Materiality and Qualities (A Prelude to Next Week)

In both major readings for next week’s class, the concept of “materiality” looms large.

In Lowgren & Stolterman, the first several pages talk about materiality–for instance, the notion that a carpenter knows that wood (his material) has special characteristics or “qualities”: wood can be cut into useful pieces (i.e., it can be shaped) but it also has other qualities that are less desirable (it rots; it burns). They go on to suggest that unlike wood or stone, digital artifacts could be considered materials without qualities which makes it a very special kind of material.

Manovich, on p.10, characterizes the method of his whole book as “digital materialism.” (NOTE: Good readers love it when an author comes right out and tells you her or his method up front, so underline, star, read, and reread those paragraphs, because they are important.) Manovich seems to disagree with Lowgren and Stolterman on the question of whether digital artifacts have qualities. He asserts that they do: namely, (a) the principles of computer hardware and software and (b) the operations (i.e., the sequences of tasks that users must follow) used to create cultural objects on a computer.

Clearly, understanding the digital interface as a “material” with “qualities” is going to be very important in our ability to design a language of interaction design. What are some of the material qualities of the digital interfaces you use?

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