By: Katherine Mitchell
Computational Constructions of Time and Deep Futures in John F. Simon’s Every Icon (1997)
A media philosophy of (deep) time
Keywords: temporality; computation; obsolescence; internet; aesthetics
In an age of rapid technological obsolescence and pervasive discourse on communication technologies’ phenomenological annihilation of time and space stands a body of media theory preoccupied with slow and deep time. Occupying a Venn Diagram with media archaeology, this material or “geological turn” has turned over the dirt of the digital to surface the earthly entanglements of computational materiality, opening design thinking to planetary-scale interventions. Through their different preoccupations, media scholars including Jussi Parikka, Nicole Starosielski, Sy Taffel, and Benjamin Brattoncollectively situate the perpetual present of computational media and the contemporary digital condition within planetary scales of experience. Through attention to media materiality, this body of scholarship re-orientates our temporal perception toward mineral durations of deep pasts, and media residues of deep futures, and in doing so, it also dismantles any material/immaterial distinctions that emerged with early ideologies of communication technologies. Through advancing a sense of computing as deep earth archives, and looking toward global systems and the immensity of cosmological time, these theories continually decentre and recentre the human subject both spatially and temporally. When contemplating the construction of time through the digital condition, then, it is principally this commitment to deep time perspectives as an epistemological tool that invites a framing of such media ecological and media archaeological thinking principally as a media philosophy of time.
Time is a central subject of philosophy and contemporary media theory and its significance cannot be overstated: it goes to the core of human consciousness, our desire to understand the human condition, and our (time-limited) mode of earthly inhabitation. Media and communications theory itself is inescapably linked with the phenomenology of time: both the ordering of discrete time through standardisation and the attempts to reclaim durée – duration, or lived time – as a central tenet of human experience. The question asked here is whether we might re-orientate these academic preoccupations with non-human scalar entanglements to look toward a phenomenological construction of deep futures through the act of computation. Where theory might only go so far, can we comprehend profound duration not in spite of a digital condition, but specifically through it?
The trouble with futurity
Attempting to construct a digital aesthetic against the annihilation of time is John F. Simon’s net artwork Every Icon (1997). Through the material medium of computation, Simon takes both speed and deep duration as the principle means by which to posit the possibility of a media event for post-human scholarship, but in doing so, the work simultaneously reveals its own impossibility. The work asks:
Launched on 14 January 1997, Every Icon asks what it means to algorithmically produce every conceivable image within a 32×32 black and white pixel grid, and takes seriously the temporal burden of such a task. Moving from corner to corner and from white to black, the Java programme enumerates through all possibilities of the binary grid totalling 1024 squares. The first row alone has 232 combinations, or 4.3 billion, which at an original rate of 100 permutations per second took approximately 16 months to complete. The second line was scheduled to complete after approximately 6 billion years, and the entire grid has 232×32 or 10308 possible combinations, requiring a total of 10298 years to complete at its original processing speed. Simon ascribes this timescale for the work of the enumeration algorithm to be the ‘human perceptual limit’, being unable or perhaps unwilling to engage with the scale and complexity of thought needed to truly comprehend the immensity implied here.
Whilst Every Icon was launched in the shadow of the millennium, and so could be read alongside a contemporaneous body of creative practice that sought to comprehend such durations and our individual place within past and future timelines of human history, Simon’s work was imagined earlier on, as a reaction to postmodernist claims of the death of art and the end of images. Promising to manifest all potential images in the grid like Borges’ Library of Babel, the project tests the capacity of the computer to produce visual icons in its own image: namely, the aesthetics of early computing and the visual language of Susan Kare’s bitmap icons, designed in the 1980s for Macintosh.
The strong rectilinear organisation of the system also recalls the grid-based aesthetic of early computer art, and the algorithmic imagination of conceptual artists, such as Sol LeWitt, but the work’s distinctively digital aesthetic is born from its strict adherence to binary modalities. The visual iconography it promises to deliver is both temporally-situated and (Western) culturally-specific (Western), however any precise icon will not emerge from the visual “noise” for trillions of years. In employing these timescales, the work both centres and displaces the importance of a particular kind of human subject through the ambiguous relationship to visual communication with imagined future audiences. And despite being the instigator of the artwork-event, the artist himself is also then displaced by the non-participatory and non-hierarchical algorithmic process of image production. The questions to ask of Simon’s intention are therefore: for who does the work hold meaning? And what time does the work inhabit?
