Virtual Space Aesthetics

November 2015

This is a presentation that I gave for the New Media Studies class taught by Carl Diehl at Pacific Northwest College of Art in November 2015. The idea was to talk about virtual spaces, and how they "feel," and how we struggle to represent them to others, especially when they are difficult to understand from a technical perspective.

I'm going to start by "explaining" some virtual spaces, and I'm going to do that with some non-image slides. The lack of images will be important in a minute and I'll talk about why. In the meantime, please bear with my visualized text. Or, if you already think you understand any of these particular virtual spaces, you are welcome to skip my awkward text-portraits and get to the good bits with the seapunk slides and so forth.

The first virtual space I want to introduce is kind of a lack of space, or an absense from space. Or, better yet, a wall, enclosing a space. I'm talking about privacy. When the Cypherpunk Manifesto was written in the early 90s, suddenly people began speaking about technologically-enforced privacy. This is a common way of talking now if you pay attention to the issues of the internet today, but at the time it was new.

The context, all too briefly, was the "hacker crackdown"--when the Secret Service raided a bunch of different people in the effort to catch a few hackers. This was also the series of events that stimulated the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Pretty Good Privacy, the first open software that enabled the use of public-key cryptography, was developed by Phil Zimmerman around that time too. He was then persecuted by the government over military technology export issues. Suffice to say, just as it was seeming as if digital privacy was actually possible, there was no guarantee that it would be actually legal to have digital privacy. The government, the public at large, and even cypherpunks were confused about what cyberspace was, what it was for, and how long it would exist in the way that they somewhat understood it.

Digital privacy is still fairly difficult to understand in a comprehensive way, even if we talk about it a lot more often. It is a difficult idea, that is linked to difficult technology. As a type of virtual space, it was leading to something even more difficult to understand: cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency came directly from the Cypherpunks. Although no one knows who Satoshi Nakamoto actually is, his idea was proposed to both a Cypherpunk descendant email list, and also directly to a number of virtual currency proponents that had been active in the Cypherpunk community. While Bitcoin wasn't the first virtual currency, part of the reason why it worked was because of asymmetric, public-key encryption.

What follows is my very quick, very dirty way of explaining how a cryptocurrency works. There are two main problems for any virtual currency. You need unique digital items (terrible implementations of Digital Rights Management are basically the elaboration of this problem) and you need to make sure that the record of transactions is unique: that is to say, it is not falsified or forked into two contradictory versions.

Bitcoin does this with a blockchain. The first problem is solved by not having any actual digital items. In other words, there are no literal digital coins. There is only the ID numbers of coins, linked to wallet ID numbers, in a transaction ledger. Every ten minutes, all new transactions are added to the ledger, in a block appended to the end of the blockchain. This is written using cryptography, such that it is easy to read the transactions in the ledger, but much more difficult to write transactions to the ledger.

A quick tangent to explain what that means. Public-key cryptography is based on math problems that are much easier to solve forward than backward. 2 x 2 = 4, and 4 / 2 = 2, are both easy for us to understand immediately. But if you are working with, say, large prime numbers, things get more difficult. To multiply two large prime numbers with pencil and paper is doable, but to factor out that product back into those two prime numbers with pencil and paper is much more time consuming. Imagine this, but for math problems that would take supercomputers a long time to solve. That is the basic principle of asymmetric encryption, and that is how the blockchain is able to create hard time limits in a world of vast computer processing power--an invention which was, originally, precisely designed for the purpose of speeding up calculations.

But back to the blockchain. The "easy way" math problem lets anyone read the blockchain, but the "hard way" math problem is the only way to write to the blockchain. The math problem is designed to take ten minutes to solve, no matter how many computers are connected to the Bitcoin network and working on the problem. The math is scaled up or down, as computers enter or leave the network. To mess with the transactions in the blockchain, a computer would not only have to redo all the cryptographic work to write the block, but it would have to do so faster than all the other computers working on the next block. As each new block is written, the network checks them against the blocks reported from the rest of the network, and any contradictions are removed.

The blockchain becomes an increasingly long, transaction "space". This space is distributed among different computers, but due to the defining cryptographical calculations, it can be verified as unique. Unique enough, that it can be used to track the transfer of credits, which can then be translated into value, like any other form of equity.

