Week 2: Jarratt Private Post

At the outset of Charlie Gere’s Digital Culture he let’s us in on a secret, or at least it felt like a secret, which is that we don’t really know what digital means. It is pervasive throughout our lives, yet we don’t really understand it. We think it is synonymous with a technology that connotes electronic digital binary computers, but digital means data in a form of discrete elements. So this could be any system with discrete elements and not just one that is technological. Building our way to the current digital moment has been a continuous process, and Gere points out that the current digital culture does not represent a rupture with the past. It’s a product of what came before. This concept of digital and the history that reveals its origination was eye opening because I often wonder what I truly mean when I say digital.

Knowing that we don’t truly understand the full concept of what digital means, Gere takes many steps back to show us how we have arrived at a time and place were digital not only refers to the technology that we use, but also the culture that we live in. How did elements become discrete in a way that we can now describe the entirety of our culture as digital? It began with the division of labor. Production was separated out into the different pieces required to make something. The division of labor created discreteness. The workers’ roles became individually separated. Their work was then abstracted from the creation process. They didn’t see the whole process through. They only saw their part of the process.

Abstraction in many forms is the cornerstone to the development of digital culture. Abstracting things from the heterogeneous form made them replicable and interchangeable.  While Gere examines how this works with respect to the division of labor, he also talks about trade and offers the example of how paper money came to represent gold. Paper money could be easily transferred and replicated. As these new production processes developed there was a need to handle the information that arose out of the new systems. The systems that developed produced more and more information that demanded continued abstraction, codification, self-regulation, and programming. Whether it was vision, money, energy, communication, or people there was always a possibility of dividing something into discrete elements so that it could be formalized through systems of examination. This way the information could be easily transmitted, compared and, as Gere points out, controlled.

The ability for more widespread control is what Gere fears most about digital culture. He feels that the information age re-enchanted society to a fault. Society had trouble seeing the control and dominance in place and was charmed into complacency. He points out many systems that developed to assist the control. Information Theory is founded on the desire to control the flow of information. Cybernetics’ ultimate goal was the development of a self-regulating system. Structuralism separated out the structure of a group from the content of the group, so that the structure could be applied across cultures. Gere notes that a lot of these systems, and ultimately the computer, were developed in order to maintain a sense of control and mastery in an increasingly complex world. Even if they were just doing some really good storytelling, the use of information for domination and the effects of this control seem widespread. Many of the ideas and early technological developments were applied to warfare. Radio allowed messages to be sent without laying wires. The military was able to simulate a threat to the USSR so that it always kept them on the defensive. Corporations like IBM maintained dominance over smaller computer developers with their insistence on producing lots of lines of code. The office technologies divided up the jobs so that individuals became homogenized. There work performance was easily measured. Through this data it could be decided how they could be and should perform.

The control feels palpable today in the way that there is an inability to extricate ourselves from digital technology, and though the digital is not just technology that is what feels most pervasive. Yes, the division of labor still exists and there is the inability to live without relying on different people who have been separated into different categories of work, but there is the sense that one cannot move, produce, progress without an interaction with digital technology.

Gere tracks the many ways that society, with its production, trade, and ideas, became discrete, in order to show how we arrived at computer. There is a giddiness accompanying the development of the computer. From it’s first existence as a strictly computing machine to a machine that can do different tasks, many people worked together using the science that came before them. It’s an exciting and inventive process. While all eyes focus on the computer and its possibilities, the full effects of such a development can easily be obscured across culture. It seems hard to notice the way that certain systems become embedded. It feels impossible to see past the technological. How exactly has the digital maintained its dominance beyond the technological?

Up through chapter 2 of the book, the realms of academia, research, and the government have occupied digital culture. But outside these official channels always lurk those who take something that was created for one purpose and use it for another. So, how will the digital be transformed in the civilian realm?

We have solved the mystery of finding the private posts.  This is a coherent and useful summary of Gere’s chapters to date.  I appreciate that you summarize and list,  question and interpret, and leave with “future-based” inquiries.

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