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Subject:

A Concise Lexicon of/for the Digital Commons, by Raqs Media Collective

From:

Monica Narula <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Curating digital art - www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb/

Date:

Tue, 11 Sep 2001 13:11:15 +0530

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (459 lines)

Hi all,

Below is a Lexicon written by Raqs Media Collective of which i am one
member of three. All feedback welcome. The Lexicon could grow with
the things that you say to us...

best
Monica
===============================
A Concise Lexicon
of / for the Digital Commons

by Raqs Media Collective / September 2001

Access
The facility to log on and log in to a space or a network where
people and meanings gather. To be present, to have the ability, the
key, to decode a signal, to open doors, to be able to download/upload
on to any system of signs and signals - be it the Internet, a book,
an art work, or a dinner party. There can be no excess of access.

Bandwidth
Describes the dimensions that are necessary for messages, signals and
communications to get through. The greater the bandwidth of a system,
the higher the number of messages, and higher the quantum of
information that it can accommodate at any given time. It follows
from this that access is a function of bandwidth. More people can
make themselves heard when there is room for them to speak and be
spoken to. Bandwidth translates into content-rich information,
streams of video, audio, and text flowing into each other. It also
translates at the moment into cash. The hard cash and control that
comes from selling pictures and sounds and numbers to more and more
people.

Code
That which carries embedded within it a sign. A code is always a way
of saying something to mean something other than that which is merely
said. A code can be 'opened', in the sense that it can be accessed
and entered, as opposed to 'broken'. An open-access culture of
communication 'reveals the source' of its codes.  A closed culture of
communication blocks access to its codes. "Free code" is code which
welcomes entry, and is open to change. "Free Code" needs to be shared
for it to grow. Code connotes community, a community of "encoders,
decoders and code sharers". Like eggs, code is sometimes best had
scrambled.

Data
Information. Can mean anything from numbers to images, from white
noise to noise to sound. A weather report, a portrait, a shadow in
surveillance footage, a salary statement, birth and death statistics,
a headcount in a gathering of friends, private e-mail, ultra high
frequency signals, sale and purchase transactions and the patterns
made by pedestrians as they walk in a city - all of this can be and
is data. Data, like coal, uranium and other minerals vital to the
running of the world economy is mined, processed, refined and sold at
a high price. Battlefields, early twenty first century inter-personal
relationships and stock exchanges have been known to be
hypersensitive to data traffic. Data mining is a major emerging
industry in Delhi. The miners lead very quiet days, and spend long
nights coding in low temperature zones called "Data Outsourcing
Centres".

Contrarily, the word 'Data' (dătă) in Hindi/Sanskrit is taken to mean
"giver", which suggests that one must always be generous with
information, and make gifts of our code, images and ideas. To be
stingy with data is to violate an instance of the secret and sacred
compacts of homophonic words from different cultural/spatial orbits
('dătă' in Hindi and 'data' in English) as they meet in the liminal
zone between languages, in the thicket of the sound of quotidian
slips of the tongue. Errors in transmission and understanding too
carry gifts and data.

Ensemble
The conceit or delight in togetherness in an increasingly anomic,
fragmented world. Playing or working together to create finished or
unfinished works. Chamber musicians, criminals, code-hackers and
documentarists form ensembles. Artists try to. Effective ensembles
are high bandwidth assemblies that build into their own architecture
portals for random access into themselves. They are, when they are at
their best, open systems that place a premium on shared information
within them. They can at times maintain high levels of secrecy while
seemingly appearing to be transparent. Here, confidentiality is an
index of practices in gestation. Mined data is, sometimes, restored
to natural states of information entropy in data dissembling
ensembles, which have been found to work best at night in media labs.
The Raqs Media Collective is an ensemble and everything it does is an
ensemble of existing or anticipated practices.

Fractal
The self-organising design of repeating, replicating structures,
often found in snowflakes, tree branch growth patterns, molecular
structures and free code. Every part of a fractal pattern carries
within it the signature or the emboss of the whole. A single fractal
iteration carries within it the kernels of all others of its kind.
Every fractal is a rescension of every other fractal that has grown
from within it. In the same way a fragment of free code, or free
cultural code, carries within it a myriad possibilities of its own
reproduction and dispersal within a shared symbolic or information
space. Fractals best describe the geometry of the matrices that are
formed when data is shared instead of being just mined and shipped by
a community of coders. Fractals are the fruit trees of the
unconscious designing mind.

