1. Attention Economy / Ecology
  2. A Crash Course on Emergence
  3. The Genetic Algorithm
  4. Case Study : Feedback Loops and Human-Machine Semiotics

  5. Core Argument
  6. Attention as Currency, the Image-Object and Persona as Product
  7. Irony and Lack of Fixity in Representational Strategy
  8. Dualist Ideologies - Power, Beauty and The Question
  9. The Hill Climbing Problem
  10. Counteraction

///Deconstructing the Image-Object ///Wading in the Wake of Symbolization

Sterling Crispin

All of human culture competes for our limited attention and resources, evolving and mutating over time. Everyone plays a role in shaping this behavior, although its clear some key players have more control. Each observation and action is an opportunity to contribute to the reproduction or demise of a thing or idea. The observer changes what it observes, and moreso when content producer and consumer are one in the same.

The Internet has accelerated the pace of feedback between creation and response, and one of the results has been a continued embrace of novelty and irony. Capital, currency and power are running rampant without checks and balances from truth, knowledge and beauty. Its time to more fully embrace directness, earnestness and sincerity. This applies to not only what we make and do, but what we support indirectly through our actions.

The following essay is a deconstruction of, and argument against, the post-internet condition. Specifically, I want to address the over use of irony, novelty, attention as currency, persona as product and the embrace of the spectacle of society.

The first four sections are meant as an introduction to the core argument, and offer a broader context which is often overlooked in such discussions of the post-internet condition. Supplemental notes and sources have been included which provide clarification, tangental ideas and some quotes where appropriate.

1 Attention Economy / Ecology

It's clear that our time and attention is limited, and there’s too much going on in the world to pay attention to it all, especially now. Countless people are fighting for our attention and trying to convert this energy into political, social and economic power. Even inanimate things themselves can be thought of as competing for our attention (1)(2). This competition for attention has been turned into a highly skilled craft by plants, animals (1.5) and culture at large, which is especially evident in the battlefield of consumer products and advertisements.

This competition can be understood in terms of Attention Economics (A) which describes the finite nature of human attention in contrast to the vast and exponentially growing access to information. However, it may be more accurate to describe this situation as an attention based ecology rather than an economy. This ecology is an evolutionary system of richly complex interactions between limited resources (human attention), competing agents (corporations, other people, algorithms, ideas, aesthetic styles, cultures, objects themselves) and countless internal and external forces. The time between publishing information and audience response has nearly collapsed since the dawn of the Internet, further exacerbating this situation. The rapid feedback loop between production and consumption, when considered as a whole, can be thought of as vast synthetic brain evolving its ability to engage with humans and understand how we think (3).

(1) This can be seen in the material-semiotics of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (B) concept of the rhizome, the world as a horizontal networked structure of relations that seeks equilibrium and is constantly shifting. Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway and much of traditional ‘eastern’ philosophy also speak on this subject. The fields of cybernetics and chaos theory are scientific approaches to this subject, and I’ll address them later on. (1.5) I’d also recommend Michael Pollans “Botany of Desire” regarding the coevolution of humans and plants.

(2)Also in Bruno Latour’s Anthropological Matrix (C) which describes the world existing as a web of hybrid things that are both subject and object, between nature and culture, between agency and raw material. In the Anthropological Matrix all things are both real and imagined, both nature and culture. Latour has also extensively written about Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) (D) which describes existence as a network of ‘actors’ (human or nonhuman, essentially everything) engaged in a series of relationships. ANT disrupts the concept of differentiated individuals acting in the world and states that these things are really the sum of many other actors which reinforce each other.

(3) See Kevin Kelly’s inspired book “What Technology Wants”, and authors like Oliver Reiser, Buckminster Fuller, Dane Rudhayar, Sri aurobindo, N.A. Kozyrev, Teilhard de Chardin, Jose Arguelles, et al.

