digital arts & culture 1998

Francisco J. Ricardo

Field Notes From The Secret War Between Value and Meaning in Digital Culture

The crisp air of technological promise is increasingly permeated by comments reinforcing the view that digital culture is understandable as a fringe phenomenon. Linguistic evidence — 'zines, "being wired," cybersurfing, Mondo Internet — is encountered in verbal manifestations of a view that considers digital culture as more than an activity; it is seen as a state of mind in full bloom. These and other signifiers evince a specialist language that signals the creative growth of digital culture; a growth originally led more by fierce allegiance to an intrinsic communitarian mission than more superficial possibilities of capital gain. The permanent citizens of digital culture are the pioneers, activists, and defenders of its realm; they make it, they take it, they shape it, because there is no other culture like it. Likewise, their own lives have been transformed by the premise and promise of non-geographical community. Community, digital culture knows, revolves around the fulcrum of distributed communication as an ethical principle, and any innovations inherent in the culture are offered as communicative devices to this end. Wearable computing, for instance, is not just a fad for the lonely individualist; most of the "clothing" — complete with ubiquitous camera and transmitter — functions as an electronic periscope that will pipe the wearer's visual experience across the Internet for quite literally the whole world to see. Accompanying the ethic of sharing world-view (literally and symbolically) is a belief that increased perceptual awareness is individually meaningful in that transforms person and being. For if one is changed by visions of a realtime earth in unrehearsed and sliced vignettes like this one, then the first moral (and counter-Cartesian fact) of digital culture as an inhabitable world is that perception and consciousness are not separate realities. Hence the cyber-culture's status as a state of mind.

It is because every culture is a kind of consciousness that experimental and self-selecting cultures are especially marginalized by the stigma of the cult label. And in addition to this, cyberculture suffers from other notorious ostracisms: as a den of pedophilic predators; as the new realm of the socio-economic elite; as the secret rally point for supremacist hate groups, religious fanatics, bomb-makers, as well as cryptographically sophisticated terrorists and drug lords (apologies to any evil contingent inadvertently omitted or unforeseen). The conclusion that the flesh world is reaching is unflattering, but not entirely inaccurate: what churns in the discourses of digital culture includes the voices of the forbidden, the off-center, the entities that other traditional discourses in the material world have been designed to suppress. The genesis of digital culture recapitulates an old archetype, for those voices that have suffered ideological repression and persecution in the Old World have seen fit to emigrate to and thereby recreate a new one. By implication, what stays behind is the sphere of the complacent, populated by those who deny the identity or values of the marginalized. From its clear intention to avoid repression, therefore, digital culture has a sharp edge in places, it sees all, and shows all. By contrast, the old analog world is less a Bakhtinian carnival than a passion play and thus must, for a little while longer at least, continue to practice dogmatic denial, control, and repression of the full savage span of human nature. It, in concealment of wars, edits photographs, censors broadcasts, routinely screens out the implausible. This theme is its history, it inverts digital culture's ethical tenets, so that anything unperceived must then not form part of consciousness, and thus must not exist. Analog culture uses perception to check and harness the frontiers of social consciousness; what goes unperceived goes unacknowledged. But as we've silently learned to believe that, digital culture has arrived, and the disobedient bluntness of its emerging form is giving human consciousness a bad name. This is the trouble with the adolescence of any new genre, for what is contrary to synthetic social Victorian equanimity is the true reality that the earth has cultivated; it is a dangerous place, a creative place, an unstable place. Leveling out differences through the imposition of culture as control mechanism is an effective quantizer, but a poor equalizer. Modern culture is full of gloss but devoid of texture. Nothing is more artificial than something mature, evolved, refined, "cultured." All modern communication—from formalities to movies — has a human personality; it wants to be moderate in a very calculated way — a fact that prompted Oscar Wilde's famous complaint that "being natural is only a pose, and the most irritating one I know." This difference transcends the material world's models of psychology.

What is digital culture?

