Hockney iPhone scrawls, Stardew Valley, and human puppet masters tugging the strings
David Hockney startled me the other day. He’s one of a handful of painters I can immediately recognize, partly because a friend’s mother gave me a postcard of a “The Splash” (1967) just before I moved to America, and for years the pastel-hued image of a splash of water, a diving board and a modernist home followed me around the country. But I didn’t recognize this one.
It was an iPhone painting, “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire” (2011), a dome of green trees with a hot fuchsia zag pulling toward the screen, and even though I was only looking at a tiny thumbnail of the thing, it was totally arresting, and afterwards I realized it was the first piece of digital art that’s ever had that kind effect on me, and the first piece in years to rattle me. The last time I felt that way was standing for a few quiet moments in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room - The Souls of Millions Light Years Away” (2013) swimming in an infinite space under a staircase at The Broad.
Cyberpunk has been an imperfect lens; as a model it is doomed to fail because it’s lonely: a man with a past and a woman with no future battering themselves against a tyrannical system, which is an appealing image for storytelling, but a poor model of reality, after all, rarely do we have the opportunity to confront the technologies that contort and manipulate us directly—that is, unless we’re creating art. And I think that’s what got to me with Hockney’s iPhone painting. It was an intensely human object for all its obvious digital artifice; in its simplicity you could feel how throttled Hockney must have felt as he taught himself how to paint using his fingers against a crude glass screen. The digital dissolves us all in primordial ooze but offers us a chance rebuild ourselves from it. Hockney paints each leaf, each trunk and rut and puddle before him. There more: You can feel him in it. Hockney’s in his 80s, and he must knows the end is near, and knows the end of his talent his near as well.
The iPhone drawings remind me of the sentences in Saul Bellow’s last short stories, which were dense but crystalline, interconnected and humming with power. Almost poetic. Artists and athletes die two deaths, but just before they lose their abilities their work can sometimes be transcendentally beautiful in a very quiet way.
I have art and eternity on the brain these days.
There’s been a big burst of enthusiasm for digital art; for a couple of years now we’ve been able to confirm scarcity in the digital world using blockchain technologies. The way it works is by adding an immutable chain of ownership to a piece of digital work using an Ethereum token called an ERC-721. With the token you can prove ownership, which means you can exert your rights. You can hold dominion over the virtual. Creating scarcity in the digital world breathes life into it, because suddenly economics makes sense in the virtual realm, and even though it means we’ll be at one another’s throats, and that ghosts and digital demons like decentralized autonomous organizations will live come to live among us in these new virtual realm, and it’ll be the Wild West all over again online, only this time it really will look like Pierce Brosnan in the Lawnmower Man (or creepier like living on the moon in Rudy Rucker’s Software or outer space in Charles Stross’s Lobster series).
Or so they say. Or so we say, I should say, since I’ve officially left academic public relations for good and joined a cryptocurrency-related company as a research fellow. I am the token creative watching as the world’s financial system is replaced with new tooling, software made of money, it doesn’t quite make sense until you think about how fucked up banks really are, especially if you need to do something complicated with a bank, like wiring currency to someone in another country, and suddenly realize that all these silly named coins are going to make taxation and banking and insurance and accounting as automatic as email is today.
What comes after decentralized finance, I asked, innocently enough. What? Taking over a $6 trillion industry isn’t enough? Probably NFTs and grafting the internet onto physical things. That’s about five years away.
One things I never expected when I began this project (i.e. Our Cyberpunk Now) was realizing how much of technology comes down to organizing people’s collective efforts. The most powerful technologies in society are carefully concealed: education has been tweaked and tested for millennia, so has writing and painting and accounting and carpentry—and apparently management too. Forgive me, I’ve always been a solitary creature, but the scales are falling from my eyes: Technology isn’t just made of humans, it’s made for humans. It augments us and oppresses us. We shouldn’t worry about technology subsuming us or the cybernetic condition, for better or worse, it’ll always be us in there. If you squint just right, an automobile looks like a totem or a ritual mask, and doesn’t climbing into a beefy SUV or a sleek convertible change our personalities as much as any indie theatre mask play does?
One of the most important technological developments of the 20th century was the shift from ‘closed’ to open-source software. Up until the mid 1990s the only way to create software was to buy expensive licenses. Software was expensive. Innovation was slow and only the richest and most established companies could create their own. Releasing software into the wild arguably created the biggest explosion of wealth and innovation in recent history. Facebook, Google, Amazon, pretty much every major technology company created in the past thirty years has benefited tremendously from software that was created the way Wikipedia was written, by tens of thousands of individual volunteers suggesting improvements and updates (and a ruthless team of administrators winnowing these suggestions down and implementing them). It’s a new form of intellectual organization, starkly different from the one I was used to.
Universities are rigid hierarchies, they inherited their structure from monasteries and old colonial empires: and you can feel those creaky old methodologies and edicts, cranking and twisting behind the scenes.
It was most obvious to me as a professor, when there was a chasm between tenured and non-tenured faculty, and an even deeper division between the full-timers and the contingent faculty who were barely treated like humans. But there is an equally deep division in the staff, between the white-collar workers and the blue collar workers. It’s amazing to see given the rhetoric produced by modern universities. Every school I’ve worked at there have been two tracks: a professional one and what’s usually known as the staff path, with different pay scales and relationships with unions. It’s like the army: officers and enlisted, or even the clergy; there’s a rigid hierarchy and a baked-in class system. You can’t really make the leap from staff to faculty. I have a pet theory about why academics lean so far to the left: aside from needing to appeal to the political sensibilities of students (student reviews are part of performance reviews), the industry is shockingly cruel and arbitrary. No other industry--save for Hollywood or the media--would dare exploit its junior staff so blatantly, or allow abominations like spousal hires to exist when adjuncts of equal or greater ability have been toiling for decades. It’s astonishingly unfair. And if all you’ve ever known is the political jockeying of an English department, how could you not view the world as an intersecting tangle of identity, privilege and power and gender dynamics that ought to be ruthlessly managed and litigated?
I’m digressing a little bit but I’ve been working in academia (and academia-adjacent) positions for almost fifteen years, and am suffering a bit of culture shock now that I’m dipping my toes in tech. It’s completely different. Where academia is a leviathan huffing and grinding away, tech is a barely contained catastrophe: a Rube Goldberg whirligig, under construction, scooping up fallen pieces and rebuilding itself as it rolls forward.
I’ve only just dipped my toe in but tech companies seem completely different. They’re designed around a code base (or a product line) and management is concerned with tracking the changes and improvements made to the code base and adhering to strict timelines and maximizing various metrics. This makes them much more egalitarian than something like a university: anyone can suggest an update or a change, it’s also much more transparent, but that transparency means comes with a price, management has a much clearer view of what’s going on, which means there are no dark corners to shelter in the way there are in a musty old bureaucracy, and work often feels relentless and chaotic (if at times quite exciting).
After reading so much about 5th generation warfare and coerced cooperation and persuasion courtesy of our AI masters, it’s remarkable to see what happens in a voluntary organization: the inner workings of an agile tech organization seem closer to a guerrilla squad or a pirate ship than the companies I remembered. It’s amazing, it seems like anyone can do anything in one of these organization. Of course it has a demonic side: I can easily imagine where brogrammer culture comes from. The modern tech company favors bellicose types who can browbeat everyone else into submission. I can only imagine how toxic this can be when it goes bad.
The greens in Hockney’s Woldgate remind me of another digital realm I’ve been exploring during the pandemic: Stardew Valley, a surprisingly deep farming simulator created by a single developer named Eric Bartone.
My fiancee Erin and I have spent hundreds of hours playing this strange little game. We hoe up the soil, plant crops, slaughter enemies in the mines and court the local bachelorettes. Stardew Valley’s graphics are relatively simple, mostly flat, 8-bit (?) constructions that wouldn’t seem out of place in Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. There’s a wonderful origin story: Bartone was frustrated that he couldn’t get a job making games, so he created Stardew Valley as a passion project. You play a disgruntled megacorp employee sitting at a computer in a company that looks suspiciously like Walmart. A chance at salvation arrives in the form of an inheritance: a deed to a broken down old farm, gradually you mend the old greenhouse and knit the community back together with gifts and a little bit of forest magic, and you squeeze the evil corporation out, and your farm grows and you garner more resources and influence and uncover more and more of the world until at the end when you meet a blue-faced man named Mr. Qi who claims he was once just like you, until he decided to become exceptional and he leads you on a series of increasingly peculiar quests, monitoring you from a strange station on a nearby island. It’s ever a cheeky self-aware charcater. The self-made developer as a benign demi-God.
Bartone created everything in the game: he drew the blocky little graphics, made the music, made the sound effects, programmed the enemies and released the thing into the wild. It was as much of an achievement as old David Hockney scrawling on his iPhone.
A community has formed around the Valley. There’s a Reddit page with hundreds of thousands of followers sharing fan art and advice, an exhaustive Wiki, modders who create their own versions of the Valley (including one inspired by Twin Peaks) and a relentlessly wholesome and ferociously loyal fan base. Bartone’s communities seem completely organic, mostly because instead of creating new games, after releasing Stardew Valley, Bartone kept improving the game, adding new areas and features for free. It’s been five years since the first release and there are new characters, new songs, new graphics, new relationships to be had, new things to grow and fish… and he’s never charged a penny for any of the new stuff (other than the initial purchase).
In general, though, you should be very wary of these online communities. Most of them are completely synthetic. Professional organizers and community developers drift from online community to online community fomenting discussion and seeding Wikis with material. Eventually these communities gain enough traction and attract enough real participants that they can begin to survive on their own, albeit with careful moderation and enormous backchannel coordination.
You can see why most youngsters keep separate, secret online accounts, where they allow themselves to be ugly and strange and let it all go and speak in silly slang and post pictures of gnawed hotdogs and hair clogged drains.
To peer behind the scenes at one of these communities is as shocking as watching one of those behind the makeup Instagram shots, where a beauty undoes the filters and Photoshop layers and scrubs off the makeup and looks like one of us beneath it all—but instead of shriveling up our unease, getting a glimpse of the human beneath makes it all the more maddening, it’s the closeness of it all, the conceivability of it, it’s so close yet so far, and you kick yourself for not pulling up stakes and jet setting to tropical paradises all over the world and flaunting for a camera.
One of my subscribers suggested that I mention that I create all of the art and photos that accompany this Substack. If you’re interested in seeing more, please visit: https://opensea.io/collection/a-thousand-years or my website: http://jamesmcgirk.com