Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies
Neither global nor local
Today we are mobile
We are Code Drift
Code Drift is the once and future
nervous system — the genetic drift
of all augmented data bodies.
We are AR
We are Data Flesh
We are Code Drift
Code Drift is an attempt to draw together the great discourses of biology and digitality, essentially to consider the implications of mapping the language of genomics onto software codes. We want to argue that data has come alive in the form of our extended network of technological organs, that the growth of information culture is the real world of evolutionary development literally, not metaphorically. When data comes alive, when data becomes the dominant life-principle with us as its willing prosthetics, we are suddenly swept along in a larger digital cosmology the future of which is yet unclear. But this we do know: digital cosmology has its own laws of motion — code drift; its politics are based on the deeply paradoxical situation of our being tethered to mobility; the first sighting of what will soon be its dominant form of subjectivity are the enhanced data bodies of augmented reality; and the human condition which it leaves in its wake can only be characterized as one suffering digital trauma. Not Toffler’s vision of “future shock” where a stunned humanity is overcome by the accelerating rate of technological change, but something much more elemental, namely that the same awesome event that Nietzsche once described as the death of god and the beginning of something fundamentally new is now upon us again, except this time it’s not so much the death of god, but the sudden eclipse of god’s successor before this new onrushing event of code drift, tethered mobility, enhanced data flesh, and digital trauma. So then, a prolegomenon to a new digital cosmology.
Spectral Destiny of Technology
“In biology, genetic drift refers to random fluctuations of gene frequencies due to sampling errors.”
Neither global nor local, today we are mobile — we are code drift. Just as genetic drift occurs by chance, producing in its wake unpredictable streams of genetic variation, so too code drift. Code drift cannot be programmed in advance, but occurs by chance variations through unexpected uses, creative applications, a fluctuation in our perception that produces complex technological transformations. Random fluctuations that build over time, resulting in complex yet subtle changes in the genetic makeup of a population: an indeterminate future of flux, chaos, intermediations, intersections, remix.
Code drift is the spectral destiny of the story of technology. No necessary message, no final meaning, no firm future, no definite goal: only a digital culture at drift in complex streams of social networking technologies filtered here and there with sudden changes in code frequencies, moving at the speed of random fluctuations, always seeking to make of the question of identity a sampling error, to connect with the broken energy flows of ruptures, conjurations, unintelligibility, bifurcations. Paul Virilio’s vision of the duplication of reality, that we always act in two parallel worlds at once, is not necessarily a negative force, but can instead open up creative possibilities. Where Virilio might reduce social networking, Second Life (SL), YouTube, Twitter and the Web to instances of delocalization, we detect the presence of creative code drifters: texting, mobilizing, resisting, imagining, even 100 mile dieting on their way to new complex variations of technological destiny. While technology has the illusion of control — consider how social networking technologies always strive to facialize themselves in the possessive language of the “I” and “You” — Facebook, iChat, iPhone, You Tube — the persistent data reality is code drift. Encoded by technology, everyone today is a code drifter, touched by technology and remixing the technology right back. Consider this description of a newer technological innovation — hypersonic sound, unidirectional sound:
Beaming waves of hypersonic sound at a pitch that is undetectable by the human ear. The waves combine until they smash into an object such as a person’s body. The waves then slow, mix and re-create the original audio broadcast. If the person steps out of the waves, they are no longer obstructed, and are rendered inaudible. 
When hypersonic sound becomes light sound — it becomes the “ear” of technology. It produces a new form of silence we call hypersonic silence — a subtle technology that whispers in your ear. It is when silence is not silent. A future of ears grafted to the subtleties of subliminal technology. Hypersonic sound has been used as a marketing tool in Japan for several years and was recently deployed by the A & E Television Network on a busy downtown Manhattan street to promote its show, “Paranormal State.” Pedestrians walking near a billboard heard voices whispering, “Who’s there? What’s that? It’s not your imagination.” When New Yorkers heard about this newest wrinkle in the mediascape, they immediately flocked to the location to experience this new technology first-hand.
