institutionware

An Introduction

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.


Placement

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. 


Definition

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. 


Conclusion

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.


Works Cited

Animal Furnace. Dir. Michael Dimich. Perf. Hannibal Buress. 2012. DVD. 

Arola, Kristin L. “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design.” Computers and Composition 27 (2010): 4-14.

Blair, Kristine L., and Elizabeth A. Monske. “Cui bono?: Revisiting the Promises and Perils of Online Learning.” Computers and Composition 20 (2003): 441-453. 

Bogost, Ian. “Exploitationware.” Gamasutra. 3 May 2011. Web. 15 July 2015.

Bray, Nancy. “Writing with Scrivener: A Hopeful Tale of Disappearing Tools, Flatulence, and Word Processing Redemption.” Computers and Composition 30 (2013): 197–210.

Carr, David. “Chasing Relevancy at Any Cost, Even Free.” New York Times. 9 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 July 2015.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge.” Grey Room 18 (Winter 2005): 26-51.

Hawisher, Gail E., and Cynthia L. Selfe. “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class.” College Composition and Communication 42.1 (February 1991): 55-65.

Kemp, Fred. “Who Programmed This? Examining the Instructional Attitudes of Writing-Support Software.” Computers and Composition 10 (1992): 9-24.

LeBlanc, Paul. Competing ideologies in software design for computer-aided instruction. Computers and Composition 7.2 (1990): 7–19.

McGee, Tim, and Patricia Ericsson. “The Politics of the Program: MS WORD as the Invisible Grammarian.” Computers and Composition 19 (2002): 453–470. 

Reilly, Colleen A., and Joseph John Williams. “The Price of Free Software: Labor, Ethics, and Context in Distance Education.” Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 68-90. 

Sorapure, Madeleine. “Text, Image, Code, Comment: Writing in Flash.” Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 412-429. 

Stolley, Karl. “The Lo-Fi Manifesto.” Kairos 12.3 (Summer 2008): n. pag. Web. 15 July 2015.

Susser. “The Mysterious Disappearance of Word Processing.” Computers and Composition 15 (1998): 347-371.

Talks at Google. “Authors @ Google: Douglas Rushkoff.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Mar 2011. Web. 15 July 2015.

Taylor, Paul. (1992). “Evaluating Software: What Thoreau Said to the Designer.” Computers and Composition 9.1 (1992): 45–52.

Van Ittersum, Derek. “Augmenting Literacy: The Role of Expertise in Digital Writing.” Composition Studies 39.2 (2011): 61–77. 

Wodtke, Christina. “Users Don’t Hate Change. They Hate You.” Medium. 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 July 2015.

food discouraged or dismissed as culture then embraced as trend

“The US is undisputedly in the midst of a barbecue boom - there are currently more than 14,000 barbecue restaurants in the country - but African American restaurateurs and pitmasters may be getting left in the dust. Thanks to television and professional barbecue competitions, barbecue chefs have become celebrities with cult followings, but those celebrity faces are largely white.” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33994947


“This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as “authentic” on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here. Fashionable food from foreign cultures may satisfy a temporary hunger, but if you’re trying it for shallow reasons, you’ll be culturally unfulfilled in the long run.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/31/childhood-friends-called-my-food-chinese-grossness-how-did-it-become-americas-hottest-food-trend/

like a video game

"'the normal morals and process of thinking goes out the window when it's like you're playing a videogame,'" he said. "'It's dehumanized, it's depersonalized.'"

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/08/new-law-permits-north-dakota-cop-drones-to-fire-bean-bag-rounds-from-the-sky/


"'When I watched it, it looked like a first-person-shooter video game to me,'" he said. "'The viewer had the same visual perspective as the killer.'"

http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/08/27/435076699/why-shooters-record-themselves-in-the-act


social media savvy

"Say what you will about their role in U.S. foreign policy — what with the drone program and the torture and the coups — but the CIA has proven itself to be very, very good at Twitter."

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayesbrown/the-head-of-the-cia-chose-the-agencys-first-tweet-ever-new-i#.aiVV8aBpB


"the killer had anticipated the moves — that he had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted. For many, that realization came too late. On these services, the killer knew, you often hit retweet, like or share before you realize just quite what you have done."

