The program’s user-friendly…but it’ll cost ya’

Tartleton Gillespie begins “The Stories Digital Tools Tell” with the statement: “The modernist belief that technology is neutral has been so discounted that it seems almost unnecessary to reiterate it” (107). He then goes on, it seems, to expand on that opening gambit for about twenty pages–suggesting that this is actually a point that requires significant repetition in the digital age.

Parsing out the politics of technology is potentially tricky as it could easily obscure human manipulation and place blame on the object, rather than “true sources” of oppression (109). After all, people made these things. Gillespie, recognizing this, asks the reader to re-imagine things as “artifacts” borrowing a definition from Cole’s Cultural Psychology: “an artifact is an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action” (109). It’s in this definition that we can begin to see how “artifacts have politics” (108). The politics behind a low-hanging highway overpass (109) or subway system that does not grant access to the fancier (and historically whiter) sections of town has a relatively obvious message to users: undesirable people are to be kept out. Highlighting similar political agendas (or any political agenda) in a digital space or even in computer software is decidedly more difficult.
In the sections on the politics of digital technology, Gillespie focuses on metaphor and design and largely avoids the systems of oppression hinted at in the earlier sections. New technology borrows from older media to seem more accessible or “intuitive” to new users because the tools within the program are named so as to seem already familiar before the user even opens the program (115). The language of the program reinforces notions of solitary and originary authorship, long questioned in academic settings (Barthes, Derrida,etc.), that still resonates in the larger cultural landscape. But the politics at work in making the feel user comfortable and creative seems benign compared to bridges that act as moats, keeping the working class out of Georgetown.

Problematically, Gillespie avoids these same questions of access in his discussion of Dreamweaver and Director. In one instance in the section on authorship, he notes that developers, who once dealt with programmers and designers, must now contend with an “ever broader consumer base” (119). While it’s true that the Internet isn’t just used by researchers and elite professional nerds, outside of passing mention of “Western attachment” to the individualized author (119) and built-in locking mechanisms that limit file-sharing (115), Gillespie ignores how even this expanded user-base is still economically and culturally exclusive. These programs, even in stripped down “student and teacher” editions, are tremendously expensive. Director 11.5 costs around $1000. Assuming you already own a copy of Dreamweaver (which runs close to $400 without the student discount), updating isn’t a matter of running a simple software update. It will cost you $125. Even the Internet, theoretically a radical democracy where all ideas are sharable absent any strict hierarchical privilege, still assumes the availability of the hardware to access it and the money to maintain that access. Even if we accept that the artifact exists at the center of a complex technological system, it’s important to interrogate the groups of users the system excludes, not just which technical functions the program-as-artifact in that system prioritizes. Questions of metaphorical marginality seem secondary to this immediate economic concern.