Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric

user populations and the capacities of smartphones

In the new materialist approach I take up, all assemblages (i.e. all people, groups of people, animals, plants, things, objects, etc.) have properties, tendencies, and capacities. Properties are singular and historical. For example, my smartphone (an iPhone XS) has its own unique history. To butcher a line, “there are many iPhones but this one is mine.” Assemblages also have tendencies. These are a delimited set of states an assemblage can exhibit in relation to levels of intensification. The typical example is water can be ice, liquid, or steam based on the intensification of heat and pressure. An iPhone has a tendency to run out its battery charge. It has tendencies for data storage. It has a tendency for obsolescence. Capacities are trickier as they are hypothetically infinite. Capacities are gained through relations with others. A particular knife may have a property of being broken or rusted or sharp. All knives have a tendency toward dullness. A kitchen knife has the capacity to cut an onion but only in relation to an onion, a cutting service, and a human who can use the knife. Similarly the human cannot cut the onion without a knife or similar instrument.

A smartphone has near infinite capacities. What might they be in the mouth of a dog or the hands of an infant or the tentacles of some future alien archeologist visiting Earth? Who knows? In human hands, a smartphone could be a projectile or prop open a window or serve as a paperweight. A knife could also do all those things. A kitchen knife could be a murder weapon, but it rarely is. It could also be used as a dining utensil but you don’t see that very often either. The kitchen knife is assembled into the physically larger assemblage of a home, where the coding and territorializing functions of the home serve to regulate in a statistically predictable way the likely capacities that might be activated in a kitchen knife through its relations with others in the home assemblage. So we can say with some statistical certainty that the primary capacities activated in kitchen knives relate to cutting food. From there, all the many different cultural and human-embodied differences we might observe in human homes around the world would inform the particular kinds of cutting the knives do.

If the kitchen knife is part of the assemblage of a home, the smartphone is part of what I think of as a user population. User populations include the human user, but obviously we cannot be users without a relationship with the device being used. Broadly speaking the third part of the assemblage is the infrastructure which provides access to digital media networks, though from there we might focus on a particular app or platform–a game, social media, an online shopping application, etc. So let’s say I am at home shopping on the Amazon app with my Apple iPhone with its AT&T wireless service but I am on my wifi provided by Verizon. These corporations (which are their own assemblages of humans and nonhumans) have designs (in every sense of the word) on this moment, though their interests are varied on not necessarily aligned.

Apparently Amazon sells over $400M of stuff every day, and I would guess a fair chunk is done on smartphones. There are 126M Amazon Prime members in the US. Since it really makes no sense for two people in the same household to have separate Prime accounts, you’d have to think the majority of American residences receive Prime deliveries. (Of course you don’t need to be a Prime member to buy stuff from Amazon.)

So what’s my point? Well they may not be quite as ubiquitous kitchen knives (or smartphones) but still we can say roughly the same kind of things about the users of the Amazon application on a smartphone as we can about kitchen knives. There are many many possible capacities that might arise, but the territorializing and coding processes of this user population leads us statistically to shopping. And just like kitchen knives are used to make many different kinds of cuisine based on culture, economics and so on, users buy many different things on Amazon with there being over 12M products.

With a new materialist digital rhetoric, we can investigate this matter in greater detail to examine how the specific functioning of the smartphone, the application, and the infrastructure serve to code and territorialize user populations toward realizing a set of statistically probable capacities. These investigations are relevant to humans. They do not necessarily take into account differences among humans either individually or collectively, though one could certainly add that level of complexity. My point is that there is plenty to do studying the device, just as there is plenty to do focusing on the human side of the equation, as the vast majority of technical media, communications, media studies work does–case studies, surveys, interviews, usability studies, etc.

In my forthcoming book, I examine smartphone user populations in terms of how they create particular capacities for attention. The distracting, if not addicting, quality of smartphones, especially social media applications on smartphones, is a familiar subject of concern in both scholarship and popular media. I won’t go into that here right now, except to say the following. You can imagine that a knife demands a certain kind of attention from you. If it is pointed at you, of course, but also if you’re using it to slice the onion in the example above. The attentional structures created in the user population of smartphone users is a little more complicated than that, but ontologically it is the same basic principle.

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