On Digitalability

text 080507


Ability and digital can be combined in two ways. What do digital technologies enable us to do? What are they able to do themselves? In other words: What do we do with digital technologies? What do they do with us? As regards these two questions, in “Understanding Media” Marshall McLuhan felt there could only be one answer in 1968: “The medium is the message”. Since then, in the course of almost 40 years, a few things have changed, not least through digitalisation. All the media that McLuhan could clearly differentiate back then – written, film, radio, television etc. – have been absorbed into the one universal discrete machine: into the computer and its digital calculating processes. On the one side of digital technology we are familiar with interfaces, devices and gadgets: chips with cases, calculating and calculated objects. On the other side we see and hear the data behind protocols and formats: jpg, mp3, Internet, World Wide Web and Second Life. Media as McLuhan understands it will disappear. Interfaces and devices, digital forms and formats will take their place.
What does this mean for the world of material things, of immaterial interfaces and of design? Hardly anything is produced now that, during its creation, does not take on the form of digital information – whether as a sketch, design, construction plan or 3D form. Today, most objects never completely leave the casing of data streams that creates and envelops them. A part of them remains in the information cycle. They communicate with each other and network with each other, they know their own name and that of their owner. Things lead a double life. An immaterial parallel to material properties enters the production, consumer and information cycles as a data record. Bruce Sterling talks of the transformation of objects into gizmos and spimes, Bruno Latour calls for a parliament of things.
Back to McLuhan. How can we reinterpret the sentence: “The medium is the message”? McLuhan’s statement is directed at the belief that a medium is only a means that serves a predetermined purpose. Really, it is much more the case that it generates its own use and function. This can also be applied to hybrid objects – half thing, half data. First, this means that the relationships of form and function cannot be observed and planned from both sides. ->

What is a thing? You could say it is a material object that is needed for a specific purpose. Yet the aesthetic element has always overwritten the purpose and embossed things with decoration and patterns. Variations of things have multiplied with the abundance of goods in capitalist society. Each object is coded as an icon and marked with an “image”. Now, if things continue to exist as data records, new spaces become available to these and other codes. However, the codes do not simply stick to the material like a second skin. They are retroactive and rewrite methods of usage.
Let us take as an example that class of palm-sized objects that the mobile telephone has spawned and which are now overloaded with almost every imaginable function. It no longer makes sense to ask what purpose such an object has. We cannot decide whether it requires a specific interface such as a keyboard. The correct question is: What would it be without keys? McLuhan’s statement can be understood as the opposite of louis Henri Sullivan‘s “form follows function”. Functions only arise if the objects and interfaces are available. Yet at the same time, we do not know which function a new object will actually perform. It carries a potential which it can either subdue or accept. In this way, the thing enters a cycle of information, consumption and use. It calls for variations and corrections. It is, to use the language of programmers and gamers, nothing other than the momentary instant of a data record. It can be adapted to demand on the market or to individual requirements at all times.
The question “what things do we need in the new world?” does not help us anymore. The train of thought takes us elsewhere. What kind of world will it be where things are data and vice versa?