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

Digital Materiality: Technical Revolution

Material, substance may be infinite, or unimaginably, inarticulably extensive, but materiality, that which crosses into the domain of human affairs is certainly much less extensive. Predicating Spinoza’s “substance” and Feuerbach’s materializing “love”, is a crisis from which the western world is still recovering today: a technological revolution brought on by a technical development, a technology which drove a wedge to split apart what had once been one, the body and mind, material and spirit.

Ancient Greek philosophy is first and foremost a record of the onset of that crisis. What we know of Ancient Greek philosophy begins with texts, most famously through Plato and his student Aristotle, who used the radical new technology of the Alphabet to record the philosophical practices, allegories and debates of the foregoing generations. Those born into the textual world were presented with the immensity of the the preliterate world, its oral histories and holistic practices as subject matter to be de-scribed and recorded, translated into textual words, words which, composed of meaningless and silent symbolic codes, had become unhinged from what they de-scribed.

Translating the unified world of corporal sensations and thought into the silent world of ideas produced the first notions of authorship, of criticism and truth in the modern sense. Texts completely disrupted the old ways of life. This crisis, paradigmatic for all social upheaval that was to come, described, debated and recorded in the writings of Plato and Aristotles, is why their writing is still so pertinent and revered today.

What happens that is so revolutionary about the alphabet? In “Preface to Plato” Eric Havelock claims that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet produced the “power of abstraction” which distinguishes classical Greek Philosophy from its historical origins. Plato’s famous ‘banning’ of the poets from his ideal Republic, Havelock argues, should be read as indicating Plato’s intention to innovate the university away from the old oral philosophical traditions of allegory towards the abstract thinking afforded by the silent storage of text in alphabetic codes. Walter Ong notes how the notion of “studying” was completely transformed by the alphabet, rhetoric became a visual composition of texts (textures). The abstraction from fully lived experience into sequences of (themselves) meaningless glyphs, meant ideas began to take precedence over materials. (the materiality of writing is not considered esential to its semantic function).

Alphabetic codes rip spoken language out of the ephemeral embodied lived context of expression, depositing them in permanent silent scripts. At once we have certain socio-cultural consequences: no more must knowledge be passed down from wise master to acolyte, immutable authoritative texts will henceforth be available which can be copied and distributed silently.  Removing the voice of the speaker means that arguments must first and foremost be rational, rationally grounded, and self-contained (i.e. not depending on other contextual information). Since the meaning of the text can be autonomous of the culture or tradition which produced it, we see a new notion of human universality. At the same time , the alphabet has a standardizing effect on language, generating abstract grammatical rules which are then imposed on language learning. A patchwork of dialects are homogenized into ‘national’ languages.

Another thinker who places epochal importance on the introduction of alphabetic scripts was Vilém Flusser. In Flusser’s understanding of cultural transformation, pre-literate humanity lived in the domain of magicians, who wielded the ritual power of images. These pre-literate images did not represent things at any remove, they were part of a cyclical understanding of life within which all meaning is foreclosed. The tyranny of the ancient images of the magicians, was assailed, according to Flusser, by the creators of the alphabet. Alphabetical text “unrolled” the totality of ancient images into sequential lines of text. These lines, which, unlike images, needed to be read in a particular direction and order, generated what Flusser called “causal, historical thinking” which eventually led to Enlightenment science and early modernity. The interdiction of images in early jewish thought may be a similar philosophical position to Plato’s interdiction of poetry in the Republic.

The notion that images can have an all-at-once expansive effect similar to sounds was developed intensively by Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan followed Havelock in understanding that the silent abstraction of uniform texts from the heterogenous, all-at-once, pre-literate world, created a cultural crisis from which we are still recovering today. Flusser said “every revolution is a technical revolution”, for McLuhan the revolution of literacy reached an apotheosis once the residual embodied-ness of calligraphic script was abstracted comprehensively by the invention of Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press. Texts dissolve integral organic Nature into repeatable modular processes, a deductive mechanical model which promises to make universally available, at the disposal of all humanity, Its secrets. With Gutenberg we enter the epoch of the mass-reproduction of abstract human ideas. Finally stripping away the last vestages of historical social bias of the scribe, uniform text blocks subjected societies to a completely desacralized and profane, explicitly technical analysis for the first time. Standardized mass-produced texts produced the modern nation, French produced France, and standardized German “Hochdeutsch” produced Germany.

Just as the alphabet ‘produced’ Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, the Gutenberg press ‘produced’ Shakespeare. Marshall McLuhan in the “Gutenberg Galaxy” elucidates how Shakespeare emerged into a world where human language was laid bare as a technical process to be industrialized. Shakespeare emerges to record and elucidate the crisis brought on by the mechanization and automization of thought, like Plato did thought’s description and abstraction at his time. In both cases, language is both a technical agent of transformation and the means by which we know about it.

