Not ready for prime time–initial thoughts on digital materiality

As I explored different web-based conversations on digital materiality, I was pleasantly surprised to come across the Materiality for Participation Workshop sponsored by the Noridc organization NordiCHI, a “forum for human-computer interaction research” according to the organizations Website (NordiCHI 2012).   I came across the workshop and call for papers at the Universal Usability and Interaction Design blog, which, although very interesting, did not include a focus on access–something I had expected.  What are the relationships between digital materiality and access–accessibility?

Mathew Krichenbaum notes that “science, in other words, can articulate the exact threshold between the material and the immaterial.”  About our awareness of this distinction Krichenbaum cites Michael Heim’s “technology sublime,” users of digital technology “look through the interface unaware.”  I wonder if people with disabilities, including myself, experience diminished or perhaps a different type of sublimity in that our bodies and digital materiality shape one another in ways that demand attention–more of a focus on the relationship between the material and immaterial.  This thinking reminded me of affect theory, but, as usual, that is a thought for a different post.  As I allowed my ADHD to lead my exploration of digital materiality, I bumped into “Material Skeuomorphism and the Relationship of Form to Function” by Shad Gross.  When Gross discusses the spactiality of Google’s calendar as a skeuomprphism (He explains as skeuomprphism as, “holdovers from previous material construction requirements of an artifact, for example building facades in concrete that maintain stylistic aspects that were required by marble or wood.”) I was reminded of the many times I have tired to imagine the materiality of the digital tools I use, including Google calendars, because when I or my students encounter access challenges I almost always  try to discuss–well, what I really mean is explain–the challenges as a ramp metaphor.  This is an example of the metaphor: “When my student with dyslexia cannot read a low resolution PDF in a spotty sans serif font, it means that he cannot access the text.  We need ramps to make buildings accessible, and we need to understand that poor quality PDFs are like buildings without ramps–inaccessible to some of our students.”  All this to say, is my metaphor a of the physical ramp a skeuomprphism when I use it in the digital world?  I don’t know.

This line of thinking takes me back to Krichenbaum and his comments on medial.  Our class readings have me thinking about the discourse on mind/body separation in 17th and 18th Century Britain and how the rhetoric of digital materiality seems rooted in this discourse.  I want to explore what people in the field of composition and rhetoric studies have understood  as a distinction and blurring between writing as product or process and how that binary seems related to digital materiality.  These thoughts are starting places for me as I reread this week’s readings.  Even using the phrase “prime time” in my title for this post has me wondering how the notion of “prime time” functions in digital materiality–that is how time signifies in the material and immaterial.

You can read more about the Materiality for Participation Workshop at the following url:

3 Responses to Not ready for prime time–initial thoughts on digital materiality

  1. Mikayla Zagoria-Moffet November 12, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Hey Dale,

    I love the quote that you pulled out about the “ramp”– but I do question the idea of using the metaphor of ramp for disability/differently-abledness. I feel as though there are certain images or associations with disability or difference as a whole, and the fact that many people (myself included) have invisible differences or disabilities means that many are alienated by associating with these extremely physical and visibly-identifiable markers of ability. I wonder if using metaphors like this, with metaphors for the *seen* difference in our society, further damages, alienates, or isolates those with unseen differences, challenges, or disabilities. For example, I had the choice (well, sort of) to visually “mark” my disability by using a cane…something I could get around without, if I chose to risk the occasional fall for keeping up appearances. (As ridiculous as that sounds, it is something I have done in the past in order to keep my difference unseen and unquestioned by others.) That being said, my ability to get around is now greatly improved by my “marker” in that I can be more active, but also because people are (generally/ sometimes/etc.) willing to help make accommodations for me because of my physical marker.

    Like you, I question the ramp metaphor, but I don’t know if it is for the same reason or different ones. I do really appreciate the message behind this metaphor: that we need to be aware and proactive in terms of difference in our classrooms and be able to accommodate different needs to the best of our abilities.

    This is a really interesting read of materiality and immateriality in the digital world and something I’d love to discuss further.

  2. Dale Ireland November 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Mikayla, making visible the invisible offers challenges and opportunities. As someone with invisible learning disabilities and physical disabilities, I share your concern about the ramp metaphor for the same reasons you ,mentioned, this I mentioned, and others I did not include in my post. What interests me regarding our reading is how binary functions in our readings and discourse about digital materiality. Let’s chat more during lunch today. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response.

  3. Dale Katherine Ireland November 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Hi Mikayla,

    I think that I understand ramps differently than some. I understand ramps as creating access for invisible and visible differences or disabilities–not privileging one over the other. Because the ramp metaphor applies to invisible and visible differences or disabilities it seems more of a metaphor for access than it does for “*seen* difference.”

    I would like to shift the rhetoric surrounding difference/disability from accommodation to accessibility, which seems a core value of the DHers. “Accommodation,” in an educational setting, suggests one is accommodating another (there seems an odd implicit hierarchy in the word, e.g., it’s given if reasonable), whereas accessibility disrupts the legal discourse surrounding accessibility and encourages us to focus on accessibility for all because all our students need access to one another, the curriculum, and to faculty. So often accommodations in education focus on the curriculum and not access to other students in the class.

    DH and materiality–and the perception of the non-material beyond the screen–privileges ableism. Those of us who use devices for access might experience DH materiality differently than others. There was little discussion of this in our readings.

    I am going back to reread some sections in _Debates in the Digital Humanities_ because I think I will find useful thinking there on access and materiality. Thank you so much for responding to my post. Your insightful comments invited me push my thinking along–a most useful gift, Mikayla!

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