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Digital Monotheism

February 12, 2013

There is a certain point of view that holds that the move from polytheism to monotheism, as it has taken place here and there over the ages, was one of great loss. It brought the centralization of divinity, it’s withdrawal into a distant authority. Being was usurped by A Being. Sacred ties to home and hearth, to the elements and creatures and landscapes of this world, and to the varied expressions of human excellence and skill were cut and replaced with uncertain bonds to unknown perfection. Some richness, vitality, and enchantment was drained away. Abstraction came to reign. An inhuman and unworldly purity was elevated as a ruling thought. The pluriverse gave way to the universe, the endless proliferation of forms reduced to blueprints and taxonomies, to be placed in a binder, and put on a shelf, in some heaven that no one had ever been to, but that people liked to know was there so they could get on with their business with untroubled minds.

That sort of thing.

It is in the spirit of this that I say that digital computing is a technological monotheism. It is the One that takes the place of the Many. Everything (such as these words) is reduced to ones and zeros to be sent through logic gates. Technological tasks are universalized, they all look alike and involve the very same processes. The computer I am writing on is different from the one you are reading from, which is different from the ones in our cars and phones and those whirring away at the IRS, the NSA, NASA, NASDAQ, and your local supermarket. But the whole point and power of them is their essential sameness. There is no computer but Computer and Turing was Its prophet.

Computers and their attendant technologies are replacing the local and particular ways of doing and living that we used to rely on with something more universal and generic. Whatever gains may result something else is lost, as when God (who could also be Logos, Rationality, Science, Truth, Moral Law, Humanity or anything with a capital letter that names no one, nothing, nowhere) cast out the gods.

My immediate thoughts leading up to this post were concerning the heartbreaking transition from film to digital technology in cinema. There are a lot of quite practical problems and concerns with what is going on in this process. But beyond that there is something else, a sense of loss, mourning for a beloved medium and all that grew around it, that people are often dismissive of, calling it sentimentality or fetishism. As if there was something wrong with those things! As if we could have life worth living without them! In the terms I am using here, film is a god. One that has gathered around it a unique set of rituals, ministrations, and devotions. That has brought forth its special blessings into the world, a rich profusion of art, craft, and passion. But digital cinema? That’s just God. Boring old God: cold, distant, featureless. Everything and therefore nothing. With purely digital movies there is no proper fetish object, no ribbon of film that is magical because it is tangible. A string of ones and zeros is exhausted by its description, is identical to its description, whereas a physical object is something always beyond us. Its intractable reality demands our respect and demands that we enter into a genuine relationship with it.  As someone with some experience projecting film I can tell you that, while mostly well behaved, sometimes the stuff can be a real pain in the ass. But even then I respect its honest integrity. To see a mile-long ribbon of film fall in a tangled heap on the floor is horrifying, but there is a  certain bracing reality to the experience that I doubt a crashing computer could replicate. That heap has an immediate presence, and is just waiting for you to pick it up and draw it out. As you work to put it back in order you may pause and take a look at it against a light. You will see its purpose and meaning right there, images in miniature and in sequence, the squiggle of the soundtrack, a second divided into twenty-four frames. There it is, the god of the movie house. What can you see in a hard drive?

I do not want to overstate. The digital can only be instantiated in this analog world, never escaping into the pure transcendence it promises. And God came from gods (Yawheh most famously) and always tends to return to them (books, sons, saints, sundry sacred objects and sites). We can never really alienate ourselves from the world of gods and things. But we can feel that we have, and we shouldn’t let that happen. We should celebrate this polymorphous perversity  of ours, feel free to love our particular loves, worship a present transcendence, and embrace these rough textures of life.

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