The social transformations which emerge with the introduction of new technologies can be understood, according to McLuhan, by attending to how the new technology re-organizes the “sense ratios” of its users. The silent visual alphabet thus inaugurates a period of “visual bias” where science based on observation transforms the world into something that is meant to be read. Literacy is one of the early de- or trans-materialization technologies, with its alchemical capacity to (re-)consititue reality from its codes.

The alphabet provided the basis for what would come to be called ‘Intellectual property’. The endless flow of language like the endless rush of the waves once abstracted from holistic unity in Nature become silent commodities the most plastic raw materials. This transformation has taken more time, 250 years after the beginning of the mass-production of literature, and shortly before the industrialization of the technology, the 1710 Statute of Anne modernized copyright law and inaugurated the IP regime we still have today, making universal ideas into commodities for private consumption and owndership (thus also speculation) through the medium of alphabetic text.

The notion of privacy in this context takes much importance in the works of Flusser and McLuhan.  Before the written world, all language was, of course, shared, even secrets must be shared. After literacy a silent private world was produced which could provide a consummate escape from the world of human affairs, and deliniated the realm of ‘politics’ as a public forum. For Flusser, the sequential linear structure of writing generated the notion of history itself. From then on, events did not cycle it a ritual whole but ‘progressed’ and thereby produced a linear history.

The chemical and electrical technologies in the 19th century, all based on science derived from causal, deductive thinking, brought on a new fundamental crisis. The texts, encoded in the technical things of the world became far too small and dense to decipher. They began to produce effects which belied their textual basis, the world became whole again in instantaneous communication. Today, we live in a world increasingly determined by written thinking encoded in linear processes which produce effects at the speed of light. This speed of light communication, according to McLuhan, tilts the sense ratios again and produces a tactile and acoustic field. Even though the principles at play inside the apparatus are fundamentally visual, the skewed sensibility produces tactile affinities which, unlike the atomizing and individualizing effects of text, generate inclusive and involving social effects.

For Flusser, the alphabet created historical thinking, splitting us out of cyclical rituals “of the seasons and feasts”. However, the scientific accomplishments in chemistry and physics provided new aesthetic materials and practices. Photography and the following technical images, like film, video, television and now synthetic computer images, all these images are meant to render the world imaginable again.

Today, with technical images, generated and communicating at the speed of light, we have a return to the universal appeal of iconic images, except now, they are not images in the ancient sense, they are projections of linear texts.

“You know, photography was invented to give an objective image, but since the camera is coded, it is even less objective then is a painting.”- Vilém Flusser

The Alphabet was a pivotal technical revolution, we are still metabolising today. The alphabet split pre-literate human beings out of their context and into a world of abstract and rational thinking. By decomposing language into silent standardized abstract signs which, themselves, are recomposable to language, the alphabet produced a system where science became divorced from philosophy. Philosophy became the domain of ontology and epistemology, and science became the practice of understanding towards reliably controlling behaviours of materials. The alphabet broke apart the holistic synthetic experience of the universe and generated a mechanical model divided up into recomposable, standardized parts. Mind was divorced from the body, as text is divorced from the surface on which it appears.

Digital Materiality: Materiality

[WiP this is #1 in a series of 12 weekly essays unpacking the concept “Digital Materiality”.  They are prepared in the context of the seminar of the same name held every Thursday at 2pm at the UdK Hardenbergstr.  ]

“We are living in a material world and I am a material girl!”- PETER BROWN, ROBERT RANS


Is every moment of every lived life equally worthy? At stake are historical human facts, the contributions of lived life to any given technical object (necessarily the product of human attention). How their facticity is evaluated is vital for a reckoning of our civilisation bias. This is particularly pertinent as automation begins to fade forever from view.   We are presented with visions of a post-work society, yet the great majority are working harder for less money. Our civilizations allow for widespread poverty, including child poverty, persistence of slavery and prison labour at the core of the advanced technology production chain, the particular vector of technology which we are persistently told is our best hope for a future.

“Material” is made of human activity. Material is that which is brought (from Nature) into the realms of human affairs. In order understand a human artifact, such as a digital object, open up the “time/space historical fact record” record through the surface of the object. These records/stories making a constellation of fragmentary (factual), even  infinitesimal, non-zero (0<x>n)  human contributions to the production of the object are the social ‘message’ of the product. The social conditions of the production of the material is played back through the use of the material. Is every moment of every human life equally worthy, or are some moments of some lives more worthy? Is it really necessary to know who made Einstein’s breakfasts in order to appreciate the true implications of E=mc2?

