Some thoughts stemming from Lev Manovich, Yuk Hui and Alexander Galloway.
part of on-going investigation into digital space
Manovich is often cited in attempts to come to grips with the ontology of digital objects. Using a ‘digital materialism’ approach, Manovich (2001: 14) attempts to describe what he calls ‘new media objects’ or ontological objects produced by digital computation. Such objects are of different scales extending from the Internet as a whole, to a website, a file, image or even a pixel. All these objects are marked by five defining principles involving: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding (the ability to translate into a different format, for example how cinema and video games interact). These formal principles describe the basic ways in which information is created, stored, and rendered intelligible. For Manovich new media is basically old media (like cinema) digitised, yet with something distinct with no historical precedent added: programmability. The perspective is in terms of layers:
the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e., software driven) in its logic (180)
But as van den Boomen (2014) argues, Manovich concentrates on how the digital influences the cultural (IE cinema, books). He does not recognise how the cultural affects the digital in the first place. The latter is always already filtered through, for example, metaphors and analogies.
Yuk Hui (2016: 219) takes this further by arguing that the digital domain is impossible to grasp distinctly. There is no separate ‘digital world’, no strict digital/analog divide or digital/human divide. In his investigation into the ‘existence of digital objects’, Hui opens up a dialogue between Heidegger and Simondon. The impossibility of distinguishing the digital from the human is something that Simondon (2017 ) would recognise. The latter explores the ‘mode of existence of technical objects’ and argues that traditional culture tends to ignore ‘a human reality within technical reality’ (15). You cannot separate the technical from the human. For Simondon, we are ‘among the machines’ (original emphasis) that operate with us:
What resides in the machines is human reality, human gesture fixed and crystallised into working structures. (18)
I will be returning to Hui’s complex philosophical thought in an essay, but briefly, he explores the network of relations that form between and around digital objects and humans. He looks at the consequences both logically and politically of considering the digital domain isolated from everyday life, use and sensation (Hui, 2016: 23). For Hui, ‘objects exist in different orders of reality’ or through different ‘orders of granulation or magnitude’. For example, we can observe an object from its shape and colour, to atoms to sub-particles. In particular, Hui focuses on what bridges different orders of magnitude, different realities of the digital object, how they relate from one system to another across the spectrum of data, from ‘calculation to human experience’, from the atomic to the phenomenal (32). Put very simply, it is easy to forget the origin of the formal logic of the digital. Logic, number and calculation are one set of relations but they can be looked at from different perspectives, or modes of observation (38). Taking a Heideggerian position, he argues that each technical product is always already a human product, expressing something more than what is directly given. Put another way, digital objects are ‘interobjective relations’ but open to’ inter-subjective involvement’ that is not passive but contributes to a form of ‘we’, a collective beyond the formal that raises ethical and political questions.
Galloway’s thought (2012: 12) takes up a different position but tends to lead to similar questions. His focus is on the ‘computer’, arguing against Manovich that it is distinctly different from painting, photography and cinema as it does not aim at humans as its object; it does not have the ‘same obsession’. As he says, we do not feel emotions in front of a website as we do a film at the cinema. For Galloway the reason why the computer does not have humans as its object is ‘because the computer is this object in and of itself’. The computer does not encapsulate a world; it is ‘on a world and rises in separation from any referent’. Moreover, Galloway questions whether we should move from thinking about digital objects as ‘technical’ devices and think instead of ‘techniques’, of their practices such as storing, transmitting and processing: ‘a practice not a presence, an effect not an object’. The computer is a set of executions or actions in relation to a world (23). Galloway’s main issue with Manovich concerns his formalism or his attempt to define new media through a set of qualities or principles. If instead we conceive the digital domain in terms of techniques and practice, important ethical or political demands emerge.
As Hui confirms, there are multiple perspectives and to take one in isolation is dangerous and misleading. In thinking about the digital, we should perhaps consider Bachelard’s maxim cited by Hui: ‘in the beginning is only relation’. Certainly we should note Veel’s (2003) point that as soon as we start to think about the digital world, we move to a specific position, often away from say the general user of the Internet, although we often assume the general user. Veel puts this in terms of being a ‘walker’ or ‘viewer’, someone actually involved and doing stuff, or someone stepping back to observe. Here there are some links with Bourdieu’s notion of ‘scholastic fallacies’ or as Bachelard puts it: ‘the world in which one thinks is not the world in which one lives’ (cited in Bourdieu, 2000: 51).
Bourdieu, P. (2000) Pascalian Meditations. Oxford: Polity Press.
Galloway, A. (2012) The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hui, Y. (2016) On the Existence of Digital Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. New York: MIT.
Simondon, G. (2017 ) On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Van den Boomen, M. (2014) Transcoding the digital: How metaphors matter in new media. Theory on Demand (14) Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. BOOMEN pdf
Veel, K. (2003) ‘The Irreducibility of Space: Labyrinths, Cities, Cyberspace’ diacritics 33 (3/4) 151-172.