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Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools

Editor: Byron Hawek, David M. Rieder, Ollie Oviedo
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
Review Published: December 2009

 REVIEW 1: Brenda Berkelaar

Digital technology seems to be getting smaller, more embedded, and increasingly unobtrusive, practically invisible. Smart phones, wearable computers, and creative uses of familiar technologies affect and are affected by the aesthetic, media, and broader cultures within which they arise. In Small Tech: The Culture of Digital Tools, editors Byron Hawek, David M. Rieder, and Ollie Oviedo share a wide-range of essays designed to encourage scholars of digital culture to look beyond traditional domains of cyberculture and new media to examine the interrelationships between virtual, installation, and physical space and the emerging interconnections between social, aesthetic, and educational context. The essays, by a wide range of academics and practitioners, are designed to highlight and foreground the social and cultural implications of the often unobtrusive new "small tech" of iPods, smart phones, and digital cameras and to reexamine how familiar taken-for-granted technologies are being reconceptualized in the new media environment.

The cover, introduction, and initial chapters suggest this collection is ostensibly for an academic audience. Yet the collection can engage a broader audience, if one does not succumb to the patterned linearity of traditional book reading. If read from cover to cover, the jargon and abstractions of some of the first chapters might discourage many readers from discovering the more immediately relevant and provocative essays that follow. I hope readers will persist as the majority of this collection offers rich, invigorating, and varied perspectives. Readers who follow a more serendipitous Choose Your Own Adventure format (like the collection of middle school books popular in the 1980s) are likely to uncover and be intrigued by the perspectives, metaphors, and philosophical questions put forth.

I advocate starting around chapter four with Kitalong's archaeological metaphor for digital photo manipulation or with "Cut, Copy, and Paste" as virtual manifestations of ancient tools (Strate), "...The Intimate Life of Cell Phones" (Rice), Google as a new type of information space (Johnson-Eilola), and others that follow. These essays and many of those following capture the energy and excitement prevalent in technology development and deployment, juxtaposing this optimism with philosophical questions about the implications of the underlying logic and arguments behind the design, implementation, adoption, or co-optation of the particular technology under examination. Concise, often less than 5 pages of print, the essays bring many of now ubiquitous technologies such as cell phones, PDAs, Google, and desktop publishing out of the background, highlighting how these technologies seem to be both altering and reinforcing the structure of the social and cultural world. They provide substance for introspective musings as well as stimulating conversations within and outside academia, at coffee shops, water coolers, and even, dare I say it, cocktail parties.

The essays listed above, particularly those in section two, "Small Tech and Cultural Contexts," plunge readers into examination of their present environment, encouraging them to begin or reenter the process of interrogating the seemingly mundane technologies of everyday life. These essays intuitively engage a broad range of readers, providing a footing on which to evaluate the remaining essays. In part, this grounding results from the essayists' employment of tangible metaphors such as archaeology, primitive tools, and print photography to make sense of the effects of digitization, miniaturization, and the growing mobility of small technology.

Small Tech is divided into three topical areas: Traditional Software in New Ecologies; Small Tech and Cultural Contexts; and Future Technologies and Ambient Environments. Although my recommendation suggests avoidance of a front-to-back reading of the essays, the editors' organization provides a useful structure for making sense of how familiar technologies might be reconceptualized (and in turn reconceptualize) the new media environment or how shifts from more traditional technologies to present-day to future technologies within changing cultural contexts and social environments might interact in positive, negative, and unexpected ways. Plus there are practical merits to a clear structure: it makes finding the appropriate essay easier. Still I recommend a nonlinear approach to reading this book: start somewhere in the middle, and proceed from there. Still below, for the sake of organizing this review, I present an overview of each section in the order the editors established.