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/technology/personaltech/violence-gone-viral-in-a-well-planned-rollout-on-social-media.html

transcript and video of contribution to "everyday methods" roundtable #g9 #cwcon

I want to begin by acknowledging Karl Stolley’s call to action that we “hold our colleagues and students accountable for their technological choices just as they would be held accountable for any other rhetorical choice.” I want to begin with this acknowledgement because I think this is one of the things our roundtable is about. My particular choices related to digital methods have been largely informed by two things: bad luck and paranoia.

My bad luck is rather particular here. I mourned the loss of Google’s Buzz, Reader, and Wave, all of which I used for academic purposes. I had a blog on Posterous before Twitter acquired those responsible for the platform and caused a service shutdown. AppDotNet, an alternative to Twitter, recently became, as Mashable’s Christina Warren observes, “a bit like Schrödinger's cat — both alive and dead at the same time.” 

I mention these services and tools because my past experiences inform my present methods, most of which now involve paid services. I use NewsBlur for my RSS feeds, Pinboard for my bookmarking needs, and Posthaven for online writing. NewsBlur and Pinboard are both run by single individuals and a two-person team is responsible for Posthaven. I have only good things to say about them. I value these services and what I do with them enough to pay for them.

I don’t have a high opinion of free, and I’m not alone. The Atlantic’s Alan Jacobs suggests some companies offer their online services for free so they don’t have to provide real support for users. The Globe and Mail’s Amber MacArthur observes how “free is proving to be a serious threat to our privacy.” The Guardian’s Steven Poole notes that “we obediently conduct our own self-surveillance and voluntarily upload the data to companies who profit from it.” So, while Jacobs notes a lack of company responsibility when it comes to free services and tools, MacArthur and Poole connect ideas of free to privacy and surveillance. 

For as appealing as free might be, there are often consequences for choosing such services and tools. There is a now common refrain regarding the use of free services: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” But there’s at least an additional wrinkle here that deserves attention. Given recent news about the relationships between the National Security Agency and major tech companies, perhaps it would be more accurate for us to say, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product, and the object of surveillance.”

I’m concerned about the influence of surveillance on our digital methods. I even worry about using services and tools that contribute to the normalization of surveillance and the surveillance of normalcy. Such worry informs why I still prefer handwritten drafts and print books and journals over digital and online versions. In keeping at least some of my everyday methods offline, no one else can lay any claim to them. Marginal notes are my own, not kept in the cloud. Article drafts are my own, not data-mined for targeted advertising. 

I realize these choices in digital methods could paint me as a privileged academic flush with cash, or a paranoid delusional with a tinfoil hat. I don’t think I’m necessarily either of these. I’d just like us to value what we do enough to pay for it, to not leave ourselves and our work vulnerable to the whims of tech companies who depend on the allure of free. 

A step toward such valuing might involve department and program funding and support for website hosting and premium accounts at independent online services, or maybe just a specific stipend devoted to the development and maintenance of digital methods. Perhaps some departments and programs already have such funding in place. If so, I’m heartened to know there are others who value and hold accountable our technological choices, just as I know my roundtable colleagues do.

On #craftwriting

Since I had my first Two Hearted Ale, my introduction to craft beer has been slow and steady. I pick up the latest and greatest from Bell's, Brewery Vivant, Dark Horse, Founders, Greenbush, Short's, and others about once a month, often along with something from an out-of-state brewery or two that just started distributing in Michigan. And I keep track of what I drink in a notebook and sometimes take a picture for posterity. 

However, my introduction to writing about beer has been slower and not quite as steady. Beyond Make Mine Potato and a couple of beer-store and brewery blogs, I don't know much about beer writing. So, when I learned of Craft Writing: Beer, The Digital, and Craft Culture, I just jumped at the opportunity to go. 

The drive south on I-75 tested my patience between Dayton and Cincinnati, but I got into Lexington, checked in at my hotel, and walked over to Country Boy Brewing for the night-before get-together. I really couldn't imagine a better start to the conference. I got to meet UK people I'd only known via Twitter, sample some good food, and have some really good beer. 

The next morning, coffee and a breakfast pastry from Sunrise Bakery (recommended by a UK person) soothed what little hangover I had and energized me for the walk to the UK campus and the Craft Writing conference. And I was able to sit in the back row and joke with Twitter friends before things got started.

