On the Virtual

BY James Bridle

THEME LEADER National Gallery of Victoria

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

James Bridle on the essence of virtuality, merging it’s existence within the physical world.

In the summer of 1981, the writer William Gibson walked into a local electronics store in his hometown of Vancouver. On display was a device he had never seen before: a Sony Walkman, only recently available outside Japan. Despite its cost, Gibson purchased one immediately, and persuaded a friend to copy a Joy Division album for him, as he didn’t possess any cassettes himself. Suitably armed, he went for a walk around downtown, and discovered ‘the revolutionary intimacy of the interface. For the first time I was able to move my nervous system through a landscape with my choice of soundtrack’.1

Truly transformative technology enables something weird to happen at the boundary between the place we live in and the place where we think; between the body and the mind. Gibson’s second revelation happened – again, while wandering aimlessly around Vancouver in the post-punk years – when he stumbled upon a video arcade, another novel technology, even business, of the time. The kids inside were playing on stand-up plywood consoles, and the games themselves were primitive in style: one-dimensional graphics, heavily pixelated sprites. But Gibson saw that ‘the kids who were playing them were so physically involved, it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them — it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world’.2

Seeing an advert for an Apple IIc on a bus stop compounded the feeling. The then – new machine was so compact compared to what anyone understood as a computer at that time.

Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe.3

Gibson’s quest, as he later understood it, wasn’t merely for new experiences and new intuitions, but for a place in which to set his gestating fictions: an arena for tooling and testing out these interfaces. First appearing in the 1982 short story ‘Burning chrome’ and, most famously, in the 1984 novel Neuromancer, Gibson settled on the term that would come to define this arena: cyberspace. (‘I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow’4). But the idea of a ‘notional’ space still resonates, with its dual meaning of a space both imaginary and of the imagination, constantly on the point of collapse but never quite doing so. It was the metaphor that the time and the technology were calling for.

The internet, as a network of connected computers, built atop hardware, cabling, and protocols for load balancing, addressing and directing information, had been in development since the 1950s. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that it was capable of entering its most radical phase, becoming a vibrant domain not merely of knowledge, but of thought; not a mere repository of information, but a place where being and thinking could happen. And this being and thinking necessitated a series of metaphors such as Gibson’s cyberspatial imaginary – it called out for them. The technological virtual as we know it today needed, teleologically, the conceptual framing of cyberspace. Our technologies are first imagined, and then made.

If the cyberpunk imagination emancipated the digital virtual from its military-industrial origins, creating both a literary and an actual counterculture in the interstices of the network, it can equally be said that a grand failure of the imagination has allowed that possible utopia to slip away once again. The virtual is currently being unthought by capitalism, as digital networks become sites of consumerism, devices for the alienation of labour and for violent and unequal supply chains, and the vector for fundamentalist, chauvinist and nativist ideologies. The ‘A’ in ADSL stands for ‘asymmetric’: a network optimised for download, not for upload; not for sharing and learning, but for passive consumption. What was once an open, relatively public forum, is increasingly owned and operated by a few telecommunications, marketing and technology corporations: AT&T, Level 3, Liberty Global, Tata and Verizon; Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google.

As a result, it has become necessary to look more critically at the construction of this virtual space – at its industrial as well as its imaginative underpinnings. The internet is the built environment of the imagination, philosophical enquiry recast as heavy engineering, but the question of who owns and operates such an infrastructure remains no less crucial than it did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the work of critical geographers like Trevor Paglen, the built reality of virtual space is revealed through long-lens photography, sub-sea diving and cartography: a hazy infoscape of distant listening posts, entrenched littoral zones and data centres as fata morgana. Such investigations can also be performed within the virtual itself: the critical engineer Julian Oliver traces the colonial histories of contemporary networks through a process of interrogation and disruption, sending pings through undersea cables to sound out the shape of fibre-optic installations that reproduce the shipping corridors of older empires. In this way, we see one of the many ways in which the physical recuperates the virtual, closing down the open spaces of the imagination and subverting them for corporate and political gain. Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York (2016) bridges these domains at a more human scale, scouring the manhole coverings and pavement markings of the city for clues as to where the information flows; it is a field guide for seeing the physical traces of the virtual world. Beneath the paving stones, the virtual world moves and speaks.

