Digital Materiality

After re-reading a number of texts about digital materiality, I now have a much clearer idea of the range of theories surrounding it, and have formed the plan for my literature review. Whilst reading, I attempted to identify definitions and ideas of it that were relevant to my research questions. I questioned how one could interact with this version of digital materiality, is there potential for someone to make a personal connection with it and can it be applied to the context of digital art as well as other types of objects? I pinpointed a number of main concepts and qualities:

  • The digital as immaterial / ephemeral – Many scholars of digital materiality begin their arguments by acknowledging that, Much mainstream writing about technologies of the virtual screen […] operates with the assumption of a binary opposition between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, ‘original’ and ‘copy’, or ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’. (Shapiro, 2016) The common understanding of digital materiality doesn’t move beyond the assumption that cyberspace is intangible, it relies upon superficial distinctions between physical things, surrogates and the virtual realm (Shep, 2015). This view is commonly held by both practitioners and audiences of GLAM organisations (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). In Museum websites and museum visitors (2007), Paul F Marty presents statistics to support this. During interview, visitors were asked to compare their experiences of accessing online resources with onsite provision. 65.7% disagreed or strongly disagreed that when viewing artefacts or exhibitions it is possible for a visit to a website to substitute for a visit to the museum. Furthermore, the majority of survey respondents (92.6%) preferred or strongly preferred to be in the museum when viewing artefacts or collections. This supports the fact that audiences have a tendency to view digital artefacts, objects or artworks as mimicry and inauthentic, as reproductions of physical collections. According to Marty, key to this is that their needs and expectations were entirely different when online compared to when on site. Providers of digital museum resources are more often focused on the mechanics of digitising works than on how they will be used once available (Marty, 2007). This viewpoint is exemplified in Digitizing Collections: Strategic Issues for the Information Manager (2004), by Lorna M Hughes, wherein she explains the advantages and disadvantages of making collections accessible ‘via digital surrogates‘, and all else involved in the digitisation of collections. The word surrogate is defined as a substitute or a back-up, implying that a digitised version of a museum object is subordinary. I am quite interested in moving beyond this somewhat limiting framework to explore the potential of born-digital objects that aren’t tainted with inauthenticity or viewed as counterfeit. Whenever I’ve briefly explained the topic of my dissertation to others (practitioners and non-professionals alike), I am quickly met with the response that in-person, the physical and on-site is better. I can understand this coming from a practitioners perspective, as they are actually able to handle objects which they cannot do online, but visitors are restricted to viewing museum objects from behind a sheet of glass within a cabinet. I feel as though many people have a narrow-minded approach to the potentialities of digital objects, I hope over the next few weeks I can provide examples to challenge this. I know I’m not alone in having this reception:

‘Nothing beats the real thing’. A Dutch curator, working at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, needed only five words to express a commonly felt attitude toward the digitization of museum collections. […] the disputed authenticity or ‘realness’ of the digital has always been central to both public and scholarly understandings of new media. Although it may be true that the extreme close-ups in Google Art Project allow for a technologically enhanced view that trumps the naked eye, critics mainly echoed traditionalist opinions by claiming that digitization never succeeds in grasping texture, scale, heft and other “crucial bits of art” (Januszcak 2011).

Stevens, 2012
  • Digital objects should be reconceptualized as material rather than virtual – This is an alternative way of viewing digital materiality as ‘the palpable bits and bytes of electronic hardware and software that are ubiquitous, that leave traces, and that can be read as evidence of the creation, dissemination, reception, and preservation of […] new communication forms’ (Shep, 2015). This idea directly contradicts the previously stated view that the digital is innately ephemeral and immaterial. Instead, our attention is drawn to the fact that the digital literally consists of fiber-optic cables, routers, switches, screens, electricity etc. Of course, not all of it can be touched, which is why it is thought of as immaterial (Leonardi, 2010). Communicating this concept is the intention behind Timo Arnall’s multi-screen film entitled Internet Machine (image below) which aims to expose the usually invisible structures and hidden materiality of the internet. When watching the film, I felt surprised at just how much space ‘the internet’ takes up, how much noise it makes, the building capacity and maintenance it demands. Unfortunately it isn’t available to view online in full, but I would like to experience Internet Machine as an immersive installation, to appreciate the size and physicality of the wires, machines and buildings in comparison to my own body. Stevens (2012) also aims to reconceptualize the presumed nothingness of the digital; Stevens explores the behaviour of subatomic particles to exemplify that the process of digitalisation involves the electronic transfer of information that is composed of bits instead of atoms. Central to this concept is that both energy and information are always on the move in a process of transference between objects. In this way it is what Stevens called ‘an enterprise of co-creation’ and working together.
Timo Arnall’s Internet Machine. Screenshot, source:

