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.