THE WORK OF THEORY IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION by Henry Jenkins
Don’t you wish that somebody, in 1895, 1897 or at least in 1903, realized the
fundamental significance of the cinema’s emergence and produced a comprehensive
record of a new medium’s emergence? Interviews with the audiences; a systematic
account of the narrative strategies, scenography and camera positions as they
developed year by year; an analysis of the connections between the emerging
language of cinema and different forms of popular entertainment which co-existed
with it, would have been invaluable....In contrast to a hundred years ago, when
cinema was coming into being, we are fully aware of the significance of this new
media revolution. And yet I am afraid that future theorists and historians of
computer media will be left with not much more than the equivalents of newspaper
reviews and random bits of evidence similar to cinema’s first decade....They
will find that analytical texts from our era are fully aware of the significance
of the computer’s takeover of culture yet, by and large, they mostly contain
speculations about the future rather than a record and a theory of the present.
— Lev Manovich (1998)
In his essay, "Cinema as A Cultural Interface," Lev Manovich laments the
failure of contemporary media scholars to record "the moment when the icons and
the buttons of multimedia interfaces were like a wet paint on a just completed
painting, before they became a universal convention and slipped into
invisibility." Historians of early cinema can return to the prints of early
films preserved in archival collections around the world to trace the process of
stylistic experimentation and discovery. Many significant early films no longer
exist — but enough exist to make the reconsideration of early films a central
focus of cinema studies today. A historian of the web, even one writing today,
would face much greater difficulties. The early websites, made less than a
decade ago, no longer exist, swamped by rapid growth, quickly skuttled and
replaced, leaving no archival records. Writing the history of digital media will
be much more like writing the history of a transitory medium, like early radio
or vaudeville, than like documenting the evolution of a textual medium, like the
printing press or the cinema. Rapid technological transformation may prevent
future generations from accessing and reading many surviving texts and artifacts
(computer games, software, hypertext narratives). We can still project old
films, but they won’t have the operating systems to play old video games, which
are more like the wax phonograph cylinders than like books or films. Media
scholars are obligated to record our observations, to document technological and
aesthetic change, and to preserve evidence of new media’s impact.
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Manovich also correctly captures — and to some degree, manifests — the
temporal flux characteristic of contemporary digital theory — looking to the
past (for antecedents) and to the future (for the fulfillment of utopian
promises) but rarely at the present (for crude prototypes for what is to come).
Yet, Manovich’s discussion, which distinguishes between "newspaper reports,
diaries of cinema’s inventors, programs of film programs and other bits and
pieces" on the one hand and academic theory on the other, preserves distinctions
which are breaking down as the function and status of theory responds to the
digital revolution. From a contemporary perspective, one wonders why Moving
Picture World’s Epes Winthrope Sargent who articulated the core principles
of the emerging classical Hollywood cinema isn’t as much an early film theorists
as Sergei Eisenstein who used theory to explain his own film-making practices.
Many digital theorists have more in common with Sargent or Eisenstein than with
Foucault or Derrida.
If academic writers cast their eyes on the future, journalists (Howard
Rhinegold, 1993; Jon Katz, 1997; Julian Dibble, 1994; Stewart Brand, 1988; J.C.
Herz, 1996) and media activists (Stacy Horn, 1998; Esther Dyson, 1998; Lynn
Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, 1996) have provided accounts of the early days
of the net, the evolution of the video game, women’s hostile reception on-line,
or MUD debates about democracy and virtual communities. Thomas McLaughlin (1996)
has offered the term, "vernacular theory," to refer to theorizing outside the
academy, offering compelling case studies of the different modes of theory
formation among school teachers, advertising executives, fans, media activists
or new age visionaries and vernacular theory abounds in the digital realm. We
are often told that the net is "world without gatekeepers," which opens public
debates beyond the confines of elite universities. Amy Bruckman (1996) describes
this new participatory culture: "Cyberspace is not Disneyland. It’s not a
polished, perfect place built by professional designers for the public to
obediently wait on line to passively experience it. It’s more like a
finger-painting party. Everyone is making things, there’s paint everywhere, and
most work only a parent would love." Do-it-yourself theory-making is sloppy
business which doesn’t accept academic theory’s rules or standards.
What counts as theory and what theory does are questions that rarely get
asked in summary essays like this one. Theory will be understood here as any
attempt to make meaningful generalizations for interpreting or evaluating local
experiences and practices. When we make claims about what e-mail is, what it
does, how it changes how we relate to people, its potentials for reshaping
traditional practices and institutions, or how it differs from letter writing or
phone calls, we are theorizing digital media. Academic and vernacular theory
carry different degrees of prestige, speak different languages, ask different
questions , and address different audiences, though the line between them is
rapidly breaking down. For example, when someone like Nicholas Negroponte, the
head of MIT’s Media Lab, writes a regular column in Wired, does he write
as an academic or a vernacular theorist? Is his status fundamentally different
from the provocative political journalist, John Heilman, who has also published
in Wired but has no university affiliation? Even some of early works of
digital theory, such as Vannevar Bush’s influential "As We May Think," first
published in Atlantic Monthly in 1945, appeared not in scholarly journals
but in mass market magazines. Allucquere Rosanne Stone (?) has used the term,
"code switching," to refer to her shifts in tone, language, and address as she
goes from chat groups to academic conferences, from corporate trade shows to
avant garde arts exhibitions. Marshall McLuhan’s "the global village," surfaces
as the name of a corporate knowledge-management program, alongside quotations
from Understanding Media (1994). Theory has become central to how
businesses operate, how politicians plan their campaigns, and how consumers make
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What counts as digital media may also be up for grabs. Digital theory may
address anything from the role of CGI special effects in Hollywood blockbusters
to new systems of communication (the net), new genres of entertainment ( the
computer game), new styles of music (techno) or new systems of
representation(digital photography or virtual reality). All of these different
things reflect a shift from the computer as a tool, primarily understood in
terms of information storage and numerical calculation, to the computer as a
medium of communication, education, and entertainment. Each attracts their own
cadre of theorists asking different questions. E-mail poses questions about
virtual community; digital photography about the authenticity and reliability of
visual documentation; virtual reality about embodiment and its epistemological
functions; hypertext about readership and authorial authority; computer games
about spatial narrative; MUDs about identity formation; webcams about voyeurism
and exhibitionism; and so forth. The multiplicity of digital media makes writing
a totalizing account a logical impossibility. The same might be true of a theory
of print culture or of the cinema. However, theorists working on those earlier
media privilege one form or function over others. Literature becomes the study
of novels, short stories, and philosophical essays, not, at least until
recently, of manners books, instructional manuals, travel narratives, or
reference works. Cinema studies focuses primarily on commercial feature film
production and not home movies, instructional films, corporate promotional
videos, or exercise tapes. Cyberspace is not one place or one thing. Digital
theory struggles with its multiplicity, hybridity and fluidity.
