Last year proved to be a lean one for blog posts, something of an irony since my time was taken up with two research projects in which I’ve used digital media, and particularly audio, extensively. Those projects sparked off plenty of ideas, but left me little time to write about them here.
The first project, The Invisible College, has involved working with public artists NVA on the former Kilmahew Estate and the ruins of St. Peter’s College, Cardross. I did a lot of audio recording at, around and in relation to this site, and produced an ‘audio drift’ from this material for people to take to Kilmahew on MP3 players. Funding was from the AHRC.
The second project, Young Digital, is an online resource for people who want to use digital media in research with children. It’s at www.youngdigital.net This was funded by the ESRC.
Both projects have left me wondering: what role can social science and humanities academics play in the multitude of debates and practices surrounding digital media? Looking forward to the coming year, here are a few suggestions.
1. Work to disaggregate ‘the digital’. This applies to myself as much as anyone. When we talk about digital media, what exactly do we mean? At risk of seeming pedantic, digital media encompasses digital audio (on DAT tape, compact disc, minidisk, and as Wave files, AIFFs, MP3s, WMAs, etc.), digital images (JPEGs, TIFFs, GIFs, PNGs, BMPs, etc.), digital television, digital radio, digital video in all its myriad codecs and formats, text files, computer programming languages and programs (including games and mobile apps), word processed documents, databases, spreadsheets, emails, tweets, RSS feeds, mobile phone signals, wikis, social networking sites, weblogs, RAM and ROM cartridges, floppy disks, hard drives, flash memory of all kinds…the list goes on. There is state-of-the-art digital and antique vintage digital, mobile digital and so-big-it-fills-a-whole-room digital.
This means that digital media is now too sprawling a category to be very meaningful. At the moment, the term is often used to indicate material circulated via the internet, and/or material accessed via portable devices, and/or systems that involve user-generated online content. Those are still fairly broad groupings, but they are much more precise than the catch-all of digital media.
2. Question, more rigorously and persistently, the common division between the virtual/digital/online ‘world’ and the real/analogue/physical/material/offline ‘world’. These things are all part of the same world, and much of what is interesting about them has to do with the ways in which they interpenetrate. Modern technology is utterly hybrid, operating through linkages and networks. In the case of audio recording, for example, the vibrating air, the microphone, the cable, the digital recorder, the memory card, the batteries, the headphones, the ears, the hands, the level meters – these things function as an ensemble. Kinetics, electrics, magnetics, haptics, optics, all orchestrated together. Recourse to a generalised dualism of physical vibration/digital trace seems too crude.
3. Re-assert some of the material spaces of digital media: the screen, the touchpad, the telephone exchange, the hard drive, the data centre, the orbiting satellite, the mobile phone mast. The idea of the ‘cloud’ may be effective as a techno-romantic image used for the aggressive marketing of mobile technology, but it is not a viable description of the spaces and processes actually involved. The ‘cloud’ is in fact some data servers somewhere, probably in a secure, temperature controlled room, cabled up to a vast energy and communications infrastructure. Mobile and wireless devices may appear to be connected to it through the ether, but these connections happen through microwave and radio signals – which, for all their invisibility, still have a very definite physical presence. With technology marketing discourses often working hard to hide this infrastructure, academics can play a critical role by helping to drag it back into awareness. Materialist media studies is helpful for this. Kittler is a key figure, but the authors I’ve found most useful are Wolfgang Ernst, Jussi Parikka and Matthew Kirschenbaum. Andrew Blum’s internet travel book, Tubes, is also well worth reading.
4. Pay more attention to the economics of digital media. I recently read an interview from a few years ago with Detroit techno/house DJ and producer Theo Parrish, in which he passionately defended vinyl on economic grounds. By making and buying records, he claimed, he was helping to keep open pressing plants, mastering houses and record stores, and providing their employees with an income. If he were to release and consume music solely through digital means, Parrish said, the money would all go to Apple through iTunes, and “the only person that’s gonna eat is Steve Jobs…everybody is giving their money to him and wondering why their industry is suffering.” Of course it’s now not Steve Jobs any more, and there may be a bit of romanticisation of manufacturing here – is the repetitive task of pressing records really such a great job? – but the point about the flow of money into large tech companies seems an important one.
Many of the utopian concepts relating to the internet, such as free data and open source, and the more dystopian visions of mass piracy, hacking and file sharing, tend to divert attention from where the money is going. Creating content may no longer provide financial return in many cases (witness musicians talking about how difficult it is to make money from selling records), and yet the infrastructure and technology providers such as Apple, Google, AT&T and so on are raking it in. One might even speculate that the availability of free and publicly subsidized web content, such as on YouTube or the BBC’s extensive online resources, may be helping to increase the profits of the companies who sell what is required to access that content: laptops, tablets, smartphones, broadband access, communications networks, search engines. These things tend to be supplied by multinational corporations. So there is a geography to this aspect of the digital economy, with the lion’s share of the money going into global financial networks rather than small-scale, localized operations. Is this where we want to keep putting our money? What are these companies doing with it? Are they paying taxes on it? Are they providing good quality employment for people? If not, what alternatives are there?
In summary, maybe the old framing of non-digital versus digital, offline versus online, is giving way to a more nuanced set of questions: what kinds of digital do we want? What kinds of relationships, flows and associations do we want to foster between people, media, hardware, software, physical artifacts and places? And what configurations of power are involved, particularly in economic terms?.