Reasserting Thing-Power: Roughness as a Response to Antimaterialism
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Overwhelmingly, contemporary interface design principles aim for an experience of immateriality. As Bill Buxton, pioneering interface designer at Microsoft Research, recently told Ars Technica in an interview, “if you’re aware there’s a computer there, we’ve failed.” The fluid movement of fingers and the immediate responsiveness of a glowing screen envelopes users in effortless interaction with information. Drawing on software studies and neo-materialist theory, this presentation first shows that ease-of-use and user-friendliness as priorities enforce a misunderstanding of digital textuality and encourage composers (“writers” in classrooms, “content producers” on the social web) to look for and expect readymade composing surfaces. Many media and digital humanities scholars have interpreted this black-boxing of functionality as an ideological preference for immateriality and ephemerality in our writing technologies. As Matthew Kirschenbaum writes (2008), “Computers have been intentionally and deliberately engineered to produce the illusion of immateriality” (135). Such an illusion, which Matthew Fuller (2008) blames partly on rhetoric that enforces a caesura between the automaticity of computing contrasted with messier industrial or craft forms of production, “is ultimately trivializing and debilitating” (Fuller 4).Turning to political philosopher Jane Bennett’s theory of materiality (2010), which she calls “thing-power,” the second half of my presentation argues that the dis-appearance of writing materials, encouraged by revenue-generating, smoothing innovations like Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” and Amazon’s “one-click buying,” is detrimental to inventive practice in new media. Writing technologies are not neutral and unproblematic bearers of language; a confrontation with thing-power means “acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing [and the] ways in which human being and thinghood overlap” (Bennett 349). Stronger than rhetoric of immateriality, an “anti-materiality bias” (Bennett 350) actively devalues ways that computers shape what is possible in writing and how that writing happens between the electrical conductivity and movement of fingertips, sensitive surfaces, and increasingly complex layers of software and software developers. When antimaterialism moves from interface design to the digital humanities classroom or studio, lost is the rewarding encounter with the rough‑edged energy and difficulty of not only language, but also the stuff of composing.
Digital Humanities Forum: Return to the Material. University of Kansas. September 14, 2013: http://idrh.ku.edu/dhforum2013Rachael Sullivan is at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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