What is digital studies?
by Alex Galloway
What is digital studies? Is it a new theoretical field emerging out of the intersection of poststructuralism and media studies? Is it the next stage of conceptual art? Or is it simply rehashed film theory, that ground-breaking field whose object is the analysis of the interplay of images?
On the production side of things, the work represented here in DIGITAL STUDIES is rooted in the conceptual art of the sixties and seventies. It was then that artistic production dramatically moved into the world of the art object, the ideas of interactivity, of performance and immersion, of identity, of virtuality, of technology. For example, Erwin Redl's piece, "Truth is a moving target," and Knut Mork's "Solve et Coagula" both approach the concept of the living, interactive language poem. Media recombination is the theme in Ted Warnell's "Poem by Nari," while more direct code sampling is the focus of La Société Anonyme's "Why keep talking about art?"
Let's build a myth. Let's build a concept of the network ping. The ping is electricity talking, it is a net desire. It is tele-identification. The ping frisks the homogeneity of computer networks to find the specificity of an object, the machine. The ping tracks and reports. The ping has no body. It is nothing but a techno-reflex. By the late-twentieth century, a mythic time, a time for us, the ping signifies structure and code and identity and space.
Tempting as it may be to follow the lead of film critics like Christian Metz and Andre Bazin and claim that, like cinema before it, the whole of digital media is essentially a *language*, digital media seems to require a different kind of semiotics, that is, a non-linguistic semiotics, a theory of media that doesn't rely on the text as its primary metaphor. Let's claim that digital technology is unique to itself, with a different set of theoretical questions, and a different set of object relations.
@n To this goal, the following are notes for a few concepts most relevant to current work being done by artists and theorists in the field of digital studies:
@n html conceptualism
Html is flat. We dream that it is dynamic, that it is heterogenious, that it is revolutionary. Html is an instruction list for the compilation of contents, a scripting language for scripts. It is not a metaphor for something else.
As opposed to the sign, our species of textual unit is the object. The object represents a unit of content, an infoid, a digi-narrative. It is not simply a digital commodity nor a digital sign. The digital object is any content-unit or content-description: midi data, text, vrml world, image, texture, movement, behavior, transformation. These objects are always derived from a pre-existing copy (loaded) using various kinds of mediative machinery. They are displayed using various kinds of virtuation apparatuses (displays, virtual reality hardware and other interfaces). And finally, objects are always erased. Thus, objects only exist upon use. They are assembled from scratch each time. Platform independent, digital objects are contingent upon the standardization of data formats. They exist at the level of the script, not the machine. Unlike the commodity and the sign, the object is radically independent from context. Objects are inheritable, extendable, pro-creative. They are always already *children*. Objects are not archived, they are autosaved. Objects are not read, they are scanned.
Protocol is the chivalry of the object. It is a universal description language for objects, a language that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships and connects life forms. In the same way that computer fonts regulate the representation of text, or html designates the arrangement of objects in a browser, protocol may be defined as a set of instructions for the compilation and interaction of objects. Protocol is always a second-order process; it governs the architecture of the representation of texts. Protocol can therefore be seen as a very special kind of object. By definition, protocol facilitates similar interfacing of dissimilar objects. Because of this the digital network is hegemonic by nature, that is, digital networks are structured on a negotiated dominance of certain textual forms over other forms. Protocol is this hegemony.
In the media arts, successful art making commonly relies on a certain configuration of the artistic apparatus, either a masking or a revealing. Here the apparatus is code.
@n artificial life and the body
Digi-bodies are revalorizing themselves. What used to stand for identity--external objects like an ID card or key, or social relations like a handshake or an inter-personal relationship, or an intangible, like a password that is memorized or digitized--now is being replaced by biometrics (identity checks through eye scans, blood tests, fingerprinting, etc.), a reinvestment in the measurement and authentication of the physical body. Authenticity (identity) is once again *in* the body, in sequences and samples and scans.
@n flat space
Netspace is pre-organized. In this space there is no discourse, there is no ideology. It's just flat. Things organize, regulate and produce themselves. They are always agreed upon through a type of unconscious negotiation. There is no evil demon. But there are rules that let us browse information, and there are rules that prohibit us from recombining it in certain ways. In fact, we *agree* not to recombining it in certain ways.
Interactivity is potentially an interesting category.
I think there is work to be done on collaborative filtering in the context of ideology and identity. Surely this is a type of group interpellation. The technology of collaborative filtering, also called suggestive filtering and included in the growing field of intelligent agents, allows one to predict characteristics (particulary our so-called desires) based on survey data. Identity in this context is formulated on certain hegemonic (negotiated, but never actively negotiated) patterns. In this massive algorithmic collaboration the user is always suggested to be like someone else, who, in order for this to work, is already like the user. As Matt Silvia of Firefly describes: "a user's ratings are compared to a database full of other member's ratings. A search is done for the users that rated selections the same way as this user, and then the filter will use the other ratings of this group to build a profile of that person's tastes." This type of suggestive identification, requiring a critical mass of identity data, crosses vast distances of information to versify (to make similar) objects.
Digi-world fetishizes in two ways: the reduction of visual relations to objects (between frames, objects, texts), and the reduction of social relations represented in the digi-world into an object, the site. This could help explain why the digi makes us so satisfied, so hot.
@n a cinematic web
The interface is primary for digital studies. In film you look through the interface into the representation (even if the filmic apparatus is foregrounded in so-called avant-garde cinema). Thus, interface is the category between the tv set and the rest of the apparatus. Digital studies should have less interest in montage (montage reduces an action to its dramatic or symbolic meaning rather that showing the "whole" of the action, i.e. rather than being some kind of "depth of focus"). The user always extracts the objects (values) upon use, as each web site is build from scratch on the user's machine at every hit. So instead of montage, there is protocol. If cinema is about the representation of reality, then digital media is about browsing texts (objects). The idea of netspace (diagesis) is a conflicted term: it is the world of the narrative of the site, but it exercises such limited control over that space since the traditional anchors--beginning, end, plot, character--are so hard to control with precision. In the cinematic web digi-objects all have equal being in the frame. The user is a component object as e enters the frame via the controller (commonly a mouse or keyboard). Is the digital object always in close-up? Or is it always a distant object or a distanciation of collected objects?
@n Welcome to DIGITAL STUDIES. This is the future of theory.
Thanks are due to Mark Amerika whose prolific style and forward-looking exuberance helped bring this e-xhibition to the virtual community. I am particularly excited with the artists and cultural producers represented in this show and look forward to a healthy debate in the weeks and months to come.
@n Alex Galloway
DIGITAL STUDIES: BEING IN CYBERSPACE