Have we reached an end point of the cultural history of computing? To advertise the first Macintosh computer in 1984, Apple released a famous commercial video directed by Ridley Scott. In a dystopian future, the Macintosh will save civilization from a totalitarian state with obvious references to both George Orwell’s Big Brother and allegedly also the IBM mainframe systems that were controlling the market at the time. The future will not be like Orwell’s 1984 because Apple’s computer interface will redefine what computing means. It will no longer be an interface for conformity that absorbs the worker, but an interface for individual expression and cultural taste. No doubt, the Macintosh took part in a history where computers redefined cultural consumption, communication and the arts. The computer, and not least the smart phone and tablet, has grown to become a primary medium for cultural production and consumption.
Three decades later, the table is turning. According to a leaked NSA presentation it is now Apple who is Big Brother, and enthusiastic iPhone customers who are the zombies living in a surveillance state (Rosenbach et al). In other words, the promise of a digital revolution also implies a reaction where dominant actors remain faithful to the institutions of intellectual property, as Stuart Moulthrop noted already in 1991. The imagined free world of cultural computing has turned into a business of “controlled consumption” (Striphas; Andersen and Pold “Controlled Consumption…”). To prevent piracy, software and hardware providers such as Apple, Amazon and Google have introduced a new cultural business model that involves a licensing system for cultural software and content, combined with the locking down of software into hardware and IT “appliances”. By this, the user ceases being a user. Instead of being able to use the computer, by accessing for instance the file system, the user relies on constant updates to manage the computer. The hardware is cheap, and the licenses and updates often come for free. However, as a wise pig once said, ‘if what you eat is free, you are the product’. Cultural production becomes a kind of consumption – a matter of uploading content into the cloud, and selecting filters and other pre-configurations afforded for next to nothing by service suppliers who have a clear interest in increasing the volume of content and users on their platforms. Simultaneously, otherwise passive cultural consumption is turned into production of data of what is read, looked at, listened to, etc. (including where and by whom) that is valuable in marketing, and apparently for others too. In several cases, the providers of controlled consumption have been caught in delivering surveillance data to military, state and industry intelligence. In this way, participatory network culture has been subsumed under a strictly monopolizing business model. The computer, which was originally developed as a military technology but redefined as emancipatory and revolutionary by Apple and others, is now back again where it began: as a military intelligence technology.
What strategies of resistance and critique are left in this contemporary totalitarian digital culture? In a “post-digital” era of reaction (rather than revolution), the digital no longer seems to induce any disruption, as Florian Cramer notes (Cramer “Post-digital: A Term…”). With controlled consumption, the digital blends freely into popular culture – with no distinction between “analogue” and “digital”, “online” and “off-line”. Paradoxically, today’s disruption seems to originate in a fascination of forgotten and obsolete technologies. Also in controlled consumption “old” media in the form of for instance “polaroid” filters and square shapes on Instagram, holds fascination. However, the disruptive fascination of the obsolete seems to be of a different kind, where the distinction between “digital” and “analogue” is replaced with a distinction between “shrink-wrapped” and “Do-It-Yourself,” as Florian Cramer also notes. The fascination of vinyl records, floppy disks, pneumatic tubes, and other historical and lost materials and platforms is in this sense a reaction to the “shrink-wrapped”. Contrary to Instagram and the use of services and filters, the ethics surrounding a disruptive use of old technologies originates in a hacker ethic.
It was not only Apple that believed in a digital uprising. Also in 1984, Steven Levy published a seminal book on hackers as ‘heroes of a computer revolution’. Levy’s hacker ethics included free access to all computers and all information, mistrust to authorities as well as an insistence on beauty and art. In many ways, this ethics has always been in opposition to Apple’s ethics. When Apple believed that the digital revolution would happen through user-friendly design and aesthetical and perceptually pleasing hardware and software, hackers turned to the poetics of hardware and software, foregrounding the constructing elements. This involves both an inquiry into programming and circuit bending, and an inquiry into the social institutions that follow technologies, as described by Cornelia Solfrank in her text on women hackers. In contrast to the “good” digital revolution carried out through user-involvement in interface design in the eighties, “hacking” even developed criminal connotations (with an ignorance to the hacker ethic of respecting people’s data). Following this, when hacker/maker culture now inquires Jurassic technologies it is a different kind of inquiry than the aesthetic appreciation of Polaroid images on Instagram: it is not an inquiry into the perceptually pleasing, but an inquiry into the poetics of materials and the social constructions of media technologies.
