alex galloway on Thu, 11 Jun 1998 07:10:26 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> What is Digital Studies?

What is Digital Studies?
By Alex Galloway

There is a need today to situate, keeping an eye on the scant technological
ruminations of what we have come to call, simply, "theory," the growing
mass of theoretical material devoted to digital technologies. In recent
years digital technologies have become more and more involved in how we
produce and consume texts, how texts are mediated and how we imagine and
move through space. In the light of these new technologies, one is
compelled to rethink theories of textuality and spatiality. At the same
time, faced with a particularly insidious combination of intellectual
technophobia and simply honest ignorance, one must bring a whole
intellectual field up to speed, a field hitherto focused on
poststructuralism, the signifier, Lacanian psychoanalysis, certain types of
French literature and philosophy, structural marxism and media theory (i.e.
film, television and video).

While many have started to write theory on "technology" or
"globalization"--both quite relevant to a study of new media--a second look
discovers that much of contemporary theory does not engage substantively
with the object of its analysis, the digital. So often, we are scared off
too soon by the simple fact that it is technology. The above theoretical
legacy--poststructuralism, film theory, etc.--provides us with many useful
problematics. My goal is to determine which of these problematics is still
relevant, then suggest a direction for the future of this field. Recent
criticism focusing on new media is thus my focus on here, attempting to
force through this "descriptive" phase toward a more general theory of
digital studies.

Digital studies takes digital technology as its object of analysis.
Specific topics within digital technology include the internet, the
internet browser, the digital "object" (e.g. a web page) and "protocol"
(how digital objects are organized). For my purposes, digital studies is,
like political economy before it, at once a new theoretical paradigm and a
position-taking within that paradigm.

Several theoretical debates, particularly those surrounding textuality and
space, must be revisited with the advent of digital technologies. I will
briefly outline digital studies' position in these debates, then move to
closer readings below. First, in response to the textuality debate ("What
is a semiotic network and how does it function?") digital studies argues
against signification and the urge to find meaning in objects or texts.
Digital studies is not interested in interpreting the web; it is not
interested in offering a description of its meaningfulness or its
signification. Second, in the context of the space debate ("How are spatial
relations produced? How do objects/bodies move in space?") digital studies
claims that the space of the digital is organized in a particular (but
ultimately contingent) way, in accordance with certain procedural and
strategic technologies.

The following are a few programmatic statements for digital studies.
Digital studies is a argument for the idea that objects (net bodies) are
organized through protocols into a "netspace" and that certain kinds of
knowledge legitimate this organization. This is an argument for the
category of netspace as a specific historical event, a result of the
reorganization of bodies/objects (a putting into netspace). Furthermore, it
is an argument against those who rely on pragmatic, neo-liberal
explanations for the changes in social formations under late
twentieth-century capitalism. Digital studies opposes the arbitrary use of
old metaphors to describe netspace: the text, the tree, Cartesian space,
etc. Digital studies rejects the opposition between mind and body. Digital
studies is also against the common notion that the so-called contemporary
information overload is destroying social relations. On the contrary, we
see not a disintegration but an extreme proliferation and subsequent
regulation of social relations under the new media. Digital studies is,
above all, a reaction to certain theorists' tendency to throw around the
concepts of information economy, new media, networks, etc., without ever
actually describing the technologies at the heart of these changes.

+ + +

"First commodity, then sign, now object..."

For many years now theorists have preferred to speak of value economies--
be they semiotic, marxian or psychoanalytic--in terms of genetic units of
value and the general equivalents that regulate their production, exchange
and representation. Tempting as it may be to follow the lead of film
critics like Christian Metz and Andre Bazin and claim that, like cinema
before it, the whole of digital media is essentially a language, or to
follow the lead of Tel Quel marxist Jean-Joseph Goux (or even the early
economics-crazed Baudrillard) and claim that digital media is essentially a
value economy regulated by the digital standard of ones and zeros--tempting
as this may be, it is clear that digital media requires a different kind of
semiotics, or perhaps something else altogether. The net does not rely on
the text as its primary metaphor; it is not based on value exchange; its
terms are not produced in a differential relationship to some sort of
universal equivalent. Digital technology necessitates a different set of
object relations. What are these relations?

