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October 17, 2004

Digital, and Prestidigital

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

A while back, you (Michael) wrote about the impact of digital technologies on culture. This is a delayed and lengthened response to your post, though I expect to wander off-topic from time to time (which reminds me of a comment of Archie's concerning Jughead: "his mind wanders but it never gets very far. . . . ")

Is Digital a Big Deal?

I spent a number of years at a well-regarded art school. My role as an administrator rather than as an artist or professor distanced me from the issues, but at the same time allowed me to consider them at a certain, potentially useful, remove. I remember asking various high-level academics some years ago whether digital photography would essentially supplant film in the academy, or whether the darkroom would live on. The answer at that time was that film would indeed live on, at least as a pedagogic device, much the way drawing continues to serve as a foundation.

I was skeptical, concluding was that academics were the true conservatives (a proposition which, while surprising some academics, should come as no surprise to people who deal with them).

But the impact of digital could be delayed but not denied. When I asked some of the same folks recently, they acknowledged that film might indeed go the way of the dodo and the daguerreotype.

So, in answer to your question: sure, yeah, digital is a big deal. And mostly, I think, that's because of Moore's Law. As long as the power of digital increases at the rate Moore postulated, it's the better bet in the long run. Picture pictures fifty or a hundred years hence, digital vesus film . . . which medium will offer more in the way of visual chops? [note: film people invited to chime in here and call me a moron . . . ]

But here's my caveat, and my segue.


The caveat: my conservative art school pals also maintained that digital in the final analysis is "just another medium" and, at the risk of sounding like a conservative myself, on this I think I agree with them. To choose one application, digital photography may well make many new things possible, but in what way is it likely to be deeply transformative?

I don't know. Will narrative be affected? Maybe, but is Sky Captain anything really new, even with the actors emoting in front of a blue screen? I don't mean to suggest that Sky Captain isn't a breakthough in any number of dimensions . . . I'm just not sure anything really deep has occured in this digital achievement.


And here's the segue: if you ask me, the more profound effects on culture will be felt from the genetic revolution, not the digital one.

Digital technologies provide for new tools; genetic technologies for new toolmakers--that's a big difference.

It seems to me that when the promise of digital was new, we were prone to think it would affect us internally. Consider some of the treatments on film.

In The Demon Seed (1977, pre-PC era) Julie Christie mates with an evil computer and has an evil little computer baby. In Tron (1982), Jeff Bridges dematerializes and finds himself inside a computer game. And in Videodrome (1983), television gets all mixed up in our biological selves in fairly unpleasant fashion.

All these concepts seem, to my mind circa 2004, pretty dated. Digital has transformed our world but it hasn't yet transformed us, I mean fundamentally. Most days we wake up in the morning; hung over or not; in need of a strong cup of coffee and some exercise, same as it ever was, irrespective of the advent of digital culture.

But I think all bets are off where the genetic stuff is concerned. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out in Our Posthuman Future, the genetic revolution holds out the promise of changing human nature itself.

What happens to narrative then?

Much of art seems built upon variable oscillations around a fixed human nature. I understand Hamlet to be different from me, but he is nonetheless recognizably human, and it is from this recognition that I derive sympathy. For that link to exist, I have to believe in an implicit framework large enough, and common enough, to hold both Hamlet and me.

What happens if that no longer holds?

Steve Sailer argues that races are best considered as partly inbred extended families. Even so, we seem to have a hard time admitting these "family differences" have import out at the edges of the bell curves of intelligence, athletic prowess and the like. What will happen if the intra-"family" differences (on intelligence, athletics and a host of other genetically-influenced traits) grow more and more pronounced, to the point at which so-called "racial" differences are small by comparison? Racial differences do not seem to me to be so signifcant as to warrant entirely separate frames of reference--but that is no guarantee that future inbred familes may not grow apart in ways that create more fundamental differences in outlook, attitude, temperament and worldview.

I do think narrative will be affected.



posted by Fenster at October 17, 2004


Frightening/exhilarating to think about the implications, isn't it? I've got no idea how realistic the fantasies and expectations about genetic engineering are, do you? Predictions have been around for years and years, and nothing too startling has become a practical, widespread reality. At least so far. So I'm prone to scoff a bit. On the other hand, I'm also prone to being naive and stupid. And in any case I know nothin' anyway.

I guess I'm more prone than you are to think that digital tech has already had more of a transformative effect -- that we're well underway to a completely different kind of culture than we've ever had before. It may well be that I'm being overdramatic.

But still! Where digital photography's concerned, for instance: Photoshop enables you to work within a photo, from pixel to pixel -- something that was never a practical reality for most photographres. David Hockney argues tthat this represents the final fusion of painting and photography, and I can certainly see his point. It was part of the "nature" (forgive this) of photography up till now that it showed us what it showed us, not what we wanted it to show us. This used to be thought of as one of the characteristics of movies too -- they brought reality to us in illumined ways. Now photography and movies are far more easily turned to fantasy uses. The distribution channels that digital opens up -- photo albums on Typepad, for instance -- seem to me to be fairly revolutionary. No more gallery owners, no more photo editors -- like blogs you can publish yourself. And as with blog-reading, you can stumble across all kinds of marvels, and do so super-easily.

