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Playing with Personal Media: On an Epistemology of Ignoranc



Mobile devices are ubiquitous and increasingly an integral part of everyday media usage. One remarkable development in the field of personal media (smartphones, tablet computers, etc.) is the trivialization of their interfaces and appearance, espe-cially when compared to the complexity of the underlying software and hardware. The iPhone and its successors trump with usability, they offer simple and seeming-ly direct access to many functions. Software can be handled with basic hand gestures or voice control, no expert knowledge is required to use the devices. Rather, current apps and operating systems are designed for a playful approach that favours unbiased exploration. The article investigates forms of the trivial in both device materiality and interface design from a media studies perspective. Pertinent philosophical positions on human-technology relationships by Günther Anders and Hans Blumenberg are discussed to explore the ramifications of a highly productive epistemology of ignorance. A focus is placed upon the process of blackboxing, a technique of invisi-bilization common to media technologies wherein the social and material prerequisites of a given artefact are hidden from users. The black box also serves as a model of thought to offer a way of analysing unknown complex systems as proposed in cybernetics, and it has more recently been picked up and refashioned in significant ways in actor-network theory. Playing with personal media is situated between the poles of user infantilization and the freedom of exploring new practices. Triviality in interface design is am-biguous in that it denies insight into more fundamental processes but at the same time creates a space for playful variation not requiring professional knowledge. The article aims to negotiate between positions of elitist criticism and affirmative technophilia, which are widespread in the discourse on mobile devices.
Playing with Personal Media:
On an Epistemology of Ignorance
By Timo Kaerlein
Mobile devices are ubiquitous and increasingly an integral part of everyday media
usage. One remarkable development in the field of personal media (smartphones,
tablet computers, etc.) is the trivialization of their interfaces and appearance, es-
pecially when compared to the complexity of the underlying software and hard-
ware. The iPhone and its successors trump with usability, they offer simple and
seemingly direct access to many functions. Software can be handled with basic
hand gestures or voice control, no expert knowledge is required to use the devices.
Rather, current apps and operating systems are designed for a playful approach
that favours unbiased exploration.
The article investigates forms of the trivial in both device materiality and inter-
face design from a media studies perspective. Pertinent philosophical positions on
human-technology relationships by Günther Anders and Hans Blumenberg are
discussed to explore the ramifications of a highly productive epistemology of ig-
norance. A focus is placed upon the process of blackboxing, a technique of invisi-
bilization common to media technologies wherein the social and material prereq-
uisites of a given artefact are hidden from users. The black box also serves as a
model of thought to offer a way of analysing unknown complex systems as pro-
posed in cybernetics, and it has more recently been picked up and refashioned in
significant ways in actor-network theory.
Playing with personal media is situated between the poles of user infantiliza-
tion and the freedom of exploring new practices. Triviality in interface design is
ambiguous in that it denies insight into more fundamental processes but at the
same time creates a space for playful variation not requiring professional
knowledge. The article aims to negotiate between positions of elitist criticism and
affirmative technophilia, which are widespread in the discourse on mobile devic-
Keywords: Mobile media, epistemology of ignorance, Apple, Friedrich Kittler,
Günther Anders, black box, cybernetics, interface theory.
Kaerlein, Timo: Playing with Personal Media,
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013: 651–670. Hosted by Linköping University Electronic Press:
Friedrich Kittler was a passionate proponent of the command-line interface. In his
opinion, user-friendly operating systems such as graphical user interfaces with
their desktop metaphors (and even software in general) are patronizing insofar as
they deny access to fundamental processes taking place on the hardware level.
Kittler’s essays “Protected mode” (1991) and “Es gibt keine Software” (‘There is
no software’, 1993) contain a formidable rant about the monopolistic software
tycoons of the 1980s and 90s, Microsoft foremost among them. As Geoffrey Win-
throp-Young has pointed out, Kittler’s critique can be read as the expression of a
Protestant fixation on the written word, i.e. on machine-readable code, a sola
scriptura of the electronic age (cf. Winthrop-Young 2005: 146).
Kittler’s arguments are mirrored in the contemporary critique of the interfaces
of personal media devices like smartphones and similar Internet-capable, mobile
computing technologies.
Apple not Microsoft is one of the main players in
this field today, following a somewhat Catholic approach in creating handheld
auratic idols to be caressed continuously and involving more senses than just the
visual. The religious analogies contrasting the supposed focus of Catholicism on
appearances, rich sensuality, and fetishistic adoration to the Protestant retreat to-
wards spiritual essence and plain text may serve as an introduction to the problem
treated in this article. They will not be pursued further as such. The question ra-
ther is about how to approach everyday technological objects like personal media,
objects that are not sufficiently described by referring exclusively to their local
materiality, but instead are part of an infrastructure. As the ‘Internet in your pock-
et’ Apple’s advertising slogan for the first generation of iPhones personal me-
dia are representing a network of invisible forces or power relations, pars pro to-
to. This standing in of a local object for a complex web of relations has been iden-
tified as the fundamental structure of fetishism (cf. Böhme 2006: 190 and Morley
2007: 293-309 for a description of personal media as “magical technologies
(ibid.: 293) or the “totems of today’s ‘technotribes’” (ibid.: 297)).
This article will investigate seemingly trivial technological objects that due to
their ubiquity are mostly taken for granted. Personal media in the sense expli-
cated above are increasingly becoming an integral part of everyday media us-
age. Whereas their interfaces are undergoing a process of trivialization with color-
ful icons, touchscreens and simplified apps instead of fully customizable pro-
grams, concerns are raised about production circumstances, tracking capabilities,
the walled garden business models employed to run third-party software on the
devices, and so on. Layers of complexity are attached to personal media that are
not readily represented in their appearance. This becomes all the more a pressing
issue as contrary to many domestic technologies, personal media are intimately
connected to the human body and usually taken everywhere, worn constantly and
always-on. The trivial poses a problem here as phenomena that are seemingly
[652] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
self-explanatory don’t call for explanation and thus obscure the nested levels of
blackboxing technical, economic, environmental, political that are necessary
for their constitution. Thus they lend themselves to cultural critique from various
angles. At the same time, triviality is defined by affordances: Trivial technologies
are inclusive and open for all precisely because they don’t raise barriers of cogni-
tion, skill or involvement.
