Tuesday, 16 March 2010

720 - Art; Cosmologies; Bill Thompson

All at Cafe Culture Newcastle last night.

Bill Thompson is a new media critic, a self-described early adopter and technology addict - from last night, quote, 'the way I'm addicted to breathing'. On-line he bases himself here and among other places, here.

He was talking about the digital revolution as one of only a handful of civilization-changing events in human history. It's on a par, he says, with the discoveries of fire and agriculture. As with learning to read (he plugged Proust and the Squid heavily) it is an event which requires the brain to be rewired in new ways. So it raises profound questions about the ways we perceive and structure our identity.

This resonates with controversial works by Rita Carter and Susan Greenfield, which I've blogged about here and here. Not to say that Bill Thompson would agree with them (he would find Susan Greenfield, I suspect, unnecessarily alarmist). But he would find them rather interesting.

Bill sees himself, as an early adopter of technology, as one of a small but significant group of people who define their identities, in part at least, through their life on the web. He defines identity as a loose and provisional 'make-do' response to the essentially random experience of human existence. If the building of this identity should come to include networks of friends on-line, at the expense of those off-line, and if it should include multiple or single avatars, and a growing sense of what is normative, socially, for behaviour on-line, then that's just evolution. It's exciting, anyway.

I asked him what kind of art we might expect to see created through this and other identity-shifting technologies. I've a few ideas already (storying: life-story manipulation as an artform in its own right). He had his own insights.

He could see, he said, in five years' time, interactive user-generated art displays on every surface in the cityscape. Some kind of crowd-sourced imagery, some expression of bottom-up, swarm intelligence, perhaps. He defined art as a manipulation of the technology, to see how far it might go, what beauty could be made from it. I liked that - and it chimes with ideas from evolutionary psychology about art being a demonstration of one's mastery of symbolic thinking, or a demonstration of one's personality, one's openness, for example, and one's intelligence. (More on this another time.)

This was his second answer, however. I liked his first, too, offered provocatively and not pursued. He suggested we should see the network as the artform - the shimmering artform, he called it. The technology to be the artform, and as such, appreciated, untouched, for what it is.

This resonates with me for two related reasons. First, I suspect that if by network he means not just the technology, but the identity shift that accommodating the technology requires, he is providing an image by which I can expand my thinking on storying. Having considered how one can begin to manipulate one's own identity, I now want to explore questions of shared identity. Few stories, after all, concern just one person. Bill Thompson's 'network' will include his friendship network, as well as the hard/soft ware that supports it. Perhaps it can be demonstrated that the proper way to think about networks (including even the inorganic ones) is through narrative.

Second, my ears pricked up at his use of the word shimmering. This is the language of spirit and transcendence. It is religious. Only holy things are pristine. Stars shimmer in the night sky. I remembered the way Steven Johnson started his book, Emergence:
Certain shapes and patterns hover over different moments in time, haunting and inspiring the individuals living through those periods.... These shapes are... a way of evoking an era and its peculiar obsessions. For individuals living within these periods, the shapes are cognitive building blocks, tools for thought.

I suspect that for Bill Thompson, the network is such a shape. And if so (and the word was used last night), perhaps he is engaged in building a network-shaped cosmology.

David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce are archaeologists with an interest in what ancient cultures can tell us about the generation of cosmologies. Their book Inside the Neolithic Mind argues that it is a fundamental of human consciousness that new technologies arise alongside imaginative conceptions of the world and humanity's place in it. Sometimes it appears that the cosmology drives the technological advance, in contrast to materialist theories which have argued that new cosmologies come about only as a response to environmental and technological change. If religion's supernatural accretions are separated from its basis in human consciousness, they argue, it can be harnessed by science as a cradle for technological advance. The book focuses on the Neolithic or agricultural revolution - in other words, it is about the second civilization-changing event in human history. To reiterate, Bill Thompson holds that we are witnessing in the digital revolution a third.

On a personal note, I've already expressed my wish to work within a natural world view, this despite personal experiences it is hard not to label supernatural. I'd rather be scientifically rigorous about interrogating such experiences. Any supernatural conception of Love worth supporting has, in my book, to allow us the experience of a totally natural universe, however much else could be going on. If something unscientific, unnatural, happens, then I'd rather redefine science to include it than create a second domain that science cannot touch. That statement might mean my own position is hopelessly untenable (time will tell, I guess), but it does at least allow me to advocate the conclusions of Lewis-Williams and Pearce as a scientifically-literate way forward into the digital age.

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