Daniel J Glendening
Some propose that the center of the earth is a giant lump of gold. Others, backed by pulse readings, claim it is molten rock: magma.
The center of the earth is data, ones and zeros swirling in a black abyss.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Earth’s Edge lately. It’s an immersive digital environment, put on goggles and you’re inside. The world of Earth’s Edge takes the form of a deep and broad valley, encircled by a ring of jagged, snow-covered mountain peaks. In the valley, there are regions of high desert, all sagebrush and granite tumblers—kestrels flying overhead and jackrabbits ducking through the brush. There are hot springs, bubbling sulfurously, and lush green meadows in the lowlands where the rivers slow to a meandering drawl.
There’s a lot to do in Earth’s Edge. I walk around for hours in the high-plains, picking flowers and medicinal herbs: Dragon’s Tongue Orchids, blue thistles, red mountain flowers and wild grapes. I catch butterflies—Monarchs and Swallowtails and Luna moths. I skip rocks on the lake, go fishing sometimes for perch and, if the season is right, salmon. Sometimes I go on hikes. I’ll start out at Emerald Lake and follow the trail up into the mountains, past where the grasses give way to snow banks and holly berries. I’ve never run into one, but you have to watch out for bears. If one comes along, they say to make a lot of noise, to yell and scream and try to make yourself as big as possible, maybe wave some sticks around or something.
It gets dark at night, and it’s usually best to get back to camp rather than tromp around in the moonlight—just safer, and warmer, with a fire. I roll a bedroll out and sleep under the open sky. The stars come out if there’s no cloud cover, and the fireflies. I watch the twin moons arc across the dome of sky, and if the conditions are right there’s an explosion of borealis color.
I’ve made the mistake of digging once or twice, in search of medicinal roots or flakes of precious metals. If you dig far enough, you’ll break through the upper crust of soil.
You’ll break through, and it’ll come pouring out like an oil strike, a gusher, a big one. The underground data stream, an endless depthless river. Ones and zeros floating eye-searing white in a palpable darkness, dense and clotted. You can reach in, but there’s nothing to touch. Nothing to feel.
Based on research conducted at the Bar Ilan University in Israel circa 2007, the structure of the Internet follows a pattern similar to that of the Earth, with a dense core, a semi-viscous mantle, and an outer crust. The research maps the connection between Internet nodes, “computer networks of Internet Service Providers that act as relay stations for carrying information.” The structure proposed consists of a dense core of approximately 80 critical nodes, a mantle-like layer of approximately 15,000 peer-connected, self-sufficient nodes, and an outer crust of approximately 5,000 sparsely connected nodes that would, if the inner core were removed, become isolated.
In 2003, Barrett Lyon embarked on The Opte Project, the goal of which was to generate a visual model of the entire Internet, via a custom program “using ARIN checks to create a list of usable IP space.” Lyon takes some authorship in the images generated by the program, most notably in the spherical form and usage of color to distinguish between address suffixes, global region, or other parameters. The images generated by Opte are intricate web-like structures, dotted with small fireworks of dense network hubs. Like the models generated by the researchers at Bar Ilan, Lyon’s maps resemble the structural layers of the earth, with a dense core, widely connected mantle, and a sparse crust of isolated networks and terminal points.
This is a sort of mirroring, likely unintentional on the part of the designers of the technology, as the Internet has grown and evolved well beyond those early laid plans. This is akin to biomimicry—the modeling of a flying machine on the skeletal structure of pigeons, or the 2006 Mercedes-Benz Bionic, a concept car modeled on the boxfish. Like the Earth, the structural geography of the Internet is constantly shifting. It’s a geology not of mineral and stone, but of information, data, and aesthetics, following patterns similar to those found in earthly geology of ejection, subduction and crystallization.
The topographical features that make up this digital earth are likewise shifting, undergoing geological cycles at an accelerated rate. Certain features rise up, thrust upward with the shifting of surface plates just as other locales are subducted into the mantle, lost or reforming. Through their “Double-Click Ad Planner” program, Google has compiled an annual list of the 1000 most-visited sites on the web (excluding certain types of sites, such as Google itself and adult content sites). As of July 2011, the top ten sites include Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Live.com, MSN.com, Wikipedia, Blogspot, Baidu, Microsoft.com, and QQ.com. These are the current Everest, K2, Makalu and Manaslu of the digital sphere, peaks of influence rising out of the data swarm.
Myspace held the slot of top social-networking site from 2005-2008, in 2006 surpassing Google as the site with the most unique U.S. visitors. Facebook rose in ascendency following its public opening in 2006, and in 2009 surpassed Myspace in the number of unique U.S. visitors. One could almost watch the slow slide of Myspace into obsolescence, eventually settling into its current incarnation as a social-networking valley of bands, musicians, and celebrity PR profiles.
