Discrete and Continuous Modes of Representation

See page 29 in The Language of New Media

“The most likely reason modern media has discrete levels is because it emerged during the Industrial Revolution… Not surprisingly, modern media follows the logic of the factory.”

The argument here suggests that the way new media objects implement computer code is a product of the industrial mindset, with the implication that the values of industrial division of labor, specialization, and standardization led to the modern computer. This suggestion involves a complex set of interrelations between the thought processes introduced by industrialization, the structure of computers, and how these thought processes interact with the structure of computers when people create new media objects.

New media objects are conceived of as collections of discrete, indivisible units, such as pixels; and this conception presupposes a contradistinction to traditional media — such as sculpture or chemical photography — where surface properties vary with continuous and arbitrary degrees of detail.

The use of “discrete” here connotes precision, while “continuous” connotes imprecision: however accurately one attempts to measure the height of a bronze sculpture, for example, changes in temperature will cause the metal to expand or contract slightly on different days, contributing to an inherent imprecision in one’s measurement; a digital picture file, however, will always have the same number of pixels no matter on what day one decides to make a tally.

As it is a central feature of industrial mass production that one be able to manufacture large numbers of precisely identical objects, there are a number of superficial reasons why computers might seem to be the product of an industrial mindset: industrial fabrication techniques facilitated computers coming into widespread use, the individual components of computer hardware are in many respects both standardized in their construction and specialized in their function, and the binary code used by computers very much resembles an idealization of industrial order and production.

These congruences aside, however, the aforementioned argument as presented in The Language of New Media involves a number of substantial problems. Most obviously, the written alphabet is a system of discrete symbols: letters came into use long before industrialization, are just as indivisible as pixels in a digital image, and type set in a monospaced font falls into a grid not unlike the arrangement of pixels on a computer screen. Moreover, letters can be assigned numerical meanings: Hebrew is one example of an alphabet that does this.

There are also historical problems with attributing the discrete operations performed by computers to an industrial mindset. The history of computing machines reaches back to antiquity, and its early history can be found in such relics as the Antikythera mechanism. It could be argued that it was “the logic of the factory” that spawned the invention and design of digital computing machines, but it was, rather, a theological motivation that compelled Gottfried Leibniz in the late 1600′s to formalize the system of binary code used by today’s computers; Leibniz furthermore envisaged machines that would perform calculations using his binary system. Although it may be the case that industrialization substantially helped such computing machines in becoming a material reality, their conception lies very much apart from the industrial mindset.

While consumer use of computerized media might in many respects seem to follow “the logic of the factory” — especially as numerous commercial websites profit from user-generated content, which transforms the consumer into a type of specialized producer — the formal and material qualities of modern computerized media follow from a quite different logic.


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