Materializing the Network

There’s a good front-page story in The New York Times today about data centers and power usage that I think contributes to the ongoing process of materializing the network in the public consciousness. The story engages in some useful fact-corralling–for example about the serious environmental impact of having roughly 10% utilization in most cases, so that 90% of a typical center’s humming, hot servers are drawing power from the grid and doing nothing most of the time. In the U.S. during 2010, these huge data centers consumed around 76 billion kilowatt-hours, about 2 percent of the total electricity used. “Worldwide, the digital warehouse use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants . . . . ” And the banks of diesel generators required for backup power are notable polluters, even when they’re only being regularly fired up for testing purposes. “Of all the things the Internet was expected to become,” the story points out, “it is safe to say that a seed for the proliferation of backup diesel generators was not one of them.”

Interestingly, the article gives these facts a cultural context, connecting them to what it calls the “mythology” of the Internet, “where lives are lived in the ‘virtual’ world and all manner of memory is stored in “‘the cloud’,” and it bluntly observes that the “physical realities of data” are very different from that mythology. Average users, even some power users, it suggests, have little or no sense of the physical dimension of the network, “no sense that data is [sic] physical or that storing it uses up space and energy.” This is the same perception gap that provided the occasion for the very good recent book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet by Andrew Blum, Tubes.

On the other hand, Blum’s book and this article can be seen as among the signs that the older “mythology” (or ideology) of the virtual and the immaterial is beginning to break up, like a cloud dispersing a bit, however unevenly.

Ignorance certainly persists, but the Times article may I think sell people short. They may not always remember, precisely, that the cloud requires cooling systems and generators and hard drives in a warehouses in Virginia or Illinois, but most people are dimly aware of these facts. Stories like this are crucial for creating environmental awareness, but they depend on the pre-existing conditions of the eversion. People are increasingly being made aware, in sometimes small and symbolic ways, of the physical (and monetary) dimension of data and the network that gathers and transmits it, starting on a mundane scale with knowing where the dead zones are around their home or place of business, moving around to look for “more bars” when accessing the cellular network, or monitoring their own or the family’s data plans from wireless carriers, and extending to the recent artistic interest in digital-to-physical glitches and other manifestations of the limits of the data flow. The Times article itself is another marker of the increasing public awareness of the materialities behind the mythology of the Internet.

Skylanders and the Semiotics of Eversion

There may be no better illustration of the eversion of the network we’re all living through right now than a kids’ game (and the best-selling videogame of the past year): Activision’s Skylanders. Collectible toys, plastic cartoony action figures, “come to life” inside the game when you place them on the Portal of Power, a small round glowing platform.


The action figure glows, the portal glows, and the character beams into the game moving and talking and fully playable, ready to go. You swap out the toy on the portal for another, and it appears. It’s a neat trick, but when you look a little deeper into the development of the game and get over the stigma attached to toys, there’s a lot more going on. As Roland Barthes said 55 years ago (though he was talking specifically about French toys): “toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life . . . ” (Mythologies, 53).

Barthes would have hated Skylanders, I imagine, since he railed against the “bourgeois” significance of plastics, “graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature” (54). The game’s action figures are the direct result of the spread of 3D printing and the resultant ability of a small shop to design objects in software that are then turned into physical objects. Barthes ends his brief essay sounding like a grumpy old man, with a nostalgic panegyric to wooden toys. Modern plastic toys, he says, “die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child” (55).

Skylanders might stand as a refutation of this conclusion, since the game can be read semiotically as an exploration of the imaginative life of objects in transit between physical and digital worlds (and back again). As the backstory motto goes, “frozen on the outside, alive on the inside!” The action figures are meant to be imagined as in suspended animation, their vitality stored as data on RFID chips to be brought to life in the digital game world. Every time someone puts a little plastic statue on the glowing portal and it appears, animated, inside the game, the process recapitulates in reverse the way that very figure’s prototype, at least, was produced: from drawings on paper and in a computer to a physical object hot off the printer. Besides the 3D printer–which is a kind of portal of power for everting digital objects–Skylanders development depended on various wireless and hardwired communication channels, RFID and USB, for example (the Portal platform conceals a circular copper wire that serves as a radio antenna). It was inspired by and prototyped using Nintendo’s WiiMote, which had already begun to imagine the game system as a network of devices, and to configure physical space as a place for hybrid digital and physical gaming. The developers at Toys for Bob are clearly part of the Maker subculture. They used Adafruit’s easy-to-program, small Arduino boards and LEDs to prototype the Portal of Power. Like the Wii, Skylanders imagines itself as a distributed system in physical space–a constellation of small portable processors and sensors–that mirrors the inversion of the network as a whole.  But Skylanders is more far-flung than the Wii, cross-platform in significant ways, making the game feel to players like it’s happening out in the world, rather than being trapped in DVD or on a console or on the screen. Each action figure carries its updated stats with it, so that it can be taken across town and brought to life in a friend’s game, for example, or can travel from the Xbox or Wii or PC to the handheld 3DS to an online gameworld (Skylanders Universe) accessible from any computer.

If, as Barthes said, toys “prefigure the world of adult functions” (53), then the semiotics of Skylanders suggests a world in which the normal relationship to the network and its data takes the form of repeated easy transit back and forth across a porous boundary between the physical and the digital in mixed-reality spaces.

QR-encoded desire to communicate

QR code on truck

What is this? Yet another QR code that links to a website, but which has to be accompanied by instructions, in this case in the form of a pictogram that (apparently) says “scan using your cellphone’s radio waves.” Yes, I know, like other pictograms, it’s meant to be ergonomically efficient, a faster way to communicate (“dispose of trash here” or “don’t walk!”). But for whom is this glyph + QR code intended? It looks a little like the Pioneer spacecraft icons that Carl Sagan helped develop in the 1970s for communicating with aliens, etched plates with line drawings that “said” something like “male and female humans on the third planet from the Sun,” sent to eldritch Others who would be capable of decoding the semiotics of the images. But the QR code is encoded data, encrypted for transmission. When it’s included with the image, the example above is reminiscent of the related Arecibo message, which was also beamed out into space, but in the form of a binary string to be decoded into a pixelated pictogram saying the same sort of thing: “We are Earthlings.” In a sense, that is what QR codes like this are doing: beaming out encoded messages to unknown but nominally intelligent life out there on the streets–somebody with a cellphone who can scan with it and thus link the van to the less terrestrial realm of digital data (in this case, just a website).

Unlike the subtle artistic gestures and reified metaphors associated with the New Aesthetic, the much-maligned QR codes are useful precisely because they are so crude, because they so nakedly reveal the gesture of connecting data with the physical world, in fact reveal the desire to make that gesture. The New Aesthetic includes glitches as revealing signs of the eruption of the digital into the physical world. QR codes like this one are visible glitches in the process of eversion itself. Sometimes they’re nothing more than glitches, nothing more than failed gestures. But they’re everywhere, reminding us of what’s at the heart of the metaphor of eruption: the process of encoding/decoding. The QR code + pictogram above may also encode an anxiety about the acts of translation involved in this process–from digital to physical to digital again. That process, with that anxiety, is the point, the semiotic meaning of the image, not the ostensible goal of getting someone who is parked behind the van at a stoplight to point their cellphone at the image in order to open the company website. These codes often feel like someone hopes to communicate with invisible, unknown intelligences out there somewhere in the ether–in the digital realm.

Agrippa, the Eversion of Cyberspace, and Games

The Oxonian Review has just published today an interview with Kevin Begos, the publisher behind the experimental multimedia artist’s book and transmedia happening, Agrippa (1992). Agrippa the work included at its center a poem, “Agrippa,” by William Gibson, which appeared ten years after Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” The poem was found on a floppy disk physically embedded in the book, and the text of the poem famously encrypted itself as it was read, disappearing as it scrolled down the screen for the first and last time.

(from The Agrippa Files)

Except that the text of the poem was very quickly released into the wild, out on the Internet, and remains available in various versions to this day, as documented and thoroughly analyzed by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his brilliant book, Mechanisms (the book takes its title from Gibson’s poem), and on The Agrippa Files website on which he collaborated with Alan Liu and others, a good example of what Peter Shillingsburg has called a “knowledge site,” a kind of collaborative, multimedia archive of the larger work that is Agrippa.

Back in the 1990s, the work was represented by many as a paradigmatic example of the immaterial, disembodied nature of the network and its hacker elite–a text that appeared to literally dissolve into thin air! It took Kirschenbaum’s forensic and materialist textual analysis to reveal that it was actually something very different, a prime example of multiply material textuality in the digital age.

I would add that Agrippa as a work–digital poem, physical book including artwork, performance and “transmission,” afterlife on the Internet–is the far-flung network it spawned, something like a distributed game of meaning, a view that would seem to be supported by remarks made by Begos and his interviewer, Courtney Traub, in today’s piece.

Begos: . . . I doubt that there would be any publisher ready to experiment with such innovation, which tends to be driven by artists and designers rather than the companies themselves.

I would contrast this to the enormous investment that online game makers have made. It’s come out of virtually nowhere to become this multibillion-dollar world market. Hypercompetitive but constantly evolving—there’s this incredible competition to make games more realistic and more experimental, and it’s attracting a lot of creative people.

Traub: I think many people might argue that much of the true narrative experimentation is taking place in the games realm. The experimentation people thought would be happening with books is going on more in gaming.

Begos: I think that’s completely true. That’s where the real developments are taking place and legitimate breakthroughs in terms of how people interact with artwork and with each other. They’ve built platforms that will evolve.

One way to further our understanding of Agrippa now, I’d suggest, would be to compare it to games, and especially trans-platform games such as ARGs, which deliberately play with the interpenetration of digital data and physical objects and spaces. Kirschenbaum recently suggested on Twitter that Agrippa anticipated the New Aesthetic. I’d argue that it’s an early harbinger by the inventor of cyberspace of the eversion of the network, its transformation out into the mixed-reality experienced most effectively and widely embodied today in games. Agrippa appeared in 1992, ten years after “Burning Chrome” introduced the term “cyberspace.” But The Agrippa Files, and thus the involvement of the new Digital Humanities with this mixed-reality artifact, went online in December 2005–a crucial moment when, as Gibson was just then on the verge of saying in print, the network was everting. The timeline is meaningful, and the connections between Agrippa, the new Digital Humanities, the eversion of cyberspace, and games, are richly suggestive, as I’m beginning to see.

Signs of the Eversion: QR codes

QR codeIf the network is everting, turning mundane and imminent, there may be no better sign of the trend than the QR code. Mundane as can be, they currently serve mainly as “quick-response” gateways or portals between physical objects or places and the web. Mostly their use seems to be limited to advertising, taking people to the URL of a product or company. They became widespread shortly after smartphones gave large numbers of people a way to scan them wherever they were encountered. You see them in shop windows and on real-estate signs, on flyers for campus events or on badges at conferences. Often they’re just used as a kind of magical talisman of connectedness, or of the desire for connectedness. They say “This thing or place is networked,” or “data is here,” but often in the predictable, simplified form of opening an URL on your phone. Often their appearance and display betrays a general uncertainty surrounding their use, the vague suspicion that they’re nothing but a gimmick. Sometimes they’re given a graphical shadow so the cryptic square itself looks like an object, a large black and white stamp layered on the poster or print ad of which it’s a part. Sometimes you see them printed on an 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper with instructions added in large black type, just in case users are still unfamiliar with them: “Scan This With a Mobile Phone App.” Just printing the URL would be easier and save toner. Presumably at this stage the relative novelty of QR codes entices some people to try scanning them in situations where they’d never stop to type in or write down an URL. But if you think about it, the significance of all those QR codes seems worth thinking about. Even magic talismans–maybe especially when their practical uses are not quite clear–can have cultural significance. For example, just in terms of design, there’s something intriguing about the fact that QR codes go the bar code one dimension better with their matrix layout–and that they “encode” in more than one sense the idea that the network and its data are connected to the physical world and that those connections can be revealed by way of readily available, cheap and ubiquitous acts of dimensional translation.