One of the low points of architecture in 2013 was architect Zaha Hadid’s football stadium in Qatar. Designed for the forthcoming games of 2022, the main part of the discussion has been about whether it resembles a vagina or not.
Besides reducing architectural discourse to a pretend shock about female genitalia, the case is emblematic of how design is detached from the actual world conditions. Instead of engaging in any way with the reports about abusive working conditions in the construction sites of such stadiums for Qatar 2022, we are left debating the building’s pinky Freudian connotations. Despite the pseudo-feminist debate it raised, a rather sad moment for design. It actually just flags detachment of both architectural popular discourse and architects such as Hadid from a connection with things that might have some material meaning or a meaningful impact for those whose lives this has a direct lived relation.
The underbelly of star designers are: “long working hours, hazardous working conditions, the workers being unpaid for months, had their passports confiscated, forced to live in overcrowded labour camps, denied the right to form unions, and without access to free drinking water in extreme heat”.
But the creative industries backed discourse of stars and creativity demands this underbelly of grey abusive low-paid and globally displaced hard work that is sustaining the fluffy public discourse about design.
Creative Technologies Review
A podcast on technology and creativity, technology mostly misused, unintentionally artistic technology and music technology with the odd splattering of digital economies by Julio d’Escriván and Jussi Parikka.
The Creative Technologies Review podcasts are continuing: we have a new episode online and available on Itunes, and it ranges from discussion about kidneys to Antarctica – and yet, the highlight is the Paul Demarinis-interview. I interviewed Demarinis, well known and rewarded for his various electronic(s) art projects since the 1970s, in Berlin in July. We talked about media archaeology, artistic methods and a whole range of other topics.
What also merits mentioning is the fact that the podcast is now “sponsored” not only by the CoDE-institute but also Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton), who are my new employer. This also means future interviews with exciting artists, theorists and lecturers affiliated with WSA. However, next episode promises more Berlin: an interview with Martin Howse, from the Microresearch lab: so more media archaeological art on its way. Meanwhile, enjoy our chats on selling body parts, talking Antarctica, and Paul Demarinis.
This conversation between me and Tiziana Terranova took place in early November – actually just before the first mass demonstrations by students and academic staff in the UK – an event after which we have seen further resistance acts of various kinds, from more aggressive expressions of anger to such as the foundation of the University for Strategic Optimism. Resistance does not just exist; it needs to be invented, always anew.
This interview was published in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto on 14 November 2010 (in Italian), and is now here available in English as well. This version is the original, and slightly longer as well. Of course, what we have seen since this interview was conducted was a development of certain themes; for example, the disagreement within Russell group universities seems to be escalating with students for example in Cambridge demanding that the university raises objections to the cuts; occupations of various universities are similar signs of calls for student-focus of a different sort than we get with the “tick-the-box” exercises of student happiness (the National Student Survey); the libdems are clearly having severe internal problems; the police use of dubious tactics against demonstrators are raising questions, and pointing towards a very scary response from the officials towards the resistance.
In Italy, we have been facing substantial cuts to the public education sector for a few years now – cuts that have progressively undermined the value of public education, involving massive layoffs, a freeze on new posts, reduction of viable courses, more crowded classrooms, less hours of actual teaching and so on. These cuts have gone together with drastic reduction of resources for the cultural sector as well. Rather than being a local phenomenon, this public disinvestment in culture and education seems a core part of the economic and political restructuring following the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, these cuts have taken a specific inflection: 100% cuts to the public funding of teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences. How do you explain such a massive reduction especially in the wake of the much hyped investment in the cultural economy and creative industries?
It’s a shock, and a shock in the very fundamental sense that Naomi Klein introduced as a doctrine of “disaster capitalism”. The recent events in the higher education sector, and naturally across other public sectors too are in themselves so terrifying that there is a danger that the surprise has worked. As you outline, and what applies to many other countries as well –the 2008 crisis did not take us back to a Keynesian culture of public investment, but to a further privatization of fundamental public goods – the expectation has been all along that the public sector is being run down. In terms of the university sector in the UK such cuts had been pre-empted for a long time; already before the elections that brought the Tories and Liberal democrats into the government, the sector was preparing for big cuts, or what seemed big cuts then: cuts of millions of pounds, and several percent from the higher education budget. The Browne commission to investigate models for the future of Higher Education in the UK was set by Labour. Labour had already during Lord Mandelsson’s rule shifted Universities as part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and in 2009 already he talked of hike in student fees, further consumer control of courses, straightforward employability as the key criteria for any public funding of a university course and so forth. So what happened when the new government came in was that they could easily take over the same discourse, same way of thinking. The talk turned to fears of 20 % cuts, then to feared 40% cuts, at which point people and critics started to say that it is just part of a game where they scare us off with such drastic cuts, and when “only” for example 20% of Higher education budgets are reduced, we breath out a relief. Well, the opposite happened: suddenly, only the privileged few were seen eligible for public funding, namely carefully selected STEM topics, i.e. science, technology, engineering and maths, and more or less all of the humanities, arts and social sciences left out with a sudden, complete privatization of their degree courses – and with feared reductions in research monies coming as well. Suddenly, the public university system was gone.
So indeed, it’s not only a pragmatic shift in terms of how the whole sector is being organized, but how the so-called cultural economy and creative industries are suddenly as if without a role as part of high-tech Britain. Cool, creative, hip, post-fordist Britannia was New Labour’s and Tony Blair’s brain child of the 1990s, that was carried over till now; that provided at least a minor shelter in some minds and institutions for the cultural studies and arts sectors, and courses, and some kind of justification for their existence. Meanings, representations, artistic practices could be integrated to that model of “creative capitalism” with a friendly artistic face. After all, culture – lifestyles, habits, arts, digital creation from music to publishing industries – was supposed to be leading the future of Britannia.
Yet, during the past couple of years, the creative industries discourse has been bit by bit replaced by that of “digital economy” as the new key words that is being circulated both in academic funding bodies and their calls, legislation as well as public discourse. Seemingly a slight change from creative industries to a more ICT oriented version, it actually is a further consolidation of the perception that digital culture equals the science and engineering solutions that contribute towards platforms and communication in the narrow signal processing sense; the Digital Economy Bill, and the following Act, and related debates focused on such projects as the Digital Infrastructure for Britain that is to guarantee high speed broadband; while it also contributed towards strict copyright infringement penalties which have been highly debated, the push has been towards technology – and technology as in infrastructure, engineering and science solutions that are able to provide more viable income streams than the always so vague service industry model of creativity. With the drastic cuts, the message in terms of how public goods, but also economic value are being defined is clear: despite statistics of the huge input by arts and humanities sector to even economic wealth creation, they are suddenly the superfluous, redundant sidekicks of the digital economy.
Your analysis raises many interesting points. The first one concerns the continuity with Labour. The ground for the Browne report was prepared by the labour government and the cuts would have followed even if labour had actually continued to rule. It took fifteen years of neo-labor policies in higher education to ingrain the notion that public investment in higher education is justified because of the economic returns that it provides. This shift was made palatable to the arts, human and social sciences by acknowledging their importance as productive economic forces– in terms of new careers opening in the cultural and creative economy and in terms of the economic impact generated by artistic, cultural and social research. Hence the arts, humanities and social science were perceived as actually being worthy of public investment. Hence the shock in finding out that it took a simple change in government to cut off all public investment and be thrown in the jungle scenario of full privatization! The cuts are so massive, entire teaching budgets are being wiped out and as you said there is widespread incredulity about the sheer size the UK government’s gamble. The so-called elite institution will be able to raise tuition fees and focus on the very rich segment of the international students’ markets, but for most universities it will be dire. It will be an enormous shake out – opening the uk higher education sector to the takeover of multinational corporations of education, such as online degree factories and so on. There will be re-engineerings, layoffs, fusions, mergers, increasing use of low-wage, precarious labor. Before moving on to the subject of the transformation of the ways in which this was possible by the turn to the digital economy, I wanted to ask you about the current and possible future reactions to this dramatic scenario – both within and outside the universities.
The reception of and reaction to the news has been varied, and this is emblematic of the situation. The so-called elite institutions –- in itself an interesting term and status, as it combines the eliteness of the “Old Britain” of class society, of private schools and Oxbridge/Russell Group with the new status of neoliberal, well-funded and global brands of those universities – have been greeting these news happily; for such institutions, it does not seem to be an issue in any ethical sense to triple their fees, it seems, whereas for smaller institutions such as ex-polytechnics it causes a potentially major shift in how they think their functioning. For a number of years, these smaller universities were strongly going to research, and moving from teaching only institutions to supporting new waves of research in media, culture and the arts in such ways not always found in the more establish, and also slowly changing and less experimental old institutions. Now many institutions might be forced to become mostly teaching ones again. And of course, we should not romanticize the younger institutions either; we saw what happened in Middlesex with the threatened closing down of their Philosophy Centre, that was however “sold” to Kingston University — and Middlesex replaced it with more teaching places in STEM-subjects.
Naturally the cuts are drastic to almost every institution – Russell group or not – but for Oxbridge and others the Browne review was good news in terms of the possibility to hike up fees, what however has been condemned by for example of course student bodies. It is indeed interesting to see how this develops as a rift between Russell group and others, and inside the elite institutions between students, staff and the senior management. The National Union of Students has been constantly insisting that we need to look at alternative forms for supporting the financial basis of the universities, backing up for example the graduate tax model instead of fees – and hiking fees. We see new rifts emerging, which is good for the dismantle and conquer-politics of the government and the Conservatives-Lib Dem alliance: so called elites are more or less welcoming some of the changes and playing along as they can always rely both on their international prestige as well as the fact a lot of their students come from a more wealthy background anyway. Despite the fact that the students would not be paying back any debts before they start earning £21,000 a year after graduation, the prospective students from lower earning families feel this as a scary horizon; the promised social rise that universities might be promising is not so much a rise, but a promise of a middle class debt. The situation has as much to do with a mental ecology of middle classification, and debt, as it has with fiscal policies and economic cuts. Suddenly, just like from a J.G.Ballard novel – I am thinking of Millennium People – the middle classes – or those wanting to become middle classes with a nice standard of living, jobs, house, a future – are faced with a situation that all they were promised with is actually clouded by the likelihood of debt, insecure futures, risk taking, and a whole new atmosphere where nothing seems fun anymore. Sounds banal, but there is a political edge to this mental ecology of a sense of time. It has to do with a sense – or lack of – futurity. The elections last spring played around with this sense of futurity with Liberal Democrats riding the wave of promises of getting rid of student fees, and again a mental ecology of a very different sense; now with the complete overturning of their promises, one can sense a lot of anger, frustration, and disappointment in politics of futurity.
Hence, in terms of reactions – the big demonstration is being organized for November 10 in London; there are local struggles that are getting some visibility, like at Goldsmiths college; at the same time some occupations of Vodafone shops as resistance to them being letting off a £6 billion tax debt; in Ireland students occupied the Department of Finance in Dublin for a short while — there are some things going on, but the further consolidation of that feeling, that affective state of discontent which is always in danger of turning into depression, into something that could provide a sustained political resistance that is actually registered on the governmental level is of importance. Having said that, I think thinking this in terms of politics of affect, the pre-cognitive, is important as well – in a manner that Nigel Thrift has spoken about political activism, and the need to understand the strong, emotional, and affective ties and investments on very small levels of everyday action; this level needs understanding, and support, and it might already start there. One of the things I still hope can provide something is a wider affective association between students and the teaching and administrative staff, even if for example Russell group wants to distance themselves from the rest of the universities. The danger is that most of media publicity voices primarily those views, even if there are about 100 other universities in addition to the handful of “elite” ones.
In terms of university reactions, as you say, it will cause new directions; most universities are forced to come up with alternative business models and income streams which means potentially shortening some courses to 2 years, increased partnership with the private sector – which in itself is tricky as the private sector does not really have any extra money in most industries, such as the creative industries, and the private sector too is facing unemployment, cuts in spending, etc. -, increased reliance on international students where I see dangers of forms of neo-colonialism where British universities sell the experience and prestige of the old Europe to the ex-colonialised and Asian countries with a high price, effective privatization of many sectors, where arts and humanities are less recognized as a general good for any critical, democratic society but only as an investment for a bit of luxury – being able to study for a couple of years such things as critical theory, feminist theory, postcolonial studies…
To be fair, some universities, even smaller and younger ones, might be able to use their “brand” in a way that strengthens their status in the global arena, and sell their status as leading arts, philosophy or cultural and media studies centres, but such models are indeed only local solutions, and do not offer a viable future for the dozens of other universities which lack that reputation despite the high quality research and commitment. Here we have to be cognizant of the various measures through which contemporary universities are already corporations with brands that are protected through meticulous measures continuously – such things as where you are placed (a pittoresque Cambridge, or buzzing London are sure to be attractions for the nice 3 year academic theme park ride to which you can send your kids to Europe, instead of the attractiveness of an old industrial town in northern England despite how great it might be intellectually), or indeed the academic brand – but only if it is marketed attractively…
As you mentioned before, the whole notion of the creative cultural economy which was a leit motif of economic policy for the last fifteen years has been dispensed with quickly. The turn from the creative economy to the digital economy means that only science and engineering are now seen as providing economic value and hence worthy of public support. Everywhere the public funding of culture and critical thinking is under attack. As a new media researcher, how do you see this change? What do you think about Jaron Lanier’s position according to whom the Internet and the web 2.0 in particular are responsible for the devaluation of cognitive labor? Is there any relation between this dramatic shift in policy and the actual social and economic changes affecting the media and new media industry (such as the Web 2.0 hype)?
The tricky bit about the cuts and the new shift in terms of emphasis from “soft skills” of information economy and post-Fordist culture to engineering, mathematics, and sciences is that there is no clear economic justification – or let’s say that it’s not that the creative industries had not been producing value. A quick look at statistics from the National Archives statistics concerning Creative Industries says that the sector grew approximately 5 % a year between 1997 and 2007, which is more than the average growth of the whole economy (around 3 %) – and of that, sectors such as software, computer games and electronic publishing grew even 9 %! And to continue on statistics, a recent report on the UK Higher Education institutions gave similar points; they produce huge amounts of economic value and effects throughout the society, signalling revenue of almost £17 billion in 2003-2004, which was bigger than what for example the pharmaceutical industry produced in this country! And the knock on effects: for every million pounds produced inside the sector the report said the sector produced an addition £1.52 million in related sectors, and in terms of jobs, a very similar story that 100 full time jobs in the university sector has been supporting the existence of another 100 jobs.
So it’s clearly something else than clear-cut economic rationale what is at play here, and would be tempting to read this as a major shift in terms of how labour is being seen and reorganized. This is what we used to call ideology, and at least part of a very meticulous, very subtle channelling of desires, and the aforementioned relation to temporality, as well as to production, creativity, participation. It’s a further emphasis in terms of how temporarity is being imposed as the normalized status of the “creative worker”, which indeed includes the university staff, and to which we training our students from the first day on; endure change, live as flexible, be prone to shift changes in what is being expected of you, and do not ask for a stable horizon that we used to call a future. The modes of labour that supported so much of creative and internet economics were indeed based on the psychic investment – enthusiasm, volunteering, chipping in – and remarkably that has been for a long time the basis of university work. Yet, what only yesterday it seems, in the 1990s, was celebrated by the likes of Pekka Himanen as the new work ethic of hacker spirit has proved to be a complete failure in terms of providing the tools for an expropriation of value from enthusiasm, openness and community, but the incapability of developing a creative economy from the point of view of labour. This is an interesting development, which forces us to understand the complexities in digital culture patterns of labour; what cultural pessimists see as the dangerous development that such participatory cultures brought about – perhaps indeed Lanier, but also a bunch of other writers – is part of a wider web of rise of collaborative cultures, which have been hailed as the new era of communities, of active prosumers, and all that – things we surely would not think of bad after the years of big bad broadcasting capitalism that we hated in a Adornoesque spirit, right? There is no going back to the earlier elitism, despite what some critics hint about the rise of the banal amateur culture – it’s more likely that the old elitism is finding new ways to sustain itself in neoliberal settings, as we are seeing in Britain with the old class based Russell group elitism turning into a managerially supportable, neoliberal form of global education trade that is based on global patterns that pick up the colonialist links of earlier times but now in the form of neo-colonialism of educational offering.
Yet, in terms of labour in social media and creative economies, what such patterns of participation and new eagerness, enthusiasm, volunteering, produced were not really, not yet at least, viable income models for cultural workers, and it has to an extent been a new way of capitalist capture in terms of the desire for participation. Capitalism has always been based on capturing certain kinds of social relations. A lot of cultural critics emphasize the bit about the affective labour (to which university work fits in perfectly): that it is a good way to tie in investment of time and energy to maintenance of the new “nice, participatory, cultural capitalism”. I would not go on saying and blaming the Internet, or be a pessimist about the new technologies as if they would be behind the demise of value of cultural labour and arts, but it’s actually a matter of a such political economy of labour in the digital age, that would be able to sustain the new patterns of how we engage, produce.
So what the digital economy emphasis can actually strengthen is the current situation; creative industries are perhaps recognized as symbolically important but expected to run on the privatized investment – and talking also of psychic investment of desire, eagerness – than subsided by for example public spending on the arts, culture and media industries. The capital heavy fields of tech and science are still recognized as needing that support, because of their overheads – the fact that it’s expensive often, both to educate with all that lab equipment, as well as to maintain. The maintenance of people, of that bit of the production process, is left to the assumption that it sorts itself out. People are really expensive for any corporation, but if you find a model where they do the same work for half the price, you are on to something. Just make sure you get the IP, and that the copyright and IP legislation is organized so that it maximizes the value to be extracted. You need to tie in the people and their skills with other means than money, and affective enthusiasm is one (even if at an increasing pace the psychological and even physical well being of higher education staff is at risk). Also, what this shift in terms of investment could mean is a shift of Britain from one of the inspiring hubs of critical thought and creation, from cultural theory and arts to pop culture, to a new corporatized science-tech hubs. High tech, but a bit grey.
One of the highlights of my pre-academia career as a freelance journalist when during a phone interview the interviewee, a female at a telecommunications company marketing department or something of approx. 35 years of age, interrupted me: “Oh I am sorry to interrupt the interview but I just have to say you have an amazing telephone voice.”
I blush, stutter, and for a second wonder if my future career is somewhere where I could put my voice into better use, such as in some of those dubious 0800-numbers that offer services of very wide variety.
Instead, I end up as an academic.
Despite the shortness of the flirtation with the idea of using my voice to make money, I have been drawn into something again where I need to talk – publicly. The shock horror at first, but then realizing its actually enjoyable despite the fact that there is always a tiny region in your brain that is probably trying to say something very inappropriate.
We label it as
“A podcast on technology and creativity, technology mostly misused, unintentionally artistic technology and music technology with the odd splattering of digital economies” and hope it to be usually a 30 min aberration into the interminglings of technology, net culture, a slight dash of political economy, academic stuff and lots of media arts.
It features interviews of creatives, techs and academics, and aims to throw a spotlight both on the work done at CoDE institute in Cambridge but also more widely (as in globally) on creative technology and arts. I am suspecting it turns out to be quite focused on sound, knowing Julio’s interests and expertise in sound art, sonicity, but it will definitely splash into other fields of expression too and I am sure to throw in a nice dose of media theoretical meditation.
Its hopefully soon available on Itunes, but meanwhile episodes can be downloaded here.
Please get in touch if you have feedback, or suggestions for themes, sites, projects, etc. to be featured!
This short text was written for the publication our Publishing MA students are doing; Click of Time: Reflections on the Digital Age, aimed at a wider audience, also as marketing material for the great work the MA is doing! Hope our planned new MA Cultures of the Digital Economy can do the same (we hope its running in September 2011).
6 Theses Concerning the Digital Economy and Creative Industries
1. There are already too many theses concerning new media culture. Since its inception, new media, new technologies and the presumed new economies have been the object of wild fantasies, unrealistic aspirations and wet dreams. As much as with the utopian discourses concerning the industrial revolution, the post-industrial, digital revolution was seen at least since the 1990s as the big turn. The assumption: everything changes. We need new signposts, new coordinates and new ways of thinking. The project of humanities was to become the market branding team for the new technological and economic revolution. Still remember Nicholas Negroponte? Still remember the enthusiasm of Mondo 2000, early Wired and others? Still remember the drastic changes from atoms to worlds of bits that was supposed to be changing the way we think about the world?
2. There is not much new about new media. Not that I want to say that its all been there before, however, to paraphrase a Finnish social scientist Mika Pantzar, nothing is so worn out and old than the continuous talk of the new. Indeed; part of the boom since the 1990s, when everything was supposed to change, was the methodological and consistent forgetting of history. Hence, it is no wonder that in the midst of the 1990s boom such new fields as media archaeology that investigated the complex relations and borrowings from the old of new media culture emerged. Oh yes, the new has been before. The old was once new too.
3. There is not much new about new technologies. Much of the dream machines that are supposed to bring new value, new ideas, new connectivity are actually based on old ideas. The computer is not really that new media, but born in the after wake of WW II. The network society has been emerging since the 1960s; email and information capital since the 1970s. 1960s and 1970s research labs came up with the ideas of mobile content, ebooks, collaboration with online documents, a variety of graphical user interfaces and tele-work. The principle of the Web was mapped in the early 1990s; the assumption seems to be that we just need constant upgrading to keep up and keep the idea lucrative for the business discourse (Web 2.0, Web 3.0, Web 4.0…). What we are living in is less a culture of new technologies, but a culture of upgrading as the constant logic of futurity of capitalism.
4. There is nothing much new about the new, digital economy. This is what the 1990s dot.com bubble-become-crash was all about (not coming up with any real income streams and business models) and this is what the current hype about digital economy is about in different fashion. Not surprisingly, the most interesting perspectives on the ‘new’ economy are able to point about how it draws on some seemingly ancient forms of power and political economy. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, perhaps the most recognized critics of contemporary capitalism, talk about the return of the rent as a primary mode of extraction of value from the commons; writers such as Matteo Pasquinelli brand our age as one of digital neo-feudalism where the ownership of the infrastructure of communications remains tightly in the hands of few ‘landlords’ while facing ‘a multitude of cognitive workers forced to ‘creativity’.’ The digital economy seems to be a promise of a generalised mode of productive forces from the media to the universities combined with creative industries; however, supportive mechanisms for such fields are at the same time being drastically reduced as with the funding cuts to universities.
5. Creativity is no automatic bliss. Working overtime without compensation, having no other means of income generation besides your skills, brains, bodies and health, being forced into precarious jobs without a promise of a steady income – this characterises as much the contemporary digital economy as does the celebration of crowd-sourcing, collaborative work, participatory culture. Increasingly, the ideas of collaboration, openness and creativity are being harnessed as part of economic doctrines in a manner of parasitic adaptation. I have referred to this earlier as ‘viral capitalism’ – the power of adaptation, subsumption and viral attachments through which critical ideas are turned as part of accumulative value creation. What is often less talked about is labour – the work put into creativity, which is not only a sudden burst of inspiration but takes time, energy and such resources that are not directly monetary but still essential for value creation. The digital artisans are not automatically the new ‘happy class’, but ridden with new mental and physical symptoms of the digital economy; work fatigue, family problems due to overtime, stress-related new disease syndromes…
6. Much of the talk about digital economy is not really that much about the digital. Paradoxically, the systematic and even discriminatory identification of the digital with its technological and mathematical roots misses the point. The Digital Economy Bill and other initiatives by the Government are keen on building infrastructures and maintaining through such hard(ware) measures the competitiveness of the British economy vis-à-vis other networked countries. As part of this and the economic crisis of 2008-2009, the emphasis on sustaining STEM (mathematics, science, ICT and design technology) subjects has also grown; these are seen as the key fields for the future of the digital Britain, whereas the constant attacks against arts and humanities have targeted the wider groups of digital artisans and their expertise. There is no denying that the humanities of the future (oh well, today as well) need to be a new kind of mix between science, technology and critical, historical humanities epistemologies. Yet, the reliance on the primacy of STEM misses the rhizomes. Digital creativity does not grow only of laboratories of computers and such, but from rhizomatic, spreading, uncontained laboratories of experimentality, thinking and artistic methodologies. This is where the computer culture was born – from new alliances of the avant-garde arts and media labs and that is where the new ideas for exciting futures should come from. We need more Stockhausen, Stelarc and Eno – less Gates, Zuckerberg and Mandelsson.
Digital culture is one of “nondescript animals”, or if one wants to be a bit less poetic, “nondescript objects.” Originally, “nondescripts” were such animals that fell outside the analytical labeling system in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Later, as Michelle Henning points out in her Museums, Media and Cultural Theory, such anomalies were “apt rather to appeal to casual curiosity-seekers”.
As a category of anomality, such nondescripts are what puzzle and do not fit in. They are in tension between cognitive and affective categories, borrowing elements from what seems too many directions. They are not neat, nice and they do not make sense. We have headaches because of them, and I am not just talking about academics or businessmen trying to figure out best ways to extract value of such weird objects of for example p-2-p-culture.
This is why such objects of digital culture are often seen as “hybrids” or for example mixings of cultural and computational (Manovich). Nondescripts are more than just objects, as they are processual foldings of so many scales and layers that their ontological status remains puzzling. This applies to their status as objects as much as to the workflows and routines in settings where digital objects are created and passed on; design studios, game companies, service operators, etc.
The emergence of the new research institute CoDE – the Cultures of the Digital Economy is for me a vehicle to reach such nondescripts of which our contemporary culture is constituted. I was appointed as its Director starting January 1st, 2010, and in that role I see myself as a cartographer of nondescripts.
The nondescripts are everywhere. Value creation and business models are filled with such weird objects that copyright law and such are trying to pin down often with archaic models. Cultural interaction turns puzzling with communities, communication, and even modes of emotional engagement from friendship (think of Facebook) to sex being mediated through software platforms. Cultural memory does not escape nondescripts either, with materiality of the objects being embedded in new forms of social media, distributed archives and heterogeneous access methodologies. Its no wonder we see a continuous emergence of neologisms that try to grab the complexity of such trends; media ecologies, media archaeologies, and such, all trying to flag the multiplicity of ties both horizontally and temporally.
In terms of CoDE’s remit, there are various directions we could go. In addition to several essential ones, the institute is a good way to take into account:
- - transdisciplinarity. To excavate such research themes but also knowledge transfer contacts that fall outside the disciplinary boundaries. Not just between disciplines, but in-between as a space of nondescripts. The UK has a great history of art and science collaboration (think of for example the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the London ICA curated by Jasia Reichardt and in general the history of British cybernetics).
- - Software objects and studies. As part of the possible future(s) of media studies, software studies is in a crucial relay position to tie together a variety of ways of tackling with the ontology of where we are now. Software, automated cultural processes, new ways of creation of visual and sonic content, programmability, articulation of politics in and through software embedded contexts, etc. is the stuff of “cultural” studies – or should we say “not-just-cultural-studies.” Just like good media theory is always “not-just-media-theory”, any engagement with contemporary culture realizes the extent to which it is articulated through software.
- - Old/new/dead media. We should not let the newness of digital culture fool us. It is new as a temporal phenomena, whereas too often the newness of new media has been non-temporal, almost like a void. Old media is going nowhere, and new media is the one that takes care of that – paradoxically. The short term innovations are embedded in the longue durée of history of uses and ideas – what media archaeologists have referred to as the history of recurring topoi (Huhtamo) and deep time history (Zielinski.) This is where digital culture and economy are not only about the digital; but about media culture as a beehive of innovation of ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and where “old media” is a continuous archive for such ideas.
- - Creative practice and theory intertwinings. CoDE needs to extend research from pure theory/written research into a variety of other modalities in terms of optical, sonic and other media modes of creation. Research-creation. Here again the reaching out to what the 1990s called “creative industries” and what is rebranded as part of “digital economy” (even if also the government seems to be really uncertain what this means) is an essential component of academic collaboration. The Cambridge area of technology and related industries that are strong e.g. in entertainment (thinking of games here) is still a buzzing arena for collaboration.
This is where I see “nondescripts” also as passages and vehicles that transport research outside the academia as well. They are transversal in the sense Félix Guattari talked about transversal relations that are able to cut across normalized hierarchical organizational relations. Institutions and institutes do not necessarily have to solidify, but can be based on principles of circulation, mobility and a sense of vitality that does not lack in criticality either.
To conclude, a short insert on the emerging research streams of CoDE:
The Cultures of Digital Economy (CoDE) Institute embeds research streams in artistic and cultural approaches to digital technologies. It emphasises cultures in the plural, and uses creative practice as the motor for value creation in digital environments. Its research projects, business and community engagement and learning collaborations emphasise this innovative, critical, and creative approach to the digital economy. The research is by nature transdisciplinary –between and across disciplinary boundaries – and probes new opportunities to cultivate innovative approaches to new information, media, and communication content, platforms, and networks.
CoDE has four key Research Streams:
1. Social media and Network Politics
The ubiquity of networking, social media and web 2.0 in everyday life means new positives and pitfalls in building social relationships, value creation, and knowledge production, and in highlighting politics and activism. CoDE is dedicated to analysing emerging forms of peer-to-peer activity, social collaboration, and remix culture through a combination of established and experimental research methods.
2. Digital Performance and Production
With the establishment of Anglia Ruskin’s Digital Performance Lab and a strong cluster of research productive staff, CoDE will develop and grow innovative research in music and embodied performance in digital environments. From creative practice research to the development of new interfaces and applications for music production this stream thrives on rapid changes to sonic economies and creative communities fostered by digital interfaces, immersive environments, and wearable technologies.
3. Digital Humanities – Archives, Interfaces, Tools
Rethinking humanities in the age of new media is a crucial and unavoidable challenge for academics worldwide. From new theoretical approaches to innovative modes of distribution, archiving, and accessing of material, CoDE research projects tackle complex questions posed by efforts to digitize forms of cultural heritage, intellectual archives, and humanities-based forms of critical and creative work.
4. Play and Serious Gaming
Digital culture is by its nature playful. Gaming does not only represent a mode of entertainment and a new form of interactivity that gives rise to new practical and theoretical tools, but also a way of rethinking learning and education. Including everything from visual effects to serious gaming, this research stream brings together SMEs, informal programming communities, interface developers and designers. It will create new opportunities for Cambridge’s existing and emerging strengths in the gaming industry to collaborate and will explore the future that these technologies hold.
Code is Directed by Dr Jussi Parikka, Reader in Media Theory & History at Anglia Ruskin,
Co-Director: Dr Samantha Rayner
Research Fellow: Dr Greg Elmer
CoDE has over 50 affiliated staff members from across a range of disciplines: from computing to media theory, creative music technologies to creative visual practices and much more.