Tuesday, December 1, 2009


We have not yet learned to mourn in the era of multitude. Grief makes us One but it also makes us Subject. And it happens spontaneously. Not the London bombings, not Oklahoma. Monuments to these are merely pious. The media did not perpetrate it: we need to grieve. Real grief in the 21st century is mass, spontaneous and under the yoke.

If only this were a displaced mourning for the species, habitats and populations we have lost.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Post-Cartesian Community, Post-Kantian Cosmopolitanism

Strikes me that the immense sprawl of the working paper After Tolerance will detain people too long: here's the conclusion to save on download time: as Brian Holmes smartly expressed it, the idea of the piece is to give ANT a push witth the help of Rancière

Rancière's concept of the political as constituted by its exclusion points to just the same phenomenon of incompleteness, of non-identity of the putative universal, which draws market traders to the market's lack in being. But because culturalists, sociologists and political philosophers cling to the concept of identity – gendered, regional, cultural, ethnic, sexual but always already biological – they have deep problems understanding the radical challenge posed by environmental politics, which not only challenges where the political ends, and what constitutes the universe of universalism, but the founding difference which claims their loyalty, the difference between humans and anything else whatever. The cost of constructing human identity is the refusal of political, social, cultural existence to what is different: the machinic and natural phyla. As a result, we have no basis on which to recognise or dialogue with the world, only a vaguely felt and expressed desire to take responsibility for it, to speak in its place, to represent it. In this we succumb to that politics of 'raising awareness' which Jodi Dean (2005) has so assiduously shown to be a sham form of communication under conditions of communicative capitalism.

The only way to rid politics of its foundational evil is to open it to the non-human. In this alone is there hope for a political economy which is truly different from the present, and only in such difference is there the possibility of hope. The post-Cartesian community, stepping beyond both identity and the rule of private property which it derives from and supports, is the basis for a post-Kantian cosmopolis, one where the destiny of growth is not pre-destined, because the cosmopolis is not exclusive to any one species, any more than it s to any one identity, even that of the universal law, universal knowledge, or a universal God. A cosmopolis of differences that make a difference, and in difference creating the possibility that there may be some later state of affairs. In the first instance, the challenge for internet political economy is to reveal and release the natural and technical (ancestral) participants excluded from both wealth and citizenship. Only in such radical steps will the possibility of a human future be made possible, and a goal beyond the tyranny of instrumental reason and cash. We might begin with the only tribe who have a passion equal to Knorr Cetina's traders, the hackers celebrated by Parikka (2007) and Mackenzie (2006). We have yet to discover the passion that will make the green world integral to the problem of a new political economy of the internet.

A fundamental question, in this framework, is whether the play we witness in social networks constitutes a demand for a political subjectivity, or indeed, extending the argument by analogy to the economic sphere, for an economic subjectivity. The peer-to-peer movement is clearly articulated as a new economics, and intrinsically a new politics, but in instances like Facebook it would appear not to be. A condition of subjectivity is to be aware – aware of the relations one has entered into. Such awareness may not be a property of immersion into social networks (just as loss of self-awareness is characteristic of immersive experiences (since at least the dawn of silent reading memorialised in Augustine's Confessions [1961: Book 6, Chapter 3, 113-5], when the students hesitated to disturb the deeply ruminating St Anselm, immersed in the texts of the Fathers of the Church. Such stillness is, in Rancière's terms, a turn away from action and the political, and perversely an acceptance of the chaos from which it withdraws). Awareness is characterised by demand: by a demand for something which is not on offer. The demand for inclusion is only part of this: the demand is for a realignment of the Good for the purpose of which the political exists in the first instance. This demand is not, one suspects, integral to facebook, but is integral to P2P networks, and to the SLOC (small, local, open, connected) model proposed by Ezio Manzini (2009). Such models, to the extent that they are practiced already, are gateways, not roads: the whole point about the future is that it is unknown (unlike the present we know and the past we know about). An administered future – of risk management and five year plans alike, is no future at all. A political future is not constituted by 'emerging markets' (what else might they emerge as?) but by the unforeseeable demands of the excluded for a new polity, which must be achieved in the context of struggle with the old that renews, radically, its presuppositions, including its ethical basis. Since we cannot help but think ahead, we plan, but plan for what is genuinely unknown and unforeseeable. So a future which is imaginable, but not administered out of existence. Imagine: a world of communication between the phyla . . . .

