A wonderful little essay Beware, your imagination leaves digital traces by Bruno Latour on the imagination in a digitally networked world. Fabien Giardin blogged this a month or so ago, and I feel the need to echo his insights.
I find two relevant things here. One is the relationship of the virtual to the material that is often drawn forward as a distinguishing characteristic of the digital era. In fact, there are incredibly deep imbrications and largely no reasonable argument for any distinction whatsoever. If anything, the relationship is more pernicious for the fact that it appears easy to cloak the physical costs of the digital era. Whether the costs of producing the massive amounts of electricity necessary, or the costs in labor, or the costs in incurred because of the digital divide, the digital is not divorced from the material world in which we must live, fantasies of full-uploads notwithstanding.
Imagination no longer comes as cheaply as it did in the past. The slightest move in the virtual landscape has to be paid for in lines of code. If you want your avatar to wear a new golden helmet or jump in the air, gangs of underpaid software engineers somewhere in Bangalore have to get out of bed to work on your demands. The fancies of our brains have shifted so little from the real to the virtual that tens of thousands of children in China are earning a living by causing avatars to graduate to higher levels in various digital games before reselling them for a good prize to boys in America who like to play those games but have not the time nor patience to earn enough “points” for their aliases. When Segolène Royal, the French presidential candidate, bought a piece of real estate on Second Life to start a campaign headquarters there she paid for it in hard cash.
If it is rather useless to try to decide whether we are ready to upload our former selves into these virtual worlds or not, it is more rewarding to notice another much more interesting difference between the two industries and technologies of imagination. Apart from the number of copies sold and the number and length of reviews published, a book in the past left few traces. Once in the hands of their owners, what happened to the characters remained a private affair. If readers swapped impressions and stories about them, no one else knew about it.
The situation is entirely different with the digitalisation of the entertainment industry: characters leave behind a range of data. In other words, the scale to draw is not one going from the virtual to the real, but a scale of increasing traceability. The stunning innovation is that every click of every move of every avatar in every game may be gathered in a data bank and submitted to a second-degree data-mining operation.