DIGETHIX Podcast Episode 4: Digitality, Photoshop, and the Audiences of Our Making

In this episode of the Podcast, Seth interviews Alex Nielsen. Alex is a lead project scientist at Old Dominion University in the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center. He is currently pursuing a PhD in scientific and technical communication from Old Dominion University. Alex’s help has also been invaluable in developing this podcast, and he has been one of our earliest advisers.


In this interview, Seth talks to Alex about the aesthetics of DIGETHIX and more broadly about the concept of digitality. In other words, how has our current means of communication affected the ways in which we think about each other and even the very ways we think. The key questions for this episode are: what does it mean for something to be digital? What does it mean to expose otherwise invisible digital markers? What does it mean to have our relationships mediated digitally? If you would like to follow along with this conversation, you can find some of the images that we discuss at https://digethix.org/gallery/. 


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Music: “Dreams” from Bensound.com

Episode Transcript

Seth Villegas  0:05  

Welcome to the DIGETHIX podcast. My name is Seth Villegas, and it is a pleasure to share today’s conversation with you. In this episode of the podcast I interview Alex Nielsen. Alex is the lead Project Scientist at Old Dominion University in the Virginia model analysis and simulation center. He is currently pursuing a PhD in scientific and technical communication from Old Dominion University. Alex’s help has been invaluable in developing this podcast, and he has been one of our earliest advisors. In this interview, I talked to Alex about the aesthetics of DIGETHIX, and more broadly about the concept of digitality. In other words, how has our current means of communication affected the ways in which we think about each other? And even the very ways we think the key questions for this episode are: What does it mean for something to be digital? What does it mean to expose otherwise invisible digital marketers? What does it mean to have our relationships mediated digitally? If you’d like to follow along with this conversation, you can find some of the images that we discuss in the gallery on the DIGETHIX website. This podcast would not have been possible without the help of the digital ethics team, Nicole Smith and Louise Salinas, the intro and outro track dreams was composed by Benjamin Tissot through bensound.com. Now I’m pleased to present you with my interview with Alex Nielsen. 

I think it first would be really great starting point to talk about the website like why does it look the way that it looks? I think starting with the aesthetic movement is a little bit more abstract. So something concrete that people can look at think may make more sense. 


Alex Nielsen  1:50  

Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s also like, there’s kind of this question of, so like, let me let me go ahead and pull up the website on my end, and think about where it is. And and I guess what I would say is, you know, I’m kind of coming at this from a design perspective, but I’m not primarily a designer anymore. I’m much more like a researcher, especially of usability, and organizational communication and genre and documentation and the relationship that the things we make have to the way that we communicate with each other, right? And so I think that, for me, looking at this from a rhetorical perspective, the website, like it’s really hard to separate yourself from your own design, right? And I’m not about to pretend that like I’m some super duper talented artist or anything, but you know, when we were sitting down as a team kind of like, sussing out ideas, you know, we continually hit on this concept of a question of, like, how do machine see us? And how do we see like, machines, right? Or, and I’m kind of like, I kind of want to avoid the word digital in that regard. Like, I think it’s very much about seeing and being seen through systems. And the way that we define technology is always really kind of challenging in that regard. You know, we made a bunch of different images. And like, a lot of times, the thing that was very digital about them was the environment. Sometimes the digital thing is sort of concrete, it’s like some material object in space, sometimes, the thing that is digital is only sort of the elements that we added. But in reality, no matter what we did, the digital thing would still be the way in which that art was captured or created, right? Like those cameras are digital artifacts. The lens is a is a digital artifact. And so, you know, the, the one image that we made with the, the young woman on the beach, where the waves in the far background are in focus, and she’s in this, like, drop focus is really interesting to me, because it’s like an admission of a technological failure to understand the context of the scene. But that autofocus is a technology that’s older than we are, right? To a degree and so like the concept of, of a lot of the things that we consider to be digital technology predates digitality in terms of the way that we might define digitality I used to work with this rhetorician, a little bit around conference culture, so to speak, who I found out years later had actually basically hung out in the same basement of the same record shop as I did in Cleveland, you know, but like I knew him as this like, you know, big, like black authorship scholar and online learning advocate. I didn’t even know we shared neighborhoods, but like his best friend from like childhood was like this guy that I, I ran a poetry press with back in the day, and I used to talk to this guy. And he would always say, you know, people are always talking about how do we work with technology to like teach people? And he always said the same thing you realize a pencil is technology. Right? And and that’s sort of the way that I’ve started to think about it like, is, as we replace all of the tools in our lives with devices, like the functionality of those devices doesn’t become more or less, it just becomes subsumed into a multi tool. You know, the difference between a cell phone in a Leatherman is not really that profound in the sense of history and 10,000 years from now, the difference between a cell phone today and a Leatherman today will be well, there won’t be that much light between them, you know what I mean?


Seth Villegas  5:54  

Right, so the one thing I would say, in a sense, if we look at things abstract enough, the the writing that we see on a page of a book, for instance,  performs the same function as the writing that’s on its screen. But I will say that when I look back, it’s a books I’ve read from this century, the past century, there’s a way in which the technology now, I don’t know if this just the prevalence of it, it really changes the way in which people think about themselves. So for instance, there’s this book by Chris Isherwood called Goodbye to Berlin, in which the opening line is, you know, I am a I am a camera passively, you know, kind of observing everything that’s going on. And so there’s this new way that he’s narrating it, based on his experience with this particular technology. And when you’re kind of talking about cameras earlier, that’s just kind of one example of, Oh, I see this thing and it changes the way that I think about myself. And he’s even becoming more machine like, and how he’s trying to perceive everything around him, right, as if there’s a kind of neutrality in say, a camera that doesn’t come from a particular person’s perspective. And so there’s all these kind of weird things with that, too, that kind of fit into this digitality, computer vision, all the stuff we’re trying to capture with our design.


