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<nettime> Art and cell phones or the social networking environment
Andres Manniste on Sat, 29 Mar 2008 05:05:33 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Art and cell phones or the social networking environment


When compared to a decade ago, the Internet appears to be increasingly 
homogenous but it has also evolved. Social networks, designed to be 
practical rather than aesthetic, function in a manner similar to cell 
phones. Although young people are initially attracted by a graphic user 
interface, they rapidly adapt to network architecture due to a 
familiarity with diverse technologies. Social networks work because they 
allow an idealized content that can be easily accessed. I am interested 
in these networks because they provide an interesting social and 
cultural matrix for art making. They are narcissistic by nature because 
they are a mirror of the user and for the same reason, social networking 
is fundamentally ontological.

Cell phones are restricted in some places because they are seen as 
telephones. In fact, a cell phone is a multi-purpose device 
fundamentally different from a telephone. With its technology, the user 
can establish a network presence. Where I work, cell phones have been 
formally banned from studios and classrooms. The idea is not unique, 
with movie theatres, museums and concert venues regulating the 
appropriateness of such devices. A majority of my colleagues supported 
this rule because they thought that students were using telephones 
during lectures (which I had always understood as an impolite reflection 
on my ability as a teacher). My students of course, immediately 
responded to the regulation by creating a network project that required 
the presence of cell phones in the classroom.

"Not getting it" seems to stem from a reactionary posture rather than 
from ignorance. To me there is a difference between having knowledge and 
"getting it". It is the distinction between understanding and realising. 
I have colleagues who, despite considerable instruction, still have 
trouble with using email. The problem is not about ignorance but in 
their difficulty adapting an accumulated body of knowledge to the larger 
scale of a new situation.

I think that I once assumed that a cell phone was a telephone. I had 
difficulty understanding the need to communicate so often and apparently 
superficially. I found it difficult to accept the transformation of the 
notion of the privacy of a telephone call into the public display of a 
mobile call. Of course, it is not a telephone although the device can be 
used for voice communication. The cell phone is also a multi-purpose 
computer, a game console, a still and video camera, an email system, a 
text messenger, a carrier of entertainment and business data but most 
importantly, the cell phone is a portable network node. What I saw as 
unnecessary calls and text messages were simply "Pings". A Ping or an 
echo request is a network program that allows a user to verify that a 
particular address exists and is operating -- simply a method to get the 
attention of another party online. The cell phone is an immensely 
significant social and cultural phenomenon because through it users have 
already adapted to the architecture of the network.

Artist and theorist Olia Lialina 
(http://www.contemporary-home-computing.org/vernacular-web-2/) noted a 
certain presence and alchemy in amateur web pages that is lacking in an 
increasingly homogenous interface. Lialina speaks of the loss of 
naivete, adding that in a commercial context, it is easier to create and 
market an established model that tends to mimic the look of other media 
such as print, television or cinema.

The interface of the Internet appears to be increasingly homogenous but 
this also means that it has evolved. Social networks, designed to be 
practical rather than aesthetic, function in a manner similar to cell 
phones. I think that the Internet interface looks different from 
classical homepages because it is not the same thing. Inherent within 
the coding of a personal web page, is the ability to create a unique 
graphic user interface (GUI). The individual determines the aesthetics 
and the content. A classical home page is a public portal that gives 
access to private communication not unlike a telephone. In proprietary 
GUIs (like "Google" or "Neopets") or social networks (like "Facebook", 
"Orkut" or "Myspace"), the webpages are being used like cell phones, 
where privacy might be incidental to the desire to have a presence. 
Social networking providers offer a sparse aesthetic, often relying on 
text or a limited choice of designs but they also have more practical 
objectives that include pathways that communications technologists work 
in for commercial interests. I believe that what is happening, 
especially through social networks, is an evolution similar to the 
transformation of the telephone to the cell phone.

Young people are initially attracted to the Internet through the graphic 
user interface but once they understand some elementary code, they begin 
to see the network as a structure. In my experience, when I teach about 
art on the Internet, I find that my students go through three stages of 
understanding. First, I spend a lot of time discussing the GUI because 
the GUI is overwhelming. Because it is everywhere, it is the way that 
young people learn how to see things. They are used to television, used 
to movies, used to a piece of paper, so when they actually look at a 
computer it is a great abstraction for them to imagine that what they 
see on the screen is a set of co-ordinates. That takes a while to get 
across to them. Then I tiptoe into simple programming, a little html, 
some animation, and some things that seem magical. When they begin to 
understand programs through making webpages and trying out small 
scripts, they almost automatically jump into a "getting it" realization 
of the nature of Internet-based art. I am of a generation that saw 
computers as impressive hardware, equipment and gadgets to be mastered. 
The young people that I see understand computers as electronic networks. 
They were born into cell phones, iPods and the Network.

Social networks are attractive because they allow the user to specify an 
idealized content that can be accessed at leisure by both the client and 
the server. I am especially interested in the conceptual structure of a 
social network for art making because it can provide considerable access 
to a wide range of people. The only practical guideline for working on 
the Internet has been to make things that you are willing to make 
public. This is especially true for social networks that are meant for 
fun and not high security. On a social network, I am less motivated to 
tell the world about myself (as I might through my artwork) than I am at 
specifying what I wish the world to know about myself. In this sense, it 
is very narcissistic. I collect friends and information and in a manner 
similar to the cell phone, I can choose when to connect or whether I am 
simply verifying a node. Social networks are "pinging" at a new level of 
sophistication. Features allow me to discreetly find out what happens or 
who is on-line at the same time as I am.

What interests me about making art on or with social networks appears to 
be related to the conceptual shape of a network with its nodes and 
gathering points. When I look at social networks, I am less interested 
in particular servers or code algorithms than I am in the emerging 
appearance (phasis) of electronic communication. Social networking is no 
less ephemeral than the flesh and blood kind, so I do not expect any one 
network to endure indefinitely. The mutability of technology means that 
there will inevitably be other things. I have however noticed slight 
anomalies that I might associate with art making in the otherwise smooth 
fabric of proprietary interfaces. I realise that there is some interest 
in writing applications for "Facebook" or creating phantom avatars, but 
to me the social network is primarily a cultural model that can be 
applied to understanding who we are. This is already evident in the 
emergence of hierarchical posturing in friend lists and the presence of 
imaginary people or vague social causes that have to be distinguished 
from flesh and blood people and serious interest groups. On the other 
hand, social access to 100 million people is something that cannot 
easily be ignored by an artist and there is an aesthetic here, where one 
can work outside of corporate sponsorship, art world management or 
commercial bias.

Social networks are narcissistic by nature because they act as a mirror 
for the user. For this reason, social networking technology is 
ontological. They are less about transmitting information than using the 
architecture of the network to establish an ontology. When I look at a 
1024 X 768 pixel computer screen, it provides me a GUI that is really 
quite standard. On this screen, I might be looking at some erudite web 
page addressing some obscure philosophy or I might be amusing myself 
with something very silly, but it is all delivered through the same 
interface. However, the process of looking at the screen, over time, 
reflects who I am. Servers have been specifically created to this 
purpose, for example, "Del.icio.us", a social bookmarking service or 
"Twitter" for text messages. In the reflection that I see on the 
monitor, I begin to construct an idea of my self, which has always been 
a very difficult thing anyone, since no human can perceive his or her 
face. I can see a reflection of my face or rely on my belief system to 
compare my face with others, but as the Philosopher Julia Kristeva 
(1983) mentions, in her discussion of "Narcissus", the reflection of a 
face does not tell you what you look like but rather it tells you that 
you are as ephemeral as the reflection itself. So why does someone look 
at "Facebook"? I think that at the present it is less entertainment than 
a reflecting mirror. This image helps to understand who I am and what I 
am at an existential level. This is what interests me about the Internet 
at this moment. As an artist I find that social networking technology is 
ontological. As the corollary to Lyotard's (1979) notion of obsolescence 
suggests: all things that are translated into computer code are of 
primary importance because they will ultimately determine the shape of 
culture.

Kristeva, Julia (1983) "Histoires d'amour". Editions Paris: Denöel 
(Folio essais). p.133.
Lyotard, Jean-François. (1979). "La Condition postmoderne". Paris: Aux 
Éditions de Minuit. p. 13.


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