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First Monday, Volume 4, Number 5 - 3 May 1999
Home > Volume 4, Number 5 - 3 May 1999 > Nardi
The common rhetoric about technology falls into two extreme categories: uncritical
acceptance or blanket rejection. These two positions leave us with poor choices for action.
They encourage us to accept as inevitable whatever technological changes come along.
Claiming a middle ground, these chapters from the book Information Ecologies
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999) call for responsible, informed engagement with
technology in local settings, or information ecologies. An information ecology is a system of
people, practices, technologies, and values in a local environment. Like their biological
counterparts, information ecologies are diverse, continually evolving, and complex.
One of the most important human stories of the twentieth century is the impact of
technology on the way we live, die, work, and play. This will continue into the twenty-first
century. Usually discussions of technology are either blissfully pro or darkly con. Most of the
time, people do not discuss technology at all. We simply let it wash over us, adapting as
best we can. This book is an attempt to engender a public conversation that will be more
balanced and nuanced, to develop a critical stance that is less passive and unreflectively
There are reasons to be concerned about the impacts of technology - the rapid pace of
technological change challenges our ability to keep up, human skill and judgment at work
are lost to automation, and standards of mechanical efficiency are used as benchmarks for
human performance.
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We see ourselves as critical friends of technology. We believe we can find ways to enjoy the
fruits of technology without being diminished by it. It is possible to use technology with
pleasure and grace if we make thoughtful decisions in the context of our "local habitations,"
to borrow Shakespeare's phrase. By this we mean settings in which we as individuals have
an active role, a unique and valuable local perspective, and a say in what happens. For most
of us, this means our workplaces, schools, homes, libraries, hospitals, community centers,
churches, clubs, and civic organizations. For some of us, it means a wider sphere of
influence. All of us have local habitations in which we can reflect on appropriate uses of
technology in light of our local practices, goals, and values.
We call these local habitations "information ecologies," since they have so much in common
with biological ecologies, as we will discuss. Because the goal of this book is to change the
way people look at technology in their own settings, we adopted a metaphor that
emphasizes local connections and offers scope for diverse reflections and analyses. We
believe that we have leverage to affect technological change by acting in spheres where we
have knowledge and authority - our own information ecologies. A key to thoughtful action is
to ask many more "know-why" questions than we typically do. Being efficient, productive,
proactive people, we often jump to the "know-how" questions, which are considerably easier
to answer. In this book we talk about practical ways to have more "know-why"
conversations, to dig deeper, and reflect more about the effects of the ways we use
The phrase "local habitations" helps us understand settings of technology use in a new and
useful way. Fritz Lang's beautiful film Metropolis is another source of insight for us.
Metropolis engages some of our collective fears about our society's dependence on
technological invention. The film presents a view of technology as a seductive, untamable
force that undermines our humanity. In 1926, Lang sensed the way technology would keep
apart heart and mind, the way people would heedlessly focus on technical development for
its own sake while evading the social questions of what purpose technology serves in human
Rotwang, the unforgettable mad scientist in Metropolis, created the ultimate robot, a
creature possessed of full human intelligence. Lang recognized the deep love that goes into
technical creation - the robot was created in the image of Rotwang's beloved dead mistress.
Rotwang refused to consider how such a robot might be used for evil, and indeed, heartless
forces of capitalism harness the powers of Maria, the robot. It is important that we
understand the message Lang was sending us: we love our technologies and we are
endlessly technically creative, but our creations can betray us. Rotwang was too entranced
with his invention to consider the possible human consequences. As J. Robert Oppenheimer
said of the development of the hydrogen bomb, the mere fact of the possibility of creating
the bomb "was technically so sweet that you could not argue about that" [
We believe that we can and should argue about how technology is created and used. Lang
suggested in Metropolis that technical sweetness is not enough. Technology development
and use must be mediated by the human heart.
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In this book, we discuss what it could mean to use technology with heart. We give examples
from our research studies, to show how people can use technology fruitfully by engaging
their own values and commitments. We examine the groundbreaking analyses of scholars
such as Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner, who have deepened our understanding through
their provocative looks at the social implications of technology. We hope that these examples
and ideas will help you see new avenues of participation and engagement with technology in
your own local settings.
About the Authors
Bonnie Nardi is a researcher at AT&T Labs-Research and is the author of A Small Matter of
Programming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993) and editor of Context and Consciousness
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
Vicki O'Day, formerly a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, is a graduate
student of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
1. Quoted in Langdon Winner, 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a
Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 73.
This text originally appeared in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart
published in 1999 by MIT Press. The text is copyrighted by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day and
the book is copyrighted by MIT Press. The book is available from
MIT Press directly, fine
bookstores everywhere, and The authors manage a Web site for the book at
Copyright © 1999, First Monday
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First Monday, Volume 4, Number 5 - 3 May 1999
Home > Volume 4, Number 5 - 3 May 1999 > Nardi
Chapter Four: Information Ecologies
We define an information ecology to be a system of people, practices, values, and
technologies in a particular local environment. In information ecologies, the spotlight is not
on technology, but on human activities that are served by technology.
A library is an information ecology. It is a place with books, magazines, tapes, films, and
librarians who can help you find and use them. A library may have computers, as well as
story time for two-year-olds and after-school study halls for teens. In a library, access to
information for all clients of the library is a core value. This value shapes the policies around
which the library is organized, including those relating to technology. A library is a place
where people and technology come together in congenial relations, guided by the values of
the library.
A hospital intensive care unit is an information ecology. It has an impressive collection of
people and technologies, all focused on the activity of treating critically ill patients. Human
experts (nurses, physicians, therapists, ethicists) and machines (monitors, probes, and the
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many other devices in the ICU) all have roles to play in ensuring smooth, round-the-clock
care. Though this is a setting with an obvious reliance on advanced technologies, it is clear
that human expertise, judgment, empathy, cooperation, and values are central in making
the system work.
A self-service copy shop is another kind of information ecology. In our local branch of
Kinko's, for example, there is a floor full of copy machines, paper stock of different colors
and patterns, paper cutters, scissors and glue, computers that can be rented by the minute,
and laser printers and scanners. There is also a computer expert who sits on a stool near the
row of computers to answer questions. There are workers behind the counter who can help
with copying. Customers ask one another where to find supplies and how to get started on
an unfamiliar machine. It is a busy and hospitable place.
In each of these settings, humans help other humans use technology. Simple things are
done with simple tools. The library, hospital, and copy shop have typically sought out
advanced technologies, but these technologies are carefully integrated into existing habits
and practices, according to the values of the information ecology.
We introduce the concept of the information ecology in order to focus attention on
relationships involving tools and people and their practices. We want to travel beyond the
dominant image of the tool metaphor, an image of a single person and his or her interactions
with technology. And we want to capture a notion of locality that is missing from the system
An ecology is complex, but it does not have the overwhelming breadth of the large-scale
systems and dynamics Ellul and others describe. An ecology responds to local environmental
changes and local interventions. An ecology is a place that is scaled to individuals. We can
all name the ecologies we belong to and participate in. In an ecology, we are not cogs in
sweeping sociological processes. Instead, we are individuals with real relationships to other
individuals. The scale of an ecology allows us to find individual points of leverage, ways into
the system, and avenues of intervention.
Characterizing Information Ecologies
The notion of an ecology as we use it is metaphorical, intended to evoke an image of
biological ecologies with their complex dynamics and diverse species and opportunistic
niches for growth. Our purpose in using the ecology metaphor is to foster thought and
discussion, to stimulate conversations for action.
We believe that the ecology metaphor provides a distinctive, powerful set of organizing
properties around which to have conversations. The ecological metaphor suggests several
key properties of many environments in which technology is used. An information ecology is
a complex system of parts and relationships. It exhibits diversity and experiences continual
evolution. Different parts of an ecology coevolve, changing together according to the
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relationships in the system. Several keystone species necessary to the survival of the
ecology are present. Information ecologies have a sense of locality.
