Automation in Evidence on The 'New Aesthetic'

story © Michael Betancourt, September 3, 2012 all rights reserved.


This is a fragment of my new essay considering the automation and automated processes so clearly on view in the collected material of the new aesthetic, James Bridle's tumblr blog. Originally I hadn't planned to write about his project, but I recently reconsidered that plan as I realized there was overlap with my current thinking about automation:

The 'new aesthetic,’ presented as an online research project in 2011 and 2012, suggests a physicalization of what was/is more commonly purely digital—a realization of immateriality as physicality. It traces similar aesthetic developments as earlier exhibitions such as Post-Digital Painting did in 2002 . His ‘new aesthetic’ collects examples where automated production becomes a tangible dimension of human society, ranging from the autonomous action of Google Street View’s face-blurring algorithm to the translation of bitmaps into decorative textile patterns. The particular sense this collection documents is a concerted effort at realizing and acknowledging the digital nature not only of the immaterial ‘space’ produced by computers and algorithmic systems (the results of digital automation), but the transfer of these autonomously produced artifacts into the physical realm. The automated machine labor revealed by this documentation is a symptom of the emergent autonomous production it documents, revealing the paradox of automation, labor, and value production: the cultural, historical, and aesthetic ruptures between automation and the (traditional) conceptual mappings of human society.

Bridle’s ‘new aesthetic’ contains examples of camouflage used to ‘hide’ from digital military systems demonstrates a reorientation of physical structures towards their engagement with digital technology, specifically designed to resemble the artifacts and forms of digital imaging; unlike earlier approaches that addressed specifically human recognition and capabilities, the contemporary camouflage mimics the pixilation of digital imagery—it is addressing not human sight, but the automated recognition systems of machines and the digital cameras that accompany them. This shift from a primary concern with human recognition to the disruption of machine vision is a transformation of degree and locus of address, mirroring the shifts posed by the ‘new aesthetic’ generally.

The importance of primitive accumulation to capitalist expansion—the annexing of domains without required payments commonly given to labor—assumes a consumptive dimension in the latter half of the twentieth century as the technologies employed in war become increasingly expensive and (self)destructive; thus, war as a productive stimulus for capitalist expansion both through productive demand and through primitive accumulation (which the Iraq War under President Bush so clearly demonstrated).

The various artifacts brought together as the ‘new aesthetic’ are united by their orientation not towards human observation or functional utility, but rather by their invocation of productive values without human action—the aura of the digital’s separation of product from all that is required to produce it: labor, capital, resources. This transition point marks a shift from the fragmentation of the assembly-line where tasks are organized around the repetitive action of masses of human labor (itself an organization that implies semiotic disassembly and standardization) to an automated fabrication where the design is generated on digital machines and then implemented by other digital machines without human labor in the facture process; the necessity of human-as-designer thus comes into question as it is the only aspect of non-machine agency remaining, an element whose necessity is challenged by evolutionary algorithms and automated design.

All these works appear to render the aura of information tangible, physically present, but at the same time withdraw from immediate engagement: the ‘new aesthetic’ offers itself as proof the digital aspiration to the state of information is immanent—the translation of information to pure instrumentality—emanating directly from how the digital reifies the capitalist ideology of accumulation in autonomous production. The technical aspects of digital technology become style—this new aesthetic—a transfer instantiating the immaterial in a physical form, a “print-out” whose tangibility then becomes the operative dimension in asserting the presence of an immaterial, digital ‘information space.’ This physicality proffers the realization of information as instrumentality. Objects collected by Bridle reflect digitally-derived features displaying the existing capacities (both current and historical) of digital technology: the illusion they produce is one where what was immaterial, penumbral, crystalizes from the air into solid, tangible form: reification becomes realization—immaterial physicality; it is the role of human agency that comes into question with the ‘new aesthetic’: the necessity not only for human labor in the production of the work, but the requirement of human agency (following the aura of the digital) as a productive and organizational principle.

Digitally-enabled automation makes the human labor previously rendered subservient within the productive system itself uncertain, posing a fundamental challenge to capitalism as historically defined through the transformation of human labor into a commodity—the use of human intelligence, skill, and labor time as a specific form of productive value. The potential for full automation emerges with the development of digital automation, one where human labor—human agency—becomes a wasted value, and which the ‘new aesthetic’ documents.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  September 3, 2012  all rights reserved.

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