The Dreams of an Accelerated Culture

Mads Haahr
Department of Computer Science
Trinity College, Dublin

Abstract. Contemporary society, driven by the continued need for acceleration, encourages us to adopt a pace of cultural interaction not easily compatible with the reflection necessary for deeper understanding. This paper discusses the roles of art and technology in the acceleration of culture and, using an example work of art from the digital avant-garde, argues that reflection is important and should not be neglected.


More than any other period in human history, the twentieth century was characterised by rapid advances in technology. Among the results have been greatly improved abilities to relieve suffering, treat disease and generally improve the human condition. There have also been advances of less benign nature, and many which some would classify as genuine progress and others as dangerous developments. But overall, it is thanks to science that we now have a better understanding than ever of the way the world works, from the microscopic structures of genetics to the grand scale of astronomical physics. No one would claim that we have the entire picture (or that we are even close) but as a culture we do understand the physical environment in which we live better than ever before.*

At the entry to the third millennium we are left with a great responsibility to match these advances in other respects. It has been difficult for our cultural maturation to keep up with the possibilities that technological advancements have given us. We are still equipped with the same genetic makeup as we were many millennia ago, but the world in which we apply it has changed dramatically. Fortunately, this makeup has equipped us with a great degree of adaptability that has served us well throughout the history of evolution. As a species we have adapted to some of the harshest environments on the planet (Innuit and Aboriginal cultures are good examples of this), and it has been remarkably easy for us also to adapt to new environments such as those presented by the industrial and information ages.

However, the ability to adapt comes with the risk of automatically doing so in situations where there might be better options. Innuit cultures, for example, with little or no direct influence on their physical surroundings, could choose either to adapt or leave. In comparison, the environments presented by the industrial and information ages are much more artificial in character; we are less dominated by nature and more by man-made structures, physical as well as cultural. Though we tend to forget it, these structures are under our control, and we therefore have more control over our immediate environment. Admittedly, it is far from easy to understand exactly how to exercise this control but it does constitute an additional option: we can adapt or leave, but we can also change our environment. As an option, leaving is becoming increasingly difficult as our culture expands geographically and our social structures increase in complexity. Adaptation to new environments is our automatic reaction – it is what we do instinctively – but automatic reactions do not always lead to the best possible outcome. In particular, we should be careful not to adapt without conscious consideration to any environment presented to us as part of the information age. Adaptation is a useful skill but it is not our only option; we can also change the world.

Give and Take: Accelerated Interaction

One characteristic common to many technological advances is that they enable us to do things faster. This is certainly true for transport and communication technologies, which let us move ourselves, our goods and our information faster, but it is also true for the development-adoption process of new technologies themselves. As an example, a 1996 study by Mary Meeker [5] found that new media are being adopted at an increasing speed. Whereas radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users within the United States, television took 13 and cable television only ten years to reach the same level of penetration. According to this study, the Internet is the fastest growing medium to date, taking only five years to reach 50 million American users.**

The pattern of acceleration applies to a surprising number of fields. Another example is in news coverage where new technologies, in particular in the audio/video and communications domains, have allowed news to be broadcast sooner and sooner after the event has taken place. The extreme example is live coverage where the time from event to broadcast is effectively zero. Recent news coverage has seen an increasing number of lengthy live broadcasts of events that have traditionally have been covered non-live. Examples are the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the O. J. Simpson trial in 1994. Hence, the trend of acceleration is visible not only in the development and adoption of new technologies (such as communications and transportation) but also in the applications of these technologies.

In effect, these trends indicate that we are getting used to acceleration. We are coming automatically to expect rapid advances in any field with which we deal. This is true even for our own cultural interaction with the world. We expect responses (or results) to be rapid, and if they are not – or if something cannot be readily understood – we tend to discard the contents (to surf to another channel) to a much greater extent than previously. We are less patient, less willing to take the time, perhaps because we have less of it since there is so much we feel we need to digest in order to keep up.