Once we start to account for the labour contribution to the contemporary surface, we also need to integrate a placeholder value for “reproductive labour”(1). Reproductive labour has been disregarded at the expense of hagiography interested in maintaining a hegemonic state. Like Feudalism, Capitalism depends on unpaid reproductive labour, in ones own body, ones home and elsewhere, “everyday communism”(2), which is voluntary contribution to socially necessary reproductive practices in “a permanent sense of being mutually indebted“. (3)

The material of “materiality” I am mainly concerned with in this essay is that of physical things brought into the sphere of human attention, and, principally, hyper-modern hyper-industrial production. The materiality which is designated to a realm beyond human empirical or technically-assisted access is of interest here only in as far as it impacts the behaviours of those humans that consider it. As such, we will consider the philosophical realm of meta-physics as materialized in philosophizing bodies by the entire metabolism, including intuitions and apprehensions derived from all the senses,

There is thus a materiality of thought which is the materiality of the mind, such that it must be sustained by the same practices which sustain the rest of the living tissue of the body from which the cogitating apparatus can never be entirely abstracted. Though we may never have the science which can explain how mechanically, chemically thoughts are formulated, we must maintain that the thoughts exist and that they cannot exist without a body. There is no immaterial thought, the thought of god, the divine inspiration, itself must be reproduced in the lightless bowels of its living body. The question of how the living body is reproduced in order to be able to think an ephemeral thought is a social, and, in our society, a political question.

My interest here is to put forward a rather conservative understanding of material, that it resides first and fundamentally with living humans and only with respect to those living humans. This is has the political agenda of elaborating a set of concepts, textures or gestures by which any particular or group of human beings can or is impaired from benefitting from the enormous, but finite social production of human beings on the planet right now.

Digital objects, seem at once, much like thoughts, light-speed, fleeting, almost immaterial, “meiousia” μεῖοὐσία (less material), yet whereas thoughts are reproduced by living metabolisms, digital objects are reproduced by mechanical processes, i.e. concretions of thought processes. We will go more deeply into what distinguishes digital objects in the next chapters, but before this we need to grapple with that which could possibly be ‘digital’ in the first place, the digital object, the materiality which is digital, the matter, of which materiality speaks “qualities of matter”.

Spinoza uses the word substance rather than material “which stands below” the phenomena or the behaviours, which have bearing on us, or which we perceive. For Spinoza, what characterizes material is that it has (fundamental) properties which “come from outside”, which we have not chosen. We can dis-cover these properties through behaviours, which are interactions with our discovery process. Unlike the pre-literate (pre-socratic) Greeks, Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, straining through metaphors, trying to elaborate fundamental physical principles of the makeup of the universe, today’s truth and science is about understanding physical behaviours and controlling these for human purposes. This means we only understand the physical properties of substances in as far as we can elicit repeatable, reliable behaviours of them. In other words, to make machines of them (to enslave, and domesticate them). Our process of understanding is anthropocratic, instrumental.

Any politics of this “digital” age which wishes to contest the “distribution of the sensible” as Jacques Rancière calls it, will have to firstly repudiate any contention of immateriality. Digital things, as anything “thengan”(4) operate in a realm overdetermined by human practices, which must be understood as fundamentally material. Thus I will examine materiality as (problematically) anthropomorphic, especially for technical products, especially in the per-industrial “digital” age. I will refer to these products as “things”, e.g. digital “things”.

If we use the flexibility which exists in German to address materiality we find two useful words for thing: Ding and Zeug. The ontological truth of the thing is in the fact that people congregate around it. It is both “thengan”/Ding = appointed time (4) and “Zeug” something conditioned by the needs of humans (useful thing) (5) “This text examines only the economy of things in a human universe proscribed by human mortality, life-span and the predilections of the human sensibility, in other words ‘human scale’25 Disruptions of, or interventions in this economy do not matter if they do not effect humanity Once they do they become things in an economy of things in a world conditioned by human scale experience “ (6)

A self-consciously anthropomorphic approach to materiality becomes most useful at the limits. On the political level today we are all divided up into individuals, socio-political atoms with a very abstract homogenous concept of “equal rights”. We know that, in practice we do not have the same right to assert our equal rights, and the dominant means of production perpetuates conditions where some human beings are not able to assert their equal rights at all. This is a problem as old as civilisation, and we must hearten ourselves and each other if we earnestly want to confront it, since it is endemic to the way human society has always functioned. The principle of our society are not the practice, and the showdown comes down on our own bodies, limited (finally by mortality) in physical capacity to participate in socially necessary production.(7)

In the liminal space between the limited (0<x>∞) unique human participant and the quasi-unlimited (∞-n) universality of the species, between the universality of the species and the universality of all material, we are struggling with languages which work out epistemologies derived from human experiential limits on this planet. The translation from whatever there is (noumena) to the realm of our grappling (phenomena) is today of political relevance, since the status of the anthropos is in crisis.

Die Liebe ist das Band, das Vermittlungsprinzip zwischen dem Vollkommnen und Unvollkommnen, dem sündlosen und sündhaften Wesen, dem Allgemeinen und Individuellen, dem Gesetz und dem Herzen, dem Göttlichen und Menschlichen. Die Liebe ist Gott selbst und außer ihr ist kein Gott. Die Liebe macht den Menschen zu Gott und Gott zum Menschen. Die Liebe stärket das Schwache und schwächt das Starke, erniedrigt das Hohe und erhöhet das Niedrige, idealisiert die Materie und materialisiert den Geist. Die Liebe ist die wahre Einheit von Gott und Mensch, von Geist und Natur. In der Liebe ist die gemeine Natur Geist und der vornehme Geist Natur. Lieben heißt vom Geiste aus: den Geist, von der Materie aus: die Materie aufheben. Liebe ist Materialismus; immaterielle Liebe ist ein Unding.

