NOTES ON CHILDHOOD'S END|
by Randy Morris
Arthur C. Clarke's science-fiction novel Childhood's End was written in 1953.
In this essay Randy Morris offers a further rebuttal of Art in Potentia (The Immateriality of Digital Art) by JD Jarvis published in the DABlog 05.
Recently, while making an adjustment for brightness and saturation needed to take my monitor's image properly into a print, with an eerie sense of familiarity, I remembered a passage from Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End that I had read forty years ago. In this passage a television set designer in the near future complains to his wife about an apparent error in the electronic color adjustments in one of his video creations which caused the shade of the color to come out wrong. Struck by this memory, I downloaded the book to my Kindle, since my old paperback had not survived the many moves over the years. This time I gave it a thorough cover to cover, penance for my previous laziness of skipping to the dramatic ending, when, having been safely delivered from war and material want by technologically advanced alien guides that arrive by starship at the book's beginning, the last generation of human children leave their human parents and physical bodies behind and transcend to the overmind. Despite Clarke's attention to physics when creating the technology of the alien guides, the transcended children and the overmind manipulate matter and energy with ESP-like powers that defy known physics.
More recent technologists predict a less mystical singularity, that is, a rapid advance in technology in which we transform ourselves into something more than human. Consider a typical chip which runs the computers we use to electronically manipulate images. It can operate at clock speeds upwards of 3 GHz with logic gate sizes of .02 microns. Compare this with the neural fields in our brains which change firing patterns to process data at rates less than 100 Hz with axon connection sizes of 2 microns. With the right architecture, very conservatively allowing 10,000 devices with 30 clock cycles to duplicate the processing of an axon connection, an electronic analog of an intelligent brain could be built that operates one million times faster than the human brain. An hour of thought for such a brain would be equivalent to more than a lifetime of human thought. Such eclipse of human performance by machine, unlike the more familiar folk tale of John Henry vs the steam riveter, surprises because it contradicts the comforting illusion that human consciousness is not a machine function, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Beyond the sheer speed of thought that might be possible, engineered intelligence opens the question of engineered motivations, a question I will return to later in this article. So even though Clarke's vision of transcendence is no more than poetic, the potential for a human transforming singularity is real.
Clarke's main characters, artists and scientists, feel a growing sense of ennui even before they receive the cruel revelation of humanity's fate, at childhood's end, an understandable reaction, given the loss of purpose with the introduction of an alien technology that provides their material wants and leaves them with few of the emotional challenges that would motivate art. To some degree we feel a kind of culture shock already, perhaps have been feeling it for more than a century. Early in the advent of modernism, photography played more of a role in the adoption of abstract or experimental art than modern critics will admit. Realistic drawing loses the efficiency battle with the camera in portraiture and landscape, especially with color photography and modern processing. The onslaught of movies, TV, and now universal video that combine sound and action with photographic realism, have completed the marginalization of static visual art as a central force in our culture. Now, realism in art that is taken seriously is either photographic or incorporates actual objects. Accepted realistic drawing styles favor linear and flattened composition at the expense of plastic volume. Likewise much abstract art emphasizes the 'reality' of a work's surface, encrusted paint, patches of bare canvas, scratches, stains, splats and rubs, effects that prove hands-on, non-photographic construction.
The early modernist search for an aesthetic relevance that required more than the mere creation of recognizable images, that is images with specific referents in the real world, started with cubism, which still claims to represent time-like dimensions in addition to three space. To me the most direct manifestation of a time-like image, Duchamp's 'Nude Descending A Staircase', presents what we interpret as the projected swept volumes created by a stick figure woman descending a staircase, although the cubists at the time 'rejected it as being too futurist'. The more common explanation for the time-like nature of 'analytic' cubism (also referred to as simultaneity), an invention attributed to Picasso and Braque, follows this typical line of reasoning:
' 'For centuries painters had been satisfied to represent an illusion of three dimensions on a 2-D surface by means of a systematic distortion known as perspective. The third dimension in painting is depth by perspective; the fourth dimension is movement in depth, or time, or space-time, by the simultaneous presentation of multiple aspects of an object. A new systematic distortion is necessary for this new dimension, since the old one of perspective has been outgrown. But as the process of Analytical Cubism was explored, the objects subjected to its elaborations were destroyed. Picasso's Female Nude (1910-11, Philadelphia Museum of Art) is a fourth-dimensional complication of forms which began, no doubt, as forms similar to those in his earlier Seated Nude Woman (1908, Philadelphia Museum of Art). But as the planes overlap, turn on edge, recede, progress, lie flat, or turn at conflicting angles, the object from which they originated is lost rather than totally revealed.' (from Analytical Cubism (c.1901-12), Encyclopedia of Art History)
Of course the painted cubist surface remains 2-D, and the painted facets offer only an illusion of shallow volume (close to bas-relief in effect) by which we judge their degree of overlap, recession, etc. Cubism will not work without this illusion of depth. Moreover, this illusion is no different than any low relief in drawing used in art over the millennia, and hence is not a 'new systematic distortion'. Beyond the superficiality of interpreting this as a view of time, the monochromatic, seemingly semi-transparent planes arranged in puddle-like formations offer little to hold one's attention. The more enduring legacy of modernism in art, a dogmatic injunction against realism, the need to obliterate the image rather than reveal it, has made more difficult non-abstract aesthetic expression that could address much people truly care about. After the heyday of analytic cubism, Picasso's more popular work evolved in schizophrenic jumps between more representational work, like Guernica, and more abstract line drawings. Despite the remonstrations of modern critics, Picasso's most popular works retain recognizable images, and his recidivism after the analytic period really cemented his fame.
