Interview with David Berry on Digital Power and Critical Theory

Critical Theory and the Digital_book cover‘Questions of digital power and the reanimation of critical theory: An interview with David Berry’

David Berry and David Beer

David Berry’s book Critical Theory and the Digital has recently been published by Bloomsbury. The following interview explores some of the key themes and ideas from that book whilst also focusing on how this project might develop in the future.

Dave Beer Perhaps we can start with the convergence of the two key areas tackled in your book. To start things off I’d particularly like to hear your thoughts on the limitations of critical theory when it comes to conceptualising the digital. Did you find any particular problems in trying to adapt critical theory, and particularly the work of the Frankfurt School, to theorise new media? And, more specifically, were there any difficulties with the use of concepts meant for centralised broadcast media to understand and analyse decentralised media forms?

David Berry The issue isn’t the limitations of critical theory when conceptualizing the digital, but rather the limitations of the concept of the digital as a critical concept. The difficulty of working with and actually exploring the contemporary computational formation of capitalism is that it has been somewhat obscured by the impreciseness of the term the “digital”. Theoretically the “digital” is an empty signifier that has suffered from a lack of critical attention particularly in relation to its ideological deployment, but also its ahistorical usage even in avowedly critical work. Empirically, of course, and also technically, the “digital” has stood for a particular method of discretization, although too often this is collapsed into 0s and 1s and the binary structure underlying most computation today. In this sense, the “digital” has served too often as a descriptive term and hence has avoided, in some sense, critical attention itself.

So in developing a critical approach to the digital by definition required the explicit recognition that the digital itself needed to be historicized. Therefore it was never a problem of having to adapt critical theory to the digital in an instrumental fashion; indeed, such assumptions intimate that critical theory has a coherence and unity that it does not have. Rather it was about re-animating some of the theoretical work undertaken by the critical theorists through a re-articulation of their approaches in light of new developments in digital media and technology. Critical theory as a body of work has a diverse and rigorously developed set of theoretical and conceptual resources that is extremely helpful in trying to get a grip on the contemporary formation. Of course, that is not to say that critical theory needs no interpretation or translation to the latest developments in economic and social organization, however this is no different to appropriating any theoretical work and requires careful reading and working-out of the theoretical tradition in which one wishes to work.

As regards the question of critical theory’s engagement with broadcast media rather than decentralized media forms, I think we need to be careful about drawing too strong a distinction between the different modes of organization and which empirically tend to be structured through a variety of practices. Indeed, in our purported decentralized media age it is crucial to take account of how the big technology companies, sometimes called the “Stacks” – referring to their mastery and deployment of the technology stacks on which their dominance is based – currently are restructuring new forms of re-centralized media forms. Here I am thinking of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and so forth. Just look at Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Spotify, and so forth for examples of new centralized media companies emerging on top of existing decentralised infrastructures. So in many ways the critical theorists point the way towards unpacking our ideological attachment to notions of “decentralized media” and instead paying closer attention to the actual existing instantiations of the new real-time streaming media companies. Additionally, these theorists point towards moments of intervention, critique and political praxis in relation to the actual activism needed to realize the possibility of decentralized media.

Dave Beer The issue of power is perhaps one of the central issues in your book. Does critical theory provide any particular insights into the continuity or transformation of systems of power with regard to digital media? You point towards the question of possibility and what is possible in your book; is this now where power plays out?

David Berry I think that questions of power, particularly in relation to its deployment through singular moments and systems of organization are hugely important for my work. Not just in terms of power within particular organizations but also in their constitution, formation and deployment – especially when that sovereign moment of instantiation has been long forgotten, obscured or denied. The critical nexus lies in the recognition both in identifying digital formations as products of the capitalist system, but also in the recognition of the dialectical moment whereby capitalism itself is restructuring through certain “digital” interventions in the wider economy. Therefore the need to pay attention to the materiality of the digital draws our attention to the microanalysis required at the level of digital conditions of possibility combined with macroanalysis of the scaling qualities of digital systems. This “fractal” moment requires theoretical work to engage at multiple levels and calls for a need to understand specific material affordances of the digital and how they are delegated particular forms of action and decision but also how these are prescribed by the digital back onto everyday life as such. Power, of course, continues to play out across a number of different strata in society, but there remains a specific and increasingly universalizing tendency for digital forms to be able to be scaled rapidly across a society and hence prescribe particular power relationships, norms and so on in new technologies of power. This specificity, which Scott Lash has called “algorithmic power” needs further critical reflection, and my work is in some senses a contribution to these questions.

Dave Beer It would seem that you are encouraging the reader to explore the materiality of the digital. In particular, you seem to have an ongoing interest with media objects of different sorts. Are you arguing for a more pressing engagement with the material forms that media take? Should we be thinking in terms of digital objects?

David Berry It seems to me that it is crucial that in developing theoretical work in relation to the computational that one continually works through theoretical and conceptual development in a process of iteration, by moving “near” and “far” from the digital as such. By this I mean not only should we engage with media objects as part of our theoretical work, but also ground theoretical frameworks within the actually existing historical formation we are seeking to understand. This is to say, one must be careful of attempts to dis-embed or disconnect theoretical and practice moments in research. This is, of course, what the critical theorists themselves were keenly aware of in relation to their exhortation towards praxis. So it is not that we should be thinking solely in terms of “digital objects” but rather that we must be able to dialectically think in relation to a number of moments within instantiations of the digital. Perhaps then it is better to talk about the need to think in terms of “post-digital objects”. That is, to also critically interrogate the status of the “digital” and the notion of the “object” within contemporary constellations of knowledge and practice.