(A) Davenport, T. H.; Beck, J. C. (2001). The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Harvard Business School Press

(B) Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. (1972). Anti-Œdipus. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. London and New York: Continuum, 2004. Vol. 1 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 2 vols. 1972-1980. Trans. of L'Anti-Oedipe. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

(C) Latour, Bruno. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

(D) Latour, Bruno. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP.
2. A Crash Course on Emergence

The interaction between the billions of people and countless entities (both physical and conceptual) is analogous to competing swarms of organisms undergoing flocking behavior as they compete for limited resources. Imagine a flock of birds or a coral reef as a model for understanding urban cities (4) and societal, economic or semiotic relationships. Each individual node in the system is primarily concerned with their local neighbors, rather than the overall pattern. This concept of ‘local neighbor’ (5) could be a physical thing, an idea, a geographic location, a material property, a symbolic relationship, sociological, economic, et al (2 see ANT). By adjusting in small steps (6) to maintain or shift alignment between these neighbors, the overall structure of the global organism undergoes emergence (7) and evolves. The milieu (8) of this global-social-organism could be considered as the Internet, fed by the pulsing desires of the whole world (9) . However, all of the world is a stage.

(4) Steven Johnson calls these ‘Liquid Networks’ (E)

(5) I’m mostly referring to Latour and the neighboring actors in the network, however there’s a concept in machine learning called the Nearest Neighbor thats also relevant. This describes a process by which the nearest (most similar) event from past experience are classified into the same category. This is opposed to a priori knowledge, and provides a basis for machines to intuitively discover new things.

(6) Buckminster Fuller is widely cited for his use of the concept of a ‘trim tab’ as a metaphor for an individual’s ability to affect the global organism. Trim tabs are a small surface connected to the edge of a rudder of a boat or plane, which reduce the amount of work required to be performed by the larger rudder. Making small adjustments to the trim tab can dramatically adjust the trajectory of the system it is attached to.

(7) Many complex systems that may at first seem to be very different (termite colonies, human brains, cities, bacteria colonies, nervous systems) are all the result of emergence. When a great number of individual agents follow a simple set of rules they begin to self organize and result in a great order of complexity, often without any individual agent becoming aware of such ordering. Steven Johnson has written about the subject’s vast implications (F) and it is widely studied in fields like evolutionary science, neurology, urban development and economics.

(8) “In French, milieu means “surroundings”, “medium” (as in chemistry), and “middle”. In the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, “milieu” should read as a technical term combining all three meanings.“ (G).

(9) Global internet access was at 34% in June 2012 (H). Even if one is not directly on the web, its effect on globalization has made its influence inescapable.

(E) Johnson, Steven. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books

(F) Johnson, Steven. (2001). Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Scribner

(G) Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis, London.

(H) “Internet World Stats”. March 2013.
3. The Genetic Algorithm

Digital documents, concepts and physical forms converge into discrete objects as necessary and move from representation to embodiment then back again. This constantly emerging and unfolding behavior is a multiplicity that exists in a cloud of experience. A thought leaves the self and is encoded within a vehicle, which is then experienced by the other and/or the self, which is then re-imagined where finally the cycle loops on itself in a circular causal relationship. This formula is the basis of cybernetic theory and inherent in any act of conscious creation. The machine-human hybrid is a semiotic engine. It fragments knowledge and mutates information through a genetic feedback loop. The basic structure of this genetic system (10) is as follows:

  1. Initial population : Content is uploaded to the Internet and/or non-web content observed and integrated into the actor-network of the observer.

  2. Fitness evaluation : The content that has generated the most attention/capital is strengthened in the actor-network, creating a subset based on preference.

  3. Reproduction : Analysis of preferred content, interpretation and understanding is developed.

  4. Mutation and genetic crossover : Synthesis between subset which produces a new population. This could be human and/or algorithmic creation of new content and/or remixing of preexisting content.

  5. Loop : Back to reproduction.

  6. Termination : The newly created semiotic organism becomes extinct, or it speciates into a new thing which is no longer in the same genus, and/or speciates in a way that does not allow for further reproduction (10.5).

(10) Genetic algorithms are widely used in machine learning systems, robotics, manufacturing prototyping, computer vision, natural language processing and many other fields. Neural networks, which are inspired by biological networks of neurons, are often used in conjunction with genetic algorithms. These networks pass observations between nodes and learn from observed data by strengthening which connections fit a particular criteria. The most robust of these systems use several neural networks which feed on each other in feedback loops, abstracting the level of evolution across the entire system.

(10.5) A horse and donkey producing a mule for example, which by themselves are essentially sterile. This could also be an idea that does not get spread around.

4. Case Study : Feedback Loops and Human-Machine Semiotics

Search engines are keystone communication lines, and themselves are evolving actors in the network. The proprietary algorithms (11) and machine learning processes are the DNA of these systems which through the help of flagellum like web-crawlers, scan what information can be quantified in the network (both online web and offline data at large) and improve the effectiveness of the system. At this point, this should be fairly obvious to anyone participating in contemporary society. But as the Observer’s Paradox (12) shows, any such observation of the network will then influence said content, and language itself.

This Observer’s Paradox is evident in content farms such as Demand Media who hire thousands of workers to generate text and video content in order to satisfy such algorithms. Language itself has begun to adapt to this systematized, mechanical observation and analysis of its constituent parts. This crowd sourced labor model is also used by Amazon’s mechanical Turk (I) which describes itself as “artificial artificial intelligence”. Workers are paid pennies on the dollar to complete “human intelligence tasks”, like sorting which search result is better, or reviewing the kinds of articles that Demand Media may have written (13).

Websites like, and, which are developed by Demand Media, generate more robust content than pure spam bots (14). However, they still reek of a Frankenstein-like approach to language and meaning. These websites offer countless fragmented and self-referential articles such as “What is Kale?”, “The Skin Benefits of Kale”, “Benefits of Juicing Kale”, “Nutritional Breakdown of Kale”, “Kale Nutrition Information” , “The Health Benefits of Eating Kale” , and “What is the Nutritional Value of Kale?”, which are each designed around search phrases rather than designed to offer a more complete body of information.

(11) It’s a common misconception and reductive to say that a search engine is a complex algorithm. Machine learning is a broad topic in artificial intelligence, and state of the art search engines are built from a vastly complex architecture of machine learning systems, neural networks, semantic databases, web crawlers and are assisted at many stages by human tasks.

(12) The result of an observation is often affected by the observer. In quantum mechanics, it is impossible to observe a system without changing it. See quantum indeterminacy, quantum uncertainty and Schrödinger's cat.

(13) This could be seen as a problematic devaluing of human labor via machines, and such trends were fuel for a number of labor riots of the 19th century. The English working-class, and in particular Luddite textile artisans, backlashed against the mechanical production which had left them jobless. Many argue that humanity has been adapting to technology, rather than technology to humanity, since the industrial revolution. Ted Kaczynski’s anti-technology ideology outlined in his infamous manifesto “Industrial Society and its Future” argues that technology limits human freedom and is a perversion from nature.

(14) Often spam bots just use Markov models on databases of keywords which are essentially random yet unpredictable.

(I) “Amazon Mechanical Turk”. Mar 2013.
5. Attention as Currency, the Image-Object and Persona as Product

An image-object (18) can perhaps be understood as newly manifested node in an actor-network which attempts to be self-aware of its position in the network, or attempts to understand or modulate its reception by other agents. The subjectivity imbedded within an image-object is self-aware in terms of its production, consumption, and audience. However if this is the primary consideration of an image-object it can be understood as a product by and for the Spectacle of our attention ecology. The essential truth of such an image-object is that it embodies an immense accumulation of representation as the real. We must not blindly accept the spreading ideology of such an image-object as beauty, as the form of the good, or as truth. The fact that this modality has gained ubiquitously passive acceptance echoes the adage, “that which appears is good, that which is good appears” for “the attitude which (society) demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance” (J) .

