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Glitchland: In the Future, the Digital Will Know How to Decay

Years ago I was at a gig. A tall African guy was on stage, about to begin his performance of traditional music. As he picked up the microphone, an abrasive snap of audio feedback shot through the speakers and caused one or two people in the crowd to flinch uncomfortably. As the glitch reverberated and a sound engineer ran around trying to fix it the African man said slowly, in a thick accent, "We like it! It is in the rhythm."

This was long before anyone had written essays about something called the "New Aesthetic" or was making music videos like this.

Today there is a fascination with manufacturing glitches, with imposing faults and quirks on otherwise clean and seamless media. Many have theorised that this is a reaction to the irrationally perfect landscape of the hyperreal; or a comment on the "binary" state of technology as we now know it - it either works or it doesn't.

That's the assertion made in this PBS video and, having owned an iPhone 4 which worked perfectly until the day it decided never to turn on again, I get the argument:

The presenter points out that some of the nostalgia associated with glitches may be connected to our memories of pre- and early digital media which was ostensibly more prone to error and failure. He calls the present proliferation of glitch art "a ballet of mistakes" and explains why, for us, broken has become beautiful.

There's a lot of weight behind those statements. We love this stuff. A friend of mine linked to a glitch art tool made by Georg Fischer which randomly imposes various degrees of glitch onto photographs uploaded by the user. There are other examples of this, such as Smack my Glitch Up and Glitchy3bitDither. Experimentation with glitching, without having to play around with code or complicated software, has clearly become popular.

I was mildly surprised, however, to see Fischer's tool featured as one of the top stories on The Verge a day or two after I'd heard about it. Here was one of the most popular tech-culture sites on the web massively foregrounding a simple, experimental tool that screws up digital photographs. Why? Aside from the neat technical accomplishments of Fischer's JavaScript program, it's probably because interactive glitch art tools say something about our relationship with this phenomenon. We're making glitches, not becoming unexpectedly, unwillingly subject to them.

Which, if you think about it, is sort of the opposite of what a glitch in the original sense really is. Designed and predefined errors are not at all the same as things not working in the first place. Consider the title of the book, Glitch: Designing Imperfection, for example. You might be able to fool someone with glitch art and raise questions about the reliability of different technologies and formats, but that's a very different experience from living with glitches - accepting stuff that doesn't work properly (even though we all know that experience).

Truly glitch-prone things are not really remembered fondly. Take this PC World top ten "worst PCs of all time". These were bad computers. You know, really bad. They were slow, poorly designed, they broke, they suffered from bugs and security flaws. Their quirks, such as power supplies which frequently failed or internal electronics that warped when the system warmed up, indicate the kind of catastrophic entropy to which their users were mercilessly subject.

Glitch art and glitches towards which we display an overwhelmingly positive response seem to occupy a sweet spot of failure which is not quite completely broken but which is vibrant and random enough to catch our attention. As long as nothing's actually faulty, glitches are, we have decided, pretty awesome.

I thought about this for a while. I also thought about my previous argument that glitches represented the "edge space" which allowed cyberspace to possess Otherness, like a realm out of which unexpected surprises and strange materials might still tumble. I maintain that that's true, but I started to imagine a slightly alternate version of our world. I wondered what it would be like if digital stuff were prone to decay instead of glitches.

Any piece of paper is biodegradable. You can stall its decomposition for a long, long time under controlled conditions, but that piece of paper is constantly obedient to certain physical laws which give it a kind of life expectancy. Although it is a myth that digital artefacts do not degrade, they don't seem to do so in the same way. A file may get corrupted. It may fail to load, or we might lose the technology required to read it. But we don't know that will happen - digital materiality seems pregnant with a much greater degree of uncertainty. It seems both more stable and less reliable at the same time.

"Imagine if you took a digital photograph today knowing that it will look faded ten years from now"

I think that paradox lies behind a lot of the fascination with glitches, but imagine if things were different. Imagine if you took a digital photograph today knowing that it will look faded ten years from now. Maybe you don't know how much, exactly, but you knew that it would lose some of its vibrancy because, well, nothing lasts forever. And maybe it would lose more of its vibrancy if it were displayed in lots of places, or if lots of computers accessed it. How would that make you feel about the digital object, the photograph that you took?

Would the notion of that inevitable decay narrow the dichotomy of physical and digital things? Would our relationship with online media be more like our relationship with physical media (online text versus printed text) if more attributes of the physical were (arbitrarily) mirrored?

I look at the floorboards in my room. They are decades old, varnished but chipped in places, scratched, and marked with the indentations of many previous inhabitants. Physical things readily receive the mark of human presence, but websites look the same no matter how many people have opened and closed them, scrolled madly through their text or double-clicked on embedded links.

Glitches are not decay, they are faults in process. Decay remains largely an out-of-place concept in the context of digital media.

This is because the kind of transience which exists for digital media, for code and electronics, is not relevant to our natural understanding of decay. Digital media is entropic and its life is non-linear, therefore it's difficult for us to relate to because we know that our organic bodies are subject to very different laws. We might use technical metaphors to describe ourselves, maybe even calling a bodily defect as a "glitch", but that is simply an indication of how metaphor constantly emphasises contradictions.

We currently occupy a period in which the explicit differences between physical and digital materiality are prized by our culture. We adore the contrast between print and online being so stark. We don't even have to explain it. That they should have separate, distinct, mutually reinforcing values is something that we instinctively know.

The potential for digital artefacts to upturn our expectation that they will be around forever is something that has already been mused upon by researchers. Whether it's temporary social media or the possible failures of digital records and archives, we are already aware of a dichotomy between physical decay and digital non-permanence.

Recently Reuters listed several apps which aim to challenge the idea that digital media is eternal. Yet none of this is an embrace of the true glitch. Again, we are talking about designing experiences which circumvent the established norms of this technology in order to satisfy specific use cases.

"Glitch art is just the beginning of ... a world in which the permanence of the digital is no longer assumed"

And that's the power that we have with digital media. We can design obsolescence if we wish, we may pre-program decay when we want - but until recently there was no reason to. As time goes on, however, we will come up with more excuses to do precisely that. Glitch art is just the beginning of our culture leaning towards a world in which the permanence of the digital is no longer assumed. The mangled JPEGs and ruptured codecs which frustrated us in the past and which inspire artists of the present will be demanded by consumers of the future.

And we'll get to choose when and why our artefacts collapse or exhibit defects. We'll expect it - and not just for aesthetic purposes. It will also be for reasons of privacy, as a social tool, and as a way of defining value.

Just wait and see. A new universe of determinable digital decay is on the horizon.

We like it. It is in the rhythm.

Photo: "Glitch service" by Henry Faber. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo: "Glitch Baby" by Ignotus the Mage. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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