  • Feuerbach: Das Wesen des Christentums. DB Schüler-Bibliothek: Philosophie, S. 21206

Love is the middle term, the substantial bond, the principle of reconciliation between the perfect and the imperfect, the sinless and sinful being the universal and the individual, the divine and the human. Love is God himself, and apart from it there is no God. Love makes man God and God man. Love strengthens the weak and weakens the strong, abases the high and raises the lowly, idealises matter and materialises spirit. Love it the true unity of God and man, of spirit and nature. In love common nature is spirit, and the pre-eminent spirit is nature. Love is to deny spirit from the point of view of spirit, to deny matter from the point of view of matter. Love is materialism; immaterial love is a chimaera.

  • Ludwig Feuerbach, from The Essence of Christianity, Chapter II. God as a Being of the Understanding Translated from the original German by George Eliot

“nun wurde man immer geneigter, das licht wegen seiner ungeheuern wirkungen nicht als etwas abgeleitetes anzusehen; man schrieb ihm vielmehr eine substanz zu, man sah es als etwas ursprüngliches, für sich bestehendes, unabhängiges, unbedingtes an; doch muszte diese substanz, um zu erscheinen, sich materiiren, materiell werden, materie werden, sich körperlich und endlich als körper darstellen”.

  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche. Band 1–24 und Erg.-Bände 1–3, Band 16, Zürich 1948 ff, S. 448-452.


(1) Sylvia Federicci coined the term as an improvement on “affective labour” used by Michael Hardt, extending from Rosi Braidotti. Whereas “affective labour” emphasizes the care and attention which supports labour, Federici’s “reproductive labour” stresses that labour must reproduced daily in the capitalist extraction process, which only recompenses the laborer on the most exploitative terms, the maintenance of the capacity to work which occurs during the full day, parallel to the daily , is tacitly factored into the wage of the labourer. An assembly-line worker may be paid to complete the same task 30 times an hour, but maintaining the psychological wherewithal to carry out the task each time with the requisite attention, is an expected unpaid contribution of the labourer. Environmentalism, and thinkers like Michel Serres, would extend reproductive labour to the “natural” processes of our planet which we depend on to produce what we need to live together.

“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. “

  • “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint” Silvia Federici, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, published from a lecture from October 28th 2006 at Bluestockings Radical Bookstore in New York City, 172 Allen Street as part of the “This is Forever: From Inquiry to Refusal Discussion Series.

(2) Everyday Communism compensates for the alienation and extreme atomisation of individuals under capitalism by providing for social needs in assumed solidarity. Capitalism is not a monolith, it requires unpaid, unquantified Communistic practices which reproduce the capacity to produce value for society. It may be argued that capitalism is in turn required by unquantified Feudalistic ownership and competition strategies.

(3) “On the moral grounds of economic relations: A Maussian approach “ Graeber, David, Journal of Classical Sociology 2014, Vol. 14(1) 65–77

(4) Things are, as Heidegger pointed out, res publica, “not the state but that which, known to everyone, concerns everybody and is therefore deliberated in public” Heidegger (2001) Sein und Zeit. Max Niemeyer, Tübingen p.174, also “that which concerns man is what is real in res” p.176

(5) “Things in this text are always useful because they do not exist independent of a human being’s employment of them in the constitution or maintenance of their world Whatever is beyond human employ, then, is nothing” Gottlieb, B. “A Pollitical Economy of the Smallest Things” ATROPOS, New York,p.46

(6) ibid p.50

(7) The capacity to contribute to an economy of human affects in socially necessary work depends on material conditions. Sound sleep, good nutrition, maintaining minimum social standards of presentability, are all essential to participation and enjoyment of socially produced goods. Each person has a limited time everyday to insure continued affordance of that which they need. This physical effort/time is limited by the available of corporal physical resources. In the contemporary economy based on individualized contributions and allocations of agency (in the form of money) we are all constrained to maximize individual benefit within an economy of limited available resources, both internal and external.

Inventing the Present

The bold demands on the cover of  Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams generated much popular discussion on the Left.  Sadly, none of these demands will serve to provide better auspices for the great majority of humanity. These demands are worthy of attention because of the apparent sincerity with which they are declared, not because they are ambitious, but because they are not nearly ambitious enough.

Demand full automation: As long as the automation is monopolized by capital it will first and foremost serve to precaritize and exploit labourers and their class.

Capitalism will not automate itself out of existence. It will not eliminate the workforce, and it will not even try. What it will do is create a deskilled workforce, ever more dependent on capital for the ability to produce, and create a divided workforce, that does not share a common proletarian consciousness, thus diffusing its class power. And, for when and where discontent does bubble up, it will automate the deadly force required to repress uprisings. The brutal Enforcement Droid is much more viable than the pleasant robot servant. 