Personal media are widely seen as stripped-down versions of general-purpose
computers that prevent the user not only from accessing core functions, but even
from independently installing software and manipulating general settings. Conse-
quentially they are marketed to a general audience, often without prior experience
in computing. They feature so-called Natural User Interfaces (NUI) that suppos-
edly don’t need any initial learning phase (cf. Wigdor & Wixon 2011). Cory Doc-
torow, blogger and copyright activist, writes about the iPad under the heading
“Infantalizing hardware”:
Then there's the device itself: clearly there's a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that
went into the design. But there's also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe
really believe in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can't open it,
you don't own it (Doctorow 2010).
Doctorow bemoans the experience of having to deal with a technology that comes
in the shape of a hermetic black box. In his view, personal media offer a nonde-
script surface which grants superficial operativity but simultaneously hides its
inner workings and its history, i.e. the values, norms and prescriptions that have
been involved in the product design and development and become a fixture evad-
ing critique. The artifact doesn’t tell anything about itself and incapacitates the
user because it doesn’t allow any invasive interference.
In the following, Kittler’s and Doctorow’s view will first be enhanced by refer-
ring to a pessimistic position expressed in the philosophy of technology formu-
lated by Günther Anders, who is hereby proposed to be read as an interface theo-
rist (cf. Kaerlein 2012). The argument will then be relativized by referring to Hans
Blumenberg’s position that science and technology in general call for a conscious
waiver of sense (Sinnverzicht). Next, the cybernetic epistemology of the black box
will be revisited, which has been taken up and modified in actor-network theory.
This will not solve the controversy but instead historicize it. It will be argued that
playing with personal media as a dominant form of interaction builds on a produc-
tive epistemology of ignorance that simultaneously limits critical discourse as
well as opens up spaces of play, contingency and potentiality.
Several examples
will be provided to demonstrate both the invisible entanglements of personal me-
dia in material networks and infrastructures as well as the emergence of mobile
playscapes, i.e. practices of creative exploration that build on a position of igno-
rance on the part of the user. The approach taken here is more systematic than
empirical, more epistemological than ethnographic, hazarding the consequences
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [653]
of theoretical reduction in favor of clearly outlining a particular discourse on hu-
man-technology relationships.
Vilém Flusser’s thoughts on a philosophy of photography (Flusser 1983/1994)
include several arguments that anticipate the discussion traced here. In fact,
Flusser’s description of the camera apparatus as a symbol-processing machine can
still contribute to the understanding of today’s portable computers such as person-
al media. The camera is more toy than tool as it contains a set of rules that the
photographer either actualizes or controverts by engaging in experimental behav-
ior (cf. ibid.: 25). In both cases, it remains a black box that contains far more pos-
sibilities than any photographer could ever make use of (cf. ibid.: 26), so that he
or she usually focuses on inputs and outputs exclusively without worrying about
the operation in detail. “It is a complex plaything, so complex that those who play
with it cannot see through it” (ibid.: 29, translation by the author). The notion of
play in Flusser’s account is characteristically ambivalent it is both an expression
of the human condition vis-à-vis the apparatus (more homo ludens than homo fa-
ber), but also a possible way to undermine programmed intentions and the com-
prehensive automation that Flusser sees working as a general principle of post-
industrial society. Insofar as Flusser himself has hypothesized that the “universe
of photography” can serve as a model case for “post-industrial life per se” (ibid.:
68, translation by the author), his writing can be seen as an early attempt at de-
scribing a cybernetic epistemology of ignorance and finding means to criticize it
which is the goal of this contribution as well.
The Outdatedness of Appearance
Regarding the present generation of personal media, it can be observed that the
reproach of trivialization certainly contains some truth. The iPhone was released
in 2007 and is still the most iconic smartphone in public awareness leading even
respected scholars to somewhat exaggerated endeavors like calling for an “iPhone
theory of mobile communication” (Goggin 2012: 17). It prominently features a
flat, black touchscreen display and one main button below it. That is essentially
the full physical interface if we omit for a moment some further controls hidden
on the top and spines of the device. This minimalism is continued in the design of
the operating system with its touchable icons and the app infrastructure, which is
basically a closed system of accredited programs that often claim not to require
any initial expertise on the part of the user.
Matthias Müller-Prove has offered an entertaining, but also thought-provoking
account of the history of computer interfaces (cf. Müller-Prove 2011). He con-
trasts the transition from command-line over graphical to the present ‘natural’ or
tangible user interfaces with the developmental stages of a child’s mental capaci-
ties, following the combined models of Jean Piaget and Jerome S. Bruner. While a
child increasingly develops an iconic and a symbolic mentality, learning to differ-
[654] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
entiate and to operate visual and formal cues, user interfaces seem to follow an
opposite trajectory. The command line is a highly formalized environment, de-
manding analytic skills and relying heavily on users’ active knowledge. The
graphical user interface with its windows, icons, menus, and desktop metaphor
simplifies this setting, but at the same time restricts access to more fundamental
levels of a system architecture. The current ‘natural’ user interfaces add a whole
array of physical dimensions like multi-touch capabilities, accelerometers, gesture
and voice control and different sensors to the devices. In that way, they are de-
signed for seamlessness, often following a paradigm of reality-based interaction
(cf. Jacob et al. 2008). As the various advertising narratives never fail to empha-
size, every child can use such an interface, which is basically reactive to various
kinds of input that can be combined without having to translate them first to a
formal machine language. It has to be noted that this trivialization of human-
computer interaction from a user’s perspective does not imply a trivialization on
the level of hardware and software architecture. On the contrary, e.g. a voice in-
terface based on natural language processing (Apple’s Siri is the most prominent
example), poses a highly complex challenge in implementation. What seems trivi-
al on the outside requires refined engineering knowledge.
