The Digital Form


Editorial Intoduction

Digital technology has been celebrated in recent years for its capacity to foment political change - as evidenced by the role of social media networks in the “Arab Spring” - and spur development – as indicated by the popularity of ICT4D [Information and Communication Technologies For Development] projects throughout the world.  Such events offer potent sites for ethnographic examination, as they generate new social relationships, discussions, and types of information.  In such lines of ethnographic inquiry, technology is often explored for the social and political effects it produces, and the kinds of representations it engenders.

While not discounting the profound impact the content produced by digital technologies has on socio-cultural life, this curated collection turns its attention to a less studied aspect of the digital: its materiality, i.e., the objects through which digital technology is constituted. Thus, for our purposes here, we understand “form” to be the technical and infrastructural components of digitality.  This encompasses everything from source code to hardware, network protocols to software.  Such aspects of the digital often go unexamined, both because they are ‘invisible’ (or, to borrow geographer Nigel Thrift's term, ‘nonrepresentational’), and because understanding them requires a technical vocabulary foreign to many anthropologists.

By examining the processes and practices through which technology acquires meaning, all the articles in this collection draw attention to the ways in which culture is made in relation to - and through the production of - the digital form.  While “form” has been opposed to “content” in certain strains of philosophy and art theory, we hope to show that an anthropological investigation of digital technology renders this distinction untenable; indeed, the authors in this collection demonstrate how technology is not merely a vehicle for discourse, but can be considered discourse itself (see especially Kelty 2005 and Coleman 2009).  They illustrate how ethical and political regimes are embedded within the material “stuff” of technology as it is being produced, modified, distributed and exchanged, and how this new ethico-political terrain informs the ways we embody sociotechnical worlds.

The digital forms explored here cover wide geographic and cultural territory – from “geek” and hacker subcultures to Indonesian student protests and Taiwanese puppetry.  Additionally, the collection examines a range of activities, from the production and exchange of source code to the ways in which the remediation of currency and traditional performances shape economic and political futures in the face of hegemonic influences.

Some of the questions that frame this conversation on the digital form are: How do digital technology’s material components (e.g., hardware, software, source code, binary code, network protocols) and properties (e.g., mutability, interactivity, erasability) shape the contours of ethics, politics and sociality today?  What are the competing epistemologies and ideologies that undergird digital technology’s production, and how are subjectivities made and remade in relation to them?  All of the articles contained herein gesture towards answers to these questions, which lie at the heart of an investigation into the significance of the digital in our contemporary moment.

In “Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics,” for example, Kelty shows how “geeks” – people who devote their lives to writing, modifying, and exchanging source code, software, and networking protocols – organize and refer to themselves as a meaningful social group by engaging in both discursive and technical work.  Building upon the work of Michael Warner and Charles Taylor, Kelty defines geeks as a “recursive public,” in that their existence as a public depends upon having control over the technical and legal tools that enable them to assemble. In contrast to publics formed through analog technologies like print or radio, geeks are centrally concerned with the means of address, i.e., the technical and legal constitution of the Internet.  As such, their explicitly technical work – building, compiling, and patching source code, for example – carries with it a political dimension as potent as the discussions generated about this work.  It is through the immanent critique made possible through “argument-by-technology” and “argument-by-talk” that political and ethical regimes surrounding technology and the law, openness and freedom, and indeed, the meaning of the Internet itself, are made and contested.

Gabriella Coleman, in “Code Is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest Among Free and Open Source Software Developers," similarly charts how political and ethical questions lie at the heart of developers’ technical work.  Through an historicization of the Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) movement – first galvanized by the prosecution of Jon Johansen, a young hacker who produced DeCSS software used to decode DVD content-scrambling mechanisms – Coleman shows how hackers became invested in acquiring informal legal expertise in order to defend their collective autonomy.  In the process, they began to equate the use, modification and distribution of source code and software with speech itself, protected by the legal framework of the First Amendment.  As one hacker writes, “[A]ll mathematics is full of stories...and CSS is no exception to this rule.”  Coleman elucidates how hackers resuscitated a liberal vocabulary of freedom through “tinkering” with software and educating themselves on related legal protocols, and raises the question of how technical and legal expertise enters into conversation with democratic politics.

In “The Face of Money: Currency, Crisis, and Remediation in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” Karen Strassler examines the ways in which money was used as a form of protest during the uprisings in Indonesia.  Currency became a focal point for the protests largely because the fall of the Suharto regime was preceded by a fall in the value of the national currency.  Strassler shows how the material form of money was used by the state as a tool for propaganda: it depicted the achievements of the Suharto regime.  However, this very materiality was used against the regime through a process of remediation, where objects were transferred from one media form to another.  For example, Yuswantoro Adi – an artist/activist – created a large duplicate of the 50,000 rupiah bill with a hole in place of Suharto's head indicating that through this revolution “anyone could be president.”

Remediation is also the theme of Teri Silvio's “Remediation and Local Globalizations: How Taiwan's 'Digital Video Knights-Errant Puppetry' Writes the History of the New Media in Chinese.”  In this article, Silvio offers an account of the history of Budaixi puppetry and how it has been transformed by digital media to imagine a globalization of Chinese culture.  Budaixi puppetry has a long history in the traditional culture of Taiwan dating to the Ming dynasty.  During the 20th Century, Budaixi was integrated into new media forms such as television, and the stories depicted focused more on the knights-errant adventures in order to compete with other media from Japan and the West.  One of the most popular companies – the Pili International Media Company – became well known for its Budaixi mixed with digital effects and “a bricolage of elements from Chinese, Japanese, and U.S. Popular cultures.”  Through the process of remediation – a shift from traditional puppetry to a blend of digital and traditional  forms, Budaixi was transformed into a utopian vision of globalized Chinese culture - “imagining what a global digital technoculture might look like if it traced its roots to Chinese aesthetic and religious traditions and had as its telos the expansion of Taiwanese culture.”

Finally, in “Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology,” Michael Fischer explores the history and future of science and technology studies in anthropology.  He traces the history of the field through four “quasidistinctive genealogies” – the cultural skeins and epistemologies of the early sociology of science; the “programming object-oriented languages of SSK, SCOT, and ANT;” the anthropologically informed ethnographies of science and technology; and the emergent, cosmopolitical technoscientific worlds of the 21st century.  These four genealogies are attentive to both the content and form of science and technology, and provide complementary visions that “complicate and make more realistic the demand for attention to the reconstruction of public spheres, civil society, and politics in the technoscientific worlds we are constructing within and around ourselves.”  Together, they offer a sociology of science and technology that will help us to construct reflexive social institutions capable of addressing the “differential cultural sensibilities of affected and invested people in different social and cultural niches.”

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Collection Images