Mashines

The Paucity of Digital Theory

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11 Apr , 2020  

A provocation: theories of the digital have generated very little digital theory. What do I mean? And why is this the case? First, one must separate the form of digital theory from the kinds of objects it wants to study. Thus a digital theory may make a claim about a digital object. But the form of the claim might, itself, not be digital at all. Seen in this way, the majority of contemporary digital theory is in fact analog in form. This has produced a strange disjunction in the contemporary landscape, where our intellectual life is less and less digital, even as the digital machines proliferate around us.

Last time I discussed one sort of non-digital digital theory, the denotative list of qualities. In the first phase of digital theory it was relatively common to define the digital via litany. Let me also mention two additional types of digital theory that are, I claim, non-digital in form.

One of the most popular forms of digital theory, if not also of media studies more generally, is the “extensions of man” thesis. In rough terms, the extensions of man thesis states that technologies and media apparatuses are mimetic extensions of specific aspects of the human body. Thus textiles are a sort of second skin, the stylus a type of artificial finger, the spectacles an extra set of eyes, writing an extension of memory, and so on. Two well known figures who promulgate the extensions of man thesis are Marshall McLuhan and Bernard Stiegler, but there are many others including Gilbert Simondon (from whom Stiegler borrows a great deal) and Yuk Hui, a disciple of Simondon and Stiegler.

Another type of digital theory operates primarily by narrating the experience of the digital. Scholars like Sherry Turkle are emblematic here. How do users experience new technologies? What are the impressions on the human sensorium? How do these machines change the structure of human society and culture? The “user experience” school tends to come out of the social sciences, anthropology in particular, but the approach is widely popular in media studies, art history, and many other fields.

Why do these approaches fail the digital test? In different ways, they each mobilize analog methods rather than digital ones. In the “extensions of man” thesis, apparatuses surround the body and thus relate to it analogically. The stylus is “like” the finger, only different. Spectacles have a mimetic relation to eye, extending and inflecting its capacities. The noosphere analogically extends human minds out to the level of the planet. Mimesis, extension, comparison, analogy — these are all classic analog techniques.

Likewise the other type (narrating the experiences of users), while engaging with symbolic systems, tends to avoid addressing them directly, instead grounding claims in users rather than machines, experiences rather than concepts, and testimonial narratives rather than structural analyses. These are the kinds of digital theory that try to explain “the internet” by describing, say, the experiences of Twitter users. There’s nothing bad in that, of course, except that it tends to generate a theory of (analog) people, not a theory of (digital) media.

But aren’t you denigrating these approaches when you describe them as non-digital? My argument is a very specific one: such work might be good or it might be bad, it’s just not a digital theory (of the digital). My next book, for example, is an explicitly analog book that just happens to be about computers. No harm in that.

What would a digital theory of the digital look like? I’ve written frequently on this already, so I’ll just summarize. First and foremost it would have to privilege the digital rather than analog — seems obvious — which is to say arithmetic, rationality, symbol, structure, axiomatics, abstraction, analysis, logic, etc. A digital theory would be inspired by the schools of structuralism and rationalism, not drawn from the traditions of empiricism or pragmatism that so dominate intellectual life today. Ideally a digital theory would be machine-readable; it would be a piece of code or a logical formula. (I’ve offered two such formulations in the past — the ratio a/b and the decision 1->2 — but there are others.) Overall, digital theory would need to center around decision not extension, identity not resemblance, around a division rather than a proportion. In other words, digitality is not “these things here,” but rather an active decision within representation, what Laruelle calls the philosophical decision.

But why are you evangelizing in favor of digitality? I’m not. This is not me saying that I “like” arithmetic, decision, etc. I’m merely trying to define the digital correctly — the “correct” being a paradigmatic digital virtue.

Does a philosophy of food have to taste good? Why should a theory of the digital be itself digital? I freely acknowledge that not all theory must pass this kind of reflexivity test–a theory of color doesn’t have to be blue. Yet the digital is unique in that it is explicitly a question of symbolic naming and reflexive definition. Reflexivity is built in to the digital; in fact it’s the only regime in which reflexivity makes any sense. That’s an important part of the digital, after all, the desire to retrospectively separate and define things (no matter if that desire is quixotic or absurd). Because of this, I consider the digital, out of all objects of study, to be especially suited to digital definition. In fact, it demands it.

As a digital scholar, ask yourself… Am I beginning from the human, if so why? Am I analogizing the human form by extending it into apparatuses? Am I narrating the experiences of users? If you answer yes to any of these, you likely are not working on the digital.

taken from here

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