Revealing digital objects in networked art

What is the essence of a digital object? Given their elusive nature and their contingency on networked social relations, it might seem strange to think these objects could have any innate being-ness. Maybe digital art has some role it could play in revealing a glimpse of their inner nature.

This text is an inquiry into the materials I work with as an artist. I’ve collected some quotes from philosophers and theorists I found helpful to think about it.

Firstly, digital objects are material. They don’t exist in some alternate universe and it doesn’t really help us to think of them that way, as Jacob Gaboury pointed out in his book Image Objects.  

“But what then is the materiality of digital objects, alienated as they are from the things they seek to simulate?” he asks. “It speaks to the basic assumptions of researchers in this early moment - assumptions that in turn, come to shape the ways this technical discipline conceives of and standardizes the world itself.” 

Digital objects are material, but they’re also materially different from other objects we encounter. A stone has dimension, mass and position, it has presence but is pretty light on agenda. Digital objects on the other hand are for the most part designed with a purpose. A physical stone’s inner nature might be hard for us to conceive, but a digital stone seems doubly mysterious.

Digital things live alongside other objects which can’t be fully understood as hard, cold facts but as things caught inside webs of meanings and concerns. We need to understand the ways they are transformed. As Bruno Latour wrote about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986:

What else would you call this sudden transformation of a matter-of-factual projectile into a sudden shower of debris falling on the United States, which thousands of people tried to salvage in the mud and rain and collect in a huge hall to serve as so many clues in a judicial scientific investigation? Here, suddenly, in a stroke, an object had become a thing.”

Digital art exists in a medium that was used for commercial purposes since its inception. The earliest computer painting and 3D modelling programs were designed for commercial producers and that legacy is still evident in much digital art. The forms we make are woven with the design of the tools we use.

A lot of recent philosophy around digital objects analyses them in the context of the commercial networks they live in. They are parts in a system of associations and relations engineered by a governing organisation.

“When there are more digital objects, there are more relations, hence the networks either become larger or new networks are actualized” says Yuk Hui in his essay What is a Digital Object?. “An object is meaningful only within a network; for example, a Facebook invitation is meaningless if there is not a network that is mediated by the data of the users.”

A ‘like’ button appears to be a simple functional element at first sight, but once we know the behavioural context in which it exists, all sorts of potential issues come up around it including confirmation bias, affirmation-seeking and addiction.

Most digital objects are designed towards several purposes and many of their goals are hidden much deeper in the algo. A digital stone, for example, could be used as an alert in a user interface or a reward for some kind of behaviour, but it’s underlying purpose might also be to increase repeat engagement with its platform.

Which is where art can enter. By breaking down these objects and their behaviour in relation to the network or creating new forms that assert alternative directions of thought or behaviour, there is an opportunity to overturn powerful digital structures within their own landscape.

The author of Object Oriented Ontology, Graham Harman, says: “To treat an object primarily as part of a network is to assume it can be reduced to that set of qualities and relations that it manifests in this particular network.”

In other words, all objects can also exist independently and differently, no matter the original context in which they are found. Including digital ones.

What about their essence? Art has the ability to reveal the underlying nature of things, so when it comes to the digital landscape this could also be true. But what would it even mean to reveal a digital object’s being?

In Phenomenology and Art, José Ortega y Gasset quotes the poet Lopez Pico: “The cypress is like the ghost of a dead flame.” Ortega uses this line to demonstrate how metaphor can bring us closer to the essence of a thing. The object is the cypress tree and the metaphor illuminates it. 

Digital objects exist in an ambiguous state. They are things and also media, individual presences and interfacing elements in broader networks of meaning. Both concrete and in-between. Their meanings change along with the changing structure of the networks that support them. They are also transformed by the people participating in those networks. 

Networked art has the potential to make the nature of these objects visible in new ways, revealing their presence and influence on our connected existence.