Like a biological ecology, an information ecology is marked by strong interrelationships and
dependencies among its different parts. The parts of an information ecology may be as
different from each other as the sand, sunlight, saltwater, and starfish of a marine ecology,
but they are as closely bound together. In an intensive care unit, for example, the jobs of
nurses and doctors can be seen to fit together in complementary ways, and the nature of
their work is both extended by and dependent on the technologies they use in patient care.
Change in an ecology is systemic. When one element is changed, effects can be felt
throughout the whole system. Local changes can disappear without a trace if they are
incompatible with the rest of the system. For example, when schools set new goals for what
students must learn in math, they also have to develop new ways of evaluating what the
students have learned. Otherwise, teachers will find themselves under pressure to teach the
material that was covered on the old tests, and the innovation will fail.
In a biological ecology, different species take advantage of different ecological niches, which
provide natural opportunities to grow and succeed. The complexity of biological ecologies
ensures that there are niches for many different kinds of roles and functions. Just as it would
be surprising to find only one grass or wildflower species in a biological community, we
should not look for only one or two roles for people and tools in an information ecology.
In an information ecology, there are different kinds of people and different kinds of tools. In
a healthy information ecology, they work together in a complementary way. In a library
information ecology, for example, we find that librarians fill niches such as handling rare
books, telling stories to children, answering reference questions, and publishing World Wide
Web materials. All of these different roles of librarians help make the library work well for its
community, providing different resources for varied audiences and their needs. The set of
technical resources in a library is also diverse. There are computers that provide electronic
catalogs and Internet access, paper and pencils for writing down call numbers, and labels on
the shelves so you know which section of books you are looking at.
Diversity is necessary for the health of the ecology itself, to permit the system to survive
continual and perhaps chaotic change. Monoculture - a fake, brittle ecology - gives
sensational results for a short time, then completely fails. Information ecologies should be
teeming with different kinds of people and ideas and technologies. It is captivating to
wander through a rain forest and stultifying to be stuck in a hundred acres of soybeans. A
diverse information ecology is a lively, human, intensely social place, even if it incorporates
very advanced technologies. It has many different resources and materials and allows for
individual proclivities and interests.
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A natural environment offers many toeholds for life of various forms. With tenacity and vigor,
species migrate and change to fill the available niches. These adaptations lead in turn to
further change, as the entire system adjusts to new constraints and possibilities. A healthy
ecology is not static, even when it is in equilibrium.
Similar dynamics are at work in evolving information ecologies. The pace of new technology
development ensures that school, work, and home settings will continue to be offered newer,
faster, and different tools and services - not just once, but repeatedly. Information ecologies
evolve as new ideas, tools, activities, and forms of expertise arise in them. This means that
people must be prepared to participate in the ongoing development of their information
ecologies. For example, as schools across the country are wired by enthusiastic volunteers on
NetDays, school teachers and administrators should expect to make decisions about how to
use the new classroom Internet access not just once, but again and again. The Internet is
rapidly changing, and the information ecologies in which the Internet plays a role must
participate in those changes.
Information ecologies are filled with people who learn and adapt and create. Even when tools
remain fixed for a time, the craft of using tools with expertise and creativity continues to
evolve. The social and technical aspects of an environment coevolve. People's activities and
tools adjust and are adjusted in relation to each other, always attempting and never quite
achieving a perfect fit. This is part of the dynamic balance achieved in healthy ecologies - a
balance found in motion, not stillness.
Evolution implies a past, as well as a future. An information ecology as a persistent structure
over time acquires its own history. It displays the stable participation of an interconnecting
group of people and their tools and practices. An experience with an ATM machine, for
example, is not an information ecology. It is a useful but isolated service that is too simple
to be an ecology. By contrast, a bank office is an information ecology with diverse services
and activities, where there are interconnections among people and their tools. When we are
in a bank, we can sense that the activities, materials, and tools of the trade have a
continuing history of development and change.
Keystone Species
An ecology is marked by the presence of certain keystone species whose presence is crucial
to the survival of the ecology itself. In the Indiana sand dunes, marram grasses send out
root systems up to twenty feet in length to stabilize their sandy environs. Without these
grasses and their roots, the dune sands would disperse and shift erratically in the face of
strong winds blowing in off Lake Michigan.
