Notebook: Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Image of a runner captured as reflective lines representing the position of his limbs, Chronophotograph (1885), Étienne-Jules Marey (Wikimedia Commons).

“For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.” Paul Valéry, quoted by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”“

Both the humanist-engineer Jaron Lanier and the CEO of the company that brought us the sprite-hunting game Pokémon GO, John Hanke, pointed out, on the occasion of Mark Zuckerberg’s unveiling of his company’s new name Meta (formerly “Facebook”) a couple of weeks ago, that the notion of a “metaverse” was originally developed by novelists (William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, and others), who envisioned it in a dystopian spirit. This ominous precedent was never invoked in the eighty-minute video in which Zuckerberg invited us to savor the promise of the coming metaverse. Put simply, “metaverse” denotes a set of hardware and software tools that create for users the illusion of presence in alternative spaces, either alone or with virtual representations (avatars) of others. Tech companies see these tools as the internet’s next step: bringing you more of the everywhere the internet puts you, for now in only a two-dimensional, remotely observing way. When tech journalist Kara Swisher on her podcast Sway asked Lanier, who is one of the pioneers of the technology underlying the metaverse, why these corporate projections of the experience all look the same, he replied that the cyberpunk novels had an impact on film (see The Matrix, Inception, etc.) that became so pervasive that it in turn influenced the corporate communications of the companies developing the technology. (“Personally I think it’ll look a lot better than that but whatever,” he told Swisher.)

A more expansive vision of the metaverse than Zuckerberg’s boardroom-based one is already far along in creative vision in the form of games, many of them developed by companies that are not Meta/Facebook (though Meta/Facebook is gaining ground in its usual way, by buying them up). Many literarily-inclined gamers feel we are on the brink of recognizing games as an artistic form. For example Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, a publisher and content strategist who works with libraries, wrote in his newsletter, “I predict we’re less than ten years away from games’ stories regularly being talked about the same way novels, TV, and film are, and more games being successfully translated to other media than vice versa.” Game companies hire novelists to create the “backstory” and “lore” of games’ fictional worlds; the growth of gaming as a creative field seems to have picked up the apparent loose end of literary interactive fiction, which was briefly presaged in the nineties. (For a taste of the diverse ways games provided solace and delight, particularly to lonely youngish people, during lockdown, see this rather charming New York Times feature.) Gaming is newly overcoming a legacy of misogyny, abuse and exploitation by organizing digital creative workers and developing opportunities for formerly marginalized users, such as trans people and people with disabilities, to experiment with other forms of experience. Gonzales observes that “gaming is far larger and more diverse than the publishing industry, and stands toe-to-toe with movies for revenue and reach.” A 2020 Panorama Project report on “Immersive Media & Books” found that among millennials “avid book engagers don’t choose between books and games or books and TV/movies; they engage with all of these forms in a large, networked media consumption ecosystems” and publishers would do well to cultivate “cross-media discovery” with gaming to promote reading and book sales among younger readers.

The world of irl art may not yet have absorbed the possibility of forms that are not delimited in space and time, that immerse the reader/viewer as an active participant, that accommodate multiple outcomes, but the expansion of these virtual mediums increasingly opens up that door, and if the metaverse is going to take over distribution of our creative and intellectual lives as much as formerly-Facebook has, we had better start getting ready. I had a wonderful conversation once with a couple of composers who create music for games, about how you make music that is open to multiple resolutions. Lanier can wax poetic about the creative possibilities of virtual and augmented reality. “This experience of feeling your own body shift into something else,” he told Ezra Klein, “you’re experiencing a kind of a plasticity or a potential in your brain that you haven’t experienced before. There is something really fundamental and vivid about discovering this thing your brain can do that you had no idea it could do. It goes pretty far,” he went on, “we’ve discovered for instance that you can control more limbs than you have naturally just by mapping for measurement of your real physical limbs to the alternate limbs [developed for virtual-reality avatars]. The kinds of bodies that you seem to be best at inhabiting are the ones that the brain has controlled in the past hundreds of millions of years through the philogenetic tree, so that in a sense it’s deep time travel for the brain, it’s the brain remembering the other creatures it descended through.”

