Appropriating Technology

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Ron Eglash

We usually think of technology as that which is designed by elite groups -- mostly male, mostly white, mostly upper class, etc. But the lay public can also be thought of as producers of technology and science. The "smiley face" emoticons we use in email, for example, were not designed by experts; it was ordinary people taking advantage of a flexibility in the system. Technology appropriation can be profound: Latino "street mechanics" for example created the Low Rider car which revolutionized their culture. Black teenagers created the "scratch" sound of rap by appropriating the turntable. Appropriated technology can help the disenfrachised gain social power. But there are three barriers. First, marginalized people often see science and technology as the enemy, a force to be resisted. Second, marginalized people often lack the education and physical resources for technology interventions. And third, designers (or at least the corporations they work for) do not necessarily see flexibility as something they should incorporate in their products. Of course not all cases of appropriated technology are happy stories: neo-nazi groups are also outside the centers of scientific production, and they too adapt and reinvent to gain power.


Barrier 1: science and technology as the enemy. Social critics of often cite "technocracy" as the evil which perpetuates disparity in social power. Thus oppositional groups which subscribe to this theory will tend to desire less technology and not more. We see this in the 1960s counter-culture, in the conflation of technology with patriarchy, and in race-based movements that see an original "natural" or "pure" identity that was later defiled by colonialism.
Barrier 2: science and technology as unattainable. Our society tends to mythologize expertise, particularly that of science and technology, making lay interventions less attainable than they actually are. Many researchers suspect this serves to maintain elite priviledge and passive consumption.
Barrier 3: designing for rigidity: Corporations can increase profits by forcing consumers to use their products or engage in limited behaviors: for example Microsoft's operating system created barriers to competing internet browsers.


In collecting the various case studies for our anthology (Eglash et al 2004), it became apparent that some examples made a stronger case for appropriation than others. Using that distinction, we developed the following three categories. You can think of these as being positioned along a spectrum from consumption to production (see figure above).

The weakest case, "reinterpretation," is defined by a change in semantic association with little or no change in use or structure. That is, the lay person has changed only the meaning of the artifact, not its physical make up. Graffiti tags are a good illustration: the physical and functional aspects of a building are essentially unchanged, but the semantic claim to ownership, as a form of either cultural resistance or criminal turf war,is not trivial. The next stronger case, "adaptation," is defined by a change in both semantic association and use. For example, the Bedouin society of Egypt, a relatively disempowered ethnic minority, found that cassette tape players, which were marketed for listening to music from the Egyptian majority, had an unused recording capability as well. They began to record their own songs, and this eventually led to the rise of a Bedouin pop star and the creation of new economic and cultural opportunities (Abu-Lughod 1989). Adaptation requires two technosocial features. First, an attribute of the technology-user relationship that Hess (1995) refers to as “flexibility.” For example, a calculator is less flexible than a word processor, which is less flexible than a personal computer. Second, it requires a violation of intended purpose. It is a mistake to reduce this to the intentions of designers; we also need to consider marketing intentions and “common-sense” or popular assumptions. In the case of Bedouin cassette players we have a pre-existing flexibility for recording that was intended by the designers, but this was obscured by the marketing focus on play-back only. Adaptation can be described as the discovery of a “latent” function, but that definition needs to be problemitized in the same ways that philosophers have debated whether mathematics is invention or discovery. The creativity required to look beyond the assumed functions of the technology and see new possibilities is a powerful force for social change, yet one that receives insufficient theoretical attention.

The strongest case for appropriated technology is "reinvention," in which semantics, use and structure are all changed. That is, if adaptation can be said to require the discovery of a latent function, reinvention can be defined as the creation of new functions through structural change. Low-rider cars (see figure below) provide a clear demonstration of this combination. Although automobile shock absorbers were originally produced for decreasing disturbance, Latino mechanics developed methods for attaching them to electrically controlled air pumps, turning shock absorbers into shock producers (the cars can move vertically as well as horizontally). Low-rider cars violate both marketing and design intentions, but the new functionality was introduced by altering the original structure, rather than discovering functions lying dormant in the original artifact.

Having studied appropriated technologies, what should we do with them?

First, it is important to understand that in distinguishing strong versus weak cases for appropriated technology, we make no evaluation of ideology or effectiveness. One might, for instance, find more political success with reinterpretation than reinvention in a given case. It is, rather, more a question of how much involment the lay public can have in production versus consumption.

Second, appropriated technologies do not have an *inherent* ethical advantage. Not all forms of resistance are necessarily beneficial in the long run. Aihwa Ong, for example, notes that Malaysian women using spirit possession as resistance to exploitation may be releasing frustrations that could have gone into collective labor organizing. And as we noted, white supremacist groups might well be described as marginalized people who appropriate the internet and other technologies. While free speech must be preserved at all costs, appropriation is not making a better society in the case of neo-nazi web sites.

Third, Insofar as science and technology appropriations do have potential contributions to stronger democracy (cf. Schuler 1996), we need to understand how these positive attributes can succeed. First, there are obstacles to appropriation on the design side; most obviously those created by totalitarian governments, but corporations can also dampen or discourage appropriation. The flexibility required to allow user adaptation, for example, is increasingly threatened in contemporary information technology marketing strategies. Encouraging designers to incorporate appropriation as a positive virtue means reversing this trend towards inflexibility. Second, there are obstacles to appropriation on the lay public side. We need to not only overcome the ideology barrier, but also the barriers of education and access to physical resources.


In terms of the designer barrier, we can train engineers and designers to think about approapriation as a positive goal. In terms of the ideology barrier, we can encourage marginalized groups to strive towards positive conceptions of hybridity rather than relying on notions of purity. And in terms of the resource barrier, we can encourage the creation of community technology centers, among other efforts.

Finally, we should examine each case of lay/professional relationship in terms of the dependence or independence fostered by various appropriated technology strategies. A "consumer ombudsman" offers more independence than a marketing survey, participatory design offers more than the ombudsman, and appropriating technology offers a maximum of independance. But again this is not an ethical spectrum -- there are cases in which groups are better off with an ombudsman than an act of appropriation. Increasing independence can free up new possibilities, but decreasing it can facilitate institutionalization. Rather than romanticize independence, both users and designers should strive towards the lay/professional relationship that will move toward strong democracy in their particular context. In conclusion: we can encourage, inspire, and incite the use of appropriated technologies for opening new possibilities in the relations of culture and technoscience.

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"Ordinary people" can produce science and technology. Latino "street mechanics" created the Low Rider car and Black teenagers created the "scratch" sound of rap. Appropriating technology can help the disenfranchised gain social power. We can encourage marginalized groups to explore positive "hybridity," create community technology centers, and train engineers and designers to think about appropriation by users as a positive goal.

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Ron Eglash