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Distributed Aesthetics

roger.jpgToday, 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 Mobs."

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 “Collective Intelligence” to the topic has, more recently examined H.G. Wells’s concept of the “world brain.” 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 “wild American academic living in Paris” (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 laborers’ 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 airport.

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 “you have to be fresh to be true.” The more recent (fresh) your links are, the higher your ranking will turn out to be.

shmoo.jpgOut 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.



odysseus.jpgThe 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 easily.

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 European Union.


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 “liquid maps” 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.)

bou.jpgThe 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.
“What is the quality of the produced sociality?” Rodenbeck asked.


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 “Theses on Distributed Aesthetics. Or, What a Network is Not,” 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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