The surface of this digital earth, composed of those easily navigable and locatable web-locales, occupies approximately one percent of the total global mass of data. This one percent is the portion that is easily indexed by search engines by extracting keywords from the HTML content of the site. Underneath this thin layer of soil run a vast underground network of tunnels and caves, of speakeasies and secret passageways. The region of the Internet known, in some circles, as The Deep Web consists of difficult to access information and data. This data is bypassed or over-looked by search engines and traditional web browsers. Much of this content is held in databases that are not indexed by search engines for technical or business reasons. This is hidden information, accessible only to deep data-miners, diggers, or those with the proper map.
While the data streaming through The Deep Web is difficult to access, this difficulty is not necessarily by design. There exist, as well, certain sectors of underground networks that are locked to outside users, accessible only to those with the access key. These networks were specifically designed to maintain exclusivity, privacy, and discretion. The early Internet evolved out of a system developed by the United States’ Information Processing Techniques Office and Advanced Research Projects Agency. This early networked system, ARPANET, debuted in 1969 for use in information transfer between sectors of the Unites States Department of Defense. The Defense Department has utilized, since that time, a series of sub-surface networks that remain inaccessible by surface roads. In 1995, replacing the DDN DSNET1, the United States Government adopted the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET) for the transfer of sensitive materials—those classified materials up to, and including, the designation “Secret.” In all likelihood, this network has been deemed obsolete many times over, its tunnels deliberately caved in and collapsed, with new, more secure networks built in its place—layer upon layer of sediment, detritus and abandoned secrets under the surface of the digital earth.
Employing a similarly secreted, discretionary web of passageways is the Tor network, a hidden sub-stratum of the Internet accessible to the general public through specialized, freely available software. Tor describes itself as a “network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” It is, in essence, a black market occupying the abandoned corners of the Internet, where commerce flourishes and deals, both licit and illicit, are struck.
Tor was initially designed as a third-generation onion-routing project of the United States Naval Research Laboratory for the purpose of protecting government communications. The network system evades traffic analysis surveillance of users’ actions on the Internet by routing those actions through a network of encrypted links between various Internet nodes. Rather than establishing a direct link between user computer A and destination server S, Tor will run the communication through a complex and constantly shifting pathway between many nodes, masking both the source and destination of the data exchange. This anonymous network of underground tunnels caters to a range of users, and lends itself to a range of applications. The network has been utilized to establish Internet access in regions of censorship, including 2011-2012 Iran, to provide a forum for the purchase and sale of contraband, including a range of illicit substances, human trafficking, and firearms and munitions, to mask the traffic of hacker-activist groups such as Anonymous, or, simply, to shelter the online movements of those citizens intolerant or wary of corporate and government monitoring of personal activity.
With the continuous process of shifting plate tectonics on this digital earth, resulting in rapid-fire data ejection, subduction, and crystallization, the digi-geological cycles proceed at a swift pace. While some landmarks, such as Myspace, are pushed downward but, at least temporarily, remain above ground, forming a valley or lowland, others are pulled beneath the crust to dissolve, or, in some cases, condense and crystallize into underground caverns. Such caverns rest in a sort of suspended animation, sheltered from the technological and aesthetic development occurring above ground.
The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization founded in 1996 for the preservation of the Internet. The Internet Archive has developed an ongoing digital library of the Internet, striving to prevent outdated or obsolete pages from vanishing irrevocably into the lower mantle. The project’s Wayback Machine is a museum of digi-geologic history and aesthetic development. One can step through the web-portal to the archived pages of Yahoo.com, circa 1996, and the experience is something akin to stepping back in time, to discovering, a la Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, subterranean enclaves of flora and fauna thought to be extinct. Once there, a user can sift through a wealth of archived websites, many built and maintained by hobbyists and early-adopters for personal use, sharing information with friends, family, and online peer groups.
Among the range of topics catalogued on Yahoo’s 1996 directory of sites is a subsection devoted to artists, both hobbyists and professionals, working with computer generated imagery and animations. These websites, such as “World Wide Graphics by Jack Andrews,” or “David Elliott’s Land of the Squishy,” are by today’s standards of web-design crude and simplistic, even when compared to contemporary hobbyist pages hosted on WordPress or Tumblr style templates, and often feature densely patterned or deep black backgrounds with left aligned text in bright primary colors. Icons and animated-gif buttons abound, and most personal sites feature a ticking odometer-style counter tracking the number of page visits. Andrews and Elliott use their sites as virtual galleries, showcasing digital images generated utilizing programs such as Bryce, Photoshop, and Ray Dream Designer, and they openly invite electronic correspondence and share the techniques behind the generation of the work.
