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<nettime> As Logic of Assembly
eric deis on Sat, 7 Dec 2002 20:58:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> As Logic of Assembly

Eric Deis
e-mail: ericdeis[at]anemone.cx

 "New media objects assure users that their choices - and therefore, their
underlying thoughts and desires - are unique, rather than pre-programmed and
shared with others. As though trying to compensate for their earlier role in
making us all the same, today descendants of the Jacquard's loom, the
Hollerith tabulator and Zuse's cinema-computer are now working to convince
us that we are all unique."[1] - Lev Manovich,

    In his book Language of New Media, Manovich theorizes variability as the
epitome of digital media and consequently the reflected logic of
post-industrial society. He equates historical changes in media technologies
to be correlated to changes in industrial mass society as a philosophy of
conformity brought about by mass production, and thus deducing the logic of
digital media as governed by variability to be reflected in central values
of individuality within post-industrial society. [2] In contrast, I will
argue that the logic of assembly governs digital media and mass production,
and is intrinsic to the social logic of industrial and post-industrial
society, where variability along with numerical representation and
modularity exponentially enhance the means of assembly. Both digital media
and the assembly line rely on two main principles, the standardization of
parts (Binary, CPU, Hard Drive, Operating system) and discrete units
performing specific repetitive and sequential tasks (in essence
programmable) without having to comprehend the totality of the process,

    At the core of digital media lays a simple rule that governs all
processes, on and off. This method of on and off is called Binary, and is
constructed by an electronic device called the transistor. The state of on
and off of the transistor constructs one Bit of data (1 or 0). On its own,
one Bit of data has very little significance in terms of conveying
information. It is through the assembly of multiple Bits where the totality
of these states of on and off constructs significant value. By assembling
Bits such as - 01001000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111 01110111
01101111 01110010 01101100 01100100 00100001 - the phrase "Hello World!" is
created. When a computer is turned on the microprocessor begins by executing
a series of repetitive and sequential tasks from instructions stored in a
microchip of read-only memory containing information on how to interface
with different hardware devices called the basic input/output system (BIOS).
The instructions on this microchip are written in a language called
Assembly. An assembler translates word commands written by human programmers
into sequences of Bits, and then the output of the assembler is placed in
memory for the microprocessor to execute. From the BIOS the computer is able
to locate the hard drive and fetches data from the boot sector of the drive,
where it is then stored in random access memory (RAM) after reading it off
the disk. The microprocessor then begins executing the boot sector's
instruction set from RAM. The microprocessor continues to fetch data and
execute commands from the boot sector until the entire operating system is

    Computers are constructed with a combination of standardized
interchangeable parts, each of which performs a specific task. On average,
personal computers running in homes around the world today have processors
ranging in speed from 100Mhz to 3Ghz, and hard drives of sizes from 200mb to
200GB. There are thousands of different manufactures, and thousands of
different variations for each part, ranging from details such as capacity,
speed, or materials. At any given time a consumer can add an additional
part, remove a part, or replace a part. The list of parts that can be
assembled within the computer keeps growing day by day as technology
evolves. Through all of the possible combination of computer parts each
computer has the potential to be unique.

    The application program interface (API) of the operating systems allows
software developers to write applications for different computers, even if
they are unique. The main principle of the operating system is to manage the
system resources of the computer (processor, device drivers, memory
management, hard drive, etc), to provide a consistent way for applications
to deal with the hardware without having to know all the details of the
system, such as all the instruction codes, data types, and response codes
for every possible hard disk on the market.

    "New media follows, or actually, runs ahead of a quite different logic
of post-industrial society - that of individual customization, rather that
of mass standardization."[3] "In a post-industrial society, every citizen
can construct her own custom lifestyle and "select" her ideology from a
large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same
objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each
individual separately. The logic of new media technology reflects this new
social logic. Every visitor to a Web site automatically gets her own custom
version of the site created on the fly from a database."[4] - Manovich

