The Stuff of Bits: An Essay on the Materialities of Information

The Stuff of Bits: An Essay on the Materialities of Information

by Paul Dourish

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Overview

An argument that the material arrangements of information—how it is represented and interpreted—matter significantly for our experience of information and information systems.

Virtual entities that populate our digital experience, like e-books, virtual worlds, and online stores, are backed by the large-scale physical infrastructures of server farms, fiber optic cables, power plants, and microwave links. But another domain of material constraints also shapes digital living: the digital representations sketched on whiteboards, encoded into software, stored in databases, loaded into computer memory, and transmitted on networks. These digital representations encode aspects of our everyday world and make them available for digital processing. The limits and capacities of those representations carry significant consequences for digital society.
 
In The Stuff of Bits, Paul Dourish examines the specific materialities that certain digital objects exhibit. He presents four case studies: emulation, the creation of a “virtual” computer inside another; digital spreadsheets and their role in organizational practice; relational databases and the issue of “the databaseable”; and the evolution of digital networking and the representational entailments of network protocols. These case studies demonstrate how a materialist account can offer an entry point to broader concerns—questions of power, policy, and polity in the realm of the digital.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262036207
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 05/05/2017
Series: The MIT Press
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Paul Dourish is Chancellor's Professor of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction and coauthor of Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing, both published by the MIT Press.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction: Information as Material 1

2 The Landscape of Materialities 33

3 Finding the Material in the Virtual: The Case of Emulation 61

4 Spreadsheets and Spreadsheet Events in Organizational Life 81

5 No SQL: The Shifting Materialities of Database Technology 105

6 The Materialities of Internet Routing 139

7 Internets and Othernets 167

8 Prospects and Conclusions 201

References 217

Index 239

What People are Saying About This

Phoebe Sengers

The Stuff of Bits weaves together insights from computer science and social science to explode the myth that information is inherently virtual. It reveals how digital representations are always tangibly instantiated and analyzes the difference this materiality makes to how people act and interact. This reframing of the nature and impact of digital representations will inspire both designers and social scientists who care about the impact of technology.

Lev Manovich

This book is required reading for everybody who wants to understand how our digital civilization functions. Analyzing various types of digital systems—emulation, spreadsheets, databases, and networks—Dourish shows in detail how they function as mechanisms for representation. His masterful analysis will inspire you to look more closely and think more deeply about your digital life. I can't recommend this book strongly enough.

Endorsement

The Stuff of Bits weaves together insights from computer science and social science to explode the myth that information is inherently virtual. It reveals how digital representations are always tangibly instantiated and analyzes the difference this materiality makes to how people act and interact. This reframing of the nature and impact of digital representations will inspire both designers and social scientists who care about the impact of technology.

Phoebe Sengers, Associate Professor, Information Science, Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University

From the Publisher

This book is required reading for everybody who wants to understand how our digital civilization functions. Analyzing various types of digital systems—emulation, spreadsheets, databases, and networks—Dourish shows in detail how they function as mechanisms for representation. His masterful analysis will inspire you to look more closely and think more deeply about your digital life. I can't recommend this book strongly enough.

Lev Manovich, Professor of Computer Science, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Much writing about the digital provides a dematerialized account in which bits replace atoms. In contrast, in The Stuff of Bits, Paul Dourish details a thoroughly materialist account of simulations, spreadsheets, databases, networking protocols, internets, and other aspects of digital representation. The result is a theoretically rich, empirically grounded, tour de force from an interdisciplinary thinker at the top of his game.

Rob Kitchin, Professor of Human Geography, National University of Ireland Maynooth; coauthor of Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life

The Stuff of Bits weaves together insights from computer science and social science to explode the myth that information is inherently virtual. It reveals how digital representations are always tangibly instantiated and analyzes the difference this materiality makes to how people act and interact. This reframing of the nature and impact of digital representations will inspire both designers and social scientists who care about the impact of technology.

Phoebe Sengers, Associate Professor, Information Science, Science & Technology Studies, Cornell University

Rob Kitchin

Much writing about the digital provides a dematerialized account in which bits replace atoms. In contrast, in The Stuff of Bits, Paul Dourish details a thoroughly materialist account of simulations, spreadsheets, databases, networking protocols, internets, and other aspects of digital representation. The result is a theoretically rich, empirically grounded, tour de force from an interdisciplinary thinker at the top of his game.

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