Assemblage Theory new materialism

flat ontologies and flat screens

I’ve been working on this article, off and on, since January I guess, which is longer than usual for me. As this post title suggests, it’s an article with two focal points–one conceptual/theoretical and the other technological. With the latter I am looking primarily at contemporary smartphone screens with their combination of ceramic glass (for protection), flat OLED displays, and projected capacitive touch technology. With the former, I am focusing on DeLanda’s flat ontology as a method for investigating the relations of assemblages operating at different spatiotemporal scales without assuming an inherent, hierarchal, deterministic relation among them. I put the concept in conversation with Braidotti’s posthuman theory and Ernst’s radical media archeology (RMA) (other stuff too, but those are the main things). Briefly, Braidotti expresses some concern with flat ontologies; Ernst sees value in connections between his work and object-oriented ontology.

Flat screens, obviously, are literally flat (though flatness is a relative quality). It’s equally obvious that we have been displaying media on flat surfaces for a very long time. But smartphone flat screens participate in other forms of technological flattening in the digitization of images generated through their cameras and their subsequent manipulation and compression through various algorithms. As RMA might observe, the assemblages of the smartphone operate at a different spatiotemporal scale from that of its human user (or the scale of the global internet with which it interfaces). So we have a series of technical translations.

Put simply, we wouldn’t have had the mobile media experience of the last decade without flat screens. Flat ontologies eschew any kind of technodeterminism that last sentence might imply as surely as they avoid pointing a finger at the spectral force of capitalism. Equally, it doesn’t accrue all the agency on the part of the human user. So how do we investigate the role this technology plays? Not so easily. For one thing, I have to disambiguate the operation of software and media content. Normally we would say that we turn to our phones to engage social media, send a text or email, surf the web, watch some video, or play a game. In short we focus on the content and software. We might also say the phone vies for our attention through various updates and notifications. That’s software too.

Of course all of that relies upon the phone and the screen technology with its resolution, refresh rate, and color accuracy. It also relies on the effective operation of the touchscreen. We know that too, but what does that really mean? How does the spatiotemporal operation of the screen operate as part of a larger digital media ecology that includes human users?

Borrowing in part from media archeology, practices/concepts like imaginary media and speculative design posit “what if” scenarios. What if touchscreen technology never matured? What if we didn’t have ceramic glass to strengthen these fragile displays? What would a disk-like smartphone be like? What happens when we perfect voice recognition? Such considerations can have value on their own, but they also shed light on the peculiarities of the particular technological detours we’ve gone down to reach the current smartphone.

Finally, circling back to flat ontologies, though there are methodological limits and potentials for misuse (as there are with all concepts), this concept (and the broader assemblage theory) should offer us a productive means for investigating the operation of digital media across spatiotemporal scales. Meanwhile, the article plods along at its own annoying spacetime.

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