Friday, August 12, 2011

On the Persistence of Hardware

In the paper I will give next month at ISEA, I am exploring the oft-espoused notion that technology is neutral. My book Gratitude for Technology argues that every manufactured thing is a record of the life-times of the people who made it; that an archaeology of the surfaces of modernity is in order to articulate the real human relationships which produced them. Through this archaeology we must come to comprehensively acknowledge the legacy of these relationships, fair and unfair, respectful and exploitative, recorded in the surface.

Because the surface on which this text appears is technical material, and all technical material is a record of human relations, it cannot be neutral, because relationships are not neutral. I would not argue that these relationships are so many and infinitesimal that they 'even out' into a generalizable history. I want to be 'Infinitely Demanding' with Critchley, applying some of the highest Nouvelle Histoire ambitions of the 'Annales' school, and attempt to attend to each one of these minute fragments of real relationships coherently, in a sort of poly-biography, or anthropology of technology. I hope this will support my central contention that since the technical material is a prerequisite for anything which appears on it, the values recorded therein frame, shape and colour every experience of it. Finally I will claim that such effects are fathomable.

Vilém Flusser does not explicitly discuss the materiality of the digital surface, but he analyzes what he calls the 'technical image' as a projection from the level of code. He exhorts us to learn about how this written code functions to generate images, or else become enamoured of the digital image and mere subject to its power. He warns us not to delude ourselves about how much agency we actually have when we are imagine ourselves as 'being creative' with technical images.
"the first photographers had no idea what they were doing. They had no idea that it is the apparatus that takes the images. That the photographer is not necessary, that you can make automatic cameras, that it is so to speak technology, and science itself that makes images."1

1 from an interview, made in München, the 17th of October 1991. This written text is based on the edited tape entitled The Philosopher of Photography, broadcast by the Hungarian Television in May, 1992. (45 min, FRÍZ Production, directed by Miklós Peternák, András Sólyom, Producer: Judit Kopper)