In a period of prolonged change, digital theory is more than an academic
exercise. Digital media impacts all aspects of western society, from education
to politics, from business to the arts. Journalists, science fiction writers,
ideologues, entrepreneurs, activists, classroom teachers, rock stars, Supreme
Court judges, government regulators are both consumers and producers of digital
theory. For many, theorizing restores predictability and stability to a world
rocked by radical change, while for others, theory fuels change, directing the
energies unleashed by the digital revolution towards altering the nature of
political life or personal identity. Our fantasies and fears about change shape
our theories (including supposedly disinterested academic theories) as much as
our theories help master those fears and fulfill those fantasies. Theories often
reflect our points of entry into digital culture, the difference between a
generation who initially encountered digital media as technologies of the
workplace (word processing) and those for whom digital media are technologies of
recreation (computer games) or personal communication (chat rooms). For one
group, digital media will be likely understood as technologies counterposed to
the fleshy and spiritual aspects of human life. For the other, digital media are
understood in terms of the social relations they facilitate and thus integral to
how we live within families, make love, express intimate thoughts, and have fun
in the late 20th century.
Because digital media is changing rapidly, the state of digital theory is
also evolving at a dramatic pace. One book editor who had sought to analyze and
evaluate the CD-ROM disc as a new medium discovered that CD-ROM was surpassed by
DVD in the time it took him to get his contract, solicit and edit contributions,
and get the book published and into the stores (Smith, Forthcoming). An
important study on the impact of race on access to the Internet (Hoffman, 1998)
was deemed out of date upon publication, well before we could process and
respond to its challenges for cyber-democracy. For those reasons, this chapter
can, at best, represent a day in the life of digital theory, not an exhaustive
map of an established field.
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BRIDGING THE TWO CULTURES: THE ARTIST AND THE ENGINEER
This book is an extended as an attempt to think about the object-world of
technology as though it belonged to the world of culture, or as though these two
worlds were united. For the truth is, they have been united all along. Was the
original cave painter an artist or an engineer? She was both, of course, like
most artists and engineers since. But we have a habit — long cultivated — of
imagining them as separate, the two great tributaries rolling steadily to the
sea of modernity, and dividing everyone in their path into two camps: those that
dwell on the shores of technology and those that dwell on the shores of culture
— Steven Johnson (1997)
In the early 1990s, a group of graduate students and junior faculty members
met regularly in the basement of the MIT Media Lab to read and discuss cultural
theory. Reflecting their interests in the intersection between
narrative/reader-response theory and artificial intelligence, they called
themselves the "Narrative/Intelligence Reading Group." Some of what the group
read was predictable — the hypertext theories of Ted Nelson (1981), Roger Schank
(1995) on storytelling machines, Donna Harroway’s "Cyborg Manifesto" (1985)
Other selections were more idiosyncratic — Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Clifford
Geertz’s "Thick Descriptions"(1977) Andre Bazin’s "Myth of Total Cinema" (1971)
or The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. (Spence, 1994) Occasionally, a
visitor to the Media Lab, such as Samuel R. Delaney, joined the ongoing
dialogue, yet the group never received official recognition or funds from the
Media Lab and the students got no academic credit. As group members graduated,
they continued to follow the Narrative/Intelligence electronic mailing and in
some cases, conducted their own sessions with local research groups. As a
founding member, I was often struck by how fluidly discussions moved from
abstract principles to designing filtering systems, holograms, virtual reality
programs, or interactive cinema projects. They looked upon theory not simply as
a vocabulary for studying things but as a tool for making things. Their Media
Lab projects were always grounded in theories, sometimes simple-minded,
sometimes sophisticated. Project directors make assumptions not only about
programming language or delivery systems but also about the nature of the
society or the kinds of users their innovations would foster. For example,
intelligent agents, digital entities which seek recommendations from like-minded
users on the web, depend upon the assumption that taste is systematic. If we
share one set of preferences with someone else, we likely make other common
judgments. These assumptions come very close to Piere Bourdieu ’s theory of
habitus, the field of cultural choices (1987). And when some group members
working on agents first looked at Bourdieu’s cryptic maps and charts, they
immediately saw them as interfaces to be operationalized, tested and refined.
These conversations were not fundamentally different from those at
universities and corporations around the world. The early International
Conferences on Cyberspace have been often described in language approaching
"alien encounters," as humanists and technologists saw each other as beings from
other worlds, speaking unfamiliar languages, and asking out-in-orbit questions.
Consider the titles of two representative essays from Michael Benedikt’s
Cyberspace: First Steps, (1994)"The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace" (Heim,
1994) and "Collaborative Engines for Multi-participant Cyberspaces" (Tollander,
1994). More recent gatherings, such as Harvard’s Internet and Society
conferences, find academic theorists, entrepreneurs, and computer scientists
addressing a divergent yet shared body of concerns. Through such conversations,
we are starting to find ways beyond the division which C. P. Snow (??) described
between the "two cultures," the utilitarian realm of science and engineering and
the expressive realm of the humanities and the arts.
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This new fusion of the humanities and engineering reflects the shifting
nature of the technologies themselves, what Bruce Sterling (1988) describes as
the change from the "steam-snorting wonders" and massive dam projects of the
early 20th century to "technologies that stick to the skin," and
become intimate parts of everyday life. As Michael Menser and Stanley Aronowitz
(1996) argue, "The technological is not so easily distinguished from the
‘human,’ since it is within (medical technologies, processed foods), beside
(telephones) and outside (satellites). Sometimes we inhabit it (the
climate-controlled office space), or it inhabits us (a pacemaker). Sometimes it
seems to be an appendage or prosthetic (a pair of eyeglasses); at other times,
human being appear to serve as the appendages (as in an assembly line)." [p.9]
Sherry Turkle documents the diverse ways that people are interacting with and
conceptualizing computers, mapping subcultural responses (hackers, gamers),
naive encounters (children) and gendered computing styles through sociological
observation and psychological analysis. Her movement from The Second Self
(Turkle, 1984) to Life on Screen (Turkle, 1997) maps the shift from
personal computers to a world-wide network. The computer, she argues, is a
"second self," an extension of our perceptions of our own identity, a vehicle
for rethinking our relations with the world, and a metaphor for thinking about
Cultural critics often act as if their importance lay in dethroning the
scientific community’s entrenched power. Yet, the best digital theory emerges
when the lines between the scientist/engineer and humanist/artist are less
clearly demarked, when engineers integrate cultural theory into their design
principles, when humanists learn how to program, and when digital artists
theorize their own creative processes. Much important work on interactive
fiction, for example, has come from people like Stuart Moulthrope (1992),
Michael Joyce (1996), and Shelley Jackson (1997) who are also key hypertext
authors. Eastgate Systems (http://www.eastgate.com/) not only markets such
pioneering works but also shapes their reception context, distributing
theoretical and critical works, hosting conferences and seminars, publishing
bibliographies. Marsha Kinder (1998) has translated her ideas about the needs to
"deconstruct" race, sex, and gender into a computer game, Runaways.