Alex Nielsen  7:14  

I think there’s there’s another side of that, which is sort of your point about text, right? Text remains more static on the now it is changing. And the way we remediated is really important. And I think we have to acknowledge that text is not just text, right? And that’s pretty obvious. I think, any kind of rhetorical scholar but also most philosophers, right? Marshall McLuhan is alive in the minds of pretty much any rhetorician right now. But text functions like text, but image doesn’t function like image, right? The effect of seeing, let’s just pick the most cliché answer, the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre. And that sense of presence and materiality and scale and tactility is really dramatically different from looking at it on a screen, right? And I would kind of argue that the thing that we need that if I had to delineate digitality, digitality is the moment or the space where image or rather, visual representation has completely outstripped textual representation, right? Like language is definitely within our cultural milieu right now, language is no longer the primary currency of elite thought, of ownership of culture. I’m, like, look at memes. Look at the media. And then like, look back at McLuhan, right? Like, we’re in this like, fully digital era. But that doesn’t mean we all have phones in our pockets. That means we think in pictures and we communicate and animated GIFs. And like, I’m not trying to be reductive. This isn’t a commentary about emoji or whatever. But we have replaced textual thought, as the primary mode for establishing ourselves as big thinkers. If you want to be a big thinker, in in broad culture outside of the Academy, make a killer bomb meme that’s really sticky, that really hangs around the culture. And by the way, now hanging around the culture is three weeks, not three decades. Right. Um, and so like, I think that you’re right, like it’s about, it’s about materiality, it’s about the way that we’ve mechanized ourselves, we…You know, there’s a running joke with developers that everybody’s heard, which is the cloud is just somebody else’s computer. But the truth of the matter is, like the algorithm is people this thing where we say like, Oh, well, the algorithm is racist against black people, like no, somebody made that when people say, well, the algorithm told me that I do this thing. No, like you contributed content into a feedback loop. The algorithm is your labor filtered through somebody else’s ideal monetization scheme. For capital in their industry, whatever that is. And so I think like this idea that we use technology to abstract ourselves, or to find some level of objectivity where we can step out of the frame is both the affordance of and kind of the disease of digital aestheticism, because it’s all pretend the book I thought of immediately when you when you were mentioning that earlier, is Vygotsky, his Mind and Society, right? Vygotsky is basically arguing is is incredibly reductive. And I’m not a philosopher, nor psychologist, but right, he’s basically arguing that the higher functions of thinking happen within social structures, right? That being a brain in a jar walking around the world, you have to interact at a higher level, if you recognize there are other things that are brains in jars, and that and sort of like that the meat puppets that those brains in jars are walking around in are sort of only a challenge, an imposition to that concept, at some level. The thing that the internet is doing, for instance, is it’s simply removing the body. And people are always talking about embodiment. And they’re always like crowing about like, oh, are transhumanist like post human cyborg embodied digitality. I kind of personally don’t buy that. The body was always an impediment to exchange. And now in a digital frontier, like we don’t have to mediate things through bodies anymore. So why are we working as scholars so hard to reclaim the body in digital space? Like the cool thing about digital space, and also the nightmare of it, is that it is disembodied. Or at least representation is. In that regard, I think, you know, visual rhetoric underwent a lot of changes probably in the last 30 years. But I’d say like the biggest transition in the 20th century, or 21st, century rather, had to be the newest aesthetic. Right, this, this question of like, how do we see like machines? How to machine see us? How is that really so different? Where art and aesthetic became about 2d objects in 3d planes, or filtering by channels of light or representing the world in pixels and pixels in the world. And so like that James Bridle, new aesthetic thing was really cool. And very, like post digital, it wasn’t, hey, like, what’s it like to live inside of Minecraft? It’s, hey, you think better in the terms of Minecraft in the real world than you do in reality.


Seth Villegas  12:20  

it’s just interject here, because I feel like we just covered so much information it might be, it might be useful to think about how it is that people think because I think the way that you framed earlier was that there’s, well, first there’s a shift from text to to more visual images. And I think that that’s true. But if I’m also thinking about how most people think so, you know, I’m pretty familiar with things like ancient history, even say, like church history in Europe. And I know that visual symbols, especially for a population who’s mostly illiterate, were really, really necessary in order to communicate really important ideas. And what you get after, say, the Gutenberg Press, is you get the ability to transmit information at a much lower cost to a much wider variety of people. But with something like the internet, suddenly, you don’t need to transmit just text, right, which is the way the internet started. But you’re able to transmit high resolution images, or as we like to say, in the memeverse you know, galaxy quality images, right, that you can transmit those basically, I mean, not really for free, but free enough that most people can do those, they can edit them really easily. And what’s even more astonishing, to me is the kinds of skills necessary to make highly realistic images. If you just go on IMGUR, and you browse for a couple hours, it’ll be like, Oh, you know, my, my husband, or, you know, my wife, or, you know, my significant other, my partner, whatever, you know, is too scared to upload these super high resolution, pencil drawn images that look just like a real person. And it’s just like, “Oh, I’m sorry, you were born now, you probably would have been a master like 200 years ago.”


Alex Nielsen  13:56  

You know, the point is, if they’d been a master 200 years ago, their faces of their babies would have looked like grown adults, the aesthetic belongs to the time period and like, so I get what you’re saying I agree. But I want to kind of problematize it in three or four different ways. And like, the first one is, I don’t think that it was text forever. And then the image. In reality, what it really was, was the story, and then the visual representation of the story. And then the notion of iconography. And then the conversion of that to an inaccessible textuality that was remediated through the story. Then Vatican III hits, and then it’s about textuality again, and then it becomes language and then language becomes this predominant thing because it’s about modes of distribution. It’s about materiality, the fastest, most efficient way in a literate society to get the New Testament into as many hands as possible was books, but before that was an option, it was different. And so Like, I think it’s not about it’s about waves and kind of surfing along the tide of history. And, you know, iconography is a really interesting moment because it’s purely symbolic. It’s representational, but also purely symbolic. And it’s tied back to the story. The iconography has no function without sort of that semiotic reference. And so I think the thing that’s really fun about meme culture is that the semiotics moves so quickly that you can actually track it, you’re not trying to figure out what some third order signifier is, like, you can remember the third order signifier from when it was a first order signifier.


