josebamorenoblog

Un blog divulgativo

Mes: octubre, 2013

DIY, Culture and Technology

Last week I visited Omaha over Fall break. This city, which resembles more my hometown (Bilbao) than my actual place of residence (Lincoln), offered me a glimpse of what is going on among some of the younger collectives in town, especially the one that could be considered DIY and Punk culture. My friends do not necessarily subscribe to this social movement, however, we all support most of its values and proposals.

During a conversation about literature, I mentioned to my friend a short story that I think he would enjoy. I offered him the pdf, which I thought would be the most comfortable and efficient way to share a text I own. He hesitated and said, “that’d be cool, but I’d rather have the physical text”. Well, as you can imagine, my instantaneous reaction was to question that assumption: “Is not the visualization of a PDF on the screen physical enough?” —my move was kind of pedantic and to some extent demagogic, but we are friends.

He was really open about the idea, and soon we all agreed that it’s not the “lack of physicality” of technology that makes bits and pixels spooky, and neither was it the screen essentialism  that repelled him. As a matter of fact, in the first part of  Mechanisms (2012), Matthew Kirschenbaum offers us a rather romanticized and fetishized view of the materiality of digital media, where inscription and carving are still valid concepts. The book explains the process of creating, deleting, and retrieving lost information; but he does it in a way that highlights the physical part of the processes of creating data. He deals with the most down to earth side of computing and digital storage, and he really succeeds in shedding some light on the really obscure realm of computers innards.

What is the problem then?

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After reading the book, I realized that my friends —and everybody who has compost and chickens in the backyard, like to can goods, brew beer, grow vegetables, and are involved in any sort of productive activity— were not simply afraid of the ethereal and the mystic-like digital realm. Although Kirschenbaum provides an argument, in case any of us still feel uneasy about the microscopic scale at which technology functions, when he suggests that part of the idea of immateriality roots in the assumption of a computer’s flawless functioning. Right on, Matt! That is a huge concern for us.

Humans like symmetry, and most of our constructions seek that out. It is balanced, pleasant to the eye, and very safe —in every sense. Nevertheless, when it comes to art, we want the imperfect, we do not want to build as if people were going to live in our artifacts. We want gaps to fill up and curves to straighten —but humanly— so the byproduct is not round or aseptic. What we like, is the anecdotic quality of objects we can see, and also taking advantage of accidental imperfections in our subjects. Then, there is the problem: machines are too consistent and they look perfect to our eye, our sight slides down the object, without a chance to hold on to any prominent feature.

But we do not fear perfection, and we definitely do not hate mechanization. Even more, we partially embrace the creativity of technocracy and celebrate massive storage of data. How wise would it be to reject the major shift in knowledge preservation and dissemination that hard drives made possible?

The itch comes from somewhere else, and I believe the origin is the disconnection between user and creator that digital technology implies, to some extent. And even with a friendly explanation like Kischenbaum’s, there are still other sketchy innuendos which remind me of the food selection process: I am not against some food brands just because I am a “rebel,” I have real concerns, and I want control over my life, so my rule is not to eat any products whose labels are longer than this blog post.

Summarizing, I think that the major fear resides in the massive and careless production, in the detachment of men from their environment and in the “stupidization” of most of my citizen fellows, who do not question their technological habits and let themselves be told what to eat, what to listen, and what to watch. In addition —and I believe this is becoming a recurrent topic— I would like to suggest a more strict compartmentation of our live’s practices and to decide to what extent we want to depend on complex technological processes or on electronic systems that surpass our understanding and senses. Finding a balance is extremely difficult, but a gradual and thorough incorporation of the technological apparatus is the only healthy solution for an intelligent world.

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On Walter’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Nobody would have any problem in recognizing how well technology nests inside capitalist ideology. At least, that is an idea that I think modern society and all of our consumerist acts back up to some extent.

Walter Benjamin, in his article “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, explores some of the implications of the intersection between technology and art, which ultimately leads him to involve the capitalist system that would become the absolute and dominant ideology during the second half of the XX century up today. The main notion explored in the article is that of the “reproducibility of art works” and the implications of the incorporation of technology into the essence of art and beauty.

The first question that came after the reading of this piece was somehow general and probably too vast: to what extent does the creative context of capitalist society shape art? There is also a very similar and interesting one: how is art also a ‘victim’ of the pragmatic secularizing process that technology bears —in the sense that it loses its mysticism.  The ultimate consequence of considering these previous questions is the possibility of a reformulation of the concept of beauty, or maybe the straight questioning of beauty’s existence within capitalism.

Benjamin uses the concept of “aura”. This idea could be parallel to the je ne sais quoi that they use in French, the exact same expression appears in the title of Benito Jerónimo Feijoo’s essay El no sé qué, (1733) work in which the Spanish author, reflects on a concept similar to Benjamin’s “aura”. Many authors have searched art hoping to find the meta-artistic quality that confers that something onto the products of human creativityThis feature would probably be the artistic beauty that goes further than perfect representation or harmony among the constituents of any piece derived from artistic creation.

The elimination of that aura is the main consequence that applying technology to the production of art has. The ability to reproduce the same piece with any loss, as many times as we need, erases the uniqueness of the piece of art. However, we can argue in the first place that this is mainly the case of sculpture and image, and we could continue by saying that in the case of literature the effects of technology —the implementation of print— are primary  constituents of our modern understanding of this human activity.

