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  • The Bitmap is the Territory:How Digital Formats Render Global Positions
  • Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan1 (bio)

To render a digital image is not merely to specify an expanse of pixels and their formats, such as the JPEG format's Y'CbCr scheme. It also establishes conformity between a localized technical performance and its specification in global technical standards. In so doing, rendering—be it graphical, military, or juridical—produces territories. This production imbues digital rendering with political meaning, of a sort largely indifferent to the popular will, yet in strange accord with the technical proceduralism so prized by liberal democracy.2 Like the legislators and judges of liberal democracies, digital rendering promises to ensure faithful accommodation to diverse constituencies by means of impartial technical procedures for representation. The color palettes of the JPEG are largely indifferent to whether [End Page 1093] your mobile device is an Apple or a Samsung, a personal device or government-issued matériel. As the JPEG's developers explained in a 1994 publication describing their eponymous format, "the problems of dealing with digital image data are universal," for which reason "the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) has recently defined a general-purpose image-compression standard" (Good et al. 123). That general-purpose standard is indifferent to occasion, subject matter, and mood. It renders the gruesome war crimes of Abu Ghraib and users' photogenic brunches for Instagram according to the same compromise between psychological realism and industrial economy. Media formats codify these compromises, thereby ensuring equal access to the same mediocre images.3 Such are the equalities afforded by digital participation under late capitalism.

It is not that the territory of the digital image has one or another political orientation; on the contrary, it is an orientation unto itself. The spatial expanses digital formats assign on the screen are part of a seamless fabric of global technical standards shaping an order of things in lived space. The dream of a "world wide web" rests, among other things, on a uniform system of technical writing integrating users from California to the Caspian Sea via shared formats. The bitmap, for example, is quite literally a map of binary digits (bits), specified according to a raster-based spatial assignment of reds, blues, and greens, agreed to by multinational accord in the 1980s and 1990s. (One of its predecessors, vector-based graphics, employed a distinct cartographic schema mapping lines rather than points, congruent with their express task of tracking Soviet bombers.) These images territorialize compromises wrought among military, industrial, psychological, scientific, medical, and other experts. The spatial expanse of the digital image fixates the key relays among this global expanse of partners, reducing a potentially infinite diversity to a single planetary standard. To think with philosopher Martin Heidegger, the digital image enacts not merely a Weltbild, a world picture, but also a Weltbildschirm, a world-screen, whose representations are subjected to a single scheme of global addressability.4

This dream of governing unruly space through comprehensive technical addressability infuses machine-based computing. As Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal argues, "addressability—the condition whereby addressing, or the practice of giving a locational/spatial index takes [End Page 1094] place—undergirds all computing as we know [it]" (Dhaliwal). This imperative structured Charles Babbage's nineteenth-century efforts to devise an automated computer for calculating maritime navigation. It returned with the birth of digital computing and cybernetics from World War II ballistics aimed at better tracking and annihilating enemies traveling through space. The vogue among 1950s and 1960s US policymakers for cybernetic governance reflected a similar belief that the commonweal itself might be informatically mapped and steered (Bell; Lepore; Light). In this light, the latter-day integration of mobile devices with the satellite-enabled global positioning system (GPS) is no incidental supplement to digital devices. It is rather the non-fortuitous fulfilment of a computational imperative to render users and space available by means of unambiguous addressing.

This imperative for digital addressability realizes a specialized—metastasized, perhaps—instance of the mutual structuring of scene and inscription literary critic Rüdiger Campe felicitously describes as the "scene of writing." Writing, Campe argues, forms part of an ensemble of techniques by which a concrete person and space...