[Reader-list] A Concise Lexicon of/ for the Digital Commons

Raqs Media Collective raqs at giasdl01.vsnl.net.in
Thu Sep 6 15:06:44 IST 2001

A Concise Lexicon
of / for the Digital Commons

by Raqs Media Collective / September 2001

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.

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.

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.

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' (dãtã) 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 ('dãtã' 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 

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.

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 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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