Michael Kelly


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I am a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford UP, 1998). A new expanded, revised, second edition of the Encyclopedia is forthcoming, and will include entries on aesthetic computing.

I organized and participated in a panel discussion on information aesthetics at SIGGRAPH in 2009. And I organized a two-day symposium on aesthetic computing at UNC Charlotte in 2010 (with funding from the National Science Foundation). I also initiated a symposium on aesthetic computing and neuroaesthetics at UC Berkeley while I was a fellow at the Arts Research Center on campus.

My most recent publication is A Hunger for Aesthetics: Enacting the Demands of Art (Columbia UP, 2012), which is a critique of the anti-aesthetic stance in contemporary art theory and a defense of the relevance of aesthetics to moral-political art. My earlier book, Iconoclasm in Aesthetics (Cambridge UP, 2003), is a critique of contemporary philosophical aesthetics for not addressing the particularity and historicity of art. I'm currently writing on the migration of artistic (and other forms of) agency from the individual to the collective, especially in connection with participatory art and computing.

I'm also the Editor of Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate (MIT, 1994); and Co-Editor with Daniel Herwitz of Action, Art, History: Engagement with Arthur C. Danto (Columbia UP, 2007).

Formerly, I served as the Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association, and as Managing Editor of the Journal of Philosophy at Columbia University. And I've also taught philosophy at Columbia and the University of Delaware.

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Kelly, Michael, Vesna, Victoria, Fishwick, Paul A., Moere, Andrew Vande, Huff, Kenneth (2009): The state of aesthetic computing or info-aesthetics: curated panel discussion. In: ACM SIGGRAPH 2009 Art Gallery , 2009, . pp. 43-.

(1998): Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Kelly, Michael (eds.), Oxford University Press, USA,

Kelly, Michael

26.16 Commentary by Michael Kelly

The masters of information have forgotten about poetry,
where words may have a meaning quite different from
what the lexicon says, where the metaphoric spark is
always one jump ahead of the decoding function.
-- J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year [1]

26.16.1 Fishwick's Encyclopedia Entry on Aesthetic Computing

Paul Fishwick has a well-developed, impressive research and pedagogical platform at the University of Florida from which he’s been exploring one of the particular versions of aesthetic computing, although, being involved since its inception, he also has a general sense of the field. In fact, there would hardly be such a field without him. The question I want to ask is how much his particular projects are influencing his general conception of aesthetic computing and whether he’s achieved the appropriate, if difficult editorial balance here [2].

Fishwick begins with a pedagogical focus: personal experiences in mathematics that led to discoveries and explorations of embodied cognition. In particular, he analyzes “the aesthetic transformation to formal language,” using the concept of embodied knowledge, understood as a perception-action feedback loop based on the idea that embodiment is a form of representation, not just an insignificant step in the process of a strictly cognitive mode of representation. From there he argues, with a rich set of projects, that “The purpose of aesthetic computing is to deliver knowledge and practice of formal languages using aesthetic products as a vehicle.” In short, the examples of teaching abstract mathematical concepts that led Fishwick to aesthetic computing have continued to have structural as well as thematic roles throughout his entry and have largely determined his conception of the field. The result is an excellent but partial picture of aesthetic computing that, if taken for the whole, would be misleading.

Fishwick acknowledges a broader conception of aesthetic computing in the “Why Aesthetic Computing?” section (26.4). But he does not adequately clarify it or show concretely how it informs or otherwise relates to his research. Has he perhaps changed his view of aesthetic computing over the last decade? Back in 2006, he made a number of statements about aesthetics that point to a conception of aesthetic computing broader than what is generally evident in his Encyclopedia entry (Fishwick 2006). For example, he says that aesthetics reaches “beyond classic concepts such as symmetry and invariance” and encompasses “the wide range of aesthetic definitions and categories normally associated with making art.” Yet now he seems to limit aesthetic computing to often classic concepts specifically relevant to his projects. Quoting the Preface to the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, he embraces the idea of aesthetics as “the philosophical analysis of the beliefs, concepts, and theories implicit in the creation, experience, interpretation, or critique of art.” However, when he references this same idea in the Encyclopedia entry, he seems to pull back from its full implications for aesthetic computing. Fishwick also says earlier that aesthetics has logical as well as material aspects, so it can extend to computing as well as art. Taking discrete mathematics as an example, he claims that aesthetic computing encompasses notions of formal language, geometry, and topology, and from such claims he concludes that aesthetic computing corresponds naturally with mathematical formalism. In his current research and Encyclopedia entry, Fishwick focuses mostly on this last sense of aesthetics and develops, albeit very well, only the narrower view of aesthetic computing it implies.

