Believing is Seeing: Is technology the material of futures?

Curator's Note

Over the last decade, the fortunes of Apple Computers shifted dramatically. Arguably, this was not because of incredible advances in technology, clever marketing, or business foresight. In this clip Apple summarizes the secret to its success in the simple suggestion that, "when technology gets out of the way, everything becomes more delightful." The substance of Apple's success is not in making technology more visible but in making it invisible, getting it out of the way and out of question.

As technologies grow in ubiquity, they materially pop up in every conceivable location in our lives. But is the ubiquity of technology material or a manifestation of our beliefs? New technologies are everywhere but the ones we use on a daily basis are invisible because we believe them to be indispensible and ordinary, outside of consdieration, ephemeral like the air that we breathe. As is the case of Apple's iPad 2, increasingly technologies are created and marketed as being immaterial, there but invisible, able to get out of the way and let you live your life, only better.

As digital technology use increases across a broad spectrum of human enterprise, it is important to consider not only industrial technology production but also the deep material integration of these technological things into our ordinary lives. If we believe, as Apple suggests that it does, that technology can 'get out of the way' and our analog experiences can be supplemented rather than replaced technologically, then perhaps that is why we no longer see the technologies we use everyday. Believing, after all, is a precondition for how we see.

The invisibility of technology, when it becomes ordinary and outside of the realm of questioning, is a dangerous thing. One can see this in the feeling of being left behind if we own a computer that is one or two generations out of currency. Producers build new systems and software that do not work with the material technologies that we bought just recently. To remain current we throw away these material objects, we get them out of the way, and make room for the new at an increasing pace. Landfills are bursting to the seams with material technologies that, already invisible and 'out of the way,' are quickly forgotten once the next big thing rolls through. A critical balance must be found between believing in technology and maintaining a viable material future.

Comments

Ravi,

Thanks for a great post to close our week! I really enjoyed what you have written about invisibility in relation to Apple products. I recently completed a book chapter, co-authored with Jennifer M. Barker, and in that chapter we discuss this specific advertisement in relation to the "magic" or wonder Apple hopes to promote through their projects (which connects with Benjamin's post and your comments there). I do think Apple facilitates "belief" in technology and, in the process, attempts to hide the materiality of this technology from users. At the same time, this argument seems to emerge from a visual paradigm, where seeing is what structures believing and, thus, what we cannot see (behind the screen, behind the GUI, etc.) is not part of what we know.

I do wonder if Apple does integrate various other sensorial elements within their designs that facilitate this mode of invisibility while also causing people to experience the materiality of technology in a different way, such as the tactile touch-oriented screens on devices that provide a different mode of engagement. Do you think that shifts such as this, which might change our phenomenological experience with technology, alter how we understand or appreciate the technology? Or, if our experience with technology isn't just visual, does this alter how we remember our devices and/or engage with them?

 Kris,

I think you're right about the alteration of tactilities changes the notion of how technologies are perceived, more as a matter of flow and integration than of seeing or not. The construct of invisiblity with which I'm working (and developing into a book) takes seeing as one of several parts to invisiblity. The tactile portion I think matters in so far as the proximity of tactile experiences negates their visiblity - you can only see the nose in front of your face when you go out of your way to look for it - just like you can only see that what you are holding is a tablet or phone when it no longer seems like 'the world in your hands.'

I like the way you ask whether the "invisibility" of apple's products should be seen as a matter of faith or a particular kind of materiality.  What if we consider two different types of invisibility at work here, both of which we can look at as a kind of disappearance -– a process of becoming-invisible rather than a solid state?

So, first there's the kind of invisibility put forward in this Apple video.  It's predicated on a sparsity of elements (no keyboard, no mouse, just a single slab of glass), as well as acquired knowledge:  the gradual perfection of technique, gestures –– in sum the way in which the body learns to use a device.  Like Heidegger says on the particular character of "equipment" like boots in the process of work like field labor:  "It disappears into usefulness."

And second, I'm thinking about the utopian speculations about perfectly noiseless, immediate communication that always accompanies the release of new media technologies.  Whether it's phonograph cylinders meant to faithfully reproduce the voices of the dead, or digital cinema's attempts to reproduce three-dimensional space in all of its sensuousness –– there is this perennial desire to escape mediation, paradoxically through newer and more powerful media technologies.

I'm curious to hear what you think about the iPad as an educational tool.  You strike this note at the end of your post on finding a "critical balance" between "believing in technology and maintaining a viable future."  How might we think about strapping this kind of technological literacy to the educational initiative that Apple just put forward the other day?  So, not just shinier, more interactive textbooks, but a wholesale reorientation toward the materiality of "the world in your hands"?  From rare earth mining, to manufacture at Foxconn in Shenzhen, to point of sale, to e-waste recycling.

Methodologies of making visible are not new to media studies (or of course to pedagogy in general):  the apparatus theory school of film studies in the 1970s, or the attempts of media archaeology today to uncover not just lost histories but cultural techniques that span centuries of technical interaction –– from the camera obscura to the touch screen.

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