Digital technologies and data as sociomaterial objects

An excerpt from Chapter 2: ‘Theorising digital society’ from my book Digital Sociology (forthcoming, Routledge).

As sociologists and other social theorists have begun to argue, digital data are neither immaterial nor only miniscule components of a larger material entity. This perspective adopts a sociomaterial approach drawn from science and technology studies, an interdisciplinary field which has provided a critical stance on media technologies in general, and computerised technologies more specifically … In this literature, the digital data objects that are brought together through digital technologies, including ‘like’ or ‘share’ buttons, individuals’ browser histories, personalised recommendations and comments on social media posts as well as the hardware and software that structure the choices available to users, are assemblages of complex interactions of economic, technological, social and cultural logics (Mackenzie, 2005; Mackenzie and Vurdubakis, 2011; Caplan, 2013; Langois and Elmer, 2013). Representing digital phenomena as objects serves the purpose of acknowledging their existence, effects and power (Marres, 2012; Caplan, 2013; Hands, 2013; Langois and Elmer, 2013).

The cultural and political analysis of computer software is sometimes referred to as software studies. Writers in software studies place an emphasis not on the transmission or reception of messages, as in the old model of communication, but rather have developed a sociomaterial interest in the ways in which acts of computation produce and shape knowledges. Computer coding are positioned as agents in configurations and assemblages (Fuller, 2008), producing what Kitchin and  Dodge (2011) refer to as ‘coded assemblages’. Indeed the pervasive nature of software in everyday life is such that Manovich (2013: no page number given) argues that it has become ‘a universal language, the interface to our imagination and the world’. He contends, therefore, that social researchers should be conceptualising people’s interactions with digital technologies as ‘software performances’ which are constructed and reconstructed in real-time, with the software constantly reacting to the user’s actions.

… Digital data are also positioned as sociomaterial objects in this literature. Whereas many commentators in the popular media, government and business world view digital data as the ultimate forms of truth and accurate knowledge, sociologists and other social theorists have emphasised that these forms of information, like any other type, are socially created and have a social life, a vitality, of their own. Digital data objects structure our concepts of identity, embodiment, relationships, our choices and preferences and even our access to services or spaces.

There are many material aspects to digital data. They are the product of complex decisions, creative ideas, the solving and management of technical problems and marketing efforts on the part of those workers who are involved in producing the materials that create, manage and store these data. They are also the product of the labour of the prosumers who create the data. These are the ‘invisible’ material aspects of digital data (Aslinger and Huntemann, 2013).

Algorithms play an important role in configuring digital data objects. Algorithms measure and sort the users of digital technologies, deciding what choices they may be offered. Digital data objects aggregated together, often from a variety of sources, configure ‘metric assemblages’ (Burrows, 2012) or ‘surveillant assemblages’ (Haggerty and Ericson, 2000) that produce a virtual doppelganger of the user. Algorithms and other elements of software, therefore, are generative, a productive form of power (Mackenzie, 2005; Beer, 2009; Cheney-Lippold, 2011; Mackenzie and Vurdubakis, 2011; boyd and Crawford, 2012; Beer, 2013; Ruppert et al., 2013).

Scholars who have adopted a sociomaterial perspective have also highlighted the tangible physicality of aspects of digital technology manufacture and use. Despite the rhetoric of seamless, proficient operation that so commonly is employed to discuss the internet and ubiquitous computing, the maintenance that supports this operation is messy and contingent, often involving pragmatic compromises negotiations and just-in-time interventions to keep the system working. Geographical, economic, social, political and cultural factors – including such basic requirements as a stable electricity supply and access to a computer network – combine to promote or undermine the workings of digital technologies (Bell, 2006; Bell and Dourish, 2007; Dourish and Bell, 2007; Bell and Dourish, 2011). The materiality of digital hardware becomes very apparent when devices that are no longer required must be disposed of, creating the problem of digital waste (or ‘e-waste’) that often contains toxic materials (Gabrys, 2011; Miller and Horst, 2012).

Given the high turnover of digital devices, their tendency towards fast obsolescence and the fact that they are often replaced every few years in wealthy countries by people seeking the newest technologies and upgrades, vast quantities of digital waste is constantly generated. The vast majority of discarded digital devices end up in landfill. Only a small minority are recycled or reused, and those that are tend to be sent from wealthy to poor countries for scrap and salvaging of components. When they are outmoded and discarded, the once highly desirable, shiny digital devices that were so full of promise when they were purchased simply become another form of rubbish; dirty, unsightly and potentially contaminating pollutants (Gabrys, 2011). The electricity supplies that power digital technologies and digital data storage units themselves have environmental effects on humans and other living things, such as the release of smoke and particles from coal-fired electricity generating plants. ‘The digital is a regime of energies: human energy and the energy needed for technological machines’ (Parikka, 2013: no page given).

The materiality of digital objects is also apparent in debates over how and where digital data should be stored, as they require ever-larger physical structures (servers) for archiving purposes. Despite the metaphor of the computing ‘cloud’, digital data do not hover in the ether but must be contained within hardware. Furthermore, digital data are very difficult to erase or remove, and thus can be very stubbornly material. At the same time, however, if stored too long and not used, they may quickly become obsolete and therefore useless, if contemporary technologies can no longer access and make use of them. Digital data, therefore, may be said to ‘decay’ if left too long, and lost and forgotten, if they are not migrated to new technological formats. Digital memory is volatile because the technologies used to store and access data change so quickly. Analogue materials that are rendered into digital form for archival purposes and then destroyed may therefore be lost if their digital forms can no longer be used (Gabrys, 2011).


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  1. Pingback: URLs of wisdom (6th September) | Social in silico

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