Illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
The Flash Crash, 2010
Without warning, Wall Street has become increasingly dominated by a new form of trading. Called algo trading, or, more ominously, black box trading, this system of exchange gives the choice of how and when to sell or buy over to a series of computer algorithms. Algo trading enables a supercharged form of investing referred to as High Frequency Trading, or HFT. Algorithms enable investment firms to buy, say, 20,000 shares of one stock at seven dollars a share, and, when the stock reaches a price of $7.01 a share a second later, dump off those shares in less time than it takes to blink an eye for a tidy profit. Now multiply this by the thousands of such algorithms functioning at any second, every hour of every day, all across the planet, intersecting variables and outputs in a cataract of information, data points stretching out to infinity, all the time, always. Though the numbers have gone down somewhat as competition has constricted profits, in 2009 HFT firms generated 73 percent of the orders on Wall Street.
On May 6th, 2010, an algorithm designed to artificially drive down the prices of futures basically ran away from its creator and started a chain reaction that lead to a trillion dollar crash on Wall Street. Some stocks were trading as low as a penny, or as high as $100,000 a share. The loss was nearly unprecedented, but what was even more unprecedented was that the crash rebounded almost in full within 36 minutes. No one had ever seen anything like it, and it took the SEC five years to issue a report attempting to explain what happened in the 2010 Flash Crash, and to file civil charges against the London based algo trader whose software first lit the spark.
“Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority”
I’m no expert on algorithms, the futures market, or economics generally. But I think it’s clear that, for humans attempting to come to terms with our digitized world, HFT and algo trading creates a massive problem of comprehension. I have no personal metric by which to understand what it looks like for an amount of wealth orders of magnitude larger than my yearly wages to disappear and reappear in a span of time just longer than a cable sitcom episode. What can I do except stand in awe before this mountain, this ocean, this galaxy of information?
selfeed.com, Tyler Madsen, Erik Carter, Jillian Mayer, 2014
The website is a constant live feed of every photo uploaded to Instagram bearing the tag #selfie. As one might imagine, it’s a lot of pictures. Each face appears and is gone in less than a second. What registers is not the particular details of the images, but the impression of the details that are missed: the blur itself. It’s an impression described by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, where he says “the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.” The faces are from all over the world or, that is, they appear to be from all over the world, but who can say for sure when there is no profile, no discursive trace to order and define the flood. The mind reels at the torrent of input and at the knowledge that each photo represents individual choices: to take a photo, to upload it. Selfeed is the infinite aggregation of these choices. The aesthetic experience of Selfeed is, above all, terror. In the browser tab, next to the name of the site, is an emoji: a round yellow face, keeled to the side, its tongue hanging out, X’s for eyes. This seems about right.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke, 1757; The Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant, 1790
These examples of unfathomable data flows bring me to reconsider the Romantic-era idea of the sublime. Put simply, the sublime relates to the admixture of fear and appreciation generated by an encounter with objects of incomparable size, antiquity, force, power. The experience of the sublime partakes of features of pleasure and pain without being resolvable to either. It becomes a forceful demonstration of the paltriness of one’s place in the universal order, especially within the human condition of mortality.
Though the sublime received its major articulation in the English Romantic poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth, the two major theorists of the concept were Edmund Burke of England and Immanuel Kant from Germany. Their approaches are mutually opposed, and have formed two strands that have wound around each other throughout the history of discourse on sublimity.
Burke’s approach, in his Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, is to say that “whatever is fitted to excite the ideas of pain, and danger…whatever is in any sort terrible…or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.” The most significant feature of his argument, for my purposes, is the idea that the object of terror is the source of the sublime, that it is in itself sublime. This can be contrasted with Kant’s understanding, given in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, which is that “nothing that can be an object of the senses is … to be called sublime”; rather, “the very inadequacy of our facility for estimating the magnitude of the things of the sensible world awakens the feeling of a supersensible facility within us.” So for Kant, an object does not possess sublimity, but instead generates a feeling of sublimity within the beholder.
What fascinates me is the way that the digitally sublime ends up short-circuiting these distinctions. Cyberspace has a certain material force: it is countable, can be charted with various types of (largely inadequate) graphs and maps. In the case of games and VR it even has a depth and weight that comes right up to the edge of the material world, and sometimes over that edge. Its mass and presence are so great that we might understand it as creating feelings of sublimity. But at the same time, I can’t point to the internet, like the Romantic poets could the Alps or the sea. The available language for speaking about cyberspace is all metaphor and allusion. The digital sublime is sublimely in-between: in between physical and immaterial, in between true and false, in between real and unreal. It requires a new way of looking at the aesthetics of the sublime, but one anchored to the past so that it can stretch into the future.
Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984
If the digital sublime has its Shelley, surely it’s William Gibson.
Of the cyberpunk midwife’s contributions to literature and culture, perhaps none is greater than his creation of a set of metaphors with which to envision digitality. Famously, he coined the very term cyberspace, with its uncanny, self-contradicting interpolation of elements.
I’d like to cite a passage from Gibson’s lodestone text, Neuromancer. The passage takes place as the main character, Case, long exiled from cyberspace by brain damage, is able to jack-in for the first time in years:
“And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiled in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like a film compiled of random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.
