Vibration: expression of human-material-digital systems

Everyday urban object

Over a third of humanity has access to mobile communications. Mobile phones are mainstream – visibly part of the cultural realm. Whilst connectivity is commonplace and expanding, inquiry into the place of these personal digital devices in cultural transformation, and in arts and design education, is in its early stage. At CSM we have already seen incremental shifts in some of the ways in which our students are using personal digital technologies and social media as part of their studies, and their use of these technologies will continue to change.

In order to gain insights about today’s relationships between people, digital technologies, and materials – within an art and design context – and to prepare ourselves for possible futures, it is worth exploring different ways of framing these associations.

The convergence of the material and digital worlds, and their relationships to people, is often evident in mundane office meetings. This familiar setting will find university colleagues seated around a table, notebooks and tablet computers on display, perhaps joined by a few glasses of water and an odd take-away latte. Central to this scene will be at least one mobile phone placed alongside these other objects. The phone will be set to silent mode – poised to receive an email or text, and to signal any arrival through vibration.

The act of vibrating can be seen as an expression of increasingly complex human-material-digital systems; all the objects on the table, including our own hands and forearms, ‘feel’ the moment of connection between the virtual and physical worlds. The vibration signals that each thing is part of a network, and as such, a thing could be defined as being part of ever-shifting and fleeting relational systems, not as objects or actors in isolation.

Table with commonly present artefacts

The notion of objects being actors with agency, and operating as part of a network alongside people, is a central premise of Actor Network Theory (ANT) and is a useful way of framing human relationships with objects and technologies. Daniel Miller also addresses the association when he writes ‘to think of relationships between people and objects as being mutual constitution is to think of material culture as having an agency all of its own’, thus perceiving material objects as having forms of power.

People are constructed by their material world, but often they themselves are not agents behind that material world through which they must live.

Daniel Miller 2010: 84

However, often a picture is painted of a material world made of silent or invisible objects that are infused with power, but that go largely unnoticed – unless they cause disruption, eg as a result of malfunction, or perhaps they carry a sentimental attachment. The idea of the invisible or silent object is largely inappropriate or unrecognisable for designers and makers, who are alert to artefacts in their environments in multiple ways; for research and critique of trends, materials, and surface designs, or for estimating production costs, exploring mechanics and interaction design, and so forth. In addition, they are mostly concerned with the creation of new forms of objects, and therefore are more likely to have agency within the material world they inhabit – another reason why many artists and designers will have have a heightened state of awareness of the everyday objects they habitually encounter.

Everyday artefacts - unexceptional?

If we see the notion of a mutual constitution as useful, and perceive ANT as a theory/toolkit of value when researching our relationships with digital technologies, what additional tools/theories might we need to explore materiality, and how the role of the artist and designer* is framed within these dynamic networks?


* for whom objects do not go unnoticed, and who do have agency in the material environment.