Yet, the case for a broader conception of aesthetic computing can be made from within Fishwick’s own projects because he argues that aesthetic computing rests primarily on the foundation of embodiment, which is itself a very important research topic in aesthetics and a number of disciplines (e.g., cognitive psychology, affective computing, philosophy of mind, etc.). But even here Fishwick’s sense of embodiment is mostly cognitive and pedagogical because it’s linked principally to formal languages. This may seem like an appropriate link because computing is so much about formal languages. But isn’t the whole point of aesthetic computing to develop and sustain a richer conception of computing? With a richer conception in mind, in effect, the art historian and theorist Caroline A. Jones offers a more art-centric and aesthetics-informed account of embodiment that is focused on the impact of computerized technology on the human body, on the “techno-human.” [3]. She begins by arguing that the best way for the critique of our techno-culture to keep pace with “the speed of technological innovation” is “to take up these technologies in the service of aesthetics,” which provides “a site for questioning” how our “bodies are interacting with technologies at the present moment.” Aesthetics provides contemplative space for such a critique because it “buys us time and space” to encounter and reflect “on embodied experience in an ever more technologized world.” That is, aesthetics sets up critique within computing to examine how human-computer interactions impact our bodies. The goal of such critique is not merely to understand all the computer-generated bodily interactions that have been experienced already but to explore which ones could be experienced, and, moreover, which ones we would prefer to experience going forward. In the end, a major advantage of Jones’s account of embodiment is that she makes it clear that this kind of critical thinking internal to computing already has a name with a long tradition: aesthetics. By making the links among embodiment, computing, and aesthetics explicit, she offers broader conceptions of computing and aesthetic computing alike.

Jones’s account of embodiment, which is explored by a number of artists and theorists involved in the Sensorium exhibit or catalog, also dovetails well with the aesthetics of participatory art practices that have developed recently in contemporary art, which would also help to broaden aesthetic computing [4]. Participatory art is, in brief, the convergence of various art forms that emerged in avant-garde modernism or contemporary art: interactive art, installation art, performance art, conceptual art, new media art, public art, socially engaged art, etc. Such convergence has altered the aesthetics of contemporary art in ways (e.g., agency is collective, form is participatory, interactions are transformative) that resonate in computing, too, as it becomes ever more ubiquitous, participatory, collaborative, social, and interactive. Since a central concern about aesthetic computing is how aesthetics is relevant to computing, it would help this cause to examine the most recent developments in the aesthetics of contemporary art. This does not mean that the aesthetics of classical or modern art are not relevant, but since participatory art is emerging in part because of the impact that computing has already had on the production and reception of contemporary art, participatory art is an excellent area to explore while developing aesthetic computing.

In addition to the editorial imbalance, my other principal concern with Fishwick’s Encyclopedia entry is that he regards aesthetics primarily as a means (“a vehicle”): “aesthetic computing is embodied formal language with an educational goal as a final end product.” As a result, the critical thinking core of aesthetics seems to be lost. For example, although Fishwick identifies some of his own aesthetic norms in 26.7 (only some of which strike me as aesthetic) and his assumptions about aesthetics (e.g., that a principal concern is still the “universal attributes of beauty”), he doesn’t analyze them critically [5]. For example, the “unity in variety” concept he endorses is a strategy in 18th century British aesthetics (developed by Francis Hutcheson and others) to identify a property of an object that accounts for its beauty without violating the shared principle among empiricists and rationalists that beauty itself is not a property of any object. How does such a concept or strategy help to clarify the “diversity” of computing or to negotiate between the conceptual nature of aesthetics and the empirical practices of computing? Moreover, as Jones argues, aesthetics can also help to determine the ends of computing by clarifying and critiquing its aesthetic and related norms, so it shouldn’t be viewed primarily as the means to achieve ends determined before aesthetic computing was introduced.

To be fair, even if Fishwick’s approach to aesthetic computing is narrow in the ways I have described, it may be that the field first has to develop through particular (and thus narrow) projects. Perhaps only then can we initiate a reflective equilibrium between the general field of aesthetic computing and the multivarious, particular projects that Fishwick and others are engaged in. Even though I think the general and particular have to be developed simultaneously from the start, Fishwick has clearly made important contributions to aesthetic computing in this Encyclopedia and his research.