Workplace media

Our key media of the 21st century are fundamentally spatial. Though it is still a truiism of film and video studies that the mainstream media are dominated by narrative and illusion, the truly dominant media of the early 21st century are geographical informatio systems (GIS), spreadhseets and databases. These workplace media operate by spatialising time. Where once voyagers recorded their journeys as narratives, the early imperial navigations turned to a more schematic system of recording space, turning to the grid of longitude and latitude to create a globe which already contained the unexplored regions of the Southern hemisphere. This level of control increased incrementally, through the Ordnance Survey's addition of contour lines among other features, until, with the introduction of ZIP codes in 1963, mapping could be associated not only with physical but with sociological information. This basic zoning tool could then be associated with such other datasets as census returns, and the move to geographical information systems commenced. The history of the spreadsheet is a denser one but covers a similar history. The critical move came in the migration from the double-entry ledger to the electronic spreadsheets, which no longer carried the residual chronological ordering that paired accountancy with narrative. That move had been achieved rather earlier in bureaucratic record keeping, with the invention of the vertical filing cabinet by Edwin Seibels in 1898 (and the slightly earlier innovation of horizontal filing systems). Again, the ledger had retained some aspects of temporal ordering, especially in terms of how searches were to be conducted. The filing cabinet spatialised these searches, allowing quasi-random alphabetical and numerical searches, as well as the use of 'metadata' such as labelled drawers to isolate files of particular interest. Te database completed this spatialisation of data, separating, for example, biographical from geographical, financial from medical records, but allowing for cross-referencing. These three instruments, GIS, spreadsheets and databases, express and enable the managerialisation of society noted by Foucault and subsequent scholars. These spatialising tendencies correspond with the arithmetic drive in digital media. The grid, and the arithmetical nomenclature for colour distinctions, identify points rather than continua, ideally replicable entities excluding both semantic reference and temporal change.

Snatched from a chapter drafted for Resolutions 3: Video Praxis in Global Spaces edited by Ming-Yuen Ma & Erika Suderburg.

The draft chapter has discussions of some favourite video and animation work of the last few years. It argues that these and other examples from Robert cahen, Daniel Crooks and Susan Collins among others escape the confines of the cartesian grid and begin to create new orderings of space, or disturb the grid by bringing in time. Those with a good web presence are:
458nm, Jan Bitzer, Ilija Brunck and Tom Weber, Filmakademie Baden Würtenberg / Polynoid, Germany, 6 mins 54 sec, 2006, http://polynoid.org/polynoid_458nm.html
Asparagus, Suzan Pitts, US, 20 mins, 1979, http://www.veoh.com/browse/videos/category/animation/watch/v6336800ArqyhghK
Ryan, Chris Landreth, National Film Board, Canada, 13 mins 54 sec, 2004, http://nfb.ca/film/ryan/
The Tale of How, The Blackheart Gang, South Africa, 4 mins 29 sec, 2006, http://theblackheartgang.com/the-household/the-tale-of-how/

Saturday, October 24, 2009

If a lion could talk . . .

This is how eco-horror enters the dialogue, by asserting that the exclusion of the green world from democratic politics destroys the claims of every democracy to universality. Asserting meanings which, in their non-human origins, appear as horrifying, they assert the broken nature of any claim to universality derived from an exclusion. While the Deep Ecology movement's use of direct action is alluring, in the same way that contemporary Hollywood is deeply tied up with narratives of revenge, revenge too has the feeling of a politics which has no part for dialogue, and to that extent is no politics at all. In later writings, Wittgenstein argued 'If a lion could talk, we would not understand him' (Wittgenstein 1968: II, xi, p. 223). The world not only speaks but roars in our ears, in a tempest of storms, collapsing glaciers, forest fires, mudslides . . . and yet we do not understand. Wittgenstein's point concerned the incommensurable nature of different modes of language. That this is integral to public life is clear from the example of politicians unwilling to engage in debate, and devoted instead to persuasion, to communicating a policy, to raising awareness: effectively to solipsism. While linguistic philosophy might hold this as a permanent and universal condition, political philosophy cannot. It must undertake to find ways to bring the human and the lion into dialogue.