Please, he prayed, now-
A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding-
And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of the military systems, forever beyond his reach.
And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.”
Here, already in 1984, is the presence of the digitally sublime. In the “stepped scarlet pyramid” and the distant “spiral arms of military systems”, so akin to the shapes of galaxies, we find an embodiment of the massive scale of digital data. In the “blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information” and “the unfolding distanceless home” we find the conflation of material and immaterial. And Case himself experiences this sublime as a set of powerful emotions.
But it is worth noting that Gibson resorts to these metaphors of “country” and outer space and topography, recalling a natural world that the digital seems counterposed to. In the Critique of the Power of Judgement, Kant argues that only natural objects, i.e. those not made by human hands, can be felt as sublime. It would seem that cyberspace is one object of human manufacture, perhaps the first, that partakes of all the features of sublimity. But, with a nod to Kant, we are left with only natural, or physical, objects to describe it with. The Web, the Net, the Information Superhighway, the Noosphere: a whole geography of nothingness. Even “cyberspace” itself: yes, cyber, but what space? This is what Gibson understood, and why his vision of a digital sublime is so persistent.
No Man’s Sky, 2016
It’s already clear that we’re in for a lot of think-piecing and forum-debating about No Man’s Sky. But from where I’m sitting, only one thing matters about No Man’s Sky right now, only one thing really has mattered, and it’s a number.
This figure should be immediately recognizable to anyone who has been following this game. It’s the number of planets within its universe. It’s one of those sorts of numbers, like GDP figures or atomic counts, that gestures toward a kind of specificity while blinkering any attempt at comprehension. And various articles’ attempts at putting the matter into some kind of perspective are even more confounding: Gamespot’s assertion that the planetary surface area within NMS is equal to 7 trillion Earth surfaces, or Dan Starkey at Kotaku’s calculation that the number of years needed to visit each planet for one second is in the high 500 billions (a revision of another writer’s assertion of only 5 billion years).
there can be infinities, sublimities, nestled inside of other infinities
It is rare enough that games force us to encounter our own mortality. But it is a wholly singular moment in cultural history when a game, or any product of human design, might, by the sheer size of its imaginary space, bring us face to face with temporal magnitudes that beat out even the age of the universe hundreds-fold. Even if millions play the game, the real sun will burn out long before this digital galaxy could ever be fully charted. From this perspective, No Man’s Sky becomes a mausoleum of infinite darkness, eternally swallowing all attempts to illuminate it.
In what ways does it matter that this vision of sublimity cannot be said to “exist” in the same way that Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s Mont Blanc does? Should we regard the infinite vistas of No Man’s Sky as somehow cheapened by their having come from a human-designed algorithm?
On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that the game, or any digital reproduction, could ever match the heft, the sheer “here-ness” of material reality; I think this mostly because, even if some nth version of No Man’s Sky is still being played three hundred years from now, there will likely have been no change in the composition of the game’s world: no species extinct, no planets undermined by pollution, not even a moon broken by asteroid impact or a star gone nova.
But, on the other hand, I’m reminded of the proof by the German mathematician Georg Cantor, who showed that there are more real numbers in between our counting numbers than there are counting numbers. I grant that I am using complex math as a metaphor here, but Cantor demonstrates that there can be infinities, sublimities, nestled inside of other infinities. That the man-made sublime of No Man’s Sky is a subset inside of the universe (which is itself probably a subset of a universe of universes) makes it no less appalling and beautiful in its vastness for being locked within a screen.
“The Library of Babel”, Jorge Luis Borges, 1941
The Denver Central Library, my favorite in town, has, near its entrance, a quote from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges that reads “I had always imagined paradise as a kind of library.” While on one hand I agree with the sentiment, I have always found it ironic that Borges also wrote what I think is a definitive version of my personal Hell in his story “The Library of Babel.”
The story is told from the perspective of a librarian in a functionally infinite library. This librarian gives a series of axioms about the nature of the library: that it is composed of hexagons of a definite size, each hexagon containing a definite number of books, each book containing a definite number of pages, each page written on with a definite number of 25 different symbols. And finally that no book is ever repeated.
Borges’s story is, in essence, an algorithm and its extrapolation. It is also a hellscape, and I say so because it creates a vision of an infinite world of data in which any coherence, any meaning, is not intrinsic but an accident. The librarian recalls a book he once saw that was “a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase O Time thy pyramids:” this he gives an example of one of the most coherent books he has ever found.
It is easy for me to see how cyberspace might be a hellscape just like Borges’s. From one angle the digital world is just a biblical flood of self-reproducing data, much of it without any referentiality to human life: information talking about itself. It is sublime in the terrible sense, a force far beyond human control than only demonstrates our own tininess, even though we’re the ones who made it, like a robot gone rogue.
It is against this purely dystopian vision that I insist on that word “sublime”. The sublime is an admixture: of fear and appreciation, of horror and beauty. The cyberspace onto which the world has mapped itself absolutely partakes of this mixture: anyone who has seen the online world’s conglomeration of society and anomie, complexity and simplicity, would have to agree. This, finally, is why the discovery of a digital sublime is important: it allows us to see the aesthetic dynamic of the digital in its fullness, so that we might see more clearly the way we are all living in here.