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’’)