[-empyre-] Week One - Between Print and Pixels: Computationality, Post-Digital, Hybrid

Michael Dieter M.J.Dieter at uva.nl
Mon Feb 10 03:01:34 EST 2014

Hi all,

Apologies to subscribers for the slow start to this discussion.
Unfortunately, David Berry has taken ill the past couple of days, so
will not able to post to the list until later in the month. I will
keep you informed, but I am glad in the meantime that Adam Hyde jumped
in and raised some questions for Alessandro:

"> I think this is an interesting issue and I was curious if this has
been the behaviour of media from the beginning? A cone transformed the
voice, radio transformed the cone, the codex transformed the scroll
etc. I bring this up because the 'core form' you refer to is perhaps
already a multi-hybridised outcome of decades/centuries of
transformation. Perhaps one of the core roles of any new medium,
analog or digital, is to transform the old. Any thoughts to that? If
it were true then 'digital' could be *both* a medium and a
transformative agent."

I'd like to take this a bit further as well, and ask Alessandro and
Mercedes for some response to the term 'digital' and hybrid in the
first place. If it might be taken as a medium and transformative
agent, then what do different definitions mean for the prefix "post"?
And how then does this actually relate to contemporary artistic and
experimental practices aligned with the post-digital, or medial

The invisibility or absence of the digital itself for these practices
is, of course, part of the problem. And as Alessandro notes, this is a
broader question, since at our present juncture, many aesthetic
characteristics and principles of 'old media' have seemingly been
maintained, while a range of compound techniques supported by
massively distributed and standardized software also appear ascendant;
yet this is not always explicitly identified or discussed in terms of
a recognizable and coherent new cultural vernacular.

In his writing on the topic of the post-digital, Florian Cramer goes
to great lengths to argue for some precision in defining the digital
itself as a term, highlighting the fact that it is often aligned with
a kind of high-tech kitsch, rather than described as the basic act of
making discrete. This is a position he already developed in
'Exe.cut[up]able Statements' and 'Words Made Flesh', where counting,
separating and sampling comes to define the digital as an act of
quantification. In this case, the digital is not simply electronic,
but potentially refers to a wide array of cultural techniques that
involve making things discrete. In other words, the magnetic
orientations, electrical impulses or optical arrays of contemporary
computational technologies is merely one subset of the digital broadly
understood. Hopefully, Florian can clarify the significance of these
arguments later on in the month (I hope the summary is alright for

In the meantime, there's another dynamic that is part of our
contemporary experience of the digital that I want to highlight for
the sake of discussion, and this involves the implementation of
discrete measurements for the purpose of expanding surplus value or
profit. In other words, these are the economic lineages that inform
the contemporary digital. They exist, for example, in Charles
Babbage's inspiration from Adam Smith's economic divisions of labor,
but applied to the mechanization of mathematical tables in the
development of the Difference Engine and (proposed) Analytic Engine.
Especially pertinent would be his study of 19th century factories (a
point of engagement for Marx), 'On the Economy of Machinery and
Manufacture', and the argument for the digital as the 'division of
mental labours' whereby certain tedious or monotonous tasks are
delegated away to labor and machinery at lowered rates of pay, expense
and care. This approach is echoed in the articulation of corporate
systems analysis in the late 20th century with the kinds of procedural
initiatives that Philip Agre insightfully referred to as the capture
model. Similarly, as Bernard Stiegler might put it, there is a process
involving the grammatization of labour here, but one in which a
fixation on increased profit drives the systematic implementation and
configuration of these digital infrastructures as a disassociated

