The Materiality of Digital Culture
The Materiality of Digital Culture

The Materiality of Digital Culture

It's not as invisible—or as disembodying—as our devices lead us to believe.

Appears in Summer 2021

In the Chinese city of Baotou, there is an artificial lake, composed chiefly of tarry toxic sludge, that may best be described as infernal. Baotou is the economic hub of Inner Mongolia, a Chinese province that shares most of its border with Mongolia. Baotou was a relatively undistinguished industrial city in the mid-twentieth century. By the early 2000s, however, the city’s mining industry was responsible for 45 percent of the global economy’s supply of rare-earth metals, a variety of metals that have become essential components of our twenty-first-century technologies. Rare-earth metals are found in everything from your smartphone to your flatscreen television. They are also used in green technologies such as wind turbines and electric vehicles. In short, they are an indispensable element of modern material culture.

They are also, despite their colloquial designation as “rare-earth” metals, not especially rare. They are, however, difficult to extract. The process yields toxic and poisonous waste products, and this is where the artificial infernal lake comes in. The “lake” is technically a tailings pond. Tailings are the waste materials generated from the process of extracting economically valuable materials from the ore in which they are naturally found. These tailings are piped away from refineries and dumped into what is called, euphemistically one must imagine, a pond. The tailings pond in Baotou is just one of the more notable examples.

In 2015, the journalist and writer Tim Maughan visited Baotou and reported on the toxic lake that is located just a short drive from the city centre. “From where I’m standing,” Maughan wrote, “the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.” Closer to the lake, Maughan went on to describe the scene: “Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.”

Regrettably, this Dantesque landscape is not just a glaring anomaly in an otherwise pristine world of digital technology. Instead, it serves as an apt symbol for a dynamic that works its way through digital culture. There is an evident temptation to imagine that digital media constitutes an immaterial and disembodied realm of human activity. The terminology we’ve used over the years to talk about digital media reflects the compelling nature of this temptation. Virtual reality and cyberspace, for example, both suggest an abstract realm detached from the sphere of things and bodies. Similarly, when we interact on social media, it is too easy to think of our interlocutors as mere avatars existing in an ethereal realm detached from the so-called real world. The problem with digital culture, however, is not that it is, in fact, immaterial and disembodied, but that we have come to think of it is as such.

From this perspective, the tailings pond at Baotou becomes emblematic of a larger cultural delusion. We delight in the ease and efficiency our digital tools bring to daily life. We become enamored of the lightness of being sustained by digital media. And all the while, we imagine this digital realm as something that exists “out there” in an ethereal world of bits and data. Meanwhile, the material infrastructure that makes digital culture possible is built on extractive processes that disfigure and poison the land. The myth of immateriality veils the very real material depredations on which it depends. “After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself,” Maughan concludes, “it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way.” “I cannot forget,” he adds, “that it all begins in a place like Baotou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.”

Again, Baotou’s toxic lake is but a case in point of a pattern that runs through digital culture. Because we never hold a cryptocurrency in hand like we might a coin or bill, we are tempted to conceive of Bitcoin or Ethereum as resources with little or no material footprint. The reality, of course, is that the “mining” operations that certify cryptocurrency transactions and generate new units depend on enormous amounts of computing power, which consumes similarly large amounts of energy. Over the past few years, the energy consumption and resulting carbon emissions of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have surpassed those of countries like Switzerland, Panama, and Jordan.

Over the last several years, much of our digital media has migrated to what came to be known as “the Cloud.” Stacks of CDs and DVDs and CD-ROMs have given way to cloud accounts and streaming services. The old material forms were already examples of digital media. But now that our data is more likely to be stored at distant data centres rather than discs we store at home, it becomes increasingly plausible to imagine the digital sphere as an immaterial realm. The “cloud” metaphor only reinforces the idea of immateriality. But, once more, the truth is more complicated. The cloud is a metaphor for a thoroughly material infrastructure that makes cloud computing possible. Our data exists in massive data centres distributed throughout the world and made up of servers, routers, switches, and miles of cables, as well as redundant power sources, cooling and ventilation systems, and security apparatus. These are in turn connected to the internet by extensive networks of cables and, yes, tubes. This infrastructure includes inter-continental cables that run for thousands of miles along the ocean floor as well as the cables that run to each of our homes—to say nothing of the tangles of wires tucked away in our closets—that make our home wireless networks work (mostly).

And increasingly it seems that the material infrastructure of our digital culture will include countless satellites blanketing even the most remote pars of the earth with high-speed-internet access. The most advanced of these satellite networks is Elon Musk’s Starlink project. Musk’s space company, SpaceX, already has plans to place upwards of 40,000 satellites in orbit. By contrast, since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, around 8,000 satellites have been put into orbit by the various national space agencies. Currently, 952 of the Starlink satellites are already in orbit. They exist in small trains, or “constellations,” of several satellites in proximity and are, for the most part, visible to the naked eye and, much to the dismay of astronomers, interfere with earth-based astronomical observations. In a stroke of rather cruel irony, Starlink satellites threaten to further sever the already tenuous link between modern society and the stars.

In each of these cases, we see how the myth of digital immateriality crumbles upon further scrutiny. Far from being an immaterial medium of human communication, digital media is built on an expansive, sophisticated, and costly material infrastructure that is more often than not removed from our everyday experience and that we are happy to ignore. This pattern holds true when we move from the realm of infrastructure to the realm of the human body. Just as we are tempted to think of the internet as an immaterial medium, so are we likewise tempted to speak about the human experience of digital technology as if it were disembodied. But here, too, it is not that digital media disembodies us as it is that digital media displaces the body, tempting us to act and think as if we were disembodied creatures. In the opening pages of Dependent Rational Animals, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes how certain modern ways of imagining human rationality have a tendency to make us “forgetful of our bodies.” This, I would suggest, is also a temptation embedded in the habits and practices that emerge from our use of digital technology. Of course, digital tools cannot disembody us. But they can render us forgetful of our bodies.

To forget the body is to forget our dependence, our frailty, our limitations. To forget these aspects of our embodiment is also to forget the value, indeed the necessity, of humility, generosity, care, patience, and mercy. Our habituation to these experiences and others like them is what MacIntyre calls “the virtues of acknowledged dependence.” These qualities are, in his view, grounded in a recognition of our limitations and weaknesses as embodied creatures. If digital culture tempts us to forget our bodies, then it may also be prompting us to act as if we were self-sufficient beings with little reason to care for or expect to be cared for by another.

To forget the body is to forget our dependence, our frailty, our limitations. To forget these aspects of our embodiment is also to forget the value, indeed the necessity, of humility, generosity, care, patience, and mercy.

A faulty anthropology underwrites both the kind of forgetfulness of the body MacIntyre diagnosed and certain strands of digital-age ideologies. In the eschatology of some of the still relatively fringe pockets of the transhumanist movement, human beings attain a form of virtual immortality by having their consciousness uploaded onto the cloud. Given that these visions might be properly understood as (post-)Christian fan fiction, it is not altogether insignificant that the cloud metaphor trades on popular depictions of the heavenly realm. From this perspective, the body is an obstacle to be overcome. It is referred to, with evident lack of affection, as our meat sack; it is the prison house of consciousness, if not quite the soul. It’s safe to assume that most of us who use digital technologies do not embrace these techno-gnostic eschatologies, but it is also true that our use of digital media encourages us to live as if the body were merely an unfortunate obstacle to be overcome.

This reality lends a modicum of plausibility to the myth of digital disembodiment. Digital technologies have made telepresence a persistent and pervasive part of our experience. Tele-, as you may remember from some distant middle-school vocabulary lesson, is the Greek root that means “far” or “distant” or “operating at a distance.” Thus a telephone allows us to hear at a distance, the telegraph allows us to write at a distance, and the television allows us to see at a distance. These examples, of course, remind us that telepresence is not an exclusively digital-age phenomenon. It is rather an effect of the speed first achieved by electronic communication. Nonetheless, digital media has suffused our experience with the ever-present possibility of telepresent activity. We do not need to go into the telegraph office or even sit in front of the television in order to communicate with those who are not near us or see what is not before our eyes. In these cases, our immediate experience is disassociated from our bodily presence. But this does not mean that the activities in question are disembodied. In none of these cases do we set our bodies aside, but we are tempted to disregard our bodies and the difference they make. Although, it is worth noting that the sudden deepening of our dependence on digital media over the course of the past year has, in some case, also alerted us to the vital importance of the body. Zoom interactions, however helpful they may have been, turned out to be a poor substitute for the warm embrace of those we love.

The forgetfulness of the body encouraged by the practice of digital media can take any number of forms. At the most basic level it entails a disregard of the body’s needs. Extreme forms of this disregard can be fatal, as when we periodically learn about someone who, having spent x consecutive hours gaming, dies as a consequence. Such events are rare but hardly unheard of. Most of us succumb to more subtle harms. It’s much more common, for example, to fall into unhealthy sleep patterns because we find it difficult to break the doomscrolling spell, a tendency that became especially pronounced during the early months of the pandemic. Along similar lines, researcher Linda Stone many years ago coined the term screen apnea to describe the unwitting tendency to fall into irregular breathing patterns while using the internet. Consider, too, the minor aches and pains that often result from long-term use of digital devices (a problem that, of course, is also common with certain analogue tools) and the lack of physical activity that may result from the digital screen becoming the focal point of work and leisure. In none of these cases can our condition be described as disembodied. Rather, they amount to modes of embodiment that disregard the needs of the body.

Our forgetfulness of the body, however, results not only in potential harms but also in the loss of potential rewards that attend our embodied condition. The philosopher Albert Borgmann, writing in the 1980s, when digital culture was still in its nascent form, argued for the distinction between devices and what he called focal things. The point of the distinction is not that devices are technological and focal things are not. Devices and focal things can both be technological. They differ, however, with regard to the mode of engagement they elicit from those who take them up. In Borgmann’s view, devices are characterized by what he calls their commodiousness. He uses the term both to suggest ease of use and comfort as well as its commodity status. Devices are commodious to the degree that they veil their machinery from view, making them simultaneously easier to use and harder to understand. According to Borgmann, devices excel at making what they offer “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.”

Focal things, on the other hand, ask something of you; they make you work. Borgmann speaks of their having a commanding presence. They don’t easily yield to the desire for ease and convenience. A radio and a musical instrument both produce music, but only one asks something of you in return. Although Borgmann does not make this point explicitly, it is useful to think of the tendency to talk about users or consumers in the case of devices. By contrast, it would be odd to speak about someone who plays a musical instrument as a user. That term does not adequately account for the relationship between the musician and her instrument. Focal things call forth focal practices, which tend to cultivate skills and capabilities.

For Borgmann, focal things draw us into a web of practices and relations. “The experience of a thing,” he writes, “is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world.” And it is the specifically embodied form of engagement that yields a satisfying and enriching experience. Consider the sudden popularity of baking bread that characterized the early months of quarantine in some quarters. Baking bread certainly qualifies as a focal practice in Borgmann’s view. It involves something tangible and requires a modest amount of labour. It demands a degree of patience. One may have to work at it consistently to get it right; and as you cultivate the skill of baking bread, you develop a sense of mastery, with the attendant satisfactions and joys mastery inevitably brings. Devices tend to minimize what is required of users. Their design presumes that satisfaction is achieved by diminishing the involvement of the body. To forget our bodies, then, is to disregard not only its needs but also the rewards that may only be found through our active bodily engagement with the world.

Digital media has suffused our experience with the ever-present possibility of telepresent activity.

Another set of concerns arises when we consider the social consequences of how digital media encourages a forgetfulness of the body and its place as the locus of our engagement with the world and with each other. “To live together in the world,” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition, “means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” Our life together is built on a world of things, which, like a table, gathers and distinguishes us. For Arendt, this world of things that we have in common has a critical psychological and epistemological function. It amounts to an epistemic backstop that keeps us from sliding into pure subjectivism, nihilism, or egoism.

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves,” Arendt argues, “and while the intimacy of a fully developed private life . . . will always greatly intensify and enrich the whole scale of subjective emotions and private feelings, this intensification will always come to pass at the expense of the assurance of the reality of the world and men.” Arendt has in view the presence of others within a particular materially objective context. She goes on to argue that to live an “entirely private life” means that one is “deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things.”

Out of this mutual experience of a common world of things, Arendt believed that what could properly be called “common sense” would arise. By common sense Arendt does not mean trivial and widely held beliefs. Rather, common sense is common because it is the product of the senses working in tandem on a world held in common with others. “Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives,” she writes, “can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.” However, in the modern world, Arendt argues, common sense “became an inner faculty without any world relationship.” “This sense now was called common,” she added, “merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds.”

The primary world most of us now share with others is one that is mediated by digital media. Our awareness of what is happening is shaped by the algorithmically inflected feeds that populate our various devices. There may be much to be gained through this way of apprehending the world, but the cost is great too. Arendt’s fears about the epistemic consequences of the loss of a common world of things were, we now know, well grounded. By abstracting our interactions into a placeless world of symbolic interchange, which generates the conditions of what Jay Bolter has labelled digital plenitude, digital media appears to undermine rather than sustain our capacity to experience a common world, which in turn sustains a common sense. Increasingly, then, we come to believe that we are all occupying altogether different realities.

Here again the dynamic of forgetfulness plays out.

“Physical engagement is not simply physical contact,” Borgmann explains, “but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body.” And here Borgmann points us to a final consideration. Beyond these rather straightforward consequences of forgetting the body, there are other, more elusive moral and spiritual consequences as well. In speaking about the manifold sensibility of the body, Borgmann draws our attention to the capacities of the human senses to connect with the world. Alongside our technologically enhanced sensory apparatus, the unaided human sensorium may appear frail and weak. As Marshall McLuhan put it in the mid-twentieth century, technologies are extensions of our bodily capacities. Put otherwise, technology enters into the circuit that connects our mind to the world through our bodies. They mediate our experience of the world. But McLuhan also provocatively noted that extensions may also be understood as amputations.

In a 1993 talk honouring Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich made a similar observation. “Existence in a society that has become a system,” Illich warned, “finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality.” “Further,” Illich continued, “one is programmed for interactive communication, one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.”

Digital media appears to undermine rather than sustain our capacity to experience a common world, which in turn sustains a common sense.

These are characteristically stark claims coming from Illich, who tended to speak with prophetic directness and urgency. Nonetheless, we would do well to entertain Illich’s warnings. Just as there are dire environmental costs associated with the myth of digital technology’s immaterially, so, too, there are pronounced moral and spiritual costs associated with the myth of disembodiment. The myth suggests either that digital technologies have no particular effect on our bodies or, in a stronger version, that they offer a pathway toward happiness and fulfillment precisely because they allow us, ostensibly, to cast off our bodies. In both cases, they obscure or altogether discredit the idea that the body is the proper nexus of our engagement with the world.

The Christian tradition has historically affirmed the goodness of the material order, including the goodness of the human body. The body is declared good at creation, and its dignity is reaffirmed by the incarnation. Moreover, belief in the bodily resurrection implies that the body is an essential element of the human person. Matters are complicated by how we understand the postlapsarian human condition, but this does not override the fundamental point: we are fundamentally embodied creatures, and our mode of being and the conditions of our flourishing are correlated to our embodied status. Moreover, this suggests a fittingness that obtains between the good life proper to the human animal and the capacities of the human body. I don’t think this implies a prohibition against tools that extend our bodily capabilities, but it does question the wisdom of habitually using tools that tend to atrophy rather than enhance the capabilities of our sensory apparatus.

“We submit ourselves to fantastic degradations of image and sound consumption,” Illich continued with prophetic passion, “in order to anesthetize the pain resulting from having lost reality.” He went on to explain how this shaped his own intellectual project in the latter part of his life: “To grasp this humiliation of sight, smell, touch, and not just hearing, it was necessary for me to study the history of bodily acts of perception.” Illich believed that we need to rediscover modes of perception and a richness of sensory experience, which had been lost to us by our encasement in a human-built world.

Digital culture is not immaterial, and we remain embodied creatures despite what the structures of digital media suggest. As we think about the moral dimensions of digital culture and our obligations to the non-human world, we must attend to the material dimensions of digital culture. And learning what it might mean to remember the body and cultivate our senses may be a critical first step toward a reordering of our experience. We might even find that, in remembering our bodies, we are better able to perceive the glory of God declared by the created order.

Image: An insulated water tank at Google's South Carolina data centre, which can hold up to 900,000 litres of water and is used to cool the centre. Photo courtesy of Google.
L.M. Sacasas
L.M. Sacasas

L.M. Sacasas is associate director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida and author of The Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and society.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?