The old Spanish adage "cada persona es un mundo" — every person is a world — should be kept in mind by formalists, and those who think postmodernism is entirely new. With digital culture, which is built for every person as a world, we have before us the paradox of a physically unconnected assembly of humans face to face not with each other, but with the information they bring. They have dispensed entirely with bureaucratic power structures that conditionally apportion, license, and otherwise hoard Knowledge. Digital culture is thus a network of viaducts irrigating seekers with knowledge and as it rises above the traffic of the oblivious physical world. This culture of almost 58 million individuals1 goes online for a simple reason: to find answers and make connections that are not convenient or available in the physical world. Entry into this neo-civilization then begins as an information-seeking act; soon it expands to influence personal world-view, and in the ultimate cases, becomes a kind of activism for the ethics of free access to knowledge, resources, and power practices of all sorts. With increased participation in digital culture, the rational person begins to savor the secret paradox of how many sectors of human interest are closed to exploration in the material realm and conversely how openly they exist in digital forms. This new para-society is a culture for discovery; you can learn how to qualify for specific types of jobs, learn about all manner of private investigations, read about governmental archives and representation records, discover every kind of how-to-do or how-to-make from hand creme to explosives. We must include as a corollary allure of digital culture the high level of service it provides to highly specific and often marginalized groups, including specific sites on health care for circus clowns, financial investment for gays, and so on. Digital culture contributes a place of learning for every element in the grand matrix crossing the set of all social groups with the set of all human interests; the sum total of the possible permutations boggles the mind. One happy irony of digital culture is that here, there is no need to quantize, to reduce or flatten, differences between the world of each person. The collective idiosyncracies and needs of every member is not a threat to the cohesion of the larger virtual society. This difference transcends the material world's models of anthropology.

Another irrational fact of this New World is that, as much as digital culture does comprise a virtual society, it is wrong to claim that its demographic composition is divided into proportionally equal groups. With no less than 87% of its membership being white and an average age of 37 years (Del Bruno, 1998) it bears an uncanny resemblance to the relatively homogeneous Academy, where we've never been accused of representing all social interests with parity. But the Academy doesn't have teenagers (reportedly 66% of online users), or people operating businesses within it (and 72% of small businesses form part of digital culture in some way). And publishing is a larger part of this culture than others (15% of users have put out a page or a site). This culture reads and it writes. It is literally substantiated through language by a sociological stratum that venerates the exchange of the word. This difference transcends the material world's models of sociology.

But the word — a husk for deeper consensual needs — is not enough of a basis for understanding the essential spirit of this society. Very little of what constitutes the alluring perpetuity of virtual discourse is lexical. Peel the shucks of digital culture further and find in its lower strata the problematics of communication and production in rawest fiber; it is made of gist no different than that of human ideals. For, like personalities, fierce beliefs, and consciousness, all communication is defined by the problems of its own production. As all these conceptual entities must grapple with pluralities in opposition, communication in the aggregate is no different. Here, individual and socially collective meanings are produced in the act of interpretation, which is always an epistemological conundrum. More so now that we, in the current historical moment of our postmodern epoch, have so spryly been shaken away from a rhetorical (that is, linear) definition of what it means to communicate. Indeed, in respectful disagreement with the colossus of Roman Jakobson in theory and criticism, or Shannon and Weaver in engineering and mathematics, we can now corroborate that communication is not first and foremost about transmission, but rather about production. Nor is this to be accepted as purely good news; it signals the potential transformation of communication—something necessary to every person — from a continually available practice to a conditionally produced commodity.

For instance, take the communicative quandary that a premise which seems clearly important to one individual may not be appreciable or available to a broader congregation. This appears to be a classic problem of communicative transmission, but only if we are talking about utterances. In the context of something physical, like vehicles, this instead becomes a supply-demand problem. For what in this case is "transmitted" to the open congregation is a dual production. First produced is the belief that a certain type of object, like a luxury car, is necessary and worth the cost. This involves a systematic production of effective beliefs directed toward a particular kind of materialistic need — here is the old rhetoric at work. But no less importantly, this premise next involves the production of the actual object to be sold. Comprising both the production of a belief and the production of the object or environment that realizes the belief, communication thus implicates two kinds of productions in its fullest enactment. Likewise, communication in digital culture produces not only the belief that each of its messages is necessary to its world, but recursively in the process, also produces the object of the world, that object with the name of digital culture itself.

In greater detail, we may focus on the problem of duplication so that everyone can have a personal piece of the message. What centrally involves mechanisms for this task is not communication, but production. Duplication of something produced, as a conversion of the individually or privately conceived into a socially suitable and projectable form, is called reproduction. The four prevalent kinds in modern society are biological, linguistic, mechanical, and electronic reproduction. Only biological reproduction has the feature of independent or autonomous propagation. In linguistic terms, reproduction is conditioned not on the word, but on the sentence and its context, that is, reproduction presupposes some variant of memory. Similarly, in the mechanical realm, the problem of reproduction has been solved by the invention of the assembly line. In the electronic realm, reproduction is the most trivial challenge; production, archival and retrieval remain the real concerns. The primary contrast is that only in the digital realm does the making of a copy of something require fewer resources than it took to make the original. The trivialization of reproduction in digital culture marks an important improvement, mechanisms of (re)production have traditionally been so complex that they perpetually impose material conditions on the output, so that what is produced bears evidence of the method of its reproduction. The child bears every genetic imprint of the parental originals from which he was reproduced. Everyone understands that something can be reproduced, but almost no one understands the methods of reproduction or the relics they leave. The carbon copy stain, the flange-like artifact from plastic dye moldings, the ink contrast shift in the photocopy — all these mark the inheritance of traits. From reproduction we reenter production, for how to make the original is the key to the value and meaning of what is made.

The problem of production, then, is the entry point to understanding digital culture. While both the production of belief and production of the object of its own world are important aspects of the culture, as in the material realms, some contrasts with the analog world suggest that a subtle but dangerous war will take place within and about digital culture; if necessary, we should be prepared to abandon the role of bystander. This conflict relates to differences in modes of production between digital and material cultures.

Why is production connected to the future of digital culture? Production is the seductive seed for material culture to incorporate and devour digital culture, rather than let it exist in a separate hegemony. The omniscient simplicity of Production in digital culture is the envy of every capitalist. After their production, modern digital works — visual art, texts, temporal genres, etc. — do not need to undergo separate treatment in reproduction and dissemination; these processes are dispatched as quickly as one can press the "Post", "Print", or "Publish" button on the interface. A physical object, however, such as a vehicle, isn't just produced, it's (1) manufactured, and this happens separately from its (2) distribution or its (3) marketing. This triangular exertion requires three kinds of language, three kinds of employee, and three kinds of mission. The enormity of such expended energy is justified when physical objects are built for profit, that is, when they are intended to be as unique as possible in meeting user needs — no one would want to manufacture something that does exactly the same thing in the same way as something else. Product managers (a special kind of employee) are continually searching out unoccupied spaces in the universe of human utility; such gaps signal the possibility of anything from a simple innovation to a potential monopoly.

A digital work, on the other hand, does not seek the special status of existing as unaccompanied as possible. On the contrary, it can scarcely be justified without a community of previous and similarly ongoing digital works and messages that form the object toward which this object contributes its production. This contrast highlights the delicate difference between the production of meaning and the production of value, and what concerns us is the contemporary corporate attempt to redirect the evolving genesis of digital culture from its intrinsic promotion of meaning to the extrinsic propagation of value — an important dialectic. How are value and meaning different?

Value is realized in the transmission, as when a vehicle is sent out to the dealer's showroom for public perusal. Meaning is realized in reconstruction, as when the image of a memory returns to the mind. Thus value applies to what cannot be self-exploratory, self-questioning, or self-critical. Meaning, however, is accomplished only on the condition of negotiating all of these characteristics. What reveals my own weaknesses or proclivities is nothing if not meaningful, like the catharsis of a poignant tragedy.

