1 Woven Memory 23
2 Image Fabric 59
3 Piecework 85
4 Domestic Disturbances 115
Contemporary digital media appear to have little in common with those of only a generation ago. In addition to transformations in their content, infrastructure, and application, our interactions and physical engagement with the digital media object have changed fundamentally. Encounters with digital networks and media frequently occur through handheld, electronic devices that accompany us through the day, carried in our back pocket or handbag. We turn and tilt these small plastic or metal frames with our hands and arms. We stroke and tap their glass screens with our fingertips.
Through these physical interactions with the object and its surface, we make things: images, links, sites, networks. Our ability to effectively and efficiently identify patterns and build connections in this bodily performance, to bind the material of networked digital culture in new ways— whether it be in a game or on a social media platform—may earn us money, points, credit, followers, or some other desired quantitative reward.
Digital media’s most unassuming components and operations are not self-evident or neutral entities, but cultural artifacts forged from longstanding social and ideological forces. As manual dexterity, patternmaking, and linking have risen to the forefront of everyday digital practice, our media interactions have taken on traits common to textile and needlecraft culture. Our smartphones and tablets share much with the handloom, the needlepoint hoop, and the lap-sized quilting frame. Each of these represents a portable platform, upon which one can create patterns, images, and other potentially meaningful visual configurations. Historically, looms, hoops, and quilting frames have been tools of the home, but they also have served as a means for greater social interaction, as with the communal functions of pattern sharing, fabric exchange, and quilting bees. Likewise, with the advent of the networked platforms for personal data and information sharing known collectively as social media, our portable electronics have become tools for a variety of interactions with others through the digital material that we access and its relation to our everyday circulation through the social sphere.
How may a handheld screen function like a loom, visual data function like swatches of fabric, and tactile interfaces function like needlework? What can such affinities tell us about communicative technology’s adaptation of popular cultural codes? How does this create new ways of thinking about digital media’s relationship to labor, identity, space, and the senses? Such questions frame the perspective and scope of The Fabric of Interface. Through its sustained exploration of weaving, fabric manipulation, and needlecraft as fundamental to historical and contemporary digital frameworks and interfaces, this book identifies important connections between contemporary networked media and practices often construed as alien to media technologies. It contends that social distinctions and gender divisions are reflected not only in what is made and circulated on digital devices and networks—as has been argued elsewhere1—but also through the immaterial and material forms, structures, and requirements of these devices and networks as they play out in electronic and physical actions and exchanges.
In their study of digital interaction design, Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala assert: “If we only look through the interface, we cannot appreciate the ways it shapes our experience. … If we cannot also step back and see the interface as a technical creation, then we are missing half of the experience that new digital media can offer.”2 Stepping back to examine the correlation of digital and textile performativity in haptic and visual interface is significant for two reasons, both of which have consequences far beyond digital interactivity. First, it brings to the surface elements of computing’s historical dependency on textile design, its production methods, and its labor models.
This story is buried in computing’s material past and scattered across its global sites of hard- and software manufacture and assembly, where women regularly have been responsible for the manual labor of weaving memory, threading hardwired programs, and integrating circuits. Second, the reification of this relationship in contemporary interface design and user practices raises vital questions about the relationship between gender and bodily interface in mobile media at a moment when such technologies would seem to transcend the issue. When considering ways an iPhone might be gendered, for example, one may be prone to begin and end with obvious marketing maneuvers such as the introduction of a pink (or “rose gold,” according to Apple) back cover. “Are you man enough for a pink iPhone 6s?” Esquire asked its readers when the cover was introduced, referring to the result as a “powder-puff smartphone.”3 Yet such overt gestures toward the most conventional methods of coding gender in the everyday imply that these devices and their functionality are otherwise gender-neutral platforms upon which such codes may be added. In fact, the availability of colored covers or the production and use of deliberately gender-specific apps or language represent diversions that effectively obscure far more pervasive, but less easily identifiable, gendered characteristics of mobile media.
The look, feel, and function of contemporary media devices and their supporting software derive from deep-seated patterns of cultural practice, social structuring, and technological hierarchizing. This reflects Lisa Gitelman’s contention that media are “muddy” entities requiring consideration of how they are formed through social protocol as much as how they function technologically. “Media include a vast clutter of normative rules and default conditions, which gather and adhere like a nebulous array around a technological nucleus,” she states.4 The approach of this book differs from Gitelman’s, however, in its emphasis of the technological nucleus itself as constructed from normative rules and default conditions. In other words, socially constructed rules and conditions not only form around a technology, but also contribute significantly to that technology’s formation in the first place. Any medium, any technology, is already muddy when it comes out of the box.
This book explores the muddy roots of networked digital media’s forms and practices in emphasizing their historical, cultural, and aesthetic dependency on gendered embodiment and labor forms. Making the link between sewing, weaving, and quilting and contemporary technologies gives access to new ways of conceptualizing hardware and software design, sensorial experience, and personal networked media practice. It contributes to an alternative historical narrative of digital interactivity—one centered on the relationship between gender and interface aesthetics. Recent changes in the screen as an interactive object and tool represent a critical turning point in this story, producing new physical and ideological relationships between user, device, and digital production. Any consideration of the material design and functioning of media—in this case, the hardware of portable touchscreens and wearables and the software that guides and brings meaning to our actions upon them—must be informed by these long-established gendered discourses of social differentiation and power imbalance that they reify and sustain.
Producing such an alternative narrative sharpens our understanding of the ways contemporary digital media may represent new modes of social production and interaction, and in what ways they merely adapt and redeploy modes already embedded in the history of computing and digital communication. Specifically, this narrative challenges the perceived breaks between industrial (or commercial) computing and personal computing in the closing decades of the twentieth century, and personal computing and social media in the opening decades of this century. Bridging these shifts is digital culture’s continued reliance on textile and needlecraft practices, techniques, and methods drawn from spheres alternately labeled as feminine, private, and domestic. In this way, qualities of intimacy and engagement seen as novel to today’s touchscreen media devices are in fact attributes already present in earlier conditions of digital production, where manual gestures common to home handicrafts played a fundamental role in the manufacture of mainframes.