Thoughts on Digital Objects

In ‘A Theory of Digital Objects’ (Kallinikos et al), the authors define a number of key attributes of digital objects; that they are “editable, interactive, open and distributed”. In contrast to non-digital artefacts, digital objects can be manipulated endlessly, by up-dating or deleting elements or functions and can be explored interactively in a contingent fashion. Digital objects are also able to be modified or reprogrammed using other digital objects in such a way as to completely alter appearance or functionality and as they are not contained in a single space or source on the internet, they are effectively borderless.

This openness and distribution of digital objects allows for a greater interoperability between the objects themselves and their underlying codes and systems in a way that is not possible with their physical counterparts and suggests that they are not ‘objects’ at all but rather a fluid system of operations and media. All digital objects are mediated, that is, they are inextricably linked to the technology that enables their existence, which in turn is dependent on other, earlier technologies.  According to Bolter and Grusin in their book ‘Remediation’, “What is a medium? We offer this simple definition: a medium is that which remediates. It is that which appropriates the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real. A medium in our culture can never operate in isolation, because it must enter into relationships of respect and rivalry with other media.” Examples of remediation are everywhere; books have been refashioned as e-readers, footnoting and indexing as hypertext, journals as blogs and vlogs, paintings and analogue photography as digital photography, stage productions as film or television. Even virtual reality or computer simulations, which may not have a physical counterpart, depend on the development of previous media.

“Analogue media exist as fixed physical objects in the world, their production being dependent upon transcriptions from one physical state to another. Digital media may exist as analogue hard copy, but when the content of an image or text is in digital form it is available as a mutable string of binary numbers stored in a computer’s memory” (‘New Media, A Critical Introduction’ Lister et al).  While it may seem that there must have been an “absolute break” between the analogue and digital, in this book the authors argue that many current digital media are refashioned and expanded versions of the older analogue media. Some new media attempt to represent the real world experience (much as a trompe l’oeil painting seeks to fool the eye into believing a scene is ‘real’) in a transparent fashion, so that the user interacts with the content and the medium itself is all but invisible. The term ‘immediacy’ was coined by Bolter and Grusin to define this concept. ‘Hypermediacy’ is the paradoxical counterpart of immediacy in that the media is ultra-visible but adds to the richness and believability of the experience.

‘A Theory of Digital Objects’, Jannis Kallinikos, Alexi Aaltonen, Atilla Marton, First Monday, 2010

‘Remediation: Understanding New Media’, J. David Bolter,  Richard Grusin, MIT Press, 1999

‘New Media: A Critical Introduction’, Martin  Lister, John Dovey, Seth Giddings, Iain Grant, Kieran Kelly, Routledge, 2003