Material Culture in an Increasingly Digital World: The Contemporary Artefacts and the Rising IoT Culture

Prathyusha Shastry
7 min readDec 22, 2023

Navigating the intricate relationship between digital methods and our physical world is a complex endeavor, yet we engage in it frequently. Material culture serves as a bridge between the tangible and intangible, the tangible material to understand the intangible human cultural experience. It encompasses the physical artifacts, objects, and elements that have historically defined societies — tools, clothing, architecture, and art. These tangible remnants serve as windows into the ways people lived, the structures they built, their methodologies, and the essence of their culture.

In our contemporary era, material culture undergoes a transformative evolution within the digital age. As our world becomes increasingly digital, the concept extends beyond traditional physical objects to include the tangible and some virtual manifestations of digital technology.

Now, as we reflect on the past and strive to understand the present for the sake of the future, the landscape appears seemingly different. Today, we find ourselves in an era where PHYGITAL experiences are becoming essential for almost everything, adding a new layer of complexity to the recognition within the design community that digital objects are indeed different. Design theorists Johan Redström and Heather Wiltse noted in 2018 that ‘the ways things are made and used have fundamentally changed’ because they ‘do not take only physical form’ (Redström and Wiltse, p.6).

What is Digital Material Culture?

credits —OECD forum / Object and Artefacts, by Raphael Gielgen

Consider the iconic QWERTY keyboard — a seemingly ordinary object, yet its physical design reflects the cultural shift to a digital communication era, influencing how we interact, work, and express ourselves. Understanding the evolving material culture in our digital landscape is key to deciphering the intricate connection between the physical and digital realms.

Contemporary institutions, including museums and galleries, have become increasingly sensitive to the cultural importance of emerging digital entities… Pressingly, researchers have noted that the ephemerality of digital makes it especially prone to disappearance. It is the responsibility of historians, in part, to preserve digital cultural heritage.

But ask yourself: What Endures in the Wake of the Digital Age?

We will never fail to understand important events in history unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature. Understanding pivotal events in history requires understanding their mental causes. Our collective memory today relies heavily on digital cultural heritage, so studying and preserving it is important.

The intriguing merger of analog and digital material histories occurred when Google sought to expand its data center operations in 2009, the company bought an abandoned paper mill in Hamina, Finland. Built in 1953, the Summa Mill had been operated by Finnish pulp and paper manufacturer Stora Enso, but was closed in 2008 due to “a drop in newsprint and magazine-paper production” as “Newspapers and magazines are slowly giving way to web services along the lines of, well, Google.”

According to Wired magazine, Google was interested in the mill because it “included an underground tunnel once used to pull water from the Gulf of Finland” to cool “a steam generation plant at the mill.” Google needed efficient and ecologically-friendly cooling systems, as well — not for a steam plant, but to cool the processors and other components in its massive servers. “Google’s Hamina data center is,” Wired declared, “the ideal metaphor for the digital age.

Consequently, the tech giant seamlessly intertwined the histories of analog and digital materials, crafting a unified narrative. A computer system embodies a tangible artifact, along with servers, cables, monitors, and other components constituting the computational ecosystem.

In Tung-Hui Hu’s exploration, “A Prehistory of the Cloud,” the cloud emerges as both an abstract concept and a tangible, delicate entity. Designers like us bear the responsibility of delving into material culture across disciplines, particularly understanding the intricacies of the constellation of objects we refer to as the cloud.

We may imagine the digital cloud as placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated. Yet the reality of the cloud is embodied in thousands of massive data centers, any one of which can use as much electricity as a midsized town. Even all these data centers are only one small part of the cloud. Behind that cloud-shaped icon on our screens is a whole universe of technologies and cultural norms, all working to keep us from noticing their existence.

In the digital age’s paradox, where a myriad of objects increasingly dominates our societal, economic, and political spheres, we grapple with a peculiar dichotomy of “digital” versus “analog,” overlooking the intricate and fascinating ways these modes intricately entwine and interact.

Internet of Things?

Digital content is both unreliably ephemeral and stubbornly eternal. Every day…the boundary between digital and analog materiality becomes more difficult to ascertain. Our digital network now connects a vast, growing, and uniquely vulnerable “Internet of things” to the Internet and to each other.

