Allen-Robertson, J. (2015). The materiality of digital media: The hard disk drive, phonograph, magnetic tape and optical media in technical close-up. New Media and Society, Fall 2015.
Allen-Robertson examines the ways that digital media’s affordances (particularly the hard drive, gramophone, magnetic tape and optical media) are a product of the “interplay of both formal and forensic materiality” so as to re-infuse the materialist approach to digital media studies.
Allen-Robertson notes that in previous media, the substrate (underlying substance or material, such as papyrus, stone, CD, cassette tape) has been dominant in the means of constructing a message. An awareness of this substrate as information has moved to digital spaces has been challenged, yet is no less impactful than earlier substrate. To obscure the effect this material nature of digitality has is to revert back to ignoring the considerable ethical consequences of materiality (Carlile et al., 2013) and denies the media its inherent agentic qualities.
Allen-Roberston uses a media archaeology approach to re-situate the materiality of the digital in the lineage of all media. He claims Foucault as a foundation to this work archaeological work (his archaeology of knowledge and the genealogical method), highlighting ‘descent’ as a anarchic conceptual tool for this research. Further, he borrows from German media theory scholars, such as Kittler, the term ‘descent’ to describe his deep dive into the technology itself with a new materialistic point of view. To round out the materialist view, he takes from Hutchby’s (2001) theory of affordances and uses that to craft a “sociomaterial constellation” that recognizes the co-constituent role of material and social on the impact of a technology. He applies these theories to case studies around particular media artifacts.
One exciting feature of Allen-Robertson’s work is that he directly notes the agential possibilities of challenging false dichotomies of subject/object and acknowledge that objects “both shape our activity and influence our opportunities to act” (p. 3).
Allen-Roberston fits almost squarely into my intended research. He’s asking my question, but adds nuances to the question that I hadn’t considered.
When he examines the hard drive, for example, he deeply describes the material nature of the hard drive disk and proves that what audiences perceive as immaterially digital are actually relying solely on material realities. He notes that “the replicability, speed and density of the digital world are reliant upon the interplay between the forensic and formal materialiities of the devices upon which that code persists” (p. 8).
Allen-Robertson then turns his attention to the gramophone and phonograph—the first devices to record and reproduce sound (of the mid-to-late-1800s). He details the substrate of both devices, ultimately seeking to prove that taking a materialistic analytical point of view shows a far closer relationship between historical devices (gramophone and phonograph) and contemporary devices (the hard disk drive)—e.g., the rotating platter and a read/write head, magnetic tapes added complexity of sound fidelity, and compact discs inscriptions shifting to lasers for precision.
Ultimately, Allen-Robertson proves, through a media archaeological approach to four case studies, that the affordances we perceive in digital media are a product of a complex interplay between forensic (referring to the mechanical operation and the physical substrate of the media) and formal (logical organizational structure that relies on and supports the forensic form) materialities. His call to action is to continue acknowledging the material realities that “afford and restrict the standards we establish, the practices we develop and the types of information we can store” (p. 10). The false division between physical and digital doesn’t help us to fully appreciate the factors that play into the media that carries our messages.
In fact, to avoid the misleading names we often ascribe to contemporary media, Allen-Robertson more accurately describes our age as “digitally encoded, magnetically inscribed, highly rationalized, addresses, algorithmically approximated, nanoscale media” (p. 10). That may not roll off the tongue so easily, but he’d say it’s at least accurate in its materialistic description of the age we’re in. This more accurate describe may just help us examine the agencies made possible via the power structures engineered by our devices. Finally, since our technologies drive our metaphors for society so powerfully, Allen-Robertson sees this materialistic foundation for the description of media as important for new metaphor construction.