In the digital economy there is a new classification system: object and
protocol. As opposed to the sign, the digital economy's basic unit is the
unit of content, an infoid, a digi-narrative. It is not simply a digital
commodity nor a digital sign. The object is not a unit of value. The
digital object is any content-unit or content-description: MIDI data, text,
VRML world, image, texture, movement, behavior, transformation. The object
is what Foucault calls a "body," or what Deleuze might call the content of
an affect-image. Digital objects are pure positivities.

These objects, digital or otherwise, are always derived from a pre-existing
copy (loaded) using various kinds of mediative machinery (disk drives,
network transfers). They are displayed using various kinds of virtuation
apparatuses (computer monitors, displays, virtual reality hardware and
other interfaces). They are cached. And finally, objects always disappear.
Thus, objects only exist upon use. They are assembled from scratch each
time, and are simply the coalescing of their own objectness. Platform
independent, digital objects are contingent upon the standardization of
data formats. They exist at the level of the script, not the machine.
Unlike the commodity and the sign, the object is radically independent from
context. Objects are inheritable, extendible, pro-creative. They are always
already children. Objects are not archived, they are autosaved. Objects are
not read, they are scanned, parsed, concatenated and split.

Protocol is a very special kind of object. It is a universal description
language for objects, a language that regulates flow, directs netspace,
codes relationships and connects life forms. Protocol does not produce or
causally effect objects, but rather is a structuring structure based on a
set of object dispositions. Protocol is the reason that the internet works,
and performs work. In the same way that computer fonts regulate the
representation of text, protocol may be defined as a set of instructions
for the compilation and interaction of objects. Protocol is always a
second-order process; it governs the architecture of the architecture of

To help understand the imbrication of object and protocol I offer four
examples: HTML, the internet browser, collaborative filtering and

A scripting language for networks, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is a
way of marking up text files with basic layout instructions--put this
sentence in bold face, add an image here, indent this paragraph, etc. As
the universal graphic design standard since its introduction in 1990, HTML
designates the arrangement of objects in a browser. The specifications for
HTML 3.0 claim that "HTML is intended as a common medium for tying together
information from widely different sources. A means to rise above the
interoperability problems with existing document formats, and a means to
provide a truly open interface to proprietary information systems" (1). To
the extent that HTML puts-into-verse text plus layout instructions and also
un-diversifies qualitatively different data formats, we may call it a
versifier. HTML is a scaleable protocol, meaning it is able to grow
efficiently and quickly with the advent of new technologies. Unlike some
other computer scripting languages HTML is platform independent; it is not
restricted to a single operating system.

As the HTML example shows, a protocol facilitates similar interfacing of
dissimilar objects. Contrary to popular conjecture, the digital network is
not a heterogeneity. It is a hegemonic formation, or rather, a dynamic
process-space through which hegemonic formations emerge and dissolve. That
is to say, digital networks are structured on a negotiated dominance of
certain textual forms over other forms, all in accordance with schedules,
and hierarchies, and processes. Protocol is the chivalry of the object.
Objects are filtered, parsed, concatenated. They are not archived, filed,
or perused (these are pre-digital activities). Protocol constitutes a truly
rhizomatic economy. Ebb and flow are governed by the various network
protocols (FTP, HTML, SMTP, etc.). Connectivity is established according to
certain hierarchies. And like the logic of traditional political economy
all elements conform to formal standardization. Textuo-digital protocol
"allows objects to read and write themselves" (2). And thus, objects are
not reader-dependent, rather, they take themselves to market.

One of the defining features of intelligent networks (capitalism,
Hollywood, language) is an ability to produce an apparatus to hide the
apparatus. For capitalism this logic is found in the commodity form, for
Hollywood it is continuity editing. In digital space this "hiding machine,"
this making-no-difference apparatus is, of course, the internet browser.

The browser is an interpreting apparatus, one that interprets HTML (in
addition to many other protocols and media formats) to include, exclude and
organize content. It is a valve, an assembler, a machine. In the browser
window digital objects (images, text, etc.) are pulled together from
disparate sources and arranged all at once, each time the user makes a
request. There is no object in digital networks, or rather, the object is
simply a boring list of instructions: the HTML file. Thus, the browser is
fundamentally a kind of filter--something that uses a set of instructions
(HTML) to include, exclude and organize content.

