HCI’s Appropriation of Appropriation

Well, it’s about 1:30 in the morning, so of course I’m working on capstone and have to blog about it. In reference to my former post about appropriation, where I discussed the common definition of the word, I thought it high time I also discuss the ACM’s definition of appropriation. I do this with the hopes that I will determine a working definition of appropriation and what it means to my capstone.

I have determined two categories from the six papers I found in the ACM Digital Library that specifically discuss appropriation: temporal experience and adaptability. The categories and provided definitions don’t seem to stray too far from the common definitions, except that they are applied to technology and our relationship with it. That said, I would be interested to read papers from the psychology tradition to know if the definition alters at all. I suppose it might/must.

Appropriation as temporal experience

Based on my readings from Adhe, McCarthy and Wright, and Wakkary and Maestri, one can think of appropriation as the amount of time spent with an object. All three papers suggest that there must be some sort of meaningful interaction or experience with the object. Adhe suggests the interaction/experience needs to be positive, whereas the other two papers make no distinction.

According to Adhe (1), the “appropriation process is part of a biography of goods. It is part of the biography of the products from the moment of purchase.” He goes on to say that  “the process of appropriation requires pleasurable experiences with the product.”

McCarthy and Wright (4) seem to have a similar definition, saying that appropriation means “making an experience our own by relating it to our sense of self, our personal history, and our anticipated future.”

Wakkary and Maestri (6) reference McCarthy and Wright by saying “we mean the remaking of something through a use that becomes personal, framed within our understanding of our situation and our anticipated future.”

Appropriation as adaptability

I don’t want to say that the following quotations are in contrast to appropriation as temporal experience. It seems to me that appropriation as adaptability and as temporal experience are inextricably intertwined. At the same time, however, their motivations are slightly different. One can’t learn to adapt an object without spending time with it, and without having an experience which suggests adaptation is an option.

Anyway, Dix (2) says:

“These improvisations and adaptations around technology are not a sign of failure, things the designer forgot, but show that the technology has been domesticated, that the users understand and are comfortable enough with the technology to use it in their own ways. At this point we know that technology has become the users’ own, not simply what the designer gave to them. This is appropriation.”

March, Jacobs, and Salvador (3) say that their focus for appropriation is on “openness, transparency and adaptability.” Similarly, Salovaara (5) says appropriation is when “users invent ways to use technology for purposes that they had not been considered before.”

So what do I think?

Well, first off, I don’t think you have to have a positive experience in order to appropriate something. I think that a positive experience helps, for sure. But I think one can appropriate something even under negative circumstances. For instance, how many of us hold on to our lemon cars, perhaps, because of memorable road trips with family/friends, etc? Maybe it’s the first car we ever learned to drive, even though the bottom’s basically rusted out now. It doesn’t matter if the car is decrepit, in our minds, it’s still that shiny car our parents gave to us.

In that way, it seems I agree with McCarthy and Wright in saying that appropriation is when we “relate [the object] to our sense of self, our personal history.” It seems to me that in order to appropriate, the object must become a part of one’s personal narrative. And how does one do that, exactly? Because it isn’t enough to simply bring the object into one’s life… that’s not appropriation, that’s possession.

Appropriation, then, is when one uses the object “in their own way,” as according to Dix. It is when one “adapts,” as per March, Jacobs, and Salvador, the object to one’s life/task/style/etc. I especially like Salovaara’s idea of appropriation, where it’s about using the object for something it hadn’t been “considered before.”


Meaning that, by looking at the ACM definitions of appropriation, I think of it as adapting an object to oneself in a way that not only redefines the object, but also relates the object to one’s sense of self.

This relates back to my previous post, where I highlighted specific common definitions of appropriation, pulling out the following keywords and phrases:

  • To set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use (Merriam-Webster).
  • To make (a thing) the private property of any one, to make it over to him as his own; to set apart (Oxford English Dictionary).

Excellent. So there you have it. My (current) understanding and working definition of appropriation. All of this might change, though, if I read something that truly ignites a spark in me. But in the meantime, this is what I will be using as my definition.


  1. Ahde, P. 2007. Appropriation by adornments: personalization makes the everyday life more pleasant. In Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and interfaces (Helsinki, Finland, August 22 – 25, 2007). DPPI ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 148-157.
  2. Dix, A. 2007. Designing for appropriation. In Proceedings of the 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference on HCI 2008: People and Computers Xxi: Hci..But Not As We Know It – Volume 2 (University of Lancaster, United Kingdom, September 03 – 07, 2007). British Computer Society Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. British Computer Society, Swinton, UK, 27-30.
  3. March, W., Jacobs, M., and Salvador, T. 2005. Designing technology for community appropriation. In CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Portland, OR, USA, April 02 – 07, 2005). CHI ’05. ACM, New York, NY, 2126-2127.
  4. McCarthy, J. and Wright, P. 2004. Technology as experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  5. Salovaara, A. 2009. Studying appropriation of everyday technologies: a cognitive approach. In Proceedings of the 27th international Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Boston, MA, USA, April 04 – 09, 2009). CHI EA ’09. ACM, New York, NY, 3141-3144.
  6. Wakkary, R. and Maestri, L. 2007. The resourcefulness of everyday design. In Proceedings of the 6th ACM SIGCHI Conference on Creativity &Amp; Cognition (Washington, DC, USA, June 13 – 15, 2007). C&C ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 163-172.

3 thoughts on “HCI’s Appropriation of Appropriation

  1. I just happen to be writing about appropriation as well. You might want to take a look at Paul Dourish – Where the Action Is – for a bit more on appropriation. The embodied aspects of appropriation seem important in some way although I’m not clear exactly how yet. Dave


    1. Thank you, Dave! I’ll definitely take a look at Dourish.

      It seems to me that the embodied aspects of appropriation are important because we are social creatures, we human beings. We like to feel attached to the objects and people around us because it imparts a sense of safety, belonging, etc. The people and objects in our lives become nuances that help build our personal perceptions of our identities.

      I’d reference some of the papers I’m reading to back up this tentative theory, but I’m not with my wall of sticky notes.

      By the way, how did you find my blog? I’m so glad to hear there are other researchers working on appropriation!


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