In the introduction, editors Hawk and Reider provide a framework for the ongoing changes in new media and new media studies that acknowledges popular notions of new media as McLuhan's "global village," but moves beyond them to new metaphors such as "weightless economics" that might help us better understand the implications of miniaturization, virtual space, and embedded environments. For the editors, the complexity and continuous shifting of the intersections between technology and social contexts mandates the inclusion of voices from different perspectives. The editors' success in finding a genuine mix of multidisciplinary voices from within and outside of academia contributes to the value of this book for academics and the general public. Scholars and practitioners from rhetoric and literacy studies, digital and visual arts, political science, psychology, communication, engineering, and graphic design share thoughts, musings, and questions about the implications of the technological movement toward mobility, embeddedness, and miniaturization. These different perspectives help form a richer, more diversified, if at times seemingly fragmented, conversation about information and communication technologies and its personal and cultural implications.

Word limits preclude highlighting each essay, but below are some, but by no means all of the standouts. In the first section, "Traditional Software in New Ecologies," essayists discuss how traditional technologies are transformed by the changing media environment. Both Kitalong and Strate discuss how the layering, cutting, and pasting in digital software simultaneously open and limit the artist's or author's understanding of the image itself as well as broader culture. In constructing images from disparate parts using cut, copy, and paste functions, much like an archaeologist constructs a home or city from fragmented remains, Kitalong argues that we may see new relationships between people or objects, but we may also, as in the case of the Los Angeles Times photojournalist, undermine and alter notions of truth. The metaphors employed in these and other essays engage the reader to reconsider and rethink technologies and tools that remain powerful in part because they are hidden from our immediate attention.

In the second section, "Small Tech and Cultural Contexts," brief essays provide an overview of the impact of many present-day technologies on everyday life. Rice uses the cell phone as an example of how public and private become less distinct in a space of "betweening" since cell phone conversations are often heard both publicly and privately. Johsnon-Eilola argues for Google as a new information space, one that expects information will always be to some degree out of context, one which accepts that not all information will be provided, and one in which connections become more important than the hierarchy of previous search engines. Emmons Jr.'s essay examines the removal of the physical process from digital photography arguing that there is a resulting loss of spontaneity and serendipity in the art, while Chance argues that we may use of projected image to distance ourselves from the intimacy of the physical. Each of these essays and others encourages us to question the advantages, disadvantages, and unexpected outcomes that come with digital technology, with many presented in a novel fashion that helps draw attention to a particular technology that often remains unexamined.

In the final section, "Future Technologies and Ambient Environments," essayists explore wide-ranging topics including virtual reality in learning, haptics, and wearable technologies to examine questions of education, physicality, domesticity, art, and social control. For example, "Digital Craft and Digital Touch" (Paterson) discusses the reuniting of touch with digital design through haptics. Bizzocchi discusses ambient video art, as exemplified in the video recording of the "Yule Log" and its difference from current understandings of art, aesthetics and video. Aligning with prominent social concerns, Sonoski argues for the use of virtual reality to improve educational contexts by engaging and informing children through a multi-sensory format that reconstructs disappearing cultural history. Finally, in the performance experiments described in "Sousveillance," Nolan, Mann, and Wellman equip people with sometimes hidden, sometimes obvious cameras and projectors, to bring "into question the very act of surveillance itself" (183). They do this by violating rules about who should be surveilled and by whom and offering strategies to shift surveillance away from a one-sided hierarchy. These and other essays examine how emerging technologies are reconfiguring learning, design, home, cultural, and social spaces. To connect the essays within and between sections, a preview by the editors, or ideally references of the essayists to other essays, would have deepened the conversation between the different voices.

Although the cover and some of the initial essays may not inspire a typical reader to peruse Small Tech, many chapters are provocative reading for academics and nonacademics. If read from start to finish, the collection is not as compelling as a more serendipitous or nonlinear reading offers, something possible and perhaps desirable in a collection of essays. Still, whether read in or outside of academia, in part or in whole, the book contributes a number of varied and intriguing perspectives on "small tech" as well as other familiar and emerging technologies, encouraging the reader to think about technologies in a different way and engaging them in a more expansive conversation.

Brenda Berkelaar :
Brenda Berkelaar is pursuing her Ph.D. in Organizational Communication at Purdue University.  <bberkela@purdue.edu>

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