Notes on Weavin' Digital: T(h)inkers at the Loom

TESHOME H. GABRIEL and FABIAN WAGNUSTER

During the reign of Sinchi Roca, chosen weavers from Acllawasi wove a belt for the heir to the throne. The belt portrayed, in vivid vegetable dyes, all of the kingdom's animals, each species in its own landscape and climate. The subtlety of the textures and the complexity of the pattern in color and variation were remarkable. Particularly skilful and sharp were the patterns of light and shade in the furs and plumage of the animals. The retina suffered strange effects when exposed to the marvellous belt. And when the powerful crown prince carefully scruti­nized the textile to fully view its content in all its details he cried tears of blood and forever lost his sight.
From a play by Cesar Vallejo [Peru]

Our interest here is to explore new ways of thinking the relationship between modem digital technology and the traditional practices of weaving. From the perspective of 'forward-looking' technological idealism, this link might seem weak indeed: traditional weaving, we are told, is something that belongs to the past, a past that technology is helping to put definitively behind us. We have been led to believe that letting go of 'backwardly' traditional modes of production and imagination is an integral first step into the universal future of technology. We have to let go of our attachments to those outdated ways of doing things, we are told, if we are to become a part of the developed world. In what follows, we suggest that digital technologies need not be under­stood according to the paradigms of the industries and interests that produce and promote them. Contrary to conventional ways of seeing digital technolo­gies, there are real and vital connections - structural, aesthetic, even spiritual connections - between older ways of weaving reality and newer ways that tend to emphasize independence and innovation above all else. Rethinking the relationships between technology and weaving not only would lend tra­ditional, non-Western cultures a way of integrating digital technology into their own lives and value systems; it would also allow us to glimpse the unacknowledged demons from the past that continue to haunt the digital revolution.

Much talk about media and computers has emphasized the absolute newness of contemporary technologies and the urgent need to catch up to them. Computers and digital technologies are understood as representing a radical break with the past and are talked about almost exclusively in terms of the future: that entirely new time and space to which they will take us. But such manner of thinking about technology seems contradictory; for newness is a relational concept that can be meaningfully understood only within the context of a tradition, one from which the new is seen to depart or even, in an innovative way, to prolong. Hence, to repudiate current technologies' connections to past cultural and aesthetic traditions is only to mystify any actual change or innovation. Facing up to the living past is thus central to teaching and thinking technology. To understand the present we must come to terms with our inevitable connection to the past, whose traditions and histories need to be studied in the most profound and complex ways if we are to fathom where we find ourselves today. And this is particularly important for the Third World, where the arrival of new technologies looms heavily on the horizon, and where the label of newness has, for historical reasons, the power to elicit both hostility and hope.

From the perspective of the Third World, the most pressing questions regarding digital technology are the following. First, as those so far left out of the 'computer revolution' will eventually have no choice but to adapt technologies produced in decidedly different cultures, what are the local aesthetic and conceptual models capable of making sense of computer technology and so of preventing it from simply overwhelming or dominating traditional ways of life? Second, how can those 'left behind' come to recognize in the new technology those elements that have been a part of their culture all along? Third, how may the new digital machine help them continue, and maybe even reinvigorate, traditional practices? The objective of such an assimilative process is not to mimic traditional forms in a new medium but to actually mutate the medium itself and have it respond to the aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual characteristics of the community.

Weaving is digital, in the sense that it relies on digits - on fingers - for its production. Digits, understood in this way, tend to emphasize the sensory, and more particularly, the tactile aspects both of technology and of culture per se. Thus, the digital involves a palpable relationality between producer, product, and culture. Digits imply a connection - a tactile, lived connection - to a wide array of cultural meanings, woven by the community as a whole, and handed from one generation to the next.

In fact, despite the newness often attributed to computer technology, much of its vocabulary, as well as that of the internet, draws on relational concepts borrowed from back-strap weaving. Terms such as texture, pattern, layering, links, nodes, sampling, net, network, web, web weaver, and threads belong to a lexicon employed in both weaving and computing. On a structural level, they both rely on the use of crossing, interweaving lines. Aesthetically and conceptually, too, there are similar cross-thread mechanisms at work. The origins of the computer have in fact always been connected to weaving: the first machines were merely extensions of looms, and computers the extensions of mechanised looms.

Western computer ideology, even as it uses the terms and concepts of weaving, does not acknowledge its own historical connection to the technological strategies of weaving in the Third World; nor does it try to incorporate its communal aspects. Indeed, despite computer ideology's emphasis on globalization, its attention to past traditions, community, and the environment is markedly absent. On the contrary, technology has emphasized a dis-connection from the past, the separation of individuals, and a turning away from the natural world. Thus, whereas the Third World is represented as having a more ecological, more connected, (dare we say) more spiritual view of others and the world, computer technology tends to think of tradition in merely instrumental terms, something to help it designate tools, objects, and users - all of which are ultimately and tacitly reincorporated in to a Western perspective.

