Tom Erickson
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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.


Appropriable Technology

Thomas Erickson

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 attractive thing.

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 systems.

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 system?

I see at least three candidates for characteristics of an appropriable technology:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 quite beautifully:

Axe Handles

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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Tom Erickson

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