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Technology Appropriation Scale

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During my Masters I stumbled upon the paper [PDF] from the Abaporu Project, a project that studied mobile technology in Brazil. Instead of a traditional adoption study based on the chart above, the authors decided to go from the other way around.

They didn’t tried to track to what extent a specific (foreign) technology was being used in Brazil, but to look on how Brazilian people were using the available technology (foreign or not) for their own purposes, what they call appropriation. This is a subtle but essential difference in studying technology. They came up with 3 types of appropriation.

Baroque Infiltration: elements of the local culture is attached to a foreign technology to make it familiar, like this television antenna painted with Brazilian national colors.

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Creolization: mixing the functions of a local and a foreign technology, like the use of steel sponges to increase antenna reception power.

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Cannibalism: changing the function of a foreign technology to meet a purpose that it has not being made for, like the cable TV decoder hack that allows multiple connected devices (“gatos”).

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If you want to know more about these categories, check the authors slides. Regarding cannibalism, I wrote a paper about it in Interaction Design.

Appropriation scale

I find these categories very thought-provoking, but they weren’t streamlined enough for enabling the comparisons that I plan to do in my PhD. I cannot distinguish easily when baroque infiltration turns into creolization, for instance. It was very hard to find the examples above because I needed to meet the requirements of the categories, which are unfortunately very fuzzy.

I designed for my PhD research an appropriation scale based on the Activity Theory concept of internalization. For Activity Theory, our mental functions are developed by internalizing social structures, such as a tool.

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A classic example of internalization is the child in a classroom who first learns to count using her fingertips and gradually do it by heart. The social interaction with other children is very important for pushing the boundaries of her abstract thinking. The conversation gets increasingly more abstract in the classroom as soon as more children internalize the counting tool. After this, we can say that the counting tool was internalized both by students and the classroom as a group. The tool that was once physical (fingers) became cognitive (counting).

In my case, I’m more interested in the collective level, since I want to see to what extent Participatory Design can be integrated into the routine of a healthcare organization. I’m following tools used for mediating workshops as a mean to understand this process of internalization.

That is my appropriation scale, so far:

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After being used by the tool of a design expert during a participatory workshop, participants can learn more about the tool and, later on, use themselves for other purposes. If participants develop some experience using the tool, they may have it in their toolbelt, ready to be used for unexpected situations. When the tool doesn’t fit the unexpected situation, they can modify and adapt it to the situation at hand. When mediation is internalized, it increases organizational and individual autonomy to deal with emergent contradictions.

Origins of the idea

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I read the paper Evolution, Not Revolution: PD in the Toolbelt Era and remembered Heidegger’s notion of ready-to-hand, the state of a tool that is seamlessly integrated within our world experience. Suddenly, came into my mind the image of Batman, the guy who has a lot of tools ready-to-hand to fight crime. When things goes wrong, he can quickly pull a tool from his belt and get out of danger. There is no time for learning how to use the tool when he needs that.

That is a very similar situation to designers who wants to improve their skills. When they have a project, there is not enough time to learn new tools. That is one of the reasons why there is not much methodological innovation going on in Design. Designers try to get into contact with new tools by reading specialized journals and so on, but they don’t have many opportunities to have the tool present-to-hand in a real-life learning situation.

My PhD goal is to suggest how to create this Zone of Proximal Development that Batman has in his cave, the place where he quietly master his tools. But instead of supporting lonely heroes, I need to think of something that would work for people in very complex and dynamic social networks, such as healthcare organizations. Let’s see how far they can get!

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