The first transmission over what would evolve into the Internet originated in Los Angeles, with one machine at UCLA and the second at the Stanford Research Institute. On October 29, 1969 the research teams were on the phone with each other while the UCLA team tried to log in:
“Do you see the L?”
“Yes, we see the L,” came the response.
We typed the O, and we asked, “Do you see the O.”
“Yes, we see the O.”
Then we typed the G, and the system crashed….
On the second try, they connected without a problem — it was just a bug. And bugs had already been in the lines for a long time. Early telephone operators were already describing random noise as bugs on the wires. And according to the Jargon Dictionary, the technical use of “bug” probably originated even earlier — the Vibroplex repeating telegraph key had a graphic of a beetle and was notoriously difficult for novices to use, often resulting in Morse code errors.
But the origin of the computer bug was on September 9, 1947 when a moth was found in relay 70, panel F of the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator. The moth was taped to a report sheet (now in the Smithsonian) with the note: “first actual case of a bug being found.” They declared the machine “debugged,” and in later anecdotes Admiral Grace Murray Hopper spread the term in it’s current usage.
There’s a tendency to think of computer bugs as “actual” bugs, something like moths between relay points that can be plucked from the system, singular errors that can eventually be stamped out. But there’s also something about information technology itself that squirms and flutters, bugs on the line spitting out random code and making unexpected connections. For example Grace Hopper, often credited with originating the term “bug,” was also the inventor of COBAL (“Common Business Oriented Language”). And because COBOL programmers tried to save two bytes of storage, we ended up with y2k, a bug far more infamous than the original moth.
The summer after <net.net.net>, I was working with the Independent Media Center during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, helping run the live web radio feed. When the gunfire started, we were taking cell phone calls from a concert on the first day of major marches and protests. Rage Against the Machine had finished playing in the fenced off parking lot next to Staples Center and the LA band Ozomatli had started playing. After about 15 minutes, the LAPD declared the concert an illegal assembly. A few minutes after that, they rushed the crowd.
Rubber-coated bullets are fired from a shotgun. Over a cellphone, the shots sounded like sharp cracks. They’re shooting at us, the man yelled into the phone. They’re coming at us with horses. In the background we heard screaming, popping noises, the sound of hundreds of feet. The man on the phone yelled frantically at his friend, get up, get up. They ran.
He told us the police had blocked the exit to the parking lot and were swinging nightsticks at anyone who tried to get past. They turned and ran in the other direction, more screaming, a protest chant in the background. The man was out of breath. We heard a helicopter roar over the phone, then roar over our own building. We sat in front of our computer screens a few blocks from where this was happening, staring at the phone handset, stunned. The audio kept streaming over the net, while the man panted over and over: we’re running… we’re running… we’re running….
In spite of various lawsuits, the city declared the week of the DNC a complete success and praised the LAPD and National Guard for keeping downtown Los Angeles safe from violent anarchists.
The conversion of raw data into valid information is a mysterious alchemical process. Out of endless fields of empirical accounts and statistical output, only a tiny fraction is given the force of reality. And when he first described a hypertextual linking system in 1945, Vannevar Bush was confronting a potential alchemical failure. He needed a way of dealing with mountains of scientific data generated by the dawn of atomic warfare, so much data that it threatened to swamp traditional indexing systems and overwhelm any individual researcher. In order to keep the alchemical information refinery working, he deployed another magical system — association — which used the sympathetic magic of the researcher’s perception of linkage and the contiguous magic of the link itself.
Bush called his hypothetical information association device a “Memex”, which was a military style contraction of memory, external. More than a personal database, Bush described this external mind as a site of collaboration, suggesting that the collected associative trails of many researchers would literally make sense, manufacturing new meaning out of the vast array of available data.
But nothing about associative indexing or collective cross-linkage requires the links to be logical or the collaboration to be rational. In fact, looking at our existing world wide hypertextual system, it almost feels like the exact opposite, with the aggregate result of collaborative linkage sometimes having only the most oblique or schizophrenic connection. Rather than a chorus of rational investigators, there is just as often a legion of voices, sometimes whispering filthy propositions and paranoid threats, sometimes gathering into a shout or a howl, sometimes diffusing into a conspiratorial haze of gossip.
The memex is a paranoid machine, filled with conspiracies and convoluted associations, but the root of the word “paranoia” suggests a mind beside itself, implying the same motivation behind oracles, conspiracy theories and external memory machines — a desire to see ourselves reflected in the world, to tie our stories together and surprise ourselves with the results. The root of the word conspiracy is not the painfully obvious collusion of the powerful but rather breathing together — working with others on an intimate level, actually sharing someone’s air, even if that air is digital.