Egyptian Ouroboros
Egyptian Ouroboros

But keep up with what? We often fail to realise that our interaction with the world is a feedback loop: a circle we can choose to make either benevolent or vicious. As participants in an active culture, we take and we give – this is the core of our interaction with the surroundings. This dual flow of action is everywhere: in language (hear/say), in technology (sensors/feedback), economics (demand/supply), biology (stimulus/response) and computers (input/output). Our current cultural patterns encourage an accelerated mode of interaction: one that expects the rate not only to be high but also to grow. We teach ourselves that speed is good, that a fast-paced lifestyle (busi-ness) is a sure sign of success and that if we can run/work/create faster than our peers, we will do better than them.

But acceleration is a risky characteristic on which to base a culture, because a continually tightening feedback loop will eventually become too tight to work well. For the feedback loop to work at a human level, we need time to reflect and digest; to distill information into knowledge; to turn experiences into experience. This experience (conscious as well as unconscious) forms the basis for the last step in the feedback loop: our own actions through which we influence the world. These actions are essentially what we are putting back into culture, and the period of reflection is important for their quality. As humans, we need time to process the information we absorb in order to extract meaning from it; only then can we put meaning back into culture.

Archimedean Spiral
Archimedean Spiral

At the moment, we are teaching each other a different doctrine. Instead of taking the time to reflect and gain insight, we tend to spend energy searching and continually shifting focus. The sea of information seems vast and the time to explore it ever diminishing. We often assume the reason that all this information is available is merely that technology makes it available, and although this is certainly true, there is also another reason. Subjected to large amounts of information and driven by the need/demand for continued acceleration, we are less inclined to spend the time and effort it takes to produce high quality information in response but rather more information of lower quality. The likely consequence is that the quantity increases, while the quality drops.

There are many signs of this trend in our culture, the foremost being the increasing amount of virtually content-free information at our fingertips: television channels and web pages that might look flashy but cost very little and were very quick to produce, and for good reasons. In effect, the presumed sea of information can often appear more like an enormous pool – wide but shallow – through which contemporary culture tells us to wade at an increasing pace. Consume and produce. Buy and sell. Faster, faster.

The Colour of the Zeitgeist

The subtitle of Crossings is Electronic Journal of Art and Technology. We have chosen this subtitle in the recognition that art is a very important part of culture: the art of a culture is the mirror in which that culture's emerging nature is reflected, often before it can be consciously observed. Art is the dreams of culture, so to speak, and can be interpreted as such. If technology is the tool we use to maintain the acceleration of culture, then art is one place where we can study the effects of this acceleration. Changes of course also take place in other parts of culture, but art is one of the first to react and typically only later followed by the bigger and less nimble ones, such as politics and religion. At its best, art can give us an early glimpse of the current of the times, the heading of the cultural streams, the colour of the Zeitgeist.

The role of art criticism is first to interpret and to understand these messages and then to provide intelligent feedback to art and to culture in general. Hence, artistic expression and intelligent criticism form yet another circular pattern of communication: creation and critique. Art functions in many ways like the unconscious mind; themes emerge, the meaning of which may not be immediately obvious. Criticism at its best works like the conscious mind; it reacts to the ideas presented in art, attempts to analyse them and place them in a greater context. Art responds with new developments, and so on and so forth. When successful, this double interaction – art with criticism, criticism with art – can help us understand the currents of our times (if not ourselves and humanity) better.***

Recycling Symbol
Recycling Symbol

One characteristic of feedback loops is that they work best when the quality of the content is high. Visionary artworks deserve intelligent criticism, and criticism requires strong artistic visions to make for a meaningful discussion. In the same way, a classroom works best if the teacher communicates well and the students ask good questions. If we do not take the time and effort to communicate our message clearly, we cannot reasonably expect the response to make sense to us either. In fact, this is true for any feedback loop, not only those involving communication but also for more tangible exchanges, such as metabolism, consumerism and for our general interaction with the environment. The quality of the food we take in matters, as does the quality of the waste we produce. Instinctively, we know this is true and we find the traces of it in our language in phrases such as ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘what comes around goes around.’

