The Stuff of Bits: An Essay on the Materialities of Information
by Paul Dourish
MIT Press, May 2017
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.
Paul Dourish is Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics and Associate Dean for Research in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and in Anthropology. His research lies at the intersection of computer science and social science, with a particular interest in ubiquitous and mobile computing and the cultural practices surrounding digital media. 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.