Perhaps these are familiar arguments, but I'm interested then in how
the digital, understood in this way, can be read in terms of media
theory and the idea of there being 'post'? Certainly, these procedures
are present as a primary mode of producing knowledge in the
development of analogue systems and what Friedrich Kittler called
technical media. Maybe the situation today involves something like the
simultaneous expansion and diversification of these rationalization
techniques in specific ways? That would seem to be argument that Lev
Manovich makes in 'Software Takes Command.' If 'Language of New Media'
was based on outlining a formalist account of contemporary
grammatization expressed through numerical representation, modularity,
automation, variability and transcoding, then his new work looks to
how such a language leads itself to far-reaching hybridization through
the permanent extendibility of software uses and possibilities.
Software can do this since it functions as an implementation of
digital as meta-medium; in Alessandro's account, it infects, but does
not entirely remediate. These ideas are, of course, central to
theories of computation proposed by the Church-Turing hypothesis or by
Van Neumann, but Manovich argues Alan Kay should also be taken
seriously for inaugurating a 'democratization' of this digital
approach to cultural software development. This sets off a continual
upheaval in the cultural mode of development associated with cultural
software today, so that older media formats remain recognizable, yet
also become mixed together into a new expressiveness. The challenge
for Manovich's highly modernist project is to locate cultural
techniques of the present and future within this massively moving
revolutionary infrastructure.

There's also this other interesting aspect of Manovich's argument
found in the idea of performance; it's an idea that's been kicking
around for a while in his work - for instance, in the 'delightful
narrative' of Mario falling down a hill (when this actually happens in
a Nintendo game is a bit lost on me btw) - but this is a perspective
that is actually quite widespread as a premise of interaction design.
We might think of Brenda Laurel's 'Computers as Theatre' or notions of
staging found in HCI approaches like those advocated by Bruce
Tognazzini, or Joanna Drucker's use of frame analysis in the context
of interface theory. Perhaps it would be interesting to connect this
with other theories of performativity and identity as well, or power
in the mode of Jon McKenzie's 'Perform or Else.' Performance in this
latter case, interestingly, would also connect to the processes of
scripted abstraction found in corporate systems analysis and the
mental division of labour, where 'to perform' equates with accounting
for efficiency as value. This is a particular way of thinking through
what the post-digital might mean that I find interesting. Indeed,
drawing from Manovich's own interest in the research conducted at
Xerox PARC, these various compulsions are consolidate nicely, for
instance, in Tim Mott's idle sketches of office work routines on a bar
napkin sometime during the late 1970s. Such hand-drawn images of
making work discrete (they are, therefore, already digital images as a
grammar of action) are the inspiration for the iconic representations
of the contemporary desktop interface. They inscribe workflow analysis
and commands such as READ, WRITE, OPEN and MOVE as the now familiar
options PRINT, FILE, and DELETE:

When considered in terms of socio-political techniques, a series of
medial dynamics might then be diagrammed as central to the concerns of
post-digital aesthetics, things like: delegation, acceleration and
scaleability (along with Manovich's LoNM terms). These different
impulses, what could be read in terms of what Matthew Fuller and Andy
Goffey call evil media, are often arranged to be extensible in the
sense that they can broadly be assumed to function as global
information infrastructures. With the post-digital, these are then
investigated through scaled down characteristics or features in
translated material states. The post-digital, therefore, exists as a
'small' orientation device, but it also raises questions of beauty and
elegance, and in an exemplary way, speaks to the struggle to make
sense of digital today in any meaningful register beyond the profit
motive and the control of problems.

So what's interesting to me is how the digital understood in these
ways is rendered or characterized through its absence. Does it come to
signify an informational sublimity, perhaps a resources as cultural
materials, a site of excess or dumping ground, some weird array of
stuff comparable to what Marx once described as dead labor, or perhaps
closer to general intellect?

That's quite a long post, but I guess I wanted to throw some more
references into the mix. There's also a lot of connections, but these
are just some notes so I'm not sure they are interesting or relevant
for people. Perhaps Mercedes has some ideas to add? What, for
instance, does the hybrid refer to for the hybrid publishing lab? What
is the digital for you?

Michael Dieter
Media Studies
The University of Amsterdam
Turfdraagsterpad 9
1012 XT Amsterdam

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