Certainly just-in-time hearing, with its radical separation of the digital senses, involves the separation of sound from noise. But perhaps what is really present, and perhaps most seductive, about this innovation in new media is an elemental trace of code drift. It is our thesis that all new media are structured by code drift. McLuhan was absolutely correct. Code drift is wired directly into the laws of new media. For example, consider a code drifter’s remix of McLuhan’s famous concept of the tetrad with its four laws of media development, whereby for McLuhan all new media simultaneously render an older medium obsolescent, represent something fundamentally new, retrieve the superceded form of an older media as a cultural masquerade to make what’s really new more acceptable, and when put under extreme pressure reverse into their opposite. In other words, written well before its digital times, McLuhan’s tetrad is a manifesto for code drifters. Drifts of obsolescence — what’s left behind with hypersonic sound is the old flesh ear specializing in sonic sound waves, open to all noise, geographically fixed to the sides of the skull, unable to split the nervous sensorium by differentiating sound and noise; drifts of the new — that’s the customized ear, the hypersonic ear, that is perfect for the age of hyper-individualism in a time of intensified data networks. An individual sound for every ear. On a crowded subway, the hypersonic ear hears only ultra-high frequencies sound waves directed its way. On a street corner, it lives in its own directional sound cocoon. “Who’s there? What’s that? It is not your imagination;” drifts of retrieval — what’s retrieved by the unidirectional ear is the intimate tactility of new media — a data tickle, a hum, a hiccup directed right to the ear; and drifts of reversal. Pushed to its extreme, hypersonic sound shuts down noise and amplifies sound. The hypersonic ear presages a future world suddenly gone silent, everyone a cocoon of invisible waves of sound, everyone an icon of perfectly individualized but for that no less pleasurable digital narcissism, everyone a silent movie of technology itself suddenly invisible. An invisible technology that becomes visible only when it is in your ear.
Code drift is nothing new. Humanity itself is the product of random evolutionary fluctuations, no certain aim, no fixed purpose, no guiding teleology. Sampling error is the genetic alphabet of the body. Who doesn’t live for the mysterious seduction of unexpected frequency shifts in their daily lives?
With the fourfold movement of the history of technology from mechanical infrastructure to electronic sensorium to digital networks and now to the self-styled sphere of augmented reality, code drift is the key affect of technoculture. We are all caught up in random fluctuations of code due to sampling errors. The indeterminacy of random outcomes and the certainty of probability functions is the real existential horizon of digital subjectivity. In the culture of modernity, the drive to rationality was always accompanied by the hauntological traces of its own disavowal, namely the implosion of all the referential signs into the absurd. Existential anxiety was the real hauntology of modernity. The gradual coming into mass consciousness of the sense of the absurd — the late modernist acknowledgement in the spheres of knowledge, power, sex, desire — of the truth of that which had always been disavowed and thus acknowledged, instantly gave rise in our lifetime to the spectacular death — in rhetoric, at least, if not necessarily in fact — of the great referentials. Culturally, postmodernism was born out of the ashes of the acknowledgement of that which had previously been disavowed, namely that reason, truth, sex, consciousness, power have no necessary meaning, but are only purely perspectival simulacra — code drifts fluctuating like unstable event-scenes among random events and probability functions, uncertainty and inscribed meaning. This ineluctable movement of randomness which runs from the dawn of evolutionary biology to the digital future, this privileging by code drifts of that which was previously unacknowledged, and thus never truly avowed, expresses something essential to understanding our contemporary data condition, specifically our willing entanglement in the language of code drifts. With contradictions as the only truth-value, those random sampling errors of mistaken identities, unmarked bodies, misplaced meanings, data glitches are not simply the necessary byproduct of achieving stable equilibrium for systems which thrive on the metastatic growth of globalized surveillance, automatic vision machines, hypersonic sound, GPS bodies, mobile media, and creative apps. The global data genome is itself a random subject generator. It generates in its wake purely perspectival simulacra, no less beautiful or less seductive for the fact that only the most disciplined violence today can successfully firewall closed systems against the siren-call of the absurd — fluctuating network identities, data errors as nervous breakthroughs to new “killer apps,” the rapture of the fully exposed, fully circulating data body celebrating its escape from now superceded conceptions of privacy. Data flesh wants to be random. It yearns to fluctuate, drift, circulate, bifurcate. Data flesh fully absorbs the primary modernist disavowal — the sense of the absurd in all the great referentials — as its key condition of possibility. Neither necessarily a closed system nor an open system, digital flesh is a system in drift. It is not so much that digital technology recapitulates the language of classical mythology as the story of a fateful struggle between closed versus open systems — Scylla versus Charybdis — but that contemporary technoculture now approaches its apogee as a universe in drift. We are all now born again as code drifters traveling to a still unknown technological destiny, a destining somewhere beyond the utopian vision of indefinite expansion and the dystopian specter of a violent, apocalyptic contraction. But we do know this: with its nervous system fully exposed and thus pirated by electronic media of communication, the human body unconsciously recognizes in the language of code drift — fluctuations, frequencies, sampling errors, mutations, driftworks — something which has previously been lost, and never properly mourned, namely the nervous system protected across the millennia by the hard outer shell of skin and skull, but now which has been found again. In the form of the digital nervous system, code drift is the once and future nervous system — the genetic drift — of all the augmented data bodies of augmented reality.
