II: Data / Inscription / Writing
Interview: Part 2 of 6
DE: You've written in the past that data turns "the rhythms of everyday life...into something static, categorical, and unchanging." In thinking about what you're saying now and what you've written about it, I can't help but think of the history of writing, especially Plato's critiques of writing, in which embodied, face-to-face communication has been seen as primary and immediate and authentic, while writing has been seen as secondary, as a static representation—
BH: That's interesting.
DE: —one defined by the absence of living, breathing bodies. Thinking about that history of media, from writing to photography to video, and now to databases, to location-based data collection, and to things like wearable technologies, which you've worked with—how do you see these new media forms as similar or different from older media forms, especially in terms of the ways that lived, embodied experience is inscribed? What kinds of questions should we be asking about new forms of inscription?
BH: That's a great question. A pretty deep one. Wendy Chun is always emphasizing that in any new media there's old media. There's always the return. There's always something that haunts the new form. The new form is always recapitulating what's been hinted at before in various ways. Certainly, all of these forms now, whether it's video cameras and wearables and surveillance and all this, have these tendrils that go back into these historical ways of writing, for sure. I think inscription is interesting, the idea of—a couple different things to talk about here—when something is written to a hard disk or an SD card, is that a form of writing? The machine is actually doing this inscription. Is it a kind of machine transcription of what's going on? Or is there interpretive license happening there? Or is that the primary thing—experience retains a primary form. I don't know. The thing I was thinking about when you were talking is that—just to shift to a music/sound perspective again—with the spoken word, there's an auditory reality to it, that idea of direct experience. There's something about sound. I'm compelled by sound and music, in that immediacy, in the fact that sound as phenomena only exists in time, right? You can sample it. You can make it into a digital representation. But that is a representation. As sound it only exists as performed or whatever else. Sight can be misleading in that sense. You look at a photograph or a scene. We have visual experiences that are suspended, in a way. There's a resemblance between a photograph and what I see that doesn't exist with sound. A digital file can have no indexical relationship to what that is. It has to be pumped through speakers again, reinterpreted by the apparatus, made aural. Then it takes on the qualities of the room and the people that are there. There's something more contingent about sound. Which maybe goes to the difference between writing and ...
DE: Well, it's interesting thinking about inscription as a term. Because often, in writing studies, that word "inscription" isn't very common, but in media studies it is. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about inscription and how it relates to the ways that we think about re-experiencing things. Because of this way that you talk about the "data exhaust" that we all produce each day, whether that's in our online experiences or whether that's in our everyday lives, we produce this kind of data exhaust, which is inscribed, right?
DE: I was wondering if you could speak about that.
BH: I think agency is an interesting thing to talk about there. I mean, again, we're talking about who's doing the transcribing, because you start to have to think about algorithms, and the ethics of algorithms. Do algorithms have this mind of their own? Or are they parasitic in some way? If we're talking about algorithms, we have to talk about code. And code is an interesting form of inscription in that it's prescriptive. As a programmer, if I write an algorithm—or I write a program—it can then be executed by the machine. Then it takes on this life and actually brings into being, materially produces what I've written, as code. Which gives it a certain animus, I think.
DE: Mmmhmm. Mmmhmm
BH: Which is something. To position that, to figure out how to think about that, is one major question. But in terms of inscription, let me think. We have this idea of inscription being permanent, whether it's writing on stone or clay tablets or whatever else, like a permanent record. In a media context, you have a hard disk or the database or whatever else, and there's some sense of this being a permanent record. What I'm interested in there is [the fact that] data as inscribed, as it exists in storage media, is never inert, right? It's not a stone tablet. It essentially has to continually rewrite itself, right? A hard disk is spinning. Electricity goes through there. A database is constantly replicating itself, constantly migrated or transitioning into new schema or whatever else. So there's a way in which it has to self-perpetuate that inscription, or be continually reinscribed, which I think is interesting. Earlier this year I was in India and Tibet travelling with my friend, who is a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, and I found it really interesting how prayer wheels are used, and also stupas. They're filled with prayers. Written out, inscribed, writing various mantras that have a particular kind of magical effect. And writing them. And then when you put them in a prayer wheel and you spin the wheel, what that does is essentially enunciate that mantra, that prayer, again and again and again. So you fill a prayer wheel with all of these written out mantras and then you spin it. And it's the equivalent of saying that mantra over and over and over again. Which I found really fascinating. It's this intersection between writing something and saying something and the action of spinning it and this material presence of these words. And I like that. Something attracts me to that as a parallel to some of these technological forms of continually reinscribing things on spinning discs over the Internet and whatever else. There's something in the materiality of that. The fact that—whether it's moving through air or whether its electricity, or whatever else—it goes against the idea of language being abstract. Or like the word itself being entirely symbolic. And not the substrate being arbitrary, being pure logos or something that doesn't have these embodied contingencies. We see these forms where they're very rooted in the mechanical and material forces that keep them alive and sustain their magical meaning.