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Making Digital Cultures: Access, Interactivity and Authenticity

Author: Martin Hand
Publisher: Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: Jen Ross

I would like to express my thanks to both RCCS for making this a book of the month for November 2009 and for a thoughtful and positive review by Jen Ross. As much of the research for this book took place in what might be described in "Internet time" as eons ago, I am especially pleased that the review acknowledges some ongoing value in the central arguments for how we approach digital media and society issues today.

Ross really understands the point of this book. In particular, the various attempts to weave a theoretical path between the promises and threats of digitization and at the same time acknowledge these tropes as practical resources for those trying to enact digitization in institutional and organizational contexts. The related point about how both academics and institutional actors routinely assume the "seamlessness" of sociotechnical innovation in making their critical or idealistic arguments about "digital culture" remains important I think. In this sense, Ross's observation that the book concerns "cultural specificity" above all else is accurate, and that this does not prevent us from addressing the so-called "big" questions of digital culture theorizing or policy making but enables us to do so in nuanced ways.

I like the idea that the book sets out a "framework of concerns" and that Ross finds this useful and productive. While the precise narratives of digitization continue to shift registers (between, say, "empowerment," "mobility," and "prosumption") I argued that they are related to what seem to be the ongoing cultural concerns of access, interactivity, and authenticity. What I wanted to explore was how different combinations of these ideals, technologies and practices might be enacted "on the ground" within specific institutional sites which could be comparative in terms of cultural specificity and in an historical sense. While the substantive elements of the three cases -- public library, financial services, and national archives -- have some ongoing significance, perhaps especially in terms of memory, it is the salience of the conceptual approach that I also hope has ongoing value.

I remain fascinated by many of the issues present in the book. I would see these cases as studies in "material digital culture." In my view there has been an understandable but misguided antagonism between notions of digital "immaterialism" and traditional forms of political economy. The rise and proliferation of software machines via mobile material devices are now raising profound questions about current notions of access, interactivity, and authenticity in ways that require analyses of the new material forms that digitization is taking. In this regard, I am currently finishing a book on "ubiquitous photography," about the spread of image making and distribution along these lines, and starting new work on handheld devices and the associated rhetorics of seamless mobility, content generation, and commerce across an increasing number of environments (education, marketing, social networking, etc.). In both cases I argue for the centrality of new objects and materials for the conduct of sociocultural practices, and for paying detailed attention to the many possible forms that alliances between technologies and practices may take.

While I do not agree that my position in the book is explicitly postmodern, it is fair to say that many insights drawn from new media theory and STS are the (often unacknowledged) outcome of the postmodernization of European social thought. Ross criticizes the lack of explicit methodological detail in the cases. This is a fair criticism and one that I should have considered further. There are a number of reasons for the ways this was eventually written. In the case of the public library, much of this material had been previously published in an article that provided the requisite detail on method. As the book developed I began to favour a narrative approach that relegated the evidential value of interviews, although I recognize that this has perhaps not worked quite as convincingly as I would have liked. Perhaps my overall concern with establishing a conceptual and narrative coherence across the book came at the expense of methodological explication.

I am really very grateful to Jen Ross for taking the time to read the book and write this review. It is very rewarding to know that the difficult business of putting it together has been worthwhile.

Martin Hand


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