Monthly Archives: September 2013

Bruce Sterling Interviewed about the New Aesthetic

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The New Aesthetic is a term coined by publisher and designer James Bridle.James Bridle’s website is here.

Simply put, the New Aesthetic concerns itself with how the digital world and the real world are starting to overlap and intermingle in interesting, routine and unexpected ways. As search engines, online ‘bots’, spam generation engines, online mapping tools, google street view, machine vision and sensing technologies proliferate, our everyday life in the western technologically advanced world is starting to bristle with new types of augmentation and hybridity.

Post 9/11 security apparatus, pilot-less sensor-studded drone devices, biometric tracking systems, the ways that computer vision creates unusual and often funny mistakes and glitches, the unique properties of bitmap graphics, the staircase look of pixels in close-up. The unintended consequences of so many ‘smart’ sensors and cameras released into a largely apparently culturally unprepared society; all this is the raw material of the new aesthetic.

Like many early aesthetic movements, the New Aesthetic (NA) is deeply romantic. It thinks it sees ghosts where there are none; ‘bots’ online that can think for themselves. The photoshopped people in CGI architectural images at construction sites. The NA’s poster child James Bridle insists, for example that spambots are evidence of attempts by “the machines” to communicate with us, the humans. Would that we could only listen to them, he insists, in his talk “Waving at the Machines” and an Asimovian full acceptance of these new emergent clumsy intelligences might be possible.

New types of alliances, new types of understanding, new ways of living might unfold that would benefit us, if only we were able to open our hearts to the machines. Were it not for our stubborn refusal to do so, the childlike, touching ways the AIs out there show us they wish to join us would be embraced and aesthetics would give way to a kind of Astroboy coalition.

The NA strikes me as what Slavoj Zizek might describe as universalist liberal humanism. In a set of reformist gestures similar to those proposed by the “Occupy” movement to counter the banking sector, the NA would have us listen to “every data algorithm’s own story”. It wants ‘tolerance for the bots’. It is truly hard to argue for tolerance for phenomena whose very existence most people can barely fathom. The socio-economic demands of our time are too pressing and serious to reduce what the NA seeks to draw our attention to: machine aesthetics. Co-ordinated and ongoing relentless drone attacks are nothing to get all arty about, just ask the average rural Afghani.

Banks and the super-rich behave much like the soulless commercial AIs they unleash to their high-stakes bidding for them. When money circulates and is stolen with impunity on the unthinkable scale it is in today’s global ‘market’ and entire economies collapse overnight, it must be tempting to read intelligence into this epochal and tragic worldwide dance of ruin. The financial institutions and their moneybot AIs have one thing in common however, they are completely without empathy as to their effects on the innocent, they care nothing of what the 99% might have to say about anything. If the banks cannot be convinced to reform, then why should we conclude that the AIs that are their online proxies could be convinced to somehow see it our way?

In its universalist techno-spiritualist reverie/angst, the NA has much in common with the steam and clockwork enamored early modernist London Victorian middle class and its preoccupation with spectres and seances. In the late 19th Century, it was common for photographers to convince paying customers that they were seeing ghosts of the recently-departed in the double exposures of trick photographs. The hand-painted slide-shows that predated cinema due to their ghost-like stage-effects were called ‘Phantasmagoria‘.

Even Karl Marx was taken with the hooplah – hence the half-joking beginning of the Communist Manifesto “A Spectre is Haunting Europe…”. Karl knew the then hyper-new idea of Communism was viewed by its “opponents in power” as a ghost to be exorcised from its places of origin – the factories and offices of late 19th Century Europe. In our time, the time of Eurozone meltdown and Dronewar International the new ghosts are not so much the New Aesthetic’s fanciful kinect hack render glitches or bitmaps and street-view images of our land/datascapes, but rather the actual streets afire in Greece, Syria and everywhere else tyranny is meeting its match by the population.

Smoke and mirrors, rather than render ghosts and glitchcore of today’s retina displays provided the spooky effect back in Victorian London. Today, it is a world that fuses Bansky style political Hoxton street art with a genuine and understandable fear, terror even, of the unseen, everywhere-at-once unmanned aerial drone, a truly laudable sympathy for the global Occupy movement, a wry, British whimsical ironic take on what amounts to an Amazon-ian Apple-ized Google-ization of culture, mediated by ever-ubiquitous smart sensing devices. This is a world in which the environment itself can somehow tell if you are or are not not on side with Big Plans for the Future made on your behalf.

Its a Spime World After All.

How to contest so diffuse and so ubiquitous and so hegemonic a society as our global, digital ‘mirrorworld’ as William Gibson so eloquently put it? The antidote to all this control culture, as it was for those in the England in the 50s, 60s, and 70s was and is…. playfulness.

I was born in Birmingham, UK in 1963, and my childhood was filled with the belly laughter of relief that BBC radio shows like the Goon Show provided to postwar England. The Beatles and Pink Floyd later adapted the Lewis Carrol UK brand of (psychedelic) surrealism to otherwise economically struggling, drab postwar England. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, another middle-class surrealist gentle refutation to the constraints of UK authority gave another (albeit encoded and implied) semi-secret way out of grey Official England. And Punk – well if as he has suggested in interviews, William Gibson loosely based his latest book’s main story-mover character Hubertus Bigend on the Sex Pistols ManagerMalcom McClaren, then James Bridle might easily have taken a few bookmark data-traces from the Bigend e-book!

So today’s brand of UK surrealism performs a similar inversion trick with resources that befit the contemporary British Alienated Middle Class Experience – software, photoshop, plugins, object-oriented programming, kinect hacks, arduino kits, DIY drones, quadrocopters, mapping tools, GIS, social media, online commerce, amid a world being increasingly shaped and controlled for profit by ever fewer corporate interests. Those of us who publish have less and less choice. Amazon Google or Apple? There has to be a better way. As it is with books, so it is with culture. And thus the New Aesthetic seeks to fire a laser through a cloud of ideas. James Bridle is a champion of Gibsonian thinking. Come to think of it he really is Bigendian in his ambition and audacity. All power to him.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the New Aesthetic has emerged from London, specifically, the digital publishing and user interface design hotbed of Hoxton/Shoreditch but its cultural influences in the two years since the term was first introduced have been felt globally. Hoxton is hipster ground-zero in the UK, and most of the best ideas in the UK end up here one way or the other. For a place so happening with new ideas, its locals sure do like to dress up as if they just walked out of an H.G Wells novel!

