In recent years, the term “materiality” has been cropping up in the works of authors in management, communication studies, and sociology, to name a few places. But what does this word even mean ? Let’s begin by taking a look at how it is used in context across a number of fields.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides three major definitions for the adjective “material.” They are:

  1. Senses related to physical substance: Formed by or consisting of matter
  2. Opposed to formal: Designating the practical aspect of something as opposed to the theoretical aspect
  3. Having significance or relevance: Of serious substantial import; significant, important, of consequence

Each of these definitions provides a different account of what it means for an artifact to be “material.” After the class today, I tried to explore each of these definitions and consider the consequences they have for the materiality of intangible artifacts.

  1. In simplified words, researchers who study digital materiality lose little by focusing on contexts in which there is no physical matter. Thus, when those researchers describe digital artifacts as having “material” properties, aspects, or features, we might safely say that what makes them “material” is that they provide capabilities that afford or constrain action.
  2. Whether in physical or digital form, an artifact that translates idea into action is material. Of course, not all artifacts make this translation.
  3. The third definition above raises the question, “significant for what?” A pivot table may be significant for persuading a client to invest, but it may not be significant for analysts in a accounting firm. This third definition reminds us that a digital artifact, or its features, may be material in some ways, but not in others.

All these different definitions have different conclusions to what really materiality is which leaves the floor open for discussion.

2 Comments

  1. The implementation of the Oxford definitions into how they apply to intangible or digital artifact’s “materiality”, like the “Between Page and Screen” book read in class, or “The Stanley Parable” game definitely illustrate that it’s impossible to make these case that these intangible things are also immaterial.

    Just the second definition illustrate that our engagement in this content makes it material through our involvement and action.

    More than a critique of your post, I want to post a question for thought: In the case of the two digital artifacts I mentioned, is it the artifact, or us engaging with them, that makes them material. To clarify, is the book or game material inherently, or in the act of “reading” the book or playing the game, do we make it material? Do the collection of bytes become more material when we move, or would you consider that encoded into the artifacts themselves?

    • I would argue that there is yet another type of materiality that encompasses the “engaging with” part. It’s called performative materiality. I read a paper about it here: http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000143/000143.html

      In performative materiality, meaning is given to something upon reception, as opposed to being imbedded and merely revealed upon reception. There is materiality in each layer of digital media: the physical hardware components, the display of the user interface, and the engagement of users with the system. Performative materiality lies with the engagement of users with the system.
      The term “performative” materiality comes from the opinion that artifacts’ “meaning and value are the result of a performative act of interpretation provoked by their specific qualities”. In performative materiality, the type of materiality that, as you mentioned, is encoded into the artifacts themselves is actually just set of probability conditions for the intended interpretation.

      In practice, designing with performative materiality in mind would result in something like “the creation of an interface that is meant to expose and support the activity of interpretation, rather than to display finished forms”.

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