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<> 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<>, 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.