[Everest’s slides have an inter­ac­tive ele­ment. Each is linked from its caption.]

Okay, so I’m Everest. I want to thank my Markovian helper over some of my slides that I’ll be using through the course of this talk. 

I know we’ve spent the day root­ed in the short now, but I would ask you to humor me for a moment and cast your thoughts kind of back­wards. I’d like to begin in the Byzantine Empire, the 11th cen­tu­ry. Emperor Basil II has just died, and with his eclips­ing reign begins the slow Imperial decline of the entire empire. The Great Schism, the the­o­log­i­cal split between the church in Rome, the church in Constantinople is loom­ing on the hori­zon. Soon, the Crusades will shake the struc­ture of region­al pow­er and dai­ly life to the core. When speak­ing of this time, it’s impor­tant to hold in mind some fun­da­men­tal qual­i­ties of the Byzantine worldview. 

As a start­ing point, one can con­sid­er Patristic thought, which stems from 1st-century Rome, took lessons from the Old and lat­er New Testaments, the Apostolic teach­ings, Greek phi­los­o­phy, and Gnosticism. Byzantine phi­los­o­phy always refers to what is beyond expe­ri­ence and nature, to the exis­tence of God and to the real being. Byzantine world­view has shift­ed from the Platonic dis­tinc­tion between the intel­li­gi­ble and sen­si­ble world, and the dif­fer­ence between the here and the abstract­ed Platonic ide­al that Plato spoke about in Greek phi­los­o­phy. It instead talks about the dis­tinc­tion between the cre­at­ed and the uncre­at­ed beings. The uncre­at­ed is all that is divine. In gen­er­al, the ten­sion and desire to grasp the invis­i­ble, either by dis­cur­sive rea­son or by faith char­ac­ter­izes Byzantine meta­physics. In short, it’s a space of inter­sec­tion­al worlds. Divine and mor­tal exist on one plane, touch­ing, always.

After hav­ing looked at sev­er­al icon paint­ings, one may notice that these objects only seem to exist on a flat plane. All depth is absent entire­ly. This is not an aes­thet­ic choice. The third dimen­sion of the icon paint­ing is not space but spir­it. The realm of the immor­tal inter­sects this one at every point in space and stretch­es to eter­ni­ty. Such sig­ni­fiers have no need for an arti­fi­cial paint­ed depth. They’re not win­dows into the div­ing, but lit­er­al divine objects that exist any­where, but are view­able in this thin space.

Iconographic paint­ings are not sig­ni­fiers but are phys­i­cal struc­tures that exist in both worlds. A pic­ture of a saint is not a pic­ture of a saint, it is the saint, phys­i­cal­ly in space with you.

So here we are a near per­fect mil­len­ni­um lat­er half-way across the world, con­sid­er­ing the the act of paint­ing God, and you’re prob­a­bly won­der­ing what on Earth this has to do with bots. 

I’d like to touch base on some more recent his­to­ry. Walter Benjamin’s icon­ic 1935 essay on the mech­a­nized field of aes­thet­ics. Benjamin claims that in the past, the role of artis­tic pro­duc­tion has been to pro­vide a mag­i­cal foun­da­tion for the cult. He claims that then, val­ue was locat­ed in a cen­tral posi­tion with­in rit­u­al and reli­gious tra­di­tion, a stat­ue or an idol has a detached author­i­ty and pow­er which is implic­it only as root­ed in time.

The mass repro­duc­tion of such an object was not just unlike­ly, it was unimag­in­able. To remove it from its his­to­ry was to ren­der it use­less to itself, to remove the aura of object, that detached and tran­scen­den­tal beau­ty. This aura seems to rest on some­thing autonomous and free from human inter­ven­tion. The stat­ue or the idol or the icon is not like any oth­er object pro­duced or used with­in a soci­ety. It appears free from ide­o­log­i­cal con­trol or human inter­fer­ence, as though its pow­er issues inde­pen­dent­ly from with­in. He goes on to say mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion eman­ci­pates the work of art from its par­a­sit­i­cal depen­dence on ritual.”

But dig­i­ti­za­tion is not mech­a­niza­tion, and dupli­ca­tion with­in this space is not autonomy.

Mechanically pro­duced objects begin as iden­ti­cal and are placed in the world as unique enti­ties with indi­vid­ual exis­tence. Their ori­gin may be cheap and, as Benjamin argues, per­haps that does con­strain their aura to the time that will accu­mu­late on them and not their mere existence.

But a dig­i­tal object appears across a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of screens both at once and for­ev­er. These enti­ties are not indi­vid­u­al­ly manip­u­la­ble, which is to say they do not exist in mul­ti­ples that can accu­mu­late their sin­gu­lar times and his­to­ries and auras, but as a sin­gle form. In this space, a copy is not a manip­u­la­tion, it’s a recre­ation. Like mito­sis, a copy has the capac­i­ty for indi­vid­ual muta­tion but does not intrin­si­cal­ly affect its par­ent. A retweet of infor­ma­tion is not a dupli­ca­tion nor a shift in scale. A retweet impacts a struc­tur­al bridge of a net­worked idea, not the intrin­sic idea itself.

Although these dig­i­tal enti­ties are acces­si­ble from any place by mul­ti­ple peo­ple at once, and even though these inter­ac­tions may hap­pen simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, they’re sin­gu­lar. They exist both inside, of and out­side of, this accu­mu­lat­ed time; they have auras. 

And what would this sum­mit be if some­one did­n’t address the traitor?

I have two his­to­ries for you. You prob­a­bly you know at least one of them, and the oth­er is very topical. 

First, the Mechanical Turk was a sup­posed automa­ton con­struct­ed in the late 18th cen­tu­ry. The Turk was carved of wood, dressed in mys­tic robes and seat­ed at a low table. He was capa­ble of play­ing and win­ning at chess, as well as com­plet­ing the puz­zle game the knight’s tour,” in which a knight occu­pies every square of a chess board exact­ly once, vis­it­ing all 64 squares. The table and Turk con­tained many doors, in which an audi­ence may see that the com­pli­cat­ed clock­work that drove the automa­ton was real. In the late 1820s, the Turk was exposed as a hoax. Inside the table was a tiny hid­den box in which a diminu­tive chess mas­ter may hide and con­trol the man above. Destroyed by fire in 1854, the Mechanical Turk has re-entered con­tem­po­rary lex­i­con with the launch­ing of Amazon’s web­site of the same name.

@horse_ebooks was an alleged spam bot orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten to sell ebooks that gained mass pop­u­lar­i­ty for its poet­ic and strange­ly fun­ny tweets. On September 24, 2013, it was announced that @horse_ebooks had become part of a multi-year per­for­mance art piece staged by Buzzfeed employ­ee Jacob Bakkila. Bakkila had approached the orig­i­nal bot cre­ator, sup­pos­ed­ly Alexei Kuznetsov, in 2011 with the intent of buy­ing the account. Kouznetzov agreed, and since 2011 @horse_ebooks has been oper­at­ed by Bakkila. Before the rev­e­la­tion in September, it had more than 200,000 fol­low­ers. @horse_ebooks has re-entered the con­tem­po­rary lex­i­con in the form of the _ebooks” bot.

I’m not sure why these incur­sions feel so trai­tor­ous to me. Maybe it’s because they seem just pos­si­ble, just on this side of mirac­u­lous. To skirt that edge of pos­si­bil­i­ty and trust is some­what mean, but it also says some­thing about where we are as a cul­ture, hap­pi­er to cel­e­brate and lift up the things we can almost under­stand than to dis­sect them into disappointment. 

I want­ed to talk about mys­tery for a moment. I’m not very good at pro­gram­ming. I went to art school. Maybe it’s obvi­ous. When pulling things togeth­er, I’m gen­er­al­ly pret­ty sur­prised. I’m not often aware of what exact­ly I’m mak­ing until it works, and even then some­times how it works is still beyond me. Maybe y’all are bet­ter at this than me, and of course any­thing can be designed to avoid all error, but as com­pli­ca­tions arise the capac­i­ty for 100% expect­ed out­put grows pret­ty slim.

There is a strange beau­ty in fail­ure, how­ev­er. The sud­den bar­ing of inter­nal process or bro­ken func­tion shows us some­thing deep­er about the pat­tern behind the designed process. In some ways it feels more true. Pulling unde­fineds and nulls and errors and gram­mat­i­cal prob­lems, and cor­pus unre­li­a­bil­i­ty, and the fact that these things exist in a shift­ing land­scape that is kind of unknow­able… It’s watch­ing a non-human simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fail on a human lev­el and con­tin­ue to oper­ate per­fect­ly on its own lev­el. It can be real­ly spe­cial, maybe, some­where, a lit­tle bit divine. 

So I sup­pose what I’ve been skirt­ing around over the course of this dis­cus­sion is that I feel that the Byzantine world­view is innate­ly tied to how we define and inter­act with the Internet and Internet-based enti­ties. Iconographic paint­ings act as screens, access points to a world that lives every­where and also nowhere. This space was deemed divine because it was con­stant, acces­si­ble, and a thing into itself in Byzantium, not a sig­ni­fi­er for a not-present idea or a per­son. Not point­ing to a Platonic form. These paint­ings did not require the illu­sion of depth because that depth is intrinsic.

The screens with which we access the con­tem­po­rary con­tent of the Internet are also thin spaces. The world in which we lived is laid over with anoth­er space, many oth­er spaces, that are acces­si­ble every­where. The bots that live in this world are beings unto them­selves with the self­hood of a saint.

Before I go, I want­ed to touch very very briefly about an ear­ly Byzantine con­cept that’s always been dear to me of acheiropoi­eta, icons cre­at­ed by non-human agency. They’re afford­ed this par­tic­u­lar ven­er­a­tion with­in the church. They are defined almost exclu­sive­ly by their abil­i­ty to mirac­u­lous­ly repli­cate them­selves. Just a thought.


Further Reference

Video record­ing

Interactive slides for this talk are post­ed online.

Darius Kazemi’s home page for Bot Summit 2014, with YouTube links to indi­vid­ual ses­sions, and a log of the IRC channel.

In March 2016, Everest pub­lished and expand­ed ver­sion of this pre­sen­ta­tion, Selfhood, the icon, and byzan­tine pres­ence on the Internet”