Digital Materiality: New Materialism

Bratton's stack mode

Bratton’s stack model

The bottom layer of Benjamin Bratton’s stack model of the Internet is the Earth. Obscure and unfathomable (but not incalculable) like our own bodies, the Earth is the locus of a complex of chemical processes we still rely on every day. The Earth is the wellspring of all wealth that is generated through human labour because we are reproduced through interactions with the stuff of the earth. The Earth in Bratton’s model represents an indefinitely complex material sine qua non of our networked world experience.

Today’s economy is often described as increasingly “immaterial” where the costs of reproduction are “next to nothing”. Anyone who is not ideologically blinkered so as to confuse the quarterly corporate reports data with real processes going on in the world understands the offensiveness of the claims of immateriality. Climate change, institituional racism and sexism , resource wars all testify to the contrary. A new generation of scholars have reacted to address this cynical ideology in a discipline which has come to be labeled new or neo-materilaism[1].

Karen Barad explodes Bratton’s earth with a methodology trained through theoretical physics. In Barad we explore how certainties of material behaviours in classical physics are really probabilities constrained to serve political ends. Very much in the sense of the fashionable notions of Alfred North Whitehead, the properties of materials become available to us only through interactions, In Barad’s Agential Realism, matter is allowed to matter in queer ways which may elude or defy our conventional linguistic epistemologies, reworking or “diffracting” nature/culture distinctions.

“I propose a posthumanist performative approach to understanding technoscientific and other naturalcultural practices that specifically acknowledges and takes account of matter’s dynamism. The move toward performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality to matters of practices, doings, and actions.” [2]

Post-humanism, a prevalent trend in new materialism is not trans-humanism, and does not necessarily refer to the “technical singularity of the fusion of humans and machines” or the “end of humanity as we know it”. Rather, post humanism is a critique, especially of the patriarchal epistemic and event ontological frames which structure Enlightenment humanism Post-humanism repositions humanity as a diffuse natural phenomena ‘entangled’ among, and never entirely dissociable from the great material fluxes of the universe. Technology is not separate from or invented by humanity but already emergent in the relation between ourselves and the world. In Agential Realism, matter works on us and elaborates us as much as we elaborate matter.

“What often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns) with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority at all. Like the diffraction patters illuminating the indefinite nature of boundaries – displaying shadows in “light” regions and bright spots in “dark” regions – the relationship of the cultural and the natural is a relation of “exteriority within.” This is not a static relationality but a doing – the enactment of boundaries – that always entails constitutive exclusions and therefore requisite questions of accountability.”[3]

Barad’s new Materialism posits the cartesian cogito as a relation where every thought idea or perception is a product of intra-actions in an entanglement of phenomena, some among which are human being. This approach might help us elaborate what Barad calls an ethico-onto-epistemology (fusing together three commonly distinct philosophical disciplines) where human being entangled in “Natural” proceses does not have the liberty to act independently but always acts relational to an incomprehensible (non-anthropologizable) play of forces. Informed by quantum physics, our classical understanding of our human existence, its extents and taxonomies seem to disintegrate, we enter a queer space of undefinable interplay.

It remains to be seen to what extent cultural forms can be elaborated which cultivate sociabilities appreciative of the radical complementarity in Barad’s queer materialism. Quantum physics information comes to us through a regime of the most intensive rigour and discipline in labour and material forms. New materialism celebrates the an-anthropocentrized understanding generated through arbitrary mechanical actions of scientific instruments and their dominion over materials. Disciplines such as high-energy physics elaborate control over the physical world on the smallest physical scales (which are also the largest). In breaking up conventional understandings of matter, opening out into post-causal, indefinite unconstrained incomplete models, there is the tendency to adopt metaphors and allegories from cosmologies which have been excluded from the discursive space of the “rational age of science”. Ancient intuitions of universal holism are confirmed through mathematical scientific rigour. There is an (infinitely, voluptuously complex) order to things of which human beings (and all they do) are but an infinitesimal and fully integrated figure.

We have at once enormously powerful industries operating and perpetuating conditions of extreme discipline through every rhizomatic tuber of its (re)production chains, and a realm of speculative materiality appropriated to cohere a new transgressive morality. Potentially emancipatory in Barad’s ethico-onto-epistemology is the delegitimization of conventional domestic, religious, and political socio-cultural forms which have disadvantaged women and minorities throughout history, intrinsic to a dualistic culture/nature models of the world where human interests or needs always take precedence. An-anthropocentrizing our being-in-the-world promises to generate a new environmental holism where illusionary and exploitative borders of individualism melt away to reveal an ever-elusive and uncontainable entanglement of experience.

There is a fundamental internal conflict between the disciplinary conditions for the reproduction of cutting-edge scientific information about the physical materials of the universe, and the largely indescribable, an-anthropocentrist meta-physics and transgressive post-humanist social agenda it proposes. The former operates in the conventional, nominally patriarchal world of nations, institutions, industry and finance which produce & train the technicians to serve the equipment which produces the material regularity of today. The latter, based on experimental practice ostensibly derived from the scientific method radiates a diffuse, uninhibited, indistinct epistemology which, if acted upon, would disrupt debilitate and undermine the structural underpinnings of prevalent scientific practice and the economic apparatus which reproduces it. The environmentalist morality of new materialism may prohibit the reproduction of the techno-industrial apparatus which provided the grounds for its advocacy.



[1] New-materialism has been generating over the last two decades a richly provocative and challenging culture and literature. Though I concentrate in this blog entry on the thought of one of new-materialism’s most prominent thinkers the theoretical physicist Karen Barad, it must be understood that this strain cannot possibly be represented by any one scholar. Myra Hird, Elizabeth Gross, Stacy Aliamo, Cecilia Åsberg and Rosi Braidotti are just a few of the prominent thinkers diffracting and elaborating new materialism .

[2] Barad, Karen. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p.135

[3] Barad, K. (2003) Posthumanist performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 28(3), p. 803

Digital Materiality: Supermodern Digital Materialism

The materiality of digital devices is strictly disciplinary down to the chemical level of electronic transmission[1], from sensors to memory to processors to pixels.

ccd sensor structure

Microscopic views of computational circuitry reveal that digital data is reproduced in perfect nano-taylorist robot factories, row after row of infinitesimal, ultra-specialized machines doing the same thing over and over according to command, as long as current flows. International standards regimes are indispensable to ensure the consistent performance of the components, and to allow these to designed into enormous amalgamations of standardized modules to make up elaborate multi-functional assemblages.

There can be no freedom at the chip fabrication facility, nor at the factory where the specialized components are assembled into the device.  If there were any freedom there, the device would not work.[2]  At the mine head, people work under the most desperate conditions for the merest pittance, sometimes at the end of a gun, often under threat of instant dismissal without the least modicum of health care or other social provision or rights common in the global north where the products are designed.  This extreme ‘primitive extraction of surplus value’ [3] at the base of the electronics production chain, the enormous discrepancy between what the miners earn and the exchange value they produce in their daily production is the wellspring of all profits in the electronics industry. 

Capital investment in the sector is made with the expectation that the current conditions of extreme exploitation will prevail. Today, this investment is pervasively financialized using advanced investment instruments, derivatives, restructured into assemblages of fintech digital assets of various kinds to be traded arbitrarily and  automatically. Any significant improvement of working conditions, especially salaries at the base of the production chain would be a fundamental shock to the sector, returns would fall dramatically leading investors to look elsewhere to grow their wealth.  

The irrepressible ’freedom’ of the environment, much too large and complex for any existing mathematical model encounters the rigid disciplinary force of techno-industry and produces chain reactions of countervailing force. This anomalous force, it has been argued will disproportionately impact the least economically advantaged. Under capitalism, the explicit or unintentional advantages of every technological development accrue to the already most priveleged, the detriments to the already least priveleged.   Computation will not save us from climate catastrophe when the material conditions of the reproduction of computationality have become a force of Nature.  

Pervasive computation promises order, the finer the granularity of the computation the more transcendent the order.  This is the “sensor everything” credo of the IoT industry and the smart cities lobby. Sensors are there  to produce freedoms through control, cyber-freedoms where social and economic injustice can be technically mediated.  Your cyber toothbrush will inform your insurance company whether you should be paying higher premium on dental work, thereby compelling you to brush more carefully.[4]   Smart city architecture will respond to you depending on complex analytics of your social-economic data, as a result you may or may not be allowed entry to various locations, the automatic doors may simply not open for you.  Remember that the etymology of “smart” is “Schmerz”, Smart City is “Schmerz” City.  A Smart City is one where disciplinary pain is meticulously inflicted in order to maximize productivity, and recommend, ensure and reward behaviour which conforms to algorithmically defined standards. 

“Algorithmic governance” is invoked as an improvement on social and cultural technologies we have cultivated through much trial and error across centuries.   Certainly,besides their successes these governance technologies in law, custom and tradition have not yet generated a completely just society.  “Sensor everything” promises to propose more advanced models through the massive dataset algorithmic analysis.  However, for the time being and into the imaginable future, these datasets will not only be incomplete, they will merely constitute another technocratic layer of disciplinarity obscuring the problems already endemic to the forgoing and still pervasive models of social production (e.g. “state”, “company”, “cooperative”, “association”).[5] 

The project for democratic participation in governance is being trivialized as real power is more obscured than ever in a realm of semi-transparent “open knowledge” swamping citizens in selected deluges of non-human-readable data while hiding the valuable interpretive algorithms behind intellectual property (IP) firewalls.  The Smart City is a proprietary city we must all become investors or lose out all together.  The democratic voice will become a shareholder’s voice.  Government run by multi-national corporations under obscure copyright software and hardware regimes, is no better than the feudal system capitalism promised and succeeded for a while to improve upon.

