[iDC] Distributed Aesthetics

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat May 20 13:05:22 EDT 2006

Today, the field of distributed aesthetics is falsely associated with
exaggerated rumors of net art's demise. The entire landscape is severely
under-studied. In Berlin, last week, a small group of people met for an
intensive workshop to respond to this situation. Just returned
back to New York what follows is an academic/journalistic quick-response
and a follow-up on some strings of the discussion that branched out like
a tree.

Many of the exchanges were based on the growth of the Internet from
nothing to everything, with the mobile telecommunication technologies
and all their "swarming" or "rendezvous" devices. The terrain of the
debate embraced issues concerning variously scaled social group
formations, mapping and other visualization techniques including
sonification, the revenge of the backend algorithm, the vengeance of
geography, folkloristic participation in alternative sociable web media,
and the re-thinking of affective media. This was quite a bit for a start
but a more specific focus was hard to imagine in the early days of what
may become a field in its own right.

First of all, the participants brainstormed about core terms of the
debate. In the jungle of distributed aesthetics we looked up to a cloud
of key terms: crowd, swarm, mob, mass, multitude, and others.

Participants co-formulated working definitions with the full awareness
that they mean many things to many people. "Mass" has the connotation 
of the chaotic, Fordist, and uninformed. Both "multitude" and "mass" are
associated with the latent possibility of violence. Multitude, of
course, is a term coined by Spinoza that was taken up by the political
theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In 2000 they formulated the
concept of the multitude in opposition to the term "the people" in their
book Empire. "Swarm" means informed but decentralized. "Crowds" are
always pre-filtered, and related to niche culture. Some think that the
difference between these relies merely on scale? Contributors pointed to
the intriguing paradox inherent in Howard Rheingold's book title "Smart

Rheingold's "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" argues for the
distributed possibilities of evolving communication technologies. He
proposes that peer-to-peer networks and pervasive computing are changing
the ways in which people organize and share information. "Smart Mobs,"
for Rheingold are richly interlinked and thus not as dumb as the term
"mob" suggests. Smart mobs can develop Collective Intelligence.
Rheingold refers to street protests organized by the anti-globalization
movement as example of smart mobs.

Collective Intelligence is a process that is able to overcome
"groupthink" and compromise in order to solve problems according to
Peter Atlee. An additional source is Collective Intelligence (CI)
pioneer, George Pór, author of The Quest for Collective Intelligence
(1995) whose blog addresses CI [1]. Wired magazine author Kevin Kelly in
his book "Out of Control" contributes a chapter on collective
intelligence [2]. Pierre Levy who dedicated his book ³Collective
Intelligence² to the topic has, more recently examined H.G. Wells¹s
concept of the ³world brain.² CI, these authors argue, can restore the
power of the citizenry over their society and can counter the
centralization of wealth.

James Surowiecki's 2004 pro-free market book "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why
the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes
Business, Economies, Societies and Nations." was also subject of
discussion. Surowiecki argues for trust networks and their ability for
decision making in a decentralized manner, for instance drawing on
locally situated knowledge. James Surowiecki points to crowds that are
not wise at all. He talks of irrational group behavior at times of stock
market crashes and more. In an eerie, uncritical way Surowiecki proposes
the adaptable, managerial personality of today who keeps her ties loose
while exposing herself to as much information as possible.


Brian Holmes, a ³wild American academic living in Paris² (in his own
words) took apart the concept of the flexible personality in the essay
of the same title. He commented that institutions have the function to
discipline crowds into citizenry with predictable norms. He argued that
there is something pre-political, unruly about the crowd, the mob, and
the multitude. The idea of the "masses" has been associated with citizen
formation, he pointed out. In any crowd there are individuals who write
its algorithm. The power is with those who are able to set the terms of
the debate. The framing of discourse happens through language. Holmes
described this carrot-and-stick society as exerting impulses to which
citizens react. They are thus modulated and shaped into norms. He linked
this to Brian Massumi's notion of resistance that calls for

At this point the workshop briefly exited into a discussion about
leadership in groups. There was a seeming consensus that leadership is
important, possibly best implemented through rotating facilitators.