The means of a custom interchangeable practice suited for unique individuals
developed out of the invention of C. de Dunin's mechanical tailor's dummy.
The mechanical dummy was fitted with over 6979 standardized parts, all of
which were "dedicated to adjustments away from perfection toward the
peculiarities of form of any individual"[5]. Once the dummies were
mass-produced "with several [dummies], boasted Dunin, you could fit uniforms
to an army of several hundred thousand men,"[6] How does a custom version of
a website aid to construct a unique individual in post-industrial society?
The method of customization in post-industrial society embodies the
contradictions of made to measure individuality brought forth by the dummy
in industrial society. A custom version of a website does not constitute
individuality or uniqueness. It is method of integrating control over a user
to integrate her within the system. Soldiers are fitted with custom uniforms
set to the particularities of their body like users fitted with a custom
website set to their demographics and personal interests. Here digital media
employs the logic of mass standardization and conformity of an industrial
society, in contrast to Manovich's claim that digital media has moved beyond
conformity and constructs uniqueness. In this case, Individuality is that of
a marketing ploy to try to push their objects/information to a mass
audience. Uniqueness hence "freedom [comes] without interference,
manipulation or supervision from anyone, especially from any large
organization."[7] It is the assembly of thousands and thousands of choices
consciously and subconsciously within one's daily life that defines an
individual's ideology, rather than a single choice garnished from a source
dictated by another entity.

It is in the realm of mass production and mass culture where ideologies as
subcultures emerge as a response to the dominant cultural environment as a
means of constructing an identifiable functional unity. In relation to their
cultural surroundings the visual ensembles of subcultures are obviously
fabricated. It is the way that mass-produced items are used in the
construction of a subculture, which distinguishes it from more common
cultural formations. As a means of making themselves distinct from the
dominant culture the subculture takes "the rubbish available within a
preconstituted market .[to] generate viable cultures, and through their work
on received commodities and categories, actually formulate a living, lived
out and concretized critique of the society which produces these distorted,
insulting, often meaningless things."[8] It is through a system of
connections between assembled elements, which allows for the construction of
meaning. "Together, object and meaning constitute a sign, and, within any
one culture, such signs are assembled, repeatedly, into characteristic forms
of discourse. However, when the bricoleur re-locates the significant object
in a different position within that discourse, using the same overall
repertoire of signs, or when that object is placed within a different total
ensemble, a new discourse is constituted, a different message conveyed".[9]
It is through the selection and arrangement of objects were the values of
the group are reflected. An ensemble thoroughly ordered from a plastic
clothes peg, safety-pin, pogo, swastika, ripped T-shirt, and bin-liner
served as a point of identification and unity of relations, situations, and
experience for a group, and chaos, danger, and rebellion to those outside
it. Once constructed, the subculture as an assembly is recuperated by the
dominate culture in the form of commodity, then becomes codified and
returned to the public sphere where they can be used in yet another

    "When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed
alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by
tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place,
unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will
locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover,
one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path."[10] -
Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush believed that their must be a better answer to "how
information would be gathered, stored, and accessed in an increasingly
information-saturated world" than filing and searching through layers of
classification, for as far as the act of combining records is concerned,
"the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the
data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is
repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to a machine"
.[11] In 1963 Ted Nelson, who was greatly influenced by Bush's article "As
We May Think", coined the term Hypertext.[12] The hypertext "exist[s] as
part of a much larger system in which the totality might count more than the
individual document".[13] The process of assembling information via
hypertext mirrors the structure of the mind by operating by association.
"With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is
suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate
web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other
characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are
prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the
speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is
awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature." [14] Hypertext possesses an almost
unlimited power to manipulate texts through its ability to constantly shift
meaning by assembling networks of text into new contexts and juxtapositions.

    The notion of assembly is at the forefront of net.art with Josh On's
prestigious PrixArs award winning project "They Rule".[15] The work is an
interactive visualization of a database containing information on the board
members of the most influential corporations in America. The hidden
structures of social power are made visible by allowing the user to assemble
visual maps of the different companies and their board members (Figure 1).
The work reveals the magnitude of elitism among the most powerful people
within the USA by openly illustrating visual linkages such as the domination
26 companies within the Fortune 100 by six men and one woman, and networks
of power among so called competitors Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. This visual
interactive form of assembly allows for the otherwise unapparent or obscure
to become visible in a comprehensible form.

Figure 1.

In Flow My Blood the DJ Said, contemporary artist/writer/musician Paul D.
Miller (aka DJ Spooky) postulates that "To [Miller], assembly is the
invisible language of our time, and DJ'ing is the forefront art form of the
late 20th century".[16] His DJ'ing performances instigate the convergence
and melding of the construction and re-mixing of discrete samples of sounds,
text, and image to create a unique space which "mirrors the modern macrocosm
of cyberspace where different voices and visions constantly collide and
cross fertilize one another."[17] The process of assembly holds a strong
foothold in contemporary culture due to its enhancement by the development
of digital media and its mirrored logic of post-industrial society. Like
their counterparts; Bits of data, workers of the assembly line, or
mass-produced items, audio samples construct meaning only when assembled
within the mix. Through digital media, the audio sample breaks from its
physical bonds of tape and vinyl into a liquidous form of numerical
encoding. The ability for samples to be copied without degradation, modified
and assembled mathematically by algorithmic manipulation and automated
processes - all the while retaining its original structure, and distributed
across vast digital networks idealizes the sample as the ultimate element of
assembly.  The sample now knows no bounds, and the musician is now free to
explore her process of assembly as assembly to infinite means. "[Miller]
doesn't need an orchestra; [He] can simulate one just fine..Technology
hasn't changed [Miller's] compositional process, it's just extended it into
new realms."[18]

    Assembly is the fundamental logic of post-industrial and industrial
society, whether particular elements are manually assembled by a human
author in a fixed sequence or automatically assembled in infinite
arrangements by a programmatic software application; the process and
consequence is of assembly. Digital Media enhances and reinforces the
dominant social logic of assembly from the basic level of assembling Bits of
data in order to execute rudimentary electronic commands, to assembling
samples of contemporary culture to form a new and unique voice. The process
of assembly is freed of virtually any limitations through digital media's
ability to encoding discrete elements numerically, which can then be
infinitely copied; distributed, arranged, and manipulated. Digital media
exponentially expands the means of assembly by its ability to digitize
virtual anything from DNA sequences, census data, orchestras, the ancient
city of Pompeii, to entire galaxies; constructing an infinite databank of
elements of which human machines alike can put together in infinite
combinations to construct meaning of unlimited magnitude.


[1] Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001.

[2] p.60.

[3] Manovich, p.51.

[4] p.60.

[5] Schwartz, Hillel, The Culture of the Copy, Zone Books, New York, 1996.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kaczynski, Theodore John, The Unabomer Manifesto: Industrial Society and
Its Future, Jolly Roger Press, Berkeley, 1995.p.30.

[8] Willis, Paul E., Profane Culture, Routledge, Great Britian, 1978, p.3.

[9] Hebdige, Dick, "Subculture: The Meaning of Style", in The Subcultures
Reader. Eds.Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton, Routledge, London, 1997. p.136.

[10]  Bush, Vannevar, "As We May Think", in Multimedia: From Wagner to
Virtual Reality, Eds. Packer, Randall & Jordan, Ken, Norton, New York, 2001.

[11] p.144 & p.136

[12]  Nelson, Ted, "Computer Lib/Dream Machines", in Multimedia: From Wagner
to Virtual Reality, Eds. Packer, Randall & Jordan, Ken, Norton, New York,
2001. p.155

[13] Landow, George & Delany, Paul, "Hypertext, Hypermedia and Literary
Studies: The State of the Art", in Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual
Reality, Eds.
Packer,  Randall & Jordan, Ken, Norton, New York, 2001. p.210.

[14] Bush, p.148.

[15] http://www.theyrule.net

[16] Mariotti, Francesco,  El pensamiento es un jardín híbrido, Venezuela.

[17] Miller, Paul D., Songs of a Dead Dreamer (CD inlay), Asphodel Records,

[18] Glass, Philip, Music and Technology: A Roundtable Discussion, Andante
Corp., 2002. http://www.andante.com/article/article.cfm?id=17375


Eric Deis is an interdisciplinary artist from Vancouver, Canada. Deis
received a B.F.A in Visual Arts from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.
He is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the University of
California, San Diego, where he is studying under the guidance of New Media
theorist Lev Manovich. Deis is also a graduate student researcher for Centre
for Research in Computing and the Arts at UCSD and a research fellow for the
California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. His
work has been exhibited in Canada, USA, Denmark, Ireland, Brazil, and
Germany where he most recently won the City of Stuttgart Award for New Media

e-mail: ericdeis[at]anemone.cx

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