Both are technology books that came out in 2015, and John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds is perhaps the best counterpoint, or antidote, to Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle is the avatar of digital dualism, seeing a real world that is natural versus technology that is inhuman and added on. Peters instead puts forward a view of media and technology as part of the environment, and the environment as inherently technological and itself a type of media. Peters doesn’t think of only one all-encompassing environment but of many elements, be they water or language or fire or digitality. Each is its own intersecting environment. Whether you like to think of digitality as part of one world or infinity worlds is an improvement over the digital dualist mistake of seeing two.
Two hundred years ago, or so, people said “media” to refer to elements such as air, or water, or earth. Media isn’t just that which carries messages but environments that anchor experience and make it possible, a meaning Peters applies to orality, written language, digitality, each an elemental media in their own way. Or, another example, our bodies both produce and are produced by media. As Haraway taught before, to be human is to be technical, at least for as long as there has been language and memory with their ability to transcend time and space. Far from Turkle’s championing of a “natural” pre-digital society, The Marvelous Clouds follows Kittler, understanding the emergence of society itself as a kind of data processing machine.
None of these foundational insights are completely novel to Peters most recent work, but the volume spins this perspective into so many examples, some of them quite imaginative and novel, others ancient. And Peters pays due credit to the history of media theory that has long tried to correct the always reemerging error of separating technology and the human. Peters writes, as if to Turkle,“by isolating acute parts of our world as technology that we should control, it effaces the existential fact that we live environmentally, dependently, in apparatuses not of our own making.” Peters puts it nicely, “artificiality and artifactuality do not begin where our bodies end. Despite external banks, vessels, and archives for storing our minds, we should not think of our bodies as completely natural, or of technology as completely external.”
Peters goes chapter by chapter to different flavors of elementary media. The water example gets its own playful chapter and provides an image of humans and their mediums and technologies as like sailors on a ship, their existence predicated and shaped by the built infrastructure that makes the journey possible. The big difference, of course, is that the infrastructure of the ship is more obvious than our own and thus is harder to be mistaken for “natural.” We can imagine, after many generation on the ship without the possibility of leaving, the infrastructure might become taken for granted, that the sailors might forget to see their infrastructure just as we forget to see our own, like a fish not noticing the water. But any new addition to the ship’s infrastructure would be seen as a novel technology, and would be greeted with both the utopian and dystopian amnesia of seeing the new thing as an unnatural appendage onto nature.
An additional strength of The Marvelous Clouds is that Peters didn’t set out to write an Internet-Is-Good/Bad book like Turkle did. This allows his criticisms of new devices and his championing of “live presence” to be far more persuasive, balanced by not seeing technology as essentially less real or authentic or human, as Turkle does. Indeed, the best case for digital disconnection is made by those most skeptical of the disconnectionists. To ask if technology is good or bad of course requires that your answer be both, the work is in what context is what technology better, for whom, when, where, and so on. However, a limitation to The Marvelous Clouds is that Peters grasp of social media seems to not go much further than Facebook and Google. It’s not clear he is deeply engaged with the rest of digital connection which does little justice to the variance and future potential of sociality as it occurs with respect to digitality in so many different ways. This limited scope undercuts his own perspective of digitality as elemental, and I think a more nuanced understanding of the full social media environment implies his perspective is more correct than he knows. Thus, this book might inspire and be useful to further work that takes on the full range of topics involved in theorizing the web.