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Technology appropriation in a distant mirror May 14, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cannibalism, creolization, theory.

The ideas we plan to explore in this blog are laid out in “Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: baroque infiltration, creolization and cannibalism”, by François Bar, Francis Pisani and Matthew Weber (April 07) [PDF – draft]. The paper was presented on April 12th as part of the Annenberg Center’s DIY speaker series, and on April 20th in Buenos Aires at the Seminario sobre Desarrollo Económico, Desarrollo Social y Comunicaciones Móviles en América Latina hosted by Fundación Telefónica [PPT slides]. Howard Rheingold covered the Annenberg Center presentation in the DIY blog: part1 and part2.

We welcome comments on this draft.



1. wide open spaces · Cultural and Technological Appropriation - June 13, 2007

[…] technology their own and embed it within their social, economic, and political practices. In the draft paper , the authors locate appropriation practices within a 3-step technology cycle (adoption / […]

2. Paul Duguid - July 10, 2007

(A while ago, we were thrilled to receive thoughtful feedback from Paul Duguid, reposted here with permission. FB.)

From: Paul Duguid
Thu, Apr 19, 2007 at 2:50 PM
To: Francois Bar



As you said you’d welcome comments, I thought I should send a few. I like the paper a lot, and think the categories that you lay out powerful, both descriptively and evocatively. In general, I think that you and others following you will be able to make a lot using these categories.

A couple of more detailed comments. I think you could push harder on the concept of appropriation. “Interacting and modifying” seems a little pale unless you elaborate a bit more. The OED, after all, says it is “taking (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission” [my italics]. That last part suggests to me it’s worth considering that appropriation is always agonistic but only sometimes antagonistic. In the first case, it fights against preconceptions, though not necessarily to the detriment of the original design. (The Ghana email story–or indeed, email in general, as a piggy back on ftp–would fit this case.) Whereas unlocking phones (or eating bishops) are clearly antagonistic. So with discursive examples: for to google (or, indeed, to gazette, which was formed in a similar way in the 17th century). Google are no doubt thoroughly happy to become a byword for search in this way. Yahoo should be so lucky. But then there’s xerox, which Xerox did not like at all. Or there’s words like suffragette or queer, where appropriators overthrew an insult turning it from negative to positive.

With technology, the agonistic vs antagonistic aspects in part reflect the limits of technological prediction. No one thought of email when the conzed up ftp; but presumably no one objected too much when they did it. Presumably sim designers did anticipate unlocked sims when they locked them; they just didn’t want it to happen. Here all sorts of questions come up about power and control, and the extent to which not only can we but do designers want to control users. All that is often much more a function of the business model than the technology. In the end you could always reconcile Xerox–and thanks, btw, for the citation to B&D– to the rep’s bricolage, because although it rejected the company’s business processes (reps should follow manuals), it was actually very healthy for its business model (copiers should be fixed efficiently).

We have a tendency to cheer on appropriation, because we also have a tendency to dislike restrictive business models, but of course that isn’t all they may overthrow. Appropriation can also be both economically but also socially fairly destructive. Think spam.

I confess to being a curmudgeonly dissenter from Tully’s comment that suggests that studying the young is fruitful because they are dynamic. On the one hand, the reasoning is pretty anaemic (unless you are a marketer). On the other, while giving all credit where it is due, the young, who are indeed dynamic, can be not only leading, but also misleading indicators. Dick Rosenbloom, after all, argued that Xerox was led to calamity by following its customers–over a cliff. (I’ve also argued that the young let designers off the hook. If your users have the time and energy to sit up till 3 am fixing brain-dead software for you, why bother with good design. In this way, they resemble model farmers of the 19th century, who invested millions from their own capital in their estates. These looked like models, but farmers with no more than the income a farm generated would be ruined if they tried to follow them.) Unless we are really willing to say where dynamism may be instructive, and where not (where, even, destructive), we end up as little more than enthusiasts for youth.

But another reason takes me back to the notion of bricolage. If I read Levi-Strauss aright (and it’s been a while) he argued that while you could take artefacts from one symbolic structure and use them in another, the extent to which you actually inherited other aspects of the original culture with that appropriation was always open to question. So, when we appropriate bits of culture to a new form or medium, are we antagonistically overthrowing the old, or merely agonistically subjugating ourselves to it? When people get ironic about consumer culture, I suspect that the people who are happiest are the marketers, because those who think themselves triumphant over (antagonistic to) marketing are often the most susceptible to its wiles. And it can be very hard to escape. Even No Logo became a brand. (Appropriation as cooption is something to think about. Much of appropriation is thus superficially antagonistic, while at core little more than agonistic. At best, the weapons of the weak, to quote James Scott, at worst the triumph of the strong.) Hence it is no real surprise that generation vainglorious in its rebelliousness, dude, is in many of its appropriated pastimes profoundly sexist and deeply enthralled by violence.

But that’s me getting off on a tangent (or is it a rant?). As you can see, your essay has pushed me think through some ideas about the ant/agonistic split (whether social or technolgical). So, even if my comments are not much help to you, at least they give me an excuse to send my thanks.


Paul Duguid

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