Are Digital Transformations Transformations?

So, I went to this conference called “Digital Transformers”, more info is here. Now, my reasons for attending this conference were entirely ulterior. That is, they had nothing to do with the topic of the conference(not that I really understood what this topic was). This wasn’t because the theme was unclear, far from it. It was because it was well outside of my field and I at no point could be bothered to find out what a “digital transformer” was. I did occasionally ponder the matter, but this would only result in distracting myself with a mental image of Optimus Prime arguing with Johnny Vegas and that weird monkey puppet about his ill-advised shares in ITV Digital. There’s a nice topical joke for you.

I did want to go, though, because I saw a few interesting abstracts and it was local and free. In short, it sounded fun and I decided to go. I went. It was fun. However, fun as it was, it did mean I started the day on the wrong foot and took until late morning to catch on to what the issue was.

I say all of this by way of preface to what I’m about to say about what I took from the event. That is, I want you to know that I know that I’m less than a novice in the field. More specifically, I want to know that you know that I know that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

A digital transformation is when a physical object is transposed into a digital medium, e.g. scanning a volume of a journal from the early 20th Century into an online database or PDF type thing. Research into Digital Transformation consists in attempts to develop, carry out and understand the nature and implications of these transformations. The latter problem is the broadly speaking philosophical, though is not limited to the discipline of philosophy.

For example, keynote historian Dr. Jim Mussell addressed this question through the transformations of a magazine, Household Words, published by Dickens. Against those who suggest that scanning, OCRing and uploading the documents online leaves something of its historical character, he emphasised the advantages and the fact that the past is never recoupable and that all interpretation is creative. In short, digital transformation does involve a change but this is neither surprising nor worrying. On the opposite side of this debate, another speaker presented arguments to say that there is something timeless in a book that is not captured in a digital copy.

My thought is this: if the question of the nature of a digital transformation revolves around the issue of whether something is lost in the transmission from analogue to digital, then the true philosophical question is ‘Are digital transformations transformations?’ Or, to be clearer, are digital transformations a transformation in the true sense of the word?

In transformation, form is changed. But what is form? Form (morphē) was first used in a philosophically significant way by Plato when he used it, along with the term “idea” (eidos/idea), to mean the being of an object, what makes something what it is, its “essence” to use the later term.

Aristotle further developed the concept of form by opposing it to “matter” (hulē). For Aristotle, if we take an entity, e.g. a statue of Achilles , it is made up of both form and matter. This is usually explained in the following way. The matter of a statue is the bronze. The form is everything else: its shape, beauty etc. The form of the statue is what distinguishes it from other bronze things, e.g. the molten bronze before it is formed into a statue or a bronze shield. The form of statue is what takes the brute matter of bronze and makes it into a statue.

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Bronze Statue.

Plaster Statue.

From this meaning the form/matter distinction is taken up by other philosophers and finally falls into common sense. After Kant, perhaps the most significant user of the distinction since Aristotle, understanding of the distinction starts to dim. ‘Form’ or ‘the formal’ comes to mean an abstract consideration empty of experience or commitment to facts and matter and the material comes to be closely tied in with what can be found in experience. So the material sciences are the ones that deal with real empirical facts, get to the ‘matters’ themselves. This is historically odd since matter itself, properly understood can never be experienced. It is impossible to encounter matter without it being formed, even molten bronze that has not been made into a statue or a shield has the form of molten bronze.

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To return to our question, the Latinate term “trans-form-ation” and its Ancient Greek equivalent “meta-morph-osis” both mean a change in form as opposed to a change in matter. A change in matter could be making a copy of a bronze statue out of plaster. In both the bronze and plaster statue, the form could be said to be the same but the matter different. A change in form is melting down a bronze statue and using the bronze to make coins (I don’t really know what people make out of bronze these days).

Using these examples, the question “are digital transformations transformations” comes down to asking: is a digital transformation…

  1. A change in matter: a change like making a copy of a bronze statue out of plaster.
  2. A change in form: a change like melting down a bronze statue to make coins.

In 1, the form or essence of the object is preserved in a different material. In 2, the form or essence of the object is destroyed and something new is created. Only 2 is a trans-form-ation in the proper sense of the word. 1 is something more like a re-materialisation.

So, if I scan in an edition of Household Words into an online database, have I reproduced it in a new material or have I destroyed its form and created something essentially different? The answer seems to me to be the first. Only the material (or “medium”, to be more topical) has changed. Ok, we can talk about the different properties of the two media and say that one can hold the paper copy but one can search the digital copy, but these are differences in matter not in form. In the same way that a bronze statue has different material properties to a plaster statue, the digital copy and the printed copy different material properties.

A bronze and a plaster statue of Achilles are both statues of Achilles. Analogue and Digital copies of Household Words are both copies of Household Words. There is no essential difference because they retain their form. There is no trans-form-ation only a copying and a re-material-isation.

Books and eBooks, journals and eJournals, museums and eMuseums, libraries and databases are not essentially different. They are “formally” and essentially the same just with different material properties. But, this begs a further question. What is the essence of these things? What is this essence that remains constant despite the number of copies and rematerialisations?

For my part, I think that the essence of all of these things and even our age itself is ‘technology’. A printed book is no less a piece of technology than an eBook. And, if we pay attention to what Heidegger says about the essence of technology, we’d come to think that there is no digital revolution but instead there is only mere technological evolution. All that is happening is that technological resources being moved into a more accessible medium. This enables those resources to stand more readily in reserve more able to be grasped. The key question for Heidegger though, in my opinion, would be ‘For whose grasp?’

2 Comments

  1. Fascinating post, thanks! I agree with you about technological *evolution* rather than revolution, definitely. The debate on form and matter is complex and your argument seems convincing. On this one, I come from a position of relative ignorance, not being a Philosopher. Still, I wonder if it is worth considering that a digital scan of a book could be understood to be an *imitation* of form, a representation of “essence” that takes on new properties in the act of seeming replication/preservation. Could an e-book be seen as a transformation of form when you look beneath the graphical representation and find that it is all binary and beneath that machine code…? I would be interested to know your views.

    • Those are good questions. My answer issue about whether there is a difference in form because underneath the software there is just binary would be to say that this is just a difference in the means of production. The binary and hardware is to the ebook as the letter stamps on the printing press are to the normal book. It is that which makes possible the creation of a copy. It is also arbitrary to the book or the ebook. Just as you can move to a digital printing press that doesn’t use stamps any more and still produce a book on paper, you can move to a different hardware architecture with different binary and still produce the ebook on the screen of a pc, mac, ipad or kindle.

      The question about imitation is a bit more complicated and goes into branches of philosophy I’m not as confident in because to answer it full we have to ask “what is a book?” outside of the particular copies of it. What are my copy and your copy of Harry Potter copies of? An idea in Rowling’s mind? Something else? I don’t know, never really got into philosophy of literature.

      But I guess I’d want to distinguish between a copy of an object and an imitation or representation of it. The first sense of copy would be the copies of books and journals i’ve been talking about. This is where the book or journal article is truly made present to us. In an imitation, we only get an image of an original. The object isn’t made present. So, there is a difference between an eBook and the photography of the statue of Achilles i used above. An eBook is a technology that brings makes a book present to us, as is a printed paper book. Whereas a photograph of a statue can only give a pale representation of the statue. What we’d need is something like a 3D printer or a hologram machine to get to the point where we’d be able to say that the statue is, for all intents and purposes, present.

      So, a scan of Household Words is more than mere imitation, because it actually brings the magazine to the reader in a real sense. A photograph of a few editions of it lined up on a shelf does not, it’s only an image of something out of our grasp.

      Hope that makes sense.

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