The Stuff of Bits
An Essay on the Materialities of Information
256 pp., 6 x 9 in, 11 b&w illus.
- Published: May 5, 2017
- Published: April 28, 2017
- Published: November 1, 2022
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.
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