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Both Lanier and Niantic’s Hanke, however, return to a lodestar absent from Zuckerberg’s landscape when they talk about the promise of virtual worlds: in Lanier’s words, “what virtual reality is good for is noticing how magical conventional reality is.” Hanke, whose Pokemon GO obliges users to go outside to chase down little phantasmal creatures (its new variant, Pikmin Bloom, is even more walk-inducing), said, “We believe we can use technology to lean into the ‘reality’ of augmented reality—encouraging everyone, ourselves included, to stand up, walk outside, and connect with people and the world around us.” Lanier has written that avatars teach us, in the breach, “what is left of you when you can change virtually everything about your body and the world,” that virtual reality is “the only technology that has ever come along that makes you notice that your consciousness is a real thing.” One is reminded of then-Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in her Senate testimony calling for “human-scaled software.”

A number of observers noted the bent of the vision described by Zuckerberg toward escapism rather than engagement with reality, a danger implicit in the notion’s original articulation by Gibson, Stephenson, et al. It has always been Job One for Facebook to keep you inside its systems as long as possible, in order to expose you to as many ads as possible, as Haugen reminded us again and again. Zuckerberg acknowledged in the announcement that the stewardship of the metaverse he was claiming on behalf of his company would call for “ecosystem-building, norm setting, new forms of governance,” measures for “privacy and safety … built in,” and a “strong digital economy for creators”: areas where Facebook has not heretofore distinguished itself. Lanier told Swisher that Zuckerberg’s appropriation of the metaverse “sounds like some megalomaniac took my stuff and filtered it through some weird self-aggrandizement filter.” But Zuckerberg’s move to sweep the metaverse under Facebook’s authority was more than swagger. As Lanier continued, referring to measures taken by Apple earlier this year to limit Facebook’s data-gathering within apps on its App Store:
I’m going to venture a guess that if Tim Cook hadn’t started to shut down Facebook’s access to free data, that Meta would never have happened. I think what Meta’s about is, we don’t own the peripheral device that gets the data in the current round. So in the future, we need to win the next device war so that we’ll be able to get the data. And, oh, it would be nice if we owned smart speakers and doorknobs or whatever, but Amazon got those. So let’s go for headsets. I think that’s what it’s ultimately about. It’s about the fact that you have to own the edge device to have your own power of making your cloud good or evil. And he wants to make it evil apparently, and so he needs to own a device and he currently doesn’t.

Indeed, Zuckerberg’s video is filled with references to nasty other models that sound a lot like the App Store (“today, much of what you buy on the internet is inside a single app”) and other non-Facebook products (you won’t be “peering into a little window” or “looking at a grid of faces on a screen” in Meta’s metaverse). The Meta Metaverse, by contrast, will be “interoperable,” will travel with you across platforms, meaning that Meta/Facebook can collect your data and advertise to you wherever you go. Zuckerberg’s many references to “free tools” and others’ “high fees” that are “stifling innovation” are meant to lull users into willingly surrendering their valuable data in return for Facebook’s paternalistic but invisible management of their only apparently limitless digital world. (Swisher: “You didn’t know you were selling your kidney but now it’s gone.”) By proposing to “maximize the overall creator economy” he is inviting users to surrender up their ideas, as they do on Facebook now, as raw material for the company to lather its advertising upon. Zuckerberg offered no plausible suggestion that the historic decision-making that had favored dangerous, algorithm-juicing content for its cash benefits to HQ would be mitigated. Obliviousness—or indifference—to the implications of technological change has been precisely formerly-Facebook’s m.o.

The efficacy and danger of allowing all-powerful companies to build proprietary devices to channel digital experiences are visible in an earlier form in Amazon’s Kindle. As Brad Stone described in his book The Everything Store, Jeff Bezos pulled out all the stops to develop a device that would become the default means for digital reading, and the software that envelopes Kindle content allows Amazon maximally to monetize content harbored therein, sheltering it, for example, from being archived for posterity in libraries. A kind of reductio ad absurdum of the exclusivity of a device is the NFT, or Non-Fungible Token, a digital artefact that is uniquely registered in coding known as the blockchain now being sold as a form of art and a unique repository of content. As a vehicle for ideas or art the NFT offers some benefits—the ability to create a work encoding different media, like visual images and language and music, the ability of an author to benefit from the work’s resale—and its contents may (or may not) be sharable outside the object. But in theory one wonders about the meaning of isolating works in technology that by definition walls them off from the rest of the culture and potentially renders them invisible to the future. If we begin to create and disseminate new forms of art and thought around these new means, as new technologies of distribution always invite us to do, what are the implications for access to our ideas of their being dependent for their very existence on a system, for instance, under the personal control of Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s majority shareholder?

Coming soon! Confessions of a Reluctant Book Reviewer
Ann Kjellberg talks with Padgett Powell, December 9
Virtually from Seminary Co-op. Learn more here

In contrast to Lanier’s and Hanke’s, Zuckerberg’s representation of the metaverse showed a slippery sense of relationship with reality: he spoke of the metaverse as “being in the experience, not just looking at it”; “instead of looking at a screen, you’ll be in those experiences”; “screens just can’t convey the full range of human expression and connection, they can’t deliver that deep feeling of presence, but the next version of the internet can.” But of course you are not “in” those experiences, you are not “in” the presence of other people. Your presence is an illusion, that can be manipulated. Meta developers noted that they do not yet have the technology to authenticate avatars; they also described mechanisms to change the hair and skin and clothes on your “photorealistic” representation, because, as Zuckerberg said, “You’re not always going to want to look exactly like yourself.” After my own year of lockdown I can imagine a situation in which I become increasingly reluctant to expose my undoctored self to the company of actual people. One thinks of the implications in a world of rampant discrimination.

Zuckerberg revealingly gave a personal example of the potential delights of the metaverse by engaging in an e-version of his own favorite hobby, surfing—but what is the point of surfing without the unpredictable presence of nature? He seemed to find no irony in the choice. At the end of the e-xcursion he underlined the falsity by riffing, “I’m going to need a lot more sunscreen.” No, actually, he’s not. It was almost a joke when the video dramatized a young person “joining,” virtually, her friend at a concert where Jon Batiste in a lamé jacket and club lighting was singing resoundingly, “Just tell the truth.”

In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which treated mostly the then-new innovations of photography and film, Water Benjamin considered how technical advances in the distribution of art had led “to a tremendous shattering of tradition,” an empowerment of mass motivations, a disappearance of the authority of the “authentic” in favor of an omnipresent, apparently real-time mediated experience. (He thought it, for the most part, a good thing.) This essay makes chilling reading alongside Zuckerberg’s video. In a widely circulated tweet, Shaan Puri proposed that the meaning of the multiverse would be become known to us not so much in space as in time: that as our forms of distribution become more frictionless and pervasive, they occupy more and more of our attention; when the glasses we wear to overlay augmented reality on the real reality are on our faces all day, and our attention to screens starts to occupy 90-plus percent of our time, that will be the metaverse. Benjamin: “The tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history … are mastered gradually by habit.” “The equipment-free aspect of reality,” in the recorded image, he wrote, “has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign,” he quoted the prescient Valéry. Re the pure ownership represented by the NFT: “The collector … always retains some traces of the fetishist … who, by owning the work of art, shares in its ritual power.” (“Anyone can see pictures on the internet of the most expensive artworks; posters are sold in museums,” an NFT gallerist told Wired. “But it’s the ownership that creates value.”)

Of politics, Benjamin wrote, the new technologies of distribution “make it possible for the orator to become audible and visible to an unlimited number of persons, the presentation of the man of politics before camera and recording equipment becomes paramount. Parliaments, as much as theaters, are deserted … This results in a new selection, a selection before the equipment from which the star and the dictator emerge victorious.” And, recalling both the paraphernalia of the metaverse and Facebook’s role in instigating violence, he quotes the Italian futurist F. T. Marinetti: “War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.” In Benjamin’s understanding, social change pressures technological change, which races ahead, sucking social change along it in its wake (“every fundamentally new, pioneering creation of demands will carry beyond its goal”). Certainly we know this sense of the technology outpacing our ability to assimilate it, creating a reality we do not know how to inhabit. In our time, the power to channel this awesome force, spinning the sinews of society, directing life and death, shaping the very language of expression, has been placed (by us) in the hands of very few people, the wrong ones, but there are not even right ones. Lanier advocated for systems that build in more modesty and room for organic presence: “I’m trying to argue against is this idea of self-certainty in engineering the future … I think what we need to do is remove the worst incentives, try to make the future easier for the people in the future to work with, and trust them.” One senses there a little real air for the expression of the future to breathe.

Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post, a newsletter-based book review delivery service, and occasional opiner therein.

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