Introduction to Digital Media

computability, interactivity, connectivity

Frieder Nake, Peter von Maydell

Winter 18/19, University of Bremen, University of the Arts Bremen

Mondays 14 – 18, HfK Auditorium

First meeting: 15 October 2018, 14 to 18 hours

Welcome to the Masters programme that Hochschule für Künste (HfK), Bremen, and University of Bremen are offering jointly! The programme leads to the degrees of a Master of Science (M.Sc., at the university) and a Master of Art (M.A., at HfK). During this first semester you are supposed to take "Introduction to Digital Media" as the only mandatory course. This is a challenge for the two of us who are offering the course: We will try hard to make it interesting to you so that you take part voluntarily. For some challenge, for some effort, for some fun, i.e. for learning by doing and reflecting.

Digital Media! If that term is taken to mean smartphones, we find them all over the world. They are in the hands and pockets of females and males, kids and grandparents, rich and poor, workers and managers, stu-dents and professors. Some consi¬der digital media to be media of liberation or convenience and independence. Others point at their potentials for control and surveillance, at the subtle suppression that comes with digital media. Until only a few years ago, nobody had a smartphone. Meanwhile, they have created their own demand. It appears impossible to not possess one. If you now want to communicate with a group of friends, it will be via Whatsapp, and thus via smart¬phone. Is that a smart phone, or is it a highlevel supercomputer?

The very term, »Digital Media«, says that our field of study is about digitality and mediatization. We may con-sider our field of study as design work of a highly general kind. Somehow immaterial and interdisci¬pli¬nary. It is situated between algorithmics and aesthetics, or between event and research, or extending from strict logical derivation to wide open interpretation. Do you see this similarly? Do you connect anything with the terms algorithmics and aesthetics?
That much we can say for sure: Without computers, there are no digital media. Digital media is one of the re-sults of the algorithmic revolution which politicians and journalists call the digital revolution. Computers constitute its basic precondi¬tion.
Digital media appear as the technical carriers of current hypes like Big Data, Digital Humanities, Gamification, ubiquitous communication, surveillance, espionage, smart industries, Industry 4.0, the new machine learning, the new Artificial Intelligence. And smilies, in all their variations.

We may consider the two dominant modes of expression and communication – the verbal (symbolic) and the visual (iconic) modes – as being at odds with each other. The sub¬tle and greatly differentiating power of symbolic ex¬pression seems to lose against the touching, immedi¬ate, and flat iconic mode. A cultural revolution is happen¬ing as people voluntarily stare at the screens of various devices of information techno¬logy.

Our goals for this course are: You should gain a good understanding of Digital Media – conceptually, histori-cally, tech¬ni¬cally, aesthetically, in theory & practice. When your friends ask you, what it is that you are do¬ing, you should be able to explain just that in simple and clear terms. We try to establish the foundation for this.

You will experience a healthy dialectics in studying digital media: the tension between algo¬rith¬mics and aesthe-tics. We are concerned with both these aspects at the same time. Things in the digi¬tal dimension are designed for perception (surface aspect of things) and they are constructed for manipulation (subfa¬ce aspect). This is new! It is exciting and challenging. Sensual per¬cep¬tion is subject matter of aesthe¬tics and subjective; mental construction is subject matter of algorithmics and objective.

General structure of the seminar for the term 2018/19
As indicated, students should develop a deep understanding of "digital media" since this is their subject mat¬ter in studying. The very term of "digital media" already says, that we are dealing with media. But with media of a special kind: "digital". This term is not very precise. Important is what distinguishes digital from other me¬dia. The difference is the com¬pu¬ter. With¬out computers (we call them semiotic machines), there are no digital media! Therefore, we need a good under¬standing of the media specifics of computers.
Computers are machines to evaluate computable functions. A first dimension we must, therefore, study is that of computability. It is fundamental for everything we do. But since the mid-1980s, compu¬ters have been used in a particular mode: in the interactive mode. A second dimension of our stu¬dies thus is the dimension of inter-activity. On their path from the view as an automaton via tool to media, computers star¬ted to be connected with each other by an enormous international technological network, the Inter¬net. The third dimension of computers' media characteristics thus is, connectivity. These three dimen¬sions determine what we study!

We plan for 3 + 2 units:

• the Introduction (1 week)
• three topical blocks of four weeks each:
o computability
o interactivity
o connectivity
• the Conclusion (1 week).

Each of the three topical blocks defines four meetings of the seminar. We plan them as

  1. A guest speaker gives a one-hour lecture on the topic of the block. The lecture is open to the general public. We hope for broad discussion to emerge from it. To prepare for this, groups of stu¬dents are requested to work out questions and remarks. Members of the four groups for the topic (cf. "Conditi-ons for credit") are challenged in particu¬lar. All of us should prepare for meeting the guest, and afterwards reflect on what he or she said. After the lecture and discussion, short excerpts will be handed out, selected from the guests's publications. We will use them for a broader discussion with our visitor.
  2. The second meeting of each block is scheduled for presentations by groups of stu¬dents (there may be four groups of five members each). We build those groups at the first meeting of the seminar (cf. "Conditions for credit"). Each group presents on the basis of their assigned publication. Each group pre¬sentation takes 45 minutes, including discussion.
  3. The third meeting is rather open in format. We will ask you to work alone or in small groups on some issue of the topic that we suggest. You should take up the guest's lecture and the students' presenta-tions from the week befo¬re; you formulate questions, discuss, record results, be ready to present your findings, conclusions, open questions, etc.
  4. The last meeting of a topic is scheduled for an in-depth treatment of that topic and its critical reflection by us, the teachers. We first lecture including some extra as, e.g., a video; this deve¬lops into theses we suggest for discussion. The discussion should be result-oriented: we formulate results, even if only vaguely. A short summary presentation by us con¬cludes the topical block. We intend to prepare written summaries afterwards.

We also plan for a visit to a museum in Bremen or not far away (we are thinking of Edith-Russ-Haus für Medien¬kunst in Oldenburg.)