Did any of that make sense? If not, that's okay, because I think this is the point. The harder the technology gets, the more cryptic the virtual space gets. How do you think of a ledger like a space? If it is not really a space, why do we use physical metaphors to talk about it? It is "blocks," assembled into a "chain."

Another heavily physical metaphor for virtual space is the "dark web." There is a very specific understanding of the dark web as "behind," or "underneath," or "beyond." It is the "back alley" of the internet, the sort of space that one would instinctively describe as sketchy, either with or without a nuanced understanding of what that adjective entails.

The dark web also comes from the Cypherpunk milleu, but more vaguely, via the development of onion routing at US Naval Intelligence. Spies are the other side of the privacy cryptocoin (lol).

It doesn't really matter where the money came from though, because in developing a space for internet traffic anonymity, the Tor software creates a shrouded area where anyone could be a criminal, and anyone could be a cop. Traffic passed through the Tor network is wrapped in cryptography, and bounced around in such a way that the source of the packets can't be linked to their destination. This opens up a very particular space of privacy for web browsing. The traffic itself is not encrypted, but the routing information between one's browser and a website server is. The limited uses of this partial anonymity are enough to obscure both terrorists and spies. And this limited use opens up the "dark web" as a space to something that seems to be far more than it is. By hosting a website through the Tor network, one can deliver content seemingly "from nowhere," which allows one to host websites that cannot be located and seized, like the now-defunct Silk Road drug selling site. But this parlor trick is not pure magic. Flaws in implementation allowed Silk Road to be taken down and its administrators arrested. Understanding the precise limits where the Dark Web begins and ends is much more difficult than seeing the center of it, where libertarian fantasies can proliferate until they leak outside of its bounds.

All of which is just simply weird to think about if you don't have to think about it. But it gets even weirder. Although some have now soured on the idea of Bitcoin itself, companies are now starting to work with other ideas of what could be constituted by the blockchain. Currency itself, is maybe too old school.

Ethereum is one of the weirdest new blockchain ideas. By putting an executable code base into a blockchain, one could hypothetically create smart contracts, virtual escrow, and even autonomous corporations. No one is really sure what this will look like, or how exactly it will work, as the entire thing is still in the proof-of-concept stage. But smart contracts are an idea that links back to the original cypherpunks, and although autonomous corporations sounds more like something out of a William Gibson novel than any kinds of reality we know, virtual or not, suffice to say that as weird of a space the blockchain is now, it seems it can only get weirder from here.

Thus far, I haven't showed you any real images. I could have, and it might made explaining some things like public-key encryption a bit easier. Or, maybe it would have made it more difficult, because I would have relied on a certain set of metaphors and analogies. But even without explicit images, there were still physical analogies aplenty. Blocks, chains, webs, darkness, virtual things.

What does a virtual space look like? At this point in the history of the internet, most of us have an idea of what virtual space looks like, even if it is only an ironic aesthetic, or a tongue-in-cheek, overwrought metaphor.

The "information superhighway" was perhaps always ridiculous. But actually, this is probably one of the more accurate pictures, because there are, really, channels of light in the form of fiber optic networks that constitute the internet. Of course, they don't have cowboys inside of them that you could see, and they aren't as gloriously futuristic as modernist freeway flyovers, but a little bit of artistic license is probably to be expected.

The "cyberspace" metaphor was a little cooler, but also fairly silly to be honest. It worked for William Gibson's Neuromancer, and the term stuck, because now it is enshrined in actual government departments such as the United States Cyber Command. The virtual plane is very simple, and has a nice cyberpunk aesthetic to it. It is also easily rendered in vector graphics, which is perhaps one of the reasons that this image fit into our understanding of virtual space so well, like a puzzle piece. Also worth mentioning here is Neal Stephenson's alternative version in Snow Crash, which if I recall was supposed to be a single street circling a planet, with virtual properties lining either side. That one wasn't quite so visually catchy.

This image is what an actual virtual space looks like. There are some continuities with the cyberspace look. Endless horizon, open sky. Of course, here, in IBM Sametime, our deserted plane is inhabited by messages telling you how to exist in this virtual space. Absolutely full of physical metaphors too. "Sun" for light, "moving" for shifting perspective, even "flight" through the false atmosphere of the virtual space. Your avatar might be your focus point, but this is all about vantages. The point of this interface is to "look" around a "world." For whatever good that will do you.

