April 22, 2016

I’d like to talk about the material nature of digital technologies, which is something that we often overlook…as long as those technologies are operating as we expect. Most of us use a variety of electronic devices- smartphones, tablets, computers- to transmit, receive, search for, comment on, and otherwise interact with a wide array of information. These devices can make sending and receiving information seem seamless. Others have pointed out that handheld devices may come to feel like cyborg appendages that augment our flesh and blood sensory systems. Importantly, their materiality places constraints on the messages that they help us send and receive.
We can talk about the material nature of digital technologies at different levels. We could focus on operating systems, processors, and chips that are produced by different companies and have different capabilities. We could also talk about the systems of labor and supply chains that produce the technologies and get them into our hands: the designers and factory workers, the truck drivers and longshoremen who transport those technologies, and the salespeople who sell them. We could go deeper and focus on the individual material components that make up the parts and chassis of each device: the plastics that are derived from petroleum which originated hundreds of millions of years ago from plankton living in warm shallow seas, or the rare earth minerals that today are largely mined in developing countries and which were conveniently aggregated into a small rocky planet (ours!) about 4.6 billion years ago. We could even step back into very deep time and talk about the formation of all matter 13.8 billion years ago in the Big Bang, and its slow transmutation into complex elements in the hearts of stars and the cauldrons of supernovae.
…But that may be going a bit far afield. I’ll retreat a bit and focus on something simpler: the ways that code interacts with the physical technologies with which we communicate, and how this material interaction transforms our experience of communication. In the interest of being timely, I’ll talk about two stories that have been making the rounds recently.


Emoji are icons used in text messaging, originally developed for Japanese mobile phones. Unlike text-based emoticons, most emoji are individually coded in the Unicode character space. Emoticons are created by each person typing a message- like this emoticon : – ) created with a colon, hyphen, and right parenthesis.
Emoji have been making inroads into American text messages since the early 2000s, though not all platforms include support for them. The material devices people use (and the code installed on them) thus directly constrain the messages that can be sent from phone to phone. My older Android phone does not recognize most of the Unicode-based emoji, though it can recognize some text-based emoticons and “translate” the text into a smiley face on screen. When someone with a newer iOS phone sends me an emoji, all I usually receive is an empty box.
A more interesting emoji-related phenomenon is that not all operating systems display the same emoji code in the same way. While most emoji look similar on screen from phone to phone, there is enough variation in how these icons are displayed to suggest different meanings to people using different brands of phones. A recent study shows that for some icons, people may not even interpret the same valence of emotion when viewing them on different systems. So, Apple’s “Grinning face with smiling eyes” emoji is…rather uncomfortable looking.
grouplens SentimentAvg-GrinningFaceWSmilingEyes
Another example of the ways that material technologies affect communications practices is the National Weather Service’s forecasts. The NWS transmits its weather forecasts using all-caps text with a limited range of punctuation (. / + … – $). Here’s an example:
nws forecast
This convention has been inherited from the era in which forecasts were sent via modems and teletype machines, which had a limited range of keys. Of course, contemporary electronic writing conventions tell us that using upper-case text is equivalent to shouting- even when the text in question lacks exclamation points. The all-caps convention still lingers at the NWS because until recently lower-tech teletype tools were still being used by some communities to receive weather warnings, and changing to a richer typographic system would mean those communities would lose access to that information.
Well, starting in May, the NWS will finally start switching to mixed-case text. They have been going through a decade-long phase of testing the new typographic system at a few forecast offices, and will slowly be switching over their communication style over the next year. This article has an interesting discussion of the history of NWS forecasting, how it relates to technology, and reactions by meteorologists who are now switching over.
With both the emoji and NWS forecast examples, communication issues are driven by the interaction of code and hardware in the material parts of the communication system. Often this happens at a level that we don’t ordinarily consider when receiving a text or pulling up a weather forecast on a website. I think we can also see how the way we weigh the seriousness of a message affects our acceptance of errors in its transmission and interpretation. We may use emoji and weather forecasts in very different situations, but they do share a material nature that constrains their communication.