One term that the workshop did not have time to dissect is that of Web
2.0, which now seems accepted by a coalition of the willing. Coined by
dot-com entrepreneur and "futureneer" Tim O'Reilly the term asserts that
there is something completely new. Version 2.0 also has a strong sales
connotation with the imaginary future being the promise. While the term
Web 2.0 is short & sweet, it makes the recently popularized
participatory architecture of the web sound like a completely novel
phenomenon. Instead, I propose the term "sociable web media" as it
circumvents such dilemma while still describing the phenomenon.

Online, super-special interest groups form. Here, nobody is off-topic
and everybody is an expert at whatever bonding glue holds the group
together. Racial tensions, and economical disparities are not an issue
and conflict can be kept at a minimum. In cozy isolation issues can be
discussed in a focused, yet exclusive way. These archipelagos of the
Internet form what Harvard Professor for Economy Amartya Sen, in another
context, calls "plural monocultures." The Internet hosts such strange
multiculturalism. Often, no two opinions have to confront each other. In
their own inner chamber people can forget about racial, ethnic or
economical differences and just talk about the very narrow interest set
that connects them. Such focus is appealing at times when every minute
counts and already unbelievably many hours are spent web drifting. There
is too little time to deal with all the information that is thrown at
those inhabiting the web. These super-special interest groups are
monocultures just like Denmark (Holmes added). Conversations take place
next to each other, cross-overs are expelled as being "off-topic"
(Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam describes this in detail in his book
Bowling Alone) and in this expert culture other voices are assumed to be
non-experts. In monocultures, each living in parallel to the other,
people do not listen to each other. They just hear their own voices.
Neatly labeled special interest groups, just like shelves in a Barnes &
Nobles store, are ideal marketing devices into which one only needs to
insert the advertisement needle. Corporations think hard about the most
viral formatting of information for distribution and the most catching
methods of recommendation.

A short discussion about blogs as social surveillance followed.
Contemporary pen-pal-networks like FaceBook or Rupert Murdoch's MySpace
are frequently used by parents to find out what their kids are really up
to and by employers to check out potential laborers¹ vices. Such
networks are also testbeds for the notion of friendship. Are friends
actually rather acquaintances whom we help to move (into our Facebook
Top 8) or are they "real" German-style friends who pick us up from the

Amsterdam-based theorist Richard Rogers was fascinated by the ways in
which information travels like ships across the planet. He asked: "How
does the web know and how does it come to know it?" Rogers introduced
his IssueCrawler, a web-based "capture device" that is, for example,
able to map the non-profit organization that is most relevant to a
particular topic. It can then also locate the geographical focus of this
work on a map. IssueCrawler shows where a topic is happening. Rogers
works on a critique of Google that, despite its rapid success and
pervasiveness is still not developed. He looked for instance, at ways in
which Google's search results compare to the dominating news stories.
Google results for a search on the term "terrorism" start with sources
like the White House, followed by the CIA and FBI. A site by Fairness
and Accuracy in Reporting follows 10 pages later. The web loses its
side-by-sideness. No longer will one find information by a local pirate
next to that of a mainstream bully. The wisdom of Google is now based on
the idea that ³you have to be fresh to be true.² The more recent (fresh)
your links are, the higher your ranking will turn out to be.

Out of this discussion emerged a line of thought about Technorati.com as
a practical critique of Google. Technorati is a blog search engine that
defines its search results in part based on tags, types of metadata,
that users define. The blogosphere becomes a competing search source.
The large network of blogs is a recommendation economy. The more
in-links a blog can offer the more "in" it is, the higher it ranks. The
blogroll, a link list that is part of every decent blog, does not have
to indicate that the blogger supports the linked sites. What about
an-tag-onistic link lists? Recommendation does not necessarily have to
be based on agreement. It is essential, for example, to read the books
of the people with whom you do not agree. Why not link to one's foes?
This discussion led to Lovink's preview of his thesis on the nihilist
blogger (that will become a chapter in his upcoming book). Here he
argued that blogs completely sucked dry online creativity, originality,
and innovation with regard to design. (He does not think of bloggers as
nihilistic media authors but he examines the formats as being highly
limiting to distributed creativity.) This may be so. Increasingly,
however, blogware is much more flexible, allowing for experimental
interfaces that are barely recognizable as blogs.

