Matter Battle!

Gently prodded by our friends at Urbanscale, I thought that it might be good to record these thoughts before they float away. I’ve been thinking about the Matter Battle philosophy as a way to explain the difficulties of construction, particularly to audiences who are used to the fluid possibilities afforded to us by the digital. Another way to sum up what follows is a beautifully simple line from sevensixfive: “Don’t take any guff from stuff.”

One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any medium of physical matter. Any act of construction (such as building a building) is a good example of a Matter Battle. To lesser degrees, reaching for something on a high shelf, baking a pie, drawing a line, and other similar acts also qualify as Matter Battles.

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Scene from a Matter Battle

A Matter Battle is the conflict between human intentions and the laws and behaviors of the physical universe. Material acts that are without intention, or where intention is purposefully exploratory such as drip painting, are not Matter Battles.

In a Matter Battle to Undo is to Redo

Matter Battles generally involve actions for which “undo” costs a lot of time, money, or both. This is because matter tends to exhibit characteristics such as: heaviness, largeness, crumbliness, and unwieldiness. In most cases Matter is not self-healing and does not have a native ability to regenerate, therefore resulting in a situation where mistakes tend to turn a piece of matter into useless scrap.

Matter does not Share Space

Matter is mutually exclusive. This is a fancy way of saying that one bit of matter generally cannot exist in the exact same place as another bit of matter. Therefore decisions will have to be made about which bit of matter occupies space with preference, thereby causing all other bits of matter to take a subsidiary position. This is particularly tricky when mapping abstract concepts such as a grid of overlapping lines onto the physical world. Three dimensional things do not easily overlap.

The Behavior of Matter is Hard to Predict Well Without Great Expense

Most of the time it will be too expensive to fully predict the behavior of matter or the full extent of actions which will be required to execute your desires upon matter. This explains the difference in tolerance between industrial activities, such as product-making which relies on repetitive processes, and more singular activities such as building a building. Unless one has the time and money to fixate on material decisions there will be some flying by the seat of one’s pants. In certain complex piles of Matter these ad-hoc decisions may compound to produce undesirable effects.

Matter Battles are Always Low Tech

Because Matter Battles are ultimately about the inescapability of physical laws, they constantly remind us that no matter high tech your implements there is always room for basic failure. Even robots fall down. 3D printers get their nozzles gunked up; laser cutters burn their lenses; and CNC machines still require raw material to be roughly screwed into place before they are worked on. High tech tools generally have low tech components somewhere in their workflow.

Matter Battles are Hard to Understand Until You’re In One

Most people who will read this blog post are already so used to working, perhaps even living, in the digital that the Matter Battle described above might seem overhyped. This is because we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that we’ve mastered the material world. And to some extent we have. We’ve been to the bottom of the ocean and the top of the heavens, and yet putting things together (or taking them apart) rarely goes exactly according to plan.

Matter Battle!

16 Comments so far

  1. [...] a little bit less directly, our professions’ facility with what Bryan Boyer brilliantly calls “matter battles”.  (Boyer positions the matter battle roughly in opposition to the fluidity of digital design, but [...]

  2. faslanyc on March 13th, 2011

    this is great. Succinctly put- the importance of the medium (or the objects) themselves cannot be overstated, especially now when most professional design takes place through the abstraction of the lcd screen (though most design is still a matter battle- very catchy turn of phrase there).

    Have you been reading Graham Harman, by the way? Your thoughts sound very much in keeping with his object oriented ontology stuff, especially the Guerrilla Metaphysics and the the Carpentry of Things. I’m just starting to poke around in it myself, and it seems to give words to a series of thoughts I’ve had for some time…

  3. bryan on March 13th, 2011

    Carpentry of Things is one of the books on my reading list. Thanks for reminding me!

  4. [...] cities via air than its own hinterlands” — really exists, or is even possible.  Matter matters, and only a little bit of matter and relatively few people (at great energy cost) can realistically [...]

  5. [...] a theoretically simple experiment – one which needed precise execution – is a testament to the wondrous complexity of meatspace.] This entry was written by Stephen, posted on May 11, 2011 at 8:26 am, filed under [...]

  6. [...] Matter is important. [...]

  7. 3Difficult « hellofosta on April 17th, 2012

    [...] the production? There have been many projects which simply ground to a halt because the Matter Battle was just too tough, before we even get into the debating the dubious legal position of these [...]

  8. [...] the production? There have been many projects which simply ground to a halt because the Matter Battle was just too tough, before we even get into the debating the dubious legal position of these [...]

  9. Cultures of Decision Making - etc on September 18th, 2012

    [...] There probably should have been a hint that this was a bad idea from the get go. After all, spreadsheets, word processing, and presentations are not among the most demanding computing tasks, and most people manage with two or three buttons. The material reality of the Open Office mouse is shocking because it demonstrates the difficulty of making decisions in a zero-sum situation—in a matter battle. [...]

  10. stoykonet :: info on November 1st, 2012

    [...] problem in order to side-step the inherent limits of the materials. I noticed this term when it was first coined but I didn’t think it would catch on. It seems to be catching on in the industrial design [...]

  11. [...] what Bryan Boyer calls the “Matter Battle”. He puts it beautifully: One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires [...]

  12. [...] world does not always do what you want it to. Loosely, this is what Bryan refers to as ‘matter battle‘. The mind can go so fast and far but objects have fairly finite limits, and objects and [...]

  13. [...] line of machines Replicators, after Captain Pickard’s miraculous tea provider) blurs with the Matter Battle reality. So the press will spend a few days collectively wringing their hands and debunking the [...]

  14. [...] line of machines Replicators, after Captain Pickard’s miraculous tea provider) blurs with the Matter Battle reality. So the press will spend a few days collectively wringing their hands and debunking the [...]

  15. [...] les pièces ou les mettre en carton ; ou les constats de l'architecte Bryan Boyer qui parle de bataille avec la matière. "Ce qu'il est le plus facile de faire avec la matière, c'est de la transformer en déchets pour [...]

  16. [...] pièces ou les mettre en carton ; ou les constats de l’architecte Bryan Boyer qui parle de bataille avec la matière. “Ce qu’il est le plus facile de faire avec la matière, c’est de la transformer [...]

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