Matthew Kirschenbaum and Douglass Rushkoff's views on digital media

by Belle Gironda

Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, By Matthew Kirschenbaum. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008.

Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, by Douglass Rushkoff. OR Books, New York, New York, 2010. Kindle Version.

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s 2008 book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008), was a groundbreaking contribution to the critical discourse around new media. It is beautifully written, full of poetic language and imagery, and possesses a compelling narrative style, rare in this kind of scholarly work. In the first part of the book, Kirschenbaum makes an intensive argument about the “ontology” of digital artifacts and about the applicability of what he calls forensics to our study of them (17). As a teacher, I found this part of the book most useful for its discussion of the physical materiality of digital artifacts. Kirschenbaum challenges some popular misconceptions about digital objects and articulates some key characteristics in ways that can help spark students’ curiosity and initiate critical conversations about the significant properties of digital media. Most recently, I referred to aspects of his schema in both my advanced digital rhetoric class and also in my introductory rhetoric and composition classes at the American University in Cairo, where we explored the theme of digital culture.

Despite their immersion in various realms of social media, and their self-described addiction to BBM (in Cairo, where Blackberries were still the device of choice), some of my students did not have a well developed or internalized concept of the digital to serve as a starting point for our explorations of the meaning and importance of digital culture or digital rhetoric. Kirschenbaum’s formulations (along with other resources such as James Zappen’s article, “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory,” a brief overview of the literature on the “characteristics, affordances and constraints” of communication in digital spaces) helped us to develop shared notions of some of the meaningful qualities of digital media so that we could begin to investigate their relations with culture and communication.

Deviating in useful ways from much of the existing work by new media theorists and scholars of e-literature, Kirschenbaum invokes his own experience with digital archives and the work of high profile scholar and internationally known expert on electronic records, Dr. Kenneth Thibodeau. It is the archivists, says Kirschenbaum, who in their practical need to preserve, store and retrieve digital objects, have generated some of the most thoughtful and useful accounts of the nature and distinctive properties of these objects. Via Thibodeau’s “tripartite model for defining digital objects” (3), Kirschenbaum reminds us that when considering digital objects we need to attend to more than just the .jpg photo file on the screen, or the MPEG4 video that we are streaming from YouTube. These on-screen phenomena constitute what Thibodeau calls the conceptual level of the digital artifact (4). While this conceptual level is most often the focus for everyday users, and even for new media theorists and critics, Kirschenbaum points out that it is in the examination of the other two levels, the physical and the logical, and also the interactions between and among levels, that can yield more complex and useful understandings of the distinctive properties of the digital. The physical level refers to “signs inscribed on a medium” such as the minute depressions etched on the grooved surface of a CD when data is burned to it. The logical is the level at which “data is read and interpreted by processes and applications software” where, for example, the binary structure of a PowerPoint file is recognized and interpreted by an Office application (3).

I found that, through Kirschenbaum’s discussion of Thibodeau’s tripartite model, students had access to more complicated ways of thinking about digital objects and therefore, about digital culture and digital rhetoric. For example, when analyzing the rhetorical properties of a PowerPoint presentation, it becomes clear that it was not enough to simply look at the slides on a screen and to talk about the organization of bullet points, the titles, the structure of the argument being made, or the images, charts and colors employed. By considering the PPT file as a digital object, the essence or, to use Kirschenbaum’s term, ontology (12) of which is constituted by these three different levels, my students were compelled to consider the importance also of the logical and physical layers. They realized that so much of what constitutes a PowerPoint presentation is predetermined by the software itself before the author ever sits down at a computer to create a presentation. PowerPoint has made a lot of choices that are not alterable by the user. These choices are encoded and invoked at the logical level. Likewise, since the physical level makes reference to modes of compression and storage, it reminds us to consider those qualities of a PowerPoint presentation that include portability, transmissibility, modularity, dependence on a digital storage medium and a digital display device—all of which contribute to it’s rhetorical character and enhance its prevalence and over-exposure, key elements of the rhetorical situation in which it operates, the scene of persuasion.

While the efficacy of this approach is obvious in a rhetoric class, it is also easy to extrapolate how this kind of thinking about digital objects, and by association, digital culture, could be very useful for the provocation of more complex thinking about the meaning and significance of digital technologies, in a variety of academic disciplines and in everyday life.

Program or Be Programmed, by Douglas Rushkoff (2011), is a recent book that takes on the meaning and significance of the digital in everyday life. It is intended for a much broader popular audience than Kirshenbaum’s scholarly work and, on the surface, the two books have little in common. Kirschenbaum’s book advances the critical conversation around electronic literature and though Rushkoff, at one point, refers to his analysis as a “poetics” of digital media, it feels a lot like a (reasonably sophisticated) self- help book for rethinking our relationships with digital technologies. Still, I thought of Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, when I read Rushkoff recently because in both cases, the foundation for their arguments rests on what Kirschenbaum refers to as “the ontology of digital phenomena.” Kirschenbaum’s discussion has more depth and complexity, focusing a lot on the oft-ignored technical aspects of digital storage. His goals are also different than Rushkoff’s, but where they overlap is in the ways that their work points us towards the general need for a better understanding of digital technologies and, by extrapolation, some possible implications for educators.

Rushkoff lays it on the line on page one:

In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.

It sounds a little apocalyptic, but it also makes perfect sense. As more and more aspects of our daily lives involve interactions with and even dependence on digital technologies, we have to begin to question, what is the nature of true digital literacy? Are we truly literate, in ways fully contemporary with our moment, if we know how to use computers and other digital devices and popular software packages? Or, should we really know more about how these devices work, how software is written, what algorithms are invoked when we enter keywords for an online search, or even what are the technical, and therefore actual differences between an analogue sound recording and a digital one?

Mr. Rushkoff organizes his argument around what he calls the biases of digital technologies, utilizing a classic self-help structure in which he offers 10 commands urging us to become more aware of these biases, to take advantage of that awareness and/or to resist some of their less desirable influences in our lives. The commands range from the predictable, behavior-modification type advice: “Do not always be on,” or, “Live in person,” to commands that hover somewhere between good old-fashioned netiquette; and ethical standards for 21st century netizens like, “Don’t sell out your friends” and “Share don’t steal.” Each command involves some analysis of an inherent bias that usually includes a light accessible unpacking of technical aspects of the technology with a particular focus on the characteristics of networked communication.

Here’s how Rushkoff’s book worked for me. I started out reading it like an eager acolyte, seduced by the book’s title and especially taken with what I thought would be his primary thesis: that computer programming is the next wave of literacy, that it is a fundamental form of knowledge, and that we should all learn to do it, just like we learn to read or write or do multiplication and addition. His introduction and his last command approach this assertion, but the bulk of the body of the book mostly shies away from bold thinking about the need for a real paradigm shift. Instead, it focuses on suggestions for individuals to cope and thrive in a more digital world.

I was disappointed at times by the generalizations he makes, and by the ways that his focus on biases leads to some of the very binary (on or off) type thinking that he cautions against in his chapters on choice and complexity, called respectively, “You May Always Choose none of the Above,” and “You are Never Completely Right.” In an effort to stay consistent with his own somewhat formulaic argument he sets up several instances in which he reduces complicated issues to simple binary type formulations. For example, he argues, “digital technology—and those of us using it—[are] biased toward a reduction of complexity” (Rushkoff, Ch. 4, par. 3). One of the examples he gives is Web searching in which, “all knowledge is the same distance away—just once removed from were we are now.” In this way, information searching is, he says, “…minimized—turned into a one-dimensional call to our networks for a response” (Ch. 4, par. 3).

This seems a case where, if one wants, as Rushkoff does, to make a case that complexity is reduced, one could focus on certain aspects of the process and certain transformations wrought by digital technologies, ignoring others and construct a kind of straw man argument. I felt a gut resistance to his argument that complexity is reduced and, while mulling it over, I googled Federalist Papers to give myself a concrete experience of what he is describing. The top five hits were in the following order:

  1. The Wikipedia entry on the Federalist Papers
  2. The Library of Congress pages with the full-text of the Federalist papers and links to a deep rich and complex Web of other resources, including the national Archives scanned images of some of the actual published essays, links to various resources for teachers teaching with primary sources, bibliographies of works about the Federalist Papers and links to other related sites at Yale, University of Chicago and elsewhere.
  3. A link to a site called Founding Fathers Info, which also includes the full text of the Federalist Papers, and links to the text of other documents like the Constitution and the Antifederalist papers. The main page of this site also links to a blog post by a Tea Party supporter who compares the Boston Tea Party to the current Tea Party movement, indirectly suggesting that the current movement members should be willing to go much further in their actions and in what they are willing to risk to further their ends. Another link on the main page is to an outside site that discusses the Gasden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and prominently displays an example of a confederate flag with the Gasden coiled snake superimposed on it.
  4. A Spark Notes page on the Federalist Papers that includes summaries and analysis of the essays, a timeline, notes on key figures and events, context, study questions, etc.
  5. Yale University’s Avalon Project full text of the Federalist Papers.
  6. The full text of the Federalist Papers posted by an organization called the Constitution Society. Perusal of the full websites indicates that it was founded and maintained by a libertarian aspiring politician from Texas, who counts among his scholarly achievements the editing and formatting for the web of a book that argues for the abolition of the federal income tax. The site’s “What’s New” page includes an entry on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Act of Congress, which includes the description, “…sometimes called ‘Obamacare,’ which threatens our constitutional liberties.”

The sources of course, go on and on: a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that quotes the Federalist Papers and discusses the international spread of federalism and its particular applications in India, a piece in Middle East Online that critiques the American political right for its enlistment of “the Framers of the Constitution as enemies of a strong central government,” and several reviews of scholarly biographies of Madison, Hamilton, etc.

My point is this: though the process of information searching made possible and popular via the WWW Internet and by software like Google, looks different than those processes that preceded digital technologies, how can you possibly argue that complexity is inherently reduced? The surface appearance of the information is, at first glance, made homogenous, in that when search results appear on a webpage page, every Google link looks a lot like any other. But, much of what today’s researcher’s need to know is similar to what they would need to know in conducting pre-digital research: the differences between an encyclopedia entry, a primary source and a critical/analytical secondary source, for example. As in the pre-digital past, researchers also need to be able to discern the perspectives and agendas of those who are presenting information and to understand the political nature of all information. Far from simplifying this process, search engines which yield a spectrum of a given search term’s iterations in a range of contemporary and historical contexts, can make the researcher’s work more challenging and also richer in allusion and forking pathways. Rushkoff fears that digital culture over values “data points” and that the ease with which we can find any single fact may lead to the seeking of decontextualized facts, at the expense of more in depth inquiry. If this is happening, it is not so much a bias of the technology as it is a failure on the part of those of us who are educating the current and coming generations of computer users.

Here’s’ where Rushkoff’s book, despite his lapses into oversimplification, can serve as a valuable teaching tool. While I’m not satisfied with all the answers he offers, in the form of his ten commands, I do think he’s asking many of the right questions—questions that we all should be asking, both of ourselves, and in our classrooms. I reject Rushkoff’s technological determinism that claims “our digital experiences are making us more simple,” but I agree that we are sometimes guilty of this charge: “Instead of learning about our technology, we opt for a world in which our technology learns about us” (Ch. 4. Para 18).

With our students, we need to ask the questions about digital culture and technologies that Rushkoff raises: How are our relationships with time and space being transformed? To what degree are we acting as creative contributors or as more passive consumers in the digital realm? How are our communications shaped by software and networks, and what might we want to change about that? How is the pursuit of knowledge transformed by collaborative possibilities and the easy access to information? What is the nature of intellectual property and creative artifacts in an increasingly digital world? And, what are the urgent things we need to attend to regarding issues of identity, anonymity, surveillance and privacy? No individual and no academic discipline is, at this point in history, unconcerned with these issues—though acknowledgement of this fact may not yet be fully activated.

In his final chapter, Mr. Rushkoff makes his most radical and, I think, convincing pitch that we are truly missing the boat by not teaching programming skills as part of the regular curriculum starting in the elementary grades. Among his powerful points is that, in our current approach to computer literacy, we teach programs rather than programming (Chap 10, par. 4). As a result, learners develop the abilities to behave in the ways that software programs want them to behave (Ch 10, par 5). The idea that the restricted set of choices that most programs offer us could be changed and expanded does not even occur to the average user. The user is placed in a subordinate relationship to the software, her choices programmed by the program. Not only that, but at the level of computer code, where some of the greatest innovations in digital culture are possible, we are missing out on the many minds that could contribute and on the diversity of priorities that could be addressed in a world where programming was a standard literacy skill made available to all.


Belle Gironda
Faculty Development Specialist
Faculty Center for Professional Excellence

This piece is from the Spring 2012 Issue No. 17 of the FCPE Newsletter.

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