Demand Universal Basic Income: This is a neo-liberal ruse to side-track more fundamental demands for socially provisioned basic needs, such as health care, housing, and education.

UBI is increasingly advocated by the Silicon Valley elite precisely because it enables more of the neoliberal withdrawal of state provisioning of social necessities. If you ‘choose’ to spend your UBI on fast food and gambling and then end up unable to pay your rent, have a pension, or have health care, its your problem, because there are no more social services to provide for you. UBI will have made it politically tenable to do away with them. 

Demand the Future: The Future can only ever emerge from the present. Left concern for the Future requires the thoroughest concern with the conditions of the vast majority of humanity on earth right now. When Full Automation is advocated with only a vague reckoning of the destruction automation has historically wrought for humanity up to this day, S&W are clearly not with us here today on the ground but off in high concept.

The left imagination, it is claimed, has been invigorated by S&W’s provocations. Such vigor would be well channeled then towards elaborating practices and politics which can fundamentally improve the lot of the great majority of people on the earth right now. Part of this will require us to look soberly at the kinds of technologies we are told are inevitable and evaluate their applicability towards the general emancipation we demand.

Inventing the Future Beholden to the Present (a review)

Srnicek & Williams Inventing the FutureSrnicek & Williams “Inventing the Future” made quite a stir when it was released, as did their Accelerationist manifesto. As usual, when I hear such excitement I am concerned, concerned that a lot of people are getting sidetracked by glamourous, new-sounding formulations, away from the very urgent work at hand, which is to understand, confront and usurp the material conditions for the reproduction of the present.

Srnicek & Williams have done a great service. I strongly appreciate their call for a futuristic, left-promethean imagination, which attempts to promote a technologically advanced yet socially just civilization. However their notion of technology is too narrow.  Granted, Veblenian leisure-class-envy will always be with us, and will provide endless fodder for the various real life soap operas which get our hearts pumping. However, in a (future, social) world where economic injustice is moderated by dutiful and earnest polity, unforseeable new forms of science and technology will become possible, which will engage us in socially culturally and materially productive activities we are incapable of envisioning today.

We do not need robotics, or “to do away with labour” for this to happen, we need to moderate economic injustice. However, under the prevailing conditions, where the vast majority of new technologies (the futuristic ones, at least) are always industrial and mechanical in nature, where the singular vector of “sensor everything”-and-AI-the-results-into-executable-drone-action prevails, where the notion of progress is overdetermined by regimens of security and defense, there only seems one way forward: new machines.

The problem with the vision of the abolition of labour by machines has been discussed as long as the vision has been projected. The robotics production chain today is still full of labouring human beings. Now, the conditions may not be so bad for those higher up in the production chain, but let us, as leftists, please not gloss over the persistent and, up until now intractable requirement for exploitation of the meanest forms of labour the earth has ever seen as we approach the bases of the production chains. The reasons that automated labour will not liberate us is because it is built with and thus perpetuates the conceptual world of extreme unfairness and despotism. A world predicated on slave/subservient labour will produce societies and cultures which justify this. The imagination of humanity emancipated from toil by slavemachines is a tyrannical one.

But left us grant that we need to be tyrannical to some extent since our enemy is to a large degree “Nature” whose unpredictability threatens to destroy us. How we prevail over the deleterious effects of nature was one of the original drives of science, and has generated so much of the essential knowledge providing some of us the leisure and opportunity we enjoy today. But there is a trade-off, one we are still ill-prepared to make.

We enslave nature, and thereby, “provisionally” we murmur, some segment of our own species (in principle equally invested with rights) . But we do not have the cultural technologies to understand the trade-off between enslavement and emancipation. In the coming era (probably brief) of a resurgence of left science as a backlash to neoliberalism, it is precisely such technologies we must cultivate.

Capitalism tightens the screws over and beyond the pain threshold, as it must. Once the economic pressure becomes unbearable, a left swing in politics inevitably ensues, as we are seeing now. This left swing must not be confused with a permanent revolution/evolution in human society/sociability. At best, the left palliative will be able to prevail for an election cycle or two, until, always under extreme duress from capitalist/plutocrat machinations it will cede the gains it had managed to produce (improved infrastructure, improved education, etc. ) again to re-neo-liberalised exploitation.

As we see today a new dawn of socialist consciousness across Europe and even in the USA, we need to prepare well to make sure some of the economic resources released for the social good actually are used not only for the high-ticket science that dazzles us, but on fostering and reproducing the earnest and studious science of engineering how socialism can be sustained (to thrive!) for longer than a couple of election cycles. We need to understand the contemporary and historic trade-off between capitalized labour and civic freedom, and we need to cultivate new technologies,, social and cultural practices which can help us sustain social and economic justice so that it prevails over and subsumes capitalist productivity.

