New Aesthetic, 1975-1979

The aim of all these conferences is to be like the Broad Street water pump: a hub where everyone gets infected. The cholera outbreak of South by Southwest 2012 is New Aesthetic.

A morning sessions on day four of the conference was dedicated to the subject and James Bridle, the prime mover of the theory, wrote up some notes of his talk in what is now the text of reference (“#sxaesthetic“, booktwo.org, 15 March 2012). The basis for Mr. Bridle’s talk is the material he has been collecting for nearly a year now via his New Aesthetic tumblr. Bruce Sterling attended the session and wrote it up in an effusive post for Wired (“An Essay on the New Aesthetic“, 2 April 2012). A significant conversation has broken out on twitter. Julia Kaganskiy at The Creators Project has collected up a number of responses (“In Response To Bruce Sterling’s ‘Essay On The New Aesthetic’“, 6 April 2012). Ian Bogost has responded in The Atlantic Monthly (“The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder“, 13 April 2012).

U.S. Navy MARPAT digital camouflage

In the military, where the people are tessellated.

And Mr. Bridle isn’t making this up. There is the example of New Aesthetic with which most people are probably most familiar, namely military’s new generation BDU, the ACUPAT / MARPAT digital camouflage, consisting of complex, non-repeating pattern generated by fractal equations. But before starting this post I decided to go out and walk around my neighborhood to see how much stuff I could find in half-an-hour with a vaguely New Aesthetic sensibility. The street that I live on is only five blocks long, boxed in by a school, sports fields and parks department superblock to the east and Rock Creek Park to the west. At the east end of my street, the local library is undergoing an expansion. Here is the new wing under construction:

New wing of the Mount Pleasant Public Library under construction, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

At the west end of my street, this guy finished a repurposing of his off street parking into an outdoor area just in time for the best weather of the year:

Repurposed neighborhood back parking stall, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

That’s two independent projects within five blocks of each other in my sleepy spur neighborhood. New Aesthetic is obviously real as a popular practice, not just a theory.

I’m sympathetic but skeptical for a number of reasons. I will detail what are my two major reasons for skepticism here.

Bricks: pixilated clay, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

Bricks: pixilated clay

First, as Nathan Jurgenson has said, an oddity of New Aesthetic is that “many of the images rely on the techno-nostalgia of the near past.” New Aesthetic is technologically eclectic in its inspiration, with some of its images reliant on the most advanced scientific visualizations, but a significant portion of its most outstanding images rely on pixilation, low resolution, interpolation, false color, reduced data sets or the selectivity of only machine-decisive elements. So we end up with things like pixilated crayons and umbrellas.

But this isn’t representative of the influence of technology on contemporary technology. It is an anachronism, a recreation of an already superseded era of computer capability. To illustrate by reference to the development of stealth technology.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

New Aesthetic, circa 1979

The first of the modern stealth airplanes was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. In response to the effectiveness of surface-to-air missiles in the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, and to significant improvements in the Soviet air defense system, in 1974 DARPA requested that contractors begin investigating the application of advances in theories of radiation deflection into the construction of low radar cross-section (RCS) aircraft. The problem that designers faced was the need to come up with shapes that balanced the requirements of both aerodynamics and radiation-deflection. The prototype that Lockheed Skunk Works developed came to be known as Have Blue. Aeronautical engineer Bill Schroeder worked with software engineer Dennis Overholser to write a program called ECHO-1, run on a Cray supercomputer, that would search a design space for an optimum tradeoff of aerodynamics and radar cross-section. The problem was the limited computational power at their disposal. Searching over the variability of smooth shapes would have resulted in an intolerably long run-time. The way around this problem was to limit the variability of the surfaces by what came to be termed within Lockheed Skunk Works as “faceting”: the larger the facets, the shorter the run-time. What determined the facet resolution of the plane that would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter was the desired run-time of the computer program to optimize its design trade-offs. In essence, the facets of F-117 are the resolution of the simulation used to select the optimum design. The F-117 is the Atari of fighter planes.

(Even having so optimized the design, the aerodynamics were sufficiently compromised by the demands of a minimal radar cross-section that the plane had to be fly-by-wire, with an onboard computer system making constant minor adjustments to engine thrust and control surfaces to stabilize the plane.)

B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber

The new New Aesthetic.

But only a few years later the New Aesthetic moment has already passed. By the time that DARPA began contracting in 1979 for a stealth strategic bomber to replace the B-52, the availability of computer power had already improved markedly, to the point where the smooth surfaces of the Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber are specified to such exacting precisions that most of the pieces for the stealth skin of the plane are cut and assembled by machines. A scant four years later the pixilated faceting of the F-117 had been superseded by organic shapes of the B-2, the Jurassic Park of airframes. At the high-end of computing, 1979 was already the end of New Aesthetic. Through consumer products like Atari, NES and VGA, the computational and engineering practice of New Aesthetic would persist into the early 1990s, but much beyond that New Aesthetic becomes “shock of the old”.