From a chapter submitted to ECO-TRAUMA CINEMA: Technology, Nature, and the End of the World ed Neil Narine

Cultural Identity

On the one hand, indigenous and migrant cinemas point towards the significance of cultural identities, especially in settler nations like Aotearoa and Australia. On the other, it is in general cultural identity which must bear the brunt of the question as to why films from one culture are so frequentl;y difficult to export to people of another. Sadly, it appears that increasing levels of communication – in terms of both access and sheer numbers of images – enabled by the growth of internet communications and digital film equipment have not made our cultural diets more varied. On the contrary, the evidence is that self-reinforcing groups consisting of users who generate content for other users like themselves are producing homogeous but mutually discrete cells of lifestyle demographics which, while they pass for culture, more frequently act as the targets for marketers who can micro-target advertising for the in-group. While cultural identities survive beyond the communicative capitalism of the 21st century, within it, that is within the domains of digital film, they have been supplanted by IDs, the expression in a database economy of indioviduals and their groups as aggregations of data (age, postcode, gender, shopping and browsing preferences . . . ). The database economics of a fundamentally arithmetic recording of both media and audiences drives towards a mass market for hypercapitalist cultural goods, and micro-markets for specialised consumers. In such conditions, cultural identity is at once a spicy addition to the cultural mix, and a desperately needed addition of novelty from outside the self-reproducing system of a market capitalism no longer capable of generating its own invention.

From a piece submitted to the digital issue of Studies in Australasian Cinema

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Internet as Factory and Playground

Tthe draft of my paper for the Internet as Factory and Playground conference is onlie at Trebor Scholz's invitation. The slides are available, and so is the talk itself. (The version on Slideshare was an earlier draft version of the talk but I've left it there for the moment).

It is rather different from the abstract, but that is a result of the discussions on iDC list, which have been searching and challenging and all other good things

It now looks at the question of identity as human identity, arguing from rancière's discussion of the origins of politics in the forced inclusion of excluded others, that human identity, as the universal principle governing both Cartesian subjectivity and group identification, is prey to non-identicality. This non--identicality can be understood as a contradiction driving towards a new polity in which the excluded nonhuman actors - critically technological and 'natural' – have the potential to rejuvenate a self-enclosed system of political economy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


In the course of recording interviews for the Genealogies of Digital Light project, I got interviewed myself. Terry Flaxton included a two-part interview in his Verbatim History of High Definition Technology and Aesthetics. Seeing Terry's artworks in hi-def was a real highlight of the trip: see the Somerset Carnivals and Glastonbury Portraits documentation on his site, and check his blog, High Definition - No Mercy, listed on the right.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ubiquitous Media, Rare Earths

At a talk at the Pervasive Media Studio, University of the West of England, I mentioned a statement attributed to Thomas Huxley, doyen of Victorian science, that the oceans were effectively inexhaustible, and that we might throw into them and take from them as much as we please, and they would still feed us endlessly. I made the comparison with contemporary beliefs that the internet and digital communications can grow without limit. But of course, both the oceans – as we know to our cost – and the internet – as we will have to learn – are finite resources. But when I checked, the Huxley quote wasn't quite so mad: the more measured actual statement can be found in his Inaugural Address to the Fisheries Exhibition, London (1883) courtesy of The Huxley File.

Even without the "ta-da" moment that my misquotation provided, the point is still valid, I think: we act as if computing and network resources were unbounded. But materials, manufacture, use and recycling put boundaries round the materiality of internet and convergent media. The squalor and penury associated with extracting metals, building computers and recycling mobiles, TVs and digital devices are one half of a story which includes toxic waste, toxic working conditions, human waste from the maquilladoras, atnospheric and water pollution in the recycling villages of Africa and China, species and habitat loss . . .