Conference organizer Jeff Rice began by talking about why we were all there. "You're here because you believe in the story of craft beer," he said. Of course, Rice also talked about writing, how it is integral to craft beer, sparking and sustaining our interest in craft beer, shaping our relationships with and teaching us a lot about craft beer. Variations of Rice's comments came up in each following session.

The first session had Stan Hieronymous, Julie Johnson, and Teri Fahrendorf discussing (among other things) the influence of writing related to craft beer and the rise of both, but what stood out to me was a near-seamless interweaving of personal, professional, and industrial histories. There were echoes of such interweaving in subsequent talks by Roger Baylor and Jeremy Cowan and in Garrett Oliver's keynote, during which he mentioned the brewers' commonality of the "diversion of an intended path." Oliver also implored those in attendance to ask who they thought they were going to be, what they sacrificed, and who helped them along in becoming brewers. 

The speakers prior to Oliver addressed these questions, but perhaps none more than Fahrendorf and Cowan. Both spoke with energy and humor about their craft-beer lives, Cowan detailing in frank terms about what happens when "you let an English major start a brewery" and Fahrendorf marking her development from computer programmer to brewer to founder of the Pink Boots Society and beyond. Again, these were interwoven histories, seamlessly personal and professional stories.

Now, I'm glossing here because there are already some conference recaps out online and they're better than what I could attempt to provide. The most comprehensive and arguably best I've read is by Jessica Miller of heybrewtiful.com: "Beer Nerds Unite Over Kentucky Craft Writing Symposium." Kevin Patterson of Lexington's The Beer Trappe offers a similar, pointed perspective with "The Elephant in the Craft Beer Room." Conference speaker Roger Baylor's "Not so simple a symposium"  and Hoperatives' "Writing About Beer" are alike in their more experiential notes on the conference. And Shea Anderson spins a few conclusions from an additional viewpoint: "5 Valuable Marketing Insights from Craft Beer Writing Conference." 

I direct attention to Miller and others because these writers and their pieces gave me more of what the conference did: an education. There were plenty of names mentioned and faces seen I didn't recognize but that were respected if not revered by many in attendance. Learning about what people like Michael Jackson, Stan Hieronymous, Julie Johnson, Teri Fahrendorf, Garrett Oliver, and others have done and, in many cases, continue to do for craft beer and for writing was invaluable. 

Craft beer culture is still an entity I'm coming to know. And I'm coming to know it as much through writing as through beer. Countless books and beers were mentioned throughout the conference and now I have so much more to read and to drink. I plan to start with the Baylor-recommended Tastes of Paradise, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, and something out of my six-pack sampler from The Beer Trappe. 

The courier Tolstoy in Goodsprings

The courier Tolstoy later heard that getting shot changes a person. He didn't know if that was true, but he remembered how odd he felt recovering at Doc Mitchell's. Like he shouldn't have been there. Like he should have instead remained in the shallow grave atop the hill overlooking Goodsprings, where Benny had left him to die.

Benny. That was what else Tolstoy remembered, how Benny had raised the gun to Tolstoy's face. That gun was the last memory of whatever life he had before. What an awful thing to have. The memory of the gun unsettled him. Tolstoy didn't wish it on anyone else. 

So, as he stepped out into the Mojave, Tolstoy resolved to never let violence be anyone's last memory of him. And that included Benny, if Tolstoy ever managed to find him. 

Confronting Joe Cobb and his Powder Gangers proved an early challenge, though. Even when left with no options for peace, Tolstoy refused to leave Goodsprings in endless anticipation of terror. The choice to empower and enable the residents of Goodsprings to fight for their town was a difficult one. He watched, not impartial, as Sunny Smiles, Trudy, and others cut down Cobb and his men. Tolstoy helped clean up after as best he could, gathering armor, weapons, and other items for trade at the general store. The persistence of Joe Cobb's corpse upon Tolstoy's every return to the town would continue to disturb him in the days to come. 

prepared comments on "institutionware" at Siena Heights University

Before I begin in earnest, I want to thank my friend and fellow BGSU alum Matthew Barbee for the invitation to speak with you this afternoon. I also want to offer a preemptive thank-you to everyone present, including those listening in, for your attention and patience. The ideas I’m talking about today are still pretty green, so I’m thankful for your understanding. Also, my presentation style may be a bit unconventional and jarring, so please let me know if I’m moving too fast or if some aspect is just too distracting.