Tethered to Mobility
Neural Mutation — random drift theory of molecular evolution. A theory according to which the majority of the nucleotide substitutions in the course of evolution are the result of the random fixation of neutral or nearly neutral mutations, rather than the result of positive Darwinian selection.” 
Tethered to mobility? That’s everyday life in the digital world where the body — its gestural cell poses, its most rapturous attention, its most elementary brain matter — is tethered to the sound of the iPhone, the relays of Blackberry data words, the entertainment of the gaming screen. Not so long ago, it was thought that with mobile communications fixed terminals and stationary bodily positions would have been abandoned forever, liberating digital subjects for the wild, nomadic spaces of wireless communication. As if to demonstrate that the traditional literary vernacular of paradoxical outcomes and unexpected results has not been eclipsed with the downgrading of immobile communications, digital subjects today are fiercely tethered to mobility. That specific, and most definitely global gesture, where eyes connect with data telemetry in a checking messages gestures — an image, a data stream in the palm of a Blackberry hand, an iPhone app — is the newest dance form of recombinant culture. Consequently, the more mobile the speed of communication, the more immobile the system of human reflexes. The more intense the circulation of the dominant medium of communicative exchange, the more fused the synaptic integration of the human and digital nervous systems. The greater the invisibility of communicative technology, the more visible the purely prosthetic nature of the data body. Disembedded data flows require fully embedded data flesh as their primary condition of possibility, just as much as the purely illusory specter of the nomadic body is the key justification driving forward the disappearance of human flesh into dense networks of data telemetry. Dreams of embodiment — embodied flesh, nature, culture, cities — can now experience such dynamic resurrection in the opening years of the 21st century precisely because the death of embodiment is the hauntology of the terrorism of the code.
Like all dance practices choreographing the movement of bodies through, and sometimes against, space, the dance of tethered mobility is a time-shifter. The gestural pose of the mobile body resembles most closely what Rene Thom, the Swiss theoretician of chaos theory, in its most non-romantic iteration, once described as the constant repetition of a morphological change of state, that point where data becomes gene, where the body is only apparently tethered to mobility, but in reality functions as part of the neural mechanism of the global digital genome. In the way of all possessed individuals, we are in the end what we most depend upon, and this is true from the savagery of primitive capitalism to the communicative seductiveness of the virtual exchange-form. Fully possessed by digital telemetry, enabled by the flow of data, viscerally haunted by the specter of information, the digital subject knows no destiny today other than tethered mobility. The illusion of mobility, the reality of being skinned by technology. That bleak image from gambling casinos in the tired late afternoon hours comes to mind when lonely crowds of retirees playing the slots free up their hands by plugging identity cards worn around their necks directly into the machines for hour after gambling hour. Perhaps what is really at stake is not individual preference for mobility versus immobile communications, but a gathering drift of digital culture towards a certain neural mutation.
