What do you touch most everyday? Your face? Your hair? Someone else? Coffee cup? Door handle? Keyboard and screen? A lot of our social, leisure and work lives were conducted digitally before lockdown and now it seems nearly all of it is. Now imagine each digital element was tangible. How much does a click ‘weigh’? What’s the mass of a like? How much momentum does your tweet have? What’s the force of an insta? The calorific value of an email?
The question I have been dicing with during lockdown is how the digital is tangible as a physical force. It has been estimated that the internet weighs between 6 micrograms 60 grams depending on how many electrons are factored into the calculation. Rather than being this literal – what energy does it consume – I think of it in reverse. How much of your energy does it consume. What physical properties does it imbue in the user? Marshal McLuhan noted that watching television was a physical experience. A person watching it has their metabolism change, their brain changes to devote more resources to the bright little square in the visual field. The digital also rearranges selves, demands devotion, shifts sleep cycles, changes appetite.
The question matters for how we apply digital methods. As we recognise the digital as material this helps us examine how it has effects as a set of social things. Digital systems stabilise some realities and destabilise others. The design of digital platforms makes the social tangible in ways that we can examine. In a way this just brings us back to the original questions of sociology – what is artificial, what is natural, what is social and how do real things have real effects. We have never been without technology, from the cooking pot to the lifestyle pharmaceutical. Technologies order life. Now we can examine how sociality incorporates computational effects, the touch of the algorithm.
We already deal with this materiality in many ways. A spreadsheet has material effects. Double entry bookkeeping brought us modern capitalism. Lotus 1-2-3 brought us predictive capitalism. Lenonardi identifies that as the effective production (‘the practical instantiation’) of theoretical ideas. Software creates capacities for action and constraints on it as any technology does. One of the effects I have noticed in digital drug dealing is how it reworks the experience of waiting. Social time is a comprehensible, graspable form of sociality which is currently overwhelmed and articulated by machine time, by the nanoseconds of algorithmic calculation. Drug buyers’ discussion of waiting – waiting for a dealer to respond via the market system, waiting on the postal service to deliver the drugs they want – put social time back in. I noticed how often concepts of dopesickness – drug withdrawal – were showing up in the same discussions as references to time and waiting. The obdurate waiting times dictated by the delivery infrastructure, such as shipment times, and by the market infrastructure, such as the time for bitcoin payment to clear and an order to be confirmed, were endured. Waiting because the dealer keeps you waiting is not endurable. Users who perceive indifference on the dealers’ part then find time is experienced more harshly. Dopesickness becomes more painful, and anxiety grows. One reason for that is that the user is concerned that the drug may not arrive at all. That feature of the infrastructure then changes the texture of dope time for the user. It reminds them that the power in the relationship fundamentally lies with the dealer. The user worries that they may be thrown back on an unreliable face to face market, or have to go without. Time waiting becomes physical. The drug market system produces a physical response. System users experience the system as touching them.
The example I have used here shows how digital systems have matter. They are not only communicative but have force, weight on the world. It needn’t surprise us that the weight lies on those already marginalised (Noble, 2018).
Leonardi PM (2010) Digital materiality? How artifacts without matter, matter. First Monday. DOI: 10.5210/fm.v15i6.3036.
Noble SU (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press.