The societal expectation for an artist in the post-internet (19) era often lies in a constant stream fragmented gestures, constructed to be quickly digested and ‘shareable’. One is no longer expected to maintain a sustained, deep focused attention toward a single purpose nor “help the world by revealing mystic truths” (Nauman) as truth itself has been deemed subjective and abandoned. The ubiquity of an online audience within the multiplicity of a post-internet art practice breeds over-communication and heavily documented minute gestures, creating a hyper-scrutiny of the ephemeral. Yet this scrutiny can only occupy a narrow region of time as defined by the collective attention span of society, which exponentially dwindles in direct correlation to the increasing speed and ease of communication. Such an artist in the post-internet era is a product, by and for themselves and their audience. This sentiment is embodied in many art practices existing primarily as online presence and persona-as-product (20) .

(18) “Image Objects...exist somewhere between (the) physical... and documentation... the documentation becomes a separate work in itself...(they) move seamlessly from physical representation to internet representation” (K).

(19) “Post-Internet is defined as a result of the contemporary moment: inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials" (K).

(20) “Separated from his product, man himself produces all the details of his world with ever increasing power, and thus finds himself ever more separated from his world. The more his life is now his product, the more he is separated from his life.” (J)

(J) Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Black & Red. 2006. first published 1967.

(K) Vierkant, Artie.
The Image Object Post-Internet” 2010.
6. Irony and Lack of Fixity in Representational Strategy

Vierkant questions where the heart of an artwork exists, and concludes that the imageobject is one that “move(s) seamlessly from physical representation to Internet representation”(K) and that the truth of art now lies in this infinite mutability of form. I suggest that the “lack of fixity in representational strategy” (K) used by image-objects is often less in terms of the direct mutability of the digital, and material-semiotics, but rather an exacerbation of the burden of choice, and an embrace of the ironic gesture which plagues modern society. The ironic often plays such a key role in such image-objects, it deserves quoting the following at length:

“(the ironic) makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It preemptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism....Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, which means etymologically to “secretlyflee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.” (L)

However, this embracing of the infinite mutability of digital matter is not the root of the problem. Rather it seems clear that the development of attention as currency and “capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image”(J) is a virus rotting away at the core of society. This self-consuming activity allows for “technology to become determinant of its own truth”(M), which is the “supreme danger” of technology, according to Heidegger. This kind of activity is machine-based (or aided/informed) production, but it’s the production of alienation, it’s a product of the spectacle not of the real. Perhaps it’s an attempt to create the real through the inversion of mere representation into the real, but this practice immediately, willingly, and happily sacrifices this real back into the Spectacle. This model of working is a continual abandonment of truth. It generates and embraces alienation itself as a product, rather than producing an investigation into the understanding of ones own existence. Of course one could define ones existence by and through the Spectacle, but to completely deny the real and fail to see that which is outside of the Spectacle is truly the negation of life.

(L) Wampole, Christy. “How to Live Without Irony” Opinionator, The New York Times 2012

(M) Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. HarperCollins 1977. first published 1954.
7. Dualist Ideologies - Power, Beauty and The Question Concerning Technology

These attention based spectacle-fueled image-objects are “a constellation of formal aesthetic quotations, self-aware of (their) ... context and built to be shared and cited” (K) rather than the “essence of technology…the constellation, the stellar course of the mystery”(M). This distinction, however potentially problematic in its dualism, presents two modalities which should be considered with a great deal of importance. One modality is of power and currency, the other is of beauty and truth. As Heidegger states, one modality becomes "transfixed in the will to master it(self) as an instrument”(M) and fails to “hear in what respect one exists in terms of ones essence”(M). While the other reaches toward the essence of technology which “resides in a poetic dwelling near the truth of Being”(M).

Through the lens of Heidegger one could say that the relationship between the imageobject and its components of physical, digital and ideological forms, and the modulation of these components, is a means of ordering as a way of revealing. Heidegger states that Enframing is the “calling out to unconceal the actual”(M) from which “the essence of all history is determined”(M) and that this behavior is “truth setting itself to work” (N). He continues to state that the essence of technology lies in its revealing and unconcealing of the truth. And that “technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.”(M) What then are the truths that may be revealed by this iterative, self-consuming behavior of society and what is the history that it has defined? Often it is those individuals who are interested in power, not beauty, that write our history.