Value is reached when a definition or interpretation arrives at some completion, some stability. Once I understand how much I generally drive, and what status image I must convey, I can know which type of vehicle is more valuable to me. Once the auto manufacturer knows this about every potential buyer, it too can set the value of the vehicle on a demand basis. Meaning, however, is acquired only in incomplete forms and imperfect attempts. What is meaningful to us, human company, love, ecstasy, compassion, humility, and transcendence, is elusive and resists the stability of our lives or of objects. No sooner is a fixed destination attained, than we must again set off in search of what is meaningful, and culture, as always, plays a part in defining what is possible or knowable in this quest.

Value is the product of rhetorical intention, of the promotion of a projectable belief. Something is not valuable until we have been convinced of its value. The object comes attached with its value like a crusty barnacle on a keel; we must negotiate this value to obtain that object. Meaning, however, is the product of ontological reflection. When a thing (like a memory) is produced within me, its meaning emerges from its closeness to me. Such meaning emerges only after the experience is here, and remains, sometimes greatly growing, after the experience is no more. Value is produced through objects; meaning is produced through reflection. And in the absence of reflection, I can never determine the meaning of anything.

Thus, on the whole, the value of something can be accepted only in relation to some external use or function. The meaning of something can be accepted only in relation to some internal, personal, psychological aspect of my being or my identity. Conversion of something from being meaningful to being valuable therefore displaces it from its role in self-understanding and places it in a new role where the user must engage in self-assessment vis-à-vis some extrinsic object or purpose. When intended as or multiplied into a mass objective, this conversion becomes a moral order, specifically one of value rather than meaning. This difference transcends the material world's models of economics.

In light of the imperative for meaning over value, digital culture is closer to literature than propaganda. In literature, this budding culture has a silent parallel in the pioneering and embattled history of the French Tel Quel group of thirty years ago. Conventional literary culture understands the value and purpose of individual forms: the essay, the novel, the poem, the epic. On the other hand, Tel Quel, as we know resisted the importance of boundaries between literary genres; these artificial forms and boundaries were never defined by great writers, who invariably lived at the margin of dominant group values. Genres were deprecated as external productions of the "historically determined concept of literature" (Sollers, 1967, p. 5). This history also accorded to literary genres a hierarchy of importance that reflected the worth of the objects from the standpoint of their entertainment value to the monarchy's court. The epic is king, the novel is prince, the play is bishop, and the poem is pawn. There are even meta-epics: epics whose premise involves their own recounting to a kingly figure (The Upanishads and the 1,001 Arabian Nights are such examples). Genre is the categorical product of ruling classes; it is a meta-product from which objects fall into slots. Tel Quel was trying instead to emphasize the universal greatness of voice in textual content, rather than lead to different kinds of greatness as determinable from object types. Going beyond fiction, criticism, or other types of writing means that a core of textual production underlies and motivates great works. This core became the mission of Tel Quelians and took on the name écriture—writing, as a term implying production independent of context or intention. Écriture is precisely also the goal of digital culture, which blends intentional creative impulse and modes of its reflection together into each cybertext, whether a posted message, an email, a web site. The general requirement is that such products be self-aware, yet exploratory; lucid argument meeting net etiquette in a fused articulation. No other textual culture (with the exception of Tel Quel) has so thoroughly embedded into its tradition the ethic of self-analysis. It reproduces itself by transmitting, reflecting upon, and extending the knowledge of its own practices.

In doing this, digital culture has not created the hype of a myth, but has instead destroyed one. Nothing is unexplainable in digital culture, there are no geniuses here, for there are no secret methods or hidden discourses to mask the grind of production. Everything comes to the full light of day without the censorship of status interests to intervene — yet.

Largely, too, this is due to the lack of a greater divide in modalities like speech and writing. One is reminded of Derrida's chronicle of the ideological and status differences between both, with a presumed greater importance historically accorded to orality over writing. This dialectic has been superseded: in digital culture everything is literally textualized, inscribed, in ASCII form, in some markup language, or into a compression scheme. Is digital culture, then, a kind of literature? Aarseth has deftly argued that certain digital creations and experiences — MUDs and MOOs, for instance — are (new) literature. How do we reason the possibility of digital culture as literature? For digital culture to enter this signifying practice — for it to absorb the label of literature as a sacrosanct high art that can elevate the virtual production to the level of a classic on purely literary terms — is not without peril. I can immediately think of three.

