On September 9, 2014, Apple unveiled the iPhone 6. Among its many new features as well as software changes to all previous versions of the device was some free music: Songs of Innocence, the latest studio album from the band U2. Apple reportedly paid $100 million for the rights to distribute the album, pushing it onto the playlists of an estimated 500 million iPhone users. However, according to David Carr of the New York Times, many saw this as an “unwanted intrusion into their most personal territory—their music collection.”
Facing a backlash fueled by social media, Apple created a webpage specific to removing the offending album and Bono, U2’s leader and vocalist, offered something like an apology:
I had this beautiful idea. Might have gotten carried away with ourselves…A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard.
While tempted to question Bono’s recipe measurements as well as express annoyance over celebrity-musicians’ undying need to be acknowledged for lackluster artistic efforts, I am more interested in what this whole fiasco means. Given our near-constant state of adapting to design changes and software updates, what might the varied actions and reactions here reveal?
An illuminating post by designer Christina Wodtke may point us in a rightward direction. Taking apart the “users hate change” adage that tends to pop up any time users have negative reactions to something new, Wodtke explains that “users hate change that doesn’t make things better, [that] makes everything have to be relearned.” When a big change happens, whether an Apple iOS update, a Google email interface redesign, or a Facebook feed edit, the end user, writes Wodtke, “focuses on what they have lost: productivity, comfort, familiarity.” And such focus occurs because companies fail to explain the value of change in the language of the user, language that is “not the designer’s, not the company’s.”
To place Apple/U2’s collective intrusion on users’ personal music libraries within Wodtke’s frame, neither the company nor the band communicated the value in a way that a majority of users appreciated or understood. We can see Apple/U2’s actions as lacking consideration of the potential that maybe not all 500 million iPhone users are U2 fans. Then again, perhaps the release of “Songs of Innocence” in this particular way wasn’t for users at all. Perhaps being a U2 fan here is as pointless as anywhere else.
This apparent lack of communicating value suggests the release of Songs of Innocence was about something else. This notion of a change not being for users, of software itself not being for users, is suggested by Douglas Rushkoff in a November 2010 Authors@Google talk. While promoting his book Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, Rushkoff comments on the “awful, but brilliant” nature of the education technology behemoth Blackboard and its software of the same name:
From the student or teacher's perspective, Blackboard is terrible. It's just awful. You run up consistently against these terrible obstacles and extremely difficult things, ways you've got to wrap your whole self and brain and course and life around what this program needs needs from you in order to comply with it. And most of us look and say, "Ugh, this is just an awful thing. This software is awful." If you look at it from what I'm calling the programmer's perspective, you see, "Oh no, Blackboard is brilliant." Because Blackboard wasn't written for me. Blackboard wasn't written for me as an educator or for that person as a student. Blackboard was written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a very particular way. Blackboard was created…not to promote the user's agency, but to decrease the user's agency and increase the institution's dependence on this piece of software.
That is, Blackboard constitutes a software approach not made for the user, but for the used.
We might view the release of Songs of Innocence and its subsequent justification in a similar way. That is, the release of Songs of Innocence did not happen for me as an iPhone user or for that person as a music fan. The release of Songs of Innocence happened for Apple and for U2 to dominate the technology and music industries in a very particular way. The release of Songs of Innocence happened to promote Apple and U2, to lay bare user dependency upon the iPhone itself. The release of Songs of Innocence was a show of force, a demonstration of the power and reach Apple possesses and how helpless iPhone users are against it. The outcry following the release of Songs of Innocence involved users upset at their own lack of control over something they thought they owned.
There was decidedly less social-media furor over the latest design changes to Apple’s iTunes, which curiously enough has borne Bono’s likeness in the “Artist” avatar since its initial release in 2001. Consistent complaints about changes to iTunes are no less valid than those expressed about the release of Songs of Innocence. User frustrations regarding iTunes are perhaps best expressed by comedian Hannibal Burress: “Why does iTunes keep trying to get me to download a new version? I got a new version a couple days ago. I’m fine with this version. It plays music.” iTunes updates can be as disorienting as they are frequent, either because or despite its dominant use as the organization and playing of one’s personal music collection.