Many of the images showcased by Andrews and Elliott depict some variation of landscape: computer generated fractal mountains rising out of a fog of vaguely psychedelic colored light. Andrews’ FantasyPeak2.jpg, 1996, depicts a jagged mountain range rising out of darkness, illuminated by a bright blue light. Violet spherical shapes, or simulated lens-flares, recede into the distance, and white circular forms radiate a sort of electrical charge. Suspended over the peaks, stretching infinitely in every direction, is a grid of blue—a digital infrastructure arcing over the geologic formations. The grid simultaneously recalls both the visualization of the digital landscape of TRON and the constructivist proun paintings of El Lissitzky—an attempted visualization of some as-yet unnamed cross-current space, that space in which the digital earth thrusts itself through the veil into the physical earth.
In this work, it remains difficult to determine what aspects of a composition demonstrate the artist’s intent, and what is simply a product of the tools available. Bryce, for example, was a software application that allowed for easily generated, highly detailed renders of fractal-based landscapes. The proliferation of these geologic forms in the work of early digital artists such as Andrews and Elliott may simply be a product of this availability. In his 1990 essay on the significance of digital networking in contemporary art practice, Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?, Roy Ascott writes:
“It may not be an exaggeration to say that the “content” of a telematic art will depend in large measure on the nature of the interface; that is, the kind of configurations and assemblies of image, sound, and text, the kind of restructuring and articulation of environment that telematic interactivity might yield, will be determined by the freedoms and fluidity available at the interface.”
To this end, that software driving the generation of these images is as integral to the work as the images themselves. Andrews, Elliott, and others working in the same vein, are, in some way, channeling the technology itself. They serve, to some degree, as mediums for the message, occupying a role as facilitators, conjuring forth the images intrinsically embedded within the technology. This role of medium, or authorship in conjunction with technology, is not to be considered a lessening of the power of independent creativity, however, but as a growth and expansion of the creative will of humankind as whole.
“Telematic culture means, in short, that we do not think, see, or feel in isolation. Creativity is shared, authorship is distributed…telematic culture amplifies the individual’s capacity for creative thought and action, for more vivid and intense experience, for more informed perception, by enabling her to participate in the production of global vision through networked interaction with other minds, other sensibilities, other sensing and thinking systems across the planet—thought circulating in the medium of data through a multiplicity of different cultural, geographical, social, and personal layers.”
Suddenly, this digital geography moving over and through our physical world is something greater than the sum of its parts: it is the outset of something of a hive mind, a force of creative will and vision in which one individual voice is consumed and carried forward by the will of a collective. One can, according to Ascott, see, hear, and even think across geological boundaries and borders. This digi-geology is a space of open-ness, a space without latitude or longitude, a space, in fact, without grids, without edges, and without spatio-temporal hurdles between minds, thoughts, and ideas.
Even considering Ascott’s collapse of individual authorship, there’s something to note in this proliferation of geologic imagery of Andrews’ and Elliott’s images. While their work may, in fact, be a case of the interface or technology exerting its will over that of the human hand holding the tool, a software developer or collective team of developers designed the software. Someone, somewhere, imagined the tool known as Bryce, and released it into the digital sphere for the express purpose of generating digi-geological landscapes for traversal in image-generation or animation programs. Bryce, and the images it produces, points to some desire to capture, or even replicate, those forms found in the physical, geological world. The landscapes rendered often lean toward the stereotypically “sublime” of nature: vast and distant vistas, soaring mountain peaks, and jutting cliff faces. It is, in some sense, an attempt at fusing the seemingly infinite vastness of an uncharted, and un-chartable, digi-geology with that which traditionally inspires awe in the physical world.
If, indeed, that digi-geology is a space without edges, borders, grids and spatio-temporal limitation or partition, it can be described as an example of Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of a “smooth” space, as opposed to a “striated” space. Deleuze and Guattari describe a smooth space as that space occupied by the nomad, the wanderer: the one who walks over a territory not according to an enforced geometry or external system, but who traverses according to qualities inherent in said territory itself: currents, slopes, seasons, waterways, migratory or wind patterns. The smooth space is this space that defies or denies the map, the space that has been unmapped, or simply mapped into the bodies of its occupiers. “The sea is a smooth space par excellence, and yet was the first to encounter the demands of increasingly strict striation.” The sea, a smooth space, navigable pre-striation by currents and winds, has been striated into a grid coordinates and bearings, first designated by precise readings of star and other astrological movements, and eventually by its complete mapping and gridding through the mechanism of latitude and longitude, this striation made all the more complete through the tools of GPS and satellite imaging.