Digital composer Tod Makover has created and performed a musical work, Brain
Opera,(http:brainop.media.mit.edu) based on Marvin Minsky’s Society of
Mind (1988). Brenda Laurel (1990, 1993, Forthcoming) works in Silicone
Valley not only theorizing the gendering of computer technology but creating new
games for girls which put her ideas into practice. Digital theory often comes
from humanists at technical institutes. Its theorists list themselves as CEOs of
Such projects necessarily challenge the "critical distance" which has
dominated much recent academic theory, though this ideal of "distance" has
already undergone serious questions across many different disciplines. Nothing
would be served either within the academy or in the business sector from
theorists’ refusal to engage in designing digital technologies and critiquing
practical developments. Often, such conversations reveal strange and unexpected
common interests, as in the discussions surrounding the development of "girls
games" where feminist academics interested in insuring girls early access to the
technology and female entrepreneurs interested in broadening the software market
found they might work together (Cassell and Jenkins, 1998). The current state of
the technology reflected the unexamined goals of male game designers who
developed product that reflected their own tastes and interests and as a result,
game systems facilitated faster reaction time necessary for fighting games but
did not enable the memory and processing necessary to establish more complex
character relationships. Both groups wanted to rethink what a computer game
might look like and what kinds of pleasures it might address and they drew on
similar intellectual perspectives to address those shared questions. The female
game executives were themselves versed in feminist theory, often had liberal
arts backgrounds and did quantitative and qualitative research mapping girls’
preferences and playing styles. Academic feminists, who sought more precise
understandings of the gendering of game genres, sometimes found themselves
consulting with the games companies.
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One of my contributions to the discussions of the "Narrative/Intelligence"
group was the introduction of David Bordwell’s work on the institutional and
cultural contexts of early Soviet film theory which closely parallels to the
activities of our contemporary Humanities Computing centers (1994). Early Soviet
filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, had professional
training in engineering, architecture, and graphic design. They were recruited
into film-making in response in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, seeking a
fusion of arts and engineering at a time when technologization was seen as key
in transforming Russia from a feudal state into a worker’s utopia. They framed
their theories in a language derived from those more technical backgrounds, with
Vertov celebrating the "man with the movie camera" as part artist and part
engineer, with Kuleshov speaking of his early works as "experiments," with
Eisenstein writing about montage editing in terms from Pavlovian reflexology.
Their essays were written to justify their work to the Bolshevik Party leaders
(a form of grant proposal writing) or to explain to each other the lessons they
had learned from specific projects (a form of lab reporting). Any theoretical
understanding was immediately converted into practical applications. Many
digital theorists work in this same techno tradition, merging theory and
This fusion between theory and practice shapes not only the content of media
theory but also the forms theory takes and the contexts within which it
circulates. Digital theorists, such as William Mitchell (1996) and Seymour
Papert (1996), have translated their books into interactive websites which allow
readers to follow links relevant to their discussions and which support
additional annotation, linkage, and electronic discussion from their readers.
Digital ethnographer Ricki Goldman-Segall’s website (1998) enables users to
directly access video footage from her fieldwork and to form their own
conclusions and interpretations. The most important developments in digital
theory often are first introduced on-line and only belatedly put in print.
Stuart Moulthroup’s Technocultures mailing list, for example, has facilitated an
on-going international conversation about core issues in the theory of hypertext
and interactive cinema, substantially influencing its participants’ theoretical
writings. Phil Agre’s The Network Observer
(http://weber.ucsd.edu/~pagre/tno.html), a monthly electronic newsletter, is a
vehicle for computer professionals to debate the social and political
implications of their work. Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project
(http://griffin.multimedia.edu/~deadmedia) focuses on media inventions which
failed or died out so that we gain a more skeptical attitude towards computer
entrepreneurs’ sweeping claims. A special issue of Postmodern Culture
edited by Robert Kolker, focused on the potential application of digital media
for traditional film studies and allowed for contributors to develop a range of
different models for writing cyber-essays on subjects as diverse as
Prospero’s Books, Dziga Vertov, Casablanca, Singing in the
Rain and The Killing. Some essays linked in clips; others digitally
map narrative space or even produce fly-by Quicktime diagrams. Often, digital
media enables theorists to enlarge their potential audience, as in the case of
Berkley’s Bad Subjects (http://english-www.hss.cmu.edu/bs/), whose monthly
webzine of cultural criticism and political theory attracts 20,000 connections a
week. The Birmingham tradition of Cultural Studies originated in a context of
open universities, which shaped not only its focus on the practices of everyday
life, but also the tone and style of its early writing. Similarly, Bad Subjects’
attempts to broaden the dialogue of cultural studies to a larger public is
generating a more accessible, pragmatic, and forward-looking version of cultural
theory. In general, the need to create theory one can use, the merger of
humanities and engineering approaches is producing a different style of
scholarship than the more abstract theories which have dominated media studies
in recent decades.
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INVENTING THE FUTURE:DIGITAL THEORY AND THE UTOPIAN IMAGINATION
"If we don’t invent the future, AT&T will." — David Rodowick (1994)
In "The Theory of the Virtual Class," Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein
(1994) speak of "the growth of cyber-authoritarianism" which excludes from the
debates about digital media all voices which are not "stridently
pro-technotopia," bestowing an air of ‘inevitability" on the digital revolution.
At the heart of this vision of a "wired shut" culture is their conception of the
"virtual class," which theorizes, develops and regulates cyberspace according to
its own "radically diminished vision of human experience." Displaying the
radical pessimism which has characterized critical theory since Adorno, "virtual
life" gives Kroker and Weinstein a new way to speak about "false consciousness."
Their depiction of the "virtual class" borders on conspiracy theory, seeing the
digerati as totally calculating, totally coherent, totally in control.
A fundamental technophobia runs through not only traditional humanism but the
theories and critical practices of the old left. Technology is understood as
inhuman or anti-human, as destroying more organic pre-technological cultures.
Technology is viewed as the instrumentation of surveillance, power and social
control, rather than as a tool kit for social and political transformation.
