Sunday, 28 June 2009

Google Waves 'hello!' to the postdigital learner

"Where the digital proposes the perfect finite conditions for a perfect existence regardless of matter, (as for example in the human genome project), in the postdigital analogue (as for example in the ironies of genetic and wet biological art) human consciousness is regarded as almost infinitely malleable, able to shape its identity in response to local (and technological) conditions aware all the time of the range of possibilities (digital and analogue) that are not developed." (Punt, 2001)

Excuse me whilst I go off on some uncertain tangents. There is a high probability that I am about to talk poppycock, but as Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time downloading chunks of DNA from the National Center for Biotechnology Information's Genebank, and wrote some code to visualise them. My basic idea was to read the As, Gs, Ts and Cs, and move a pixel either up, down, left or right, tracing a line. Different DNA chunks drew different squiggles. They looked like they made some sort of sense, which of course they did, and I got particularly obsessed with comparing mitochondria sequences from different organisms. You can see some of this stuff on my old site:

Along with every other living organism that has ever existed, we are digital to our very core. We are code. Our existence is encoded in a very long sequence of As, Ts, Cs and Gs. We are Data, Not Animals. But, of course, we are animals, not data. We are fuzzy and vague and interesting. We are wet and unimaginably complex. We are a whole, conscious being that exists over time. We are not digital. We are postdigital.

Not really sure where that one is going, but it might give me an excuse to do some more DNA art. Lets move onto some different poppycock.

The original article that the opening quote is taken from also mentions Gene Youngblood, who reminded us 25 years ago that, "the computer translates the continuous phenomena of the world into discrete units." The inescapable reduction of the homogenous whole into separate pieces, through the process of digitisation, might provide a useful metaphor for education. One of the things that struck a chord with me when I watched Liz Coleman's talk last week was her criticism of the fragmentation of education. I have rallied against the tyranny of the module as the dominant unit of learning ever since it was imposed on us. This quantising of education, splitting learning into smaller and smaller units, serves the inspectors, the financiers and the timetable police very well. It does not serve the whole learner – a complex human being – very well at all. The reason I dislike (and refuse to use) VLEs is primarily because they reinforce and often impose this modular approach. Perhaps it is this sort of 'digitisation' of education that postdigitalism might react against. To re-appropriate the words of Peter Weibel as detailed in Punt's article, education should follow the analogical principles of 'similarity, congruency and continuity', and reject the 'discontinuous, non homogenous elements' as characterised by the digital, and played out in the modular system. The 3 year long, holistic view of learning as promoted by Professor Graham Gibbs and others aligns with this newly invented version of postdigitalism. Taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, the postdigital learner is the lifelong learner, the informal and formal learner, the whole human learner. Not a learner who has been captured, cut, and pasted into easily measurable and inspectable chunks, but an integrated learner, inseparable from the world that they are connected to. In this parallel postdigital universe, I'm allowed to get excited about Google Wave, as it may potentially provide an excellent way to support the postdigital learner.

I think I'm rambling a bit now. I'll stop.

Punt, M. (2001) Human Consciousness and the Postdigital Analogue. Leonardo 35 (2), 2002. pp119-120

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The blinded leading the blind

I've been pondering over the 'non-digital' to 'digital' to 'postdigital' cycle, and wondering where the creative potential is. I can see how this cycle can provide us with a useful way of analysing and making sense of things, and I'm sure that it will prove to be a very useful tool in the hands of capable researchers. But I want to make things. I want to do things. I want to create something useful. I want to make new art and design. I want to craft something that helps my students to learn.

I can see quite clearly the possibilities in the 'non-digital' to 'digital' bit of the cycle. It's very exciting being able to do things that you couldn't previously do because of a new digital invention. The transition between the 'non-digital' and the 'digital' is loaded with creative potential. I can see new opportunities for art and design, and for learning, when the technolust kicks in. I am guided by the guts of art and education to keep me from being completely blinded by the technolust, but new technology amplifies my ambitions and accelerates my output. But where is the potential when we come out the other side? When digital loses meaning and becomes restrictive, what can be tapped in the transition to the postdigital?