The notion of posterity is crucial to the apparatus of progressive modernity, and this belief that the present is capable of producing something for future generations both fuels and deliberately fails in this project. By offering up vestiges of a cultural moment to be resolved by far-future audiences indifferent to such iconography – most likely no audience at all, and with no analogous computing system at all – the project inevitably complicates its own imagined futures in the age of the Anthropocene. It is worth noting that Every Icon was not the first or only work to employ durational aesthetics as a structuralist investigation of the medium, nor the first to engage with the exhaustive processes of algorithmic image production, but its specifically digital and web-based condition intensifies the futility of such a scratch at the itch for eternity. Because whilst Every Icon as an algorithmic exercise may be indifferent to its own resolution, it has nevertheless shapeshifted across different web formats over the past quarter century in order to keep time.
Any ambitions for a cross-generational and panhuman visual language are continually curtailed by the ongoing threat of obsolescence, triggered by recurrent changes to the web infrastructure. Fortunately for the artwork, its minimal aesthetic and operational logic favours cross-platform adaptability, and in the 25 years since its launch, the work has remained accessible on the artist’s website with a professed continuity made possible through rewriting the underlying programme. Originally produced as a Java Applet and migrated to HTML5 to outpace format obsolescence, alternate versions of the work were also developed for PDAs – remember those? – briefly available as a mobile app, and released as an NFT series in 2022.
The NFT series was a celebration of the project rather than a live version of the time-keeping event itself, however in the context of Simon’s philosophical project, the use of the NFT nevertheless invites important questions as to the legitimacy of the blockchain to counter such existential risk: can the promises of “forever” made by the NFT model and the immutability of the blockchain still hold up in the time after the death of the sun? In the work’s early stages, other Java Applet versions were also produced for sale, but today these editions only haunt their original sites. Existing not as dead URLs but as blank spaces on their original websites, these voids now trace the past presence of an obsolete plugin long since refused a visual translation.
In the twenty- five years since Every Icon began, we have already observed the continual evolution of operating systems, formats and programming languages, the birth and death of web browsers and computing devices themselves, and the emergence of ever-new systems and formats. So in witnessing the constructive and destructive effects of time on Simon’s project, we must also acknowledge the deficiency of assigning such descriptors as continuity and permanence to a digital artefact that must continually regenerate. We might ask instead whether continuity of an idea can be sufficient here. Only time will tell what future modes of survival might look like, why, and for whom because the perceived and actual continuity of the system, as an idea, depends not only on human survival, but also the survival of relevant knowledge and shared cultural practices to motivate acts of continued care. The future of Every Icon is thus interlaced with broader questions of posthuman ethics: will there be a future in which to sustain this work, and what will that look like? Who, or what, will Simon’s prospective audience be? Any speculative answers to these questions will also be deeply contingent on the expected completion of the media event itself, because in the landscape of rapid technological progress and obsolescence as a cultural project, the work’s anticipated duration also holds the possibility to be continually negotiated via processor speeds.
Telling time and constructing futures
The computational task underpinning Every Icon is a deliberate calculation of chronological time, yet through this, temporality is experienced as both multi-layered and always reconfiguring. Multiple timescales are experienced here: psychological time, fixed “clock-time”, and processor speed, which is itself variable and structured according to the material conditions of the CPU. Translating these temporalities into a visual language, Every Icon becomes a time-keeping device– or rather a time-making device– with the blank white tiles anticipating an outstretched future waiting to be produced by the techno-logic of the programme itself, which tests the user’s computer processor speed and structures time within the work accordingly.
Processor speed is partly determined by the CPU clock speed, which refers to a pulse synchronised by an internal oscillator and measured in cycles per second. In the CPU clock, which is essentially a microchip, a crystal vibrates at a specific frequency when electricity is applied. And whilst the focus of algorithmic thought often stays with the metamathematical and symbolic regime of computing, it is important to recognise how its impact occurs in the intertwining of this symbolic order (the code) with the actual matter of computing (the electro-technical implementation). Time here is a material condition, and continually subject to change.
Where the work was originally operating with an average processor speed of 230-300 MHz of the then-contemporary Pentium II processor and producing a change rate of 100 permutations per second, the visual execution hovered at the threshold of human perception, with each change being detectable by the human eye as a flicker. Early on, however, Simon also anticipated future progress in computing power to resolve the work faster than its original 10298 years, and of course the rapid increase of typical processor speeds in the intervening years does hold the potential for ever-faster completion if so desired. However where a hypothetical image change rate of 1 billion times per second (ten million times faster than the original experience) could produce a comparably manageable duration of 539 years until complete resolution, this would also render any images impossible to detect with the human eye, thereby eclipsing the work’s original purpose. At any chosen speed, the project problematises notions of perception and phenomenality, because whilst the work operates at the thresholds of human perception, it inevitably performs its own failure by never revealing any, let alone every, icon it promises us.