The radical German technology critic Günther Anders developed a philosophy
of discrepancy in his 1956 book Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (‘The outdated-
ness of man’, cf. Liessmann 2002: 54). He speaks of a Promethean gap (‘Prome-
theisches Gefälle’) between humans and the technological objects they themselves
have set in the world. It signifies the historical moment where humans are no
longer able to understand what they can produce as a collective. As “inverted uto-
pians” (Anders 1981/2003: 96), our capacities of production surpass our capaci-
ties of understanding, let alone emotionally comprehending the world of technol-
ogy. This defect in human capabilities is complemented by an according defect on
the side of the apparatuses. Anders calls it the outdatedness of appearance and
describes it as follows:
If we, incapable of imagination, are blind, then the apparatuses are mute: this means
that their appearance doesn’t reveal anything about their character. […] They feign
an appearance that has nothing in common with their essence, they seem to be less
than they are. […] This ‘negative swank’, this “being more than it seems”, has never
before occurred in history (Anders 1980/2002: 34f., translation by the author).
What Anders had in mind, were first and foremost the innocent-looking cans of
cyclone-b gas that were used in the death-camp of Auschwitz and of course
the atomic bomb and nuclear reactors whose appearances don’t relate remotely to
their potential effects (cf. Anders 1980/2002: 34f.). But it can be argued that his
diagnosis equally applies to the computer and even more so, to miniaturized per-
sonal devices like smartphones. The computer is hypothetically such a powerful
machine, that it can simulate any other conceivable discrete-state machine (as per
Turing’s definition). Any interface, in allowing the user to operate a computer,
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [655]
therefore systematically understates what the machine is capable of doing.
tionally, it is part of a history of rationalization, centralized bureaucracy, and mili-
tary uses in simulation and calculation that make it a central element of what has
been conceived of as an intimidating technocratic apparatus at least since the
1960s. The critical discourse includes titles such as Jacques Ellul’s The Techno-
logical Society (1954/1964), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964)
and Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (1967), among others.
Traditional tools from the flintstone to apparatuses based on mechanical
principles have usually been designed to incorporate in their appearance their
context and instructions for use. In the course of industrialization, machines have
become the dominant technological form. With them comes the tendency to en-
case working parts inside nonspecific covers and blinds, withdrawing them from
direct supervision. The outer look of contemporary computer hardware is almost
meaningless, even if the casing is removed, because processing and storage take
place on a different scale than human perception. Software does not readily reveal
the limitless possibilities of a computer, but channels it according to users’ needs
and cognitive capabilities. Computers can thus be seen as the most elusive ma-
chines to date, dealing in the realm of the symbolic and not in observable mechan-
In the case of the smartphone, the computer is hidden in a small and plain de-
vice that has so much become a part of everyday life that it fades from view and
evades critical contemplation. Technology often takes on such an agreeable and
personalized form today (cf. Liessmann 2002: 191f.) that its users don’t bother
about any invisible layers of processing, much less about the interconnectedness
of devices and sensors that form a complex ecology behind their backs.
people tend to nurture their personal companions, adorn them with all sorts of
accessories and increasingly integrate their presence into the body image. The
familiar, the trivial, the everyday is often exempt from critical investigation. We
often choose not to care about the dubious policies of apps that constantly analyze
data traces without our explicit consent for purposes of targeted advertising or
surveillance. We welcome the comfort of cloud data storage services while cogni-
tively failing to imagine the sheer scope of the network and losing control of our
personal data. Our devices seem harmless because they do not readily reveal their
agenda, their scripts, the social and material prerequisites of their production. As
they do not allow us to peek inside and restrict our actions to the surface of a
mundane interface, they enforce the Promethean gap while at the same time pre-
tending to bridge it due to their handiness.
Waiver of Sense, Not Loss of Insight
Anders‘ position surely is an extreme one. He revolts against the politics of arti-
facts, as Langdon Winner would put it (cf. Winner 1980), and demands to “torture
[656] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
the things until they confess” (Anders 1980/2002: 428, translation by the author)
their secret agenda. But it resonates in many of the views articulated by today’s
critics of technology like Doctorow who does not accept a device that he cannot
control completely.
Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and
set meaningful policy on them, to examine and terminate the processes that run on
them, to maintain them as honest servants to our will, and not as traitors and spies
working for criminals, thugs, and control freaks (Doctorow 2011).
The philosopher Hans Blumenberg observed in 1963 that technologization una-
voidably leads to the construction of devices that an observer is simply not able to
perceive in all aspects because its mechanisms are hidden in a casing and/or are
too complex to comprehend (cf. Blumenberg 1963/2009: 35f.). He argues that this
is indeed a necessary condition of any increase in knowledge because human lives
are limited the capacity of their being (‘Dasein’) is constant, not dynamic (cf.
ibid.: 51) while the theoretical tasks are infinite (cf. ibid.: 41). Therefore, histor-
ically achieved successes are being formalized, i.e. reduced to methods that can be
applied blindly without having to prove every single statement again. The same
applies to technology, which is the material offspring of the process of formaliza-
tion, and accordingly the empirical test of the validity of scientific claims. While
Edmund Husserl maintained that the history of the sciences has led to a gradual
deprivation of insight and therefore the loss of an original sense (‘Urstiftung-
ssinn’), Blumenberg recognizes the necessity of this process.
