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