Digital Culture

By Simon Ford, 4 July 2003

As Lecturer in Digital Art History at Birkbeck College, Charlie Gere must have been aware of the lack of a general introduction to his subject. And so he wrote one. His book, however, in its search for the constituent elements of digital culture, extends far beyond the boundaries of conventional art history. The drift of his argument is that, contrary to received opinion, digital culture is not technologically determined, but has its roots in a wide range of discourses from early industrial capitalism, through to the requirements of 20th century warfare, and on to the critical theory and philosophy of postmodernism. He also highlights those previously marginalised avant-garde artistic movements – such as Fluxus, Mail Art and performance art – and re-evaluates them as precursors of key facets of digital culture. At the core of the book is a necessarily slippery notion of culture, at once something that ‘encompasses both the artefacts and the systems of signification and communication that most clearly demarcate our contemporary way of life from others’, but also something that is so ubiquitous in the ‘developed’ world that it defies attribution as a socially distinct ‘culture’. This lack of specificity informs the weakest sections of the book, namely the summaries of work by such over-familiar figures as Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Negri, Haraway and Hakim Bey. The most informative sections are those that deal historically with specific technologies and products (e.g. Pong and Space Invaders) and formative discourses such as cybernetics, information theory, and general systems theory. The sections on early computer art (featuring Ivan Sutherland, Roy Ascott, Gordon Pask, Nicolas Schˆffer, and A. Michael Noll) are fascinating but frustratingly brief. Perhaps now that a general introduction to digital culture has been written the equally necessary task of detailed historical research into its component parts can begin.

Digital Culture // Charlie Gere // Reaktion // 2002 // 200 pages // ISBN 1861891431 // £14.95