I presented the first version of this talk at Network Detroit: Digital Humanities Theory and Practice<http://detroitdh.org/schedule/> at Lawrence Tech in Southfield two weeks ago. My thinking has already changed some since then and my talk this afternoon reflects that, so let’s begin.

This is an argument for understanding certain kinds of proprietary software as “INSTITUTIONWARE.” Influence and inspiration for this argument comes from Georgia Tech professor and game designer Ian Bogost and media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff.

In a Gamasutra column<http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134735/persuasive_games_exploitationware.php?print=1>, BOGOST recasts gamification, the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems, as exploitationware. He does this 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.” Similarly, in an Authors@Google talk, Douglas Rushkoff comments on the “awful, but brilliant” nature of Blackboard.

[clip of "Authors@Google: Douglas Rushkoff<>," 7:38-9:10 - "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 to help create an equivalence between distance learning and real-life learning so that in your classroom you're actually using this technology as much as you would long distance...It's 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."]

Bogost and Rushkoff are both talking about software approaches not made for users but for the used. Building on their observations, I want to provide a definition and provide characteristics of institutionware. I’m also curious about what this might mean for the digital humanities. That is, if we use institutionware to make projects and produce scholarship, what else are we saying?

So, first, a DEFINITION: institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. The clearest examples of institutionware are Blackboard and Turnitin, the successes of which are tied to the institution of higher education. To a lesser extent, Microsoft Word, iTunes, and even Facebook, Google, and Twitter are forms of institutionware. In particular, Google’s movement into higher education via Google Apps, which the UM system uses or requires to varying degrees, and Twitter’s recent partnerships with television entities reveal both companies as institutionware-like.

It might be helpful to place these examples on a continuum or a MöBIUS strip because some are more tied to particular institutions than others. Blackboard and Turnitin have explicit ties to higher education while Google has some. Twitter may be foremost in supporting the institution of television, which we can see in the near ubiquity of hashtags in commercials and in its advertising partnerships with CBS, ESPN, FOX, and Globosat in Brazil.

All forms of institutionware share similar characteristics, though, and here’s where my thinking is under further development: LIMITED USE may be the hallmark of institutionware and what binds its other characteristics together. Examples of limited use include Blackboard for grades, iTunes for MP3s, Google for email, and Microsoft Word for essays, five-paragraph or otherwise. In each example, we use instititutionware for one specific act, ignoring everything else offered, but this might be what allows institutionware to be so pervasive, for so many to depend on its various forms.

Now, the relationship between institutionware and limited use is a curious one, because institutionware works against limited use in certain ways, but it’s 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. Institutionware works against limited use in service of the following goals: decrease user agency, increase user dependency, preserve market dominance, and contain features.

Institutionware decreases user agency and increase user dependency by demanding and reinforcing user COMPLIANCE. I’m recalling here Rushkoff’s earlier comments, but I’m also thinking of Blackboard’s design choices. For example, the number of times Blackboard asks us to click OK represents a sort of endless acquiescence, an indicator of our eternal compliance. In this way, institutionware does not ask us “where do you want to go today?” but instead forces us to ask “what is thy bidding, my master?”

I quote from The Empire Strikes Back because the line is from an important scene. Until this point, we see DARTH VADER only in positions of power. When we see Vader go down on one knee, before a hologram no less, it is poignant. We come to institutionware like Vader to the Emperor, subservient in spite of our own abilities and power. Institutionware holds it own external demands over the internal, individual desires of its users. The “join us or die” line may be instructive for institutionware, too, if maybe a bit overdramatic.

But this is also part of 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 five-paragraph essays does much the same. Limited use itself is a kind of compliance, too.

Because of limited use of institutionware, though, we may become as frustrated as comedian HANNIBAL BURESS:

[clip of "Hannibal Buress on Odd Future and Young Jeezy<>," 1:05-1:13 - “Why does iTunes keep trying to get me to download a new version? I got a new version a couple of days ago. I’m fine with this version. It plays music.”]

Buress’s frustration reveals another of institutionware’s characteristic aims. Persistent UPDATES, which often occur with annoying regularity, are similar to Blackboard’s insistent OKs, reminding us of our compliance, of our inability to do anything but accept. In fact, I encountered this myself while putting together this talk because I still use PowerPoint.