Computers are commanded with mathematical codes, down to the most fundamental “machine language” executed on the hardware.  These mathematical codes are abstractions of desired device behaviours, they are prescriptive.   Again, there is no “freedom” here, if there were, the device would not work. All the life-like behaviour, all the human scale interactive interface surfaces we are used to interacting with, from bank machines to games,  are elaborately coded facades of recognizability behind which function, according to the strictest rules, the software command structures.

Computation is thus a highly organized and unfree realm of engineering which is there to provide reliable mechanics to manage processes. In the past few decades computation has increasingly been applied to activities in the civil sphere in the interest of ‘convenience’.  As noted in a previous installment [6], convenience consists of the user adjusting their expectations of the device so that the device can satisfy them.  As such, the desired use of computation become a choice to adjust one’s expectations to what can be provided by the device.    Because computers originate in and operate in a severe and unforgiving environment, unappealing to the average consumer, interface and user experience (UX) design have become essential practices in the software industry.

“Artificial Intelligence” (AI) and “Machine Learning” (ML) attempts to automate UX continuous-delivery redesign efforts towards the “market of one” (Mo1)[7].  Because computer programs do not natively “know” their users, they must acquire information about them through interactions. These interactions may be explicit or implicit. Explicit interactions include: posting on social media, sending a text message or making a phone call, playing games and using apps.  Implicitly, a device has all its data-acquisition capacities always on, the microphone, gyroscope, GPS sensor can learn when and how the user is sleeping, how much they exercise where and when.  Convenience is more mutual than ever, one conforms to the capacities of the device as the device conforms to the predilections and needs of the user, in real time, as long as the sensors are operating. What might have been considered surveillance today is completely conflated with convenience.

Civil surveillance is endemic to the life of every citizen.  Ewa Majewska has described how this surveillance, as well as being an implicit system of patriarchal control can be interpreted as a matriarchal concern for the well being of the citizens.[8]  Today surveillance is no longer merely the realm of state power and identity, but the everyday experience of interacting through networked computation.  As such, enormous amounts of personal data are accrued constantly by any number of private companies who are granted access to sensors on devices where users have installed the applications they need to manage their social and professional lives.  the 24hour experience of being human is becoming professionalized through pervasive computational feedback applications. The profession is “officer”.   We check our devices compulsively for the slightest sign that the greater techno-industrial dispositif might need our protection. 


NOTES (…pending)

[1] structural



[4] Morozow

[5] Circles

[6] Convenience

[7] Varian

[8] Majewska


Concatenated Oikoi: Human Nature and the Anthropocene

There is no ecology without economy. Marshall McLuhan famously quipped

“When Sputnik went around the planet in 1957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form.”[1]

McLuhan pleaded for an ecology among the media that would save literacy. [2]

“For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made container. At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born. “Ecological” thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved up into the status of a work of art..” [3]

Sputnik was a simple radio transmitter sent up higher than human beings had sent anything up before, and it stayed up, as was expected according to the calculations programmed by Georgy Grechko [4] into the USSR Academy of Science’s mainframe computer. It orbited the earth 1440 times for 3 months at the end of 1957.  Radio hobbyists around the world eagerly scanned the spectrum to hear its distinctive status beeps. These beeps were the only information it sent back to earth about its experience in orbit.  Sputnik, as the first satellite, was earth’s orbit’s original contamination,  a technical interface between human beings and the planet they shared and a new dimension of its pollution.

Computation is central to our understanding of our environment, at the same time computation powers ever-accelerating industrialization which ecological science has determined to be generating dangerous climate change effects. The reason ecology cannot save humanity is because in order to it must not privilege humanity but rather reinterpret humanity as a figure in an infinitely (uncomputably) expansive and heterogenous ground we might call Nature.  Against such an effort is the discipline of economy. Our difficulty confronting fundamental challenges to anthropomorphic omnipotence in anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification and other effects of techno-industry, is due to the deep interrelated roots of our concepts ecology and economy in the the oikos or household.

The house of household implied an already domesticated (domus = house) realm, a realm overdetermined by human needs and technologies to provide for these. Everything that happens within the household is thus already overdetermined by anthropocentric priorities and anthropomorphic epistemologies. The wall around the household, like the wall around the ancient city, or the contemporary national frontiers create new, distinct environments within which “civilised” behaviour can take place. The envelope of knowledge and technological infrastructure symbolised by Sputnik creates a household out of the entire planet, thus an ecology

The second half of the word “household”, the “hold”, indicates the ownership, title and dominion over the home. In ancient Greece, this was a deme, a patriarch a hegemon who was the political representative of the household, the smallest political unit of the polis. Under the deme laboured any number of slaves, women including wives and concubines and often children. The economic benefit of their activities were subsumed into the household and the personal, private wealth of the deme. The household is “private” property in the most radical sense of the term, a nascent and prototypical realm of patriarchic autonomy connected to the “public” sphere through his democratic tributes and responsibilities.  The oikos is thus an architypal private space, private property, which implies that ecology is not a public natural resource, but a domain of proprietary or privileged knowledge.  Ecology is an interplay of economically motivated human activity within an imperfectly accessible and knowable realm referred to as Nature.

Under capitalism, environmental sensors are designed specifically to provide data necessary to coordinate commercial activities through networked computation.  There are no sensors for that which is not understood to contribute to economic growth, or greater efficiency in the production chain.  Until some extraneous phenomena such as climate change can be seen to impact globalized productivity in some way, it remains non-sense, little or no data is collected.   Bringing phenomena into what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible” will always be a political act. New dimensions of sensibility externalized in sensing technology will have to be developed. This historically has always required government funding.[5] New sensing regimes can revolutionize our environmental understandings, but if they are based on industrially produced sensor data they will only produce a new anthropomorphic concatenation.

Today’s sensor-data-based environmental science is completely beholden to and overdetermined by computational industry which produces sensing technology through the global electronics production chain. It is well known that this production chain is not only intensely polluting in the production phase, but also in the disposal phase. Therefore the contemporary practices of ecology informed through digital data itself produces dangerous waste as it helps justify the deleterious human and environmental impacts of the electronics production chain. Can ecology integrate the technical reproduction of its own practices into itself?

concatenated oikoi

Disaster capitalism [6] wraps around this ecological excess as a second layer of economic concern. So-called “green” technologies promise to address the threats detected through techno-ecological sensing regimes with profitable innovations.  Though the operation of these green technologies may generate less harmful emissions it is unlikely that their production is any bit easier on the environment or on the people and places which produce them than is any other technology. Environmental clean-up, waste processing and storage needs have spawned enormously profitable industries which struggle to deal with the deleterious “externalities” of ordinary techno-industry.

Enclosing the concatenated oikoi is the ecumene, the known or inhabited world. What happens outside the ecumene is irrelevant to us until it isn’t (the point when something enters the ecumene, it anthropomorphs). We live in a fundamentally anthropomorphic epistemology which sets sociocultural priorities we cannot feel or act out of.  The only Nature we know is the Nature we encounter, the Nature we hope to control through technical means.   Study of natural processes with the intention of confining them to serve human purposes has unleashed enormous technical power.

Proprietary politics through monopolistic inheritance, IP, patent and land ownership laws mean that the dividends of technology remain unevenly distributed. This produces the contemporary computational leisure society whose cultures ritualize the management of remote workforces and resources.  The conditions under which these workers must reproduce their value for the ownership classes begin to merge in the concept “environmental justice”.   We need ecumenical modeling which elaborates the interplay between the concatenated layers of oikoi.

Whatever happens outside the ecumene is obscene, taboo and terrifying because it threatens the fragile order we have cobbled together to enjoy and understand each other. We accept all the compromises, hypocrisies and trade-offs of our societies because they are better than being exposed to the whims of unsublimated Nature. Unlike other traditional belief systems, the great rationalism of Western civilization has made a sharp distinction with the greater unknown within which it has conjured a new Nature, a Human Nature of enormously satisfying and technically wondrous effects. Nevertheless always beyond the ever expanding frontiers of the Empire of Knowledge, unsublimatable otherness persists.

Understanding of our planet provided through our technologies will always be anthropomorphic artwork. Just like art work, the effects on the (human) environment, the interactions with (human) Nature with always be incompletely foreseeable, and knowable. Techno-industry organizes the environment in orderly arrays of human activity, the domestication we refer to as peace. However, even in the domain of human affairs, we can see that the peace is won at the expense of the dominated, and that the domination of the (human) environment creates unacceptable consequences of pollution, destruction and war which can not be externalized. The refugees surging at the illegitimate borders drawn across the world are part of, and must be given a fair share in the ecumene.



[1] Marshall McLuhan from “McLuhan Unbound” (2005) Ginkgo Press, Corte Madera (USA) p.22

[2] ibid, p.4


“the hidden aspect to the media are the things that should be taught because they haven’t irresistible force when invisible when that these factors you remain ignored an invisible a they have and absolute power over the user so yes the sooner that the population or the young or old can be taught the effects of these forms the sooner we can have some sorta reasonable ecologies among the media themselves what is desperately needed as a kind of understanding in the media which have been implemented to program the whole environment so that’s a literal values would not be wiped out by new media”

[4] Georgy Mikhaylovich Grechko (b. 1931) trained as a mathematician, later became a cosmonaut himself, making the first spacewalk in an Orlan space suit on December 20, 1977.

[5] Marianna Mazzucato is a prominent researcher on the theme of public sector innovation, see

[6] Klein, Naomi, (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books, New York.

