Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 and Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory at York University, Canada

How we think , Digital Media and contemporary Technogenesis Part Two (Summary of chapters 5-8)

With a gap growing between digital scholarship and its print-based counterpart, Hayles argues for contemporary technogenesis (the idea that humans are defined by their co-evolution with technology) and argues for what she calls comparative media studies, a new approach to identify digital work within print traditions and vice versa.

Hayles explores the technogenesis twist and the challenges it brings. She considers the effects of early databases such as telegraph code books and confronts the changing perceptions of time and space in the digital age. She ventures to demonstrate the ways in which media have historically impacted consciousness through a case study of the telegraph, which in its use of code, she claims, established a new relationship between “machinic” and “human” languages. She also explores how the database offers an alternative to narrative as a structure for arranging knowledge. She is illustrating this through three innovative digital works:

Steve  Tomasula’s electronic novel, TOC;  Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts; and Mark Z.

Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

Expanding our understanding of the massive transformative powers digital technologies have placed in the hands of humanists, the book presents a detailed rationale for tackling the challenges facing the humanities today.

The coevolution of human and technical begins often as “the effect of reengineering environments so as to favour further changes” (p. 123).

One such example is the telegraph codebook, a device that was particularly useful because, decades after the peak of its use, started in the 19th century ,we can retrospectively view and appreciate the changes the invention initiated. The telegraph required human operators who were physiologically disciplined to correctly hear and reproduce telegraph beep tones within very short intervals. But since telegraph communication was public, code books were needed to keep confidential messages short and private. Hayles traces the transformation of these code books from relatively simple collections of customary phrases to dynamic coding algorithms which helped to transform any natural language expression into invisible combinations of letters. Code books standardized communication by introducing an encoding/decoding algorithm into the transmission of natural language expressions. This suggests the emergence of binary code:

“The progression from natural language to artificial code groups … traces a path in which code that draws directly on the lifeworld of ordinary experience gives way to code calculated procedurally” (p. 142).  Digital code became a universal language of global communication—and it was written in English. While discussing the practices, economics, politics, technology constraints and capabilities of telegraphy, we learn about the value of digital coding theory, the evolution of codes from letters to numbers, and businesses driven to using cryptography from the increased cost of sending codes.The author also explores technical issues of software project development, designing and coding software databases, and the SQL language (Structured Query Language, is a special-purpose programming language designed for managing data in relational database management systems.)

Humans developed the telegraph, but in order to use it effectively, humans also had to adapt to the technology. Ultimately, Hayles affirmed, the telegraphs and code books are “ancestors“ to modern computer age:

“Following the transition from sound receiving to Teletyping, fewer sending and receiving skills were located in humans , and more were located in machines “(p. 146);

“Telegraph code books , in addition to offering secrecy (secretive communication system) also reflect a desire to create a mode of communication capable of moving with frictionless ease between cultures languages and time periods“ (p. 158).

Databases are changing the way humans approach research practices. These sources of

Information allow researchers to investigate new possibilities in the crossover between database and narrative. Hayles introduced the term “spatial history” and “narrative” history (Spatial has to do with distance between things and describes how objects fit together in space).

According to Hayles, narrative is naturally chronological while database is inherently spatial; However, these structures have a synergetic relationship.

Spatial history exemplifies this overlap, making maps represent meaning and movement rather than only location. These combinations allow for representations of more complex information; narratives and databases exemplify a tension between standardization and story which becomes complicated with the fact that “ never before in the history of human species has so much information been so easily available to so many.” (p.182)

The author is highlighting two experimental novels for further analysis: Steven Hall’s (2007) The Raw Shark Texts: and Mark Z. Danielewski’s (2006) Only Revolutions: Each of these texts bridges the gap between narrative and database. In addition, Only Revolutions offers itself to a machine reading.

Hayles uses Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts as an example of synthesis of narrative and database . Through (de)contextualization of data , flexibility of format and presence or absence of a speaker, (p. 202).

The Raw Shark Texts magnified and interrogated these binaries through concrete villains in the narrative. For example Mycroft Ward “represents the complete separation of form and content” whereas the Ludovician shark “embodies the complete fusion of form and content” (p. 205).

These villains propelled the reader into an immersive fiction that can be viewed as both positive (the goal of narrative) and negative (dangerous to the reader). Finally, The Raw Shark Texts included reverses, which also forced the reader to choose between parallel endings.

The Raw Shark Texts refereed between narrative and database, hinting at the potential “for a future in which humans, as ancient as their biology and as contemporary as their technology, can find a home” (p. 219).

Another work the author uses is Mark Z. Danielewski’s (2006) Only Revolutions which explored a transformational: “shift from narrative as a temporal trajectory to a topographic plane upon which a wide variety of interactions and permutations are staged” (p. 221)

For example: Only Revolutions can be read in “octets” (referring to units of eight as mentioned in p. 224), by rotating the book every eight pages in order to read text that is initially upside down, or

“Chronological lists of entries,” which is one of four different kinds of data arrangements relevant to the book where each “terms throughout the text, and specific word and line counts” (pp. 224-226).

The additional thread of historical events that runs along the center of each page also complicates the narrative and lends itself to data analysis as it both forms and informs content.

These patterns “emerge from an ocean of data” and provoke active participation as the reader/user engages text and memory simultaneously (p. 230).

These limitations and structures ideally situate Only Revolutions for a machine reading which is the ultimate synthesis of print and digital. Hayles’s argument circled back to its beginning, a proposal that the humanities do not have to choose between hanging to print-based past or digitized present and future; she suggests to find a way to combine humanity and technology and develop a careful awareness to its complexities and dangers.

In her exploration of the mutually constitutive relation between human and technology, Hayles is addressing how we think in the broadest sense, and asks vital questions about how humans both transform and are transformed by the media we use.

Sun, October 16 2016 » Future Cinema