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.