Digital Materiality: Anthropomorphism & Political Economy

By now we have (in the previous articles in this series) seen that digital data is neither immaterial nor identically reproducible. Every instance of every bit of digital data is materially unique in time and space. However despite the fact that all digital data is in principle “knowable” since it is produced by human activities, our understanding of it suffers from several, perhaps irremediable “scalar interpretation” problems.

a. digital information is reproduced at a regular rate according to the local electricity system each fraction of a second instance of, say each pixel on a screen, is, in principle different, since the materialty of the screen technology is degrading, there are current variations etc. Human beings do not consciously discourse at anything near 50 or 60 Hz, therefore, in order to understand what is happening at that speed of reproduction, the phenomena must be simplified “abstracted” or slowed down.

b. digital information is electronic information stored in volatile memory.  It must be reinstantiated at a regular rate to appear stable. This memory is produced through automatons on the scale of chemical interaction, i.e. far below the wavelength of light perceptible by human vision. The structure of computational devices, CPUs memory etc, is invisible and opaque to human beings and must be enlarged in order to enter into conventional epistemology. Typically this size amplification is carried out through microscopes, for very small components, microscopes which are not ‘scopes’ in the direct sense of optical devices, but tactile sensors, STM which feel around in the dark.   The measurements of these sensors are transformed into numbers, charts and images 1000x larger than the phenomena they represent. The images which results are arbitrarily coloured and contoured to give the illusion of objects we might encounter with our unaided senses.[1]

“First only through this program do the data acquire an appearance, a surface and a depth. A form of shadow also appears in the images they show, which adds to the impression of plasticity. Such a shadow is naturally but a phantasm, it has nothing to do with the actual processes at play, how could there be shadows where there is no light?” [2]

Meanwhile, knowledge of quantum particles is appropriated or apprehended into necessarily holistic world views conditioned by personal empirical experience, informed by classical physical behaviour. In other words, we experience the world in classical physics, and this experience propagates holistic systems of significances, within which we situate and come to understand our contemporary experience, i.e. find meaning.[3]

c. digital data is produced and processed on the electronic i.e. subatomic scale, a realm of quantum behaviours which are alien to conventional time/space epistemology of human experience. Quantum physics behaviour must be translated to conventional physics behaviour in order for it to be “ex-plained” and “de-scribed” in human discourse. [4] This process of translation must resolve fundamental epistemological incompatibilities. Needless to say, information about quantum behaviour is profoundly disruptive to conventional notions of truth, fact and certainty, however the media products we consume which are generated on the quantum level maintain conventional truth criteria, importantly those of surplus value, profit, ROI and private property, and IP.

d. electronic information is sub-atomic, this means it instantiates valency and conductive chemical principles of the materials of the physical memory and transport structure. These materials must be of the highest chemical purity for the electronics to function as expected. Extreme metallurgical precision is required, involving enormous global infrastructure to take the ore from the ground and process it into the materials which can make up computational devices. Though the data is subatomic, the real estate, hardware, automated robots, specialized production and fabrication and assembly buildings, clean rooms, and personnel all operate on conventional (macro-)materiality subject to conventional economic pressures. This is not to mention all the intermediate forms of logistics, trucking, shipping, air cargo, tail, ports, airports, roads etc, and the electricity production grid the provisioning of which must be negotiated between governments, corporations, and various local and trans-local actors at human scale.

e. Conventional geo-politics with armies, paid militias and security details, pirates and police control massive worker populations in the mining industry where where not only the exotic essential so-called rare-earth metals required for electronics are sourced, but these human-scale manifestations of discipline and control also ensure the provisioning of the more abundant minerals such as copper and tin for integration into the electronics production chain. . There is also the feedback loop of the cyber.weapons/war industry where military research leads the digital technology innovation curve, establishing control over macro-political territory for economic gain.

Persistence of Anthropomorphism: Politics

Humans play an odd obsolescing medial role between the infinitesimal and immense of digital information. This is made more confusing by the fact that all the information we have about the information comes to us in forms (semantic) which are adapted to our epistemological predilections and habits.

This has enormous political, economic and cultural implications. The political science of democracy is a work in progress. There are and will perhaps always be powers which are exercised beyond the purview (and thereby the regulation) of a social body. In other words, government will always be inadequate to provide justice for all citizens. Unfortunately that inadequacy is opportunized by the most powerful, so it is fair to say that government always intervenes on the behalf of the powerful at the expense of all others. Under capitalism, the government always intervenes first in defence of private property. Digital technologies will never “solve”this endemic problem. In fact it could be argued that, due to the structural hegemonic “cyber-” (control) design priorities in the hardware which reproduce digital information, digital technologies cannot even be commandeered to serve the purposes of the many at the expense of an elite.

Digital technologies require enormous material resources to function. Nation-scale power grid, network cabling including submarine cables, server farms and data-centers.

In considering a nomos of the Cloud by counting the transoceanic fiber-optics also digging through the countryside, data centers buried deep in mountains near dams, the exotic minerals pulled from African rivers to make cell phones, alongside the engineered hallucinations of augmented reality, an inability to stay true to the dirt-venerating provincialism of Schmittian nomic priorities is seriously challenged. No workable distinction between ground and water, between Cloud infrastructure and Cloud interactivity as mapped across some spectrum from tangible to virtual, can survive much poking and prodding. Even so, there are nomic claims on the undetermined territory of the Cloud, as recent revelations regarding state surveillance programs and state versus state cyberwarfare make plain, for example. Even so, the residual confusion of jurisdictional divisions of land, sea, air, and cyber is itself worth mapping forensically. From its buzz and howl, perhaps alternative governmentalities for the decades that lie beyond might cohere.[5]

Even should a government be commandeered by the mass, the so-called “reconfiguration thesis” that somehow the digital infrastructure can be reappropriated to the advantage of the many, is unlikely.

“the use-value which the logistics industry produces is a set of protocols and techniques that enable firms to seek out the lowest wages anywhere in the world, and to evade the inconvenience of class struggle when it arises. In this sense, unlike other capitalist technologies, logistics is only partly about exploiting the efficiencies of machines in order to get products to market faster and more cheaply, since the main purpose of the faster and cheaper technologies is to offset the otherwise prohibitive cost of exploiting labour forces halfway around the world. The technological ensemble which logistics superintends is therefore fundamentally different than other ensembles such as the Fordist factory; it saves on labour costs by decreasing the wage, rather than increasing the productivity of labour. To put it in Marxist terms, it is absolute surplus value masquerading as relative surplus value. The use-value of logistics, for capital, is exploitation in its rawest form, and thus it is truly doubtful that logistics might form, as Toscano writes, “capitalism’s pharmakon, the cause for its pathologies (from the damaging hypertrophy of long-distance transport of commodities to the aimless sprawl of contemporary conurbation) as well as the potential domain of anti-capitalist solutions”.”[6]

The electronics production chain is over-determined by capitalist work-efficiency considerations and would have to be completely reconfigured from the bottom up to ever properly serve an emancipatory an egalitarian function. I have argued elsewhere  that improved conditions at the base of the production chain would perhaps even make the production of digital technologies as we know them today impossible.[7] Contrarily, enormously creative, imaginative, inventive and innovative new forms of mitigating general want and caring for all according to their needs are likely to emerge from the emancipated poor of these places.

The illegitimate, misguided and failed “development” programs of the major international finance institutions WTO, WB, IMF, etc are simply to the continuation of colonial industrial policy. They are holding half of the world back, and the returns are shrinking. The international financial elite are reduced to various forms of ponzi schemes, conjuring, simulating and practicing infinite pump-and-dump scenarios by which living labour may still be coerced to produce for them. Cynically, as they proselytize a new universe of data prosperity based on “immaterial data”, global finance squeeze enormous profits from the desperate poor by taunting them with house ownership and visions of autonomous entrepreneurial tycoonery.

Data is not immaterial “there is no cloud only someone else’s computer”. The stack is owned physically and encircled with barbed wire and hired mercenaries and guards. You cannot go there. Unaccountable financial elites hide behind governments and play one government against each other to their advantage. Local laws are there first and foremost to protect private property. Citizens are thus still in the position described by Marx in 1868: their freedom is that of the freedom to sell their labour to capital on the market.  The pittance they receive for their invaluable participation in socially necessary production is even pre-emptively expropriated by an unfair and fraudulent  commecial regimes  on all the socially necessary reproduction costs: food, shelter etc. .  The object is to monopolize people and control their behaviour so the largest part of value they produce can be appropriated.




[1] The question of arbitrary selection of “relevant details” in scientific illustration is the theme of the excellent “Objectivity”   Galison, P. Daston, L.: (2007) Objectivity. Zone, Brooklyn

[2]  Nordmann. A. Et al. Hrsg.: (2006) Nanotechnologien im Kontext. Akademische Verlagsgesellscha , Berlin p.106

[3] Gottlieb, B. (2016) “A Political Economy of the Smallest Things” ATROPOS, New York, p. 61

[4] Excellent on this is Brigitta Falkenburg’s (2007) Particle Metaphysics. Springer, Berlin

[5] Bratton, B. “The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty” MIT Press Cambridge  p.49

[6] see Jasper Bernes “Logistics, Counter-logistics and the Communist Prospect”


a heavy heaving freedom

  “were programs, strategies and practices to become prevalent which could sustain other less-hegemonic conditions of production, such forms of productions will likely not be able to supply us with the same technological devices, and same techno-scientific vectors we are persistently informed are the unique guarantee of our survival as a species. We will increasingly need to rely on much more involving and troubling things, possibly somewhat less convenient but potentially even more breath-takingly fulfilling and redeeming. We will need to rely more on eachother.”




Digital Materiality: Standardization 2

History has not always been chronological, but history has always been stories, moral parables which reinforce or justify institutions or behaviours. Oral history conveyed the authority of the “histor” or “wise one”, lessons of experience and privilege of lineage and traditional tribal role.  Only with written history we have the chance to compare conflicting accounts. But the instrumentality of history was not much criticized until industrial clock time created its universal portioning, providing an infinitely extensible grid both towards the future and back to the past. The uniform partitions of universal time broke history open to reveal sub-disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology.

There’s a clock at the heart of every digital device and it is not only there to tell you the time. All computer processes run on the clock, they must be scheduled and sequenced, and if the clock is wrong many processes will malfunction. The regular and universal subdivision of time is the basis for all the digital materials we consume.

