The Uncanniness of Algorithmic Style

Algorithms inherently lead to warped, glitchy aesthetics rather than realism.

This newsletter is another edition in an ongoing series of short essays on algorithms and culture, the ways technology shapes our aesthetics. Let me know if you like it, and hit the heart button above — it helps me reach more readers.

This week, the New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo published a curious column on Microsoft’s Flight Simulator video game, which uses a trove of data from OpenStreetMap, filtered through Microsoft’s Bing Maps, to create a 3D rendering of the entire world. The data has been algorithmically translated into an enormous environment, every home, skyscraper, or mountain made interactive. You can fly a virtual plane past a virtual replica of your house.

Manjoo casts the game as utopian; the experience, no pilot license necessary, shows you that the boundaries of our cities or countries don’t really exist.

“The tech giant has done something uncanny here: It has created a virtual representation of Earth so realistic that nearly all sense of abstraction falls away.” 

Computers can give us “a view of the world that is more real than the one we can see outside,” he writes.

It reminds me of the old Borges fragment, “On Exactitude in Science.” In the story, mythical map-makers make bigger and bigger maps until they reach the limit: “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire.” Yet later generations finally realize the map is useless and leave it to decay in the desert. The underlying message, if there is one: No map can be completely accurate, or, abstraction is part of the purpose of maps.

A virtual earth as large as the earth, Flight Simulator isn’t as good a map as it appears. The automatic translation of data into space has created plenty of glitches, as the game’s players have discovered. The Washington Monument got turned into an office building, for example:

The city of Bergen became a surreal hash of landscape and construction, like an avant-garde architect’s rendering. Hills morph into skyscrapers before decaying into patchworks of pixels:

No human could render the entire world, so the process had to be automated, and that leads to plenty of errors. (Nor could anyone investigate every corner of this virtual world to make sure it’s all correct.) Whatever code Microsoft used failed to apply the appropriate texture to the appropriate three-dimensional object. In the case of the Washington Monument, it decided any particularly tall and skinny building just had to be a generic corporate office tower.

Manjoo uses the game as a way to critique problems like disinformation and radicalization that happen via our algorithmic platforms like Facebook and YouTube. They don’t reflect reality enough:

“It often feels like society is being shaped by the algorithmically defined sensibilities of online echo chambers and anonymous bots and trolls rather than the nuanced ideas of living and breathing people.”

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening with Flight Simulator. An automated, unchecked process is warping the (virtual) world around us, leading to these weird errors and aberrations. Bergen isn’t some post-apocalyptic semi-underground Hong Kong, but that’s how the data was interpreted. The glitches are the kind of algorithmic sensibility that Manjoo is describing.

There’s an aesthetic evolving out of algorithmic visuals like Flight Simulator. It reminds me of Google’s machine-learning Deep Dream filter, which is supposed to visualize how a machine-learning system is perceiving an image, but ends up turning everything into hallucinatory dogs, which is what the system was trained to recognize.

Artists are intentionally adopting and playing with this aesthetic. A game called Townscaper lets you build tiny islands of Scandinavian architecture that automatically stretch and adapt as you build new elements. Unlike Minecraft, for example, the structures adjust by themselves, adding in bridges and curbs, so the whole always looks stylistically consistent, even though it might end up looking kind of weird or illogical.

A service called Blush is similar. It lets you generate that kind of start-up branding-y illustration with bright colors and hard black outlines without commissioning an artist or interacting with a human. You can have as many randomized Silicon Valley cities as you want and maybe use them to advertise your new co-living service:

These tools aren’t bad, exactly, but they are uncanny, because what they do is extend a set of rules or a pattern that began as aesthetically pleasing or interesting over too large an area, too wide a swath of culture. The visuals are the equivalent of AI-generated writing: It might look okay at first but it’s ultimately nonsensical and could be destructive in the wrong context. Plus, in the case of Blush, it puts human illustrators out of work, and that’s not cool. Just hire someone!

We can appreciate strange glitches as artifacts of our time, hints of what the technological future might look like. But the automatic application of rules in digital space is never going to result in a more “real” reality or a more “authentic” artistic creation. As with disinformation, we have to watch out for where the human stops and the algorithmic process takes over.

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