When we add new technologies to our own information ecologies, we sometimes try to work
in the absence of essential keystone species. Often such species are skilled people whose
presence is necessary to support the effective use of technology.
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Some high-technology businesses are recognizing the need for people who can serve as
translators, facilitators, and teachers. For example, Farallon Computing, a California network
products company, was recently featured in a news article because of its innovative hiring
practices [
1]. This company has developed a strategy of hiring technical support workers
with little or no previous computer experience - a former cocktail waitress, social worker, and
hotel room service manager, for example - ;because they outperform highly technical people
in helping other people with problems. As quoted in the news article, Farallon's technical
support manager said, "You can teach people to use a computer but it's real hard to teach
patience. I look for natural born teachers because that's what they're doing all day." Farallon
has clearly recognized the value of a certain keystone species - the natural teacher - in its
work force.
Mediators - people who build bridges across institutional boundaries and translate across
disciplines - are a keystone species in information ecologies. Ironically, their contributions
are often unofficial, unrecognized, and seemingly peripheral to the most obvious productive
functions of the workplace. Although the success of new tools may rely on the facilitation of
mediators who can shape the tools to fit local circumstances, technology is too often
designed and introduced without regard to the roles these people play.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare wrote this description of the creative work
poets do:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
We believe that a key to becoming an active participant in technological change lies in
joining ranks with the poets, whose creativity is grounded in local settings. The notion of "a
local habitation and a name" captures for us the essence of an information ecology. The
name of a technology identifies what it means to the people who use it. In a sense, it
positions the technology more directly under the control of its users [
2]. We do not just refer
to what the technology is called, but to how people understand the place it fills. A computer
in a library is most likely a card catalog or an Internet access machine. A computer in an
office is often a personal information appliance. A computer in a small business might be a
budget and payroll machine. In each of these settings the computer can have precisely the
same hardware configuration, but what it is for each user population is different. This is not
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just a matter of different software packages installed on each machine. The identity of the
technology is different in each of these local settings because the perceived role, availability,
utility, and other properties of the machines are different. The local participants in each
setting - librarians, office workers, small business owners - construct the identities of their
technologies through the rhythms and patterns of their use.
The habitation of a technology is its location within a network of relationships. To whom does
it belong? To what and to whom is it connected? Through what relations? The habitation of a
technology is its set of family ties in the local information ecology. An office computer is
used by some person or group of people, maintained perhaps by others, and networked to
other computers. It has a place.
We cannot overemphasize a key point here: only the participants of an information ecology
can establish the identity and place of the technologies that are found there. Indeed, this is
a responsibility, not just an opportunity. Designers of tools are responsible for providing
useful and clear functionality, but they do not complete the job. As users of tools, we are
responsible for integrating them into settings of use in such a way that they make sense for
Locality is a particularly important attribute of information ecologies. We all have special
knowledge about our own local ecologies that is inaccessible to anyone outside them. Along
with knowledge, we have influence. While it may be impossible even to think about trying to
make an impact on national policy (unless you are a player in information ecologies at a
national level - say, a member of the United States Senate or a federal judge), it is entirely
possible to step up and say how you want to use technology in your own home, in your
children's classrooms, at your workplace, in your doctor's office, or at your public library.
These sites of local participation offer both opportunities and responsibilities for shaping the
way technology works in our lives.
Only people who are immersed in a particular information ecology can provide a local
habitation and a name to new technologies. Healthy information ecologies are sustained by
the active, intelligent participation of the people involved in them.
Why Ecologies?
The word "ecology" is more evocative for us than "community," despite some similarities.
Ecology suggests diversity in a way that community does not. Communities can be quite
homogenous, or defined along a single dimension (the gay community, a community of
scholars, a religious community). The parts of an information ecology are as different from
one another as oak trees and scrub jays in a California woodland ecology.
Ecology implies continual evolution. The idea of community does not put the same emphasis
on change. We often think (perhaps naively) of communities as timeless or slow to change
(a prototypical Irish village or a Tibetan monastery).
