Earlier in the week my colleague Trevor Owens wrote a timely piece on The Signal , “All Objects Are Born Digital Objects”. He does a great job of rethinking the relationship between digitized objects and born digital objects. Trevor complicates the commonly held notion that digitized objects are only copies of analog objects by honing in on the authorial decisions that are made prior to digitizing an analog object . . . Scanning at what resolution? Saving in what format? Questions of this sort represent the junctures at which creative decisions must be made as to how an analog object will be (re)born as a unique digital object. Once you accept Trevor’s argument, we can begin to understand all digital objects then as born digital, thus collapsing a key distinction between digitized and born digital objects.
It strikes me that reconceptualizing the relationship between digital objects in the manner that Trevor has done, marks a significant moment in the larger, lets call it, “History of Digital Objects”. Moments like this often come with the emergence of more self-reflexive tendencies by practitioners and scholars- think the Linguistic Turn, Postmodernism, and New Historicism. By destabilizing the notion of value neutral production, and recasting the act as one laden with choice, the inescapably subjective nature of the process is realized. Subjectivity in the production of knowledge is an area ripe for further exploration as a large number of other disciplines have shown. Studying the History of Digital Objects is no different.
As I think about it more, History of the Book as a field of study could teach us how to better approach the History of Digital Objects. History of the Book is largely an object-oriented endeavor. Books are conceptualized as a knowledge storage and transmission technology that evolves through time. Studies focus on innovations in the structure and composition of the physical object itself, but also expand to consider the social, political, and intellectual contexts that have supported propagation, dissemination, censorship, and destruction of books through time. While likely not covering all of these topics, Bonnie Mak’s “How The Page Matters” is near the top of my increasingly unwieldy reading list.
History of Digital Objects constitutes a similarly object-oriented endeavor. With an understanding that digitized objects are more than facsimiles, that each contains the authorial intent of its creator, we should be in a position to begin to probe the decisions that usher in the birth of digital objects. This could allow us to start asking some very interesting questions not only about what effect the social and political context that surround the creator has on creation of the digital object, but also move to consider at a higher level of abstraction, the work of scholars like Ian Bogost and Graham Harman on Object Oriented Ontology. OOO, if I understand it correctly would allow us to bring objects onto an equal playing field with human beings, allowing an exploration of how objects and humans constitute one another. Whoa, right?