Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Feedback, White Noise and Glitches: Cyberspace Strikes Back

"There was something distant and alive in the depths of the white noise - a living glide of thoughts swimming forward, a moving body of concepts and half felt images." - The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

In both Ringu (1998) and The Ring (2002), the infamous moment where Sadako/Samara crawls out of a television is made all the more tense, raw and, in my opinion, believable, because of the presence of white noise on the TV screen. The scatter, fuzz and hiss of what we may appropriately refer to as "interference" signifies to the viewer and the terrified character about to meet a gory end that something here is definitely wrong. But more than that, the noise seems immediately suggestive of another dimension's alien strangeness. A dimension out of which ghoulish and unnatural things might flicker and ooze.

As long as you're no younger than I am, you may just remember the thrill of tuning in to longwave radio. It still exists, so if you have an analogue device in your house, go and try it out again. The static noise between stations is particularly pronounced and prone to muddling fragments of an out-of-range but real radio broadcast with loud hissing and buzzing. The effect remains spooky; hearing voices in foreign languages conversing as though they were ghosts lost in the ether, but overheard by a humble household machine.

The strangeness of technology, the lack of understanding consumers have had regarding its processes and inner workings has traditionally led to speculation of an anthropomorphic, even folkloric kind. Radio was quite widely believed to be an effective method of communing with the deceased when it was first invented. In an era of ectoplasm and ghost photography, the spirituality of machines seemed logical and exciting.

That's part of why it's so fascinating to see human users continue to return to a fascination with feedback, white noise and glitches well over a hundred years later. In this brilliant short documentary by PBS, "glitch artists" discuss the reasons they have for tinkering with technology in order to produce the misshapen digital effects they claim as art. One of the first comments that is made is, "You know, it's [about] trying to find the soul in the machine." The all-too obvious response is to protest that, of course, there is no soul in a machine. However, our predisposition to situate a soul there (that is, to place one in the machine - rather than uncover it) is a "natural" human reaction. We have put voices, signifiers, Sadako, into the machine in an effort to expand upon the initial expectation that these various technologies, televisions, VCRs, computers, gave rise to within us. That is, the promise of a new paradigm, a genuine new dimension.

Currently, we live in a time when much of the early talk about matrices and cyberspace seems woefully deprecated and archaic. Although only around two decades old, the kind of trippy digital sci-fi universes originally discussed in the writings of William Gibson and Douglas Rushkoff bear little resemblance to the state of digital affairs as we now see them. The corridors of code and "hyperspaces" exist only as metaphors. The internet is a constituent part of our present reality, not a separate reality-space which we can access via a digital trap door. The "myth" of (the old) cyberspace, indeed, has been thoroughly critiqued by academics like PJ Rey.

But cyberspace is striking back. And for good reason. A couple of things came to mind when I was formulating this piece which are relevant here. The first is this comment from Julian Oliver, a contemporary artist who works primarily with digital technologies:

"The companies and government make technologies upon which we depend and I think as any technology becomes more ubiquitous like smart phones our ignorance increases. With ubiquity comes ignorance and it seems to be a plottable, predictable curve. The idea of being a critical engineer is to intervene at this point and say "No! Stop!". We need to reflect on what we are working with and how what we depend upon is shaping us. So learning this hard stuff in order to evade the top down superstructure is necessary."

Oliver was speaking to the art site furtherfield.org and in the rest of what is a truly fascinating interview he reveals much about his political motivations to play with and usurp the uniformity of contemporary mass media. Indeed, contributors to the PBS documentary I linked to above point out the significance of their work as a reaction to the hyperreal; that glitches and malfunctions diametrically oppose a world where non-realistically beautiful models grace the front covers of glossy magazines.

This position is not new. In Scott Bukatman's seminal work Terminal Identity (1993) which appeared at the vanguard of the 90s "cyberjunkie" epoch, "cut-up" (we would now say "remix") culture is discussed in which digital technologies provide a platform for individuals to respond to authoritarian top-down messaging/massaging. Remixes become "a critical weapon against spectacular society." Bukatman discusses William S. Burroughs, Jean Baudrillard and Don Delillo (specifically the novel White Noise) here; and he goes on to argue, "The scrambling of language defamiliarizes it, revealing its pervasiveness and operant illusions."

It seems clear to me that a similar kind of "scrambling", with very similar results, is occurring in the present era. Thinking about that quotation from Julian Oliver, I am moved to include a reference to this article, which was published online at thestate.ae. In it, the author, Adam Rothstein, talks eagerly about his desire for more weirdness. That is, more of the obscure, supernatural, fantastic, trippy, extreme. Hungry for escapism he pleads for "A pocket-sized device, that when operated, renders us incapable of describing how great we feel in mere words. We need magic that works. Give me an app for that. Is this too much to ask?"

Rothstein's request is symptomatic of a culture which yearns for more boundaries to push, more ways to blow one's mind, more brain-hacks, shocks and wide open frontiers. Glitches, feedback, white noise, interference, static - although these may not be the final frontier, they are demonstrably - for now - the edge.

Consider Nathan Jurgenson's discussion of what Michael Fischer calls "instantiations" (digital representations of physical objects - and vice versa). The appearance of Facebook's Like button on a business card, or a game of Tetris on the side of a building is indicative of a movement which wishes to perpetuate the perceived strangeness of the digital by exposing it as odd and quirky in a physical space. That these "live" representations, of Mario or of the arrow cursor for example, seem strange at all reinforces the dualistic conception we have of digital and physical as opposing concepts, rather than interlocking ones. My argument here is that glitches perform the same function in a slightly different way. They remind us that what we see on a screen is subject to a special kind of entropy which does not exist in the physical world. But they go further, in fact. Those glitches offer themselves up as new territory. They seem to me to be an effort to return our understanding of digital technologies towards an escapist notion - cyberspace is not the internet. No, now we have been forced to delve deeper in order to find it. Cyberspace is now the error-space. The place where pixels crash against each other in chaos.

Phillip David Stearns is an artist whose new project involves hacking digital cameras to produce colourful, glitchy images which he proposes could be turned into fashionable fabrics. This is the premise of his kickstarter project, "Glitch Textiles." Wired magazine quoted him as saying, "By opening these cameras and rewiring their electronics, I'm able to unlock strange and hidden worlds in the subconscious of the machine. And with only a few wires, these machines, these cameras can be made to dream." Stearns' comment, and his project as a whole, encapsulates the entire arc between order and disorder, physical and digital. He too speaks anthropomorphically of a machine's "subconscious" and the opportunity to delve into a "hidden world". And out of this he proposes a new fashion which, of course, we must wear in a physical realm. Donning garments as emblems of an alternate space; we might clothe ourselves in the expansiveness of glitchville, which is itself an endless, (ec)static plane full of colour and possibility. "These glitchy images," says Stearns, with one hand holding the ageing door of cyberspace open, "represent a moment of defiance and rebellion."

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