We Need a Word for That Thing Where a Digital Thing Appears in the Physical World

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Sometimes the Internet seems to jump from the screen: When that avatar you only knew on Twitter materializes in physical space in front of you; when you see graffiti on a wall with a Twitter hashtag; a mouse-pointer-arrow charm necklace; a QR code protest sign; when you get dizzy trying to come to terms with these physical instantiations of what began as digital.

How do we understand these objects? What do we call them? Why do they exist? What do these objects say about the complex relationship between information and material, digitality and physicality, atoms and bits?

Ontology (what exists?) and phenomenology (how does existence appear to us?) are hard. The digital seems very different than the physical: Shopping at the mall is different than Amazon.com, talking face-to-face is different than texting, cyberwar or cybersex certainly seem different than their offline predecessors. But all these terms are trouble. PJ Rey provides a terrific investigation into how these differences came to be known in spatial terms built around a collective fiction that digital information could be segregated into some new "cyber" space; the Net, the Web, The Matrix, a fictional Other Place conveniently at once separate but always accessible. This fiction was never tenable, and much of my work has centered on the vanishing point of this­­--what I have coined as "digital dualism."

Something as simple as a mouse-pointer-necklace or an online friend encountered offline make obvious the bigger point that the workings of information transcend barriers like atoms and bits and blood and circuits. However, we run out of language when it comes to talking about a physical instantiation of something previously known primarily as digital. Just typing that last sentence hurt. So I asked on Twitter for some language, new or old, to get at this trend. I am surprised how few existing terms we have for this, and certainly nothing anyone agrees upon. Some of the most interesting replies I received:

  • This all can be thrown under the larger umbrella of "The New Aesthetic," which deals with the collision of the on and offline. But for these objects we're looking less at aesthetics (what is beautiful?) and more ontology (what exists?). Also, The New Aesthetic, arguably, is too general for our purposes here, capturing all of the dialogue between the digital and physical.
  • Bruce Sterling has used the line " an eruption of the digital into the physical" when discussing The New Aesthetic, which does get at this more specific trend. Perhaps simply "digital eruption" could work?
  • Next Nature has discussed this trend as Boomeranged Metaphors, where something projected onto the Web is spit back out into the physical world.
  • "Ectoplasm" is an interesting suggestion, often used to describe spiritual energy manifesting in the physical world, which might be repurposed to describe the Web.
  • Robin Sloan's "Flip Flop": "the process of pushing a work of art or craft from the physical world to the digital world and back again--maybe more than once." Perhaps we could abstract this phrase beyond art/craft?
  • "Eversion" and "meatspacing" are terms used by William Gibson.
  • "Tangiblasts"
  • "What if cyberspace is oozing through the walls that once held it back, seeping out of the very fabric of reality?" - Gene Becker
  • What else?

Reading the last example from Gene Becker, I am at once excited that we are discussing information and materiality as interrelated, but also worried that all of this is reinforcing the problematic "digital dualism" I critique above. Cyberspace is not oozing out into reality, that which we encounter on some glowing screen was always reality, never locked away in a separate, mythical, cyber space. Terms like "ectoplasm" reinforces a dualistic view of separate digital and physical realities: "ecto" means "outside," describing that which crosses between words.

These are not digital objects becoming real; these objects were always in our reality. What we are experiencing is not a Matrix-like teleportation trick, but a rearrangement, a different flavor of information. We need new terminology that makes reference to the enmeshed, imploded, overlapping, interpenetrating nature of the physical and digital. I dig some of the suggestions above, but I think we need to chew on this more. What are some other terms we might use? Who has written about this before (be it academic, popular or fiction)?

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Nathan Jurgenson is a social theorist of media. He's working on a dissertation in sociology at the University of Maryland on self-documentation and social media.

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