Glitched Out

When I was a teen, several of my closest neighborhood friends and I would spend most of our nights and weekends futzing around and experimenting with the new computing equipment that found its way into our lives—poking, building, programming, breaking. Our early hacking victims ranged from the cable boxes, introduced into our homes in the late 1970s, to the early tabletop PCs our school was generous enough to give us access to, as well as DIY computer kits and video game units. We’d learned to abuse technology when we’d started kicking the arcade consoles at the local rink with our skate-clad feet, trying to induce a glitch into the game, get a replay, or just administer a revenge beating on the object that had consumed all of our hard-earned quarters.

At school, we figured out how to get the dot matrix printer to cough up juvenile attempts at ASCII pr0n. At home, having become bored with its 8-bit taunting, we starting sticking screwdrivers into my Atari console. We shook and jimmied the video connectors, hoping to induce a video glitch into an otherwise unsatisfying round of Defender or Pitfall, while Devo’s “Peekaboo,” complete with the rotating vector graphic of the band’s trademark spinning flowerpot hat, looped on MTV in the background. We spent days working out how to use shape tables on my friend’s new Apple II to duplicate that rotating hat, applying our combined math skills in ways our Algebra teacher could never have imagined at the time. (It’s worth noting that “Peekabo” was itself the platform for an epic, early-days media glitch now only faintly remembered by Devo fans, but one which would easily make many a Tumblr list today.) When the movie Tron came out, we were first in line, and laughed at what we thought was a ridiculous mashup of power politics and video games. Video games were great, but for us, they were an escape from the politics we heard at the dinner table.

Graphic from 1982 live Devo show.Fast forward almost exactly 30 years and here I sit, staring at a dozen open browser tabs containing explorations, interpretations, rebuttals, wayfinding, prebuttals, and philosophical essays on the so-called New Aesthetic. Begun as a Tumblr blog to capture and somehow catalog various bits of visual glitch culture, this observational movement samples, among other things, machine vision, screenshots of oddly juxtaposed celebrity tweets, accidental pixellation, disturbances in the StreetView sphere and other echoed artifacts of digital reproduction. Even a protest flyer I found locally made it on the blog (not placed by me). As the blog reached peak fame due to a nutrient-rich SXSW panel (always chum to geek-infested waters) I have found myself watching with fascination as each new article appeared over the last few weeks, in a way, it was like viewing a strange many-sided, multiplanar tennis match featuring Decartes, Donkey Kong, DJ Spooky and Duke Nukem. Sterling, Bogost et al have poked, twisted and pinched the blobular shape of the New Aesthetic to understand what’s inside, and how elastic it could be.  

The varied typography, format and style of these interpretive pieces could themselves be turned into a separate Tumblr, collecting the machine presentation of critical essays on machine vision. No doubt newer derivative media are already underway. That’s the whole idea, it seems. I faintly recall a similar issue with critical deconstructions of literature on hyperlinking back in the day. It felt like we all might disappear up a footnote, never to be seen again, like Flynn being derezzed into Tronworld. Hoisted on our own metatag.

So, I’m game. I’ll play along, and I might even get a glitchy badge for it. What do I think? I feel like I have to think something, because so much thinking is going above and around me. It has officially become dinner table conversation with which to bore my own offspring, much as the political chat I sought to evade in my youth. I don’t do art theory, or critical theory, or many other theories, but I’ll tell you what I see.

The New Aesthetic does involve power and politics. I find myself looking over the New Aesthetic Tumblr archive in all its jittering network realism glory and find myself asking, “Why now?” “What’s changed?” and “What is the thread?” I look at the context of the collection itself and think about the drivers of its curation, beyond one person’s desire to collect seemingly similar signals as a means of arriving at an interpretation. (I also do this as a professional practice—collecting weak signals as prelude to an interpretation—so I know how it feels. There isn’t always an a priori justification, it just feels right.)

To me, the common thread is flaw. Flaw in the way the technological meets the social, the human. Corruption in the artifact. Seams in the seamless. Machines gone slightly wild, or missing a few bits upstairs. America’s Craziest GIFs. Asymmetry in a world of designed perfection. Computational daydreaming. The New Aesthetic has a thing about drones, and a thing about computer vision. It unnerves us a little in its attempt to document Sh*t My Computer Thinks, and the mishaps of the devices that watch, and watch over, us. It highlights, and seemingly delights in, the chunky, low-rez way they see us. By highlighting these elements and cataloguing the New Aesthetic collection for us to point and laugh at, or, perhaps, feel uneasy about, this “network-assembled heap” also uneasily mocks the weaknesses in the technology we’ve created (not directly, but by proxy) to understand us, to assist us, to inform us, to bring us security (through surveillance), convenience (through data processing), to augment us (through algorithms).

Graphic from 1982 live Devo show.In 1982, we could laugh at these flaws because, like a baby smearing food on its face, they were amusing and cute. We could jam a screwdriver into the circuits because we faced no retribution. We could trip the computer and watch it fall, because it couldn’t respond in kind. Now, in 2012, we can be bullied and controlled. We awake to news of drones laying waste to those on our terror watchlist. We are virtually stripped naked at airport security. We are witness to car accidents, prostitution and murder on Google Earth. We are denied a loan because the formula says no. In short, the noose of technology has become tighter. We’re developing a grudge. And when we dislike, we mock. We photobomb the system. We parody. We use code to avoid the encoded.  

Our current power politics are built on technology, which is why many clap with glee when masked jokesters hack corporate Web sites, when mustachioed avatars front takedowns of intelligence agencies, when former Russian spies do lad mag shoots and hackers get talk shows. We get a chance to see these tools of power corrupted against “the system.” Power structures 932, People 5. It’s an unfair fight, but we can sleep at night knowing the machine has a flaw, somewhere. Its vision is faulty, its logic not watertight. It wants us to be machine-readable, symmetric, processable. We laugh by wearing t-shirts with its own distorted machine graphics. We blast the glitchy, whomping distortions of its delicate audio circuitry. We use the physical against the digital. In 1983 we played tic-tac-toe against your mainframe. Now we loop images of your mistakes, alongside celebrity wardrobe malfunctions and kitten comedy. We know your secret formula.

So, this is probably not why James Bridle collects his glitch ephemera. I wouldn’t presume to say exactly. But I suspect it’s why it resonates. We feel power slipping slowly away. We’ve seen two decade-long wars (trying to be) conducted with mechanized detachment. We’ve watched ourselves be reduced to buying behaviors and CCTV images. We’ve seen technology-laden responses to our own unrest. We’re about to see the biggest peacetime security operation in history effected to seal off a global sporting event. We’d like something to humor ourselves with in the meantime.