This is one of a series of essays written for a seminar in Genre Theory in
the spring of 1998. This essay refers tangentially to an article on genre theory
and activity theory by David R. Russell ("Writing and Genre in Higher Education
and Workplaces: A Review of Studies that Use Cultural-Historical Activity Theory,"
in Mind, Culture, and Activity, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1997.)
I believe I appropriated the felicitious phrase "appropriable technology"
from Paul Dourish.
In the last decade or so, one of the principle goals in the design of personal
computers and the programs which run upon them has been designing them to be
'intuitive.' Of course, 'intuitive is really just a marketing-induced illusion,
but it does serve as a code for "easy enough to learn so that little or
no recourse to an instruction manual is required," which is still a pretty
More recently, attention has shifted from designing systems for individuals
(i.e. the 'personal' in PC) to designing systems for groups of people. For example,
the advent of the social phenomenon of "the web", the commercial success
of 'groupware' such as Lotus Notes, and the near ubiquity of tropes such as
"process re-engineering" and "knowledge management" has
lead many managers and engineers to begin to think in terms that would be familiar
(in a horrifyingly naive sort of way) to activity theorists. Indeed, as enacted
in the corporate setting, those thinking about designing systems for groups
have made a sort of inverted Latourian move: they are treating non-human agents
symmetrically with human agents by the simple expedient of ignoring the human
and social characteristics of human agents. This is exemplified by an internal
memo which crossed my computer screen this Tuesday. It read, in part:
"As we tell our customers, it is up to each of use to change the way
we work by using the right tools, the right way."
-- A Vice President of Technology Deployment, April 1998
Rather than designing systems for groups, the tactic is to design groups for
I think this is deplorable. It seems to me that the notion of "easy enough
to learn" that was such an attractive aspect of personal computers ought
to have a counterpart in the more group oriented world. I like the phrase "appropriable
technology," but "appropriable genres" is more to the point,
if lacking the resonance of the first phrase. (I am now using genre in the David
Russell sense of "a typified use of material tools by an activity system.")
This brings me to the central question I want to raise: are there particular
characteristics of a genre that facilitate its appropriation by an activity
I see at least three candidates for characteristics of an appropriable technology:
- Visible Use: The process of use is visible. An example is
Russell's statement that he appropriated the shopping list genre by seeing
his mother make similar lists. A negative example are personal computers and
their programs: unlike, say, a white board, personal computers are not designed
to make their use by one person visible to another, even though watching over
someone's shoulder while they use a program is an excellent way to learn.
- Glassboxing (as opposed to blackboxing): The material artifact contains
traces of its construction and use that can be deciphered by its intended
audience. A positive example is the world wide web. While it is not possible
document, more than one observer has speculated that the success of the web
is due in part to the fact that web browsers provide the option for inspecting
the html (the code that generates web pages), thus permitting anyone so inclined
to see how particular effects were produced, and thus expand their facility
in the medium. Curiously, a negative example would seem to be many teaching
genres which are commodified, stripped of the traces of the process of their
construction within an activity system - perhaps this seeming contradiction
is explained by a third way in which appropriation may be supported.
- Social Transmissiblity. A third way in which the appropriation of
a genre might be supported is through explicit social support. That is, the
activity system within which a genre is used explicitly includes social roles
(and rewards) which support the transmission of the genre. While this is not
a characteristic of the genre per se, it seems likely that genre may have
characteristics that support their social transmission. Perhaps this is the
explanation for the commoditization of disciplinary genre used in the activity
system of the University
'll conclude with a poem by Gary Snyder, which captures most of these issues
- One afternoon the last week in April
- Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
- One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
- He recalls the hatchet-head
- Without a handle, in the shop
- And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
- A broken-off axe handle behind the door
- Is long enough for a hatchet,
- We cut it to length and take it
- with the hatchet head
- And work hatchet, to the wood block
- There I begin to shape the old handle
- With the hatchet, and the phrase
- First learned from Ezra Pound
- Rings in my ears!
- "When making an axe handle
- the pattern is not far off."
- And I say this to Kai
- "Look: We'll shape the handle
- By checking the handle
- Of the axe we cut with--"
- And he sees. And I hear it again:
- It's in Lu Ji's Wen Fu, fourth century
- A.D. "Essay on Literature"--in the
- Preface: "In making the handle
- Of an axe
- By cutting wood with an axe
- the model is indeed near at hand."
- My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
- Translated that and taught it years ago
- And I see: Pound was an axe,
- Chen was an axe, I am an axe
- And my son a handle, soon
- To be shaping again, model
- And tool, craft of culture,
- How we go on.
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