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Digital Mosaics: The Aesthetics of Cyberspace

Author: Steven Holtzman
Publisher: New York: Touchstone Books, 1998
Review Published: March 2003

 REVIEW 1: Kevin Moist

Published in 1998, Steven Holtzman's Digital Mosaics: The Aesthetics of Cyberspace was one of the first stabs at coming to grips with the myriad ways digital technologies alter the shape of human creativity. As President and CEO of Perspecta, Inc. and a board member of various Internet software companies, Holtzman brings an insider's perspective and a practitioner's knowledge to the consideration of the ongoing digital reshaping of our art and culture.

Holtzman's central thesis is provocative, and it remains relevant five years after the book's publication. He argues that while new digital technologies open up a huge array of creative options, these have yet to be truly explored or exploited. "We've barely begun to understand the possibilities of digital worlds," he writes. "Today, we're still approaching new digital media in terms of 'old' ways of thinking . . . Most of what we see is built on a foundation rooted in the past. It isn't conceived with digital media in mind and doesn't exploit the special qualities of digital media" (13). Our culture, he says, is moving through a transitional period in which the products of new media get shoehorned and retrofitted into old creative models, old modes of representation. On the other hand, as a follower of Marshall McLuhan, he believes firmly that digital media will inevitably bring about a genuinely new or at least radically different culture. The old Modernist world, and the staid and linear worldviews that go along with it, are, he argues, even now in the process of being re-morphed into new Postmodern mosaics of hyperlinking and non-linear random access. "Digital technology will not only change how we communicate. It will change what we say, and even how we think. The 'content' of human expression will be dramatically transformed as we make the shift to the digital" (12). The goal of his book, then, is to survey the field of digital arts in the interests of identifying the seeds of the new expression stuck in the forms of the old.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is organized as a "Tour of Digital Worlds," and features engaging accounts of what Holtzman sees as some of the more interesting efforts to discover and use the distinctive properties of digital technology in creating new artistic worlds. The second part, "The Medium is the Message," borrows a well-worn line from McLuhan in attempting to define the essential qualities of the digital itself, particularly as it applies to artistic production.

Given Holtzman's experience as a software practitioner, it makes sense that the more involving portions of the book are the descriptions of other programmers in action and the virtual arts they generate. He has a knack for explaining aspects of digital creation in ways that are accessible to a lay audience without slighting the specifics of programming creativity (the plentiful illustrations are also helpful). These are usually coupled with first-person accounts of the programs in action that take on a breathless, "Gosh, wow!" tone in explaining the excitement of the virtual experience. For example, after a description of his ride in a flight simulator, Holtzman enthuses, "'Location-based' entertainment makes for a pretty wild ride! These simulators create the sense of total immersion and instantaneous interactivity. They make your heartbeat accelerate; you break into a sweat. You touch a control and there is an immediate response. Such simulators raise questions about what it means to have a 'real' experience" (44).

As the book is now nearly half a decade behind the breakneck pace of ongoing technological advances, one might think going in that the chosen examples could seem a bit dated (itself an interesting commentary on how digital is altering our culture). It is to Holtzman's credit that for the most part they are not; while the specifics and names may have changed, the creative applications he describes remain quite similar. (Though, to be fair, there are some notable omissions. For instance, at one point he wonders excitedly what might happen if computer sounds and processes themselves were used as the basis for music-making -- a strategy that European digital music artists such as Oval and Microstoria had already been working for several years at the time of publication and that has since inspired an entire genre of "glitch" music electronica).

Perhaps the most engaging chapter is "Digital Limited, Inc.," which takes some of French philosopher Jacques Derrida's ideas about the inherent limitations of language and uses them as a jumping-off point to consider the unavoidable limits of digital representation. Filtering Derrida's ideas through his own McLuhan-derived terminology, Holtzman points out that, "[t]o the extent that a medium shapes a message, the medium's limitations set the boundaries of what can be expressed in it. And so the limitations of the digital medium define our experience of it" (151). These limitations -- from pixilated images and flat textures to the difficulty of reproducing natural light in a digital image and the huge amount of processing power required to simulate movement -- are inherent aspects of digital media and are not likely to ever fully disappear; "virtual reality" will, he says, always be identifiable as virtual. Even as computer power increases, "the demands of applications will increase even more . . . there will always be technical limits" (163). The ultimate limitation of digital representations, he argues persuasively, is their very binary nature. Since all things digital finally reduce to the programming of a 0 or 1 bit of information, it is necessarily "discrete. Discontinuous. As fine as the granularity may be of any digital representation, even zooming in for seemingly infinitesimal resolution, there is ultimately a 0 or 1." On the other hand, the real world in which we live off-screen is "an analog place. It's a constant stream; our experience of time, our views of reality, our thoughts, and our consciousness are not broken into consecutive discrete segments." So no matter how the digital world might approximate that stream, it can never fully represent it: "By its nature, the digital world is discontinuous, so there will always be a gap of some sort in any digital representation." (164).

