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Dematerializing Digital Objects: Denial, Decay, Detritus and Other Matters of Fact

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posted on 23.05.2021, 16:42 authored by Eva J. Nesselroth-Woyzbun
We know little about the materials that constitute the digital devices we use every day, from where those materials are derived, or where they will go when we discard them. Through a variety of means, digital devices are “dematerialized.” That is, a digital object’s material components are denied and concealed by complex cultural and economic practices that support a myth of immaterial and ubiquitous computing without material consequences. Since the early days of digital computing, designers have striven to design devices that are smaller, better, denser, and faster. These traits are framed as ideals against which new products are measured and they have encouraged a desire for ubiquitous, imperceptible integration of digital computing at all levels of modern life. This dissertation argues that the digital object is dematerialized and that this pervasive reduction of the physical object and our very awareness of the physicality of digital materials inhibits our ability to support awareness of the material limits and often detrimental impacts of digital devices. However, the material nature of the digital object may be more apparent after an object is rendered obsolete. Drawing from media archaeology, thing theory, and material culture studies, this dissertation examines a few “afterlives” of digital objects because it is only after its useful life that the object’s materiality takes on transformative powers. For example, when discarded, its physical properties become problematic and may be framed as an environmental issue. Or, when treated as a material artifact in a museum the digital object resists historicity, and when saved as a memento it may take on unexpected nostalgic power. I argue that it is precisely the dematerialized aspects of the informatic media that have created the situation of ‘e-waste’ and it is through a new consciousness of their materiality that we might think about how these technologies evolve and occupy space in the future.





Doctor of Philosophy


Communication and Culture

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type