Seth Villegas  15:39  

Yeah, you know, that’s a really academic way of putting in, you know, layman’s terms, right? I think what you’re saying is, I remember the meme from three weeks ago that this meme is referring to, right? 


Alex Nielsen  15:54  

And and that derivative work though, is teaching you how to think and culture. You are a mind in society. But the trick is, the minds in jars are now interfacing directly. And I think that that’s what really empowers this much more than the digitality, the speed of communication and all of that stuff. Like Yeah, it’s super great. Like it’s very much a thing. It’s very much a thing that we can talk about, in sort of the clichés of the late 20th century, the internet is coming kind of like Sandra Bullock on the net kind of period. But like, you know, I like to mess with kids every once in a while by looking at them and saying there’s a Pokémon standing next to you right now. Right? Because like, it’s it’s sort of this Schrodinger-esque, but not really, it’s the tree that falls in the forest. If a Pokémon is standing in a field and nobody fought pulls out their phone to catch it. Was it ever there? Like, when does the Pokémon when is the Pokémon reified? When does it become this thing, and like in a world where we were talking for decades about the radio waves all around us, and even if you’re not picking them up, the radio waves are there, we now live in a world that is completely permeated the entire surface of the Earth is permeated with Pokémon. Billions, if not trillions of Pokémon roam the land, and now Harry Potter things to that concept is so alien to us. And yet the concept that the radio waves are always there that our cell phone just works is. And that’s only a question of novelty. And that’s sort of like I think we really have to think about the difference between the digital. And let me put it this way, digital is a very broad term, but so is virtual. Really, when we’re talking about what is virtual, we’re talking about what is synthetic. And like we’re kind of victims of and also architects of the infrastructure of the world around us. And in that regard, I think digitality is just when you’ve made that transition. And this is especially important in aesthetics, I think digitality is just when you’ve made that transition to a world that is entirely synthetic. And that world can be entirely synthetic, whether you’re standing on a street corner, or you’re wearing a VR headset, it’s the moment where there’s nothing left that isn’t constructed. And and the only unconstructed thing in the space is your own mind. I think that that’s kind of the best I could do describing it. And so kind of bringing it back to the question of like, what is the what is the aesthetic of the website doing or not even the website, let’s just talk about sort of the aesthetic of DIGETHIX that you asked me to kind of coordinate working through with you like, what is it representative of? Well, it’s representative both like our consent, and our inability to not consent to be in a synthetic space. Like it’s participatory. And I think that that’s like the really dark, but also kind of beautiful thing about it is, we’re all in this synthesized digital domain, this landscape, this grid of interconnectivity, and we’re all consenting all the time. But it doesn’t even occur to us within society to not consent. That’s not a possibility. Right? That’s non negotiable in a weird way. And, and so like a lot of people have started referring to this as security aesthetic, or surveillance aesthetic is another language that’s getting used a lot. I don’t want to turn this into a conversation about COVID. But like, I think that it’s really clear that the next turn is going to come out of that. The next turn is not going to be like what if even more digital? What if What if the pixels were bigger, the next aesthetic is going to be presence after after the world spends two years in a dark hole not being connected with each other, and sort of renegotiating what it means to be present in space. I think that we’re going to try to see an aesthetic return to physical presence, this sense of place and purpose in spaces, digital and real. And like the best example I can give this is like, have you seen content that existed that was made by before COVID, and like, like, but like during COVID if you’ve seen a thing that’s new to you, but made during COVID, and everybody’s standing two inches away from each other with no masks on breathing into each other’s eyeballs.


Seth Villegas  20:12  

Yeah, it’s it’s like a alien world. I mean, even watching shows nowadays I have come out since COVID. I’m just like, what is this fantasy world in which people just hanging out.


Alex Nielsen  20:21  

You know, here’s my question, does it give you anxiety? It does give me a lot of anxiety. Yeah, like I was in like a wine and cheese shop with my fiancé. And like, there was just a picture of like the two guys who founded the place. And they had their hands around their shoulders. And I was like, I was like, these people are recklessly irresponsible, like, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. And even looking at it. I knew like, This photo was taken in like 1996. But like, still, I just couldn’t get over the anger that I had, that these people weren’t complying with the world I’m stuck in. And I think that that’s a very digital thing. COVID feels very synthetic, in that regard. It’s not constructed, but it’s constructed the entire world around us in a different way. And it’s inescapable. And so it comes back to that same question like we are consenting to the world that we’re in. We’re acquiescing to what is required of us, but also we don’t have an option really to non non consent, consent or die. And so in that regard, like I think the next question is, it’s not like where is our out from the culture. If we’ve consented completely to personal and private, but also public surveillance, this idea of, hey, like, everybody at work, we can all see you in your living room at all times. And then we’re all mostly as a culture, if we’re on the social internet, also complying with this privacy of the mind is now surveilled, where we can’t be alone with our own thoughts as a culture as easily as we used to be, then I think, like, the next question is like, Who are we, aesthetically, when we are always want when our impulse is to make ourselves seen, or when the impulse of people who can’t see you is to mandate that you be seen.


Seth Villegas  22:01  

I think, again, I think we’re covering lots of information, so useful to go back to what it is that we did a little bit. And so we talked a little bit about the kind of surveillance aesthetic. So basically, one of our approaches was focusing on urban images. So images of people in cities. You know, in fact, I think a lot of the ones we had like within, you know, kind of a top down angle is one of them, for instance, or the one on the other people on the subway platform. And so this these kind of public spaces, I think, kind of what you’re saying about the Pokémon really struck a chord with me, because one of the things we added was the the framing of people’s faces, or maybe even the people looking at one another. And it’s not that that’s there, it’s that you don’t know that that’s there, until it’s visible in the picture. And I think that that’s one of the things we were trying to bring out with that. But even what you’re saying now, about COVID, this is still kind of maybe like a year ago, right? This is when we were in public spaces. But whereas now the kind of surveillance aspect is much more personal, maybe if we were, you know, six months from now, if we were trying to think of the design, it would be more, it would look different, because it’d be us here, you know, in our rooms, offices and our houses, and it just be a very different way of thinking about the way those interactions actually happen.


