Book review – Web Aesthetics: How Digital Media Affect Culture and Society

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Institute of Network Culturea and NAI Publishers say: We live in a world of rapidly evolving digital networks, but within the domain of media theory, which studies the influence of these cultural forms, the implications of aesthetical philosophy have been sorely neglected. Vito Campanelli explores network forms through the prism of aesthetics and thus presents an open invitation to transcend the inherent limitations of the current debate about digital culture.

The web is the medium that stands between the new media and society and, more than any other, is stimulating the worldwide dissemination of ideas and behaviour, framing aesthetic forms and moulding contemporary culture and society.

Campanelli observes a few important phenomena of today, such as social networks, peer-to-peer networks and ‘remix culture’, and reduces them to their historical premises, thus laying the foundations for an organic aesthetic theory of digital media.

imao-12.jpgMarco Manray Cadioli, Red Book, from In China

Vito Campanelli lectures on the theory and technology of mass communication at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. He is a freelance curator of digital culture events and co-founder of MAO – Media & Arts Office. His essays on media art are regularly published in international journals. And so far i had followed his writing on Neural online and paper mag. I opened his book with curiosity. And closed it with the feeling that it was probably the most intelligent publication i had read on media art culture for a long long time.

Web Aesthetics navigates with verve through the idiosyncrasies, rituals, dynamics and paradoxes of web culture. Some of the issues Campanelli brings attention to are well-known, other would gain from getting more attention: spam, the inability of present legislation to adapt to the age of digital media, blogs as stages of self-referentiality, the domesticated forms of dissent offered by facebook groups, the acceptance of a ‘disturbed aesthetic experience’ when downloading movies, remix practices as new cultural default, the difficulty experienced by new media culture to steer out of its ‘underground’ stigma, the erosion of the boundary between art and design, interactivity, the codification of website usability, etc.

Some of the points Campanelli makes echo my own preoccupations. Such as when he writes loud and clear what media art festival goers have been whispering for as long as i’ve been one of them: the disinclination of the community to practice or welcome any form of dissent and external critique. Or when he raises the problem of monolingualism. Most of the conversations in conferences, blogs or on mailing lists are indeed taking place in english with all the limitations this entails. While Campanelli’s book is written in english, he refreshingly brings much of his Italian culture on the table with many references to Italian thinkers and artists.

leg-kick.jpgNatalie Bookchin, Mass Ornament, 2009

Yes, the book is theory. It is dry. Unlike most of the books i review on wmmna, it contains no picture whatsoever but the writing is lively, the style is sharp and witty, and not matter how complex the issues he raises are, Campanelli dissects them with clarity and ease.

Expect serious reflections along with a subtle sense of humour and a couple of data dandies.

Don’t miss Geert Lovink’s Web Aesthetics Interview with Vito Campanelli.

Image on the homepage: Marco Manray Cadioli.