Dave Beer Continuing from the last question on materiality, I notice that you argue for forms of analysis that look ‘beneath’ the ‘interface’ (63). This type of approach reoccurs in the book, with the suggestion that we look beyond screens to understand code and algorithms. Does critical theory provide us with much guidance on how to proceed with such an approach, or would we need to draw upon other resources?

David Berry The difficulty of getting a grasp on the digital is that we have relatively poor conceptual and theoretical understandings of the digital, combined with a medial approach that tends to over-emphasize the screenic in accounts of understanding media and digital forms. In some senses, Critical Theory and the Digital is meant as a corrective to solely screenic approaches whilst not denying the importance of attention to the surface inscriptions that we increasingly use on digital devices, namely the interface. That is, we need to take account of both the commodity level of the interface and the underlying machinery of the algorithm instantiated in code. We must also remember that ultimately the interface itself is rendered in code too.

As regards the guidance that critical theory provides us with in relation to developing our understanding of code and algorithms, I think it is crucial to follow the example set by the Frankfurt School in their willingness to draw on a wide variety of empirically oriented and technical accounts to inform social and cultural critique. Even nominally descriptive accounts of software can provide useful information about the scale, structure and implementation of software systems. The key is to incorporate this work into a critical edifice that contributes to the questions asked by critical theory itself. It is hugely important that critical theory doesn’t become a kind of theoretical ghetto or purely scholastic endeavor that not only talks solely to itself, but also fails to engage with contemporary political praxis and struggle.

Dave Beer Your explorations of the intersections of critical theory and the digital throws up some important topics that are likely to be of broad interest to readers of Theory, Culture & Society. The book seems to return, for instance, to related questions of memory, cognition, consciousness and agency. This seems to be based upon the tensions created as digital media come to intervene in social processes and practices. In your account, algorithms, for example, seem to be mediating agency. Would a critical theory of digital media start with such questions and topics? Would you say that memory and cognition have been transformed?

David Berry The aim of my work is not to try to understand whether memory and cognition have been transformed as such. Rather I am interested in why such questions make sense to be asked at this historical juncture. In other words, it is precisely at such a point where particular memory systems, which organize and stabilize knowledge, are under a period of stress, that uncertainty and doubt about the qualities of human capacities become contentious. Again, the issues about the changing nature of such human capacities remains an empirical question, and in any case not straightforward to answer. However, at the level of the social and material, certain structural changes are clearly underway which threaten political economic structures, societies, professions and particular taken for granted ideas of the kind of knowledge that a member of a particular class would be expected to know. These structural transformations are certainly unwinding in often unpredictable ways, and as they do so, it is natural that individuals and groups that are affected try to understand their predicament. With the case of memory and cognition, it is clear that computation presents a real and present danger to the intellectual classes and the middle class in particular, and the idea of automation in the sphere of intellectual work is deeply unsettling to these classes, who are also able to articulate these worries discursively, often in the media. Ironically, it is also digital media, with its rapid dissemination that is also the site of these debates, through blogs and social media. Nonetheless, I think that these concerns do offer a subject position that does already feel under pressure from computational systems and the new world threatened by fragmentary and databased knowledge.

Dave Beer Alongside the questions of agency and cognition, you also draw in questions of perception. For example, your book provides detailed discussions of aesthetics and digital literacy. Is this an attempt to foreground perception in different ways in your analysis?

David Berry In a similar fashion, it is interesting to me that questions regarding aesthetics and literacy return in an age of ubiquitous computation. This is not to foreground perception in different ways as such, rather it is about how a particular perceptual field is structured or how questions related to the contours of such a field – the conditions of possibility – but also the normative evaluations that are expressed in relation to it are articulated and justified. Here I am interested in how the deployment of computational categories affect the way in which justification is actualized in practice, but also normalized into the taken-for-granted common sense of the everyday.

Dave Beer Finally, perhaps you could say something about the direction your work is going. Are you continuing to develop any of the themes from the book?

 

David Berry My work continues to refine and develop my understanding of computational societies and the implications across a range of registers. Currently I am exploring the work of some of the lesser-known first generation critical theorists to try to undertake a kind of conceptual and theoretical archaeology of this body of work. In conjunction with this, particular moments in relation to computation continue to interest me, including the status of “opacity” as a political and technical concept, and how “voice” is reconfigured as a marker of identity and, in some senses, an order-word in its own right under computation. Here I am thinking particularly in relation to the rise of conversational interfaces, but also this is connected to biometric technologies and the idea that an individual’s voice becomes a surface code that contributes to processes of de-visualization of computation. Additionally, I am interested in exploring what I am calling the “antinomies of computation” and how these are manifested in contradictory forces across the terrain of the computational and society more generally.

David Berry is Reader in Media and Communication at the University of Sussex. As well as Critical Theory and the Digital (2014) his previous publications include The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age (2011) and Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source (2008). He has recently edited the collection New Aesthetics (2014) with Michael Dieter.

 

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. His publications include Punk Sociology (2014), Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation (2013) and New Media: The Key Concepts (2008, with Nicholas Gane). He is one of the editors of the Theory, Culture & Society open site.

You may also be interested in reading:

David Berry’s review article ‘The Poverty of Networks’ (Theory, Culture & Society, December 2008; vol. 25, 7-8: pp. 364-372.)

David Beer and Roger Burrows’s article ‘Popular Culture, Digital Archives and the New Social Life of Data’ (Theory, Culture & Society, July 2013; vol. 30, 4: pp. 4771., first published on April 16, 2013)

Sean Cubitt’s article ‘Analogue and Digital’ (Theory, Culture & Society, May 2006; vol. 23, 2-3: pp. 250-251.)

Interviews with Yuk Hui on Digital Objects , Tony D. Sampson on Tarde and Media Theory, and Daniel Black on interfaces, bodies and materiality on the TCS Blog

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