Discourse network 2000 Does technology influence what we write?

On: October 15, 2009
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About Kimberley Spreeuwenberg
Currently I am a Master student of New Media at the UvA. In 2007 I graduated in Graphic Design at ArtEZ, Arnhem. During the study at ArtEZ I was introduced to some ‘grande’ theorists, like McLuhan and Manovich. After working as a graphic designer for one year I decided to expand my knowledge of the media I use as a professional designer and the way these media influence society. My interests in media are very broad, but I am especially focused on Internet and Internet culture. At this time I still work as a graphic designer. In my assignments I combine low and high technology tools (analogue and digital techniques). Visit my site!


How do the tools that you use for writing influence what you write?
Alan Liu researches this relation between technology and writing. He argues that our reading and writing is part of “discourse network 2000”. We structure our knowledge more and more in XML (extended markup language) and databases and this, according to him, influences not only how we write, but also what we write.

The term “discourse network 2000” refers to Friedrich Kittler’s Aufschreibesystem 1800 en 1900. Kittler defines discourse network as follows: “(T)he network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data. Technologies like that of book printing and the institutions coupled to it, such as literature and the university, thus constituted a historically very powerful formation” He pointed out that in the current discourse network one should also take into account data storage, transmission, and calculation in technological media.” [2]

Liu explains how in our current society software-protocols of our publication software shape our communication. On a practical level this means that what we write is shaped by the requirements of XML and the databases in which they are stored. Liu argues that due to these databases and XML we now see a strict distinction between the structure of content and its presentation. What the document looks like and what it is are two different things. The information exists without its (material) visual presentation. Liu argues that due to this distinction between content and presentation “discourse network 2000” can be understood as a belief. It reverses what literature scientists believe in. They see texts as material artifacts. The presentation of the text to them is sacramental. For “discourse network 2000 believers” the presentation is purely interfacial. They see text from an abstract point of view.

What does this mean for the act of writing and authoring?
Liu explains that:

“From the author’s viewpoint, therefore, a poem can now be written free of commitment to, or even knowledge of, the formal or material conventions for receiving the poem. Just as striking is the inverse of the double-blind relationship: an author can now create the formal or material conventions for receiving a poem free of any specific knowledge about what actual source content will be delivered into that frame.”

This distinction between content and presentation becomes apparent with the use of RSS feeds. You implement text from different places in one personal website. The texts are disconnected from a particular visual presentation. The author only selects and combines several sources. “He surrenders the act of writing to that of parameterization”.

If you look at blogs from this perspective you can question how the conventions of the blog software influence what we create. On one level there is the theme or style of your blog. This determines how your text will appear. You can make these decisions separate from the text that will be implemented. On another level the software of blogs asks you to enter a title, add tags, categories, etc. It forces you to handle/create your text in a particular way. It can give you the opportunity to implement an image. It can force you to outline the images to the right etc.

For example, if you look at the Masters of Media blog. The excerpt in the main page may contain not more than sixty characters. There are two ways how this excerpt is created. You have the possibility of writing a separate excerpt of sixty words that can be entered in a special box. Or, iIf you don’t use this possibility the first sixty words of your blog post will be automatically shown as the excerpt on the main page. The blog software forces you to write, or an excerpt of approximately sixty words, or to keep in mind that your first sixty words will be used as an excerpt. In my case, I try to write my first paragraph as a short introduction to the rest of the post. So here, the software protocols discipline me in how I structure my text and maybe even in what I write.

Liu takes this way of thinking a step further.
In line of Kittler he compares the databases that contain content, “the source” with the concept of “Nature” in 1800. In this romantic era, according to Kittler, the source of meaning was found in Nature. Language was seen as “a mere channel of translatability of the transcendental essence of Nature”. In the modernist era circa 1900, by contrast, mother nature was a faint echo. The true source of the signal, Kittler argues, was an apparently random, senseless, automatic, untranslatable noise inherent in the channel of transmission itself.

Liu points out that the distinctive signal of 2000 synthesizes 1800 and 1900. He explains that in 2000, the channel is just as seemingly senseless, random, and automatic as in 1900. “(Take a cross-section of a document transmission over the internet at ay moment, for example, and witness a dispersion of atomistic file packets and molar document elements)”. But unlike in 1900 the source is not equal to this senseless channel. In 2000 the source can be found in “a precursor act of sense making in the databases and XML repositories outside the direct control of the author”. So like in 1800 the author becomes a messenger of meaning or content that already exists, he is no longer the source of the content but he has a mediating position.

“In a curious reversion to 1800 – that content held in databases and XML now sets the very standard for an ultra-structured and ultra described rationality purer than any limiting instantiation of the Ding an Sich.”

So the databases contain structured information, knowledge, and meaning. The author has no direct influence on this. He can only guide what is already there. (This you can recognize with RSS feeds) The main question here is: are you still an author under these circumstances, can you still be creative?

Liu concludes his article with the question: “In our current age of knowledge work and total information, what experience of the structurally unknowable can still be conveyed in structured media of knowledge?” He proposes that we can only create share, and write things that can be structured. The technology does not only influence how we write, but also what we write or what we can write. I agree with Liu that the technology disciplines our writings and communications in a technical manner, as I illustrated with the excerpt example of the Masters of Media blog, but I don’t think that it disciplines in what we write or what we say.

Alan Liu. Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse.
[1] Friedrich A. Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens, Stanford, Ca., 1990, p. 369).

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