With the same reflective equilibrium in mind, I’d now like to clarify my understanding of a broader conception of aesthetic computing because I appealed to it while critiquing Fishwick [6].

26.16.2 Aesthetics in Computing

John Maeda (a computer scientist, designer, and President of the Rhode Island School of Design) once created “Palm Paintings”: small, shallow boxes painted in various abstract styles with a Palm computer built into each one serving as its visible center. His stated purpose was to enable us to “think,” from the inside, “about what the painting signified.” I take it that his point was not necessarily that signification is located materially inside the work of art but, more provocatively, that our critical thinking about the work should take place as the work is being made, if the critical thinking is to be truly inside the work and not merely added as an extra after the fact. The mode of critical thinking here is aesthetics since the key normative issues in art are aesthetic, making aesthetics an integral part of (Maeda’s) painting.

In a reciprocal gesture, now imagine that we were to embed aesthetics into the design and production of all the artifacts associated with computers – databases, programs, networks, data visualizations, games, etc [7]. The purpose would again be to think about what they signify and, prospectively, what else we might want them to signify in the future (as well as what other effects besides signification we would like to see). The computing artifacts with embedded aesthetics could be marked in some way to distinguish them from others. We could then hope to learn about ubiquitous computing from the inside, as it is being developed, not merely when it is already being used by people in society.

This reciprocal gesture is not imaginary because, as Fishwick has established, there’s been an “aesthetic turn” in a number of areas of computing, leading to the introduction of new subfields such as aesthetic computing, computational aesthetics, database aesthetics, digital aesthetics, information aesthetics, network aesthetics, or software studies [8]. The diverse names, introduced by collaborative research teams of computer scientists and others (e.g., artists, philosophers, art historians), are distinguished by where or, in the spirit of Nelson Goodman, when aesthetics is introduced into computing [9]. That is, if we think of the computer stack, the various layers of computing (with bits and hardware at the bottom and user interaction at the top), the choice of name here is a function of when aesthetic norms first enter computing. If aesthetic norms are involved in structuring databases, for example, then we have database aesthetics; if they influence how we give form to information, then we have information aesthetics; if they’re part of how we organize networks of people participating in various social media, then we have network aesthetics – and so on within the layers of the computing stack. The lower the layer on which aesthetic norms are implicitly present, the greater the ripple effect the critique of these norms will have on the higher layers of computing [10].

In this light, “aesthetic computing” is the one name among all the options that, in principle, encompasses the entire computing stack and thus best captures the full breadth and depth of the “aesthetic turn” in computing. In exploring more what aesthetics adds to computing, I want to emphasize that aesthetic computing is not merely about the aesthetics of computing (merely the design of programs or products, or merely an external critique of the aesthetic norms of computing). Following Maede’s “Palm Paintings,” what I envision is aesthetics in computing, albeit with an anticipatory eye to its ethical and social-political impact rather than only its internal structure (i.e., not merely computational aesthetics).

26.16.3 What is Aesthetic Computing?

Aesthetics is critical thinking about the norms, concepts, values, or principles guiding or emerging from the production, experience, or reception of art, culture, or nature. Besides referring to the range of theory and practice associated with computer programming, databases, computation, software, operating systems, and hardware (everything from digits to gadgets), the term “computing” (as distinct from “computer science”) captures the recognition that computer science operates in a broad social (moral-political) context. Aesthetic computing is a preferred way to operationalize this recognition because it is critical thinking about the complex set of norms shaping all layers of computing that are, in turn, shaping this moral-political-social context [11].

Despite all the various names for aesthetic computing, there is a common thread running through all the versions or iterations of it. The thread is the recognition among people involved in computing that there are aesthetic norms implicit in the decisions or judgments made on all layers of computing. Accordingly, the main tasks of aesthetic computing are (1) to identify the genealogy and current status of the largely implicit aesthetic norms of computing and to render them explicit; (2) to critique the aesthetic norms with an eye to their moral-political-social implications for users; and (3) to help make decisions or judgments in the future about which aesthetic norms to abandon, revise, or sustain in computing, given (1) and (2), and of course given the technical norms within computing.