My dear London steampunk, please meet your renderghost with her face blurred out by streetview. And please see here the unofficial NA logo: a silhouette of a predator drone being carried away “UP” style, by a bunch of helium balloons. Terror device symbolically defused.

Earlier this month I asked a group of digital media theorists and writers to express their views on the subject of the New Aesthetic. I started with Bruce Sterling. Mr Sterling’s views on the topic have been erudite, to the point and timely. His article for his blog Beyond the Beyond has helped frame a valuable context here in the USA in particular. As more contributors make their views available, I will publish them as individual posts here at Coxblog.

David Cox, June 20th 2012.

I asked Cyberpunk Science Fiction writer and design-fiction futurist Bruce Sterling some questions about the New Aesthetic, as I was intrigued by many of the ideas that he expressed in his WIRED hosted blog “Beyond the Beyond”. Sterling is ambivalent about the more mystical/obscurantist aspects of the NA, with its insistence upon supposedly quasi-sentient ‘bots of the Gibsonian “Wintermute” (and Summerblind?) variety out there thinking and acting for themselves online.

But he is also very optimistic about the movement, seeing in it (as indeed do I) evidence of a fresh and welcome feeling of excitement in contemporary digital culture. The New Aesthetic he argues, has freed up the imagination of creative people working with digital resources. It lets us creatives think in new ways about what we do. Ways that offer a conceptual direction away from the mere tools alone.

David Cox:

Is what we are experiencing/have experienced with the “New Aesthetic” really new or is it part of something really new or is it part of an older discussion? The reservations you expressed in yourWIRED essay seemed to reflect a concern about the form that it took suggest that you did not think that is was formed enough, that the tumblr of images was a “collection of jackstraws” I think was the metaphor you used. (Your argument was) that the images of drones, bitmaps, maps (was not really) tantamount to a movement, that there’s not much rigor there and that it does not really constitute sufficiently focused enough strategy to change things, although this is a generation that knows no other way to formulate its views. Its relation to the broader culture is one mediated by social media, and so has a more diffuse form?

Bruce Sterling:
First to the issue of “is the New Aesthetic really new?” I’d say those images are “new’” pretty much by definition. Aesthetics obviously is very old. James Bridle doing a project called the “New Aesthetic Tumblr” is over, and receding into the past. But machine-generated imagery that is unlike previous forms of imagery is all over the place. So, yes it is new, for any reasonable definition of novelty.

As for whether James Bridle’s image collection had any analytical rigor, I’m inclined to think he had more analysis going on there than he liked to let on; but I rather think James prefers writing, journalism and publishing to the trying role of a public New Aesthetic visionary. When you have a breakout viral hit on the Net nowadays, the opportunity-cost can be pretty stiff.

On the issue as to what a New Aesthetic ought to do, what the “strategy” is, well, that’s unsettled, but I think that James’s year-long intervention there has raised the morale of tech-art people quite a lot. It’s legitimated their practice in their own eyes, and helped to free them from their traditional hangups on specific pieces of hardware. At least it’s possible to imagine a strategy now — instead of merely saying, I’m an artist, but I do digital electronics, you can re-frame your efforts as something like “a new aesthetic of processual vital beauty,” and you’re not so handcuffed to the soldering irons.

On the generational issue, there’s some anxiety among the aging that people under 30 actually think like Tumblrs nowadays — that they’re unmotivated and diffuse, or in the shallows, or mentally crippled by too many pixels — allegations along that line. Obviously they’re a troubled generation, but Tumblrs are not major problems to rank with a major Depression dominated by dogmatic gerontocrats. If we’re going to get generational, then we ought to start the discussion with the amazing mental stasis of Baby Boomers, people who used to be exceedingly reckless and inventive and haven’t had a single new idea since 2008.

David Cox
How British is the New Aesthetic? How London is It – is it global? Should the global aspect be considered from the US or broader European perspective aspect? Being British I can recognize the more whimsical dimension – similar to Monty Python, or British Surrealism or Pink Floyd, a certain kind of charm, whimsey, dandyish – ironic juxtaposition – the balloon with the drone -

Bruce Sterling:
How British is it? It’s pretty British. How British is anything nowadays? You can always make a claim that, say, the Beatles aren’t British but mere Elvis imitators. London is a big center of interface-design these days. I think the New Aesthetic is strongly related to British interface-design thinking: there’s this black box, and then there is our considered and erudite set of reactions to that black box, our way to deal with it.

David Cox:
On the new deus-ex-machina/ghost-in-the-Machine – so-called ‘render-ghosts’, spambots as sentient beings and all that. There is kind of naive mystical occultism that you criticize in your wired article. You argue that machines are not inherently “friendly” Bridle’s yearning for a communication with machines speaks to a kind of a gnosticism; a kind of Terrence McKenna sensibility. the fascination with patterns between things, particularly spambots and the like, the ways algorithms generate odd syntax as evidence of attempts to communicate with us humans. New Aesthetic is not embodied in the individual images or modes of communication but perhaps in a fascination with connections between them.

Bruce Sterling:
On the mysticism issue, the render ghosts and the desires of the machines and so forth, yes, I think that’s a major failing. I think it’s self-deceitful and is likely to get in the way of good work. On the other hand artists are often mystics –it’s like the attitude that there’s a living god in this block of inert marble, and I have to release him with a hammer and chisel. A lot of great art is based on colossal superstition. Just visit the Vatican sometime.

I take your point about gnosticism and Terence McKenna, but if that’s the path one wants to choose the endpoint is psychedelic art. There’s digital glitchcore New Aesthetic stuff already that looks a bit like bad-trip psychedelia, it’s like paisley swirls as 8bit pixels. The problem with psychedelic art is that the art doesn’t develop and the drugs lose their charm.

If New Aesthetics is bringing something new here I think it’s “processuality.” It’s about the aesthetics of watching the code run, as opposed to static printouts of code as psychedelic underground comix. The issue of social relations, of finding meaning through the network, that’s very important but also metaphysical — it’s about how we know what we know. It’s an issue of “media philosophy.” Problems here which used to be quite speculative and farfetched are becoming urgent. I’m hoping for rescue.

David Cox:
Aggregation – your excellent talk at the European Graduate School on Atemporality and the Passage of Time brought together a similar approach to that of the New Aesthetic and I was wondering if you saw this as perhaps evidence of a general trend. Your slide show/flickr set seemed to favor images of expressions of the uncanny. Images that show ideas that appear to occupy two time periods simultaneously. In fact Bridle uses computational re-photography in his talk Waving At the Machines(images popular online that show a historical photo held up by someone or photoshopped over the place as it appears now, aligned visually to match the placement) – multiple times simultaneously – woman 17th clothes while she’s throwing a McDonald’s sign.

Your talk at the European Graduate School - a semi-random collection of images – looking for evidence of ideas that seemed to communicate two different times simultaneously – Babbage engine that’s been modified, the NA is not atemporal – its temporal – the philosophy of aggregation, slow accumulation – in and of itself a new sensibility – a new sensibility – of collection is the Artform, Bridle seeks to disrupt common assumptions about the internet and time – the souvenir – published a book on his twitter posts – published a book on all the entries on the Iraq War -

Bruce Sterling:
“Strategy of aggregation” is an interesting way to frame the network-society habit of burying people in lateral cruft. Today I watched a tidal wave of Twitter grief over the death of Ray Bradbury — bad enough that I should learn he’s dead, but there’s also a ‘strategy of aggregation” where I’m confronted with a sandstorm of wails of pain, so many that you’d think the natural death of this 91-year-old gentleman was equivalent to, say, an earthquake or hurricane. My strategy on Twitter is obviously to aggregate a whole bunch of guys who know who Ray Bradbury is, but the social effect of this kind of reaction is new and different — is Ray *really* more important than an earthquake? How can one judge that?

Is it atemporal? Well, it’s certainly not. In fact it’s a deliberate reaction against atemporality, the New Aesthetic is about as anti-atemporal as one can get. It always interests me a lot that people who don’t understand atemporality don’t understand the New Aesthetic, either. The New Aesthetic is a deliberate attempt to break this steampunk stasis of atemporality, to get things rolling again by emphasizing the genuinely novel aspects of our contemporary experience. But atemporality is quite strong and just saying that you don’t care for it, or that you find it limiting, isn’t enough to defeat it. The defeat of atemporality will have to come through lived experience. I hope it doesn’t require a big catastrophe, like the way the first world war abolished the happy-time neurasthenia of the Belle Epoque.

Then there’s the issue of James Bridle doing tech-artsy things with print and publishing. He is a publisher, but I think other hacker-artist figures find a lot to admire in these interventions of his. It’s easy to be, say, a member of BERG doing strange augmented-reality comic-book experiments and to see that James Bridle is a fellow-traveller, somebody who gets it. Where you go with it after you get it, that’s another matter. A matter as yet unknown.

This interview first appeared on Coxblog

Bruce Sterling is a writer and futurist - Beyond the Beyond is his blog

David Albert Cox is a film maker, writer and instructor based in San Francisco. He is the author of Sign Wars: The Culture Jammers Strike Back!

His website is

Global Cities & Media Culture

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“What role does urban planning play in the development of online, multi-user environments and communities?”

The city of contemporary experience is a dense web of interconnecting fibres, cables, lines, and connections. Overlaying the physical infrastructure of institutions with their corridors, doors, alarms, offices, and telecommunications are the invisible wireless signals, satellite feeds and other unseen yet omniprescent systems of messaging in all its form.

The sea of information which surrounds us in the contemporary city is more than a mere adjunct to the physicality of buildings, streets, public squares, malls and habitats. Life is to a large extent increasingly mediated by the conditions of a global digital system of commerce and governance. Those unconnected must pay the price of an often externally imposed set of social relations, which are for the most part a sophisticated extension of the traditional social system, reliant upon a stark division of labour. Capital, and its urban manifestations have remained largely unchanged since the days of the weaving loom, steam engine and the child labour factory. Those in power will always seek to coerce others to see the world as it, through them, appears to be: an uneven and skewed office, workplace and shopfront, where freedom from drudgery and boredom always seem to be just out of reach, forever a mirage of what could be possible.

But amidst this ocean of inequality borne aloft by the surface tension of global digital technology are emerging, paralell to those deemed official by those in power, alternatives to the system as it stands. Experimenters, playful artists, and those who refuse to cede to the expected aquiescence to capital are carving new and fascinating types of media usage. These are the public media activists, the programmers, graphics people, musicians and creative libertarians who have adapted the refuse of what Guy Debord called the media Spectacle, and turned the one way glass of computers and communications into a window of social possiblity.

Behind the creative use of media is a willingness to experiment, to identify the needs of society above and beyond those of the balance sheet. So plentiful are cast-offs devices that people around the world are learning to assemble not only working machines from the bits and pieces of the flotsam of the world of business, but are connecting these machines and making them available to those who genuinely need them for literacy, and communications, learning and social development. The Raspberry Pi computer, available for $25 can do as much as a Pentium could ten years ago, and more.

Thus new cities are being constructed alongside those of the traditional social systems of the past. For what is a building and a street but a technological method for the cultivation of civic life, with all that goes with it. Computers only require the physical space, electricity and communications links which enable them to be turned on, and used. A cast off machine can hide under a counter in a space no bigger than a drawer, and yet serve web pages, software and material with the entire world. A refurbished laptop can run alone, in a back room or a hidden place and act as the rallying point for a global movement!