While we can see Blackboard and the release of Songs of Innocence as emblematic of a failure to adhere to the tenets of audience awareness and clear communication identified by Wodtke, we can also view Apple/U2’s actions as the purposeful dismissal or ignorance of users’ interests, operating in much the same way as Blackboard. Ultimately, though, I want to suggest the release of Songs of Innocence as characteristic of and Blackboard itself as a premiere example of what I call institutionware.
Before offering a definition of this term, I must give credit and inspiration to Georgia Tech professor and game designer Ian Bogost. In a 2013 Gamasutra column, Bogost recasts gamification, the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems, as exploitationware. This is a rhetorical move for Bogost, aiming to connect gamification to “better known practices of software fraud” and to “situate gamification within a larger set of pernicious practices in the high-tech marketplace.” Part of Bogost’s intention, too, might be to simply call a spade a spade, and that is a goal I share in defining and identifying institutionware.
Naming does not necessarily signal something new, though. I consider my framing of software below as valuable, but I also hope to place it within computers and writing scholarship. The published field includes important, foundational work that is part of a 20-year history of looking at how computer applications, programs, and tools assert and exert themselves over users. As Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe in “The Rhetoric of Technology” emphasize the need to “recognize the high costs of hardware and software, recognize that computers can, and often do, support instruction that is as repressive and lockstep as any that we have seen” (61), I provide the name institutionware as a rhetorical move to draw even greater attention to such costs. I also consider the following to be another moment of identifying “when the discomforts of technology should not be ignored” (Bray). Institutionware is an uncomfortable word for an uncomfortable thing, an uncomfortable reality, reminding us of the limits of our abilities and power regarding software.
So, first, a definition: institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. I see “instititution” here as more of an established practice or custom than a society or organization, more the institution of marriage than a professional establishment. And I see “ware” here as denoting a kind of software, though I am also amenable to “ware” as manufactured commodities or even as a substitute for “ware,” as in “beware the institution when in use.”
The clearest examples of institutionware may be Blackboard and Turnitin, those products and services whose successes are most tied to the institution of higher education. Not any one institution, remember, but more to the practice, custom, or tradition of higher education. As mentioned above, we can also view iTunes as institutionware, but I want to also suggest Microsoft Word and Twitter as complementary forms. It might even be helpful to place these products and services on a continuum because some may be more linked to particular institutions than others.
Blackboard and Turnitin have explicit ties to higher education via contracts with colleges and universities, but Twitter may be foremost in supporting the institution of television, given the near ubiquity of hashtags in commercials and during live events as well as Twitter’s advertising partnerships with CBS, ESPN, FOX, and Globosat in Brazil. Prior critical scholarship on Microsoft Word reveals the program as wholly indicative of institutionware, too. McGee and Ericsson observe how its use as a teaching tool, requires overlooking “the most obvious critique that Word makes—red and green highlighted commentary on correctness” (464). Such a feature is so insistently a part of Microsoft Word that it is no stretch to view the program as tied to the institution of correctness and, to a broader extent, standard English.
Aims, Characteristics, and Ubiquity
Despite varied institutional connections, all forms of institutionware share similar characteristics and, of these, limited use may be the hallmark binding them together. Examples of limited use include Blackboard for grades, iTunes for MP3s, Google for email, Microsoft Word for essays (five-paragraph or otherwise). In each instance, we use institutionware for one specific act, ignoring everything else offered, and this might be what allows institutionware to be so pervasive, for so many to depend on the various forms it takes. However, the relationship between institutionware and limited use is a curious one. Institutionware works against limited use in certain ways, but it is also because of limited use that institutionware is able to sustain itself. The aims of institutionware are very much influenced by the reality of limited use, working against it in the service of the following goals: compliance, preservation and containment.
In naming compliance as one of the goals of institutionware, I recall here Rushkoff’s earlier comments about how Blackboard decreases user agency and increases user dependency as well as Apple’s persistent updates to iTunes. The actions Blackboard and Apple both ask users to execute, whether posting to a discussion board or agreeing to the new terms of service, stands as a sort of endless acquiescence, an indicator of eternal compliance, of a user’s inability to do anything but accept. Users come to institutionware subservient in spite of their own abilities and power. Institutionware holds it own, external demands over the internal, individual desires of its users.