We can get a clearer picture of the need for aesthetic computing and its tasks by considering Zadie Smith’s review of David Fincher’s film, The Social Network, and of Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto [12]. What the film and book have in common, on Smith’s analysis, is the claim that “Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.” Not only is software not neutral, and not only are there important norms embedded in it (e.g., personhood, privacy, sociality), but software in use also enacts these norms (i.e., puts them in practice). Software does not merely copy our existing norms about ourselves and the world, however, it also enacts new norms and, in doing so, makes a world. The problem, as Smith sees it, is that these invisibly embedded and enacted norms are not discussed critically in advance; rather, they are embedded and enacted by the programmers, most strikingly in the case of Facebook because 800+ million users have had little or no say about its norms. Smith rightly points out that there are ethical issues involved in this case: Why these norms rather than others? Why this format for connecting people with one another rather than another format? What is the quality of the connection? Why this privacy policy? For example, users are expected to give up their privacy to a large extent, and they seem to do so willingly, albeit while reducing themselves to fit the software they are using, according to Lanier, so much so that their “life is turned into a database.”

Smith’s analysis is relevant to aesthetic computing not only because she points to the invisibility of the norms governing Facebook, the Internet, or the Web, but also because when she develops her critique of these norms, she often refers to their “look” or “feel.” For example, while we “know” that it is a mistake to believe that computers can personify human relationships, we know this instinctively only by “feeling” the affective consequences of this mistaken belief, which Facebook embodies: “We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it [friendship] looks like.” What is this look that we feel and that enables us in turn to know that certain norms embedded and enacted in Facebook may be problematic? We come to learn that Facebook is doing something to us through the invisibility of its underlying norms and, if our continued critical reflection is successful, we’ll come to learn what Facebook is doing to us and, moreover, whether there are any alternatives. To succeed, we need to render visible the invisible norms operating in Facebook so that we’ll have “a good reason” for at times feeling “discomfort at the world they’re making [in Facebook].” This kind of critical thinking is precisely what aesthetic computing offers because one of its main tasks is to render explicit the implicit norms of computing.

But let me return to the question: Why aesthetics? We might first ask, why philosophy? Smith answers this second question by emphasizing that “it’s the idea of Facebook that disappoints,” not merely the implementation of its idea. To analyze its idea, we need philosophy to counter what she sees as a general cultural tendency in the Anglo-American world to “race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves.” We need to examine the idea of Facebook and all the other ideas enacted on the Web and Internet before, in Lanier’s words, we become “locked in” them, or “entrapped in somebody else’s careless thought,” which means that we are locked into the invisible norms shaping these ideas and, once those norms are enacted on the Web or Internet, shaping our world and us. But why turn to aesthetics in particular to examine these ideas involving ethics (e.g., security), metaphysics (e.g., personhood or virtual reality), etc.? Returning to Smith’s discussion of the “look” of Facebook, and remembering Jones’s account of embodiment, the closest we come to experiencing the invisible norms that are enacted in software on the Web or Internet is by experiencing the affects they create on us, the users. Many of these affects are visible, but they involve all the senses (hearing and, increasingly, the tactile), just as works of art do and just as our aesthetic experiences of everyday life do. Aesthetics brings the affective dimensions of our experiences of computing to the fore, and it does so in a way that provides a basis for critique of the sort that Smith, Jones, and Lanier are exploring. These critiques are examples of aesthetic computing in action.

To take another kind of example clearly internal to computing, there has been an "aesthetic turn" in the area of human-computer interaction (HCI) because some researchers believe it is important to obtain a fuller picture of the “user” now that computer interfaces are more interactive, participatory, immersive, and ubiquitous [13]. In a word, they need to understand the user in affective, moral, and political as well as cognitive terms in order, in turn, to create the right (i.e., effective, usable) interfaces. So aesthetics comes into the picture as the notion of usability becomes normatively more complex. Why turn to aesthetics? A major reason is that aesthetics has a long history of critiquing the particular kinds of affective and cognitive interactions and modes of participation constitutive of our experiences of art, and these critiques are relevant to the critiques of the affective-cognitive experiences of the user in human-computer interactions [14]. These interactions (with their own modes of participation) also have moral and political dimensions because users have to be treated fairly (e.g., in matters of access, whether for economic or disability reasons) and their political or cultural beliefs have to be respected. Here, too, aesthetics has a history of critiquing works of art in relation to moral-political as well as aesthetic considerations. The aesthetic turn here, whether in HCI or in any other field of computing, is therefore not a narrowing of moral-political-social impact to aesthetic questions; rather, aesthetics provides a philosophical structure for thinking critically about norms that are moral, political, social, and aesthetic at the same time [15].

26.16.4 Aesthetic Computing and Science

Although the critique of aesthetic norms in computing with an eye to their moral-political-social impact is a relatively new process, we can more easily appreciate its relevance and importance if we see it as an augmentation of the existing practices of critical thinking in computing [16]. That is, computing has always critically analyzed its normativity, even if the norms have been understood mostly in technical terms (e.g., what is most efficient or effective). The emergence of aesthetic computing stems from the recognition within computing that its norms are more than technical, as we saw in the case of HCI. So aesthetic computing is principally an outgrowth and refinement of the recognition of the complex normativity always already operative within computing. This is an important point to emphasize because some computer scientists may view aesthetics the way they at times view ethical, political, or other issues seemingly external to computing: those issues are not relevant to what they do qua scientists (given their methodologies, aims, etc.) and thus to give such issues methodological credibility can only place constraints on science. However, if aesthetics (and the related normative) questions are understood as emerging from within computing, scientists no longer need to be concerned that aesthetics is constraining computing.

Yet researchers may still worry that aesthetic computing will change computer science in ways that would make it less scientific, especially if Roger Molina is right that the strong claim of aesthetic computing is that it will generate new objectives that "would not naturally have evolved within the computing sciences” and, moreover, that will “redirect the future development of computing.” [17]. That is, the transition from implicit to explicit aesthetic norms on the layers of the computing stack may have the result that we will change technical as well as aesthetic norms and then change the objectives of computing on that basis. But, again, if computing is normative and the self-critique of normativity is part of science, the only real change resulting from aesthetic computing is that the aesthetic norms always already part of computing will now be explicit and critically examined. How can computing not benefit from more self-critique, since the revision of its internal norms is part of the engine that has driven progress in modern science, on its own terms? For example, as computing becomes more conscious of the design issues that could contribute to environmental sustainability, that may change certain objectives of computing but it would not make computing less scientific, for if it were to become less scientific, it could not contribute to sustainability. In short, aesthetic computing shows how seemingly external norms are actually internal to computing.

The issue of the status of computing as a science is worth dwelling on even longer because it can stop the discussion of aesthetic computing cold. Some may still worry that aesthetics involves taste and is thus subjective. In this light, to integrate aesthetics into computing would be to introduce subjectivity into an otherwise objective science. However, what is actually happening here is that computer scientists are recognizing (a) that the normative complexity of computing has already shaped their idea of science, making room for a more interdisciplinary approach to computing, and (b) that computing is more than a science, not only because its moral-political-social impact entails too many nontechnical issues that scientists need to understand in order to develop computing internally, but also because the implicit nontechnical norms of computing are already shaping its development in ways that need to be analyzed critically for the sake of computing – as well as for our sakes as we live and work with computers [18]. In short, the aesthetic turn in computing is a way to critique its nontechnical norms in order to strengthen its status as science at this stage of its development. Why aesthetics? Again, because it is a long-standing field of philosophy that has developed a variety of ways to think critically about aesthetic norms as they are related to moral-political-social as well as technical norms.

26.16.5 Open Aesthetic Properties and Objects

Now, if aesthetic norms are always already a part of computing, why is aesthetic computing barely a decade old, though aesthetics has its origins in the eighteenth century and computers have been around for decades already? One explanation, according to Fishwick, is that computing had to develop to a certain stage before its connection to aesthetics could clearly emerge: “We have had to wait for the technology to become available to leverage the arts,” especially in the fields of HCI, ubiquitous computing, augmented reality, and virtual reality [19]. Yet if aesthetics is so obviously relevant to computing, why was this delay necessary? After all, aesthetics is a form of critical thinking and computing has relied on critical thinking to evolve, so why didn’t aesthetic computing emerge earlier? Another explanation why its emergence has been slow, besides the worries about science being constrained or becoming subjective, is that too many people in computer science seem to have rather narrow, sometimes outdated ideas about aesthetics and thus have not been able to see its relevance to computing or, when they have seen the relevance, they’ve not been able to get from the narrow ideas to what they hope aesthetics could contribute to computing.

