Monthly Archives: December 2013

Four Notes Towards Post-Digital Propaganda

 “Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments and to integrate the individual into a technological world” (Ellul xvii).

How might future research into digital culture approach a purported “post-digital” age? How might this be understood?


A problem comes from the discourse of ‘the digital’ itself: a moniker which points towards units of Base-2 arbitrary configuration, impersonal architectures of code, massive extensions of modern communication and ruptures in post-modern identity. Terms are messy, and it has never been easy to establish a ‘post’ from something, when pre-discourse definitions continue to hang in the air. As Florian Cramer has articulated so well, ‘post-digital’ is something of a loose, ‘hedge your bets’ term, denoting a general tendency to criticise the digital revolution as a modern innovation (Cramer).

Perhaps it might be aligned with what some have dubbed “solutionism” (Morozov) or “computationalism” (Berry 129; Golumbia 8): the former critiquing a Silicon Valley-led ideology oriented towards solving liberalised problems through efficient computerised means. The latter establishing the notion (and critique thereof) that the mind is inherently computable, and everything associated with it. In both cases, digital technology is no longer just a business that privatises information, but the business of extending efficient, innovative logic to all corners of society and human knowledge, condemning everything else through a cultural logic of efficiency.

In fact, there is a good reason why ‘digital’ might as well be an synonym for ‘efficiency’. Before any consideration is assigned to digital media objects (i.e. platforms, operating systems, networks), consider the inception of ‘the digital’ inception as such: that is information theory. If information was a loose, shabby, inefficient method of vagueness specific to various mediums of communication, Claude Shannon compressed all forms of communication into a universal system with absolute mathematical precision (Shannon). Once information became digital, the conceptual leap of determined symbolic logic was set into motion, and with it, the ‘digital’ became synonymous with an ideology of effectivity. No longer would miscommunication be subject to human finitude, nor be subject to matters of distance and time, but only the limits of entropy and the matter of automating messages through the support of alternating ‘true’ or ‘false’ relay systems.

However, it would be quite difficult to envisage any ‘post-computational’ break from such discourses – and with good reason: Shannon’s breakthrough was only systematically effective through the logic of computation. So the old missed encounter goes: Shannon presupposed Alan Turing’s mathematical idea of computation to transmit digital information, and Turing presupposed Shannon’s information theory to understand what his Universal Turing Machines were actually transmitting. The basic theories of both have not changed, but the materials affording greater processing power, extensive server infrastructure and larger storage space have simply increased the means for these ideas to proliferate, irrespective of what Turing and Shannon actually thought of them (some historians even speculate that Turing may have made the link between information and entropy two years before Bell Labs did) (Good).

Thus a ‘post-digital’ reference point might encompass the historical acknowledgment of Shannon’s digital efficiency, and Turing’s logic but by the same measure, open up a space for critical reflection, and how such efficiencies have transformed not only work, life and culture but also artistic praxis and aesthetics. This is not to say that digital culture is reducibly predicated on efforts made in computer science, but instead fully acknowledges these structures and accounts for how ideologies propagate reactionary attitudes and beliefs within them, whilst restricting other alternatives which do not fit their ‘vision’. Hence, the post-digital ‘task’ set for us nowadays might consist in critiquing digital efficiency and how it has come to work against commonality, despite transforming the majority of Western infrastructure in its wake.

The purpose of these notes is to outline how computation has imparted an unwarranted effect of totalised efficiency, and to label this effect the type of description it deserves: propaganda. The fact that Shannon and Turing had multiple lunches together at Bell labs in 1943,  held conversations and exchanged ideas, but not detailed methods of cryptanalysis  (Price & Shannon) provides a nice contextual allegory for how digital informatics strategies fail to be transparent.

But in saying this, I do not mean that companies only use digital networks for propagative means (although that happens), but that the very means of computing a real concrete function is constitutively propagative. In this sense, propaganda resembles a post-digital understanding of what it means to be integrated into an ecology of efficiency, and how technical artefacts are literally enacted as propagative decisions. Digital information often deceives us into accepting its transparency, and of holding it to that account: yet in reality it does the complete opposite, with no given range of judgements available to detect manipulation from education, or persuasion from smear. It is the procedural act of interacting with someone else’s automated conceptual principles, embedding pre-determined decisions which not only generate but pre-determine ones ability to make choices about such decisions, like propaganda.

This might consist in distancing ideological definitions of false consciousness as an epistemological limit to knowing alternatives within thought, to engaging with a real programmable systems which embeds such limits concretely, withholding the means to transform them. In other words, propaganda incorporates how ‘decisional structures’ structure other decisions, either conceptually or systematically.


Two years before Shannon’s famous Masters thesis, Turing published what would be a theoretical basis for computation in his 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” The focus of the paper was to establish the idea of computation within a formal system of logic, which when automated would solve particular mathematical problems put into function (Turing, An Application). What is not necessarily taken into account is the mathematical context to that idea: for the foundations of mathematics were already precarious, way before Turing outlined anything in 1936. Contra the efficiency of the digital, this is a precariousness built-in to computation from its very inception: the precariousness of solving all problems in mathematics.

The key word of that paper, its key focus, was on the Entscheidungsproblem, or decision problem. Originating from David Hilbert’s mathematical school of formalism, ‘decision’ means something more rigorous than the sorts of decisions in daily life. It really means a ‘proof theory’, or how analytic problems in number theory and geometry could be formalised, and thus efficiently solved (Hilbert 3). Solving a theorem is simply finding a provable ‘winning position’ in a game. Similar to Shannon, ‘decision’ is what happens when an automated system of function is constructed in such a sufficiently complex way, that an algorithm can always ‘decide’ a binary, yes or no answer to a mathematical problem, when given an arbitrary input, in a sufficient amount of time. It does not require ingenuity, intuition or heuristic gambles, just a combination of simple consistent formal rules and a careful avoidance of contradiction.

The two key words there are ‘always’ and ‘decide’. The progressive end-game of twentieth century mathematicians who, like Hilbert, sought after a simple totalising conceptual system to decide every mathematical problem and work towards absolute knowledge. All Turing had to do was make explicit Hilbert’s implicit computational treatment of formal rules, manipulate symbol strings and automate them using an ’effective’ or “systematic method” (Turing, Solvable and Unsolvable Problems  584) encoded into a machine. This is what Turing’s thesis meant (discovered independently to Alonzo Church’s equivalent thesis (Church)): any systematic algorithm solved by a mathematical theorem can be computed by a Turing machine (Turing, An Application), or in Robin Gandy’s words, “[e]very effectively calculable function is a computable function” (Gandy).

Thus effective procedures decide problems, and they resolve puzzles providing winning positions (like theorems) in the game of functional rules and formal symbols. In Turing’s words, “a systematic procedure is just a puzzle in which there is never more than one possible move in any of the positions which arise and in which some significance is attached to the final result” (Turing, Solvable and Unsolvable Problems  590). The significance, or the winning position, becomes the crux of the matter for the decision: what puzzles or problems are to be decided? This is what formalism attempted to do: encode everything through the regime of formalised efficiency, so that all of mathematically inefficient problems are, in principle, ready to be solved. Programs are simply proofs: if it could be demonstrated mathematically, it could be automated.

In 1936, Turing had showed some complex mathematical concepts of effective procedures could simulate the functional decisions of all the other effective procedures (such as the Universal Turing Machine). Ten years later, Turing and John von Neumann would independently show how physical general purpose computers, offered the same thing and from that moment on, efficient digital decisions manifested themselves in the cultural application of physical materials. Before Shannon’s information theory offered the precision of transmitting information, Hilbert and Turing developed the structure of its transmission in the underlying regime of formal decision.

Yet, there was also a non-computational importance here, for Turing was also fascinated by what decisions couldn’t compute. His thesis was quite precise, so as to elucidate that if no mathematical problem could be proved, a computer was not of any use. In fact, the entire focus of his 1936 paper, often neglected by Silicon Valley cohorts, was to show that Hilbert’s particular decision problem could not be solved. Unlike Hilbert, Turing was not interested in using computation to solve every problem, but as a curious endeavour for surprising intuitive behaviour. The most important of all, Turing’s halting, or printing problem was influential, precisely as it was undecidable; a decision problem which couldn’t be decided.

We can all picture the halting problem, even obliquely. Picture the frustrated programmer or mathematician starting at their screen, waiting to know when an algorithm will either halt and spit out a result, or provide no answer. The computer itself has already determined the answer for us, the programmer just has to know when to give up. But this is a myth, inherited with a bias towards human knowledge, and a demented understanding of machines as infinite calculating engines, rather than concrete entities of decision. For reasons that escape word space, Turing didn’t understand the halting problem in this way: instead he understood it as a contradictory example of computational decisions failing to decide on each other, on the account that there could never be one totalising decision or effective procedure. There is no guaranteed effective procedure to decide on all the others, and any attempt to build one (or invest in a view which might help build one), either has too much investment in absolute formal reason, or it ends up with ineffective procedures.

Undecidable computation might be looked at as a dystopian counterpart against the efficiency of Shannon’s ‘digital information’ theory. A base 2 binary system of information resembling one of two possible states, whereby a system can communicate with one digit, only in virtue of the fact that there is one other digit alternative to it. Yet the perfect transmission of that information, is only subject to a system which can ‘decide’ on the digits in question, and establish a proof to calculate a success rate. If there is no mathematical proof to decide a problem, then transmitting information becomes problematic for establishing a solution.


What has become clear is that our world is no longer simply accountable to human decision alone. Decisions are no longer limited to the borders of human decisions and ‘culture’ is no longer simply guided by a collective whole of social human decisions. Nor is it reducible to one harmonious ‘natural’ collective decision which prompts and pre-empts everything else. Instead we seem to exist in an ecology of decisions: or better yet decisional ecologies. Before there was ever the networked protocol (Galloway), there was the computational decision. Decision ecologies are already set up before we enter the world, implicitly coterminous with our lives: explicitly determining a quantified or bureaucratic landscape upon which an individual has limited manoeuvrability.

Decisions are not just digital, they are continuous as computers can be: yet decisions are at their most efficient when digitally transferred. Decisions are everywhere and in everything. Look around. We are constantly told by governments and states that are they making tough decisions in the face of austerity. CEOs and Directors make tough decisions for the future of their companies and ‘great’ leaders are revered for being ‘great decisive leaders’: not just making decisions quickly and effectively, but also settling issues and producing definite results.

Even the word ‘decide’, comes from the Latin origin of ‘decidere’, which means to determine something and ‘to cut off.’ Algorithms in financial trading know not of value, but of decision: whether something is marked by profit or loss. Drones know not of human ambiguity, but can only decide between kill and ignore, cutting off anything in-between. Constructing a system which decides between one of two digital values, even repeatedly, means cutting off and excluding all other possible variables, leaving a final result at the end of the encoded message. Making a decision, or building a system to decide a particular ideal or judgement must force other alternatives outside of it. Decisions are always-already embedded into the framework of digital action, always already deciding what is to be done, how it can be done or what is threatening to be done. It would make little sense to suggest that these entities ‘make decisions’ or ‘have decisions’, it would be better to say that they are decisions and ecologies are constitutively constructed by them.

The importance of neo-liberal digital transmissions are not that they become innovative, or worthy of a zeitgeist break: but that they demonstrably decide problems whose predominant significance is beneficial for self-individual efficiency and accumulation of capital. Digital efficiency is simply about the expansion of automating decisions and what sort of formalised significances must be propagated to solve social and economic problems, which creates new problems in a vicious circle.

The question can no longer simply be ‘who decides’, but now, ‘what decides?’ Is it the cafe menu board, the dinner party etiquette, the NASDAQ share price, Google Pagerank, railway network delays, unmanned combat drones, the newspaper crossword, the javascript regular expression or the differential calculus? It’s not quite right to say that algorithms rule the world, whether in algo-trading or in data capture, but the uncomfortable realisation that real entities are built to determine provable outcomes time and time again: most notably ones for cumulating profit and extracting revenue from multiple resources.

One pertinent example: consider George Dantzig’s simplex algorithm: this effective procedure (whose origins began in multidimensional geometry) can always decide solutions for large scale optimisation problems which continually affect multi-national corporations. The simplex algorithm’s proliferation and effectiveness has been critical since its first commercial application in 1952, when Abraham Charnes and William Cooper used it to decide how best to optimally blend four different petroleum products at the Gulf Oil Company (Elwes 35; Gass & Assad 79). Since then the simplex algorithm has had years of successful commercial use, deciding almost everything from bus timetables and work shift patterns to trade shares and Amazon warehouse configurations. According to the optimisation specialist Jacek Gondzio, the simplex algorithm runs at “tens, probably hundreds of thousands of calls every minute” (35), always deciding the most efficient method of extracting optimisation.

In contemporary times, nearly all decision ecologies work in this way, accompanying and facilitating neo-liberal methods of self-regulation and processing all resources through a standardised efficiency: from bureaucratic methods of formal standardisation, banal forms ready to be analysed one central system, to big-data initiatives and simple procedural methods of measurement and calculation. The technique of decision is a propagative method of embedding knowledge, optimisation and standardisation techniques in order to solve problems and an urge to solve the most unsolvable ones, including us.

Google do not build into their services an option to pay for the privilege of protecting privacy: the entire point of providing a free service which purports to improve daily life, is that it primarily benefits the interests of shareholders and extend commercial agendas. James Grimmelmann gave a heavily detailed exposition on Google’s own ‘net neutrality’ algorithms and how biased they happen to be. In short, PageRank does not simply decide relevant results, it decides visitor numbers and he concluded on this note.

With disturbing frequency, though, websites are not users’ friends. Sometimes they are, but often, the websites want visitors, and will be willing to do what it takes to grab them (Grimmelmann 458).

If the post-digital stands for the self-criticality of digitalisation already underpinning contemporary regimes of digital consumption and production, then its saliency lies in understanding the logic of decision inherent to such regimes. The reality of the post-digital, shows that machines remain curiously efficient whether we relish in cynicism or not. Such regimes of standardisation and determined results, were already ‘mistakenly built in’ to the theories which developed digital methods and means, irrespective of what computers can or cannot compute.


Why then should such post-digital actors be understood as instantiations of propaganda? The familiarity of propaganda is manifestly evident in religious and political acts of ideological persuasion: brainwashing, war activity, political spin, mind control techniques, subliminal messages, political campaigns, cartoons, belief indoctrination, media bias, advertising or news reports. A definition of propaganda might follow from all of these examples: namely, the systematic social indoctrination of biased information that persuades the masses to take action on something which is neither beneficial to them, nor in their best interests: or as Peter Kenez writes, propaganda is “the attempt to transmit social and political values in the hope of affecting people’s thinking, emotions, and thereby behaviour” (Kenez 4)  Following Stanley B. Cunningham’s watered down definition, propaganda might also denote a helpful and pragmatic “shorthand statement about the quality of information transmitted and received in the twentieth century” (Cunningham 3).

But propaganda isn’t as clear as this general definition makes out: in fact what makes propaganda studies such a provoking topic is that nearly every scholar agrees that no stable definition exists. Propaganda moves beyond simple ‘manipulation’ and ‘lies’ or derogatory, jingoistic representation of an unsubtle mood – propaganda is as much about the paradox of constructing truth, and the irrational spread of emotional pleas, as well as endorsing rational reason. As the master propagandist William J. Daugherty wrote;

It is a complete delusion to think of the brilliant propagandist as being a professional liar. The brilliant propagandist […] tells the truth, or that selection of the truth which is requisite for his purpose, and tells it in such a way that the recipient does not think that he is receiving any propaganda…. (Daugherty 39).

Propaganda, like ideology works by being inherently implicit and social. In the same way that post-ideology apologists ignore their symptom, propaganda is also ignored. It isn’t to be taken as a shadowy fringe activity, blown apart by the democratising fairy-dust of ‘the Internet’. As many others have noted, the purported ‘decentralising’ power of online networks, offer new methods for propagative techniques, or ‘spinternet’ strategies, evident in China (Brady). Iran’s recent investment into video game technology only makes sense, only when you discover that 70% of Iran’s population are under 30 years of age, underscoring a suitable contemporary method of dissemination. Similarly in 2011, the New York City video game developer Kuma Games was mired in controversy when it was discovered that an alleged CIA agent, Amir Mirza Hekmati, had been recruited to make an episodic video game series intending to “change the public opinion’s mindset in the Middle East.” (Tehran Times). The game in question, Kuma\War (2006 – 2011) was a free-to-play First-Person Shooter series, delivered in episodic chunks, the format of which attempted to simulate biased re-enactments of real-life conflicts, shortly after they reached public consciousness.

Despite his unremarkable leanings towards Christian realism, Jacques Ellul famously updated propaganda’s definition as the end product of what he previously lamented as ‘technique’. Instead of viewing propaganda as a highly organised systematic strategy for extending the ideologues of peaceful warfare, he understood it as a general social phenomenon in contemporary society.

Ellul outlined two types: political and sociological propaganda: Political propaganda involves government, administrative techniques which intend to directly change the political beliefs of an intended audience. By contrast, sociological propaganda is the implicit unification of involuntary public behaviour which creates images, aesthetics, problems, stereotypes, the purpose of which aren’t explicitly direct, nor overtly militaristic. Ellul argues that sociological propaganda exists; “in advertising, in the movies (commercial and non-political films), in technology in general, in education, in the Reader’s Digest; and in social service, case work, and settlement houses” (Ellul 64). It is linked to what Ellul called “pre” or “sub-propaganda”: that is, an imperceptible persuasion, silently operating within ones “style of life” or permissible attitude (63). Faintly echoing Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses (Althusser 182) nearly ten years prior, Ellul defines it as “the penetration of an ideology by means of its sociological context.” (63) Sociological propaganda is inadequate for decisive action, paving the way for political propaganda – its strengthened explicit cousin – once the former’s implicitness needs to be transformed into the latter’s explicitness.

In a post-digital world, such implicitness no longer gathers wartime spirits, but instead propagates a neo-liberal way of life that is individualistic, wealth driven and opinionated. Ellul’s most powerful assertion is that ‘facts’ and ‘education’ are part and parcel of the sociological propagative effect: nearly everyone faces a compelling need to be opinionated and we are all capable of judging for ourselves what decisions should be made, without at first considering the implicit landscape from which these judgements take place. One can only think of the implicit digital landscape of Twitter: the archetype for self-promotion and snippets of opinions and arguments – all taking place within Ellul’s sub-propaganda of data collection and concealment. Such methods, he warns, will have “solved the problem of man” (xviii).

But information is of relevance here, and propaganda is only effective within a social community when it offers the means to solve problems using the communicative purview of information:

Thus, information not only provides the basis for propaganda but gives propaganda the means to operate; for information actually generates the problems that propaganda exploits and for which it pretends to offer solutions. In fact, no propaganda can work until the moment when a set of facts has become a problem in the eyes of those who constitute public opinion (114).

Looking at Ellul’s quote sideways, the issue isn’t that strategies have simply adopted contemporary technology to propagate an impressionable demographic, but that information is simply always-already efficient and effective in its automation. And with that, we can look at the relationship between digital transmission and computational decision anew.

Here’s Turing again, who in his last published essay Solvable and Unsolvable Problems (1954) articulated a passing remark to the Church-Turing thesis, already outlined in his 1936 paper;

This statement is still somewhat lacking in definiteness, and will remain so [...] The statement is moreover one which one does not attempt to prove. Propaganda is more appropriate to it than proof, for its status is something between a theorem and a definition. In so far as we know a priori what is a puzzle and what is not, the statement is a theorem. In so far as we do not know what puzzles are, the statement is a definition which tells us something about what they are (Turing, Solvable and Unsolvable Problems, 188)

The statement in question not only refers to Turing’s thesis, but also alludes to the predetermined structures for how something can be effectively calculable, (Rosser) and then automated by a machine. Turing wasn’t exactly prophetic in calling it propaganda considering his contributions to cryptanalysis and intelligence. Indeed, the historical relationship between Turing’s contribution to decoding information for the Government Code and Cypher School (the forerunner of GCHQ) using developed technologies, continue to play themselves out in the ongoing NSA mass surveillance revelations (Hopkins).

Yet, why would Turing define a mathematical idea as propaganda rather than proof? He was well aware that his statement was not an effective procedure in itself, which is to say it cannot be proved – it is certainly about proofs, or how one can prove certain things in a formal system and what computational methods can decide results, but it doesn’t give us knowledge about what computational or systematic procedures are. The statement only tells us that automated machines can decide the same winning conditions through equivalent algorithmic methods. The statement or thesis does not tell us why computation might be able to solve problems at all – moreover it can’t even tell us whether a problem can be decided, before one even attempts to find a solution. There is no effective procedure to ‘decide’ every effective procedure, as per the halting problem. Thus following Turing, there is no ‘correct’ use of using this proof for practical use. By contrast, no-one cannot dispute the resolution of a mathematical ‘proof’: for unlike science, once it is proved, by its very nature it cannot be unproved, unless an error lies at the center.

Pushing speculation to its extremes, this might be the reason why Turing understood his thesis as propaganda and not proof; formal systems certainly seem to offer effective procedures to problems, but unless a winning position is proved in advance, it can never fully justify itself in offering solutions in all cases. There is no effective procedure to guarantee a proof about what effective procedures are, and this is Turing’s propaganda: there is no guaranteed provable winning position about the reality of winning positions. There is no guaranteed calculation which calculates all other calculations. There is only propaganda.