Virtual spaces are beholden to our technological limitations, of course. Both in terms of graphics, like the pixelated sky, the textured green grass, and the relatively static tree shapes that scale as you drive forward, always forward, down an endless road. And we shouldn't forget the pixelated half-nude either, showing tastelessness is a much a feature of technological culture as technological ability.

Even as technology advances, things don't change too much. While GTA Vice City was a technological marvel of an immersive world compared to Crusin' USA, the aesthetic is relatively the same. Even, gradient skies, open roads, palm trees in mostly vacant space.

Despite the limitations of these spaces' visual content, we embrace them. We long for the chance to interact with these immersive virtual spaces in every way that we can, despite poor graphics, clipping errors, and uncanny texture renderings. This is from The Sims series, which let you render the mundane activities of every day life across some virtual characters. Nothing better than a swimming pool simulation, right? Living the cyberspace dream!

It's my theory that the "lifestyle" aesthetics of vaporwave and seapunk are pulling out aesthetic qualities of the look and feel of virtual space, and pushing that into a concept that can be idealized and replicated. Windows 95, pastel blue skies, and render glitches of 3D objects become not just something that is weird, but a reference to a particular time period of widespread social adjustment to the virtual space of the "world wide web."

The trippiness factor of these aesthetics is an evolution of the counter-cultural yippie/phreaker mindset, translated through early, Whole-Earth-Catalog-descended utopian online communities, through the paranoia of cypherpunks, through the graphical blue sky quality of Microsoftian/corporate branding, and returned to its original custodians: the "outcast teens" of society, the alt-cultures frothing at the edges of what society was "supposed to be," looking for opportunties to make culture strange enough that it could be their own domain, and rather than what was being sold to them.

Seapunk is "what the internet looks like," in an abstract, experiential, performative sense. It is not the perfectly saturated colors of an endless grassy plane, but it is the feeling of being taken to such a plane, and being told "this is virtual space, it is where you must learn to live now." It is not only a look, but also a sound, and a process of performing, by inhabiting the aesthetic through fashion, through making seapunk art and collages, by listening to and creating the music.

Seapunk is not the only way of doing this. Also notable is New Retro Wave, a synth label that channels the aesthetic of 80s television and cinematic culture into a sound of its own. The video glitch at the beginning of this video is the label's logo leader, not simply a glitch. While perhaps more of a Betamax-cyberspace than a WWW-cyberspace, to me, this music sounds like flying a helicopter across the water towards the city of GTA Vice City at night.

And apparently I'm not the only one. The new retro wave asethetic comes full circle here, in this fan-made radio station track, meant to be listened to while playing GTA Vice City (the in-game radio stations one hears while driving cars in the game is a major world-building aesthetic element), that incorporates New Retro Wave artists. The aesthetic is a loop, feeding back on itself.

As it is here, with these custom modded characters dressed in seapunk style, meant for use in The Sims. One's character in a virtual space is virtually dressed according to an aesthetic based on the performative embodiment of an archaic, and hence fully aestheticized, virtual space.

All these aesthetics are meant to show a look and feel, but don't harp too much on the understanding. Because, what do you really need to understand about the early World Wide Web or immersive virtual gaming spaces? Unless you are some sort of a theorist like me that has to pick everything to death, you don't have to explain everything, you just jump in and join the alt-culture, or you ignore it and keep on surfin' until you find something you like better.

But let's look at some of those virtual spaces I tried to explain without images, in the preceeding sections. These are things that are maybe not crucial to understand, depending on who you are. But given that they are relatively new and confusing, they probably need to be explained to someone who wasn't born with an innate grasp of what they are. So how do we represent these more complex virtual spaces?

The way that cryptographers tend to explain cryptography is with two characters named Alice and Bob. I'm not going to say that Alice and Bob are never useful for explaining cryptography, but there are certainly many instances in which they are not useful. If your "for example" diagram just happens to drop these two names and the proceeds to use a lot of jargony variables, that isn't really an example, is it? Also, there are the roles they are expected to play. Why is "Eve" often the person attempting to intercept the communications? Wouldn't "the enemy" make that more explicit? Or couldn't we create a caricature from history, that at least more people would understand? How about Lincoln trying to send a message to Grant, without Lee overhearing? Or invent your own, in whichever cultural context works best. But no one is inventing their own. As with many technical subjects, once a lingo has been established it tends to have inertia that transforms it into jargon, completely displacing any pedagogical value it is supposed to have.

