Digital Culture Notes (First of a series)

Recently, I have been thinking about the material nature of digital culture, perhaps best exemplified by the Web and its intensely spatial nature. The Internet is often understood by imagining or visualizing a vast lattice of lines connecting across the globe. Of course, lattice works are by their very nature architectural, points in space connected by technologies, the built environment. At the same time as it creates the possibility of virtual interaction, the Internet is also very material. This materiality comes from the wires, servers, buildings and routers that form and shape the experiences of interaction without being in the foreground.

Web pages are designed using boxes for texts and images. The underlying HTML code for the Web is hidden but the manner in which a web page draws content from servers is visible every time we click. Writing for web pages is a material practice. The immateriality of computer screens is offset by the concrete nature of keyboards and mice. The iPad for example, is an object, although probably one of the most powerful objects I have ever held. The iPad hovers between its physical presence and the intense manner in which one’s eyes are drawn into its images, into the screen based worlds of games and photographs. Apps reach out from the screen into our daily lives either organizing our time or allowing us to write on glass enclosures. Software is written and tested within a material universe of employment and job pressures including sometimes unreasonable expectations of productivity.

The aerials that make Wi-Fi possible are produced in factories as are Apple computers. The assembly line in a computer factory looks like something out of the 19th century. Some of the most exotic minerals in the world are needed to make our computers and their screens work correctly. Many of those minerals are found in China and Africa. More often than not the working conditions for extraction and processing are terrible.

Materiality is not something that disappears because we now have so ways in which to experience the world through virtual means. One of the criticisms about human relations on the Internet is that because distance plays a significant role, it is likely that there is something very superficial about the communications process. It is true that the Internet makes communications across varying distances not only possible, but as with Facebook, promotes interactions that are not face to face. And, there are dangers in living a life in front of a screen. Just as there were dangers in spending too much time on the telephone or watching too much television. There is nothing inherent to the technology that sustains the manner in which it is used. There is something in the technology that attracts use from that material universe of people and communities.

The environments we share have never been pristine and civilizations have been built on the interactions between humans and their technologies.

Part Two...

 

 

 

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Tactile Images

In 1992 a major statue of one of the founders of Canadian confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald was decapitated in a local park in Montreal.

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Although poorly maintained up until that time, rusty and neglected, the decapitation provoked a major outcry from Canadian federalists. To make matters worse, the decapitated head was stolen. No effort was made to replace the statue or repair it. Pigeons now roost on the remains and the statue has deteriorated further. From time to time journalists have commented on the loss and some private citizens have banded together to raise funds to have a new head made. But the symbolism of the gesture will never be forgotten nor will the symbolic death of the federal spirit in Quebec simply disappear when the statue is restored.

There is a sense in which this sculpture, both in its full and fragmented form, stands for historical realities which transcend its status as an object and are a clue to its transformation into an image. The aura of the statue (negative or positive) seems to bring history, the man himself and notions of the nation state into a synoptic grid, from which nearly any set of meanings can be drawn.

So complex is this interplay, so naturalized are its underlying premises, that the task of “writing” about this history of the image of Sir John A. Macdonald will be richly endowed from the start. It will move through a number of sometimes contradictory and sometimes connected levels of meaning, creating a sphere of relationships in constant need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

The process will oscillate between the micro-historical and the macro-historical and even then the terms of that interaction will produce new and different relationships dependent on the context of analysis and the subjective choices of the interpretator. In other words the statue is both a powerful presence and an incidental component of what we do to it, the basis for a hierarchy of interpretations, and the reason we tear at the statue’s foundations.

Although headless, the statue retains all the qualities which allow it to be identified with its human predecessor. As a focal point of the debate about the future of Canada, it matters little whether the head is there or not. Yet, as an image, the loss of the head brings the arguments of history into the forefront and suggests a rather paradoxical homology in which image and history are one, in which the visual and the tactile co-exist, through the absence of the eyes of one of the founders of modern day Canada.