Digital Mythologies / Digital Plagues – (Part 3)

”He’d always wanted to become quantum dust, transcending his body mass, the soft tissue over the bones, the muscle and fat. The idea was to live outside the given limits on a disk, in a chip, as data in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from the void. The technology was imminent, or not; it was semi-mythical; it was the natural next step; it would never happen, it is happening now. An evolutionary advance that needed only the practical mapping of the nervous system onto digital memory […] But his pain interfered with his immortality. It was crucial to his distinctiveness. Too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation. The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified, much less converted to data. The things that lived and milled in his body, everywhere, random, riotous billions of trillions, in neurons and peptides, the throbbing temple-vein, in the veer of his libidinous intellect. So much come and gone. This is who he was. The lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes. This is him. And how a person becomes the reflection he sees in a dusty window when he walks by. He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain.” (Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis)

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (Albert Einstein, notice in his Princeton office)

Irrational Value

It is interesting that at the root of ‘rational’ there is ‘ratio’ – ‘ratio’ in the original Latin meaning ‘reckoning’ or ‘reasoning’, yet contemporaneously marking a relationship between two numbers. Indeed, a ‘rational number’ is defined as any real number[1] which can be expressed as a ratio (a/b where a and b are integers and b does not equal 0). For instance 2/1 = 2 or 1/2 is a half, so a half and 2 belong to the set of rational numbers. By contrast, the ‘irrational numbers’ are those real numbers which cannot be expressed as a ratio and have the characteristic of neither terminating nor repeating their pattern. PI is such an example or the root of 2.[2] This relationship between ‘rational’ as a neat expression of a value in integers and ‘rationality’ is interesting given that reasoning too seems keen to imitate this process and seeks to model reality within similarly constrictive limits.

For example, a length may be measured at 2 m, yet a more precise measuring instrument may give you 2.1 m or 2.18356… m etc. depending on the precision of the instrument. In short, a length, a distance, a time etc. may not be measured precisely and each, so far as we understand it, could be measured into infinity in the real world.[3] Such quantities – time, distance etc. – therefore fall onto a continuous measuring scale; that is, between any two values (such as 1 and 2) there are an infinite range of other, in-between values (0.1, 0.11, 0.111 …). This is in contrast to the measures on a discrete scale, for example when counting the number of people in a room, the values will be consistent with whole numbers – 1, 2, 5, 10 etc. with no in-betweens. You wouldn’t want 1.23… people in a room.[4]

”This wreckage I call me, would like to frame your voice”

Numbers are a convenient conceptual model for measuring, manipulating and describing external reality, however the numbers may not match external reality precisely. This is particularly true where we talk about computers which may be viewed as a machine which imposes on reality an artificial limit. Machine-thought is by its nature limited and limiting and is fundamentally alien to the reality it strives to represent. Take for example the process of sampling sound. Sound is a function of continuous time and space – its pitch derives from its frequency and its volume from the “sound wave’s” amplitude. To model a sound wave, a computer will take numerous samples of the sound at different points in its duration (ideally 44,100 samples per second according to the Nyquist-Shannon model) and this is returned as a high ‘resolution’, ‘good quality’ representation of the sound wave modelled. Each sample taken by the computer will be limited by the computer’s hardware, e.g., by the size of number (and therefore the precision of the number) it is able to represent. Moreover, in continuous real-time, between any 2 samples of the sound taken by the computer, there would be an infinite number of infinitesimal gradations of sound. The computer therefore caps the amplitude to a certain precision whilst converting a continuous, analogue sound wave to a series of discrete, individual steps.

There is a similar process involved in the way that computers represent visual information. The LCD screen is made up of an array of tiny picture elements (pixels) through which light is shone. Each pixel is made up of 3 colour-filtered sub-pixels (red, green and blue) and a current is used to control the amount of light that is allowed through each sub-pixel by untwisting the twisted nematic liquid crystal molecules between the light source and the glass display. The mix of these coloured sub-pixels gives each pixel its individual colour. The computer uses a numeric value to represent the red, green and blue of each pixel and translates this to a current for controlling each sub-pixel. The resolution of any image is therefore limited to the number of pixels – a continuous slope in real-space is therefore translated into a stepped slope dependent on the pixel density of a screen. Similarly, gradations of colour and shade are dependent on this pixel density as well as the range in numbers the computer can represent and through which it represents colour.

Psychology and Aesthetics – Towards Digital Wilding

“Every system that approaches perfect operativity simultaneously approaches its downfall . . . it approaches absolute power and total absurdity; that is, immediate and probable subversion.” (Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 4)

  • From the above observations, we can make the case that machine representation is something alien to external reality even though it involves us more and more as if it were our ‘reality’. As such, one may be led to ask questions about how reality may respond when confronted with such experientially involving, artificial representations. For example the sophistication with which the brain responds and adapts to digitized signals such as digital audio, digital images or digital sensations.[5] The vinyl purest may not be so far off in his contention that CD recordings have qualitatively changed in more obscure ways than just their simple surface sound. Aside the structural difference of digital sound, the scratched surface quality of a vinyl recording also summons a historical ghost in the background of the cleaner digital sound. Three environments of listening can therefore be suggested: the perceptible, surface quality of the sound; the juxtapositional effect produced by the relationship between different kinds of recorded sound (for example in the way a ‘pure’ digital quality contrasts with scratched vinyl to evoke a ghost of nostalgia) and finally, a more obscure ‘experiential’ difference, outside of aural perception, but something perceptible in the unknown organic, structural changes and interpretive faculties of the brain. That is, an organic shift in the nervous system is caused by its interaction with the structurally different and synthetic digital representation.[6]

  • In writing and art, there is much to suggest there is some truth to the idea that machinic representation is distorting thought and perception. At the very least, art is aware of and making use of this possibility – writing a heart (or absent heart) for a machinic perception. Talking about his dystopian vision of cyber-capital Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo describes the style of the book as an almost necessary decision. That the language needed to be “hard edged”, “terse”, “concise” (Michael Krasny interview with Don Delillo). The language of the novel is unquestionably cold and concentrated, itself suggestive of a high-resolution screen of resonant and isolated units and of the intense, interiorised scrutiny of the capital investor. In the character of Eric Packer (and most of his cohorts) there is a high-definition intensification of the self which well reflects the precise hard limits of machinic thought and the fact it is a mysterious alien to its host reality. The whole story centres on Packer’s journey to discover that irregularity and asymmetry are aspects of any system – or that reality eventually has no system. Every new system changes the underlying reality it presides over.
  • “Although it might seem an extreme analogy, I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.” (Greenfield, S. House of Lords Debate, 2009)

    Regulation, legislation, binary truth, increased precision, systemic thought, social models, reality conceived through models, tele-/techno-communication, A-to-D conversion, computer representation: all have a similar way of seeking to terminate irrational or interminable potentials. A chat-room removes the body and voice; a virtual world removes touch and represents synthetically; a computer designed bone structure or facial reconstruction, plastic surgery or an air-brushed image amplifies perfection to the grotesque: the healthy and the strong – the bored and the impotent; a functional architecture based on convenience terminates the diversities of inconvenience etc. The aesthetic universe of the Ballardian High Rise where irrational reality distorts and progresses in unexpected ways inside its functionalist, sterile limits. If reality avenged itself on the balanced expression of Greek reality through whole numbers with the irrational number, then reality’s irrational potentialities should seek to avenge themselves on the expression of reality through systems and models. As a perfect circle might give birth to PI, the prisoners of any model should strive to give birth to those potentials that are outside and necessarily dependent on its limits. Any system – material or conceptual – alters the reality of its prisoners and produces new systemic potentials. It is the burden of these prisoners to live out the rationalities and irrationalities of these new systems – to produce the languages that may build or destroy them or to redeem and redirect the terminated potentials. Every system contains within itself an alternative system and as such, its own irrational kernel of destruction.

[1] – Any value representing a quantity along a continuous line, including negative, positive, rational and irrational values.
[2] – Irrational values are those that cannot be represented as terminating or repeating decimals. For the Ancient Greeks, they broke the relationship between whole numbers and the real world. Hippasus (credited with providing one of the first proofs of the existence of irrational numbers) was, according one legend, thrown into the sea by fellow Pythagoreans. This was said to be for producing an element in the universe that denied the doctrine that all phenomena can be reduced to whole numbers and their ratios (Kline, p.32). In this, the irrational number works in a similar way to irrationality – reality avenges itself on precision within mathematical models in a similar way to how irrationality presents meaningful spaces outside of reason.
[3] – You could of course change your unit of measure – say ‘time interval A’ is equal to 1 time interval A, but though precise, this wouldn’t be much use as a universal unit of measurement.
[4] – It’s worth noting that almost shadowing our shift into an age of code and digital computation/manipulation, quantum mechanics is also finding reason to ‘quantise’ or redefine the world in terms of discrete components. The model of space today however continues to be a continuous model based on general relativity (Orti, 2011).
[5] – Interestingly, electrical signals to the brain are currently understood to be encoded in a form similar to a binary encoding using a series of all-or-nothing ‘spikes’ or ‘action potentials’. How this information is interpreted or converted into subjective experience however is a mystery – the irresolvable qualities of subjectivity and objectivity.
[6] – This rationale should not be construed so much through complaint or anxiety. Between the real event and the experience of the event there are already many kinds of conversion take place: from the displacement of the air to its transmission through the mechanical elements of the ear, then there’s its conversion to electrical energy in the bushy cells of the ear and its subsequent transmission as action potentials to the brain. Adding an analogue to digital, then digital to analogue conversion during the recording and listening process merely adds another obfuscating stage to the signal’s communication. The effects of this man-made imposition however remain worth considering: to what extent does this synthetic intermediary shape and redefine the underlying nature with which it interacts? It is certainly worth considering electronic music and modern writing against this backdrop.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

(Kraftwerk: Antenna.
A pulse of noise that obliterates the constrained environment of the music)

(Radiohead: Feral.
The wild impulse as it emerges through electronic media.
Broken syntax, a cut and paste pattern amidst scratchy electronics.
Digital wilding.)

(Some good stuff on reality’s submission to algorithms.)


DeLillo, D. Cosmopolis
House of Lords Debate, 2009, Children and Social Networking, Last Accessed: 21-09-2013
HowStuffWorks: The LCD
Kline, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times: Vol 1, 1990
Krasny, M. KQED Radio interview with Don Delillo
Oriti, On the Depth of Quantum Space, 2011, (Last Accessed: 21-09-2013).

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