These writers fit digital media into a long-standing Left "alienation" from "the
machine," critiquing the Internet’s original support from the military as
displacing the old "military industrial complex" with the new
"military-entertainment complex." (Herz, 1997) Herbert Schiller (1994) writes:
"What the evidence here demonstrates is the strong, if not determining,
influence of the social purpose that initially fostered the development of new
technologies. The social uses to which this technology is put, more times than
not, follow their originating purposes. When military or commercial advantage
are the motivating forces, it is to be expected that the laboratories will
produce findings conducive to these objectives."
Despite some of its limitations, critical pessimism serves important
functions. It questions the more fanciful and zealous claims made for digital
media (such as John Perry Barlow’s proclamation that the nations of the world
have no sovereignty over the citizens of cyberspace (1996)). They ask whether
our hopes for democracy, social justice, political transformation, and free
expression are getting co-opted into the sales pitch for new software and
hardware. In practice, Robert Adrain (1995) argues, "Increased bandwidth allows
telephone space to be appropriated for commercial propaganda; occupied by
infotainment commodities; turned into a shopping mall." We need to be vitally
concerned with who controls our technological and economic base, recognizing
that, as xx suggests, a map of those individuals who are empowered to
participate in cyber-democracy and a map of those countries who consume the bulk
of the world’s resources would look remarkably similar. As in earlier industrial
or technological revolutions, computers may displace workers from their jobs or
bring employees under tighter supervision and control by their bosses. While we
are busy celebrating a participatory medium without gatekeepers, most other
sectors of the entertainment and information industries have increasingly fallen
into the hands of a smaller and smaller number of media conglomerates. Critical
pessimism stresses the dangers of information overload; too much information can
be as dis-empowering as too little.
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As Lev Manovich (1996) has noted, there is something distinctly American
about the dominant currents of digital theory:
For the West, interactivity is a perfect vehicle for the ideas of democracy
and equality. For the East, it is another form of manipulation, in which the
artist uses advanced technology to impose his/her totalitarian will on the
people....A western artist sees the Internet as a perfect tool to break down all
hierarchies and bring the art to the people...In contrast, as a post-communist
subject, I cannot but see the Internet as a communal apartment of Stalin era: no
privacy, everybody spies on everybody else, always present line for common areas
such as the toilet or the kitchen.
The dominant language in cyberspace remains English; the dominant ideology a
characteristically American mixture of rugged individualism and civic
libertarianism. Not surprisingly, many foreign governments have built firewalls
blocking their citizens from net access, much as they jam the Radio Free Europe
signals coming over their borders. As some social critics note, the digital
revolution may simply be another phase in the process of American cultural
imperialism, though others suggest it is a more complex version, since it does
allow some channels for messages to be shipped back to the United States and
impact its development (Stratton, 1997).
However, the old paradigms of critical pessimism ultimately lead to political
paralysis and fatalism, another way of seeing technological expansion as
inevitable and irreversible. Critical pessimism offers us few models of viable
change, focusing only on the strength of entrenched power and the failure of all
strategies of resistance. At its most reductive, critical pessimism scapegoats
the media for all the faults of the current social order rather than recognizing
that digital media might offer new technical potentials for responding to the
fragmentation of contemporary social life or the domestic isolation of our
children, housewives, and the elderly. Digital theory matters politically
because of its ability to envision alternatives, to imagine a better future.
Cyberspace provides a place to experiment with alternative structures of
government, new forms of social relations, which may, at least on the most
grassroots of levels, allow us to temporarily escape, if not fully transform,
unacceptable social conditions in our everyday lives.
Feminist critics, such as Brenda Laurel (Forthcoming) and Allucquere Rosanne
Stone (1996), have embraced the Amerindian myth of Coyote, the shapeshifter, to
characterize digital media as enabling a breakdown of fixed sexual and social
identities and a transformation of stable alignments of power. Donna Harraway
(1985) has promoted the "cyborg," which exists at the interface between human
and machine, not as a figure of dehumanization but as a figure which "denatures"
gender and sexuality (Gray et al, 1996). Summarizing this line of feminist
argument, Anne Balsamo (1996) writes, "Cyborg identity is predicated on
transgressed boundaries. They fascinate us because they are not like us and yet
are just like us."[p.33] The metaphor of the cyborg as a hybrid identity helps
us to recognize that our gender identities are, at least, partially culturally
manufactured and as such, gender may be reinvented, retooled or reprogrammed.
Some argue, for example, that going on line enables a radical
re-conceptualization of the relationship between our selves and our bodies,
potentially liberating us from a long legacy of biological determinism. Others
would insist, however, that cyborg identities still require a physical
transformation, a re-conceptualization of what it means to live within our
bodies and that cyborg feminism pulls us back to the material world.
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This prospect of "shapeshifting" or "cyborg" identities is being realized by
gay and lesbian teens who go on line to find a community where homophobia does
not dominate, where the risks of "coming out" can be lowered, and where they can
experiment with more fluid conceptions of their sexuality. The digital realm
allows them room to find out who they are and what they want outside of the
constant pressures at home or at school. For those teens, cyberspace is not a
"virtual life" but rather a temporary alternative to their rather dystopian real
world experiences at a time when gay and lesbian teens are three times more
likely than their straight counterparts to commit suicide. However, many
filtering technologies block access to websites and discussion groups on the
basis of the use of such words as "gay" and "lesbian" regardless of whether the
sites include sexually explicit content. Such filters threaten to render that
realm of alternative social interactions invisible and thus inaccessible to many
who need it most (http://www.glaad.org/glaad/access_denied/exec-sum.html).
Even the most utopian digital theory often contains some degree of skepticism
about the future and criticisms of the present — even if it remains only
implicit. Michael Heims (1998) has framed the term, "virtual realism," to
describe the position taken by many digital theorists: "Virtual realism walks a
tight rope. The delicate balancing act sways between the idealism of unstoppable
Progress and the Luddite resistance to virtual life....Virtual realism is an
existential process of criticism, practice, and conscious communication."
[43-44] As computer scientist Langdon Winner (1995) explains:
Right now it’s anyone’s guess what sorts of personalities, styles of
discourse, and social norms will ultimately flourish in these new settings...We
can predict, though, that American society will continue to exclude ordinary
citizens from key choices about the design and development of new technologies,
including information systems. Industrial leaders present as fait accompli what
otherwise might have been choices open for diverse public imaginings,
investigations and debates.... People doing research on computing and the future
could have a positive influence in these matters. If we’re asking people to
change their lives to adapt to new information systems, it seems responsible to
solicit broad participation in deliberation, planning, decision making,
prototyping, testing, evaluation and the like.
