In her article “Digital,” Tara McPherson seeks to urge readers to consider the real question of digital culture, instead of asking what it is, we should contemplate the societal elements of it, why we need it, what causes certain technologies to become more prominent, and what those results might mean. In doing so, she emphasizes the importance on looking at how and why these media/technologies evolved in order to understand where we are at present, further strengthening the link between humanity/society and media of all kinds, in particular digital.
She outlines three particularly fascinating ideas in this article, which include the following:
- At the start of her article, McPherson notes that the words “digital” and computation” are not synonymous. In fact, as she then relays, the word digital is quite nuanced, and the distinctions between each of these facets of the word is extremely important in how we come to entertain certain conceptualizations of our society today. The word digital can refer to our bodies, the “digits” that we call fingers and toes; it can also refer to numbers and the world of the computer. Thus, to me, digital can be said to inhabit many, if not all, facets of our world, much like print culture. McPherson also notes that these distinctions between the different connotations of the word digital prompt two kinds of cultural understandings to develop: analog and digital. She states that technologies like the abacus are analog, “smooth” and “circular,” moving in our lives with a “continuous flow” (McPherson). These analog artifacts belonging to that vein of thinking are traditionally thought of as more human then, I think. Digital technologies like digital alarm clocks are more “discrete;” the numbers and information we gather from them are distinctly separated from one another, and, in a way, from us as well because of the integral operating structure of that technology existing within the clock itself; it’s not easy for us to get our “digits” on. McPherson states that “[a]s humans, we perceive the world analogically, as a series of continuous gradations of color, sound, and tastes;” however, I believe that as the article progresses, she moves to call readers to consider a “digital” understanding of the world as one that is just as valid and deeply embedded within our societal consciousness as the analog (McPherson).
- The second thing that McPherson discusses that particularly struck me as I read was her discussion of the questions of how we are to perceive the transition from analog to digital, where we should look in defining it, and why these things are so. She states that we are called traditionally to see this change as one of “efficiency and progress;” stating that “[s]uch evolutionary accounts suggest that digital machines win out because they are more precise, have greater storage capacities, and are better general-purpose machines” (McPherson). She goes on to note that this kind of understanding/ justification of the state and journey of the transition from analog to digital does a great disservice to the larger context of the move, meaning that it discounts the very human, social, and cultural factors that prompted/worked in conjunction with such technological/media shifts. Again, this emphasizes the recursive nature of our relationship with media and how we shape it as it shapes us as individuals and societies. This transitions well into McPherson’s next main point, which is a deeper rumination upon how and why this digital culture came to be, what exactly it is, and how we should understand it.
- McPherson describes that this digital culture has evolved to highlight, even mimic, societal shifts. This becomes evident when she notes that “[t]he introduction of digital computer operating systems at midcentury installed an extreme logic of modularity and seriality that “black-boxed” knowledge in a manner quite similar to emerging logics of racial visibility and racism” (McPherson). She notes that there was something inherent in the development of these technologies, from the hands/minds of its human creators to the way in which the operating systems were set up that perpetuates and simulates the “separation” that could be seen in human society. Again, this calls back to her initial discussion of just how varied the understanding/definition of the word “digital” really is. In an almost subconscious way, human relations and identities make themselves known in the realm of digital technologies. It is by our “digits,” our hands, that we bring these “digital,” technological, artifacts into being; we may then be said to, in a way, be putting ourselves, human society at all levels, into technology. We make the digital. As such, McPherson appears to conclude that at its very core, all societies have been and will continue to be “digital,” and that we are living in one such age at present. Finally, she concludes that despite the variances in definition of the word “digital,” and how these different connotations elicit different emotional/mental responses from us, that understanding how/why/in what forms, digital artifacts have arisen to form these “digital” cultures is important in helping us to clearly and most fully develop an understanding of where we are as a society, and as individuals, right now.
After reading the article, I have the following questions:
- I would like clarification how and why she chose certain avenues in her discussion of where we should look to define/understand the shift from analog to digital and what exactly this culture consists of. She talks about how some look at this shift from a view entrenched in the myth of progress and supersession, that these technologies are “more precise, have greater storage capacities, and are better general-purpose machines” (McPherson). She also says that others look at the social/cultural influences. It is her final argument that kind of throws me for a loop, and that is when she seems to advance Manovich’s argument that we look at computer science in order to develop an understanding of digital culture because “[g]eneral histories of computers and much of new media theory tend toward evolutionary or formalist explanations for the emergence of the digital as the dominant computational paradigm, but we might also understand the shift as cultural and historical along a number of registers” (McPherson). This shift in her degree of specificity in how we should perceive/understand this culture confused me, though I am beginning to see what she means as to how this discipline addresses many of the questions she deems essential to develop an understanding of this kind of world.
- Another thing I think I would like more information on are the various political, social, and philosophical movements/schools of thoughts that she describes as being influencers of and in a way, invested in the digital. One such example that I thought was very interesting was her mention of “neoliberalism” (McPherson).
I would like to offer up the following question for debate after reading “Digital:”
McPherson states that the digital world is very much ensconced in the analog, noting that many of us feel emotionally linked to our digital devices. Digital technologies then, much like those of print, are inherently human and have affective qualities; they are subjective artifacts. She notes earlier in the article that the structure of these different digital technologies may mimic and embody the prevalent societal movements that accompany their development and introduction into society. What I am wondering is what our preferences for certain technologies over others may say about us as individuals. By that, I mean, what might my decision to write emails on my laptop say about me? What could my roommate’s insistence on sending emails on her cellphone say about her? Is there anything to be said?