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  • Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production by Mirko Tobias Schäfer
  • Joseph J. Corn (bio)
Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production. By Mirko Tobias Schäfer. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011. Pp. 249. $35.

In Bastard Culture! Mirko Tobias Schäfer examines the consequences of the mass adoption of computers and the internet. Many scientists were already using the internet in the 1980s and by the early 1990s, when web browsers were developed, other users began to access text and images through the world wide web. Schäfer is most interested, however, in the years after 2000, when mass online participation followed the introduction of easy-to-use web applications (often referred to as "Web 2.0").His approach to this activity is less historical than analytical and taxonomic. A professor of digital culture and new media at Utrecht University, he describes and categorizes the users and media practices involved in such mass participation, the technology facilitating those practices, and the policies which media and consumer electronics companies deployed in response to emerging new media.

At the heart of Schäfer's book and the subject of its longest chapter is "Bastard Culture," his term for the complex "interactions between users and corporations, and the connectivity between markets and media practices" [End Page 223] (p. 11). Such bastardization is manifest in the practices of a "heterogenous constellation of different participants"working with a "hybrid constellation of information technology and large use numbers interacting as a socio-technical ecosystem" (p. 77). Participants range from computer-savvy hacker/programmers who write "home brew" software and upload it to the web to grandmothers whose computer usage begins and ends with following their children and grandchildren on Facebook. All of them, together with the technologies they rely on or create, and the new media practices their participation produces online, are "heterogenous," Schäfer argues. His point is persuasive but quite obvious, as are other assertions in the book, like his suggestion that user participation online is either "explicit" (voluntary and knowing), "implicit" (unwitting and a consequence of merely entering a site), or both. Users of the photo-sharing site Flickr, for example, participate explicitly in the photo-sharing culture when they upload images and "tag" them with identifying information, but those same users participate implicitly because their mere use of Flickr contributes "to the system-wide infrastructure" of the site, making it more valuable to other users as well as more profitable for its corporate owner (p. 106).

Historians of technology will probably be most interested in Schäfer's case studies, like the one of "the modification of the Microsoft Xbox," an early gaming console which hackers modified by replacing its operating system with a "modchip" so it could play unauthorized games, or of Sony's AIBO or "Artificial Intelligence roBOt." AIBO, introduced by the electronics firm in 1999, was a robotic dog that could walk, orient itself to its surroundings, express different "moods," and learn new behaviors. "Like all software-based products," Schäfer observes, "the AIBO was open to modification and could offer a wider range of functions than its original designers imagined" (p. 95). Thus a U.S. hacker calling himself "Aibopet" devised programs that added new behaviors to AIBO's repertoire, including the ability to dance in tune with music playing on the radio. He posted these programs on his website, from which other AIBO enthusiasts downloaded them to re-program their pets. Although Sony engineers seem to have followed and even enjoyed the creativity their product elicited, the company's managers were upset that their product was being altered by outsiders. In 2001 Sony obtained a cease-and-desist order against "Aibopet" and forced him to shut down his website. In 2006 the manufacturer discontinued sales of AIBO altogether, allegedly because of insufficient profits. Yet AIBO lovers continue to visit sites dedicated to the robotic pet, share photos taken of their AIBOs (and photos by them as the robot had a built-in camera), and download programs tweaking their pets' behaviors. "In the digital age," Schäfer concludes, "vendors should recognize that their software-based products are destined to be further developed...