Error or art? – Nicolas Salazar Sutil

Machines are not built to make errors, I don’t think.  I don’t suppose driverless cars are being built to make computational errors any more than supercomputers are being built to fail to compute with total accuracy. Nor is Big Science, science the size of, say, the Large Hadron Collider, an investment on errors. So why give attention to them?

 What might this group of very different academics think they can learn from errors? And who are they? I mean the errors, not the academics. Where do they come from? What are their names? Is the point to anticipate them, so that they might be minimized or prevented? Hardly, since the network is so interdisciplinary, a collection of people as disparate as this might never settle on a problem specific enough to resolve an actual error. We do not know what we are talking about since we use the term error in so many different ways, meaning so many different things, in such generic terms, it may not mean much to say error, when meaning ambiguity, uncertainty, glitch. We are not talking about, say, 404, which is an internet protocol error, an error with a name and a story. An actual error.

 So error is what then, in this broad sense? A kind of paradigm, an umbrella concept, a philosophical ruse? And what is the point of elevating error thus?

Error or Art?
Error or Art?

 The Grosch advertisement above seems to be signalling in the direction of art. Error can be an art. Errr… I beg to disagree. The marketing gimmick is glossy. Art, and I throw the term here with unease since it is so generic, might emerge from chance, from ambiguity, from mistakes and actual errors. But the effect of art is not erroneous, perhaps erratic. Error is not an art, if you ask me, any more than it is a science—a key step in the making of some science. It is not my intention to rehearse definitions, but the Grosch ad nonetheless made me wonder why make such associations? Underlying this entry is an association that I feel lies close to some of the assumptions made by our network in regards to the importance of errors, broadly speaking. If we do not have errors, how can we allow for the unexpected, the indeterminate, the neither here-nor-there to emerge? And if what we are actually talking about is the neither-here-nor-there, the syzygy, why pin down definitions and solutions?

It is not that I miss a definition in this ad or this net. To make sense of this ad, what I missed is the story or life of whatever system lies behind the ad’s image, a story that can tell me how that system led to a point, an unsuspected event, that came to be known as error. In other words, what I was left thinking as I stood there, photographing my son staring blankly at the Grosch beer bottle, is this: what is the life of an error? What kind of narrative does one error pry open? Thus, error is nothing like art or philosophy. It appeared to me error is a little device or instrument that can shake up the predictability of a formal language or system—an inventive method that wakes us up from pure formalism. What is so irresistible about errors is that they happen without a plan.

 What is so unique about an error is the humanization of its effect. It is like a Christ myth: Christ is flesh, he is mortal, he is liable to failures like the whipping of money-lenders and the burning of a poor old fig tree. The myth is to recognise our humanity as failure, hence its appeal as myth. Maybe error is a myth for the posthuman world, to remind us of being human all too human in the face of machine-based lives that do not, it seems, err. But whilst humans continue to err, we are OK, and the posthuman remains a parable. So, I embrace the net as a celebration of my human necessity for clueless erring. That is not an art. That’s just me.

Nicolas Salazar Sutil, University of Leeds