Despite recent talk about the so-called revolutionary potential of the new
browsers (Web Stalker is the best example at,
I consider all browsers to be functionally similar and subdivide them into
the following classification scheme: dominant (Netscape and Explorer),
primative (Lynx), special media (VRML browsers, Applet viewers, audio/video
players, etc) and tactical (Web Stalker).

Outside of the browser, another form of protocol, this one more radically
ideological, is the concept of collaborative filtering. Surely this is a
type of group interpellation. Collaborative filtering, also called
suggestive filtering and included in the growing field of "intelligent
agents," allows one to predict new characteristics (particularly our
so-called desires) based on survey data. What makes this technique so
different from other survey-based predictive techniques is the use of
powerful algorithms to determine and at the same time inflect the identity
of the user. By answering a set of survey questions the user sets up his or
her "profile." The filtering agent suggests potential likes and dislikes
for the user, based on matching that user's profile with other users'
profiles. Collaborative filtering is an extreme example of the organization
of bodies in netspace through protocol. Identity in this context is
formulated on certain hegemonic patterns. In this massive algorithmic
collaboration the user is always suggested to be like someone else, who, in
order for the system to work, is already like the user. Collaborative
filtering is a synchronic logic injected into a social relation; that is,
like the broad definition of protocol above, collaborative filtering is a
structuring structure based on a set of user dispositions. As a
representative of industry pioneer and Microsoft casualty Firefly described
in email correspondence: "a user's ratings are compared to a database full
of other member's ratings. A search is done for the users that rated
selections the same way as this user, and then the filter will use the
other ratings of this group to build a profile of that person's tastes."
This type of suggestive identification, requiring a critical mass of
identity data, crosses vast distances of information to versify (to make
similar) objects.

The flourishing field of biometrics also illustrates the logic of object
and protocol in the new media. What used to stand for identity--external
objects like an ID card or key, or social relations like a handshake or an
inter-personal relationship, or an intangible like a password that is
memorized or digitized--is being replaced by biometric examinations
(identity checks through eye scans, blood tests, fingerprinting, etc.), a
reinvestment in the measurement and authentication of the physical body.
Cryptography is biometrics for digital objects. Authenticity (identity) is
once again in the body-object, in sequences and samples and scans. Protocol
is "what counts as proof."

+ + +


Related to the section above on protocol, current debates on space spin off
into the digital question, especially focusing on the flow of bodies and
information, tele-presence, the organization of bodies, etc. As stated
above, digital studies claims that the net is a protocological organization
of objects in netspace. The logic here is based on Foucault's, as when he
claims that "in every society the production of discourse is at once
controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain
number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to
cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality" (3).
His term is "discourse," ours is object. Following Foucault's
archaeological method one might claim that the category of netspace is a
specific historical event, a result of the reorganization of bodies and
objects, a putting into netspace. However, historicism is not as important
here as the question of space. The slogan is no longer "always historicize"
(a fundamentally modernist goal), it's "always specifize," "always be at a
certain x." In short, always space-ify.

Netspace is the imaginary manipulation of imaginary boundaries. Netspace is
both the space of the narrative itself and its own putting-in-space. It is
a rather problematic term and must quickly be subdivided. What I call
"local space" is defined by the imaginary existence of boundaries limiting
the user to one "page." It is the production of the feeling of a local
imaginary geography. Local netspace is constrained by the physics of the
site, the hardware, the narrative of the site, the liminal status of
linkages to other domains and the threat of outside-space, the space of
other, dissimilar localities (and not simply other domains). "Abstract
network space" on the other hand is defined by the imaginary erasure of
boundaries, the production of vast imaginary spaces. Abstract network space
has several characteristics: infinite access (you can never not get there);
persistence; infinite rhizomatic propagation; format predictability (you
will never not be able to read the unknown); transparency; productive
ontology (if you think it, it exists somewhere "out there").

That digital space is fundamentally a machine for the organization of
bodies has been shown by cyberfeminist Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone in
her early essay "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" (4). With this essay
Stone, a transgendered theorist of the history of cyberspace, desire and
the virtual body, helped set the stakes for contemporary debates on the
status of the body in virtual communities (5). Stone argues persuasively
that binarisms such as nature/culture actually function logically as "a
strategy for maintaining boundaries for political and economic ends, and
thus a way of making meaning" (6). The insertion of the body into virtual
space actually produces meaning through the articulation of differences
between bodies and non-bodies, between spaces and non-spaces. Like
Foucault's rejection of the Repressive Hypothosis, Stone claims that new
technologies are not transparent agents that remove issues of gender from
view, but rather they proliferate the production and organization of
gendered bodies in space. She shows that the dominant spatial metaphor
(what Doreen Massey might call an "imaginary geography") for interactions
in virtual spaces is, simply enough, the metaphor of Cartesian space. This
is what Kathy Rae Huffman has called "electronic volume" in her description
of the architecture of techno-space (7). Like our offline space, virtual
spaces are inhabited by bodies with "complex erotic components" (8). This
working metaphor is, of course, totally arbitrary as Stone points out,
since there is nothing in the logic of digital networks that necessarily
prestructures itself as Cartesian, or body-based, or desiring. So then, why
are online communities so based on desire, space and bodies? This is the
cyberfeminist question for Stone.

Stone draws her examples from the history of cyberspace--CommuniTree,
Habitat, and other early online communities. Contemporary virtual spaces
are similarly mapped. The Etoy Tanksystem, an online space accessible via
the web is based on the map interface. Even the structure of the Virtual
Reality Modeling Language (VRML) is based on the construction of polygons
in Cartesian space. Perhaps the best examples of anthropomorphizing the web
are the online interactive domains called MOOs (Multi-user domains,
Object-Oriented). As the creators of the well known LambdaMOO claim,
"LambdaMOO is a new kind of society, where thousands of people voluntarily
come together from all over the world" (9). An object-oriented online
domain in which users can log on, converse and "move around" in real time,
the space of LambdaMOO is modeled on a house floor plan. What could be more
different from the structure of digital networks?

The use of offline metaphors to organize netspace is often problematic. A
prime example is the metaphor of the browser, since browsers don't browse.
Browsers don't skim over the surface of a unified selection of content with
the ability to drop down randomly at any given point. On the contrary,
browsers must be targeted precisely by the user to view one particular,
radically contextless web page. Browsing in the "real" world requires a
neighborhood of like material through which one may peruse, as with books
on a library stack. Computer "browsers" have no such stack. Furthermore,
the feature of the web most associated with the concept of browsing, the
hyperlink, is not a choice acted on by the user but a precoded pathway
between two files fixed by the webmaster.

+ + +

What this extended examination of digital technologies aims to argue is
that the digital is a set of protocols, based in technology, that governs
object relations, themselves a complex constellation of relations within
texts and the organization of objects in space. To facilitate these
protocols, certain ways of thinking about digital technologies legitimate
and privilege specific organizations of objects. Stone's move is to show
how we think of the body in the online community. My move is to show the
inner workings of HTML as they produce object/protocol relations.

Moving forward from a theoretical legacy then, digital studies can begin to
analyze the field of emerging digital technologies--the space of the
internet, the internet browser, the digital "object" and the digital

+ + +

[This text draws heavily on fragments from my writing over the last year,
including writing at RHIZOME (, "Fonts and Phrasing"
in _Digital Delirium_ (St. Martin's, 1997), "2 Keywords for the Digital
Text: Object and Protocol" in Nettime's _ZKP4_ (Ljubljana, 1997) and the
prototypical "What is Digital Studies?" at DIGITAL STUDIES
(, 1997).]

1	The Hypertext Markup Language Specifications for HTML 3.0 are
widely available on the web through a network of mirror sites. One such
site, from which I have pulled my citations, is
2	Like HTML, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) has its own
set of specifications. This citation is taken from a version of the VRML
specs found at
3	Michel Foucault, "The Discourse on Language" The Archaeology of
Knowledge (Pantheon, 1972), p. 216.
4	Allucquere Rosanne Stone. "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?"
Michael Benedikt, Ed. Cyberspace. First Steps (MIT Press, 1992).
5	A good place to start with Stone is her homestead at, a part of the ACTlab at UT, Austin.
6	Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" p. 102.
7	Kathy Rae Huffman, "Video, Networks, and Architecture: Some
Physical Realities of Electronic Space" Timothy Druckrey, Ed. Electronic
Culture (Aperture: 1996), p. 200.
8	Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" p. 105.
9	LambdaMOO (telnet://
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: