When the iPad was first introduced, I read every review of it I could find, but one of them has stuck with me more than the others. The reviewer likened the iPad to a new puppy, something that filled your life with love and joy, but also annoyed you as it chewed up your favorite slippers, shredded your pillow, and peed all over your new carpet. The reviewer was anxious for the iPad to transition into that good old dog who sat by your side, provided unwavering companionship, and behaved the way you wanted it to.
What I loved most about that review was how it perfectly captured one of my favorite concepts from media and technology studies: domestication. Metaphorically speaking, new technologies are similar to untrained puppies; they create chaos and upheaval in their owners’ lives when first introduced, but their owners typically respond by domesticating them: reshaping their behaviors, and sometimes even their physical attributes (e.g. neutering), so that they better fit the existing social order. A house with a dog is never the same as a house without one, but a well-domesticated dog bends as much to its owners as its owners bend to it.
Domestication theory, like it sounds, posits that technological adoption is an active process where designers, producers, marketers, and consumers struggle to work out what a new device or system actually is, and what it is good for. As opposed to the more traditional view where technologies enter the consumer space and are assumed to have one-way “impacts” on culture, domestication researchers stress the ways in which people wrestle with and often reshape technologies as they fit them into their everyday lives.
For example, consider the introduction of a television into a household. I’m just old enough that I remember the first time my parents brought home a large (maybe 15″) color television. Before that, we had a very small black-and-white television that we sometimes watched, but this new color set was the first real TV we ever had. Although the artifact itself carried with it some suggestions for how it should be used, it did not completely determine how we fit it into our lives. It had the look of a piece of furniture, so it could have fit well into our main living area, but my parents were the sort that wanted to relegate the TV to a separate, designated room. This placement sent the message to us boys that watching TV was something out of the ordinary, something to be done occasionally and purposefully.
My parents also carefully regulated what we watched on that television, and when we watched it. My brother and I desperately loved The Six Million Dollar Man, but we also quickly learned that we had to remain on our best behavior to watch it, as it aired just after our normal bed time. Sadly, we missed many of the episodes due to our inability to resist fighting with one another, so I never did find out what happend when Steve Austin met the Sasquatch. Watching TV on a sunny day was also verboten; my mother was particular in her desire that we go outside and play whenever we had the chance to do so. Perhaps she just wanted to watch her own shows in peace….
Like all good parents, mine were also concerned about regulating the way in which we watched television: sitting too close to the set would reap condemnations and warnings that we’d soon go blind, which I’m guessing was a popular urban myth at the time. Sitting upside down on the couch, which seemed perfectly fun to us, was also never tolerated. If we were going to watch TV, we need to watch it, not play around. All of this communicated that watching TV was serious business, and not something you did aimlessly while you played with other things.
My point is that while the physical artifact and the programming streamed through it suggested or even encouraged particular patterns of use, they did not entirely determine how that device was incorporated into my family’s home. My parents domesticated that television: our house was never the same after it was introduced, but the physical placement of the device, and the way in which our use of it was regulated, reshaped our understanding of what it was, and what it was good for.
So where was the TV in your childhood house, and what rules did your parents establish (or not establish) regarding its use? How are you actively domesticating new technologies that are entering your life today? Are your domestication efforts proving successful, or are your new devices metaphorically chewing your coffee table legs to bits?