The media has their own favored images, also fairly divorced from reality. Why the hell is this hacker using a magnifying glass to examine their own keyboard?!? I do like the stretched out hoodie sleeves though. They look like my own. Also note the terminal green type--indicator of some sort of dark Matrix, lying in wait for us.

A common image in recent times, when someone wants to "really explain what the internet looks like," is a map of undersea cables. Because, "this is where the internet really is." One is extoled, in a manner of speaking, to "get real," and stop thinking about a vectored image of cyberspace, and begin thinking about TeleGeography's maps. However, this is not real, either. It is not a image of undersea cables. This is a diagram of the relative location of undersea cables, using rainbow colored parallel lines that look like ribbon cables, or the conductive etching on the backside of a printed circuit board. The scale is such that the landing points completely obscure the locations where these cables are said to be landing. This image is not really depicting anything, other than the notion of "technology is complex and a map would help." This map is not only not the territory, it is also not very helpful.

Economic markets are one of those things that we know are important to our daily lives in an abstract way, but we're not really sure how. Even the people who work in economic markets don't always understand it. This is an image of high-frequency trading, which anyone who works with the stock market could tell you is important. But how many of them get it? This image is in the form of a graph, a common way of depicting data. But what sort of data are we reading here? The axes aren't even labeled. And yet, we are told this is evidence of a HFT algorithm "doing something, probably important."

Animated, these graphs give us an even greater sense that something futuristic is probably going on here. Someone even hooked this data up to an sythesizer, so you could "listen to what an HFT sounds like." So what? This ambient light and color may be pretty, but it is purely aesethetic, there is no understanding being inscribed or read from this media.

This (and other images like it) are the most common illustration for news stories about Bitcoin. These trinkets are mostly swag--there was one guy who for a while was inscribing the private keys for actual Bitcoin wallets on them, so you could actually "hold a Bitcoin." But once that Bitcoin was transferred to another digital wallet, the coin was just metal. As it turned out, physical manifestation was completely incompatible with a virtual currency in terms of usability. But the image has lingered, perhaps because it seems to connote wealth, and the unfamiliar qualities of the Bitcoin symbol inscribed on the coin.

Someone also hooked up the blockchain to a synthesizer, allowing you to listen to ambient chimes as the transactions propagated across the network. This is aesthetically nice, but it doesn't actually describe what Bitcoin is.

And this slide, from Ethereum? I can't even. This is the "rhizome" aesthetic in full bloom, which uses some sort of complicated network diagram to show anything that is intended to be a complex network. Like grassroots! Totally resilient, right? Look at all those lines!

Randall Munroe's drawing of the internet is fun, and perhaps most interesting because this is now five years old, and we can examine it for anachronisms. Like looking at a map of Mesopotamia, or the Macedonian empire, we gain an understanding of the fluidity of borders and the vaccilations of empires throughout history.

Internet peeps think they understand the internet better than anyone. And in a certain sense they do. But art theory has been doing work on the nature of images and representation since before the ARPANET was a gleam in the military-industrial-university complexes' eye.

The problem, basically stated, is that we inhabit spaces automatically, as it were. But how do we understand the spaces that we inhabit? How do we represent that space, as in inhabit it? We attempt to do this implicitly, I think. However, I think it's an open question as to whether art is doing it better or worse than other cultural forms of aesthetic representation, or whether "doing it better" is even the goal.

Here are three images of Sol LeWitt's Drawing #337 & #338. At the top left, is the certificate from LeWitt's estate making the reconstruction of the drawing "an authentic LeWitt." Below that, is the diagram describing how to do the drawing on the wall. And then on the right, is the actual drawing on the wall (which ironically, is very hard to see from this distance). If you were strongly opposed to intellectual property, you might say, screw the certificate. But what about the diagram? Is that part of the drawing, or isn't it? If you copied the drawing freehand, without using the formula, would that still be the real LeWitt? Is there any real LeWitts, once the originals that LeWitt drew were destroyed? The location of "the artwork itself" is somewhere in between all these things, and the complicated notion of how art is or isn't extended into these not-strictly-aesthetic realms has been around for a long time.

