Playing with Personal Media: On an Epistemology of Ignorance


  • Timo Kærlein University of Paderborn, Germany



Mobile media, epistemology of ignorance, Apple, Friedrich Kittler, Günther Anders, black box, cybernetics, interface theory


Mobile devices are ubiquitous and increasingly an integral part of everyday media usage. One remarkable development in the field of personal media (smartphones, tablet computers, etc.) is the trivialization of their interfaces and appearance, especially when compared to the complexity of the underlying software and hardware. The iPhone and its successors trump with usability, they offer simple and seemingly direct access to many functions. Software can be handled with basic hand gestures or voice control, no expert knowledge is required to use the devices. Rather, current apps and operating systems are designed for a playful approach that favours unbiased exploration.

The article investigates forms of the trivial in both device materiality and interface design from a media studies perspective. Pertinent philosophical positions on human-technology relationships by Günther Anders and Hans Blumenberg are discussed to explore the ramifications of a highly productive epistemology of ignorance. A focus is placed upon the process of blackboxing, a technique of invisibilization common to media technologies wherein the social and material prerequisites of a given artefact are hidden from users. The black box also serves as a model of thought to offer a way of analysing unknown complex systems as proposed in cybernetics, and it has more recently been picked up and refashioned in significant ways in actor-network theory.

Playing with personal media is situated between the poles of user infantilization and the freedom of exploring new practices. Triviality in interface design is ambiguous in that it denies insight into more fundamental processes but at the same time creates a space for playful variation not requiring professional knowledge. The article aims to negotiate between positions of elitist criticism and affirmative technophilia, which are widespread in the discourse on mobile devices.


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Theme: Pursuing the Trivial