Review: Aden Evens’ Logic of the Digital

Earlier this year I wrote a review of Aden Evens (2015) Logic of the Digital, London: Bloomsbury.

The aim was to publish it with an academic journal but communication with the editor has dropped off so am publishing it here…

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Contrary to the materialist, media archaeological focus of much recent work in Media Studies, the locus of Aden Evens’ Logic of the Digital is resolutely centred on the abstract techno-logic qualities that define the operation of the digital. Within the social and technical landscape of 21st century, where any action, object and behaviour can be encoded within digital discrete, binary code, Evens’ book presents an ambitious intervention that addresses the political, theoretical and aesthetic challenges those who ‘live with and within digital technologies’ encounter (1). Throughout Evens book there is the sense that a better understanding of digital logic must be furrowed if its potential dangers are to be anticipated and reformulated.

Logic of the Digital is organised into five chapters that chart a microscopic to macroscopic movement through the mysterious operations of black box culture. Beginning with the bit, as the building block of digital operations, Evens reduces the complex computational processes that permeate the social strata to their basic, instructional values: ‘if such-and-such a bit is 0, do this; if 1, do that’ (6). Evens presents the bit as the cradle of heterogeneous possibilities, drawn from a breathtakingly ‘simple but absolute difference that allows the representation of any discrete difference’ (10). The book then unfolds toward programming languages and digital objects, the function of the interface and how digital processes are applied within the internet and our wider information environment.

Digital processes are profoundly normalised within everyday, 21st century western culture. Evens, however, presents digital logic as fundamentally alien (and alienating). The bit, he argues, is sterile and has no meaning of its own. It resides in a ‘semantic void’ (10), a ‘strange symbol that operates only at a distance and in no sensible relationship to its materiality’ (12). Yet it remains irresistibly potent, capable of adapting to whatever substance hosts it—punch card, magnetic strip or a cathode ray tube. He describes how the bit is set apart—abstracted from—the material world, unhindered by the contingencies that befall entities that grow old, tired, weak, thirsty or bored. Until the circuitry wanes or the electricity supply is shut off, the operation will expressively continue, repeating commands, exactly as instructed.

The sense of the digital’s separation from the human—its calculating inhospitality to human life—is, for me, the most undeveloped aspect of Evens’ text. The idea that the human is sovereign and absolutely other to digital logic is far too often assumed, and is rarely convincingly argued for. There is only one instance in the book when Evens offers the conceptual clarity that many of his claims about human/ digital incompatibility demand: ‘the human world is wide,’ Evens assures us, and this world is ‘confined neither to a linear progress nor to a narrow present; our world comprises a context of attention, a simultaneous manifold availability of the whole perceptual field’ (85). Such a statement appears profoundly remarkable within the context of Logic of the Digital. In contrast to Evens’ detailed exposition of digital ontology, the human is casually presented as unchanging essence, insulated from the proclivities of technics, history, nature or culture. The ontological fashioning of ‘the human’ therefore needed to be bolder, especially if we are to accept the claim that ideal and perfect digital logic is a world apart, rather than something that emerges from within the inherited field of human consciousness, culture and philosophy. Indeed, the attempt to separate digital logic from the human realm presented in his book is only possible because of what Alexander Galloway calls the ‘rivenness’ of differential being that lies at the metaphysical core of digitality (2014, 35).

The ability to observe the workings of digital operations in their ‘bare materiality,’ (12) nevertheless affords moments of inventive and original analysis within the book. Bernard Stiegler’s important history of grammatization, where the embodied know-how of human actors is gradually eroded as automatic processes discretise gesture (2010, 70-71) is offered detailed application in Evens’ discussion of the ‘strange poverty of digital touch’ (70). At the computer interface, Evens argues, all gesture is reduced to the same. The clicking of the mouse functions as a ‘generality, the same click no matter what the intention, no matter what the context’ (70). Furthermore, any digital object that is grasped is pre-designed, programmed to enable a limited set of options. Gesture is thus evacuated to the bare act of pointing the arrow at the interface, as complex machinations of cognitive capacity are deferred to computational process.

At root—underneath the interface and below the capacities of human perception—the calculating properties of the digital seems for Evens to be total, determinate and inescapable. To take the logic of the digital to its conclusion is to confront a world emptied of contingency and in the thrall of control. It is a world where the calculated operation defines in advance the terms of the encounter, anticipating and therefore foreclosing sensory response and experience (60). Such a nightmarish vision of a visual and tactile environment is undeniable. Scurries of objections are likely to be raised: are there not always potentials for contestation and counter-logics in any kind of cultural/ aesthetic encounter, no matter the extent of its encodings? Deconstruction promises us this much. Yet the pervasiveness of digital logic, at an infrastructural level, demand we reconsider how it is re-shaping the contemporary agential field (Kitchin, 2016). Arguably, amid the digitised world where ‘generative difference, the contingency and accident’ (18) are neutralised, the constraint placed on ‘human’ agency through digital processes must, it seems, be carefully negotiated. Indeed, they must be re-designed to counter inherent principles of calculation that, Evens argues, define the logic of the digital.

The conclusion to Evens’ book therefore admits a weary defeat. It has no answers to the vexed question that haunts its investigations: how do contingent responses, orientations and experiences emerge in a world forged solely from a binary palette? Yet the value of Evens’ book is not in the tangible escape routes that he carves from the alienated fabric of digital logic. It resides, instead, in providing a microscopic engagement with the abstracted principles that define the digital’s operation. Logic of the Digital therefore provides important orientation within a techno-logic world stacked, encoded, numerical and ripe for digital processing, where syntax triumphs over semantics, where infrastructure threatens to foreclose content. The book is therefore likely to facilitate deeper questioning of the techno-logical systems that process, anticipate and design reality. The question, then, of whether contingency is ‘at all possible’ (153) is a sobering end to a book that offers many resources for interrogating the operations of the world permeated, and abstracted by, the logic of the digital.

References

Galloway A (2014) Laruelle: Against the Digital. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Kitchin R (2016) Continuous Geosurveillance in the “Smart City.” Dis Magazine. Available at: http://dismagazine.com/dystopia/73066/rob-kitchin-spatial-big-data-and-geosurveillance/ (accessed 21 April 2016).

Stiegler B (2010) Memory. In: Mitchell WJT, Mark B. N. Hansen MBN (eds) Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 64-88.

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