As I suspected it might (previous post), the conference on Digital Transformations didn’t really get to investigate other than a very narrow definition of what ‘digital’ might mean. In the final session three of the speakers did question the meaning of the digital in different and interesting ways (David Berry, Jahnavi Phalkey, and Sarah Cook), but apart from them the feel I got from the conference was that ‘digital’ means shiny computer kit, huge datasets, GIS/GPS and some fairly ordinary data visualisation – albeit applied to ‘different’ things. Oh,and 3D printers, which are dull as ditchwater. This did not apply to everyone present (there were some great student projects, for example), but depressingly it did seem to apply to the majority of the academic speakers – at least the ones I saw. Fortunately the whole event was rounded off by musician Imogen Heap‘s fantastic musical gloves, which she both explained to us and then used to perform her first song written with them. Quite amazing and I want a pair for Xmas.
What was particularly striking about the stuff that preceded the wonderful gloves, however, was how poorly historicised it all was. All the more surprising because of the large numbers of historians and medievalists present. In addition to there being no mention of money as digital (other than by me in a stroppy moment), other related and thoroughly digital technologies went unaddressed. Two that stood out for me were clock-time and the semiotics of ‘modern’ (i.e. largely developing post 1500) cartography. Both are very obviously digital technologies, both are related to money and print technologies and both began to emerge in the late 15th century in forms that are recogniseable to us and, indeed, that we have never really bettered (just refined). This is important not just because I am a pedant, but because failing to recognise them as foundational elements in the development of a digital culture makes it very hard to get a perspective on current transformations. In terms of the ‘moot’, therefore, it is undoubtedly the case that the Internet, huge data-processing capacities and funky machines are producing ‘digital transformations’, but the evidence is not there to suggest that these things are anything like as revolutionary as was the simultaneous emergence of money, clocks, maps and printing (and, no doubt others). This is partly, of course, because we have no way of knowing where the newer technologies will lead, but also, and more significantly because they are ‘transforming’ a world already thoroughly digital. None of these newer technologies has, to date at least, surpassed: money (even if it has made it very fast and as weird as it can be); the map (Sat Navs, GIS and the rest are all based on gridded territorial analogues first developed in the 16th century); clock time (look at your wrist) or moveable type (the underground on the way back was full of people using e-readers made to exactly mimic the look and feel of printed paper). There are many other digital things beyond these, but the whole lot are working their ‘transformations’ in a world already transformed and staturated by ‘the digital’. The absence of these things from the conference served only to confirm the extraordinary invisibility (because so ubiquitous for so long) of these other, older digital technologies.
As Denis Wood put it about cartography:
Not seen as a semiological system: this is the heart of the matter. Of all the systems so not seen, is there one more invisible than the cartographic? The most fundamental cartographic claim…is to be a system of facts, and its history has most often been written as the story of its ability to present those facts with ever increasing accuracy.
Most importantly, the lack of an informed historical context meant that the crucial role played by earlier technologies in the construction of modern capitalism meant that the ‘revolutionary’ potential of newer technologies was seriously overplayed. Computer technologies may have created the wonderful (if threatened) new commons of the internet, but it has also contributed to the massive intensification of economic and political inequality (chiefly through the opening up of xenospaces by the super-rich), the financialization of everything, a technology-rich military and (at risk of sounding a tad paranoid), a huge extension of the capacities of state powers of surveillance and control. That needs transforming, but digital technologies are just as much part of the problem as the site of salvation.