Sooner or later we will melt together
First Monday

Sooner or later we will melt together: Framing the digital in the everyday by David Beer


Abstract
Digital technologies are increasingly pervading our everyday lives. Many of our everyday practices involve the appropriation of digital technologies. The aim of this piece is to discuss two central issues surrounding this digitalisation of everyday life: (i) what constitutes digital culture?; and, (ii) how do digital technologies transform ownership? These questions are considered in this work with the intention of creating a benchmark from which future explorative (empirical) case studies can be developed. The central argument of the piece is that the study of digital technologies should be framed within everyday life. In other words, the study of digital technologies should be redefined as the study of the digitalisation of everyday life.

Contents

Digital culture
Questioning ownership: Digital simulations and the original
Concluding remarks

 


 

“Sooner or later we will melt together and draw rings around the world”
— The Super Furry Animals [1]

Digital technologies are now at the centre of many social and cultural interactions. The Internet is possibly the most prominent amongst these but there are many other digital technologies that contribute toward the digitalisation of contemporary culture. According to Mark Poster:

“The twentieth century has witnessed the introduction of communications systems that allow a wide distribution of messages from one point to another, conquering space and time first through the electrification of analogue information, then through digitalization.” [2]

Many of these digital technologies have become embedded in everyday life, this, as Galloway (2004) identifies has had the effect of making these ubiquitous technologies invisible [3]. It is perhaps this process of the everyday appropriation of digital technologies, or the mediation of appropriation of culture by digital technologies, that best summarises the transformation that I have labelled here as digitalisation.

The objective of this piece is to consider two of the key issues that surround the digitalisation of everyday life. This piece, therefore is a part of a broader work–in–progress designed to draw together some of the issues that are presenting themselves in my investigations into digitalisation. Here I focus on two such issues. The first section is concerned with the question of what constitutes digital culture. The second section focuses upon the expanding questions of ownership that have proliferated as a result of the rise of digital technologies. I conclude by looking very briefly at notions of the globe in the digital age, the purpose of which is highlight the paradoxical nature of contemporary conceptualisations of the digitalised globe.

 

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Digital culture

Barry Sandywell suggests that

“we need a more concrete, historically embedded phenomenology of the internet (and other forms of computer–mediated technology) as contested cultural formations restructuring the practices of everyday life” [4].

Currently there is no defining history of digitalisation. Often histories of digitalisation are designed to encompass particular fields of study. For example, Nigel Thrift (2004) constructs a short history of computer software in his analysis of the relationship between computer software and biological metaphor. In this brief history he notes that “As a general term ‘software’ dates only from the 1950s” [5], but that it has only really evolved into its contemporary form in the “last 20 years” [6] during which time it has “grown from a small thicket of mechanical writing to a forest covering much of the globe” [7]. This growth in software use, equating to a form of digitalisation, occurred between 1984 and the present day. In the case of music it was the advent of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in 1981–1983 that caused a rapid growth in digital music technologies. It appears therefore that digitalisation, as a significant cultural phenomenon, has been occurring only since around 1984. Martin Kretschmer (2005) constructs a similar short history to that of Thrift; his focus is instead upon the digitalisation of music. He identifies 1982, and the advent of MIDI, as being the significant date in the digitalisation of music. The coming to the market of the CD in 1983 is also recorded as being significant. It is clear from these examples that digitalisation, as a phenomenon, existed before1980 yet its growth occurred after this date [8].

However, what represents digital culture remains unclear. The appropriation of digital technologies in everyday life has proliferated in this crucial 20–year period of mass marketing: telling the time, banking, recording information, watching television [9], registering for a school lesson [10], listening to music, speaking to people, taking photographs [11], purchasing goods, cooking [12], and even showering and using the toilet [13]. However, we do not talk of digital food or a digital wash. Similarly we don’t talk of digital music, which is interesting considering the significant cultural impact of ‘electronic music’ [14], the implications of which are still argued over amongst music fans. Digital music is not celebrated in the same distinctive and utopian way as the arrival of the electronic music.

Jean Baudrillard suggests that digitalisation has come to pervade all aspects of our everyday lives. The digital era is defined by the code. This is an era in which

“the genetic code is not at all limited to the laboratory effects or to the exalted visions of theoreticians. Banal, everyday life is invested by these models. Digitality is with us. It is that which haunts all the messages all the signs of our societies.” [15].

Everyday life is both mediated by, and occurring within, these digital codes. We are no longer an appendage of the machine as Marx and Engels foretold [16].

“Modern technologies ... are no longer so much extensions of man, as McLuhan used to say, but human beings are now becoming, rather, a kind of extension of the logistical system.” [17].

