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IBSA Foundation_Digital Icons contemporary reflections
Giacinto Di Pietrantonio19 Jul 20234 min read

Digital Icons: contemporary reflections

The debate on the relationship between technics and thought in the digital realm raises questions around aesthetics and ethics. 
Digital images such as images-text and the connection with Orthodox culture highlight the coming together of myth-magic and rational thought.

One thing is certain: since time immemorial there has been a debate between people who think that technics, now technology, comes before thought, and those who believe it comes after thought. However, certain more recent positions maintain that the two are naturally interlinked

Another thing to be said is that, from the natural to the cultural state, mankind has — more or less wittingly — scientifically and technically artificialised the planet over time, thus creating the world we live in today.

Replacing materiality

One of the most recent and discussed achievements insists on how digital technology is taking over the earth, increasingly replacing its substantial materiality that is also synonymous with reality. It is no coincidence that when we want to bring someone back to reality we tell them to keep their feet on the ground.

In the digital world, too, individuals are divided up into those who are apocalyptic and those who are integrated, as conceptually outlined by Umberto Eco in his 1964 book. One of these two groups concerns digital images and therefore also the aesthetic repercussions of such technology, which has ethical implications in society, too.
This point tells us how, before mankind embarked on the pathway of science as we know it today, the latter was vetted by religion and/or similar forms. 

From writing to icon

One fine day, in the cradle of our civilisation, someone in Greece created philosophy, shifting the discourse from heaven to earth and myth to logos and, therefore, from magic to technics. The digital world has also taken on a new dimension. A product of science and technics, it seems, somehow, to have reinjected the mythical-magical dimension into itself. 

A further reflection should be added at this stage: a reflection based on the language used to describe and name certain parts of the digitalised world, primarily that of immateriality. This immateriality is also distinguished by the fact that we define as icons many — if not all — of the images making up the digital world and/or conveying it. One key point is that, although they look like images, digital icons are composed of written text. In fact, if we open a JPEG file with a text programme, such as Word, we see that the image is no longer there; a code appears in its place, consisting of a string of letters and numbers, of writing. Vice versa, writing also appears on the screen as an icon, such as the PDF. 

 Sacred icons like...

A combination of many things leads us to reflect on all this. For example, considering that the image, or digital icon, is made up structurally of text, as mentioned earlier, it is therefore more akin to a book — which as we know consists mainly of text — than to a sticker album. Having said this, we can establish a connection with the Orthodox religion, which considers sacred icons — or religious paintings — not as images but as a sacred written book
One thing appears clear at this point: if it is true that the term icon means ‘true image’, then it is also true that the sacred icon is seen by Orthodox Christians as a book, just like the Bible and the Gospel. An icon is understood as a writing, not a figurative representation of God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and saints, but an incarnation of them, because they are acheiropoieta deemed to have been created not by man, but by God and the saints themselves. 
The function of the image-text, like the then Biblia pauperum, is even more meaningful because the entity present is viewed as a truth bearer, just as the digital world appears to us as a truth bearer to which we continually refer to find answers for our onlife being, an existence wherein images-text are increasingly created by the device and no longer by man. Now that this has been established, it appears clear that literary — and not artistic — terms are used to describe icons in Orthodox culture. In fact, Orthodox Christians do not say ‘to paint an icon’, but ‘to write an icon’, despite the latter being a painted image. 
The digital dimension seems to share a similar condition, as it is made up itself of writing, alphanumeric codes and algorithms that hark back to the idea shared by the Judeo-Christian world, but even earlier by the Egyptian world, of: ‘In the beginning was the verb’, of a world-universe created by the word. This one word — or words — must be pronounced, however, becoming sound, similar to how the primordial sound ‘Om’ in Hindu culture creates or generates the entire universe.

By Giacinto Di Pietrantonio 


Giacinto Di Pietrantonio

Art-addicted curator

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