Too many people today still assume (and some philosophers still believe) that aesthetics is principally concerned with making disinterested judgments of the quality of beauty inherent in a class of unique and autonomous objects called works of art. However, aesthetics has no unique set of objects, not only because so many “things” can be works of art, as the history of modern art has taught us, but because aesthetics is as much about people, experience, and value as it is about objects or things. And beauty is no longer a principal concern in aesthetics because it’s not a principal concern in art (for a host of reasons analyzed by others elsewhere) [20]. Moreover, aesthetics is not about the fixed properties of any objects, whether works of art, natural objects, or artifacts of computing. This does not mean, intentionally or unwittingly, that aesthetics is merely subjective or that, as we sometimes hear, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Aesthetics is not merely subjective any more than it is merely objective because beauty (understood not merely as a particular aesthetic property but as a stand-in for the entire set of aesthetic properties) is not in the subject any more than it is in the object. But where is beauty, if it is not a fixed property of any subject or object? In the language of eighteenth-century aesthetics, beauty is a relational property, that is, a property resulting from cognitive and affective relations or interactions among human subjects or between them and an open-ended set of works of art, natural objects, or artifacts of computing. In this light, the task of aesthetic computing is to identify, render explicit, and analyze critically the various conditions – technological, social, ontological, psychological, etc. – that make such relations or interactions possible, not just what makes them more effective, usable, communicable, pleasurable, and the like, though by understanding what makes them possible we’ll presumably be in a better position to address these other concerns. Since the interactions here involve humans, and particularly since the interactions are not only between humans and objects but among humans (hence the need to shift from interaction to participation), aesthetic norms here are also moral and political. Again, aesthetics is able to coordinate all the dimensions of these norms better than either ethics or politics could because aesthetics has a long history of doing just that in the context of art.

On this account, aesthetics is a natural ally of computing because computing also traffics in objects lacking fixed properties, as is evident in Lev Manovich’s discussion of the word “object” in the Introduction to The Language of New Media. Expressions such as Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Simulation, and Second Life likewise involve computer-based “realities” and objects that are not fixed. Also, in the field of scientific visualization involving, say, molecular biology, the data that are visualized are inaccessible to human senses since there is no light at the molecular level. So the data do not constitute objects in the usual sense of the word and their visualizations have no objective correlates. This means that there is no single objective way to visualize molecular data, no essential visualization of them just waiting to be discovered by a computer scientist (though any visualization is always constrained by scientific methodologies and goals). Moreover, this means these “objects” remain invisible even after they have been visualized, so it makes no sense to say that the visualization of molecular data have fixed properties (other than in the broadest sense of data properties – i.e., qua numbers and codes). Looking at this description of scientific visualization, computer scientists working in scientific (and other forms of) visualization should feel at home in aesthetics because molecular (and other) data are very similar to contemporary works of art: they too are not (necessarily) objects; they are more conceptual than sensuous, even when they assume sensuous form(s); and they are not imitations of objective realities against which they can be judged, so they can take numerous forms, subject to the limits of visualization and the methodological structures and goals of science (or art).

Now, if aesthetic computing is as much about human interactions as about objects or properties, a key question here is what makes these interactions aesthetic. How can we delimit the open-ended range of human-computer interactions and isolate those that are specifically aesthetic, especially if beauty is not a fixed property and is actually an effect of these interactions rather than a criterion for identifying them? [21] This question is both easier and harder to answer in the case of aesthetic computing than it might be in aesthetics more generally; easier, because the interactions have to involve some computing activities, artifacts, or the like, which, for the most part, are easier to identify than works of art, which have proven to be very elusive in recent years; yet harder too, because what is aesthetic about human interactions involving computers? The answer to this last question is that the norms implicitly embedded and enacted in the various layers of computing are what introduce the aesthetic dimension (hence database aesthetics, information aesthetics, etc., depending on which layer of the computing stack is involved).

The open-ended nature of aesthetic computing may create consternation among some computer scientists, or at least that has been my experience while researching, lecturing, or teaching about aesthetic computing. For there is a tendency to expect that aestheticians should provide objective norms (concepts, criteria, or the like) that can then serve as practical guides for researchers in computing (the field of “criticism” in computing sometimes embodies this tendency). If followed, however, this tendency would make aesthetics a field external to computing that is then applied to it. By contrast, I’ve proposed a model of aesthetic computing that operates only within computing by rendering explicit the aesthetic norms that are always already implicit and operative in the layers of the computing stack. Any new norms will have to emerge from within computing practices, just as new norms are introduced within artistic practices. In the end, aesthetics is either internal to computing or has little critical relevance to it.