Turing’s propaganda operates as if it can always produce idealised solutions to problems, but in its operation, must hide uncomfortable paradoxes which allow its communication to occur in the first place. In other words, there are only concrete methods of effective procedure which unavoidably propagate the view that all problems can be totally solved in advance.

For what is computation if it isn’t the technical means of enacting effective, efficient, propagated pre-determined results through societal means? What if the machine was the propagandist? Frederic Charles Bartlett argued that propaganda was primarily a decisive method of suggestion, not simply designed to control psychological behaviour, but to acquire specific, effective results through purposeful action (Bartlett). Perhaps we could add to this, the deeper realisation that propaganda is no longer limited to the limits of psychological behaviour, or the limits of societal communities, but extends to the limits of decisional machines which decide results in an infrastructure.

Perhaps a post-digital culture might address newer forms of propaganda emergent in computational culture: not posters, pamphlets, zines and broadcasts, but also, gamification, platform devices, spy-ware, apparatuses, services and subscriptions: each one only allowing certain pre-determined outcomes to be realised, each one already deciding (or propagating), a limited number of routes, which users mistake for their own ‘openness’. If there is one thing Silicon Valley would love to solve, in their self-congratulatory wallowing, it is detecting whether a certain problem always has a solution: and whenever they come up with one, it usually has a market to satisfy and a propagative strategy to make it seem beneficial.

Digital information in a post-digital ecology doesn’t seem to want to be free (Polk), or at the very least, it doesn’t want to look like it is: rather digital information simply wants to propagate itself as a watchdog for any problems that are always-already resolved, refusing its own transparency in turn. The best we can hope for is to understand information’s propagative effect, and ask not of its truth, but of what it propagates. Following Orwell, we should admit that as far as digital innovation is concerned, “[a]ll propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth. I don’t think this matters so long as one knows what one is doing, and why” (Orwell, Davidson & Angus 229).




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On Remembering a Post-Digital Future.

We have always been post-digital or at least I cannot recall a time when art wasn’t?

To claim this is surely ridiculous, as the post condition demands the prior instantiation of a digital state that purportedly did not begin until the mid 1970s[1]. Yet if, for a moment, we entertain the idea that art has always been post-digital, in what way might this make sense? How might this enable a re-reading of pre-digital practices and inform our understanding of future post-digital practice?

1.  The case for a post-digital anthrax.

In pursuing this question we should of course take note of the precedent of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (Latour, 1993). In its function as antecedent to the Post-Modern, Latour’s claim appears not to be susceptible to the same redundancy as that made in regard to the post-digital. The modern does not after all explicitly refer to its precedents in the way the terms post-modern or post-digital might. However, in Latour’s attempt to reconnect the social and the natural worlds by denying the distinction between nature and culture, We Have Never Been Modern operates from a similar retroactive position – a position in which the Modern assumes distinction from that which came before it. In this sense the Modern, too, was always post conditional. This is not simply a case of semantic positioning but reflects fundamental aspects of Latour’s work on irreductions in regard to discovery and prior events.

“We always state retrospectively the previous existence of something, which is then said to have been discovered” (Latour, 1988).

In as much as naming something might be considered a discovery of sorts, the post-digital has always existed just as anthrax bacillus existed before Pasteur named it. (Latour, 1988). Discovery is not creation. More than this then, naming, like discovery, works backward in time, creating that which existed before its existence was known. “Once again time does not move in one direction” (Latour, 1988).

In arguing as he has that time is a configurable control mechanism pursuant to a force of labour beyond subjective or objective perception (Latour 1996), Latour challenges an anthropocentric world view that promotes humans as the arbitrator of existence. The post-digital, like anthrax, may always have existed. It is not a state created by our observance of it or something metaphysically conjured up exclusively for our amusement. It may previously quite happily have gone about its business un-disturbed by human interest.

While the logic of a mind-independent existence is clearly viable in regard to extant entities such as anthrax, we must go one step further to accept phenomena such as the post-digital in this way. For surely a human idea cannot exist before it was thought of?

Extending Latour’s assertion that the world is comprised of relational networks formed by independent actants, Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) allows for thoughts to operate as active agents that are on an equal footing with objects (Harman, 2013). For Harman, ideas are simply objects and thus capable of existing independently of our recognition of them. Here there is a subtle but significant difference with Latour’s notion of irreduction as it affects our reading of the post-digital. Harman’s light-hearted aside that “I am a genius in something that doesn’t exist yet” (Harman, 2013) should be read not as a claiming that all ideas have been thought and are simply waiting for humans to discover them – this would suggest some universalizing aperion that Harman clearly rejects. Rather Harman’s statement should be seen as talking about the phenomena of being a genius rather than the subject of his genius. Thus it can only be in hindsight of brilliance that we declare someone to be a genius as the knowledge they have created becomes recognized. The idea of genius, like the idea of the post-digital, is like a programming variable waiting for instantiation it must be declared before it can be defined.

We must consider then the possibility that the post-digital as a recognition-independent phenomenon existed not simply before Nicholas Negroponte claimed the digital revolution to be over in 1998 (Negroponte, 1998) or Kim Cascone coined the term in 2000 (Cascone, 2000), but before the digital itself.

Indeed Cascone, in coining the term, grounds the post-digital in pre-digital practices of the early twentieth century.[2] It is, according to Cascone, this shift in focus from foreground to background – from notes to noise – which leads to the glitch in digital sound processing (Cascone, 2000). While Cascone tends to draw on historical practices as precursors to the emergence of the post-digital glitch, I want to suggest that practices such as those of John Cage and Futurists are not simple ground work for an emergent genre but are in fact recognition of an existing post-digital practice. If you like – the post-digital before the ‘discovery’ of the post-digital.

In this sense the post-digital might be far closer to Latour’s anthrax bacillus than first acknowledged. It too may have been quite happily going about its business oblivious to the accolade of critical recognition.  Further more if Cascone can find examples of the post-digital before even the digital era, the very nature of the digital must also be called into question.

2. Grounding the rabbit-hole.

 Before we chase our own post-digital rabbit-tail down a futile, rhetorical rabbit-hole, it would be sensible to ground this argument within a digital ontology in the hope that it may provide some terra firma in which to burrow.

If the digital is grounded in the material world as John Wheeler would have us believe, it should help solidify the position of the post-digital as a state of practice (Wheeler, 1990). At the bottom of Wheeler’s ontological rabbit hole is the ‘it from the bit’ (Wheeler, 1990) – the notion that every aspect of the physical world stems from a yes/no immaterial source. It from bit brings an abrupt dead-end to the rabbit hole and levels the ground by reducing the aperion that is so scorned by Harman and other Sceptical Realists, to a simple binary decision at the lowest level. There is no master plan or grand scheme; simply a 0 and 1 – a digital response in which nothingness cedes to physics through the act of observation.

This binary function is the fundamental nature of the digital that operates as a set of discrete packets of information as opposed to the analogue that adopts a smooth and continuous state. The oppositional relationship between the digital and the analogue that is the basis for Digital Philosophy’s claim that the world is ultimately finite (Miller, 2013) stems from Lewis’s mathematically grounded definitions of the digital as discrete, and the analogue as continuous forms of representation (Lewis, 1971).

Indeed the seduction of the digital era was the distinction that it drew in regards to the analogue by offering an enlightenment in which each unit was perfect and infallible – infinitely lossless re/production at all levels. The analogue, by contrast, with its lax attitude to the world was degenerate and impure.

If anything, the post-digital is a rejection of this either/or dichotomy and an acknowledgment that an epistemic agent cannot establish whether nature is analogue or digital in nature (Florridi, 2008). It simply does not follow that the world is ontologically either digital or analogue simply because it appears so.

Instead we are left with the alternative position that the perception of a discrete or continuous mode is dependent on the level of abstraction assumed by an epistemic agent. As Lucciano Florridi’s level of abstraction argument succinctly puts it, “reality can be observed as being either digital or analogue, depending on the epistemic position of the observer …  and the level of abstraction adopted” (Florridi, 2008). Drawing both on Kant’s antinomies (Kant, 1964) and Young’s interference experiment (Harrington, 2011), Florridi[3] suggests that the oppositional digital / analogue framework that Wheeler’s “its from bits” relies on, is untenable.

In refuting the distinction between the analogue and the digital, it is as if Florridi has stripped non-human agents of agency and reduced matter to an indeterminate grey mush in which the digital and the analogy are only distinguished in our perception of them. Although verging on an anthropocentric model, how, within such a framework, can we understand the nature of digital materiality that is central to our positioning of post-digital art practice?

As the digital loses its allure in the afterglow, as Transmediale’s 2014 thematic statement proposes (Transmediale, 2013), we have seen the proliferation of practices that are distinctly or inherently disinterested in the distinction between digital and analogue materiality. The digital has become simply another studio material that no longer assumes a privileged position as it vies for studio space alongside paint and plaster. Indeed the fusion of digital and analogue functions – as typified by 3D printing, robotics and sensor inclusive practices – exemplifies the untenable position of an “its from bits” argument that promotes a universal materiality.

Instead we see an engagement with materiality from the perspective of the work – a sort of conceptual-materialism that brings both analogue and digital materiality into play with each other. But how do either analogue or digital states possess materiality as non-corporeal concepts, neither being bound to a substance?

While affirming material agency, binding materiality to substance denies objects the potential of a primary role in a Latourian network and denies the idea of equity between physical and metaphysical objects that is proposed by Sceptical Realism. Instead, materiality might be treated as a non-corporeal state that is distinguished from material substance not just by a parallel etymology[4] but, as Kant suggests in his treatment of materie as differentiated from substance[5] (Kant, 1964), and Heidegger in his assertion of “thingness” that “does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds it” (Heidegger, 1975). While both Kant and Heidegger support in different ways the reading of substance-independent materiality, they maintain an anthropocentric position[6] that conflicts with the flat ontology of Sceptical Realism.

It is Graham Harman again who reconciles this anthropocentric conflict in his critique of Heidegger’s Zuhandenheit – readiness-to-hand. In Harman’s theory of objects[7], objects are not ontologically exhausted by human perception. They remain independent and able to enter into a non-human Latourian network. If materiality is neither a default state of substance nor an attribute of human perception, the very idea of materiality seems doubtful unless we allow for a form of co-constitution that is formed by the relata between objects.

It is precisely this co-dependent dynamic between human and non-human actants that Leonardi (2010) clarifies in regard to digital-media. Arguing for a definition of materiality that is inclusive of instantiations of non-corporeal agents, Leonardi (2010) stresses the affordance of materials rather than their physical properties, stating that it is in the interaction between artefacts and humans that the materiality is constituted.