And then there are the genuinely new media: games, interactive flash things, animated postcards, webpages of video clips, etc. All of which strike me as pretty mind boggling (I almost typed "blogging.") in terms of their art implications and possibiities.

The main reason I think of digi-tech as deeply transformative, though, ... Well, I guess there are two reasons. One's cost: the old barriers to entry to certain art-making fields (movies are a good example) have gotten so low that now almost anyone can make movies. Well, anyone who can afford a few thousand bucks' of equipment, that is. And so moviemaking is already, for better and worse, becoming democratized. Publishing's another example: think of blogging. There's never been anything like it. One consequence is that the voices of many new classes of people (and I ain't thinking race/gender, I'm thinking more like normal-range people vs. book-obsessed people) ...

The other thing is that art materials used to resist the artist, and creativity to some extent arose in response to that. Digi-tech tends not to resist but to explode - the creativity often goes into devising ways of roping the technology in, not bending its materiality to expressive ends. That's new too.

But genetic engineering. Eek. I don't know if I'm ready for another major cultural upheaval. One a lifetime's plenty for me. How about you? If something as big as the switchover from analog to digital were to come along in the near future, would you be up to it? I think I'm adapting fairly well for a graybeard to the new world, some of which I like a whole lot. But it is an adjustment....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 18, 2004 11:18 AM

And thus we ponder!

Posted by: Asian Werewolf on October 18, 2004 12:55 PM

"One's cost: the old barriers to entry to certain art-making fields (movies are a good example) have gotten so low that now almost anyone can make movies." M. Blowhard - you know better than I that's distrubtion, not production is the crucial factor.

And we've heard this arguement since 16mm.

And I think you should work in flash - or even xml- for a while before you talk about the materials no longer resisting the artist. And consider the limits of canvas and space for anything that is not an installation. Screens come in pre-set sizes.

I can expect to live three times as long as Hamlet, at least, but that's not enough to change anything - especially because my lifespan is not unique.

All those Chinese manchilds, though, that might put a new spin on the ball...

To those who want to ponder what genetic meddling may bring, I say consider the dog - American purebred dogs are a walking (or limping from hip problems and bone cancer) ad for hybrid vigor!

Posted by: j.c. on October 18, 2004 8:05 PM

I should have made clear that I didn't mean "filmmaking" in the Hollywood sense. Distribution is going to be a major problem for feature-style films for a while yet. But if you take filmmaking to include short video clips, then the distribution problem has already been licked. The Web is full of pages and pages of video clips.

And it's a good point that making art on the computer is often hard. I took a class years ago in Macromedia Director, and was knocked out (and discouraged away from ever looking at Director again) by how finicky making a Director project was. But I never sensed the material resisting me, because there was no material -- there's only digital info. The fact that it's hard doesn't mean the material itself is pushing back at you, which it does in the material/analog world.

It's pretty common for film editors, for instance, who switch over to digital systems to come away from the experience saying, gee, making a cut used to take some physical effort back in the material world, while in the digital world it's almost too easy. There's a strong tendency to cut cut cut when you edit electronically, as there's a tendency to use too many filters when processing images in Photoshop. (There's also a tendency to shoot lots more footage and collect lots more photos.) So people working in these environments often spend much of their energy creative reining things in. I don't believe that's ever been the case with work in the arts before. I'm a big fan of the fun and ease of electronic writing and publishing myself, but I know a couple of well-known writers who use typewriters still, because they feel that the typewriter pushes back at them, where the computer sits there saying "feed me."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2004 1:08 AM

An interesting discussion!
I am currently writing my BA dissertation on exactly this topic... and would sugggest that digital technology has changed, and will go on to change culture as much as the invention of photo-chemical photography did before it. Digital photography and image manipulation tools allow distortion of the truth to such an extent that the assumption that photographs are a reliable evidential medium has been completely supplanted. (Willliam J. Mitchell - The Reconfigured Eye) In addition, Bruce Mau argues, in his book 'Life Style' that use of digital image manipulation in the popular press has reached such a level that real life emulates photoshop, rather than the other way around (consider airbrushed naked women in advertisments, and the effect this has on female self- image) This is not necessarily quantifiable as yet, but is an interesting postulate, and in my view would count as a radical cultural shift. Finally, the plummetting costs of digital image origination and distribution technology have the power to fundamentally change ideas of democracy. Whilst inexpensive digital technology allows more people to enjoy the pleasure of 'creative self expression', this freedom is to some extent a myth, as use o the technology is still mediated through a screen of signifiers emanating from the heirarchical traditionas of art / photography and the mass media - whilst we have the tools to create art in a new and fundamentally different way, we have not yet experienced the requisite aesthetic paradigm shift in order to allow unmediated self - expression; which would cause a fundamental shift in the way art functions as part of society. Far more interesting is the way in which digtal technology can be used journalistically. The public can now hold governments, businesses and mass media accountable, due to the fact that it is possible to publish pictures instantly on a global scale at very little expense. (Flickr had news of the Australian Embassy Bombing in Jakarta before Reuters). What digital photography will do is fundamentaly democratise the process of iamge production, but also socialse it. The idea that untrammeled self expression is a good thing is a myth perpetuated by the manufacturers of digital imaging tools in order to take advantage of our societys instinct for self-mythologisation. If used in the right way, digital tech has the potential to completely eradicate the fetishistic, commodity driven model of art producion, and replace it with community driven production of art motivated by the aspirations towards social improvement. Joournalism and the media will be similarly socialised, allowing greater public accountability of government and business. That to me would be a fundamental social change.
-Tim C (3rd year UG art student in the UK and first time blowhards poster)

