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Baroquize this! June 25, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cultural references, language, re-make, writing process.

Suppliers yearn for user appropriation, but not just any kind of appropriation. Designers lay out careful scripts for users to re-make the products they adopt into something that is uniquely theirs. Phone makers want customers not simply to adopt a handset, but to personalize it with distinctive covers and straps, to program its short-cut keys, to inscribe its memory with their own address-book or calendar. Take Boost mobile, abaporu’s favorite MVNO: once you have bought their phone, the Boost brochure invites you to “make it your own” with call-tones, ring-tones, and wallpapers (yet omits to mention that you can personalize it further by installing mologogo, a free alternative to Boost’s own fee-based location service.) Suppliers thus intentionally carve out blank spaces within their designs, then invite users to infiltrate these spaces with their own data and decorations.

This particular appropriation mode, in which users follow the script laid out for them by suppliers, echoes a well-trodden cultural appropriation practice: baroque infiltration. During the colonization of Latin America, the Roman Catholic church was eager for local people to make the Catholic religion their own. To nurture the process, repeating a strategy used in Europe during the counter-reformation, Rome left spaces open on its monuments and in its ceremonies. Thus, the invaders set forth opportunities for the invaded to state their presence, infiltrate their messages, suggest their cosmovisions. Such “baroque infiltration”, Rome reasoned, would allow indigenous people to appropriate European culture and religion, but to do so safely, according to Rome’s own blueprint. In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes describes the results of this appropriation practice in the creations of José Kondori, the Quechua architect who built “the magnificent churches of Potosí, undoubtedly the most brilliant illustration of the meaning of the baroque in Latin America”.

“Among the angels and the vines of the façade of San Lorenzo, an Indian princess appears, and all the symbols of the defeated Incan culture are given a new lease on life. The Indian half-moon disturbs the traditional serenity of the Corinthian vine. American jungle leaves and Mediterranean clover intertwine. The sirens of Ulysses play the Peruvian guitar. And the flora, the fauna, the music, and even the sun of the ancient Indian world are forcefully asserted. There shall be no European culture in the New World unless all of these, our native symbols, are admitted on an equal footing.”
Carlos Fuentes (1999) The Buried Mirror – Reflections on Spain and the New World, Houghton Mifflin. p.196 (*)

Of course, Rome was perhaps naïve to think the locals would remain docile and stop there. Fuentes, along with others such as José Lezama Lima, go on to describe how baroque practices can overtake the very objects they infiltrate. Natives, Africans and criollos in Latin America learned to create a baroque within the baroque, appropriating the process itself into an art of contraconquista. This is a story for another day…

For the moment, we simply want to point out the striking parallel between “baroque infiltration” and the business strategies through which technology suppliers lay out a script for users to re-make their products. There is no good verb in English to describe the resulting user practice – personalize, fill-in, infiltrate, decorate, layer… each captures a dimension of the process but not its essence. So, we need to coin a new verb:

to baroquize (v.t.) = to re-make into one’s own, following an appropriation script proposed by the provider.

While “baroquize” doesn’t yet exist in English, we feel encouraged to proceed by our readers’ comments, who point out that barroquisar, barroquizar, and baroquiser do exist in Portuguese, Spanish and French. It must have been an oversight.

(*) “Pues entre los ángeles y las viñas de la fachada de San Lorenzo, aparece una princesa incásica, con todos los símbolos de su cultura derrotada animados por una nueva promesa de vida. La media luna indígena agota la tradicional serenidad de la viña corintia, el follaje de la selva americana y el trébol mediterráneo se entrelazan. Las sirenas de Ulises tocan la guitarra peruana. Y la flora, la fauna, la música e incluso el sol del antiguo mundo indígena, se reafirman con fuerza. No habría cultura europea en el Nuevo Mundo a menos que éstos, nuestros símbolos nativos, sean admitidos en pie de igualdad.” (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado p. 282)

Wordsmithing “appropriation” May 31, 2007

Posted by François in theory, writing process.

In our draft paper (pp. 23-35), we locate appropriation practices within a 3-step technology cycle (adoption / appropriation / re-configuration), then distinguish three appropriation practices: baroque layering, creolization, and cannibalism. We are not completely happy with these labels, for two reasons. First, re-configuration is confusing because it could also describe practices like creolization and cannibalism. Second, the labels conceal who does what: in our model, users appropriate and suppliers re-configure, but that’s not directly obvious. So, we went back to the drawing board and came up with this new version of the 3-step cycle.

We hope to convey four key ideas:

1) This cycle describes the iterative evolution of a technology. Suppliers roll-out a technology and, once they adopt it, users quickly begin to appropriate it – they modify it to make it their own. Suppliers then strive to re-claim control, either to take advantage of the innovations users have come up with, or to stop them. In the process, they produce a new technology, which users can then further adopt (or reject), then appropriate, etc. Technology evolution is the cumulative outcome of successive cycles.

2) Technology always entails an implied power structure – a set of built-in assumptions about who can use it, at what cost, under what conditions, for what purpose, and with what consequences. At their core, appropriation practices are the strategies users pursue to re-negotiate this power structure.

3) We identify three appropriation practices that constitute three increasingly conflictive re-negotiation strategies. With baroque infiltration, users personalize technology along options set out by technology suppliers – their practice is congruent with the supplier’s intentions and business plan. By contrast, when users creolize technology, they venture beyond the supplier’s intentions to ‘re-mix’ technological components in unintended ways, with results that may or may not match the supplier’s interests. At the extreme, users who cannibalize technology intend to confront suppliers – their re-invention clashes with the supplier’s interests. All three strategies, we argue, are deeply creative practices that result in innovation.

4) In reaction to users’ appropriation practices, suppliers will attempt to re-claim control over their technology. Mirroring user appropriation strategies, we identify three reclamation practices that are increasingly conflictive. At their most conciliatory, suppliers co-opt user-generated innovation and modify their technology to embrace new users practices. Then again, they may chose instead to compromise and accommodate only some portion of user-generated innovations. At the extreme, they may decide to close the door and block the innovations users have produced.

A few problems remain with these new labels: “personalize” isn’t great (but unfortunately, “baroquize” is not a word…), and “compromise” isn’t that good either to describe the suppliers’ middle-ground approach to reclamation. Suggestions welcome.