We are already living in the epoch of the global digital genome. When the discourse of data with its codes, flows, networks, memory banks, packet switches, and terminals meets the world of genetics, something strange happens. Patterned information flows come under the influence of neural mutations with its random drift theory of digital evolution. And why not? Geneticists claim that “neural mutations can spread in a population purely by chance because only a relatively small number of gametes are ‘sampled’ from the vast supply produced in each generation and therefore are presented to the individuals of the next generation.”  Which is precisely what digital creativity is all about. Since the dynamic inception of wired world everything — cyber-culture, cyber-war, cyber-finance, cyber-communication, cyber-subjects — has been brilliantly destabilized, undermined, and torqued in new directions by technical innovation moving at the speed of the data.bot. We are entering the first boisterous phase of the fourth stage of digital communication, having already passed through successive phases of tethered communication — the immobile data ports opening onto the Internet — to the recombinant graphics of the World Wide Web and thereupon to pure mobility — cells, cameras, videos, tablets. Every stage of the net has its own history of neural mutations, with successful digital practices accompanied by an equally long history of discarded media. It’s not really so much that everything works as geneticists claim for “the survival and reproduction of the organisms that carry them” but that digital innovations are randomly, but no less enthusiastically, sampled for the survival and reproduction of the global digital genome. As we exit the now-surpassed stages of tethered technology, immobile communications, and externalized graphics display, the human organism is literally fused with the telic destiny of the global digital genome. Its neural mutations, recombinant flows, and augmented reality are the real language of genetic data. Random data drift is the rule, with the data body assigned the leading genetic role of “sampling” at the feast of digital products, these phenotypic effects of the global digital genome.
Or something else? In this wetware map of neural mutation, that point when individual autobiography merges with the collective data biographies that we have all become, are not the inexorable laws of neural mutation and random digital drift already at work in shaping, mobilizing, and prefiguring the destiny of human subjectivity? In this case, the question of subjectivity is fully embraced in the driftworks of larger neural mutations: recombined, respliced, remixed as the elementary matter of the global digital genome.
Code drifters as always tethered to mobility.
Enhanced Data Bodies
What is the digital imagination when it is no longer just computer code? Does the digital leave a trace? Must it transcend flesh, becoming cold code? No longer a world of light and dark, white walls and closed spaces, the digital imagination is the enhanced language of the digital future. It is how the infosphere speaks to us, infiltrates our dreams, organizes our choices, celebrates a utopia of the multitude that we are, but sometimes also delivers us to the dystopia of a terminal reality. Digital culture is radically split between being a manifesto for the artistic dreams of individuals who wish only to finally speak about the local, the emergent, the possible; and the programming of an increasingly militarized, irresistibly globalized, reality-machine. Suspended in the spotlight of the new — drowning in a media saturated reality — we have no choice but to take every side simultaneously. The language of the imagination plays out in the rhetoric of digital reality something much more ancient in human aesthetics — the dynamically split mind we are today: half-beast/half-human; half-collective utopia; half-hard reality program.
We, the most post-human of all humans, think that we have somehow escaped the riddles of history and the mysteries of mythology through the cleansing language of technology. This sense that we have somehow leaped beyond the human to the posthuman future, from lived time to virtual time, through the medium of digital communication may well turn out to be only the most recent of the escapist fables meant to immunize a broken humanity from the curse of ancient spells. In the end, nothing really escapes the language of mythology. This the most technological of times is also the most mythological of times. When the spacetime fabric folds back on itself, when time moving at the speed of light traces a great fatal curvature linking past and future, the digital imagination — the awakening codedrifter brain — is the privileged medium for connecting utopia and mythology.
For better or for worse, we are the very first pilgrims of the quantum age. In technoculture, we live at light-speed, streamed by the bitStorm of the data sky, our minds almost surgically separated from the discredited dreams of shattered unities of ‘society,’ and ‘culture’ to communicate anew with other citizens of the digital way with multiple identities we remix, mutate, disseminate, and jailbreak. There is a new digital being waiting to be born in every one of us: an expectant sense of a hybrid utopia that will not be realized through nostalgic dreams of modernism under suspicion, but by deep immersion in that which makes us quantum singularities.
