[Humanist] 26.663 "digital materiality"

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jan 9 07:36:09 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 663.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>            (69)
        Subject: Re:  26.658 "digital materiality"

  [2]   From:    Adrian Miles <adrian.miles at rmit.edu.au>                   (13)
        Subject: Re:  26.655 "digital materiality"

  [3]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (39)
        Subject: digital materiality

  [4]   From:    Matthew Kirschenbaum <mkirschenbaum at gmail.com>            (84)
        Subject: Re:  26.658 "digital materiality"

  [5]   From:    lachance at chass.utoronto.ca                                (14)
        Subject: digital materiality and decay

  [6]   From:    drwender at aol.com                                          (61)
        Subject: Re:  26.652 "digital materiality"?

  [7]   From:    Jean-François_Blanchette <blanchette at ucla.edu>           (61)
        Subject: Re:  26.658 "digital materiality"

        Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 09:52:51 +0000
        From: "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re:  26.658 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130108065927.50A16E08 at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

In respect of the 'digital materiality' discussion, certainly Matthew Kirschenbaum laid to rest the idea that the digital is in some respects ethereal, incorporeal and ephemeral, and I would endorse all those who have drawn attention to the fundamental correctives offered by Matt. Isn't the next question, then, how has this view of the digital as in some way incorporeal and elusive taken such a strong hold? Possibly it is partly because we tend to think of the bit as a mysterious invisible object, rather than as a unit off measurement (we don't seem to have quite the same problem with electricity, possibly because it will bite us if we aren't careful with it). But probably an even more important reason why we see the digital as immaterial is the way in which users are kept remote from the physical aspects. Whenever you go into a server room, there can be no doubt about the materiality of the digital, often with the material lying in pieces on the floor. But we rarely go into server rooms, they are often quite distant and when things go wrong it often seems very mysterious as to why. The way in which computing service managers keep things at a distance adds to the mystery of the whole thing for many academic users. Although the materiality of the digital daily becomes more evident with our obsession with new devices of all types continues to grow, I fear this mysterious aspect of the digital is likely to take a greater hold of our imagination over the next few years, with the growth of the cloud. To users the cloud will seem remote and mysterious, but of course the cloud has a very substantial material presence, such as Apple's huge 500,000 square foot data centre in Maiden, North Carolina. The physical impact of these data centres is very considerable - Greenpeace for example has been very critical of Apple for taking vast quantities of electricity for its Maiden facility from a local grid supplied by coal and gas-fired power stations:


The Greenpeace Report, 'How Dirty is Your Data', describes the deceptive immateriality of the digital very well:

"This societal shift to moving 1s and 0s instead of atoms and mass has the potential to significantly reduce our footprint on the planet and achieve a more sustainable model for housing the soon-to-be 7 billion neighbours we share it with. However, since the ‘cloud’ allows our digital consumption to be largely invisible, arriving magically with the tap of the ‘refresh’ button in our inboxes or onto our smartphones and tablets for immediate access, we may fail to recognise that the information we receive actually devours more and more electricity as our digital lives grow.

The data centres that house this explosion of digital information currently consume more than 3% of US electricity, and approximately 1.5% to 2% of global electricity, growing at a rate of approximately 12% annually.4 Electronic devices account for 15% of home electricity use, and are predicted to triple by 2030, equivalent to the electricity demand of the US and Japan residential market combined"..    

The Greenpeace Report is available here:



Professor Andrew Prescott FRHistS 
Head of Department 
Department of Digital Humanities 
King's College London 
26-29 Drury Lane 
London WC2B 5RL 
+44 (0)20 7848 2651 

        Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 21:13:48 +1100
        From: Adrian Miles <adrian.miles at rmit.edu.au>
        Subject: Re:  26.655 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130107060135.62863E54 at digitalhumanities.org>

hi all 

A simple example I use with undergraduates. In a lecture I ask "What rhymes with shop and you buy at the butchers?" Someone answer's "chop". I repeat this until the whole room replies with "chop", I then ask "what do you do at a green light?" And the room replies "stop". Most have no awareness of the error until I point out that they would have failed their driving test. 

The point? That there is a material facet to language that is present, easily able to disrupt logic, reason, the rationale, that it has its own pleasures of the body (it can be carnal and corporeal) and its own resistances. After all only some things rhyme with each other, intonation can fundamentally change meaning, and as Derrida in Limited Inc demonstrated, even accurate quotation is no guarantor of the integrity or sovereignty of reason. (Or I could use Kristeva and her notion of the chora as a way to think about a materiality outside of the rational.) These material aspects have qualities and they push back, offer resistance on their own terms (it is not my decision to not write with my biro on my window, I might think it is but that's just foolishness, the inability of ink to stick to glass has already decided 'my' decision for me so it just seems like I've decided that I'll write on my school desk instead of the school window). In many ways it is what it means to be an artist 
in any medium, to live with the materiality of your medium so you learn how to listen to it. 

In relation to the digital a quick list of its materiality? The materiality of code, the screen, pixels, the affordances of code, mouse, interaction, screen. The tactility of each. Bandwidth, perhaps the biggest materiality of all. It can also be glitch, it can also be the specific systematic modes of thinking that geeks internalise, or have already have which is why we are geeks, that is then not recognised as deeply informing what is done but is also deeply part of the materiality of the digital. ("Of course you can't make that red, you haven't selected anything yet!")

So for me it is definitely not an oxymoron, if only literally as I ponder the carbon footprint of Google. 

an appropriate closing
Adrian Miles
Program Director Bachelor of Media and Communication (Honours)
RMIT University - www.rmit.edu.au

        Date: Tue, 08 Jan 2013 11:03:43 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: digital materiality
        In-Reply-To: <20130107060135.62863E54 at digitalhumanities.org>

Perhaps "information" has lost through use the problematic edge it has 
had as the name of the abstract essence which, during the Information 
Age, we were seeing absolutely everywhere. The linguist Geoffrey 
Nunberg, in "Farewell to the Information Age" (note the title! read the 
paper at people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~nunberg/farewell.pdf), described 
it in the abstract meaning it then had acquired as

> a term that incorporates assumptions of nobility and transferability
> in its meaning, so that it seems foregone that content will be
> preserved intact when its material and social supports are stripped
> away... [It is] indifferent not just to the medium it resides in but also to
> the kind of representation it embodies...

Would it be correct to say that having moved far away from the knowledge 
Shannon and Weaver had, of how "information" could be transmitted and 
faithfully received by cleverly designed, emphastically physical 
equipment, or having grown up in the Information Age, we at one time 
came to believe in the reality of this transcendent ghost? Matt 
Kirschenbaum's book and much else besides (e.g. the developments in 
philosophy reflected by Andy Clark's Supersizing the Mind) have done 
much to concretize the look and feel of what after all is not a ghost.

This is at least where my take on "digital materiality" got its 
oxymoronic, metaphorical flavour. But let me ask this back: if "digital" 
in this conjunction has no taste of that flavour any more, thanks to 
Matt et al, why are we making such a big deal of it? To be prosaic 
aren't we saying that *in a sense* the digital is material? Isn't the 
subject here what that sense is? Wouldn't it be a great loss if we could 
only see Babbage's machine as a big PC with a limited range of 
functions? Or Turing's machine as a mathematical specification that 
filtered through McCulloch's and Pitt's model of the brain became the 
basis for von Neumann's abstract description of that PC?


Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
(www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

        Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 08:32:02 -0500
        From: Matthew Kirschenbaum <mkirschenbaum at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  26.658 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130108065927.50A16E08 at digitalhumanities.org>

For me the word that comes to mind is *human.* That's because
computers, like all technologies, are the artifacts of human endeavor.
Because we live in a fallen world, these artifacts are inevitably and
invariably material.

The specific argument I put forward in Mechanisms is that computers
are material technologies built and engineered (indeed, exquisitely
so) to propagate an illusion, or working model, of immateriality. Thus
the fan Whitney mentions, dissipating the heat of the circuits.

My own work in this area is heavily influenced by Johanna Drucker and
Jerome McGann, who taught me to think about the importance of
materiality in *all* textual production. Kate Hayles has written a
book called Writing Machines that does much the same. The more recent
influx of work associated with the Media Archaeology movement in
Germany, as well as developments such as platform studies (mentioned
by Erik) and software studies in the US has continued to the
conversation (see MIT Press catalog's especially). For Media
Archaeology, Jussi Parikka's recent book of the same name is the place
to start, and a volume of Wolfgang Ernst's writings, Digital Memory
and the Archive, has just been translated into English and published
by Minnesota.

There is an enormous amount of important and serious and longstanding
work in this area. It certainly shouldn't be subjected to ridicule in
a serious academic seminar or treated with throwaway comments like

Best, Matt

Matthew Kirschenbaum
Associate Professor of English
Associate Director, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH)
University of Maryland
301-405-8505 or 301-314-7111 (fax)
http://mkirschenbaum.net and @mkirschenbaum on Twitter

Track Changes tumblr: http://trackchangesbook.tumblr.com/

        Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 08:46:46 -0500 (EST)
        From: lachance at chass.utoronto.ca
        Subject: digital materiality and decay
        In-Reply-To: <20130108065927.50A16E08 at digitalhumanities.org>


The thread on digital decay reminds me of a snippet I read recently in the
Globe and Mail.

Quebec is touting its cool climate, plentiful water supply, relatively
cheap, clean and reliable electricity supply and attractive high-tech
talent pool as reasons that make the province the ideal place for the
high-heat generating, energy-hungry data warehouses.

If we are prone to the apocalyptic mode we are liable to see in such plugs
memento mori. And shudder at possible power cuts.

Francois Lachance

        Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 08:49:23 -0500 (EST)
        From: drwender at aol.com
        Subject: Re:  26.652 "digital materiality"?
        In-Reply-To: <20130105073146.625CEE05 at digitalhumanities.org>

Hearing the news 1 hour ago (dradio.de 13:^8 MEZ) James O'Sullivan's question resp. this thread came to mind: "digitale Buschbrände" (digital wildfires) was identified as one of the global risks in WEF's today published study to discuss on WEF's meeting in the end of january. After a more or lesss difficult search now I can cite from the report a nice example for another kind of 'digital materialty':

"When a musician travelling on United Airlines had his claim for damages denied on a guitar that baggage handlers had allegedly broken, he wrote and performed a song – “United Breaks Guitars” – and uploaded it to YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 12 million times. As the video went viral, United Airlines stock dropped by about 10%, costing shareholders about US$ 180 million."

Cheers, hw

        Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2013 13:07:15 -0800
        From: Jean-François_Blanchette <blanchette at ucla.edu>
        Subject: Re:  26.658 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130108065927.50A16E08 at digitalhumanities.org>

I am similarly puzzled by the opposition between the digital and the material. Indeed, one might ask, if the digital isn't material, what can it possibly consist of? 

With apologies for self-promotion, Johanna Drucker, Matt Kirschenbaum, and I debated the issue in a panel on "New Models of Digital Materialities at DH11:

Building on Matt's insighful work, I have further explored the question in a paper called "A Material History of Bits." 

Jean-François Blanchette, Associate Professeur
Dept. of Information Studies, UCLA

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