Taraxacum officinale: A 30 million year old network cluster diagram

A 30 million year old network cluster diagram.

My second cause for skepticism can also be construed as an extension of Mr. Jurgenson’s question, “why reduce ontological, epistemological & phenomenological points to aesthetics?” To identify the aesthetic as the interesting feature of these phenomena is to really diminish the significance of what it is that is happening in the most unusual of these situations. What is more interesting than the surface appearance of the end products is the fact that the limits of our computational capability, the limits of information, the limits that exist in the ideal realm are pushing out to become the limits of the material world as well. What is interesting about things like the F-117 stealth fighter or buildings designed with AutoDesk is not that they look computer-y, but that they are interfaces, sights of interaction between the ideal and the material — and more important, places where the ideal has assumed the superior position, determining the contours of the material.

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The Slipstream Between Absurdity and Profound Beauty

Terri Schiavo finally died today (objectively yesterday, but subjectively today as I am still awake). I am tempted to say that the body of the former person Terri Schiavo finally stopped working today, but it seems a little too party-line.

As this drama has played itself out, a passage from an old article has acted as an interlocutor as I have turned this issue around in my head.

A few years ago The New York Times Magazine published a few thousand word essay titled “Unspeakable Conversations” (16 February 2003) by Charleston, South Carolina based attorney and disabled persons activist Harriet McBryde Johnson.

The article was more human interest than polemical. It was about Ms. Johnson’s acceptance of an invitation from Peter Singer and Princeton University to participate in two forums on infanticide and assisted suicide.

Mr. Singer, if you haven’t heard his name, is a rather famous philosopher focusing on ethics. Asserting that personhood is coterminous with cognition, he has argued in favor of abortion rights, euthanasia, assisted suicide and in some cases infanticide. Oddly enough, he is also a vegetarian and the author of one of the classics of the animal rights movement, Animal Liberation.

The dramatic tension of the essay was that Ms. Johnson is a disabled persons activist and the Professor argues in favor of killing disabled infants at birth. From her perspective, Mr. Singer is a monster. How is one to behave towards a person held in such contempt? Many of her fellow activists encouraged Ms. Johnson not to legitimize Mr. Singer by appearing with him in the forum, but she accepted nonetheless. After her visit, Ms. Johnson’s sister asks her, “You kind of like the monster, don’t you?” She replies, “He’s not exactly a monster. He just has some strange ways of looking at things.”

The article is a well-crafted and interesting piece of writing. The passage from Ms. Johnson’s article to which I give a few minutes of sustained consideration every couple of weeks when it comes to me is an interchange between the Professor and the Attorney:

In the classroom there was a question about keeping alive the unconscious. In response, I told a story about a family I knew as a child, which took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other, making all the other children, and me as their visitor, feel safe. This doesn’t satisfy Singer. “Let’s assume we can prove, absolutely, that the individual is totally unconscious and that we can know, absolutely, that the individual will never regain consciousness.”

I see no need to state an objection, with no stenographer present to record it; I’ll play the game and let him continue.

“Assuming all that,” he says, “don’t you think continuing to take care of that individual would be a bit — weird?”

“No. Done right, it could be profoundly beautiful.”

Profoundly beautiful. That is the phrase that has stuck with me. I think that I am firmly in the camp declaring such a use of human resources absurd. Worse than absurd: granting that preserving someone in a neither-death-nor-yet-life state is morally neutral, pressing their caretakers into empty medical rituals, acts that would be difficult even where the rewards great and obvious, or into meaningless labor, no matter how generously remunerated, is the unbearable pinnacle of absurdity. Doesn’t it devalue life to devote it to so meager an end? The incongruence of the tremendous technological feats and the expenditure of the heights of human ingenuity to no effect whatsoever, in the service of nothing so much as proving a point — a point that could be better made in so many other ways, for life is so cheap in this world — is demoralizing in its own way.

These are all just platitudes. I don’t really have an answer to the proposition of profound beauty. I want to say that there is something gnawing about the statement, but I don’t know if it is the power or the starkness of the statement that provokes me so.

I don’t know how much moral seriousness to accord Ms. Johnson: when presented with her seemingly double standard regarding the value of the lives of animals versus humans in a persistent vegetative state, she cut off Mr. Singer, saying, “Look. I have lived in blissful ignorance all these years, and I’m not prepared to give that up today.” How can one be so morally inflamed about an issue that is obviously of great interest to one’s self, yet insistent on flippant disregard on all others?

One might think Ms. Johnson a profound moral thinker, but this is only the most outstanding example from the piece of what is a sectarian agenda the makes little consideration of anything beyond its own particularistic and selfish aims. And particularistic and selfish is exactly what Mr. Singer has set himself against.

Despite my criticisms, I cannot recommend the essay enough. As a pissed off liberal I have come to hate the word “nuance,” but the article very clearly complexifies (a neologism, but still better than “nuance”) an issue too often portrayed as simple.