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There is an urgency in the notion of ecology, because we all are aware of the possibility of
ecological failure due to environmental destruction. While communities do indeed break
down, and there is anxiety about this breakdown, ecological breakdown is disastrous and
irreversible in a way that community breakdown is not. We feel a sense of urgency about the
need to take control of our information ecologies, to inject our own values and needs into
them so that we are not overwhelmed by some of our technological tools.
Penetrating the process of technological development involves defining our own local
information ecologies - creating a local habitation and a name for the technologies we use.
Our leverage point lies in acting within the spheres where we have knowledge and authority.
It may be that we will have the effect of shaping practice in our own settings with an extra
measure of reflection and intention, or it may be that our efforts will be noticed and
emulated by others. We are not asking people to think globally and act locally (recycling
soda cans will not prevent Chernobyl). We are suggesting that people act locally in a
committed, reflective way that acknowledges technique as Ellul documents it, but having
recognized it, chooses to respond with initiative that is grounded in local understanding and
We cannot say how far this will take us. But we can imagine that if we used technology
responsibly in our own homes, schools, offices, hospitals, libraries, and communities, a
major change would be under way. The worst thing we can do is to ask too little of the future
- and ask too little of ourselves in determining the future.
We believe that Ellul and other cultural critics are deeply pessimistic because their analyses
are of whole systems - macrolevel processes that indeed seem impenetrable. As sociologists
and political scientists, they are trained to look at the biggest picture possible. This is a
wonderful gift and a very useful thing to do. But it is not the only way to see. Using
anthropological methods and perspectives, we have looked "on the ground" at small social
groups to find out what they are doing. Looking "in the small" can provide inspiration and
practical ideas for how to change our own ecologies for the better. We see local participation
as a viable point of intervention in a larger system that does, from many vantage points,
seem to have its own agenda, as Postman says.
Rather than resistance we prefer to speak of engagement and participation - specifically,
engagement and participation in our own information ecologies. Rather than individual
heroics in the gynecologist's office or on the factory floor (à la Foucault), we advocate
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collective participation in socially shared and valued activities. While there are certainly
times when resistance is appropriate, it is not enough, and we advocate taking the longer
view involving the work of collective, ongoing construction of enduring information ecologies.
The technology might be high or low; it should fit the needs of the ecology as determined by
the members of the ecology.
Of course the problem of the pervasive, distributed technologies such as automobiles will
continue to bedevil us, because they depend on a broad infrastructure and resist
situationspecific adaptations. We must say more here about what we mean by participating
in local information ecologies. "Local" is a relative term, relative to the specific individuals in
an information ecology and their own spheres of influence and commitment. A head of state
has a wider sphere of influence than a school child. But each can speak up in his or her own
ecology. Spheres of influence change over time, contracting and expanding. With pervasive
communication technology, it is no longer appropriate to speak of a physical geography as
providing a defining boundary (though it might). Local is now defined by influence in an
ecology - which comes from participation and engagement - and commitment to a set of
shared motivations and values.
Healthy information ecologies take time to grow, just as rain forests and coral reefs do. An
information ecology begins with our own efforts to influence the shape and direction of the
technologies we use and the settings in which we use them. We urge people to get involved
in the evolution of their information ecologies - jump into the primordial soup, stir it around,
and make as many waves as possible.
About the Authors
Bonnie Nardi is a researcher at AT&T Labs-Research and is the author of A Small Matter of
Programming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993) and editor of Context and Consciousness
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
Vicki O'Day, formerly a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, is a graduate
student of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
1. "High on tech - They're learning fast and loving it - Alameda company tries a maverick
approach in hiring and training non-technical people for its customer service," San Jose
Mercury News, 12 November 1997.
2. "What is your name?" Faust asked the Devil. To know a spirit's name was to put the spirit
in the knower's power. (See translator's notes in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust,
Charles Passage (translator) [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965], p. 49.)
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This text originally appeared in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart
published in 1999 by MIT Press. The text is copyrighted by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day and
the book is copyrighted by MIT Press. The book is available from
MIT Press directly, fine
bookstores everywhere, and The authors manage a Web site for the book at
Copyright © 1999, First Monday
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