There is a very big mismatch between the public conception of data and what data truly is. As Blanchette writes in “A Material History of Bits”, many of us who do not know the nuts and bolts of the technologies used in our information age see information as immaterial; a misconception that businesses sometimes consciously promote. A very dramatic and easy way to demonstrate this mismatch, a method we used during our class, is by simply google searching “cyberspace” under images, here. These images no doubt come from various popular fictional universes, and one might think this is all just harmless fun. However, Blanchette argues persuasively that these misconceptions can have serious real world consequences. For example, when laws and policies about digital media begin to be formulated on the premise that digital media are somehow immaterial, then these laws and policies are simply based on errors (4-5).
Adopting a material perspective on the internet and networked digital systems gives us a more realistic perspective on them. For example, having a conception of information systems as immaterial can make us draw false conclusions about its risks. The idea that the internet can simply “break” during a bad natural disaster that harms the physical buildings where the internet is maintained is unthinkable if the internet is wholly immaterial, but fairly obvious once one recognizes its materiality. Furthermore, we can better appreciate the consequences that the digital has on the environment when we recognize its materiality. Again, if the digital were immaterial, then it couldn’t possibly have environmental impacts, but given that it isn’t, we have to be mindful about the environmental impacts it does have instead of assuming that the digital is always more environmentally friendly than the analog. Moving forward into the future, there is much interesting work to be done by future engineers to minimize these environmental impacts. While information will never truly be immaterial, we can try our best to make it as seamless as possible. Human ingenuity, coupled with Moore’s law and the new breakthroughs promised by quantum computing, gives us some reasonable hope that we can make progress towards this goal.
Blanchette, Jean-Francois. “A Material History of Bits.” Web. 10 Oct. 2014. http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/blanchette/papers/materiality.pdf
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