Recognising that something has gone, is going, or needs to go 'postdigital' might act as an alarm. Perhaps the creative potential disappears at this stage of the cycle, and we need to look for some newly digitalised thing to manipulate. Perhaps the postdigital alarm bell rings when we are flogging a dead horse. Time to move on. What's the next Twitter?

Maybe I'm being defeatist. One of the first things that I pondered over when the term was proposed was 'What might postdigital art be?". The term comes from the arts, but the original 'postdigital' only partly aligns with the spirit of the 52group document. In relation to music, and in particular, Kim Cascone's work, it seems to refer mainly to glitch - the deliberate embracing of digital 'mistakes' (I may well be wrong on this – I need to re-read that stuff). But if 52group postdigitalism is about the natural or forced transparency of the digital, where is the potential in that? Is it in the transition? It it in the forcing? Could an artist identify something that is stupidly digital and force it, kicking and screaming, into the postdigital? The artist as provocateur, winding things up. Smashing things down. Sounds very anti-digital to me, and I don't enjoy upsetting people, so I think this way of thinking is a dead end.

If it's not about art, could it be about design? In an earlier blog post, I quoted an essay by Beatrice Ward that explored the importance of transparency in typography. If you're busy noticing the letter-forms instead of being enthralled by the author's wit, then the typesetting is probably bad. You don't notice good typography, it is transparent. Likewise, if you notice an edit when you are watching a film, it's probably a bad edit. Transparent editing – editing you don't notice – is almost always desirable. Design might have a role to play in helping to make the digital disappear when a need for it to do so has been identified. Designers have no fear of their efforts not getting noticed. They might help tease the digital away from the thing that has been enabled by it, and bring some clarity. Perhaps we are talking about re-design – the equivalent taking a page set in 18 point Comic Sans and resetting it so that it no longer makes your eyes bleed. We could look at something that is overtly digital, and 'redesign' it to emphasise the essence of that thing. By deliberately neutralising the overbearing influence of the digital, we might see more clearly what is important, and unlock hidden opportunities.

Russell Davies describes a project by Schulze & Webb & Jones Crew (Point three in the post) as postdigital. Here, he is talking about a project that has moved beyond 'digital infatuation and analogue nostalgia'. I must admit that I'm attracted to this flavour of postdigitalism. This might be where the potential is, and it seems to align with 52group thinking to some extent. So, the postdigital in relation to design, advertising and art could be about making appropriate use of a combination of digital and non-digital processes. Oh, hang on, that sounds very much like normal practice round my neck of the woods. As I detailed in an earlier post, I feel like we have already moved to the postdigital on the course that I teach on. However, we do still spend a lot of time gently steering students away from digital infatuation and analogue nostalgia in their own best interests. We are effectively steering them towards this version of the postdigital. Maybe I will start saying to techno-blinded and techo-blind students, "Let's consider your work in a postdigital context."

Much more thinking required. I'll pin it down eventually.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

After digital?

Does the term 'postdigital' best represent the spirit of the 52group's draft paper? In its 'ism' form, it most likely means everything that came after digitalism. Alternatively, it could mean a reaction against digitalism. As there isn't really a thing called digitalism to react against, or follow on from, postdigitalism could be seen as a reaction against nothing. However, the term 'digital' is well established, and its use is widespread. 'Digital', 'electronic' and 'e', are used as a prefixes to distinguish something from the preceding, non digital item (digital watch, digital calculator, digital radio, e-commerce, email). When the distinction no longer needs to be made, because the digital version of the item is the norm, then we have moved beyond digital as a useful description. In this way, a calculator is postdigital - the time to call it a digital or electronic calculator has passed - the calculator is 'after-digital'.

What about an interpretation of the term as reactionary? If we feel that the use of the term 'digital' or 'e' is no longer appropriate or limiting, then we can react against its use. When the use of electronic devices is so widespread in learning that it goes without saying, we might react against the term e-learning. The 'e' will have served a useful purpose in promoting the differences from previous modes of learning, but it may have become restrictive in its scope, excluding or devaluing non-digital aspects of learning.