But does time even exist without quantification? Certainly the ancients had a sort of cyclical time. Time which layered up on itself, time which was radically connected to astronomical observations, phases of the moon and the size of the sun. The cyclical path of the earth we are still bound to was reinterpreted in ancient notions of time, a time which swung.

Sundials were the first technology which provided an authoritative time scale to organize social production. The ordering of time burst open a new array of social effects, as expressed in this comic scene from Plautus.

The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours!
Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sundial To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions!
When I was a boy,
My belly was my only sundial, one more sure,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when ’twas proper time
To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat;
But nowadays, why even when I have [plenty],
I can’t fall to unless the sun gives leave.
The town’s so full of these confounded dials
The greatest part of the inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, crawl along the street [1]

Plautus’ parasite’s ordeal must have also been due to the fact that Roman sundial hours were not of standard duration, longer in the summer and shorter in the winter to ensure there were the same number of hours between sunrise and sunset. Though water clocks already existed, it was difficult to synchronize them at any scale, it was not until mechanical pendulum clocks began to appear in the middle ages that practical universal fully standardized arbitrary “isochronic” apportioning of time emerged.

“Abstract time is independent of external events and consists of uniform segments that do not change, but are fixed. Abstract time is uniform, constant, continuous, homogenous, invariable, commensurable and interchangeable. “  [2]

By the 15th c, cloth manufacturing had already come under the discipline of the clock. Clocks began appearing in towns squares and at the factory gates with large bells to strike the working hour. Since not only time but also the cloth and even the labour was standardized and homogenous, workers started to be paid according to time rather than product. This is fundamental to the growth of capitalism, where profit (surplus value) is derived by paying less for labour than the value of the product of that labour.

Marx describes this as extending the work day so the worker is compelled to continue working long past the time it would have already satisfied the productivity represented by its pay. The worker may have already earned its pay after 4 hours but must work for 8, the surplus value is recouped by the capitlist.

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him. [4] If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist. [5]“[3]

It was the speed of train transportation powered by steam locomotives invented in 1830 that brought about unified isochronous time on a grand scale. Until that time, though uniform mechanical time was ubiquitous, the time in any particular locality tended to vary for geographical reasons. The first railway accidents motivated the invention of a larger-scale synchronous time system and with it a non-geographical, abstract and uniform sense of time.

The introduction of universal and standard time is thus inseparable from the industrial revolution. The rail-bound logistics chains delivering people and materials to and from the large conurbations produced the centralized production models where standard currencies made possible a truly unprecedented versatility of mass production.

The inflexible arbitrary and abstract grid of universal time produced an enormous accelleration of scientific research, compelling universal standardization of weights and measures. This, combined with accellerated communication through rail-post allowed for scientific exchange on a previously unimaginable scale. Finance capital now had the required conditions to expand internationally with the assurance that regular profit statements could be issued and verified. Universal time, itself a product of advanced technological industry, laid the foundation for the reorganization of the world according to the industrial paradigm which maintains today.

Contemporary civilization is about regularity, repeatability, reproducibility, all this ensured through the universality of time rules. Regularizing essential social functions through institutions, today of law and government, produces a reliable foundation upon which to improvise inventively. Of course, this invention is coeval with the rules, and their reliable enforcement (or assumption they will be enforced). Civic freedoms such as freedom of expression are predicated on institutional control and ordering systems such as national and regional borders, and the police and military which physically manifest the laws there.

“The machines themselves, computational and otherwise, and the immense miraculous techno-industrial dispositif which reproduces them and their ability to function, operate on fundamentally unfree principles. The globalised logistics chains, the dickensian conditions in tungsten mines, the reliable functioning of the power grid, all requires unquestioning discipline. Who will contribute that discipline under what conditions? What is the trade-off? How can we elaborate the notion of freedom anew in a way that integrates acknowledgment of the ambient social requirement to subjugate ones own freedom for the benefit of all? Technologies re-imagined to serve global emancipation and redistribution of socially necessary discipline are urgently required.”[4]

Rules sublimate, and generates an anomalous counter-ideal. The counter-ideal and the ideal are coeval. Alphabets created correct pronounciations and accentuated exquisite divergences. Standardization of national grammars producted contemporary notions of nationality, which locally divergent pronounciations can exemplify, and which slang critiques. The rules of the state creates beautiful rebellion, just as the rules of football make the contortions of the athlete so compelling.

The ‘magic’ and ‘rebelliousness’ of the mobile device or portable computer is only made possible by the regimentation of production on a global scale through standardization. Global industrial standardization required the formation of standards councils like the ISO. Global standards are intrinsic colonialism into universal finance capital. If a country is considered to be badly served by its position in the production chain, the World Bank or other authority can change the standards by which poverty is measured and all is right again.

Turning history back on itself through the standardizing lens of chronology, not only conjures the illusion of progress and manifest destiny foretold, but all time-stamps all past acts as facts. Historical time grounds the myriad labour and production contracts, it grounds the financial earnings reports and loan repayment schedules. If an industrial product is a physical record of all the social relations that went into producing it, is must be possible to trace back the exact position, durations and proportions of participation that each party had in its production, thereby generating functional participation models for understanding the miraculous potentialities afforded by our technologies today, and generating new cultural forms to contextualize this historical consciousness with regard to the consumption of the current day. In principle, it should be possible to infiltrate history with the myriad facts of its everyday reproduction, and retroactively give those responsible their fair due.



ut illum di perdant, primus qui horas repperit,
quique adeo primus statuit hic solarium!
qui mihi conminuit misero articulatim diem.
Nam me puero venter erat solarium
multo omnium istorum optimum et verissimum:
ubi is te monebat, esses, nisi cum nihil erat.
Nunc etiam quod est, non estur, nisi soli libet;
itaque adeo iam oppletum oppidum est solariis,
maior pars populi aridi reptant fame.

The Boeotian Woman
Greek and Roman technology: a sourcebook : annotated translations … – Page 517 John William Humphrey, John Peter Oleson, Andrew Neil Sherwood – 1998 “Clocks 11.6 THE AFFLICTION OF SUNDIALS Plautus, The Boeotian Woman (Fragment v.21 Goetz) – Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 3.3.5

[2] Digital prosumption labour on social media in the context of the capitalist regime of time Christian Fuchs University of Westminster, UK p.5

[3]  Marx, K. Capital Ch. 10 “The Working-Day” especially
Sections 6 & 7

[4] Gottlieb, B.  Structural Challenges to Technological Emancipation

structural challenges to technological emancipation (1/3)

responsible extractives

Let a Million Simulated Cybersyns Bloom!

“I’ve never seen such excitement about double entry bookkeeping!”-Dmytri Kleiner

Blockchain technology has given us is the ability to exchange money tokens directly without an intermediary. In a future stateless communist society we will certainly need such technologies, if indeed we still need quantified exchange. In the meantime, lets be honest, these technologies are about banking. Blockchain technology is an anarcho-capitalist next-generation assault on government, government in general, but especially government regulation of the finance industry. The development of the popular Ethereum cryptocurrency system is so tied up with the finance industry it has been called “blockchain for banks” and “bankchain”. This implies that Ethereum does not disrupt banks at all but rather super-charges them. If you like institutions which make money from lending, institutions specialized in helping the wealthy avoid contributing to society in general, institutions which intensively lobby governments globally to deregulate the finance industry even more after the egregious fraud-caused crashes of the last two decades, you should celebrate Ethereum.

Cryptocurrencies can not mitigate or challenge capitalist exploitation, they intensify. Firstly on the level of hardware, they are offensively energy-expensive and wasteful, crunching useless math for the equivalent of the tap of a notary’s stamp. Besides the blatant disregard for environmental sustainability, the computer hardware production chain is a trail of blood & tears, of unacceptable and unfair labour conditions, more dependency on cryptocurrencies will only exacerbate humanitarian problems endemic to the digital economy. Unfairness is nothing new for the finance industry, it is its modus vivendi, blockchains are simply a novel way to obfuscate usury and to make private investor finance sound advanced and progressive which it by definition can never be.

Another innovation for which blockchain technologies are lauded is the open source architecture with its completely transparent, append-only ledger, where each transaction can be verified cryptographically. This is the core of the so-called “trustless network” ideology which maintains that intermediaries such as banks can not be “trusted” to process transactions impartially. Of course “trust” is not abolished in the “trusted network” but rather shifted to an indistinct, voluntary and irregular array of people who are able and willing to look at blockchain code and ensure that everything is right. Writing the code is one thing, making sure the code is secure, free of bugs, vulnerabilities and does what users expect of it requires significant auditing. This is why the projects which “succeed” are the ones where people get paid. A project like Ethereum got so much credibility so fast because banks were funding development. In otherwords “trustless” in this sense still means “trust the capitalists”.

Technologies alone cannot “improve” societies, no matter how ingeniously designed. The ability to do without “trust” reveals itself to be an extremely privileged position. Anyone with dependents will know how necessary, and fluidly reconfigurable, trust is and must be in a society. Trust negotiations embedded in cultural and social practices have acquired their supple effectiveness over centuries of living close together in towns and cities. The trade-offs and compromises required by social collaboration are part and parcel of the cultural and social techniques we grow up in. There is intractable unfairness here too, of course, and we have inadequate recourse to address these, but to imagine that one can simply withdraw to a safe hiding place behind a computer screen and hardcode massively entangled social relations anew is simply delusion.  Computers and network hardware are themselves the result of intense human collaboration on a massive scale.

The computer behaves like a loyal servant, it does what it is coded to do. We have a owner-slave relation with our machines, we are all mini-data-plantation owners. Today much hope is invested in visions of algorithmic modelling of any problem which then can be unravelled by ingenious computational routines.  Money may appear the perfect material for futuristic modeling because it is inherently quantified. Money can be converted into all manner of commodities,and, reduced to number in its contemporary form, can appear to be a media for computationally  remodeling the world like so much silly putty. This is why projects like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies seem so revolutionary and promising. But money is just a technology of social expression, in principle it could be used for the general emancipation of all.

