Value in Virtual

You walk out of the gym, satisfied with your work out. You can feel the wear in your arms, still fresh from the swim. The chlorine smell from the pool drips onto the collar of your shirt as your hair dries in the sun. Paced and calm, you enjoy the walk back to the office, taking your time, taking it all in. You love being on campus in the afternoon. Students pass by in fast forward, late for class coming from work. Some are late for work coming from class. They get nearer to the cars passing on the crosswalk—closer than you’re comfortable with. One of them, wearing head phones, holds up a middle finger as a red Sedan passes, which doesn’t  even hesitate to stop, almost hitting him. You sigh in disbelief. The ignorance of Florida drivers. Still, you don’t feel sorry for the guy with the headphones. He wasn’t paying attention, either.

Three black guys coming your way are elated in conversation, smiling and joking, taking up a lot of room and making a ruckus. You smile behind your sunglasses, remembering college and recalling two friends you’ve lost touch with completely. You feel a twist of longful nostalgia, envious of a carefree sensibility that you’ve lost. A feeling of freedom absent in a space leftover from a not-so-distanced youth. You catch a bit of the conversation as they pass: “Nigga, shut up! You don’t know what she said wh-” The words echo in your head. You can’t get past “Nigga” and you think about the power of words that construct reality. You wonder why so many people struggle with difference. You can’t help but think about how some words stay in use long after they should. You know that there’s a cultural identity tied up in certain labels, which have been purposed and re-purposed, but you’re not sure that some will ever be completely free of stigma. Your body gets tense when you hear  certain language and you wonder if other people have the same reaction. You try to recall the last time you let your lack of cultural sensitivity get the best of you but you can’t. You decide to omit the word “gay” from your vocabulary. You’re pretty sure you won’t be completely successful with that. Still, it’s worth trying.

Ahead of you is a series of waist high boards, propped up and lined in a row next to a table. Some sort of campus group set them up in the green, no doubt. Maybe protesters. Maybe street preachers. Who knows. You guess names as you walk up, thinking up possible student groups: Students for Social Change…Young Democrats of Tampa…Occupy USF…Campus Coalition for the Homeless. You hope it isn’t anti-abortion propagandists from last week.

Turning the corner, you see that the boards are yellow with a big, sloppy number painted on the front of each. The first one says “US Total Debt.” The number is in the trillions. Silly. You keep walking. Then you stop, take out your camera and kneel beside the last number, snapping a few pictures, taking a shot of the whole thing. You think about how ridiculous money really is, how the national debt is merely an indicator of a government’s inability to play by their own rules. Laughing, you resist the urge to go ask the student standing at the booth if he realizes that money has become less and less real. You want to know if he sees the irony in the whole display, which uses large, physical objects to, quite literally, make money real for us. Money that is rarely represented by dollar bills. Money that’s no longer in our pockets as much as it’s in our clouds. Money that you can spend on Google Checkout. You realize that you’re probably the only one reading into this so deeply, so you keep moving. You check around, but no one was staring.

You head in the direction of the cafe in the basement of the business building. You don’t even notice that you failed to catch the name of the student group responsible for what turned out to be a clever political statement about capitalism, systems of exchange, and material culture. When you get to the cafe, you order a Tuna sandwich, wondering if it’s healthier than roast beef. You decide that you don’t really care. The workout was a good one. Looking through the pictures on your phone of the giant, wooden numbers, you think about your morning. You see yourself sitting in the communication building performance lab, surrounded by colleagues and mentors, listening intently to Mary Catherine Bateson talk about learning. She’s disarming, almost prophetic.

She leans forward in her seat, sculpting the air with her hands, looking at you, then past you, then next to you, then the other way. She talks about the importance of play and improvisation. You shake your head in agreement. You shift your weight. You lose track of the room as you zero in, focused. She answers questions with adapted lecture notes that come out like mini-seminars, genuinely honest and spontaneous, yet authentically true to her thoughts. Old thoughts. Thoughts  she’s mulled over and adapted for years. You realize this is what she means when she says  “we’re all making it up as we go along.” She says we need to spend more time being reflective—that all wisdom is derived from thinking about thinking. That “thinking about thinking” is the same as “learning.” She insists that we should find a way to dictate our actions as they’re happening, not just talk about them after the fact. If we can do that, we’ll reveal that we don’t really learn in the “now” but that we’re always making reality out of things that we already knew.