Gift
Something freely given, and taken, as in free code. Gift givers and
gift takers are bound in networks of random or pre-meditated acts of
symbolic exchange. The code begets the gift as the form of its own
survival over time. In this way a gift is a quiet meme. Reciprocity
begets reciprocity. The principle of the gift demands that the things
being given be price-less, in other words so valuable as to be
impossible to quantify in terms of the possibilities of abstract
generalised exchange. The gift must at the same time, be easy to bear
and keep, easy to use and there must be no guilt involved in its
destruction or dispersal when its use value either changes or demands
re-distribution in order to be effective. Gifts open doors to our own
possibilities of generosity. In this way they facilitate access to
the things we did not even know we had. And, there is such a thing as
a free lunch, although it requires the pursuit of a special recipe.

Heterogeneous
That which begins in many places, like the story of a person's life.
Diverse, dispersed, distributed, as in the authorship of culture, and
in the trajectories of people who come to a site. Interpretations and
ideas embrace greater freedom only when they encompass heterogeneity.
In this, they are like most intimacies and some kinds of fruitcake.
The richer they are, the more layers they have.

Iteration
An articulation, when seen as an event, is an iteration. Utterances,
whispers, manifestoes, graffiti, stories, rumours and fragments of
poetry found in the streets - each of these are iterations. The
organised rendition of a stretch of code is also an iteration.
Iteration implies a willingness to say something, and access to the
means of saying it, and a time in which it can be said. Every
iteration resonates through orbiting memes that are set off on their
vectors by the fact of an utterance. An iteration is the kernel of a
rescenscion. It needs to be said, and then said again.

Journal
A record of the everyday. Annals of matters varied and quotidian.
Data from day to day to day. On reams or scraps of any material that
can carry the emboss of time. The material may vary from newsprint to
video to sound to binary code, or a combination of the same, and the
journal may transmogrify from being a witness, to a participant in
that which is being recorded. The extent and scale of 'participation'
depends on the frequency of entries into the journal, and the number
of correspondents it can muster. The higher the frequency of entries
or number of correspondents, the greater is the intensity of the
inscription of a time on a journal. A densely, thickly inscribed
journal is one that is usually open access in terms of writing,
reading and publishing. Why else would strangers want to write in? An
open journal expects to be published anywhere at all. An open journal
actively practices xenophilly. When a journal becomes more than a
gazetteer of a moment it turns into a history. It then begins to make
sense of itself as much as it does about a time that it spans.
Conversely, every history begins life as a journal.

Kernel
The core of a work or an idea. The central rescension, of a
narrative, a code, a set of signs or any other structure that invites
modification, extrapolation and interpretation, by its very presence.
Here, the term core must not be confused with 'origin' or with any
other attributions of originality, which mean little within an open
access system. It is almost impossible to determine the origins of a
code, because the deeper we go into the constitutive elements of a
code, the more it branches out to a series of nodes within and
outside a given system of signs. It is more meaningful to talk of the
'custody', rather than the 'origin' of any system of signs. A kernel
is often the custodian of a line of ideas that represents within
itself a momentarily unique configuration. Kernels embody materials
in states of intense concentration. This is because they have to
encapsulate a lot of information, or nourishment, or structure
building materials, within very limited dimensions. The density of
information within a kernel is a key to its own extensibility. The
more the thread that is rolled into a tight ball, the more it can be
unwound. Kernels, by their limitedness and compactness, are portable,
not cumbersome. As in the kernels of certain fruits, they may be hard
to crack, but once they have been opened, they yield delicious and
nourishing stuff. Kernels lend themselves to easy reproduction, but
are fragile and often in need of protection. This protection may also
come in the form of an outer layer of interpretation, which states
the purposes and nature of the kernel, so that it is not prised open
to answer every basic query about itself.

