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?
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.