Cubitt: Digital Aesthetics

For a long time, the question “whatever happened to virtual reality?” could be used to connote a lost sentiment. If you remember the cyberoptimism of the late 80s and early 90s, you remember this sentiment – the information superhighway would transform everything into a global village and bring about a digital revolution which would reshape all aspects of our lives. Virtual reality featured prominently in this, with an unstated promise that one day it would be possible to jack into virtual worlds and interact with other people in simulated environments. Perhaps it would even be possible to one day live there, in the virtual world, without the need to return to the predigital interfaces of meat and synapses.

Recent advances in marketing and virtual reality device technology has made this question somewhat obsolete (and, to be sure, awkward). Yet despite this return of VR into the public mind, the old sentiment did not return with it. It’s impossible to step into the same datastream twice, and very much so with emotional streams. Try as we might, the cyberoptimism of yore is a nostalgic memory at best. Retro is not novahot.

Yet there are merits in attempting to return to this sentiment every once in a while. Not only because actually existing technology is catching up the dreams of decades past, but also because it is interesting to see how these dreams diverged from what actually came to pass. In short, we will be able to ask better questions about the present when contrasted to a future that did not materialize.

Cubitt (1998) is a nostalgic poke to read. A great many things have changed in the almost twenty years since its publication, yet a great many more things have remained the same. Virtual reality has become slightly more of a reality, but – and this is a tenet that appears again and again in the book – reality itself has already adopted aspects of the digital to become more virtual. Which raises all sorts of questions, not least about reality and aesthetics.

Cubitt takes off from the fact that modern art – particularly cinema – has long since abandoned the notion of depicting the real. That is to say, the accurate depiction of things as they really are is of secondary importance compared to depicting them in a fashion effective in the medium within which they are presented. What is presented to the audience is not reality – it is the heavily staged, directed and edited end product of aesthetic labor. Getting the camera angles just right, framing the shot just so, applying these special effects in just the right manner, cutting and editing in all the right ways – these things are more important to the aesthetic process than any underlying notion of depicting a real state of things. While the end result might look realistic, and have an all too real emotional impact, the aesthetic labor involved with producing it is an endless list of subtle manipulations. Reality is all well and good, but artificial reality looks much cooler.

Using cinema to make this point is an obvious choice – movies are after all nothing but images, and the processes of movie editing are familiar to us. But Cubitt does not end the line of reasoning there; he merely begins it. In making a movie, what matters is what works on the screen, nothing more, nothing less. The screen becomes the organizing principle, and reality conforms to make itself more visibly appealing to those monitoring these screens. It is a subtle transition, but suddenly we find ourselves moved from the making of movies to the making of the social world as a whole. Our social realities are not shaped merely by the material things in it, but also by people who manipulate symbols on screens and (more importantly) think up appropriate strategies to translate these symbols into social and political policies. What edits and cuts can be made to the social in order to make it look better?

An obvious example of this is data-driven politics, where the aim is to make the numbers look good. Schools are mandated to do certain things with the express goals of raising average grades; unemployment programs are initiated to modify the employment rates; social programs are cut in order to improve budget surpluses. As many and as subtle as the editing techniques are in movie production, they are nothing compared to the endless and endlessly subtle bureaucratic moves of administrative systems. When push comes to shove, only the cold hard data matters, and if these data sets can be made to look just the slightest of notches better than they otherwise would, the better for everyone (or so the argument goes). Especially in election times, where claims of having affected this or that number are used to aesthetic effect.

The analysis could have ended here, but Cubitt extends it further. So far, humans have been involved at every step, albeit at an ever increasing distance from the real. As the distance increases, however, our reliance on machines to keep reality (and representations thereof) in sight increases as well. As a consequence, the languages these machines speak to their operators becomes correspondingly more important. Not only in terms of the interfaces used, but also in terms of which information is made visible and which is not. The design choices that went into these machines suddenly turn into a question of which information is available to us, and these choices are more often than not aesthetic. As cinema taught us, the aim of neutrally presenting images is a long-forgotten notion, and the aim has long been to present them effectively. The subtle cuts and edits done to achieve this efficiency affect what we can and cannot see with our machine-enhanced, data-driven eyes.

Things become even more virtual when we consider that computer interfaces are not only faced at faces, as it were. Interfaces are also faced at each other, and as more routine tasks become automated, more comes to depend on these interfaces and how they are designed. (It might be imagined that these are designed primarily for function and not aesthetics, but as any programmer will tell you, an efficient API is a beautiful API.) Given enough network complexity and task automation, we will suddenly find that decisions of social policy are being made in the subtle default cuts and edits of machines talking to each other. More so when we remember that the data available to human decision makers is usually the result of many such automated processes, both in parallel and in sequence. Some issues are presented in detail, while others are silently and algorithmically cut from view. The machines speak, and their words are effective.

Cubitt puts it well when he writes that “this can be understood as an evolution from machine perception to machine rhetoric” (p. 47). He also warns us that the rhetorical strategies used by the machines is not ideologically neutral – machine rhetorics reflect the ideologies of those who are in a position to build these machines. Which, more often than not, is explicitly to help corporations make money, and little else. I need scarcely add that corporations are their own flavor of virtual reality, with their own brands of aesthetic sensibilities.

This leaves us in a situation wherein many different kinds of subjectivities/imperatives act upon us. The interests of ordinary human beings are increasingly subsumed by the interests of subjectivities that are nonhuman – those of machines, bureaucracies and corporations. To say that these are objective processes without aesthetic preference would be patently false, as they make aesthetic judgments everywhere and at all times, not least in determining what is important and what is not. To say that the individual is involved in ‘negotiations’ with these interests would be to vastly obfuscate the power imbalances between those involved, especially when we consider individuals in the social and global peripheries.

It has been said that the camera only sees the world as it is, but we both know this is not true. Some individuals are viewed through the filters of Instagram, and judged by the merits of their aesthetic performance. Others are viewed through the surveillance cameras of the ever more numerous correctional facilities, and always seen through the lens of their compliance to the rules (formal and informal). Both are instances of digital aesthetics, and neither can be said to be fully real. The virtual permeates them both, and both would be disrupted should the constant stream of images suddenly come to an end.

Cubitt: Digital Aesthetics