Srnicek & Williams are impatient, this I understand. However, their appraisal of what they call “folk politics” is ungenerous. It is precisely that kind of folk politics which is powering Podemos and the Bernie Sanders campaign, which brought Syriza to power. Admittedly it is not enough and we need more than traditional street militancy to sustain socialist practices. However, visions or projects for teleportation, nano-surgery and socialist Mars colonies, are not going to convince capitalists to stop attacking socially produced value every way they can. We need more fundamental knowledge about how the present is reproduced in this first place, the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy and slavery in the very devices we use to understand such things, and we need social and cultural technologies to integrate that consciousness into new behaviours, new sociabilities, new modes of exchange.

Their book has some good history in it. Even if your thesis fails, at least do some good history, then people will still read your book. But as far as the present goes, Srnicek & Williams. “demand” for Universal Basic Income is certainly inadequate. UBI is increasingly advocated by the Silicon Valley elite precisely because it enables more of the neoliberal withdrawal of state provisioning of social necessities. If you “choose” to spend your UBI on fast food and gambling and then end up unable to pay your rent, have a pension, have health care… its your problem, because there are no more social services to provide for you. UBI will have made it politically tenable to do away with them. A far stronger demand would be one for universal basic housing,universal basic education,universal basic health care etc.

There is no reason in an advanced economy why babies are born in debt for expenses they must incur only to live, and for which they must first prepare and then submit themselves to wage labour in order to “repay”. We already have the technologies which can allow us all to live on this earth at excellent standards, they are not evenly distributed, and even when they are, they are wastefully reproduced and employed.

If we are born with any legitimate debt, it is one we owe to the legacy of exploited labour, which, through centuries of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and other oppression bequeathed us the brilliant affordances of today. Inventing the Future must happen in the present, it is the present which will afford us every future we can imagine. Therefore it is to the conditions of the present inhabitants of our planet we must attend, each and every one of them, with the same care and concern, and with all our intelligence and science, if we want to produce sustainable forms of emancipatory society under the contemporary conditions of extreme capitalist discipline.

If you would like to probe the intractable depths of these concerns, please consider my new book on ATROPOS PRESS “A Political Economy of the Smallest Things”  Gottlieb: A Political Economy of the Smallest Things



structural challenges to technological emancipation (1/3)

structural challenges to technological emancipation:
socially necessary discipline

The interplay between discipline and freedom, how the former generates the latter and the latter requires the former has been a critical dilemma since the beginning of civilization. Without going into the rich philosophical literature on the question of freedom, I would like to outline two paradigmatic examples which epitomise the contradiction, one institutional, and one industrial.

No civl society exists without what I call “the hard shell”, the complex of border fortifications and installations and the personnel which monitor, maintain and provide its more reactive and spontaneous functionality. The officers of the State administration on duty at the frontiers are not free, they must adhere strictly to their instructions, and should an “order” be dispensed from somehwere higher in the very rigid hierarchy within which their duty has bearing, they must unquestioningly obey the order and enact its contents.

gottlieb- socially necessary discipline: the hard shell

The discipline structures of absolute control in the military sector of the society function to provide the spaces where civil peace may prevail, the peace which is required for differing opinions to result not in desperate violence but rather in leisurely conversation and accommodating encounters. Today’s prevalent notion of the virtues of the secular civil sphere: freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, etc. are completely beholden to the freedom from immanent mortal threat provided firstly by the “hard shell” at the borders and secondarily by the “radical lattice”: the structure of administrative laws, manifested physically where necessary in the bodies of policemen, and increasingly in mercenary-type security employees who uphold either state-sanctioned or privately decreed regulations on acceptable behaviour. This radical lattice with its regular machinic availability is also the material infrastructure of the civil sphere, the power grid and Internet, the sewage system and the labour provisioning system which maintains these.

gottlieb - socially necessaary discipline : the radical lattice

Computers are perfect instruments to be employed in military and police work because they behave absolutely, invariably according to command protocols. There is no freedom in a computer, if there were any freedom in the computer, it would not work. The implementation of computerization into social, civil sphere as well means that technology more applicable for discipline s being used “freely” the result is a certain militarization of the civil sphere, and uncomfortable overweening transgressions of the state through shared computational protocols into everyday life in the civil sphere. Networked computers truly bring into being a Cyber-social realm where discipline is not only cultural but structural, new forms of freedom will thereby be engendered but ever more informed by computational discipline.

The philosophical problem in understanding our societies as a trade-off between discipline and freedom has troubled humanity since the first civilizations. The society where the excesses of State control can be relaxed will mean that ordinary everyday discipline will have to take up the slack. Cultural forms, traditional religious mores etc. have customarily provided this discipline. The International should in principle do away with the need for borders and the military ”defense department” prerequisites for civil peace, but until the “lutte finale” towards the International has has been victorious, every nascent communistic society of any scale will need a military and face the same problematic trade-off.

Historically there have been some promising results in the experiences of the USSR, East Germany, China and Vietnam, we can see the hints of what a society where the understanding of the trade-off between discipline and freedom has been engaged more maturely. We can see there the problem is not technology but social structure and the only way to improve concepts of social structuring and provide sustainable innovations is to study existing societies carefully. How well the prevalent computational vector of knowledge production will be able serve that kind of study remains to be seen. It is evident however, that the reduction of everyday desperation about the capacity for any participant to engage in social production can provde enormous increatses in in the ingenuity and assiduity of the general intellect, with or without computation.

