Chapter 2 explains how technology can complicate context. The difference between changes in physical and digital objects is explained and there is an analysis of how the web fits into our daily lives. An example of a failed web program highlights context confusion in a digital environment.

Early DisruptionEdit

Technology confuses context by separating cause and effect. Reading and writing allows texts to travel and be read in different environments and contexts than the text was written in. A watch, an example of technology, requires specialized knowledge to understand how the gears inside the watch work together to create a system of time telling. While a watch user knows that a watch tells time and has gears, it takes a specialist to understand how the gears create that cause and effect relationship.

Humans were able to keep up with these technological changes, but a radical shift occurred when digital networks detached us from physical locations. Comparisons can be made to a physical place or address, and to a digital space, which can be found by a digital address. For example, an email points to a digital location for someone to receive mail. An .edu email address may even suggest ties to a specific geographical area. But you don't know where the recipient will physically be at the moment of receiving the message. The digital location for receiving their mail can be accessed from any physical place with Internet or cell phone reception. The lines between geography and "place" have started to blur as digital spaces become more useful and fit into people's daily lives more.

The Role of the WebEdit

The Internet was the reason for the rise of digital networks. It facilitated easy sharing of information because the user didn't have to worry about the structure or medium of the message. Now, even the web has decreased as a medium and is being used as a channel for apps and specialized databases that get us the information and content we want faster than ever. The web hosts digital 'spaces' for the digital content we upload and view. YouTube transports you into videos taken all over the world. Hinton uses a quote from Michael Wesch describing the situation as “context collapse: an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording”[1]. Due to interactive places, like YouTube, the boundaries separating physical places from each other have ceased to be a problem. These sites and apps facilitate Internet-based communication without boundaries.

Case Study: Facebook BeaconEdit

Facebook has always been an example of context disruption. When the site opened from college students to the general public, college users were shocked to find out that former pictures and statuses were now available for a wider audience. Facebook's News Feed feature broadcasted changes in relationship statuses and work history in a way that was more public than ever before.

Facebook Beacon was a Facebook program that tracked your activities around the web. A Facebook pop-up appeared on gaming, shopping and news sites to let you know your activity would be posted to your News Feed. Facebook users didn't think the social media site would be able to track your activity outside of Facebook and missed the Facebook pop-up on the different site. This is an example of context confusion because people didn't understand that networked devices could interact and share information with each other. In addition, people weren't expecting to see a Facebook pop-up on other sites, and weren't looking for the kind of pop-up that was common on Facebook. This program prompted widespread user dissatisfaction and Facebook removed the Beacon program. This was the first instance of users being alerted of their information on the web being tracked by others. This is in stark contrast to before network devices existed, when the amount of information on a person was less readily available and privacy was less of a concern.


When Hinton compares digital spaces to physical spaces, he's giving them agency and the ability to exist. Highlighting this idea of digital places having agency is the idea of the Internet as infrastructure. Like the highway is for the fast, efficient movement of cars, the Internet, known as the “Information Superhighway”  facilitates the spread of information and content. Digital agents, particularly smart phones and the web, have become as ubiquitous as roads or plumbing. As Chris Anderson says in "The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet", "these dedicated platforms often just work better of fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don't have to go to the screen)"[2]. As a type of infrastructure, these digital spaces fit easily into our lives, facilitating work, social communication, sharing of content, and entertainment. Digital content and information is able to be seen and interacted with just as easily as physical places, blurring the line between the digital and physical.

Another thing to consider about digital objects having agency is the phenomenon of 'smart' machines. Smart machines are physical objects embedded with software that can turn physical factors into digital information. A smart refrigerator can use sensors and software to let you know when you're running low on milk. How do we determine if the refrigerator is a physical or digital object? It has agency, and has a physical place, but uses digital information to interact with the user and make sense of its surroundings. Technology, as a machine that replaces skill[3], even furthers the split between cause and effect. Now, we have a seemingly disjointed middle between an agent and their actions, assisted by technology

Facebook Beacon illustrates an example of the contextual confusion that comes with new digital spaces. Facebook Beacon created a new connection between digital places thought to be separate. This was the first time a distinction formed between physical and digital spaces, based on the networked ability of digital places to interact with each other. This context confusion highlights another big difference between physical and digital objects, in that digital objects can be changed a lot faster than physical ones. Building a road is something that takes money, resources, and time. As a physical object, people see the construction of this new road as it gets built. However, a website or app can be updated with a new look, usability or functionality very quickly and without any prior knowledge of the users.


  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 14
  2. Anderson, Chris and Michael Wolff. 2010. “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” Wired Magazine. Web.
  3. "How Technology Changes The Skills We Need To Learn." Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Web.