Alex Nielsen  23:18  

Yeah, I think, like, I kind of want to tie this to kind of the morality of aesthetics to a degree. I said, when we were making these images that I felt a little bit evil, right, that I felt dirty, like I was like, I don’t like the way this picture makes me feel. And because of that, I don’t like making it. And I think that that is tied to another reality of exactly what we’re talking about, which is, there is no difference between you, and, as you were saying in Goodbye to Berlin, you as the camera, and the camera, and the digital machine observing this person. To that person, we’re all the same. They are the subject, and we are an invisible observer that is directly absorbing their reality without their knowledge. And like we can discuss what consent means in that space. I mean, they may be models in photographs, or they may not know that their photos were released into the public domain, because they may have been in public, even if we assume that they consented to that. They can’t know what we’re going to do to it. And so as we’re photoshopping layers of surveillance onto them, it feels a little dirty. And I think that’s because deep down under the skin, we know there’s really not that much difference between ourselves and the camera. What is the camera like you put a grid over a face, you put a square around the head, what does that indicate? It indicates a pattern language recognition function, right? It’s saying, hey, the computer has identified this as a face. That’s what we do. And all the computer is replicating is doing is replicating our forms of biases in an automated fashion less efficiently than we were already doing. It’s making the same in and out groups that we were. It’s categorizing in the sort of Boolean terms of like Right and wrong, this is a person this isn’t a person. I don’t see black people because I am really bad algorithm. But guess who’s been saying they don’t see black people for centuries. So in that regard, you know, one of the things that really got me into visual rhetoric was the end its relationship to technology is very pre digital. And it was the the Kodachrome color girls. These cards that used to get distributed with film, or to film laboratories that were calibrated cards of a certain color range. And a photo of a woman, usually traditionally, sort of like a very like Sears photo lab kind of photo of a woman, you know, with the laser. 


Seth Villegas  25:40  

You’re talking about the Shirley cards, right? Kodak’s thing.

Alex Nielsen  25:41  

Yep, so and so the there they, the cards were there, they won by a lot of names basically depended on the film company, what they were called, but the cards were designed so that you could calibrate film, you would develop one picture of this card in your set, and then you would know you had the correct calibration settings for that film. And then all of the pictures would come out correct. The only problem is you couldn’t see black people. It Kodak didn’t create film for black people, until drumroll please, black people could afford cameras in American society. And then they built…they didn’t make film equitable. They just made different films for black skin, and said black people can go buy this camera that or this film for their camera, and they will be able to develop photos that work. Those photos were still developed using a color card with a white woman on it. Because like the way that the algorithm works, is to build shorthands into our thought processes in terms of automating processes, and automating the way that we work and the way that we communicate and the way that we think. And that’s not a digital concern. So the ethics of it are about representation, the biggest thing that concerns me in digital ethics for aesthetics, and like visual rhetoric, is the impetus to pretend that being the camera can make you objective, it’s not that things have changed, it’s that things have not changed. But now we can point at a device and we can hold up our phones. And we can be like, these are the problems. Now we don’t pay attention to each other. And now we isolate into in groups and out groups, because these things did it. No, they do that, because that’s what we designed them to do. And algorithm is just somebody else’s code. You know, just like the cloud is somebody else’s computer, your phone is just representing the ethics of the people who created it for you, hybridized or synthesized with your own needs and action. And so like, for me, the the moral impetus of visual rhetoric of design and aesthetics in the digital age is exactly to tell people: you are not morally superior to a camera, you are not morally superior to Photoshop. In fact, you think in the terms of Photoshop, you can’t escape it.


Seth Villegas  27:57  

When we’re thinking about our interactions with like a website, any kind of a digital platform like Facebook, Google Amazon, that kind of the mediating technology, whether that be a computer, that’d be your phone is kind of an invisible part of that process. Like it’s so natural now to use those sorts of technologies that we don’t even really think about them. We’re just kind of this almost one to one interaction, even though that’s not what’s really happening, our phones are recording us all the time. So there’s this kind of physicality that comes to it, that we don’t think about a lot. And I know that when we were talking about our design choices, that was one of the things we wanted to emphasize, was the physical quality of what’s actually happening. Because the  technology itself has, like, it doesn’t just enter…I don’t just think and interact with the cloud or something like that, right, I have to do it through some kind of a device. But the way that people talk about it, is as this very sort of ethereal thing that’s just sort of out there, when that’s not really how anything works.


