/// MIT MEDIA LAB /// BOT SUMMIT TALK 11/8/14;
2- very long ago
okay, so i know we've spent the day rooted in the Short Now, but i would ask you to humor me for a moment and cast your thoughts backwards. i'd like to begin in the byzantine empire, 11th century. Emperor Basil the second has just died, and with his eclipse begins the slow imperial decline. The Great Schism, the theological split between Church in Rome and the Church in Constantinople, is looming on the horizon. soon, the crusades will shake the structure of regional power and daily life to the core.
when speaking of this time, it is important to hold in mind some fundamental qualities of the byzantine worldview;
3 - a saint for every household
as starting point one can consider patristic thought, which stems from the first century rome and takes lessons from the old (and, later, new) testaments, the apostolic teachings, greek philosophy and gnosticism.
byzantine philosophy always referred to what is /beyond/ experience and nature, to the existence of god and to the “real being”. byzantine worldview has shifted the platonic distinction between the intelligible and sensible world (or the difference between the 'here' and the abstracted platonic ideal)
to instead mean the distinction between the created and the uncreated being. the uncreated is all that is divine. in general, the tension and desire to grasp the invisible, either by discursive reason or by faith, characterizes byzantine metaphysics.
in short; this is a space of intersectional worlds - divine and mortal are on one plane, touching always.
4 - iconography to the icon
after having looked at several icon paintings, one may notice that these objects only seem to exist on a flat plane; all depth is absent. this is not a mere aesthetic choice- the "third" dimension of an icon painting is not space, but spirit. the realm of the immortal intersects this one at every point in space and stretches to an eternity; such signifiers have no need for an artificial, painted depth. they are not windows into the divine but literal divine objects that exist everywhere, but are viewable in this 'thin space'.
iconographic paintings are not signifiers but are physical structures that exist in both worlds; a picture of a saint is not a picture of a saint, it is /the saint/, physically in space.
great okay, so, here we are a near perfect millenium later hallway across the world, considering the the act of painting god.
you're probably wondering what this has to do with bots.
5- art in the age of mechanical reproduction
i'd like to touch base on some more recent history, the walter benjamin's iconic 1935 essay on a mechanized field of aesthetics.
benjamin claims that in the past, the role of artistic production has been to provide a magical foundation for the cult. he claims that, then, value was located in its central position within ritual and religious tradition. a statue or idol has a detached authority and power, which is implicit only as rooted in time.
the mass reproduction of such an object was not just unlikely; it was unimaginable. to remove it from its history was to render it useless to itself, to remove the aura of object; that detached and transcendental beauty. this aura seems to rest on something autonomous and free from human intervention.
the statue is not like any other object produced or used within a society; it appears free from ideological control or human interference, as though its power issues independently from within. he goes on to say "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."
6 - tweets in the age of digital reproduction
but digitization is not mechanization, and duplication within this space is not autonomy.
mechanically produced objects begin as identical and are placed in the world as unique entities with individual existence; their origin may be cheap, and as benjamin argues, perhaps that does constrains their aura to the time that will accumulate on them and not their mere existence.
but a digital object appears across a multiplicity of screens both at once /and forever/. these entities are not individually manipulatable, which is to say they do not exist in multiples that can accumulate their singular times and histories and auras, but as a single form.
in this space, a copy is not a manipulation, it is a recreation. like mitosis, a copy has the capacity for individual mutation but does not intrinsically affect its parent. a retweet of information is not a duplication nor a shift in scale; a retweet impacts the structural bridge of a networked idea, not the intrinsic idea itself.
although these digital entities are accessible from any place, by multiple people, at once- and even though these interactions may happen simultaneously- they are singular. they exist both inside of and outside of this accumulated time; they have auras.
7- the shame of horse_ebooks (or, the mechanical turk)
and what would this summit be if someone didn't address the traitor?
i have two histories for you. probably you know at least one of them. first;
the mechanical turk was a supposed automaton constructed in the late 18th century. the turk was carved of wood, dressed in mystic robes and seated at a low table. he was capable of playing (and winning) at chess, as well as completing the puzzle game ‘the knight’s tour’, in which a knight occupies every square of a chess board exactly once, visiting all 64 squares. the table and turk contained many doors, in which an audience may see the complicated clockwork that drove the automaton. in the 1820s, the turk was exposed as a hoax. inside the table was a tiny hidden box in which a diminutive chess master may hide and control the man above. destroyed by fire in 1854, the mechanical turk has re-entered contemporary lexicon with the launching of amazon’s website of the same name.
horse_ebooks was an alleged spam bot originally written to sell ebooks that gained mass popularity for its poetic and funny tweets. On September 24, 2013, it was announced that Horse_ebooks had become part of a multi-year performance art piece staged by Buzzfeed employee Jacob Bakkila. Bakkila had approached the original bot creator, Alexei Kuznetsov in 2011 with the intent of buying the account; Kouznetzov agreed, and since 2011, Horse_ebooks has been operated by Bakkila. Before the revelation in September 2013, it had more than 200,000 followers. horse_ebooks has re-entered the contemporary lexicon in the form of the _ebooks bot.
i'm not sure why these incursions feel ~so traitorous~ to me. maybe its because they seem /just/ possible, just on this side of miraculous. the skirt that edge of possibility and trust somewhat mean, but it also says something about where we are as a culture; happier to celebrate and lift up the things we can almost understand than to dissect them into disappointment.
8- human error and divinity
i wanted to talk about mystery, for a moment.
so, i'm not very good at programming. i went to art school. maybe its obvious.
when pulling things together, i am generally pretty surprised. i'm often not aware of what exactly i'm making until it works, and even then sometimes /how/ it works is still beyond me. maybe y'all are better at this, and of course, anything can be designed to avoid all error, but as complications arise the capacity for 100% expected output grows slim.
there is a strange beauty in failure however; the sudden barring of internal process or broken function shows us something deeper about the pattern behind the designed process; in some ways, it feels more ‘true’.
pulled 'undefined’s ‘null’s‘ and err’s; grammatical problems; corpus unreliability; the shifting landscape these things exist in; to watch a non-human simultaneously fail on a human level and /continue to operate perfectly on its own level/ can be very special. maybe, somewhere, a little divine.
9- byzantium, presence, and the internet
so. i suppose what i've been skirting around over the course of this discussion;
the byzantine worldview is innately tied to how we define and interact with the internet and internet based entities. iconographic paintings act as screens; access points to a world that lives everywhere and also nowhere. this space was deemed divine because it was constant, accessible, and a thing-into-itself; not a signifier for a not-present idea or a person. these paintings do not require the illusion of depth because that depth is intrinsic.
the screens with which we access the contemporary content of the internet are also thin spaces. the world in which we lived is layed over with another space; many other spaces; that are accessible everywhere. the bots that live in this world are beings-unto-themselves with the selfhood of a saint.
before i go, i wished to touch very briefly about the early byzantine concept of acheiropoieta; icons created by a non-human agency and afforded a particular veneration within the church. they are particularly defined but their ability to miraculously replicate themselves. just a thought.