Here we have well done thought provoking academic exploration of digital media, for those who, like myself, actually are interested in figuring what all this “really” means. Who has time for such nonsense!
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The Work of Theory in the Age of Digital Transformation
by Henry Jenkins
Don’t you wish that somebody, in 1895, 1897 or at least in 1903, realized the fundamental significance of the cinema’s emergence and produced a comprehensive record of a new medium’s emergence? Interviews with the audiences; a systematic account of the narrative strategies, scenography and camera positions as they developed year by year; an analysis of the connections between the emerging language of cinema and different forms of popular entertainment which co-existed with it, would have been invaluable…In contrast to a hundred years ago, when cinema was coming into being, we are fully aware of the significance of this new media revolution. And yet I am afraid that future theorists and historians of computer media will be left with not much more than the equivalents of newspaper reviews and random bits of evidence similar to cinema’s first decade…They will find that analytical texts from our era are fully aware of the significance of the computer’s takeover of culture yet, by and large, they mostly contain speculations about the future rather than a record and a theory of the present. — Lev Manovich (1998)
In his essay, “Cinema as A Cultural Interface,” Lev Manovich laments the failure of contemporary media scholars to record “the moment when the icons and the buttons of multimedia interfaces were like a wet paint on a just completed painting, before they became a universal convention and slipped into invisibility.” Historians of early cinema can return to the prints of early films preserved in archival collections around the world to trace the process of stylistic experimentation and discovery. Many significant early films no longer exist—but enough exist to make the reconsideration of early films a central focus of cinema studies today. A historian of the web, even one writing today, would face much greater difficulties. The early Web sites, made less than a decade ago, no longer exist, swamped by rapid growth, quickly scuttled and replaced, leaving no archival records. Writing the history of digital media will be much more like writing the history of a transitory medium, like early radio or vaudeville, than like documenting the evolution of a textual medium, like the printing press or the cinema. Rapid technological transformation may prevent future generations from accessing and reading many surviving texts and artifacts (computer games, software, hypertext narratives). We can still project old films, but they won’t have the operating systems to play old video games, which are more like the wax phonograph cylinders than like books or films. Media scholars are obligated to record our observations, to document technological and aesthetic change, and to preserve evidence of new media’s impact.
Manovich also correctly captures—and to some degree, manifests—the temporal flux characteristic of contemporary digital theory—looking to the past (for antecedents) and to the future (for the fulfillment of utopian promises) but rarely at the present (for crude prototypes for what is to come). Yet, Manovich’s discussion, which distinguishes between “newspaper reports, diaries of cinema’s inventors, programs of film programs and other bits and pieces” on the one hand and academic theory on the other, preserves distinctions which are breaking down as the function and status of theory responds to the digital revolution. From a contemporary perspective, one wonders why Moving Picture World’s Epes Winthrope Sargent who articulated the core principles of the emerging classical Hollywood cinema isn’t as much an early film theorists as Sergei Eisenstein who used theory to explain his own film-making practices. Many digital theorists have more in common with Sargent or Eisenstein than with Foucault or Derrida.
If academic writers cast their eyes on the future, journalists (Howard Rhinegold, 1993; Jon Katz, 1997; Julian Dibble, 1994; Stewart Brand, 1988; J.C. Herz, 1996) and media activists (Stacy Horn, 1998; Esther Dyson, 1998; Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, 1996) have provided accounts of the early days of the net, the evolution of the video game, women’s hostile reception on-line, or MUD debates about democracy and virtual communities. Thomas McLaughlin (1996) has offered the term, “vernacular theory,” to refer to theorizing outside the academy, offering compelling case studies of the different modes of theory formation among school teachers, advertising executives, fans, media activists or new age visionaries and vernacular theory abounds in the digital realm. We are often told that the net is “world without gatekeepers,” which opens public debates beyond the confines of elite universities. Amy Bruckman (1996) describes this new participatory culture: “Cyberspace is not Disneyland. It’s not a polished, perfect place built by professional designers for the public to obediently wait on line to passively experience it. It’s more like a finger-painting party. Everyone is making things, there’s paint everywhere, and most work only a parent would love.” Do-it-yourself theory-making is sloppy business which doesn’t accept academic theory’s rules or standards.
What counts as theory and what theory does are questions that rarely get asked in summary essays like this one. Theory will be understood here as any attempt to make meaningful generalizations for interpreting or evaluating local experiences and practices. When we make claims about what E-mail is, what it does, how it changes how we relate to people, its potentials for reshaping traditional practices and institutions, or how it differs from letter writing or phone calls, we are theorizing digital media. Academic and vernacular theory carry different degrees of prestige, speak different languages, ask different questions, and address different audiences, though the line between them is rapidly breaking down. For example, when someone like Nicholas Negroponte, the head of MIT’s Media Lab, writes a regular column in Wired, does he write as an academic or a vernacular theorist? Is his status fundamentally different from the provocative political journalist, John Heilman, who has also published in Wired but has no university affiliation? Even some of early works of digital theory, such as Vannevar Bush’s influential “As We May Think,” first published in Atlantic Monthly in 1945, appeared not in scholarly journals but in mass market magazines. Allucquere Rosanne Stone (1996) has used the term, “code switching,” to refer to her shifts in tone, language, and address as she goes from chat groups to academic conferences, from corporate trade shows to avant garde arts exhibitions. Marshall McLuhan’s “the global village,” surfaces as the name of a corporate knowledge-management program, alongside quotations from Understanding Media (1994). Theory has become central to how businesses operate, how politicians plan their campaigns, and how consumers make choices.
What counts as digital media may also be up for grabs. Digital theory may address anything from the role of CGI special effects in Hollywood blockbusters to new systems of communication (the net), new genres of entertainment (the computer game), new styles of music (techno) or new systems of representation (digital photography or virtual reality). All of these different things reflect a shift from the computer as a tool, primarily understood in terms of information storage and numerical calculation, to the computer as a medium of communication, education, and entertainment. Each attracts their own cadre of theorists asking different questions. E-mail poses questions about virtual community; digital photography about the authenticity and reliability of visual documentation; virtual reality about embodiment and its epistemological functions; hypertext about readership and authorial authority; computer games about spatial narrative; MUDs about identity formation; webcams about voyeurism and exhibitionism; and so forth. The multiplicity of digital media makes writing a totalizing account a logical impossibility. The same might be true of a theory of print culture or of the cinema. However, theorists working on those earlier media privilege one form or function over others. Literature becomes the study of novels, short stories, and philosophical essays, not, at least until recently, of manners books, instructional manuals, travel narratives, or reference works. Cinema studies focuses primarily on commercial feature film production and not home movies, instructional films, corporate promotional videos, or exercise tapes. Cyberspace is not one place or one thing. Digital theory struggles with its multiplicity, hybridity and fluidity.
