First Monday

Information Ecologies : Using Technology with Heart by Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O'Day

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 accepting.

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.

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 technology.

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 life.

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" [1].

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.

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

Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday