One of the biggest differences between a child and a teenager is the teenager’s attempts at identity formation. Some try to build on their closest role models; be like dad/mom/Uncle Filbert. Some teenagers try to produce an identity by taking up a readymade one with a built in social group, taste in music, and dress code. Some slide into depression as they try to find themselves. Digital writing, being more than a single mind performing a single act, is doing the same: some copy from their elders, some search for the new and the native. It’s all problematic, naturally (it wouldn’t be fun otherwise).
N Katherine Hayles Writing Machines calls to attention the instability of material transfers between forms. She proposes Material Specificity as a mechanism by which to deconstruct the existence of texts in a mixed-media ecology. For Hayles, a number of texts composed in our digital age recognise the means of their creation.
(“Digital age” is an awkward term, as the digital age didn’t begin with a bang or a declaration of intent, rather it slipped in through the edges when no-one was looking for it. A flood or a seeping might be a better analogy.)
Whether as an inevitable consequence of the mechanisms that brought them into being, or by deliberate intervention on the part of their author, materially specific texts reflect the culture they were born into. It has been written many times that the computer—initially the beige box on your desk, then the silver-grey laptop and now the smartphone and tablet—is a medium that consumes all others. Several influential texts of what we might propose as the first-wave of digital criticism and futurology espouse this framework as a critical basis on which to approach content creation. Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation, an otherwise thorough study of early new media and the emergence of natively digital artefacts, makes the error of leaving the wisdom of this foundation unchallenged.
In that respect, work that is designed to exist on those platforms, those shiny new devices with their built-in markets and credit card payments, will also consume the forms that preceded them. That’s only part of the answer though. If a medium eats everything, if it remediates television, print, radio, cinema and theatre, then expelling content that is the result of that over-caloried diet is overload. Overload by a measure of content streams (twitter feeds for no reason but that they exist), fragmented platforms (video, photography and ancillary media in abundance without recognition of the purpose of a through-line plot) and overload through simple excess.
This then, is another flaw in the logic of remediative strategies in new media. By desiring ‘to borrow avidly from each other as well as from their analog predecessors such as film, television and photography’, remediated new media content exposes itself to the risk of repeating the problems encountered by each predecessor. Certainly, new media cannot operate in cultural isolation from other media forms, but by embracing this strategy, its potential is curtailed, and in doing so, any opportunity to genuinely develop new form is strangled at birth.