It seems plausible that this iterative and genetic approach of image-object documentation, mutation, and reproduction, would over time reorder the image-object and reveal, or unconceal, a truth closer to the core of the post-internet condition and the nature of being. However, when novelty itself becomes the goal of a creative system, the strategies of aesthetic mutation become polluted with tropes and clichés. Rather than a swift evolution into new unknown forms, this activity becomes a frantic flailing. This methodology treads water, gasping for the air of truth in a sea of self-referential ironic gestures. If there is sincerity within the work, it’s the sincere embrace of attention as currency, and a willingness to never escape the isolated arena of the aesthetic object. This is an activity “so inextricably linked with a variety of interpretations on Conceptual art doxa”(K), (the commonly held beliefs and often unquestioned opinions) that it lacks a Logos (a ground, an argument, a wider context), necessary to deliver it into Episteme (clear truth, certainty of knowledge). This activity is a tool for the formation of an argument, which lacks both context for the argument, and the argument itself.

(N) Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings - The Origin of the Work of Art. HarperCollins 2008. first published 1960.

8. The Hill Climbing Problem

To continue using the analogy of genetic algorithms and systems, any such imageobject fueled by an attention based economy may suffer from the hill-climbing problem. Essentially this states that although incremental change may lead to a better solution it may only be a local solution or local hill that has been climbed. While the higher, global hill within the system remains unseen and thereby unattainable. This lower hill is the hill of the attention-based economy, with a shallow and voracious hunger for novelty. The climbing of this hill equates to what forms generate the most attention or spectacle. While the higher, global hill (of which there of course, are a multiplicity) exists in what Heidegger refers to as the essence of technology which resides in “a poetic dwelling near the truth of Being” (M) . These are the moments of experience which broaden and redefine what it is to be human, which enrich, question and give back to the collective pool of humanity, rather than offer up idols and symbols for, and of, consumption. These are gestures inherently born from their use value, not just in a practical and pragmatic sense of use, but also in an emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual use. This is in contrast to gestures born from an exchange value, based solely on economic hierarchies in the language of attention, capital and currency.

This graphic is of course reductive, and it is likely that the higher hill shown here would be best illustrated as existing on another surface, or perhaps another hyper-surface altogether. These higher dimensions of consequence and purpose may unfold and reveal themselves perpetually, remaining forever out of reach. However, failing to witness and reach toward them is "the danger in failing to hear in what respect one exists in terms of ones essence"(M). Reality is a feedback loop, of which we are all authors who must be “affirmed (by) the power of the world to call forth an otherwise inaccessible reality and the ability of art to give shape and significance to the chaos of the universe” (O).

(O) Durrell, Lawrence. Comprehending The Whole. University of Missouri Press. 1955
9. Counteraction

The following is a reworking of The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. I’ve attempted to summarize condense, aphorize and weaponize his rhetoric to provide alternatives to this pandemic. A more complete form of this text is available here.

The power of this social reality must be mitigated in order to liberate the individual and reestablish a sense of community. 

The accumulation of communication must be decentralized so that the social relation among people is not mediated strictly through a technology who’s central purpose is the consumption of this communication.

The immense accumulation of spectacles is not life. Mere appearance is the negation of life and must be inverted into the real. The totalitarian management of the conditions of existence must be abolished.

We must move away from representation, and favor direct experience while separating every aspect of life from the constant stream of detached images. These simple images must remain distant from the real world so that it can be grasped directly. 

These specialized images of the world must be inverted and abandoned.

Modern conditions of production, and the self consuming discourse of society must be interrupted and must not pervade every aspect of life. The present model of society must be known as unreal and unjustified. Class reform is necessary to deinstitutionalize the social division of labor.

One must aim toward something other than oneself and seek to produce the real, not the image of the real.

Appearing must reform into having, and then into being as its ultimate function.