26 August 2007

On Digital Machines & the Structures of Everyday Life

I have been wilting these months under the onslaught of magical anticipation for the iPhone, a machine whose workings are so delicately concealed that it is meant to become an extension of one's body; thinking too, as I read Fernand Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life, of the 'long journey backwards' (as he writes) 'from the facilities and habits of present-day life,' though I'll save the detailed gloss on Braudel later, the observation that the past is a foreign country being an insufficient commonplace.

It was in this state of mind, then, that I came across this passage, from Roberto Calasso's The Ruin of Kasch - a work that takes up (as Italo Calvino puts so well) 'two subjects: the first is [Charles-Maurice de] Talleyrand [-Perigord], and the second is everything else':
In 1956, when John Von Neumann used his Silliman Lectures to give a quick summary of recent and ongoing developments in machines that could calculate on their own, and when he began by distinguishing between digital computers and analogue computers, he gave new names to the two poles that secretly sustain us. The digital pole seems biologically secondary and dependent, for exchange always seems secondary to the object being exchanged. But then the digital pole takes command, revealing its ability to envelop the other pole, to absorb it - and, naturally, to exploit it. The digital pole confers great power, but it does not contain, within the machine, the physical reality of the varying values, which is a last palpable memory of the outside world. Digitality is pure sequence of signs: when its dominion is extended to everything, we no longer know what earth sustains us - or even if there still is an earth. We continue to experience the analogue pole, but we no longer know what to call it: it is mute emotion, which overwhelms and no longer flows into its old estuary. Digitality has given it a new bed made of indestructible silicon. Over it flows a silent stream, awaiting the Bateau Ivre.
To this I'll add a few simple thoughts: Stripped of 'the physical reality of the varying values' - the lever, the spooled film, the hand crank - the machine contains nothing but signs, the semiotic artificialities that create our world in opposition to nature. But if that dominion is 'extended to everything'? Calasso writes later, 'Within Chinese society, within all societies, the park of the Son of Heaven once epitomized all nature in miniature. Now all nature is our park, and we do not know what it epitomizes.' And in "Endgame: Meditations on a diminishing world," Edward Hoagland writes of the 'fizz of electronics facilitating interior monolgues we carry on together in a solipsism so complete it appears to eclipse the whole out-of-doors.'

The workings of the digital machine become incomprehensible, but not mysterious - they do not invite exploration. The convenience obscures the process and worse, breeds indifference to it. Meat is slaughtered, preshaped & deboned, reconstituted, vacuum-sealed, flown & shipped until it arrives an idle choice, one among many. Freeways carry us up and over poverty into downtown; blindness another choice made easier by diversions. A button - soon just a liquid shape on a screen - is pressed, and what we desire, happens.

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