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Dissonance redistributed

Eduard Jons (3-4/2011)

Eduard Jons' fantasia on themes from Gateways: Art and Networked Culture

  [ Read only. This is not an interactive medium. Your response is not required.]
Recently, leaving Tallinn at the beginning of a long bus-journey, I opened my netbook to see if a wireless network might be available. There was no network associated with the bus, but what I did see, as we headed out of the city through the suburbs and into the countryside, was a succession of wireless networks popping into view, often for just a few seconds. I must have encountered over a hundred in the space of a few minutes, with names like ‘Thor’, ‘Pro776b’, ‘cafenet’ and ‘Jaan1’, and even made use of the wireless signal from a train as it briefly paralleled our journey. In brief periods of connectivity throughout the journey, I researched my destination online. I was reminded of J.K. Huysmans’ character Jean Des Esseintes from the 1884 novel À rebours. Fatally bored with life, the aristocrat Des Esseintes has plotted an extended tour of London and its environs. En route with his caravan of luggage, he arrives in Paris and decides to spend the few hours prior to the departure of his train in an English pub. However, he has soon had enough warm beer, bellowing children and fish and chips, and reasoning that he has already done England he returns home. Sometimes, the internet has a similar effect on me.
That which can be known is today being redefined as that which can be recorded and distributed via digital networks, online and mobile. Search engines streamline our online research activity according to past behaviours and the vastness of information is channelled into spiky hits to our mobile phones and laptops. Contemporary digital media and networked culture already provide us with an unprecedented diversity of social interaction and data exchange, in new forms that constantly outpace our understanding of their potential use. It would be a perverse imagination that would deny the radical implications of recent technological developments for the social lives of present and future generations.There is much to feel positive about; but increasingly, to communicate isto plug-in.
Network dissident
Perhaps you already know the story of ‘X’, the infamous and ill–fated network dissident? X was angry at what he perceived to be the wilful neglect and ignorance of friends who persisted in communicating primarily by mobile, text, Twitter, email, online profile and so on, frequently leaving him out of the loop. In response, he had previously tried disconnecting his broadband and switching off his mobile, and had instead written letters with pen and ink – letters that took almost two days to reach their recipients – and he had tried to organise his social engagements with inflexible advance planning. “Why can’t we do things the way we used to?” he would complain, on the few occasions he managed to corner one of his friends and colleagues. This went on for some weeks, maybe months, until his social sphere diminished to such a size that both its centre and circumference were identical with himself. “Why does no one else recognise the superficiality of all this i-chat and revert to the former systems?: dial-up telephones with real bells and meetings that must be attended, and information that had value because it arrived slowly, reliably, from reputable sources and immanent with the significance of invested human energies!” he called out, standing alone by the water-cooler at work. Most of all, he insisted on speaking to people directly; he refused the intrusion of all digital media in his social and economic interactions, and as a consequence he became ‘virtually’ uncontactable.  
In short, X felt, as some do, that the technological bounds of modern life are breeding grounds for superficial bullshit. He blamed the new communication media and he blamed everyone who willingly participated. His darkening behaviour alienated him from his colleagues, and his productivity, retarded by his insistence on arcane (i.e. pre-1990s) methods, dropped below levels considered adequate by his employers. They sacked him, citing ‘Necessary Restructuring’ as an explanation. Now he lay in bed each day, reading and grumbling, drinking and weeping, and sometimes opening wide his window and shouting into the street, railing against the people and their ‘bastard Jesus fucking son-of-a-bitch homogeneous i-lives’.
Slowly, he formulated a new plan, a work of extraordinary genius. He sketched details on paper, in pencil, using a ruler for lines and an eraser for mistakes, and he did the necessary arithmetic in his head. What better way to take his revenge than by using the very same technology through which his friends had conspired to neglect him? He ordered semtex plastic explosive from a website translated with the aid of Google.
[6/22/11; 11.00: X is in the kitchen]  
Xset up an online profile to announce that he intended to end his own life.He began with Facebook, and then proceeded to diversify into other network media. He rigged up a mobile phone so that the next time he received a notification of a concerned response to his announcement, or a phone call, the explosive – now stuffed into his earphones – would explode. After a good meal, and a few vodkas, he went back to bed, put on the earphones, and waited for the brightening of the screen on his mobile that would announce his imminent death. Oh, the bittersweet irony! His eyes glistened at the prospect of the trauma he would cause whoever would first try to contact him. He waited, and minutes became hours.
