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<nettime> bruce sterling: atemporality and social networks.
nettime's avid reader on Fri, 19 Oct 2012 20:48:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> bruce sterling: atemporality and social networks.


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

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

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
rethe alm 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-Fran?ois
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

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

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