What Does This Intellectual Tradition Have To Do With Digital Studies?

  • social production
  • the problem of materiality
  • information
  • cybernetics: materiality turned into immaterial information
  • together, these readings are more interested in Wiener’s cybernetics than Shannon’s information theory; this helps me think about the bio/ecological stakes of digital studies, and also helps project those questions into the later readings in this section’s concern with information labor, work, and economic control.
  • the information economy as a cybernetic formation; cybernetics also attempting to forecast the future through an epistemology of control

How Do These Readings Help Me Shape My Dissertation?

These readings overwhelmingly come out of disciplines separate from my own—these are works of communications studies, computing and labor history, and cultural studies. The latter shares the most terrain with my approach, which is still fundamentally interested in questions of textuality, materiality, and the analytic value of reading. Out of all of these, Manovich’s The Language of New Media, unsurprisingly, comes closest to the work that I want to do—even as I disagree with its actual conclusions. From a subject matter perspective, I thought that Edwards’ The Closed World would be a revelation—but I found myself deeply frustrated with its approach even as I found its fundamental analysis sound. My issues with it were two-fold: first, its application of deconstruction and discourse analysis struck me as woefully under-baked; and second, its subject matter strayed little from the broad strokes of who did what where. This has always been my problem with “computer history,” and indeed the kinds of historical analyses modeled in these texts (even ones that I found quite fascinating in their blend of history and theory, e.g. Hicks’ Programmed Inequality): too much of a focus on humans and not enough analysis of the texts and objects they produce.

In short: I’m asking for more critical code studies, for more software and platform studies. Manovich comes closest to this, although his focus on visual analysis and insistence on placing new media within the trajectory of cinema (even as he glances toward literary studies) means that he spends little time on the subtextual functionality of the media objects in question. Weirdly enough, it’s the oldest text on my list that models these approaches best: Mumford’s Technics and Civilization pays attention to materiality, and materiality as agential and subject to fruitful analysis on the structural level, in a way that few of the other texts muster. (Perhaps this is because it comes so far before the historical and sociological turn in media studies.) Innis’ The Bias of Communications operates within this same register, although I found in his book the frustrating tendency of communications theory toward broad, baseless, and problematic analysis—a tendency that comes to full, irritating fruition in McLuhan’s Understanding Media.

And here is the rub of communications theory and computing history: it’s both insufficiently theorized and insufficiently materialized. Some of the more recent works are able to do both: Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old is mandatory thinking for media archaeology; Hicks’ Programmed Inequality elegantly incorporates feminist theory into a revisionist historical project; and Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture similarly takes a broad look at cultures of textual production. But they are all hamstrung by chronotopes: by the requirement that history progress after a linear fashion and produce causal understandings. And despite Edgerton’s best attempts to call for a use-centered approach to media history, individual personalities still dominate. This is what’s so refreshing about reading Mumford: iron can operate as a figure more so than iron’s inventor.

Taken together, these readings do not map a unified field the way the other subsections do. This is the grab-bag section, but that’s by design: what we find in this sub-list are a variety of distinct approaches to addressing the subjects of digital studies. Here we see how digital studies has some of its roots in a media, communications, and historical project—or at the very least that these approaches have been used fruitfully in the past to further the objectives of digital studies. What these approaches miss are deep attention to textual materiality—the very kinds of methodological approaches we depend on in literary study. This is not to say that returning to these texts is not useful. What these texts understand is how to situate digital technologies within a larger sociocultural milieu, and to show how technology both structures and responds to that milieu.

They also, I think, show some of the dangers of transhistorical thinking. Many of these projects operate on huge scales and attempt to make sense of centuries of technical and human progress. In this they mostly fail: they have to make recourse to unsubstantiated generalization or poor theorizing or the absence of a material base (Gleick’s The Information is a particularly vulnerable subject here; and even Mumford, in his Marxist materialism, falls prey to this.) The best analyses are those that are situated narrowly within a material field of inquiry.

Roll Call

  • Bush, “As We May Think”

Foundational context. Situates textuality at the root of computing history. Introduces the problem of information, which I consider a key issue in digital studies.

  • Edgerton, The Shock of the Old

The closest that computing history comes to a media archaeological method. Asynchronous chronologies (very important); thematics over individuals and linearity; focus on material use over innovation narrative.

  • Edwards, The Closed World

Useful and frustrating. Content is great: nuclear history and cold war computing. Method a precarious mixture of historical writing and deconstruction / discourse analysis; and the latter falls quite flat.

  • Gleick, The Information

Like Edwards, useful and frustrating. Content points to a number of fascinating questions re: the development of “information” as an aesthetic, economic, and sociological category. But its analysis is thin, under-sourced, and prone to narratives of Great Men (the opposite that Edgerton would preach).

  • Hicks, Programmed Inequality

Vital for thinking about gender and labor in computing; a beautiful mix of history and theoretical analysis. Adapts Edgerton’s anti-innovation message to chronological thinking. Not a model in method (I’m not a historian) but v. useful for content.

  • Innis, The Bias of Communication

Foundational to communications studies but also one of the key impetuses for what will later become a media archaeological method. Incredibly frustrating to read and prone to generalization over vast space and time, introduces key ideas about media’s ability to structure culture and civilization. A key suture to the German tradition.

  • Liu, The Laws of Cool

Literary and cultural study vectored toward computing and labor history. Useful for thinking about affective and aesthetic qualities prompted by the turn toward knowledge work and the information economy. Gets bogged down the “crisis of the humanities” and is at times nigh impenetrable stylistically. Still, Liu starts his infrastructural work here, which is my primary interest in him currently.

  • Manovich, The Language of New Media

Foundational poetics of new media. Disagree with the primacy Manovich places on cinema but then again so do most folks these days I think. Vital portrait into computing culture in the 1990’s, even if accidentally. Also a model for a rigorous theory of new media—one that will inspire similar projects down the road.

  • McLuhan, Understanding Media

Important to know but tbh I found intensely irritating. Perverts Innis into mysticism. Instigates a troubling trend in communications and media theory toward universalism: what isn’t media? Loses the focus on materiality or uses materiality as a flimsy justification for pseduo-anthropological pronouncements. A mess.

  • Mumford, Technics and Civilization

Perhaps the most useful for all the texts in this section. Extends Marxist materiality into technical study, and his arguments about civilizational approaches in fact bring a modern nuance to what Innis would pronounce more strongly two decades later. Media archaeology avant la lettre.

  • Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture

  • Wiener, Cybernetics

  • Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine