Digital Theory Lab

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Digital technology challenges the very way we frame our world, the categories we use to explain things to ourselves. Ubiquitous computing puts conceptions of self, society, and even nature into question. Algorithmic data processing is changing taste, labor, and the sense of value itself. These shifts require new cultural theory, but also an appreciation for the deeply intertwined histories of the digital and theory itself. Alan Turing’s “machines” were abstract entities, built of symbols as much as silicon. And the computational problems that gave rise to today’s digital landscape were intertwined historically with the rise of “theory” in the humanities: structural linguistics, poststructuralism, and contemporary media theory all began in dialogue with emerging forms of digital processing.

This lab proceeds from the premise that understanding contemporary digital cultures and concepts requires some theoretical foundation. We seek to synthesize digital methods with a broad-based notion of cultural and critical theory, experimenting concretely with the vast realm of “the digital” with the goal of making more of it visible, following the Greek sense of theoria as “seeing.” The lab works with historical digital forms, a long and open-ended history of theory, and digital methods of all kinds. We seek to provide both an overview and a series of specific interrogations of digital phenomena. We also understand “theory” as an invitation to venture out from our disciplinary homes into other realms of knowledge. Those ventures include exploring past and current intersections of knowledge and computation that highlight the historicity of the Lab’s other keywords, from the “digital” to the “humanities.” This approach to theory enables us to work with new fields of knowledge, such as computational emergence and quantum computation.

The lab maintains a nodal bibliography of theoretical work about the digital. The nodes (which include “-ware,” “algorithm,” “network,” “intelligence,” and “simulation,” among many others) are centered around what we call the computability problem, the basic fact that humans have managed to get material artifacts to carry out immensely complex computation. The nodes – which comprise “digital culture” – are each related to the computability problem and to each other in different ways. Working groups and collaborative projects draw on and continue to revise the definition and bibliography for each node as they work.

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