The collision of physicality and virtuality in the urban mileu thus gives rise to new types of architecture – that of the hybrid city. The hybrid city is the blend of city space with the imagined spaces of the mind and minds of those connected via networks and software. As the late William J Mitchell in “City of Bits” once observed, the arrival of Automatic Telling Machines eventually gave rise to the gradual collapse of the very idea of the bank – a large building in a city which holds money and keeps it for people.

Money itself assisted in the collapse of the local bank by becoming increasingly unattached to its real world referents – cash, cheques etc. It was the networks rather than the automatic machines at the end of them which people use, hence a ‘bank’ can be anywhere connected to the banking network. Decentralised, dephysicalised, and cut adrift from the domain of urban fixity, banks now largely operate as token ‘end points’ on the global system of the circulation of capital which as McKenzie Wark dryle noted “like rust, never sleeps”.

In rural Australia in the mid 1990s, the collapse of the bank branch had serious effects on the makup and nature of life in small towns and provincial cities. People who had never needed to understand, use or deal with electronic systems of banking had relied upon knowing the teller behind the counter, and were quite happy with the pre-digital system of paper, pens, cash and other physical processes. For one thing, visiting the bank might have been the central purpose for a lengthy trip to an urban space, which would have also been the opportunity to perform other errands and tasks. When the banks went digital in outback Australia, locals know that the writing is on the wall for the town as a whole. Where the networks supplant the buildings, ghosts towns of isolation take their place.

But if networks and computers are ‘obsoleting’ cities as we once knew them, might there be opportunities for networks and computers to create meaningful cities in their place? Where computers and networks proliferate, very often so do economic and social and cultural systems. Could it be that it actually does not matter if the networks support commerce or not? Simply enabling people to connect, and to view connection itself as the basis for participation in hybrid urban life fulfills the promise of digital communications as a kind of global adhesive.

As computers proliferate, there is also emerging a kind of global culture of connectivity such that non government organisations, human rights groups, and other non-profit, people based institutions can fill the void which money, vacuum like robs from the social and civic life of cities. Cities are altering to reflect these emerging alterations to the fabric of urban experience.

It is entirely possible, because of the widespread influence of computer networks for those not connected to worldwide money making for people to take the cast-offs from businesses and put them to more social uses. Many companies are happy for people to take obsolete machines off their hands. Some charity groups have emerged around the world who refurbish old machines and pass them on at little or no cost to those who need them. Firms are often quite willing to contribute to social programs in exchange for publicity, always the currency in a media dominated world.

Anything from old cameras, laptops and networking hardware can find their way into the hands of those who ask for them, the primary motivator being the desire to see the unconnected join the global agora that is the internet. It is the process of asking which is the key. An understanding of the organic nature of city life can give the media activist a sense of contributing to new types of uses for urban culture – simply adapting what is around to the needs of the population can alter the nature and appearance of the city for the activist as much as the multinational.

Media culture is largely a one-way mainstream juggernaut, whose tentacles spread to all corners of the globe. Cable television, satellite news, and giant telecommunications firms have succeeded in making the world itself a kind of configured ‘desktop’ where filtered information and ideas relevant to the most powerful countries are the only ones allowed through. But with every branch office, and with every commercial spinnoff which accompany the global spread of media hegemony come the trickle down bits of hardware, software and the skills which are required to use them.

McKenzie Wark Interviewed about “The New Aesthetic”

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David Cox:

What are your thoughts on the so-called “New Aesthetic”?

McKenzie Wark:

I don’t really see the ‘new’ in it, but in general I like it, in the way that one likes an aesthetic, and an aesthetic is those class of things one ‘likes’.

That machines perceive, that their perceptions exceed human ranges, and that their perceptions produce their own artifacts. This all seems in line with a certain kind of modernism. The fetish objects of the machine world change, however.

David Cox:

So really what we’re experiencing is form of modernity, albeit one reflecting the unique properties of our own time?

McKenzie Wark:

Modernity in two senses. Firstly, the emblematic machinic vision, being, secondly, the one that draws attention to itself as machinic, and hence of its time.

David Cox:

How would you equate today’s New Aesthetics with the ideas and aesthetics (if that is the right word) of the Situationists? Particularly the game/map tactics oriented theories of Debord, the urban Constant, and the more esoteric Northern European tendencies of Jorn, and COBRA? There would definitely seem to be some overlap here. And as we know the SI’s stomping ground in London was also Spitalfields/Hoxton (the pre-gentrified version of course!).

<em>(Cox note – Bridle has mentioned the SI in his talks)</em>

McKenzie Wark:

There is no Situationist aesthetic. There’s really no connection.

David Cox:

Do you have any views on the the rise of a kind of superstition about machine intelligence or is this par for the course with modernity? Are ghosts-in-the-machine part of the deal when the shock of the new makes its impact felt? Why must phantoms and ghosts accompany British user-interface led digital design movements today?

McKenzie Wark:

Its always a category mistake to separate machine intelligence from human intelligence. There’s always a network between them. We are products of our prostheses, and always were, back to paleolithic times.

David Cox:

What century are we living in? Is Bruce Sterling right about Atemporality and temporality – is the NA purely temporal (not interested in the art of the conflation of time periods, but its opposite – being very much in the here &amp; now?) Funny, given that many of the ‘hipsters’ who embrace the NA actively embrace an Edwardian/Victorian dress sense (handlebar mustaches, old typewriters, tweeds etc – as William Gibson put it “its more important for them to *look* like D.H. Lawrence to have actually read him…!”

McKenzie Wark:

That whole steampunk thing was interesting when Gibson and Sterling did it — but not since.