I have already claimed that our current cultural trend is to focus on the acceleration of the interactive loop rather than the quality of the content being exchanged. In many (if not all) of the cases mentioned, this is a trend made possible by technology. (This does not necessarily mean it is caused by technology.) So, if art can show us the colour of the Zeitgeist, what has it to say about the acceleration of interaction? What is happening at the avant-garde that can tell us about the heading of our culture?

Interactivity in Art

The circular pattern of communication has been discovered by many artists, most recently in the new media disciplines, under the label interactivity. If the creation of art is seen as the artist's reaction to his or her surroundings, then the observer's interpretation of the work can be seen as a reaction to that reaction. However, when completed, most (though not all) conventional works of art are static in their nature and cannot react further to the observer. In contrast, digital art is programmable and therefore has the potential to react further to the observer, causing yet another reaction, and so on. Hence, the nature of communication between a digital work of art and its observer has the potential to be cyclical rather than merely two-way. This communication pattern may also apply to work in non-digital media (such as sculpture) if the work is equipped with sensors, and its reactions are controlled by a computer program.

In this way, technology makes it possible to introduce a feedback loop into the communication between artwork and observer that was not always there: the observer and the work can influence each other directly. In the traditional mode of interaction, the observer's reaction to the work would be indirect. He or she would be influenced (to varying degrees and either consciously or unconsciously) and this would affect his or her subsequent actions. These actions could either be direct or indirect response to the work. Direct response could be in the form of criticism or – in case the observer being another artist – response in his or her own works. Even if the observer is not profoundly affected by the work, it will have an influence (however miniscule) and therefore affect the future actions performed in his or her daily life. These actions in turn will influence the world (however subtly) and hence, eventually, reach the artist who will carry the effect into his or her future works.

It is clear that this mode of interaction is more cumbersome than modern interactive art reacting directly to the observer. First of all, it involves the artist and relies on his or her future works for the effects of the observer's reactions to appear, but it also requires a much longer time frame and several steps of indirection before the accumulated effects return to the observer. In contrast, the new mode of interaction operates directly between work and observer; there are no intermediaries, and the response is immediate. In this respect, this mode of communication between artwork and observer is very much akin to the one known from performance art in which a performer interacts directly with the audience. For all these disciplines (performance as well as interactive and non-interactive visual art) the traditional mode of communication of course still applies. In the long term, observers are still influenced by their experiences with the work, and this affects their actions which in turn may influence artists and so on. Like many other examples of accelerated interaction (consume/produce, buy/sell, etc.), the faster mode of interaction found in interactive non-performance art (digital art, reactive sculpture, etc.) is made possible by technology.

Elle et la Voix

At the moment, the majority of interactive artworks are purely digital; they exist only in electronic form and have no physical embodiment. Such works are typically computer programs in one form or another that allow the observer to interact via standard computer interfaces such as mouse, keyboard, microphone and camera. A smaller category of digital works also include more elaborate input mechanisms, such as motion detectors, that allow the artwork to construct a more accurate picture of the world and hence react better.

An example of such a work is Catherine Ikam and Louis-Franç Fléri's Elle et la Voix [1], an installation featuring a virtual persona (‘Elle’). Elle is an animated, computer-rendered face projected onto a screen suspended in a dark room. The computer that renders Elle is also equipped with motion detectors that allow it to pick up the locations of any observers in her room. This information is used to make Elle react to the presence of observers. In the presence of several such visitors, she singles out one, focuses her attention on that person, gradually floats closer and finally elicits a slight, enigmatic smile before resuming her wanderings across the screen. A slightly sleepy Mona Lisa doing an endless dreamy dance through bitspace. The software that controls Elle implements behaviour models, algorithms that define her behaviour as a function of the sensory input picked up by the motion sensors. In addition, Elle's computer is also equipped with a synthesizer, a speaker and a microphone. When floating around the screen, Elle is accompanied by ambient music and modulated voice audio. If a visitor speaks into the microphone, Elle's voice is resynthesized using parameters from the speaker's voice. In this way, Elle reacts visibly as well as audibly to visitors.

For artists working with interaction, the main challenge is to make the artwork able to participate convincingly in a dialogue with the observer. Despite her limited repertoire of response (float, turn, smile, sing), the creators of Elle et la Voix have been very successful in endowing her with a type of personality. The lifelike nature of her face, the ambient darkness of the room, the quality of the rendering, and so on all add to the atmosphere, but the main reason she is convincing is that her reaction is subtle almost to the degree of flirtation. When interacting with Elle, the observer feels she is much more complex, much more capable than is immediately obvious.

In general, interactive works must be able to react to the observer and repeatedly to issue meaningful responses to the observer's reaction. In order to do so, the work must be able to perform both of the interactive steps in a feedback loop: sensing and feedback. The technology used for both steps is important. No matter whether the sensors are computer mice or motion detectors, it is through them that the artwork perceives the world. In the same way that we rely on the accuracy of our own senses, the input perceived by the artwork has to be of a certain quality (e.g., sufficiently high resolution and low noise levels) for the work to issue a meaningful reaction. As mentioned, Elle's input devices are motion detectors and a microphone. The feedback method is equally important, because it is through this that the work communicates actively with its surroundings. For feedback, Elle uses the image projected on the screen and the speakers through which the resynthesized voice is played. Elle's input and output devices are reasonably advanced for contemporary interactive digital art. Most multimedia artworks currently use only audio (e.g., microphone/speakers) and video (e.g., camera/screen) for sensing/feedback. Motion (e.g., motion detectors/servo motors) appears in fewer works but allows for a manifestation that is more physical and less virtual. Although Elle does not move physically (only her projected image moves), she does perceive physical motion and is therefore more advanced than the majority of works.

At the time of writing, artists have embraced multimedia and the Internet, and many efforts are centred around the computer and the network as artistic media. As sensor and feedback technologies become increasingly accessible and more artists discover how to use them, we are likely to see more interactive art appearing, not only in electronic but also in physical media. Despite her strong presence in the darkened room, Elle's impression on observers is purely virtual: the screen lets us peer into her virtual space (and she peers back at us) but she has no physical parts through which she can interact with visitors. As an extension of the type of virtual existence Elle leads, it seems only natural to imagine real, physical (as opposed to virtual) sculptures equipped with sensors along the lines of Elle's but also with physical feedback mechanisms. Placed in environments with which they can interact, such works would essentially be perceptive/reactive mobiles.

The Importance of Reflection

Until now, I have discussed the feedback loop as a two-step process, the feedback step somehow being a function of what is perceived by the sensors. This function, or processing, of the sensor data is key because it determines the behaviour of the interactive artwork by defining the relationship between the sensors and the feedback. Like biological organisms, reactive works of art need to digest what is observed by sensors in order to react meaningfully. Despite its effectiveness, Elle's behaviour model is simple compared to biological organisms. She floats, smiles and sings, nothing more. The questions that artists working in interactive media need to answer concern the nature of behaviour models: given adequate sensing and feedback mechanisms, what kind of processing of the sensor input does a work need to perform in order to engage in a meaningful conversation with an observer? What is a meaningful conversation in this context? These are key questions that are difficult to answer and which, if taken to the extreme, are really questions about what defines life, interaction and intelligence as we know it from organic life.

In general, the trend towards increased interactivity in art can be seen as a progression towards art becoming more like organic life. Although the media are purely digital or digital-mechanic, the idea of imbuing works with the ability to respond in a meaningful way mimics organic life. The questions asked by artists and technologists concern what it is that makes communication meaningful: How important are the sensors, the feedback mechanisms and the behaviour model relative to each other? (The former two essentially define the language in which the communication takes place.) To what extent does the processing depend on this language and vice versa? To what extend do the sensor/feedback mechanisms depend on the environment and each other? How much can interactive art really influence the surroundings?

