When you think you’ve heard all the nonsense or hype about the digital noise that is drowning out real life around us, along comes someone who spends $69 million to buy a piece of digital miasma. “A fool and his money are soon parted.” That’s a lot of money or a lot of foolishness, or both. Miasma is a noxious atmosphere once thought to rise from swamps or putrid matter and cause disease. It’s not too strong a word for what oozes from the Internet swamp of lies, hate, hype and fraud that seems to be responsible for an alarming array of new social, economic, and mental afflictions. Why would anyone pay such a price for some digital art file (a collection of ones and zeros?) Was it April 1? Even more strange, one of the art world’s most renowned dealers, Christie’s, engineered the sale. Everyday: The First 5,000 Days is a collage of 5,000 small random images put together by Beeple, a graphic artist from Wisconsin. It exists only as an image file which one assumes could be infinitely copied and shared – because it’s digital. There are millions of copies of Mona Lisa online but nobody would think of trying to sell one for the price of Leonardo’s original.
But wait, you eager digital merchants, there’s more, much more. In February, an endlessly looping digital cartoon cat chanting “nyananyana” sold for $587,000. Yes, compared to the Everyday image, that was cheap, a bargain. So what’s going on? Trying to explain any new digital fad leads a curious enquirer to the edge of a rabbit warren of vague definitions and unfamiliar words. These digital art pieces, like Everyday and the Nyan cat cartoon, are known as non-fungible tokens. They are unique because they are generated on a blockchain and bought and sold on Ethereum. You see where we’re going with this or, more likely, you don’t, so let’s back up a bit. Read more »
The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.
The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.
The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.