Blog Post

Why You Need to Read Designing Culture by Anne Balsamo

It is so exciting to be reading Designing Culture:  The Technological Imagination at Work (Duke University Press), by Anne Balsamo.   This gorgeous, informative, provocative, take-no-prisoners book is a veritable manifesto for rethinking how technology works within, through, about, and in tandem with deeper cultural values and how we need to be aware of design principles in order to disrupt some of the most persistent and unquestioned assumptions of a culture.  Neither techno-utopian nor dystopian, Designing Culture is part of a growing and necessary body of scholarship designed to make us think critically about the purpose, impact, implications, and applications of the technologies we design.   It is both about imagination and activism--and insists both need to be considered together as we design new "shiny things."  


Here are the principles that motivate Balsamo's magisterial, practical, visionary, and yet detailed manifesto:

• Innovation is a process, not a product
• Innovation is a multidisciplinary endeavor
• Designing is a practice of the technological imagination
• The future is enacted by designers who hack the present to create the platforms for future world-making
• Making things is important for the construction of shared knowledge
• Every technology has contradictory and multiple effects
• Collaboration across differences is the key to technocultural innovation
• The creation of new technologies always involves the design of new cultural possibilities
• Everyone who participates in the design of new technologies is also engaged in the process of designing culture
• Understanding the relationship of culture and technology, therefore is an ethical imperative for those engaged in creating new technologies, applications, and digital culture


This gorgeous book is itself a work of cultural design, from the sumptuous cover (part technology, part plant life, part Fortuny tapestry, and all beautiful) to the boxes and shaded areas and even a CD that all guide how we read which is to say what we read:   that's Balsamo's point.   The "how" (the affordances) shape the "what"--and vice versa.  Form is content and content is form---and we are going to mess it up unless we think about designing both together.


This is the book to buy, to teach, to discuss.  Gender is a serious topic throughout and so is literacy, crosscultural understanding, the institutionalized university as a site of technocultural innovation, interdisciplinarity, collaboration.   It is a book chock full of insights and practical aids, and a challenge to anyone designing or thinking about cultural design.   It's provocations will keep students engaged for a long time to come. 



Surfing to Amazon for this book - good recommendation, by the way - it was not coincidental that the Amazon choice-maker also suggested Jules Henry, Tom Wolfe, and Malcolm X. I wonder what happened for it not to pop up with McLuhan and Alinsky while they were at it!?

It's really wonderful when cutting edge authors show how prescient we were in the '60's.


Anne Balsamo's book looks most interesting and a worthwhile read (and thanks for the summary). However at Amazon I could only find the paper form. I already have Now You See it on my iPad Kindle and hope I can add Anne's book soon. I look forward to being able to transfer the thinking in both books into worthwhile classroom practice. School as a system is sadly lacking such perspectives beyond individual thinking.


Not surprisingly, the question about the availability of the ebook version of the Designing Culture book has come up in several different contexts.  My editor at Duke University Press has assured me that an ebook version is on the docket; but they have no firm date for its release.  Until then, please also see the transmedia website that is part of the overall book project:

Ideally the electronic version of the book would incorporate all the interactive and dynamic media elements of the website, as well as the interactive documentary that is packaged with the print book.  I know that this version of an electronic book is beyond the capacity of a Kindle reader.  Given that the current website is flash-based, such a version of the project would be difficult to serve on the iPad as well.

As part of the Designing Culture project of transmedia scholarship, the print book does important cultural work that the other media cannot do.  When and if the project takes shape as an expanded digital document that incorporates multiple media modes, I would still suggest that the print book artifact will continue to do something critically important that the all-digital ensemble cannot.

Thanks for the review Cathy and to others for their interest in the project!