Furthermore, Geert Lovink commented that on the website Del.icio.us, a
social bookmarking web service for storing and sharing web bookmarks,
people are in it for themselves. Yahoo-owned Del.icio.us does not work
because of a sense of (perhaps romantic) collectivity. It is driven by
individuals pursuing their self-interest. This does not have to be a
problem. The future may be in such hybrid activities situated between
self-interest and collectivity. Lovink pointed to a slightly more
collective site called Listible that allows individuals to create
recommendations under particular rubrics. Rogers pointed to Shmoogle,
which reverses Google page ranking. He who ends up last in Google shall
be first on Shmoogle.



The Wikipedia entry for Del.icio.us tentatively states that the "Use of
the Del.icio.us service is currently free." At a time when similar
services are bought up by corporations the day they accumulate a
good-sized community, the question of resistant strategies is crucial.
Services like Del.icio.us will eventually turn commercial. How many
alternative, open and free web spaces are left? The big Googles and
Amazon.coms are able to offer many "gifts" that look as if they are
free. Their upload features are as convenient as the purchase button on
iTunes. Companies are successful in luring the online many into their
web of content contribution. Like in Homer's Odyssey their sirens sing
seductive songs that call up deep desires. But just like Odysseus,
online drifters need to be tied to the mast in order not to succumb to
the sirens. They need to fix their hands to their desks to avoid
going into the trap of American-style convenience. Oxford University
professor Nigel Thrift says that "capitalism is now in the business of
harnessing unruly creative energies for its own sake." [3] But there are
alternatives to soft control and "free labor." Websites like
de.lirio.us, del.not.us and sa.bros.us, for example, are free, open
source clones of del.icio.us that cannot be commercially exploited as

Moscow-based theorist Olga Goriunova and many other workshop
participants were interested in such sociality online: platforms of
folkloristic participation. Tom Atlee refers to the current environment
as "a deeply participatory universe." Most people are online for
emotional reasons. To understand the motivations for their participation
matters a great deal. Participation in sociable web media introduces its
own political agenda. The question Where did you upload today? reflects
on the scarcity of remaining alternative spaces online. Very related is
the question of agendas of media critics who write about social
networking. Today, the vast majority of theorists engaging with social
networking are working in the service of ebay and the Google economy. I
introduced the term "oak panel theory" to describe this kind of writing
of theorists who are corporate Web 2.0 shareholder.

University of California Santa Cruz professor, artist, programmer, and
media theorist Warren Sack outlined his notion of mapping of what he
calls Very Large Conversations, communications in newsgroups of many
thousand participants. He analyzed who references whom in newsgroups.
Who inspires whom to respond, take part in an online conversation? Sack
discussed his game-like project Agonistics based on Chantal Mouffe's
idea of agonistic democracy. He looks at newsgroup conversations and
renders the positionalities of participants visually. She who controls
the conversation "wins." Mapping and visualization of network traffic
are valuable. The problem with the rhetoric of mapping in arts and
politics à la Bureau d'Etudes is the claim of direct change propelled by
these maps. How often do these fantastically designed, super detailed
revelations of relationships driven by all too justified paranoia,
inspire discussions about the specific linkages that are revealed?

Brian Holmes pointed out that mapping practices in an activist context
are merely one more tool in the repertoire of resistance. They may not
change the concrete situation but they sometimes lead to further action.
("At least people are doing something.") Bureau d'Etudes, he emphasized,
now only use their maps in the context of workshops. Holmes and Lovink
offered an example of strategic reviewing of movements of people between
the Maghreb (the region of Africa north of the Sahara Desert and west of
the Nile) and the EU.


Maps are not the terrain. They outline the landscape while changing it
at the same time. Zurich-based media theorist Nils Roehler contributed
the suggestion to look for data-nonvisualization, and opted for auditory
systems of mapping. Such ³liquid maps² can render the social shapes that
they are changing and can help if navigation is unreliable. Why would
one need a map if one knows where to go, Roehler asked. He proposed the
use of the term compass instead. Maps can reveal information that would
otherwise not be available in a corporal and visceral way. They can
reveal the conditioning of the backend of computing if applied to
networks. The factors that determine computational environments are too
often perceived as being merely oriented on the interface level.

