More than tools: making meaning from digital stuff
Digital artifacts have meaning only when we interact with them - yet our interactions with them are surprisingly limited.
You’re reading DisAssemble, a biweekly philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products.
More than thirty years ago French theorist Jean Baudrillard said that photography was a:
‘contest between the will of the subject to impose order, a point of view, and the will of the object to impose itself in its discontinuity and momentariness.'
This idea resonates well beyond photography. Imagine Baudrillard’s ‘subject’ as a user and his ‘object’ as an interface.
A digital interface has a sort of will to be of the present, to exist on its own terms. On its own an interface isn’t an accumulative repository of personal meaning, it is a blank slate defined by the moment. We, as 'users', attempt to integrate this momentary interface into the continuity of our lives, into signs that mean things to us. But this meaning can only emerge if an interface is able to be integrated into the sinews of our intentions and memories.
This is what I suggested in the last newsletter. We interact with digital interfaces with intent. Every time we act upon this intent and interact with an interface, we leave a sort of mark. That mark then acts as a memory signifier. So, when we come back to an interface, say a browser tab with a Google search, or an Excel doc with some numbers inputted into it, we - more often than not - recall what we were doing and thinking.
This embedded memory not only reminds us that we were engaging with a particular digital interface, but also why a particular personal circumstance necessitated engaging in that digital interface.
Each time you write a message on Slack, or save a song in Spotify, there is 'meaning': I did [interaction] because [reason]. Even adjustments to digital spaces creates meaning. Move a window and a sort of internal query may be triggered when you see it again - "why is this window there?"
Certainly this isn’t a requirement for us to get meaning from digital objects. We can inscribe broad societal meanings to devices, software, interfaces and so on. But for them to have personal meaning, for them to carry meanings about our intent, we nearly always have to make a kind of ‘mark’ on them through spatial, structural or representational changes.
Of course, this isn’t only true of digital objects - placing your keys near the door is an example of you reminding yourself to take your keys (through what’s known as an epistemic action). But the digital world is fundamentally different from the analog world because of its potential for near infinite flexibility in how it can be manipulated.
The problem is that we aren't offered very much in the way of helping to create this digitally embedded memory because there isn't an inherent interest in affording this aspect. As per Baudrillard, our subjective desire to order the digital object within the continuity of our lives is resisted. Despite digital interfaces being inherently flexible, they are remarkably parameterised in the ways that they can be manipulated.
In other words, digital interfaces are territorialised - to use a Deleuzian term - by software companies to such a degree that it leaves us unable to 'make our mark' on them. Territorialisation, in the words of Manuel DeLanda is "the extent to which [something’s] defining boundaries have been delineated and made impermeable". Capitalism tends toward territorialisation (or reterritorialisation).
This territorialisation follows from a perception of purpose: software is seen as instrumental. That is, it's viewed as a route to a goal, not an artifact that gets inscribed with meaning. And this goal is more often than not a business goal - not a user goal: to get users to engage and spend money.
Digital artifacts (I use ‘artifiact’ instead of ‘object’) are so territorialised, it can be difficult to make your mark on them and draw them into yourself, into the assemblage of memories & meaning that is you, distributed throughout your environment. Software is part of corporations’ assemblages, not yours, despite how intertwined with your life it may be.
Above, I suggested that if you were to move a window on your PC around for some reason, it would generate meaning for you. But what if you could annotate a window, of file it away, or re-interpret as something else entirely? Or take bookmarks, which I’ve discussed in previous newsletters. They haven’t afforded any type of new capacity in 25 years, yet they are essentially - or were supposed to be - our embedded ‘memories’ of websites. What we can do with these embedded memories has not changed, despite technology advancing in leaps and bounds.
This limitation of meaning-making affordance is especially true of social media, which essentially and primarily acts as a feed. Feeds ( ‘food’) are literally consumed. Feeds are not meant to have continuity - they are meant to be continuous. Feeds are composed of discrete items, yes, but they are part of an incessant accumulation of discrete items. Imposing a point of view on a treadmill of discrete, likely unrelated items is...difficult to say the least.
Like Baudrillard’s photographer, the feed user (consumer?) must wrestle with momentariness and discontinuity. Philosopher Fredric Jameson saw this 30 years ago, he suggested we were “reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.”
Of course this ‘feed’ nature is not limited to social media; digital platforms of all sorts seek to become channels for incessant consumption - often with as little conscious awareness on the part of the user as possible.
In this podcast Anna Wiener, author of Silicon Valley exposé Uncanny Valley, describes Spotify as a kind of white noise.
“I often listen to music in the same way music plays in the back of an advertisement - you don’t really notice it, ”she says.
Spotify wants to be a feed, not an empowering, meaning-making series of artifacts. Songs play incessantly. When an album finishes a related artist plays. The platform is focussed on feeding the user a constant stream of music, not on getting a user to think about the music (e.g. about the genre) or about getting meaning from it by making a mark on it through some sort of interaction (other than ‘likes’ - which can further sculpt the feed for the user).
Spotify wants to be a background soundtrack to your activities, something to complement your mood. It wants to be a ubiquitous, non-signifier that is not an object of focus or attention. Music itself is reterritorialised as a product to be consumed in a very specific way.
But enough with the pomo theory! Practically, how could the user ‘make their mark’ on a digital artifact, and incorporate it into themselves, creating meaning and embedded memories? Here's some ways to consider, courtesy of information architect Karl Fast:
Annotating: drawing, scribbling, or otherwise creating your own representations on digital artifacts.
Chunking: grouping independent elements of digital artifacts
Cloning: making exact replicas of digital artifacts
Collecting: saving digital artifacts for future use
Composing: creating new digital artifacts from existing ones
Filtering: exposing or concealing elements of digital artifacts
Rearranging: changing the spatial order of digital artifacts
Repicturing: adjusting the representational qualities or properties of digital artifacts
You do many of these often, but rarely all of them on any one artifact. You can copy and paste many elements of text, but it's more challenging to do that for a full webpage. You can filter elements in Excel, but it's difficult to do that with social media posts. You can rearrange windows, but it's more difficult to annotate a window. There are ways you can use workarounds to roughly achieve these goals with some effort - but importantly, they are not afforded easily due to how software is territorialised.
If manipulation is the cornerstone of meaning for digital artifacts, why are we so limited in these capacities? It starts with our conceptualisation - this forms the foundation for the territorialisation. We see digital in practical, instrumental terms rather than through the prism of meaning and memory. This parochial perspective manifests in the affordances of interfaces.
Maybe we are fine with this status quo. Maybe we just want objects to be territorialised by corporations, devoid of meaning for us?
I’m not that pessimistic.
So, a suggestion if you are a ‘user’ and a request if you are a designer: how can you utilise/design the above actions to enable meaning and memory-making?