The cultural economy of the 21st century is largely defined by an acute sense of pragmatism, not as a quality inherent in things as much as a quality assigned by cultural propaganda to our perception of reality. A thing’s value derives from our ability to experience it through our senses, eventually leading consumers to incorporate an object’s qualities into their daily lives. In a hyper-consumerist society, our experience of commodities is acutely defined by our capacity to possess the objects we consume, along with the qualities that make them useful to our individual lives. Not only can we touch, see, hear, destroy, burn, or taste the object, but the experience of identical objects becomes unique as we appropriate them in individual ways. However, today’s digital economy is defined by its commodities’ intangibility and mass reproducibility, shifting our experience of the goods that generate our sense of the real. The apparent intangibility of the digital becomes a powerful ideology that forecloses the materiality of its production and circulation, veiling the inequal power relations that constitute it. The same transoceanic routes, used to trade material goods across global markets, are replicated by underwater internet cables that circulate the virtual goods that make up the world’s fleeting yet powerful digital heritage.
The migration of records from a material object—a vinyl record, a cassette, or a CD—to online mp3 purchases, is a vivid example of this shift. The fetishism associated with physically possessing an album was and is crucial to music lovers and their subcultural practices as they decorated their homes with album covers, exchanged records with one another, and felt as though the object itself was as precious as its content. The actual experience of buying an album file on iTunes, for example, is completely different.
In his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff argues, “The consumer is no longer truly consuming anything, but experiencing and paying for a constant flow of user rights to things, services, and data owned by others […] it is a reality in which contracts define our access, corporations invade our privacy, and software limits our ability to socialize and share.” Even though there are other ways of purchasing music online, such as Google Play which doesn’t work with the Digital Rights Management software, the weight of the Apple ideology has turned consumerism in the digital age into the ultimate postmodern phenomenon, where the form exerts total control over the experience of the content.
In the case of digital/web-based archives, this question of the digital’s tangibility becomes even more relevant. The historical power of an archive—as concept and as practice—emerges from its methodical system of hierarchically organizing information and knowledge that is deemed relevant by a given state of power. Its foundational discourse points to the authority of the document: to the trace of a past that can be proved by its existence as document(ed). What constitutes a document is an important and relevant question that will be difficult to entirely dissect here. In popular knowledge, however, a document has some sort of materiality that is other from us; we can touch, see, hear and eventually read it. The authority of the document is based on the idea that it allows us to see the , index of a time past, of a fleeting moment that is always already gone from our sensorial experiences. The capacity to experience a document—to see, touch, or feel it to be true and real—is policed by the very same traditional archival sites, whose primary role is to manage access to information, and thus to power.
However, the digital seems to erase the material conditions of the document, as these exist always as copies on the web. Diana Taylor argues in her article “Save As,” “unlike the archive, based on the logic and aura of the original or representative item, the digital relies on the logic and mechanism of the copy that enables the migration from one system or format to another that secures ‘preservation’.” When digital reproduction not only replaces the “original,” but in many ways becomes the original itself, a new space opens for the (re)imagining of a new materiality, and even a new sense of experience.
But even if we attempt to think about the digital as its own type of materiality, the ambiguous existence and presence/absence of digital information complicates issues of ownership and access in relation to the traditional archive—mainly defined by the accumulation of physical documents, objects, and images. An increasing recognition of the necessity to regulate this unruly/unstable field is evidenced through the UNESCO’s Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage, which provides basic guidelines about how to handle this type of information.
A selection of different sections from the charter reads as follows:
“The digital heritage consists of unique resources of human knowledge and expression […] The world’s digital heritage is at risk of being lost to posterity. Contributing factors include the rapid obsolescence of the hardware and software which brings it to life, uncertainties about resources, responsibility and methods for maintenance and preservation, and the lack of supportive legislation […] Unless the prevailing threats are addressed, the loss of the digital heritage will be rapid and inevitable […] Long-term preservation of digital heritage begins with the design of reliable systems and procedures which will produce authentic and stable digital objects.”
The growing anxiety over the digital’s intangibility is immediately countered with increasing attempts to regulate and define its own form of materiality. These efforts essentially disclose two important points to be considered in this argument. First, that our modes of knowledge and the systems complicit within them—in our case a neoliberal and postmodern one increasingly obsessed with pastiche and fetishism—will always adapt the new to the logic of consumption, possession, and regulation. Second, that the digital is in fact material in its production and in its consumption, both as real and tangible experiences. The digital seems like the natural step in a chain of developments, providing neoliberal markets with the perfect mechanism through which to enhance what has always characterized them, rerouting commerce onto secondary economies so that capitalism might better function as a seamless product devoid of humanity, touch, byproducts, and violence. Even for those of us who don’t dispose of our phones the moment a new one comes out on the market, our constant use and dependence on digital technology is fueled by the extraction of minerals, cheap and unfair labor, and fossil fuel industries. Consuming the digital is not an intangible experience, but it is represented as such to alienate us even further from the dynamics we partake in.
The form of the digital is, nevertheless, something that can’t be fully apprehended, at least in the way in which it is both experienced and represented. The images that pop up in a quick Google search of “digital web” mainly show blue illustrations of complex interconnections, depicting a sense of wholeness based on a complicated and inaccessible web. The apparent intangible omnipresence of the Web, however, is contrasted with the sense of individual control that arises from its digital products. As we scroll through, pause, play, fast-forward, repeat and copy-paste digital information, we ultimately intensify the fetishistic utilitarianism that these things have in our lives. The web, which we can’t fully comprehend, creates a context through which we can perpetuate consumerist fetishes. Taylor discusses the dynamics of digital experience, arguing, “place/thing/practice change online. Again, the three are deeply inter-connected and altered in and through digital technologies. The spatiality of the archive as ‘public building’ gives way to the paradoxical ubiquity and seeming no-where-ness of the digital archive […] We are all seemingly ‘here,’ live, now, online, no matter where the ‘here’ might be […] the ‘here’ of the web is immediate and (only apparently) unlocatable.” The experience of the digital is defined by its immediate-ness, as well as by the presence it has beyond the actual moment of encounter with it. This transcendence, along with the material conditions of the web, engenders a powerful ideology that further alienates the consumer from the production system, replacing the material abyss between the two with a virtual mirage that operates on a pseudo-spiritual level of belief.
In order to access the intangible goods of our information economies, we require tangible tools that place an increasing demand on the market. The technology that allows us to enter our digital platforms is produced in secondary economies, in countries where the demands of the digital world are defining the (mis)use of resources, labor exploitation, and the ongoing pollution of other environments. In early 2016, Amnesty International published a report titled Exposed: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries, revealing the unethical labor practices of electronic brands—including Apple, Samsung, and Sony—that enable the digital economy to function. The laborious and horrific conditions of cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the largest extraction of this mineral is happening, is essential in producing lithium batteries that power all the computers, smartphones, and devices that allow us to access our digital commodities, and yet we are always at a remove. The extraction of these materials is also heavily dangerous to workers, poisoning their bodies through the manipulation and proximity to the toxins released by the mining process. The potential for contamination and toxicity of technology devices is exacerbated at the beginning of the production line—during the mining process—and at the end of the consumption line—when they are disposed. In this sense, the veiling of tangibility that is characteristic of the consumer’s experience of digital goods, also displaces the dangers of touching these materials towards the fringes of device’s life. These dynamics drastically shift the logics of haptics, creating a paradox essential to sustaining the digital market; miners are sent to exploit, at rather unfair wages, the minerals with the use of their hands; this material, touched by the workers, is then used for the devices that we need to access digital information.
These metals are highly toxic, not only putting in danger the lives of many workers but through the process of being returned to the earth via landfills, the toxic metals seep back into the ground. The EPA’s most recent e-waste report shows that as of 2013 in the United States alone, 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices were trashed every day. Out of the 3.27 million tons of e-waste generated in the U.S. in 2013, only 40% was recycled; the rest was trashed in incinerators or landfills. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Programme claimed, “Some 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste. When the millions of computers purchased around the world every year (183 million in 2004) become obsolete, they leave behind lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous wastes.”
The material realities of the information economy, which drive some of the largest sums of wealth in the 21st century, are not thought of as part of the technological revolution of the digital era. Citizens of the Global North as well as cosmopolitan citizens around the world are expected to see the benefits of this economy through the access to education these devices provide to their culture and society—for every kid a laptop and for every peasant a smartphone. Yet, the ideology and practice of intangibility developed around this new economy from the core of its own form, rendering the chain of production seamless.
We experience the cloud, the wireless, the oceans of data; that are the materiality of our web, completely disconnected from the material origins of our devices and technology, grounded in inequal relations of power, structures of domination, and exploitation. The heroes of our economies continue to be the developers of the cloud mythologies who have created our virtual reality to be easily unhinged from the content of their form—of production, consumption, and ultimate disposal. What we are witnessing is the inevitable step in our neoliberal society; total alienation achieved through the ever-growing abyss between the user and the worker founded on an increasingly omnipresent discourse of digital intangibility, of erasure, and ultimately of absence.
Theorizing the digital information exchange as a product and epitome of global capitalism, with all its implications, becomes even clearer when one understands the flow of information that makes up these seemingly intangible economies. The underwater cables that make up the internet move our digital goods through very similar routes to the ones used by container ships, which move the vast majority of the global economy’s products. Even though we are not able to touch our digital information—beyond the screens that mediate our experience through light, pixels, and vectors—, the cables, servers, and datacenters that enable this information to reach us, are inevitably physical. The ability to touch the form of the digital—and what we can feel or know from that experience—is, however, disassociated from what we see in our screens. This relation allows our experience of digital goods to be more immediate, as we are stripped from the necessity to touch the form of the content we consume. In this sense, the relationship between the increasing speed of global virtual economies and the (im)possibility of touching them is clear, as a more efficient market requires the erasure of materiality in the experience of the product. In this apparently intangible economy, information reaches us almost immediately, eliminating the space through which we can even think of the material conditions that enable our commodities to reach us in the first place.
The technological and digital industry has not fulfilled the initial predictions of Internet-hopefuls who thought it would open-up the potential to democratize information and achieve a redistribution of wealth. More and more we are faced with the fact that this new economy has allowed those in power to retain their status and gain more of it, while simultaneously exerting greater control with increasing efficiency over our societies and resources. In an interview I conducted with former Internet Archive librarian Michelle Krasowski, she stated, “the virtual environment and landscape are an extension of the colonization of capitalism over the world, as these new businesses exploit like never before the power to convince people that they need certain things that they don’t really need. The online experience is meticulously structured by the people that delve into the psychology of marketing and the setup of virtual environments; we’re never taught to be conscientious users of the online environments.”
The religiosity of these new ideological paradigms misses the very material conditions of labor and extraction that are destroying the world. Data centers are another example of the alienation produced by these ideologies. The centers that migrate all the data from the underwater wires that make up the internet to our devices, take up a lot of energy that comes from, more often than not, the fossil fuel industry, coal, and fracking. We cannot touch the extent of those the networks within which we are caught. It appears as though this virtual world we have created is becoming more and more of a bubble, superseding the importance of us being physically grounded, in contact with our material environment. In this sense, the digital era has also further alienated us from our own condition as humans, not necessarily in a socio-economic sense, but in an ethical sense and existential level. The headspace we occupy while online renders our bodies unnecessary, sensorially removed, as our brain interfaces with this vast networked thinking machine. An effort to arrive at a completely different ontology of tangibility in virtual planes might provide a way of rupturing the dynamics of the foreclosed alienation we are currently stuck in.
Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock, (New York: Penguin Group, 2013), 169. ↩
Michel Foucault argues, “the archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. But the archive is also that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity.” See Michel Foucault, “The Historical a Priori and the Archive,” in The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art Series, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge: Whitechapel, 2006), 28. ↩
For an in depth analysis of what constitutes a document in the traditional western archival logic, see Michael K. Buckland, “What is a ‘Document’?” Journal of the American Society for Information Science (1986–1998) 49.9 (Sept., 1997), 804–809. ↩
See Diana Taylor’s discussion of the archive in relation to power in, Diana Taylor, “Acts of Transfer,” in The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 19. ↩
Diana Taylor, “Save As,” E-misférica 9.1&2 (2012), 3. ↩
See UNESCO, “Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage,” published Oct. 15, 2003. http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=17721&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. ↩
Diana Taylor, “Save As,” E-misférica 9.1&2 (2012), 4. ↩
Juan Pablo Pacheco, “Digital Archives, Information Storms, and the Knowledge Conundrum,” in Dissolve Magazine 1.1 (San Francisco, 2016). http://www.dissolvesf.org/issue1/2016/6/19/juan-pablos-essay. ↩
Amnesty International, “Exposed: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries”, last modified 19 January, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/child-labour-behind-smart-phone-and-electric-car-batteries/. ↩
Electronics Take Back Coallition, “Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recycling,” January 13, 2016, http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wp-content/uploads/Facts_and_Figures_on_EWaste_and_Recycling1.pdf. ↩
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 3rd Press Release, “Basel Conference Addresses Electronic Wastes Challenge,” November 27, 2006, http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=485&ArticleID=5431&l=en. ↩
The reference to peasants speaks directly to recent policies emerging in the Global South, where many governments justify purchasing devices in order to distribute to rural areas and contribute to the development of these regions. However, more often than not, these short-lived programs have created cultures of obsolescence, and in many cases of interesting examples of technological re-appropriation. ↩
Juan Pablo Pacheco is an artist, curator, and writer currently based in Bogotá, Colombia. Focusing his practice on video and sets of conceptual exercises, Pacheco recently completed his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is currently a new genres and media professor at the El Bosque and Xavierian Universities in Bogotá.