“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal
The algorithmic system extends the significance of those categories beyond specific contingent contexts into the sorts of situations that can occur anywhere at anytime online, even without human presence — discrimination occurs whenever the database is queried, with systems generating what Cheney-Lippold calls “just-in-time identities … made, ad hoc.” They project hierarchical interpretations of categories into scenarios where it might not even occur to human agents to discriminate. There is nothing, for example, to stop online retailers from exercising price discrimination based on who knows what basis. One can imagine banks or real estate agents operating on similar lines, where the representatives themselves can’t explain why certain candidates have been turned down. (Frank Pasquale details this sort of “black-box scoring” in The Black Box Society.)
According to the common story about our fall into postmodernity, being yourself has become hard work. Once, people were born into relatively stable situations in which identity was prescribed based on where one was born and to whom. There was little choice in the matter of what sort of life one would lead, and little social or geographical mobility. The social categories — class, gender, ethnicity, religion — that determined the possibilities for one’s life were essentially fixed, as were the way those categories were defined. But then industrialization and the advent of mass media scuttled those categories over time and rendered social norms more fluid and malleable. Identity was no longer assigned but became a project for individuals to realize. It became an opportunity and a responsibility, a burden. You could now fail to become someone. Some sociologists and psychologists label this condition “ontological insecurity.” In The Divided Self, R.D. Laing defines it as when one lacks “the experience of his own temporal continuity” and does not have “an overriding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness.” Without this stable sense of self, Laing argues, every interaction threatens to overwhelm the individual with the fear of losing oneself in the other or of being obliterated by their indifference. “He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable,” Laing writes of the ontologically insecure. “And he may feel his self as partially forced from his body.”
What is a line?
In the world, a line is a horizon, a wave in an ocean, a strand of hair, an eyebrow, a surface of a wall, the edge of a house. A line is also a ditch, a gouge, a conveyor of things.
What is a line in a digital world? An approximation of the real world, or it’s own entity?
In the digital world, a line is a series of points, of vertices expressed by a series of 3 numbers. Why 3? A cartesian explanation of space, left to right, front to back. A contrivance, a construct to explain eyebrows and ditches, trajectories, movement, waves. We can add these lines together, make meshes and do things to them to approximate; to make the illusion of waves, hair and surfaces.
Now the softwares have matured, developed far past its origins. Cyber lines and resulting surfaces so quickly animate beyond our ability to break them down, back to their original and simple-seeming points in space.
How can I absorb these constructs, understand them better in order to evaluate whether I have something different to offer? How can I understand our increasingly digitized and in may ways sterilized cyborg visual world in order to connect it back to its roots? For myself, for others? Can I offer a path for learning and understanding digitality that is more artistic, specifically one more connected to computer vision and the ways the softwares are constructed?
I have gouged lines in linoleum, I have iterated through digital processes in manual, analog form. As I iterate, I absorb the algorithm. I see both its sterility but also its authors’ thought processes.
Sterility, or formality. The need for rigidity, stability, repetition so that we can rely on these algorithms to do as expected. A tree grows like a tree. Every time. A computer vision edge-detection algorithm must find that line every time. We need stability.
We also need flexibility. Where is the flexibility in these algorithms? Perhaps there cannot be any or otherwise the digital processes fail to function as expected. What then? Where is the satisfactory feeling of gouging that line into linoleum, or tracing a teapot shadow on canvas?
Perhaps for me, it comes down to this:
How am I like a machine? How am I different?
Do I value rules? When?
How can I be a performative, cyborgian line maker?
Cyborgian but with a variation: I am not trying to get the machine to draw like me, but I am trying to get to the point where I understand what it’s like to draw as a machine.