Alex Nielsen  28:59  

You know, and I think that that’s a really great point. And I don’t want I agree, I don’t want to be cynical, it’s not that we’re ignorant. It’s that we don’t have to be introspective in every moment about for lack of a better word, the water we swim in. And the argument is sort of like, hey, the phone in your pocket has become the water we swim in. You don’t even think about your phone. As connecting to a network, you just think of your phone is connected to a network. And so by relating to that you see yourself as connected to a network, because the terrifying implication of that is you see yourself as connected to your phone. But like that’s sort of the point I would make is like, what we could do better is not to get rid of these interfaces. What we can do better is not to remediate these interfaces to make them more humanistic, though we could do that, and I definitely think we should. But what we should be doing is saying like, the interface is not a layer. It’s not a screen between you and the world. The interface is a series of boundaries, right liminal things that you push through, to get to the world, and to get things back out of the world. And I think the best example of that, like, consciousness is an interface, the same as your fingers are an interface the same as the keyboard is an interface. The same as the text over your screen is an interface. You’re interfacing all the way down to the silicon atoms in your processor, and you’re interfacing all the way back up. Everything that your computer touches is also an interface. And so the question isn’t, where is the interface? The question is, where isn’t the interface? Where do you want to situate yourself? Where do you want to find yourself? And then find the objective truth about what you feel? When we when we say like, the interfaces everywhere, that’s probably not productive? Right? That’s just the turtles all the way down argument. But I think that the challenge is to ask yourself, like, what is the interface I can live in? Is it my own mind? Is it my relationships with other people? Is it my relationships with my digital self, my identity out there? Is that the thing I’m going to mediate? And then choose that layer, and for lack of a better word, defend, and say no, like this is this is the ground from which I will not move, and everything else can be the interface, but like, this is where I am. And I think that that’s kind of the challenge of aestheticism is to say, like, this is the lens through which I’m going to view the world, I care what is real, or I care what is uppercase Real, I care about lacanian ideals, or I don’t I care about representation, or I don’t I care whether or not this is a perfect representation of reality, or I don’t. I trust my own mind, or I don’t. And I think that’s like for myself, that’s really beautiful. I mentioned early the the the newest aesthetic, Justin Hodgson, who wrote one of the two major books on the newest aesthetic. And like the post digital aesthetic, he says that transition is currency in the digital world, the currency of aestheticism is the way that it changes things. We don’t care what it was before, we don’t care what it is after, the thing that empowers new aestheticism is that it is the capturing of change that it’s about two worlds. And it’s about that synthetic point where you see them kind of mixing into each other, we transform the way we see we transform the way we look, we transform our values, we transform our texts. I said earlier, like when you were talking about the print, you know that I had like a bunch of different points, one of the biggest ones I would make is the Hengwrt Manuscript. And like all of the great manuscripts of textuality, and spirituality, they’re all illuminated, not just illustrated, but incredibly artful. The goal of that was not to make it easier to understand the stories if you wanted to make it easier to understand the stories, you wouldn’t have written them in Latin, the point of making them illuminated was to bring the reader closer to the sublime.


Seth Villegas  32:55  

Yes, one of the things I’ll say about that, in part because I, I have a friend, Sam Dubbelman, who’s here in the program with me, it views school theology, and he actually does research on intertextuality in those old Bibles. And basically how, if you actually go and look at a lot of Bibles among evangelicals today, you kind of see a similar thing, in which there’s all this stuff there to help you to interpret it. It’s not like having the text there is almost dangerous, right? Or you can feel this sense of danger of like, oh, like, we’d love to let you read it. But here’s a bunch of stuff to help you read it, you know what I mean? And so especially if you’re coming from a Protestant tradition, there’s so much you can get your very salvation could be at stake and getting it wrong. It’s interesting to think about that in light of all these other things in which, especially like Twitter culture, we’ve talked about this kind of outside of this medium, but just, you know, I just hate Twitter, in part because it’s so…there’s a lot of stuff that you can’t communicate in such a small, small bit of information. And because of that, I’m really hesitant to participate at all because it just seems like you can go back and forth in such a way that’s not productive, anything. There’s no real communication that’s happening. And maybe this is where I’m partially idealistic. And then I’m hoping to be able to pass along some bit of information that actually gets across to someone and the way that I intend, even though I know most of the that doesn’t ever really happen, right? Like he can get most of the way there. Maybe if people are gracious, you know, it really takes someone kind of getting into my head, right? If they’re going to understand what I’m saying at all. And that’s, that’s kind of a scary prospect when it comes to just talking to random people on the internet who have no idea who I am.


Alex Nielsen  34:38  

I think it goes back to this concept of consent and surveillance. Do you want to give people access to your mind and how are you reshaping your mind to do that? I think like Twitter for me, there was a time when I was very active on the social internet. And at this point, I have one social media account left and it’s on letterbox and it’s because I don’t want to get rid of my movie reviews because I use it to track all the movies that I watch. Leaving the social internet was really interesting for me because I realized after I was gone from it that Twitter was the one I loved the most. And the answer was because it sucked, it was completely egalitarian in how bad it was. Facebook, you can find a community of people who, quote unquote, know how to Facebook. And if you limited yourself to that bubble, everybody would complain that you were in a bubble. But guess what, we’re all in bubbles all the time. I don’t speak Mandarin. I’m in the biggest bubble on Earth. But you know, people who complain about that, but like, if you put yourself into a community, and you controlled it, you get a really good experience on Facebook. The trick to Twitter is that there’s one in group and one out group, and they’re all playing by the same rules. You’re either verified or you’re not. And other than that, everybody is playing by the same rules on Twitter. You’re always guaranteed to have the worst experience. And so it becomes a walled garden. And the whole trick to Twitter is figuring out how to break down the walls. And hashtags were an early version of that. Remember, hashtags are an invention of the Twitter community functionally, you know? And it was built to build intertextuality into Twitter as an approach. But like beyond that, is there anything in the world worse than reading 120 character, whatever they are now 280 character tweet, and getting to the end of it, and you just see that one slash question mark, just like, Hey, I totally don’t understand how this platform works. So I’m promising you that I’m about to go on a 40 page screen, but you get to read it upside down backwards and slowly, for the next 40 years of your life, and you just immediately check out right, and genre matters. But I also think it goes back to this, the first kind of core argument I was making is like digitality is about consenting to an infrastructure and then deciding it’s not there, saying, Hey, we’re all playing by these rules. And now the rules are invisible. And we’re all on a playing field, where we’re gonna pretend like this is what we want to be doing, rather than what the system is allowing us to do. You’re really, I mean, I hate to go super like lefty here, but like, how is that any different from capitalism? How is that any different from most moralities? How is that different from most religions, we build an infrastructure, we build a framework, and then we argue these are the rules that we’re going to live in. And, you know, if you break them, then we’ll all know that you’re an outsider, maybe there are consequences, maybe there aren’t. But you’ll be less one of us at the end of that choice. I think that’s kind of interesting. And I maybe it’s because I have a very Scandinavian background. But there’s a part of me that just thinks that part of culture is consenting to be in culture, and hospitality and these notions of like, I’m going to be somebody else for you, because it’s the kind thing to do. But then we get to the other side of it, and you realize, like, Hey, I am nobody except a member of my communities. Aesthetics gives us a chance to explore that. And I think going back to digital ethics as a project, when you look at it, it’s a statement like, hey, there’s a community out there, and we’re looking at it, and we’re observing it. But in the act of doing that, we’re making ourselves as observers, and we no longer get to be part of it. We are now the computer we are now the surveillance state. We are now watching and commenting and judging, and we can pretend to be impartial. But we have to admit that that’s a corruptive influence. And I think that’s one of the things that that the aesthetic that we came up with does is it admits our place in the machine.



Seth Villegas 34:40

This comment about observers is itself interesting, because I do think that one of the biggest things I see in the internet today is this kind of super meta quality to everything, in which it’s not just us observing, but it’s us as observers being observed. Right? And there’s this kind of, I want to say circularity, but it is kind of like the the one slash question mark, right, you’re not sure where you are in that chain of observers, where things can just spiral out. And if you just look on YouTube, YouTube’s probably the the platform that I’m most active on just terms of consuming content, it is mostly you’ll have original stuff, you know, maybe that somebody is coming out with it. And you’ll have reactions to that stuff and reactions to reactions and reactions to reactions to reactions. And there’s this, there’s this quality of just kind of constantly zooming out where if you want to kind of absorb yourself in the metaverse of a any particular piece of content, given that that content is popular enough, you could really do that. You know, that’s something that you know, as someone who’s kind of going out into the the content producing world for myself for the first time, and you mentioned this even earlier, like how much do you want to put yourself out there to be known, and for people to be able to dissect you into maybe potentially even know things about you that you don’t know, they’re breaking things down to be an object of study, just because you’re out there, or to be used in some sort of machine learning process to to make a I don’t know, like a fake podcast. There’s all these weird things that are possible now that are partially a result of technological innovations, but are also kind of just a further extension of what’s already been happening just as you’ve been saying.


Alex Nielsen 39:59

Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s, there’s a part of where we are now, as people that we kind of have to embrace is both the same and completely different from where we were before. This is a very transitional time in our culture. Because, and again, I would argue like, nihil novum, this is all the same stuff, you can just point at it, instead of Google, it was the Soviets. But in the 1980s, everybody assumed somebody was listening and everything was performance, then everything is performance now, and everything was performance in the 90s. And everything was performance in the fourth century BC, nothing new. But there, there’s a degree to which when you put yourself out there, and you exist in a world that has an aesthetic, the first thing you’re doing is agreeing to play by rules. The culture knows more than you do. And I think that that’s exactly the right point that you make, by putting yourself out there, you are admitting you have something to contribute. But you’re also arguing like, Hey, I’m open to being judged by my contributions, not by me, not by my self image, not by the way that I ideate. But by the things I put out there they are the soul content by which I can be judged. And again, like I said, you know, very Scandinavian growing up, it was like my mom had like a clay plate on the wall with the Janteloven. Are you familiar with the Yanteloven? The Janteloven is a set of rules for living that was like very popular during like the period of, Oh, I don’t know, probably like the 30s. It was from literature, 40’s, something like that, that is just kind of codifying the concepts of Scandinavianness. And not the concepts like Heuga and all of that, like very IKEA esque side of it. But like this concept of you will be exactly like everybody else, you will not stand out. The rules of the Janteloven are like, don’t think you’re better than everyone. You’re not better than the collective all of us, you can be better than the guy next to you, he can be better than you. But no one person is better than the crowd. There’s nothing to make you think that you’re special. You’re not to imagine yourself as superior to me. But then like, it sort of ends with like this concept. Like there’s nothing we don’t know about you. Because there’s nothing we don’t know about each other. It’s a very Scandinavian notion like, hey, during the long, cold, dark winter of the North, there are 19 people in your village. There are no secrets here. What digitality has done is it’s made this giant Scandinavian village of the world, where everybody is saying, like, you’re not smarter than the wisdom of the crowd. And the wisdom of the crowd has decided that we think in memes. Now, personally, for myself, I say this, only so that you get as much hate mail as humanly possible on your new podcast, I watch every Marvel movie. I hate every single one of them more than any other element of culture in the history of mankind. But I watch because participation is compulsory, I wouldn’t even be allowed to hate them if I didn’t watch them. And if I declared that I stopped watching and phase two, or phase three people would be like, well, you don’t know about phase four. Phase four is amazing. Now they have a TV show, and you’d watch it and you’d be like this is also garbage. But first you are compelled, it’s compulsory that you participate. And society has made participation in these things, fully part and parcel of being a human being and civilization at this point. In that regard, how different is that? from the from the Janteloven? You know, it really isn’t the Law of Jante is very much exactly how we live our lives. You don’t get to you don’t get to crap on the things that I love because everything is subjective, but also objectively you are wrong. Right? It’s it’s the it’s the paradox of intolerance again, but for for media. I guess my question for you is why does aesthetics matter? Like why is the statics a starting point for you in the question of digital ethics?


Seth Villegas  44:07  

This is a really good question, in part because I think if my advisor Wesley Wildman were listening in right now, he would be asking just this question. And I think for me, in part, I do have a background in literature. So I do kind of have a deep love for aesthetics, but, also, I think I’m partially a romantic and so in romanticism, there’s this concept that’s of the sublime, this kind of this awe inspired feeling that you can’t quite explain. If we’re talking about liminality, which is basically this, you know, moving into a different kind of thing, crossing a boundary of sorts, though, the way I’ve often thought about liminality is you know, liminal experiences in which you’re kind of, I don’t know, you’re perceiving something that you don’t quite understand. And it just keeps you up at night. And so I actually really, really love I really like modern art. Okay, what is modern art modern art is square in a primary color on a piece of white canvas. And I just love it, right? I didn’t used to like it, but I like it now. And the reason why I like it is because the more I’ve learned about history where people are exploring with all these different types of things, and how do I make things as realistic as possible to this is not a pipe. Oh, wow. Like the picture is not really a real thing to do to this final question of like, Well, why is this red square better than this blue square? Why is it more captivating? Like, those are the kinds of art questions that keep me up at night, now. it just has to do with this strangeness of geometric form, like you can actually see just how alien it is, and just having it there on the page. When I’m looking at kind of, you know, computer vision and stuff like that. And it’s interesting, because I, you know, I know a lot about, you know, NLP, natural language processing. And that’s a much easier environment to get traction, because it’s so confined. But then when you move back to the kind of visual processing that we take for granted, it’s actually really hard for machines. And it’s just this really interesting problem of like, you would think that getting language was harder. But but but it’s actually not, it’s understanding, dissecting objects, knowing what they are depth perception, all these sorts of things that when you take them out into the real world, out of these kind of constructed environments, suddenly becomes really, really difficult. That there’s such a big part about the the internet today that we don’t understand. You talk about communication and pictures, and, and all of this just gets back to this sort of like, we’re able to comment on these things in pictures in new ways that we also don’t quite get. They’re kind of cynical, I actually thought of the, you know, like, I’m going through a breakup and my FBI agent is messaging me to console me, right? This kind of like weird intimacy that you have with the, the person who’s surveilling you. I guess, maybe I take those things more seriously, because I’m so enmeshed in it, right? Like, I’m really in the meme, the memeverse, the, the memoplex, or like, whatever you want to call it. And I have these intuition about things that I can’t communicate, which is why I’m glad I will get to work with a designer like you were, when you get what it is, I’m trying to communicate in terms of the concept that comes together, just like that’s it right, like that’s, that’s what we’re talking about


Alex Nielsen  47:09  

The thinking about the sublime, as a conceptual aesthetic, also a guy from the literature background, I thought immediately of Shelley, the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, right? It starts with this line. The awful shadow of some unseen power floats, though unseen amongst us, is such a great line. And I really think when we’re talking about culture, when we’re talking about the digital, like he’s talking about the sublime in a very emphatically terrifying way. But, you know, when he says awful, he means the very traditional historical meaning of the word awful, this thing that is full of awe that doesn’t mean that it’s wonderous. That means that it it’s confusing and terrifying and overwhelming, as well as grand. The concept that this unseen thing nevertheless, like an invisible things still casts a shadow over us, is very much the feeling that I have in culture these days. The world right now, in terms of its aesthetics is very fascinating to me, because we are in this period of late capital, technological society has revealed a lot of problems with pre technological society. But it also is revealing problems with technological society, and all of our art, all of our aesthetics, not all but a good amount enough that it’s very exciting to me, is and I’m gonna use this phrase very pejoratively, but I don’t mean it, the common man noticing the shadow of an unseen power, right? The joke about your FBI agent isn’t a joke about the FBI listening to you, you know, it’s not the FBI. It’s that everybody is listening to you. And your anxiety about culture and the way that you’re interacting with it is relegated to memes, because it’s the only shared language we currently have for communicating with each other other than the MCU, God rest our souls. Like this concept that it floats unseen among us, right? And yet, all of our art, all of our culture is about engaging with the fact that we all see that our society as we understood it, before this moment is dying, you can note like governments can no longer live in the shadows. Celebrity is an acknowledged construct. Everybody…Andy Warhol was wrong. Everybody does not get 15 minutes of fame. Instead, everybody gets a lifetime of fame to an audience of their own selection. The more you spend time in that concept, the more you realize, like the sublime is very much a personal reckoning with the world that you’re willing to live in. You know, it’s it’s about saying, there’s this giant thing. It’s subsumes me and there’s nothing I can do but be present. I am witness to my own intellectual catastrophe. In that regard, I Just I love it like not because I love the fall of late capital, it won’t probably complete itself within my lifetime. But I love this notion that like, the common man is rising up and saying, I’m gonna make jokes with my friends about how corrupt our society is, how unjust our world is. And I can now for the first time in history, say, you’ll see me do it, you’ll watch me do it, but you won’t be able to stop me. Right, you won’t be able to contain the signal. I think that aesthetics are a great place to explore the ethics of the crowd, the crowd has a shared ethic, more on the internet than anywhere else. And it’s not because there’s more people, it’s because there’s a, there’s this confluence of a sense of anonymity, and a sense of presence. And a sense of not being mediated by our meat puppet. The brains in jars are touching each other directly. And they’re able to say, we think the same, we don’t think the same. This isn’t mediated by my ability to walk faster than you or run faster than you or be a better hunter or a better gatherer, or any of the stereotypes of like the guns, germs and steel mentality of history. It’s truly minds on a level playing field saying these are the rules we’re gonna play by. This whole thing were idiots on the internet crashed the stock market for two weeks…


Seth Villegas  51:21  

I was just thinking about that.


Alex Nielsen  51:22  

…is a phenomenal example of an aesthetic movement that says, Here are three things that have no value in modern culture, my life, my labor, and the premise of money. Let’s burn something down. That’s an aesthetic statement. The other example I thought of immediately when you mentioned, my FBI guy, is this notion, for better or worse, and I’m not sure I’m willing to make a statement yet of the normalization of suicidal ideation in internet culture. This thing where their entire cultures of people that are like basically posting memes that are like, these are the thoughts that I have when I think about killing myself. And then I don’t kill myself, because y’all losers on the internet are just like me. That is the support community. And that support community is the first thing that a therapist would tell you to get, after you reveal that you’ve had suicidal ideations, and we’re alone on the internet. But no one is alone on the internet. Ironically, in a lot of ways, the internet is the one place where nobody is alone. And so I’m kind of fascinated by that.


