Adapting Dourish & Mazmanian’s conceptualisations of digital information to the materialising data project

In their 2011 article, Dourish and Mazmanian argue the information age marks a key shift from material objects to their digital equivalents. While we often think of these digital equivalents as immaterial, in reality they are only ever encountered in a material form. Whether it be dashboards, cables and networks or mobile phone bills – digital information can be materialized in many forms. Dourish and Mazmanian provide a useful framework to organize the different ways that data are materialized. In this blog post, I explain how their five conceptualizations might be applied to the materializing data project.

Five conceptualisations: 

  1. The material culture of digital goods>> ‘Digital goods can have symbolic meaning in terms of personal histories and local significance, but more broadly – as possessions, as objects of aspiration, as demonstrations of status, as elements of interpersonal and as projections of self-identity – digital goods in and of themselves play a broader cultural role’ (Dourish & Mazmanian, 2011, p.5). I refer to this conceptualisation as DIGITAL GOODS AND DEVICES – and think about this as the items we chooseto purchase and consume
  2. The transformative materiality of digital networks>> This concerns the physical properties of digital technologies such as infrastructures and built environment. I refer to this as INFRASTRUCTURES. The infrastructures in a given place or space are often influenced by those above and beyond the individual user.
  3. The material conditions of digital production>> When we talk about data we also talk, if implicitly, about a host of other elements critical to making it work i.e. labour, waste, invisible labour involved in data science. I refer to this as DIGITAL PRODUCTION PROCESSES and think about this as processes that are not immediately obvious to the user of digital technology
  4. The consequential materiality of information metaphors>> Data has become become ‘one of the universal metaphors of contemporary life and this metaphor implies an informational approach to seeing and understanding the world that diminishes some forms of knowledge and authorizes others’ (p.7). This is probably the most abstract of the five. I refer to this conceptualisation as METAPHORS and think about them as imbricated in/ driving the material culture and production of data.
  5. The materiality of information representation>> This refers to how data is represented to users through things like graphs, charts, metrics and dashboards – and in some respects reflects how digital designers and data scientists interpret data. This dimension in particular is key to the educational dimension as it ‘shapes the questions that can be easily asked of it, the kinds of manipulations and analyses it supports and how it can be used to understand the world’ (Dourish & Mazmanian, 2011, p.8). I refer to this as REPRESENTATIONS.

So to summarise, we can think about data being materialised in five main ways: as production processes, infrastructures, digital devices and goods, representations and metaphors. In the diagram below, I have visually represented how these different materializations relate to each other. As I have tried to show, these materialisations each play a significant role in the data assemblage and its ongoing evolution. As I build my own understandings and insights over the next two years, I will adapt and refine this diagram and extend on the five conceptualizations.


Dourish, P., & Mazmanian, M. (2011). Media as material: Information representations as material foundations for organizational practice. Paper presented at the Third International Symposium on Process Organization Studies, Corfu, Greece.

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