The Peril of the Institution as Ally versus Tyrant

Literature, as a vast and growing entity with a history of self-selection, includes every object creation of the middle and upper classes. Where works reaffirming love and other worthwhile sentiments have appealed to elite sensibilities, we have seen the steady propping-up and defense of a canon. And what has not passed bourgeois muster as literature has been defended only by occasionally courageous academic campaigns. Russian literature and criticism, to take the extreme instance, is still struggling to rediscover and reinvent itself from years of state control. How many writers and manuscripts have been lost, cast aside to perish into the extinction of alienated spirit? For those who have astutely perceived the precarious and problematic intersection of creative forms and social institutions, suspicions have been borne out, and now, today, creative forms and their meanings are open to being surgically distilled from institutions and their values. This was foreseen by the clairvoyant Tel Quelian Shoshana Feldman, who as late as 1985 contributed to this distillation, indicating that "what we call the literary goes quite beyond the issues of bourgeois ideology, that literature not only surpasses, but in fact subverts the reductionistic definition in which some have sought, and still seek, to imprison it." (Feldman, 1985, p. 15) For me, digital culture is not only a different genus, it should moreover not be drawn into this dialectic of perceptions. Digital culture will shortly have its own battles at hand, and ideological cleansing is already among them.

The Peril of Creative Magic versus Creative Production

There is another reason for digital culture to avoid absorbing the watermark of literature. Literature comes to most people as a kind of myth of creation. If in the beginning was the word, can any author be far removed from God? The spirit of authorial genius is likewise never far from the book or the poem, and belles lettres is more a state of mind than a kind of writing. Every great work of literature seems to appear abruptly over the horizon, self-defined, captivating, and complete. Drawn by the mystery of its origins, we instinctively want use the work as a portal into the methods of its creator, but the process that engenders the work does not yield its secrets so easily. Ironically, the author's work is transformational but the author's interview is invariably unremarkable. We are left with an awe of literature that works as a stigma, for this deification of literature totally obscures its nature as a production and thereby exempts it from what is otherwise functional and understandable in society. It is this unrelenting mystique of literature that makes it seem untamed, inaccessible and ultimately confines it to the futility of a leisure class pursuit.

The Peril of Social Engagement versus Social Irrelevance

Literature has also responded to its own urges and arguments — none of which affect any sector of digital culture (even hyperfiction). These have usually included either the charge that it is irrelevant because it is desultorily unengaged in addressing the problems of the world, or that conversely, it has been too much the slavish agent of some plutocracy. Each response grows into a school that directs and shapes inspiration into certain voices and themes. From the outside, literature has no social relevance for the intractable struggles of the lifeworld; from the inside, literature seems so pressed to the service of an ideology or delusion that it no longer has any inherent value as an expressive or socially independent form by itself. Digital culture should scrupulously avoid partaking of all these waters. A culture that writes itself every day needs no preambles from other traditions.

These are cardinal indications of the war I have been prognosticating up to now. For these reasons, digital culture is not, and in my opinion should not want to be, literature, although it is openly textual and literary; it is not an information commodity like a newspaper, but it is an information medium. The dichotomy of digital culture is the junction between the journalistic and the aesthetic, between text and broadcast, between symbiocratic and centralized, between value-based and meaning-laden, and between institutional and individual. Digital culture is not literature, it is far beyond literature. It is a reality of substance without a causal physics in matter. It is an archive of representations that continues to expand like the breath of Brahman and carries its universe wholly within it. It is a medium built not for genres but for original creations, for écriture. This difference transcends the material world's models of literary criticism.

Metaphorically describable as being or having breath, spirit, or soul, and involved in discovery and communication, this is a culture of consciousness not amenable to being coerced into some monadic definition of itself as an object in turn comprising other objects. This kind of structuralism in fact reduces a culture to its artifacts, and from them constructs a new economic mythology of the chic that can be priced and competed for by organizations that sell information processing tools. Wearable computing, to revisit an improbable example, is not just observation-enhancing clothing from the singular standpoint of the digital culture. It, like other artifactual objectivizations of that culture, also becomes a new kind of bridge between the ultimate in material presence—commercial expansion — ;and the ultimate in digital culture — perceptual augmentation. Every corporation wants to anchor itself in the shores of digital culture through the use of a material product harmonious with a virtual objective. But the reduction of a culture to artifacts does not enhance the culture, it divides it, makes its workings more myopic, stranded, dis-integrated, from any sense of a whole even as they move with the culture like pebbles on an asteroid belt. There is a social agenda to redefining the culture via objects: what is divided cannot be overwhelming, it cannot threaten—although being threatened in the material world by something without a physical representamen approaches witchcraft. Here is the profit-centered exorcism offered to digital culture: what is increasingly approachable through a mail-order catalog is no longer a cult; bestowing to digital culture a commercial viability saves it from the fanaticism of social extremists who populate and make those shores too craggy for normal families and citizens. The corporate barter is simple: we are asked to exchange aboriginal dialogue for the credibility that inheres to profitable commerce. In the process, corporate interests trivialize the culture's essence by transforming its depth of individual meaning to the breadth of product-driven value.

In crafting an account and defense of ourselves, let us firstly assert that digital culture is not a cult of elites, of criminals, of anything. It is a culture, not a sub-culture. Having reached critical mass, there is entirely too much cohesion of activity in it to be ignored by the interests of machines of profit or bureaucratic control. So, your culture, what you have built, what you are in this realm, is increasingly accompanied by the likes not so much of pedophiles and fascists, but of media moguls, politicians, and resellers. They are now attempting to define what digital culture is and where it will go. But this culture's cohesion of activity should not be conflated with cohesion of self-advocacy, which it greatly lacks. It works quietly while the likes of a Negroponte, receiving millions from multinational corporations, defines the debate in digital culture over sponsored interests like interactive television and e-money. These are not the defining legitimate interests of digital culture, they are imported objects that have landed on our culture's shores not to address personal meaning, but inject corporate value. These and other so-called innovations will attempt to move digital culture away from its focus on distributed authorship and genre-free texts — écriture — and toward a media and centralized broadcasting model. Corporations do not want text because it is producible by masses; they want multimedia because they can control authorship by building and selling the authoring environments, justifying a demand for corporate-level bandwidth, and imposing corporate-level standards: the cornerstone of every production monopoly. All of these objectives define the mission of Microsoft, AT&T, and IBM, to name three parties in the conspiracy.

I summarize on a hermeneutic note. The dialogism of exploration and discovery is the hallmark of digital culture. That alone qualifies it for the status of an aesthetic realm, like literature, something that like Ingarden says, reveals itself only in aspects, rather than as completed objects or a tangible whole (Ingarden, [1931] 1973). Even so, between its desire to be a kind of literature caught up in literature's historical stigmas, and its entrapment in a new and impending cyber-imperialism, digital culture will have the onerous task of looking profoundly within and warding off new strangers bearing gifts of value over its pre-established inner discourse of reflective and personally rewarding meaning. Only the latter can be the deeper reason for which this medium has acquired its universal appeal. We must defend this realm by creating a new hermeneutics of suspicion, a long-term dialogue of ethical difference between what is and is not the legitimate essence and interest of our open and all-too-vulnerable community.


Sollers, P. (1967). Programme. Tel Quel, 31(Autumn).

Feldman, S. (1985). Writing and Madness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Del Bruno, R. (1998). The big picture: America and the Net by numbers. Yahoo! Internet Life, 4(9), 76-77.


1 this and the following are the latest correlated statistics from a group Internet polls and research organizations (Del Bruno, 1998).Back.





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