Friday, August 27, 2004

Knowledge Artifacts... what is material?

After having spent a lot of time thinking and reading about the topic of materiality, my passion for recording my thoughts is quickly ebbing. Perhaps if I write quickly I can maintain a tidbit of my initial enthusiasm!

As this paper has progressed, it has begun to come apart in a number of layers. As soon as I felt that I had an understanding of particular issues, a larger issue made itself apparent. I’m reminded of the insights of Witold Rybczynski (1986) in his attempt to describe comfort:

“It is like trying to describe an onion. It appears simple on the outside, just a spheroidal shape. But this is deceptive, for an onion also has many layers. If we cut it apart, we are left with a pile of onion skins, but the original form has disappeared; if we describe each layer separately, we lose sight of the whole. To complicate matter further, the layers are transparent, so that when we look at the whole onion we see not just the surface but also something of the interior. Similarly, comfort is both something simple and complicated. It incorporates many layers of meaning--privacy, ease, convenience--some of which are buried deeper than others.” (230)

In order to fully explore the ideas of “following the document”, we need to come up with some operating definitions to various terms: material, tool, artifact, marking, inscription, document, boundary object, genre, and—obviously—paper.


It’s difficult to tease apart the notion of material from conceptualizations of what humans are. While homo sapien requires only the tools of logic and thought, homo faber requires the material we find all around us. Dobres (2000):

"In past and present alike, humans are defined, and define themselves, in similarly rational and objectified ways: by virtue of what they make, how they make, how they use, and the degree to which they control the natural world through material means." (33)

As humans we have an intimate relationship with matter. At what point, however, does simple matter become transmogrified into something more important? When does simple matter become technology? This question is tougher to answer.

One possible approach relies on the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger. I have to admit that I have never read Heidegger’s own work but the secondary literature proves to be quite informative. For Heidegger, the material world is not simply something out there that humans interact with but is a crucial element of what makes us human. This interaction is crucial for the human process of “being”. According to Dobres (2000):

"[Heidegger] also emphasizes being-in-the-world as an unfolding (temporal) coming into existence of the agent through their particular material experiences (with technology, for example). Because awareness is continually engendered through these corporeal and unfolding experiences, they further augment, build on, and challenge preexisting sensibilities." (81-82)

While Heidegger’s notions of being are interesting and serve to underscore the importance of materials for human experience, they are a bit esoteric. He does, however, provide some more useful concepts for us to explore. According to Heidegger, the ontological structure of the world is dependent on our interaction with objects. In our interaction, these objects are of two types: ready-to-hand, and present-to-hand. Certain objects are natural extensions of our daily activities. Dourish (1999), for example, describes the computer mouse as a quintessential ready-to-hand object; it’s an extension of our hands that we depend on but we are rarely mindful of its status as an object. When a computer mouse begins to malfunction, however, we become acutely aware of the mouse. It becomes present-to-hand. Dourish explains the importance of the distinction between these two types of objects:

"The origin of ontology, and the existence of entities, lies precisely in the way those moments make objects apparent. When an entity becomes present at hand, it is not simply that it is revealing itself, or as if it was waiting all along to be discovered. Rather, it is through this moment of becoming present at hand that the object takes on an existence as an entity. The critical thing to observe here is that this can happen only through an involved, embodied action." (10)

Material, then, is not merely the raw clay of production. It is something we interact with in a process of creating our reality. There are, of course, other taxonomies of matter. The comedian George Carlin, for example, famously stated that there are two types of matter: “stuff” and “shit”. My “stuff” would quite likely be interpreted by someone else as “shit” if it were to accumulate in that person’s basement. Carlin’s taxonomy demonstrates a value judgement. And this value judgement is necessarily socially situated.

In a slightly different interpretation of material, Rom Harré supports Carlin’s views. In particular, Harré (2002) focuses on the way that mere “material” becomes all-important “things” through a process of narrative:

"If material things become social objects in so far as they are embedded in narratives then the question of whether this [is] the same or a different social object depends on how this is the same or a different story." (30)

Our interaction with matter not only reinforces our social perceptions but our interpretation of matter is necessarily a product of our own narratives or social context.

This philosophical foray is starting to remind me of a Monty Python tiger-hunt. After setting of on a journey with a rather dubious reason, I seem to have found an explanation that doesn’t really seem to be an explanation at all. These notions of narrative, being, and at-handedness don’t seem to answer my questions. For example, I could ask the question: “is the document—or knowledge artifact—before me rooted in my social context and personal narratives?” Yes. “Is this Harré document ready-at-hand or present-to-hand?” Uhhh… it’s something that I had to look for and didn’t take for granted so I guess it’s present-to-hand. Applying Carlin’s logic, however, we could ask whether the same document is stuff or shit. Well, I suppose to me in my present context it’s definitely stuff but it will quickly be ironized to shit should it fall to the floor and get in the way of the vacuum.

So could a document ever be ready-at-hand? It may depend on the type of the document. A journal article, or a book that must be sought must always be present-to-hand. There are other types of documents, however, that LIS is less keen to study. Objects that actively support work such as doctor’s charts or flight logs could certainly be ready-to-hand. Certain books—I’m thinking of the DSM for psychologists—might be so essential to the diagnosis and validation structures of certain professions (Abbott, 1988) that they too may ascend to the status of ready-at-hand. As such, they may be considered “tools”. Perhaps the reified ontological status of “documents” depends on them being ready-at-hand?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My exploration of tools and documents is yet to come.

There is one area left to explore in this discussion of material. If ontological status depends on value judgments, we must have some way of separating stuff from shit. There must be something inherent in different types of material to distinguish value. I can imagine that some will argue that value judgments are completely socially constructed and that the underlying nature of the material is redundant (remember the Saturday Night Live parody about three-legged jeans? The tagline was “no dumber than acid-washed”). From an evolutionary perspective, however, certain objects must have that special something that led to their adoption. Certain materials, for example, may have had value (or “utility”) as clothing or for construction. This utility—socially constructed or otherwise—may distinguish stuff from shit, tool from material.

One valuable framework for exploring the utility of material is the concept of “affordance”. While J.J. Gibson initially coined this term in a widely cited (but unread by me) book, it was popularized by Donald Norman (1990):

“There already exists the start of a psychology of materials and of things, the study of affordances of objects. When used in this sense the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used… A chair affords (‘is for’) support and, therefore, affords sitting. A chair can also be carried. Glass is for seeing through, and for breaking. Wood is normally used for solidity, opacity, support, or carving. Flat, porous, smooth surfaces are for writing on. So wood is also for writing on.” (9)

In his description, Norman conflates material (e.g., wood) with objects that are quite clearly man-made and have particular value (e.g., chair). This concept of “affordance”, however, will be quite helpful as we begin to explore other concepts such as “artifact” and “tool”.


Abbott, A. D. (1988). The system of professions : an essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dobres, M.-A. (2000). Technology and social agency : outlining a practice framework for archaeology. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.
Dourish, P. (1999). Embodied interaction: Exploring the foundations of a new approach to HCI. Retrieved August 25, 2004, from
Harré, R. (2002). Material objects in social worlds. Theory Culture & Society, 19(5-6), 23-33.
Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things (1st Doubleday/Currency ed.). New York: Doubleday.
Rybczynski, W. (1986). Home : a short history of an idea. Toronto: Penguin.


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