In a period of prolonged change, digital theory is more than an academic exercise. Digital media impacts all aspects of western society, from education to politics, from business to the arts. Journalists, science fiction writers, ideologues, entrepreneurs, activists, classroom teachers, rock stars, Supreme Court judges, government regulators are both consumers and producers of digital theory. For many, theorizing restores predictability and stability to a world rocked by radical change, while for others, theory fuels change, directing the energies unleashed by the digital revolution towards altering the nature of political life or personal identity. Our fantasies and fears about change shape our theories (including supposedly disinterested academic theories) as much as our theories help master those fears and fulfill those fantasies. Theories often reflect our points of entry into digital culture, the difference between a generation who initially encountered digital media as technologies of the workplace (word processing) and those for whom digital media are technologies of recreation (computer games) or personal communication (chat rooms). For one group, digital media will be likely understood as technologies counterposed to the fleshy and spiritual aspects of human life. For the other, digital media are understood in terms of the social relations they facilitate and thus integral to how we live within families, make love, express intimate thoughts, and have fun in the late twentieth century.
Because digital media is changing rapidly, the state of digital theory is also evolving at a dramatic pace. One book editor who had sought to analyze and evaluate the CD-ROM disc as a new medium discovered that CD-ROM was surpassed by DVD in the time it took him to get his contract, solicit and edit contributions, and get the book published and into the stores (Smith, 1999). An important study on the impact of race on access to the Internet (Hoffman, 1998) was deemed out of date upon publication, well before we could process and respond to its challenges for cyber-democracy. For those reasons, this chapter can, at best, represent a day in the life of digital theory, not an exhaustive map of an established field.
Bridging the Two Cultures: The Artist and the Engineer
This book is an extended as an attempt to think about the object-world of technology as though it belonged to the world of culture, or as though these two worlds were united. For the truth is, they have been united all along. Was the original cave painter an artist or an engineer? She was both, of course, like most artists and engineers since. But we have a habit—long cultivated—of imagining them as separate, the two great tributaries rolling steadily to the sea of modernity, and dividing everyone in their path into two camps: those that dwell on the shores of technology and those that dwell on the shores of culture [p. 1] — Steven Johnson (1997)
In the early 1990s, a group of graduate students and junior faculty members met regularly in the basement of the MIT Media Lab to read and discuss cultural theory. Reflecting their interests in the intersection between narrative/reader-response theory and artificial intelligence, they called themselves the “Narrative/Intelligence Reading Group.” Some of what the group read was predictable—the hypertext theories of Ted Nelson (1981), Roger Schank (1995) on storytelling machines, Donna Harroway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) Other selections were more idiosyncratic—Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Descriptions” (1977) Andre Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema” (1971) or The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. (Spence, 1994) Occasionally, a visitor to the Media Lab, such as Samuel R. Delaney, joined the ongoing dialogue, yet the group never received official recognition or funds from the Media Lab and the students got no academic credit. As group members graduated, they continued to follow the Narrative/Intelligence electronic mailing and in some cases, conducted their own sessions with local research groups. As a founding member, I was often struck by how fluidly discussions moved from abstract principles to designing filtering systems, holograms, virtual reality programs, or interactive cinema projects. They looked upon theory not simply as a vocabulary for studying things but as a tool for making things. Their Media Lab projects were always grounded in theories, sometimes simple-minded, sometimes sophisticated. Project directors make assumptions not only about programming language or delivery systems but also about the nature of the society or the kinds of users their innovations would foster. For example, intelligent agents, digital entities which seek recommendations from like-minded users on the web, depend upon the assumption that taste is systematic. If we share one set of preferences with someone else, we likely make other common judgments. These assumptions come very close to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, the field of cultural choices (1987). And when some group members working on agents first looked at Bourdieu’s cryptic maps and charts, they immediately saw them as interfaces to be operationalized, tested and refined.
These conversations were not fundamentally different from those at universities and corporations around the world. The early International Conferences on Cyberspace have been often described in language approaching “alien encounters,” as humanists and technologists saw each other as beings from other worlds, speaking unfamiliar languages, and asking out-in-orbit questions. Consider the titles of two representative essays from Michael Benedikt’s Cyberspace: First Steps, (1994) “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace” (Heim, 1994) and “Collaborative Engines for Multi-participant Cyberspaces” (Tollander, 1994). More recent gatherings, such as Harvard’s Internet and Society conferences, find academic theorists, entrepreneurs, and computer scientists addressing a divergent yet shared body of concerns. Through such conversations, we are starting to find ways beyond the division which C. P. Snow (1993) described between the “two cultures,” the utilitarian realm of science and engineering and the expressive realm of the humanities and the arts.
This new fusion of the humanities and engineering reflects the shifting nature of the technologies themselves, what Bruce Sterling (1988) describes as the change from the “steam-snorting wonders” and massive dam projects of the early 20th century to “technologies that stick to the skin,” and become intimate parts of everyday life. As Michael Menser and Stanley Aronowitz (1996) argue, “The technological is not so easily distinguished from the ‘human,’ since it is within (medical technologies, processed foods), beside (telephones) and outside (satellites). Sometimes we inhabit it (the climate-controlled office space), or it inhabits us (a pacemaker). Sometimes it seems to be an appendage or prosthetic (a pair of eyeglasses); at other times, human being appear to serve as the appendages (as in an assembly line).” [p. 9] Sherry Turkle documents the diverse ways that people are interacting with and conceptualizing computers, mapping subcultural responses (hackers, gamers), naive encounters (children) and gendered computing styles through sociological observation and psychological analysis. Her movement from The Second Self (Turkle, 1984) to Life on Screen (Turkle, 1997) maps the shift from personal computers to a world-wide network. The computer, she argues, is a “second self,” an extension of our perceptions of our own identity, a vehicle for rethinking our relations with the world, and a metaphor for thinking about human intelligence.
