I love my 2009 MacBook Pro. This is a very silly thing to say, and an even sillier thing to publicly acknowledge. But in this post I want to explore how and why users may become attached to specific technologies (but not in an obsessive My Strange Addictions kind of way).
In my graduate class on activity theory this semester, I’m teaching a book that I first encountered as a graduate student myself, Nardi’s wonderful 1996 collection Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. One of the benefits of teaching, I’ve learned, is revisiting previous work with fresh eyes. In this case, Christiansen’s chapter helps shed new light on why I’ve become so attached to my MBP. She notes:
It is the relationship between artifact and user that creates a feeling inside the user, which in turn is projected to the artifact. The tool relationship becomes a kind of filter through which the user experiences the artifact. (p. 176)
To really unpack what Christiansen is saying here, we need to back up and explore her definition of the word tool, which is much richer than the typical understanding of “simple implement.” Christiansen’s use of the term tool designates “a computer artifact that has tamed someone so that she has come to care” (p. 175).
This is very interesting, on several levels, especially since activity theory explicitly assumes an agentive asymmetry between people and things. In activity theory, human beings use artifacts in meaningful, intentional, and sociohistorically situated ways. Artifacts and people are not granted equal agency. So can an artifact tame a human being, or do human beings tame artifacts?
Christiansen is extending a metaphor here, one that originates in The Little Prince. The fox tells the little prince that “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes it so precious,” and Christiansen extends this line by noting that the prince’s effort and attention to the rose has “caused him to fall in love” with said rose (p. 175).
Intentional and sustained interactions with the rose, or with a computing technology, lead to feelings of attachment. But that’s still well short of the whole story. For example, my key ring is a technology, it’s with me constantly everyday, and I have almost no feelings of attachment to it; indeed, there’s another layer of interaction here…
Christiansen extends the little prince metaphor to illustrate the much bigger issue of mediation. It is not the tool in and of itself—not the roseness of the rose or Appleness of my MBP— but the ways in which the artifact acts as a significant mediator in meaningful human activity that leads to the definition of tool noted above. Mediation, of course, necessitates a relationship of some kind.
But more importantly, mediation assumes motives and goals—mediated actions are enacted within and directed toward meaningful activities. Some mediation is fleeting or even invisible, therefore, but other forms are deeply enmeshed in lived experience. And the tools mediating lived experience often involve lots of cultivation and nursing (to use Christiansen’s terms).
Mediation and Activity
The main reason that I love my MBP is its central role in mediating a variety of tremendously important (to me, anyway) activities.
Christiansen takes “activity as the term for the process through which a person creates meaning in her practice, a process we can neither see or fully recall but a process that is ongoing as part of the participation in a community of practice” (p. 177). Activities are complex, longer-term formations made up of chains of actions (Kuutti, 1996).
An example might be the longer-term project of ideating, researching, writing, submitting, and publishing an article. In this lengthy process, there are hundreds or thousands of culturally and historically situated actions that lead to the eventual outcome—publication. In my workflow, the vast majority of those actions are mediated by my relationship with my MBP…
And here’s another way of looking at this relationship. Earlier today, Courtney Danforth tweeted:
People, please stop asking what I do for fun. Don’t make me say that I don’t do anything for fun. You’re implying that what I do isn’t fun.
For me, going to work is fun. I get to read and write things that interest me and teach about what I read and write. Holy shit is my job fun! I love going to work, I love learning new things, I love working with research participants, I love publishing stuff, and I love seeing the consistently amazing things my students produce. And a ton of this love is mediated by the 2009 MacBook Pro (through which this very post is being written).
This is another way of saying that pretty much everything I do professionally—all of the many goal-directed activities relevant to my everyday lived experience—is filtered through this tool.
And as Kaptelinin (1996) points out:
Tool mediation is a way of transmitting cultural knowledge. Tools and culturally developed ways of using tools shape the external activity of individuals and through the process of internalization influence the nature of mental processes (internal activity). (p. 53)
It’s no wonder users become attached to technologies and practices that help mediate the most important activities of their lived experience.
I should note here that Christiansen’s definition is focused on computing devices because the chapter itself explores “Computers as Tools in Human Activity.” ↩
My key ring agains serves as an apt illustration. The key ring becomes visible and consequential in the case of a breakdown or disruption—when I lose my keys, for example. ↩