Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Our Digital Artefacts - What and Why

Seal (2013) suggests that in the Arcades Project, Benjamin (1940) wished to explore the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche, as he examined Baudelaire’s flaneur who, according to Butler (1994), seeks a form of transcendence, eternity from the transitory.
Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842
Seal goes on to use the flaneur metaphor for our interaction with social media in the 21st century. This metaphor for the modern data stream watcher has some accuracy, but of course, as he admits, also has its limits. The flaneur is moving, the modern social media viewer is not, the stream is moving past us. The stream may be far from ambulating, in fact it can be moving with apparent urgency. Manovich (2012) suggests we can control the stream. True we can control how much of the flow we wish to view by selecting which parts of the stream to allow into our window(s) but we cannot control the flow, neither its speed nor its volume. Unless of course you have the power to switch off electricity worldwide, the flow will go on.
This brings us to his comment:
Before digital computers, the data was typically recorded in some permanent medium.
Rodin Museum showing Rodin sculptures
Rodin Museum: a data collection?

If we widen the definition of data, we can consider a Rodin sculpture to be a statement (data) set in stone. 

Is anything digital permanent? Can it ever be? The fact that the digital is fuelled by electricity, which is of itself a moving stream, does this makes us feel it is impermanent? Do we have a sense that our daily data stream is essentially ephemeral? After all, does yesterday’s status really matter?
Well the answer may be yes, because the social media viewer can easily be gripped by an urgent impulse to participate, and thus change the flow, become part of the flow, drop a message into the flow and watch where the message goes and how many more messages it provokes etc. 

This is especially visible on Twitter where a clever comment added to a retweet can change the initial tweeters intention or extrapolate its impact. This is where the flaneur and voyeur metaphors fall short, because we have the choice of being mere viewers of the stream, but at any moment we can become actors on and in the stream. This is not unlike the difference between watching a film and playing a digital game. In the latter, we are actors. But again, even this metaphor falls short, because if we participate in the data streams, we are dealing with real people sometimes in real time. Our input can have a real impact on another non-virtual human being.

The Oxford definition of an artefact is:
an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest
and gives the usage example "gold and silver artefacts". The etymological entry states "'by or using art + factum' something made".

Perhaps one of the attractions of the data stream is that it allows our naturally creative side to use some art to make something, however small, however transitory, which gives us a small taste of the transcendence which the flaneur sought.


Seal, B. (2013). 'Baudelaire, Benjamin And The Birth Of The Flâneur - Psychogeographic Review'. Psychogeographic Review. N.p., 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.Retrieved 30 November 2015, from http://psychogeographicreview.com/baudelaire-benjamin-and-the-birth-of-the-flaneur/

Manovich, L. (2015). Software Studies Initiative: Data stream, database, timeline (new article by Lev Manovich, part 1). Retrieved 30 November 2015, from http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2012/10/data-stream-database-timeline-new.html

Butler, C. (1994). Early modernism: literature music and painting in Europe, 1900-1916. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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