One might query any contemporary artist and, as a kind of litmus test, ask the following series of questions: Do you think of yourself as primarily working “on” the digital or primarily “within” it? Is the computer incidental to your work, a tool like any other? Or is the computer at the heart of what you do? Shall art orient itself toward the digital? Or shall art merely live inside the digital, while concerning itself with other topics entirely?
Digital aesthetics can refer to the “medium” of the digital, that is, all the tools and technologies that populate contemporary life. At the same time, digital aesthetics can refer to context, that is, a “digital context” or a “net condition”—the latter being the title of an influential 1999 net art exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. Artists have their own particular ideas about digital aesthetics, of course, as do computer scientists. Sometimes these ideas overlap and sometimes they don’t. Can digitality be beautiful? How hopeless a question to pursue: it depends on so many complicated things, not least of them the definitions of digitality and beauty.
Technologists tend to wrestle with similar issues. Some programmers or engineers think of the machine as a tool to be used in pursuit of some larger design strategy. Thus there are many workaday technologists for whom digitality is a “context” or “condition,” with all of its attendant issues, from proletarianization and exploitation (be it unpaid overtime in Silicon Valley or harsh working conditions at Foxconn) to new forms of empowerment via social networking and communication in the public sphere. Still, when technologists reflect on themselves, when they narrate their own project, they tend to favor medium over context. I’m thinking of a text like The Art of Computer Programming, Donald Knuth’s monumental treatise on computer science. Here “art” is an entirely self-referential activity, and beauty is defined through the virtues of functionality, elegance, and simplicity. Context still matters, of course, but code derives its beauty, its very identity, from an analysis of function and its accurate formalization in logical and mathematical structures. (G. H. Hardy’s classic hymn to pure mathematics, A Mathematician’s Apology, is the literary obverse to Knuth, but it promulgates a similar set of virtues.)
Two basic activities emerge. A person may work “on” the digital or “within” it. In the former, one’s attention is directed from the outside in, taking the medium itself as its object, while in the latter one takes the perspective of the medium itself, radiating attention outward to other contexts and environments. To generalize from this, the first position (working “on”) is labeled modern or, when applied to art and aesthetics, modernist. And the latter position (working “within”) is labeled non-modern, be it premodern, postmodern, or some other alternative.
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