Monday, February 20, 2006

Why Things Break

In the book "Why Things Break -- understanding the world by the way it comes apart", the author Mark E. Eberhart tells the story about how he became obsessed with the search for why things break. He is a professor of chemistry and geochemistry with a strong interest in material sciences. Eberhart makes the difference between the questions "when things break" and "why things break". We have always known when things break, at least more or less. People have figured out how much a rock or a copper sword can take. We can measure this by trying over and over again with different weights or forces. But this does not tell us "why" they break.

The book gives many interesting examples of the history of materials and how humans have learnt to use these materials, such as stone and later on bronze and iron. I like the way he describes the intimate relation between humans and their materials. It is clear from his way of telling history that knowledge about the material have in so many case been at the core of a society.

For me this leads to the issue of our contemporary material -- the digital material. What do we about it? When does it break? Are we enough close and intimate with the material to really get an authentic understanding of its qualities and character. I am not sure we are. At least not at a general level that it can inform our way of choosing our future.

To some extent, Eberhart's question can be related to the famous statement of the philosopher Virilio, that every technology carries its own disaster. Virilio also states that we do understand the disaster of most technologies (airplanes fall down, cars crashes, etc), but what is the disaster of digital technology? Maybe the most dangerous technologies are those where the disaster is not visible! So, maybe Eberhart's ambition of finding out core qualities of materials is precisely what we have to do when it comes to digital technology!

2 comments:

P O Ågren said...

As Virilio says: "The ship that sinks says much more to me about technology than the ship that floats". From a Virilio perspective, it is clear that we will not understand information technology if we not study its accidents.

I think Virilio focuses too much on the visibility of accidents. Accidents are also referring to our values - not only to our lives. Ships that floats can of course be accidents, cars that not crash can be accidents - dependent on what society we want to live in, what life we want to live.

So, I'm not sure that the accidents of digital technology are so invisible. Maybe we just need to get rid of our technological/rational/functional glasses when we look upon technology.

To paraphrase the initial quote of Virilio: The accident of the floating ship says much more to me about technology than the accident of the sinking ship.

Erik Stolterman said...

That is a very good comment. I think we might envision something like the pathology of digital artifacts, i.e., the study of failures. Or maybe also, in line with your comment, the study of successes that shadow disasters. I think our field has a lot to explore when it comes to the art of criticism. It is depserately needed and not common.