Much of my recent media works have centered around what I see as a fundamental limitation of the digital: its categorization. From the machine level electrical structures to user interfaces, the computer demands structure. These rules generate a space of possible forms for that particular technology. In the case of digital technology, William Mitchell, in his book City of Bits, refers to it as ‘the bitsphere’. He and others like Ursula Franklin have cautioned against the cultural control software and hardware engineers – with an economic rather then social imperative – have on the bitsphere.
As we crawl inside this digital bunker, we leave behind the nuances and humanism of the analogue biosphere and enter a world created by economic forces. Mitchell argues that our innate desire to be social will pull us back from total emersion, yet recent evidence of teen and young adult use of technology suggests the pull is too great. The bitsphere is a self contained multi-modal envelopment in which the analogue is not only not present but its absence is unseeable. Like the squares of Edwin Abbot’s Flatland, we will not be convinced of a the existence of this another dimension. Eventually, the digital will be seen as continuous.
How do we break out of this bitsphere? Turning off the computer will not dismiss the cultural shifts that it has created. Breaking it will only serve to convince us of its strength. We must – within the rules of the binary – illuminate the space between the 0 and the 1; to reconstruct the continuous from the discontinuous.
Since categorization and its effects on culture are also fundamental to language, it may be helpful to draw an analogy between technology and language. In Chomsky’s view of generative linguistics, meaningful sentences are constructed using a fixed set of rules (grammar) in much the same way as technology is able to do something meaningful using a set of physical principles. One problem with the generative model is its inability to account for the ‘deviant’ grammar of poetry. Poetry references the basic linguistic principles but does not follow them. A poem can be understood (i.e. it still functions to communicate) but does so by playing in the space between grammatical rules. By doing so, poetry is able to extend the language outside its normal ‘covering space’ – it reaches ideas that cannot be easily or so emphatically expressed in the language. If we were able to create some form of ‘technological poetry’, it may give us the ability to see outside a particular technology even while we are immersed in it. We are not dismissing it or breaking it, but creating a space between the 0 and the 1, a porthole that offers a critical view of the influence technology exerts on culture.
What would such a technological poetry look like? What would function as the grammar, the syntax, semantics and pragmatics?