To enlighten the critical inquiry of Jurassic technologies, we suggest following two dimensions. First of all, we ask how to perceive history? The desire for the old is not merely nostalgia for a lost aesthetics; rather, it implies an alternative view on history – the memory of the past – itself. In this critical perspective, excavating the past is an attempt to challenge the course of events that has led to the techno-social constructions of controlled consumption and shrink-wrapped agency. In this light, inquiring lost media technologies establishes imaginary correspondences with past practices and production modes that only exist in our memory. Secondly, we ask whose memory? On the one hand, vinyl records, cassette tapes, floppy disks and so forth are media that contain human memories as texts, sounds and images. However, on the other hand, following an inquiry into the poetics of materials and how our memories are stored through for instance phonography and magnetism, the technologies also seem to remember the humans. In other words, a reinvestment in old media is also an excavation of the materials’ own reality.
In the following, we discuss these two dimensions of a “post-digital” critique by setting up a dialogue between two compact cassettes. “Cassette A” represents how we remember cassette tapes, and how our memories of material practices reflect the subsumption of network culture by controlled consumption. ”Cassette B” represents how the cassette tape as a material remembers us. The dialogue between the two cassette tapes is based on fragile timing mechanisms – not linear, nor compatible with digital clock frequencies, they may get slightly out of sync.
I.A The Consortium for the Preservation of Cassette Tape
In the summer of 2013, The Consortium for the Preservation of Cassette Tape presented CASSETTE MEMORIES, ‘a media archaeological excavation of the cassette tape and its use – from a human and tape perspective’ (a workshop at Roskilde Festival, initiated by Andrew Prior, Morten Riis and Søren Pold in collaboration with Roskilde Libraries). The workshop explored the overlooked sound archives of cassette tapes residing in closets, second hand shops and flea markets, and invited participants to discover the material of cassette tapes by disassembling, making loops and remixing old cassette tapes. Simultaneously, the memories of their practices with playing and recording were documented on cassette recorders. Cassette tapes are deeply associated with our childhood memories of recording voices, listening to music and creating mixtapes. In this sense, the cassette tape represents our past when found in an old drawer, and brought to the workshop to be tampered with, cut up, and looped in new ways. But it is also a recollection of poor signals and incompatible noise reduction.
I.B – Cassette representation (or, the question concerning representation)
By posing the question of how the tape recorder represent and understands the world, we have the possibility to get closer to the actual physical operational technology itself, as an exposition of length, time and magnetism and its way of representing reality. For the scientist, the tape recorder was traditionally used to document and record our the sounds of the world which then could be brought back to the lab for further analysis, focusing on the spoken or auditory content of the tape – as opposed to an investigation of how the sound of the tape itself understands its surroundings. Later digital technology made the tape recorder obsolete, but the analysis still focuses solely on the content, making the medium somewhat unimportant. But there is a different approach, in which the cassette tape recorder is transformed into an object of carpentry; a term inspired by the work of Graham Harman and developed further within the object oriented ontology of Ian Bogost.
II.A Cassette materialism
What is it that the tape records? What does it show us when brought to the workshop? In his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin writes: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was (Ranke).’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Thesis VI). It seems clear that Benjamin criticizes historicism. We cannot seize hold of the past merely by describing a level that pre-determines a logical course of events. History as ‘the way it really was’ is more ambiguous (as Benjamin’s criticism of the founder of modern, source-based history, Leopold Ranke also indicates). In his theses, Benjamin explicitly addresses historical materialism, and in continuation of this, we propose to explore of the revival of cassette tapes as a material history pointing beyond a simple revelation of material and technological determination. This implies that it is not merely the productive forces (our tools, instruments, technology, knowledge, etc.) that define our history as a changing mode of production (tribal, feudal, capitalist, etc.) in a simple one-way – techno-deterministic – direction. In other words, cassette memories are not just revelations of how social relations are most fundamentally production relations, and the essential role of the cassette tape in the making of a pro-sumer capitalist system’ (or whatever one chooses to call it). Technology, and the processing of magnetic signals did not make history and did not define our language and social relations in new ways, nor did any other technology. The technology and material production levels are always met with specific cultural interpretations and practices. Likewise, cassette tapes are used through a myriad of practices that still carry potentials.