Governments always work in the interest of the powerful. Taxation is often misapplied and unfairly extracted. There is socialism for the rich and austerity for the poor. Automation combined with deregulation of global finance powers global war, terror and the most excessive exploitation-as-usual, as well as resisting any attempt to address environmental emergencies. Under the current conditions, enlightened and enforceable taxation regimes are unquestionably required to adjust the composition of wealth towards sustainable economies which benefit everyone.

Distributed, unfalsifiable, transparent transactional ledgers could help the citizens make informed political decisions and even help distribute decision making towards a truly stateless solidarity society. But this would require a long-term investment in various auditing and interpretation practices. Acknowledging that “the rich will not let us code away their wealth”, “good government”,  even as a transitional measure towards the society we desire, will take a an enormous and coordinated struggle on many fronts to achieve. The formidable computational power at our disposal today must be employed not only to model the enlightened fiscal policies we require, but also to simulate the struggles which will be required to enact these. Strategies can be developed, tested and honed for advanced political-economic modeling practices towards speculative scenarios of sustainable general prosperity. Let a million simulated Cybersyns bloom!

Digital Materiality: Standardization 1

(This will be the first of two instalments on standardization.  Here I will elaborate the analogy between the rigour demanded of the materials in advanced electronics and that demanded by the people whole labour to produce them.  The second part will be the shared history of standards institutions, global industry and science)

Our current age of emergent computerized digital processes is commonly described as unprecedented, but if we look closely at the projections and the screens it becomes impossible to overlook the persistence of ancient principles at work there, in that which is displayed, but also in the material structure of the device itself which inevitably shows traces of its manufacture. Working backward from these principles, manufacture is still based on hegemonic control conditions, a kind of super-Taylorism which today includes many automated processes.

The manufacture of an electronic device requires precision, there is can be no freedom on the assembly line, if there were, the device would not work. Workers on assembly lines not only carry out the same operation over and over again for days on end, the must keep to a schedule they did not choose, and perform according to every more demanding productivity measures decided on by the “scientific” management representatives of the company investors. Marx described this kind of work as attractive to the capitalist because it is repetitive and unskilled, in principle it could be done by anyone with a little training, this ensures that there will always be others who could take over the job should productivity flag or political demands arise.  This is disciplined by what Kalecki described as the “disciplinary power of the sack”[1], the constant threat of unemployment by which the contemporary unskilled labourer submits. to the unfairly recompensed participation in production.

Division of labour into repetitive tasks is the basis of industrialization, and today’s so-called post-industrial economy. Everywhere where unions are unwelcome, wages are low and unemployment is high there will be industrial workers doing part work on advanced commodities under the most hegemonic and extreme conditions of exploitation possible under local laws. The globalized logistics chain and the introduction of global standardization regimes like, principally the ISO, ensure that capitalists can distribute their production around the world at will, routing around labour militancy and other threats to the profit margin.

Although capital must deal with the problem of sunk investments in immovable buildings, machines, and other infrastructures, reconfigurable supply chains allow it unprecedented power to route around, and starve, troublesome labour forces. By splitting workers into a “core” composed of permanent workers (often conservative and loyal) and a periphery of casualised, outsourced and fragmented workers, who may or may not work for the same firm, capital has dispersed proletarian resistance quite effectively.[2]

The workers sacrifice their freedom entirely during their work session. They submit their bodies to the task at hand and to the regime of the production facility. The psychological regulation they must exercise in order to keep working at an accelerated pace under stringent technical conditions (so as not to make mistakes) , they must offer as yet another unpaid contribution to the production process. Also assumed unpaid contributions to production are what Silvia Federicci calls “reproductive labour”[3], the caring, affective and nurturing that is necessary to reproduce the ability of the worker to contribute to production on a daily and even momentary basis.

“We established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor, that it not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations; that the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave -like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised.”[3]

As such, these workers, near the end of the production chain are truly wage slaves, completely submitting to the hierarchy of the production facility for the length of the working day. Unlike with slaves however, their employer takes no responsibility to see to their health and welfare. Anything they might need will have to be purchased, hired or rented from their salary. The salary frees the employer from enormous social commitment which, it is assumed, will be met independently by the employee. Under these conditions it is inevitable that a similarly desperate sector of society will emerge, to feed, clothe, house and see to the other needs of the employee with the lowest possible quality for the highest possible price[4]. In this way, contemporary wage slaves are exploited to the maximum by capital at work and in between.

It is important to remember thus that since investment in the facility (and in the surrounding businesses, and indirectly in the global production of necessities) is leveraged not on already carried-out production but only on current and future production continuing apace, the impact of labour stoppages can still have an enormous impact. However, because the interests of capital largely dominate the states where contemporary mass-production is concentrated, its representatives in the form of police or, tolerated local “security” mercenaries are usually rapidly invoked to get production going again.

The operation of “robots” or machines are simplifications of the operations of human and animal labour. As such, Taylorist simplification and specialization of production tasks leads to automation. However, according to Marx, automation is unattractive to the capitalist since the automaton is purchased and then set to work, it is not exploited, but simply does its task without generating any profits. Profits can only be derived from exploiting living labour. The automaton make up the cost of its purchase by replacing the equivalent exploitation salaries the workers who would have otherwise done the work would have gotten, again without generating any profit.

Under contemporary conditions of globalization where one small sector of the planet’s population dominates the rest, not only militarily but through imposing forms of industrial production and consumption which permanently disrupt other tradition practices of subsistence, solidarity and community production, the result is an endless flood of desperate workers whose are willing to work under conditions so rudimentary and for wages so low that it is simply cheaper for the capitalist to employ them than to automate their jobs away. This is again evident at the base of the electronics production chain, where the mineral ores are exhumed from mines.

It is by now well known that at mines producing mineral resources for high technologies Dickensian conditions maintain. Workers, disenfranchised from their own land through corrupt local government, militias employed by mining companies, pollution, war or other calamity find themselves digging ore from the ground at the end of a gun barrel, only for the privilege to stay alive. These people are completely stripped of rights and are not even wage slaves, this is Marx’s primitive accumulation going on right now as you read this. The fullness and richness of human experience which is vaunted to be emancipated through digital technology is not afforded to most who contribute labour to the production chain. And there can be no affordance for that or else the entire system would collapse and the devices will cease to work. The waste of human potential is the hidden price of the unleashed potential of the device users. Ironically today, just as labour union pension plans can invest in labour bashing mining companies, the wage slave is also able to enjoy the emancipatory potential of the device made through its submission to the fundamental discipline of the production.

“… In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, big chunks and little pebbles of tantalum (coltan), cassiterite (tin), wolframite (tungsten), and gold are pulled by hand from cold, sludgy mountain rivers, often by children, and eventually they make their way into the device component supply chain.(22)  In 2009 a few mines here produced 13 percent of the world’s mined coltan, an inert metal used in ubiquitous tiny capacitors, especially for cell phones. (23) From this same land, the Belgians took ivory, the Americans cobalt, and now billions of Earthlings everywhere carry little bits of Africa around with them in their pockets. The financial rewards of mining and trading in electronics have contributed to devastating effects in the region, including overlapping civil wars in the DRC and next door in Rwanda (from 1998 to 2003, upward of 5 million people died in the Congolese civil war, making it by one measure the deadliest conflict since World War II). (24) Extraction and export of minerals, both legal and illegal, have been controlled and taxed by competing militias and organized crime; away from the relative stability of the cities, these groups continue to terrorize local populations and use the proceeds of this export trade to finance ongoing wars over local territorial positions. The smoldering conflict is a war partially financed with the manufacturing capital of smart phones and laptops; inevitably, the smooth skin of the device demands gore to feed its gloss. Deforestation in the pursuit of new sources of coltan in remote areas populated by gorillas has also led to an increase in the trade and consumption of bush meat, a quasi-cannibal economy.” [5]

Just like you can’t eat bread made of wheat freshly harvested from the field, you can’t make electronics with minerals straight out of the mine. The nutritive properties in the wheat must be made available to our metabolism through various processes which abstract the nutritive elements, especially the soluble proteins, etc and remove those elements which impede digestion, the stalks, the rusks, in many cases the bran. Flour, the most comestible basic wheat product, necessitates enormous waste by volume, luckily, in the case of wheat waste, this material is not only biodegradable, but wheat-eating civilisations have over centuries develop practical uses for what is leftover from flour production.

Minerals for electronics must also be refined for them to provide the reliable functionality expected of them by the producers and the consumers of electronics. If the material is not pure, it will not behave reliably according to its function in the design of the electronics. The inside of an electronic device is an assembly of extremely specialized materials each behaving precisely according to specialization because they have been refined to extreme purity.

Tin, used in solder for electronics, when removed from the ground is mixed with a variety of other metals and materials. In that condition, the ore only exhibits a faint indication of its electricity conductive properties. To bring out these properties, the ‘impurities’ are removed through a process called smelting. Smelting uses heat and other chemicals to decompose a base metal from the ore in which it is found.  This process, because it produces various bi-products, some toxic and dangerous is usually undertaken close to the place of original extraction. Smelting operations leave behind “wastelands” of economically insignificant “tailings”, waste products which are utterly unredeemable because there is no epistemology of the that part of the process.

Just as the tin in our electronics is refined so as to behave (slavishly) exactly according to specification, great diversity of human being is constrained to machinic roles in the production of advanced technology. The was clearly perceived by the “father” of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener:

“…mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human slavery. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor … It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save …” [6]

Invisibly, “beneath the API” [7], people actually labour as a function or part of computerized processes. The capitalist narrative of social “progress” through high technology is intentionally narrow. “freedoms” we are promised are always predicated on “unfreedoms”, discipline and order, unseen or overlooked, in the inner workings of the apparatus the provides the freedom. The shadow of this freedom is waste. Waste is freedom without agency.