Here's another work, by Mel Ramsden, called "Guaranteed Painting". The painting has a description of itself printed on the backside. Would this painting still be the same without the description of what it is?

Rosalind Krauss wrote a fantastic essay in the 1970s called "The Expanded Field." In this time period, when the concept of "sculpture" was being expanded dramatically, she was looking for ways to understand sculpture outside of the standard dichotomy that said sculpture was what was "not-landscape" and "not-architecture." Sculpture wasn't just about this negative duality, she argued, but only one term on the periphery of an "expanded field" of physical objects.

So she made this diagram, which is a little confusing, but shows that sculpture is only one possibility for lots of creative activities that would place themselves around the categories of landscape and architecture.

This allowed her to respond to work like Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" without falling into the trap of arguing back and forth about whether or not it was sculpture. It was a lot of things, depending on how you placed it in relation to both landscape and architecture. Perhaps one of the reasons that land art is still so captivating today, despite wide criticism of it, is because it is so conceptually challenging that it calls us to think critically about a lot of assumptions about land and art, and what these are and should be.

With due apologies to Krauss, I am going to adapt her definition to see what we could say about art-work in general, not just sculpture. So, if we think about art-work as something that initially occurs in relation to both aesthetics and intellectual property, we end up with an expanded field of concepts in which various other types of work might fall.

While I'm not sure that this augmented diagram is "correct" in any way, It helps me think about work like Sol LeWitt's and Mel Ramsden's. We see a variety of ways that we might interpret art-work, depending on what dualities it is primarily engaging. Between these shifting realms of aesthetics and intellectual property, we have text, law, ideas, and ironic legalese art, all of which take a different form depending on where they try and situate themselves in relation to aesthetics in intellectual property.

Rob Meyers piece "My Art Market" utilizes the blockchain of Ethereum in order to create a work like this, that engages both our understandings of where intellectual property begins and ends, and where aesthetics begins and ends.

Realizing that, I wondered if Krauss' expanded field could be applied to virtual space. And so I reformatted her diagram again, to escape the dualistic confines of the concepts of "data" and "physicality," between which virtual space often finds itself.

Again, I'm uncertain of the long-term viability of this diagram, but I like it in the short-term. Between data and physicality, we get representations like fiber optic cable maps and images of data centers. And I might put the physical metal Bitcoin trinkets there too. Between data and not-data, we get the noise of the synthesizer hooked up to the blockchain of HFT algorithms. Between physicality and not-physicality, we get the virtual textures of Windows 95 blue skies, and the pixelated palm trees of driving simulators. And between not-data and not-physicality, we get lifestyle aesthetics that attempt to reference the feeling, comprising image, sound, and performance, of virtual space in a way that is completely divorced from the limited data and limited physicality of virtual spaces, and yet directly references them in a way that is unmistakable.

To get back to the "problem" mentioned previously, what this expanded field of virtual space does is gives us a more specific way of understanding where think we are in relation to the virtual space--and then showing us how we might represent that virtual space, given that understanding. These are, of course, not the only ways of representing a virtual space. But they are not just random shots into the dark. Each representation that I've shared here is imperfect, and that is okay. But now, at least, we have the beginnings of a way to understand a representation's limitations directly in relation to its particular attempt to understand virtual space.

So why is this important? Because aesthetics are always an indicator. The "look and feel" of anything is indicative of who the designer has in mind as the user. Maybe they've thought a lot about it, maybe they haven't, but that look and feel is going to be unmistakable to someone, and they will interpret it accordingly.

So what does the look and feel of virtual space tell us about how we are interacting with virtual spaces? Are they being designed well, or poorly? Can we draw any sort of conclusion about this from their aesthetics?

I think the slippage is important. Virtual space was designed to look a certain way. But seapunk is what resulted from that.

Cryptocurrencies were designed to look a certain way. Golden, glamorous, indicators of wealth, the golden logo of specie stability, and the future of e-commerce.

But then, we got Dogecoin. Cryptocurrencies, in their real expression at the hands of the internet, ended up looking like a meme, an image macro, the ugly branding of a NASCAR sponsorship, an inside joke that we both believed in and disavowed at the same time.

So the diagrams by which we think we understand what virtual space is doing, are important. But don't trust them.

Because the future will always look weirder than any of us can possibly expect.

site design by Adam Rothstein - CC license NC-BY-SA