26.16.6 Endnotes

  1. J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (New York: Penguin, 2008). See also Jaron Lanier: “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” – You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2006).
  2. As the Editor of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), I’m not suggesting that the general should exclude the particular – it’s all a matter of balance
  3. Caroline A. Jones, “Introduction,” in Jones, Ed. Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).
  4. For more on participatory art, see, e.g., Claire Bishop, Editor, Participation (London & Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery MIT Press, 2006); and Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012). Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les Presse Du Reel, 2002). Rudolf Freiling, Editor, The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now (San Francisco & London: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Thames & Hudson). Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art (New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011). Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). Nato Thompson, Editor, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production (New York: Melville House, 2012); and Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
  5. To give another example, Lev Manovich argues that people often point positively to the user-generated content available now online (e.g., anime music videos, political mashups) as evidence of artistic freedom or creativity on the internet (even enhanced democracy), yet they fail to reflect critically on the fact that this content follows implicitly embedded and enacted industry templates and conventions or reuses professionally produced content. Manovich, “Art After Web 2.0” in The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now.
  6. Since I’m a philosopher, it’s likely inevitable that my perspective on this new field is going to be general. But such generality is also due to the fact that aesthetics is a conceptual and normative field, though it clearly must be linked to the empirical reality of computing if it’s going to have any efficacy as a mode of critical thinking that is internal to computing.
  7. Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum have developed “values at play,” a conception of critical play that identifies and transforms the values embedded and enacted in computer (and other) games. As I see it, their approach is a good example of aesthetic computing because they render explicit the implicit norms of games. But they do not appeal to aesthetics. In fact, they seem to shun it, perhaps because Flanagan is an artist and seems to adopt uncritically the anti-aesthetic stance common in contemporary art, while Nissenbaum is a philosopher who doesn’t yet appreciate the critical value of aesthetics. This is unfortunate, I think, because aesthetics provides exactly the kind of conceptual and critical resources Flanagan and Nissenbaum are developing as they analyze and create games that embed and enact transformative values. See Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009); and Flanagan and Nissenbaum, Values at Play (forthcoming).
  8. Aesthetic Computing began at a conference in Dagstuhl, Germany, in 2002, from which emerged a manifesto published in Leonardo in 2003, and an anthology, Aesthetic Computing, Paul Fishwick, Ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006) (which I reviewed in Leonardo On-line Reviews (January 2007): http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/jan2007/aest_kelly.html
    Computational aesthetics, which is also called (or linked to) algorithmic aesthetics or exact aesthetics, has been traced back to the 1930s; see Gary Greenfield, “On the Origins of the Term ‘Computational Aesthetics’”; and Florian Hoenig, “Defining Computational Aesthetics,” in Computational Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualization and Imaging, I. Neumann, M. Sbert, B. Gooch, W. Purgathofer, Editors (2005), pp. 9-12 and 13-18.
    Database Aesthetics can be traced back to at least 1999; see Victoria Vesna, Editor, Database Aesthetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
    For examples of Digital Aesthetics, see Sean Cubitt’s website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/digita/; and Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
    Information Aesthetics has an active website: http://infosthetics.com/. See also the SIGGRAPH Information Aesthetics Showcase in 2009: http://www.siggraph.org/s2009/galleries_experiences/information_aesthetics/
    For an example of Network Aesthetics, see Warren Sack, “Network Aesthetics,” in Database Aesthetics, pp. 183-210.
    For an example of Software Aesthetics, see Stephan Diehl and Carsten Görg, “Aesthetics and the Visualization and Quality of Software,” in Fishwick, Aesthetic Computing, pp. 230-37. There are also various websites devoted to this topic.
    And there’s also Visual Aesthetics, discussed extensively elsewhere in this Encyclopedia.
  9. Goodman, “Art in Action,” in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, pp. 322-25. For an account of Goodman’s relevance to aesthetic computing, see John Lee, “Goodman’s Aesthetics and the Language of Computing,” in Aesthetic Computing, pp. 29-42.
  10. Manovich speaks of the cultural layer in addition to the computing layer, but I’m envisioning aesthetic computing that integrates rather than separates these layers. See The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).
