Tag Archives: iPad

Technological Domestication

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?

iPad in da House

A few posts back, I noted that new artifacts are always to some extent “underdetermined”; that is, different groups will often have conflicting opinions as to what the new artifact actually is, and what it is good for. One current example of this phenomenon is some recent discourse surrounding Apple’s sexy new tablet: the iPad.

Earlier this week, a colleague and good friend of mine from the UK sent me a news story about a member of Parliament reading her speech from an iPad instead of a printed piece of paper. At first I was perplexed, as I couldn’t imagine why this was newsworthy, but the article explained that this was indeed the first instance of an MP using the new tablet device (instead of the more traditional printed paper) during a speech. It also explained that electronic devices like laptop computers have always been banned from the chamber. But the iPad posed a bit of a quandary: is it just a portable computer in a different form-factor, or is it more akin to electronic paper? How you answer that question determines whether the MP’s use of the iPad was appropriate or not.

As it turns out, the iPad has recently made a few appearances in other political assemblies as well. In June of last year, a similar incident happened in the German Parliament, where the use of laptops is also banned. In December of last year, US Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) was questioned over his use of an iPad during his speech. In his defense, he wittily replied “I’m not using it to play Angry Birds!”

It seems that the US House of Representatives, like many parliamentary bodies, has traditionally banned the use of electronic devices, especially those that can receive and transmit information over communication networks. Interestingly, the reason is not based on a concern for security; rather, it is a concern for “decorum” and the need for representatives to avoid outside distractions while in session. Laptop computers and mobile phones fall into this category of “distracting devices,” but the US house does currently allow “unobtrusive handheld electronic devices” such as Blackberrys, and now it would seem, iPads.

Why are iPads allowed while laptop computers are not? If you try to answer this from a technical perspective, you would just become frustrated. After all, an iPad is really just a somewhat-simplified laptop computer in a different form factor, and it can offer up just as many distractions (if not more) as a full-fledged laptop. To answer this, we need to remove our engineering caps, and don our sociological ones instead.

The difference between the two really lies in the social meanings this culture attaches to the respective devices. At some point in the past, these politicians achieved some degree of “closure” on their meaning of the laptop computer, characterizing it as a device that is too distracting for use within the chamber (for the concept of closure, see the SCOT framework developed by Pinch and Bijker). When the iPad was introduced, the culture was faced with the task of constructing a meaning for the new device, and as is typical, different groups within the culture have tried to characterize it in terms of categories they already knew. Some have argued that it should be banned because it is just like a laptop computer, while others have advocated that it should be allowed, because it is just an electronic version of the paper and pens they already condone.

Those of us in education will also soon face this same quandary (if you haven’t already). The iPad is a perfect medium for interactive textbooks and could become a decent note-taking device if Apple devises an easier method for silent text input (perhaps a chording keyboard?) Should we resist it, arguing that it is too much of a temptation towards distraction? Or should we embrace it and actively try to shape it into something beneficial for students? I think the latter is possible, but only by conscious, active engagement at this most-critical stage of adoption.