Jpeg, following the rules

Note. This post has been redrafted and expanded here.

Before one can engage with an object-oriented reading of software, explore the ways in which software connects in the heart of other objects or address the infinite archive of images and data trails in terms of an account of the fourfold nature of objects, we need to take a simple step: outline in what way the jpeg standard/protocol is an object. From there we can move to the question of why envisaging jpeg as an object is useful.

But first the object. In his letter to a curious five-year-old, Harman gives us a series of ‘brief rules about objects’ (2010 pp147-8)

1. “Relative size does not matter: an atom is no more an object than a skyscraper”. At one level this appears to have noting to do with software. Where is size in software? The number of bytes in the programme? The number of lines of code? When it comes to jpeg are we looking for the relative size of the code fragment governing ‘export to jpeg’ as against the rest of the code in Photoshop? Such investigation is possible but misses the more important point around scale that Harman is making. All objects are equal, on a flat ontological footing. In terms of jpeg, it has an existence and interest as an object regardless of its scale within software or within photography. Its ‘objectness’ does not depend on it’s scale or it’s relationship to something else – Photoshop, machine code, electrical charges etc.

2. “Simplicity does not matter: an electron is no more an object than a piano”. The jpeg standard is simpler than Photoshop but more complex than the code for cut-and-paste. Much modern software is written used an object-oriented (in a programming rather than a philosophical sense) language. Modules of software are strung together to create larger and more complex programmes. APIs are an example of where Web 2.0 businesses make modules of code available to developers in the hope that they will develop new software and applications, establishing the business as that holy grail of the Internet economy, a platform. The thing is that jpeg’s status as an object is not dependent on its complexity or simplicity. Pulling out the particular compression algorithms which it uses wouldn’t make it any less of an object. It’s position as object is in its position as having “some sort of unitary reality” (p147). Jpeg, as an industry standard, as a selling point for cameras and software, as a recognised format (in it’s JFIF instantiation) places it within the realm of objects.

3. “Durability does not matter: a soul is no more an object than cotton candy”. Jpeg works. It is a process of compression. It is a movement, a moment of operation. Whitehead, Bergson and other process philosophers would be happy to discuss it as a process, in terms of becoming but to do so would be to lose the power of an object-oriented approach (a theme to which I will return). Where one can agree with process-based philosophy is that jpeg is not durable. The files it creates may be (depending on the storage mechanisms and standards used) but the protocol/standard itself is not. It does its work and bows out. In terms of whether jpeg is an object, that doesn’t matter. The fact that jpeg is not there whereas the jpeg/JFIF image is, is irrelevant. Jpeg is an object because it has worked, connected and in some sense ‘been’, therefore it needs to be accounted for.

4. “Naturaleness does not matter: helium is no more an object than plutonium”. Harman is keen to extend the concept of object beyond what he sees as philosophy’s tendency to marginalise objects as a matter for the natural sciences. Objects here are material things, atoms, trees, helium, whereas tables, weapons grade plutonium and software are human made, unnatural. From an object-oriented perspective again this is irrelevant. As things in the world doing things, being presences I trip over, use, am data-mined by – they are objects and therefore worthy of study and necessary to account for. This is not the simple point that media and cultural studies made when it said that Homer was as worthy of study as Homer or that we needed an account of tattoos as well as Titian. Nor is it the far earlier establishment of literary or art history studies arguing for their objects being worthy alongside the natural sciences. This is not a flattening of hierarchies and categories for political, professional or academic interest. It is a metaphysical statement that all objects are in play whether we like it or not.

5. “Reality does not matter: mountains are no more objects that hallucinated mountains”. Here of course Harman lays himself open to the common criticism that his framework is so loose as to be useless. “When one can talk of unicorns and uranium, Donald Duck and Chairman Mao in the same way, what use is it?” he is often asked. But as he has said:

“A critique that was apparently stated on Facebook: ‘ooo would have popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head’. No, OOO wouldn’t…

In my position there’s an absolute difference between real and sensual objects. Popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head would almost certainly not be a real object. (You never know, of course. We’re not omniscient. But I agree that such an entity almost certainly doesn’t exist.)

However, this same Popeye must be accounted for by any ontology worth its salt. Why? Because imaginary things are not utter non-beings. They don’t have independence from the one who is conceiving them as real objects do, but they’re not just nullities or holes of nothingness. I don’t think Raskolnikov is a real object either, but millions of people have read Crime and Punishment and been influenced by it. Raskolnikov needs to be accounted for by ontology.” (

What Harman is looking to leave out of analysis is the idea of any kind of “non beings”. If things are at work, then they are objects. Jpeg is not imaginary but it is certainly difficult to see or find. It is a standard written or maybe woven into software and hardware assemblages as well as business strategies and grandmother’s doting over a new baby. But even if jpeg was not ‘real’. Even if the idea that some standard compressed data efficiently and effectively was an elaborate Capricorn One-like conspiracy perpetrated by mad scientists, Adobe and Google, it wouldn’t matter. Jpeg would still be worthy of study because it was still at play in people’s photography, their photographic consumption and their relation to images and imagespace.

To say that jpeg is an object is to argue that it “is or seems to be one thing” (p 148). This does not imply unity, stability, essence or foundation merely an acknowledgement that it is in play and in the world. To do so is not only to argue that it should be addressed philosophically and politically but also to say that it is more than the accidents, relations and qualities that attach to it.

Harman, G. (2010) Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures. Zero Books.