The Internet of things is like a mashup of everyday stuff — light bulbs, safety helmets, fridges, home security gear, thermostats, door openers, and a bunch of other things you wouldn’t think are computer-related. Now, we can manage all this from our devices, spreading the digital vibe all over the place in our twenty-first-century culture. Plus, when we fire up our computers, tablets, and phones, it’s not just about connecting with people; we’re also setting off a whole wave of real-life things into action. It’s like a digital whirlwind swirling through our modern lives!

We click a button, for instance, and a worker begins picking the item for us in an enormous factory and one starts packing it for shipping it to us, the first human being in a chain of humans who will close the commercial circuit.

For scholars of material culture, then, the digital is essential to understand both as an assemblage of material objects and as a network that increasingly circumscribes the interactions of people and other material objects

Artifacts for digital experiences

Compiling a register of digital materials provides a snapshot of the vast array of computational artifacts shaping our daily lives. From computer cases to virtual reality glasses, this inventory underscores the tangible and diverse aspects of our digital landscape.

  • Computer cases (desktop, laptop)
  • Monitors (CRT, LCD, OLED)
  • CDs (CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, VCD, SVCD), DVDs (DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM) …CD and DVD drives (internal, external)
  • mice (ball, roller, optical, laser, trackpad, 3D, ergonomic)
  • severs
  • network router closets
  • circuits
  • motherboards
  • sound cards
  • graphics cards
  • RAM chips
  • cables (SCSI, PS/2, 3.5mm, VGA, DVI, USB [many varieties], Firewire, Lightning, Ethernet, HDMI)
  • hard disk drives (internal, external)
  • solid-state hard drives
  • Zip Drives and disks
  • keyboards (standard, laptop, flexible, portable, optical, mechanical, illuminated)
  • printers (dot matrix, thermal, ink jet, laser, desktop, drum, line)
  • laptop or monitor stands
  • software packaging
  • tablets
  • mobile phones
  • communications satellites
  • chargers (corded, wireless, portable, bicycle dynamos)
  • cell phone charging lockers (in airports and public spaces)
  • external power supplies, speakers (internal, external, portable, smart)
  • headphones
  • smart appliances (light bulbs, refrigerators, coffee makers, stoves, garage doors)
  • gaming consoles & controllers (game pads, joysticks, remotes)
  • watches (digital, smart)
  • fitness trackers
  • virtual and augmented reality glasses
  • 3D printers…etc
By the Author, Generated on Adobe Firefly

The black mirror

Certain experiences made possible by digital objects are probably quite new; consider how few to no individuals in past eras routinely glided their fingers across flawlessly polished glass, a practice now commonplace for twenty-first-century smartphone users.
While tapping away on the touchscreens of phones or tablets, it appears as though our fingers directly interact with letters radiating light. In actuality, though, our fingers graze capacitive touch screens, delivering tiny electrical charges to our fingertips, thereby completing circuits and transmitting signals to our devices regarding the specific points of contact on their screens.

From the lens of a designer

Material culture talks about how different elements come together…it refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture…contemporary to that would be how different elements on a screen when put together create an experience.

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs), the familiar landscapes of our computer interactions, intentionally veil the intricate machinery that brings them to life. These interfaces often adopt skeuomorphic designs reminiscent of older artifacts: we operate from a desktop, delete files in a virtual trash can, save data by mimicking a floppy disk, and navigate the internet through windows and tabs. While these design elements simplify unfamiliar tasks and convey functionality to users, they also contribute to a disconnect between the objects we engage with and their tangible reality.

The simulated environment on the screen prompts us to overlook the physical screen and its accompanying components, encouraging us to envision a nebulous cloud of software rather than a tangible warehouse filled with servers.

The future of ‘Material Culture’

Going for Simplicity? It’s quite amusing — while computers are becoming more widespread, it’s becoming a bit tricky to grasp how they actually function. Back in the 1940s and 50s, computers were these massive machines, both literally and metaphorically, occupying entire rooms. Now, with computers everywhere, understanding their inner workings seems to be getting more complex. It’s like there’s this fascinating link between the tangible things we interact with and the digital realm. It’s a reminder that, even with all the sleek gadgets around, the basics of how computers operate remain a significant aspect of our culture.

Thank you for reaching the end of the article! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.



Prathyusha Shastry

Communication and Interaction designer | Masters in design from National Institute of Design | Website