There is always a trade-off between freedom and order.  Despite official pronouncements affirming the dignity and rights of all human beings, certain populations have for generations been subordinated to playing machinic roles in techno-industry. The great accomplishments of (post-)modern technology is predicated on the waste of the intellectual, creative and inventive potential of generations of human beings through imperialism, slavery and colonization.



[1] Michal Kalecki, (1943) Political aspects of full employment, Political Quarterly, vol 14, no 4 : 322-331


[3] Silvia Federici: see “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Perspective”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest,  In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements

[4] a historical example from Marx’s Capital Vol.1 Part 6, footnote 52:

“One example. In London there are two sorts of bakers, the “full priced,” who sell bread at its full value, and the “undersellers,” who sell it under its value. The latter class comprises more than three-fourths of the total number of bakers. (p. xxxii in the Report of H. S. Tremenheere, commissioner to examine into “the grievances complained of by the journeymen bakers,” &c., Lond. 1862.) The undersellers, almost without exception, sell bread adulterated with alum, soap, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stone-dust, and such like agreeable nourishing and wholesome ingredients. (See the above cited blue book, as also the report of “the committee of 1855 on the adulteration of bread,” and Dr. Hassall’s “Adulterations detected,” 2d Ed. Lond. 1862.) Sir John Gordon stated before the committee of 1855, that “in consequence of these adulterations, the poor man, who lives on two pounds of bread a day, does not now get one fourth part of nourishing matter, let alone the deleterious effects on his health.” Tremenheere states (l. c. p. xlviii), as the reason, why a very large part of the working class, although well aware of this adulteration, nevertheless accept the alum, stone-dust, &c., as part of their purchase: that it is for them “a matter of necessity to take from their baker or from the chandler’s shop, such bread as they choose to supply.” As they are not paid their wages before the end of the week, they in their turn are unable “to pay for the bread consumed by their families, during the week, before the end of the week,” and Tremenheere adds on the evidence of witnesses, “it is notorious that bread composed of those mixtures, is made expressly for sale in this manner.” In many English and still more Scotch agricultural districts, wages are paid fortnightly and even monthly; with such long intervals between the payments, the agricultural labourer is obliged to buy on credit…. He must pay higher prices, and is in fact tied to the shop which gives him credit. Thus at Horningham in Wilts, for example, where the wages are monthly, the same flour that he could buy elsewhere at 1s 10d per stone, costs him 2s 4d per stone. (“Sixth Report” on “Public Health” by “The Medical Officer of the Privy Council, &c., 1864.” p. 264.) “

[5] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack, MIT Press, Cambridge 2015, p. 82

[6] Norbert Wiener (1965) Cybernetics. MIT Press, Cambridge, p.27





Digital Materiality: Technical Aesthetics

ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) are convenient not only because they do not sleep or notice what you look like, but also because we restrain our imagination of what we can expect them to do. We don’t expect we could make small talk with the machine while making our transaction, we never think we could ask the machine for advice or for directions. The ATM is designed only to provide a very limited range of the possible automizable functions of a bank teller, and at this it is precisely designed to be excellent. As long as we conform ourselves to the device as much as it conforms to a restrained requirement we can expect from it, we consider this “convenient”. Convenience means coming together, con-, together and –venere, to come. If we want to understand the world of technical effects we need to look not only at the technologies but also at how the technologies have already changed how we look at them.

We are thrown into a world, a culture, a context already transfused with technical aesthetics, a world of conveniences.  The cultures we are born into are full of compensatory and adaptation methods residual of the many generations of technical revolution and upheaval which occurred through the generations. Marshall McLuhan referred to this as the “environment of services” for which we need a new “ecology”.  The technical environment becomes a second nature of social/human effects wrought by technical processes.

One of the peculiarities of the electric speed is that it pushes all the unconscious factors up into consciousness. This began with Freud and Einstein back in 1900. But, the hidden aspects of the media are the things that should be taught because they have an irresistible force when invisible. When these factors remain ignored and invisible they have an absolute power over the user. The sooner the population or the young or old can be taught the effect of these forms, the sooner we can have some sort of reasonable ecology among the media themselves. What is desperately needed is a kind of understanding of the media which permits us to program the whole environment, so that say literate values would not be wiped out by new media. [1]

McLuhan’s sensibility is literate, he comes from literature, rather than philosophy. For McLuhan, literacy was a fundamental technical revolution which forever transformed how we live and understand the world. His agenda is to deepen and broaden the insights into lived conditions afforded by the conversion or translation of Nature into Culture through language. The ecology he is looking for “between the media themselves” would be an ecology between systems of knowledge and communication. This ecology is a consciously anthropocentric modelling of our technical aesthetics.

Technical aesthetics comes from precision. We analyse the behaviours of materials in the world and abstract principles through precise observations and measurements. From these principles, we construct facsimile machines, which, unlike the world, are completely beholden to us. This is the cyber– (control) in all technologies, machinic processes derived from the world but which are adapted to our needs and designed to obey our commands. The functionality of the facsimile machines is relative to the precision of our observations and measurements. Precision comes from pre– (before) and cision (cut). We have already cut down the range of phenomena and variables to observe before we become even more precise in our observations. Technical aesthetics is how we precisely make machines and about the world these precisely made cyber-machines reveal to us.

Onomatopoeia reveals that even in the ancient technology of language, the great heterogeneity and diversity of the world is first and fundamentally proscribed and conformed before it comes to serve its communicative function. Looking through this list of onomatopoeic dog sounds from various languages, it is easy to observe that what might be a common sound around the globe is refracted into dozens of local approximations to conform to the predilections of those local languages. The generalizable “bark” of a dog (as a sound from Nature”) is precisioned as it enters civil language. Language is as much about control as it is about expression.

Dog barking
In Afrikaans, woef
In Albanian, ham ham
In Arabic, haw haw, hab hab
In Armenian, hav hav հաւ հաւ
In Basque, txau txau (small dogs), zaunk zaunk (big dogs)
In Batak, kung-kung
In Bengali: gheu gheu ঘেউ ঘেউ, bheu bheu ভেউ ভেউ, bhou bhou ভউ ভউ
In Bulgarian, bow bow бау бау, djaff djaff джаф джаф
In Catalan, bup bup
In Chinese, Cantonese, wōu-wōu 㕵㕵
In Chinese, Mandarin, wāng wāng 汪汪[zho 14]
In Croatian, vau vau
In Czech, haf haf
In Danish, vuf vuf, vov vov, bjæf bjæf
In Dutch, waf waf, woef woef
In English, woof, arf, bow wow, ruff
In Estonian, auh auh
In Finnish hau hau, vuh vuh
In French, ouah ouah, ouaf ouaf, wouf wouf
In German, wau wau, waff waff, wuff wuff
In Greek, ghav ghav γαβ γαβ, woof
In Hebrew, hav hav הַב־הַב,[heb 4] haw haw הַאוּ־הַאוּ[heb 4]
In Hindi, bho bho भो भो
In Hungarian vau vau
In Icelandic, voff voff
In Indonesian, guk guk
In Italian, bau bau
In Japanese, ワンワン (wan wan)
In Kannada, bow bow
In Kazakh, арп-арп, шәу-шәу
In Korean, meong meong 멍멍
In Latgalian, vau vau… -Wikipedia [2]

Jumping a few millennia ahead we have invented sound recording technology. This technology abstracts sound from the multi-dimensional context where it is produced by transferring the air-pressure vibrations which produce sound in a human aural cortex through a mechanism to be inscribed on a surface. This technology is precise also in that all the possible vibrations which produces the phenomenon of sound are not processed by the technology. The earliest devices concentrated on the range around 100Hz and 800Hz, around the range of the human voice. The recordings were barely audible above the mechanical noise of the apparatus which was recorded together with the voice or music. Listeners of the time disregarded the intense grinding noise and launched themselves into the soundworld they were promised was being “reproduced”. Listeners have to perform a second abstraction, abstracting out the instrumental context of the sound reproduction which had already abstracted out of the transsensual multidimensional context of the original sound phenomena.

The verisimilitude of technical aesthetics is always nostalgic, and liberating. What is recorded in technology seems to be perpetual and leaves us in the present free to re-configure our identities since they is already abstracted technologically and no longer seem bound in complex historical processes. There is also a lingering mournfulness in the rejected excess of the precision, in the unrecorded context of the document and in the disregarded apparatus of reproduction.

Technical aesthetics produce slices from the conventional empirical spectra of lived space-time continuum. These are inscribed for posterity. Even when recomposed they never lose their immanent historicity. This is also why listening to a recording or even looking at a selfie one has just taken is tinged with nostalgia. We keep changing, physically and contextually, but we can replay the recording as often as necessary, sure that we will hear the same thing. In this way recordings stand in for memory, and recorded facts come to dominate historical narratives.

“…the idea was that the image should document politics. But in the first half of the 20th Century, and even stronger after the second war, this relationship began to change. All of a sudden, politics was made in order to get into an image. The purpose of politics, which so far nobody knew the purpose of politics, progress is not a purpose, progress is a method, but where do we advance at?  What do you mean we advance? We don’t know where.  All of a sudden, we discovered where. We advanced to the image. … Politics is aimed at being taken, aufgenommen, in an image. And, you know, this created a curious phenomenon. Events began to accelerate. They rolled toward the image. Things, one event followed an other, because every event wanted to be taken in an image. There were the people with the television cameras and there were the photographers and there were the people with this film, the filmmakers, they were standing there, and all history rolled toward them and they said: “please, take me, please put me to the image!” Vilém Flusser [3]

With mass-production, we have the social effect of the “same” recording being heard by many people who are not in the same place. This leads to a new criticism of lived space where the centralized distribution of recordings asserts itself through the ear and accentuates the arbitrary local experience of the listening space accompanied by the eye. The popular adoption of headphones and portable music players are the expression of this new pleasure of abstraction.