Readings from the Book of Genetics:
“epigenesis is the concept that an organism develops by the new appearance of structures and functions, as opposed to the hypothesis that an organism develops by the unfolding and growth of entities already present in the egg at the beginning of development (preformation)”. 
Before the Book of Genetics there was another book of fabulous fables, the Book of Genesis, with its biblical telling of the story of human creation by divine will from the darkness of an always gathering nothingness. Northrop Frye, the cultural theorist, discovered in the Book of Genesis the ‘great code’ that governed the struggle between intemperate passion and resolute reason in technological society. Certainly no generative egg makes its fatal appearance in the Book of Genesis, and no organism develops by the unfolding and growth of entities already present at the stage of biological preformation. Instead the Book of Genesis is the spectacular resolution of the hauntology of metaphysics: a story of creation out of nothingness, the concept that an organism develops by the new appearance of structures and functions. Strip the originating spark of divine will from the contemporary scientific fable of epigenesis and we suddenly find ourselves in the most recent iteration of creation out of nothingness, the “great code” of digital culture. Without explanation, we have now left the secular history of modern enlightenment, dwelling now within the house of digital cosmology where the “new appearance of structures and functions” is the animating drive of software, conceived as the complex nervous system of digital reality.
Digital cosmology? Its ontology is epigenesis: the belief that digital organisms proliferate by the new appearance of code structures and networking functions. Always disloyal to evolutionary logic, software code only recognizes digital life as a random struggle between digital design — repetitive patterned instructions — and the wild side of ruptures, conjurations, and intermediations.
There’s no real difference between the two sides. They are only apparent opposites. This is the story of identity and difference. Patterns and randomness, a strict tutelary of programmed instructions and the outlaw will to disturb the codes, disobey instructions, take programs to their wild side, surveillance to the extremes of micro-granular detail and the persistent human desire to wetware machines.
Coming to maturity under the sign of the terrorism of intelligibility, the real seduction of code lies in its desire in the end to be unintelligible, untraceable, unknowable, not capable of being archived. That’s why the story of digital complexity today is captured beautifully by the language of clouds, storm vectors of codes moving at high velocity across the electronic sky, data hurricanes, BitStorm tornadoes, all those drifing clouds of networked subjectivity circulating through social networking technologies with their unexpected new structures and functions of FaceBook, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, and iChat. Like the collective authorship over many centuries of the Book of Genesis, the Book of Digital Epigenesis also has its cosmologists now and into the future. For who can really anticipate what will happen in the time of digital epigenesis? Who can predict with any certainty what new structures and functions will emerge from this new story of creation from digital nothingness. In desperation, astrophysicists describe the situation as that of “punctuated catastrophe.” But we know better: digital epigenesis is the newest temporary solution to an ancient biblical riddle — creation out of nothingness — and to an equally ancient philosophical puzzle — the question of identity and difference.
And not only that but digital cosmology also introduces in its wake a new theory of epistemology: epigenetics — the study of the neural mechanisms by which digital genes bring about their phenotypic effects. The earliest of the technological utopians, Marshall McLuhan, Wyndam Lewis, and Teilhard de Chardin, provided eloquent anticipatory warnings that the externalization of the human sensorium under the pressure of technological media of communication would enable the emergence of a digital nervous system. Since the mid-twentieth century this haunting prophecy concerning the digital nervous system has remained a literary construct, a metaphor begging to be made operational. That’s definitely no longer the case. Through a curious twist of fate the great discourses of digitality and genomics shared historical periodicity because data is actually the genetic structure of the digital body — the global data genome.
Like the seasons of life itself, data moves from plenitude to senescence, it also has its dawns and twilights. The global data genome is a vastly improved nervous system since its neurological mechanisms can never be confused with the embedded mind as the locus of consciousness, but from its moment of inception are distributive, circulating, relational, complex. Seemingly always one step out of season with regimes of intelligibility, the very best of data has its own broken synapses, overloaded consciousness, flickering memory, software glitches. When digitality and genomics merge in the form of the global digital genome, post-traumatic (data) stress disorder with all its traumas is finally realized as the animating principle of augmented reality. Post-traumatic because the abrupt shutting down of the human sensorium accompanied by the immersion of the human organism in the skin of data, this profound originary event, announcing the termination of the human species as we have known it with its privatized ego, localized consciousness, and radical separation of the senses; and the inception of something profoundly new, simultaneously ominous and exciting, namely the subject as an emergent ecology of biology/sociality/data — this awesome event announcing the eclipse of one (human) species-form and the immediate emergence of its networked successor has already occurred.
