Digital Thingy-ness: Putting Materiality, Mediality, and Objects at the heart of the Digital Humanities

Edit: Feel free to keep editing this google doc. Feel free to continue this discussion on twitter via #thingyness

Studying digital media is one of the big themes in definitions of the digital humanities, but I get the sense that a lot of folks in the area aren’t particularly well versed in work on objects, digital or otherwise. In particular, some of the work on materiality and mediality that goes on in New Media Studies. Aside from that it sees like there is just a ton of work out there in a range of fields that ends up focusing on the properties of objects, how those objects fit together and the way that people interact with them. Off the top of my head I am thinking about everything from nuroscience, to material culture, to archaeology, environmental history, to actor network theory.

I suggest that we take a session at THATCamp to pull together an annotated bibliography, a must read list if you will, of works on thingyness that folks interested in the digital humanities but who also want to study digital things can look at . I’ve pulled together a starter list of works from some different fields that I think fit here. I have also included what about these works makes them candidates for this conversation and list.

Please feel free to start this session now by contributing additional subjects and works that you think are must reads in the comments. Or, try and do some synthesizing.

New Media Studies: Some great studies on the materiality and mediality of various new media objects:

  • Galloway, A. R. (2006). Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization:  TCP/IP and DNS define some of the key properties of the internet, we can and should analyze the material properties these protocols as humanists.
  • Kirschenbaum, M. G. (2008). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination: Great stuff on hard drives and the matarality of digital objects. Turns out that the digital is far less ephemeral than we thought it was and that there are some really exciting potential modes for analysis when we start thinking like computer forensics folks.
  • Manovich, L. (2002). The Language of New Media: Much of digital media involves the interaction of a database and an algorithm. Here is what happens when we put those properties center stage in our discussion of new media.

Platform Studies: Focusing on the interplay between the digital and the material and how they converge as platforms that constrain and shape what we create on those platforms

  • Montfort, N., & Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System: Great study of how the Atari shaped and was shaped by expressive ideals.

Actor Network Theory: Consideration of the relationships between people and things.

  • Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory: Wherein Knives have innate knifiy-ness that makes them good for cutting.

Distributed Cognition:  Help’s us understand the extent to which the things we use are a part of thinking and being.

  • Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild: The go to example for how a complicated system, like a ship, acts as a single cognitive unit made up of sub units.
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as Action: A great book growing out of the vygotskyan tradition of thinking of actors as situated in an environment with tools.

Neuroscience: Sure, some FMRI researchers think they can answer all of lifes questions, but you have to admit they have found out some amazing stuff.

  • Damasio, A. R. (1995). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain: Mind body problem turns out to really be a non-problem.
  • Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read: You will love neurological recycling, turns out that our biologically evolved capabilities for facial recognition get recycled in the development of writing systems. The suggestion here is that cultural tools evolve in a interplay between how we recycle various biologically evolved capabilities.

Embodyment: Our bodies are things too, much of our understanding of the world is grounded in how we use our bodies as tools for thought and action

  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books: You have ten fingers we use base ten number systems. For Lakoff things this is not a coincidence.
  • Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension: Wherein we learn that almost every kind of cognitive act, even things like object rotation, can be externalized in our use of tools and that humans are hardwired as cyborg tool users.

Object Oriented Philosophy: We can even think about putting objects center stage as the basis of an ontology.

  • Harman, G. (2011) The Quadruple Object: A full blown object oriented Philosophy.

Media Studies:  Old media changed how we think about things too.

  • Kittler, F. (1999). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. (G. Winthrop-Young & M. Wutz, Trans.) Stanford University Press: Turns out that when the Gramaphone appeared it may have changed how people think about memory and the mind. This thing where new media change us is not so much a property of these media as it may be a property of media in general.

So what should we add? Think in terms of texts and in terms of areas of interest. Oh, and feel free to take a stab at how you think about tying these things together.

About Trevor Owens

I'm a Digital Archivist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress and a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. Before coming to the Library of Congress I was the community lead for the Zotero project at the Center for History and New Media and before that I worked for the Games, Learning, and Society Conference. I'm interested in how learning and knowledge work in online communities, video games and culture, and software tools for humanities scholarship. My training is in the history of science and science communication and digital history.

13 thoughts on “Digital Thingy-ness: Putting Materiality, Mediality, and Objects at the heart of the Digital Humanities

  1. Wendy Chun’s new book is good on Software Studies. Under OOO, I’d add Ian’s Alien Phenomenology, Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects. And I think a platform studies book on the Wii came out recently, right?

  2. This is great Trevor. I am doing a class this fall that deals with these questions from late 19th c. on and covers a larger historical arc. Also planning a gallery show on interface design for a couple of years from now. This session sounds great door both projects. Look forward to talking about all this and more. Will try to add sources later.

  3. I will brainstorm some good matcult and museum studies additions to this!

  4. Pingback: little bit’a coding, little bit’a conversation | THATCamp CHNM 2012

  5. Great ideas so far: I had a few more things that I think are exemplars from some other fields that came to mind.

    James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: It’s a great exercise in asking how a state “sees”.

    Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West remains such a touch stone and Latour defines it as compatible with Actor Network Theory

    Bushman’s The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities has a lot of focus on objects.

  6. Iconicity/Indexicality: a view on objects from archaeology. Consideration of the different “registers of objecthood” within human and nonhuman networks.

    Knappett, Carl. Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2005.

  7. if the digitization of things and stuff is going to lead to a new-found interest in the field of material culture study, then i’m all for it! i can offer reams of bibliography (see, for instance,, though admittedly out of date, geared to a different audience and far from comprehensive) but i wonder if there isn’t a basic conversation to be had here also. while i’m intrigued by object oriented ontology, for example, i’m more than a bit uneasy at the idea of using it as a *starting point* for understanding the material world–that really is putting the cart before the horse!

    trevor, would you be up for a conversation about the potential importance of materiality and objects to the digital humanities and the ways in which that is or isn’t inter/cross-disciplinary (and which disciplines it touches upon or draws from)–and what people’s basic questions are–as well as a free-for-all bibliographic exercise? as someone who is as much (or more) a material culturalist as a digital humanist, i’d certainly benefit from a better understanding of what dh folks most need to learn from material culture, as well as what they tend to take away from their intellectual encounters with things, stuff, objects, artifacts (all of which mean something slightly different, btw) as well as from the scholarship they’ve encountered to date. i’m sure folks who are only now beginning to think about materiality would benefit from such a conversation as well.

    (i’d hate to be perceived as sounding like i’m defending turf or attempting to pull rank–yeah, people do get phds in this stuff & the winterthur program is 60 years old this year– but on the other hand, i’d hate to see dhers try and reinvent the wheel rather than hack it to greater perfection.)


  8. Thanks Susan, looking forward to having you bring your material culture take into the mix!

    I think there is likely loads of stuff from material culture that is on point for bringing into this conversation. What is really exciting about some of the new media studies stuff here is that it’s focus on mediality and materiality of digital objects opens a door to thinking about digital material culture. That is, digital objects are things on a range of levels (inscriptions on physical media, interactions between physical objects, bit level representations, source code, files in file systems, etc).

    I am not necessarily pushing Object Oriented Ontology, just trying to stir the pot and see what kinds of studies of objects we might think about working to stitch together. I kicked off with my list, but I think we have already seen a great list in the comments of other areas and fields that have ways of studying the thingyness of things and I am excited to have a bit of a roving conversation that can keep using this discussion thread as a place to pull together and stitch some of these different thing focused study approaches together.

  9. This all sounds great. Being at a material culture institution I would echo Susan’s comments and say that before we dig into materiality of digital things we should make sure to understand the historiography of material culture, especially re: its relationship to art history historically and the way that different methodologies apply differently to the study of things/objects/materials/etc. There is also media archaeology to throw into the mix, which Shannon Mattern does great things with. I want to go crazy with bib stuff (Hayles, Gitelman, Miller, Lubar, etc.) but will refrain for the moment.

    One last thing that comes to mind, and is evident in our faculty, is that material culture crosses over from humanities into social and even natural sciences (esp. anthropology and archaeology), so we should consider the breadth of the impact of those disciplines when considering objects as well.

  10. This response could have a title: “Surrogates are Objects Too”

    One of my favorite exercises when starting a workshop about how to use digitized materials in teaching or research is to hand out copies of this or that library item, whatever content it is that is going to start our discussion, and then ask the group to describe what we’re looking at. Inevitably it’s a business card from 1850 or a 1930s photo which they figure out based on the clothing–but, inevitably, no one in the group describes the thing in her hand as an 8 1/2 x 11 inch piece of 20 lb white paper with an image printed on it. As a culture, we just skip that mediation step. So, it makes a great opening to stop and talk about the actual artifact–a piece of paper, a computer screen, whatever the thing in the room with us actually is–before we get to its representational content that’s our actual interest.

    For those who haven’t seen it, take a look at Trevor’s recent post on the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation Blog: “All Digital Objects are Born Digital Objects” at As I mentioned to Trevor when I read it, In libraries and museums I’d love to see us cataloging the surrogates we create–photograph, microfiche, digital scan, whatever–as if they are objects in their own right. By not doing that we perpetuate the idea that mediation is invisible and/or transparent and/or inconsequential when we all know much better the moment we stop to think about it. For scholarly DH projects I’d hope it was a given that we’d factor in the mediation, but sometimes its even less present than it was on a repository site.

    So yes, there’s an important conversation to have here re. mediation, and thanks to Trevor for initiating it. I guess, for me, all culture and all cultural artifacts are mediated, whether or not they’re digital, so I just want to make sure we learn from the accumulated wisdom about non-digital objects as well.


  11. This sounds great, Trevor! And thanks for the props, Kimon! For the past few years I’ve been teaching a grad seminar on “Media & Materiality.” You might find some useful material on the syllabus — — including lots of supplemental resources below our weekly schedule.

  12. Thanks Shannon! I’m really looking forward to working through your syllabus. It strikes that there is so much going on in this area that would be really valuable to bring into more conversation with what is going on in the Digital Humanities. If there was interest, I could see topic making for an interesting special issue proposal for Digital Humanities Quarterly.

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