Thing Power: Recognizing Our Reflections (or Not) in Our Tablets

Curator's Note

It’s nothing new to examine artifacts as material manifestations of humanity, but in this age of new media technologies, we are especially provided with opportunities to see ourselves (or not) in the products of our collective human labor. I co-opt the term “thing power” to describe this reflective potential of our ‘technological things.’

The popularization of the tablet—iPad, Kindle, Nook, etc.—provides an interesting opportunity to hear what our gadgets have to say about us. When the first generation iPad was released, criticisms were voiced that it was intended for consumption, rather than encouraging creation and communication. And it’s no stretch to see even the most recent tablet models as (for the most part) vehicles for consuming content offered exclusively by Apple, Amazon, or B&N. These corporations have made efforts to counter the consumption-argument with campaigns that emphasize their products’ abilities to foster communication and encourage learning. But whether or not the technologies’ creators or critics are correct is less important than the chance that these dialogues give us to examine what gap exists between material culture and our values as a society. To what extent are we simply consumers? Or if we do use our tablets to Skype, Tweet, record video and mix audio, to what extent are our creative or communicative acts influenced by the codes (or other constraints) of these technologies?

This ad for the iPad 2 is particularly interesting in that it seems to make the claim that Apple has overcome this gap and achieved unity between subject and object. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that not only is this claim presumptuous—Siri, as intuitive as she may be, continues to humor users with hilarious misunderstandings—but also that it is dangerous. The “false identity of particular and universal”—or superficial superimposition of thing and concept, product and person—is exactly what Horkheimer and Adorno warn that contemporary media culture works to achieve. If we immediately embrace the ‘magic’ of our tablets (or whatever new thing is sold to us), we abandon the perspective held by thinkers as diverse as Jesus and Hegel, Thoreau and Marx—that “by their fruits ye shall know them.” And if we stop examining the products of our labors and subsequently stop re-examining our social relations, practices, institutions and ideologies, we forfeit any social progress that could potentially come from such self-reflection.


The idea of technology as 'magic' is an interesting one, largely because magic requires a suspension of disbelief - that we know that what we are seeing is impossible or perhaps even make-believe. Magic is an act that relies on the obfuscation of the complicit relationship between magician and audience. Techno magic relies on the mystification of this same relationship between user and object. Why we feel frustrated by technology is not because it doesn't do what we want, but because we feel inadequate for not being able to understand what it does. 

This self-imposed sense of technological determinism undermines the usefulness of any technological augmentation because it does what you describe, hides the complicity between technology and user allowing for one to be valued over the other hierarchically. Referring to McLuhan as you've done, he suggests that any medium is an extension of a human capacity (or group of capacities). Necessarily what happens is that the reliance on techno-prosthesis (replacements for human capacity) dampens that capacity in us. I've seen people spend hours looking for their phones, more time than it would take to walk/drive over to the person they are trying to contact. 




I enjoy how you have framed the relationship between belief, magic and knowing.  I guess that my comments on Ravi's post might also connect with some of ideas here. I do think that Ravi is right to argue that the belief and magic emerges from suspending our understanding. And, yet, this seems to be the case for many technology and media consumers; too little knowledge about how technology works allows people to assume that everything works for them, as a medium for communicating or a tool for doing. It seems that some of the earlier comments in the week might deal with this to some degree, but I wonder how the notion of "magic" or "belief" shifts when technology fails. 

What happens to our ability to "know" what we "believe" about magical technology when it does not work as we expect? Most of us have been there at some point, when it is the final hour before something is due and... the hard-drive fails or the computer freezes, and our information is lost. In this moment the materiality and material needs/inadequacies of technological things appears, but it seems people rarely see this as a moment of reflection–to consider how we engage with machines. Rather, I wonder what it will take for people to know more about technology so that they might better understand the implications you discuss at the end of your post.

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