By abstracting out the paid human labour countenance of the bank worker, a bank transaction can be accomplished without encountering the bank as an institution and as a business. Robot tellers and electronic transactions disburse endless flows of lucre at anytime of day or night, contributing to the notion that money is something akin to a basic resource like water or light. This adjusts our living habits. We need to plan less in advance. We can work at any hour of day or night. We enjoy a new “freedom” of just-in-time services. Any breakdown in the banking service environment becomes seriously inconvenient and may even endanger civil peace.


[1] Marshall McLuhan in a post-lecture Q&A session recorded by ABC Radio National Network on 27 June 1979 in Australia.

[2] from Wikipedia article on cross-linguistic onomatopoeias

[3] Vilém Flusser from “Television Image and Political Space in the Light of the Romanian Revolution”  Lecture in the Symposium THE MEDIA WERE WITH US. The Role of Television in the Romanian Revolution. Budapest, the 7th of April, 1990 (24’30’’)

Digital Materiality: Anaesthetics

“by the middle of the fourth century the silent revolution had been accomplished, and that the cultivated Greek public had become a community of readers.” [1]

Here is a civilisation on the cusp of literacy with all the realizations that this affords. Literacy for the first time strips human being of its origins, so that these may be freely recomposed. Freedom and individuality become for the first time possible, and thus for some like Plato, the harbinger of virtue and true destiny of humanity, while others pined the loss of the involving mythical world from which they are forced to emerge.

“Thus the autonomous subject who no longer recalls and feels, but knows, can now be confronted with a thousand abstracted laws, principles, topics,and formulas which become the objects of his knowledge. “ [2]

The demos of Plato’s and our notion of democracy was always a literate elite, distinguished by their individualizing reading habits from the great mass of productive humanity. The demos believed in the power of words and propagated a world of abstract written laws in order to supplant the power of the priests and their superstitious and mystifying moral commandments. Vibrant lived experience became silent knowledge. Information acquired through integrated sense perception was disparaged in favour of “facts” from book learning. The body was shed of the thinking spirit and the stage was laid for a Christian revolution.

“For Plato, reality is rational,scientific and logical, or it is nothing. The poetic medium, so far from disclosing the true relations of things or the true definitions of the moral virtues, forms a kind of refracting screen which disguises and distorts reality and at the same time distracts us and plays tricks with us by appealing to the shallowest of our sensibilities.” [3]

Studied, detached observation and intellection, “description”  became the only correct manner to scientifically encounter the world. This instruction is notable in the academic tradition to this day where the typical academic presentation of ideas is an extremely dry affair, with the monotonous reading of disinterested description. Havelock distinguishes Plato’s rejection of poetry as being the primarily pedagogical concern of how to bring up free-thinkers.  The problem was not the poets involving affect per se, but the pre-literate oral knowledge traditions in which poets and priests played a central role

With visual hypertrophy, the other senses went sub-culture.

The Polis was order, command and civil peace. Exiled to the garbage heaps at the fringes of society were the blind perceptions of the rest of the body.  Silent observation replaced immersive listening. McLuhan notes that every new media produces a shift in the “sense-ratios” [4]. When literate visual aesthetics dominate, the other perceptions must subsist in iniquity, acquiring all the illicit power of the “unconscious”.

Aesthetics is merely the realm of perceptions. Anaesthetics is a metaphysical aesthetics whereby the unrepresentable is converted to conservative human aesthetic conventions, where the phenomena are not only mediated but are transposed in a register that they can be perceived by human senses. For example, the actions of molecules at infinitesimal scale are depicted in the realm of visible light we can perceive. Anaesthetics always implies some additional technical materiality in the communication process. In the case of HEP or astrophysics the material apparatus is enormous. It takes the biggest camera in the world to image the smallest particles.

Aesthetic media technologies like the Grammophone or photograph were devised to be “Nature’s Pencil” allowing the world to inscribe itself instrumentally for our study, obviating the subjectivity of the scientist.   However images of blood cells and nano-tech robots to Voyageur images at the end of our solar system, produced from invisible information, as Flusser cajoles, are “even less objective then is a painting.”  The images are interpretive. The shapes and colours which appear there should help support the narrative they belong to. Despite providing theories of spaces where no human could exist,  for example subatomic or intergalactic spaces, we are presented with anthropomorphically sublimated information.

Measurement, especially the measurement of weight, is one form of numerical abstraction which goes back to the earliest civilizations. Through weighing, early chemists were able to make precise recipes using the properties or components of chemicals they could not see . Using a finely crafted astrolabe, ancient astronomers were able measure angles between distant stars to calculate unimaginable distances and produce almanachs to guide agricultural production, and help travellers navigate deserts and open seas.[5]

Literate visual bias meant that measurements of the early scientists were converted to forms still in use today, the chart and table, the diagram.  As the measurement apparatus begins to produce its information in homogenous re-interpretable digital data, it is customary to generate technical images with are viualisations of this invisible data. A stand-in for perception becomes the image of the phenomenon itself.

What became “Science” was the collaborative product of philosophers and technicians. The technicians were required to produce the instruments the philosophers  needed to test their theories. These hand-made precision instruments were themselves works of art on the way to making sense or at least making some order of our world. Lavoisier’s isolation of hydrogen and oxygen as the two components of water was made possible by the precision vacuum flasks he used to trap and weigh the gases.

The philosophers eventually became professionalized after Lavoisier into what we call scientists today. But only a tiny elite of those involved in the  technicial production of “science” were so fortunate.  The technicians, called “banasos” (βάναυσος)  in ancient Greece, were exempted from the demos, and from political rights. According to Aristotle they were disqualified by the fact that they had to spend all day over their tools and thus did not have sufficient time to contemplate broader sociopolitical matters.[6] My book “A Political Economy of the Smallest Things” delves deeply into this problematic pedigree of science-sanctioned knowledge today, especially by extending out the “banausoic” function to include all labour contributions, paid and unpaid, necessary for the production and reproduction of this knowledge.

The instruments made by the hybrid of scientist, technician and labour, transformed unimaginable distances and infinitesimal weights into numbers, especially proportions. These numbers, at human scale, began to stand in for the material reality (and make an ellipse around the material labour conditions for the reproduction of this reality)  that was at play. Precision means “to pre-cut”. Precise measurements are always already foreclosed by the cosmology which allows the theory the scientist is trying to prove to be posited. Precision already preselects what is relevant phenomena, the rest of phenomena is then normally simply not measured or even perceived.

Today’s technology renders the infinitesimal and enormous alike into long numbers. This new intellectual hypertrophy of mathematical syntax produces, according to Flusser, the need for new Humanisms appropriate for each scale of technical knowledge.

“for each order of magnitude, there is a typical epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics that is effective, and that, in spite of the gray zones, abysses gape between the orders of magnitude. Thus, it is mischief to apply the geometry of what is perceptible by the senses to the astronomical order of magnitude or causal thinking to the order of magnitude of particles of atom nuclei. The specificity of each order of magnitude would have to enable the new humanism to call attention to the priority of the human order of magnitude. A Ptolemaic counterrevolution is required. “ [7]

Exotic realms sublimated in equivocal numbers produce an anaesthesis, a numbness to the world of our human-scale senses. But as we lapse today into Cartesian rational apoplexy we begin to submit even more to what Flusser describes as “technical” or “synthetic”  images. Anyone using SMS social media or microblogging will note the increasing preponderance of graphics in textual flow. As we enter an age overdetermined by invisible, non-human-readable sensor- and control-data we seem to have increasing need for recourse to sublimating images,especially that of the obsolescent human face.




[1] Havelock, Eric, (1963) Preface to Plato, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p. 41

[2] ibid p.219

[3] ibid p.26

[4] ” If a technology is introduced either from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered. We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same. The interplay among our senses is perpetual save in conditions of anesthesia. But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for other senses.”   McLuhan, Marshall (1963) Gutenberg Galaxy, U of Toronto Press, Toronto. p.24

[5] in “Objectivity” Zone Books 2007,  Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston pick apart the scientific tradition of objectivity in their book of the same name. Starting from 19th c Natural science “atlases” they examine how, for example, certain features of a specimen were represented because they were considered typical, whereas other features were left out when they were not considered germane.

[6] see Aristot. Pol. 1.1258b  βάναυσος is translated as technician, mechanic or artisan.

[7] Ströhl, Andreas ed. (2002) Writings, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, p. 164 Orders of Magnitude and Humanism

Digital Materiality: Aesthetics

“ I differ toto caelo from those philosophers who pluck out their eyes that they may see better; for my thought I require the senses, especially sight; I found my ideas on materials which can be appropriated only through the activity of the senses. I do not generate the object from the thought, but the thought from the object; and I hold that alone to be an object which has an existence beyond one’s own brain.”  – Ludwig Feuerbach [1]

Scientific knowledge practices have an inexorable bias towards human perception. That these practices may waste more than they produce has to do with the severity of this bias. The prevalence of digital technologies today has systemically integrated industrial, mass-production practices based on discrete quantification regimes into our understanding not only of ourselves but of the world. These practices were developed not to understand the world but to control the world for the benefit of human beings.

The alphabet “unrolls” the universe into uniform sequential lines of code. This silent code represents sounds of words, which reconstitute semantic messages through reading. The alphabet creates an environment of silent and private storage of information. The social effects generated by the alphabet is enormous compared to the message content of any particular sequence of text [2].

Information is encoded in alphabetic texts to serve the purposes of human beings. There is already an anthropomorphic filtering going with the composition of the first word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” John 1:1

The Old Testament testifies to separating out humanity from the entirety of existence through language. Thus there can henceforth be no absolute truth in any language utterance, but only in the existence of languages themselves. Onomatopoeia shows how linguistic systems always and arbitrarily anthropomorphize all phenomena.