Digital technologies are appropriated into life and life is appropriated into digital technologies. Our everyday lives are digitalised. As Baudrillard notes, “the medium is no longer the message, everyday life is no longer mediated by technology; everyday life and digital technology have dissolved into one another.” [18]

The dissolution of digital technologies into life and life into digital technologies [19] causes digitalisation to be both fetishised and camouflaged within everyday practices. What constitutes digital culture is concealed, embedded, and invisible. It seems that this is also true of the digital technologies that have pervaded the practices of the material construction of cultural forms. Digital technologies, like digital cultures, are also concealed, embedded, and invisible.

The problem remains; what is digital culture? Perhaps an ephemeral definition needs to be formulated at this juncture. Digital culture can simply be defined as culture that is either constructed through or mediated by digital technologies. Therefore, to turn to the list of everyday activities I have mentioned, we can describe food as digital, and we can talk of the digitalisation of food. This perhaps appears to be stretching the issue, yet in order for digitalisation to be illuminated it is my position that these everyday digital practices must be recaptured and represented. This is the basis of a reflexive approach toward digitalisation.

Before continuing with this discussion I wish merely to highlight a further problem of digital culture; the human/non–human divide. This is a problem that is identified by Mark Poster. He suggests that one way of overcoming this problem is “to develop theoretical strategies that erase the humanist–subject and bypass the human/non–human opposition” [20]. For Poster we need to resist the temptation of tradition to create a duality or a human non–human divide. Rather we should look at how these two spheres meld together, how they are layered within everyday life. He recommends a strategy that requires the analyst “to explore the social landscape so as to recognize its imbrication of human and machine” [21] through an examination of “the term ‘interface’” [22]. Poster defines the interface by stipulating that “provisionally we may say that an interface stands between the human and the machinic, a kind of membrane dividing yet connecting two worlds that are alien to and also dependent upon each other” [23]. It is this challenge, to attempt to examine the interface as a point of imbrication, as a membrane not only between the human and non–human, and between “newtonian space” and “cyberspace” [24], but also between culture and technology, that requires further exploration. The question of how interfacing and interfaces are incorporated into the practices of everyday life then becomes central. There are numerous questions that are created about the mediation of performance and creativity within this “new set of human/machine relations” [25]. Interfacing represents the human/non–human membrane in these relations.

 

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Questioning ownership: Digital simulations and the original

“With the changes I have outlined in the nature of the digital cultural object and the consumer/creator, what must now be put in question is precisely the intellectual property of its authors.” [26]

One of the key issues surrounding the development of the digital age has been that of ownership. The ownership of contemporary material cultural forms has been brought into contestation by digitalisation. As Urry has identified, “With digitisation, information adopts patterns and modes of mobility substantially separate from material form or presence” [27]. Music, film, texts, are all open to infinite and perfect reproduction. Furthermore, the Internet has presented itself as a virtual space in which commodities and information can flow rapidly around global networks. This is beyond the bootlegging practices of the pirate, these practices are now global instant and unquantifiable. It would appear from this that Baudrillard’s (1983) assessment of the destination of the original is entirely accurate. The original has vanished over the horizon. As David Chaney has recognised, “the significance of technologies of communication and entertainment is that it has become possible to produce infinite numbers of identical copies of cultural performances so that audiences no longer have to be local or no longer have to share collective occasions” [28]. Reproduction, Copying, pastiche (sampling), Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) [29] have created the dissolution of reality and fantasy that Baudrillard (1983) described. A similar effect to that achieved to CGI can be found in the digital music studio’s ability to alter every note from an original recording. This allows the original vocal, or any other part of a recording, to be transformed. According to Baudrillard,

“The cool universe of digitality has absorbed the world of metaphor and metonymy. The principle of simulation wins out over the reality principle just as over the principle of pleasure.” [30]

The original, and reality, disappears in this milieu of digital technologies and information. The result is a kind of hyperreal vocal, a vocal that is neither real nor fantasy, original nor copy. The real vocal and the non–real vocal become indistinguishable, even in the live performance. It is not possible to listen to a piece of music and identify if and where the vocal has been digitally altered. Therefore, all vocals become hyperreal. This then must also be true of all of the elements of recorded sound.

As a further problem the Internet is a space in which commodity exchange can occur without the necessity for an object. This challenges notions of ownership. If we are to believe the reported figures then the theft of culture has escalated as a result of digitalisation. Perhaps this is not only a result of the increased access and perfect reproducibility of digital culture. Perhaps it is also a result of a shift in the understanding of ownership that occurs when we are stealing virtual cultural forms rather than objects. The different aspects and questions of ownership that have been created by digitalisation must now be recovered alongside the specific technologies to which they relate.

Mark Poster critically advances Baudrillard’s concept of simulation. He argues that “By outlining a logic of simulation, Baudrillard’s writings form a transition to a second media age, one in which the constraints of broadcasting will be breached so that the politics of the media can emerge in other than modernist terms” [31]. For Poster, Baudrillard’s work on simulations provides a theoretical avenue that allows digitalisation to be pursued. This pursuit is not possible if we rely solely on modernist conceptualisations. He further clarifies this point by highlighting the limitations of Baudrillard’s approach. He acknowledges that

“Baudrillard’s work remains infused with a sense of the media as unidirectional, and therefore does not anticipate the imminent appearance of bi–directional, decentralized media, such as the Internet, with its new opportunities for reconstructing the mechanisms of subject constitution.” [32]

Baudrillard’s work, understandably, does not foresee the interactivity of the Internet. It does not predict the open and multidimensional field of activity. However, simulation provides a concept that reflects the hyperreality of these virtual spaces. It is this notion of hyperreal space and the collapse not only of the distinction between reality and fantasy, but also the consequential collapse, or problematisition, of ownership that occurs within these hyperreal virtual spaces, that is of particular importance.

Poster is concerned with the implications of what he calls “the second media age” (Poster, 1996). And more specifically the questions of ownership that are defined within traditional boundaries and categories of modernist broadcast models.

“With the incipient introduction of the information ‘superhighway’ and the integration of satellite technology with television, computers and telephone, and alternative to the broadcast model, with its severe technical constraints, will very likely enable a system of multiple producers/distributors/consumers, and entirely new configuration of communication relations in which the boundaries between these terms collapse.” [33]

For Poster it is this imminent collapse of the distinctions between producer, distributor, and consumer, which is significant. It could be argued that it is this collapse that has problematised ownership in the digital age. We can now simultaneously be a hybrid combination of these three distinct categories. This is perhaps best demonstrated in music, where sampling has created an obvious situation in which individuals are both producing and consuming simultaneously. These music creations can then be uploaded onto the Internet and distributed globally.

 

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Concluding remarks

The globe is often now understood, paradoxically, as both a reified social structure and an unstable site of growing conflict. This is perhaps best summarised in Baudrillard’s (2002) essay on the World Trade Centre attack of 2001. According to Baudrillard “The more concentrated the system becomes globally, ultimately forming one single network, the more it becomes vulnerable at a single point” [34]. This creates an image of a digital age in which globalisation is welcomed and resisted in almost equal measures. The digital lifestyle is both protected and challenged. This is comparable with Urry’s (2003) notion of the globe as resting on the edge of chaos. The contemporary context of the digital globe is perhaps best described as complex, as unstable, as networked and contested. It is a site of fear and panic [35], of escalating preoccupation with issues of global terrorism [36], of instant death, large–scale destruction. Many digital technologies have become associated with the rhetoric of global destruction and moral decline. Digital technologies are not only central to the development and processes of globalisation, they are also central in this conflict; they have come to represent capitalism, to represent the spread of the west, the spread of indulgence, and the pursuit of unrestrained self–gratification.

This would perhaps suggest that digital technologies are the infamous and despised icons of the contemporary age, yet this is not entirely the case, digital technologies have come to be the defining, yet invisible, instruments and vessels of contemporary culture. This is not to say that they have eclipsed analogue technologies, this would be an inaccurate conclusion to draw, the evidence actually suggests the opposite. Analogue technologies have become protected and preserved in a nostalgic attempt to capture the culture of the past. Therefore, the digital age is perhaps best described as a site of multidimensional mixing of technologies. The digital has not entirely eclipsed the globe, nor has it concretised global networks via its virtualised communication channels.

Clearly I have only touched upon issues that require far greater attention and analytical development. Yet from this brief discussion it is clear that a number of complex and important questions emerge from an attempt to understand the ways in which digital technologies transform our everyday lives.

Digital technologies are now deeply embedded in everyday life. This is not to say that they have come to totally determine our understandings and experiences, or that they have eclipsed analogue technologies. Rather it is to say that when studying digital technologies it is essential that the everyday is not abandoned in favour of detached accounts of function and use. When attempting to capture these technologies within historically, socially, and culturally embedded analyses it is essential that the levels and details of appropriation that occur are not overlooked. In other words, the development of accounts that capture the details and complexity of digital technologies require a form of ongoing study that frames the digital in the everyday. End of article

 

About the author

David Beer is currently conducting research on music technology and performance at York St John College as well as teaching in the School of Arts. He is also studying for a PhD on the digitalisation of contemporary music in the Department of Sociology at the University of York (U.K.). His interest in digital culture has lead to the publication of three articles: “Reflecting on the digit(al)isation of music,” in First Monday, volume 10, number 2 (February 2005, at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_2/beer/); “Back to the future of social theory,” co–written with Nicholas Gane, in Sociological Research Online, volume 9, number 4 (2004); and, “Is hacking illegal?” co–authored with Yuwei Lin, in Sarai Reader 05: Bare Acts, published by the Sarai Programme, Delhi.
E–mail: david [dot] beer [at] britishlibrary [dot] net

 

Notes

1. From the song “(Drawing) Rings around the world” of the album of the same name, © 2001 Sony (UK) Entertainment Ltd.

2. Poster, 1996. In the term digital music technologies I not only include music production technologies, such as digital instruments and software packages, I also include mediating technologies such as the Internet, MP3 files, and the iPod.