Mustard farts out of a bottle. You look at the women behind the counter as you grab your sandwich and ask for a pickle. You decide that Bateson’s “now” has got to be connected to Micheal Heim’s “virtual,” which he says is another word for “as if.” You hand over your card to pay. “$8.50” the cashier tells you, handing it back swiped. You don’t get a chance to process the information but you think that $8.50 is too much for lunch, especially considering the quality of the bread. You try to recall the last time you paid with cash, thinking about how your sense of money and value has shifted in the last decade. When did everyone start paying with plastic? When did  that become normal? You can’t seem to pinpoint it.

Moving toward the plastic silverware, you steal more than your share of knives and take a handful of napkins. You briskly open the door with your back, hands full of food and utensils, hoping no one will yell at you. As you scale the steps of the building, you move toward the sunlight, heading for your building. You talk to yourself out-loud, unaware that someone’s coming down the steps: “Virtual is the moment we reflect on what we think. The moment we make reality in our own words. It’s a reality out of nothing but what we remember from our experience. And our experience is only what we make of it.” You think that’s pretty clever, but know it needs some work.

The woman coming down the steps makes awkward eye contact. You stop talking, not sure if she heard you. You’re pretty sure she speeds up as she passes. You wonder why you’re so weird. You decide that when you get to your office, first things first, you’re going to start writing. Get it all out. At the top of the steps you breathe in the sunny Florida air and you ask yourself: Is all thinking virtual? Is money only a thought? If so, what’s the value in thinking? And what’s the value in virtual?

Creative Commons License
PLE's Value in Virtual by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

“Truth” in Analogue

Everything is going digital. Everywhere you look, there are digital things. People use the word “digital” frequently. Right now, I’m on a quest. Questioning other people this week, I’ve asked, “What does digital mean?” Most people just stared at me. A few took a shot at an answer:

“Zeros and one’s, right? Binary code?”

 “Anything that deals with computers, I think.”

 “When I think of digital, I think of telephones and computers, anything that sends a signal.”

 “To be honest, annoying is the first thing that popped into my head.”

 “I always thought that it just meant something new.”

I appreciate these responses, but I still don’t know what is meant when people call something digital. There’s little continuity in the colloquial definitions that emerge in conversation with peers. As I suspected, no one really knows what they mean or what they’re referring to when they use the word. In actuality, few care.

There’s a term for this kind of thing:

Epic fail.

I’m driven to know about the meaning of digital by a severe suspicion about what free and easy use of the word indicates. I don’t think we should continue to employ a word as loosely as we do digital when we don’t fully understand it. This may seem like a problem of mere semanticsIt’s not. It goes deeper than words. It’s a question about how we’re coming to live in a world that we continue to call by a name that we don’t fully grasp. It’s a question of virtues.

In the socially constructed reality that we embody as homo technicus, what we call the machines that we live with is indicative of how we come to understand our values as human beings. To inquire about the meaning of digital is to examine the labeling we’ve developed for packaging knowledge about the way we relate to each other in contemporary society. It’s to inquire about the ways our interactions involve technology and if they are, or aren’t, valuable.

In short, words is important.

See what I mean?

Words are symbols used to communicate and function in the world. Symbols stand for something. Digital is a symbol. I want to know what it stands for, but more poignantly, I want to know how the use of digital—as a naming device—signals a certain way of being in the world, where our actions are based on the values of a socially saturated society and our relation to technology straddles the thin line between virtue and vice, as Sherry Turkle suggests.

Symbols are made out of language. Language is a systematic tool for constructing symbols and expressing subjectivity in an objective way—a technology that we use, in talk and text, to give definition to what we see, think, and do. Through the objectivation of linguistic symbols, we cultivate a sense of agency as our ideas, thoughts, and actions become “things” that we can refer to, possess, change, and value. So understanding what is meant by digital is not just squabbling over words. It takes task with understanding how we live in a world that we continue to suggest is characteristic of a specific, albeit poorly understood, symbol.

