Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Exploring Digital Beijing

For a thorough assessment of my research up until this moment, please see the blog dated 8th February entitled Time and Resolution: Experiments in High Definition Image Making, which outlines my work and current findings.

If you’ve been to Beijing you’ll know that the West’s framing of the grand digital project is just that – a Western framing of the overall digital project that the whole of humanity has embarked upon. Being a Western framing it is skewed against or even omits the East.

You’ll know this because whilst walking through the crowds you’ve looked into the faces of a million souls that stare back at you in your difference and that stare tells you that what you have as the centre of your interests may not be the same as theirs.

Of course the principle human concerns are shared: love, hate, war, relationships, jealously, revenge, happiness, marriage and so on.

Also, those elements identified by Western theorists who are on the grand voyage to identify ‘the good ship digital’ are also shared – transdisciplinary understandings, the growth of the internet, the desire for pervasive devices, the long term urges towards having what Star Trek described as the ‘hollo-deck’, the ability to ‘beam me up Scotty’ and so on.

The thing that is different in the stare is the sense that you can gain that our predilections and concerns are just that: ‘ours’ and they’re born from our histories and cultural understandings, just as the Asian mind has its histories and cultural understandings. As Ru, my new Chinese friend tells me as I say to him that the West is decadent in many of its values: ‘Yes, but the East is brutal in many of its values’. This was a very honest thing to say and not necessarily meant in the way we might stereotypically understand it. Decadence is as bad a state as brutality. Decadence can be brutal and brutality can be decadent, but neither value directly follows the other.

The look in the Asian gaze says – ‘it’s my time now and I’m going to find out what that means’.

What it doesn’t mean is the decadent definitions that arose out of the analogue – the traditional academic studies that come through the Frankfurt School, then through the British and then the redefinement of French and American Academia and to some smaller extent British and other European nations, Canadian and Australian, of all of this into what is now framed as pervasive, digital and transdisciplinary and all those other word boundaries that circle this Western voyage – but to borrow a phrase – ‘it’s the whole sea, stupid, not just the bit around the boat’.

What you see when you look into a Chinese face is for a start, many, many different types of Chinese face within which there are many, many different types of soul (no apologies here, the word personality just doesn’t do it). There are 56 languages in China, 56 kinds of people in physiological structure with many subdivisions. But Western definitions are for me to be seen as a start towards a broader project about understanding what the digital is and might be and how it operates for the whole planet. It does a lot of what the West says it does, but that is only a part of the definition of the digital. To use a metaphor of the engine: we are busy looking at the carburettor – there’s still all the other stuff in an engine to understand, pistons, manifold, sump etc, which eventually will make us realise that digitality is not a carburettor at all – it’s an engine, a motive power for fundamental change in the human condition.

We know this on some levels but it’s the form of our descriptions that render us as parochial. We’ve done the best that we can up till now – but now we have to do a lot better and think a lot wider. What am I personally going to do about this? I’m going to try to learn to speak Chinese to at least begin to understand the idiom the Chinese exist within.