Institutionware’s updates also have to do with another of its aims. Institutionware is about CONTAINMENT. And 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 now contains blogs, discussion boards, journals, and wikis, all things available and free on the open web. Feature containment also works against limited use and helps further preserve market dominance. Furthermore, persistent, “feature-rich” updates tend to benefit the service providers more than the users.

The assumptions within such features and updates are almost too many to list here, but again such characteristics of institutionware can provoke strong reactions like the following summarized by Mike Muir of SUICIDAL TENDENCIES:

[clip of "Suicidal Tendencies - 'Institutionalized' Frontier Records<>," 3:05-3:35 - "…how do you know what my best interest is? How can you say what my best interest is? How can you say what my best interest is? What are you trying to say, I’m crazy? When I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities? So how can you say I’m crazy? They say they’re gonna fix my brain, alleviate my suffering and my pain, but by the time they fix my head, mentally, I’ll be dead. I’m not crazy, institution. You’re the one who’s crazy, institution."

I often had a similar reaction any time I saw Microsoft Word’s CLIPPY, who is less of an enabler and more of an enforcer of existing genres and norms. Clippy is indicative of how institutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing and supporting rather than challenging or threatening. To harp on Blackboard and Turnitin as examples once again, neither is out to question education but to scaffold it in particular ways. Their very names alone are evidence of current-traditional methods and values of classroom instruction. Much the same can be observed about Microsoft Word as its design principles are about preserving traditional ways of understanding and valuing writing.

Institutionware signals stagnation, if not regression or reversion. By dictating use through changes in appearance, institutionware becomes about how Blackboard, Turnitin, Microsoft, Google, and Twitter want us to use what they provide. And there are many more reasons for institutionware to persist than to fade away, namely because of limited use.

In giving greater measures of control to proprietary software, though, we inhibit our freedom and ability. When we use proprietary software, we decrease our agency and encourage collective dependency on such institutionware. And this is what I worry about regarding the digital humanities: that we are in some way reinforcing reliance on old ways and means for new ends, whatever we might be attempting to do or show.

In arguing for an understanding of proprietary software as institutionware, I attempted to explain here pernicious aims as well as effects, but I don’t want to end on such a down note. So, here are a few quick suggestions on a way out: free, open, and single-serving software (distraction-free writing tools as example), Git, HTML, and Markdown. In other words, learn a language instead of an institution. There are also some positive examples of institutionware in Eli Review and Zotero, both of which I’d be happy to discuss.

rough transcript of #detroitdh talk about "institutionware"

Last Friday, 27 September 2013, I was among the presenters at Network Detroit: Digital Humanities Theory and Practice. Below is a rough transcript.

Good morning. My contribution to this panel is an argument for understanding certain kinds of proprietary software as “institutionware.” I’ll get to what I mean by that in a second, but first a little background.

I am influenced and inspired by Georgia Tech professor and game designer Ian Bogost and media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff. In a Gamasutra column, Bogost recasts gamification, the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems, as exploitationware. He does this 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.” Similarly, in an Authors@Google talk, Douglas Rushkoff comments on the “awful, but brilliant” nature of Blackboard. 

[clip of "Authors@Google: Douglas Rushkoff," 7:38-9:10 - "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 to help create an equivalence between distance learning and real-life learning so that in your classroom you're actually using this technology as much as you would long distance...It's 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."]   

Bogost and Rushkoff are both talking about software approaches not made for users but for the used. Building on their observations, I want to provide a definition and provide characteristics of institutionware. 

So, first, a definition: institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. The clearest examples of institutionware are Blackboard and Turnitin, the successes of which are tied to the institution of higher education. To a lesser extent, Microsoft Word, iTunes, and even Facebook, Google, and Twitter are forms of institutionware. It might be helpful to place these examples on a continuum, or even a Möbius strip because some appear more tied to particular institutions than others. All share similar characteristics, though, and Google’s movement into higher education makes it all the more deserving of a place on the strip. Much the same can be observed of Twitter, given its recent moves in support of the institution of television. 

Regardless of placement, institutionware aims to decrease user agency, increase user dependency, preserve market dominance, and contain features. These aims are achieved in a multitude of simultaneous ways, so I’ll try to keep them straight.

