Nicolas Nova sees dada in big data
Published 19 January 2016 by Annick Rivoire
Nicolas Nova observes our digital practices as did Claude Lévi-Strauss with his sad tropics. In “Dadabot”, a formidable essay on “creolization” in the digital age, he and Joël Vacheron give an overview of this “new human-machine relationship”. Interview.
Founder of the Near Future Laboratory, Nicolas Nova is a futurologist, specialized in the history of design, ethnographer of our digital practices, teacher at Head (Geneva), and always one word ahead, thanks to his Lagniappe newsletter, which provides “material on digital cultures, emerging practices” (for example, “Chanterculture” in the last issue “refers to the extremist and reactionary counter-culture that is particularly rampant on social networks”. Along with Joël Vacheron, sociologist and researcher in visual communication at ECAL (Lausanne), Nicolas Nova authored a book that pays tribute to Dada, which goes beyond the centenary art movement, encompassing in the same wave artists, hackers and other data-manipulators.
Dadabot can be browsed at random or even backwards—its form is just as intriguing as its content is fascinating. We caught up with the author in Paris to ask him a few questions about his curious publication, available online from Idpure.
What exactly is this “machinic creolization” that you say we are swimming in?
There was an analogy to be made between the hybridization of cultural content in the digital age with the hybridization that can be seen from a linguistic and anthropological standpoint. Creolization is a term that was first used in linguistics, then in anthropology, in reference to languages and cultural forms that by crossing and combining, produce a new form—a new language in linguistics, for example, Jamaican Creole or the French Creoles in the West Indies.
During machinic creolization, things glitch, transform, contribute to creating new cultural forms. The twitterbots that we talk about in the book take excerpts of sentences and images, collect them and publish them on Twitter to produce a strange new cultural form. As with linguistic creolization, digital technologies play an interesting role in these instances of creolization—they can accelerate hybridization. Yet hybridization leads to something new. This was theorized by linguists, anthropologists and people from literary circles, in particular Edouard Glissant.
What is the role of code, of algorithms or of the machine in what you call “dadabot”?
As soon as we talk about machine production or algorithms that produce cultural content, we raise the question of machine autonomy. For example, David Cope wrote a program that analyzes Mozart’s symphonies to create another symphony that is “Mozart-like”. The point is that the result is neither Mozart nor David Cope nor the program, but all reunited. So that raises the questions of “Is there an author?” and “What is the role of machines?” The computer that runs the programs, the script that describes the program and the software that displays it form a whole encompassed by a chain of operation whose various elements cannot be isolated. It’s because there are people who program machines, who pick up content produced by other people, and this content is reassembled by the same program that runs on certain machines, that unique forms are created. It’s difficult to identify who is responsible for what!
“Mozart-style Sonata 2-1”, 1997, “Experiments in Musical Intelligence” (EMI), David Cope:
Our bias is to explain that there exists a new human-machine relationship, a collaboration between the community of users and programmers on one hand, and on the other hand the programs and the machines that run them. It’s an argument that refutes the idea that machines are doing things all by themselves in a corner.
In both the form and content of the book, you mix and hybridize quite a bit. You present a lexicon right in the middle, interview artists and creative coders… Why?
This dense object materializes creolization from a very tangible perspective. It’s not a book that reads from beginning to end, but that can be picked up from any point. The book is a kind of collage of texts, of forms and formats (academic essay with footnotes, educational lexicon, listing, glitched photographs to deepen perspective…). Thanks to Raphaël Verona’s graphic design at Idpure, we found this strange formatting.
We also had to reflect the diversity of the interviewees. Some identify as artists, others more as designers, such as Matthew Plummer-Fernandez. We wanted to cross musical and visual spheres, new media artists, creative coders and other artists who perform, such as Constant Dullaart. Because the issues of creolization are not linked to a particular form or even an artistic material or format, they cut across all lines.
When we talk about algorithms, it’s usually first to evoke either their power or their potential danger to our personal freedoms. You talk about “algorithmic culture”… Why?
We use it in the plural! Algorithmic cultures refer to the way in which algorithms and the sequencing of various phases of a computer program influence the cultural forms they produce. There are two big categories of algorithms. The first, which we set aside, comes from filtering, selection, recommendation. Typically, Amazon tells you that “you bought this and others also bought that”, or Spotify suggests other songs based on your playlist. We wanted to cover this second category, which deals with new cultural forms related to algorithms that pick up bits of content to hybridize and transform them, glitches, remediations…
It wasn’t about siding with the “tyranny of the algorithm” but rather about observing the range of these algorithmic cultures, this interesting phenomenon, which artists and designers are documenting themselves on Github. A project by Darius Kazemi, who made bots that pick up and juxtapose unrelated pieces of news headlines, may be sophomoric in humor, but the Net artist also demostrates the underlying logic of bots. As in the Ghost Writers performance of Austrian collective Traumawien and German artist Bernhard Bauch, the publication of true-false comments compiled on YouTube spammed Amazon. These projects are not far from those of Narrative Science, a company that provides financial analysis reports generated by algorithms for Forbes.
Algorithms are regaining the spotlight with the re-emergence of the machine-dominates-human fantasy, as seen by the media coverage of Dominique Cardon’s book “A quoi rêvent les algorithmes” (What algorithms dream about). In “Dadabot” however, you seem to avoid any criticism…
We maintain a sort of ethnographer’s neutrality in the book, but the fact that we interviewed artists who might put into projects or words the dangers of algorithms is an indirect way of criticizing. Anyway, in this new cultural form, not everything should be thrown out. Let’s leave ourselves open to surprise!
If Forbes chooses to replace journalists with programs, the fault lies not with algorithms but with Forbes and its stockholders, who want to cut costs! Technique is not merely something that falls from the sky and imposes on us, it’s neither an object specifically thought up by humans, nor is it an object that acts on its own, it’s an emanation of different ways of doing and being.
And what about those big names—Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking or even Bill Gates—who say beware of artificial intelligence (AI)?
Of course, some methodologies are imposed on groups of humans by machines. But the problem, as Hawking points out, is less technology than capitalism. His fear of AI is based on the idea that some forms of society authorize personal data collection and impose certain ways of doing. The problem lies not so much in technology as in social logistics. The fear is reinforced by the fact that all this can be exacerbated by technology. And of course, this is very, very problematic.
“Dadabot. Essay about the hybridization of cultural forms (music, visual arts, literature) produced by digital technologies”, Nicolas Nova and Joël Vacheron, éditions Idpure, 2015