The use of the 'e' or 'digital' prefix is not wrong. It is a necessary and useful way of redefining a previously non-digital item. I should imagine that there are a whole load of things that have not yet 'gone digital', but will need to be labelled as such when they do. When the time comes for e-glasses, digital pants and electronic flat-caps, then it would be handy to emphasise that these items are now different from their analogue counterparts. But when most pants are digital, the term will become quite unnecessary.

It may (technically) be a mistake to add the 'ist' and the 'ism' onto the end of postdigital, but I quite like the fact that isms provoke strong feelings and extreme cynicism, so I think I will keep using these terms. It might draw a few more people into this debate, which will make it more fun.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A postdigital peacetime era

"Modern art exists because of our technology. Whether built from existing inventions, or from brand new technologies such as computers, many modern works of art rely upon technology as a medium. Technology's role in artistic media ranges from disciplines such as architecture to areas where technology is the complete basis for the medium, in fields such as photography and holography. Generally, whenever a new technological medium is introduced, many members of the art community embrace the technology as the best and brightest form possible. Others automatically reject the use of technology, assuming that it will be detrimental to their particular art form. While to a limited extent these statements are both true, most new technologies simply create other viable mediums. Photography did not replace painting, just as holograms and stereoscopic computer images have not replaced sculpture. While not all artwork may contain direct elements of recent technology, almost all has benefited from increases in technology"

(Benthall, 1972).

One of the reasons that I am harping on about postdigitalism is that it embodies something that I have felt for a long time, but could never quite articulate.

When I started my design education in 1986, our college had just taken delivery of a roomful of tiny, cute Apple Macs. At that time, the graphic design industry was still entrenched in a whole range of traditional printing technologies, and over the course of my subsequent studies and early career, I lived through a digital revolution. This often felt like a war between anti and pro digital camps. I was often enlisted to fight for the pro digital cause, but as I learned more about design, I felt increasingly uneasy with this role. Whilst it seemed bleeding obvious to me that it was a waste of time learning copy-fitting when we would never use this dying aspect of typesetting in our future professional lives, I objected equally strongly to the rejection by the digital camp of all that had gone before. I began to fight for both sides, and when I got my first job setting up and looking after a Mac suite on a Graphic Design course, I fought not just for the new technology, but for the old. The authority that my techno-geek status gave me, allowed me to argue for the importance of screen-printing and metal-type. Around this time, many design colleges were chucking their old fashioned kit in the skip, but I knew that this was a grave mistake. Most often, I would talk about how photography did not replace painting, as many had claimed at the time, but that it did change painting. I would argue that the digital should not replace the traditional, but we could free the old processes from the 'proper' ways of using them now that they no longer served the same purpose. As well as extending the canvas by providing new ways of doing and being, the postdigital also extends the canvas by lifting the restrictions on previous practice. In the context of graphic design, digital typesetting means that I don't have to follow the 'rules' of metal typesetting any more, and freed from the fun-killing tedium of 'casting-off' and such like, I can exploit the rich potential of the old. So, postdigitalism both extends and changes the canvas of creative potential.

On the graphic design course that I now lead, at least, the war is over. We no longer fight about the digital in relation to graphic design technology. We live in a postdigital peacetime era. However, the war between the digital fetishists and the digital refuseniks is still raging on the battleground of education. I oppose the war. Please don't shoot me.

Benthall, Jonathan. Science and Technology in Art Today. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

Saturday, 20 June 2009


"There are a lot of people around now who have thoroughly integrated 'digitalness' into their lives. To the extent that it makes as much sense to define them as digital as it does to define them as air-breathing. ie it's true but not useful or interesting."
Russell Davies, Meet the new schtick

The 52group are not the pioneers of postdigitalism. The current Wikipedia entry points to an early adoption of the term in the field of digital art. There are others that have co-opted the term with good effect. Russell Davies is a really interesting man who, amongst other things, writes for Wired and Campaign. He wrote a post outlining his take on postdigitalism back in January 2009.