3. This invisibility is perhaps surprising considering the ways in which digital technologies have come to dominate the domestic and commercial spaces of our everyday lives.

4. Sandywell, forthcoming, p. 17.

5. Thrift, 2004, p. 463.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. A more detailed analysis of Who? What? Where? And When? Is now a necessity.

9. . In the U.K. the analogue signal switch off is intended to occur between 2008–2010.

10. The secondary school I attended (1989–1995), John Port School, Etwall, installed a digital swipe card system in 1994. Each classroom contained a wall–mounted box and each child was given a swipe card. At the start of every lesson each child, and the teacher, swiped their card through the machine. At the end of the week attendance reports were produced with records of the times and location of each child and teacher.

11. See http://www.digital-cameras.com/ for examples of a range of digital cameras.

12. The digital microwave is widely available. A digital microwave leakage detector is also available from http://www.comforthouse.com/comfort/micleakdetwi.html. This is perhaps an interesting dystopian image of the digital poisoning of the living space.

13. See the San Francisco Business Times (12 December 2003) for a story about Google having digital toilets fitted in their offices. The story is also available online at http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/stories/2003/12/15/tidbits1.html. In this instance it was ‘Japan’s Toto’ toilet. Facilities include gender specific water directions, water temperature, and air drying, amongst other programmable functions.

14. The works of Wendy Carlos, The Tornados, Kraftwerk, and the BBC Radiophonic Orchestra, are some of the most celebrated amongst these.

15. Baudrillard, 1983, p. 115.

16. Marx and Engels, 2002, p. 227.

17. Baudrillard, 2001, p. 289.

18. Baudrillard, 1983, pp. 54–55.

19. Baudrillard, 1983, p. 55.

20. Poster, 1996, p. 19.

21. Ibid.

22. Poster, 1996, p. 20.

23. Ibid.

24. Poster, 1996, p. 21.

25. Ibid.

26. Poster, 2004, p. 421.

27. Urry, 2003, p. 85.

28. Chaney, 1994, p. 27.

29. It is now possible to insert a person in a piece of film after their death. This can be seen in the advert for Ford cars that starred Steve McQueen. Similar effects were also used to finish the film Gladiator following the death of Oliver Reed.

30. Baudrillard, 1983, p. 152.

31. Poster and Aronowitz, 2000, p. 62.

32. Poster, 1996, p. 19.

33. Poster, 1996, p. 3.

34. Baudrillard, 2002, p. 8.

35. See Sandywell, forthcoming.

36. Many domestic building insurance policies now specifically offer coverage for acts of terrorism.

 

References

J. Baudrillard, 2002. The spirit of terrorism; and, Requiem for the Twin Towers. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso.

J. Baudrillard, 2001. Selected writings. Edited and introduced by Mark Poster. Cambridge: Polity.

J. Baudrillard, 1983. Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e).

D. Chaney, 1994. The cultural turn: Scene–setting essays on contemporary cultural history. London: Routledge.

A. Galloway, 2004. “Intimations of everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the city,” Cultural Studies, volume 18, numbers 2/3, pp. 384–408.

M. Kretschmer, 2005. “Artists’ earnings and copyright: A review of British and German music industry data in the context of digital technologies,” First Monday, volume 9, number 1 (January), at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_1/kretschmer/, accessed 27 January 2005.

K. Marx and F. Engels, 2002. “The German ideology,” In: D. McLellan (editor). Karl Marx selected writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 175–208.

M. Poster, 2004. “Consumption and digital commodities in the everyday,” Cultural Studies, volume 18, numbers 2/3, pp. 409–423.

M. Poster, 1996. The second media age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

M. Poster and S. Aronowitz, 2000. The information subject. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International.

B. Sandywell, forthcoming. “Monsters in cyberspace: Cyberphobia and cultural panic in the information age,” Information, Communication & Society.

N. Thrift, 2004. “Electric animals: New models of everyday life,” Cultural Studies, volume 18, numbers 2/3, pp. 461–482.

J. Urry, 2003. Global complexity. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Editorial history

Paper received 3 May 2005; accepted 18 July 2005.


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Sooner or later we will melt together: Framing the digital in the everyday by David Beer
First Monday, volume 10, number 8 (August 2005),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_8/beer/index.html





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