This alternative, relational definition moves materiality ‘out of the artefact’ and into the space of the interactions between people and artefacts. No matter whether those artefacts are physical or digital, their materiality is determined to a substantial degree by when, how and why they are used. These definitions imply that materiality is not a property of artefacts but a product of the relationships between artefacts and the people who produce and consume them’ (Leonardi 2010: 13).

At risk of falling into another anthropocentric stance, Leonardi fails to extend the argument to allow for a materiality constituted solely between non-human actants. Drawing again on Heidegger we can see how – in the example of the jug (Heidegger, 1975) – materiality is defined by a co-constitutional relation with the water that fills it.

Co-constituted materiality then might be thought about as an Object Orientated Philosophy form of Mearleau-Ponty’s ‘intentional-arc’ in which the object extends beyond itself while remaining within itself. To reinterpret Young’s reading of Mearleau-Ponty:  Co-constituted objects such as materiality thus loop through objects, loop though objects and the world and loop through the objects and the virtual world (Young, 2011).

It is the ability of the co-constituted object to overreach itself while remaining embodied, to transcend subjectivity by entering into a relational schema, that emerges as a method by which materiality is actualised. Materiality is both an independent object – in an OOO sense – and an object that is dependent on the structural method of the actant network that realises it. Of course this definition of materiality as a structural method applies equally to both analogue and digital modes. In fact, it is these continuous and discrete states that constitute the underlying structural methods, which ultimately underpin materiality.

 3. The life of Zoog – a Post-Proposition.

 The central role of structural method in materiality is played out in the more than confusing linguistic parallels between Object Oriented Programming (OOP)[8] and Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). As a core feature of the OOP, the nature of the object as an abstract concept has clear parallels to the nature of physical objects, to the extent that in many introductory OOP texts the first object class named is a Person, Car or, as is the case with Daniel Shiffman, a Zoog – a ‘Processing-born being’ (Shiffman, 2008). Shiffman’s Zoog, like a person, has a childhood, must learn to walk and eventually reproduce through the programmed Variables, Conditionals and Functions that define it.

Object Oriented Programming’s use of concepts like object, inheritance and encapsulation are more that metaphorical aids. They are indicative of the interconnectedness of physical and technological digital materiality that grounds the digital in a material structural method well before Kim Cascone’s work on The Aesthetics of Failure recognised post-digital disillusionment.

‘Object oriented methodology with a promise “… everything in life is an object” seemed more like commonsense even before it was proven to be meaningful’ (Mehta, 2012).

It is no surprise then that OOP terminology emerged at MIT in the early 1960s[9] at precisely the time when Lucy Lippard’s ‘ultra-conceptual’ artists were dematerialising the art object and rethinking materiality. As Jacob Lillemose explains, Lippard’s dematerialisation of art as an object is not an argument for the disappearance of materiality but a rethinking of materiality in conceptual terms (Lillemose, 2008). When Lippard describes conceptual art as having emerged from two directions – “art as idea and art as action” (Lippard, 1973) – she failed to recognise that an action can be an idea, and thus the misnomer that conceptual art is not concerned with materiality doesn’t hold.[10]

‘[I]nstead of understanding dematerialization as a negation or dismissal of materiality as such, it can be comprehended as an extensive and fundamental rethinking of the multiplicity of materiality beyond its connection to the entity of the object’ (Lillemose, 2008).

Meanwhile around the same time in MIT computer labs OOP was attempting to make sense of dematerialised objects by establishing a programming structure grounded in material objects. While I accept the argument that, like most metaphorical terms, OOP’s object analogy now wears thin through over use (Ewert, 2012), I also assert that OOP’s ability to model the world is less significant than its ability to inform the world about its own material state. In developing a programming language grounded in object metaphor, OOP reflected back to us something new about the state of the material world – the structural methods that underpin objects.

While we can thus see both the development of OOP and the dematerialisation of art as symptomatic of a broader desire to re-engage with materiality[11], seminal conceptual art works such as Alan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts, 1959,[12] deepen the connection by engaging systems that are clearly aligned to digital structural methods[13].

Kaprow’s Happenings generated an environment that immersed the viewer inside the work, not just by putting them inside the performative space but by making them active agents in the work through tightly prescribed instructions that – in the case of 18 Happenings in Six Parts, fragmented narrative by breaking the audience up, moving them around and creating ambiguous ‘free’ time within the work (Rodenbeck, 2011).

Kaprow can be seen as effectively treating both human (performers and audience) and non-human objects as programmable units that execute simple ‘non-matrixed’ actions that embody and make the idea concrete (Kirby, 1995). Their function as programmable objects within the work is discrete and autonomous. Each actant is performing a task that is self-contained and digital in a way that parallels methods of encapsulation and instantiation in OOP.

What I propose is occurring in 18 Happenings in Six Parts, then, is an instance of a digital structural method that is a function of both a shared agency and a fragmented isolation that relocates the individual at the spatiotemporal centre of the materiality that is the work. What we have is not one continuous material but multiple co-constituted materialities all of which are inter-connected in the relational network of the piece.

In illustrating the ability of non-technological practices to realise a digital materiality by operating through a digital structural method, the work liberates the digital from technology and from the specific delineators of the digital era. The digital is no longer the exclusive domain of the computer. It is a material state defined by a structural method. The potential for the digital to exist prior to the advent of digital technology re-positions not only the digital but also the post-digital that might now be considered as more than simply a refutation of digital technologies.

 The idea that art has always been post-digital now seems less ludicrous not simply because the digital has been shown as an enduring material state but because of the parallels between post-digital disillusionment and an unbounded digital materiality.

The post-digital’s disinterest in the distinction between digital and analogue materiality is a levelling of the material playing field so that any distinction between them is no longer the definitive factor. Both are objects not as form but as method. In an ironic twist, the promises of a digital immateriality made by technology have instead found reality in the co-constituted interactions of human and non-human agents as material methods.

As a structural method the digital is not dependent on the technological constructs of the digital era that it is commonly associated with. The body – perhaps the most analogue of all objects – has been shown, through the example of Kaprow’s work, as capable of constructing a co-constituted digital structure, thus chronologically freeing the digital from specific media histories. In this sense “the digital” predates the development of digital-technologies, rather than being a condition determined by it.

5. After the coup?

If a new materiality in the guise of the post-digital has risen up and overthrown the governance of technologies that have for so long appeared to dictate its condition, what comes next? Is the new regime as susceptible to corruption as the old, or are we witnessing some new world order?

If the digital afterglow attempts to find anything, it is not a new pathway in the wasteland of the digital aftermath (Transmediale, 2014), but the retracing of a pathway that appeared long buried in the plethora of digital gadgetry that litters the material landscape.

There is nothing new about the post-digital, at least not in the sense of it being chronologically tethered to the digital era. Rather, the post-digital is a renewed interest in the materiality of the world that includes digital materiality. It is the epiphany that the digital as a structural method was a material long before the first 8-bit string.

The rethinking of digital practices as proposed by the post-digital is not really that radical after all, then. While it may be that the so-called post-digital is a symptom of resistance to the commodification of digital culture, it is not simply a nostalgic yearning for the Jurassic technologies as proposed by Andersen and Plod (2013). The post-digital might instead be considered as a neo-material state in which the materiality of “objects” is better understood not as a physical condition but in non-corporeal terms as a relational structural method.

Although neo-materialism in its Marxist positioning of human subjects as objects of labour (Simon, 2013) shares much in common with the post-digital’s rejection of the technological object, my use of the term here is in regard to the materiality of the digital and the post-digital. In this way, the post-digital is an affirmation of the significance of method rather than form in materiality in a way that is not only compatible with a neo-material positioning of labour relations but a further affirmation of the relevance of Sceptical Realism non-anthropocentric positioning of objects in regard to materiality.

Whatever we call this rediscovered state of materiality that is emerging as post-digital, it is not a cybernetic post-human fusion of the co-constituted technological flesh in which the digital is grafted onto the body to realise a new materiality. (Mitchell, 2004).

Even if the neo-material body turns out to be digital after all, as it might conceivably do once we accept materiality as structural method, this is not a wetware art dream in which we find out that the body has always been digital. Far from being a dream, though, the so-called post-digital has simply woken us up to what other non-human objects knew all along.

Art has always been post-digital; we are only now remembering that it is.











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Bolt, Barbara. Art beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. PDF.


Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal 24.4 (2000): 12-18. Print.


Dipan, M. “I Think It Was the Churn of Software Projects Prior to OO Days. OO Helped by Adding the Fundamentally Critical Concept – Model the Real World .” Web log comment. Http:// Stack Exchange, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.


Dombrowski, D. A. “Heidegger’s Anti-Anthropocentrism.” Between Species Winter & Spring (1994): 26+. Http:// Cal-Poly. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.


Ewert, Winston. “Does Object Oriented Programming Really Model The Real World?” Web log post. Programmers. Stack Exchange, 2 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.


Harman, Graham. “Materialism Is Not the Solution.” AIAS Guest Lecture. AIAS Auditorium, Aarhus. 09 Oct. 2013. Lecture.


Harrington, Bill. “Thomas Young’s Double Slit Experiment.” MIT Video. MITvideo, 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <>.


Heidegger, Martin, and Albert Hofstadter. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.


Floridi, L. (2004). Informational Realism, in Proc. Selected Papers from the Computers and Philosophy Conference (CAP2003), Canberra, Australia. CRPIT, 37. Weckert, J. and Al-Saggaf, Y., Eds. ACS. 7-12.


Kant, Immanuel, and Norman Kemp Smith. Critique of Pure Reason. London: Macmillan, 1964. Print.


Kirby, M. 1995. Happenings. In: Sandford, M. eds. 1995. Happenings and other acts. London: Routedge.


Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.


Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.


Leonardi, Paul M. “Digital Materiality? How Artifacts without Matter, Matter.” First Monday 15.6-7 (2010): n. pag. Print.


Lewis, D. “Analog and Digital.” Nous 5 (1971): 321-27. Http:// Wiley. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.


Lillemose, J., 2008. Conceptualizing Materiality – art from the dematerialization of the object to the condition of immateriality. [WWW Document]. Histories and Theories of Intermedia. URL (accessed 10.1.13).


Lippard, Lucy. “The Dematerialization of Art.” Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. 46-50. Print.


Leonardi, Paul M. “Digital Materiality? How Artifacts without Matter, Matter.” First Monday 15.6-7 (2010): n. pag. Print.


Miller, D. and Fredkin, E. (2013). What is Digital Philosophy? | Digital Philosophy. [online] Retrieved from: [Accessed: 25 Nov 2013].


Mitchell, Robert, and Phillip Thurtle. Data Made Flesh: Embodying Information. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.


Negroponte, N. “Beyond Digital.” Wired 12.6 (1998): n. pag. Print.


Rodenbeck, J.F., 2011. Radical prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the invention of happenings. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.