There are three key elements that make up his version of the postdigital. The first questions the supremacy of screens - or 'visual display units' as they used to be called in the digital age - and argues for physical displays units (like paper). The second point, which is quoted at the start of this post, pretty much sums up the 52group's position. The third point is interesting because, by the 52group definition, it is a form of digitalism. It talks about embracing the shiny new ways of the digital, and using the essence of these new ways of being, to build physical things. Davies points to an ink printed on paper thing called 'Things our friends have written on the Internet 2008'. In the context of 52group postdigitalism, dwelling on the digital - even to de-digitalise it, or liberated it from the constraints of binary - is a form of techno-lust. It is digital fetishism, even if it is played out in meat-space.

52group postdigitalism it may not be, but the irony of non-digital techno-worship sounds like fun. Remind me to come back to this when I talk about how I've already lived through one transition to postdigitalism in my next post.

Friday, 19 June 2009


"Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain."
The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible by Beatrice Warde (1900 -- 1969)

The 'postdigital' is not a new term or concept, but it is a term and a concept that has been forcibly re-appropriated by the 52group, in a draft paper that seeks to refocus our attention, particularly in relation to education. The basic premise is that 'digital' is becoming increasingly meaningless, as technology becomes crystal-clear, thin as a bubble, and transparent. Being fooled into mistaking the 'digital' for a thing in itself, rather than seeing it purely as an enabler (and just one alongside many other non-digital enablers), is a mistake that I make all the time. I have been more guilty than most of gaining more pleasure from the exquisitely patterned golden goblet than from the wine.

However, absorbing and accepting postdigitalism has brought clarity to my thinking, and I have already found myself responding to everyday work related issues from a postdigitalist viewpoint. I have spontaneously and effortlessly argued that 'it's not really about the technology', whereas in the past I might have happily argued that is was. That's not to say that I have suddenly become anti-digital. Far from it. It's just that anti or pro digital is not the issue. 'The canvas of the digital' provides me with an ever changing medium from which I can tap creative potential, but the canvas itself is not the art. More importantly, this digital canvas is not the only one in my studio. From a postdigitalist perspective, to dwell on the canvas misses the point. It is about the idea, the intention, the expression, the interpretation. It is about the conversations and the arguments. It is about the spirit of the artist and the success of the artwork. The skill with which the artist manipulates the paint on the canvas is crucial and should not be undervalued or rejected, just as we should not undervalue or reject the digital, but the art is not created by the canvas or the paint. It is created by the artist.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Urge

There's something in the air. I can feel the urge returning. The creative hunger is making my belly rumble. I know there is a really big thing that, at the moment, I can only call a micro-reflection-conversation-engagement engine. I'm sure there's something even bigger hidden somewhere here in the murk. Where's my torch?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Curvy knowledge. Curved like a saddle. Like the shape of the Universe. And it smells of pie.

Forgive me blogosphere, for I have been a-tweeting at my blog's expense. That, and the fact the Open Habitat has finished, I've have 300 students bothering me, I've been planning the move to our new art school building and I've got a bit bored of virtual worlds.

However, my shackles have been shaken by a blog post that I have just read by Dave Cormier about open educational resources, which introduces the term 'curvy knowledge'. Dave's had quite a bit of flack about this term, but I like it, mainly because it sounds friendly and fun. Not like serious old flat knowledge, all precise and logical. Curvy knowledge (I'm largely imagining) is less certain, and has the convenience of not being right or wrong. It's the sort of knowledge that my colleagues and students generate and mediate on our arts courses. Maybe the flat of objectivity is curved by subjectivity. Curved like a saddle, I think. Like the shape of the Universe. Traversing curvy knowledge sometimes means sliding down a slippery slope, sometime climbing up a slippery incline. Sometimes it's grabbing flat knowledge and curving up to make someone else slide down to somewhere they weren't indenting to go, or making them climb up a previously straightforward route. I like curvy knowledge. It smells like a nice pie.