Complex Materials: The Hidden Fabric of Digital Life Through Cables

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Information about Complex Materials: The Hidden Fabric of Digital Life Through Cables

Published on March 4, 2014

Author: Nelmrabet



Digital Anthropology Presentation for UCL's FIGS Forum dedicated to "Material Properties" (Feb. 2014). What can we learn from dissecting and fiddling with cables?

Complex materials The hidden fabric of digital life through cables Nadia Elmrabet, PhD candidate (Material Culture & Digital Anthropology) Anais Bloch, MA Design Anthropology (MA Culture, Materials and Design)

Context • Presentation made for the “Material Properties” Friday Forum of UCL’s Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences Faculties Institute of Graduate Studies (Joint FIGS) - 28 February 2014 at the Slade Research Institute • Panel : Methods of interrogation  What kinds of research methods are used to investigate materials?  How do these methods differ across disciplines and how can they be applied in different contexts?

Ubiquitous at various scales and yet… very often invisible

Unpacking this material « black box » of digital life

Abstract This presentation aims at focusing on the materiality of digital life. To illustrate this topic we will turn to cables and postulate that they act as the hidden fabric of digital life. Often represented as entangled, these crucial and dense artefacts encompass in themselves, at micro level, intricate diverse materials (metal armour, glass optic fibers, aluminum wires, numerous protecting layers of plastic, etc). At macro level they make up the infrastructure of the “entangled web” of telecommunications and bind digital devices together. In that sense, cables act as a fabric, connecting the different levels of digital life: from the devices in your room to digital superstructures such as servers, urban grids, telecommunication intercontinental or submarine cables. The academic rationale here is to see how digital materiality is very often negated through rhetorics of immateriality and how to re-materialize it. Drawing on Morin’s theory of complexity and particularly the concept of emergence, we ask: what does the part has to say about the whole? How do cables reflect the larger structure of the Internet? This exercise thus enable us to discuss the concepts of hybrid materials, the articulation of materiality / immateriality in what can be described as “black boxes” of digital culture, as well as the role of humans in relation to contemporary digital networks.

Our project • Our main hypothesis / interrogation : The negated presence and sealed materiality of cables as symptomatic of the immateriality discourse of digital life : How to re-materialize it?

1st Activity - Observation Curated collection from UCL (submarine cable) and grids in the streets Early XXth century submarine cable Optical Fiber – model Urban grid

2nd Activity – Sensorial Exploration We first wanted to make a secondary artefact or fabric, comprising discarded cables found at UCL’s department of engineering: the latter were regular cables (copper and foil) and optical fibers connecting digital devices / computers and used for instance in server rooms. We soon realized that weaving a new pattern would take more time and require an expertise and tools we did not have. However, the sensorial exploration of these artefacts proved sufficiently enlightening for the purpose of our rationale.

Origin of discarded cables: server room at UCL. Illustrations of server rooms

Twisted Pairs “Twisted pair cabling is a type of wiring in which two conductors of a single circuit are twisted together for the purposes of canceling out electromagnetic interference (EMI) from external sources […] UTP cable is also the most common cable used in computer networking. Modern Ethernet, the most common data networking standard, can use UTP cables. Twisted pair cabling is often used in data networks for short and medium length connections because of its relatively lower costs compared to optical fiber and coaxial cable.” (Wikipedia)

Backbone “Backbone cabling is the inter-building and intrabuilding cable connections in structured cabling between entrance facilities, equipment rooms and telecommunications closets.” (Wikipedia) “Internet Backbone : The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the first high-speed backbone in 1987. [...] Backbones are typically fiber optic trunk lines. The trunk line has multiple fiber optic cables combined together to increase the capacity. [...] Today there are many companies that operate their own high-capacity backbones, and all of them interconnect at various NAPs around the world. In this way, everyone on the Internet, no matter where they are and what company they use, is able to talk to everyone else on the planet. The entire Internet is a gigantic, sprawling agreement between companies to intercommunicate freely.”

Sharing • We finally chose diverse media representation gathered on a website (images, video, animated GIFs) to share this exploration. • Our objective was to preserve the dynamic nature of this encounter between human operators (us) and material artefacts, to convey resistance and plasticity, as well as the playfulness and the ‘trial and error’ process in material explorations.

Conclusion Extending the concept of « black-boxing » to a trivial, rarely questioned artefact • • Revealing a complex and dense materiality in digital artefacts through physical confrontation (bending materials) similar to concepts of bricolage / poaching. • • Moving from uses and practices : « apparition » regime of digital screens where everything seems to magically appear as well as showcasing a certain « flatness »… …Towards a material observation / experimentation with micro-structures (media) and infrastructures. • • Grasping levels and scales in complex structures. Further question: degree of technical skills needed to understand technology.

Thank you. Nadia Elmrabet, PhD candidate (Material Culture & Digital Anthropology) Anais Bloch, MA Design Anthropology (MA Culture, Materials and Design)

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