Asking people to explain digital was hardly insightful so I go to the library, looking for any book that includes the word digital, scouring for context clues and straightforward definitions. Hours later, I’m sprawled out on the floor between shelves, knee deep in a puddle of scattered books, reading about circuits, channels, and transmissions. Engineering books. Books with digital in the title.

I’m no engineer. I don’t understand the math. But I’ve had enough communication classes to grasp the language, which includes words like signalcircuittransmissionnetwork, and system. In terms of communication research, these are concepts from a bygone age—an era before the paradigmatic shift to human communication research that privileges the mutual constitution of messages over an information-transmission model. I begin thinking about the ways engineers talk about the digital signal:

Digital signals are limited in flexibility.

Digital signals take less effort to transmit.

Digital signals can be manipulated and stored without much error.

Digital signals are better for performance.

Digital signals involve less noise.

Digital signals are less variable and more easily controlled.

Digital signals are based on a limited set of estimated values.

Thinking harder, I search for ways that this knowledge-set translates to human communication in a digital world. I wonder what “digital”—as a symbol for the way we communicate in a technological society—signals about the way we live:

We are less flexible.

We expend less effort as we communicate.

We can manipulate and remember without much error.

We are better at performance.

We deal with less noise.

We are in more control and put up with less variability.

We base what we do on a limited set of estimated values.

What, then, is meant by digital? Precision is the word that comes to mind. To be digital is to be clear, repeatable, exact.

Indeed.

We have GPS. We travel with more accuracy by giving up our geographical sensitivity, relying on systems that estimate our destinations. We end up forgetting that we can value our journey as much as our arrival. We give up the possibility of getting lost for the guarantee of finding our way. We trade the excitement of risk for the security of reward.

With the Internet, the world is becoming clearer, our ideas are more repeatable, and what we do more exacting. But there is a loss of value inherent in the digital, a sense of certainty ensured in the processing of signals, of life, that disallows discrepancy, variation, and divergence. Who doesn’t like certainity?

Yet, it is the variability we lose in the digital transmission of a signal that devalues living. Descrepency, variation, and risk give a signal a richer set of values. They also make life more robust, vibrant, and fulfilling. Surprise and excitiment are essential elements of a totalized experience of reality. They make our life more interesting, enriched with more possibilities. When precision is favored over everything, we lose a sense of value that we might not be able to recover. We lose our sensitivity to variability and count on limited values, which is another way of saying that we limit our options for what could be considered “true” or “good”.

In the finite province of meaning that engineering language provides, digital means precision. When associated with the way we live in a digital world, life becomes predictable. It describes a world that is less forgiving, where the accuracy of signals relies on a smaller index of values and the “truth” of our lives rests on a limited set of possibilities.

Walking away from the library with a lot of questions and a few books, I’ve got a lucky find in my hands. Wedged in between books about transistors, binary code, and baseband waveforms was Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. It must’ve been misfiled because it’s not an engineering text. Negroponte wrote the book at the beginning of the digital revolution while he was still chairman of the MIT Media Lab (which he founded). It’s dated, for sure, and it’s clear the Negroponte wears rose-colored glasses when he talks about the future (now past) of digital systems, but these words strike me as eerily relevant:

“multimedia narrative includes such specific representations that less and less is left to the mind’s eye. By contrast, the written word sparks images and evokes metaphors that get much of their meaning from the reader’s imagination and experiences” (p. 8)

It’s ironic that no one seems to know what digital means but they continue to use the word. Do they know what they’re getting into? Do they know that being digital might mean less possibility and limited values? Have they considered that trading virtue for virtual could mean narrowing imagination and circumscribing creativity? I doubt it. It seems to me that the more we call the world digital, the more we ought to ask about the cost of precision. I wonder about the values that we forgo, the possibilities lost in the signal, and the remaining “truth” in analogue.

Creative Commons License
PLE's “Truth” in Analogue by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.