learned very little by going to this physical place, just as you don't learn much by going to data center, which I've done plenty as well. All the time, when I talk about looking for new metaphors or new frameworks for describing the Internet, the network, I’m figuring out that maybe it's the network that's the framework to describe everything else, not the first and not the last and probably won't be the best, but the best we've made so far. It's a structure that resembles and replicates and shapes history, memory, and even consciousness to some extent. We are mapping ourselves. The internet perhaps is a tool we've built to explain ourselves to ourselves and possibly the right tool at the right time.
This is the bigger question for me: why the network? Why have we created this thing? What is it for? We haven't yet got all the answers to that, but for me, it’s possible to describe it as a kind of unconscious tool for an unconscious generation. We're not sure why we’ve got it, and we’re not sure what we're doing with it, but it's producing these effects in the world, and we can learn to harness it and do interesting things with it. It's kind of hyper- ———-. We build our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us, but we’re doing that over and over again repeatedly. We then reshape those tools and reshape ourselves in an ever tighter and enclosed loop. For me, our tools increasingly resemble ourselves, and by studying them, we return back to the job that literature and stories have always been, which is to understand ourselves better.
Thank you very much.