Material Culture in the Virtual Age
My three-year-old kid loves looking at pictures of herself. Her experience of her own image is similar to what I imagine mine was at that age (complete self adoration), but how she encounters her image is far from familiar. The photographs that absorb her are not the thick paper objects with softly worn corners from my childhood, printed in duplicate, the negative stowed away in an archival box just in case the print became damaged or lost.
I’ve close to memorized the 100 or so images my parents have from my childhood, as well as the order of their appearance across two photo albums. I remember the sticky pages, the glare of the transparent film covering them. I remember the embossed leather detailing on the fore-edge of the covers. The zipping sound they made as I pulled them across and down from the shelf. All these strange qualities are embedded with my memories of lost teeth, summer camp, ballet recitals.
To look at images means something very different for my daughter. She doesn’t know the slow pace or sounds of a flipped-through album, the delicate and awkward posture of gingerly bracing a photo’s edges to avoid smudging its surface. Quite the opposite. While she looks, she rubs her fingers all over, quickly swiping right or left to get the to next, next, next, next next next of the 17,000 “recent” images stored there—everything flashing like a very inelegant and possibly hypnotizing zoetrope.
The images appear magically, fantastically, on-demand. They are very obedient apparitions that give her a brief hit of glee. For her, photos are synonymous with phone. Will the cool weight of this thin brick overlay every memory? I have to imagine yes. And, according to this NYT article by Julia Cho, the immediate playback of documented moments will affect not only how she processes and stores memories, but will also dramatically alter her self perception. Apparitions is right.
Abnormal for geriatric millennials, my husband and I aren’t after a life or a home that’s brimming with tech or immediacy. We aren’t Luddites or sentimentalists, but, left up to our own devices, we’d probably have far fewer. Because of our interest in art, books, and making stuff, we’ve accumulated a more-than-average amount of ephemera (including, yes, several printed photographs, that yes, our daughter has seen and touched). We like to indulge in the physical idiosyncrasies of our surroundings. We have small collections. The reasons are many.
And yet, we still live a contemporary life and are copacetic with many of its trappings. We are people with phones that have become sinkholes, swallowing up the distinct functions of a variety of objects that are now obsolete (“It will do nothing well,” my dad presciently warned of the once-revolutionary printer-scanner-fax combo), and complete experiences—like standing in line at the bank—that used to have routine, commonplace charm.
The point is not merely to share my personal anecdotes and preferences, but to highlight how normalized the screen has become as The Object, and how simultaneously enveloping and reductive an object it is.
In the last twenty years, our world has become one with fewer and fewer opportunities to be an unmediated body with other unmediated bodies. Automation is on the rise, amplifying productivity and displacement alike (MIT has done a lot of math on it). For those of us who have not been replaced by a robot on a factory line, we may yet be learning to act like one. We look and listen constantly, seamlessly reading and assessing, moving our fingers in a narrow choreography of swipes, pinches, and taps.
“From 9–5, I’m just googly eyes and fingertips,” one friend lamented recently. Another friend, the artist Liat Berdugo, turned the succinct gestures required of her iPhone and iPad into a piece of video artwork, illustrating just how bizarre these dexterities are, and how untranslatable they are to the world of things (see especially her piece “Make it Bigger”).
I’m using hyperbole to make a statement, of course, but also because hyperbole seems to be the prevailing condition of these devices that allow us to sit comfortably siloed and loud. We’ve given so much to these technologies, bid adieu to valuable others. The transitions have sometimes been by choice and a touch of complacency, sometimes out of desire and intrigue, much in response to what are now considered necessary norms. Often, they’ve felt invisible, disembodied.
So what do we lose when we leave objects behind?
Material culture scholars would say a lot—and, the losses are not only ours, they’re future generations’ too. Material culture is a field within sociology that looks closely at human-made objects—garments, tools, documents, decorative pieces, architecture—and draws analyses from the physical qualities of their construction, the significance of their use and circulation, and any accumulated marks or signs of wear they’ve come to bear over time.
It’s a fascinating field of study where frayed fiber, a tarnished bronze earring, a porcelain coffee set, or a stitched cotton sack are regarded as data-laden evidence drawing up a much larger narrative. In the field, these instructive everyday objects are called realia.
You don’t have to be an archaeologist, anthropologist, or academic to appreciate how this works. In the short term—a few years to a few decades—certain objects, like souvenirs or heirlooms, may steep with personal value, provoking nostalgia and reminding us of loved ones, places, or experiences. In the long term, those same objects, and others far more quotidian, may serve as the only existing record of a group of people and how they lived.
Sometimes objects communicate more directly than others—vinyl records and film negatives are a good example here of objects whose contents can be accessed, if not made legible, across time and cultural differences through simple physical manipulation and the aid of basic elements like light.
Material culture holds the word “matter” accountable to its multiple meanings: matter is all at once a descriptor of the physical substance of all things, as well as an indication of value, purpose, vitality. Matter takes up space and changes it. Objects create friction, and friction is generative. The material world’s various qualities and quirks—designed for utility, enjoyment, neither, or both—mimic those of our own bumbling bodies. That love my daughter feels when she recognizes herself in an image, that can happen with objects also, often in deeper and more complex ways. “We are stardust / we are golden,” Joni Mitchell sings.
It should come as no surprise that at OneClock we are keenly invested in this conversation. We pulled the clock out of the screen because we think materiality has its own tremendous intelligence. We believe that there is a whole world of information and experience that exists by and through tactility and touch—that these attributes are what binds us to ourselves, our days, each other.
Maybe one day the memory of morning will for some be utterly inseparable from OneClock’s warm white oak face and the particular click of its knobs. Maybe one day this timepiece will be stowed in a great-grandchild’s box of curious antiquities. Maybe still singing its songs. We hope so.