With Google’s Material Design guidelines another layer of meaning was sedimented on the word material, now used for raw, abstract substance behind all digital content. I will explore how this meaning has interpolated in the long and rich history of the word material.

In 3rd century materialis (lat.) came into language meaning “formed of matter”. It referred mainly to nature as a sensuous world of material things. Knowledge about continuous exploration in what we touch, see, hear, smell or taste and try to understand is stored and built on in Materials Science. Technology modelled after nature: scientific institutions with names such as Department of Material or Institute of Material store data from a long history of scientific enquiry into properties of materials. What are the optical and electronic properties of nano-materials? What does burnt hair smell like? Questions in Materials Science. Materials Science examines the structure of materials, from atoms to macro structures. Google calls their digital material, just “Material”, for them there is no need for clear emphasis that they are discussing architecture of our digital content, not buildings or rocks. Google’s Material is a niche use of word material, and positioned like a new brand name for a design philosophy, its name easily sticks among design professionals.

Material Design are Google’s online design guidelines, a modern and expanded version of book of graphic standards, now including sections on motion graphics and animation. What’s novel about Google’s design guidelines, is not only the stylish sleek-looking website repository in place of a common pdf, but also the radical attempt to design a system rooted in their philosophical question on the nature of digital material, as observed like a raw substance with fixed properties. A difficult challenge, for digital material is perpetually updated and in a state of constant transformation. The pragmatic goal of Google’s exploration is to design a system that will enable easy maintenance and uniform style across various user platforms.

Google’s Material is thin like a sheet of paper, and paper came as a direct physical inspiration for the design team to define properties of digital material. They defined its uniform thickness as 1px. Material can display content in any colour or shape. It can change shape, but another material cannot pass through it. It can grow and shrink, but only along its plane. It cannot bend or fold. When split, Material can heal, even though paper can’t. It can be spontaneously generated or destroyed anywhere in the environment. All mentioned properties are written about, step-by-step in the guidelines. Google’s Material properties are continuously updated. It is an experiment that is extracted from years of experience of designing Web and App products. A very brave experiment, since even thinking that there is a consistency of digital matter comes off as a perplexing mental challenge, as if trying to answer a fundamental question in a newly established, organically growing, digital Universe. The word material has a layered meaning and rich history, the use of it varying in cultural and scientific context. Material is in a state of flux, transforming through generations.

When I part from my technological considerations, I think of social sciences and the human significance that is stored in material culture. In contrast to purely technical point of view that examines the structures and processual qualities of materials, the concept of materiality explores relationships between persons and things in social and historical context. Considering e.g. nanotechnology, discussion of materiality could be about social implications of user-friendly genetic tests powered by nanoparticles, or how the perception of nanotechnology is influenced by science fiction novels. Various meanings and derivates of the word material are related to cultural concept of materiality. Google’s need to construct Material derives from the need for designers to communicate about their work, not focused only on Google’s employees, but on anyone working in Google’s digital ecosystem, such as professionals designing Android Apps.

A distinction between material and formal is an old, culturally constructed division on content and form. As if talking about matter does not encompass its aesthetic qualities! There is a lot more material on this topic. What is the most relevant material to refer to, I wonder? Puns intended. Abstract meaning of material as facts, ideas, etc. used in creating a literary work came into use in seventeenth century. Even with such metaphorical usage, the feeling of amount, of deposited substance, of measurable quality, remains attached to it.

Interestingly, both words material and substance are uncountable since they stand for clusters of matter. Plural forms materials or substances are used to denote different matter rather than multiple matter. The more specific meaning of material related to facts, ideas and literary work is “III. having significance or relevance — (6.a) Of serious or substantial import; significant, important, of consequence.” which has common usage e.g. “I’ve read your writings and there is no material there.”, and also more specific, such as in law practise e.g. “I don’t have enough material to build a case against Mr. Jones”. The Material, as a repository of not only matter, but also valuable intellectual ideas, goes in line with Google’s radical contribution to our understanding of digital material.

The word material has an expanded use in a contemporary significant use of word materialism. A selfish preoccupation with goods and money derives in fact from an old idea found in St Augustine philosophy in 4th century, of material as opposed to spiritual. The moral of St Augustine’s philosophy is preserved in today’s language when spiritual, inner world is elevated and dignified, to contrast the material, worldly matters. To exaggerate, materialistic person is considered to hoard artefacts, enjoy expensive luxuries, aspire to higher class and slave for worldly pleasures. Such behaviour is collectively condemned, and materialistic is additionally used in language to evoke socialist feelings and revolt against inequalities. The word evokes negative feelings towards capitalism in general and reminds of injustice in a form of distribution of wealth and underpayment of blue collar workers.

— — — — — — — — - — — — — — — — — - — — — — — — — — - — — — — — 1853. C. Bronte in Villette: “What I saw struck me as grossly material, not poetically spiritual.”
— — — — — — — — - — — — — — — — — - — — — — — — — — - — — — — —

Materialism has further layered meaning, as a result of being connected to primary mentioned “varying set of arguments which propose matter as the primary substance of all living and non-living things, including human beings”. Materialism is a form of philosophy that holds matter as fundamental substance in nature and all phenomena are considered material interactions. For example, in 19th century Marx and Engels used the concept of materialism to elaborate a materialist conception of history. In social polemic, materialism is opposed to idealism, meaning selfishness or altruistic behaviour guided by principles, respectively. In philosophy, materialism is again opposed to idealism, where the first claims that reality is constructed of matter, and the following that reality is mentally constructed. Is Google’s Material mentally constructed? A prima materia for digital Universe where a technocrat feels it is justified to name themselves the Creator. Their world their rule, to abstract a design system could give birth to a future dogma.

I can only assume in which direction will meaning of material flow. New syntagma is rapidly invented: material girl, materialism feminism (MatFem), christian materialism…The most common new usage of the word is to denote digital — Internet, Web sites, files and folders, images or apps — that can all be regarded as digital material. It is still counter-intuitive and somewhat rare to call Internet a material thing, while it comes natural to call goods, e.g. online music and images , material. Digital objects are indeed all material with different material properties such as size, colour, shape, opacity… Perhaps the illusion comes from the feeling that there is no matter behind digital content and that digital material can all be abstracted to a binary record. However, binary record is in fact a physical thing — e.g. a chip with transistors, a circuit board or a signal. Words such as immersive, stalk, embodiment, mute, hack share with material loss of basis in physical world when passed-down to digital world. With digital materiality the word material is still rooted in matter, but what changed is its expected properties. Material can now transform very quickly, change its properties in different form, and disappear and appear. Through Google’s Material Design theory I found the insofar most elaborate enquiry into what digital material is made of, when there is no preconceived notion.

[1] Raymond Williams: Keywords, Revised Edition (1983.), Oxford University Press
[2] Oxford English Dictionary,
[3] Tilley: “Materiality in materials” essay, 2007. Cambridge University Press