William Blake on 16 Nov 2000 11:47:50 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Useless NetArt: Interview Harwood(Mongrel)&DrTafnus

Disintegrate everything

Painstakingly printed, hand-trimmed Microsoft Word menu items. Matthew Fuller's impressive 'A song for occupations' installation at the Lux Centre(London) got off to an intriguing start as he gathered around him some of the notables from the London NetArt scene and supervised them individually to paste 2,500 colour prints onto the largest wall of the gallery. This work reminded me again of the tendency toward a kind of meta-formalism that seems to be creeping into the better work I see around me in the NetArt genre.

This is not the formalism of the lame, wowie-technology lobby but the graphic formalism of precise thought abstracted to the point of process and very little else. While I understand the scene's pull toward this meta-formalism and avantgardism, when no one else is listening, do we really need to enter into such a territory? Or is there another strategy?

From meta-formalism to the strains of biotech art struggling to cultivate themselves beyond the petri dish, to my own vacuum of NetArt's worthy social worker...I've wondered whether I've not been missing the point. Maybe there is some underlying strand of activity that would shed light on the contemporary situation.

Fortunately a couple of days after the Lux show, I met up with Dr Debra Tafnus, a rabid mathematician from the Institute of Post-Predictive Computing. I decided that she and the IPPC had something crucial to add to the debate. This is the result of an interview that I conducted with her over coffee in the café at the Tate Modern.

As we began, Debra stared out over the financial district of London and the St Paul's Dome, muttering and shaking her head:

DDT: Money, mechanisation and algebra: the three monsters of contemporary civilisation. Money, mechanisation and algebra: the three activities identified as the prequisites of the computer. Those of us who love mathematics and revere it as one of the great expressions of our humanity like my dad did, will want to ask why it is thought that mathematics, in cahoots with its other two accomplices, has given rise to such statistical monstrosities. My dad once had a dream of social salvation through a technological utopia. Now his dream is gone, all gone.

H: Debra, I know you have strong feelings about the procedural corruption going on in the application of mathematics and computerisation at the moment. But do you think that web art has a sufficient critical understanding of the agenda behind the mathematical models it uses?

DDT: No. You people dance around the edges of subjects, making yourselves look good by making the next in-joke, like Matthew Fullers 'A song for occupations', or camping up outmoded technologies with some old windows music programme.

H: What gives current mathematical models their power?

DDT: A computer model can be stopped at any particular procedural phase and assessed to give a reasonably reliable premonition of impending doom or predict the normative growth of our toenails. Look at this simple model of bacterial growth, one that is hopefully familiar to any of the biotech terriers in your avant-garde (she writes the mathematical generation model of bacteria growth on the back of a napkin with her eyeliner pencil):

Generation time = ( 3.3 log ( b0 / b1 )) / t

where t = the time interval between the measurement of cell numbers at the point in the log phase(b0) and then again at the later point in time (b1)

b0 = initial bacterial population
b1 = bacterial population after time t
log = logarithms to base 10
3.3 = log 10 to log 2 conversion factor

From this, you see, I can usefully predict human infection, the decay of vegetables, or I can build a DIY biotech weapon. This is where the power comes from. The ability to model over time a human or non human process.

H: I seeŠ I think.

DDT: But what irritates me is when these mathematical formulae are used to report on the psycho-social realm in the media, or on the bottom of bills sent through my door or on urgent requests for humanitarian aid. The resulting mathematical systems get built into monstrous images accumulated from their poorly conceived calculation.

H: So are you saying that these mathematical models, used outside of their purist application, are as agendaed as any nudie pic or black yardie gangster appearing in the morning paper or as agendaed as the software that will write up this interview?

DDT: Yes.

H: Is this new? Are there any differences between the modern maths and the maths used in previous centuries?

DDT: In the 1950s new social situations required the handling of a great many pieces of interlocking information. Before 1946 a person computed with pen and paper. Ten simultaneous equations and ten unknowns and you'd be grown. Twenty equations in ten unknowns and you were dead. The possibility of making concrete the abstract formulations of econometrics etc required the computer, so of course it's not the same.

H: Sorry, maybe I'm a bit stupid or something. What was the difference?

DDT: The old models that were applied in the physical sciences and were tested over the centuries. The new ones have been rushed into the service of economics, sociology, politics, language, law and healthcare with very little critical forethought.

This is creating powerful applications, churning their way through day and night, through field value after field value of non numerical questions. Pentium processors heating up to their maximum efficiency ceiling, and for what?

H: What?

DDT: The highly questionable assumption that problems in economics, sociology, politics, language, law and healthcare can be solved by quantification and computation.

H: Isn't this a direct descendant from the numerical modernism of before 1946, which has clearly failed to deliver any real social progress other than the software to run shoponline.com, or a whole host of stress dynamics that gave us unliveable highrise buildings thrust on the poor?

DDT: Basically yes. But I'm not going to apologise for previous generations. Numerical modernism had good intentions. It proposed that, if society can be reduced to a set of psycho-social statistics, then the poor and underprivileged would be exonerated from causing their own misery and would be able to prove how impoverished they were. On this basis they would rationally request, from the wider society generally and social elites in particular, that they should have a larger share of the wealth and health of society.

H: But no thought was given to how they might say this.

DDT: I thought that was why media and communications study was set up. To find out why it didn't work!

H: Anyway, let's keep to the subject in hand...wasn't there a more radical formalist doctrine set up by the ultra-mechanistic materialists that stated: mathematics, because of its internal states of truth and falsehood, can be used to penetrate areas of the psycho-social and provide proof of their true states? And in proving them, expose them to rational thought, the scientific mind and the justice of reason?

DDT: That's true. There was a more formalist hardline strain before 1946 but, after that, the problem with the dogma remained the same. Many psycho-social studies of society have non-numerical parameters. Let's look at an example: are black populations in the world the poorest? This can be answered with numerical parameters as long as there is some overriding criterion such as money. But even with this example it's banal not to question value systems across cultures and the dollar is just one particular system of value... anyway I'm getting off the point. The same question but with 'why' in front of it - 'why are black populations in the world the poorest?' - has no numerical parameters at all and so the statistics are crap.

H: I see. So a lot of the statistics that are quoted down the pub or at the bus stop should have never been formulated because not all questions have a mathematical base. And to even ask the question is corrupt in itself.

DDT: It does not stop there. It's popular confidence in these mathematical models that underpins people's ability to extend their thinking beyond their own concrete knowledge of the world that surrounds them. As you say, people quote numbers all the time.

H: Ok, so what kind of systems are at work?

Tafnus sat up
glared at my naivete.

DDT: It's the standard deviations, correlation coefficients that are spat out of Turing machines and held in the fists of the uncritical and of the procedurally corrupt.

H: What's that?

DDT: Bosses computers, running mathematical simulations and data mining, make monstrous social images rise up, which are formulated from these corrupt computations. The images are then used as vices with which to squeeze out of us every last drop of complicity with the conclusions of the social investigator.

H: I understand that models of social investigation motivate us to make society move on, progress, get richer, get healthier, and that all is flux and must be optimised through the premonitions of the best correlation coefficients that money can find and so on, but what can be done? It's growing at a exponential rate.

DDT: Look! The reliability of these models rests on discrete critical application. Removed from this context these models become the scaremonger's tools of fear for the apocalypse or, less dramatically, become the misinformation that hides the mistakes and incompetences of powerful elites. The computer lives by precise recipes, precise algorithms, abstract and general programs wherein the significance of what is done becomes secondary to the act of doing it.

H: I see...this procedural corruption is the mask of formalism through which the world administers social disorder, reduced to an orderly set of data with odd numerical discrepancies to be tidied up. But what do you think can be done about it?

DDT: You might argue that these models, when used out of context or when the criterion is inappropriate, are having a damaging effect upon the world. But, frankly, that is boring and not enough. Mathematisation will increase anyway. What we need is a critical engagement with these models, to tear them from their original context and aim them at arbitrary events, images and other manifestations.

H: So what does this have to do with scene at the moment?

DDT: You and your cronies seem to be skirting round the edge of the debate. Faking a website here, making a statement about agendaed software there, and sometimes - if we are really lucky - making excessive computerisation fun. But what holds back the scene is the reliance of its work on social, political, cultural, formal or economic value and validity. Work should refuse all these forms of meaning, in any cultures, social or economic systems in existence now or at any time in the past or future whatsoever.

H: What, give up on commenting on the world around us?

DDT: Yes. Perfect art has but one single aim and that is to reproduce the image of its innate uselessness, to form a void that disintegrates everything before it through irritation. Commenting is for the chattering classes.

H: So the work remains critical?

DDT: Disintegrate everything. Work should aim to disrupt as much sensible workings of society as possible through an invigorating tasteless, aimlessness, wasting of time and resources. The only use of computers allowed should be that of a thoroughly aimless one and the only use of theoretical and material items and practises allowed should be a useless one.

William Blake

The Institute for Post Predictive Computing

<Perl Programmer>:<Sometimes Visionary>