Like any other form of organisation, maintaining the negentropy of the internet requires vast amounts of energy, physical and human. It also requires materials that are becoming more strategic and costly by the minute.

here are a few links that got me started:

Basel Action Network (2002), Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf
Basel Action Network, The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-use and Abuse to Africa, http://www.ban.org/BANreports/10-24-05/index.htm, 2005
Boccaletti, Giulio, Markus Löffler, and Jeremy M. Oppenheim (2008), 'How IT can cut carbon emissions', Mckinsey Quarterly, October, http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/How_IT_can_cut_carbon_emissions_2221
Cap Gemini (2008), 'Green IT Report 2008 The Computer Equipment Lifecycle Survey', http://www.capgemini.com/resources/thought_leadership/executive_summary_green_it_report_2008/
The Climate Group (2008), SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age, http://www.theclimategroup.org/assets/resources/publications/ mart2020Report.pdf
Climate Savers Computing http://www.climatesaverscomputing.org
Duffy, Rosaleen (2005), 'Criminalisation and the politics of governance: illicit gem sapphire mining in Madagascar', Paper originally prepared for: ‘Redesigning the state? Political corruption in development policy and practice’ conference at IDPM, Manchester University, 25 November.
Gantz John (project director) (2008), The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe, IDC White Paper, IDC, Framingham MA, March. http://www.emc.com/collateral/analyst-reports/diverse-exploding-digital-universe.pdf
ITU (2007), ITU-T Technology Watch Report #3: ICTs and Climate Change, International Telecommunications Union, Geneva, December, http://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-t/oth/23/.../T23010000030002PDFE.pdf
Koomey, Jonathan G. (2007), ‘Estimating Power Consumption by Servers in the US and the World', Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford University, Stanford, February. http://enterprise.amd.com/Downloads/svrpwrusecompletefinal.pdf
Lyman, Peter and Hal R Varian (2003), How Much Information?, University of California, Berkeley. http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/index.htm
Stewart, Emma and John Kennedy (2009), 'The Sustainability Potential of Cloud Computing: Smarter Design', in Environmental Leader, Juy 20, http://www.environmentalleader.com/2009/07/20/the-sustainability-potential-of-cloud-computing-smarter-design/
Weber, Christopher L., Jonathan G. Koomey, and H. Scott Matthews (2009), 'The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods' Final report to Microsoft Corporation and Intel Corporation, August 17, http://download.intel.com/pressroom/pdf/CDsvsdownloadsrelease.pdf

Friday, September 18, 2009


We risk zoomorphism when we say a medium "wants" to depict, narrate, be flat etcetera. Zoomorphism (not anthropomorphism) because it is an ascription of instinct, not desire. We do not permit our technologies their tragic mirror phase, their Oedipal revolt. (This is the point of Asimov's 3 laws of robotics). That media appear to have instinctive tendencies towards specific kinds of performances is evidence of their persistent lack of autonomy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rich media sustainability

Perhaps the most intriguing, even ominous aspect of near-future scenarios is 'ubicomp', ubiquitous computing, combining the 'internet of things' with the increasing integration of mobile wireless and internet media. RFID tags (Hayles 2009), biochips (Thacker 2004) and a variety of wireless devices can be installed in anything from fridges to mousetraps, immigration controls to pets, creating a vast demand for new storage and communication services. Meanwhile the convergence of both technologies and companies in hardware like Google's G3 competitor to Apple's iPhone, software like Google's Android mobile operating system, and applications like Google Voice indicate that advanced small screen technology, integration of services including social networking, the arrival of portable formats for books, games, music and feature films, and the inclusion of respectable cameras and recording technologies in handheld devices will increase both the quantity and the traffic in data over the foreseeable future. That increase has been measured in a number of ways (see for example Lyman and Varian 2003). One remarkable finding is that 'the amount of information created, captured, or replicated exceeded available storage for the first time in 2007. Not all information created and transmitted gets stored, but by 2011, almost half of the digital universe will not have a permanent home' (Gantz 2008). Estimating the current size of the digital universe at close to 300 billion gigabytes, Gantz's team at consultants IDC do not make extravagant claims for growth. But as television, for example, moves towards both high definition and on-demand network delivery, the quality as well as quantity of media involved in net traffic os likely to expand with no clear end in sight. The question is whether this is a sustainable future.


