The digital habitat - Rethinking experience and social practice: An introduction to the First Monday special issue
First Monday

The digital habitat - Rethinking experience and social practice: An introduction to the First Monday special issue by Jannis Kallinikos, Giovan Francesco Lanzara and Bonnie Nardi



Over the last few decades, information technologies and the cognitive and cultural artifacts (art, knowledge, information) they circulate have penetrated nearly every aspect of contemporary living. The diffusion of the Internet and its multivalent involvement in institutions and organizations have been matched by the proliferation of a wide range of digital devices by means of which the innumerable details that mark the course of personal and community life are increasingly hooked into this growing and interconnected information universe. While thoughtful texts are available over diverse facets of the information society and culture (e.g., Borgmann, 1999; Bowker and Star, 1999; Castells, 2000, 2001; Manovich, 2002), the developments that have taken place over the last decade seem to signal a new stage in the social and institutional involvement of information and the technologies by which it is produced and disseminated (Benkler, 2006; Kallinikos, 2006; Nardi, 2010).

At what may be described as the institutional level, work and professional practices are mediated by a proliferating variety of information systems and digital devices whose links increasingly construct a comprehensive information grid on which such practices are caught. As the outcome of this, the center, as it were, of social practice, is progressively shifting towards this wider and distributed ecology of information processes, technologies and devices (Hayles, 2006; Kallinikos, 2006). These developments take us far beyond what is alluded to by fashionable terms like grid, cloud or ubiquitous computing, and their investigation calls for new ways of thinking and conducting empirical research. What is at stake is not simply new ways of delivering information–based services. Nor is it enough to point out the new organizational arrangements by which these services are produced (Benkler, 2006; Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2002). A new functional habitat is emerging in which what is relevant and valued is heavily contingent on a range of operations by which information is ceaselessly produced out of available data and information. Google is the most conspicuous manifestation of these trends that have, however, much wider contours. Reality, as acclaimed philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann whom we host in this special issue would say, is increasingly carried onto the shoulders of technological information. Despite much insightful research on one or another aspect of that habitat, we still lack an adequate understanding of it.

Similar or analogous processes are occurring at the level of individual and community life. Personal experience is more and more infiltrated by information produced and circulated in this wider information universe. Minute events of personal life are perceived by means of information devices of every kind and breed while daily duties are equally conducted through the interlinked facilities they provide. Crucial among the various implications these developments have is the redrawing of the boundary between personal and social life and the routes through which they are allowed to bear upon one another as interpersonal communication is increasingly de–anchored from its local attachment. The diffusion of new media and the culture they promote are clear manifestations of these shifts (Jenkins, 2006; Manovich, 2008).

Against this backdrop, it would seem reasonable to wonder what sort of differences this expanding involvement of information and the devices and processes that accompany it bring onto institutional, community and personal life. Whether of an instrumental or leisure–oriented nature, the developments we point out can hardly be understood by the traditional tool/machine distinction. For example, forums, wikis, blogs, video games, listservs, social networking sites, and other earmarks of the communication and collaboration afforded by the Internet generate new spaces in which people work out and play with identity, form communities, run their daily dealings and transactions, and sustain human relationships. Digital technologies appear in forms that compel us to question, and perhaps redefine, the modes by which we experience, constitute and represent reality, or what ultimately becomes “reality” for us. They bring with themselves strange new objects and entities that seem to defy our common understanding and perceptual capabilities; they push at the boundaries of established practice to an extent that makes it difficult to say whether one is still acting and thinking within the practice or is doing something else instead. They redefine the perceptually and culturally recognized forms that were firmly anchored in material artifacts or in a material substrate, and finally, they help to create and diffuse collective “digital imaginaries” — social constructions and cultural representations — which are circulated by digital media.

We believe that new digital technologies are simply about something beyond our current understandings of platforms, environments, media. Specifically, they subvert and reshape the relationships between media, objects, and representations in ways that displace us from the solid and safe grounds of our daily life experience. The relevant problems or issues are many and shifting, and it would be virtually impossible to imagine let alone deal with such a wide range of concerns within the confines of a special journal issue. But we have nonetheless gathered here a number of papers that touch upon different facets of these developments across the spectrum of institutional (Kallinikos, et al.; Lanzara; Leonardi), community/media (Nardi and Kow) and personal life (Borgman; Day and Ekbia). All the articles, each in its own way, present and discuss instances of subversion and displacement of experience, whether they involve our understanding of objects, or our practice–related skills and cultural representations, or else our sense of personal identities and their problematic repositioning in time, space and society.

In the first article, Jannis Kallinikos, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Attila Marton draw an outline of a theory of digital objects. The theory provides a generic description of digital artifacts and their basic attributes, and explores the implications these attributes carry for social practice. Digital objects are portrayed as editable, interactive, open and distributed, attributes that confer the information–based operations to which they give rise to a peculiar morphological instability and transfigurability. An inevitable outcome of these trends is a context of experience in which the certainties of recurring and recognizable entities decline. These claims are supported with reference to 1) the elusive identity of digital documents and the problems of authentication/preservation of records in digital archives such an identity posits and 2) the operations of search engines on the Internet and the effects digital search has on the content of the documents it retrieves.

In the second article Giovan Francesco Lanzara investigates the nature and meaning of mediation as a primary aspect of our way of experiencing and understanding reality. Based on two ethnographic studies of technology–driven innovation in two domains of professional practice — music education and jurisprudence — he explores what happens in the practice when the introduction of new technologies, such as the computer and videorecording, requires practitioners to work with a new medium to carry out their tasks. In spite of the apparent distance of the two domains of practice, we may notice surprisingly similar phenomena affecting the nature of objects, the relationship between objects and their representations, and the perceptual and practical skills of the practitioners. Lanzara shows to what extent a practice is embedded in the medium and discusses the coping strategies enacted by the musicians and the judges to make sense of, and master, the new media, and reweave the fabric of their practice.

