In the fall of 2015, Immediacy disappeared from the ether. Its online home had been ravaged by a virus and most web-only projects that it had showcased over the years were irretrievably compromised and impossible to restore. Students, its primary contributors, had moved on and old email addresses no longer worked. In short, a web-only project had succumbed to its genetic vulnerability. An experimental venture from the start (the early 2000s) and operating with minimal resources, Immediacy had migrated from server to server, a nomadic presence untethered to space. Until now. Maybe.
It is perhaps fitting (if inconvenient) that an online journal should be subject to the vicissitudes of what has come to be known as “the digital revolution.” The ephemeral and contingent nature of the online environment, despite safeguards and patches, coalesces into a kind of psychological core of our experience of the internet. Not that this deters anyone from wanting to be part of this brave new world, even as ‘the digital’ reaches out into every aspect of our lives. “In an astonishingly short period of time, the computer has colonized cultural production; a machine that was designed to crunch numbers has come to crunch everything from printing to music to photography to the cinema,” wrote the scholar Peter Lunenfeld almost two decades ago (The Digital Dialectic 2000: 3). And not just cultural production, but whole areas of human inquiry and practice, from architecture to medicine to education, business, and politics. According to Moore’s law, computing power has tended to approximately double every two years. We are therefore able to create, transmit, and receive information at greater and greater speed. All this has affected everyday life in the developed world, as described by digital humanities scholar, N. Katherine Hayles:
The ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world. I live in a small town in North Carolina, but thanks to the web, I do not feel in the least isolated. I can access national news, compare it to international coverage, find arcane sources, look up information to fact-check a claim, and a host of other activities that would have taken days in the pre-Internet era instead of minutes, if indeed they could be done at all. Conversely, when my computer goes down or my Internet connection fails, I feel lost, disoriented, unable to work — in fact, I feel as if my hands have been amputated (perhaps recalling Marshall McLuhan’s claim that media function as prostheses). Such feelings, which are widespread, constitute nothing less than a change in worldview (How We Think 2012: 2).
In a humorous moment in his documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), a history of the internet from its inception in 1969, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog cuts to some shots of Tibetan monks in their orange garbs all immersed in their cell phones as he intones in voiceover, “Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying? They all seem to be tweeting.”
The ubiquity of tiny tweets may be juxtaposed to the parallel ubiquity of global-scale imagery whereby we are provided concurrent access to the small and quotidian, and the large and sublime. For instance, scholar-artist Laura Kurgan provides this social description to talk about thing more ominous: “We constantly read maps. In print and on computers, mobile phones, PowerPoint presentations, and blogs, maps visualize everything from the movement of hurricanes and refugees to the patterns of traffic and shifting electoral landscapes. . . . The more they become our everyday means of navigating simple and complex situations alike, the more we take maps for granted. . . .” (Close Up at a Distance, 2014: 16). Kurgan studies satellite mapping: its reach, its stealth, its spying capabilities. Hers (or rather, the satellites’) is an eschatological vision that points to the contrariness inherent in our engagement with digital technologies.
How might we wrap our heads around this contrariness? How might we position ourselves in relation to the digital dialectic? A brief historical tour can be undertaken in order to deal with such questions, as Herzog’s film allows us to do via a visual journey through space and time, memory and speculation. We are taken to the “sacred space” of the inception of digital connectivity, a room in the University of California, Los Angeles which enshrines the machine that communicated, for the first time, with a computer at Stanford University on October 29, 1969. One of the ironies of that moment is that there are no analog records and thus no historical traces of the actual process followed by the scientists. From that founding event to the present, Herzog interviews a series of luminaries (overwhelmingly male, white, and US-based) who speak on topics such as self-driving cars, hacking, black holes, cyberbullying, radiation poisoning, internet addiction, artificial intelligence, brain research, and internet dreaming. Both “the glory of the net” and “the dark side” are explored. (According to a New York Times in 2013, Norbert Wiener, an early pioneer at MIT, imagined an age of robots as early as 1949.)
Questions of how we have arrived at our current digital era have also concerned media historians, many of whom go deeper into the past to make connections between new and old media. The concept of remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 2000) has taken hold, showing how a refashioning of old media takes place in the face of challenges presented by a subsequent medium. Thus websites have long been built with text, images, graphics, and animation, with the additional tools of hyperlinking and strategic juxtapositions. The idea of language itself has come to include non-verbal systems such as images, and narrative or formal patterns of all sorts. For Lev Manovich, in his The Language of New Media (2001), a book that has attained the status of a seminal text in the study of digital media, cinema as art form provides the basic system governing the formal properties of digital media. Alex Galloway has recently critiqued the dominance of the cinematic metaphor and cinematic structures in theorizing digital media. Here a long-running tension between media and mediation (technical media as objects or apparatuses on the one hand, and the processes whereby they are created, mobilized, and apprehended on the other) becomes evident, gesturing towards a debate that is highly complex. Put simply, it is the challenge of articulating technology and the social/cultural as mutually imbricated. But mediation is not just a matter of the medium but of the vast network of relationships in which the medium, along with the user, is embedded. As John Guillory has shown, the question of how we might view the technical artifact in terms of the long history of art and invention has been a conceptual challenge (“The Genesis of the Media Concept” 2010). It is this instability, this constant unfolding of the unexpected that makes the contemporary moment so invigorating and yet so ominous.
While not engaged in the task of theorizing or resolving the tension between media and mediation, the projects and critical essays contained in this issue of Immediacy constitute a kind of inventory of the role of digital media in culture at the present time. Two threads may be identified for mention here: the forms of sharing, dissemination, amplification via the internet and social media; and the idea of “witnessing” and revelation — of injustice, invisibility, hypervisibility of certain groups, self-reflection. In the first, sharing encompasses both the collaborative, creative, and communal aspect of the web (as in the work involved in creating the “Witnessing” project; in Terri Bowles’ account of the possibilities opened up by the internet for black critical dialogues; “Cleaning the Glass” and #BlackoutDay, the diffusion of memes to tap into mass political consciousness in Turkey; Lauren Hamersmith’s project to understand the popularity of memes), and the more chilling frenzy in the television show, Black Mirror’s dark allegory of social media (Devan Davies-Wood) or Ines Vogelfang’s “capture” of the selfie. Others point to trends in work and leisure, such as an insider look at the practice and reception of traditional print journalism in the digital era (Brian Donlon), the immersive storytelling power implicit in a new generation of Virtual Reality technologies (Roy Kachur), and the meaning of interface metaphors (Maranke Wieringa). The projects are the work of students at once deeply steeped in digital culture as well as eager to harness its resources to address the issues of the day. Together they comment on and intervene in raising awareness of the various aspects and ramifications of digital affordance.