There is massive social conditioning evident on the side of coding. A
big problem of mapping is based on linguistic computing that does not
and perhaps cannot account for affect. Quantitative methods are helpless
when it comes to the emotions of participants. Maps and visualizations
alike are not charged with any particular politics. The map will equally
lead the pirate or the rightful owner to the hidden treasure trove.
Revealing network maps can easily become tools of surveillance if they
end up in the wrong hands. Once online it is impossible to control who
uses them and for which purpose.

The real life politics that leads to decisions programmers make is often
written out of history books. Network protocols are hardwired with
politics. Coding decisions with regard to database structures, for
example, are deeply socially conditioned. Sack, argued that the
algorithm is a "third agency," apart from the mob and authority.
Political representation of the mob that was formerly in the hands of
political parties or unions is now taken over by the algorithm. Who sets
the parameters of contribution and navigation? (Warren Sack: "There is a
Larry behind every algorithm." Larry Page, co-founder of Google, wrote
the page-ranking algorithm of Google.)

The discussion later moved on to the concept of the "revenge of
geography." Place matters once again and is mediated by the Internet and
its mobile device tentacles. Some speculations about the death of
cyberspace were briefly considered. Berlin media theorist Mercedes Bunz
talked about mobile power, turning away from heads-down computing to
distributed mobile devices and the new platforms that they facilitate.
Sao Paolo-based artists and theorist Giselle Beiguelman demonstrated her
cell phone-based electronic billboard projects. While several art
projects were shown during the workshop there was not enough time to
really talk in depth about art and distributed creativity. It remains
unclear if the current situation overcame the anti-aesthetic of the
1980s that largely rejected beauty. Another concern was the coupling of
the glitch or blip, the mistake that often rather leads to the creation
of art much rather than the streamlined coding process.
Perhaps only few of the sociable web media around are related to art not
to mention online games like Second Life. The NYC art historian Judith
Rodenbeck, linked this discussion to Fench curator Nicolas Bourriaud's
much-circulated notion of relational aesthetics. Her critique of
relational aesthetics questioned the quality of the relations that are
established in the blue chip art world that serves as reference for
Bourriaud. ³What is the quality of the produced sociality?² Rodenbeck


Sebastian Luetgert, activist, programmer, artist and co-founder of the
Berlin media lab Bootlab, a big bit-torrent and pod-casting aficionado,
pointed out that he sees more people watching movies download than
people watching downloaded movies. (The aesthetics of data greed.)
Luetgert passionately ended by shouting "Podcasts will free the world
from TV."

The format of this Digital Aesthetics unconference/workshop had much in
common with good improvised jazz. The atmosphere was relaxed and
concentrated. There were no planned lectures, of course, and content was
introduced through very brief initial statements. The most engaging
presentations did not focus on a participant's work, which escaped the
tragedy of the common ego-tripping presenter. Sitting in a circle,
participants went around with a few minutes for each person to show a
project other than their own. The spontaneous exchanges made the debate
lively and intensive.

The workshop took place at the Center for Advanced Studies in Berlin
[4]. Participants from Australia, Brazil, Russia, the United States, the
Netherlands, Germany, and France were invited by the Sydney-based media
theorist Anna Munster and University of Amsterdam media philosopher
Geert Lovink (who is currently a resident at the Center). Both Munster
and Lovink had framed the event with their essay ³Theses on Distributed
Aesthetics. Or, What a Network is Not,² which appeared in issue #7 of
FibrecultureJournal [5]. The shared group memory of this workshop is
accessible through meeting minutes on the wiki.


-Trebor Scholz

An-tag-onistic links:


People who attended this workshop also looked at:



[1] Collective Intelligence Blog

[2] Kelly, K. (1994) The Collective Intelligence of a Mob, In: Out of

[3] Thrift, N. (2005) Knowing Capitalism. Sage: London. pp16.

[4] Center for Advanced Studies in Berlin

[5] Lovink, L., Munster, (2006) A. Theses on Distributed Aesthetics. Or,
What a Network is Not, In: Fibreculture 7,

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