Winner’s essay poses two different conceptions of the utopian imagination —
one in which the process of change is presented as inevitable and another in
which alternative visions for the future are proposed and debated. The utopian
imagination performs important political work. The entertainment industries, As
Frederic Jameson ( ) notes, can only attract popular interest by acknowledging
real world fears and aspirations. In Jameson’s model, those tensions are
redirected towards consumer capitalism’s preferred solutions, utopian fantasies
that can be satisfied through consumption. Alienation equals bad breath;
mouthwash is the solution. Richard Dyer’s account of utopianism in queer
politics ( ), on the other hand, suggests that the utopian imagination can
provide the basis for social critique. No meaningful change can occur until we
can imagine a world different from our own. The queer teens’ on-line experience
of "what utopia feels like" may lead them to fight for it in their real lives.
In that sense, the utopian imagination is not a refusal to face problems but
rather a rhetorical strategy which allows us to move from a preoccupation on
problems towards a new conceptualization of solutions.
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Digital theory is closely related to a much older strain of technological
utopian discourse in American culture, one which originated as middle class
reformers and political radicals proposed alternatives to the problems
surrounding the industrial revolution (Segel, ; Ross, 1991). Writers like Edward
Bellamy felt that improvements in technologies of communication and
transportation might overcome conditions of alienation, improvements in mass
production might overcome problems of scarcity, and a greater mastery over
nature might cleanse soot-filled environments. However, they also called for
profound shifts in the social structures and economic base of industrial
society, linking technological change with political change. This technological
utopianism arose at the moment when Frederic Jackson Turner was declaring the
closing of the American frontier. Social alternatives to undesirable social
conditions needed to be mapped onto the future rather than projected onto
unsettled real estate. This technological utopianism was the founding myth of
the American science fiction tradition, which took shape under the guidance of
pulp magazine editor Hugo Gernsbeck. Gernsbeck saw "scientification" as a means
of democratizing access to knowledge about science and as an extension of his
own vision of a more democratic and participatory culture brought about through
amateur radio. By the mid-century, however, the discourse of technological
utopianism had been co-opted into a discourse about consumerism, one fully
embraced by the nation’s business leaders and promoted through advertising. The
"world of tomorrow" envisioned by the 1939 New York World’s Fair had more to do
with creating a sense of inevitability which foreclosed popular debates about
where we are going than with the earlier technological utopian movements’
attempts to challenge current conditions. Both modes of the utopian imagination
shape digital theory — both the bland boosterism which sees the development of
digital media as leading irreversibly towards a better way of life (
Wired’s linkage of democratic ideals and high price consumer
items) and the more cautious utopianism which uses the future to question
troubling aspects of contemporary life (coupling the promotion of virtual
communities with close scrutiny of issues of privacy, ownership, surveillance,
Philip Hayward (1993) notes that digital media has been situated in relation
to the counterculture, introduced to the popular imagination in terms borrowed
from science fiction (such as "cyberspace" which was coined by William Gibson),
the drug culture (such as Timothy Leary’s promotion of VR’s mind-altering
potential), and rock music (such as Grateful Dead stalwart John Perry Barlow’s
promotion of digital media). There is a surprisingly comfortable fit between
cyberpunk’s representations of the hacker subculture battling multinational
media conglomerates and contemporary cultural studies’ accounts of "poaching"
and "resistance." Cyberpunk representations differ profoundly from the
prevailing images of computer scientists as nerds with pocket protectors or the
"virginal" astronauts in earlier science fiction (Sobchack, ). Cyberculture was
understood as a "revolutionary force" destroying the old media, such as
television, which they saw as the "technology of tyrants." (Gilder, 1994) This
same rhetoric of decentralization appealed to the libertarian impulses of both
the left and the right, leading unresolved whose side was going to win the
As with earlier countercultures, there is a danger that culture jammers
(Dery, 1993) , hackers (Sterling, 1994) and netizens (Katz, 1997) will confuse
the romance of existing on the fringes with the hard work of promoting social
and political change. Gibson has noted, for example, that the more critical or
dystopian elements of Neuromancer (198x) have been ignored amid the giddy
excitement which compels computer scientists to try to build the cyberspace he
imagined. Gibson wrote his fiction less as a celebration of the transformative
power of digital media than as a warning about the dangers of divorcing human
intelligence from the body, of isolating the self from real life experience, and
of transforming human culture into data which can be controlled by global
corporations. It is as if someone read Frankenstein and decided that it
would be a good idea to assemble and mass-market human beings from parts of dead
bodies. This failure to preserve both the critical and the utopian dimensions of
Gibson’s "cyberspace" does not bode well for the digital counterculture’s
chances for achieving radical change.
[ Top ]
Almost as "revolutionary" on their own terms, hypertext theorists, such as
Stuart Moulthroup (1991) , Richard A. Lanthem (1993), Robert Coover (1992, 1993)
George P. Landow (1992, 1994), and Espen J. Aarseth (1997), build upon
post-structuralist literary theory to imagine digital media as reconfiguring the
relations between readers, writers, and texts. Moulthrope (1989)writes:
Hypertext is not a definable artifact like a bound volume, it is a dynamic,
expandable collection of writings whose contents will change from moment to
moment. It is nothing at all like a book, only a bit like a library, and much
more like the university itself in that it is shaped both by inherited resources
and current contributions. Though part of the system will probably need to be
permanent, it is probably better not to depend too heavily on a framework of
canonical text or definitive discourse....Every hypertext project should support
writing as well as reading. The function of the hypertext is not simply to
disseminate information but to create better conditions in which people can
exchange, develop, and evaluate ideas.
Moulthrope’s conception of hypertext seeks to dismantle all that was rigid,
hierarchical, and unidirectional in print culture. Suggesting that defenders of
the book act as if "defending the wrapper would protect what was in the box,"
Richard Lanham (1993) characterizes hypertext as the literary fulfillment of the
computer’s promise of "radical democratization." Hypertext will result in an
education system where "you simply cannot be a critic without being in turn a
At the heart of hypertext theory remains a constructivist epistemology, the
belief that the best forms of learning require active participation and free
exploration, a hands-on process of testing and manipulating one’s surroundings.
Hypertext theorists imagine new forms of literature or theoretical argument
which enable the reader’s more active participation and which open themselves to
a much broader range of interpretations. As Aarseth (1997) explains:
A reader, however strongly engaged in the unfolding of a narrative, is
powerless. Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture,
extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player...The cybertext puts its
would-be reader at risk: the risk of rejection. The effort and energy demanded
by the cybertext of its reader raise the stakes of interpretation to those of
Early hypertext advocates, such as Ted Nelson (1981), imagined a world in
which all human knowledge was available in digital form, open to access,
annotation and manipulation by all. His ideal is realized in a much more modest
(and corporately sponsored) fashion in the World Wide Web. Other writers, such
as Moulthrope (1995), acknowledge the dangers of getting lost in hypertext and
the need to "steer between the extremes of informational anarchy and
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Paul Duguid (1996) has challenged the rhetoric of "liberation" which
surrounds hypertext: "The desire for a technology to liberate information from
technology is not far from the search for a weapon to end all weapons or the war
to end all wars....As with so much optimistic futurology, it woos us to jump by
highlighting the frying pan and hiding the fire." [p.76] Technology always
emerges within a social and cultural context which constrains or facilitates its
designer’s goals. Hypertext theory envisions new forms of learning, knowledge,
and expression; it does not always address the institutional and social changes
needed to prepare us to participate in such a culture. At present, public
teachers, who have always taught from county-approved textbooks and prescribed
syllabi, are understandably intimidated by the promise that the net is a world
without gatekeepers, uncertain how to evaluate the information they receive, and
frightened of losing what little control they maintain over their classrooms.
