People’s immediate contact with digital technologies is through the concrete, not the abstract. It is through touching keyboards, fetching phones and looking at screens. The concrete we relate to in the first instance are things, are objects. We communicate digitally not face-to-face but via things. Things can be computer hardware, chips, cables, screens, the material parts of programming, as well as clothes, tables and shelves. In comparison to humans, things are seen as much more controllable and can be subjected to automation. The material thing in itself is not smart, i.e. connected, automated, and wired for feedback. The material is made of matter, constituted of one or more substances. As matter it is mutable and changing.
Digital technologies could not exist without material substances that can be touched or seen and sometimes even smelled like the plastic wraps around cables or the surface of a new laptop. Materials enable digital technologies, but they also resist, like potentially overheating data centres that have to be kept cool constantly and thus demand new ways of energy efficiency. Compared to the informational traces we leave when living the digital life, the objects enabling us leave wreckages of broken matter and toxic fluids in the wasteland of Agbogbloshie outside Accra, Ghana, endangering the lives of children who spend their days searching for metals to sell.
The material enables familiar and novel connections and offers resistance. It implies achievements, innovations, failures and breakdowns. It moves between consuming and struggling communities. Being material is just one ingredient in the configuring abilities of digital media technologies. Studying digital technologies however, should include looking for characteristics of the material in each case and remain sensitive towards them.
As a STS researcher studying technologies in practice, I want to explore how the material and visible interacts with what goes unrecognised, that which is meant to be efficient, silent and invisible. My research therefore focuses on the spaces and situations where objects and things meet wireless technologies, where the material meets the digital. I am interested in what kind of relations the material and the digital create, and how we can describe them so that the invisible becomes more accessible and tactile. An attempt to “materialise the digital” I believe can be one productive way for researchers of the social to discuss, debate and communicate how things, technologies and people live, organise and configure life together. Materialising the digital can also offer a new perspective on how researchers and/or experts on digital technologies introduce and describe the characteristics and interactions of techno-social configurations.