McLuhan once claimed that the blast has already happened: we’re floating in the debris from the breakup of the autonomous body, discrete ego, and embedded nervous system. Who was prepared for this? Who was ready for the immediate mutation of the human species into half-flesh/half-code? In this epochal shift, data itself suffers stress disorder as its primary trauma. It is not really so much that the new organism of half-flesh/half-code cannot tolerate the speed of technological acceleration. Liberated from the plodding world of materiality by networked regimes of relational processing and ubiquitous computing, the neural mechanisms of the human mind demonstrate unexpected plasticity and openness to heterogeneity. The evidence is all around us: brains sustaining physical injury that instantly reorganize the field of perception, artistic vision accelerating the speed of data, sci-fi literature over-stimulating the nervous system of information, cinematic futurism that easily outruns the speed of technological change, a new aesthetics of perception that eagerly embraces the delirious simulacra of gaming. Everywhere the neural mechanisms of data flesh skip across liquid streams of information flows like flat-edged stones tossed on a lazy data summer afternoon. Every bit of media evidence, from television and radio through computing, cells, Blackberries, Twitters, and the virtual apparatus of augmented reality suggests that the human brain has absorbed, easily and enthusiastically, its ablation into the nervous system of fully externalized technological media of communication.
The real challenge is data trauma, the fact that data cannot keep up, either metaphorically or materially to the speed of perception. That is why data often resembles the conservative ressentiment of Wendy Brown’s States of Injury, resentful, left behind, revenge-seeking. Data seeks the safety of digital purity; firewalling itself in the hygienic spaces of closed data dumps. In other instances, data becomes aggressive — it turns on its human companion species, taking cold comfort in the durational memory and identity triangulations so necessary to surveillance systems. Like the worst of the human species before it, data is capable of the ethics of Heidegger’s “injurious neglect. ” It too can sometimes only find expression in terms of a “malice of strife.” Born again in the baptistery of genomics, data is a fully completed nihilist, infected with the ressentiment of the human species that it was so eager to replace, the spearhead of a purely technical will — drifting, oscillating, wiping away the horizon, in its leading expression a software animation precisely because data is haunted by the trace of death. But of course the death of data is precisely why information culture can be so dynamic. It is the tangible scent of the necropolis in the data storm that makes information culture so deeply, so seductively charismatic. Bored with the logic of presence, the ablated neural mechanisms of the networked subject sift in deepest fascination among the debris of the human remains of the species — shards of memory, strands of forgotten codes, dead media, broken thoughts, book after book of fatally overcome faces. It is this hint of death that drives the necropolis of software. Feasting on the remains, the massive accumulation that is dead information is finally free to express itself as a pure technical will, and nothing besides. Literally, data today is a nervous breakthrough. Refusing stability, never stationary, data is condemned to a cycle of endless circulation. It has no destiny other than that of the pure will: augmented, streamed, mobilized, facebooked, twittered, iPodded, flickered, upgraded, downloaded, wide-screened, multitasked, and GPS’d. Like all species before it, there will finally come a time when data will grow weary with itself and, as an exhausted nihilist, find pleasure only in making itself ill. Our suspicion is that, in this time of accelerated data flows, the appearance of data as an exhausted nihilist is already upon us. In this age of exhausted data, everything counts, everything apps precisely because nothing now counts but the ersatz nothingness of data itself.
 Robert C. King & William D. Stansfield, A Dictionary of Genetics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 139.
 Marshall Brain. “Hypersonic Sound.” Available at marshallbrain.blogspot.com, May 15, 2008, accessed June 25, 2009; see also www.woodynorris.com/articles/technology/Reviews.htm. Accessed May 17, 2009.
 A Dictionary of Genetics, p.228.
 Ibid; 228.
 Ibid; 116.