II.B – The carpentry of cassettes
A central term for philosopher and game designer Ian Bogost, as it is unfolded in his book Alien Phenomenology from 2012, is the notion of carpentry which is described as the philosophical practice of making things. As a philosophical lab equipment (Bogost 100) carpentry becomes a perspective on creative work that poses philosophical questions, as when matter is being used especially for philosophical use (Bogost “Carpentry va. Art”), executing what could be denoted as applied ontology. This happens because writing is dangerous for philosophy because writing is only one form of being, a comment to the assumption that we relate to the world only through language (Bogost Alien Phenomenology 90). At the core of carpentry lies the understanding that philosophy is practice just as much as it is theory, the practice of constructing artefacts as a philosophical practice that is (Bogost 92). The term extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft, to include any material, and additionally it lies within Graham Harman’s philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things” (Bogost 93), a term that refers to “how things fashion one another and the world at large” (Bogost 93). But in Bogost’s terminology carpentry “entails making things that explain how things make their world” (Bogost 93), thus enabling not only theory in practice, but more over; practice as theory (Bogost 111).
The term carpentry is unfolded within a larger context of object oriented ontology or philosophy, which originates from the speculative realism of Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant. At its core a speculative realist is opposed to correlationism – a term used to describe that being exists only as a correlate between mind and world, placing humans at the center (Bogost 4; Harman). As an example, Heidegger claims that objects can exist outside human consciousness, but their begin exist only in human understanding (Bogost 4). Thus to be a speculative realist “one must abandon the belief that human access sits at the center of being, organizing and regulating it like an ontological watchmaker” (Bogost 5), and instead shift focus to include all possible objects, and that all things exists equally thus introducing notions of flat or tiny ontology.
Ultimately this means that when removing humans from the center of the equation more focus is directed towards the various objects that the world consists of, which for Bogost means the investigation of what it is like to be a pixel within a computer game.
III.A Cassette tape interfaces
Rather than beginning by discussing whether to prioritize the auditory signs of the recorded voices, or the signals embedded in the materiality of tapes, we suggest to enlighten the relation between the sign and the signal (see Andersen and Pold Interface Criticism). What is a magnetic cassette tape in this perspective? Along with other productive forces and technologies, cassette tapes must be seen as part of the same realm as language, in the sense that also language turns out material (as on a cassette tape), and this material is in itself a speech act (at the workshop people talked about sending their voices to their loved ones across the Atlantic and about the investment and gesture of recording and giving away a mixtape). A qualitative separation of material signal processing and the media representation is therefore futile. In every way, the material of the cassette tape (the playback head, the noise reduction system, etc.) is as much a social and linguistic construct (including DIN and IEC defined standards and protocols for equalization), as it is the physical manifestation of a representation (of a memory, a voice, a recording). This ambiguous double-nature allows for a critique of the social and political reality of the technology.
III.B – Magnetic operations
Material that is capable of being magnetised is referred to as ferrous, and the molecules of such a material are linked together in the form of a crystal structure (Earl 21). Each complete crystal element contains a certain number of molecules, depending on the material. Ferric oxide e.g. which forms the basis of the coating of Fe tape has eight molecules per element (Earl 21). The crystal elements can be regarded as domains of randomly oriented magnetic fields, but when the material gets magnetised the domains are swung from their random distributed positions and now the domains line up. The strength of the resulting magnet is determined by the number of domains in alignment. When all the domains are in alignment the material is said to be magnetically saturated, that is, being incapable of accepting further magnetism or producing a greater magnetic field (Earl 22). The basis of which the tape recorder is capable of capturing and reproducing auditory content, is centred around three tape heads – erase, record and playback – each containing an electromagnet having the ability to convert an electrical signal into a magnetic force that can be stored on the passing magnetic tape, and conversely convert the magnetic content of the tape into electrical current.
IV.A The cassette tape as a document of barbarism
Benjamin’s thinking is an encouragement to think of the renewed interest in the cassette tape as something that flashes up in a moment of danger. The historical materialist must therefore address history differently, as Benjamin puts it: ‘There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. […] A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.’ (Thesis VII) With no attempt to recreate a media history, CASSETTE MEMORIES recalls the lost potentials of cassette tapes in relation to a contemporary digital culture. The cassette tapes are explored as a “configuration pregnant with tensions” in order to recognize a “revolutionary chance” and “blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history” (Thesis XVII).
IV.B – The danger of erasing
At the erase head, a high frequency (approximately 80 to 100 kHz), high amplitude audio signal is sent to the erase electromagnet, thus randomising the magnetic particles on the tape, and erasing any previous material on the tape. Music varies in frequency and amplitude, and so does the magnetic field from the record head that imprints the magnetic picture of the audio signal on the tape. When recorded, tape scrolls under the playback head and the moving magnetic fields induce a varying current in the head. This voltage produces an electrical representation of the magnetic signal on the tape. Subsequently, the signal is passed through an equalisation and amplification circuit so that the recorded music becomes audible in the connected speakers.
V.A The danger of techno-cultural discourse
Techno-cultural discourse leads to the belief that technology represents a history of increased efficiency, and that the conditions of present digital technologies (producing, sharing, mixing, etc.) can maximize individual freedom and social production. CASSETTE MEMORIES challenge these myths, by exploring a past discourse in the present – as a potential criticism. The return to old media holds no essence but expresses an awareness of how our material technologies are also signs, and our signs technological, and of how the coupling of signs and material by digital technology leads to a form of control.
It is not of particular interest that the cassette tape as a tool for reproduction and cultural participation has contributed to our contemporary social reality of product relations (participatory labor). What is interesting is the discourse and myths around the technologies. They have led to the belief that the employment of technology represents a god given chain of events leading to increased efficiency, and that the maxims of the technology (producing, sharing, mixing, etc.) can create individual freedom and mastery when navigating through social reality (this idea is not unlike Georgios Papadopoulos critique of a totalizing market, (21)). Such constructs cannot be addressed as material determinism, but CASSETTE MEMORIES can lead to a challenge of these myths, by exploring a past discourse in the present – as a potential criticism. In this way, the return to old media does not hold an essence. The material turn is realist, in the sense that it expresses an awareness of – not how materials are more real then signs – but of how also our technologies are signs, and our signs technological, and an awareness of how the coupling of signs and material in technology also incorporate a form of control.
V.B – The “sound on sound button” (or, the switch of carpentry)
The switch of carpentry enables a recording method, in which layers of sound becomes superimposed upon each other. This “sound on sound button” – which in CASSETTE MEMORIES was build into a modified cassette recorder – disables the erase head of the tape recorder and reconfigures the cassette machine into an object of carpentry. The button gives us the possibility to display and monitor the cassette tapes state of magnetic saturation, a state where all possible resources of the ferrous coating on the tape are used. This shows the true personality of the recording medium and its attempt to capture the complex pulsating sound waves of humans talking, walking, playing music onto the tape. The recorded sounds gradually gets more and more saturated, forcing the magnetic domains in the same direction, but still leaving room to listen to the contours of the previously recorded material, while new recordings get layered up.
VI.A Cassette tape allegories
The cassette tape does not hold a truth but is an allegory. As an allegory, the cassette tape and CASSETTE MEMORIES seizes ‘hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’ It establishes an imaginary correspondence to another historical moment, but not as a yearning for a lost time (to paraphrase a notion of history present in the writings of Marcel Proust). There is no radical power in looping and cutting up tapes today, but the imaginary construction represents another way of experiencing producing, sharing, mixing, etc. – as Florian Cramer characterizes post-digital strategies, it can be seen as “a form of social networking that is not controlled or data-mined by those companies [Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook].” (“Post-digital Writing…” 237)
VI.B – Compact cassette time
Time is a crucial factor. When recording on a compact cassette, time is measured in the length of tape played by the tape recorder with an average speed of 4,76 cm/sec. The specific cassette recorder used in CASSETTE MEMORIES is the Philips D6260, and according to the service manual, the tape speed can vary up to 3%, making the notion of accurate time questionable.
If time is length – or, more accurately, the execution of length – then the precision of the tape recorder and the idea of an “operative tape recorder” becomes extremely important (which to a great extend references Wolfgang Ernst’s notion of micro-temporality). But things gets even more complex when using a 1 minute continuous loop cassette using sound on sound recording, as it was the case in CASSETTE MEMORIES. This method challenges the notion of documented time (seconds, hours, days, years). Time gets transferred into complex states of recorded time, real time, machine time, past time, tape time (which is the execution of tape length), creating a compound of different conceptualisations of time existing as layers on top of each other.
VII.A Contemporary interface culture
What is a contemporary interface culture? Mobile interfaces like smartphones and tablets represent a new generation of the interface, a generation that integrates earlier developments as well as – what seems to be a qualitative turn – a totalitarian controlled consumption interface coupled with a ‘war on general-purpose computing’ (Doctorow).
The first human-computer interfaces are technical control panels with switches. Often the agenda is related to automation, and the computer is used for batch processing that does not demand a user input. Later on, textual interfaces such as the command line interfaces of DOS and UNIX, make real-time interaction possible. The Macintosh in 1984 marks another moment in the history of interfaces, where the graphical user interface leaves the labs (where it was developed through the 1960s and 1970s by Ivan Sutherland, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg and others). The GUI is an integral part of real-time interaction in the personal computer, and also the main object of inquiry for interface design and Human-Computer-Interaction. With the Web, and especially Web 2.0, the interface is supplemented with a communicative, networked, and social dimension. In combination with mobile interfaces and data surveillance and sensing, physical space is increasingly saturated with computation – leading to new techno-myths of a totalizing technology, exemplified in the buzz around smart cities, cloud computing, quantification of the self, gamification, big data, etc. Myths are powerful illusions that tend to shape our reality. Hence, the interface becomes ubiquitous and totalitarian – an impenetrable surface, seamlessly attached to all things and behaviours in a process of invisible immaterialisation.
VII.B – OOO, OOP, OOMT <=> micro temporal media archaeology
The self made “sound on sound switch” and the use of loop cassettes changes the tape recorder’s status from a technological object into an object of carpentry, a philosophical lab equipment used to practice philosophy. Layers of sound becomes superimposed upon each other; and furthermore, various notions of recorded time gets superimposed upon each other, making the sound on sound loop tape difficult to analyse in a traditional textual manner, forcing us to shift our analysis’ perspective towards the actual recording technology itself.
These philosophical questions posed by carpentry reveal an alternative reality of the operational tape recorder. This reality is – following the thoughts of Wolfgang Ernst – somewhat un-historical, meaning that the specific function of the machine is outside history and human discourse. However, it is not outside the discourse of cassette tape itself. The perspective is thus shifted towards the medium itself as an operating entity (Ernst “Towards a Media Archaeology”). Thus, a merger of object oriented ontology and media archaeology presents itself, bringing an awareness to the moment when media themselves become active “archaeologists of knowledge” (Ernst Media Archaeography 239). From a media archaeological point of view, it is only technical media that is able to register physical real signals. The cassette tape not only preserves the memory of human cultural language, but also the knowledge of how the cassette recorder stores and operate the magnetic domains of the ferrous coating of the running tape. The “carpentry” of an artistic performative context exposes the knowledge that is embodied in the operational technology and reconfigures it into a philosophical practice; meaning that it exposes the saturation of the physical material and uncovers questions regarding our understanding of documented time. In addition, such perspectives reflect the use of our current digital technologies for documenting our sounding reality, by stressing the importance of paying attention to the media archaeological moment of the operational machine.
VIII.A Contemporary interface criticism
What is a contemporary interface criticism? Can we disrupt the development of interfaces, and a corporate subsumption of a digital revolution, sketched out above? Are there new ways of reconfiguring the contemporary interface culture? A post-digital response to the interface’ invisible process of immaterialization is a reconfiguration of signal and sign – of the material processes of computation, and their social and political realm; of material and social procedures and protocols. If current materialist practices with bygone media aim to be more than a parenthesis in this reconfiguration (more than a trendy and hipster revival of the old which could just as well be subsumed in trendy new apps for the iPhone), they need to question their notion of material and materialism in a way that embraces a potential for criticism, if not redemption of current interfaces and their culture – in the words of Benjamin a “weak Messianic power” (Thesis II).
VIII.B – Cassette types
Type I Ferric oxide. HF-ES90
Type II Chromium dioxide (CrO2). CR-E II
Type III Ferro-chrome. FeCr90
Type IV Metal-formulated. Metal-ES60
How can the carpenter contain the political reality of the historical materialist? How can the historical materialist contain the reality of the material?
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