These questions, asked in the context of art and technology, are really thinly veiled versions of bigger questions about the nature of interaction and about ourselves: How important are our senses and bodies for the act of communication? How important are our thought processes? To what extent are the senses, the mind and the body interdependent? To what extent are they defined by the environment in which we live? To what extent do we create the world by interacting with it?

Another issue raised by art becoming more like organic life concerns interactivity as a defining characteristic. The traditional defining characteristics of life are the ability to metabolise, reproduce and adapt to environmental changes. These are all abilities to interact with the surroundings in one way or another. (For example, metabolism is interaction in terms of matter.) Hence, the ability to interact is one that we generally assume organisms to possess in one way or another in order for them to be classified as living. In a similar way, we certainly expect organisms to be able to interact in order to be called intelligent. If we can interact with artworks in a meaningful way, are they still only reactive works of art or do they suddenly possess other characteristics we tend to attribute only to organic life forms, e.g., a certain rudimentary intelligence? To what extent are we only reactive beings ourselves? Many of these questions, now being asked by artists working in digital media, are basic questions about the world that have been asked in a different context by philosophers and researchers in such areas as neuroscience, cognitive science and some areas of computer science, such as artificial intelligence and artificial life.

The Artistic Turing Test

At the time of writing, the majority of interactive artwork (in particular in pure digital media) expects the observer to ‘explore’ or ‘interact’ with the work rather than the work interacting with the observer. Despite being interactive, a typical digital work expects the observer to do most of the interaction. The work's foremost function is to reveal itself gradually to the observer's probing. This is a limited form of interaction, one where the onus is on the observer to do work in order to get something back from the artwork itself. This is not an uncommon characteristic for modern and postmodern works; many works of great modern writers (e.g., James Joyce and Samuel Beckett) do not lend themselves easily to interpretation and often require a substantial amount of reader effort. Other explanations of the limited degree of interaction in digital art are technical. Digital art is still relatively new, and, in this context, interaction as a concept is still at an early stage. In addition, there are severe technical problems which make the processing substantially more difficult to master than the sensor/feedback mechanisms. Adding to a work what the observer may perceive as some form of authentic reaction is remarkably difficult and, in the extreme, akin to simulating natural intelligence.

Research into Artificial Intelligence (AI) has shown that imbuing machines with intelligence has proven to be a much more complex task than most researchers in the field would have imagined. Since AI was founded as a field in the 1950s, vast amounts of resources have been allocated to this research, in particular throughout the sixties and seventies. Many (very useful) systems were built for industrial purposes as well as research. However, it has proven difficult to build systems that possess general characteristics of intelligence. Most (if not all) systems are limited to quite specialised domains, such as finding flaws in solder joints or proving mathematical theorems. A consequence of the work is that we now understand better how difficult it is to build generally intelligent systems, but the holy grail of AI – to create an artificial intelligence – is still far away.

In particular, the basic problem of understanding what defines intelligence in the first place is still largely unsolved. This is reflected in the classic (although somewhat controversial) way to test whether a machine can be perceived as intelligent. The Turing Test, formulated by mathematician Alan Turing [8] in 1950, essentially says that a machine can be perceived as intelligent if a human, during interaction with the machine, is unable to tell the difference between the machine and a real person. In other words, we cannot say what defines intelligence but we know it when we see it.

In many respects, interactive art is in a similar situation to research into artificial intelligence. Although interactive works do not have to be intelligent per se, their responses must be of a certain quality to be perceived as meaningful to the observer. The observers will look for interaction that is convincing and adds something to the work. Hence, successful interactive art will have to pass its own type of Turing test; not quite the test of being mistaken for a person but the test of engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the observer. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of interactive art, and because of its newness, it is no surprise that much attention in interactive works has been directed towards the relatively simple interaction problems (the sensors/feedback) rather than the much trickier processing of the sensor input.

Art as Life, Life as Art

Depending on their complexity, organic life forms are involved in feedback loops at a variety of different levels: metabolic, communicative and cultural. Increased interaction in art is an important step towards making art more like organic life, and this is an exciting development. While I have claimed that most current interactive works in digital media focus on the input/output rather than the processing, there is a trend towards stronger behaviour models such as the one used in Elle et la Voix. This represents a changing focus towards reflection among the avant-garde of digital art.

