Reporting Back From The First International Post Digital Symposium

And so concludes the first symposium on post-digital culture. And arguably the biggest question that needed answering was thoroughly debated: just what is the postdigital and how are we inhabiting this condition? The concept is simple enough, postdigital is a meditation on the idea that we are already at the stage of Alan Kay’s calm computing. The ‘digital’ permitted by computers acting as mediums and as tools has receded into the background, become invisible and as all culture transduces through it there is no longer much to be gained from delineating certain forms of expression as digital: tl;dr we are all digital now.

Proceedings opened with Drew Hemment of Future Everything, and Drew’s opinion of the postdigital framed the topic for the talks that followed: we’re past the point where the digital is remarkable, and the digital has come to permeate everything so much so that sensor aware cities is a statement of fact rather than science fiction. Drew offered an interesting take on what this shift means for new media art: it has gotten to the point where new media art has become a tradition, one that finds itself endangered by the very fact that the digital, software & net art et al, are no longer the preserve of the few. Drew thinks that if there is anything which such a tradition can bequeath to us it is new medias art’s proclivity for standing on the fringe, its insistent interrogation of the existing technological paradigm.

Following Drew we had Moritz Stefaner. Moritz is a Truth & Beauty Operator working in the field of data visualization. Moritz oversaw the OECD Better Life Index visualisation, Notabilia and the Max Planck Research Networks, and he provided a fascinating insight into the process of getting a feel for the texture of a dataset before producing fantastic data visualizations. Moritz’s work on data viz provided the first concrete instance that speaking of a postdigital age is presumptuous. The potential of big data and data mining still remains untapped and the means to do so (tools and education) are only just trickling down to general populace (it’s only in the last two years that statistics became really sexy and data journalism became part of our vernacular). This aspect of digital culture is indicative of a pre-digital state if anything. As Moritz asked “can we be post digital if it’s not all coming together?” The software seams are still visible, and it doesn’t take too hard a tug at the thread for them to show.

Post-digital creativity & experimentation credit: federicalandi

Next came a panel session overseen by Man Bartlett who is conducting social media dictated art performances over the course of this weekend at Netil House and featured a variety of perspectives from Tom Uglow, Katy Beale and Filip Visnjic. Through a fascinating catalogue of art from Da Vinci through to Aaron Koblin Tom Uglow explored the problematic conception of digital art. Reflecting on digital art is important when considering ‘post-digital’ culture. Tom opines that digital art doesn’t communicate itself very well, something that’s proving fatal in the wake of cut happy governments across Europe (for instance take a look at the hatchet wielded by ACE with respect to digital arts bodies earlier this year and the funding bloodbath that the Netherlands government oversaw which inflicted great damage to the European digital art ecosystem).

So much of Katy Beale’s activities from the culture hackdays to the ‘craft and code’ workshops she runs are early warning signals that we are in fact slowly inhabiting a post-digital mindset. Katy too is attentive to the fact that we won’t be in such a culture until we inhabit a read-write culture too and to that end is in the process of organising a Coding for Kids barcamp.

The panel was closed out by Filip of Creative Applications. Filip provided an important case for being technologically reflective of the software we use, as much for the benefit of a healthy design process as anything else. He called for us not to let the computers do the work for us – this is an essential step to a reflective engagement with digital culture; an engagement which most of us present at the symposium would concede is not evenly distributed among those embroiled in digital culture. Until we actively comprehend the digital age it could be argued that we cannot truly transition to the post-digital.

After the interval Filip passed the FLOSS (free and libre open software) torch to Bill Thompson who carried it and the audience through an inspiring talk expounding the need for a different approach than that represented by the ‘appification’ of the internet being overseen by Apple. A fantastic talk that noted the masonic echoes in the IoS app store logo and compared the iTunes app store to Thomas Huxley’s Soma painted a troubling portrayal of Apple, one which was underlined by the recent censorship of the Phonestory app. Our modern world is shaped by the technological world, and devolving governance of that world to software giants is equivalent to taking the word of press baron empires at face value. We need to think of how we engage politically with the technologies that shape our lives, and Bill’s talk stirred in most of us the realisation that if we don’t design the future then someone else will!

Picking up where Katy Beale left off Patrick Hussey and Charles Beckett opened the floor to discussing how arts organisations engage with the digital. The case studies they touched upon painted a picture of arts and cultural institutions being moved by the digital culture whorling around them rather than actively using digital means in an engaging way. Patrick singled out a few institutions where digital creatives had more scope to take charge of an organisations direction but in total the talk outlined the peril of moving unthinkingly into a postdigital culture, that of being caught up in a movement without adequate means to understand the context surrounding you. As ever the necessity of having a digitally literate culture returned as a prominent theme

Bill Thompson had a very strong case to argue, in part because so many of us are aware, at least on a surface level, of how ubiquitous apps and their proprietary model are. The next panel debate strayed into more speculative waters, that of augmented reality, a digital trend that has taken a kicking lately. The topic was bold: how can Augmented Reality (AR) lead to a democratization of public space, and though no concrete answers were offered it was refreshing to see a group of people conceptualise a deployment of AR that is not gimmick riddled. Roland Carpenter debuted an application which could, in theory, allow people to perform a reclamation of public space: Layars first foray into using computer vision based techniques of superimposing the virtual rather than geolocation (for more check out the video of Stiktu here). Ben Stevenson of augmented reality cinema developed a clear theoretical principle for just how AR could be considered as democratizing public space: in short by re-establishing the use of an already known location through allowing you and I to integrate virtual items into said public space. Keiichi Matsuda continued the optimistic note that the rest of his panelists had struck but rightfully cautioned against becoming loose with the concept of democratizing – he stressed that it would be disingenuous to consider applications such as augmented reality and facebook as democratic technologies given that both were birthed from ‘web 2.0′; a techno-social paradigm very different from the ethos from which the internet originally sprung, an ethos which remains alive in the pronouncements which Thompson and Filip offered. Moderator Olivia Solon begged the question of whether it’s the internet that is the democratic technology and whether AR is a front end that leverages that innate potential rather than the democratic agent in and of itself.

Closing out the symposium we were treated to a demonstration and discussion of Bjorks biophilia album from the man behind it Scott Snibbe. Biophilia is truly fascinating as it’s an album created using entirely software constructed instruments, delivered via an entirely digital platform (app store to iPad), and accompanied with a mode of creative expression impossible in previous mediums (interactive media apps). Bjork’s album has been lauded as the 70’s album art experience for the digitally distracted generation, restoring a palpability and multi-sensory experience to the act of listening to music that has been absent since the CD’s started tumbling into our lives.

Snibbe was unapologetically enthusiastic about the iPad and its potential, even singing the praises of what the closed system of Apple permits the creative designer (a position antithetical to what Bill Thompson had earlier outlined). It was good to have this voice enter the debate because while we must interrogate the technological means of smartphones productions and the software model that empowers software corporations at our expense one should not silence the voice of creatives who create profound expressions within that territory. Both positions need to be heard and these were the two poles on which debate around the post-digital revolved over the course of the day. To say that the digital is invisible would be disingenuous, to not reflect on the manners by which a nascent, if ubiquitous, culture (digital culture) is transmitted would not be a critical engagement with said culture. But simultaneously you have to recognise that the reason digital culture has exploded to the point where one can beg the question of ‘are we post-digital?’ is precisely because so many people use digital software as an expedient tool of expression. Both positions are valid; the latter works with how culture moves, and given that its moves so quickly sometimes it is necessary to move with the flow or risk culture passing you by. The former position is essential; humans are so quick to adapt to new scenarios and contexts, its what made us what we are. But we have to be careful that our quick habituation to circumstance doesn’t disempower us to how the technology and software moves us.

by Stephen Fortune

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