“The loss of sense
that Husserl talked about is really a waiver of sense that is self-inflicted in the
consequence of theoretical claims” (ibid.: 43, translation by the author). In other
words, one cannot start from scratch in each attempt to solve a new problem, but a
set of functionalized repositories of knowledge practices is inherited that can be
put to use without questioning.
Indeed, one could argue that with the emergence of non-trivial machines,
knowledge comes to be seen from the viewpoint of practicability in the light of
indeterminacies and the incompleteness of observation (cf. Hörl 2010: 54). This
means that we can build more than we can understand and epistemic self-
restriction is actually a productive paradigm, as is evident in the technoscientific
practices of tinkering (cf. Weber 2011). The specific rationality of technoscience
embraces contingency, combinatorics, trial and error, self-organization and evolu-
tion (cf. ibid.: 94). It is argued that unpredictable outcomes require a loss of con-
trol to some extent. Interestingly, in information technology, a component is con-
sidered to be transparent if it is easy to understand its function without having to
bother with its structure in detail (cf. Hilgers 2010). Following this diction, the
less it is necessary to cognitively grasp a mechanism, the more transparent it be-
I want to argue that a similar logic is working in the trivialization of personal
media devices and interfaces. It has been noted that smartphones offer a range of
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [657]
interaction variants that as trivial as they may seem spur creative uses and in-
vite a playful approach. Some examples will be given below. This is made possi-
ble precisely because the devices are so secretive when it comes to telling any-
thing about themselves. They do not allow the end user to peek inside or be-
yond, i.e. into the further scales of material entanglements that they are part of ,
but they do not require it either. Such a playful engagement with personal media
and its consequences are made possible by a process of blackboxing that shall be
investigated in some more detail next. The blackbox model represents a specific
epistemo-politics that is inherited from cybernetics, but is still prevalent in mar-
keting discourses, branding strategies and indeed practices of contemporary per-
sonal media.
The Cybernetic Blackbox A Productive Epistemology of
Bruno Latour and others in actor-network theory have used the model of the black
box to describe temporary stabilizations in fluid networks. Under the term black-
boxing, Latour understands
the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a
machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its
inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more
science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become (Latour
1999: 304).
A black box hides its constitution and character as a network and allows other
actors to interact with it in a setting of reduced complexity. Personal media can be
described as black boxes in several ways. Not only does the term quite accurately
represent their literal appearance but it also captures their efficient bundling to-
gether of various interests, services and action programs. Blackboxing as a pro-
cess implies a successful stabilizing effort that on the one hand leads to trivial
reproducibility and reliability, while on the other hand allows for even more com-
plexity, as Blumenberg’s notion of a gainful waiver of sense suggests. The main
function of technology in the black box model is to relieve the user (and, to an
extent, also the designer or engineer) from the cognitive burden of having to un-
derstand all its internal or external relations. This in turn is a prerequisite for spe-
cific non-technical practices and non-instrumental object relationships, which are
especially relevant in everyday use, i.e. outside of expert contexts.
If one follows the genealogy of the black box further to its roots in the dis-
course on cybernetics, an interesting perspective arises. The black box is the cen-
tral element of an epistemology strongly influenced by behaviorism and its theory
is “practically coextensive with that of everyday life” (Ashby 1956: 110), as neu-
ropsychiatrist Ross Ashby argues.
[658] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
Thus, a black box gives us a concept that allows us to handle what is, in effect, an
unknown world: It is the statement of ignorance, of our ability to overcome and cope
with ignorance, and thus is a primative of learning and, hence, of science (Glanville
1982: 1).
Ashby used a prototypical black box the so-called “Ashby Box” as a didactic
tool to introduce his students at the Biological Computer Laboratory to the intri-
cacies of cybernetic complexity during the 1960s (cf. Müggenburg & Pias 2013:
60f.). Although this device only provided two switches and two lamps both of
which could be in one of two states the task to analyze the relations between
input and output parameters was unsolvable in principle. Because the machine
changed its inner state after each switching operation depending on the entire his-
tory of its operation, it gained some emergent qualities its results were absolute-
ly deterministic, but unpredictable (cf. Hörl 2010: 53f.). Ashby himself was ob-
sessed with a similar, more complex device (the so-called Grandfather’s Clock, cf.
Müggenburg & Pias 2013: 61) that he used as an “inspirational device” (ibid.)
because it created ever-changing color patterns. His engagement with this appa-
ratus appears as a precursor to what Karin Knorr Cetina has labeled “object-
centered sociality” (Knorr Cetina 1997: 1), understood as an increasingly intimate
and comprehensive embedding in object worlds that “constitutes something like
the reverse side of the coin of the contemporary experience of individualization”
(ibid.). Drawing on Rheinberger’s notion of epistemic things and extending the
term to encompass computers and other dynamic technological objects, Knorr
Cetina argues that such objects are characterized by a temporal logic of unfolding,
of revealing ever new qualities that perpetuate an ongoing interest in them (cf.
ibid.: 13).
Rooted in expert contexts (the libidinal surplus of scientists’ engage-
ment with their objects of study), similar processes can be observed in non-expert
cultures, specifically “an increased orientation towards objects as sources of the
self, of relational intimacy, of shared subjectivity and social integration” (ibid.:
What do these examples from the history of cybernetics show? As the observer
initially does not possess any knowledge about the functionality of a black box, he
or she is forced to randomly modify the input to see how it affects the output. In
other words, he or she is invited to play around, to engage in an exploratory be-
havior, as no method whatsoever will lead to faster results if one assumes the ab-
solute opacity of the black box. The epistemology of the black box and that of
play and random experimentation in affective object relationships are intricately
connected. Ashby presents the scenario of a black box “which might be some-
thing, say, that has just fallen from a Flying Saucer“ (Ashby 1956: 87). An exper-
imenter treats it with several different inputs and protocols the observed outputs.