As a speculative project of computational and durational aesthetics, Every Icon composes an indeterminate deep future in the layering of multiple temporal logics that are both constructed and destabilised by the rapidly changing material conditions of computing. Ultimately understood as an intellectual exercise in image production without referent, computation is used reflexively to explore how cultural knowledge is reconfigured within a digital epistemological framework, but in its undertaking, it also tests and exhausts the limits of both computational and human finitude. In being always unresolvable, the work also presents an open-ended challenge to the idea of artistic completeness and technological mastery.But whilst the centrality of the artist may be displaced by the non-participatory algorithmic processes at play, the artwork’s fragility and its short history of continual shapeshifting reveals the very human work of care, repair and intention that will ultimately be needed to keep time. Will anyone take up this task into the future, or will the clock eventually stop due to neglect? The future of and in the work remains open and unknowable. Of course, it could never be intended to fully resolve itself in practice, and in any case, the algorithm is indifferent to the cultural specificity of visual configurations. Yet as a speculative exercise, Every Icon serves as an important lens through which to think through both our phenomenological perception of the time-discrete aesthetics of digital computation against the backdrop of deep(er) time thinking, and the “race against time” that is cultural and technological obsolescence.
Katherine Mitchell is an AHRC CDP PhD student at Birkbeck College and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Her PhD research explores collecting and conserving born-digital images in the museum through the lens of digital decay, modes of failure, change and loss. She has an academic and professional background in architecture, and an MPhil degree in interdisciplinary film and screen studies.
 Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
 Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
 Sy Taffel, Digital Media Ecologies: Entanglements of Content, Code and Hardware (New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
 Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).
 Computing systems are physical systems that operate through silica, copper, lithium and other geochemical energy resources momentarily materialised as hardware, network infrastructures, before returning to the earth once again as forms of waste. For foundational perspectives on the mineral lifecycles of digital and electronic media and e-waste, see: Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
 Durée being a philosophical concept put forward by Henri Bergson partly in response to the standardisation and mathematisation of lived time as a late 19th century project. For media theoretical engagement with the industrial and technological standardisation of time, see: Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency and the Archive (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2002); Wolfgang Ernst, Chronopoetics: The Temporal Being and Operativity of Technological Media (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014)
 John F. Simon, “Artist Statement,” Numeral , http://www.numeral.com/paraicon.html
 Taking 2^64 possible combinations, divided by 100 frames per second, then by number of seconds per day, and number of days per year. Or (((2^64)/100)/86400)/365 = 5,849,424,173.55.
 Matthew Mirapaul, “In John Simon’s Art, Everything Is Possible,” Numeral , last modified 17 April, 1997, http://www.numeral.com/articles/041797mirapaul/041797mirapaul.html#1.
 He instead refers to this as ‘several hundred trillion’, a number still effective in communicating such a phenomenological impossibility. However in reality, the figure is just shy of one centillion, so approaching the limits of conventionally-named numbers at 10303. For comparison, one billion is 109. See John F. Simon, “Artist Statement”.
 Meredith Hoy, From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press), 172-176.
 Emma Tucker, “Susan Kare’s pioneering Macintosh icons are on display in France,” Creative Review , last modified 11 April, 2022, https://www.creativereview.co.uk/susan-kare-icons-exhibition/.
 John Cage’s composition Organ2/ASLSP has an intended duration of 639 years, and directly inspired Juha Van Ingen’s 1000-year GIF AS Long As Possible (ASLAP), both in name and intention. Like Every Icon, Jem Finer’s 1000-year generative composition Longplayer is continually confronting technological obsolescence and immense cultural shifts in both musical practice, cultural understanding, and language itself. In the visual space, Lars Eijssen and Boele Klopman’s De Wensput (1991) and Leander Seige’s ImageN (2000) employed similar approaches with print and RGB colour sets respectively, whilst more recently Alex Anikina’s Chronic Film (2019) translates these motivations into digital film.
 I borrow this phrase from Pontus Kyander’s excellent writing on Juha Van Ingen’s AS Long as Possible (ASLAP). See Pontus Kyander, “The Itch for Eternity”, As long as possible (2018). https://www.aslongaspossible.com/images/As_long_as_possible_publication_2018.pdf.
 The NFT project is a parallel reimagining of the work, including images with resolvable patterns that serves to probe the ways in which we can sustain an idea. See “Every Icon by John F Simon Jr (2021),” e.a.t.} works, 2022, https://www.eatworks.xyz/john-f-simon-jr-every-icon/.
 See links for the “Enterzone copy”, the “Stadium copy” and the “IAAA copy” along with Simon’s terms of sale. In the Enterzone copy, the absence of the applet is marked through visual negation: a blank space framed by the surviving text instructions. Each version discloses various states of refusal. See “John F. Simon Jr.: Every Icon.,” Radical Art, 2001/2004, http://radicalart.info/AlgorithmicArt/grid/every/EveryIcon/index.html.
 Wolfgang Ernst, “Existing in Discrete States: On the Techno-Aesthetics of Algorithmic Being-in-Time”, Theory, Culture & Society, 38, no. 7-8 (2021): 13-31.