The mediating role of responsive digital materials : a conceptual investigation and analytic framework

Abstract: Digital technologies have become thoroughly enmeshed in everyday life, forming a backdrop of experience. We live not only with these technologies but also through them as they mediate our engagement with the world. This mediation calls for closer attention with respect to practical design concerns as well as more theoretical and philosophical questions regarding the role of technologies in experience and society. This dissertation is an inquiry into this mediating role of technology. Its purpose is to analyze and theorize the relation between mediating technologies and the activities they make visible; to theorize the structure and dynamics of digitally-mediated engagement; and to provide a flexible conceptual framework that can be used for analyzing these aspects during design and critique. It develops a conceptualization of digital technologies as responsive digital materials that function as substrates that can make activities visible as traces. It then applies and extends existing postphenomenological theories of technological mediation in order to account for these specific components of digital material and to examine the structure and dynamics of digital material mediation. These theoretical developments are empirically grounded in a set of structured close analyses of specific digital material cases. This analytic, artifact-centered method was developed in order to analyze specific mechanisms by which digital technologies make activities visible, and in a way that can be useful in both practical design work and more theoretical analyses. The primary contributions of this dissertation are a theoretical framing of the mediating role and capabilities of technologies as a unit of analysis; development and extension of existing conceptualizations of digital material and technological mediation; a conceptual framework that can be used in framing and analysis; a method of framing and analyzing digital material cases; and an archive of cases that illustrate this method and approach. The high-level goal of this dissertation is to enable and contribute to a philosophically-grounded understanding of the role of digital technologies in society and human experience, and its contributions are intended to enable further, more precise, and more practical inquiries into the ways in which digital materials mediate engagement with the world.