Review of Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology
Im/material – In-material
Les Immatériaux is the name of the exposition the well-known theorist Jean-François Lyotard held in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in 1985. At the exhibition, a digital interactive catalog, written by several writers, was shown. This experimental encounter with the computer was one of the first pieces of collaborative electronic writing, and showed the optimistic view of Lyotard and his co-authors upon a future without material objects: an immaterial world. Computer and other digital technologies would be the tools to establish this dream, so Lyotard amongst others mused.
The ideology of Lyotard is not shared by the authors of Digital Material: tracing new media in everyday life and technology. The authors even state that the title of the exhibition, in plural form, already undermines Lyotard’s idea because ‘Les Immatériaux’ refer not to one abstract thing, but to several things, or parts, of something that so becomes an inseparable part of the material world in itself. The focus of the authors of this book is then not on this ‘myth of the immaterial’ exclusively, but rather on a mix of the immaterial and material aspects of (new) media. Their view at new media is modern and interesting, because they no longer hurray the new media ‘out there’ but state that new media nowadays are actually ‘here and amongst us’, and thus ready to be criticized. Instead of looking at the immaterial as Lyotard did, they state that even the most abstract or so-called virtual piece of software, is still attached to the computer to to operate successfully. The user as well needs the computer to be able to use this software. The software can thus not be experienced immediately, but is always incorporated in materials. It is therefore not material or immaterial: one can see the new media as a combination, as always ‘in-material’.
With this idea kept in mind, the authors of Digital Material decided to use the physical parts of the computer as the divisions of the book. These parts not only constantly remember us of the link between media and physical life, they also can be read as ‘metaphorical concepts’. So every computer part refers to a specific aspect of new media.
In the book, five parts of the computer are used as the parts of the book or as these metaphorical concepts. Each part contains several articles. The first part is the Processor, seen as “the beating heart of a computer system”. It refers to the procedural inner workings of a machine and metaphorically has a focus on the way in which computer software can be used for different purposes. An article by David B. Nieborg shows that a game can not be just entertainment: in the US, a lot of state budget was spent by the US Army to develop a war game. America’s Army has as main goal to recruit youngsters for the real American army. Joost Raessens puts attention on the so-called serious game, in which also not entertainment is the first aim but the fact that one can learn something by playing. By highlighting the technology and lay-out of a game about a food crisis, Raessens shows that the game can be fruitful but at the same time bears a certain ideology.
The second part of the book concerns the Memory, thus the storage of the computer and a metaphor for the history of media. Imar de Vries starts off with an article about mobile communication. Despite all hopes that were put on the mobile phone as the tool of the 21th centruy to connect everyone with everything, the device soon became allround and thus ordinary. This idea can actually be found throughout the whole book, then concerning the more general ‘rise and fall’ of the computers since the eighties. While the computer seemed to be new and exciting, it ultimately turned out to become a everyday tool, an almost invisible machine that we take for granted and no longer acclaim. But just the fact that these devices surround us in everyday life, makes them interesting to analyze. So De Vries shows in which way mobile communication still converges with the idealized ideas of communication. She states that the mobile phone connects everyone to each other, at all time and in all places, even more than one could have thought. It is thus important to realize that terms as privacy and not being connected to each other, can become exceptional.
Another interesting article is that of Jos de Mul, “The work of art in the age of digital recombination”, for it offers a fresh look at Benjamin’s classic. Benjamin states that an artifect loses its ‘aura’ because it’s taken out of its original time and space, and instead of that obtains an ‘exhibition value’ because it’s being seen and experienced by more spectators. De Mul takes this idea further in stating that the artifact in the digital age has a ‘manipulation value’. No longer it is there to be looked at only, it can now as well be changed by the viewer and this manipulation value determines the value of the artifact.
The Network is the following part in the book. It has a strong emphasis on the relation between the contemporary machinery and daily life. User and machinery are both vectors in this network and can influence each other. The articles in this part focus on big known vectors in this network, for example Web 2.0 that makes the role of the user more important. A website like Napster also focuses on the fact that many people use it to exchange information. And the game World of Warcraft is an example of an online role-playing game becoming a part of everyday life.
The last two parts have an emphasis on the way users interact with digital media. They can do so by using the Screen and the Keyboard. Instead of one television screen, the user nowadays has access to many different screens – from a computer or mobile phone to a game consoller. Nanna Verhoeff shows that the screen not just has one goal anymore: she takes the Nintendo DS game consoller as an example. The DS not only has a screen on which one can play a game: it consists of two screens, is a touch screen as well and has voice-control options and WiFi connectivity. All these features make the DS screen from a basic screen where one can look at, into a ‘multiple’ screen that can be touched or spoken to. Besides that it is also a real mobile screen, since the gamer can pick it up and move it somewhere.
Sybille Lammes also takes games as object of her article, but focuses on strategy games in which mapping and spatial progress are important. She quotes Henry Jenkins, who already stated that games of Nintendo can be seen as spatial stories. Lammes takes games as Age of Empires III, in which the gamer cannot see the whole area that has to be discovered, and is thus looking at a partially black screen. By playing and discovering, it is the user himself who becomes mapmaker – and thus determines the appearance of the screen. This sort of games can thus change the way we traditionally look at the computer screen.
This counts for the keyboard as well, but here the accent lies on how users have ‘hands-on’ contact with digital machinery. Thomas Poell focuses on the user who particiapates in public debates on the Internet. He takes Habermas’ concept of the public sphere to investigate the attitude on forums towards the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. But where Haberma’s concept stresses that the public sphere should lead to a critical rational public debate, most of the forums Poell quotes show a homogeneous ideology. Only few forums, e.g. Indymedia, were more critical, because they for example analyze the role of the media in the Van Gogh incident. The idea of Habermas is thus to be updated, according to Poell.
Ann-Sophie Lehmann, who wrote the last article for the book, focuses on the fact that a lot of media artists nowadays don’t show off their way of working. While in the 16th century artists emphasized their work by painting for example their own workshops, artists in the 21th century don’t show how they make their art by giving away a ‘making of’ or ‘behind the scenes’. This mystificates the position of the artist.
Overall, the articles in Digital Material, so various in subjects, show how the so-called new media are finding their way through everyday life. The impact of the ‘magical’ new media may not have been so overwhelming as thought before by some, but the impact can be shown in many fields – from games to online forums, and from politics to art. According to the authors, the focus must be in-material, thus on the software as well on the hardware of all used devices. One comment on this method though is that the authors focus too much on the devices itself and the way they are used at home, instead of looking as well at the function of new media in other environments. An article on, for example, Wi-Fi Hotspots, a more out-of-doors phenomenon but definitely part of ‘every life’ as suggests the title of the book, could thus not really be included in the work. But the authors do try to focus on both technology and user, and in that way have a modern look at the new media, instead of a deterministic one. Digital Material can therefore be seen as a good overview of many ‘rages’ of the digital era and is not only acclaiming the digital era, but also criticizes the aspects of it.
The writers of Digital Material: tracing new media in everyday life and technology are all connected to the Research Group New Media & Digital Culture at the Utrecht University. Digital Material was published to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the group, founded in 1999. It contains contributions of better-known theorists like David B. Nieborg as well as articles of assistant professors at the Utrecht University.