The absolute discipline in the micro-, nano-mechanical functioning (on the level of the chemical composition of CPU functionality) is what provides the emancipatory potential (freedom from toil)

Marx wanted to elimate work because he wanted to eliminate toil – an alienated labour deprived of its social integrity through capitalist exploitation. Work without exploitation is not work in that sense. But what happens is: Capital manages to extract value also from activities which are not perceived as being work, that are offered up voluntarily as a part of our unspoken social compact. “Everyday Communism” in acts such as picking up deliveries for neighbours on vacation, watching somebody’s bag, or helping someone with advice, are not commonly considered work, and are not usually remunerated, but contribute to the life of the worker, and therefore to her ability to work for Capital As such “everyday communism” is also indirectly exploited through the capitalised worker.

Likewise the deeply embedded work or toil of the reproduction of the capacity to work, “reproductive labour” as Silvia Federicci calls it. Reproductive labour is on the first level domestic labour, the feeding, clothing, and the many ways of caring for the worker’s capacity to produce work to be sold to the capitalist. The wage earned by the worker is thus not only for the hours of work performed directly by that person but also of the network of unpaid contributions to the capacity to work.

The reproduction of the labourer’s capacity to work also depends on agriculture and the distribution of food, provision of clean water, nowadays also electricity, transportation to and from work, shelter and many other assumed resources, which the capitalist who employs the worker need not provide. Much of these requirements for the reproduction of the labourer are supplied by the state, under capitalism as a subsidy to business. Especially on the federal level in a capitalist system, workers are taxed, but receive only benefits which subsidise their employer. Under neo-liberalism, necessities provided by the state at moderate cost are being privatised. This means rather than public spending subsidising reproductive labour, workers pay fees from the wages they receive from capital to other capitalists.

Capital’s unbending requirement to derive maximal profits disciplines the worker. Adam Smith praised the productivity gains of the division of labour, which, industrialised and scientifically managed through Taylorism, lead to pervasive automation in production of socially necessary goods and services. Amazon workers in the “fulfillment” center are part of a machine-human symbiotic labour-unit where the human part is subject to a control regime which is constantly adjusted to maximize productivity. The non-mechanical, intangible quality of the human participant is assumed as part of the wage, as 50 years before on the Ford or Lada assembly line, workers were evaluated on the number of pieces completed per hour, the psychological and emotional work they performed internally which made their physical performance possible and sustainable for day after working day was an intangible, expected ancillary labour on top of the that demanded by the employer.

Automation has always been there to discipline the worker in order to maximize profits. Automation of the workplace and contemporary capitalism are indistinguishable. The perfunctory modernization and industrialization programs in the former Soviet Union, in China and elsewhere in the early and mid-20th century were the application of automised techno-industrial (Taylorist) means borrowed from capitalist enterprise, with all their profit-oriented performance metrics, towards nominally socialist ends. It is not surprising that they failed to produce the ideal society for which they were invoked. Not only the regimented and alienating performance-oriented discipline in the factories but even the understanding of an emancipated society based on mass-production materials in general is fundamentally flawed. On a collective farm, the step from ox and hoe to petroleum-burning tractor is not simply progress, it is the disciplining of materials (in this case metals) into a robotic form made of standardised and replaceable parts, which in turns, disciplines the farmers into being appendages of the apparatus. The massive scale agriculture of the 20th century is a product of standardization-automization and the machines are a product of a way of looking at labour which is utilitarian and abstract from the integrity of the living labourer and its society..

A civilization for which the emancipation of every member is the absolute priority will have to approach automation as a very dangerous concentration, in the way certain herbal or mineral extracts are poisonous in an undiluted state but can heal at lower concentrations. The problem is that we need the entirety of the globalized techno-industrial dispositif to produce the high technologies we invest so much hope in today, and this cannot be moderated. It seems the problem is either all or nothing.

This is where technological disobedience comes in. Technological disobedience, a term coined by Cuban-American artist Ernesto Oroza, calls us to use technological products in ways which were not intended by the manufacturer and also for longer than intended. It aims to curtail the demand for new production of automation by deriving better products based on technologies which are slightly behind the “cutting edge”. These technologies, already magnificent feats of human engineering science and the techno-miracle of collaboration (albeit under capitalist discipline) on a global scale have so much under-utilized potential. It is an obscene waste to simply dispose of these highly sophisticated and capable instruments, but they are not built with repurchasing in mind. Technological disobedience, through generating alternative automatised economies of scale where access to cutting edge instruments is difficult, and by reducing demand for cutting edge industrial products, can contribute to a moderation of the particular prevalent innovation vector in automated capitalism and perhaps open up somewhat the field for other modes of technical innovation which do not serve capital so effectively.

