Zachary Hecht, UCL Digital Anthropology
I must admit, this review has been a long time coming. I was given Digital Materialities and asked to review it many months ago. I proceeded to read it immediately, but writing the review, well not so immediately. At the time, I had been in the process of exams and dissertation fieldwork. Several of the book’s chapters were very useful while I was working through concepts for my own work. Since reading this book, I have moved to another country and read several other books and articles. Yet, importantly, I had been given a hard copy of the book and it managed to make it across the ocean with me—sitting in my suitcase, underneath my belongings, until I finally got around to unpacking. The sight of the book and its material presence served as an impetus to write this review, for which I have reread the book.
Digital Materialities is an important work for social scientists and designers seeking to understand everyday experiences and life in a world pervaded by digital technologies. The contributors draw from recent conversations in Digital Anthropology, Design Anthropology, Media Anthropology, and wider studies of material culture—ambitiously attempting to offer a synthesis of sorts. The book seeks to address how we might study, know, and intervene in the digital-material world. Several contributions describe design and research projects, with topics varying from smart sensors, sustainable design, communications technology, and game design. A central point in Digital Materialities is that the digital is in fact material—digitality and materiality are not separable (similar to Horst and Miller’s 6th principle in Digital Anthropology).
The editors draw upon new materialism in asserting that materiality “is an active force in the making of the world” (11). Crucially, the contributors do not invoke predetermined definitions of the material and digital, rather positing “digital materiality as a process, and as emergent, not as an end product or finished object” (10). Chapters deal with this processual model and examine how forms of digital materiality emerge from design practices and user engagement. The book is divided into three sections: the first deals with how digital technologies are conceptualized and how imagination influences the process of design, the second section delves into how researchers might craft certain digital experiences and devices to generate insight into human interaction with emergent materialities, and the third section examines what is called everyday design, which denotes how lay users and non-professionals engage with digital technologies in innovative ways. The chapters are all interconnected and in varying ways demonstrate how researchers and designers deal with an increasingly ‘messy world’; the contributors’ research is framed by the idea that world is not ordered and research/design must account for the contingency in everyday practice.
The editors suggest in Deleuzean fashion that although the book is ordered into sections, the reader might “take unexpected routes” into the book and work through the text in various ways (21). When I first read the book I proceeded along the given path and naturally found myself more engaged with certain chapters than others. The second time around, I hopped from chapter to chapter, and found this to be a better approach. Before reading the introductory chapter or if you are to read only one thing from this book, I would suggest looking through Dourish’s contribution. Dourish skilfully describes computer emulation, offering an account of the materialities of digital systems. Dourish demonstrates that what transpires in digital systems results from a complex interplay between what programs dictate and the computer hardware. He describes the consequences of numerical representation for computer operations, with systems’ materiality lying in the “gap between what is denoted and what is expressed” (33). The Pink et al. chapter is another stand out; the contribution examines the interdisciplinary team’s research on energy demand reduction within the home and the digital materiality of the home. The authors describe how people are ‘directors of flows,’ attempting to manage their home’s atmosphere and make their home feel ‘right’. Digital devices and media are a key feature of homes’ atmospheres, and are used “beyond their value for content and communication” (85). They discuss how individuals often put something on when they are going to sleep (think ‘watching’ Netflix to fall asleep) or feel uncomfortable after they leave home and recall leaving a device turned on.
Besides these two chapters, the entirety of Digital Materialities offers useful insights and stands as a needed extension of current research into the role of digital within everyday life. The research projects discussed should also provide inspiration to design researchers undertaking their own studies and project design. Perhaps the only major shortcoming of the work is acknowledged at the outset—it almost exclusively deals with the developed world. The book certainly would have benefitted from the inclusion of some of the outstanding work being done on the intersection of digital technologies and indigenous communities (for what this might look like I strongly recommend looking at Jennifer Deger’s recent work).
Lastly, in the hopes of demonstrating some concepts offered within Digital Materialities, I offer a personal example and return to the process through which I eventually wrote this review. This book’s physical, material presence seemed to compel my action and rereading. In the Borges short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia,” the main character asserts “it is not the reading that matters, but the rereading” and “printing […] was one of the worst evils of mankind, for it tended to multiply unnecessary texts to a dizzying degree.” Along this line of reasoning, one could label the web and e-books as another evil. In fact, with most of my books now in digital form and the vast expanses of the internet at my disposal, I rarely reread anything and often jump from one publication to the next without wholly finishing. Whether or not we should decry this process is another matter entirely, perhaps the latter is more productive of knowledge and conducive to analysis. More to the point, just because my books are in digital form does not imply they are not material, rather one might say they are differently material. E-books and online publications have certain materialities, ones that emerge in my interaction and process of engaging with the content. As I read on my computer, I often highlight and make notes, quickly look up what I may not know, and follow hyperlinks to other publications. The way I read an e-book is influenced by the platform it appears on, and is informed by my past experiences with other e-books and physical books. As digital-materiality is unsettled and emergent, my reading experience could be otherwise configured. I might begin treating a physical book more like an e-book or vice-versa. Digital content and experiences can be designed differently and I hold out hope that some designer might make a digital book that compels me to reread more often!
Zachary Hecht, UCL Digital Anthropology