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Re: <nettime> Digital Humanities Manifesto
Evan Buswell on Fri, 30 Jan 2009 22:41:08 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> Digital Humanities Manifesto


In definitions, we always must ask: why?  We use the words usefully
already, why (politically) make the definition include or exclude
something?  I certainly don't have a clear answer to this question,
which makes me hesitant to contribute; nevertheless, I feel I have a
few things that might build on the discussion.

For me, "digital" means "linguistic" or "grammatical" or any other of
the problematic and non-neutral words that try to encapsulate
language.  Digitization is a system that functions through absolute
difference (or differance, if you prefer), the ability to separate the
phenomena of "1" from that of "0" (or any other symbols, e.g. "a" from
"b" from "c").  As someone has mentioned, the size of the symbol set
must be finite.  It is precisely through making the infinite finite
that we create absolute difference.

This has nothing to do with numbers.  Rather, numbers have to do with
it, numbers are representable with digital content and entangled with
the idea of digitality somehow.  The convention of turning "A" into
0x41 or 00100001 is just a convention.  We could just as well
interpret the series of voltages in a byte as representing a letter.
Then to represent numbers, we could assign a number to each symbol,
thus reversing the primacy of one symbol set versus another.

Text is a digital medium.  Speech is not, film is not---as has been
said, there is here both an absolute distinction and a continuum in
which distinctions cannot be made.

However, I'm generally uncomfortable with describing a medium as
digital, at least in these conversations where we're trying to be as
precise as possible.  All media have both digital and analog
characteristics; even with a painting there is some amount of
communication that takes place through the absolute separation of the
framed object from its surroundings (or this is being actively fought
and subverted...).  It is our interpretation of the content, not the
medium, which is digital or otherwise.  Part of the theme of this
thread has been to try and emphasize the materiality of digital
information.  I think there's something to be preserved here; however,
it is precisely what is non-material that separates the digital from
the analog.  Clay is no more a digital medium than anything else.
When you pick letters into it, digital content is created.  But the
minute an anthropologist wants to find out what kind of wood your
stylus used, the information ceases to be digital (until they answer
their question, that is...).  Similarly, if I wanted to model a
computer, I have a choice between analog and digital representations
(i.e. emulation on another machine or reproduction of a voltage model
of its circuits).  The machine itself has nothing to do with analog
and digital, our interpretation of 3.5 volts as "1" and 0 volts as "0"
is what makes computers digital.  Of course, this is complicated
because computers are not a representation of anything other than
computing.  That is, the digital representation is a representation of
digitization itself, and only accidentally is applied to
analog-converted objects (you'll notice all the mathematicians hate it
when this happens).  Hence the prevalence of the textual/symbolic in
every aspect of computing---but let's not go there right now.

Regarding one more theme which has come up: computability.  So far as
has been understood, there is nothing necessarily computable about a
digital representation.  A digital representation can always be
represented in computation, but that does not necessarily mean that
this computation will finish, or even know where to begin.  See
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chompsky_hierarchy for more on this.
(And note it is not an accident that this work was done first in
linguistics).

To take this a little out of the rabbit hole, I think it's important
to emphasize that digital material can never be divorced from the
actual, material representation: that the abstraction is itself not a
reality, dependent on a material reality of power plants, technicians,
asphalt saws, and fiber optics for its existence.  But at the same
time we need to be careful not to imagine *actual* 1s and 0s floating
around in our machines.  That is our interpretation; there are none
until each time we put them there.

Evan Buswell

On Thu, Jan 29, 2009 at 3:24 AM, Felix Stalder <felix {AT} openflows.com> wrote:
>
> On Thursday, 29. January 2009, Lloyd Dunn wrote:
>> I must correct a technical error that has crept into these discussions
>> at least twice.
>>
>> Analog film frames are not digital. The case in point is simply this:
>> you can take the letters of the Bible and re-arrange them to produce,
>> for example, War and Peace.
>>
>> But you cannot take the frames of, for example, "The Birth of a
>> Nation" and use them to produce, say, "Psycho".
>>
>> The point is that a text is assembled from a finite set of fixed,
>> conventional, symbols called letters. The number of texts that can be
>> created from the same finite set of letters is infinite
>
> Absolutely. This also fits with standard definitions of the term.
 <...>


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