David Cox:

How might we adapt the NA for political forms of empowerment? Are there ways to interpret the movement’s fascination with unmanned aerial drones for example into a new type of Praxis about US &amp; UK foreign policy? Might the movement’s easy but not overt alliance with Occupy and Anonymous suggest new types of what we might call “processual” politics? What might this look like?

McKenzie Wark:

I find, say, Trevor Paglen more interesting, and he predates this whole thing, as does the work of Jordan Crandall. As usual, its the right kinds of artists who were ten steps ahead on this.

David Cox:

In one of your books you once described seeing a render ghost (artifacting pixels on a digital cable news channel) whilst watching news coverage on TV of 9/11 – did this sense of uncanny underscore the mediated nature of this event-scene? How does ‘the uncanny’ feed into our sense of living in these current times?

McKenzie Wark:

Yep, i did the ‘new aesthetic’, in about 1989! That was a very uncanny year. Lots of ghosts in the televisual machine, and proliferating on the network machines.

David Cox:

On the subject of publishing James Bridle has been calling for new ways to counter the monopoly of Amazon and Apple and Google over the control and distribution of e-books and e-book data – as a writer what are your views on this? Do you have any views on the role of the writer in a time when not only the words, but the metadata and bookmarks and related information about the books is as important as the actual book is what publishers are vying for? What is the role of the author in this? Has the author and the publisher morphed into a new type of hybrid?

McKenzie Wark:

Well, I recommend O/R books, for example, who actually did a book about drones. They are trying to do ebooks outside of the Amazon jungle. Its why I did Gamer Theory in WordPress and why with the Institute for the Future of the Book we came up with the CommentPress plugin for it, so that it would be easier to do longform writing in digital form outside the proprietary formats. There’s a lot that’s being going on under all these headings for years, of which the above are just passing examples. But you know, you can do it, then promote it, or you can just promote it…

McKenzie Wark (b. September 10, 1961) is an Australian-born writer and scholar. He works mainly on media theory, critical theory and new media. His best known works are “A Hacker Manifesto”, “Gamer Theory” and “The Beach Beneath the Street”

Wearable Computers, Augmented Reality, and A New Set of Social Relations

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Essay by David Cox & Archimedia

August 15th 2013

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Dürer Mechanical creation of a perspective image by Albrecht Dürer


This is not a technological determinist essay, and its author is not a technological determinist. Interest in the technologies of seeing and perception can operate outside of a neoliberal economic model. Rather, the principles that have underwritten the best and most poignant work in the area of the technologies I’ll be describing have reflected a social democratic agenda, socialist even. The tools are neutral. Anyone can build a wearable computer, and indeed should. In my experience, wearable computers are the punk rock of computing and have been for thirty years. Generally speaking, you built them yourself, or you did not use them.
Wearing computers and by doing so seeking to mediate the information and ideas between oneself and one’s environment do not suggest as many critics of the technology claim an individualist philosophy, nor do they imply a spirit of isolationism. On the contrary, wearable computers are designed to work with those who are likewise connected. Not through commercial cloud systems like Google and its shallow mechanisms of data gathering, but through individual servers, and the customized ways these can be adapted to fit the needs of the groups that use them. There could be wearable computers for Snowden, Assange, and Manning that would enable their heroic efforts to be the better effected. These might rely upon a connection to a server set up by say, Richard Stallman, to use a metaphorical example.

Google Glass does not own the concept of a popular wearable computer or a popular AR, even if it ‘adapted’ the best aspects of the display technology from the best and the brightest.  You cannot truly customize a Google Glass device. It is simply a more efficient way to use what are already ‘locked in’ social media services that facilitate the ever more efficient means of reporting on your own life and that of everyone around you. A true wearable computer works against this model, to empower the individual, to facilitate what Prof. Steve Mann calls souseveillance, or seeing from below. You wear the computer to gain control over what is seen, recorded, stored and used in your life, not to make the act of doing so benefit the commercial sector, and its ever more cozy relationship with the State Department and the National Security Agency..

When Albrecht Durer demonstrated via his 17th Century etchings how to draw in perspective, he did so by showing mechanisms that forced the student to view the makeup of the world as a series of single viewpoints. You had to look through a hole to see but a part of a mandolin, draw that part, then move on to the next part. This method encouraged the student to understand the world as a totality of multiple viewpoints, a principle which to this day underpins contemporary AR technology. Only this year has the technology made itself available to enable wearable to ‘paint’ a room with infrared beams to enable a 3D ‘camera’ to ‘see’ objects in front of it such that those objects can be used to track the placement of virtual objects over the top of them. From Durer to the Space Glasses (with Steve Mann as the Durer of our time), the discipline of seeing the world as a multiplicity of points con-joins the renaissance with that our new aesthetic era.

This notion of teaching oneself to see the world as if it were in fact a totality of singular points is on the one hand the hallmark of universality that we still live under. Man at the center of the universe. With the singular vision, all views converge on the eye of the beholder.


 Dam_Busters_bombadier “The Dam Busters”. An improvised wooden viewfinder sight device used to determine the distance from the dam before the bombardier must drop the bomb. Each of the vertical pegs must line up with the ends of the dam to provide the correct position.



In the 1950s, the propaganda British War film “The Dam Busters” depicted the bombing raid on the German Ruhr dam complex. The special bombs used needed to be dropped from a low altitude, and at an exact distance. In the film, the main character gets the idea to build a wooden “V” shaped device that enables the bombardier to line up two wooden pegs at the ends of the device with the ends of the dam he is aiming at. Again, the singular eye augmented with the wooden pegs that stand-in for real things, in this case, the physical extremities of a distant, but rapidly approaching bomb target.


In the 1977 homage to the Dam Busters, Star Wars, George Lucas reproduces the scene, this time using a small ‘targeting computer’ that lets Luke Skywalker know when it is time to fire his torpedo. Mediated vision, military seeing and the calculation of time, space and motion as addenda to human sight have been hallmarks of cinema from the beginning. Of course as the film shows, its best to turn the computer off, and use intuition. A good wearable computer is a combination of both – technology and intuition.