Andrews’ FantasyPeak2.jpg can be read as depicting the ongoing conflict between smooth and striated space, one imposing its will on the other, and the other its will on the one, in a continual battle of dominance. Deleuze and Guattari go on to describe in mathematical analogy the diametric of smooth versus striated space, and linger on mathematical fractals as potential analogues of a smooth space. As a fractal, “smooth space does not have a dimension higher than that which moves through it or is inscribed in it; in this sense it is a flat multiplicity, for example, a line that fills a plane without ceasing to be a line.”
Fractal geometry serves as the underlying structure of the landscapes generated using Bryce and other landscape generation software. The program utilizes specific fractal algorithms, in concert with randomizing equations, to generate naturalistic geologic forms in digital space. If we point to the Bryce-generated mountain forms of FantasyPeak2.jpg as occupying or embodying Deleuze and Guattari’s smooth space, we can identify the impending imposition of a striated space—delineated, externally organized, mapped—in the hovering neon blue grid.
Elizabeth Grosz describes virtual space, which the Internet and digital imaging occupies, as being “the space of the emergence of the new, the unthought, the unrealized, which at every moment loads the presence of the present with supplementarity, redoubling the world through parallel universes.” While this might be said for some aspects of the digi-geography occupied by the Internet, it applies most directly to those areas that exhibit qualities of Deleuze and Guattari’s smooth spaces: those areas of the Internet that are user generated and user defined, that remain unstructured.
If the structure of the Internet, and virtual spaces more generally, do in fact exhibit this sort of mirroring of physical, earthly geologic structure and space, then it falls to reason that within that digital structure exist, also, smooth and striated space. That early Internet, springing forth in part through the military efforts of ARPANET (striated space, with a delineated function and transfer protocol), and the countering efforts of the counter-culture surrounding Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue and Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (smooth space, open-ended and flexible, striving for accessibility, exchange, and community engagement), even in its infancy exhibited an ongoing tension between smooth and striated space.
When examined closely, many spaces of the Internet are far from Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of smooth space. Most users access the Internet through a web browser designed by a separate entity, in many cases—Windows Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Apple’s Safari—developed and owned by for-profit corporate entities. Many users access email and utilize search engines through services run by these same corporate entities. In many ways, this is a gradual striation of the Internet’s digital space, in which visitors often are unable to, or don’t know how to, forge their own paths through the digi-space and instead adhere to those routes demarcated by those entities which strive to control, channel, and monitor data exchanges on the Internet. That fore-mentioned sub-strata of this geological space—the hidden Tor network—acts as, at least, a smooth-er space, perhaps still with its own sub set of striations and protocols, but with a sense of freedom for lateral movement.
However fully certain forces might wish to demarcate and lay claim to the digi-geology of the Internet, to fully map or striate digital space is something of an impossibility. Despite the attempts at striation—at traffic control and traffic channeling, at demarcating the placement and limits of a given corner of the World Wide Web—it remains elusive. The Internet is, in fact, a fluid and dynamic thing: a rhizomatic structure that, despite Lyon’s Opte Project, will never exhibit a one-to-one correlation between physical site and digital site. The digi-geology is rapidly changing, shifting, altering, its plate tectonics moving at an alarming rate and, moreover, expanding in all directions of space and time. It is un-chartable, as it grows beyond the edges of its map as soon as it has been mapped. According to Grosz:
“The computer and the worlds it generates reveal that the world in which we live, the real world, has always been a space of virtuality. The real is saturated with the spaces of projection, possibility, and the new that we now designate as virtual in order to keep them contained behind the glassy smoothness of the computer screen.”
It resists even this containment, and, as a growing geology unto itself, appears unwilling to remain locked behind the glass of a screen. It is an invisible force all around us, occupying not only wires but radio waves. We carry its physical nodes around in our pockets, our purses, clipped to our ears. The virtual even manifests itself in physical space as digital hologram performers—the resurrection of Tupac Shakur at the 2012 Coachella Festival in southern California, Japan’s anime pop-star sensation, Hatsune Miku—who take the stage to throngs of cheering fans.
