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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

As Nicholas Gane notes in the blurb on the back of Making Digital Cultures, this is a book about the "subtle interconnections between analogue and digital technologies." It is also, I think, a book about the importance of specificity and the local. Towards the end of Chapter 4, having presented a case study of the introduction, significance, and use of the web in a public library in York, UK, Hand asks whether the meanings of the web are different for users when they access it from the library than when they access it from a cybercafe (95). His answer comes a few pages later: "processes of positioning continually reframe the very conceptions and possibilities of use and the enactment of digital cultures" (98). In other words: context is key and, as one section of the introduction proclaims, "culture is local and contingent" (7). Variants of this point appear throughout the book, whether usefully problematising grand narratives of the "promise" or "threat" of digital technologies, or exploring a spectrum of possible meanings of the book's three key themes: access, interactivity and authenticity.

Hand's theoretical perspective is postmodern, drawing in particular from new media theory and science and technology studies (STS). As a reader, I come from a different disciplinary background -- education, and e-learning in particular -- but from a similar interest in postmodern theories and cultural studies. My recent work on a UK-based project looking at online learning in national museums has also led to my interest in cultural institutions (and institutional cultures) online, an interest which is very well catered for in this volume. Along with three extremely interesting case studies from a library, an archive, and a commercial financial services company, which form the second half of the book, Hand has set out a framework of concerns around digital culture -- the access, interactivity and authenticity of the title -- which are carefully and persuasively constructed and explored. This framework, above all, is what I will take with me from reading Making Digital Cultures.

In taking time to fully set out a range of arguments in his two theoretical chapters ("Hardware to Everyware" and "On the Materials of Digital Culture"), Hand provides even a reader without much previous exposure to the field of STS or cultural studies with a set of concepts with which to think through his case studies. Chapter 2 introduces ideas about digital cultural spaces of either enclosure, surveillance, commodification, division, insecurity, exclusion, ghettoisation, fragmentation and liquefaction (narratives of threat) or of flow, communication, circulation and movement, networking, democracy and flattening (narratives of promise). These polarised narratives are then critiqued as both mistakenly taking for granted the "seamlessness" and "inevitability" (41) of their subject. This has both theoretical and practical implications, as "these essentialist models ... have a life on the ground as resources for institutional actors" (50), a point which arises in each of the case studies which follow.

Hand moves on, in Chapter 3, to explore the "role of technology in relation to culture," and to ask what may be "new about digital technology in this sense" (42). In answer, he navigates the space between new media principles of the enactment of digital media in cultural processes and STS concepts of cultural/technical hybrids to make the claim that "if we pay greater attention to the technical artefacts themselves, then the relations between analogue and digital devices, techniques, conventions and practices appear ... 'uneasy' and provisional" (44). Hand calls for an STS-informed "anthropology of technology" (71), and argues the need for greater attention to arrangements or ecologies of practices, technologies, and organisations -- to what he calls "co-determination" (which he differentiates from both indeterminacy and over/under-determination).

The case study chapters which follow are, as much as anything, examples of how this attention to co-determination might inform readings of particular organisational contexts. As such they are of both practical and conceptual value. I was troubled, however, by a lack of description of research methodology in chapters four and six -- even such basic information as numbers of interviews conducted, how, and in what context was strangely missing. Extracts from interviews were presented as evidence in a way I felt was inadequately supported in terms of a clear research methodology. Hand makes some general statements about who he spoke with, but in a book-length study which includes substantial amounts of interview data, this seemed inadequate. His description in chapter five of the ways in which he gained access to and generated data within the insurance organisation was better, but still too slight.

Each case study chapter focuses on one of the book's key themes. First, the notion of access is explored in Chapter 4 in the context of a public library in the UK, which is increasingly defined by overlapping discourses of access at policy, pedagogical, and practical levels. Hand makes some interesting connections between the ideological load that digital technologies bear in the public arena of the library, and the construction of library users as lifelong (or "indefinite") learners needing intervention and monitoring. The library has a responsibility to guarantee access to information, he argues, and access to digital networks and the web at the time of the research (2000-2002) was becoming increasingly connected to the notion of information access. Policy-makers viewed public access to the web as a method of replacing "the vicious circle of protest by the virtuous circle of participation" (77), and libraries were viewed as one method by which to connect up those who may otherwise not have access to this participatory space. For librarians, digital networks and their associated policy drivers meant broadening the boundaries of their roles and of the library to include new forms of monitoring of behaviour and access. Library patrons are reconfigured as users, with individual learning and access needs which librarians must know how to navigate and make explicit. Users themselves employed a range of practices in relation to technology -- not all of them self-described as "educational," even though those interviewed reported perceiving the digital library network as a space in which the traditions and proper decorum of the library should persist.

Chapter 5 describes a key moment of organisational upheaval in a UK-based insurance company, and the clash of existing structures, beliefs, and practices with ideas about what digital culture and interactivity require. Certain entrenched understandings of interactivity led to a perceived need to fully digitise transactions between customers and the company. This proved to be not only technically problematic, but also to require a rethinking of parts of the company which were not originally seen as related to the project of taking these transactions online. Far from heralding slick and self-contained new digital offerings, a push towards digital interactivity greatly complicated existing practices and relationships within the organisation: "the project was now not simply a matter of 'upgrading' the website and 'inserting' an on-line version of an existing product ... but reorganizing the spatial dynamics of the organization itself" (118). Furthermore, old cultures do not easily give way to new ones, Hand maintains, and the hybrid spaces which result when digital technologies, practices and policies are introduced do not exhibit the seamlessness that narratives of promise or threat of the digital imply.

Chapter 6 examines the challenges faced by the Library and Archives Canada in its attempts to both digitise archives and to capture "born digital" materials in an archival format. Concerns about the authenticity of the archive vie with an imperative to preserve and make accessible the material it contains. Accessible means simple, immediate, and user-friendly as well as merely available, and preservation raises many questions about how much of the context of the object, document, or image (including the archivists notes or interpretations) should also be preserved. Most significantly, preservation may mean a number of different things, and Hand explores strategies of migration, standardisation, and emulation, setting these against notions of authenticity to ask: "what is it that is being made so accessible? For the archivist, access is only a viable option if what you have is authentic" (146). Hand handles these issues well, unpacking the significance of digitising material traces or archives in terms of cultural memory-making.

I found Making Digital Cultures to be an excellent read, and would recommend it to others looking for nuanced ways of thinking about the organisational and cultural changes wrought by the digital. The book contained a large number of typos, which were distracting. Nonetheless, Hand's important ideas shone through. Most memorably, he shows as well as tells us why we should pay attention to the complexity of cultural spaces, and to what is "uneasy" and "provisional" in our cultural practices.

Jen Ross:
Jen Ross is an associate lecturer and doctoral student in the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include online reflection, e-portfolios, museums and cultural institutions online, digital culture and education, higher education, identity, and performativity.  <jen.ross@ed.ac.uk>

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