Augmented and Mediated Reality


The alien’s helmet in “Earth vs The Flying Saucers”. The metal turns out to be fully transparent. Reality can be augmented.

In “Earth Versus the Flying Saucers” scientists discover that invading aliens wear helmets that let them see the world around them. From the outside the helmets appear solid. From the inside, they are completely transparent, and can translate language. They are effectively real-time language translation devices; wearable computers, with built-in head mounted displays combined



Heads-up. 1982 Douglas Trumbull film “Brainstorm”. A lovely parable about hackers overcoming militarists for control of a new technology of great promise for the future of the imagination. Chrisopher Walken dons the early version of the Brainstorm Headset

The boardroom demo scene from “Brainstorm”. The zoned-out suits who have been investing in the Brainstorm technology finally get to wear the devices and have high-definition multi-sense recorded thoughts and experiences played back. The military are quick to see the Psych-War potential.

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“Sword of Damocles” system, Ivan Sutherland, 1965


“Sword of Damocles” system, Ivan Sutherland, 1965






“The Ultimate Display,” Sutherland, I.E., Proceedings of IFIPS Congress 1965, New York, May 1965, Vol. 2, pp. 506-508.






In the 1982 film Brainstorm directed by Douglas Trumbull, a high tech Silicon Valley team have developed a headset that can record experiences directly onto tape. As they slowly perfect the technology, the headset shrinks to the size of a tiara. The recordings become more accurate. Someone decides to loop an orgasm and gets addicted to it. Soon seeing its potential for psychological warfare and counter-intelligence, the US military backers of the project take it over and push out the liberal humanist tech engineers, who fight back with hacking skills. It’s a great story for our time. The actual trip-like Brainstorm scenes alone are worth the price of entry, but the relevance for our story is the notion of an advanced form of augmented consciousness, made possible with technologies that are creatively re-purposed to cross boundaries. At the end of the film the team overcome the odds to successfully record the moment of death itself, enabling a person who is alive, to die, without dying.

The development of the head mounted display in the context of computers probably begins with early experimental systems like “Sword of Damocles” developed by Ivan Sutherland in 1965. This system allowed the user to view 3D generated computer graphic, and to see those graphics as if they were in the same environment as the user themselves. Closer to Virtual Reality than Augmented Reality, the significance of the Sword of Damocles system lies in its use of separate monitors, one for each eye, and the system of motion tracking. As the user turns his/her head, the content appears to move in relation to the user’s head accordingly. Sutherland is also known for his ‘sketchpad’ program which was among the first computer graphics programs to enable the production of 3D graphics.

Today’s smart devices (phones, tablets etc.) with touchscreens enable augmented reality or AR. They come complete with a camera and with sensors like accelerometers, GPS, Wi-Fi cards, and cellphone receivers. These working together enable the user to have information about locations appear to float in place relative actual position geographically. Nearby waypoints, points of interest can appear relative to your position simply by holding up your phone or tablet.


The Terminator’s AR view, “The Terminator”, 1981



AR was probably first brought to most people’s attention via the “Terminator” and “Robocop” movies of the 1980s and 1990s. The robot vision that superimposes text and graphics over a view of the real world from then on became synonymous with the view of the Cyborg.

Most portable game devices today come with a camera built-in. Devices like the 3DS and the Sony PS Vita provide owners with AR content in the form of cards that which when scanned present 3D or 2D content to the user. This content appears to float between the device and the card that is read by it. The content can be animated, and can even appear to interact with the world around it. For example virtual pets can appear to dance, respond to the hand of the user, and so on.


 they_live_23  they-live-billboard
The view through the sunglasses in “They Live” – A political form of Augmented Reality revealing the true ideological basis of capitalism and its advertising.



Real Time Data and AR


Data that is provided in real time by services can be viewed using AR real-time, such as flight paths and flight numbers of commercial aircraft in the airspace around you. These often show the heading, bearing, takeoff time and estimated landing time of planes in the air. There are planets and star-system based AR apps. These let you view the heavens, not just as they appear now, but millions of years ago, and millions of years hence. In enabling the presentation of multiple time frames simultaneously, such technologies as AR have been dubbed as ‘Atemporal’ by writers like Bruce Sterling.  Sterling’s regular attendance and keynotes at the AWE conferences ensures a science fiction dimension to an event which though dominated by trade and business, is still art and technology innovation oriented to feel like ‘the early days’ of something.









At the MIT Media Lab in 1998, using 3DS Max I designed a series of VRML floating augmented reality floating 3D “Signs” which were designed to ‘stack’ and work in combination with each other. The objects would appear ‘unsolid’ when moving (such as when the user was panning) and ‘solid’ when not moving. Objects included a windmill (that rotated fast & slow depending on level of bandwidth flowing through the room), an email mailbox, a navigational compass, a globe etc.

These were tested using a laptop and Silicon Graphics (SGI) based system called DIORAMA developed by Karrie Karahalios of the Social Media Group. For more information on this visit:



Wearable computers and Augmented Reality offer ways to further examine the complex inter-relationship between real and virtual space. These technologies to a large extent invert the paradigm of representing space on a flat screen, instead enabling information appear to permeate and interact with physical space itself. The area of wearable computers ties in with this broad theme, as these customized small portable and ‘always-on’ computers enable the user to fully engage with the space around them and to annotate that space with information pertinent to it, and while doing so, communicate with other “Cyborgs” (as wearable computing aficionados refer to themselves) via wireless local area network cards.

There are inter-related themes which emerge when considering the possibilities of augmented reality – these have to do with the role played by media where digital content can be dynamic, reflecting changing aspects of the environment, or one’s relationship to it.

Given that dynamic information pertinent to a specific geo-spatial location can be made available to users of wearable computers, the role of this information resembles that of conventional fixed signage (ads, traffic signs, billboards etc)

SIGNAGE - symbols for navigation, information and instruction while online and moving through urban environments

MIGRATION - the constant moving from one place to another by the user of a wearable computer means that the act of moving itself can be the basis for certain types of digital media which are dynamic – an example is the windmill which slows down and speeds up depending on the rate of data traffic in Karrie Karahalios’ Diorama project. Although not a wearable computing project, this application was an example of basic augmented reality.

