Sociotechnical Skills in the Case of Arduino

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* Article: Produsage in hybrid networks: sociotechnical skills in the case of Arduino. Stefano De Paolia; Cristiano Storni. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 17: 1, 31 — 52 (2010)



"In this paper we investigate produsage using Actor-Network Theory with a focus on (produsage) skills, their development, and transformation. We argue that produsage is not a model that determines a change in the traditional consumption/production paradigm through a series of essential preconditions (such as open participation, peer- sharing, or common ownership). Rather, we explain produsage as the open-ended result of a series of heterogeneous actor-networking strategies. In this view, the so-called preconditions do not explain produsage but have to be explained along with its establishment as an actor-network. Drawing on this approach, we discuss a case study of an open hardware project: the Arduino board, and we develop a perspective that maps the skills of human and non-human entities in produsage actor-networks, showing how skills are symmetrical, relational, and circulating."


From the conclusion:

"We began this paper with a critique of essentialism and reductionism in characterizing produsage and we developed a non-essentialist counter- argument based on ANT. We are aware that essentialist approaches have their own strengths and that they can produce accounts usually based on definite sets of properties that define specific and apparently stable models. To the contrary, our approach subverts some of these assumptions and proposes a perspective to explain what is usually taken as an explanation.

For us, a relational approach is a much-needed step toward a full appreciation of the phenomenon of produsage that complements more traditional views.

With this in mind, we have mapped the circulation of skills in the case study of the Arduino open board, showing that elements such as sharing, open participation, and common ownership (the characters of essentialist explana- tions) do not necessarily explain users’ new skills. On the contrary, these characters depend on the distribution and circulation of skills among humans and non-humans in actor-networks. Our argument on the symmetry, relationality and circulation of skills deepens this perspective and opens up further exploration of the relationships between new emerging practices and technologies.

We can further evaluate the contribution of our work by comparing it briefly with a previous argument on skills in produsage. According to Bruns (2007) a defining character of produsage is the emergence of a new generation of users who have (design) skills and want to use them. Moreover, produsage communities welcome newcomers with the ‘‘appropriate’’ skills. Finally, Bruns considers that it is important that these skills are also taught in schools so that citizens are prepared to participate in produsage. Although we share these views, we also see how such an argument produces a discriminatory bias between humans and non-humans and renders skills as essentially human. Moreover, skills are understood in essential terms (as something that you own or deliver) and not as a relational articulation between users and their tools. In this sense, we believe we might be misled in assuming that produsage implies en-skilled users.

First, as much as the sleeping policemen slow down the traffic, produsage artifacts relate with different users to enact a broad range of skills. The breadboard that can be mounted on top of the Arduino enacts a skill that was previously required on the side of users. However, using the breadboard minimizes the need for soldering tools and the relational skills that derive from associating with them. There is therefore a circulation of skills that is always a symmetrical trade-off between humans and non-humans.

Further, the claim that produsage communities are permeable has, for example, been criticized by De Paoli et al. (2008) who showed that FOSS communities can also be impermeable to skilled users/programmers and their software. The discussion/confusion about the trademarked name is a further example that there is also an impermeable aspect in produsage that needs to be discussed too: no matter how skilled you are, you can copy the board, modify it as you like but you are not allowed to use the Arduino name improperly. Moreover, your participation depends on specific artifacts such as a computer or the Internet access (which should not be taken for granted).

Technology and design play a key role in both inscribing certain skills and in inviting certain other skills and interests to be developed. However, far from making a universal claim, we have also seen how the most skilled users are those who engaged more critically with the original Arduino design and ended up creating a separation in the produsage network whereby the Arduino model*definitely a produsage case in the eye of the authors of this article*is re-appropriated by others or even rejected as not open enough. Much research is needed in order to fully appreciate the sociotechnical dynamics that describe produsage. Our ANT view on produsage, our argument on skills, and our point in looking at what involved actors define in their own terms are intended as a preliminary way to tackle these challenges. This paper opens up a space for follow-up works where the innovative factors of the produsage productive paradigm (such as the issues related with innovation, labor organization, and different types of users) can be more explicitly framed using an ANT perspective. Similarly, an ANT-informed evaluation framework and a number of criteria for sociotechnical skills transfer could also be developed and eventually enrich the current debate on produsage."

More Information

From the same author:

empirical cases,’’ First Monday, 13(10), p. 19. Available online at: index.php/fm/article/view/2064/2030