Shiffman, Daniel. Learning Processing: A Beginner’s Guide to Programming Images, Animation, and Interaction. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier, 2008. Print.


“Transmediale 2014.” Transmediale, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <>.


Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort. The New Media Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. Print.


Wheeler, John A. “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links.” Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information: The Proceedings of the 1988 Workshop on Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information Held May-June, 1989, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information, Redwood City, CA. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1990. 309+. Print.



[1] Although there is no definitive starting point take the release of the Apple-1 in 1976 as marking the proliferation of digital technology typified by the digital age.

[2] Cascone identifies both the Futurists and Cageian attention to noise from the 1950s as key identifiers of post-digital music.

[3] Florridi’s papers against a digital ontology lays the groundwork for Informational Structural Realism.

[4] As explained by JeeHee Hong, material and materiality are ambivalent terms that refer both to physical and non-physical matter (Hong).

[5] That the philosophical concept of substance is an a priori condition for our experience.

[6] For Heidegger, “humans are both a kind of entity and the clearing in which entities can be manifest” (Dombrowski, 1994).

[7] First laid out in Tool-Being 2002 and later developed by Levi Bryant  into Object Oriented Ontology  in 2009.

[8] OOP is a programming language organized around objects rather than actions.

[9] Although Simula 1965 is the first recognized OOP language its origins can found in MIT’s artificial intelligence group work in the late 1950’s and  Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, 1963)

[10] Lippard acknowledges the deficiencies off the term in regard to materiality of objects in the preface to Six Year: The dematerialization of the art object … (Lippard, 1973).

[11] The Counterculture movement of the 1960’s is taken as a rethinking of materiality as an idea and in action.

[12] Kaprow’s Happenings are seen as ‘a touchstone for nearly every discussion of new media as it relates to interactivity in art’ (Wardrip-Frui 2003: 1). More than simply providing a precedent for current approaches to interactivity, early works such as Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts also highlight inter-action as an exchange in which the materiality of the work is co-constituted by independent agents.


[13] I fuller analysis of materiality in Kaprow’s Happenings will be included in the upcoming publication – Digital Movement: Essays in Motion Technology and Performance. Popat & Salazar.

A Dialogue on Cassette Tapes and their Memories

Tape-in leader
Have we reached an end point of the cultural history of computing? To advertise the first Macintosh computer in 1984, Apple released a famous commercial video directed by Ridley Scott. In a dystopian future, the Macintosh will save civilization from a totalitarian state with obvious references to both George Orwell’s Big Brother and allegedly also the IBM mainframe systems that were controlling the market at the time. The future will not be like Orwell’s 1984 because Apple’s computer interface will redefine what computing means. It will no longer be an interface for conformity that absorbs the worker, but an interface for individual expression and cultural taste. No doubt, the Macintosh took part in a history where computers redefined cultural consumption, communication and the arts. The computer, and not least the smart phone and tablet, has grown to become a primary medium for cultural production and consumption.

Three decades later, the table is turning. According to a leaked NSA presentation it is now Apple who is Big Brother, and enthusiastic iPhone customers who are the zombies living in a surveillance state (Rosenbach et al). In other words, the promise of a digital revolution also implies a reaction where dominant actors remain faithful to the institutions of intellectual property, as Stuart Moulthrop noted already in 1991. The imagined free world of cultural computing has turned into a business of “controlled consumption” (Striphas; Andersen and Pold “Controlled Consumption…”). To prevent piracy, software and hardware providers such as Apple, Amazon and Google have introduced a new cultural business model that involves a licensing system for cultural software and content, combined with the locking down of software into hardware and IT “appliances”. By this, the user ceases being a user. Instead of being able to use the computer, by accessing for instance the file system, the user relies on constant updates to manage the computer.  The hardware is cheap, and the licenses and updates often come for free. However, as a wise pig once said, ‘if what you eat is free, you are the product’. Cultural production becomes a kind of consumption – a matter of uploading content into the cloud, and selecting filters and other pre-configurations afforded for next to nothing by service suppliers who have a clear interest in increasing the volume of content and users on their platforms. Simultaneously, otherwise passive cultural consumption is turned into production of data of what is read, looked at, listened to, etc. (including where and by whom) that is valuable in marketing, and apparently for others too. In several cases, the providers of controlled consumption have been caught in delivering surveillance data to military, state and industry intelligence. In this way, participatory network culture has been subsumed under a strictly monopolizing business model. The computer, which was originally developed as a military technology but redefined as emancipatory and revolutionary by Apple and others, is now back again where it began: as a military intelligence technology.

What strategies of resistance and critique are left in this contemporary totalitarian digital culture? In a “post-digital” era of reaction (rather than revolution), the digital no longer seems to induce any disruption, as Florian Cramer notes (Cramer “Post-digital: A Term…”). With controlled consumption, the digital blends freely into popular culture – with no distinction between “analogue” and “digital”, “online” and “off-line”. Paradoxically, today’s disruption seems to originate in a fascination of forgotten and obsolete technologies. Also in controlled consumption “old” media in the form of for instance “polaroid” filters and square shapes on Instagram, holds fascination. However, the disruptive fascination of the obsolete seems to be of a different kind, where the distinction between “digital” and “analogue” is replaced with a distinction between “shrink-wrapped” and “Do-It-Yourself,” as Florian Cramer also notes. The fascination of vinyl records, floppy disks, pneumatic tubes, and other historical and lost materials and platforms is in this sense a reaction to the “shrink-wrapped”. Contrary to Instagram and the use of services and filters, the ethics surrounding a disruptive use of old technologies originates in a hacker ethic.

It was not only Apple that believed in a digital uprising. Also in 1984, Steven Levy published a seminal book on hackers as ‘heroes of a computer revolution’. Levy’s hacker ethics included free access to all computers and all information, mistrust to authorities as well as an insistence on beauty and art. In many ways, this ethics has always been in opposition to Apple’s ethics. When Apple believed that the digital revolution would happen through user-friendly design and aesthetical and perceptually pleasing hardware and software, hackers turned to the poetics of hardware and software, foregrounding the constructing elements. This involves both an inquiry into programming and circuit bending, and an inquiry into the social institutions that follow technologies, as described by Cornelia Solfrank in her text on women hackers. In contrast to the “good” digital revolution carried out through user-involvement in interface design in the eighties, “hacking” even developed criminal connotations (with an ignorance to the hacker ethic of respecting people’s data). Following this, when hacker/maker culture now inquires Jurassic technologies it is a different kind of inquiry than the aesthetic appreciation of Polaroid images on Instagram: it is not an inquiry into the perceptually pleasing, but an inquiry into the poetics of materials and the social constructions of media technologies.

To enlighten the critical inquiry of Jurassic technologies, we suggest following two dimensions. First of all, we ask how to perceive history? The desire for the old is not merely nostalgia for a lost aesthetics; rather, it implies an alternative view on history – the memory of the past – itself.  In this critical perspective, excavating the past is an attempt to challenge the course of events that has led to the techno-social constructions of controlled consumption and shrink-wrapped agency.  In this light, inquiring lost media technologies establishes imaginary correspondences with past practices and production modes that only exist in our memory. Secondly, we ask whose memory? On the one hand, vinyl records, cassette tapes, floppy disks and so forth are media that contain human memories as texts, sounds and images. However, on the other hand, following an inquiry into the poetics of materials and how our memories are stored through for instance phonography and magnetism, the technologies also seem to remember the humans. In other words, a reinvestment in old media is also an excavation of the materials’ own reality.

In the following, we discuss these two dimensions of a “post-digital” critique by setting up a dialogue between two compact cassettes. “Cassette A” represents how we remember cassette tapes, and how our memories of material practices reflect the subsumption of network culture by controlled consumption. ”Cassette B” represents how the cassette tape as a material remembers us. The dialogue between the two cassette tapes is based on fragile timing mechanisms – not linear, nor compatible with digital clock frequencies, they may get slightly out of sync.

I.A The Consortium for the Preservation of Cassette Tape
In the summer of 2013, The Consortium for the Preservation of Cassette Tape presented CASSETTE MEMORIES, ‘a media archaeological excavation of the cassette tape and its use – from a human and tape perspective’ (a workshop at Roskilde Festival, initiated by Andrew Prior, Morten Riis and Søren Pold in collaboration with Roskilde Libraries). The workshop explored the overlooked sound archives of cassette tapes residing in closets, second hand shops and flea markets, and invited participants to discover the material of cassette tapes by disassembling, making loops and remixing old cassette tapes. Simultaneously, the memories of their practices with playing and recording were documented on cassette recorders. Cassette tapes are deeply associated with our childhood memories of recording voices, listening to music and creating mixtapes. In this sense, the cassette tape represents our past when found in an old drawer, and brought to the workshop to be tampered with, cut up, and looped in new ways. But it is also a recollection of poor signals and incompatible noise reduction.

I.B – Cassette representation (or, the question concerning representation) 
By posing the question of how the tape recorder represent and understands the world, we have the possibility to get closer to the actual physical operational technology itself, as an exposition of length, time and magnetism and its way of representing reality. For the scientist, the tape recorder was traditionally used to document and record our the sounds of the world which then could be brought back to the lab for further analysis, focusing on the spoken or auditory content of the tape – as opposed to an investigation of how the sound of the tape itself understands its surroundings. Later digital technology made the tape recorder obsolete, but the analysis still focuses solely on the content, making the medium somewhat unimportant. But there is a different approach, in which the cassette tape recorder is transformed into an object of carpentry; a term inspired by the work of Graham Harman and developed further within the object oriented ontology of Ian Bogost.

II.A Cassette materialism
What is it that the tape records? What does it show us when brought to the workshop? In his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin writes: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was (Ranke).’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Thesis VI). It seems clear that Benjamin criticizes historicism. We cannot seize hold of the past merely by describing a level that pre-determines a logical course of events. History as ‘the way it really was’ is more ambiguous (as Benjamin’s criticism of the founder of modern, source-based history, Leopold Ranke also indicates). In his theses, Benjamin explicitly addresses historical materialism, and in continuation of this, we propose to explore of the revival of cassette tapes as a material history pointing beyond a simple revelation of material and technological determination. This implies that it is not merely the productive forces (our tools, instruments, technology, knowledge, etc.) that define our history as a changing mode of production (tribal, feudal, capitalist, etc.) in a simple one-way – techno-deterministic – direction. In other words, cassette memories are not just revelations of how social relations are most fundamentally production relations, and the essential role of the cassette tape in the making of a pro-sumer capitalist system’ (or whatever one chooses to call it). Technology, and the processing of magnetic signals did not make history and did not define our language and social relations in new ways, nor did any other technology. The technology and material production levels are always met with specific cultural interpretations and practices. Likewise, cassette tapes are used through a myriad of practices that still carry potentials.