[6/23/11; 4.00: X is in bed]
Oh, if only I were a snail, then this waiting might simply be the normal pace of life, a bearable pace that simply is imperceptible, apparently static, from my present perspective. This waiting then, would not send me into dull lethargy, ongoing events would seem inconceivably dynamic. I am crawling through the verdant tableau, with a microchip strapped to my back. My intentions are known to others even before I intend them. If I were a snail I would not be bored, my attention would not so easily drift and lacking an object dissolve into my present state, tongue hanging freely like a lobotomised dog, dribbling. I would know something: the feel of my sliding effortlessly across manufactured surfaces, or through the coarse earth.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder
Real Snail Mail at gateways is not unique, but the Kumu exhibit is the largest snail-mail distribution installation in a series by the group boredomresearch. I commissioned snail Agent 101 ‘Kelvin’ to transfer my own urgent life-or-death message to the distribution network. I didn’t find him in the snail garden, but I supposed he must be there, somewhere. Later, the missing snail began to trouble me. Perhaps he had died, murdered by a superhighway robber, or perhaps he was in fact locatedin the snail-mail equivalent of a call-centre in some distant land where the snails take no pride in their work, are over-fed or malnourished, or where children abduct them for cruel experiments. Did he go AWOL? Is he at this moment gorging himself in a crisp field of lettuce? Do snails even have a gender? Perhaps Kelvin is involved in a rebellion against the alienating global network that enslaves him and his comrades? How can I find out what is happening to my mail? Like any other email, snail mail is still mail without a mailman, without a post-office, without a complaints desk. My message is effectively nowhere. And what if X had sent his suicide note this way? Wouldn’t the delay actually accelerate the decay of his mind? To distract myself from these anxieties, I read through the list of search terms I recorded from Thomson and Craighead’s Beacon exhibit at 5.45+2GMT 29/6/11:
pregnancy diagnose
financial aid
becoming a historian
internet backgammon
balloon love
toyota 1987
fantasy lingerie
just war theory
file transfer protocol
girls fucking in pool movies
david icke
suicide rate up
oprah boycott
sleeping bags
polysomnography exam
mood logic
burn fat build muscle
1965 mustang convertible
hairy armpits
hsbc iban number   
And from 6.41pm, Marc Lee’s TV-BOT 2.0had displayed this headline:
[6/25/11; 13.00: X is in bed]
X is narcoleptic with boredom, and still waiting. The hours become days and still there is no call, no message alert.Still X remains adamant in his dissent. That no one had called in a week merely added to his conviction that contemporary social relationships were superficial, that people had become insensitive to the intimate realities of others’ suffering – his suffering, to be precise. He reasoned that if he had posted on his Facebook about Amy Winehouse he could have been dead days ago. X’s mind is rotting with hatred, for himself and his friends: modern society is dead and I should have bought a gun.  
The sunset that evening graduated through a bloody spectrum of reds, dripping into the horizon. When, in the fading half-light, X saw his phone’s screen brighten, he had no time to read the caller-ID, to caress the screen one last time. And it had taken just a few seconds, in the morning of a new day in distant Delhi, for a telesales operative to abandon the call and proceed tothe next number.
Vinyl fantasy
Contemporary interfaces are efficient, smooth, with little concern for the aesthetics of tactility. The experience is uniform, the process predictable, the content no longer so fragile. While the affair remins a novelty there may be some pleasure in caressing the touchscreen, in stirring the mouse, in depressing the nipple of an on-off button. But even the insertion of a storage device has lost its former sensuality – inserting a DVD or USB card demands little of the care one takes in handling a vinyl LP, for example: the needle, between finger and thumb, is placed gently and released in a blank zone before the resonances begin; and the violence of a scratch is an ever present possibility.
X isthelone suicide-bomber, the shooter, the isolated madman or a figure of a growing political extremism, a psycho-fiction in the tradition of J.G. Ballard distilled from selected neuroses.Perhaps he is also the prophet of some future dystopia, in which dissent from the network will have become impossible: the missing exhibit is his fragmented skull – flesh and technology integrated in a neuromancer’s dream, the disintegrated shrapnel of a present accelerated into an impossible future where men and women will meet technology on equal terms(with heads exploded on pillows).  
Taken as a whole, thegateways exhibition itself resemblesmany of the flaws in contemporary and future digital and networked culture, just as it alerts us to them. As digital networks become more complex so new opportunities arise for them to fail, prompting memoriesof interactions that were both more immediate and more peculiar phenomena: plunge the tip of an indexfinger into the tight holes on the dial of an analogue telephone and hearthe click and whir during each rotation; listen to the long decay of the unanswered telephone, its bell resounding with all the complex harmonics of hammer on metal. Even cats, not the brightestof mammals, can learn quickly to distinguish and seek refuge fromthe mess ofartificial sounds generated by TVs, radios and mobile phones that obscure the sounds of more immediate presence – the clatter of keys and cutlery, the squeak of doors, the buzz of an insect, the rattle of biscuits, the human voice,the significant things of catlife, things that work.
