restricted access Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work by Anne Balsamo (review)
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Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. By Anne Balsamo. Duke University Press. 2011.

Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work is composed of several layers: part history, part autobiography, part critical review, it is a carefully observed account of digital culture c. the 90s onward. The book is inflected by Balsamo’s many years as an employee at Xerox PARC, a preeminent research center in the 80s and 90s (and a site of continued good work). One of the contributions of Designing Culture is Balsamo’s absorbing personal account of a series of digital experiments conducted over a few decades in centers such as Silicon Valley (especially at PARC), USC, and MIT. The account includes a good deal of Balsamo’s own work in these places, as well as in China and Mexico. Designing Culture is not so much a groundbreaking manifesto for how to design what Balsamo calls “technoculture” as a compelling portrait of a scholar with her finger on the pulse of a technological revolution (she once gave a tour of Xerox PARC to William Shatner). Balsamo’s passionate concerns with pedagogy, gender equality, and imagining new futures enliven every page. While I found myself disagreeing with certain superficially explored propositions (e.g., that video gaming engages “continuous partial attention”; see Nardi, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, 2010), I drew much from Balsamo’s energy and enthusiasm in inviting us to revisit a collection of some of the most ingenious experiments in the history of digital technology—wonderfully original inventions of an extraordinarily creative generation that we have already come to take for granted, or even forgotten.

I was moved by Balsamo’s invocation of Dewey’s timeless question: “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?” (181)—an especially apt inquiry with respect to the current generation for whom yesterday’s Facebook posts are ancient history. Balsamo’s answer—a set of learning opportunities including those at school, home, public libraries, museums, after school clubs—is not mind-blowingly new, but she usefully reminds us that the internet ties these places together in potentially exciting and unprecedented ways. Balsamo’s prescriptions for designing technoculture are sensible and workmanlike: promote interdisciplinary projects, engage the youth, integrate across institutions. These are good waypoints along the path to more inclusive, culturally alive design. [End Page 163]

Designing Culture is cleanly written; it might easily have lapsed into preciousness and jargon. Balsamo does have a penchant for lengthy footnotes, many of which could have been brought up into the text for concision and depth. But overall, it is a pleasing read. One of the special pleasures of the book is Balsamo’s impressive range of scholarship; she has read everyone from to Vinge to Vygotsky. One could read Designing Culture as part of a rich hypertext experience, moving from the author’s provocative reflections to the works upon which she meditates so nicely, and back again.

Designing Culture is a bracing restatement and reaffirmation of PARC’s boast that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. The more we believe that, the truer it will be.

Bonnie Nardi
University of California, Irvine