Notes for October reading

Media Infrastructures and the Politics of Digital Time – Volmar and Stine – 2021 – longer notes here

Chapter three: Problems of temporality in the digital epoch – Yuk Hui 

This chapter deals with time through a discussion of individual and historical time, specifically dealing with questions around the future (and our limited view of what the future can be). It goes on to give some examples of how we understand time (e.g. as a measure of geometry; of lived experience; and as history which we have not experienced but still weighs on us). Our understanding of time is complicated by technology, with digital technologies allowing for ever more granular measures of time. These infinitesimal units of time are only observable by computers, thus act as interobjective relations which display the materiality of time. These measurements exist because they are hardwired into technology, making data core to interobjective relations. This is ultimately to say that the past and present are now more determined by the future than ever before, via data-driven predictive analytics. 

The contemporary importance of big data and predictive algorithms makes the relation between man and future more evident than previous. This is drawn on here to develop the idea of tertiary protention. Husserl suggests primary and secondary retentions and protentions. Primary retention is the initial experience of something; primary protention is the ability to make sense of something (such as a piece of music) and expect what may come next. Secondary retention is remembering something; secondary protention is remembering how the experience proceeds and ends. Stiegler suggests tertiary retention (or artificial memories) is when one memory is invoked from an external source e.g. the memory of hearing a song on CD via hearing it on MP3. Hui adds tertiary protention here: this is a projection imposed upon an actor via an external (technological) source which proceeds ahead of the actor e.g. algorithmic recommendation systems. In a tertiary protention, the future is collapsed into the past via technologies. 

While the example of listening to music is a personal experience of time, collective historical time is impacted by technologies too. Globalisation acts to synchronise time, converging cultures into a singular world history. This rationalisation of the past, present, and future seeks an end point via a super intelligent technology which will arrive as a collective ‘us’. This understanding of technology and time disregards differences in cultures and assumes nations are only measured through technological and economic ‘advancement’. This notion should be resisted in critical digital studies, with Hui pushing for new digital imaginaries and a plurality of technological futures, rather than one homogeneous future. Imagining new digital futures requires a plurality of cosmotechnics. Cosmotechnics is the unification of cosmic and moral orders through technical activities. Hui promotes each culture developing their own history of cosmotechnics, rather than a universal technological history.

Chapter four: Suspending the “Time Domain”: Technological tempor(e)alities of media infrastructures – Wolfgang Ernst 

This chapter outlines a media archaeology approach to digital technologies. Media archaeology is concerned with the hardwired structures of media, as well as their operative unfolding-in-time. This is concerned with the microregimes within technological devices, with the main aspect examined here being hardwired temporality. Hardwired temporality is the infrastructuring of time by technologies, including the temporal structures revealed when examining the techno-logic of machines.

Given the focus on media archaeology here, this chapter gives examples of older systems of timekeeping which echo modern, digital timekeeping. This includes escapement-driven clocks of Benedictine monks, Heidegger’s concept of Weltbild (the quantifying of physical nature), and the technologising of language itself through the formalised written word. One difference between contemporary digital technology and older technologies is their endlichkeit or temporal limit. While an audio recording may end, it can also be replayed; in effect making it endless. However, human mediation, such as radio programming, asserts arbitrary cultural and media-economic endings in recordings through ordering them in time.

It then moves on to the media tempor(e)alities referred to in the title. Media tempor(e)alities unfold on three levels: firstly, within technologies when the micro-timing of signal transduction is needed for events to actually occur; secondly, in the human sense of the temporal experience of the media; and finally in ‘deep’ media temporality (logic and machine) which is separate from the cultural imaginary of history. It notes, however, that technologies do not have a sense of human time, rather they revolve around technological events which trigger other events, with time being a secondary outcome in this. Time is made/measured through the co-articulation of actions by multiple technologies. Technologies order our perception and measurement of time, which in turn mediates out material experiences, as well as mathematical experiences through the algorithms contained in microchips. The interaction of different microchips in and between computers (in both hardware and software) acts as an ensemble temporal operator (enforcing time via synchronisation) rather than time being determined in human retentions and protentions.

New technologies bring new ways of understanding time then but temporality nonetheless remains the rhythmic basis of digital culture, structuring data processing from within. This is a mathematical understanding of time in machines though, one which represents the in-between of humans and their physical environment (as opposed to the human experience of time). Media archaeology must recognise this functional plurality of time between machine and man e.g. computers handling data packets in a mathematical function, moving them faster than people can perceive in order to facilitate ‘real-time’ communications like video streaming. In this sense, network cultures are not about time as much as they are about latency, transforming signals from the physical channel of humans, into information processed by machines, and fed back to humans. The human-perceived immediacy of these actions is key to the web economy, replacing cyberspace with cybertime. Time-critical research seeks to highlight when these signals happen on both a physical and logistical level. This includes both the hardware and software of digital technologies, as in media-archaeological terms, computational technologies, in the very essence of both components (techné as well as lógos), consists of both “hardwired” temporality on the very infrastructural level of microchip circuitry and “soft-wired” temporalities resulting from what drives such machines: source code which concerns time-critical operations in computational languages such as assembly language.

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