The wider availability of re-purposed electronics can also support an ecosystem of software which can perform excellently on older machines. One of the principle objectives of counterantidisintermediationists is to design robust networked communications functionalities which do away with the need for centralized server architecture. Each participant on the network provides both storage spce and computationality and the application runs distributedly on the ad hoc network which cannot be owned but only shared. Such a network could ideally be used to coordinate communal production and distribution as well as to provide capacities for forms of research and exchange of information and ideas which are less under the pressure to produce exchange value from still prevalent capitalism.

The machines, and automation themselves are not the enemy, they simply avail capital of great means to instrumentalise and disenfranchise our living capacity. The vision, imagined by Marx and Engels, anarchists and communists, of general emancipation from desperation and subjugation, requires not more automation but rather a transitional re-purposing of existing automation for the specific computational and productive needs of communist communities, i.e. how to federate communal production, how to efficiently reproduce the infrastructural requirements (water, sewage, health care, elder and child care, etc. ) for a self-emancipating society, and how to do all this in a way that, under constant pressure from prevalent capitalism, maintains its domain of autonomy over the conditions of reproduction.

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.


Saturday, monochrom and Telekommunisten are hosting DISMALWARE2 at Supermarkt Berlin, we will be screeing the movie DIE GSTETTENSAGA: THE RISE OF ECHSENFRIEDL, here is a guest post from Bonni Rambatan about the movie

Bonni Rambatan

(Contains movie spoilers.)

If the film is the defining medium of the 20th century, the social media is what defines the 21st century. That much is clear to anyone who pays attention to the way media constructs the lives and desires of contemporary society. If the film, as Slavoj Žižek remarks, teaches us how to desire, the social media, as it were, sets those ways of desiring into stone by determining how we like, how we share, to whom, to which things we are exposed, and so on. All is codified within the realm of technology, that—at least to non-hackers—remain opaque, even invisible. And all, of course, are presented as comfort—a perfect illustration to the Foucauldian “society of control”,
This is where the contemporary romaticism of nerds as agents of change often falls short—and precisely the target of Johannes Grenzfurthner’s latest film, Die Gstettensaga: The Rise of Echsenfriedl. In the film, we follow the adventures of two young nerd protagonists who are hired by the old media mogul, Thurner von Pjölk, to find and interview via live broadcast the reclusive new media mogul, Echsenfriedl—only to find that all is von Pjölk’s scheme of banning television and other forms of new media, because the live interview would turn all viewers into stone (because Echsenfriedl is a basilisk), hence creating mass hysteria of the dangers of new media.

It’s easy to see the Edison-vs-Tesla mythology at play in the von Pjölk-Echsenfriedl relationship constructed throughout the film. Much to the delight of the nerds, Echsenfriedl (obviously the more Tesla of the two) eventually won—but this twist brings a problematic ending. Echsenfriedl becomes the new media mogul, and the nerds overtly rejoice, even starts burning books and other forms of old media. In the narrator’s own words, “today … creative technophilia is not expressed in underground makerspaces, but out on the open streets!” and Echsenfriedl says “I like it when young people do something” and that he trusts “the wisdom of the crowd.”

It brings into question, then: are movements like Occupy Wall Street really “movements” in the traditional revolutionary sense? Is it not, rather, more of an expression of “creative technophilia”? There is nothing wrong with that, of course—as I have said in many of my other writings, hacking and play are the roots of revolution, since they shed light on new possibilities. However, what we should be careful of—and about which the film warns us so cleverly, if tongue-in-cheek—is this all-too-readiness in today’s otherwise potentially revolutionary petit-bourgeoisie to embrace technology and crowd wisdom as a sort of romantic proto-revolution for a more equal future, while it in fact remains firmly planted in the capitalist universe. In the end, it is Echsenfriedl who has the last laugh, while the nerds, as one can easily deduce, are “doing things” and producing “crowd wisdom” which produces yet more data and more market for the new media business.

The film doesn’t beat around the bush and pretend to give us a solution to this conondrum, but nor does it have to. What it does is that it forces us to think deeper about this conondrum, and the fact that much of today’s romanticized revolutions often go eerily hand in hand with the development of digital capitalism. Few films today, if any, manage to do such a feat.
Baudrillard mentioned, regarding to pornography, that what is being offered is a seduction of not sex but scientism, of objective close-ups, subsuming the real into the hyperreal. Might not the same be said today of prevailing discourses of digital revolution? What is being offered is a seduction not of true change, but of digitalism, of making the real world work more like the computerized world—a subsumation of the real into the computerized. And while on the one hand this may bring about new possibilities of equality, let us not forget that the decentralization of power it offers is a thin veil of power’s evolution as distributed biopolitical control.

(„Die Gstettensaga“ can be seen at various film festivals, hacker cons and on Pirate Bay.)

Bonni Rambatan is an independent critical theorist and cultural researcher with a main focus in digital culture, psychoanalysis, and Left-wing political theory. He has given talks and published writings in various seminars and anthologies in Europe and Asia. A graduate of English Literature, he now studies Management in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia. He also actively writes novels and makes films.