Following the description of this procedure, Ashby feels it necessary to include a
paragraph addressed to the reader missing a methodical approach:
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [659]
It will be noticed that nothing has been said about the skill of the experimenter in
manipulating the input. The omission was deliberate, for no skill is called for! We
are assuming, remember, that nothing is known about the Box, and when this is so
the method of making merely random variations (e.g. guided by throws of a die) on
the input-switches is as defensible as any other method, for no facts yet exist that
could be appealed to as justification for preferring any particular method (ibid.: 89).
The Dutch anthropologist, biologist and psychologist Frederik J. J. Buytendijk
who counts as one of the main protagonists of cybernetic anthropology (cf. Rieger
2003: 189) has stated as early as 1933 that play is essentially a dynamic recipro-
cating motion: “Every act of play starts with a movement whose consequences are
not entirely predictable, which carries in it a surprising element.” (Buytendijk
1933: 116, translation by the author). This means for the “object of play”: “[It]
does not have the character of an intellectually defined object, it is not a What, but
a How, that is constituted in the circular process of allurement and its answer, of
moving and being moved, be it that the player does not know of this becoming”
(ibid.: 132, translation by the author). Buytendijk’s modeling anticipates the cy-
bernetic principles of feedback loops and control systems that equally require an
input that is subsequently modified in reaction to the observable state of the sys-
tem. Ignorance is the reverse side of the coin of this epistemology as nothing is
nor needs to be known about the content of the black box or play-other.
What Ashby and Buytendijk before him are describing is essentially the situa-
tion that many so-called end-users, and to a lesser extent even software designers
and hardware engineers, are initially confronted with when dealing with personal
media and their applications. The artifact appears as a plain, black surface with no
discernible features, apps are just an icon on the screen that launch a separate in-
terface. The first contact will usually be one of random experimentation, i.e.
touching the device, shaking it, using more than one finger at the same time,
pinching, wiping, tapping, etc. The marketing of personal media and their NUI
draws heavily on the image of the innocent and naïve user who intuitively learns
to handle a device without prior knowledge just as a child would explore an
unknown environment.
When an interaction is supposed to be ‘natural’ and thus
self-explanatory, it is designed to fit in with users’ everyday environments and
(mostly learned) routines of behavior. This attitude is profoundly anti-hermeneutic
as it simply doesn’t seem important to understand what lies behind or under the
observed phenomena what counts is what you can do with it. Recent interface
innovations in the areas of touchscreen displays, voice control and gesture recog-
nition thus actually increase the distance between human and computer on the
level of logical operations while simultaneously presenting a new experiential
‘immediacy’ of interaction.
The liberation from cognitive ballast apparent in current human-computer in-
terfaces, specifically in the area of personal media, yields highly productive out-
comes. Reduced to a position of ignorance, the user is denied any systematic or
analytic possibility of understanding (there is no easy way to access a command
[660] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
line on an iPhone, let alone to trace the production path of the device itself). The
user’s position indeed resembles a child-like impartiality with all its drawbacks,
but it would be a fallacy to ignore the creative potentials this specific stance en-
tails. The act of blackboxing, i.e. of withdrawing insight, paradoxically animates
users to experiment freely and explore aesthetic or playful practices. A becoming-
child of the user can reasonably be condemned as infantilization, but it might also
indicate an epistemology of ignorance and thus a generative mechanism.
black box does not so much interest as a cipher to be decoded, but rather as a
function which is defined by its inputs and outputs alone (cf. Galloway 2011:
273). Kittler himself has admitted that desirable at least to him synergies be-
tween man and machine” do not necessarily entail the opening of casings but def-
initely a “playing with all buttons” (Kittler 1989: 111f., translation by the author).
In Hartmut Winkler’s reading, this points to a changing and still somewhat diffuse
standpoint of critical theory: “not to take an outside perspective towards the ma-
chines, but instead to think with the hands and to fathom the black boxes in prac-
tical manipulation” (Winkler 2003: 223, translation by the author).
The concept of epistemologies of ignorance can be helpful to understand the
way in which the systematic invisibilization and/or trivialization of certain com-
ponents and features of personal media acts both as an enabler of practices as well
as a precaution against undesirable interventions. While an epistemology of igno-
rance might in fact be the working principle of consumerist capitalism in general,
in the area of interfaces it seems to apply especially well.
An integrated system
of practices, beliefs and technologies depends for its stability on widespread, and
at times self-inflicted, ignorance concerning some of its qualities; in fact, it can
only function according to the extent that ignorance is sufficiently embodied in its
participants. In the context of the media literacy debate, for example, the argu-
ment is common that children and teenagers are much more skilled inhabitants of
the contemporary media ecology (so-called ‘digital natives’), so that the older
generations may learn from them how to handle interfaces and to be productive
with digital media. This is only true to the extent that a significant degree of igno-
rance is taken into account regarding the ways media are embedded in wider so-
cial and ecological frames and technical infrastructures. In this respect, theoretical
work is sought for that is able to nurture the potentials of a hands-on, practical
but, to an extent, ignorant approach towards digital technology, but on the other
hand can resume the work of deconstruction by pointing to the sites where prob-
lematic processes of blackboxing continue to occur.
Invisible Media Ecologies and Mobile Playscapes Examples
In this section, several phenomena are discussed that make evident how both An-
ders’ analysis (antiquatedness of appearance) and Blumenberg’s (gainful waiver
of sense) can be applied to the description of personal media, i.e. Internet-capable,
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [661]
digital communication technologies. Of course, both authors drew on different
technological objects to make their observations, but the connected portable mi-
crocomputer is suited especially well to this kind of analysis. Personal media are
1) marked by a deep discrepancy between appearance and capacities the per-
ceptible form and apparently trivial interfaces do not allow any conclusions
about programming, production circumstances, conflicting agencies bundled
into the device, etc.;
2) very easy to use because many layers of complexity have been removed
from the interface, which makes them relevant in everyday use and allows
people without expert knowledge to achieve considerable successes.
Two examples shall be provided for the systematic divergence between the gen-
eral capacities of material production and the cognitive and emotional comprehen-
sion of the artifacts resulting from it. Issues of e-waste most notably due to
planned obsolescence, which, for Anders, is an indication of “ruthlessness” (An-
ders 1980/2002: 40) towards the serial product that is “born to die” (ibid.: 38, both
translations T. K.) as the industry demands a minimization of the intervals of con-
sumption and precarious labor conditions (cf. Taffel 2012) systematically evade
attention insofar as they form the backbone of the personal media infrastructure
without having a proper representation inside the system. Instead, the discourse of
virtuality and immaterialization surrounding the early explorations of cyberspace
and virtual reality in the 1990s is carried on today in pieces of hardware that seem
to work “as if by magic” (Cannon & Barker 2012: 73). The suggestive immediacy
and weightlessness of accessing content by the touch of a fingertip finds its cruel
counterpart in an economy of exploitation that leads to Foxconn workers in Shen-
zhen to literally lose their fingertips in the process of electronics manufacturing
(cf. Qiu 2012). As Christian Dries has pointed out, “our mobile companions are
not only made of metal and plastic, but also of blood and turn out to be monsters
in a moral sense” (Dries 2009: 96, translation by the author). This invisibilization
of infrastructures of production and disposal certainly is not specific to personal
media but it contrasts rather sharply with their suggestive handiness and trivial
On another level, the seemingly trivial everyday devices are more than they
seem to be, when one takes into account their incorporation into a technical net-
work infrastructure. Every smartphone is a potential tracker, a circumstance which
has initiated some debate about a renaming of the devices to raise awareness for
this fact (cf. Maass & Rajagopalan 2012). Data traffic with cloud services, and
even mundane mobile gaming offers opportunities for location-specific targeted
advertising and corporate or state surveillance via GPS. Long-term self-
experiments have pointed to the ubiquity of profiling and the emergence of a “da-
ta self” (Loebel 2013: 159) that consists of everyday routines and habits that are
typically not readily available to an individual consciousness but can be made
visible by automatic tracking and analysis. Again, a wide gulf seems to separate
[662] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
device appearance and behind-the-scenes processuality. A trivial ontological atti-
tude which would attempt to describe the world as it is given to an independent
outside observer (cf. Hörl 2010: 59f.) ironically finds its limits facing seemingly
trivial objects of observation.
On the other hand, we can find many examples for an unfolding of mobile
playscapes with personal media, i.e. practices of play and exploration that are de-
pendent on blackboxing complexity. These practices rely on an intentional super-
ficiality of engagement and to an extent on a deliberate not-wanting-to-know
about technical specifics, to a much greater degree than even in the case of the
graphical user interface. The Instagram photo editing app for example allows us-
ers to simply add filter effects to pictures taken with the cameras of their devices.
It is essentially a stripped-down Photoshop with pre-selected options and an easy-
to-use interface. Professional photographers are horrified by its banality (cf. Bev-
an 2012, who calls Instagram filters the “antithesis of creativity”), while amateurs
like it for basically the same reason. The arguments here often center on the tradi-
tional craftsmanship of good photography, on the authenticity of ‘real’ vintage
photos against stylized nostalgia filters, and the value of photography as an art
form. In the meantime, millions of amateur photographers are experimenting with
new ways to aestheticize their everyday experience by finding unusual angles,
editing shots and sharing them on the Internet. Wired editor Clive Thompson calls
it “The Instagram Effect” (Thompson 2011). He summarizes: “I find it a lovely
moment. Today’s tech is often blamed for producing a generation of people who
stare at screens. But sometimes it opens up a new window on the world” (ibid.).
Additionally and again on a very different level, the possibility to play around,
the “production of a cellular playscape”, as Michal Daliot-Bul puts it in her case
study of “Japan’s mobile technoculture” (Daliot-Bul 2007), is marking a “cultural
shift” (ibid.: 968) towards a consumption-oriented, hedonistic and aestheticized
lifestyle. “In the keitai [Japanese term for mobile phone] cultural environment,
playfulness has come to be the civilizing matrix of multimedia consumption that
develops in play-form” (ibid.: 966).
A specific trajectory of this shift lies in a
construction of personal media as intimate companions and playmates in everyday
life (cf. ibid.: 955). This is evident in the various appropriative strategies applied
mainly but not exclusively in youth cultures:
With a variety of hand straps; cute, attachable mini-dolls and cartoon characters;
funny, illuminating antennae; carrying bags; 3D stickers to cover up the mouthpiece;
full-body stickers; screen holograms; and handmade painting on customer demand,
mobile phones became a fashion item of complex and excessive signs play (ibid.:
By playing with personal media, an altered human-technology relation ensues:
The devices and their affordances are interpreted more in categories of sociality
and affectivity and less in functional terms (i.e. as tools for specific purposes).
The transparency (in the sense introduced above) of the technical components
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [663]
increases this effect, as it raises cognitive barriers that stimulate alternative sche-
mata of interpretation.
Again, practices of appropriation are not exclusive to
personal media the example from Japan uses regular mobile phones. However,
miniaturized computers in their character as black boxes both offer themselves to
creative domestications as well as resist them to some extent. They are open to
various uses, not restricted to a single function, which also means that the range of
possible uses always transcends an individual user’s scope.
That personal media in the sense used here have to be understood in the gene-
alogy of personal computers provides a further explanation for their increasing
integration into practices of play and lifestyle. John M. Roberts and Brian Sutton-
Smith have argued that the dominant technologies of a given historical epoch are
regularly taken up in its preferred play-forms (cf. Roberts & Sutton-Smith 1962).
Especially technical solutions that have been developed out of a calculus of labor
efficiency are often simultaneously used as toys. Roberts and Sutton-Smith call
their approach conflict enculturation theory and state that during play symbolic
solutions are sought for socially relevant conflicts. For example, in times of auto-
mation, gambling machines begin to get very popular among the working class.
Similarly, computers are reappropriated as personal affective technologies for
leisure activities by today’s office workers and the so-called ‘Creative Class’ (cf.
Florida 2002). The fact that computers came to be seen as personal technologies
at all can in fact be traced back to countercultural efforts in the 1960s and 70s that
formed precisely as a protest against the military-industrial complex and the sup-
posedly dehumanizing effects of anonymous computing machines. Decisive in
this respect were the non-hierarchic networking and collaborative practices
around the Whole Earth Catalog that, as Fred Turner has shown, have paved the
way for the Internet, virtual communities, social networks and somewhat ironi-
cally neoliberal ideals of self-management and flexible labor (cf. Turner 2006).
This contribution has aimed at outlining the contours and genealogy of a debate
around contemporary personal media that is often ideologically entrenched. On
the one hand, the position of elitist critique is not primarily concerned with practi-
cal uses and gratifications, but operates according to an imperative of remorseless
On the other hand, discourses of affirmative technophilia (as stereo-
typically represented in the writings of Wired magazine) are not interested in the
actual and potential ramifications of personal media practices and materialities but
prefer to stress their accessibility along with their economic promise. It was pro-
posed to understand personal media as part of a productive epistemology of igno-
rance, i.e. to acknowledge that they draw much of their appeal from what one
does not know about them. This is not to say that to avoid potential complicities,
one should refrain from using such devices altogether as radical abstainers or lud-
[664] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
dites might demand. Rather, the foremost task in theoretically describing personal
media and their impact not only on users’ lives but also on the whole system of
exchanges and interactions in which they are embedded can only be to
acknowledge their potentials while pointing to their entanglements at various sites
of agency.
Established research like the digital materialism approach (cf. Manovich 2001)
and software studies (cf. Fuller 2008) offer building blocks to a critical theory that
does not eschew the confrontation with devices in everyday trivial contexts of
use. More recently, investigations into a general ecology of media and technology
have pointed to the necessity of a radically environmental thinking to understand
the current technological condition (cf. Hörl 2011). Jussi Parikka, for example,
has contributed to the debates around new materialism by extending the scope of
media materiality to include rocks, chemicals and the like (cf. Parikka 2012): “In-
deed, materiality is not just machines; nor is it just solids, and things, or even ob-
jects. Materiality leaks in many directions, as electronic waste demonstrates, or
the effects of electromagnetic pollution. It is transformational, ecological, and
multiscalar” (ibid.: 86). As artifacts, personal media are part of several frames of
reference, some of which are obvious to human observers, some not, but all are
part of the same (material) reality. Thus, the study of digital media might profit
from taking into account the existence of an epistemology of ignorance at work at
the heart of its subject matter that privileges certain forms of materiality and ex-
cludes others as irrelevant. By referring to Anders’ radically interpretative ap-
proach, I want to suggest that a “hermeneutics of technology” (Winkler 2003:
224, translation by the author) becomes a complementary if somewhat defiant
option to study digital media. Such an approach would have to systematically
transcend perceptual evidences not by theoretical speculation but by acknowl-
edging the existence of agencies outside the human frame of reference. The ques-
tion remains where the critique is headed. Whereas Flusser was still optimistic
about the possibilities of illuminating the black box (cf. Flusser 1983/1994: 15),
from today’s perspective on “scalar entanglement” (Taffel 2013), it is very likely
that we’re dealing with black boxes all the way down so that opening one will
always lead to multiple others.
Timo Kaerlein is a doctoral researcher in the DFG-funded Research Training
Group ‘Automatisms’ at the University of Paderborn (Germany). His research
interests include media theory, digital culture, personal/mobile media, cultural
theory of play, science and technology studies. The current work focuses on au-
tomatisms in interface design and practices of appropriation of personal media. E-
Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013 [665]
Personal media are here understood as Internet-capable, portable microcomputers in various
shapes (often attuned to their wearers’ bodies) that currently happen to converge with mobile
telephones leading to the development of so-called ‘smart’ phones. There is no indication
that this encounter of computing and personal telecommunications technologies is the last
step of an ongoing development. Projects undertaken in wearable computing (Google Glass,
Smartwatch, etc.) seem to point to a future of an ever closer integration of human body and
computing devices.
The so-called maker’s bill of rights can be found at
[Accessed 19 February 2013] (originally published in Make Magazine in 2006). The regres-
sive potential of the current generation of personal media has repeatedly been described in
expert and press discourses on media interfaces, particularly “Apple’s most recent interfaces
and ad campaigns have cultivated an attitude of childlike wonder on the part of its consumer
base, in part by shrewdly maintaining an atmosphere of mystery and magic surrounding the
product and its inner workings” (Cannon & Barker 2012: 73).
The term “epistemology of ignorance” is also used in critical race studies, but adapted here
for the context of media technologies, as will be made clear later. Charles Mills, who coined
the term in 1997, summarizes it as such: “Thus in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial
Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of igno-
rance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psycho-
logically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be
unable to understand the world they themselves have made” (Mills 1997: 18).
Interface does not only denote the “symbolic handles, which […] make software accessible to
users” but also the points of juncture between software, data and hardware and even between
different hardware components of a system or network. Thus, “[c]omputer programs can be
seen as tactical constraints of the total possible uses of hardware” (Cramer & Fuller 2008:
The term (media) ecology is used here in the sense introduced by Matthew Fuller and Jussi
Parikka, among others. “Ecology comprises the study of patterns of interconnection, interac-
tion, and transferences of energy between agents involved in complex networks featuring liv-
ing and non-living nodes, exploring how different parts of the global household relate to one
another” (Taffel 2013). Usage of the term is thus not limited to living ecosystems, but it com-
prises multiple entangled scales of materiality, stretching across content, software, and hard-
ware in the case of media ecologies.
The term ‘handiness’ or ‘readiness-to-hand’ is used by Martin Heidegger to denote the way in
which objects that belong to the human lifeworld are usually approached with a view to
their use and effectiveness and without much thinking about the object in its quality of being
a thing in its own. Incidentally, the word ‘Handy’ is used in the German language as a collo-
quial term for mobile phones.
Husserl’s example is geometry, which stems from an idealization of bodily measures, but
consequentially becomes a pure method, “a purely technical handling of the inherited tool“
(Blumenberg 1963/2009: 31, translation by the author).
Knorr Cetina explicitly differentiates objects of knowledge from the closed boxes of ready-to-
hand tools and consumer products (cf. Knorr Cetina 1997: 12). In my view, the distinction is
not so sharp as blackboxing is often the prerequisite of new potentialities that arise out of a
reduction of complexity of constituent parts.
This imagery has forerunners in graphical user interfaces for the personal computer. One
major selling point of these metaphorical environments was their inclusion of audiences lack-
ing technical knowledge about computers. Personal media ubiquitize this tendency and en-
hance it by new interaction modalities.
[666] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
Furthermore, especially the mobile (smart) phone as the prime example of personal media has
been described as a transitional object in the terms of Winnicott’s psychoanalytic object rela-
tions theory (cf. Winnicott 1971 and Ribak 2009). This more or less metaphorical adoption
points to the possible function of personal media in parent-teen interrelationships, but also to
their connection with creativity, play and the creation of protected spaces of experimentation.
Whereas transitional objects thus play an important role in socialization, the reference also
underlines their immense regressive potential.
Winkler’s reflection resonates with Galloway’s question about which allegory of critique
might be adequate if opening or decoding the black box does not seem to be a viable option
anymore (cf. Galloway 2011: 274). Galloway does not arrive at a convincing answer, but
speculates that it might be about (re-)programming the black boxes, i.e. taking them as a giv-
en and manipulating them on the surface.
Here, one can begin to speculate if the formal properties of a blackboxed commodity in gen-
eral equally invite a process of mystification as well as an urge to unmask and profane the ob-
ject. (At least) two stances seem systematically possible, sometimes even simultaneously: 1.
the construction of symbolic meanings complementing its trivial appearance Marx famously
calls this the “[f]etishism of commodities” (Marx 1867/1887: 46), and 2. the desire to radical-
ly deconstruct those phantasms and reduce the object to its undisputed materiality. I thank
Dominik Maeder for the suggestion. It has to be noted though that Marx’ approach is some-
what at odds with Anders’ position, when the former suggests that some symbolic idealiza-
tion is inevitably attached to the products of human labor and thus makes them seem more
than they are as judged from their use value. They attain the hybrid character of “social things
whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses“ (ibid.: 47).
When Anders argues that the technical apparatuses “seem to be less than they are” (Anders
1980/2002: 34f.), he is thus focusing on the insufficient perceptibility of societal value rela-
tions. The process of fetishistic elevation and the outdatedness of appearance can be read as
two sides of the same story (which can be exemplified in the Apple kind of techno-fetishism
where a rather minimalist design is combined with cultic idealization).
His impartiality is somewhat compromised by the special feature on iPhone lenses a few
pages later that are praised as a “must-have for Instagram addicts“ (ibid.).
The argument here goes back to Huizinga’s classic, if idealized account of play as a vector of
cultural developments (cf. Huizinga 1938).
This is especially evident in the interaction with robotic toys and similar “relational artifacts“
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[670] Culture Unbound, Volume 5, 2013
Günther Anders offers one of the first phenomenological analyses of broadcast radio (in 1930) and its transformation of the contemporary experience of music. Anders also develops a reflection on its political consequences as he continues his reflection in a discussion of radio and newsreel, film and television in his 1956 ‘The World as Phantom and Matrix’. A reflection on the consequences of this transformation brings in Friedrich Kittler’s reflection on radio and precision bombing. A further reflection on Jean Baudrillard’s notion of ‘speech without response’ permits a review of digital culture and the self-creation of the digital consumer absorbed in what Anders named a schizo-topia, that is, today, an autistic culture of distraction, displacement, and self-driven surveillance.
Bucher uses the concept of the black box as a heuristic device to discuss the nature of algorithms in contemporary media platforms, and how we, as scholars and students interested in this nature, might attend to and study algorithms, despite, or even because of, their seemingly secret nature. The argument is made that despite the usefulness in pointing out some of the epistemological challenges relating to algorithms, the figure of the black box constitutes somewhat of a distraction from other, perhaps more pressing, questions and issues. Moving beyond the notion that algorithms are black boxes, the chapter synthesizes and extends existing approaches and makes a case for using well-known methods to new domains, not only generating knowledge about emerging issues and practices, but contributing to (re)inventing methods.
This text considers the materiality of dust. It maps a transversal route of considering dust, from the processes of polishing iPad covers in Chinese factories to a wider theoretical argument for a media materiality that starts from rocks and chemicals. In short, this kind of new materialism is interested in the various times, durations, entwinements and distributions of a whole range of agencies, several of them non-human. Hence, we are also forced to think about the contexts of new materialism in a slightly more fluid, novel way than just assuming that specificity concerning the technological and the scientific underpinnings of media culture are automatically material. Indeed, materiality is not just about machines; nor is it just solids, and things, or even objects. Materiality leaks in many directions, as electronic waste demonstrates, or the effects of electromagnetic pollution. It is transformational, ecological, and multiscalar.
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We may debate whether our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation, but, undoubtedly, it is a society of the screen. – Lev Manovich