Liminal
Interstitial, vestibular and peripheral. Far from the centre, close
to the border. A zone both between and without larger structures.
Liminal spaces and moments are those into which large stable
structures leak animated data about themselves and the world. Things
happen in liminal zones. A city carries within it the contradiction
of liminal zones located in its centre, because inner cities are the
city's farthest borderlands. Liminal fringes are often the most
conducive environments for the culture of memes. This is because
exiled images, ideas and meanings from several stable structures
mingle in the corridors between them. Here, bereft of identities and
other certainties, they are free to be promiscuous and reproduce.
They infect each other with recombinant strands of thought and image.
At the same time, the perspective of liminality brings intimacy to
bear on an exclusion. Being liminal is to be close to, and yet stand
outside the site of the border of any stable system of signs, where
meaning is frayed from being nibbled at on the edges. Nothing can
know the centre better than the sideways glance of peripheral vision.
Liminality may be acquired from prolonged exposure to the still air
of airport departure lounges, thick and over-boiled tea at the Inter
State Bus Terminus on the ring road in Delhi, or the sub-liminal
flicker of a cursor in an e-mail message.

Meme
The life form of ideas. A bad idea is a dead meme. The transience as
well as the spread of ideas can be attributed to the fact that they
replicate, reproduce and proliferate at high speed. Ideas, in their
infectious state, are memes. Memes may be likened to those images,
thoughts and ways of doing or understanding things that attach
themselves, like viruses, to events, memories and experiences, often
without their host or vehicle being fully aware of the fact that they
are providing a location and transport to a meme. The ideas that can
survive and be fertile on the harshest terrain tend to do so, because
they are ready to allow for replicas of themselves, or permit
frequent and far-reaching borrowals of their elements in combination
with material taken from other memes. If sufficient new memes enter a
system of signs, they can radically alter what is being signified.
Cities are both breeding grounds and terminal wards for memes. To be
a meme is a condition that every work with images and sounds could
aspire towards, if it wanted to be infectious, and travel. Dispersal
and infection are the key to the survival of any idea.  A work with
images, sounds and texts, needs to be portable and vulnerable, not
static and immune, in order to be alive. It must be easy to take
apart and assemble, it must be easy to translate, but difficult to
paraphrase, and easy to gift. A dead meme is a bad idea.

Nodes
Any structure that is composed of concentrated masses of materials
which act as junction points for the branching out of extensible
parts of the overall system may be described as nodal. The
concentrations or junctions being the nodes. A nodal structure is a
rhizomic structure, it sets down roots (that branch out laterally) as
it travels. Here, nodes may also be likened to the intersection
points of fractal systems, the precise locations where new fractal
iterations arises out of an existing pattern. A work that is
internally composed of memes is inherently nodal. Each meme is a
junction point or a node for the lateral branching out of the vector
of an idea. In a work that is made up of interconnected nodes, the
final structure that emerges is that of a web, in which every vector
eventually passes through each node, at least once on its orbit
through the structure of the work. In such a structure it becomes
impossible to suppress or kill an idea, once it is set in motion,
because its vectors will make it travel quickly through the nodes to
other locations within the system, setting off chains of echoes and
resonances at each node that trace a path back to the kernel of the
idea.

These echoes and resonances are rescensions, and each node is
ultimately a direct rescension of at least one other node in the
system and an indirect rescension of each junction within a whole
cluster of other nodes. Nodes, when written, perhaps erroneously, as
'no-des' gives rise to an intriguing hybrid English/Eastern-Hindi
neologism, a companion to the old words - 'des', and 'par-des'. 'Des'
(in some eastern dialects of Hindi, spoken by many migrants to Delhi)
is simply homeland or native place; 'par-des' suggests exile, and an
alien land. 'No-des' is that site or way of being, in 'des' or in
'par-des', where territory and anxieties about belonging, don't go
hand in hand. Nodes in a digital domain are No-des.

Orbit
A path that describes the continuous movement of anything within a
structure. Because the movement within it is continuous, it (an
Orbit) is also impossible to define in terms of origin or
destination. What is possible to determine at any given moment is the
vector of an orbit. A meme, when orbiting within a structure of
signs, is neither travelling away from its origin, nor is it
travelling towards a destination. This is why, in an open access
system, which is composed of memes, it is meaningless to talk in
terms of authors and audiences, rather one can only speak of the node
where one got on to an idea, and the junction where one got off,
perhaps to enter the vector of another orbiting meme. Sometimes a
work of interpretation, like certain comets and other stellar
objects, can have an eccentric orbit. This means that there is always
a likelihood of a cluster of signs and images from afar, brushing
past objects on its path, entering the orbits of other
constellations, when it is least expected to. The sky of meaning is
full of shooting stars.

Portability
The feature of a system or work that best describes its ability to
move quickly through different spaces and mediums. A sign or a meme
that can travel well between image, sound and text media is portable.
A work, which while it speaks of one site, is understood in another
location, is portable. A work that describes many locations in the
course of its interpretative orbit is also portable. A portable work
is rich in memes, which act as engines for its movements, and is
endowed with compact kernels that can travel well without danger of
being cracked open. Briefcases, languages, post cards, Swiss knives,
computers, jests, stories and shoes are portable. Gifts, because they
change hands, must always be portable. Monuments can never be. The
life histories of some (itinerant) individuals and (nomadic)
communities make them approximate the condition of portability.

Quotidian
Common but not commonplace. The memorable nature of the everyday.
Memory walking down a street and turning a corner. Memory buzzing in
a hard disk. Ubiquitous, the dirt in a site, the fog in a liminal
zone, that which is thickened through repetition.

Milk, computers, onions, computers, pyjamas, computers, carpal tunnel
syndrome, computers, accidents, computers, sex, computers, bread,
computers, night, computers, class, computers, skin, computers, love,
computers, money, computers, headaches, computers, police, computers,
buses, computers, bicycle, computers, radio, computers, horoscopes,
computers, matrimonials, computers, funerals, computers, biscuits,
computers, conversations, computers, silences, computers.

The quotidian is that which makes a journal turn, over time, into a
history, because it induces the search for patterns and meanings in
an otherwise tangled mass of time, in memes iterated beyond
reasonable limits. Routine, yet random, the quotidian nature of
anything demands fleeting moments of lucid engagement with the real
world, which now includes within it the world that is forged every
time any fingers do a qwerty dance on a keyboard. The quotidian is a
measure of all things, rare and commonplace.

Rescension
A re-telling, a word taken to signify the simultaneous existence of
different versions of a narrative within oral, and from now onwards,
digital cultures. Thus one can speak of a 'southern' or a 'northern'
rescension of a myth, or of a 'female' or  'male' rescension of a
story, or the possibility (to begin with) of Delhi/Berlin/Tehran
'rescensions' of a digital work.  The concept of rescension is
contraindicative of the notion of hierarchy. A rescension cannot be
an improvement, nor can it connote a diminishing of value. A
rescension is that version which does not act as a replacement for
any other configuration of its constitutive materials. The existence
of multiple rescensions is a guarantor of an idea or a work's
ubiquity. This ensures that the constellation of narrative, signs and
images that a work embodies is present, and waiting for iteration at
more than one site at any given time. Rescensions are portable and
are carried within orbiting kernels within a space. Rescensions,
taken together constitute ensembles that may form an interconnected
web of ideas, images and signs.

Site
Location, both as in the fact of being somewhere, and also, as in the
answer to the question of "where", that "somewhere" is. Hence,
situation. In a system of signs, site - understood in the sense of
the kernel of a situation - is not necessarily a place, although a
place is always a site. A site can be a situation between and through
places. A website is an address on the Internet that always implies a
relation of desire between hosts and visitors. In other words, it
doesn't really mean anything for a place to exist (virtually) if it
is left un-visited. In this way, a site can be both located as well
as liminal. Real as well as potential. A system of signs (a work)
that carries the markings of a location on a map may be situated in
the relation that a map has to the world. It may be situated between
the map and the world. This situation may be a special characteristic
of the work's portability, in that, although mobile the work always
refers to the relation between sites that fall on its orbit. In this
way, marking a site as an address calls for the drawing up of
relations between a location and the world.

A site is a place where the address is. A site is a place where the
work belongs. A situation between these two locations (where the work
is and where it belongs) is a site where the work orbits. A site is
also a place where people need to wear hard hats to protect them from
random falling bodies, travelling in eccentric orbits.

Tools
Things that help make things. Ideas, instruments, concepts, ways of
doing things, and ways of being or acting together that are conducive
to creative work. In the context of an online environment, a
community or an ensemble of people is as much an instrument as a
software application. Conversely, a tool emerges when a group of
people discover a method that helps them act together to create
something. Again, a work that acts as a navigation aid, a browser or
interface in a web of memes, is also a tool with which to open and
search for other tools.

Ubiquity
Everywhere-ness. The capacity to be in more than one site. The simple
fact of heterogeneous situation, a feature of the way in which
clusters of memes, packets of data, orbit and remain extant in
several nodal points within a system. The propensity of a meme
towards ubiquity increases with every iteration, for once spoken, it
always already exists again and elsewhere. It begins to exist and be
active (even if dormantly) in the person spoken to as well as in the
speaker. Stories, and the kernels of ideas travel in this way. A
rescension, when in orbit, crosses the paths of its variants. The
zone where two orbits intersect is usually the site of an active
transaction and transfer of meanings. Each rescension, carries into
its own trajectory memes from its companion. In this way, through the
encounters between rescensions, ideas spread, travel and tend towards
ubiquity. That which is everywhere is difficult to censor, that which
is everywhere has no lack of allies. To be ubiquitous is to be
present and dispersed in 'no-des'. Sometimes, ubiquity is the only
effective answer to censorship and isolation.

Vector
The direction in which an object moves, factored by the velocity of
its movement. An idea spins and speeds at the same time. The
intensity of its movement is an attribute of the propensity it has to
connect and touch other ideas. This gives rise to its vector
functions. The vector of a meme is always towards other memes, in
other words, the tendency of vectors of data is to be as ubiquitous
as possible. This means that an image, code or an idea must attract
others to enter into relationships that ensure its portability and
rapid transfer through different sites and zones. The vectors of
different memes, when taken together, form a spinning web of code.

Web
An open fabric woven of strands and knotted at usually regular, but
equally possibly irregular, intervals. Intricately structured,
accessible and yet endowed with complex networks of coded messages.
The world wide web is a zone in which a digital constellation of
memes can find an orbit. A web of code is used to harvest meanings,
just as a web of threads is used to harvest fish.

Xenophily
Friendliness and hospitality towards others, a human quality that
best describes the moral economy of an ideal digital domain. The
search for connectedness, and the desire to travel along the vectors
from elsewhere. The meaning of the hyphen that transforms 'no-des'
into a positive value.

Yarn
Fabrics, and stories, are made from yarn. A yarn is a snatch of
reality that travels by word of mouth. Or it is shipped along with
lots of html cargo. It is said that each fragment of code contains
rumours and gossip, or yarns about the makers of the code. Yarns
collect in basement cyber cafés, in stairwells of cinemas, in call
centres and behind the opaque surface of the walls of an apartment
whose address is Error 404, which can be anywhere and everywhere at
once. In these places, yarn collectors stitch different stretches of
code-fabric to make long bolts of data, which are then taken apart by
hackers, and distributed into many orbits. Yarns can adjust the
amount of information they bear in relation to the width of
bandwidth. That is why yarns are good kernels.

Zone
A site, within a location, or a work, that demands an attenuated
awareness because of the porosity of the lines that demarcate its
existence. A zone is differentiated from a grid that frames a site
because its borders are fluid and accessible, or because they witness
a lot of traffic. It is difficult to distinguish the centre from the
liminal periphery of a zone. Alertness about where one stands is a
prerequisite for entering any zone. A zone may also be described as
the overlap between orbits in a work, where memes transfer material
from one orbit to another, where logic likes to fuzz. The zone of a
work extends to the outer circumference of the orbit of its ideas.

Zones are places where serendipity might be commonplace, and the
commonplace serendipitous. They are best entered and exited at
twilight on shunting cars along abandoned railroads that connect
different data stations. The timing of twilight may vary, depending
on one's longitude, but twilight lingers longer in the zone of the
web.
--
Monica Narula
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054
www.sarai.net

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