Saturday, November 18, 2017

Distinguishing 'instant' and 'moment'

Cybernetic connectivity has a different character to the continuum, even as it emulates its ecology of mutual mediation. A relational database undoes the linear march of film in favour of a single time embracing every item that it stores. In place of the perpetuity of change, the database establishes networks connecting each item to any other. This is a pretty good solution to the design challenge of creating something that works almost like the planetary ecology of humans, technologies and natural forces. The problem is that selecting the pathways between nodes relies on prior design decisions about what counts. Facebook for example use hundreds of indicators to select which items appear in which order in your news feed. Choosing which features to single out, and what ranking to give them, requires a necessarily hierarchical taxonomy. The various forms of relation have to be given numerical values to indicate which relations are the most significant. And it is these numerical values that distinguish the database from the ecologies, social or physical, that it represents. Far more navigable and flexible than film, the database shares with the older medium its reliance on counting numbers to distinguish it from the continuum that it still tries to stand in for.

The database can be read aesthetically as an extension of television which, by the beginning of the 1970s, had begun to provide an endless modular flow of programming. Film, unless it is pure repetition, comes with the promise of an end. Television never stops. Like TV, the database has no conclusion, but now because it has no temporal direction at all. Perhaps for the first time in modern history it aspires to the condition of something like a truly windowless monad.

The kind of database I'm thinking of is not like a film or photographic archive, where each item can in principle if not in practice be attended to; but the vast databases of Facebook and Instagram with their billions of items and relations. Like the physical world, their complexity is too great for any one to attend to even a fraction of the contents. And they are proprietary: both the contents and even more so the algorithmic principles that order them belong to corporations, themselves combinations of computers and people so integrally bound together I've taken to calling them cyborgs.

The planetary ecology, which includes the natural, technological and human worlds, is not the same as the internal ecology of a database, but there are similarities. One distinguishing feature is that there is a definitive outside of the database. It creates externalities and environments, and to a great extent depends on them: the materials and energy that constitute and power it. Even at the planetary scale, the ecology, dependent on tides and sunshine, and subject to cosmic radiation, is borderless. At the same time, neither artificial nor planetary ecology have a defined goal, unless you count profit as the sole goal of proprietary databases. One can certainly imagine a database of this scale that has no goal whatever, and that simply evolves. Perhaps then a second difference is that the planetary ecology, even though it lacks a teleology, has an eschatology.

In their various and often mutually contradictory ways, much of the critical thinking that inspires the early 21st century engages with some form of the utopian principle: that immanent within the present is the possibility of a vastly different state of affairs: that, as the slogan has it, another world is possible. That possibility is precisely what disappears in the database ecology.

But at the same time, if there is an eschatological dimension to the planetary ecology, and if it is also true that the broader ecology encompasses databases, their materials and energy and their implication in human affairs, then there has to be also a sense that the database contains within itself the reason why it may become otherwise. Such an occulted hope may lie precisely in the difference between enumeration and continuum, or to put it another way, in the rift between the instant and the moment, where the word moment carries the sense of momentum, of the intrinsic power of any actual state of affairs to become other.

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