In general, reflection is a time-consuming and laborious process (and extremely difficult to implement artificially) but it is required for authentic interaction within any domain: human, artistic, etc. The processing, reflection, digestion step is an important part of any feedback loop, and the fact that our culture currently tends to focus on the consumption/production aspects instead is a reason for concern. Perhaps the trend seen in cutting-edge works such as Elle et la Voix shows us that artists are aware of the need for reflection in interaction and will introduce or strengthen it if it does not already exist, such as has been the case for digital media.

Yin & Yang
Yin & Yang

At the beginning of this essay, I argued that we as cultural participants have the choice between adapting to the accelerating environment, leaving it and changing it. While adaptation is what we do automatically, it is important also to consider the other options. Leaving culture is becoming increasingly difficult and the same can be said for changing it. To change the heading of culture away from acceleration, we need to shift focus away from acceleration and towards reflection. This very act in itself requires insight and reflection, something which the accelerating feedback loop by its very nature makes increasingly difficult as time goes on. The faster we go – the more we adapt to acceleration – the less time we have to think about the other options. Perhaps the most ambitious objective of Crossings is really found in this context, namely to promote and encourage reflection. If the lines drawn in this journal can help us understand the world better, we will have participated successfully in the cultural feedback loop – we will have processed a portion of the vast sea of information, synthesized it into meaning and put that meaning back into culture.


In this essay, the term culture is generally used in a very broad sense to refer to the customs, arts and social institutions of human society. If nothing else is specified, Western industrialised society is assumed. In particular, the term is not used to refer to either high or low culture but to the sum of all cultural components of a society.

The 1996 study projected the number of American Internet users to reach 50 million in 1998. This turned out to be an accurate, if not conservative estimate: already in 1997, a study by Nielsen Media [6] showed that in September that year there were 58 million users in the United States and Canada together. With regards to the growth rates of the four media mentioned in Mary Meeker's study, other sources report different numbers. For example, The Industry Standard writes that television penetration grew faster than the Internet in the United States and that radio grew just as quickly [3]. The conflicting opinions arise from disagreements about the actual development year for the various technologies. Mary Meeker's numbers are based on the world-wide web as a technology, whereas The Industry Standard's numbers are based on the actual Internet infrastructure of which the world-wide web is merely one application.

There are several meanings of the psyhoanalytical terms used in this analogy, particularly of the term unconscious. They are not used in a strict sense (it is, after all, an analogy), but loosely according to Jungian tradition. My use of unconscious would refer to Jung's collective unconscious [2, par 321].


Ikam, Catherine, and Louis-Franç Fléri. Elle et la Voix. Ubikam, 2000. Images available at:; accessed 14 June 2001.

Jung, Carl G. ‘The Structure of the Psyche.’ In Collected Works. Vol. 8. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1969.

Lawrence, Stacy. ‘Internet in Media Time.’ The Industry Standard, 1 May 2000. Available at:,2799,14571,00.html; accessed 14 June 2001.

Lievrouw, Leah A. ‘New Media: Nonobvious Things About New Media: How Fast Is Fast?’ ICA Newsletter 28.2 (March 2000). Available at:; accessed 14 June 2001.

Meeker, Mary.The Internet Advertising Report. New York: Morgan Stanley, 1996. Available at; accessed 14 June 2001.

Nielsen Media. Press Release: Number of Internet Users and Shoppers Surges in United States and Canada. New York: Nielsen Media, August 1998. Available at:; accessed 14 June 2001.

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed. New York; London: Free Press, 1996.

Turing, Alan. ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence.’ Mind 59 (1950): 433-60. Available at:; accessed 14 June 2001.

About the Author

Mads Haahr is currently lecturing at the Department of Computer Science, Trinity College, Dublin. He works with mobile computing and virtual environments, teaches emerging Internet applications and is the editor-in-chief of Crossings. He is interested in virtually everything.

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