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?

Brass Goggles and Lace

So I’m working on my capstone proposal, and I’m worried. I’m worried, because I’m not sure this is exactly what I’m trying to study, or if I’m letting professors put words into my mouth because it sounds good, or if I’m saying these things because I feel it’s easier to argue for them. Anyway, see below for my draft, which took far too many hours to write. I need critique!


Brass Goggles and Lace: Steampunk as a Case Study of the DIY Creative Process and the Implications for the HCI Design Process

Target group affected by study
Interaction Designers

Binaebi Akah

Description of Problem Space

Why does the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement exist? It is more convenient and possibly even more practical to buy a finished product. Yet, stores like Lowes, JoAnn Fabrics, and Hobby Lobby; television shows like Design on a Dime, Trading Spaces, and Carter Can; and websites like Design Sponge, Etsy, and Instructables, are all flourishing. Why is this? I often hear it is the economy, and this is why people are doing more on their own. This is both true and untrue… it is still much cheaper to buy clothing than to make it from a yard of fabric, for instance, and I have the receipts to prove it.I contend that a large portion of the DIY movement exists because it is in people’s nature to be creative; to want something that is personal, meaningful, unique, and with a story. But DIY itself is vast and deep; so I am focusing on Steampunk as a case study.

Steampunk has multiple connotations with fashion, fiction, music, and technological aesthetics, among others. I am focusing on the latter. The technological aesthetics of Steampunk rebel against our always-connected-with-my-super-high-tech-homogenized-gadget culture by finding inspiration in the past, specifically, the Victorian era, when industrialization did not mean homogenized yet. Why do people join this movement, and how? What is their creative process?

Why Important

My goal is to learn how and why people become involved in this movement. What is their creative process? How does it differ from traditional computer science and interaction design processes? The do-it-yourself movement is all about discovery, personal meaning, the art of craft, choice, freedom, and invention… is it possible to bring some of these traits into the interaction design process? What would this mean to human computer interaction design?


People tell stories.

People create and feel creative.

People embed objects in their personal lives.

People invest when there is a perceived benefit.


I have been reading about appropriation, the diy movement, hacking, creativity, identity, and, of course, Steampunk. This is to get a basis for definitions about creativity and the individual, and how it shapes the individual’s creative process. I have begun to involve myself in the Steampunk movement by buying the independent magazine and following the top blogs. I will conduct narrative interviews and hopefully some walkthrough probes to learn about the creative process and how these DIYers define themselves as creative individuals. I hope to attend a Steampunk convention, but that depends on availability.

Preliminary Plan

Please see here for my visual timeline.

Come Again…

Well, after meeting with Shaowen it turns out that I don’t know, entirely, how to verbalize what I’m actually interested in. For instance, my previous post talks more about the communication between DIYers (ie Steampunkers as my case study) rather than the actual doing of DIY.

But I like the doing of crafting. The doing and the reflecting. How does this relate to HCI, though? I’m not sure yet. Maybe in terms of the process, and how it is different from the computer science way of producing. Everyone is a designer, right, in one form or another?

Shaowen admonished me to remember that this isn’t just about the doing of crafting, as the reflecting about the doing is as important to DIYers. It’s like how the Greeks saw wisdom as both the mind and the hand, rather than how we see it now, as mind (artist) being separate from hand (craftsman), where only the mind can be wise.

So maybe I’m looking at the tacit plus reflective knowledge, and what it means. How does it affect me as a person, my identity, my sense of creativity? I’m not sure. But class is about to begin and I like taking notes in my sketchbook, so I’ll have to pontificate more later.

Pitching in Paragraph Format

For capstone tonight we need to have a paragraph written about our capstone topic. I’m about to meet with Shaowen to talk in more detail, but I wanted to give it a shot before our meeting to consolidate my thoughts…

“Steampunk is a way of creating sublime awe within an apathetic, overly-connected, jaded culture.”  – Kyshah Hell

The world of the creative practitioner has been around for centuries. Men like William Morris during the Victorian era, as well as all the unnamed professional artisans over time, have given us a rich history of using our hands, minds, and the materials around us to create exciting, functional, and/or beautiful artifacts. With the adoption of online technology, the role of the creative practitioner comes to the forefront again as their works are displayed for audiences who wouldn’t have previously had access due to location, etc.

Here are my questions about this phenomenon: How is the creative practitioner’s identity changing due to online communities, and why? What can we abstract from this in terms of HCI design? How is the material world being influenced by its online counterpart, and more importantly, vice versa?

Design Rationale behind the “Thought Box”

Jay Steele was interested to know my idea behind the bowls + box. After getting an excellent response from the in-class critique, I figured it was a good idea to post my (very informal) design rationale.

The interesting thing about the in-class critique was how my design sparked an animated conversation. Without knowing details, the class was able to abstract meaning by rearranging the bowls with the box, finding interpretations I hadn’t thought were explicit.

My favorite interpretation was the metaphor that each of the bowls had a spout of sorts, so you could, potentially, pour your thoughts from the bowls into the box. Eventually, the box would leak out the thoughts through that side hole… but never overflow the box.

I love it when someone “gets” the design.