II.B – The carpentry of cassettes
A central term for philosopher and game designer Ian Bogost, as it is unfolded in his book Alien Phenomenology from 2012, is the notion of carpentry which is described as the philosophical practice of making things. As a philosophical lab equipment (Bogost 100) carpentry becomes a perspective on creative work that poses philosophical questions, as when matter is being used especially for philosophical use (Bogost “Carpentry va. Art”), executing what could be denoted as applied ontology. This happens because writing is dangerous for philosophy because writing is only one form of being, a comment to the assumption that we relate to the world only through language (Bogost Alien Phenomenology 90). At the core of carpentry lies the understanding that philosophy is practice just as much as it is theory, the practice of constructing artefacts as a philosophical practice that is (Bogost 92). The term extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft, to include any material, and additionally it lies within Graham Harman’s philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things” (Bogost 93), a term that refers to “how things fashion one another and the world at large” (Bogost 93). But in Bogost’s terminology carpentry “entails making things that explain how things make their world” (Bogost 93), thus enabling not only theory in practice, but more over; practice as theory (Bogost 111).

The term carpentry is unfolded within a larger context of object oriented ontology or philosophy, which originates from the speculative realism of Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant. At its core a speculative realist is opposed to correlationism – a term used to describe that being exists only as a correlate between mind and world, placing humans at the center (Bogost 4; Harman). As an example, Heidegger claims that objects can exist outside human consciousness, but their begin exist only in human understanding (Bogost 4). Thus to be a speculative realist “one must abandon the belief that human access sits at the center of being, organizing and regulating it like an ontological watchmaker” (Bogost 5), and instead shift focus to include all possible objects, and that all things exists equally thus introducing notions of flat or tiny ontology.

Ultimately this means that when removing humans from the center of the equation more focus is directed towards the various objects that the world consists of, which for Bogost means the investigation of what it is like to be a pixel within a computer game.

III.A Cassette tape interfaces
Rather than beginning by discussing whether to prioritize the auditory signs of the recorded voices, or the signals embedded in the materiality of tapes, we suggest to enlighten the relation between the sign and the signal (see Andersen and Pold Interface Criticism).  What is a magnetic cassette tape in this perspective? Along with other productive forces and technologies, cassette tapes must be seen as part of the same realm as language, in the sense that also language turns out material (as on a cassette tape), and this material is in itself a speech act (at the workshop people talked about sending their voices to their loved ones across the Atlantic and about the investment and gesture of recording and giving away a mixtape). A qualitative separation of material signal processing and the media representation is therefore futile. In every way, the material of the cassette tape (the playback head, the noise reduction system, etc.) is as much a social and linguistic construct (including DIN and IEC defined standards and protocols for equalization), as it is the physical manifestation of a representation (of a memory, a voice, a recording). This ambiguous double-nature allows for a critique of the social and political reality of the technology.

III.B – Magnetic operations
Material that is capable of being magnetised is referred to as ferrous, and the molecules of such a material are linked together in the form of a crystal structure (Earl 21). Each complete crystal element contains a certain number of molecules, depending on the material. Ferric oxide e.g. which forms the basis of the coating of Fe tape has eight molecules per element (Earl 21). The crystal elements can be regarded as domains of randomly oriented magnetic fields, but when the material gets magnetised the domains are swung from their random distributed positions and now the domains line up. The strength of the resulting magnet is determined by the number of domains in alignment. When all the domains are in alignment the material is said to be magnetically saturated, that is, being incapable of accepting further magnetism or producing a greater magnetic field (Earl 22). The basis of which the tape recorder is capable of capturing and reproducing auditory content, is centred around three tape heads – erase, record and playback – each containing an electromagnet having the ability to convert an electrical signal into a magnetic force that can be stored on the passing magnetic tape, and conversely convert the magnetic content of the tape into electrical current.

IV.A The cassette tape as a document of barbarism
Benjamin’s thinking is an encouragement to think of the renewed interest in the cassette tape as something that flashes up in a moment of danger. The historical materialist must therefore address history differently, as Benjamin puts it: ‘There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. […] A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.’ (Thesis VII) With no attempt to recreate a media history, CASSETTE MEMORIES recalls the lost potentials of cassette tapes in relation to a contemporary digital culture. The cassette tapes are explored as a “configuration pregnant with tensions” in order to recognize a “revolutionary chance” and “blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history” (Thesis XVII).

IV.B – The danger of erasing  
At the erase head, a high frequency (approximately 80 to 100 kHz), high amplitude audio signal is sent to the erase electromagnet, thus randomising the magnetic particles on the tape, and erasing any previous material on the tape. Music varies in frequency and amplitude, and so does the magnetic field from the record head that imprints the magnetic picture of the audio signal on the tape. When recorded, tape scrolls under the playback head and the moving magnetic fields induce a varying current in the head. This voltage produces an electrical representation of the magnetic signal on the tape. Subsequently, the signal is passed through an equalisation and amplification circuit so that the recorded music becomes audible in the connected speakers.

V.A The danger of techno-cultural discourse
Techno-cultural discourse leads to the belief that technology represents a history of increased efficiency, and that the conditions of present digital technologies (producing, sharing, mixing, etc.) can maximize individual freedom and social production. CASSETTE MEMORIES challenge these myths, by exploring a past discourse in the present – as a potential criticism. The return to old media holds no essence but expresses an awareness of how our material technologies are also signs, and our signs technological, and of how the coupling of signs and material by digital technology leads to a form of control.

It is not of particular interest that the cassette tape as a tool for reproduction and cultural participation has contributed to our contemporary social reality of product relations (participatory labor). What is interesting is the discourse and myths around the technologies. They have led to the belief that the employment of technology represents a god given chain of events leading to increased efficiency, and that the maxims of the technology (producing, sharing, mixing, etc.) can create individual freedom and mastery when navigating through social reality (this idea is not unlike Georgios Papadopoulos critique of a totalizing market, (21)). Such constructs cannot be addressed as material determinism, but CASSETTE MEMORIES can lead to a challenge of these myths, by exploring a past discourse in the present – as a potential criticism. In this way, the return to old media does not hold an essence. The material turn is realist, in the sense that it expresses an awareness of – not how materials are more real then signs – but of how also our technologies are signs, and our signs technological, and an awareness of how the coupling of signs and material in technology also incorporate a form of control.

V.B – The “sound on sound button” (or, the switch of carpentry)
The switch of carpentry enables a recording method, in which layers of sound becomes superimposed upon each other. This “sound on sound button” – which in CASSETTE MEMORIES was build into a modified cassette recorder – disables the erase head of the tape recorder and reconfigures the cassette machine into an object of carpentry. The button gives us the possibility to display and monitor the cassette tapes state of magnetic saturation, a state where all possible resources of the ferrous coating on the tape are used. This shows the true personality of the recording medium and its attempt to capture the complex pulsating sound waves of humans talking, walking, playing music onto the tape. The recorded sounds gradually gets more and more saturated, forcing the magnetic domains in the same direction, but still leaving room to listen to the contours of the previously recorded material, while new recordings get layered up.

VI.A Cassette tape allegories
The cassette tape does not hold a truth but is an allegory. As an allegory, the cassette tape and CASSETTE MEMORIES seizes ‘hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’ It establishes an imaginary correspondence to another historical moment, but not as a yearning for a lost time (to paraphrase a notion of history present in the writings of Marcel Proust). There is no radical power in looping and cutting up tapes today, but the imaginary construction represents another way of experiencing producing, sharing, mixing, etc. – as Florian Cramer characterizes post-digital strategies, it can be seen as “a form of social networking that is not controlled or data-mined by those companies [Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook].” (“Post-digital Writing…” 237)

VI.B – Compact cassette time
Time is a crucial factor. When recording on a compact cassette, time is measured in the length of tape  played by the tape recorder with an average speed of 4,76 cm/sec. The specific cassette recorder used in CASSETTE MEMORIES is the Philips D6260, and according to the service manual, the tape speed can vary up to 3%, making the notion of accurate time questionable.

If time is length – or, more accurately, the execution of length – then the precision of the tape recorder and the idea of an “operative tape recorder” becomes extremely important (which to a great extend references Wolfgang Ernst’s notion of micro-temporality). But things gets even more complex when using a 1 minute continuous loop cassette using sound on sound recording, as it was the case in CASSETTE MEMORIES. This method challenges the notion of documented time (seconds, hours, days, years). Time gets transferred into complex states of recorded time, real time, machine time, past time, tape time (which is the execution of tape length), creating a compound of different conceptualisations of time existing as layers on top of each other.

VII.A Contemporary interface culture
What is a contemporary interface culture? Mobile interfaces like smartphones and tablets represent a new generation of the interface, a generation that integrates earlier developments as well as – what seems to be a qualitative turn – a totalitarian controlled consumption interface coupled with a ‘war on general-purpose computing’ (Doctorow).

The first human-computer interfaces are technical control panels with switches. Often the agenda is related to automation, and the computer is used for batch processing that does not demand a user input. Later on, textual interfaces such as the command line interfaces of DOS and UNIX, make real-time interaction possible. The Macintosh in 1984 marks another moment in the history of interfaces, where the graphical user interface leaves the labs (where it was developed through the 1960s and 1970s by Ivan Sutherland, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg and others). The GUI is an integral part of real-time interaction in the personal computer, and also the main object of inquiry for interface design and Human-Computer-Interaction. With the Web, and especially Web 2.0, the interface is supplemented with a communicative, networked, and social dimension. In combination with mobile interfaces and data surveillance and sensing, physical space is increasingly saturated with computation – leading to new techno-myths of a totalizing technology, exemplified in the buzz around smart cities, cloud computing, quantification of the self, gamification, big data, etc. Myths are powerful illusions that tend to shape our reality. Hence, the interface becomes ubiquitous and totalitarian – an impenetrable surface, seamlessly attached to all things and behaviours in a process of invisible immaterialisation.

VII.B – OOO, OOP, OOMT <=> micro temporal media archaeology
The self made “sound on sound switch” and the use of loop cassettes changes the tape recorder’s status from a technological object into an object of carpentry, a philosophical lab equipment used to practice philosophy. Layers of sound becomes superimposed upon each other; and furthermore, various notions of recorded time gets superimposed upon each other, making the sound on sound loop tape difficult to analyse in a traditional textual manner, forcing us to shift our analysis’ perspective towards the actual recording technology itself.

These philosophical questions posed by carpentry reveal an alternative reality of the operational tape recorder. This reality is – following the thoughts of Wolfgang Ernst – somewhat un-historical, meaning that the specific function of the machine is outside history and human discourse. However, it is not outside the discourse of cassette tape itself. The perspective is thus shifted towards  the medium itself as an operating entity   (Ernst “Towards a Media Archaeology”). Thus, a merger of object oriented ontology and media archaeology presents itself, bringing an awareness to the moment when media themselves become active “archaeologists of knowledge” (Ernst Media Archaeography 239). From a media archaeological point of view, it is only technical media that is able to register physical real signals. The cassette tape not only preserves the memory of human cultural language, but also the knowledge of how the cassette recorder stores and operate the magnetic domains of the ferrous coating of the running tape. The “carpentry” of an artistic performative context exposes the knowledge that is embodied in the operational technology and reconfigures it into a philosophical practice; meaning that it exposes the saturation of the physical material and uncovers questions regarding our understanding of documented time. In addition, such perspectives reflect the use of our current digital technologies for documenting our sounding reality, by stressing the importance of paying attention to the media archaeological moment of the operational machine.

VIII.A Contemporary interface criticism
What is a contemporary interface criticism? Can we disrupt the development of interfaces, and a corporate subsumption of a digital revolution, sketched out above? Are there new ways of reconfiguring the contemporary interface culture? A post-digital response to the interface’ invisible process of immaterialization is a reconfiguration of signal and sign – of the material processes of computation, and their social and political realm; of material and social procedures and protocols. If current materialist practices with bygone media aim to be more than a parenthesis in this reconfiguration (more than a trendy and hipster revival of the old which could just as well be subsumed in trendy new apps for the iPhone), they need to question their notion of material and materialism in a way that embraces a potential for criticism, if not redemption of current interfaces and their culture – in the words of Benjamin a “weak Messianic power” (Thesis II).

VIII.B – Cassette types
Type I Ferric oxide. HF-ES90
Type II Chromium dioxide (CrO2). CR-E II
Type III Ferro-chrome. FeCr90
Type IV Metal-formulated. Metal-ES60

Tape-out leader
How can the carpenter contain the political reality of the historical materialist? How can the historical materialist contain the reality of the material?

Works cited:

Andersen, Christian Ulrik & Søren Bro Pold. “Controlled Consumption Culture.” The Imaginary App. Eds. Paul D. Miller and Svitlana Matviyenko. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, forthcoming. Print.

—. “Controlled Consumption Interfaces.” A Peer-reviewed Journal About 1.2 (2013). Web <>

— (eds.). Interface Criticism. Aesthetics beyond buttons. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2011, Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. Illuminations. Ed. W. Benjamin. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Bogost, Ian. “Carpentry va. Art: What is the difference?” Web <>

Cramer, Florian. “Post Digital Writing.” Anti-Media – Ephemera on Speculative Arts. Rotterdam. Institute of Network Cultures: nai010 Publishers. 227-239. Print.

Cramer, Florian. “Post-digital: a term that sucks but is useful (draft 2).” Post-digital Research. Kunsthal Aarhus. Oct. 7-9, 2013. Web <>

Doctorow, Cory. “The Coming War on General Purpose Computing.” 28th Chaos Communications Congress, Berlin, 2012. Keynote. Web <>

Earl, J. Cassette Tape Recorders. Watford, Herts: Fountain Press, 1977. Print.

Ernst, W. Towards a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations. Paper presented at the Hearing Modern History, Berlin, 2010. Web <>

Ernst, W. “Media Archaeography.” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Eds. E. Huhtamo and J. Parikka. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011. 239-255. Print.

Harman, G. Brief SR/OOO tutorial. Jul. 23, 2010. Web <>

Levy, Steven. Hackers – Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday,1984. Print.

Moulthrop, Stuart. Moulthrop, S. 1991. “You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media”.  The New Media Reader. Eds. N. Wardrip-Fruin and N. Montfort. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2003. 691-704. Print.

Papadopoulos, Georgios. Notes Towards a Critique of Money. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academie, 2011. Print.

Pold, S. , A. Prior, and M. Riis. Cassette Memories. Workshop at Roskilde Festival, 2013. Web <>

Rosenbach, M. L. Poitras and H. Stark: “iSpy: How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data.” Spiegel Online International, Sep. 9, 2013. Web <>

Solfrank, Cornelia. “Women Hackers – a report from the mission to locate subversive women on the net.“ Next Cyberfeminist International. Rotterdam, 1999. Web <>

Object-disoriented sound: listening in the post-digital culture


Prelude: the sonic explosion  

For some time, I have been deeply concerned with the mindfulness of listening and the subjective ramifications of auditory perception. The thoughts that envelop these concerns essentially stem from questions of perpetual mobility and nomadism that are perhaps symptomatic of the contemporary post-digital culture. A nomadic listener is affected by a fleeting sound, which appears and diminishes in the way in which it triggers an amorphous stream of subjective contemplation and thoughts bordering on the immediate known-ness of the sonic phenomenon yet simultaneously moving toward the realm of the unknown.

What is the ‘unknown’ embedded in a sonic phenomenon? Does it operate outside of the reality of the sonic objecthood? Even object-oriented philosophers like Graham Harman have argued that the reality of anything outside of the correlation between thought and being remains unknowable. Harman has further criticized early phenomenologists’ approaches to sonic phenomena as reductive, such as “If I hear a door slam, then I hear a door slam, and this experience must be described in all its subtlety; to explain this experience with a scientific theory of sound waves and eardrum vibrations is derivative, since all we encounter directly is the experience of the door slamming” [1]

If we explore such a sonic phenomenon, we may find that a specific sound directs to a listening state inside the listener, who may, in a nomadic condition, indulge in taking the phenomenon as a premise or entryway into a world that he or she did not previously know. The listener may address the sound relating it to the imagining and remembrance of a number of amorphous moods triggered by the temporality of listening, instead of deciphering its objective meaning, location-specific identity, and other spatial information embedded in the characteristic texture and tonality of the sound. Today’s wind may not sound like mere wind, and the lonely screeching of the windowpane may not sound like mere friction between glass and wood; but these may sound like something more abstract in the sense that they are generating memories and imagination of other realities that deviate and refract in response to the immediate materiality of the sonic event. These sounds, as impermanent as they appear to the ears of a wandering listener, may open hidden doors and obscure entrances for further perceptual meanderings in the spiritual realm of contemplation and thoughts transcending the epistemic knowledge-based identity that the sound would otherwise objectify. The epistemological problems and ontological questions posed by such object-disoriented sonic explosion are precisely the area of interrogation and praxis in my current ‘post-digital’ research. Ancient Indian philosophers would call this sonic explosion in terms of ‘dhvani’ and sphōta’ meaning that “A sound changes into language and acquires meaning only after a certain explosion of sounds” (Barlingay 27), accentuating the subjective and mental resonances of sound through which a conceptual entity is perceived by the listener.

Fugue: the post-digital milieu

In order to interpret the provocative term ‘post-digital’ in my own understanding, I wish to underscore the extensive and ever-growing nomadism of agents attuned to the psychogeographic evocation of physical locations and corporeal places in the post-globalized universe of intense mobility. In this nebulous cosmos of rapid flow, the production, mobility, and reception of sound contents are the prerequisites to the decisive aspects of the formation of the notion of ‘post-digital’ via the extensions of social networks, greater interactivity/interpenetration, and personalization of the media. These features result in an increase in mobility and disembedding of sound contents as social acts beyond mere geographical limits. The technologies initiate an awareness of the wider worlds beyond local horizons. But these phenomena are intensely engaged with economic and cultural shifts too. As early as 1995, David Morley was writing about this future in his work Spaces of Identity:

“We emphasize two keys…on the one hand, technological and market shifts are leading to the emergence of global image industries and world markets; we are witnessing the ‘deterritorialisation’ of audiovisual productions and the elaboration of trans-national systems of delivery. On the other hand, however there have been significant developments towards local production and local distribution networks” (Morley 1-2).

Within the merging local-global boundaries, one culture develops constant awareness of the existence of other. Cultural components like images and sounds travel through this dispersed space in mutual interaction, influencing and infusing each other, although the aspects of travel prevail over these implied interactions. These ‘deterritorialised’ wanderings substantially contribute to an emergent culture of primarily mobile and itinerant beings engaged in the liberated ebb and flow of events, phenomena, and ephemera, which operate arguably beyond digital essentialism. This essentialism in digital revolution, which was the predominant theme of the late 1990s and early part of this millennium, starts to dissolve into an ever-growing field of intangible data and immoderate information, with Nicholas Negroponte aptly proclaiming: “Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only in its absence, not by its presence. Face it – the digital revolution is over” (Negroponte 12). Alongside this comes a sense of saturation across the prevailing digital divide between already digital and rapidly digitized contents. During this process, digital media were turning our world into an augmented one. In this rapidly emerging environment, we found that different forms of older media, such as recorded sound and other sound contents, were constantly moving, being relocated, reinterpreted, and engaged in conflict with the purely digital contents within an imminent convergent culture. These sound contents could be as varied as archival sound recordings, clips of music and songs, spoken words, environmental field recordings, and electro-acoustic samples. We could observe a certain movement of these sound contents from a localized state (creative/productive end) to a globalized state (consumptive end) and vice versa. For example, a piece of field recording was digitally mediated so as to be considered a work of sound art, or a ‘traditional’ song from one part of the world was transmitted via the internet to another part of the world as a ‘folk’ song. The question was whether a ‘fluid-local’ sound element was losing its characteristics or retaining its identity over the course of a ‘hyper-global’ shift. We could also ask how such locative sound elements were received and interpreted at the widest end of a rather volatile audience reception within the dissemination of digital media technology and establishment of e-commerce. In this very context, Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt have aptly decoded the term ‘post-digital’: “The term ‘Postdigital’ is intended to acknowledge the current state of technology whilst rejecting the implied conceptual shift of the ‘digital revolution’ – a shift apparently as abrupt as the ‘on/off’, ‘zero/one’ logic of the machines now pervading our daily lives. New conceptual models are required to describe the continuity between art, computing, philosophy and science that avoid binarism, determinism or reductionism” (Pepperell and Punt 2).

The central question arising from interest in the sonic was the ongoing dialogue between older sound contents from primarily locative analogue sources and digitally generated ephemeral traveling sounds, with rapid digitization rendering the interpretation of older/analogue sound contents as digitalized sonic artifacts beyond the mere binarism, determinism, or reductionism of the old vs. new or digital vs. non-digital. The phenomena contributed to the evolving ‘post-digital’ discourse by regarding digitalized artifacts as displaced, relocated, and transformed, thereby dissolving the digital divide between already digital and rapidly digitized contents on the one hand and their reinterpretations as a ‘background’ (Cascone, quoting Ihde) or elusive field of data on the other.

Once this saturation is reached, Kim Cascone argues that, in the domain of sound art and experimental music, “the medium of digital technology holds less fascination for composers in and of itself” (Cascone). In deciphering the term ‘post-digital aesthetics’ in relation to experimental music, he speaks of the “failure” of digital technology and the way in which it triggers subversive practices with glitches, clippings, aliasing, distortion, etc. I, however, perceive this as a failure of a pervasive digital media technology to identify, structure, and archive the transient and elusive sound field from the nameless, placeless, and faceless background world of data. In this world of ‘big data’ (Rasmus Helles and Klaus Bruhn Jensen), ‘data abundance’, and ‘data flood’ (Steve Lohr), itinerant sound data essentially loses its locative character, normative structure (digital, analogue, or digitized), ontological source identity, and epistemic knowledge-based objecthood.

Coda: sounding the post-digital

Such behaviors of sound are accentuated in the post-digital universe of ‘big data’, contributing to the elusive identity of the ‘digital (sound) object’ (compared to ‘non-digital’ objects, devices, and systems) and posing problems of authentication and/or preservation, thereby proliferating a sense of ‘absence’ in a digital sound object’s recognition, identification, and negotiation of the corresponding knowledge-structure upon a network of listening. In their work ‘A theory of digital objects‘, Jannis Kallinikos, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Attila Marton claim that “digital objects are marked by a limited set of variable yet generic attributes such as editability, interactivity, openness and distributedness that confer them a distinct functional profile” (Kallinikos, Aaltonen, and Marton). This leads to a profound sense of ‘instability’ as evasive and fleeting artifacts that contrast with the solid and self-evident nature of already-old sound media, such as sound recordings on tape, CD, file systems, or other types of storage. The fluid and mutating nature of that universe of digital objects and their diffusion across the social fabric make them difficult to authenticate, preserve, or archive in the social memory and knowledge base. These invisible digital objects, carrying multitude of sound contents, problematize their (sound’s) objecthood, rendering them more as ephemera than even artifacts.

On the other hand, sound does indeed seem ‘less esoteric’ in this post-digital milieu because of our “newfound comfort with the immaterial world of pure data and information flowing through the cyberspace” (Dayal, quoting Gopnik). The contemporary media environment allows the separation of sounds from their locations and facilitates their travel across hyper-dispersed networks as background noise. A sound that is disembodied from its locational specificity causes multiple layers of mediation across its multiple receptions and interpretations outside of place, time, and context, whether in an audio streaming network on the internet, a digital sound composition published on a net label, or exhibited within the augmented space of an interactive installation work. In an interactive art piece, identification of a sound event can be understood through its interpretation as an augmented situation for the re-embodied experience by inter-subjective interaction. The post-digital discourse essentially relates to the perpetual transience of these amorphous but fertile auditory situations (Chattopadhyay) into temporality. It is evident that, in this constant flow, the production and reception of sounds over greater mobility and interactivity leads to its interpretation as itinerant auditory situations, which is a transformation of the original sounds, ready for re-interpretation beyond their objecthood in post-digital culture. Admittedly, at this stage, my motivation lies in delving into the question of sound’s object-disoriented behavior upon transient listening.

Variation I: object disorientation of sound

Let me elaborate on what I mean by the ‘object-disoriented behavior’ of sound. To do this, we need to go back in time and excavate the term ‘sound object’. Pierre Schaeffer, arguably the founder of musique concrète, coined the term ‘sound object’ (objet sonore), which paved the way for a new kind of perception, ‘acousmatic listening’. To Schaeffer, the ‘sound object’ was an intentional representation of sound to its listener. With the rise of new audio technologies, the ‘sound object’ recorded on magnetic tape or other media were no longer referred to a sound source, hence the musical exploration of the ‘acousmatic experience’ of sounds that one hears without seeing the causes behind them. The emphasis here was on the reduced listening state instead of causal listening, if we borrow Michel Chion’s terminology. The problem here is the imposition of the word ‘object’ over ‘sound’. The intrinsic flaw in reduced listening as Schaeffer conceptualized it in ‘The Theory of Sound Object’ is that it assumes that sound has an ‘a priori content’ (Demers) that is separate and distinct from any cultural or historical associations it might have subsequently acquired. According to scholars such as Joanna Demers, this assertion is problematic on both practical and theoretical counts. Listeners have difficulty hearing sounds divorced from their associations; at the same time, it is nearly impossible for the human listening faculty not to ascribe a multiplicity of causes to a sonic phenomenon. Furthermore, in practice, the listener is almost certain to simultaneously create imagined gestures or link a sound to its illusory myriad sources, evoking some kind of contemplative and thoughtful imagery in this process of mental resonance and mindful personalization into various listening states.

In his seminal writings, for instance in the famous article ‘Aural Object’, film-sound scholar and early phenomenologist Christian Metz expresses serious doubts about the object specificity of sonic phenomena in scholarly thinking following Schaeffer. He instead focuses on the ‘characteristics’ of sound and emphasizes the problematic aspects of locating sound’s object-oriented or location-specific source. He states that “Spatial anchoring of aural events is much more vague and uncertain than that of visual events” (Metz 29). In classical sound studies (Rick Altman et al.), scholars have already underpinned the issue of sound’s problematic relation to its object or source and emphasized its interpretative nature over its production: “Sound is not actualized until it reaches the ear of the hearer, which translates molecular movement into the sensation of sound” (Altman 19). Altman speaks here of a sound event as defining the trajectory of the essential production and subsequent reception of a sound element. Its narrative, as Altman terms it, is hypothetically bound to the source that produces it. This source, the sounding object when producing sound, is spatially defined or connected to a place. These spatial sources of sound are by definition localized but are not rendered until and unless they are carried by a medium to reach the point of reception. By the same token, a sound is mediated whenever it is digitally registered. Digitization dislocates sounds from their original sources, turning them into discreet data in the nebulous post-digital environment as discussed above. Sound contents are thus only recognized at different stages of digitization toward reaching a saturation state of an assumed ‘post-digital’ economy/ecology, by which process they are freed from the object. Sound thus, by its very nature, implies mobility and subsequent object disorientation in order to establish its recognition in the ‘post-digital’ domain. However, the process of interpretation is more complex than it appears at its perceptual level of reception. Contributing to this discourse, New Media scholar and theorist Frances Dyson argues concerning the ‘sound object’ that “first – find a way of discussing and representing sound unhinged from the visual object, second, find a device (the tape recorder) that will somehow enable such a representation, and finally, mask the mediation of that device by arguing for an ontological equivalence between the reproduced sound and the original sonic source” (Dyson 54). This ontological equivalence might be difficult for a listener to establish in a nomadic condition in which a specific sound presents a multitude of amorphous listening states inside the listener’s mind, leading to a sonic explosion of object-disoriented but mood-based streams of thoughts within the nomadic listener’s consciousness.

Variation II: the nomadic listener

At this juncture, a nomadic listener floating across the post-digital milieu may interact with the background noise or the unknowledgeable sounds of nameless, placeless, and faceless flow of sound data, which inculcates a sort of ‘semantic fatigue’ so that, eventually, they seem cut adrift from the sources or origins (Demers) in the mind of the listener. The listener in this process may sensitize his or her ears to the pseudo-object of the sounds and is able to deconstruct them into his or her listening self through an evocative capacity toward a sonic explosion as streams of timeless sonic states of interconnected reveries, ruminations, and musings. The ‘unknown’ embedded in the wandering shadows of sounds is explored and given a context by the nomadic listener’s intervention into his or her appearing and diminishing, leaving object-disoriented states of feelings or moods.

Variation III: hyper-listening

Let us indulge in further philosophical musings triggered by listening in the post-digital milieu and attend to what John Cage claims to be mindful: “Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind” [2]. This will require us to set aside ‘epistemic’ issues of recognizing the source or ‘object’ of sound and instead focus on the subjective and inward perception of sound within the ‘self’ or ‘mindfulness’ of the nomadic listener. Following this methodology, we can examine the way in which the memory, imagination, and personal experience of the itinerant listener alter the character of sound. Taking my point of departure in the epistemological basis of sound object, I now introduce an alternative methodology of listening in the post-digital culture, which I term ‘hyper-listening’, meaning that I intend to relate to the higher-level/psychic pre/post-cognitive processes triggered by listening to the object-disoriented sounds in terms of creating thought-provoking auditory situations. This method perhaps operates on the fringe of what artist Yolande Harris (2011) explains in her doctoral thesis as creating “situations where sound can affect and activate people’s experiences in a personal way” but at the same time expands the idea of ‘experience’ to include conscious contemplation. Much of this argument resonates with Roy Ascot’s recent writings in which he speaks of “interconnectedness, nonlocality and the inclusion of consciousness” [3] embedded in new media art that includes process-based artistic practices with sound and listening. According to Ascot “Process-based art implies field awareness, in contrast to the object dependency of much art practice”. This leads to what he claims to be “the shamanic path to immersion in the spiritual domain, where interaction with psychic entities is the means, transformation of consciousness is the goal and the emergence of new knowledge the outcome” (Ascot). Much of this line of thinking may be arguable, but what is essential is the potential of inclusivity in listening. In his seminal work ‘Listening’, Jean-Luc Nancy  argues that a philosopher is one who hears but cannot listen “or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize.” (Nancy). Operating on the basis of this premise, the methodology of ‘hyper-listening’ challenges the epistemic discourse in sound that equates ‘listening’ with ‘understanding’, ‘audibility’ with ‘intelligibility’, and the ‘sonic’ with the ‘logical’. ‘Hyper-listening’ explores the contemplative and mindful potential of sonic phenomenon at the nomadic listener’s end, emphasizing the indolent mood of elevated thoughtfulness.

Finale: Mind Your Own Dizziness

Addressing a practice-based approach, I explore my ongoing project ‘Doors of Nothingness’ (2012-)[4] and a series of upcoming sound installation/interventions ‘Mind Your Own Dizziness’ (2014-) [5], which incorporate the concept of ‘hyper-listening’. Taking my point of departure in the phenomenological premises of sound, I make the subjective and personal experience the basis of these works, which frame spatial sound phenomena in their entirety, including the mental and emotive context of the listener’s situation. The thought processes activated by sonic phenomena arguably transcend the epistemic comprehension of the source identity of sound toward outlining the auditory situation in a context that delineates the sound events beyond immediately accessible meanings, expanding on and transcending the existing knowledge structure. The works rely on intuitiveness in listening rather than the reasoning involved in deciphering the meaning of ‘aural objects’. The strong belief in inward contemplation, subjectivity, and enhanced ‘selfhood’ available to a nomadic listener (because of his or her ability to free the ears of object specificity, whether spatial, temporal, or locative) mean that the project on one hand explores the personal or private nature of listening while on the other hand engaging with the emergent sonic practices of the implicit post-digital culture.



[1] Graham Harman quotes Husserl, in Kimbell, Lucy. “The Object Fights Back: An Interview with Graham Harman”. Design and Culture 5(1): 103-117 (2013).

[2] See ‘Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists’ by Maria Popova, here:

[3] See ‘Technoetic Pathways toward the Spiritual in Art’ by Roy Ascot, here:

[4] See project page here:

[5] See project page here:


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Budhaditya Chattopadhyay