Bonnie Nardi and Yong Ming Kow introduce and discuss the notion of digital imaginaries with reference to the phenomenon of Chinese gold farming. They explore the ways in which digital media circulate and ratify imaginaries which they define as representations that fascinate and sustain a certain level of illusion. Using tools of social network analysis, they demonstrate the interconnectedness and dense cross–referencing of news accounts, blogs, white papers, videos, machinimas, and trade press articles that depict Chinese gold farmers as ubiquitously low tech. They suggest that this depiction speaks to EuroAmerican anxieties about continued cultural and technical dominance, and that a more complex reality of Chinese gold farming lies beneath the surface. They explore the affordances of digital media that certify and crystallize imaginaries on the basis of limited empirical data, seeming to forestall or render uninteresting further explorations of a less fascinating kind.

The controversial issue of the materiality of digital artifacts is explored by Paul Leonardi in his paper “Digital materiality? How artifacts without matter, matter.” He examines three possible ways we can think of materiality, and the advantages and disadvantages of each for studies of artifacts in organizations. We can conceive of artifacts as material in that they are composed of matter. We can think of their materiality as significance within a practice, and we can think of it as affording practical instantiation of theoretical ideas. Leonardi argues that the latter two senses of “material” may be more fruitful for two reasons. One, he argues, digital technologies are not physical in that they cannot be touched, and efforts to locate their “matter” circumvent their important properties. Two, material as a term denoting significance and the instantiation of theoretical ideas will enable the concept to fit more easily with the studies of discourse, routine, and institutions that are central to organizational theory.

The last two papers retain a more philosophical flavor in discussing the meaning and implications of digital experience.

The paper by Ron Day and Hamid Ekbia visits the philosophical roots of the term experience to position it historically within a number of important traditions. The authors distinguish two types of experience: that which is conscious and deliberately chosen, apprehended as something a person can grasp and manage (e.g., a ski vacation), and that which is inseparable from the tumult of everyday life, the experiences into which we are thrown and to which we respond and adapt. The latter notion goes back at least to the ancient Greeks who saw us as creatures experiencing a world that exceeds us, while the former is an aspect of consumer culture in which we are acculturated to seek out and purchase atomic experiences, efficiently packaged and marketed. In the context of digital technologies, the authors develop a typology of three kinds of experience: digitally simulated experience, digitally embedded experience, and artificial experience. They argue that these distinctions will enable us to think more deeply about the kinds of mediation provided by digital technologies.

And, dulcis in fundo, the final paper by Albert Borgmann, a meditation on orientation in different kinds of space, reminds us that, “The effect [of the Internet] has been so profound that it’s difficult now to remember or imagine the world before or without the Internet.” Borgmann constructs a provocative argument suggesting that the real problem with the Internet is not the usual suspects — identity theft, hacking, cyberstalking — but “its comforts which we find ourselves unable to resist.” What Borgmann memorably calls “the glamorous fog of cyberspace” immerses us in a mild but pervasive state of disorientation that may, in the long run, have more profound effects than the sensational disturbances that occupy our attention such as video game addiction or ruinous outcomes of online financial speculation. Borgmann provides some intimations of how we may respond creatively to the fog through “focal activities” that clear our minds in the midst of incessant busyness, and aid us in reorienting with grounding and focus. End of article


About the authors

Jannis Kallinikos is Professor in the Information Systems and Innovation Group, Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
E–mail: J [dot] Kallinikos [at] lse [dot] ac [dot] uk

Giovan Francesco Lanzara is Professor of Organization Studies and Political Science at the University of Bologna, Italy and since 2006 a visiting professor in the Information Systems and Innovation Group, Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
E–mail: giovan [dot] lanzara [at] unibo [dot] it

Bonnie Nardi is a professor in the Department of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of many scientific books and articles concerning technology in human activity. Her most recent book is My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft (University of Michigan Press, 2010).
E–mail: nardi [at] uci [dot] edu



Yochai Benkler, 2006. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Albert Borgmann, 1999. Holding on to reality: The nature of information at the turn of the millennium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, 1999. Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Manuell Castells, 2001. The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manuell Castells, 2000. “Materials for an explanatory theory of network society,” British Journal of Sociology, volume 51, number 1, pp. 5–24.

N. Katherine Hayles, 2006. “Unfinished work: From cyborg to cognisphere,” Theory, Culture & Society, volume 23, numbers 7–8, pp. 159–166.

Henry Jenkins, 2006. Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Jannis Kallinikos, 2006. The consequences of information: Institutional implications of technological change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Karin Knorr Cetina and Urs Bruegger, 2002. “Global microstructures: The virtual societies of financial markets,” American Journal of Sociology, volume 107, number 4, pp. 905–950.

Lev Manovich, 2008, “Software takes command (a draft of the new book by Lev Manovich),” at, accessed 10 May 2010.

Lev Manovich, 2002. The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Bonnie Nardi, 2010. My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Editorial history

Paper received 4 May 2010; revised 6 May 2010; accepted 6 May 2010.

Copyright © 2010, First Monday.
Copyright © 2010, Jannis Kallinikos, Giovan Francesco Lanzara and Bonnie Nardi.

The digital habitat — Rethinking experience and social practice: An introduction to the First Monday special issue
by Jannis Kallinikos, Giovan Francesco Lanzara and Bonnie Nardi.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 6 - 7 June 2010

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