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We Have Always Been Digital

By Illya Szilak

Aug 29, 2016

If we define “analog” as a continuous variable which has no “truth” function, no negative, and no zero, and, “digital” as information composed of discrete values or states, then, moving from analog to digital requires not merely difference, but distinction. One is not equal to zero, human is not equal to machine, and there is nothing in between. Moreover, in so far as language involves digitizing our analog experience, whether we scratch a word on a stone tablet or “process” it with software, we have always been digital.

In We Have Never Been Modern , Bruno Latour argues that modern civilization has secularized rituals of purification to create boundaries between “nature” and “culture,” “human” and “thing,” even as we construct hybrid systems that mix politics, art, technology, and biology. Similarly, language participates in and perpetuates divisions even as it performs “the work of translation.” Electronic literature is uniquely situated to explore and reveal this. Although, like conventional literature, it offer users the opportunity to develop a critical awareness through content, electronic literature also reveals through form and process—by making manifest what Donna Haraway calls, “the translation of the world into a problem of coding”.

“Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools for recrafting our bodies…Furthermore, communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move—the translation of the world into a problem of coding…” --- Donna Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto

Etymologically, the word “code” relates both to law and, through the Latin “codex,” to the book. As Marshall McLuhan points out in Understanding Media: Extensions of Man , written phonetic language offered early civilizations the potential for abstraction, universality, and transferability. He argues that without this, the “objective” disciplines of science and history could not have emerged. If the purity of these practices is now in question, (making us again, in Latour’s terminology, “pre-modern,”) this has occurred simultaneously with a revolution in communication. Looking at the origins of the word “code,” it is not surprising that games, with their rules that operate outside the law, poetry, with its use of language that operates outside of conventional syntax, computer code that creates and manifests as a language, machine-body gestures, via which we and our computers now read and write, and “books” that go beyond the page are key devices in electronic literature.

The salient question vis-a-vis electronic literature is not analogue vs. digital, but how we, as Haraway’s “cyborgs” or Marshall McLuhan’s “extended” bodies, communicate. Like Alan Turing’s “imitation game,” the importance of electronic literature lies less in who or what is doing the thinking and writing, (human, machine or both), and more in its capacity to procedurally explore our evolving relationship to language and, in so doing, to challenge the very notion of what “human” means.

Photographic collage: John Cayley

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