“The function of art is to hold a mirror up to nature.” — Douglas Adams
How does one mirror information while it moves near the cosmic speed limit around our worldwide web of light? Can we reveal the nature of modern technology so as to provide more integral ways of seeing that don’t leave humans feeling alienated by, or separated from, the tools they use?
The word “technology” comes from the Greek “tekhne”, meaning art or craft. The tools of our craft shape the possible set of artistic expressions, which act back by inspiring the creation of more expressive tools. This mirror-like movement between tool and work, craft and art, is the reflective process by which we arrive at an ever-finer appreciation of who we are.
However, the feedback loop between insight and making—which is behind every innovation from the ochre on ancient cave walls to AlphaZero—is increasingly obscured by the complexity of digital craftsmanship. Complexity suggests something plaited or twisted together out of many different threads. Clearly, simple—meaning made from one twist or thread—is hard to come by these days. We are forgetting how to work with space and listen to what our tools are telling us.
The dialogue between art and craft, insight and making, is one that does not readily occur between consumer and computer. The background processes in any individual box are too complex for one person to understand fully, though this is not how we originally dreamt of our machines.
Rather than locking each person behind a flat screen they cannot understand—so opaque are the programs crafting its every process—computer systems were once envisioned as a single, loosely-networked organism which would enable collaboration at scales never before possible. Those early computer science artists saw the world in very simple ways.
They knew that no one human could understand everything about a computer. Instead, if we share a global machine, then humans can collaboratively weave more coherent means of creating together. This is not just a two-way dialogue between insight and making, but a multidimensional conversation carried out between many people crafting with the same tool at many different levels. The expressive capacity of such creative collaboration is barely imaginable by today’s standards.
Enter ethblock.art: a multi-level collaborative conversation between creative coders, visual artists, and collectors; all occurring in one, common medium—the raw data outputs of a single, shared, global machine.
Coders create different means of converting transaction data from Ethereum blocks into visual BlockStyles. Artists use the BlockStyle of their choice and tweak the parameters provided to produce an image they find delightful. Already, there is a conversation between “technologists” and “artists”, which quickly collapses the artificial boundaries we draw between such terms. Artists use styles in ways the coders could not have imagined which, in turn, helps coders come up with creative ideas for new styles. New styles help artists literally see our shared network in unexpectedly enlightening ways, and the loop repeats.
Who are these “artists”? Us, of course. You see, everyone is a visual artist. Every time you open your eyes, you are—in some sense—envisioning creation. While we might lack the tools and expertise traditionally required to render our visions in ways which can be easily shared, a single-global-computer-as-common-medium cuts through that problem.
The heavy lifting of visualisation is done mostly by the coders. I just need to converse with their work by using a few modifying sliders and making some colour choices. Creating beautiful and meaningful art has more to do with understanding the nature of the network itself. If I have never drawn or painted anything in my life (apart from a few stick men for that sick meme I made once) but appreciate the finer details of the shared history we are instating, I can find and compose rare and valuable pieces.
This is where the conversation comes to its crescendo: that word valuable. Each completed canvas—the two-dimensional visual output of multidimensional, collaborative craftsmanship enacted by both creative coders and everyday artists—can be minted as a non-fungible token, owned by the artist. Again, this occurs on the same, common medium as the originating conversation, creating a whole new layer of economic collaboration and exploration.
The open market prices NFTs differently, which helps artists model more clearly what visuals are seen as valuable. They use styles in new ways reflected by the market dynamics, which helps coders come up with even more creative ideas. It’s feedback loops all the way down and, in the process, every single participant gets greater insight into what a monolithic global computer might be imagined to look like and—more importantly—how to imagine seeing.
Coders understand more about the finer details of transactions and the virtual machine in which they are ordered. Artists understand more about the most potently meaningful blocks and how to compose them as markers, gifts, or for the open market. The market understands more about how to see what Ethereum really is and simultaneously incentivises everyone to surface otherwise obscure parts of our historical consensus because there is great value—at many different levels—in being able to express more consciously how our shared reality is crafted.
We can now collaboratively hold up a mirror to catch as many images as we care to mint, which may help us discover what to make of, and with, a shared world machine. Through crafting expression collaboratively, we can learn how to see the new kinds of beauty it is possible to create with borderless, ownerless networks.
“Let us sing a new song, tell a new story; one which, mindful of the ancient tales, takes its inspiration from science.
Let us search for the permanent amid the fleeting and mutable, for that which endures through the spectacle of ceaseless change. Let us find the eternal, the good.” — Terrence Malick
Art is at once something different from experience and yet it is also the only thing that can give us direct access to the meaning and feeling of experiences beyond our own.
My truth need not be yours; what I find beautiful need not appear so to you. But this is a limitation of ours, not of beauty or truth. While we must always employ some mechanism of distortion in order to express it—which is exactly what invites interpretation—I think it nevertheless possible to experience directly that thing called ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’.
Such arts and crafts have always been the veil we throw over the invisible in order to reveal its shape.