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The stuff of bits
Dourish P. (ed), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017. Type: Book (9780262036207)
Date Reviewed: Sep 26 2017

We live in the Information Age, but that does not mean everything is virtual. We use our computers, which are physical entities. These computers are connected to data centers scattered across the globe, and these are physical entities. Between us and the data centers resides the cloud (the Internet), which consists of routers, switches, connections, and so on, and all of these are also physical entities. Are these entities the only “material” we have in the Information Age and is everything else virtual? This book argues that the answer is no. Software programs and all kinds of data are not purely virtual; they have a materialistic nature, too.

This materialistic nature, according to the book, depends on the format by which we present information. In chapter 1, there is a nice example about the format by which we present a picture, including how each format differs in terms of storage requirements, robustness, and so on. So, indeed, there is a relationship between how we present information and the physical world. This relationship affects our experience of information systems. This is the message of the book; the concept is called “materialities of information representation.”

The author moves on, after a long and detailed introduction to his idea in the first two chapters, to present four case studies about the effect of information presentation on the physical world, spread over several chapters. Those case studies are on emulation (virtualization), spreadsheets, databases, and Internet routing.

In the first case study, on virtualization, a computer emulates another computer. So, we have a host system (the emulator) and a guest system (the machine being emulated). This technology is a very important one these days in the Internet era. Depending on the mismatch between the host and guest systems, the emulation can be slow or even in some cases not 100 percent correct. But emulation also allows us to revive legacy systems, test future systems, deal with incompatibilities, and so on.

The second case study concerns the use of spreadsheets. The author argues that spreadsheets are not only manipulators of data, but are also organizational tools, and hence have social practice. The materiality here is the usage of digital material for human and organizational practices.

The third case study, on database technology, is related to the previous case study in that databases have an even more thorough impact on social practice. Databases are the basis on which governments, organizations, and other institutions relate and interact with us. This interaction, in the physical world, shows the materiality part of databases.

The last case study is on the Internet, more specifically Internet routing. The author discusses how data is encoded and transmitted and how this affects the whole Internet and hence our lives.

The book proposes an interesting idea, interdisciplinary in nature, in great detail. However, I must admit that this book is not easy to read or follow. Some parts are a bit wordy and may be tedious. Going through the whole book is a worthy experience; you will end up with the conclusion that there is no separation between a world of bits and a world of atoms!

If you don’t mind some abstract philosophical ideas, then I recommend this book for you. Upper undergraduate or graduate students in computer science, computer engineering, information technology, and information sciences should be very well equipped to read the book. It would also be of interest to policy makers in this digital age we live in.

Reviewer:  Mohamed Zahran Review #: CR145562 (1712-0798)
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