Materiality of Digital Environments

Virve Peteri
Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, University of Edinburgh
Jari Luomanen
School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere
Pertti Alasuutari
School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere

Digitalization has created increasing dematerialization of cultural artefacts. Partly because of the dematerialization process the materiality of media artefacts continues to be a theme rarely addressed and therefore remains rather underdeveloped. Our paper aims to show how the dematerialization of cultural artefacts does not inevitably mean less significance for materiality. Rather, new technologies have stimulated new material practices. The main idea presented in this paper is that new cultural and social processes set forth by new technologies cannot be understood without examining the co-existence of different forms of media artefacts and spatial settings. This article contributes to the understanding of the changing cultural places of material artefacts particularly in the context of domestic leisure. The paper presents observations based on an empirical analysis of qualitative interview data collected in different parts of Finland 2001-2003, 2006-2007 and 2009-2010. The analytic approach is drawn from actor-network theory.

Introduction

In Finland a new defence minister was elected in June 2012. At that time it was revealed that he had not gone through the Finnish compulsory military service. This gained some attention in the media and eventually he warded off any accusations of being a coward or a free rider by telling that he has a rare medical condition that has rendered him unable to carry out this duty. On top of this he also emphasized that this was always difficult for him to cope with, that it was a blow against his masculinity. According to him, despite this he has always had a strong commitment to defend the country. He goes on to say that “I have two meters worth of Mannerheim books on my bookshelf” (Aamulehti 2012).

In this context, what significance does this account have? What motivates such a seemingly unrelated remark? Even though it has been argued that materiality has lost significance due to digital convergence, in this article we argue that materiality is still an important factor in the current media landscape. The digitalization of various contents has created increasing dematerialization of cultural artefacts and consumer goods (see e.g. Chandler & Neumark 2005, 61; Dunne 2006; Mitchell 2004). These changes have understandably transformed the role of materiality of media and that of a user of media contents. However, partly because of the dematerialization process the materiality of media artefacts continues to be a theme rarely addressed and has therefore remained rather underdeveloped (Doorn 2011, 533).

As dematerialization is discussed in research literature, it is mostly seen as a feature of technology, as a changing design concept and an invitation to construct future possibilities. Dematerialization is used as a rhetorical device, as a means to justify various future design concepts and scenarios. In these texts agency is mostly ascribed to designers, engineers and experts. Less so it is given to lay people in mundane contexts. The perspective of the day-to-day uses remains understudied as the emphasis is laid on the future. In this article we will illustrate how media related material artefacts as a part of everyday life still have significance as they represent a strong cultural resource that signifies a long term commitment and authenticity. This empirical finding about the significance of media related artefacts is a recurrent feature of the data used in this article. We did not specifically ask about this as this was not originally a part of the research. In fact, this whole article was borne out of our intrigue over these accounts where people remarked – in a similar fashion as our new defence minister – that “I have it in my bookshelf”. These remarks surfaced spontaneously in the interview.

Our article contributes to bringing new viewpoints into the conversation on dematerialization. As digitalization doesn’t necessarily mean that material objects have less meaning (Magaudda 2011) it is curious that dematerialization and digitalization of artefacts have not been analysed from the viewpoints of the meanings of material practices in domestic settings. Therefore there is a real need for an elaborate analysis of how users’ add meanings to their existing and emerging material practices related to Internet use. In this article we approach this phenomenon through the analysis of accounts where people mention various artefacts and their placement on their bookshelves. Our specific contribution in this article is to develop a viewpoint that draws analytic ideas from actor-network theory (see Latour 2005) to analysing these material practices.

New cultural and social processes set forth by new technologies cannot be understood without examining the co-existence of different forms of media artefacts and spatial settings. This article examines the sense making related to the uses of these objects and thus contributes to the understanding of the changing cultural places of material artefacts particularly in the context of domestic leisure. This paper also presents the Internet and media artefacts as discursive resources that facilitate accounts about genuine long-term interests and authenticity of media use and also shows how both users and artefacts gain meanings in relation to each other. In particular, we present the following four categories of media use that renew and maintain the significance of materiality:

  1. Hobbyist collecting
  2. Creating a life narrative
  3. Display of cultural competence
  4. Digital archiving

Each of these categories represent meanings given to artefact collecting and display. Clearly, they do not exist in isolation but overlap each other. They are not novel but carry on meanings that have existed well before digital convergence and the process of dematerialization. They are, in fact, constellations of values, moralities and routinized action we have internalized as members of contemporary culture. They are not stable, however, but change as the media landscape changes: our article shows how the evolution of digital contents also heralds the change in the meanings of material artefacts.

This article first examines materialist studies on media use and then introduces the data and the methods used. Then we present the analysis of the categories arising from our data. In conclusion, we will relate the results of our empirical analysis to a broader context of the present day media use.

Materialist studies on media use

David Morley has argued – already in the mid 1990’s – that it is of most importance to recognize the fact that media are also material artefacts that are located at home (Morley, 1995). An important body of work on domestication of media technologies has emerged ever since and these studies have proved the importance of materiality and the arrangement of domestic spaces as elements that shape the ways people interpret media technologies. (see e.g. Bakardjieva 2005; Berker, Hartmann, Punie & Ward 2006; Gray 1992; Leal 1990; Moores 1996; Morley 1986; Morley 2000; Peteri 2006; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992; Silverstone 1994). At present new media theory acknowledges media objects as performative rather than just passive, but there is a broader tradition within science and technology studies that is even more concerned with how relations between artefacts, discourses and practices are co-ordinated (Hand 2008). One signal of the fact that the materiality of media still continues to be a theme that is seldom considered among media studies is David Morley having to repeat his plea almost 20 years later by proposing “a materialist, non-media-centric studies” which acknowledges “the changing relations between the material and the virtual realms of communications” and avoids the simplistic divides between the “old” and “new” media (Morley 2009, 115).

The studies on domestication and popularization of The Internet or the computer in general have managed to reveal how “virtual” practices don’t exist apart from the everyday material practices (e.g. Bakardjieva 2005; 2006; Lally 2002; Morley 2000; Paasonen 2005; Paasonen 2010; Peteri 2006; Ribak 2001; Ward 2006). These studies have come to emphasize the active users and the contextual nature of using and interpreting media. In domestication studies it is emphasized that adopting products is, in itself, production of meanings and culture instead of just mirroring the meanings and significance already inscribed in products and technologies (Haddon 2003, 44-46; 2007).

Some quite recent studies point out that media not only as technologies but as changing cultural artefacts have a special meaning in the context of various leisure activities and/or fan practices (Bjarkman 2004; van Doorn 2011; Kompare 2006; Magaudda 2011; Sterne 2006; Toivonen & Sotamaa 2011). Matt Hills (2002) has recognized how fan cultures have a contradictory relationship with material artefacts. Fans are often explicitly resisting the values and norms of capitalist society as well as progressive commodification and on the other hand they are simultaneously investing material objects with greater significance and meaning by creating their own products or by what may be called “personalization”, “customization” or “modding” mainstream products and media contents. Some scholars argue that this aspect is not shared only by self-declared fans but is a signal of a broader cultural shift towards “participatory culture” (Jenkins 2006) or “craft consumerism” (Campbell 2005) that actively invites consumers to participate in modifying media forms and contents, collecting materials and using mass-produced materials as raw material for the creation of own objects. Campbell emphasizes that the idea of craft consumerism relates to social class since the idea is especially well domesticated among the middle-class professional people.

In further developing the domestication framework we emphasize that technology has its material aspects, which need to be taken into account. That is why we also borrow conceptual tools from actor-network theory (Latour 2005; Law and Hassard 1999), stressing that in addition to people and their ideas, technologies also entail “non-human” or “hybrid” elements, such as devices, media artefacts or computer programs. Thus users actively participate in modifying technologies and artefacts, but they are also shaped by them (see Flowers 2010; Oudshoorn, Rommes & Stienstra 2004; Summerton 2004; Wilkie & Michael 2009; Woolgar 1991).

Media as new kinds of artefacts actively invite novel audiences and practices. For example fans haven’t invited new practices on their own but producers have designed and created media artefacts that specifically invite and encourage some actions. Artefacts actively shape our relationship with the reality often also in unpredictable ways, in ways that the producers did not anticipate. In that sense they can be conceived as actors in networks where meanings are produced in the mutual interaction of both material objects and human actors. For example, existing DVDs promote the idea of a “film geek” who can develop his/her special expertise through the supplemental features included already in most DVDs. Thus, as media artefacts DVDs engage in producing and promoting a certain kind of media experience; a “geekish” attitude that includes appetite for gaining special expertise, collecting media artefacts and repeated viewings of favourite films. (Tryon 2009.) In this context, “geek” has transformed into a label that demonstrates special expertise in a certain field in contrast to former meanings when a term like geek or nerd were mere insults. (McArthur 2009.)

At present many consumers are not satisfied with only renting a movie but want to be dedicated to their favourite films, possess them and organize them into personal libraries. Although as an activity this distinctively comes over as intimate and personal, the importance of owning has been constructed partly by marketing strategies that promote films especially as collectibles. Different kinds of classification systems to arrange artefacts are also offered to consumers by the media industries and producers of different software and online sources. Media industries aim at producing a certain kind of consumer, an insider who is offered special knowledge and opportunities to do “research” on their favourites and collect singular artefacts. Offering for example additional historical information of certain media products, the consumer is invited to experience an aura of authenticity. Thus, even though media industries have not invented collecting, they benefit from this trend and aim at educating consumers and directing their desires. Therefore personal media collections are strongly influenced by practices, technologies and discourses of media industries. (Harbord 2002; Klinger 2006.) Also, as stated before, the spatial arrangements of media technologies and related artefacts have an impact on the ways various technologies are adopted and used. Thus the spatial settings themselves invite certain kind of interpretations of what it means to use the Internet. (Bakardjieva 2005; Silverstone, Hirsch & Morley 1992.)

In the data the Internet emerges as a new kind of resource for finding like-minded people who share your interest and expressions of subcultural identity (see also McArthur 2009). Based on our findings it is also a novel resource for creating or introducing ways to prove that your interests are authentic and culturally valid. In this context we acknowledge the fruitfulness of the viewpoint offered by material culture studies which emphasizes the “dialectic of mutual creation” (Miller 2010, 114). The user is not a fixed entity but gains new characteristics as do other artefacts and actions that are linked with the Internet use. In the article we draw on both bodies of literature, following the line of thinking of the user as a co-producer and co-organizer of technologies and artefacts and spatial settings and also the user and uses shaped by them.

Research material and the methodological approach

The research material consists of three distinct data sets. Although the primary concern in this research project was with the arrival in people’s everyday life of new communications and information technologies (such as the Internet, mobile phones, digital television), this process has not been approached in isolation from ‘old’ media or ‘ordinary’ technology. In practise this meant that people were inquired about their television watching, newspaper reading as well as computer and mobile phone use. Besides asking interviewees to tell about their media use they were inquired about their other everyday-life routines and amusements. In addition people were encouraged to talk about the interiors of their homes and especially to tell how they made decisions concerning the placement of different devices and media artefacts.

First, the main body of analysis was carried out by exploring a data set consisting of 68 interviews conducted in various parts of Finland (from summer 2001 till summer 2003). The second data set consists of two interviews that were carried out in 2007 for the specific purpose of gathering in-depth data about the themes of the article. Third, 19 interviews were carried out in 2009 and 2010. Altogether there are 72 women and 49 men. In total 51 have a higher education (university level), 30 have an intermediate grade, 24 have completed comprehensive school, 10 are secondary school graduates (or university undergraduates), 2 have completed vocational school and the education of 9 interviewees remains unknown. Most of the interviewees were employed.

We have utilized the idea developed in actor-network theory, according to which human and non-human actors form networks in which meanings are produced in mutual interaction of both material objects and human actors. The actor-network theory does not extend intentional abilities to artefacts; rather, it changes the traditional notion of action by suggesting that agency is not primarily about intentions but about connecting things (Bruun & Hukkinen 2003, 104).

