Love the Materials of Your Work

In the introduction to her interview on Big Thinkers, Sherry Turkle claims that “loving the materials of your work is part of the construction of your identity.” In new media studies and commerce, it is important to consider how the materials of identity construction influence that identity and influence the work that comes from them. Computers have a profound impact on the way messages are perceived and the way identities are constructed and maintained — there is a safety in experimenting with self-expression and self-creation behind a screen, in cyberspace, that is not afforded to those who experiment in meatspace.

In his novel, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson describes the relative squalor that Hiro Protagonist lives in before introducing his computer, continuing to underscore its importance by writing about it as critical to his existence:

“Hiro cannot really afford the computer either, but he has to have one. It is a tool of his trade. In the worldwide community of hackers, Hiro is a talented drifter.” (21)

Computer prices have come down for basic use from their first public availability, but specialist technology like what Hiro needs, and some new media specialists need as well, to do his work can still cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is his computer, and his skills in using it, that establishes Hiro’s identity in the Metaverse, the cyberspace environment it allows him to access — he has the time to put into his online avatar, and the skills to manage his avatar and virtual holdings.

Due to the cost of the technology, it is important, as Turkle says, to love — or at least to care for, and be knowledgeable about — the materials of identity creation and work: the “invisible technology” of the computer. For a social media profile or many basic social environments, a basic, economy computer will function as connection, so long as it has an Internet connection, the ability to run a web browser, and the input devices to use it. There is no indication of age or power of a computer in simple text-based communication, just that the computer functions at all.

For more immersive interaction, however, more expensive hardware and additional devices may be necessary: a computer capable of running graphically-intensive games, perhaps a better mouse for more control, or a keyboard with macro keys — but almost certainly a microphone and sound output, and possibly a webcam. This kind of technology has an additional cost in knowledge and finances, but increases the possibilities of interaction to a virtual audio-visual presence.

Cultivating an online presence need not even require a photo of the user, since identity creation may take the form of role playing. Multi-user dungeons (MUDs) are text-based role-playing environments that Turkle says, in “Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality,” represent an “identity workshop” — an opportunity to experience an identity to better understand it or work through other issues. Someone who suffers from social anxiety may be able to rehearse situations through the role playing environment that may prove crippling or possibly dangerous in person.

Social media, too, can represent an opportunity to extract and examine certain elements of a personality or experiment with a persona. By controlling what details are available to the public, an entirely different identity can be constructed compared to any of the user’s meatspace identities. These controlled interactions still allow simulation and experimentation in a safer environment than “real life” would allow in some cases, and the ability to leave a situation far more easily than confronting an issue in the flesh.

It is a combination of control and identity cultivation that makes “loving the materials of your work” so important in an increasingly digital world, even when the materials themselves — the technology behind the work and identity — are so transparent.

“Computer Keyboard — stock photo” by espensorvik is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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