Time(s) and materiality of the Internet discussed at IR16 Phoenix / Part 2

Old Thinkpad with 3Com Ethernet / modem PCMCIA card sticking out Jim Henderson, travail personnel. CC0

Old Thinkpad with 3Com Ethernet / modem PCMCIA card sticking out
Jim Henderson, travail personnel, CC0

The second panel, “Material”, held on Thursday 23 October, provided some very interesting perspectives on the ‘mundane’ devices that are such an integral part of how we interact with, and indeed, define, our relation to the digital. James Allen-Robertson (University of Essex, UK) focused on the Hard Disk drive as a material foundation for contemporary digital media, providing a historical perspective drawing elements from the development of the Gramophone and Phonograph, Magnetic Tape and Optical Media – a perspective that leveraged Foucault’s concept of ‘descent’ to provide a historical perspective on the way in which fundamental material factors constrain, influence and encourage particular uses of digital media. In the case of the Hard Disk, according to Allen-Robertson, the descent demonstrates how this device’s operation plays a role in the affordances of digital media and how these affordances are prefigured in older media technologies. In his piece “Singing Data Over the Phone”, Kevin Driscoll (Microsoft Research) focused on the modem instead, as a “singularly powerful symbol of late-20th century personal computer networking”. Operating at the junction of computing and communication, he argued, the modem was a device that both defined and defied boundaries during the early history of the net. First, during the period of rapid deregulation of U.S. telecommunications during the 1970s, when modems enabled thousands of microcomputer enthusiasts to exchange data and ideas over standard telephone wires. Second, as PC ownership grew more commonplace during the 1980s, when the modem became a mark of distinction, differentiating the everyday home computer owner from the small but growing telecomputing vanguard. As “a meeting point between the novel and legacy systems of personal computing and telephony”, at the intersection of “virtual and translocal imaginaires”, the modem, Driscoll argued, is deserving of a “social history” of its own. Lindsay Ems, from Butler University, presented an ethnography-based analysis of the socio-technical innovations, including professional artifacts and arrangements, which reflect and protect Amish religious and cultural values in our increasingly digital economy. Wireless ad-hoc arrangements, double screens, were presented as mundane and everyday devices and professional practices that have profound political implications for the empowerment of Amish communities to resist the assimilation of their culture in mainstream society in an increasingly globally networked world. In her award-winning paper “The Digital Not-so-imaginary Behind Genderless Online Discourse”, Jenny Korn adopted a perspective grounded in muted group theory and analytical feminism to examine online discourse within users of the first generalized computer-assisted instruction system in the United States, PLATO. She explored how gender manifested within computer-mediated communication in PLATO as an early originator of online social computing. She exposed gendered muting processes that have persisted from that time, and showed that to attain voice, women have had to present themselves in stereotypical ways that are aligned with men’s discourse.

Francesca Musiani (ISCC)