Why 2K or

Essay by Timothy Druckrey, published in "The Art of the Accident," 1998.

Why 2K or

The Art of the Accident


The signs are everywhere. Ars Electronica's Infowar, ISEA's Revolution, Steirischer Herbst's Art and Global Media, Interpol's operation Cathedral (an international roundup of net pornographers), the launch of a 'satellite' over Japan by North Korea, 30,000 Iranian troops along the Afghan border, the Serbian siege of Kosovo (and the impending attack by US backed NATO forces), perverse media mergers, reactionary utopianisms, imploding economies, the return of distinctly undemocratic forms of repressive tolerance, the revealingly pathetic links between monogamy and monopoly, monotony and the fundamentalization of sexuality by the compulsive theologies of conspiracy - in short a world in crisis.

And if the phantasmatic information economy has provided a shield against the crumbling material world, one was reminded by George Stein at the Infowar symposium that 'information leads to dependency, dependency to vulnerability, vulnerability to defeat'. Not a rosy picture for the wired world. Yet while the promises of international information integration provide the fuel for strategic development, a shadow of fallibility emerges to rupture the systemic illusion that our social software will stabilize crisis. The mistake was innocently efficient and overwhelmingly problematic. Two digits ignored by programmers and hardware designers have posed more than a dilemma to a culture subservient to computers and their infallible memory for numbers. Rather than include 19 before the year in the 20th century, computational dates were indicated only by the last 2 digits. And now, 16 months before the millennial clock ticks to a new century, the 'time bomb' looms ahead as what Paul Virilio calls 'the integral accident'.

'Y2K,' said Alistair Cooke on a BBC report in June, 'probably the most ominous logo, the most threatening symbol to human life, since E=MC2.' This dazzlingly portentous comment was made with the calmest of demeanors, as if the destructive potential of the problem was as inevitable as it was surreally unmanageable. Cooke's report quoted heavily from US Senator Bennett's speeches to hearings on the Y2K issue that outline priorities and strategies for approaching the issue. Yet, doing much more than crisis management seems futile. Bennett writes that 'the world as a whole is almost doomed to have major problems because other countries are way behind us - however badly prepared we are - in their thinking and planning for Y2K'. The priorities are significant. Bennett outlines seven as essential: utilities, telecommunications, transport, financial systems, government services, business activities, litigation. Tests done with several power companies have not been favorable. As an experiment, two in Great Britain set their clocks ahead. At midnight on December 31st, 1999 both went off-line. Bennett indeed suggests that rather than attempt to fix the related problems in software and hardware, government agencies ought to prepare crisis management plans to stay in operation and to extend this readiness to the companies involved in essential services like the power grids, water systems, international air traffic controllers, etc.

Why 2K? Because, as Virilio has always reminded us, 'every technology brings a corresponding form of accident', because foreshortened assumptions about failure are blissfully ignored by cost-benefit analyses, because failure and progress (as this century has so dearly signified) go hand-in-hand as a measure of manageable catastrophe, because the adaptability of codes wrongly seemed a simple process of substitution.

So the crisis countdown continues. Jean Baudrillard characterizes it thus in a recent essay called The End of the Millennium or the Countdown: "For this century - which can do nothing more than count the seconds separating it from its end without being able, or really wanting, to measure up to that end - the digital clock on the Beaubourg Centre showing the countdown in millions of seconds is the perfect symbol. It illustrates the reversal of the whole of our modernity's relation to time. Time is no longer counted progressively, by addition, starting from an origin, but by subtraction, starting from the end. This is what happens with rocket launches or time bombs. And that end is no longer the symbolic endpoint of a history, but the mark of a zero sum, of a potential exhaustion. This is a perspective of entropy - by the exhausting of all possibilities - the perspective of counting down to infinity. We are no longer in the fatalistic, historical or providential vision, which was the vision of a world of progress and production. The final illusion of history, the final utopia of time no longer exists, since it is already registered there as something potentially accounted for, in digital time, just as mankind's finalities cease to exist at a point where they come to be registered in a genetic capital and solely in the biological perspective of the exploitation of the genome. When you count the seconds from the end, the fact is that everything is already at an end."



Gödel was right to remind us that contradiction was an essential condition: no assumption without its opposite, no control without defeat, no seriousness without absurdity. So if fallibility characterises experience, then the whole absurd enterprise of militarised notions of interactivity (based on command and control strategies) is a myth hinged on the mystification of the misleading assumption that systems won't fail (or that their's will fail first!). Even the 'indestructible' and redundant Internet, impervious to nuclear attack, proves vulnerable not from external assault but from unintended error.

Mutations, accidents, blunders, oversights, omissions, faux pas - have, indeed, rotted many of the developments of the past generations. And if the jettisoning of infallibility can be usefully employed in creative ways, we might be able to rethink the algorithmic imperatives that envelop electronic media. Surrounded by pieties of all sorts - ontological fantasies, epistemological illusions, traumatized psychologies, anecdotal embodiments, over-dramatized technical reason - the field of electronic art has been cast as a sphere in which managed computational performance is sustained by extravagant allegories of exactitude, flawlessy debugged performance at the expense of the possibility of unpredictability. These mystifications compel an acknowledgement of imperfection, error, and, ultimately, failure.

This willing acceptance could easily be read as the admission of failure or even as a form of technophobia. Yet, as is clear, an assault on the 'triumphs' of reason, on the flaws in the system, can expose more than the imperfections of technology. They can extend the de facto normative, and blissfully functional ideologies of modernist technology into destabilized, ruptured, and absurd systems that are more laughable than logical, more reckless than rational, and perhaps more interesting than predictable.

© 1998 Timothy Druckrey / V2_

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