Dog barking
In Afrikaans, woef
In Albanian, ham ham
In Arabic, haw haw, hab hab
In Armenian, hav hav հաւ հաւ
In Basque, txau txau (small dogs), zaunk zaunk (big dogs)
In Batak, kung-kung
In Bengali: gheu gheu ঘেউ ঘেউ, bheu bheu ভেউ ভেউ, bhou bhou ভউ ভউ
In Bulgarian, bow bow бау бау, djaff djaff джаф джаф
In Catalan, bup bup
In Chinese, Cantonese, wōu-wōu 㕵㕵
In Chinese, Mandarin, wāng wāng 汪汪[zho 14]
In Croatian, vau vau
In Czech, haf haf
In Danish, vuf vuf, vov vov, bjæf bjæf
In Dutch, waf waf, woef woef
In English, woof, arf, bow wow, ruff
In Estonian, auh auh
In Finnish hau hau, vuh vuh
In French, ouah ouah, ouaf ouaf, wouf wouf
In German, wau wau, waff waff, wuff wuff
In Greek, ghav ghav γαβ γαβ, woof
In Hebrew, hav hav הַב־הַב,[heb 4] haw haw הַאוּ־הַאוּ[heb 4]
In Hindi, bho bho भो भो
In Hungarian vau vau
In Icelandic, voff voff
In Indonesian, guk guk
In Italian, bau bau
In Japanese, ワンワン (wan wan)
In Kannada, bow bow
In Kazakh, арп-арп, шәу-шәу
In Korean, meong meong 멍멍
In Latgalian, vau vau
In Latvian, vau
In Lithuanian, au au
In Macedonian, av av ав ав, dzhav dzhav џав џав
In Malayalam, bau bau
In Marathi, bho bho भो-भो
In Norwegian voff voff, vov vov
In Persian, vāq vāq واق واق, hāf-hāf هاف هاف
In Polish, hau hau
In Portuguese, au au, ão ão, béu béu
In Romanian, ham ham
In Russian, gav gav (гав-гав), tyaf tyaf тяф-тяф
In Sinhalese, buh buh බුඃ බුඃ
In Slovene, hov hov
In Spanish, guau guau
In Serbian, av av ав ав
In Swedish, vov vov, voff voff
In Tagalog, aw aw
In Tamil, vovw-vovw லொள் லொள், loll-loll, vazh vazh
In Telugu, bau bau
In Thai, โฮ่ง ๆ (hong hong), บ๊อก ๆ (bok bok)
In Turkish, hav hav
In Uropi, waw waw
In Vietnamese, gâu gâu, sủa sủa  [3]

The fact that these dog sounds, translated out of the universe into human language are purely yet differently mimetic and not discursive, reveals anthropomorphic biases. For example that language seems to (in)form the hearing of its users so that certain sounds which are available in that language come to represent sounds which are not provided there. The original sound is translated through the sociolinguistic conditioning of the listener into a simplified form which can be communicated to other users of that language. That dogs bark in different languages shows that we are not listening to them very carefully because we are more fundamentally concerned with each other, fellow human beings.

The world of dogs is an immense untranslatable unknown. So close to us yet so far, an abyss opens up between us and the dog whereby we sense all we lose and have lost through the exercise of power on the world through technologies such as language. This abyss is sublimated on a personal level through direct physical affective interaction with the dog, and on a cultural level through translating dog sounds into sounds available in our languages.

Sublimation is the gesture of translating the immense expansive depths and extents of the world into anthropomorphic aesthetics. Aesthetic cultural forms, writing, images, songs etc, represent the world at human scale, rendering all, in principle accessible to human understanding, investigation and control. The purpose of human technologies is to make the world a better place for humans. For better and for worse our techniques already transform the information we need from the world into anthropomorphic codes. This is why our technologies can not solve social problems.

The distinction of Human and Nature is ceasing to be relevant, humanity acknowledges its fundamental integrity in Nature anew as Human Nature supplants and sublimates Nature tout long.  In the face of so-called “anthropogenic climate change” in the “anthropocene”, the era of the the Anthropos, we need, more than ever, to find cultural forms which allow us to encounter the world outside the hall of mirrors provided by our technologies, where everything that happens is pre-interpreted to be proportional to conservative human aesthetics, human proclivities, human needs.

“There is a prohibition of image for the following reason: the idea in Judaism is that God is completely different, totally different! Toto caelo abstractio.  Which means that you cannot conceive Him and you cannot imagine Him. It is completely unthinkable and unimaginable, and therefore theology is not possible; you cannot speak about God, you can only speak to God. Now, if that is a fact, there is only one image – which is the face of the other person.” -Vilém Flusser [4]

Lets take the example of sound recording and playback. In analog recording, sound waves (variations in air pressure) are translated into variation of electrical signal through a microphone. The Microphone’s physical diaphragm moves with the sound waves in the air and mechanically transmit these vibrations to a media which can ‘record’ or otherwise transform them. In the old Phonograph or Grammophone technology, the membrane of the microphone mechanically moved a stylus which could engrave the vibration on a media. These etched vibrations could subsequently be played back by the same stylus. Instead of vibrating to transmit ambient sound to a medium, the microphone in playback translated the information etched into the medium into sound again and projects this into the audible world.

The Phonograph cylinder and the Grammophone disc are both silent repositories of encoded information, but since this information is analog, it is possible to notice direct correlations between, for example larger and deeper groove shapes for louder sounds and simpler groove shapes for simpler sounds. These technologies were very much designed to satisfy human aesthetic proclivities, their sensitivity to sound waves was prioritised at the range of human voice. 60Hz-1000Hz a tiny segment of all possible vibrations of this kind. Indeed, the early recordings were practically inaudible by today’s standards, the music or speech occluded and skewed in clouds of mechanical noise.[5]

Nevertheless the sound recording and even the shapes of the grooves themselves came to be seen as Nature writing itself, “Nature’s Pencil” as Fox Talbot described photography. Recordings were seen as “objective” and thus more accurate than “subjective” human perceptions, despite the fact that they are technically constrained in such a way that certain aesthetic sensitivities or proclivities are hard coded into the apparatus which produces them. As recording devices become mass-produced, knowledge becomes standardized around that range of aesthetic effects which the devices are designed to reproduce.

In analog recording, “sound” (air pressure) vibrations move the microphone diaphragm, this mechanical movement changes the position of magnetic coils or plates which causes an “analog” electromagnetic signal to be propagated down a cable to a recorder or other device. This electromagnetic variation can be communicated to a stylus to engrave a disk or to change the magnetic charge of particles on a tape. The physical variations of signal and the physical mechanical and/or electro-magnetic variations on a tape are proportional to the “original” sounds recorded and the sound of the recording is as continuous as was the original.

This proportionality is completely disrupted in digital technology. Still, we need a mechanical interface with the world, in this case, a microphone whose diaphragm vibrates to the sounds in the air and translates this into current variations. However in digital technologies, the sound is analyzed according to a grid and transformed into discrete quantifications. The playback of the digital recording takes the discrete quantifications and generated electromagnetic signal which can move a speaker or headphone diaphragm and reproduce sound. However, since the values are discrete, the sound is no longer the same continuous process as was recorded, it is reconstituted from data points, quantifications on a grid.

For digital media the most important regimentation in the grid is the time axis. Unlike analog media, all digital media needs regular clocks. The clock in digital sound processing (DSP) determines the ‘sample rate’, how often the sounds coming through the microphone are evaluated and recorded. Since digital media requires quantitative measurements, these measurements need to be(at least temporally) distinct. DSP thus divides up continuous signal into minute discrete quantities based on a clock. The clock provides the fundamental ‘x’ axis of our grid.

Just as the alphabet excised the voice of language, and the Gutenberg Press excised the extensive persona of the scribe to provide “objective” texts, digital conversion splits up continuous existence into uniform samples according to an arbitrary clock interval. The algorithmic Julian calendar split European out of the cycles of seasons and into the empire of Christianity. The mechanical clock split the working day into uniform intervals, an apotheosis of which is Taylorism. Our knowledge practices move from a world of heterogeneous and embodied intensities into one of homogenous, mechanistic and thereby freely recombinant quantities. How these quantities are aesthetically reconstituted to reproduce information at “human scale” is the pressing moral problem of our time.

Moving from analog to digital forms of information we retreat ever further from the immensity of existence into artificial (artistic) intricacies of concatenated codes. We must sublimate the irrepressibly expansive universe into anthropomorphic codes and, as these codes become more involved and involving, smaller and faster, operating outside the purview of unaided human perception, we sublimate the technological universe of nano-mechanical operations into anthropomorphic cultural tropes.

A cathedral is not as such more beautiful than an airplane, … a hymn than a mathematical equation. … A well-made sword is not more beautiful than a well-made scalpel, though one is used to slay, the other to heal. Works of art are only good or bad, beautiful or ugly in themselves, to the extent that they are or are not well and truly made, that is, do or do not express, or do or do not serve their purpose. – Ananda Coomaraswamy[6]



[1] Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruckberg, Feb. 14, 1843, Preface to the 2nd Edition of his “Essence of Christianity” translated by George Eliot

[2] This is the point of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message”.  In a TV appearance on 27 June 1979 in Australia, he put it thus “it doesn’t much matter what you say on the telephone, the telephone as a service is a huge environment and that is the medium. The environment affects everybody, what you say on the phone affects very few.”


[4] from an interview with Vilém Flusser by László Beke and Miklós Peternák in Budapest, the 7th of April 1990, published as  “On religion, memory and synthetic image” in “We Shall Survive in the Memory of Others” Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, 2010

[5] digitized records of over 100-year-old Berliner Grammophone disks can be heard here

[6] Coomaraswamy, Ananda, 1977, Traditional Art and Symbolism (Selected Papers, volume 1), Princeton: Bollingen. p.75