On the other hand, Digital Mosaics is at its least persuasive when dealing with various criticisms of the cultural and social effects of new technologies, which get dismissed in just a few pages as the weary laments of time-bound literati who simply can't hack the new breed. "Will we lose a part of our cultural heritage as we assimilate new media?" Holtzman asks. "No doubt. Is this disturbing? Absolutely. Today's traditional media will be further marginalized. Is there much value in decrying an inevitable future? Probably not" (186).

But debates over the construction and provenance of cyberspace hardly reduce to a simple binary of book-loving old-timers vs. the thrillseekers of new tech, and noticeably absent from the book is any kind of critical edge regarding the whos, whats, and whys of cyberia. For instance, one favorably-cited example of an original "Virtual World" is an IBM design for a non-representational digital shopping mall -- pardon me, an "On-Line City of Digital Commerce." Granted, Holtzman's point is about the "physical" design and layout of the site, not its use. But the aporia is fairly telling, as the status quo of the digital industry, and the ways that these processes themselves might serve to limit the possibilities of the new media, is not discussed. The colonization of the digital frontier into a giant virtual marketing opportunity, and the potential long-term effects that might have on the sorts of culture that develop in these new spaces, is never raised as an issue in a positive or negative sense.

The avoidance of cyber-issues is likely and understandably grounded in the book's avowed focus on the aesthetic elements of digital design. Yet the separation and elevation of the purely artistic from the rest of the blooming, buzzing confusion we call life seems itself like a holdover from exactly the linear-thinking literate world that Holtzman claims digital technology has made irrelevant. Older aesthetic theories of the Modernist era did of course insist on a separation between the pure formalism of ("good") art and the society in which that art was produced, in the process usually elevating the status of the artist as well. Holtzman's reliance on such models is reflected here not only in the lionizing of examples such as painter Frank Stella's late-50s flat geometric canvases, but also in telling details such as description of software designers as the great explorers, the "new alchemists" of our day, searching out "vistas of entirely uncharted possibilities" (77). And just as Holtzman tries to pin down the specific fundamentals of what makes digital uniquely digital, so did Modernist aestheticists aim their theories at defining the "essence" of particular art forms. These essences were trans-historical qualities, ideal forms that the arts needed to follow in order to be "pure" and true to their medium. Hence the Stella example: Since painting is essentially colors and shapes on a flat surface, the perfect painting would be a canvas with a square on it.

On the other hand, contemporary developments in art theory, visual culture, and art history all stress the unavoidable interrelatedness of particular images and the social and cultural contexts in which they are created. Images are seen not as disembodied and pure but as active representations -- of identity, of place, of attitude -- that reflect and express the tensions, contradictions, and concerns of their producers. There is a rhetoric of digital images as well that becomes ever more important as digital creativity becomes more democratized. When the means of art production are in the hands of only a small highly-trained elite, it might make sense to consider the objects they produce as being somehow set off from the rest of society. However, the accessibility and usability of digital media have opened up creative possibilities for a much larger portion of the populace than ever before -- it may take years to learn how to oil paint, but Photoshop can be picked up in a few days. And one of the absolutely central features of digital media, it seems to me, is the way in which it makes us all into potential producers of art and culture, not merely consumers. As this process continues and spreads, our ways of thinking about the roles and powers of art and images have to adapt as well.

My point here is that as an approach to a genuinely new technology, "aesthetics" itself seems to tiptoe in backwards, subject to the same old-paradigm limitations the author ascribes to the digital reproductions of the real world that he critiques so convincingly. This in no way invalidates Holtzman's central observation. I completely agree with him that "what's most interesting is not how well a computer can emulate our familiar world, but rather the entirely new territory that computers open for human expression" (130). But in practice we cannot forget that these are new worlds of human expression, and that as long as humans continue to exist beyond the screen, so their art will express, reflect, and act on that existence.

Kevin Moist:
Kevin Moist is an assistant professor of Communication at Penn State Altoona. His research interests include visual culture and visual rhetoric; contemporary and historical American popular culture; and the social and cultural effects of new media technologies, particularly in the forms of subcultures and "informal" media.  <kmm104@psu.edu>

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