What does the digital do? It makes literate machines.

In considering the question of what does the “digital” do to the “text”, Birkerts has a very particular response. The digital negatively impacts the interpretative and contemplative aspects of reading. I have an issue with this answer that goes beyond a flawed argument (which many of my colleagues have aptly pointed out). It frames the whole question of the digital in terms of its ability to remediate the experience of the physical book. I think such a framing sidesteps what is at stake.

Let’s reconsider the question in its truncated form. What does the digital do? Following Manovich’s argument (especially in Software Takes Command), the digital adds computation to the mix of possible forms of interpretation. Considering that computation allows for the quick manipulation and calculation of symbols, reading a text is no longer the sole domain of humans. It becomes a proper activity for software, robots, and algorithms. They are literate machines.

Coming back to the full question, the digitization of the text extends the realm of readership into the non-human actants of society. Considering this fact, the doing of digital presents us with an uncomfortable question. What meaning do machines read from our tragic and eloquent discourses on being human? Firstly, their meanings are different from our own. Their hermeneutics are intensely quantitative in nature and therefore do not come to the same interpretations that we do. However, they are good at assessing large quantities of information and finding patterns.

Crane (2006) asks What do you do with a million books? The resulting answer is to let software read and report on their interpretation. This report is presented to us as a metatext that we would otherwise be unable to interpret. To illustrate this point, the programmer and artist Josh Billions has developed software that averages the colour of pixels found in a collection of photographs. Below is his image entitled Every Image Of A Person I’m Unable To Identify (2 of 2: 687 Photographs). Within the frame is the ghostly suggestion of a human form standing in front of a landscape divided by earth and sky. These 687 photos interpreted this way resist recognition. Yet there is a suggestion of coherence, there is a pattern here, and feels like a representation of unknowing.

Every Image Of A Person I’m Unable To Identify (2 of 2: 687 Photographs): Josh Billions

Now contrast this smear of the unknown with the image Train video average. 1,457 frames. There is so much consistency within the 45 seconds of footage that you immediately come to grips with the consistency of the landscape. What is interesting here, is that you do not have to wait for nearly a minute to pass to come to this conclusion. The algorithms have rendered this fact immediately.

Train video average. 1,457 frames: Josh Billions

In considering these images, I think Moretti’s argument in Graph, Maps, Trees makes the case for the importance of quantitative information as an valuable threshold of interpretation. But the image of data never speaks for itself. It must still be interpreted by us. We must bring it back for the digital wilds and into the narrative of human life.

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2 Responses to What does the digital do? It makes literate machines.

  1. clairefarley says:

    I think you make a compelling observation, Steve. Besides serving as examples of creative uses of quantitative software, your images remind us that what we have been doing all along is interpreting. As scholars of literature, we have always been doing more than pleasurably and sensually entering the imaginative worlds offered to us in books; we have been interpreting, critiquing, deconstructing these worlds. We have been installing other narratives, theoretical or biographical, around these works. And now the quantitative data available to us offers a new, exciting framework. Looking at these images, they are not unlike other works of visual art. Sensually, we enjoy them and internalize them as we do other works. And yet, to understand their conceptual framework, their relationship to the quantitative software you describe, opens the possibility for another type of appreciation that is interpretive in nature. We are not losing anything by adding new possibilities of interpretation to the works we study; there have always been layers to the way we appreciate and analyze works of art.

    • nlikarev says:

      I completely agree that “we are not losing anything by adding new possibilities of interpretation to the works we study”, Claire. I would even argue we are gaining momentum. With digital technologies quantitative and qualitative minds gain another medium for expressing their ideas and bridging a gap between two ways of thinking.
      I really don’t think that the medium should be the focus either. As you say Steve, as long as no humanity is lost in the process the way we get there doesn’t matter. As John Green says, “‘take it where you can find it. In old photograph records, in old motion pictures, and in old friends…look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.'” The ‘it’ being “the ideas that offer us sustenance and intellectual engagement.” High culture is not the aim. Living to one’s full potential is, whatever the means.

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