To take a common example: the tools, color combinations, and iconic representations available to a user of PhotoShop are based on metaphors of work and modes of representation derived from North American and European mind-sets. This popular image manipulation program was first marketed to people working in the photo finishing industry, and so relies heavily on the user's familiarity with darkroom tools and methods, as well as with photographic systems elaborated by Ansel Adams. Consequently, to anyone acquainted with the darkroom practices of dodging, burning, and cropping, PhotoShop's interface seems entirely natural. But there is nothing natural or necessary about choosing photographic icons over icons borrowed from other modes of graphic production. We can 'unravel' as easily as 'undo', 'patch' as well as 'Paste', 'dye' instead of 'expose'. Thus, though the digital image may share as many common structures with weaving as with photography, the kind of experience that most imaging software takes for granted would make one user feel quite at home, and another totally lost. The whole notion of computer friendliness is, in other words, based on taking advantage of the skins and practices already known to the user, so that if a PhotoShop type program were based on prior experience with the weft, the warp, dying, threading, etc., the traditional weaver would feel as comfortable with the program as the darkroom technician feels with the current interface.

What we ought to do is re-connect the computer matrix to that much older network, the one with which computer technology shares many of its most potent, if often submerged, metaphors. Once such parallels and bonds are brought to the surface, traditional color codes, cultural icons, and symbols that evoke 'lived' experiences can be substituted for the 'virtual' representations that come from the 'new' world.

Computer and digital technologies were initially intended for data storage and analysis. They have generally been defined in terms of their hierarchical, rational structures and their ability to manage other machines. The audiovisual 'friendliness' of computing, so integral to the flourishing of contemporary personal computers, is actually an unintended by-product of these technologies. This dimension of amicability was originally designed for military application in case of a breakdown of conventional communication with NATO headquarters. Here, then, is a case where 'the genie' has escaped the bottle and established its own independent domain.

Audiovisual digital technology is destined to be everywhere soon; it is only a matter of time. We are not far from having broadcast-quality video and stereo available instantaneously over the internet. These technologies will doubtless help develop increasingly important media for commerce and exchange, in part because on-line audiovisual technologies are an extremely efficient way for corporate capitalism to sell and advertise its products. Already, there are electronic mail-order catalogues and banking operations on the internet, and very soon there will be practicable ways for capital to flow over computer networks: internet - cash. Yet digital capitalism threatens to maintain the structures of a corporate, centralized model of economics: its 'users' are consumers first, and producers only second. The question, then, is how can the people of the Third World connect to this new technological world in ways that will be empowering, that will enable them to create and promote their own expressions, rather than merely consume those of others? Because the digital is the first technological medium in which the machine of consumption can also be the machine of production, it bears striking resemblance to the traditional practice of weaving. Traditional people wear what they themselves have produced. Their clothes and other textiles emerge from and reveal an intricate social fabric that communicates who they are, their ethnicities, nationalities, histories, and how they work and live. The fabric they weave and wear is a fabric of memory, of communal identity, of their connection to the rest of humanity.

Weaving, as a practice, is a matter of linkage - a connectedness that extends the boundaries of the individual. This sense of open-ended connection and inter-relation is precisely what Western notions of technology, in their instrumentality and emphasis on the individual, tend to repudiate. Yet, as the metaphors of weaving indicate, computer technology also opens up the possi­bility of a digital weaving that acknowledges this sense of connection.

Figure I shows the 'brain' of the computer: its main processor and memory chips - what we might otherwise call the inner guts of the machine itself. Nevertheless, seen from this perspective, it looks like a purely aesthetic image made up of inter-related forms. Taken together, these figures bear an unsettling likeness to what one finds in traditional rugs and woven fabrics. Similarly, in the computer's memory, data is woven into a contained, framed web. An analogous kind of framing can be seen in figure 2, which despite its striking resemblance to traditional weaving, is actually an example of computer gener­ated graphics. This image can be contrasted with figures 3, 4, and 5 where the Latin American, Indian, and African weavings are open-ended; here the patterns are not fixed, but belong to yet larger networks of memory and experience and so are capable of being unfurled and extended like scrolls. This sense of openness implies a connection to community, to the past, to memory, and to the world at large.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5

The idea of digital weaving being explored here is intended to incorporate this sense of open-endedness in a way that re-connects computer technology to the lives of non-Western peoples who have been excluded from the 'techno-cultural mutations" of 'developed' countries. The metaphors of weaving can work as pedagogical links by which non-Western peoples can integrate digital technologies into their own lives. At the same time, if these metaphors are taken seriously and Western technology acknowledges its indebtedness to Third World technologies, the future of computers may itself be altered and energized. From an instrumental, homogenizing force, these technologies can become media for weaving a diverse, heterogeneous social fabric, in which the patterns and textures of cultural difference are interwoven into a composite fabric inclusive of all of us, both as weavers and as wearers.

Computer technology has never been able to escape its own anomalies, as if it carried in itself the seeds of its own undoing. We are referring to all those interruptions, freezes, crashes, bugs, and viruses, that continually disrupt the ordered, linear rationality that computers are supposed to achieve. There is a myth that technology will liberate humanity from both work and need. Yet, embedded in the proliferation and progress of technology is the anxious need to work more, to always buy more and ever faster, newer, smarter computers, modems, monitors, programs, drives, faxes, RAMs, ROMs, zips, ergonomic keyboards, and so on - all of which are needed to reach an ever retreating state of currency and stability. Technology promises an achievement it can never deliver. It is as if the computer is haunted by its own ghostly other, by 'spirits' that cannot be reduced to mere data.

It is a curious and intriguing point that the 'spiritual' appears with increas­ing regularity in representations of computer technology. For example, numer­ous promotions for computers across the world, in both television and the print media, have employed such religious figures as Tibetan Buddhists and Eastern Orthodox monks, as well as members of other religious and mystical orders. We might well ask why it should be that monks, who are seldom associated with advanced technologies, should appear in such advertisements. On the surface, the idea is to suggest that if someone as technologically backward as a monk can use a computer, so can anyone. At the same time, however, these promotions imply that computers can provide a pathway to the secrets of the cosmos, to a yet uncharted spiritual domain. There is an inherent contradiction here; the libertine freedom of the internet can do nothing to emancipate the ascetic from his religious 'order'. Indeed, there would seem to be a lesson for those who insist on believing that technology can solve our most ancient enigmas. As the poet-prophet Kahlil Gibran cautioned: '... when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

Although the computer lies on the cutting edge of the here and now, the world of the monk is elsewhere, in another world. This other world, which computers will never be able to capture, is perhaps best represented in traditional stories and myths of creation. It is worth noting that traditional weavers commonly understand their work as connected to this not-always­ visible but ever-present realm of origins, and often attribute their skills to the primal figure of the Great Mother - herself a weaver. The primal mother figure is in fact credited with weaving the world itself into existence. The traditional weaver's work is thus a kind of religious activity - a spiritual performance - almost a form of prayer, which acknowledges the dynamic patterns and textures, both visible and invisible, that are woven into existence. Experienced from this point of view, the universe becomes an infinitely complex fabric, in which everything is linked and interwoven into networks, whose complexities cannot be understood without first understanding the spirit - 'the patterns of light' - that looms behind them. Ogotemmeli the Blind, the Dogon Sage, tells the story of the Seventh Ancestor who in interlac­ing the weft and the warp allowed man a glimpse of the revealed world. 'He imparted his Word by means of a technical process, so that all men could understand'. The words that the Spirit uttered filled all the interstices of the stuff: they were woven in the threads, and formed part and parcel of the cloth. They were the cloth, and the cloth was the Word. That is why woven material is called soy, which means 'It is the spoken word'.' And this word, 'the second word to be heard on earth, [was] clearer than the first and not, like the first, reserved for particular recipients, but destined for all mankind'.'

We do not, of course, mean to advocate a return to a more pristine mythological or spiritual worldview - to some pastoral, non-technological 'garden'. Indeed, we wish to avoid the binary technological logic of rationality versus irrationality, West versus non-West, and instead enter into what we wish to call the 'a-rational' mode, one which does not operate exclusively within the realms of 'reason' and 'logos', but is governed by other rules and laws. This mode involves precisely those complex, seemingly invisible threads that the rationalism of modem technology attempts to deny or exclude as superstitious, irrational, other: feelings, fetishes, magic, divination, mystical thinking - the spiritual in any of its manifestations. In the a-rational mode of thinking, everything is interwoven, connected to everything else by the web of life itself. A-rational thinking is, in a sense, network thinking - it is rhizomatic - bringing together the embroidery of our interrelated histories, cultures and destinies. This kind of heterogeneous, trans-geographical connectedness becomes manifest when we juxtapose the Quechua poem below with the Ethiopian painting that stands along side it, when we notice how the two artifacts render one another.' This image-poem becomes a metaphor that 'unfurls' the secret cultural subconscious the future holds in weaving digital:

radiant as the sun,
intense as love, subtle as the clouds,
sheered by the dawn
unfurling
a thread of knots
that shall preserve the trace
of the passing moon.

(translated from the Spanish by Fabian Wagnuster)

Anonymous Quechua poem

Figure 6'

Notes

  1. We are grateful to Sam Weber for an illuminating discussion on Walter Benjamin, who understood the modem obsession with 'newness' as a repudiation of the vital and traditional kinship between the past and the future. For an eloquent discussion on the discourse of modernity and 'newness' and 'difference,' see Sam Weber (1996) Mass Mediauras, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  2. R.L. Rutsky suggests that the 'mutations' of contemporary 'techno-cultures' are related to a return of a repressed worldview. We are grateful to R.L. Rutsky for his incisive comments on a draft of this paper.
  3. Kahlil Gibran (1996) The Prophet, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  4. Marul Griaule (1965) Conversations with Ogotemmeli, Oxford: Oxford University Press. This painting comes from an Ethiopian calendar that accompanied Teshome Gabriel on his first journey to the US as a student some 40 years ago. The image would follow him on his various peregrinations, ultimately becoming the last surviving artifact of that life-changing move. After many years of lying buried and half-forgotten in the garage, the image was recently happened upon by Professor Gabriel. This unexpected stumbling on the past was in large part responsible for the writing of this piece.
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