Cultural critics often act as if their importance lay in dethroning the scientific community’s entrenched power. Yet, the best digital theory emerges when the lines between the scientist/engineer and humanist/artist are less clearly demarked, when engineers integrate cultural theory into their design principles, when humanists learn how to program, and when digital artists theorize their own creative processes. Much important work on interactive fiction, for example, has come from people like Stuart Moulthrope (1992), Michael Joyce (1996), and Shelley Jackson (1997) who are also key hypertext authors. Eastgate Systems (http://www.eastgate.com/) not only markets such pioneering works but also shapes their reception context, distributing theoretical and critical works, hosting conferences and seminars, publishing bibliographies. Marsha Kinder (1998) has translated her ideas about the needs to “deconstruct” race, sex, and gender into a computer game, Runaways. Digital composer Tod Makover has created and performed a musical work, Brain Opera, (http://brainop.media.mit.edu) based on Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind (1988). Brenda Laurel (1990, 1991, 1997) works in Silicon Valley not only theorizing the gendering of computer technology but creating new games for girls which put her ideas into practice. Digital theory often comes from humanists at technical institutes. Its theorists list themselves as CEOs of start-up companies.
Such projects necessarily challenge the “critical distance” which has dominated much recent academic theory, though this ideal of “distance” has already undergone serious questions across many different disciplines. Nothing would be served either within the academy or in the business sector from theorists’ refusal to engage in designing digital technologies and critiquing practical developments. Often, such conversations reveal strange and unexpected common interests, as in the discussions surrounding the development of “girls games” where feminist academics interested in insuring girls early access to the technology and female entrepreneurs interested in broadening the software market found they might work together (Cassell and Jenkins, 1998). The current state of the technology reflected the unexamined goals of male game designers who developed product that reflected their own tastes and interests and as a result, game systems facilitated faster reaction time necessary for fighting games but did not enable the memory and processing necessary to establish more complex character relationships. Both groups wanted to rethink what a computer game might look like and what kinds of pleasures it might address and they drew on similar intellectual perspectives to address those shared questions. The female game executives were themselves versed in feminist theory, often had liberal arts backgrounds and did quantitative and qualitative research mapping girls’ preferences and playing styles. Academic feminists, who sought more precise understandings of the gendering of game genres, sometimes found themselves consulting with the games companies.
One of my contributions to the discussions of the “Narrative/Intelligence” group was the introduction of David Bordwell’s work on the institutional and cultural contexts of early Soviet film theory which closely parallels to the activities of our contemporary Humanities Computing centers (1994). Early Soviet filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, had professional training in engineering, architecture, and graphic design. They were recruited into film-making in response in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, seeking a fusion of arts and engineering at a time when technologization was seen as key in transforming Russia from a feudal state into a worker’s utopia. They framed their theories in a language derived from those more technical backgrounds, with Vertov celebrating the “man with the movie camera” as part artist and part engineer, with Kuleshov speaking of his early works as “experiments,” with Eisenstein writing about montage editing in terms from Pavlovian reflexology. Their essays were written to justify their work to the Bolshevik Party leaders (a form of grant proposal writing) or to explain to each other the lessons they had learned from specific projects (a form of lab reporting). Any theoretical understanding was immediately converted into practical applications. Many digital theorists work in this same techno tradition, merging theory and practice.
This fusion between theory and practice shapes not only the content of media theory but also the forms theory takes and the contexts within which it circulates. Digital theorists, such as William Mitchell (1996) and Seymour Papert (1996), have translated their books into interactive Web sites which allow readers to follow links relevant to their discussions and which support additional annotation, linkage, and electronic discussion from their readers. Digital ethnographer Ricki Goldman-Segall’s Web site (1998) enables users to directly access video footage from her fieldwork and to form their own conclusions and interpretations. The most important developments in digital theory often are first introduced on-line and only belatedly put in print. Stuart Moulthroup’s Technocultures mailing list, for example, has facilitated an on-going international conversation about core issues in the theory of hypertext and interactive cinema, substantially influencing its participants’ theoretical writings. Phil Agre’s The Network Observer, a monthly electronic newsletter, is a vehicle for computer professionals to debate the social and political implications of their work. Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project (http://griffin.multimedia.edu/~deadmedia) focuses on media inventions which failed or died out so that we gain a more skeptical attitude towards computer entrepreneurs’ sweeping claims. A special issue of Postmodern Culture edited by Robert Kolker, focused on the potential application of digital media for traditional film studies and allowed for contributors to develop a range of different models for writing cyber-essays on subjects as diverse as Prospero’s Books, Dziga Vertov, Casablanca, Singing in the Rain and The Killing. Some essays linked in clips; others digitally map narrative space or even produce fly-by Quicktime diagrams. Often, digital media enables theorists to enlarge their potential audience, as in the case of Berkeley’s Bad Subjects, whose monthly webzine of cultural criticism and political theory attracts 20,000 connections a week. The Birmingham tradition of Cultural Studies originated in a context of open universities, which shaped not only its focus on the practices of everyday life, but also the tone and style of its early writing. Similarly, Bad Subjects’ attempts to broaden the dialogue of cultural studies to a larger public is generating a more accessible, pragmatic, and forward-looking version of cultural theory. In general, the need to create theory one can use, the merger of humanities and engineering approaches is producing a different style of scholarship than the more abstract theories which have dominated media studies in recent decades.
Inventing the Future: Digital Theory and the Utopian Imagination
“If we don’t invent the future, AT&T will.” — David Rodowick (1994)
In “The Theory of the Virtual Class,” Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein (1994) speak of “the growth of cyber-authoritarianism” which excludes from the debates about digital media all voices which are not “stridently pro-technotopia,” bestowing an air of “inevitability” on the digital revolution. At the heart of this vision of a “wired shut” culture is their conception of the “virtual class,” which theorizes, develops and regulates cyberspace according to its own “radically diminished vision of human experience.” Displaying the radical pessimism which has characterized critical theory since Adorno, “virtual life” gives Kroker and Weinstein a new way to speak about “false consciousness.” Their depiction of the “virtual class” borders on conspiracy theory, seeing the digerati as totally calculating, totally coherent, totally in control.
A fundamental technophobia runs through not only traditional humanism but the theories and critical practices of the old left. Technology is understood as inhuman or anti-human, as destroying more organic pre-technological cultures. Technology is viewed as the instrumentation of surveillance, power and social control, rather than as a tool kit for social and political transformation. These writers fit digital media into a long-standing Left “alienation” from “the machine,” critiquing the Internet’s original support from the military as displacing the old “military industrial complex” with the new “military-entertainment complex.” (Herz, 1997) Herbert Schiller (1994) writes: “What the evidence here demonstrates is the strong, if not determining, influence of the social purpose that initially fostered the development of new technologies. The social uses to which this technology is put, more times than not, follow their originating purposes. When military or commercial advantage are the motivating forces, it is to be expected that the laboratories will produce findings conducive to these objectives.”
Despite some of its limitations, critical pessimism serves important functions. It questions the more fanciful and zealous claims made for digital media (such as John Perry Barlow’s proclamation that the nations of the world have no sovereignty over the citizens of cyberspace (1996)). They ask whether our hopes for democracy, social justice, political transformation, and free expression are getting co-opted into the sales pitch for new software and hardware. In practice, Robert Adrian (1995) argues, “Increased bandwidth allows telephone space to be appropriated for commercial propaganda; occupied by infotainment commodities; turned into a shopping mall.” We need to be vitally concerned with who controls our technological and economic base, recognizing that a map of those individuals who are empowered to participate in cyber-democracy and a map of those countries who consume the bulk of the world’s resources would look remarkably similar. As in earlier industrial or technological revolutions, computers may displace workers from their jobs or bring employees under tighter supervision and control by their bosses. While we are busy celebrating a participatory medium without gatekeepers, most other sectors of the entertainment and information industries have increasingly fallen into the hands of a smaller and smaller number of media conglomerates. Critical pessimism stresses the dangers of information overload; too much information can be as dis-empowering as too little.
As Lev Manovich (1996) has noted, there is something distinctly American about the dominant currents of digital theory:
For the West, interactivity is a perfect vehicle for the ideas of democracy and equality. For the East, it is another form of manipulation, in which the artist uses advanced technology to impose his/her totalitarian will on the people….A western artist sees the Internet as a perfect tool to break down all hierarchies and bring the art to the people…In contrast, as a post-communist subject, I cannot but see the Internet as a communal apartment of Stalin era: no privacy, everybody spies on everybody else, always present line for common areas such as the toilet or the kitchen.
The dominant language in cyberspace remains English; the dominant ideology a characteristically American mixture of rugged individualism and civic libertarianism. Not surprisingly, many foreign governments have built firewalls blocking their citizens from net access, much as they jam the Radio Free Europe signals coming over their borders. As some social critics note, the digital revolution may simply be another phase in the process of American cultural imperialism, though others suggest it is a more complex version, since it does allow some channels for messages to be shipped back to the United States and impact its development (Stratton, 1997).
However, the old paradigms of critical pessimism ultimately lead to political paralysis and fatalism, another way of seeing technological expansion as inevitable and irreversible. Critical pessimism offers us few models of viable change, focusing only on the strength of entrenched power and the failure of all strategies of resistance. At its most reductive, critical pessimism scapegoats the media for all the faults of the current social order rather than recognizing that digital media might offer new technical potentials for responding to the fragmentation of contemporary social life or the domestic isolation of our children, housewives, and the elderly. Digital theory matters politically because of its ability to envision alternatives, to imagine a better future. Cyberspace provides a place to experiment with alternative structures of government, new forms of social relations, which may, at least on the most grassroots of levels, allow us to temporarily escape, if not fully transform, unacceptable social conditions in our everyday lives.
Feminist critics, such as Brenda Laurel (1997) and Allucquere Rosanne Stone (1996), have embraced the Amerindian myth of Coyote, the shapeshifter, to characterize digital media as enabling a breakdown of fixed sexual and social identities and a transformation of stable alignments of power. Donna Harraway (1985) has promoted the “cyborg,” which exists at the interface between human and machine, not as a figure of dehumanization but as a figure which “denatures” gender and sexuality (Gray et al, 1996). Summarizing this line of feminist argument, Anne Balsamo (1996) writes, “Cyborg identity is predicated on transgressed boundaries. They fascinate us because they are not like us and yet are just like us.”[p. 33] The metaphor of the cyborg as a hybrid identity helps us to recognize that our gender identities are, at least, partially culturally manufactured and as such, gender may be reinvented, retooled or reprogrammed. Some argue, for example, that going on line enables a radical re-conceptualization of the relationship between our selves and our bodies, potentially liberating us from a long legacy of biological determinism. Others would insist, however, that cyborg identities still require a physical transformation, a re-conceptualization of what it means to live within our bodies and that cyborg feminism pulls us back to the material world.
This prospect of “shapeshifting” or “cyborg” identities is being realized by gay and lesbian teens who go on line to find a community where homophobia does not dominate, where the risks of “coming out” can be lowered, and where they can experiment with more fluid conceptions of their sexuality. The digital realm allows them room to find out who they are and what they want outside of the constant pressures at home or at school. For those teens, cyberspace is not a “virtual life” but rather a temporary alternative to their rather dystopian real world experiences at a time when gay and lesbian teens are three times more likely than their straight counterparts to commit suicide. However, many filtering technologies block access to Web sites and discussion groups on the basis of the use of such words as “gay” and “lesbian” regardless of whether the sites include sexually explicit content. Such filters threaten to render that realm of alternative social interactions invisible and thus inaccessible to many who need it most (http://www.glaad.org/media/archive_detail.php?id=103&).
Even the most utopian digital theory often contains some degree of skepticism about the future and criticisms of the present—even if it remains only implicit. Michael Heims (1998) has framed the term, “virtual realism,” to describe the position taken by many digital theorists: “Virtual realism walks a tight rope. The delicate balancing act sways between the idealism of unstoppable Progress and the Luddite resistance to virtual life….Virtual realism is an existential process of criticism, practice, and conscious communication.” [43-44] As computer scientist Langdon Winner (1995) explains:
Right now it’s anyone’s guess what sorts of personalities, styles of discourse, and social norms will ultimately flourish in these new settings…We can predict, though, that American society will continue to exclude ordinary citizens from key choices about the design and development of new technologies, including information systems. Industrial leaders present as fait accompli what otherwise might have been choices open for diverse public imaginings, investigations and debates…People doing research on computing and the future could have a positive influence in these matters. If we’re asking people to change their lives to adapt to new information systems, it seems responsible to solicit broad participation in deliberation, planning, decision making, prototyping, testing, evaluation and the like.
Winner’s essay poses two different conceptions of the utopian imagination—one in which the process of change is presented as inevitable and another in which alternative visions for the future are proposed and debated. The utopian imagination performs important political work. The entertainment industries, As Frederic Jameson notes, can only attract popular interest by acknowledging real world fears and aspirations. In Jameson’s model, those tensions are redirected towards consumer capitalism’s preferred solutions, utopian fantasies that can be satisfied through consumption. Alienation equals bad breath; mouthwash is the solution. Richard Dyer’s account of utopianism in queer politics, on the other hand, suggests that the utopian imagination can provide the basis for social critique. No meaningful change can occur until we can imagine a world different from our own. The queer teens’ on-line experience of “what utopia feels like” may lead them to fight for it in their real lives. In that sense, the utopian imagination is not a refusal to face problems but rather a rhetorical strategy which allows us to move from a preoccupation on problems towards a new conceptualization of solutions.
Digital theory is closely related to a much older strain of technological utopian discourse in American culture, one which originated as middle class reformers and political radicals proposed alternatives to the problems surrounding the industrial revolution (Segal, 1986; Ross, 1991). Writers like Edward Bellamy felt that improvements in technologies of communication and transportation might overcome conditions of alienation, improvements in mass production might overcome problems of scarcity, and a greater mastery over nature might cleanse soot-filled environments. However, they also called for profound shifts in the social structures and economic base of industrial society, linking technological change with political change. This technological utopianism arose at the moment when Frederic Jackson Turner was declaring the closing of the American frontier. Social alternatives to undesirable social conditions needed to be mapped onto the future rather than projected onto unsettled real estate. This technological utopianism was the founding myth of the American science fiction tradition, which took shape under the guidance of pulp magazine editor Hugo Gernsbeck. Gernsbeck saw “scientification” as a means of democratizing access to knowledge about science and as an extension of his own vision of a more democratic and participatory culture brought about through amateur radio. By the mid-century, however, the discourse of technological utopianism had been co-opted into a discourse about consumerism, one fully embraced by the nation’s business leaders and promoted through advertising. The “world of tomorrow” envisioned by the 1939 New York World’s Fair had more to do with creating a sense of inevitability which foreclosed popular debates about where we are going than with the earlier technological utopian movements’ attempts to challenge current conditions. Both modes of the utopian imagination shape digital theory—both the bland boosterism which sees the development of digital media as leading irreversibly towards a better way of life (Wired’s linkage of democratic ideals and high price consumer items) and the more cautious utopianism which uses the future to question troubling aspects of contemporary life (coupling the promotion of virtual communities with close scrutiny of issues of privacy, ownership, surveillance, and access).
Philip Hayward (1993) notes that digital media has been situated in relation to the counterculture, introduced to the popular imagination in terms borrowed from science fiction (such as “cyberspace” which was coined by William Gibson), the drug culture (such as Timothy Leary’s promotion of VR’s mind-altering potential), and rock music (such as Grateful Dead stalwart John Perry Barlow’s promotion of digital media). There is a surprisingly comfortable fit between cyberpunk’s representations of the hacker subculture battling multinational media conglomerates and contemporary cultural studies’ accounts of “poaching” and “resistance.” Cyberpunk representations differ profoundly from the prevailing images of computer scientists as nerds with pocket protectors or the “virginal” astronauts in earlier science fiction (Sobchack, 1997). Cyberculture was understood as a “revolutionary force” destroying the old media, such as television, which they saw as the “technology of tyrants.” (Gilder, 1994) This same rhetoric of decentralization appealed to the libertarian impulses of both the left and the right, leaving unresolved whose side was going to win the “digital revolution.”
As with earlier countercultures, there is a danger that culture jammers (Dery, 1993), hackers (Sterling, 1994) and netizens (Katz, 1997) will confuse the romance of existing on the fringes with the hard work of promoting social and political change. Gibson has noted, for example, that the more critical or dystopian elements of Neuromancer (1984) have been ignored amid the giddy excitement which compels computer scientists to try to build the cyberspace he imagined. Gibson wrote his fiction less as a celebration of the transformative power of digital media than as a warning about the dangers of divorcing human intelligence from the body, of isolating the self from real life experience, and of transforming human culture into data which can be controlled by global corporations. It is as if someone read Frankenstein and decided that it would be a good idea to assemble and mass-market human beings from parts of dead bodies. This failure to preserve both the critical and the utopian dimensions of Gibson’s “cyberspace” does not bode well for the digital counterculture’s chances for achieving radical change.
Almost as “revolutionary” on their own terms, hypertext theorists, such as Stuart Moulthroup (1991), Richard A. Lanthem (1993), Robert Coover (1992, 1993) George P. Landow (1992, 1994), and Espen J. Aarseth (1997), build upon post-structuralist literary theory to imagine digital media as reconfiguring the relations between readers, writers, and texts. Moulthrope (1989) writes:
Hypertext is not a definable artifact like a bound volume, it is a dynamic, expandable collection of writings whose contents will change from moment to moment. It is nothing at all like a book, only a bit like a library, and much more like the university itself in that it is shaped both by inherited resources and current contributions. Though part of the system will probably need to be permanent, it is probably better not to depend too heavily on a framework of canonical text or definitive discourse….Every hypertext project should support writing as well as reading. The function of the hypertext is not simply to disseminate information but to create better conditions in which people can exchange, develop, and evaluate ideas.
Moulthrope’s conception of hypertext seeks to dismantle all that was rigid, hierarchical, and unidirectional in print culture. Suggesting that defenders of the book act as if “defending the wrapper would protect what was in the box,” Richard Lanham (1993) characterizes hypertext as the literary fulfillment of the computer’s promise of “radical democratization.” Hypertext will result in an education system where “you simply cannot be a critic without being in turn a creator.”
At the heart of hypertext theory remains a constructivist epistemology, the belief that the best forms of learning require active participation and free exploration, a hands-on process of testing and manipulating one’s surroundings. Hypertext theorists imagine new forms of literature or theoretical argument which enable the reader’s more active participation and which open themselves to a much broader range of interpretations. As Aarseth (1997) explains:
A reader, however strongly engaged in the unfolding of a narrative, is powerless. Like a spectator at a soccer game, he may speculate, conjecture, extrapolate, even shout abuse, but he is not a player…The cybertext puts its would-be reader at risk: the risk of rejection. The effort and energy demanded by the cybertext of its reader raise the stakes of interpretation to those of intervention.
Early hypertext advocates, such as Ted Nelson (1981), imagined a world in which all human knowledge was available in digital form, open to access, annotation and manipulation by all. His ideal is realized in a much more modest (and corporately sponsored) fashion in the World Wide Web. Other writers, such as Moulthrope (1995), acknowledge the dangers of getting lost in hypertext and the need to “steer between the extremes of informational anarchy and despotism.”
Paul Duguid (1996) has challenged the rhetoric of “liberation” which surrounds hypertext: “The desire for a technology to liberate information from technology is not far from the search for a weapon to end all weapons or the war to end all wars….As with so much optimistic futurology, it woos us to jump by highlighting the frying pan and hiding the fire.” [p. 76] Technology always emerges within a social and cultural context which constrains or facilitates its designer’s goals. Hypertext theory envisions new forms of learning, knowledge, and expression; it does not always address the institutional and social changes needed to prepare us to participate in such a culture. At present, public teachers, who have always taught from county-approved textbooks and prescribed syllabi, are understandably intimidated by the promise that the net is a world without gatekeepers, uncertain how to evaluate the information they receive, and frightened of losing what little control they maintain over their classrooms. Others question whether part of the pleasure of reading a novel or watching a film might lie in surrendering control and allowing master storytellers to manipulate our emotions.
Formalist writers are also eager to use digital media as a vehicle for transforming culture. Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) sees contemporary manifestations of digital media as the crude predecessors of a much more robust art form. Imagining the future storyteller as “half hacker, half bard,” Murray “see[s] glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of human society.” Murray’s “cyberbard” represents at once a dramatic break with print culture and the continuation of literary creation into a strange and unfamiliar future. Feed magazine editor Steve Johnson’s Interface Culture (1997) similarly imagines computer interfaces developing ways of charting information and social structure in a highly mediated society, much as 19th century authors turned to the novel to map what Charles Dickens called the “links of association” between different social classes. Murray and Johnson embrace change as a dynamic quality which will generate new forms of human expression; both see digital media as offering new models for understanding psychological and social relations, for making coherence and order out of the information flow.
Digital theory is not predictive, any more than science fiction is. Theorists and science fiction writers don’t foretell the future; they comment on the present. Few digital theorists claim to know for sure what directions digital media will take or what impact it is likely to have upon our social, political, and economic life. Digital theory is, in Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s terms (1996), “thoroughly experimental and subject to recall for factory modification at any time.” In the end, Murray or Moulthrope may have less to tell us about the potentials of digital media than about the perceived limitations of existing media or the constraints of contemporary education. Rather, the future-orientation of digital theory represents an attempt to participate in the process of inventing the future. Calling on humanists to be inventors rather than custodians of their culture, James J. O’Donnell (1996) writes, “The genuine spirit of our culture is not expressed in applying small pieces of cellotape to hold together the structure we have received, but in pitching in joyously to its ongoing reconstruction.” The most important thing digital theory can do is to refuse to accept the rhetoric of the sales prospectus and to continue to push the digital media to grow in new directions. Academic theorists have historically responded to static, if not moribund, media. Printed texts existed for centuries before there was an academic discipline focused around the study of literature. Film studies arose only at the moment when the Hollywood cinema’s influence as a central cultural institution was giving way to television. Television studies gained academic respectability at the moment when the dominance of network broadcasting was challenged by new delivery technologies such cable or videotape. As Marshall McLuhan (1994) has noted, “media are often put out before they are thought out,” and the lag time can be enormous. Digital theory is responding to the process of change, describing and analyzing a medium (or cluster of media) still being born.
Digital theorists identify and focus attention on sites of experimentation and innovation which hold promise for future developments, even when those sites counter the prevailing commercial logic of the marketplace. The danger, of course, is that they will reconstruct old cultural hierarchies, elevating avant garde digital works (afternoon, Patchwork Girl, Victory Garden) at the expense of recognizing the cultural impact and artistic innovation of commercial products (Myst, Chop Suey). Already, these new works are being treated in separate anthologies, some of which deal with “digital cinema” as a new high art form, while others deal with games and CD-ROMs as popular culture. The best work on digital aesthetics, such as Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), bridges that gap, imagining new forms of storytelling as both culturally meaningful and formally challenging, broadly accessible and innovative.
Mapping Change: Digital Theory and Historical Analysis
The computer as hypertext, as symbol manipulator, is a writing technology in the tradition of the papyrus roll, the codex, and the printed book. The computer as virtual reality, as graphics engine, as perceptual manipulator, belongs to and extends the tradition of television, film, photography and even representational painting. — Jay David Bolter (1996)
Describing digital theory in terms of its focus on a developing technology or its future capacities may be misleading, since digital theory is also vitally concerned with framing a historical account of media in transition, explaining changes and continuities between digital and earlier forms of media. Most of the participants at a 1994 conference on the Future of the Book (Nunberg, 1996) found that they could not address the topic without also discussing how the culture of the book came into being. Our changing media environment has foregrounded the codex book’s status as material practice sparking recent moves from the study of literature (which is often abstracted as “text”) to renewed interest in the history of the book, theatrical performance, orality, and the printing press. Literary studies has become a branch of media studies. Recognizing that the book is a medium does not necessarily imply that its material form fully determines its function or status. The medium is not always the message. Carla Hesse (1996) writes:
The historical record makes unquestionably clear that the most distinctive features of what we have come to refer to as ‘print culture’—that is, the stabilization of written culture into a canon of authored texts, the notion of the author as creator, the books as property and the reader as an elective public—were not inevitable historical consequences of the invention of printing during the Renaissance, but, rather, the cumulative result of particular social and political choices made by given societies at given moments.
Similarly, the democratic and participatory ideals associated with “interactive technologies are not the product of the technologies but of our social and cultural interactions with them. Recognizing this distinction reminds us of the need to struggle to define technology’s future directions through social and political actions, not simply through our design principles.
Contemporary discussions of technological conversion, that is, the integration of existing communications technologies into a single mega-system, need to be framed in relation to what I call cultural convergence. Cultural convergence refers to the process by which people in their everyday life use media in relation to each other, form evaluations about which media best serves specific purposes, assemble information across multiple channels of communication, and embrace artworks which depend upon appropriation and remixing of cultural materials or upon the archiving and re-circulating of previous media texts. Some of these changes reflect our initial encounters with digital media, but these shifts are being felt across the full range of contemporary popular culture and some of them prepare for rather than respond to the increased penetration of the net, the web, and the PC into our everyday lives. The popularity of the VCR had to do with its time shift capability which, at a time when Americans were working longer hours and were moving towards a 24 hour work cycle, enabled people to maintain contact with the popular television programs which had become a central part of contemporary cultural literacy. The wide-spread embrace of E-mail reflects the mobility of a culture where one American in three moves in any given year; the net allows us to maintain contact with those we’ve left behind or to build new friendships and join new communities, despite the un-mooring of our ties to geographically local communities. Similarly, properties of one medium may train us in the perceptual and cognitive skills we will need to embrace future media. As Lev Manovich (1996b) writes, “Gradually cinema taught us to accept the manipulation of time and space, the arbitrary coding of the visible, the mechanization of vision, and the reduction of reality to a moving image as a given. As a result, today the conceptual shock of the digital revolution is not experienced as a real shock—because we were ready for it for a long time.”
Such arguments require a move away from digital theory towards what might be described as comparative media studies, an approach which reads the emerging digital technologies against the backdrop of a much broader range of media, both historical and contemporary. Because digital media potentially incorporates all previous media, it no longer makes sense to think in medium-specific terms. The renewed interest in Marshall McLuhan (1994) has more to do with his willingness to talk about what a range of different media have in common and how each of them defines a particular series of relations to time and space than it has to do with his sometimes wacky insights into specific media. Harold Innis (1991), James Carey (1988), and Ithiel De Sola Pool (1984), among others, offer alternative models for thinking across media. All of a society’s media interact with and influence each other, requiring research to be conducted in a systemic or ecological way rather than a fragmentary fashion. David Rodowick (1994) has suggested the term, “audiovisual,” rather than “digital,” to refer to the complex interplay of representational technologies which constitute our contemporary sensory environs. Marsha Kinder (1991) discusses the “entertainment supersystem,” the complex intertextual relations between the manifestations of popular narratives, such as Batman, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Trek, or The X-Files, as they move across film, television, comic books, and digital media. Such migrations are a logical consequence of the horizontal integration of modern media conglomerates (Meehan, 1991).
Some adaptations from filmic to digital media prove more engaging than others. Digital manifestations of Star Trek (Murray and Jenkins, 1999), for example, stress only those aspects of the series which fit comfortably into pre-existing game genres: the result is an emphasis on combat, exploration, and technology rather than on character relations, cultural diversity, or negotiation. Digital Star Trek narrows the range of fannish activities and interests the original television series has facilitated. Despite digital media’s “encyclopedic” promise, the contemporary CD-ROM disc contains far less information than a videotape library of series episodes. Moreover, talk about digital interactivity often ignores the interaction and participation ethnographers and reader-response critics have long discussed in relation to traditional literary, television, or cinematic narratives. Digital media structures into the text certain opportunities for interactions, providing the resources for engaging with richer, more vivid representations of the story world, but also forecloses other interactions which might arise from a less impoverished narrative universe. By contrast, Greg Smith (1999) argues that CD-ROM adaptations of Monty Python’s comedy preserve its improvisational and fragmented style, its anarchic comedy of interruptions and destabilizations, its search for unpredictable juxtapositions of material, and its parodic self-consciousness about its own medium. More than simply a recycling of previously produced materials, Monty Python is rethought for CD-ROM and in the process, helps us to rethink digital technology. One set of instructions in the game, for example, tells us, “to waste more time, please click here again.” The game’s comic focus on delay, technical breakdown, and repetition poke fun at the complex attitudes towards temporality surrounding CD-ROM games: playing games may be a good way to spend time and yet players are impatient with any delays which waste their time.
Our initial encounters with any new medium focus attention on its breaks with predecessor media and as a consequence, help to defamiliarize properties which were once taken for granted. In the case of literature, the computer reopened questions about the bound and linear qualities of books, resulting in hypertext theory. For cinema, the introduction of digital media poses questions about the screen and our relationship to cinematic space. According to Manovich (1994), the cinema reworks “the classical screen” (Renaissance perspective’s attempts to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface), creating “the dynamic screen” where the displayed image changes over time. In watching a film, we focus our full attention on the representation on screen and disregard the physical space outside it. This concentration is enabled by the fact that image fills the whole screen. The screen “functions to filter, to screen out, to take over, rendering non-existent whatever is outside its frame.” The introduction of the computer screen, however, reveals the “stability” of the dynamic screen, creating, in the case of the windows desktop, a world where multiple screens compete for our attention, or in the case of virtual reality, a world where “the screen disappears altogether” facilitating more immediate interaction.
David Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin describe this process in somewhat different terms in Remediations (1998), suggesting that the history of media might be charted through competing impulses towards immediacy, which depends on the ability to look through the screen as if it were a window, and hypermediacy, which forces us to look at the screen as a graphical surface. Examples of immediacy include “a painting by Canaletto, a photograph by Edward Weston, a ‘live’ television broadcast from the Olympics, and the computer system for virtual reality,” while earlier examples of hypermediacy include “medieval illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance decorated altarpieces, Dutch painting, Baroque cabinets, and modernist collage and photomontage.” Digital media reflects both the push towards immediacy—to create transparent interfaces—and the push towards hypermediacy—to bring multiple forms of media together on the same page. Yet, both impulses reflect a process of remediation—that is, the attempt to define the new media in relation to the old. Hypermediacy makes explicit the process of quotation or appropriation from earlier media, yet immediacy often depends upon an unconscious comparison to earlier media. Computers that promise photorealism aren’t promising us reality; they are promising computer graphics that look like photographs.
The new medium may usurp some of the cultural functions or status once held by the earlier media. Andre Bazin (1971b) argued, for example, that the introduction of photography as a mechanism for more perfectly reproducing the material world “freed” painters to explore abstraction. Television’s usurpation of radio’s storytelling role forced radio to expand the centrality of music to its broadcast content. The introduction of digital media, for example, has had an enormous impact upon the contemporary cinema, not simply in obvious ways, such as the use of computer animation in Toy Story or of CGI special effects in Jurassic Park. The morph introduces a fundamental new structure to the rhetoric of cinema, one which, as Vivian Sobchack (1997) notes, depends upon the suggestion of similarity across previously perceived differences rather than on montage’s graphic collisions. Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video uses the morph to erase racial differences and construct an image of humanity united through the pleasure of music and dancing; Terminator 2 uses the morph to transform humans into inanimate objects and back again; political advertisements used the morph to suggest that Democratic candidates could not easily separate themselves from the faults of Bill Clinton.
More profoundly, these devices subtly yet dramatically undermine the ontological status of the photographic image which Andre Bazin argued was the fundamental basis of cinema. Contemporary film theory insists that cinematic images are not indexical but rather complex cultural signs constructed for the screen. These critiques of the realist tradition always ran against our culture’s core faith in the authenticity of the image. As Manovich (1996c) writes:
During cinema’s history, a whole repertoire of techniques (lighting, art direction, the use of different film stocks and lens, etc.) was developed to modify the basic record obtained by a film apparatus. And yet behind even the most stylized cinematic images we can discern the bluntness, the sterility, the banality of early nineteenth century photographs. No matter how complex its stylistic innovations, the cinema has found its base in these deposits of reality.
Yet, as writers like William Mitchell (1994) note, digital photographers can construct vivid, compelling, absolutely convincing photographs of architectural spaces or historic encounters (Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe) which never existed. Hollywood could make Fred Astaire dance the ceiling (through elaborate manipulations of his physical environment) but digital artists could make the dead star to dance with a dustbuster for a contemporary television commercial. In such a world, seeing is no longer believing. The computer ignores photography’s indexical relation to reality, translating images into pixels which can be transformed, reworked, and redesigned like text in a word-processing program. The line blurs between animation (which involves creating images where none existed previously) and editing (which involves re-cutting or rearranging fragments of events which occurred before the camera).
Theories of spectatorship which assume a relationship between optical point of view and narrative identification must be revised in light of the intense identification and participation experienced by players of Sega or Nintendo video games which almost always depend upon third person camera. Even more sophisticated accounts of character identification, such as Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters (1995), may be unable to fully describe the difference it makes when we become an active participant controlling the fictional character as a cursor which we navigate through narrative space or when we choose which camera position will be employed. When I feel the exhilaration of speed, spinning real fast and clearing the screen as the Tasmanian Devil, my pleasure has less to do with my moral alignment with those characters than with my ability to control them. Even given my ample facial hair and my sometimes anarchic sense of humor, I am not, in the end, terribly much like Taz. Yet, I often speak of the game playing experience as if “I” died, “I” flew off a cliff, “I” beat my opponent, suggesting a fairly direct identification with the often simplistically rendered figure on the screen.
Film theory often stresses temporality at the expense of spatiality, while most recent accounts of digital media stress its status as a new form of “spatial story” (DeCerteau, 1988), one which provides complex and compelling visual environments rather than complexly structured plots or rounded characters. Margaret Morse (1994) notes, for example, that what compels the development of virtual reality technologies is a consumer desire for “another world” outside everyday life’s limitations and frustrations. Mary Fuller and I (1995) compare the structures of contemporary video games and earlier forms of travel narratives. We argue that video games create “spaces for exploration, colonization, and exploitation, returning to a mythic time when there were worlds without limits and resources beyond imagining.” In the process, they rewrite the history of the founding of America to absolve us for our postcolonial guilt, restaging them in worlds which had no prior human inhabitants. These games partially compensate for increased restrictions upon children’s access to the physical spaces of their environment, offering a “virtual playscape” through which they can experience the illusion of “complete freedom of movement” (Jenkins, 1998) Other games, such as Sim City, give us a god-like vantage point for redesigning the world (Friedman, 1995).
Many have drawn meaningful parallels between the current transformation of digital media and cinema’s own emergence from scientific experimentation and arcade attraction to become a central culture institution, but this hardly exhausts the range of meaningful analogies. “Multimedia” works, which may combine audio, still photographs, moving images, digital animation, and text, poses questions about the interplay between different media forms, inviting comparison to collage, Life magazine photoessays, comic strips, comic books, or the sound-and-slideshow extravaganzas of the 1960s pop underground. Brenda Laurel (1993) and Thryza Goodeve have called for a reconsideration of the relevance of theater history to an understanding of digital media: Laurel focusing on the relationship of interactivity to theatrical improvisation; Goodeve exploring the relationship between on-line personas and vaudeville performance styles that required performers to exaggerate their own ethnic identities. The immersive quality of virtual reality has invited comparison with the amusement park rides of turn-of-the-century Coney Island and with the 19th century tradition of cycloramas and panoramas. The grassroots many-to-many dimensions of digital communication closely parallels earlier attempts to create more broad-based participatory media, such as the amateur radio movement of the 1910s and 1920s which envisioned a world where there would be as many transmitters as receivers. Examining the CD-ROM game, Phantasmagoria, Angela Ndlianias (1999) relates it to a much longer tradition of employing emergent communications technologies as the basis for magic or horror performances. Understanding the circulation of E-mail involves a reconsideration of earlier attempts to construct communications networks, such as the postal service, the telegraph, and the telephone, leading to new research into earlier styles of “sociability,” such as the telephone “party line.” Another tradition, represented by the work of Lisa Cartwright (1995, 1998), has sought to link contemporary digital media with a much larger history of medical and scientific imaging technologies, such as the X-ray or the sonogram. Early television, as Pam Wilson reminds us, showcased its ability to form links between remote geographic locations, to show us, for example, both the East and West Coast on screen at once, much as journalists often describe “web surfing” as a form of “virtual tourism.” Scott Bukatman (1994) argues that we should trace the historic links between the typewriter and the computer keyboard to learn how mechanical writing systems have altered the way we work and think. Some of these comparisons are more forced than others, yet most reveal something significant about digital media and its historical predecessors.
What, then, is the work of theory in the age of digital transformation? Digital theory offers us explanations, interpretations, and predictions which enable us to manage the process of technological change and its impact upon our social, cultural, economic, political, and personal lives. Digital theory provides a point of intersection between the languages and practices of science and engineering on the one hand and the arts and humanities on the other. Digital theory embraces the utopian imagination not as a way of predicting the future but as a way of envisioning meaningful change and keeping alive the fluidity which digital media has introduced into many aspects of our social and personal lives. Digital theory identifies historical antecedents for contemporary media developments and at the same time, defamilarizes older media and opens them to re-examination. What is striking about the present moment is not simply that academic theorists have responded quickly to a changing media environment—itself a phenomenon virtually without precedents—but theory production has been embraced by the larger society. Theorists are interviewed as media celebrities in the pages of mass market magazines like Wired. Vernacular theory surfaces and is debated on almost every on-line discussion list and newsgroup as everyday citizens hope to better understand the nature of the transformations occurring around them. Theoretical arguments are forming the basis for the early court decisions which determine what model of regulation, intellectual property rights or anti-trust litigation is most appropriate for cyberspace. The impact of digital communications on all aspects of modern life has made the process of mediation remarkably visible and has created a new demand to answer questions which once would have seemed the arcane interest of media scholars.
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Henry Jenkins is Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT. His books include “What Made Pistachio Nuts?”: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, Classical Hollywood Comedy, and Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. He writes two monthly columns, one for Technology Review On-line, and the other for Computer Games. Jenkins is also one of the coordinators of the Education Arcade, an MIT-University of Wisconsin initiative designed to demonstrate the ways in which video games can be used as leverage in education. He is currently writing a book about the impact of media convergence on popular culture.