In some sense, we are all holograms, each and every one of us. We all live in World’s Edge all of the time, our digi-enhanced senses of sight and sound and spatio-temporal perception linking the physical world with the digital in a seamless gradient. We move in and out of the data stream with ease, amphibious vehicles adapting to the milieu of the moment. When one lifts a stone out of the soil and finds data beneath, light swirling in an ocean of darkness, what can one expect to find beneath the data? What can we expect to find in the darkness between the numbers? There’s a darkness between all things: an emptiness that hangs without light between the nodes on the Opte map, between the mountain and the squares of the grid, between the subatomic vibrating threads of the world. This is a darkness maybe we can never fully know, never fully occupy.
If we keep digging, moving through strata of accumulated information, we can’t expect to ever strike bedrock.
Data perpetuates data; information begets information. Underneath the data stream is no void, no vacuum. The data stream is amorphous, occupying no distinct form, no measurable depth. It exists according to its own rules in a fractal repetition repeating itself infinitely. It is a line and plane, cube and hyper-cube at once, occurring in all dimensions simultaneously. It bends us to its form, and as we as homo sapiens enter the stream through increasingly immersive modes we also come to occupy all spaces, all dimensions, simultaneously.
We are fractalling ourselves.
We traverse the world; we map it onto our bodies.
As we walk to the corner store, to our friend’s house, or through the neighborhood to the park, we etch those routes into the soles of our feet, into our neurons, and we come to know them, intrinsically. We can envision them in our mind’s eye; we can draw a map. We wear them on our skin.
Using machines to traverse the Earth, we place an object between the Earth and the body, and that map becomes distorted, altered. It ceases to hold a one-to-one ratio, no longer a tracing. Shoes, a bicycle, a car, train or airplane, all impose a new logic on our body-mapping.
According Grosz, “It is the coupling of two disparate orders, those of bodily affects or percepts and those governing the geology of the earth or territory: art is always the coupling of extracted elements from the cosmological order and their integration into the lived experience and behavior of organisms.” By this line of thinking, that digi-geologic space known as the Internet occupies two sets of spaces simultaneously. It is, of course, something akin to what Grosz describes as “art.” It is a circumstance designed by human minds, a coupling of the element of the rhizomatic form with the socio-political behavior of the human organism. It has also, however, developed into a third party, a navigable world itself. It is not simply a product of the world, but has grown to occupy the niche of “world” on its own, with its own set of pathways that we as users are now inscribing on our minds and bodies. We are inscribed with the digital route to check the mail, to purchase products, to source information, to contact our friends and neighbors.
“Art is of the animal to the extent that art is the consequence, the unexpected, unpredictable effect, of the coupling of a milieu or territory with a body, and the extraction of qualities, whether sonorous, visual, or tactile, framed through the constitution of a (history of) form.”
This coupling of the digital milieu or digital territory with the human body, or displaced body of the digital avatar, is bound to mirror Grosz’ described relation between the territory of the earth and the human body. Grosz positions art as stemming from an excess: in relation to territory from an excess of cosmological chaos, a state of ever-increasing entropy, seized and wrested into some form by which one might read or interpret the world as extricated from chaos: an excess of time, an excess of thought, an excess of earth and material. Now, with a doubling of the world as a digital-geological sphere coupled and yet expanding from the earthly geological sphere, we are confronted with a new excess of information, data and digital space, mapping itself into our bodies and into our modalities of thought and art-making.
What is left unknown, at this juncture, is whether this is a process that may continue indefinitely—with the development of the digi-geology of the Internet and the digital mind or body-surrogate, we see a first level mirroring of the processes of the earth and its relationship to the human body—it stands to reason that, left to carry through the rapidly accelerating time cycles of the digi-geologic sphere, we may begin to witness—and in fact may already be witnessing, unaware—the development of a second level mirroring within the digi-sphere. We may begin to see the development of a digi-geology2, a second level mirroring of these digi-geologic processes occurring as a sub-network to the digital sphere as we know it, accessible to a digital body, and leading to a third-level mirroring, ad infinitum.
Traversing the roads and footpaths of World’s Edge, I know my way around. The three-day route between Hawk’s Gulch and Bone Strewn Crest is ingrained in the soles of my feet. I could walk it blindfolded; I can imagine each step in my mind’s eye.
Or, rather, my avatar’s feet, my avatar’s mind’s eye.
I’ve started digging, again. There’s data everywhere, streaming though everything. I’m working towards building a network.
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Daniel J Glendening (MFA, Pacific Northwest College of Art; BA, University of California at Davis) is an artist and writer based in Portland, OR. He has exhibited nationally, including recent exhibitions at False Front in Portland, OR and Extra Extra in Philadelphia, PA. He has recently published projects and writing with Panhandler, Familiar Quarterly, and Social Malpractice Publishing and he maintains the arts-review blog Justice League PDX. He collects books and can also be found here and here.