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  • The Post-Digital Society of the Spectacle

    by Alf CHANG (curator)

    "Post-digital" is a concept frequently mentioned in recent discussions about the current conditions of digital technology and artistic practice. This concept is not newly formulated but has emerged at least since 2000 in the book The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire co-authored by new media artists Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt. This book provided detailed and interesting case studies on the burgeoning digital technology, human imagination, and artistic creation. At the end of the twentieth century, the two artists pointed out that human beings are no longer able to escape from the world composed of "on/off" and "0 and 1" in face of the accelerating technological evolution in the digital era. Therefore, they proposed a vision for the post-digital era by treating human basic needs and reactions as primary concerns. Early in 1995, Robert Pepperell published The Post-Human Condition, which investigated the deepening and strengthening symbiotic relationship between humanity and technology. Nowadays, many critics begin to regard "post-digital" as contemporary and put "digital" in the past tense. In different fields of creation, artists often take the convenience offered by digital technology for granted, and criticize its vapidity and lack of charm. Take the field of music for example, in the book Aesthetics of Failure written by electronic musician Kim Cascone, there is a quotation from Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT Media Lab: "The digital revolution is over," because the Western world and Hollywood have packaged it up with commercial means and taken it away. The opinions expressed by the front-line creators may be inconclusive, but they formulated very constructive questions because these creators are the very experts who are overly familiar with digital technology and artistic creation. Among these examples, Robert Pepperell was invited to present his works at the Ars Electronica Center, Linz, Austria in the 1990s, while Kim Cascone participated in the music production for Two Peaks, a film directed by David Lynch. As a result, their opinions are by no means laymen's immature conjectures. The list is not exhausted; however, a full coverage of all the examples is beyond the scope of this essay. What we know for sure is that these examples express similar attitudes and point to similar issues, namely the meaning of a human being and the necessity of re-think.

  • Siegfried Zielinski, the author of Archaeology of Media, once replied to a question: "Is New Media Really New?" In a TV interview held in 1999, he made a plain argument about the advance of human civilization, that is, we are not inventing anything new but slowly step toward the future on the basis of historical accumulation, and so is digital technology. As an avant-garde scholar in new media art, it is quite interesting that he did not emphasize the interactive characteristics that new media art is usually expected to exhibit. In his opinion, interaction is a series of predetermined procedures, which has nothing to do with art and may even reduce the diversity of artistic presentation. Since the popularization and wide applications of HyperText Markup Language, the possibilities for viewers to freely choose and combine various elements have been eulogized as the characteristics of the digital era and the strengths of digital art. However, Zielinski directly revealed the paradox therein. To wit, the seemingly extensive and inestimable interactive options are in fact limited variations amidst viewers and digital artworks. Those options make no sense and even undermine the health of art. He further elaborated on the qualitative differences between digital and analog. Concisely and convincingly, he pointed out that digital technology is invented to avoid mistakes, because it conducts perfect calculation and its basic characteristic is "accuracy." However, evolution and creation proceed in an exactly opposite way to that of digital technology because mistakes and chaos are inevitable for them. In sum, Siegfried Zielinski considers that the digital is not as influential as we suppose in several aspects of our life. Contrarily, the enthusiasm and non-rational power of analogy are more reliable.

  • The spectacular advances in digital technology and display interface provide a sophisticated and nature-simulated visual interface. However, for the interface to be effective, it still requires a series of complex and error-intolerant commands to carry out accurate calculation. The significant increase of computing velocity makes human beings unable to comprehend the sequence of complex commands. Therefore, we are forced to regard the complex commands as co-existed options. In fact, they are just categories path with limited volume. The options may seemingly innumerable, but are essentially limited combinations. On the contrary, analogy or natural phenomena provide infinite possibilities right at the beginning, although these possibilities are neither replicable nor accurate-guaranteed. Non-rational passion is always incompatible with rational technology. This is why the core value of new media art should be built on the basis of an incessantly refreshing and reflective dialectical spirit. Perhaps, we should endeavor to embed non-rational and passionate power into rational logic and technology, and thereby complete a brand new combination of the analog and the digital.

  • Nearly half a century ago, Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle, in which he coined the concept "Spectacle" to point out that advanced capitalist society jeopardizes the human spirit. Like all other avant-garde ideas, his basic position is anti-art, particularly against the artistic production without any substantial connection to real life. As one of the means to fool human beings, the series of restrictive visual symbols created by capitalism will ultimately confine our expression of true feelings to limited amount of images or vocabulary, and we are unaware of their dominance over us. In comparison with the current situation, Debord's idea surprisingly does not appear as an antithesis of the post-digital age. Rather, he described the current situation in a more vivid way, as if he were making live statements. This is because the situation he attempted to remedy remains essentially unchanged so far. Especially after digital technology is fully blended into human life, the derivative means of control is getting more sophisticated and more difficult to be won out. These software and hardware are carefully fabricated as exquisite goods and delivered to us quietly and harmlessly. They drum up our interest in collecting and displaying them, and make us reluctant to let go of them. In a very short time, most people become smartphone addicts who are obsessed with the interaction of tapping and sliding on the screens with fingertips. They act as if they are worshiping something wholeheartedly, which constitutes a collective hypnotic spectacle. The sound-light effects and the way to transmit information and feedbacks performed by smartphones reflect the future that Guy Debord foretold with anxiety. People communicate with each other and express opinions that they misunderstand as their true feelings with a small amount of predetermined vocabulary. No one is able to curb this tendency because digital technology has earned most people's trust and turned itself from an assistant into an agent for human beings. Ironically, the inexistence of opt-in/opt-out is exactly a contrary indicator of a free society.

  • Except the aforementioned major deficiencies of digital technology, the rest are its merits known to all. The continuously innovated technology actually creates as many opportunities for artists as possible. It successfully becomes an unprecedented typical tool for artistic creation. Like every ordinary person, an artist is unable to single-handedly create a new world beyond the post-digital society of the spectacle. However, artists should develop greater ability of observation and actively infiltrate into the network densely knitted by digital technology. They should serve as the pioneers who organize defiance and cause paradigm shifts, rather than join the production line of the spectacle. Artists are optimistic critics, but they can only use art as their weapon of anti-art. Some researches on variantology of media indicate that a fortuitous and untimely invention may inspire and reshape the development of media in another space-time. The era in which "digital art" is going to be outdated is also supposed to be a romantic storm-and-stress period in which diverse ideas emerge. Only in this way can we prove our diligence to the later generations.

    To sum up, biases are opinions. In the field of art, we are unable to formulate rigorous arguments but to express our thoughts frankly.