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    bruce sterling answers my questions about atemporality and social networks
    Project: Polytopia

    dear bruce [sterling],

    The reason for this interview is that during Early Atemporality - the posthistorical or ahistorical period you suggest we are living in - 'we are struggling with what it means and how it’s different from post-modernism'. Since you are one of the main proponents of this concept, your help in clarifying what it means is greatly appreciated. I suspect that previous versions of your ideas about atemporality might have been lurking in many of your works as a novelist, a top example being The Difference Engine. This novel hints on atemporal features of cultural evolution. William Gibson has said that 'one of the impulses that led to The Difference Engine was a sense Bruce Sterling and I had of the Industrial Revolution having been a far deeper and more intense shift than we ordinarily, culturally, give it credit for having been'.

    renata - Was atemporality already present at the time of the Industrial Revolution as a cultural phenomenon? If so, how does it differ from the atemporality which is based on contemporary network culture?

    bruces - *I wouldn't say that the Industrial Revolution had "atemporality." The Industrial Revolution was extremely keen on synchronization, on accurate railroad schedules, on time-zones for telegraphy. A conceptual disruption in timekeeping such as Einstein's relativity was decades ahead of them.

    *There were certainly episodes in the Industrial Revolution when people were agitated about time and space — for instance, anxiety about the disorienting speed of rail travel. However, they had firm ideas about historical development, especially compared to us. A network of the kinds we have today doesn't behave with the comprehensive mechanical timing of a railroad. We have to face new atemporal anxieties, such as the spasms and crashes of microsecond stock-trading, where it's literally impossible to determine what electronic event had strict temporal priority.

    renata - Your ideas on atemporality have ignited interesting commentaries, such as Kazys Varnelis's:

    If any observation about history defines our time, it's science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling's conclusion that network culture produces a form of historical consciousness marked by atemporality. By this, Sterling means that having obtained near-total instant access to information, our desire and ability to situate ourselves within any kind of broader historical structure have dissipated. The temporal compression caused by globalization and networking technologies, together with an accelerating capitalism, has intensified the ahistorical qualities of modernism and postmodernism, producing the atemporality of network culture - Kazys Varnelis

    Is your understanding of atemporality conditioned to the 'temporal compression caused by globalization and networking technologies', as Varnellis suggested?

    bruces - *The time compression is certainly part of the issue, but there are also time extensions in network culture. For instance, what is the difference between "the year 1955" and "the year 1955 as revealed to me by a Google Search"? Analog remnants of 1955 tend to be marred by entropy, but digitized clips of 1955 will load with same briskness and efficiency of digital clips from 1965, 1975, 1985 and so forth. In this situation, our relationship to history feels extended rather than compressed, because data from the past feels just as accessible as data generated yesterday. If you are re-using this material to create contemporary cultural artifacts, you don't just get "compression," you also get a skeuomorphism, a temporal creole — a Brazilian anthropophagy when all the decades are in one software stew-pot.

    renata - Is atemporality simply "a form of historical consciousness" produced by network culture?

    bruces - *I wouldn't call that process "simple." Also, the network culture we have now is temporary. With that said, it would be very hard to be or feel atemporal with only analog technology.

    *The network is required, although the network is not "consciousness," it's a variegated set of devices and services embedded in culture and transforming culture.

    *By talking about "atemporality," I'm arguing that the ways that cultures form historical consciousness are bound up in the ways that cultures access information — the ways we reason and argue about history and futurity. When one uses grand terms such as "history" and "consciousness," that suggests that people can touch absolute timeless realities outside the ways that human beings test and discuss history and consciousness. We might indeed have numinous, wordless encouters with reality, but we can't make them part of our culture unless we convey them to one another, and those methods of conveyance have been scrambled radically. We are still naive about some of those effects.

    *So, what's reality? I'm inclined to say that "history" would exist if Homo sapiens had never existed, and that there are potential forms of "consciousness" that aren't human. But, whatever those real things may be, we human beings never fully conquered metaphysics with ink on paper. Now we're losing ink on paper. So, why do we still pretend that our expressions about these things are stable, or timeless? They're no more stable than the artifacts by which we learn about them and promulgate them.

    *Ancient Egyptians had a "historical consciousness," but there were centuries when their hieroglyph writings were in full view, and no one had the least idea what they were saying. So Egyptian historical consciousness is not permanent, it's a very historically-contingent thing; sometimes it's there, and far more often it isn't.

    renata - Atemporality as 'a problem in the philosophy of history’, according to your definition, is a subjective experience dependent on technologically-mediated grounds of perception - or - is it an objective, all-encompassing dimension which has real existence outside perception? In any case, how do you see time in relation to technology; more specifically time in relation to social technologies?

    bruces - *I love that question. "Is reality really atemporal?" Being a science fiction writer, I always like to collect suggestions that space-time is not as we expect.

    *I wouldn't be so arrogant as to say that we human beings grasp the "objective, all-encompassing dimension that has real existence outside perception." Just for one instance: if matter and energy as we experience it is just four percent of a universe that is ninety-six percent Dark Matter and Dark Energy (as modern cosmology suggests), does it really behoove us to swan around making a lot of absolutist declarations about our subjective experiences? Maybe a proper metaphysical modesty is in order here.

    *With that said, I think that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is as firm a "law" as mankind is going to encounter. The passage of time is not a suggestion; time really passes, the days of your mortal lifetime do not return once they pass. If the passage of time was somehow arbitrary, then one would expect to see measurable effects on everyday physics, such as eggs unscrambling themselves, flowing water running uphill, and so forth. I frankly don't expect to ever witness even one of those. Atemporality is about our human, cultural apprehensions and expectations of time; it doesn't refute the laws of cause and effect.

    renata - Is the atemporal the realm of extreme multi-temporality or the realm of extreme connection via social media?

    bruces - *They're by no means "extreme" compared to what's coming. We just valorie them because they are part of our own unique experience nowadays. One tires of this corny new-media rhetoric when things are always named "extreme, mega, hyper, ultra." Of course they are extreme, but not for long.

    renata - You also say that network culture 'really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from [...] it means the end of post-modernism'. How is it different from, or how does it relate to, Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition?

    bruces - *Well, try to imagine a world where "atemporality" comes first, and then Lyotard writes "The Postmodern Condition." Culture wouldn't work that way, it's not possible.

    renata - You have written extensively on the New Aesthetics. Are there any atemporal attributes embedded into this movement? Is NA the aesthetics of atemporality?

    bruces - *Having seen many examples of the New Aesthetics, I feel confident now that there is a worldview waiting *beyond* atemporality. I said that atemporality was a temporary cultural point of view that would last about a decade. I still don't quite know what comes next, but I feel confident that my judgement there is about right. In the year 2022, "atemporality" will look-and-feel visibly old-fashioned. "Network society" will also be transformed. Not that it is refuted, or "wrong" — it's just that people will feel, "yes, life was indeed like that for a while, but then something else important happened, and now things look and feel quite different in some specific, identifiable way."

    renata - Is design an atemporal practice? Is there a specific kind of design practice which is conducive to atemporality?

    bruces - *Yes, I'd say that the Modernist search for timeless design solutions is sojourn opposed to temporality. So is the cultural conservatism of Arts and Crafts design. Atemporal design is marked by contemporary practices like mash-ups, collective intelligence, peer-to-peer production, re-usable software components, "favela chic" — I could go on, and I suppose that I will have to.


    p.s. dear bruces, please do go on. best, renata

    ( edit / delete )  Tue, Oct 16, 2012  Permanent link
    Categories: atemporal, post-modern, social networks, design
    Sent to project: Polytopia
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