SPACE - that geospatial area occupied by the user as s/he undertakes daily tasks while using the wearable computer. Terrain traversed, land covered, urban space negotiated. There are several types of space which augmented reality gives rise to, that of i) the information, that of ii) the environment, and a third type of space which is the iii) conceptual intersection of the physical, the informational and how they work together in the mind of the user.

DYNAMIC MEDIA - media which update refresh and present themselves in the context of constantly shifting environmental conditions e.g. a directional sign which constantly points to the way point desired.


My 1998 film “Otherzone” enabled me to visually speculate on what augmented reality and wearable computers might look like several years from now. The media lab researchers had shown me what could be done with the (then) contemporary technology of shoebox sized wearables and oversized head mounted displays. It was not difficult to imagine in a few years the wearable computer disappearing into the structure of the display itself. The effect would be that of a pair of ‘intelligent sunglasses connected permanently to the ‘net – hence ‘net-spex’. This has come true with technologies such as Google Glass and Space Glasses.

Otherzone can be viewed here:

Otherzone’s “Netspex”, like today’s self-contained wearable computers, enabled the wearer to see and hear full multimedia as they move through urban space. In the case of the film’s villain, the Nam Melogue (played by performance artist Stelarc) has a monocular version of netspex which enables him to instantly view any camera in the city. The heroine’s netspex let her view videomail messages, and show her waypoints in the surrounding environment.



My film “Otherzone” 1998 – The Nam Melogue’s AR monocle let him access any camera in the city – total surveillance.


 Otherzone_AR_office  otherzone_kareen
Otherzone (1998) Kareen manipulates 3D icons





Netspex as used in my film “Otherzone’ (1998) for navigation and locating waypoints in the environment, customized to the user’s interest and needs

Wearable Computers


I was first introduced to the area of wearable computers when I visited the MIT Media Lab in Boston in 1995. This visit was by invitation of the late Mr William J Mitchell (then Dean of Architecture and Urban Planning at MIT) who had visited Melbourne and RMIT that year promoting his book ‘City of Bits’.

I met Steven Mann and Thad Starner on this visit at the Software Agents Group section of the Media Lab. Both Mr Mann and Mr Starner had developed different approaches to the idea of wearing the computer on the body.

Wearable computers in the 1990s were small computers that draw power from rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Wearables enable the delivery of real time information usually via head mounted displays (HUDs) which the wearer uses for data delivery instead of a monitor. Input to the computer is provided by a range of means, either via sensors on board the device itself, such as infrared scanners, cameras, or other sensors, user input such as voice commands, keyboard input or hand or body gesture input



Wearable computer users are not immersed in a virtual reality, rather information augments the world around them, and information appears superimposed over the real world.

Wearable computers and Augmented Reality offer ways to further examine the complex inter-relationship between real and virtual space. These technologies to a large extent invert the paradigm of representing space on a flat screen, instead enabling information appear to permeate and interact with physical space itself.

Head Mounted Displays (HDMs)


Head mounted displays (or HMDs) enable the user of a computer to see the information on that computer as an overlay superimposed over the view of the world around them. With tracking software it is possible to have the data ‘placed’ over areas of the room, or the broader environment. There  are various ways that data can be placed – GPS data can be used, or in some cases, infrared scanning can be done using a device like the ‘leap motion’ system that scans the room with very fine resolution ‘painting’ process which then relays to the worn computer where objects should appear via the HMD. The computer user can manipulate objects using gesture control as if they were physical things, as is done in my film “Otherzone” where Kareen Hedding is shown moving objects like AR keys and locks and piggy banks around using her ‘Netspex’. In the film she is a proto Snowden, downloading information that will expose the truth behind her powerful employer, the Machines All Nations Corporation, the last tech company left on earth.

The Leap Motion system works in a similar way to the motion tracking used by Microsoft’s ‘Kinect’ games controller that turns body motion into a means to manipulate games characters.

A pioneer in the development of head mounted displays and wearable computers are Professor Steve Mann of the University of Toronto. Since the late 1970s Prof Mann has been developing wearable computers and head mounted displays. His earliest one comprised a crash helmet with a camcorder viewfinder taped to it, and radio antennae mounted to the top. It ‘talked’ to the computer via radio waves. Later models involved having the image reflect off a mirror into a single eye, and this innovation culminated in the patented notion of ‘Eyetap’ in which the eye itself acts as both the camera and part of the display projector system. Mann now tours with his collection of head mounted displays or HMDs to conferences where his contribution to the evolution of the technology is undisputed. Mann is also a great champion of the principle that AR and wearable computers should be used to advance personal liberty and to facilitate what he calls souseveillance – ‘seeing from below’ as opposed to ‘seeing from above’ or ‘surveillance’.

Mann has joined the META AR team who has developed a competitor to Google Glass via kickstarter using Epson HMD and Leap Motion 3D tracking.


Early Head Mounted Display from late 1970s worn by its inventor, Steve Mann

Dynamism and Flow

There are inter-related themes which emerge when considering the possibilities of augmented reality – these have to do with the role played by media where digital content can be dynamic, reflecting changing aspects of the environment, or one’s relationship to it. Given that dynamic information pertinent to a specific geo-spatial location can be made available to users of wearable computers, the role of this information resembles that of conventional fixed signage (ads, traffic signs, billboards etc)  Signage and symbols for navigation, information and instruction while online and moving through urban environments

MIGRATION – the constant moving from one place to another by the user of a wearable computer means that the act of moving itself can be the basis for certain types of digital media which are dynamic.

