Time-Space Compression

“I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming away,” sings Poly Styrene. “Didn’t you see the thin ice sign?” she asks. What I hear instead, though, is “the thing I signed.” How is one to beware if the message is always misheard?

A Raincoat follow with their spooky funky glam jam, “It Came in the Night.” What is one to do with this energy? Should I unplug myself from Spotify, as Neil Young has done? That would deprive me of much of my library. The problem is, my apartment lacks space for objects that store sound. Hence my dilemma this morning: I woke up wanting to listen to Sonic Youth’s Sister, an album I own on CD. It and the CD player on which I would play it, however, are elsewhere. Should that prevent me from being able to listen to it here and now?

Spotify replies to this dilemma by compressing space-time.

“Time-space compression”: that’s what communications technologies do. Marxist geographer David Harvey writes about it in his book The Condition of Postmodernity. Paul Virilio calls it an essential facet of capitalist life.

Spotify achieves this effect of time-space compression through an act of remediation. The consequences of this act are only just now entering consciousness. Initially, it seems rather simple: an algorithm selecting and streaming recorded bits of sound based on past listens. But not just your listens, by which I mean your listens to it. That’s where it goes strange. For Spotify forms a cybernetic system with its users, each element revising itself into subsequent iterations or becomings based on the other’s feedback — meaning listens occur both ways. Users of course listen, both actively and passively, to Spotify. But Spotify also listens to its users.

A friend plays me a tune — Fassbinder collaborator Monique Zetterlund’s “Ellinor Rydholm” — and the next day it shows up in my “Discover Weekly” playlist. Spooky, eh? What can I say? I love it. Without it, I might not have heard Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Yoko’s voice might not have whispered in my ear, “Remember love.” Buddy Holly might not have entranced me with his version of “Love is Strange.” Thurston Moore wouldn’t have told me, “Angels are dreaming of you,” as he does on “Cotton Crown.”

Bricoleurs can’t be choosers: but here I am imagining in the faces of those angels glimpses of you. I picture us eyeing each other on a dancefloor, approaching as in a circling manner ‘round an invisible pole. Pouts give way to smiles; fingers trace forearms; lips graze lips. By these means, distance is eradicated and contact reestablished, hope reborn.

Monday April 19, 2021

On the floor of the hallway is a disco ball. At the end of the hall is a mirror. And the disco ball is not a disco ball; it’s a light projector. In the evening we dance. After the dance party, I retreat to the basement and listen to The Modern Folk’s Primitive Future / Lyran Group, a tape released last month from Eiderdown Records.

A track in and I remove the tape and replace it with Herbie Hancock’s Sound-System. When, a few tracks in, the latter album shifts frequencies and goes smooth jazz, I intervene again as DJ and swap in Healing Sounds by Dr. Christopher Hills & the University of the Trees Choir. As José David Saldívar argues in Border Matters, nation-states can be reimagined. Or as Raffi sings, “The more we get together / Together, together / The more we get together / The happier we’ll be.” It is with Raffi in mind that I attend an event: a series of “microtalks” hosted by a friend. Passcode to enter and we’re there. One participant asks “Can AI detect a new designer at Prada?” and shares his findings. Companies like Heuritec apply algorithms to “predict” new fashions. The Jacquard Loom is a kind of computer: a difference engine. Big data comes to fashion and biology. Properties and classes. “Zen koans for robo-cars.” Fluidity and nonbinarism allow for evasion of the predictors. The Ones Who Are Driven By Data. Expert Systems for the Design of Decisions. Blur the categories; Drive AI Crazy. Next up, a discussion of “Alchemical Chess.” The mysteries of the game’s origin in 6th century India. Chaturanga becomes Shatranj in 7th century Persia. The speaker wonders, though, what came before, like the ancient Greek game Petteia, mentioned by Plato, who claimed it came from Egypt, or the “Han Cosmic Board,” as described by Donald J. Harper. Think about the Lo Shu “magic square,” and the SATOR square, and the yantras. The latter means “machine” or “contraption.”

Questions for a Gathering

Dear Muses, friends, and fellow members of the hive, I ask this kindly of thee:

Wherein lies the difference, if any, between an algorithm and a spell?

[…] “Both consist of textual operations, written procedures to be followed,” texts a friend.

“Yes, yes, y’all,” we reply: “In the beginning was the word.”

[…] “Correct me if I’m wrong, but what is a code if not a kind of spell?” adds another. “The command line works as does a wand.”

Let us begin there. Let our partner in this beginning be Freud’s Unconscious, or what French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call “the body without organs” and its many “desiring-machines.”

Having established these initial similarities between codes and spells, let us attend as well to ways in which they differ.

“Spells enliven,” we venture; “whereas programming produces robots and drones.”

Twenty years ago, I and others assembled and performed under the name i,apparatus. Our approach involved spontaneous group play akin to Kerouac’s “Spontaneous Prose” and (tho perhaps without fully knowing so at the time) Mekas’s “Spontaneous Cinema”: egos seeking fusion on the fly through low-tech, sonic squall.

“Might we gather today, or in the days ahead?” asks wonderingly one who types, longing again for union with others. “Under what name, or by way of what method, and for what purpose?”

“For purposes of spontaneity in the realization of desire!” sings a chorus in reply. Spontaneity is the crux of the matter, even as we allow ourselves room to correct.

Friday August 28, 2020

Algorithms: what are they? When do they enter the history of ideas? What are their presumptions? Ada Lovelace had something to do with it, did she not? Cyberfeminist Sadie Plant explored parts of this history in her book Zeroes & Ones. Lovelace also appears with her partner-in-crime Charles Babbage in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. The latter novel founded an entire subgenre of science fiction known as “steampunk”: works set in an alternate-Victorian past. In the case of The Difference Engine, the world is one where Lovelace, the daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, succeeds not just in theorizing but in building the world’s first computer. Calculating machines: what are they? What are the consequences of these devices? Where do they lead? Part of me would love to write an occult conspiracy thriller amid such a milieu — though I wouldn’t want it to skew toward horror, as in Alan Moore’s From Hell. More in the direction, rather, of utopian fantasy, with Acid Communism and Red Nation arriving more than a century earlier than planned. That would be a fun book. Where would one posit the “point of divergence”? Where would history happen other than as one was taught? Therein lies the nature of Myth. Yet that’s the point. Rebellion occurs there or not at all. Maybe this is a bit like my once-imagined novel on Project Cybersyn, but “woven” now, in the style of Foucault’s Pendulum, with secret societies and esoteric traditions. Then again, maybe my novel should just zero in on one of the details from The Difference Engine: the scenario, in other words, where Marx and Engels move to America and ally communism with the Iroquois Confederacy. Either way, the time has come for me to reread Plant’s Zeroes & Ones.