Personally, I am partially in favor of thinking that technology has no destructive value per se and that only the outcomes of its application are the ones that can be labeled as negative or violent. Well, in this context, one of the consequences of the mechanization of the arts could be measured if we were to look at the more modern art that was produced during the XX century. At a more general level of art —since we already touched photography on a previous post— what we can see is how the artistic procedure moves totally to the intellectual realm and is confined to the idea in the artist’s head.

 

What I mean is that what we are doing here is eliminating the aura from the artifact, because it really does not have it anymore and because it is a perfect representation: a rounded, finished piece. If we only have reproductions, the original piece does not really matter and what is more, in conceptual art, the idea is the asset and the objects where the ideas are contained, are usually only worth the price of the materials of which the object is made —an idea that makes a lot of sense in Jeff Koons art, for example.

To some extent, the fact that art has lost part of that exhibitional and representational value lies at the bottom of the foundation of an elitist art which is totally detached from a great percentage of society. Benjamin highlights the massive nature of cinema, however, the cinema that has the congregation power is the one that was already criticized of being frivolous eighty years ago. The nature of art has shifted, and now it constitutes a highly individual activity based on invisible mental processes: depriving it consequently of a strong social or historical function.

As a conclusion, I’d like to throw an idea that might seem a little extreme —or maybe not. Capitalism as well as technology are not essentially mean, as we said. However, they have the power of consuming. They are often not sustainable in the sense that their totally legitimate, perfect acts tend to exhaust resources and have a very clear and rational agenda. Therefore, I’d like to propose something like a revision of a new ethics of technology, in which the functions and spheres in which technology acts are regulated by an institution or a governmental organism. Yes, I am European and I love regulatory agencies.

 

 

It is difficult to look at it if it is under your nose.

In Understanding Media, MacLuhan drops two of the most intense affirmations about the development of technique and the influence of technology in the human being that I have read so far. Or at least he does it in a very explicit manner. Firstly, he asserts that technology splits everything into smaller units. By saying that, he is pointing to what I believe is at the essence of technological action: reformulation of any content or problem into small intelligible units. The other main idea, is the one that explains technology as the extension of the nervous system —metaphor that is probably the one we all apply to our discourse when we mentally conceive of technology.  Combining and applying both assertions poses a big implication, a real one I hope: a human being who is completely aware of his own environment at a personal, local and global level. We keep on breaking up units, with a sledge hammer first, a chisel then, and finally, we have become so curious that we are able to split atoms —I do not really know if we apply a tool to them.

Excuse me if I get personal here, but I’d like to know if anybody who reads this did undergo the same experience as a child: I clearly remember having the habit of splitting breadcrumbs until the butter knife was too blunt to perform, then using my dad’s knife until I cut the table and my mother yelled. That happened all the time —the urge to know the components of objects, of food, that’s how all kids are, right? At least until they discover drugs and alcohol and become responsible adults.

This first idea that I mentioned before —technology as an ‘expliciter’ —is really important, extremely crucial, and totally worth being examined with some care. If we keep in mind that MacLuhan wrote this in the 60’s, how come we are now in this state of terrible ignorance? Where is the expected progression? There is a big problem with digital natives and the distance they are not able to acquire when dealing with their homeland technology.

Let me try to illustrate my point. In language teaching there has always been a big debate between what it is better, a teacher who has the target language as a second language, or the native speaker, who was born immersed in the language and whose mental processes are recreated in that language. Well, the debate, as most debates, is endless, obviously. However, it would be good for us to explicate the reasoning of both ends of this discussion and to apply them to the case of technology in society.

For those of you not familiar with the idea, I’ll make it more explicit, technological style. I am a native teacher of Spanish language and literature, my students are happy and relieved when every first day of class they confirm that “Mr. Moreno” is indeed a foreigner who mumbles and curses in Spanish. What they do not know, is that I rely incredibly on my intuition, which has worked pretty well up to now, but that is far from being beneficial and practical for beginning language learners. I often struggle to simplify grammar, and my explanations could be labeled as esoteric on some occasions. Bottomline, natives know their stuff, but sometimes not the places where things come from. On the other hand, non natives usually have a great control of gramatical rules, a better structured knowledge, and the motivation and love for a culture that it is not their own.

If we apply this to our context, we can see the parallelism clearly. Natives show an impressive intuitive control over gadgets, and it is such a pleasure to observe a 10-year-old little being navigating on a screen menu with the same naturality with which my grandfather gutted a pig. Nevertheless, we need to be careful with these technobeings, otherwise, we may fall into one of those dystopias where everybody is suddenly dumb except for that poor guy whose physical condition would allow him to carry the knowledge chip.

Then, the only thing we really need to do, is to sensitize young generations about the origins of technology and talk them into knowing the underlying processes, at least to some extent, so they are aware of what they are doing when they incorporate technology into their deeds. We absolutely do not need every kid knowing how to code —like in academy?— but if they rely so much on technology, and they do not have the chance not to, shouldn’t there be at least a bigger proportion of them who should know the grammar of the language they speak?

As a final remark, I’d like to bring attention to ‘curiosity’, the real engine of everything, the trigger of Macluhan´s passion about the medium, the motivation of foreigners to learn another language, and the ultimate reason why we all are here.