In Chapter 14: Digital Environment, Hinton elaborates on how people connect the digital environment to the physical world. The chapter details on expectations of people on the digital infrastructure as well as how said infrastructure responds to said expectations. It also goes into depth on the effects of the digital environment being entrenched within people’s lives which leads into question on the agency and sentience this "Internet of Things" has.

Variant Modes and Digital PlacesEdit

Modes and interface affordance both serve to create a place within a digital environment. They create an invariant system that users could depend on and expect similar objects within said system to act accordingly to the rules set by the modes. Therefore as Hinton puts it: “changing the mode of objects can affect the mode of places as well, especially when objects work as part of interdependent systems” [1]. Hinton uses the example of the particular search algorithm for Google’s shopping tab where instead of prioritizing neutral results based on “rank” of authority and quality, the results are based on paid promotion to Google itself. The writing issue with this is multi-faceted:

  • Google’s web-search algorithm is an established cultural expectation by this point where it provides most relevant results based on search that is not skewed towards one type of source or another.
  • The shopping tab on Google is listed next to Images, Maps, and other services. How they are displayed would imply that the rules of searching in the normal searching tab would apply to these other services as well.
  • The actual layout of the Shopping window does not make sense without pressing the “Why these products?” link on the page.

Hinton uses this example to illustrate how “the invariant features of the environment need to make the difference more clear by using semantic function to better establish context” [2]. Specifically, Google Shopping could be improved by explaining the changes from normal Google through some sort of obvious visual and semantic aid.

Foraging for InformationEdit

When users navigate through information environments, they generally do not go through in a logical fashion but by “generally feeling our way through”[2] as Hinton puts it. They explore based on unconscious drive. According to other theories, humans seek information the same way terrestrial animals forage for food where they tend to move in a direction that feels right based on semantic or visual cues. This could end up being very nonlinear and seem completely irrational.

Marcia Bates writes about this “berrypicking” nature of humans trying to find information where searching is implicit and non-deliberate. Bates’ work also often refers to the theory of information foraging, where one facet of it is the information scent model which shows how value of information is attributed to proximity.

Therefore for these digital environments that are mostly made of semantic information and little physical cues, people work with the information that is available to try to go back to this old mechanism of information gathering.

Inhabiting Two Worlds at OnceEdit

Features on a screen can also change meaning within physical places without directly changing the place itself. One example of this which Hinton mentions is the existence of convenient quality-of-life features within apps in smart phones. These have location-based serving to make those locations “smarter” without actually affecting the location itself.

The digital world also changes how people experience these “places” by replicating semantic information available within stores on the Web, allowing one to shop online instead of physically at the building. With the onset of online shopping, there has been more demand for these sites to be integrated with the actual physical stores. Some retailers have trouble manipulating their pre-set infrastructures to meet these needs. Hinton uses an example of a customer wanting to have an order delivered while the online system must figure out the location of the user to give accurate pricing and availability. Though some companies tried to solve this problem, they could only offer empty promises of stability which their systems could not fulfill.

Hinton claims that instead of trying to fake simple features, companies should clarify their complexity to the audience. The systems involved with these stores need to work with the users in a way that they can understand.

Ambient AgentsEdit

Physical-digital agents are objects and events that are digitally enabled. Although perform many mundane tasks, the high number of physical-digital agents may not be readily recognized by most users. These agents serve to “become a layer of digital sentience pervading our surroundings” [3]. This digital sentience serves to turn homes and dwellings of people from separated spheres to interconnected nodes on a network. While this phenomenon has many benefits, it can lead to several downsides such as spam bots being able to spread quickly via networks in homes and businesses. This networked consumer and government infrastructure creates nature-like invariances within people’s lives, despite not being natural.

Thus, the “Internet of Things,” managed by this plethora of smart objects, creates questions on how to model the “intelligence” of said objects and how to make sense of and interact with them. This then puts forth the idea of the scope of these objects’ agency within the world and how they should be handled in digital environments. Hinton refers to Kitchin and Dodge about how agency is not even just limited to these objects, but also stretch to the “places” people inhabit where smart buildings can act as “robots” of a sort. Hinton then mentions the implications of this environment where the “agency of pervasive digital infrastructures can erode human agency, independence, and privacy” [4].

Therefore, when designing a system that depends on human perception, it should present invariants that meet a human’s expectation in perceiving it. Designers should understand how it perceives and understand a human attempting to interact with it. Digital agents must inform people about their limitations to prevent assumptions about their supposed intelligence.


Digital writing is vitally important in everyday life due to people's connection with digital environments, which they see as a conduit to the physical world and sometimes as nearly sentient. Hinton elaborates on the effect of proper digital writing on people’s lives. In the first three sections, expectations are met; in the fourth, these expectations combine with reality. Through the fourth section, Hinton mentions how making the digital environment mimic the physical one creates a reality where people depend on an infrastructure based around “smart” objects that boost quality-of-life for people.

This gives sense to Anderson and Wolff’s article on the Internet being in decline while apps are in the rise [5]. The Internet's versatility works against it, since specific sites do not always have specific functions. General use sites seem too “digital” for people to include into their lives without conscious thought. Apps with specific purposes lend themselves to this web of smart objects. Apps become regular occurrences within people’s lives, to the point they do not have to think about them; apps just “work.”


  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 235
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 237
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 246
  4. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 249
  5. Anderson, Chris and Michael Wolff. 2010. “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” Wired Magazine. Web.

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