On the cover of Wired’s December 1999 issue, there is a winged woman leaping off a high cliff into a bright blue sky. Let’s call her an angel. Her arms and torso are dark, while her legs are pale and her feet are as gray as the stone behind her. Perhaps the color is filling her naked body as she leaps, or perhaps it’s draining away. Her wings are tiny — far too small to hold her up — but her arms are flung high and her head held back, utterly confident. Or utterly resigned to her fate. The text below her reads: Here We Go…
The Wired angel leaping into the sky was an image of blissful optimism, an overcoming of all the millennial paranoia surrounding the rollover of the Judeo-Christian odometer. But there was also a hint of cynical abandon, the suggestion that nothing was holding up the wired economy but a sense of irrational exuberance and “we” had already stepped off the edge into the void.
In the spring of 2000, the NASDAQ began a three year drop. And as the gas left the cyber-bubble it was once again clear that cyber does not mean techno or shiny or mechanical — it comes from the Greek root to steer. Cybernetics is the science of control, or more specifically, the study of feedback control loops (which puts a dark spin on all the cyber terms of the ’90s: control-loop surfing, control-loop punk, control-loop art). However cheerfully the term had been used to market consumer electronics, cyber always referred to finding clever ways of exacting control over a system, computer systems, economic systems, social systems….
When Norbert Weiner first wrote about cybernetics in the 1940s, he was explicitly afraid of subtle social control mechanisms, feedback loops that would make people want to obey, freedom lost to an array of well-mapped desires.
The term net.art was born in a garbled file which was later lost in a hard drive crash. It was a label which deleted itself and which described a practice that no one would personally admit to practicing — at least none of the people we spoke with at <net.net.net> in the before and after shadow of y2k. But this resistance to labeling was the sort of thing that made the web so exciting for artists and cultural experimenters in the early days of the graphical browser. Web work didn’t need to be clearly named any more than the net itself needed to be a clean orderly research tool. It seemed as if the web could embody the illogical process of creation and collaboration, with all of the noise and mess.
When the web still felt like a brand new field of nomadic possibilities, some people equated it with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s rhizome — the concept of a multiplicity with fuzzy edges and connections passing between categories, as opposed to the divisions and stark categorizations of an indexical “branching tree” style hierarchy. Calling the web a rhizome usually came with the assumption that rhizomatic structures were qualitatively better than the striations and divisions of an indexical arboreal structure.
But even at their most exuberant, Deleuze and Guattari still warned of the dangers of the rhizome. Lines of striation could impose homogeneity, but rhizomatic lines of flight were far more risky with their constant lunging after schizoid rupture. Attempts to flee oppressive structures could turn into the repetitious pathos of psychosis. The line of flight itself could even become a line of death, “a line of destruction pure and simple,” with the leap towards destratified freedom ending in the suicidal collectivity of fascism. But most often the rhizomatic line of flight ends in brutal recapture and the imposition of a yet more rigid order.
The 2000 Whitney Biennial featured web-based art for the first time. In a show in which some individual video artists had multiple rooms and projections, ten net artists were put in a single room with a single computer, all of their work run by a single user in a single browser. Anyone else in the gallery was left to watch the projected computer screen, sitting lined up on a single bench. The mess of networked hypertextual art had been safely contained.
This book began with the hope of collecting a few conversations, a set of interviews about art and activism on the net. But while we edited and transcribed, everything we discussed had changed. The notion of activism was radically different from post-Seattle 1999 to post-New York 2001. Web work in a time of sexy dot.com stock options stood in stark contrast to a time of post-crash bankruptcies and rampant technology unemployment. And some of the original clever net.art browser tricks had already become standard features, while pornography, spam and malware innovations had far surpassed artists in technical sophistication.
And as we tried to collect our <net.net.net> memories together into a physical thing, we realized that what is saved and what is erased has little to do with their value. Systems of forgetting and remembering operate on the same line and are subject to similar bugs, making some things suddenly appear out of the noise while some things flickered out of existence. We did not have a set of clean orderly interviews.
Faced with a suddenly “historical” project and a decayed array of texts, we imagined organizing it all into a guide book, a map book, a children’s book, a scrap book, a wonder cabinet. We discussed kabbalistic systems based on the 216 web-safe colors and homages to the 36 categories in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. In the end, this book was built around six major subject nodes, each with several topical subsections. And within these are fragments of the original <net.net.net> interviews, fragments referenced by the interviews, fragments of information lost in transcription, fragments to contextualize other fragments…
It’s a book of associative tangles, constructed by means of linkage and accretion, composed of accidents as much as it is of an effort to record and explain. It’s an honest book, not because it attempts anything so crass as writing history, but because it openly wears the symptoms of a particular history.
Unexpectedly, this book became what it originally set out to be. It’s noisy, conspiratorial, paranoid, haunted, gossipy, definitely buggy — but a conversation. Following that model, it also doesn’t try to follow a single argument to its conclusion, and it remains naggingly unfinished. It might also work best in the kitchen or bedroom, maybe the bathroom. Really anywhere that it might risk stains. And as a book, it should be excellent for bibliomantic oracles — something the web will never quite be able to do.
Brown, Jason. “Introduction – NTNTNT“
NTNTNT. Los Angeles: CalArts School of Art, 2003. pp xlii-xlix.