  11. As Fishwick clarifies in his Encyclopedia entry, aesthetic computing is different from computer or digital art, that is, digital technology applied to the arts. “Aesthetic computing” refers to the impact of artistic practices and aesthetic principles on the field of computing, so the influence flows from art and aesthetics to computing. For example, computer scientists are looking to learn from artists how to conduct critiques of their prototypes for new technologies (as artists do of their new works); how best to visualize data in scientific, information, or knowledge visualization; and how to understand the balance between form and function or, more typically in computing, beauty and usability in new technologies, especially those involving user interfaces. As these kinds of influence of art on computing are developed, aesthetics is a natural third party since art always involves some type of aesthetics.
  12. Zadie Smith, “Generation Why?” (Review of The Social Network, a film directed by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin; and Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010), in New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010): http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/?pagination=false
  13. See, e.g., Olav W. Bertelsen and Søren Pold, “Criticism as an Approach to Interface Aesthetics,” NordiCHI '04, October 23-27, 2004; Lars Erik Udsen and Anker Helms Jørgensen, “The Aesthetic Turn: Unravelling Recent Aesthetic Approaches to Human-computer Interaction,” Digital Creativity, 16, 4 (2005): 205–16; Jeffrey Bardzell, “Interaction Criticism and Aesthetics,” Proc. of CHI’09. ACM Press (2009), 2357-66, and Jeffrey Bardzell, “Interaction Criticism: An Introduction to the Practice,” Interacting with Computers, 23 (2011) 604–21. See also Olav W. Bertelsen: “Tertiary Artifacts at the Interface,” in Aesthetic Computing, ed. Paul Fishwick (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), pp. 357-368. According to Bertelsen, “human-computer interaction requires understanding of the aesthetics of computing technology,” that is, “how computing technology is experienced and ‘experienceable.’ Input from aesthetic computing is greatly needed in human-computer interaction” (p. 359). In explaining what he has in mind, Bertelsen analyzes the work of Marx Wartofsky, a philosopher of art and science. I think this is a very good article in aesthetic computing, even if one does not accept the Wartofsky framework, because Bertelsen clarifies aesthetics in a way that is philosophically sound, linked to art and science, and relevant to computing.
  14. See, e.g., Kirsten Boehner, Rogério DePaula, Paul Dourish, and Phoebe Sengers, “Affect: From Information to Interaction,” CC 05, Proceedings of the Dicennial Conference on Critical Computing (New York: ACM Press), pp. 59-68. See also the MIT Lab for Affective Computing: http://affect.media.mit.edu/
  15. While any other discourses or disciplines implicated in this normative complex could critique its own type of normativity, only aesthetics is able to critique the normativity in all its complexity. For example, when Ken Goldberg installed “Demonstrate” (2004) in Sproul Plaza on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, his project raised all sorts of issues and aesthetics is arguably at the center of them all. He set up a robotic webcamera for six weeks (24/7) that could be manipulated (zooming in, taking photographs, and the like) by people in remote locations, allowing somebody in Tokyo, say, to conduct surveillance on people in the Berkeley plaza. Although it was technology that made this installation possible, it clearly was not just an engineering project because of the consequences of remote surveillance on unsuspecting people in an open plaza on the campus of a public university. There were legal issues, starting with the question of the privacy rights of the people under surveillance, in particular because, as I understand it, the camera was not calibrated tightly enough at first so it was able to scan beyond the parameters intended for the project. In addition, because this project was also construed as an art work, there were also issues of artistic freedom, not only on behalf of Goldberg (and perhaps the people conducting the surveillance) but for the people in the plaza; for they were no longer as strictly constrained in their public behavior because they were participating in a work of art (apparently, some people engaged in or at least simulated sex acts under the protection of artistic freedom). Finally, the project commemorated the 40th Anniversary of the Berkeley-led Free Speech Movement, so there were important political issues at stake too because the movement was subjected to surveillance in its time, albeit without today’s more sophisticated technology. Aesthetic critique is able to make sense of the normative complexity (technical, legal, ethical, political) of a project like Goldberg’s Demonstrate because, again, aesthetics has a long history of analyzing works of art with this same type of normative complexity.
  16. Warren Sack argues, as I understand it, that the recognition of the aesthetic (as well as other nontechnical) dimensions of software and computing was evident from the early days of computing. See his website: http://people.ucsc.edu/~wsack/
  17. Roger Malina, “A Forty-Year Perspective on Aesthetic Computing in the Leonardo Journal,” in Fishwick, Aesthetic Computing, p. 48. The other, weak claim is that aesthetics may help computer scientists "achieve their [existing] objectives more easily, quickly, or elegantly” (p. 47).
  18. For similar developments in other sciences, see, e.g., Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience, Arthur P. Shimamura and Stephen E. Palmer, Eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  19. Fishwick, Aesthetic Computing, p. 13.
  20. On the fate of beauty in modern art, see, e.g., Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago: Open Court Press, 2003); Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art: 1750-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th Century Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  21. There a long-standing discussion of the open nature of art works in the history of contemporary aesthetics. See, e.g., Umberto Eco, The Open Work, tr. A. Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989; originally published in 1962).