Others question whether part of the pleasure of reading a novel or watching a
film might lie in surrendering control and allowing master storytellers to
manipulate our emotions.
Formalist writers are also eager to use digital media as a vehicle for
transforming culture. Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) sees
contemporary manifestations of digital media as the crude predecessors of a much
more robust art form. Imagining the future storyteller as "half hacker, half
bard," Murray "see[s] glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly
expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of
individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of human society."
Murray’s "cyberbard" represents at once a dramatic break with print culture and
the continuation of literary creation into a strange and unfamiliar future.
Feed magazine editor Steve Johnson’s Interface Culture (1997)
similarly imagines computer interfaces developing ways of charting information
and social structure in a highly mediated society, much as 19th
century authors turned to the novel to map what Charles Dickens called the
"links of association" between different social classes. Murray and Johnson
embrace change as a dynamic quality which will generate new forms of human
expression; both see digital media as offering new models for understanding
psychological and social relations, for making coherence and order out of the
Digital theory is not predictive, any more than science fiction is. Theorists
and science fiction writers don’t foretell the future; they comment on the
present. Few digital theorists claim to know for sure what directions digital
media will take or what impact it is likely to have upon our social, political,
and economic life. Digital theory is, in Allucquere Rosanne Stone ’s terms
(1996), "thoroughly experimental and subject to recall for factory modification
at any time." In the end, Murray or Moulthrope may have less to tell us about
the potentials of digital media than about the perceived limitations of existing
media or the constraints of contemporary education. Rather, the
future-orientation of digital theory represents an attempt to participate in the
process of inventing the future. Calling on humanists to be inventors rather
than custodians of their culture, James J. O’Donnell (1996) writes, "The genuine
spirit of our culture is not expressed in applying small pieces of cellotape to
hold together the structure we have received, but in pitching in joyously to its
ongoing reconstruction." The most important thing digital theory can do is to
refuse to accept the rhetoric of the sales prospectus and to continue to push
the digital media to grow in new directions. Academic theorists have
historically responded to static, if not moribund, media. Printed texts existed
for centuries before there was an academic discipline focused around the study
of literature. Film studies arose only at the moment when the Hollywood cinema’s
influence as a central cultural institution was giving way to television.
Television studies gained academic respectability at the moment when the
dominance of network broadcasting was challenged by new delivery technologies
such cable or videotape. As Marshall McLuhan (1994) has noted, "media are often
put out before they are thought out," and the lag time can be enormous. Digital
theory is responding to the process of change, describing and analyzing a medium
(or cluster of media) still being born.
Digital theorists identify and focus attention on sites of experimentation
and innovation which hold promise for future developments, even when those sites
counter the prevailing commercial logic of the marketplace. The danger, of
course, is that they will reconstruct old cultural hierarchies, elevating avant
garde digital works (afternoon, Patchwork Girl, Victory
Garden) at the expense of recognizing the cultural impact and artistic
innovation of commercial products (Myst, Chop Suey). Already,
these new works are being treated in separate anthologies, some of which deal
with "digital cinema" as a new high art form, while others deal with games and
CD-ROMs as popular culture. The best work on digital aesthetics, such as
Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), bridges that gap, imagining new
forms of storytelling as both culturally meaningful and formally challenging,
broadly accessible and innovative.
[ Top ]
MAPPING CHANGE: DIGITAL THEORY AND HISTORICAL ANALYSIS
The computer as hypertext, as symbol manipulator, is a writing technology in
the tradition of the papyrus roll, the codex, and the printed book. The computer
as virtual reality, as graphics engine, as perceptual manipulator, belongs to
and extends the tradition of television, film, photography and even
— Jay David Bolter ( )
Describing digital theory in terms of its focus on a developing technology or
its future capacities may be misleading, since digital theory is also vitally
concerned with framing a historical account of media in transition, explaining
changes and continuities between digital and earlier forms of media. Most of the
participants at a 1994 conference on the Future of the Book (Nunberg, 1996)
found that they could not address the topic without also discussing how the
culture of the book came into being. Our changing media environment has
foregrounded the codex book’s status as material practice sparking recent moves
from the study of literature (which is often abstracted as "text") to renewed
interest in the history of the book, theatrical performance, orality, and the
printing press. Literary studies has become a branch of media studies.
Recognizing that the book is a medium does not necessarily imply that its
material form fully determines its function or status. The medium is not always
the message. Carla Hesse (1996) writes:
The historical record makes unquestionably clear that the most distinctive
features of what we have come to refer to as ‘print culture’ — that is, the
stabilization of written culture into a cannon of authored texts, the notion of
the author as creator, the books as property and the reader as an elective
public — were not inevitable historical consequences of the invention of
printing during the Renaissance, but, rather, the cumulative result of
particular social and political choices made by given societies at given
Similarly, the democratic and participatory ideals associated with
"interactive technologies are not the product of the technologies but of
our social and cultural interactions with them. Recognizing this
distinction reminds us of the need to struggle to define technology’s future
directions through social and political actions, not simply through our design
Contemporary discussions of technological conversion, that is, the
integration of existing communications technologies into a single mega-system,
need to be framed in relation to what I call cultural convergence. Cultural
convergence refers to the process by which people in their everyday life use
media in relation to each other, form evaluations about which media best serves
specific purposes, assemble information across multiple channels of
communication, and embrace artworks which depend upon appropriation and remixing
of cultural materials or upon the archiving and re-circulating of previous media
texts. Some of these changes reflect our initial encounters with digital media,
but these shifts are being felt across the full range of contemporary popular
culture and some of them prepare for rather than respond to the increased
penetration of the net, the web, and the PC into our everyday lives. The
popularity of the VCR had to do with its time shift capability which, at a time
when Americans were working longer hours and were moving towards a 24 hour work
cycle, enabled people to maintain contact with the popular television programs
which had become a central part of contemporary cultural literacy. The
wide-spread embrace of e-mail reflects the mobility of a culture where one
American in three moves in any given year; the net allows us to maintain contact
with those we’ve left behind or to build new friendships and join new
communities, despite the un-mooring of our ties to geographically local
communities. Similarly, properties of one medium may train us in the perceptual
and cognitive skills we will need to embrace future media. As Lev Manovich
(1996b) writes, "Gradually cinema taught us to accept the manipulation of time
and space, the arbitrary coding of the visible, the mechanization of vision, and
the reduction of reality to a moving image as a given. As a result, today the
conceptual shock of the digital revolution is not experienced as a real shock —
because we were ready for it for a long time."
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Such arguments require a move away from digital theory towards what might be
described as comparative media studies, an approach which reads the emerging
digital technologies against the backdrop of a much broader range of media, both
historical and contemporary. Because digital media potentially incorporates all
previous media, it no longer makes sense to think in medium-specific terms. The
renewed interest in Marshall McLuhan (1994) has more to do with his willingness
to talk about what a range of different media have in common and how each of
them defines a particular series of relations to time and space than it has to
do with his sometimes wacky insights into specific media. Harold Innis (1991),
James Carey (1988), and Ithiel De Sola Pool (1984), among others, offer
alternative models for thinking across media. All of a society’s media interact
with and influence each other, requiring research to be conducted in a systemic
or ecological way rather than a fragmentary fashion. David Roddowick (1994) has
suggested the term, "audiovisual," rather than "digital," to refer to the
complex interplay of representational technologies which constitute our
contemporary sensory environs. Marsha Kinder (1991) discusses the "entertainment
supersystem," the complex intertextual relations between the manifestations of
popular narratives, such as Batman, The Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles, Star Trek, or The X Files, as they move across film,
television, comic books, and digital media. Such migrations are a logical
consequence of the horizontal integration of modern media conglomerates (Meehan,
Some adaptations from filmic to digital media prove more engaging than
others. Digital manifestations of Star Trek (Murray and Jenkins,
Forthcoming), for example, stress only those aspects of the series which fit
comfortably into pre-existing game genres: the result is an emphasis on combat,
exploration, and technology rather than on character relations, cultural
diversity, or negotiation. Digital Star Trek narrows the range of fannish
activities and interests the original television series has facilitated. Despite
digital media’s "encyclopedic" promise, the contemporary CD-ROM disc contains
far less information than a videotape library of series episodes. Moreover, talk
about digital interactivity often ignores the interaction and participation
ethnographers and reader-response critics have long discussed in relation to
traditional literary, television, or cinematic narratives. Digital media
structures into the text certain opportunities for interactions, providing the
resources for engaging with richer, more vivid representations of the story
world, but also forecloses other interactions which might arise from a less
impoverished narrative universe. By contrast, Greg Smith (Forthcoming) argues
that CD-ROM adaptations of Monty Python’s comedy preserve its improvisational
and fragmented style, its anarchic comedy of interruptions and destabilizations,
its search for unpredictable juxtapositions of material, and its parodic
self-consciousness about its own medium. More than simply a recycling of
previously produced materials, Monty Python is rethought for CD-ROM and in the
process, helps us to rethink digital technology. One set of instructions in the
game, for example, tells us, "to waste more time, please click here again." The
game’s comic focus on delay, technical breakdown, and repetition poke fun at the
complex attitudes towards temporality surrounding CD-ROM games: playing games
may be a good way to spend time and yet players are impatient with any
delays which waste their time.
Our initial encounters with any new medium focus attention on its breaks with
predecessor media and as a consequence, helps to defamiliarize properties which
were once taken for granted. In the case of literature, the computer reopened
questions about the bound and linear qualities of books, resulting in hypertext
theory. For cinema, the introduction of digital media poses questions about the
screen and our relationship to cinematic space. According to Manovich (1994),
the cinema reworks "the classical screen" (Renaissance perspective’s attempts to
represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface), creating "the dynamic
screen" where the displayed image changes over time. In watching a film, we
focus our full attention on the representation on screen and disregard the
physical space outside it. This concentration is enabled by the fact that image
fills the whole screen. The screen "functions to filter, to screen out, to take
over, rendering non-existent whatever is outside its frame." The introduction of
the computer screen, however, reveals the "stability" of the dynamic screen,
creating, in the case of the windows desktop, a world where multiple screens
compete for our attention, or in the case of virtual reality, a world where "the
screen disappears altogether" facilitating more immediate interaction.
[ Top ]
David Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin describe this process in somewhat
different terms in Remediations (1998), suggesting that the history of
media might be charted through competing impulses towards immediacy, which
depends on the ability to look through the screen as if it were a window,
and hypermediacy, which forces us to look at the screen as a graphical
surface. Examples of immediacy include "a painting by Canaletto, a photograph by
Edward Weston, a ‘live’ television broadcast from the Olympics, and the computer
system for virtual reality," while earlier examples of hypermediacy include
"medieval illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance decorated altarpieces, Dutch
painting, Baroque cabinets, and modernist collage and photomontage." Digital
media reflects both the push towards immediacy — to create transparent
interfaces — and the push towards hypermediacy — to bring multiple forms of
media together on the same page. Yet, both impulses reflect a process of
remediation — that is, the attempt to define the new media in relation to the
old. Hypermediacy makes explicit the process of quotation or appropriation from
earlier media, yet immediacy often depends upon an unconscious comparison to
earlier media. Computers that promise photorealism aren’t promising us reality;
they are promising computer graphics that look like photographs.
The new medium may usurp some of the cultural functions or status once held
by the earlier media. Andre Bazin (1971b) argued, for example, that the
introduction of photography as a mechanism for more perfectly reproducing the
material world "freed" painters to explore abstraction. Television’s usurpation
of radio’s storytelling role forced radio to expand the centrality of music to
its broadcast content. The introduction of digital media, for example, has had
an enormous impact upon the contemporary cinema, not simply in obvious ways,
such as the use of computer animation in Toy Story or of CGI special
effects in Jurassic Park. The morph introduces a fundamental new
structure to the rhetoric of cinema, one which, as Vivian Sobchack (1997) notes,
depends upon the suggestion of similarity across previously perceived
differences rather than on montage’s graphic collisions. Michael Jackson’s
"Black or White" music video uses the morph to erase racial differences and
construct an image of humanity united through the pleasure of music and dancing;
Terminator 2 uses the morph to transform humans into inanimate objects
and back again; political advertisements used the morph to suggest that
democratic candidates could not easily separate themselves from the faults of
More profoundly, these devices subtly yet dramatically undermine the
ontological status of the photographic image which Andre Bazin argued was the
fundamental basis of cinema. Contemporary film theory insists that cinematic
images are not indexical but rather complex cultural signs constructed for the
screen. These critiques of the realist tradition always ran against our
culture’s core faith in the authenticity of the image. As Manovich (1996c)
[ Top ]
During cinema’s history, a whole repertoire of techniques (lighting, art
direction, the use of different film stocks and lens, etc.) was developed to
modify the basic record obtained by a film apparatus. And yet behind even the
most stylized cinematic images we can discern the bluntness, the sterility, the
banality of early nineteenth century photographs. No matter how complex its
stylistic innovations, the cinema has found its base in these deposits of
Yet, as writers like William Mitchell (1994) note, digital photographers can
construct vivid, compelling, absolutely convincing photographs of architectural
spaces or historic encounters (Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe) which never
existed. Hollywood could make Fred Astaire dance the ceiling (through elaborate
manipulations of his physical environment) but digital artists could make the
dead star to dance with a dustbuster for a contemporary television commercial.
In such a world, seeing is no longer believing. The computer ignores
photography’s indexical relation to reality, translating images into pixels
which can be transformed, reworked, and redesigned like text in a
word-processing program. The line blurs between animation (which involves
creating images where none existed previously) and editing (which involves
re-cutting or rearranging fragments of events which occurred before the camera).
Theories of spectatorship which assume a relationship between optical point
of view and narrative identification must be revised in light of the intense
identification and participation experienced by players of Sega or Nintendo
video games which almost always depend upon third person camera. Even more
sophisticated accounts of character identification, such as Murray Smith’s
Engaging Characters (1995), may be unable to fully describe the
difference it makes when we become an active participant controlling the
fictional character as a cursor which we navigate through narrative space or
when we choose which camera position will be employed. When I feel the
exhilaration of speed, spinning real fast and clearing the screen as the
Tasmanian Devil, my pleasure has less to do with my moral alignment with those
characters than with my ability to control them. Even given my ample facial hair
and my sometimes anarchic sense of humor, I am not, in the end, terribly much
like Taz. Yet, I often speak of the game playing experience as if "I" died, "I"
flew off a cliff, "I" beat my opponent, suggesting a fairly direct
identification with the often simplistically rendered figure on the screen.
Film theory often stresses temporality at the expense of spatiality, while
most recent accounts of digital media stress its status as a new form of
"spatial story"(DeCerteau, 1988), one which provides complex and compelling
visual environments rather than complexly structured plots or rounded
characters. Margaret Morse (1994) notes, for example, that what compels the
development of virtual reality technologies is a consumer desire for "another
world" outside everyday life’s limitations and frustrations. Mary Fuller and I
(1995) compare the structures of contemporary video games and earlier forms of
travel narratives. We argue that video games create "spaces for exploration,
colonization, and exploitation, returning to a mythic time when there were
worlds without limits and resources beyond imagining." In the process, they
rewrite the history of the founding of America to absolve us for our
postcolonial guilt, restaging them in worlds which had no prior human
inhabitants. These games partially compensate for increased restrictions upon
children’s access to the physical spaces of their environment, offering a
"virtual playscape" through which they can experience the illusion of "complete
freedom of movement" (Jenkins, 1998) Other games, such as Sim City, give
us a god-like vantage point for redesigning the world (Freidman, 1995).
Many have drawn meaningful parallels between the current transformation of
digital media and cinema’s own emergence from scientific experimentation and
arcade attraction to become a central culture institution, but this hardly
exhausts the range of meaningful analogies. "Multimedia" works, which may
combine audio, still photographs, moving images, digital animation, and text,
poses questions about the interplay between different media forms, inviting
comparison to collage, Life Magazine photoessays, comic strips, comic
books, or the sound-and-slideshow extravaganzas of the 1960s pop underground.
Brenda Laurel (1993) and Thryza Goodeve (Forthcoming) have called for a
reconsideration of the relevance of theater history to an understanding of
digital media: Laurel focusing on the relationship of interactivity to
theatrical improvisation; Goodeve exploring the relationship between on-line
personas and vaudeville performance styles that required performers to
exaggerate their own ethnic identities. The immersive quality of virtual reality
has invited comparison with the amusement park rides of turn-of-the-century
Coney Island and with the 19th century tradition of cycloramas and
panoramas. The grassroots many-to-many dimensions of digital communication
closely parallels earlier attempts to create more broad-based participatory
media, such as the amateur radio movement of the 1910s and 1920s which
envisioned a world where there would be as many transmitters as receivers.
Examining the CD-ROM game, Phantasmagoria, Angela Ndlianias (Forthcoming)
relates it to a much longer tradition of employing emergent communications
technologies as the basis for magic or horror performances. Understanding the
circulation of e-mail involves a reconsideration of earlier attempts to
construct communications networks, such as the postal service, the telegraph,
and the telephone, leading to new research into earlier styles of "sociability",
such as the telephone "party line." Another tradition, represented by the work
of Lisa Cartwright (1995, 1998), has sought to link contemporary digital media
with a much larger history of medical and scientific imaging technologies, such
as the x-ray or the sonogram. Early television, as Pam Wilson (??) reminds us,
showcased its ability to form links between remote geographic locations, to show
us, for example, both the East and West Coast on screen at once, much as
journalists often describe "web surfing" as a form of "virtual tourism." Scott
Bukatman (1994) argues that we should trace the historic links between the
typewriter and the computer keyboard to learn how mechanical writing systems
have altered the way we work and think. Some of these comparisons are more
forced than others, yet most reveal something significant about digital media
and its historical predecessors.
[ Top ]
What, then, is the work of theory in the age of digital transformation?
Digital theory offers us explanations, interpretations, and predictions which
enables us to manage the process of technological change and its impact upon our
social, cultural, economic, political, and personal lives. Digital theory
provides a point of intersection between the languages and practices of science
and engineering on the one hand and the arts and humanities on the other.
Digital theory embraces the utopian imagination not as a way of predicting the
future but as a way of envisioning meaningful change and keeping alive the
fluidity which digital media has introduced into many aspects of our social and
personal lives. Digital theory identifies historical antecedents for
contemporary media developments and at the same time, defamilarizes older media
and opens them to re-examination. What is striking about the present moment is
not simply that academic theorists have responded quickly to a changing media
environment — itself a phenomenon virtually without precedents — but theory
production has been embraced by the larger society. Theorists are interviewed as
media celebrities in the pages of mass market magazines like Wired.
Vernacular theory surfaces and is debated on almost every on-line discussion
list and newsgroup as everyday citizens hope to better understand the nature of
the transformations occurring around them. Theoretical arguments are forming the
basis for the early court decisions which determine what model of regulation,
intellectual property rights or anti-trust litigation is most appropriate for
cyberspace. The impact of digital communications on all aspects of modern life
has made the process of mediation remarkably visible and has created a new
demand to answer questions which once would have seemed the arcane interest of
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