The identity of an element arises in relation to other elements and not from intrinsic characteristics. This point of view has much in common with the articulation theory developed within cultural studies (see Barker 2000, 9; Grossberg 1992, 37-67; Du Gay & Hall & al. 1997, 3; Hall 1980, 325). Both emphasize that the identity of an element arises in relation to other elements and not from its intrinsic characteristics. Thus, meanings are derived from networks of relations. The difference between articulation theory and actor-network theory is that the latter lays much more emphasis on the non-human actors (Bennett 2007, 613-614). Thus meanings arise from networks of relations, always in relation to something and someone.

Actor-network theory assumes that “society, organisations, agents and machines are all effects generated in patterned networks of diverse (not simply human) materials” and knowledge is embodied in a variety of material forms” and so “it is a material matter but also a matter of organising and ordering those materials” (Law 1992, 2). According to actor-network theory artefacts can also be perceived as having invitation and inhibition towards certain kinds of actions. While they encourage some actions they also discourage certain other actions or even make them impossible (Illies & Meijers 2009, 423).

Material practices renewing the significance of artefacts

Hobbyist collecting

In our data when people discussed home furnishing different media devices and artefacts were quite often mentioned, and especially the efforts made to find the “right” place for different technologies was frequently brought up. Those moments when our interviewees talked at length about their different long-term hobbies were particularly fruitful; it seemed that at those moments people talked about the materiality of media more freely and without the fear of striking as a materialist. As Jari Luomanen (2010) has shown, the cultural category of a hobby consists of many valued and respected elements. The cultural image of a hobby implies active lifestyles and a will to develop oneself in one way or another. The category of hobby is a culturally valued resource with which media uses can be accounted for in a purposeful and justified manner and this can be seen as a part of a larger effort to account for media uses in a culturally legitimate manner (see also Alasuutari, Luomanen & Peteri 2012). Thus this might explain why it was more justified to discuss the material aspect of media in the context of hobbies. Consider the following example.

Extract 1 (Interview No 70. Woman, 31-40 years)

All these things have interested me a long time. I started reading comic books when I was ten and I don’t even count Donald Duck, which I started reading already when I had learned to read. But yes films, my parents had a VHS-library, which I kind of started to complement and they started to build it already when I was a really small child. The urge to own things and keep them I think was born then, very early. It’s because everything is available to you, every interest is close at hand and easy to be found and when you have a certain interest you can immediately identify several links with that interest, like if you are interested in this you might also like this.

The interviewee talks about her library of popular culture artefacts such as DVDs, figures and cartoons. She accounts for her desire to own the artefacts and that she gets pleasure on the fact that she can easily find things that she is interested in and can also find numerous links between interesting cultural products just by looking at her bookshelf. A cultural image of the bookshelf is in this context constructed as a network consisting of fascinating artefacts and themes. It appears that bookshelf has gained characteristics similar to the Internet. Furthermore, this account is a good example of proving the existence of a long term interest – instead of a passing whim enabled by an easy internet access – through the possession of artefacts (Alasuutari, Luomanen & Peteri 2012). The Internet has enabled the cultivation of many interests, but yet it seems to require material artefacts so as to enable a distinction between shallow, trendy uses and the more original and long-term uses.

Later in the interview the same informant describes how some of her favourite scriptwriters have written both comics and films and how she follows a certain writer’s work and comes across novel ways to interpret singular comic books or films by considering them in relation to a scriptwriter’s other works in other media forms. Then she continues:

Extract 2 (Interview No 70. Woman, 31-40 years)

I ordered Sandman because they produced an absolute edition. It’s been two times that they’ve produced these big hard-cover books, newly coloured and then there are extras, it is actually almost like a DVD with extras. It has fake leather covers and it’s just plain beautiful as a thing and especially the colouring, it is absolutely wonderful. I kind of see these features as extras. I have the standard versions, I have absolute editions, I have a figure, and I have everything interesting that I come across, yes, like these books that analyse and have like written essays on Sandman and then I have this CD, a tribute to Neil Gaiman, where some have composed songs, I have it, I had to get it.

The interviewee describes in more detail her collection of Neil Gaiman related artefacts. Not only do works in different media forms offer new ways to interpret certain media contents but also the medium itself gains new meanings. The speaker explicitly compares the absolute edition version of Sandman with the DVD with extras. Through this hobbyist activity she exhibits her understanding of media forms blending in both as contents and forms. Before she talked about her bookshelf as consisting of different “links” between different interests, whether unconsciously or consciously constructing it as a metaphoric Internet, now she describes the special Sandman book as reminding a DVD with extras. The hobbyist activity gains new meanings as there is a wider selection of media forms and extras available but also the very concept of “extras” in turn invites and produces this activity.

The notion of a “DVD with extras” seems to be already so well culturally founded that it can be utilized as an almost ideal type of a new kind of media artefact. The book with its’ beautiful covers and its more visually satisfying colour scheme is almost like a DVD box. When all these new kinds of media artefacts are placed into a bookshelf with books, they are placed in a company that has a strong cultural status. But as they are placed there, the notion of the bookshelf itself changes.

Actor-network theory suggests that relevant actors are themselves constructed in part by artefacts and in the process both artefacts and humans mutually shape each other. From this point of view the Internet (as well as many other media forms) promotes the media user as a collector and an archivist and these new kinds of uses and users on their part recreate the concept of bookshelf and home library. The concept of a traditional bookshelf is translated into an archive consisting of various “links” and associations between interests that can be followed. Thus the notion of bookshelf is a kind of a personified and embodied reflection of the World Wide Web.

Creating a life narrative

As noted before, the placement of devices and media-related artefacts in people’s homes is often taken up by the informants. It is probably partly related to the fact that the decisions regarding the design and interior decoration of one’s home are publicly available signs of people’s taste, style and areas of interest, but discussing the placement of things in their homes also reflects the informants’ ideas about the proper uses of these devices. The placement also shapes the meanings and uses connected to these devices. (Peteri 2006.) The placement of the computer discussed in the next extract serves as an example.

Extract 3 (Interview No 01. Man, 31-40 years)

It is, well, it is in another room, which is sort of, in a way sanctified as a study, like a library and a kind of (laughs) a room for various records and archives, so it sits there on a table. It is the center of our home. We have all the connections there, you can listen to the music there, you can browse the Internet there and you can take a book and lie down on the sofa. This room is a very intimate place, I need the feeling of peacefulness and the feeling of intimacy and the feeling that I have lots of time and I’m in no hurry, it is very important to me. I have all these images concerning this space and actually I often miss this room

The computer room is given a very high status – it is described as “sanctified” to certain types of use only. It is also defined as the “center” of their home and “a very intimate place”. Interestingly, the room is called the study, a library and an archival room for records of various types. Clearly, the spatial arrangement described here is particularly significant as it cannot be exhaustively described with a singular name only. Later in the interview the same person continues to describe the artefacts located in the room.

Extract 4 (Interview No 01. Man, 31-40 years)

I think I have, at least I used to have, a bit of collector in me and a collector of a library. And the fact that I can, in a way, return to a space of my own, into a library room of sorts, an archive room. And really, it is, in a way for cultural artefacts. Because, you see, they are in a way some type of… (articulates in a particularly exalted manner) Peter von Bagh –like, sort of, [… ] shadows from the past, from the life lived. And, well, the fact that I have really consciously created it, collected these kinds of signs of my own life. My own memories for me. And on the other hand there’s that practical benefit that in case you want to return to the same book, you can simply go and get it from your own bookshelf.

The extract above illustrates well one more way in which people may attach special meaning to media devices and artefacts in their lives. Apart from documenting the collector’s past favourites, as tangible objects they serve as memory traces of the lived. As Walter Benjamin analysed book collecting; the collectibles do not come alive in the collector but it is the collector “who lives in them” (c.f. Kilinger 2006, 65) and thus collecting things is kind of practical memory, preserving memories in materialized form (Bijsterveld, & Van Dijck 2009; Fornäs & al. 2007). In that way media-related artefacts are like souvenirs from the journey of life. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for a trend toward commodification of many recreational activities (see e.g. Hamilton-Smith 1990; Yoder 1997); individuals are not increasingly materialistic but, rather, sentimental and nostalgic (c.f. Lehtonen 2008).

Later in the interview the same person describes how this room has all their books, computer technologies, collections of old magazines and vinyls as well as computer games, CDs and CD-ROMs. In these kinds of contexts the Internet emerges as a junction through which various interests and hobbies flow, and finally some of them meet in this concrete space by acquiring material existence as posters, figures, discs, books, magazines etc. that symbolize important signposts of past life.

Display of cultural competence

Popular culture artefacts are accounted for as being worth of displaying in the home as has also been noted in earlier research (Bjarkman 2004; Kompare 2006). According to the data, along with other decorations and ornaments these artefacts can be put on display on bookshelves and table tops. When people purchase different media related artefacts they transform them into home furnishing and they are attached with considerations and rituals of domestic sphere (Klinger 2006, 57). Consider the following extract where the interviewee discusses her figure collection:

Extract 5 (Interview No 70. Woman, 31-40 years)

Answer: Practically all the bookshelves are in the bedroom and practically all the DVDs are in the living room and in there, in the living room there will also be another bookshelf where we will put all sorts of other stuff.

Question: What sorts of other stuff?

Answer: Everything that I want to display in it, everything from Venetian masks to figures and decorations, expensive dishes.

Question: Are these a part of, also a part of, of this kind of a hobby collection making?

Answer: Figs are, meaning figures, meaning small statues and those sort of small figurines that silly people play with. We just, we just have them, we don’t play.

Question: Are these figures somehow involved in the Japanese, that stuff, or?

Answer: Some of them are. I still have my Sailor Moon figures that I got, and what else do we have? In fact, we have these Todd McFarlane Toys that are porny, that are not a part of the Japanese but of the wider popular culture. But then again these particular [figures] are the Dorothy of Oz as a fetish version and the Countess Báthory bathing in a bloody bathtub, bath full of blood. It was this Todd McFarlane Toys monster series where there were historical monsters. And this particular package was that kind of a, sort of a Femme Fatale package which means that it has the only female figs that they have. All in the same package. Oh, and the Red Riding Hood.

Question: Oh, I mean I’m so envious now.

Answer: A fetish Red Riding Hood that holds the wolf by the throat. The dead wolf, it’s awesome.

Later in the interview the woman accounts for her childhood when she used to have all her books in her bedroom and that due to this she still wants to place them there. The living room is described as the place where decorative artefacts are displayed. The figures displayed are first described as toys for silly people to play with but the interviewee immediately dispels the potential reproach that they too would be such silly people. Instead, they just collect and display them.

The artefact collection consists of “porny” figures that are described as being fetish oriented. This sensitive topic is managed through an elaborate discursive display about the interviewee’s awareness of their place in a wider context: instead of acquiring the figures for the sole purpose of being excited about them they are displayed as a representation of the quirks of popular culture. This description leaves latitude for the listener to position the interviewee as a person who appreciates camp and is a connoisseur of popular culture in a broader sense. Bjarkman (2004) notes that fans attach value to collectibles which the mainstream audience considers trivial, trashy or bizarre: fan collectors create and preserve heritage shared in the fan communities. In the context of increasing omnivorousness (Peterson and Simkus 1992), a “bizarre” choice may also be seen as the clearest articulation of personality (see Tashiro 1996). Bizarre choices may not be a sign of bad taste anymore, but rather a sign of a cultured person who is sure of her/his taste and thus, can be playful.

Accordingly many studies have proved that knowledge of highbrow culture is no longer enough to prove that one possesses cultural capital. Several studies conducted in the western world show evidence that especially middle class people are more inclined to omnivorous consumption patterns (see Alasuutari, 2009; Barnett & Allen, 2000; Bryson, 1996; Liikkanen, 2009; Peterson & Kern, 1996; Peterson, 2004 ref. Virtanen, 2005; Warde, 2007). That is, they are more eclectic in their consumption and media choices; they no longer simply prefer traditional highbrow media contents. The ideal used to be to enjoy and understand high culture; classical literature and music, philosophy, politics and history. Now the new ideal is to be eclectic in one’s interests and consumption habits and to show “educated tolerance” and “broad taste” (Bryson, 1996, p. 886). Thus the traditional study or home library could be seen as a manifestation of traditional highbrow values, and an archive room could be seen as an embodiment of a more eclectic attitude.

Digital archiving

Archiving carries the idea that many items must be preserved; whether “real” or digital. In case an item presents any future potential it must be saved in the archive. This potential can be almost anything that strikes the person as inviting: the item can represent something that can turn out to be useful, funny, interesting or inspirational in the future. The Internet has facilitated the archiving of digital items that are usually somehow related to material artefacts as well. In this sense, this kind of archiving can be seen as “digital hoarding”. Much like with material artefacts one cannot really trust that a digital item is available in the future unless one saves and archives it. As part of a traditional collection, a singular item must usually have a particular idea of why it belongs to this specific collection. The notion of a digital archive may emphasize the idea that the saving of things is itself the central aim:

Extract 6 (Interview No 065. Man, 15-20 years)

All the CDs that I’ve bought are neatly in my CD-bookcase, I take good care of them so that they last, I don’t actually know whether I’ve ever deleted any of my music files on my hard disc, even though I would have ever listened to them, I don’t like to delete any of my files, I’m really an archive fanatic, well yes, the archive may not be very well organized but I more or less save everything.

It seems that the personal “authenticity” of a digital archive can also be revealed in the multitude of files that it includes. The speaker above presents himself as an “archive fanatic” which is explained by the fact that he does not want to delete any of his files. In the extract above the central feature of a digital archive is not whether it is well organized or whether the objects are actually ever used but that everything is saved. Jonathan Sterne (2006) has analysed mp3s as cultural artefacts and concludes that when people talk of music as a leisure activity they make a difference between objects that can be collected and objects that can be touched. Developing this idea further we may add that collecting immaterial objects is a way to make them appear more “real”. Thus collecting may be a way to make immaterial more “visible”, part of a larger entity that usually has several links with material objects.

The speaker in the extract above describes his Internet use in the following manner: “it should be called an Internet continuum” rather than moments spent using the Internet. There were also other interviewees who recognized that the concept of Internet referred to various interests rather than to using one medium. These comments verify the nature of the Internet as a nexus or intersection of different interests and hobbies. It is also a sign of the computer and the Internet being domesticated since they are not seen as technologies but as mediators of the flow of various interests.

We have argued elsewhere that accounting for complete collections of artefacts has particular weight in terms of explaining one’s perspective to the contents as larger entities. They signify the authenticity of the interest and one’s ability to critique the contents as parts of the overall landscape of popular culture (Alasuutari, Luomanen & Peteri forthcoming). It seems evident that the Internet and its various uses invite a certain kind of user whose one primary aim is to collect different media related artefacts and compose different collections.

However, the notion of an archive that the interviewees refer to is something else than a collection, and an archivist is something else than a collector of items. Collecting items may include at least a vague idea of putting together a complete collection. Even though in practice it would be impossible to be able to compose a collection that could be considered complete, the idea may exist in the background. In our data the notion of an archive on the other hand has no limits because it is based on personal experiences of meaningful things. Thus, the originality, authenticity or completeness cannot be questioned in the same way as in the case of a “real” collection. The meaning of a personal archive can be justified by accounting for it as consisting of things that are truly memorable “signs of my life” or just by referring to own feelings: “I love these things”. Thereby no one can really question statements that refer to inner states or to one’s life cycle. Thus it is impossible to deny that the archive is a proper archive.

Our empirical analysis suggests that an archive – consisting digital and material artefacts – may consist of several different “collections” in a loose sense, more or less meaningful for the individual’s identity construction. The central aspect of an archive is that there may be several links and associations between different interests and hobbies. For example the interviewee above explained how his literary interests, his common interest in technologies and his film and musical interests have some common points of contact. The archive room is a space that makes these points of contact more visible and constructs the individual’s interests as part of a wider cultural interest. Collecting can be seen as a form of play with classifications in which people engage just for its own sake. But the display of these artefacts also demonstrates social status. (Danet & Tamar 1994, 222.) Here the “geekish” attitude encounters the omnivore attitude. Thus the archive can also be seen as a reflection of an omnivorous attitude towards media contents.

Conclusions

In this article we identified four categories of material practices that maintain the significance of artefacts from the perspective of a consumer:

  1. Hobbyist collecting
  2. Creating a life narrative
  3. Display of cultural competence
  4. Digital archiving

Thus far this viewpoint has been understudied. A central empirical contribution of this article is that artefacts are also an essential resource facilitating meaning-making of media use in the digital media environment. However, our data show that the meanings related to the media artefacts and their display in the home are challenged, renewed and renegotiated when new devices and media artefacts are appropriated into everyday life. When the consumers, their uses and ways of organizing, their technologies and artefacts – both digital and material – coexist in networks, they shape each other.

For example, as stated before, in our data interviewees construct the Internet as a “junction”, and this junction also constructs certain kind of users, spatial settings and materiality. In relation to the Internet as a junction, the spatial placement of the computer is transformed into a personal archive and the user becomes more or less an archivist. The classical notion of a bookshelf is transformed into an embodied version of the World Wide Web, displaying all the links between different interests and hobbies.

This is a twofold issue though: Internet use is elevated as it is described in connection with some long term activities such as reading books and collecting various artefacts. In these accounts Internet use emerges “merely” as a junction for these authentic, long term interests. On the other hand the Internet deepens these interests and enables completely new ways of immersing oneself with these interests as well as the related social contacts. This in itself produces the activity more clearly as a distinct hobby. The Internet acts as a glue that brings together various activities and presents online social worlds related to them.

Our paper has shown that a dematerialization of cultural artefacts isn’t an inevitable consequence of the digitalization of various media contents. Rather, new technologies have brought along new material practices. Our analysis shows how the concept of archiving dissolves a clear difference between virtual contents and “real” material contents. In the archive there is the computer with its files, folders and bookmarked links, and the concept of bookshelf in a sense becomes an embodiment of both material and digital contents; the artefacts being displayed and the virtual “embodied” as links between these different artefacts. The spatial placement of different material objects reveals the links between different interests: books that go together with certain DVDs, CDs and games may be placed side by side as forming a collection of sorts and alongside there may be comic books that link the aforementioned “stuff” with the next interest since the cover of one game is drawn by the cartoonist who has also made the comic books. The comic books may share a script writer with certain films that are connected with a certain genre of popular culture, and so on.

In the accounts about media use various artefacts play a significant role. As Virve Peteri (2006) puts it in her study on the placement of media artefacts in domestic spaces, a placement is a statement. According to her, the material placement of artefacts is intimately connected to the discursive order of domestic spaces and the uses of these spaces. Media are not reduced to “mere” contents but manifest themselves also as artefacts that can be owned, collected and placed in the home. The spatial arrangements such as placing artefacts on a bookshelf also signify the cultural place of the artefacts. Placing media artefacts on a bookshelf traditionally inserts them side by side – symbolically and/or in actual material form – with books, which associates them with a highbrow cultural status. The concept of a traditional study or home library can thus be seen as a reflection of traditional highbrow values, but when different media artefacts are placed in the library, the concept’s “original” meaning is changed: the library is transformed into an archive room that could be seen as an embodiment of an omnivorous attitude.

Having a collection of media artefacts is accounted for as a symbol of a long term investment. It verifies the authenticity of the interest and is a part of the co-existence of media channels. Much like a wedding ring, a tattoo or a cross worn as a necklace, owning these artefacts and possibly displaying them in domestic spaces (or worn as a T-shirt) proves our commitment to the contents. Surely the nature of this commitment differs from marriage or religion, but it is a commitment nevertheless – it tells about out interests and the way that we choose to use our time. As Alasuutari (2006) has pointed out, media use is a moral question related to leisure time in everyday life: these uses are weighted against other uses of free time. This is related to the fundamental question about what one should do in life. In that sense people’s accounts of media use reflect what Alasuutari calls the civic religion of modernity, according to which we should constantly develop ourselves.

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