How nice: this blog is included in Top 100 Film Studies Blogs. At number 99, so I won't get too big headed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ship shape

High point of an excellent conference in Bristol on cinema and colour, , Steve Neale discusses mise en scene and skin tones in the race discourse of Sirk's Imitation of Life. The freeze on the white roses in the funeral scene - which I have never managed to watch without weeping - as the central argument over race in the film. Steve as ever persuasive, innovative and precise.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


"Not only is there no contradiction in principle between evil and politics, but evil, as such, is from a certain point of view always political"
Roberto Esposito, 1993, Nove pensieri sulla politica, Il Mulino, Bologna, p.183

Saturday, June 27, 2009

further notes on the database economy

Free cooperation, collaboration (the term preferred, for its echo of illegitimacy, by Florian Schneider 2006), organised networks (Rossiter 2006) are offered as alternatives to the existing order and the existing economy. In an early essay on the theme of the new economics of networks Richard Barbrook (1998) pointed out the existence off two parallel economies, one based on the exchange of gifts, the other on exchange of money and contracts. The gift economy is a quality of peer-to-peer projects, of which Linux and Wikipedia are the most cited examples, along with Project Gutenberg and (although it's origins are often forgotten) the first Web manifestation of the Internet Movie Database. In the latter case commercialisation was a function of success, as measured in throughput of data. In the case of Linux, service providers like Red Hat and Ubuntu have found business models appropriate to the FLOSS ethos, even though somewhat controversial. What is notable about these projects is that they emerge from existing communities, that is from loose networks with shared interests; that therefore community-building, where it occurs, is a by-product, not a goal; and that the central activity is to provide a service which the donors want and are prepared to contribute their labour to,

But where the gift of labour has been commercialised, as it has in social networking, the surveillant functions of the database economy serve not only to target but to average, as Foucault was anxious to demonstrate in the late lectures (2003, 2004, 2007). Here the virtual nature of the crowd, its power to act, is removed by a process of forecasting how much deviance is tolerable in a population. The challenge then is to challenge the auto-archiving of network activity with an extension. This might well be inspired by Adorno's insistence throughout his late lectures on negative dialectics (2008) that what is essential is not the actual, nor identity, but precisely non-identity: the non-identical nature of the world to which Western thought perpetually ascribes identity. In an extension of the same argument, Adorno argues that there can be no greater good as long as one person must suffer, or one person sacrifice their native demand for happiness (2000).

The challenge is to drive the logic of individualism to its far side; to turn the compulsory choice of consumerism into actual freedom.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

RIP World Wide Web 1993-2001

forwarded to empyre

Until the dot.com crash of 2001, the web was one of the longest-lived Temporary Autonomous Zones our generation ever knew. Capital failed to understand. Not until the years after 2001 did it begin to build business models based in the Web rather than imported from magazine publishing and the broadcast industry.

Marx had established the principles in the famous Fragment on Machines (pp 690 ff) in Grundrisse: the social intellect / general intellect is manifest in two processes. In one, the skill developed over generrations in making things is ossified into machinery and turned to purposes of exploitation. In the second, the ways workers organise themselves in factories so they can get longer breaks or leave earlier are systematised by Capital. But as Virno argues in Grammar of the Multitude, this innovative power to make new systems is no longer a side benefit of emplying workers: it is written into our contracts.

The risk capital always runs is that the endless revolutions in the means of production (machinery, organisation) constantly run ahead of capital's ability to assimilate them. This is what happened when the Web turned the internet into a mass medium. Capital had no idea how to respond, and the result was a fantastic flowering of creativity, of new kinds of cultural practice, new types of service, now modes of organisation, among which perhaps the Battle of Seattle can stand as a decent monument.

Now of course with Web 2.0, capital has finally managed to catch up and turn that innovatory impetus into a profit-making enterprise, although it damn near blew itself up in the inflationary vapourware moment of the early 2000s.

What is left of the revolutionary Web is marked by nostalgia, as people have been suggesting on nettime lately (Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis). But that is no reason to give up fighting for a piece of it; or to build alternatives inside the belly of the whale. Nor is it a reason not to pursue alternatives to the monetarised Web, in particular FLOSS and P2P. The mysterious, fluid, granular "we" can no more afford to give up the struggle for the Web than we can afford to give up struggling to find new alternatives to it.

There are huge risks involved: the slow but certain approach of IPv6 might flag the splintting of the Web into two, and if two why not many more. I find that thought frightening. Other scenarios involve freeing more radio spectrum from the dominance of TV signals, making wireless the new terrain, probably a more hopeful variant. But for now we have to admit the battle of the internet is over and capital won. The question is how do we operate now: Tactically? Strategically? And how do we minimise or at least delay the assimlation of whatever we invent into the reproduction of capital?

(and to preempt discussion, a) call it biopower if you prefer and b) the market is neither inevitable nor beneficial: the sixty years since Bretton Woods have failed abjectly to provide even survival levels for the majority of the world's population)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

seascape: susan collins

the fourth early 2009 entry is from a catalogue essay for Susan Collins' new work Seascape. The work as installed has five feeds from cameras timed to accumulate one pixel every quarter of a second or so, filling the screen in roughly the time for a full tide cycle

There is a curious design feature of CCD chips. To make the orientation and structure of the crystal lattice identical to that of the underlying chip, the crystals are grown on the chip itself. This is the reason why their production is called ‘fabrication’ rather than ‘manufacture’: the scales are far, far smaller than human hands or tools. It is a game with the very fabric of the world. There is a kind of automation here, one premised on fundamental laws of nature, rather like the process of photography itself, analog or digital, which relies on the properties of light and light-sensitive materials. In a certain sense, admiring the steady build of the pixels in Seascape, you have the sense of the image being grown, as the crystal lattice was, and that the image has the orientation and structure of the world in front of it, even though the process is such that it never resembles a snapshot.

For those two or three seconds that are required to make a little row of eight or nine pixels that stand out because of their pallor or their darkness, there was perhaps a brief spell of sunlight or thick cloud or rain. The oddity is that the assembled image should have such a large-scale resemblance to a familiar snapshot of any moment of waves rippling. The sea, like many crystals, has a certain long-range order to it, a self-similarity over time, a kind of symmetry across the tidal cycle. It is that self-similarity, that symmetry, that is captured in these images. A strange mathematical gathering of the sea, a restless formulation, unsettled settling into order of the orderless; a sedimentation, a crystallisation.

dirty media

The third is from a 'vision statement' prepared for Third Text's 100th issue due later this year.

The third problem with ICT4D concerns its articulation with sustainability. In theory, digital communications substitute for energy-hungry transportation, encourage people to stay home in villages rather than risk the desperate conditions of the slums, and prepare economies for transition to the supposedly weightless condition of the advanced information economies. The sad truth is that digital technologies are more, not less, polluting and energy-hungry than predecessor media like film and print. The environmental footprint of digital media comes in several phases: (1) The extraction of raw materials, including rare earths and gemstones often mined under appalling conditions, and subject to strategic struggles to secure supplies among the major powers (for the case of sapphires, important for LED fabrication, see Rosaleen Duffy's article) (2) the manufacturing of computers and computer parts on offshore, unregulated and immiserated areas such as the maquiladoras of the Mexican-US border region (see Coco Fusco's The Bodies that Were Not Ours); (3) the built-in obsolescence of the computer industry, based on constant cycles of updates and system changes (4) the energy requirements of manufacture and of use (see for example the Koomey report on server energy usage) and (5) the recycling and dumping of unwanted computers, many of which pass through donation programs to the developing world before finding their inevitable way to the nightmare of recycling villages, notably in West Africa and Southern China (see the Exporting Harm and Digital Dump reports from the Basel Action Network). Attempts to build systems which do not have these impacts are the next challenge: they need to learn from the failures of earlier Western-inspired and impracticable projects like the Kinkajou projector and, though its ultimate fate is yet to be seen, the One Laptop Per Child project. The challenges for art are now no longer to make different and better content, but to make different and better networks: more just, more open, more adaptable and more environmentally sustainable.

the rage to order

The second post reporting on work undertaken in the first months of 2009 is from a chapter for the Urban Screens collection forthcoming from NAi publishers.

While there are certainly reasons to continue developing alternative technologies, there is no need to abandon those we already have to hand. Since the late 19th century, a surprising variety of thinkers from Peirce to Zizek have argued that human beings have a tendency to react to the chaos of perception by creating a world of order: intellectual, mathematical, linguistic, conceptual, symbolic. This tendency can be described as a drive towards order. Drives, however are dangerous things. Unconstrained, hunger and sex can make people mad; and the drive to order is no different. At a personal extreme it becomes obsessive, and at a social extreme fascistic. Like the sex drive, it can twist into its violent opposite and become a rage for formlessness and destruction. But like both sex and hunger, it can also be sublimated. Paolo Virno (2008) suggests, using the case of language, that an instinct that might become destructive can be contained or in some sense healed by the application of a homeopathic principle: a little of the poison to cure the disease. This might well be the function of art: to provide that grain of ordering which cures our instinctive drive of its most terrifying extremism.

vector screens

It's been a busy semester and will carry on so I thought it would make sense to add some posts snatched from things written over the last three months and currently winding their way through refereeing and editorial. The first is from a chapter for Oliver Grau's forthcoming collection "Gazing Into the 21st century"

Prediction, foreknowledge based on statistical aggregation, the enumeration of the enumerable: these have become the ingrained characteristics of the contemporary screen in all its manifestations.

All, that is, bar one: the oscilloscope screen technology utilised in early experiments in computer graphics by Ivan Sutherland, mentioned briefly in the opening pages of this chapter. Sutherland's vector screen, free from the obligation to scan the raster grid in clock time, remains an available technology still deployed in air-traffic control and scientific instrumentation. Its capacities have been ignored in the development of the Cartesian raster display. Yet the vector display is the natural way to display the vector graphics which increasingly constitute the central platform of object-oriented visualisation. The loss of vector screens in the age of vector graphics, and their replacement with codecs whose central innovation is new tools for making vectors visible on raster displays, suggests both a concrete avenue for 21st century technical innovation, and the kind of lacuna in innovation which may only be typical in situations where there is a diagrammatic or structural interchange, a homological assemblage, operating between key technologies like contemporary screens, and core values and processes of both economic and political life. The oscilloscope allows for the arbitrary. Unlike our common screens which have become attuned to the normative workings of the database economy, the vector screen is an expression of a freedom we have sensed, that we have imagined as potential, and which still lies unrealised in the storeroom of residual media. If technologies are articulations of social formations, then genuine innovation, or turning back to follow the road not taken, may well introduce us to a new way of imagining and realising alternative social formations. Perhaps this cannot be achieved with respect for the poor and for the ecosphere, but we know for a certainty that the road we did take has not benefitted either of them. It is time to set the vector free.

Alan Kay demonstrates Sketchpad on YouTube

Thursday, January 22, 2009


The website for Genealogies of Digital Light is now up. This is the site for the ARC research project with Daniel Palmer and Les Walkling. Thanks to talia Radywyl for setting it up

Thursday, January 8, 2009

why do media matter - and how?

For two centuries at least, philosophers have argued that the media through which power is exercised cannot be distinguished from the action of power itself. Such media include writing (laws), speech (parliaments), images (evidence), data (measurement), numbers (statistics) and their means of distribution (mail, telegram, telephone, internet). Only a slight change of focus is required to understand that money too is a medium, the medium of exchange. Media are the intrinsic forms taken by power and economy. This is why media matter.

But how do media matter, exactly? In the most general sense, media 'matter' because they are material, but material of a very specific kind. Every medium is actual: it actually exists, actually mediates. This actuality is its physical form, which derives from its past how it has been constructed, out of which elements, how those elements were constructed in their turn. If technological innovation is a process of reassembling old parts into new forms (Schumpeter), then technologies are containers of history, and the past accumulated in them is what makes up their actuality: the accumulated force of history.

But as Marx observed, we make our own history, albeit not under conditions of our own choosing. Media technologies are actual in the sense that they are the accumulation of the wisdom of the anonymous dead. But they are also potential. Potential derives from the Latin word for power. Power is the capacity for acting, that is, for making actual (Arendt). Everything that has potential has the potential to act, that is to bring about a new actuality. Without that capacity, nothing happens.

Every medium inherits its past, but also converts that past into a new present. According to both Kant and Hegel, technological devices are distinguished from living things because their purpose is external to them. Living beings live in order to live: their first task is to carry on living. Technologies have as their first purpose to produce something else, something external to them. They have no instinct of self-preservation. From this point of view, technologies are entirely the servants of humans. And yet we have the terrible image of the factory as the eater of souls: the technology as enemy and conqueror of humanity. Marx used the phrase 'dead labour' to describe machines: they are the accumulated skills of those who went before us, abstracted from the work of their bodies, made concrete, and subjected to the laws of whatever mode of production dominated at the time.

The opposition between visions of technologies as either master or servant is inadequate. They are the servants of some (the owners of the means of production) and the oppressors of others. But if it is the case that both power and wealth are media, then the technologies are not inert. They are the media through which power is exerted and wealth extracted. Technologies too mediate between people. All technologies are media technologies. All technologies mediate, as when heat is converted into velocity, or electricity into computer displays. They mediate when they convert energy into its representation (gear trains, code). All technologies mediate through a chain of transformations and representations. They also mediate between the past and the future, the accumulated past of both human skill and previous technologies, and the immediate future posited by their capacity for action, their potential.

Both actual and potential, media mediate between people, between natural forces (animal power, the laws of physics) and people, and between technologies and people. [It remains to be seen whether it is possible to mediate between technologies and natural forces without the intervention of people]. Because they also mediate between past and future (they are actual-potential), media are the medium of history, and they are temporal and historical in their nature. This is not to say that they have an essence: some ideal form which shapes every given medium. Rather, media are continually changing, because they are the medium of change.

This historical dimension of mediating between people, technologies and nature is basic to how media operate as media of power and wealth. Classes, cliques, factions and occasionally individuals conspire to seize control over particular media formations – the legal system, broadcasting, transport systems. In dong so they seek to restrain the potential of the media they inherit, restricting tools for inputting, distinguishing between types of access, delaying outputs for some while accelerating them for others. The minute adjustments required for these operations constitute a major part of media historiography.

But media formations must mediate. It is simply impossible to run a society without media: the two terms are synonymous. We cannot imagine a society without language, any more than we can imagine a language without a society (Lévi-Strauss). Media are the material of society: they are what we do when we are sociable: talk, share food, wear clothes, make love, make war. Mediation is society, and society is mediation. Even the highly specialised media formations – medicine, for example – are social in their essence. Even the most authoritarian media, the most deeply opposed to dialogue – such as weapons – are produced in, and produce, social relations.

Because they must mediate, media open themselves up to struggle over their own constitution. The boss may own the machinery, but it is the hands who most often make the adjustments that improve it. In a stable system, the improvement is taken from the hands and delivered to the bosses. It is as if we cannot, as a species, resist tinkering, improving, acting in dialogue with the materiality of our media. This is the secret of the open source movement; as it is of the argument that the gift of free labour to social networks is a gift to the bosses of unpaid work. Tinkering may then support the status quo, or it may bring about permanent change. It brings us joy, either way. It is joyful, I believe, because it brings us into dialogue with the ancient dead whose labour is accumulated in machines, and allows them to participate in the making of a new potential, a new future.

The struggle over media technologies historicises them once again. Technologies have their own dynamic, in the same way that music or mathematics have. But they also mediate constantly between themselves, between people, and between people and machines. The actuality of media is then the product of past struggles over their shaping. Their potential is also a subject of struggle: shall we use this factory to make bombs or bicycles? Both products and sites of struggle, media also mediate struggle, since they are the media of power and wealth. This is why to describe mediating technologies as either masters or servants is inadequate. It also explains a crucial feature of media technologies.

To the extent that they are the means of production, media technologies belong to their owners, and take their form from the mode of production. We could put this differently and say that they take their form from the regimes of power in place in a given period. Thus the newspaper had the typical form of a factory product: mass-produced for straightforward consumption; while the internet invites prosumers and produsers to customise and produce their own content.

But to the extent that they are arenas of struggle, the underlying technologies (the printing press, the server) are capable of more than the purposes for which they were perhaps initially designed. They can be repurposed, redesigned. Sometimes these tinkerings emerge in the form of activism, sometimes as art, sometimes as ideas, sometimes as innovation. Each and any of these is itself a mediation, and therefore opens itself up to struggle: to producing new innovations, new potentialities; or to being subsumed back into the status quo, the old actuality.

Media matter because they are the medium of history – of politics, of economics, of war, of love. How do media matter? They matter by their constantly changing designs, affordances, combinations and by their constitution in and as the struggle over mediation itself, that mediation which is the whole of the social, and beyond it our connection to the natural world and ultimately to technologies themselves.

To understand mediation, it is necessary to observe in detail the machinery of mediation. The grand epochs – agriculture and writing; the clock, printing and steam; automation, electricity and electronics – give us only the barest sense of the actual texture of either media or history. Especially when thinking about the digital era which we have only just entered, we need to look at the details of the design and use of media technologies. Comparisons with more remote epochs are valuable because they help clarify what is specific to contemporary mediation. They also tell us about what has been left behind, and therefore indicate something about what is to be done to maximise the potential of our media. Any future democracy, any future justice will be mediated. Understanding how the very fabric of humanity is mediated second by second is essential if we are to make possible a future other than the present.