The codec moment

Aside from Galloway’s discussion of TCP/IP and DNS, the explorations of the software object has not really addressed the specificity of protocol.

Although Joel Slayton, in the forward to Fuller’s Media Ecologies, talks of “the limits and excess of protocol”{Fuller 2007@ix} as a theme of the text, the book uses artworks and pirate radio as instantiations of software, as a way into the broader techno-social assemblage. The work is at a different scale. Similarly David Berry’s work on open source{%Berry 2004}{%Berry 2005}{%Berry 2008} rather than moving in the direction of the protocols and standards and the legal and cultural battles over their role, ownership and position, has moved in the direction of a broader philosophical critique of the computational society{%Berry 2011}.

JPEG specifically is even more neglected. As Daniel Palmer says: “JPEG is strangely unknown, almost completely neglected in the critical literature around digital photography”{%Palmer 2011}.

There are a few exceptions to this neglect and in many ways these accounts bring together the three themes that I have identified as running through discussions of the digital and scopic object.

Coming from film studies, Sean Cubitt has approached YouTube through the H.263 codec which is enfolded with the Flash video (.flv) format{%Cubitt 2008}. He says: “There is no internet without the standardisation of internet protocols”{%Cubitt 2008@46}. Cubitt picks up on Adrain Mackenzie’s short account of motion imaging codecs in Fuller’s Lexicon{%Mackenzie 2008a} where he argues that “codecs structure contemporary media economies and cultures in important ways… [they] catalyze new relations between people, things, spaces, and times in events and forms” {%Mackenzie 2008a@48}. In particular he draws a connection between video codecs’ ‘transform compression’ and ‘motion estimation’, the technique it uses to compress but also render motion, and a “relational ordering that articulates realities together that previously lay further apart”{%Mackenzie 2008a@54}.⁠1

Cubitt has continued this interest in standards drawing connections between colour space standards and an emergent 3D scopic regime{%Cubitt 2010}.

While Cubitt’s demand that film studies engage with the codecs and protocols that are now so important to the industry as well as the cultural practices and relations that run through spaces and businesses such as YouTube, is important, those objects remain components, actants in a troupe rather than the focus themselves. H.263 and HSV, LAB and RGB are enfolded with corporate interests (Adobe) and telecoms and non-governmental bodies (ITU, ISO etc). He uses these relations as a way of mapping global and neo-liberal relations and discourses of the public sphere, at the same time rendering those protocol objects as in an almost Latourian fashion, defined by those relations. The determination may be more than one way but the object does not exceed its relations.

At the same time those codecs are drawn as objects exhibiting a form of dynamism, enabling processes of visualisation and imagining as well but also processural in terms of how they work. Here compression protocols average data, codecs reprocess light as particular spectrums of colour. It is this standardised processing that is key to understanding the protocol’s nature and its enfolding with capitalist and technosocial relations. That processuality is articulated through becoming, a potential ‘within’ the standard. H.261harbours the potential to encode data as well as drive YouTube as social space, journalism and business. As it is repositioned within new relations it is actualised as citizen-media tool, as part of an Apple-Adobe IP battle or as component in a video on demand business plan.

While both Cubitt and Mackenzie have certainly engaged with protocols they have arguably not approached those codecs and standards as specific objects requiring an account of their position and nature as objects. Rather they have been addressed as components in a computation, visual or techno-social assemblage. They are defined and positioned by their relations with other objects. Just as Galloway positions TCP/IP in terms of its relation (as rules) to control societies, so Mackenzie locates wireless standards in terms of broader fields of experience and Cubitt draws colour space standards as elements in a politically and economically charged scopic field and the history of the “standard observer”. It is this relational account of objects that I look to move beyond.

Specifically in terms of JPEG, Palmer argues that: “the JPEG format⁠2 is part of the new computational logic of photography”{%Palmer 2011}. For Palmer, JPEG needs to be approached as a rhetorical form. Following Manovich’s linguistic turn, Palmer traces the ideological workings of JPEG as a matter of coding with JPEG a powerful component in the processes of encoding at play in digital imaging. While Palmer’s highlighting of JPEG’s position within imaging is important, I look to an object-oriented focus on the object itself not its rhetorical or linguistic workings as a way into addressing its power.


1 Fuller’s collection is interesting insofar as the series of very short chapters, all focus on very specific, even technical aspects of ‘software’: whether that is aspects of the user interface – the copy function; import and export; the programme – the code library, the function; or the hardware/software relation – the interrupt or object orientation. Aside from Mackenzie however, the protocols and standards are surprisingly absent.

2 Technically of course JPEG is not the format but the protocol that enables the JFIF format.

  • Berry, D.M., 2004, The contestation of code, Critical Discourse Studies, 1(1), pp. 65-89.
  • Berry, D.M. & Moss, G., 2005, The libre culture manifesto, Free Software Magazine.
  • Berry, D.M., 2008, Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics Of Copyleft And Open Source, Pluto Press, London.
  • Cubitt 2008, Codecs and Capability, in Lovink & Niederer (eds), Video Vortex Reader : Responses To Youtube, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam,.
  • Cubitt, 2010, Making Space, Senses of Cinema(57).
  • Fuller, M., 2007, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies In Art And Technoculture , MIT, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
  • Mackenzie, A. 2008, Codecs, in M Fuller (ed), Software Studies : A Lexicon, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp. 48-54.
  • Palmer, D., 2011, The Rhetoric of the JPEG, Paper presented at the conference ‘The Versatile Image: Photography in the Era of Web 2.0’, University of Sunderland