ps. vaguely marxist sentiment not entirely intentional.

Posted by: Timothy Cowlishaw on October 19, 2004 5:02 AM

Timothy -- You can count me among the people who think the switchover from analog to digital is the biggest thing since the printing press, though Fenster and JC may well disagree. I did a lot of random, half-assed reading and finally settled on Richard Lanham's "Electronic Word," Michael Heim's "Metaphysics of Virtual Reality" and ... er, memory fails. I think there was another one. Anyway, I had a few disagreements with them but thought they did a great job of sketching out implications and basics. Oh, the other one was a good book by Jay David Bolter, I forget the name. Have you tried any of those? All of them very perceptive and knowledgeable, and totally without critical-theory nonsense. I'm a litlte more ambivabalent about the switchover than many seem to be, not that my opinion could matter less. For one thing, I don't see how "unmediated expression" is even possible, or how, even if possible, it's desirable. For another, I'll miss a lot of analog values and products. And finally, although I agree that digital tech and media, with their inevitable tendency towards multimedia and leveling things out, tends to democratize things, still I wonder ... I mean, it isn't "natural," really. It's electrity, products ... There's a pounding, thrusting commercial world underneath it and behind it. So won't it tend to express what I think of as electronic-media values -- ie., immediate gratification, impact ...? I can't see how it'll be entirely neutral -- these aren't twigs and bark we pick up in the forest, they're products of a very developed civilization. But, like I say, not that my opinion matters. What do you find your profs tend to say about all this? Are they enthusiastic about current and forthcoming changes? On what basis?

Fun swapping thoughts, and thanks for joining in.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2004 11:41 PM

"Writing Space," I think that was the name of the Bolter book ...

Signed, Michael Blowhard, still fending off Alzheimer's ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2004 11:41 PM


I entirely agree with you about the fact that electronic products are (and will always be) the results of commercial enterprise, and therefore commercial and capitalist values will tend to underpin the spread of this technology, and the way in which it is used - "Digital Cameras democratise the photographic process for everyone who can afford to spend 200 on a digital camera (!)" - and likewise, am cynical about the value of "unmediated self-expression" - although i still believe, that in the right hands, digital imaging technology potentially has the ability to be used for some social good - for an excellent example, see here - The problem currently is the way in which the technology is used, and by whom. Rick Poynor's excellent book obey the giant: life in the image world whilst primarily concerned with Graphic Design, has some discussion on this, along with a very insightful essay on lomo - the photographic 'movement' (i use this term with some cynicism) which seems to share a lot of similarities with the prevailing digital aesthetic. The key thing mentioned in your comment above seems to be the use of the phrase "immediate gratification" - Digital tech primarily seems to be used for selfish purposes centred around this principle. However, it has the potential to be used in a more sociable and worthwhile way.

Sorry if this reads like "crital-theory rubbish" - needless to say, that's the mindset i'm in at the moment!

profs (or just 1 prof really at the moment) seem to like the topic - he has very strange political ideas though, and swings from sweeping indictments of the capitalist west to calling jean baudrillard a "fat little peasant" - and correspondingly changing his mind on what he feels the effects of digitisation whil be due to whether he's feeling left or right wing that day! In general though, I think he's in favor of it - all though i don't think this is common in the academic world. Don't know what side of the atlantic you are on, but there was a very interesting radio show on BBC Radio 4 about exactly this topic with lots of input from people in the world of Higher Education- possibly still available at - I forget the title.

Many thanks for your feedback - this is proving to be a very valuable exercise for my essay, and besides, I had forgotten how much fun a decent 'blog debate can be!

Posted by: Timothy Cowlishaw on October 20, 2004 4:58 AM

found the link on the BBC site - here it's about half way down - clip number 0846. If you want to listen, you'll be needing realplayer!

ps. sorry about the atrocious typos in the post above!

Posted by: Timothy Cowlishaw on October 20, 2004 5:06 AM

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