Institutionware decreases user agency and increase user dependency by demanding and reinforcing user compliance. I’m recalling here Rushkoff’s earlier comments, but I’m also thinking of Blackboard’s design choices. For example, the number of times Blackboard asks us to click OK represents a sort of endless acquiescence, an indicator of our eternal compliance. In this way, institutionware does not ask us “where do you want to go today?” but instead forces us to ask “what is thy bidding, my master?”

I quote from The Empire Strikes Back because the line is from an important scene. Until this point, we see Darth Vader only in positions of power. When we see Vader go down on one knee, before a hologram no less, it is poignant. We come to institutionware like Vader to the Emperor, subservient in spite of our own abilities and power. Institutionware holds it own external demands over the internal, individual desires of its users.

This is also part of 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 in acknowledgement of limited use. Examples of limited use include Blackboard for grades, iTunes for MP3s, Microsoft Word for essays, and Google for email. Because of limited use of institutionware, we may become as frustrated as comedian Hannibal Burress.

[clip of "Hannibal Buress on Odd Future and Young Jeezy," 1:05-1:13 - “Why does iTunes keep trying to get me to download a new version? I got a new version a couple of days ago. I’m fine with this version. It plays music.”] 

Institutionware works against limited use by introducing new features and updates, often with annoying regularity. Regular updates are similar to Blackboard’s persistent OKs, reminding us of our compliance, our inability to do anything but accept. 

These updates also have to do with how institutionware contains features. Institutionware is about containment. Features aren’t so much offered as contained, kept within an overall system so users have little reason to go elsewhere. Feature containment also works against limited use and helps further preserve market dominance. Furthermore, persistent, “feature-rich” updates tend to benefit the service providers more than the users. 

[clip of "Suicidal Tendencies - 'Institutionalized' Frontier Records," 3:05-3:35 - "…how do you know what my best interest is? How can you say what my best interest is? How can you say what my best interest is? What are you trying to say, I’m crazy? When I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities? So how can you say I’m crazy? They say they’re gonna fix my brain, alleviate my suffering and my pain, but by the time they fix my head, mentally, I’ll be dead. I’m not crazy, institution. You’re the one who’s crazy, institution."

We can even see this with Microsoft Word’s Clippy, who is less of an enabler and more of an enforcer, indicative of how institutionware is about preserving the institution as it is and has been, enhancing and supporting rather than challenging and threatening. Blackboard and Turnitin, for example, are not out to question traditional methods of education but to scaffold them. Names alone are evidence. 


Here the transcript ends. The notes I worked from devolved into improvisation and speculation, fueling a discussion focused almost entirely on Blackboard. This was somewhat unfortunate, but Blackboard looms large in the minds of many educators. 

I feel comfortable admitting this development because I’m still very much thinking and working through the very idea of institutionware. It is by no means fully formed. Since this #detroitdh talk, I’ve come to see limited use as playing a larger part in institutionware overall. Limited use itself may be more of a defining characteristic of institutionware than user agency or dependency, market dominance or feature containment. Limited use may be what binds the other characteristics together. What this in turn says about the relationship between service providers and users is something yet to be determined. I look forward to finding out. 


#wideemu teaser for "Free to P(l)ay or Maybe Not"

photo credit


"While it’s in Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn’s interests to attract as many users as possible – and clearly free is the way – there are obvious consequences: Users get to play without paying, but every few months we get kicked in the face when our digital profiles get abused." - Amber MacArthur, Free sucks. I want my privacy back. 


photo credit


"When you're a free service, you get to say these magic words: 'X is offered as is.' You are off the hook for problems. If people don't like it they can go elsewhere." - Alan Jacobs, Take My Money, Please! The Strange Case of Free Web Services


photo credit


"Research has shown that humans like getting rewards, but they hate losing what they already have much more than they value the same item as a reward. To be effective with this technique, you have to tell the player they have earned something, and then later tell them that they did not. The longer you allow the player to have the reward before you take it away, the more powerful is the effect." - Ramin Shokrizade, The Top F2P Monetization Tricks


photo credit


"One of the secrets of success of a F2P game is the implementation of a powerful system of statistical analysis. Game data provides clues as to the users' behavior and preferences." - Pascal Luban, The Design of Free-to-Play Games: Part 1