Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Algorithms, traces, and solitary work

Digital algorithms and software raise fundamental questions about writing. And so it should be, since most things don’t look the same when you turn to the logic of digits. For a start, the environment in which inscription takes place is no longer that of a trace immediately noticeable.

Source: The Renegade Writer
A text written using the keyboard of a computer appears to a viewer as an inscription already finished. That’s because the erasures that come with versions and drafts are no longer perceivable, the way they were in environments dominated by the work of pen and paper. Pencil corrections, and even those made by typewriters, stay on paper; they travel along with the text. Visually, they are inextricably part of it. Their presence is proof of the text’s evolution.

The archaeological gesture of tracing

This is not to say that digital writing dismisses the possibility of tracing. It’s only that traces are not immediately visible in digital composition. They don’t stay on the screen as such, not like the marginalia on a page pre-occupied by what is considered to be ‘the primary text.’ If they do stay somewhere, this somewhere is a place where the material traces, in order to be seen, must be dug out, unearthed in a gesture that is archaeological in nature.
Archaeology is about digging-in-order-to-find. It is about dealing with the underground and with the undergrowth. And as such, one would be tempted to say that even the tracing of analogue texts (marks on paper) is subjected to the processes of unearthing. Which is very true. But also incomplete. Because analogue writing shows the signs of a draft without requiring an effort of visualisation. This is why a digital text always appears as completed, even when it is work-in-progress. On the computer screen, all signs look definitive. They look as if they had no past and no future. To put it differently, an analogue text is diachronic (it flows, it progresses along a continuum that is permanently discernible), while a digital one is synchronic. Its stasis is caused by the absence of versions, insofar as versioning doesn’t take place on the screen. More precisely, the surface of writing is moved somewhere else. It is not the screen that plays the role of this surface but the electronic apparatus that registers the impressions of one’s fingers and of one’s intentions. And that apparatus remains, in most cases, unseen.

A form of writing that is always elsewhere

Metadata, which is precisely an assortment of traces left by a digital text, brings about the very possibility of this gaze that sees into a text’s past. But the tracing of digital signs requires a technological apparatus of its own. The reading of code is not the same thing as the reading of a short story or of a shopping list. Code exists beyond the surface. Code is brought to the screen only if the writer/reader is directly implicated in the writing/reading of a line of code. But otherwise writing and reading take place under the surface of composition. What I mean here is writing that is other than code-writing. The simple (in digital terms) composition of a short text on a computer screen requires the work of software, which comes prior to the compositional act. From the keyboard that transforms mechanical, electrical, and digital processes into letters to the word processor that enables the transformation of keystrokes into images on a screen, the technical aspects of composition remain largely unnoticed and unacknowledged, but not unimportant because of that.

Source: Penn State
As with all technologies, the functioning of a writing apparatus becomes apparent when it ceases to work as programmed. The business-as-usual standard does not provide a model for the acknowledgment of technological processes. But what’s truly important is that business-as-usual presupposes a subject who thinks he/she is working alone.
A subject who works alone is a subject who doesn’t need the presence of external factors to tell them how the work needs to be carried on. This, though, can only happen when the technology on which the subject is reliant functions without interruptions, i.e. when the subject forgets that there’s technology around, believing they worked alone, without actually doing so.

There’s an ideology behind something that works

Well-functioning technologies are, for this reason, of the ideological order. Only an ideology without hiccups can persuade a subject of its absence, so as to work efficiently beyond (or under) the surface, unseen, unnoticed, unacknowledged. It’s important for an ideology to remain invisible and thus to persuade by means of its apparent absence. The subject of ideology is a subject convinced that they are not ideology-driven; that they are free.
The same goes with technologies in general, and the digital ones in particular. In our case, it is crucial that code stay in a territory that’s largely unacknowledged, or where access is permitted only to specialists. (Code-writers are the technocrats of the digital age.)
It is interesting to note that, precisely because technology (as the Other) presents itself as non-present, the subject goes about doing business-as-usual as though they were working alone. They don’t share the tasks of writing with anybody else. They dwell, for this reason, in a symbolic time and space that are anachronistic when regarded from the perspective of, say, Foucault’s theory of the author as a function rather than a real person. Prior to Foucault, authors did not cross the threshold of individuality. They performed their tasks unhindered by any acknowledgments of the Other. Foucault brought external factors into the picture. He brought the Other to the centre of writing. After him, the apparatus can no longer be thought of as something to do things with. It is something that contains the very act of doing, and the doing subject at the same time. A writer writes within an apparatus of which he/she is a cogwheel of sorts. Not that writers are less special, but they are special in a different way: a way that acknowledges the multiplicity that characterizes their very work.
Anyway, the conclusion is that it’s kind of impossible now to think of a writer as someone who can work alone.

Function is found in dysfunction

But writing-as-if-technology-did-not-exist is an illusion. We all know how important apparatuses of writing are in the process of composition. Let’s think no further than the moments when we seek a power plug for our laptops, or the simple gesture of pressing the power button on the writing machine before anything else can happen. These simple gestures are often forgotten, and their role in the generation of text is ignored. That’s for two reasons.
1. As mentioned above, technology works best when it doesn’t seem to work. This apparent not-working obliterates technology, and thus propels it towards well-working.
2. We forget the simple gestures of digital writing because we are already accustomed to the logic of the other technology that predetermines writing: the technology of pen and paper.

Source: Nation States
The work done by means of pen and paper is only slightly different. It’s only different in that it employs analogue technology. But that only means one thing: that it is not technology-free. The fundamental similarity is that, like digital technologies, pen-and-paper involves techné, which is at the same time craft and trick. The trick of the pen and paper is that they obliterate their dependence upon one another and, more importantly, of the writing subject on both of them at the same time. Once again, in order to gauge the depth of this illusion all one needs to envisage is an interruption of business-as-usual. A pen that’s run out of ink or a pencil whose tip is broken are rendered un-operational exactly like a laptop whose battery has run flat. Dysfunction lays bare the ideological foundations of function. All it takes is for a piece of technology to cease working as expected in order for it to become fundamental. If it cannot facilitate, it impedes. And impediment is outside the scope of the good functioning of ideological reassurance. That is why a good algorithm is an algorithm that yields symmetrical results. Once this condition is fulfilled, the user is likely to give in to the argument of efficiency, and so the algorithm is likely to be left to work alone.