What do I mean by Appropriation?

This is a great question that was brought up by Nate Husted during an impromptu design session over Thai food at lunch.

(By the way, while Siam House on 4th in Bloomington is pretty good, I’m still partial to Esan Thai’s chicken fried rice. Thai curries just don’t do it for me the way Indian curries do. Yum.)

Back to business.

“What do you mean when you say appropriation?” Nate asked me as we walked to Siam House. It was drizzling, and cold. A miserable day, actually, where it wasn’t wet enough to open my umbrella, yet, it was misty enough that my glasses were rendered useless. His question was simple. So simple, that I was, for a moment, dumbfounded that I hadn’t thought to define my understanding of appropriation yet.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t thought about it a lot, I had. I’ve read almost every paper in the ACM library on appropriation, so I have a working knowledge of how other HCI/tech researchers are approaching the appropriation research/design space. What about the general public? When they want to understand what it means to appropriate something, where do they turn?

  • Free Dictionary: (1) To take for one’s own use, esp illegally or without permission. (2) (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) To put aside (funds, etc.) for a particular purpose or person.
  • Wikipedia: Appropriation is the act of taking possession of or assigning purpose to properties or ideas and is important in many topics.
  • Wiktionary: v (1) To make suitable; to suit. — William Paley. (2) To take to one’s self in exclusion of others; to claim or use as by an exclusive right. (3) To set apart for, or assign to, a particular person or use, in exclusion of all others. (4) To annex, as a benefice, to a spiritual corporation, as its property. –Blackstone.
  • Dictionary.com: adj (1) Suitable or fitting for a particular purpose, person, occasion, etc. (2) Belonging to or peculiar to a person. v (3) To set apart, authorize, or legislate for some specific purpose or use. (4) To take to or for oneself; take possession of. (5) To take without permission or consent; seize; expropriate. (6) To steal, esp. to commit petty theft.
  • Merriam-Webster: (1) To take exclusive possession of : annex. (2) To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use. (3) To take or make use of without authority or right.
  • Oxford English Dictionary: (1) To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart. (2) Const. to oneself: = next. (3) Hence ellipt. To take possession of for one’s own, to take to oneself. (4) Eccl. To annex (a benefice) to some religious corporation, as its property. (5) To allot, annex, or attach a thing to another as an appendage. Obs. (6) To devote, set apart, or assign to a special purpose or use. Const. to, for. (7) To assign or attribute as properly pertaining to; to attribute specially or exclusively. arch. (8) To make, or select as, appropriate or suitable to; to suit. arch. (9) To make proper, to fashion suitably. (So Fr. approprier.) Obs.

So that’s a pretty good start, right? This, of course, is all impromptu research I did after Nate’s question sparked genuine worry that I wasn’t doing my job as a researcher. How could I possibly attempt to understand why people appropriate, without having a general definition of appropriation in the first place?

My answer to Nate went roughly like this:

“Well, I’ve read a lot about what the ACM community thinks about appropriation, so I guess I could talk about that. But to me, appropriation is when you take something, whether be a finished product or simple materials, and adapt them to fit you. You engage the artifact, whatever it is, and bring it into your lifeworld, as it were.

“Example… okay, so a ton of people have an iPhone, right? But no two iPhones are exactly alike, if you think about the apps that people download. Or the cases they buy. Or the other little personalizations and customizations that make your iPhone yours, and someone else’s iPhone theirs.”

“So appropriation is personal customization?” Nate asked.

“Yes, to me anyway. It’s making the object personal to you. But that’s just appropriation. I think my topic, my subdomain of appropriation, is actually about the do-it-yourself, creative aspects of customization and personalization. The extreme end of appropriation, where you engage the artifact to the point of using your creative talents to make it your own. What drives people to do that? Why do I do that?”

“So steampunk fits in…?”

“Because steampunks are all about doing it themselves. They embrace their creativity and engage the objects around them. They are an extreme of the appropriation spectrum. They are my people.”

So… okay. What’s the moral of the story? I’m sure you’re wondering. Well, the fact is this is why it’s so great to talk to people about my capstone. The fact that everyone seems interested, asking great questions… it’s invigorating. So invigorating that even though I was completely ready to sleep, having been laying in bed for an hour, I couldn’t sleep. Why? Because I kept thinking, I need to write down my thoughts on appropriation before I fall asleep and they drift away. So here I am, writing this entry at 12:30 AM EST on a Saturday night, after having literally traveled across the country, starting my day at 3 AM PST (6 AM EST, to be fair). I spent twelve hours traveling, and returned to Bloomington to partake in an excellent Diwali celebration.

I should be exhausted. I should be unbelievably cranky.

I’m sure I will be when I wake. But hey, let’s be completely honest here… What’s another few hours of late night, bloodshot cogitation to a seasoned graduate student, anyway?

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