However, this has left a gap, whereby existing accounts of how empathetic ways of knowing between researcher and participant (and others), and of using video to generate these, fail to account for the digital materiality of our everyday environments. (Empathetic technologies: digital materiality and video ethnography Pink et al, 2017)

  • Digital objects as metaphors / symbolic representations – In the book Metaphor and Material Culture (1999), Christopher Tilley delves into the idea that there is always a connection between an objects form and its meaning. In a subsection entitled Technology and metaphor, he discusses the meaning of technology to small-scale societies. However, this is more relevant to the mechanical production of materials (he uses iron as an example), probably because in 1999 the internet and digital art was not that advanced. For context, the first ever photo was loaded onto the internet in 1992. Tilley posits that metaphors provide the basis for an interpretative understanding of the world and provide a means of linking subjective and objective experiences and mediating between concrete and abstract thoughts. I decided this was relevant to my epiphany experience of interacting with the tickets and coat, as these material objects could be viewed as metaphorical for several different meanings. I found the connection between digital material objects and metaphor when reading Alan N Shapiro’s essay Baudrillard and Existentialism: Taking the Side of Objects, (2016). Shapiro builds on the assumption that the digital is immaterial, and instead of contradicting this by arguing for the digital’s unseen physicality, he claims that we can understand techno-culture beyond the dichotomy of ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ through the lens of the symbolic. Shapiro draws on a number of existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre to ponder the significance of things, their methods of use and their ‘feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I remember very vividly a scene in Sartre’s Nausea, wherein the protagonist sits on a bench and observes a tree. I still have a bodily memory of reading this, because for a period of time afterwards, I viewed every object surrounding me in a completely different way. I was able to separate them from language and any pre-conceived associated meaning. Similarly, in this essay Shapiro raises the idea that digital media institutes its own reality, which is our only reality. The visceral experience I had whilst reading Nausea, could be described as ‘developing intellectual sensitivity to the symbolic relation or the symbolic act of exchange’, where one becomes more perceptive to a new world. Furthermore, Matthew Kirschenbaum (2008) proposes the idea of ‘formal materiality’, which is said to engage the architecture of digital media and its symbolic forms, ‘whether the structure of individual software programs, embedded data standards’ or operating-system configurations. Formal materiality concentrates on the digital environment as an abstract projection supported and sustained by its capacity to propagate the illusion of immaterial behaviour.
  • Using an objects materiality as historical evidence and for object lessons – I listened to a Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) podcast episode titled ‘Museum Collections as Historical Evidence’, during which Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A, interviewed Giorgio Rello and Evelyn Welch about their practice of using objects in their work as historians. The conversation revolved around using objects versus using other kinds of evidence, and it was agreed by Rello and Welch that a personal intimate cultural phenomenon can only be fully captured by trying to triangulate the material and documentary evidence. They discuss how accessing digitised collections is essential for starting conversations between historian and objects. They also agreed that objects ‘somehow connect us closely in that tangible experiential way’ to history. This is a practical view of interacting with an objects materiality to achieve a specific goal, but is also limited to digitised museum collections. In A Stone That Feels Right in the Hand, Harries (2016) digs into this idea from the perspective of a chance encounter with a historical object. A suggestion of the presence of another whose mindful activity is disclosed in the form and properties of an object in a particular location can be achieved through multisensory engagement with the materiality of past lives. Harries seems to most accurately describe the experience I had when unearthing the tickets, but how this can be applied to digital objects needs further thought. As part of my research I will be using as an example a silent film captured in 1901, owned by the BFI. Both the location of the film and its materiality are crucial to its interpretive meaning for me on a personal level. I will be writing another blog post about this once I have researched the materiality of film. As articulated by Kevin Birth (2006) in The Immanent Past, there is a human need to ‘create a past’ when confronted with its traces. Moreover, as I have done with the film and the tickets, people use their relationships and surroundings in remembering. The relationship between history and memory is important here – history is written but remembering is material, it can rely on buildings, monuments and bodies (Birth, 2006). There is arguably less literature about the relationship between history, personal connections and digital materiality; but I’d argue that history is clearly an important facet for me personally when engaging with objects, so i’d like to explore this further. I have a copy of An Autobiography and Other Essays by George Macaulay Trevelyan, to read to contextualise this exploration.
  • Digital artefacts are shaped by human agency and use – This concept takes as its foundation the unbounded nature of digital artefacts, assuming that they rarely remain in their original form. Youngjin Yoo (2012), writes that artefacts shape and are shaped by human agency over time, forming an intimate and complex web of sociomateriality. Yoo follows a broad definition of artefacts as both material and immaterial objects that are man-made for subsequent use to accomplish certain goals by performing certain functions. Jenny Kidd and Areti Galani (2020) summarise, ‘materiality is performed (Drucker 2013), in the sense that it emerges through interaction, and therefore, is situated in cultural and technological contexts’. Johanna Drucker (2013), is commonly cited in discussion of this theory (see quote below). Paul Leonardi (2010) is another proponent of the idea that what matters most about an artefact is not what it’s made out of, but what it allows people to do.

“what something is has to be understood in terms of what it does, how it works within machinic, systemic, and cultural domains” (Drucker, 2013: para 4).

  • Digital materiality as an open ended process, in progress. – I would argue that the last point is the most proliferated and widely held amongst scholars. Very simply, it views digital materiality as a process, not an end product or finished object (Pink et al, 2017). This of course forms part of the latter point, that digital artefacts are shaped by human use, that they consist of a continually unfolding process (Geismar, 2018; (Leonardi 2010). According to this theory, the digital and material should not be thought of as two separate things that already independently existed in the world and have since become entangled. According to Pink et al., (2017), there has been a tendency towards such thinking because in academic scholarship they have been developed as two different concepts that different researchers and disciplines have, since the digital has become thought of as ‘ubiquitous’, put together in a range of different ways. The digital and material are entangled elements of the same processes and activities. They are grown, made and activated for specific purposes. In Empathetic Technologies (2017), the authors use a wonderful example to illustrate how encounters are experienced at interfaces between complex and contingent configurations of people, technology, weather and other processes. This research surrounded observing and analysing cyclists’s daily commute to and from work using Go-Pro cam recorders attached to their bikes. ‘In this article, we propose how video techniques can be engaged to generate empathetic encounters in research conducted through sites of action and experience that are explicitly constituted through forms of digital materiality‘. The fluidity of digital materiality, its continual variation and the sensitive immersion between object and subject dominates this theory (Marin et al, 2012).
  • – should start lit review with this, or this should help me to structure my lit review. I will be building on this to explore how this relationality and entanglement is related to interactions with digital objects or visual art online. especially when considering: Many patrons echoed a sentiment that 2D art viewing was anticlimactic and lacked the atmosphere of shared awe found during in-person visits (Yale School of Management)

I have purposefully left out one other view of digital materiality, as it felt so important and relevant to my research that it deserves more detailed thought and analysis that will probably be saved for the dissertation itself. It is, Technologies, texts and Affordances by Ian Hutchby (2001), that most profoundly speaks to my research, my experiences and also combines many of the above theories. I will now be planning and writing the literature review, based on a similar structure to this blog post – surveying the seminal literature surrounding digital materiality, identifying the gap that my research will respond to, highlighting the important terminology and defining the parameters of my research.

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