Two further works of speculative fiction come to mind when considering the virtual as a space in which the physical understands such a thing: China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and the Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. In Miéville’s detective novel, a murder takes place in one part of a divided city, where the inhabitants of one zone are forbidden from travelling to, or even acknowledging the existence of, the other. For some, this is easy: their neighbourhood is remote, well separated by geography from the others. But some neighbourhoods are cross-hatched; that is, the two separate zones literally overlay one another, with some shops or houses on a single street belonging to one zone and some to the other, and the street itself a contested, entangled area. By law, custom and habit, the inhabitants of each zone ‘unsee’ one another, unrecognising the other by their style of dress, the vernacular of their architecture, even their gait. Only certain detectives, after rigorous training, and in possession of the secretive powers that govern the municipality, are capable of operating across the city’s cognitive border. So it is, in one way, that we perceive the virtual as a space irrevocably entangled with our own, which we see and unsee according to our capability to understand. In Stross’s fantasy, it is revealed that there exist numerous, perhaps infinite, parallel universes, coincident in geography but differing in evolution. One world is the Earth we know, the others fork off at different points in history: in one, a resurgent British Empire rules North America, another never escaped the Middle Ages, while in another again the Earth never formed from cosmic dust, leaving a void of empty space. After various battles and events, one outcome is that parallel timelines become resources for modern earth to exploit and plunder, carrying over vast quantities of fossil fuels to replenish our dwindling reserves – carbon offsetting on a multiversal scale, a delaying tactic but no less futile for its ambition.

This urge to concretise the virtual so that we may better understand and act within and in response to it might also be our undoing. We cannot simply replace one totalising politics with another and hope it will treat us better – or lead to better understanding. Both of these approaches – the corporate and the critical – tend to treat the virtual as a coal seam in another world; a repository of meaning which, with sufficient handling and landscaping, or theorising and protest, may be turned to productive use, whether as energy or inspiration. Both are informationally reductive, as if the virtual were merely a vast instruction manual or library of other people’s knowledges, waiting to be strip mined by the physical world, rather than its own domain of thought and experience. Making the virtual tangible is certainly one way to make it comprehensible to those who have no other way of speaking of the noumenal, but it is insufficient; rather, we need to reach backwards and forwards to reveal other ways of speaking of its otherness.

Some time in the latter half of the fourteenth century, someone in England, probably a priest or monk but whose identity is unknown, set down a text which has come down to us via manuscripts in various ancient libraries as The Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud is a book of prayer: it advises the reader to seek God not through knowledge and knowing, but through contemplation stripped of all thought, for the God that can be known is not God, for God is unknowable:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.5

This approach is known as negative theology, or the via negativa: it attempts to approach God, the unknowable, only through what cannot be known, by speaking only about what cannot be said. It is a tradition as old as philosophy itself, but with the demise of established religion, the retreat of theology and the (mostly entirely justified) rejection of hieratic and hierarchical systems of knowledge, its ways of (un)knowing have largely been forgotten. Instead, they have been replaced by computational systems of knowing: proofs by work and example, big data and fundamentalist assertions of individual truth. Technology is seen not as a tool for asking questions, but an answer in itself; the way things are, the correctly computed solution. In time, this solutionism collapses on itself: the answer is defined by the ease of its calculation, and the most efficient and friction-free solution is the most correct. How far we have fallen from the struggle to pierce the cloud of forgetting.

Today we live under, and within, another cloud – the worldwide network of networks, the virtual world, the world entangled with our world. And yet we seem to know ever less of it, to be able to speak ever less of it. Ask anyone how the postal service works, and you’ll get a straightforward answer. Ask, instead, for a coherent description of email or any of the myriad digital communications systems on which our daily lives, finances, health care and societies depend, and for all but a skilled minority such confidence evaporates. This is an unknowing, too, a dark cloud that spatial and political metaphors attempt to enlighten. But the kind of unknowing spoken, thought and practised in association with the contemporary cloud is rarely, if ever, the contemplative, apophatic unknowing of the mystic tradition; rather, it is a careless, thoughtless unknowing, the cloud of ignorance and isolation, the refusal to acknowledge or engage with the contemporary, everyday mystery of how the world functions. Presented with the vast range of information, the competing narratives and sharded opinions, the million differing accounts and events available to us through the network, we fall prey once again to a reductive insistence upon objective truth: this narrative, this opinion, this account, this event. It’s easier and safer than an active, questioning unknowing: an acknowledgement of the concurrency, complexity, paradox and confusion of the world as it actually is; a world that cannot be known, only experienced.

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘On exactitude in science’, the Cartographers Guild of an unknown empire creates a map of such extraordinary accuracy that it coincided exactly with the empire itself: a 1:1 rendering of the territory. The map, in fact, literally covered the whole empire, but was regarded by subsequent generations as useless and pitiless, and it fell into disuse:

they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.6

Borges’s story is a satire on the relationship between an object and its representation: the map is an absurdity, yet through our technologies we continually attempt to bring it into being, and through computational thinking we continually attempt to uncover a useless and pitiless map. This is a perversion of the virtual; an attempt to nail it down, instead of exploding through it.

The network, the virtual space, opens up new ways of thinking and being born not of knowing but of experience: it makes them, perversely, real and undeniable, if they are acknowledged. Even while a corporate clampdown on the imagination attempts to make stable ground of uncertain noumenal space, it fails against the lived reality of individual experience. In 2014, Facebook – the ultimate debaser of lived experience through databasing – was forced to concede that its digital binaries could not adequately express the convolutions of identity. The duality of male and female that users were expected to classify themselves into were, in consultation with gay and transgender advocates, broken into some fifty categories, which included functional descriptors such as ‘female to male’ and ‘cis’, recent coinages such as ‘genderqueer’ and ‘neutrois’, and more ancient terms such as ‘two-spirit’, an appellation of choice for certain indigenous North Americans which brings with it a weight of historical and spiritual discourse and argument. The irony of including many such intentionally queering terms as systemic labels remains; the potentially more resistant options of ‘other’ and ‘neither’ are included in the list. The virtual, by its nature, queers our understanding of the world, because the world is queer, and cannot be contained by fixed systems of knowing. The more we totalise, the more we fall apart.

Technology is reified desire, and cyberspace, the digital virtual, is the reification of the domain of desire; the place of the imagination. Thought this way around, we might realise that while space is a poor metaphor for the virtual, the virtual becomes an excellent metaphor for space. The physical world is bound on fewer sides than we believe; other worlds are possible. In attempting to map the virtual, we map ourselves, and find that we contain multitudes. This, then, is the connection between the digital virtual and the mystic virtual, originating in the Latin virtus, which connotes virtue, goodness; courage and resoluteness. (Although it’s also vir – ‘manliness’ – proof, if more proof were needed, that all our language is tainted at the source.) The digital virtual network, the internet, is an unconsciously generated tool for unconscious generation; the virtual, both technological and mystical, is a tool for thinking the world, and thinking it into being.

Today, we believe too much in the real, when the real insists at all times on its own virtuality. The highest quality of the virtual is its immanence; the immediate realm of infinite possibility, of wild speculation constantly becoming in the real. The theorist and ethicist Karen Barad, using the language of experimental physics, talks about immanence as diffraction – the interference patterns caused by the entanglement of matter and meaning. Just as the electron, shot through a grating in the gedanken (thought) experiments of Einstein and Bohr, produces different patterns on a screen depending on whether it is observed, so are we capable of manipulating the world through our intercessions in the virtual. The real exists, and the virtual exists, and we can propose in both, and speculate, and wildly surmise, and pray and ask questions in both. Art – image-making, coding, writing, telling – is the process of thinking through which we immanentise the virtual; it is the thought that makes the world.

James Bridle is a British artist and writer based in Athens, Greece. His artworks and installations have been exhibited in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia, and have been viewed by hundreds of thousands visitors online. He has been commissioned by organisations including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Barbican, Artangel, the Oslo Architecture Triennale, the Istanbul Design Biennial, and been honoured by Ars Electronica, the Japan Media Arts Festival, and the Design Museum, London. His writing on literature, culture and networks has appeared in magazines and newspapers including Frieze, Wired, Domus, Cabinet, the Atlantic, the New Statesman, and many others, in print and online, and he has written a regular column for the Observer. His formulation of the New Aesthetic research project has spurred debate and creative work across multiple disciplines, and continues to inspire critical and artistic responses. He lectures regularly on radio, at conferences, universities, and other events, including SXSW, Lift, the Global Art Forum, Re:Publica and TED. He was been a resident at Lighthouse, Brighton, the White Building, London, and Eyebeam, New York, and an Adjunct Professor on the Interactive Telecommunications Programme at New York University. His work can be found at