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What is digital materiality?

Post by Pamela Grombacher.

“Digital materiality” is an oxymoron. Comprised of electrical signals and code, the digital has no physical matter. It cannot be seen, it cannot be touched. It has no weight, no shape, no form. It is by definition immaterial. So what is “digital materiality”?

Paul M. Leonardi explores this question through the lens of organizational studies in a paper called “Digital Materiality: How artifacts without matter, matter.” He suggests that  organizational studies has experienced its own material turn in recent years, as scholars have increasingly shifted focus from the intangible concepts underlying institutions (like norms and routines) to tangible objects that mediate daily life in places of work (like desks and staplers). But there is often logical and lexical slippage when theorizing digital technologies (or to use Leonardi’s preferred term, “digital artifacts”), as scholars tend to do so in physical terms. To illustrate, he cites numerous studies in which the authors describe algorithms as “material properties”, “materials aspects”, or “material features” of software that give them structure and define their use. For example, search engines, embedded menus, and help-desk queuing software give shape to technologies, guiding and regulating user experiences in specific ways. This discourse likens digital artifacts to tangible tools of productivity in a way that suggests literal physicality and frames data as matter. Leonardi rejects this as illogical:

“[D]ata and electricity are not objects. They are ‘stuff’ without a tangible character. You can’t touch data. You can touch the paper (an object) upon which data is written; you can touch the screen (an object) upon which data is displayed; but you can’t touch the data itself.”

Strictly speaking, I agree; there is no innate digital materiality, in a literal sense.* But Leonardi is perhaps limited by his focus on data that is produced, transferred, and consumed in an office. The process he describes is one of inscription - data manifests when displayed on an interface or printed onto a physical surface, transforming into visible and usable information as it moves from the immaterial realm of the digital to the physical world of the work place. This is the unidirectional use of functional data. But there are other ways of manifesting data that fall outside of Leonardi’s paradigm; ways that, I believe, challenge his understanding of data as purely immaterial.

Take, for example, the work of Emilie Carlsen. For her MFA thesis project, Digital Realism, Carlsen tested new ways in which digital processes and aesthetics could be used in textile design:

“My graduation project is a collection of visual investigations of the potentials in the coalescence of the digital and physical. Using both analogue and digital editing in my studies, I wish to contribute with new understandings of soft materials and their poetic potentials, by creating a meeting between the untouchable virtual data and the tactile fabric.”

(Danish text available here)

Carlsen uses “digital waste” (visual scraps from her own design practice and from miscellaneous web-based images) as the basis for her designs, compiling and editing them in Photoshop to produce hyper-controlled imagery. She then investigates what happens to this imagery when it is printed on different fabrics, testing how different textures, thread counts, and other material properties affect the clarity, colour quality, and overall aesthetic of the digital image. Carlsen often uses these discoveries to guide further digital manipulations of the image. Sometimes she scans images of these printed textiles to create new digital data:

Emilie Carlsen, The Silent Witness (detail), 2106. Print on paper.

Emilie Carlsen, The Silent Witness (detail), 2106. Print on paper.

And other times she emulates digital edits using analogue processes - for example using chemicals to create transparency or to bleach colours:

Emilie Carlsen, Digital Realism - Pink (detail), 2015. Digital print and analog printing on viscose silk in steel frame.

Emilie Carlsen, Digital Realism - Pink (detail), 2015. Digital print and analog printing on viscose silk in steel frame.

Emilie Carlsen, Digital Realism - Green (detail), 2015. Digital and analog printing on silk satin in steel frame.

Emilie Carlsen, Digital Realism - Green (detail), 2015. Digital and analog printing on silk satin in steel frame.

Carlsen defies Leonardi’s paradigm. Her textiles are not the simple inscription of data, but are instead the product of a mutually constitutive exchange between data and fabric. She materializes data as textiles, and then digitizes these textiles to create new data, blending digital and analogue processes in a back-and-forth that blurs the material and the immaterial realms.

Doesn’t this trouble the idea that the digital is immaterial? When textile artworks are this intertwined with digital processes, isn’t it possible to conceive that data is as inherent to their form as are their material fibres? Aren’t these works, in a way, suffused with code? And if so, doesn’t this challenge not only the innate immateriality of the digital, but also the pure physicality of matter?


See more of Emilie Carlsen's textile designs at emiliecarlsen.dk

*Here using “material” to refer to actual physical substance. Leonardi goes on to argue that one can describe digital artifacts as “material” when using the adjective as a synonym for either “significant” (as in “material evidence”) or “instantiative” (as in, capable of realizing or materializing concepts or ideas).