The dogma that modern art must and can experiment to discover new ways to perceive based on paintings or prints that can be framed and hung on the wall, and that our perception will thus grow as such art advances, has worn thin after a century tiled with acres of abstraction that is now as excruciatingly familiar as any art in the past. Thanks to our technology the means to create abstract or any other kind of art is more accessible than ever before, and I bet more art has been churned out in the last fifty years in the US alone than the total previous production over human history. Amid this plethora, the perceptually advanced modern artist must work ever harder to gain distinction beyond the creation of just more wallpaper. Like Clarke's somewhat alienated, bored artists in the brief utopia before childhood's end, for some self-absorbed modern artists locked into their internal world of advancing perception, the making of art becomes the main subject of art and the driving force of emotional life. At the most extreme, 'performance' artists, who by some contortion of logic classified their work as visual art, perhaps because the performances were often held in art galleries, did things like film themselves crawling naked over sharp glass shards. Today we recognize these artists as the pioneers for reality TV. Youthful ardor run to nihilism, narcissism, and exhibitionism, perhaps, but abstract perceptual art lacks the symbolism to address poverty, injustice, prejudice, or war; hence the enduring popularity of Picasso's blue period and Guernica. As for portraying the horror of nuclear war, no work of still art in this century comes close to the power of Shohei Imamura's movie, Black Rain.
The world of movies and video, now including computer games, strives to entertain rather than to invent new forms of perception, with enough success that the vast majority of humanity looks to such entertainment for definition of cultural identity. Professionals of the old world of still art, either produce quantities for niche markets, produce a more limited number of tokens for the wealthy, or provide art services for advertising, other media use, or education (including education of the hobbyist). The advance in computer graphics gives the individual professional or hobbyist unprecedented control over creation of the old forms of visual stills, and enables participation in the newer forms of animation, (though animation even in its more abstract, 'advanced' forms is nearly as old as modernism). More importantly, our method of viewing is changing, our old monitors are about to come off their stands and onto our heads in the form of goggles. Rather than square screens, we will be able to surround ourselves with our images. Even the old still images will have to adjust their boundaries, as the notion of a picture as an image hanging on a wall in a square frame becomes obsolete. Ironically, the power to experiment is now truly here, but these 'experiments' will not fit onto frames on walls, or even confine themselves to free standing sculptures; instead they will demand filling out entire simulated, virtual worlds.
The electronic tools for filling out an entire virtual world are in place. Efficient use of these tools will require increasing amounts of engineered intelligence. Like in the imaginative movies 'The Matrix' and 'Avatar', engineered intelligence with invasive neural interfaces into the human brain, would enable human perception and intelligence to increase beyond current human bounds. For starters, electromagnetic sensors not limited to the narrow window of the visible spectra or acoustic sensors sensitive beyond the frequency range of our ears, could be directly coupled into the neural pathways currently used only by our organic eyes and ears. Beyond this, by restructuring memory artificially, more colors and sensor types could be added. Ultimately, even higher dimensional 'images' could be constructed in simulation, including time-like dimensions, of some virtual world or even of real world data transformed for presentation to emphasize its structure.
The rub for engineered intelligence is that motivations, pleasures, pains, and fears, like sensory input, come under direct control of the intelligence itself. Currently we can artificially induce motivation with drugs that stimulate the pleasure pathways in the brain. Drugs like heroin and cocaine reinforce all the behaviors which lead to their consumption. When mice are given control of electronic stimulation of their pleasure center by pressing a bar, they will press the bar until they die of exhaustion or starvation. Electronic control of all motivation will not lead to a stable intelligence without mechanisms to immunize against pleasures like sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, and to enforce fears, like fear of death. Perhaps this could be achieved by wiring current humans into a collective, say a hive mind that integrates individual motivations. Whatever aesthetic synthesis comes out of such an intelligence, it is unlikely that our purely human organic brains could perceive much of it. Our current new-found electronic power to create art we understand, may be our own brief childhood's end. So enjoy it while it lasts, because the times they are a-changin'.
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