Many contemporary films and videogames show scientists and specialists manipulating data in 3D as holographic fields of information. Floating, glowing holograms of the solar system, say as in PROMETHEUS. The terrains of Pandora in AVATAR, displayed for military and scientist alike. The head-up display is a product of the military fighter cockpit, and is installed in many recent model cars and passenger aircraft such as the Boeing 787. It combines the real world with information about that world simultaneously.

AR and Privacy

Augmented reality apps abound for the tsunami of Chinese-made touchscreen devices; sensor-studded, Wi-Fi enabled, the modern data user is attuned to her environment much like a pilot, or a sci-fi movie or game character. After thirty years of AR in pop culture, from ROBOCOP to TERMINATOR to HALO to the windows-within-windows of every GUI you ever used people are attuned today more than ever to superimpose data over their field of view.


Google Glass – The Mainstreaming of AR



Bruce Sterling dons Google Glass: “This is very ‘80s” he is reported to have said.

In 2014 the Google Glass AR wearable system will go on sale. Glass is a head mounted wearable computer with a built-in see-through display and 720 X 420 video camera & microphone. The tech lead on the project was Thad Starner whom I worked with at the MIT Media Lab in 1998 when I was also working with Karrie Karahalios on the DIOMARA project.

Glass has has wi-fi, GPS,  but the system is not strictly Augmented Reality, Google Glass is better described as “Annotated Reality” in that what you see are pop-up notes about what is going on around you rather than objects and items that supplant or appear to stand in for real objects. Also the Google system is closed – it can only work with Google’s own proprietary search engine and other tools related to its artificial intelligence-like data gathering system. Glass bears a striking similarity to Steve Mann’s “eyetap” system from 1999, particularly the concept of the display being reflected in a 45% prism to enable the eye to see directly through it.

In his keynote address at the Augmented World Expo this year, Mann discussed the similarities onstage:

In the talk Mann makes a point which begs the question of meaningful AR – ‘if glass cannot help you see better, what good is it?” – I interpret this as a direct challenge to Google Glass, which far from helping individuals ‘see’ at all, on the contrary, obscures their view with advertising driven annotations that serve to simply bring obtrusive social media content physically closer to a user who now does not have to stop all other activity to perform them with a smart device with a touchscreen. True AR seeks to augment not just vision, but the entirety of experience itself. Reality itself. True AR is a form of electronically mediated Situationism.

With partner Molly Hankwitz (together we form Archimedia) I built a wearable computer using a raspberry Pi computer and my old Virtua-IO glasses from the late 1990s that works fine for most basic computing needs but it has been field tested for Situationist-style drifting. Notes are taken using it while walking through urban areas.


Archimedia’s Raspberry Pi based wearable computer ,the “Debord”. Total cost, about $200. Designed to enable the user in her drifts around the city. When Bruce Sterling saw it, he took a picture. CC Archimedia 2013

There are more DIY wearable computing solutions on offer, and at the low-end the humble Raspberry Pi represents a keen entry-level $35 very portable computer for those wanting to build a low cost computer to carry around. As for head mounted displays, these are bound to become cheaper as time goes on, but the META system, now named SPACEGLASSES which is based on an EPSON head mounted display is the sort of rig that most people can afford, costing several hundred dollars. Not so Google Glass which sells for up to $1,500 a set. No doubt in several years, as with Walkmans, MP3 players, and other consumer electronics devices that started out closed, expensive and a high-end fashion item, prices will fall and the innovation can really start to take place.

Controversy has always surrounded wearable computers. In general terms these revolve around the conflict between on the one hand the empiricist argument that the devices are part of uniforms, and extensions of institutional power and authority. The user is not supposed to know how they work, only that they work. The alternative view is that the devices are customizable, individualized, made to suit the specific needs of the user, who then connects with others of like mind and technical sensibility to form collectives. In the mid -1990s these conflicts played themselves out in most hubs of power, wherever large contracts were to be argued over. As in the film “Brainstorm” the Pentagon and the government had its own notion of wearable computing should be for – a device of uniform specification, issued to a mass, whose use of it would render the content that of an aggregate. This is the model used for Google Glass, which is a more efficient way to suck up personal videos, emails etc by a population who neither knows nor cares how its data is made use of. The other model is a customizable system that can be made to adapt to the needs of a user base who decides for itself not only how the devices are used, but how the data generated by the devices is to be used.

Steve Mann has dedicated his career to the principle of personal technology as ‘an architecture of one’ Mann believes that wearable computing and augmented reality should be a force for good in the world, a force for social justice and a force to benefit society. Not for profit alone. Not for surveillance. Not for military and control. Not for policing. Not to better further the narrow interests of property, ownership, and privatization.

It is thus incumbent upon us all to develop the new technologies with a mind to the great power of the innovations they imply and above all else, the important social relations they are sure to bring forth.



Picture I took of Steve Mann at the MIT Media Lab when I interviewed him in 1996 Copyright David Cox



Myself with Steve Mann when I interviewed him at the AWE2013 Conference, Santa Clara Copyright David Cox

SPACEGLASSES offers true AR in that the graphics are true 3D, and 3D graphics creation is part of the long term idea of the project. The use of 3D tracking (similar to the Kinect system) means that hand gestures can be used for manipulating objects that appear in the field of view as in films like “Iron Man” and “Otherzone”.



Meta AR (AKA SpaceGlasses) – a true AR developer kit that enables hands-on customization and unlike Google Glass, true AR, not simply annotation of information over your view of the world. Plus it has Steve Mann onboard, which means that it has some theoretical chops behind it is probably not only driven by advertising and profit but a genuine interest in the potential social and cultural potential of the medium.


Archimedia is a research collective based in San Francisco. Its members include David Cox and Molly Hankwitz.


Steve Mann personal website:

David Cox Research Page




Game Draw on Meta

AR and ART





Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop


AR in Cars









Augmented Reality Through Wearable Computing


Thad Starner


Wearable Computers


Steve Mann Keynote, AWE2013


Bruce Sterling Keynote, AWE2013:


Keynote, AWE2013:


Will Wright Keynote, AWE2013:




Steve Mann Interview


Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology