The Materiality of Digital Words

Guest Post

This post was contributed by Martin French.

A visual representation of the connections in a part of the internet

Ever since William Gibson described cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination,” a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system,” it has been possible to imagine that the internet produces an otherworldly space. So, for example, when I type the word blog into Google, it’s easy to overlook the architecture and material basis of Google. The network of real-world communication nodes, or data centres, the infrastructure that makes Google possible, isn’t, in any case, readily visible. This is also true of the internet more generally.

The invisibility of the internet’s real-world architecture is strange given its absolute necessity for cyberspace’s existence. These buildings and servers make it possible for meaning to traverse the gulf between binary code and pithy blog post. Without it, there would be no way to search our digital lexicon, no possible way for you to type the word blog into your computer and arrive here, at this post.

So what makes cyberspace materialize? There are several good texts that broach this subject—too many to list here—but, for starters, Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet provides a good account of the internet’s early history. For those who gravitate towards more esoteric texts, N. Katherine Hayles’s My Mother Was a Computer is a must-read. It offers a fantastic and thought-provoking presentation of the materiality of the “computational universe”. For those who gravitate towards more concrete texts, take a look at John Markoff and Saul Hansell’s New York Times article entitled “Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power”. This will give you a sense of what produces the results that pop up on your screen when you run a Google search. Taken together, these texts are sure to whet your appetite for thinking about the real-world materiality of digital words.

The contributor of the image of the Internet Network is Matt Britt. The image is copyrighted but also licenced for further reuse.

2 Replies to “The Materiality of Digital Words”

  1. Great post, Martin! The picture reminds me of nerve clusters in the body. With the transmission of information that happens in cyberspace, I suppose we could think of different sites as nerve endings that collect data and send it back to the computer’s brain along various pathways.

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