Seth Villegas  52:23  

I think that maybe this kind of be the last thing we can cover is just talking about Wall Street Bets a little bit in terms of this kind of cultural moment of you have this, we have this thing that is not really worthwhile, right? Like the company’s not actually doing well. But we’re gonna buy it, and we’re gonna hold it, even to our own detriment financially, just to stick it to you. And I think that that was something that wasn’t possible before. And even the kind of the transparent, like, oh, like, you’re not allowed to do this, kind of from the the elites in government and  in power it. Because I had people, you know, kind of my own social network, buying game stock stock, not not for profit, but just to say that they participated in this event. And it’s just kind of this fascinating cultural flashpoint. I didn’t even think something was like that was possible. Like, again, if we’re talking about kind of the sublime experiences of like, what it like what is happening right now? Even the kinds of memes of last year through 2021 through 20, through 2020. of like, how could this year get any worse? They had the giant Hornets coming into America. There’s just like one thing after another, you know, things you wouldn’t even think about but but it fits this bigger narrative that the kind of the internet itself is generating about what’s happening…of kind of apocalyptic scenarios into, Oh, you know, we managed to short a bunch of guys in their shorts, so so maybe it’s 2021 isn’t so bad. You know this is really weird thing.


Alex Nielsen  53:55  

There’s been a lot of play of that quote lately, which I’m gonna butcher but it’s something like, there are years when weeks happens, and there were years when weeks happen. And there are days when decades happen or something like that. This like notion of the attenuation of scale of these flash points, basically, as you referred to them. I tend to really disagree with that mentality. The thing that the internet does, is it makes the march of persistent content, the cavalcade of content that we are stuck within and, here we are producing and contributing to, is really cool to me, even though it’s terrifying, because like the lights can be out in Stanford, but in like Sydney, Australia, somebody a posting meme, and so the circle of culture is just as a meridian traveling around the world and covering you know, 80% of the globe at all times.


Seth Villegas  54:53  

Hurry up the Americans are asleep. 


Alex Nielsen  54:56  

 But then the flip side of that is seven 8 billion people on the earth. Each one is living a de jure, every day, decades happen, there is no attenuation of scale, every day, these stories are happening around the world. And what the internet is doing is not making culture move faster. It’s making visible monsoons killing 300 people in Southeast Asia. And now that gets added into our list of injustices. That’s a good thing, the panic that we feel the anxiety that this foments in our culture is something that we have to address. We have to acknowledge that we cannot give everything equal scale. We cannot wait, the death of celebrities, and the genocide of the Yemenese people with the same level of effort, because we love the movies, and I guess don’t want Yemenese people to die, like we have to learn as a culture to rescale. And we haven’t done that. And so right now, it’s information overload. And it’s a panic from that. But as we learn to mediate better, I think the thing we’re going to learn is every day, decades happen. Every day, billion lives are changed dramatically, forever. The more accessible those stories become, the more connected we become to them. I think the more human we become. And so it’s not about post humanism. I think that the value of this aesthetic is our ability to reclaim humanism, to interrogate colonialism, to interrogate capitalism, to interrogate the systems of surveillance and the injustice of it and say, You know what, we are disempowered to stop this train. You, me, the common man sharing Rick Astley means is disempowered to get off the train. But we can do better for each other because of it. We can acknowledge suffering across boundaries, and the fact that our aesthetics are moving beyond language is I think, the most important part of that. The concept that I can share a meme with somebody and have no idea whether they even speak English. Bueno, I think it’s just the best thing. The fact that we feel that the only way we can communicate is memes, less Bueno. The fact that as a culture, we’re starting to notice that we functionally think it means that we think mathematically, that this modality of thought is actually replicating itself in our brains to the point where we’re losing the ability to critically process deep information, which there’s been a lot of interesting research on in recent years, how the internet is changing our attention structures. I don’t know. We don’t act like it’s a bad thing that humans on the Serengeti learn to identify patterns and develop color vision and not get eaten by saber toothed or whatever the half truth of biology is that we’re following today. But nobody says it’s bad that we developed pattern recognition. Nobody says it’s bad that we develop sedentary, like leisure approaches to life around agriculture, we just say, Oh, this thing happened and society changed. Now digitality comes for us all. And everybody’s talking about how kids these days are different than their adults. And again, look at the history books, you can go back to Gorgias and Socrates and they were saying the same thing, there is also a degree to which probably true and they probably don’t care. I think it’s beautiful.


Seth Villegas  58:11  

Well, thank you so much. So I think it’s a really good point for us to end on, you really kind of summed up things well. But if we’re going to start on something just for fun, you kind of talked about means and I don’t know if you’ve ever created original memes. I have a friend. So you know, we talk a lot on discord, which is basically this online voice chat room, it’s kind of a, it’s just like a chat room, you can talk with your friends and one of my friends routinely sounds as if he’s underwater. And so in paint, I made a little picture of him. One of those, like Bioshock suits, really old, 1950s deep sea things. I’m just living under water and like a SpongeBob house. And it’s just one of those things of just I agree with you that it is so great that we can do that and communicate so much about it kind of more complex situation. But also the net kind of in language, I think is a little bit bigger with memes. And it might be otherwise there. There’s a lot of in jokes that are shared between millions of people. And I don’t really know what that means. Exactly. Yeah. But it is true.


Alex Nielsen  59:09  

I think I would be very cautious of anybody right now who claims they do know what it means. I think that that’s the really cool moment that we’re in is it could go a lot of ways. And on a micro scale. It’s going all of those ways. So all we can do is watch, you know, we are witnesses to the spectacle. And I think for all the things that are going wrong in society. That’s that’s not the worst of them.


Seth Villegas  59:31  

Thank you for listening to this conversation with Alex Nielsen. In this episode, Alex tonight covered quite a bit of ground, from the disembodied digital space to our new collective drive towards perceiving the world through pictures and means. Alex highlights the problems of particular technical failures and the ways in which technologies are not objective or mutual. In fact, technology and the digital frames the way in which we think in even perhaps leads us to a new mass culture in which participation is mandatory. I hope you’ve had a chance to think about both the digital and about surveillance in today’s episode. Also, if you have some time, you should look through the gallery on our website, the contents of which inspired this episode. You can find more information about DIGETHIX on our website, DIGETHIX.org, and more information about our sponsoring organization, the Center for Mind and Culture, at mindandculture.org. If you’d like to respond to this episode, you can email us at digethix@mindandculture.org. You can also find this information in the description for this episode. I hope to hear from you before our next conversation is signing off.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai