- Digital Culture's Humanistic Underpinnings
264 Pages; Print, $36. 00
What really goes on between a person and a screen? Google's algorithm offers 33,600 guesses: Sign in, log on, and take calls. Complete selected forms. Play real poker for real money. Start surfing. Indeed, online space resembles— or replaces—these activities' offline arenas: the workplace, the bureaucrat's desk, the poker table, the open ocean. The tech industry's solutions-oriented optimism has worked hard to naturalize this condition, strategically disappearing theoretical questions into a crevasse. On one side, forbidding programming languages, illegible to the lay user, that silo the ability to develop new technologies to the realm of specialists; on the other, bottomless access to personalized (and often monetized) content, which risks casting the field as too prosaic to be a serious object of study. Yet leaving the contemporary digital world critically unexamined is dangerous and untenable. Grant Bollmer's Theorizing Digital Cultures offers a way out of this bind by situating digital technology within a history of humanistic thought.
Published in 2018, as online channels were already far along the path of transforming democracy, and available just in time for a global health crisis to make virtual a large chunk of daily existence, this accessible book introduces young scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences to analytical tools with which to interpret our ultra-mediated condition. In just over two hundred pages, Bollmer manifests an engaging vision of how to think with, and at times against, dozens of authors. He often references pre-digital theorists, like Raymond Williams and Walter Benjamin, alongside scholars whose work explicitly engages digital technology, such as Alexander Galloway and N. Katherine Hayles. As these pairings across time suggest, Bollmer works to integrate rather than distinguish recent technologies from theoretical discourses that preceded them.
Bollmer's engaging study begins from the premise that the digital world is implicated in broad issues of language, presence, and difference. The book draws on case studies from recent mass and social media—from YouTube clips and vocaloid holograms to Facebook profiles and video games like Call of Duty (2003)—to demonstrate how one might apply often thorny theory to the objects and experiences one might encounter while browsing the internet or reading science fiction. He is clear that technology as a category is not limited to what happens on the computer; instead, it touches on material and social concerns at every scale, from the interpersonal to the planetary. Amid talk of virtual reality headsets and Twitch streams, Bollmer is less interested in medium specificity than in the politics of digital aesthetics. He argues persuasively that even the most commodified technologies are important objects of inquiry because they are fundamentally relational; as such, the power dynamics they inscribe are ripe for questioning.
The book is split into two sections. Part I, Defining Digital Cultures, includes three chapters, "What are Digital Cultures?," "Culture and Technique," and "Digital and Analogue." Rejecting metaphysical understandings of technology as "utopian, even theological," this first section instead synthesizes the work of a host of theorists from Friedrich Kittler to Lev Manovich. The primer here on German media theory is particularly rich; Bollmer explains that for a thinker like Kittler, "any understanding of 'culture' is a result of how we use technologies to manage and control the environment in which we live." Prioritizing the material substrates of culture allows him to spend the rest of the book examining the artifacts that comprise and enable it. Also fruitful is his recurring discussion of Jacques Derrida's critique of the metaphysics of presence: a breakdown of the hierarchy that often attends binary categories. This is a smart move affording Bollmer the opportunity to question received wisdom about a field steeped in the foundational myth of binary code and hierarchies between "online and offline" and "a game and 'real life.'" Together, these early meditations sensitize the reader to the book's focus on materiality and difference.
Part II, "Histories, Concepts and Debates," tackles thematic concerns across six chapters: "Cybernetics and Posthumanism," "Identities and...