La voix humaine
The human voice is neither a tweet nor a woof. Lose your voice and you lose the ability to communicate via the mid-range of audible frequencies.Smarter than a cat, but with similar instincts, our senior editor also takes sound seriously. His nails are bitten to the quick as he waits for the safe return of a vintage speaker cone sent to London for repair.Unlucky timing, but fortunately the kids responsible for recent looting and arson in London have shown little interest in the human voice, presumably preferringeither the tinny scratchings of a mobile phone or the booming death-moan of the Titanic as a soundtrack to theirmayhem.While politicians scramble to offer the most useful characterisation of the riots to suit their policies, actual events and human interests continue.
Recently I spent a whole day standing by automated doors and security devices in various shopping malls, stores, in a hotel foyer and attempting to withdraw cash from an ATM. I was wearing a device that senses the inaudible radiowaves that saturate the city space and transposes them into the audible range, amplifying them through headphones. This is Christina Kubisch’s Electronic Soundwalk. Humming, ringing and sometimes throbbing suggestively, this electronic noise-space is yet another layer of phenomena not to be missed – providing we have access to suitable equipment. Indeed, there is so much today that is ‘not to be missed’ that one cannot help missing most of it. Recently someone had the bright idea of turning the corollary of the ‘not to be missed’ deluge into a deluge of one-liners asserting a universe of such unmissables as “Oh my God! Did you see the last episode of [insert popular TV drama]? It was so amazing! I just can’t believe it’s finished!” So it was understandably a surprise to many – me at least – that Twitter appeared to have genuine social and revolutionary potential, playing a role in the recent regime change in Egypt (– to date, still to reach a hopeful conclusion).  
The real content of networked interactivity issocial activity:The late Gil Scott-Heron famously declared in 1970 that ‘The revolution will not be televised’. We may now add: Nor will it be tweeted, or arise in the form of a social networking profile: the revolutionary will notregister, log in or log off.  
On the other hand: the revolution may be fronted by a virtual supermodel, androgynous, trans-ethnic and beautiful for everyone – perhaps it will be Kirsten Geiser’s Maya Brush. And there will be a videogame. Yes, it will be a massively-multiplayer-online-roleplaying-videogame with state-of-the-art graphics, so be sure you can run it in HD. The multiplayer revolution will be for freedom, freedom to talk, endlessly, inanely, and it will be sung from the highest telecommunications tower in all the land, twittered, tweeted, whistled and woofed from your phone, line by line – if that’s not inconvenient – but it will be instant, so who cares. Take care to be distracted by spam and miss every moment. There will be a pause and rewind option.
Of course, things are not really so bad. Underlying the tweets and facebook accounts of social activists are core groups that coalesce as a motive force through more traditional means of communication which better convey the intimacy of the spoken voice, its intonation, dynamism and immediacy; and anyway, X’s complaint is really nothing new.
Already in 1930, Jean Cocteau’s play La Voix Humaine pointed to one of the more disturbing aspects of telecommunication. A woman, discarded by her lover, makes increasingly desperate calls to appeal for mercy, until finally she kills herself. Throughout the play, only the woman is present on stage, speaking into the telephone. We must imagine the lover, and the lover’s voice. His physical absence despite the apparent presenceof his voice is a greater violence than the woman’s suicide.At gateways, I overheard someone standing behind me remark: ‘… it says that 100% of the people present would not object to a homosexual President of Estonia’. This data had been collected as part of Andreja Kulunčić’s Locating Social (Un)awareness, which maps the social attitudes of visitors to the exhibition using a short questionnaire and mobileBluetooth technology. I felt no compulsion to say ‘hello’ or connect with this person or anyone else, even while I too was implicated in the statistic. I had access to that same data on screen in front of me –isn’t that enough?In contrast, the very real FourSquarephenomenon – not an exhibit at gateways – using mobile technologies for purely commercial interests, shows us just how deeply the technology can cut through and re-programme our basic social instincts. Social life in FourSquare is a game in which participants collect points for attending certain commercial locations, such as cafés and bars, and according to the number of other players that one succeeds in gathering there. All of this is accomplished via mobile phones.Despite our immediate physical presence,a subtle knife cuts the cables that might otherwise connect us.
[a fatal exception has occurred]  
All of X’s precious books were destroyed by fire, and various electronica used to execute the plan were reduced to puddles of black tar. In the following weeks, having exhausted all possibilities based on the physical evidence – e.g. that X was an incompetent local cell in a wider international terrorist network and had accidentally blown himself up – police investigators finally concluded that he had worked alone and was not involved in any wider conspiracy. This conclusion was based, of course, on non-eliminable data, from various networks; particularly his Facebook profile, which listed no ‘friends’.
[please wait…]
My snail mail has yet to arrive. I sent the message over two months ago.
[please wait…]
GATEWAYS: Art and Networked Culture is open at KUMU during 13.5-25.9.2011.
[please wait…]
Eduard Jons builds tablet digital devices from recycled plastic bottles. He is always plugged in, but rarely switched on.
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