This is also how institutionware preserves market dominance. Compliance is evident here, too, but it is through a blanket of equivalence in systems and users. This equivalence is limited use. In other words, it is our limited use of institutionware that allows it to continue to dominate a given market. Using Blackboard just for grades enables further use; using Microsoft Word just for essays does much the same. Limited use itself is a kind of compliance, too. As Bray writes, “the inaccessibility of technology is often compounded by market dominance…It is hard to imagine that as individual users we could influence the design of this tool. Indeed, many of us spend more time adjusting our desk chairs than we do customizing features of our word processors to suit our needs” (205). That such features change at the whim of the company providing the service can only further discourage customization. Persistent updates to those same features tend to benefit service providers more than users, too.
Institutionware’s updates also have to do with another of its aims. Institutionware is about containment. Features of institutionware aren’t so much offered as they are contained, kept within an overall system so users have less reason to go elsewhere. For example, Blackboard contains blogs, discussion boards, journals, and wikis, all things freely available and customizable on the open web. iTunes contains a media player, media library, online radio broadcasts, and the iPhone management application. Feature containment also helps further preserve market dominance. Feature containment ensures that we can’t possibly take advantage of everything institutionware offers and also that we don’t use something else, much less have the time to experiment with other options. Feature containment ensures limited use, as Susser explains: “Given this wealth of choices and the dazzling array of icons, tool bars, menus, rulers…that crowd the screen…it is no wonder students are overwhelmed and consequently adopt a minimalist procedures for using word-processing packages” (362).
Minimalist procedures and limited use lead to normalization and then invisibility, both of which are in institutionware’s interest. “The more seamless and invisible the technology becomes,” writes Arola, “the less we tend to know about how it works” (5). Even though users tend to know less about how technologies work, this may not keep them from recognizing something is off. As Chun observes, “you are not…aware of software’s constant constriction and interpellation…unless you find yourself frustrated with its defaults” (43). In fact, it may yet be that even the known, default-state awfulness of Blackboard, iTunes, or Microsoft Word is as ubiquitous as the software itself.
And just as “software programs are not neutral” (LeBlanc 8), the instrumentalist argument regarding technology dies again with institutionware. There is very little that is neutral about institutionware. Leveraging it for good or bad is inconsequential. Institutionware signals stagnation, if not regression or reversion. Institutionware is about how corporations want us to use what they provide. When we use institutionware, we decrease our agency and encourage collective dependency on it. The use of institutionware, however limited, is pervasive and enabling. Similarly, Taylor argues that computer programs “manage the user’s actions by establishing possible and recommended actions” (45). There is no possibility of escape with institutionware and that is by design; any advocacy regarding flexibility remains within the confines of the program itself. “Computer software,” writes Kemp, “no matter what flexibility it may claim or what ability to accept ‘user definition’ or modifying parameters, can never escape the instructional attitudes and even the ideology of its programmers and designers” (9-10). Because of what Blackboard as well as its advertised alternatives aim to provide, it may not even be possible for education technology to exist as anything but institutionware. Put another way, the arc of educational technology use is long, but it bends toward institutionware.
Even when we have a choice, or at least the illusion of it, we tend toward institutionware. In “The price of free software: Labor, ethics, and context in distance education,” Reilly and Williams observe a range of factors influencing instructor choice when it comes to courseware for distance learning. Time constraints, inadequate technical expertise, and institutional pressures all weigh heavy on instructors’ minds. As Reilly and Williams explain further, “ease of use and institutional support often win out over loftier goals when instructors are selecting tools for use in distance learning” (78). They also note in their own case studies and in the scholarship surrounding distance education a distinct pattern in which “teachers are forced to trade control for ease of use, discipline specificity for centrality, and flexibility for standardization” (86). Furthermore, in “Cui bono?: Revisiting the promises and perils of online learning, “Kristine L. Blair and Elizabeth A. Monske provide a history and a bibliography of the rhetoric of empowerment related to online teaching and learning. They advocate that we “pay attention to who benefits in our continuing attempts to establish student-centered technological spaces…[that] as teachers we may be the ones who benefit least within these new virtual communities” (449). From my perspective, the answer to the question Blair and Monske pose is clear: Apple benefits. Blackboard benefits. Microsoft benefits. The companies and institutions each product and service enhance and support also benefit. Whatever positive outcome arises from their use in the classroom pales in comparison. I include the brief discussion here of distance and online learning because the issues identified are not unique to these kinds of courses. Rare now is even the brick-and-mortar, face-to-face college course that has no online component.
Institutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing and supporting rather than challenging or threatening. Neither Blackboard nor Turnitin is out to question education but to scaffold it in particular ways. Their very names alone are evidence of traditional methods and values of classroom instruction. Much the same has already been observed about Microsoft Word as its design principles and interface choices are about preserving traditional ways of understanding and valuing writing. And this is what I worry about regarding the teaching of writing: that we are in some way reinforcing reliance on old ways and means for new ends. As Sorapure observes, “different programs offer different possibilities within which writers work…these possibilities, in turn, contribute to our understanding of what writing is and does” (412). So, I worry we are not so much teaching writing as helping students learn the endless acquiescence of Blackboard, the tacit acceptance of every change in design or terms of service.
The near ubiquity of institutionware indicates a sort of stasis, that our paying attention, however vigilant, may be seen as little beyond acknowledging that Blackboard and Microsoft Word are terrible before offering a collective shrug of inaction. All hope is not lost, though. Social media may no more save us from institutionware than the next edtech startup, but, perhaps if we focus on learning a language like HTML or Markdown, the need for and use of institutionware may diminish. The persistence of email and, to an unfortunately lesser degree, RSS might be viewed as hopeful, too.
In “Augmenting Literacy: The Role of Expertise in Digital Writing,” Derek Van Ittersum offers a bootstrapping method of reflective use of writing technologies. A clear advocate for approaches and methods over software and tools, Van Ittersum acknowledges the influence of computer designer Douglas Engelbart and rightly observes that “avoiding technology will not teach writers to use advanced text manipulation software, or how to create and mine databases for information and profitable connections, or how to use these techniques to increase their rhetorical effectiveness” (65). In effect, Van Ittersum echoes Karl Stolley’s “The Lo-Fi Manifesto,” which remains an important clarion call for digital literacy. In declaring that “innovation in the digital medium is not to be found on the paved cow paths of point-and-click, template-driven, fill-in-the-blank WYSIWYG software,” Stolley might as well be invoking the name of institutionware. I share aims and goals with Stolley, Van Ittersum, and others already mentioned who argue for awareness and reflective use of technology in greater acknowledgement of what works. While avoiding institutionware altogether may be impossible or even ill-advised in some cases, ways through like bootstrapping or going “lo-fi” should see us all better in the long run.
In arguing for an understanding of proprietary software as institutionware, I attempted to explain here pernicious aims as well as effects, but to also reinforce awareness of what we’re doing when we use Blackboard, iTunes, Microsoft Office, and other applications, management systems, and programs. I encourage others in the field to take this concept and run with it. For example, in future work on this concept, I want to extend this awareness to hardware. Namely, I aim to suggest body cameras as institutionware. That body cameras emerged from the rhetoric surrounding Ferguson and less so the demilitarization, increased training, or any other reform of the police as an institution is telling. If institutionware describes hardware/software that maintains tradition under the guise of providing a service, body cameras are surely that. Again, institutionware preserves the institution as it is and as it has been. Body cameras may allow the police to operate with little to no change in official policy. If body cameras can be turned off and footage accessed only by police, such technology is representative neither of a public service nor a purported solution to the problem of police brutality.
Issues of access and power as related to the technologies we embody and employ rightly continue to be of substantial focus in writing studies and related fields. In naming what might be considered technologies of a particular sort as institutionware, I draw further attention to what those technologies persist in exerting over users. In some cases, such persistence and exertion may only be worsening. However, by calling such technologies by such a name, perhaps perspectives will change and users will divest themselves of their own compliance and containment. I hope so, but only time will tell.
Animal Furnace. Dir. Michael Dimich. Perf. Hannibal Buress. 2012. DVD.
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