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Corrosion and Decay in Digital Culture

September 6, 2007

The promise of digital art and culture is almost utopian: perfection and immortality of images and ideas, with infinite, pristine reproducibility.  But behind the veil, decay, loss, sweat, and corruption are everywhere in the infosphere.  Far more so than in the traditional material world, these are seen as mistakes and moral flaws that need to be expunged from the internet, removed from computers, and replaced with clean and perfect media. The virtual prostitution of Grand Theft Auto is more reviled than the actual hustling on city streets; a corroded computer screen seems far worse than a stained book cover.

While this problem of the new becoming old can be looked at as a technical issue, as, for example, in the growing field of digital art conservation, this misses the populace’s horror at seeing a medium so often equated with our future decaying before our eyes.

When this corrosion of technology is celebrated, such as in the science fiction genre of cyberpunk (and its offspring, steampunk and clockpunk), are we experiencing the frisson of slumming with the wrong side of the future, or are we seeing a window to humanizing digital culture by allowing a window for imperfection and frailty? Can there be a wabi sabi aesthetic of information?  Is there a techno-picturesque?

In the weeks and months ahead, I want to investigate these ideas and dig over some of the assumptions and presumptions of both popular and academic takes on decay, passion, and technology. I’ll try to do this with one foot planted in the field of culural studies and one foot dancing.  Join me!

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