The Stuff of Bits – An Essay on the Materialities of Information
By Paul Dourish
MIT Press, April 2017
The central topic of The Stuff of Bits is the materialities of information. This term often brings to mind the materiality of information infrastructures— server farms, air conditioning, fiber optic cable routes, and distributed storage. By contrast, The Stuff of Bits focuses on digital information itself as something with which we—as designers, as users, as citizens, as customers, and as human beings—have a material engagement.
The book is anchored by four case studies—one on computer emulation, one on spreadsheets, one on databases, and one on network architectures—organized in terms of the scopes of engagement. Through these cases, a common analytic strategy is to identify not just their materiality but their materialities, that is, not just the brute fact of their material forms but the specific material properties that they display and the consequences of those properties —properties like granularity, transparency, directness, weight, and malleability. The idea is that, in the realm of the digital, everything may be reduced to “bits” but those bits are not all of equal significance; particular encodings reflect particular needs and expectations of change, adaptation, and evolution.
Paul Dourish (link) is Professor of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction (MIT Press, 2001, 2004), and the co-author of Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (MIT Press, 2011).