The Hand, and the Virtual

Matt Ratto and Megan Boler (eds.), DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media

MIT Press, 440pp, £20.95, ISBN 9780262525527

reviewed by Danielle Child

DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media is a collection of 28 short essays that address the multi-faceted ideas of making, design, the digital, media, citizenship and participation (both on and offline), through a critical lens. The volume was conceived after the editors convened a conference of the same name held in Toronto in November 2010. In order to help the reader navigate a diverse range of approaches and topics, the book is divided into four sections: DIY and Activism: New Modes of Civic Engagement and Participatory Politics; DIY Making: Learning, Culture, Hacking and the Arts; DIY and Design: Opening the Black Box and Repurposing Technologies and DIY and Media: Redistributing Authority and Sources in News Media. Despite these divides there are, of course, overlapping and recurrent themes and ideas across the four sections.

It may appear that making and social media are strange bedfellows: the former is clearly associated with the hand (material), whilst the latter with the virtual (immaterial). The online realm and particularly the virtual spaces discussed in this volume – discussion boards, social media and fan sites – are generally considered as sites of (physical) inactivity and, sometimes, political inaction (as seen in the recent ‘armchair activist’ or ‘slacktivist’ labels). This volume seeks to contest some of these assumptions by considering online participation as community-based rather than a private activity. The book further evidences a convergence of the hand and the virtual within recent years; the two are no longer exclusive realms (if indeed they ever were). In his own contribution, the co-editor Matt Ratto, recognises that ‘society is increasingly digitally mediated.’ The book critically raises questions about this mediation. Rather than simply acknowledging that this ‘turn’ is a product of a neoliberal ideology that fosters individualism, these chapters imply that, due to this tendency, making needs to be critically reconsidered. The contributors are not blind to the effect of the ideological turn or naïve to the inherent capitalist tendencies in the technologies on which they write. In their chapter on cloud computing, Michael Murphy, David J. Phillips and Karen Pollock acknowledge the profitability of ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) and customisable technologies. They highlight the in-built ‘do-it-for-them’ nature of the companies that design these technologies, whilst maintaining that cloud computing provides an ‘infrastructure that supports, and shapes, new ways to do-it-yourself.’

Two recurrent terms within the volume, perhaps, promote the most debate: ‘DIY’ and ‘hacking’. The appropriateness of the first is questioned in a number of chapters, with many opting for alternatives; for example ‘do-it-themselves’, ‘do-it-together’ (DIT) or by using words akin to collaboration and participation. Red Chidgey notes how ‘DIY’ is (alarmingly) filtered down into the Conservative-led ‘Big Society’ rhetoric in the UK, which is nothing more than PR for individualisation and privatisation. The ‘social’ aspect of DIY or DIT culture raises the question of why the return to the hand-made and the digital fosters a collaborative approach? This is the focus of a number of the studies discussed in the book. Henry Jenkins argues that fan activism – an increasingly common form of participatory politics – emerges from fan culture. What is, perhaps, more surprising is Jenkins’ choice of example: the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). Through this chapter, Jenkins demonstrates how the fan community can, in fact, foster the development of tactics for activism. It is no coincidence that the actions are based around the key narratives and ideas from the Harry Potter books that, essentially, bring a group of friends together to fight injustices, evil etc. Less explicitly ‘political’ activities are also found on other types of ‘fan’ sites. Catherine Burwell and Megan Bowler argue that DIY fan culture can provide ‘significant insights into meaning production and civic engagement’ through their work looking at fan sites of US TV shows The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

The second common term – ‘hacking’ – appears to be interchangeable across the chapters. As with DIY, the connotation of the term ‘hacker’ (think 1995’s classic teen film, Hackers) is, again, soon displaced. The varied use of the term ‘hacking’ is yet another way in which the hand and the virtual are here linked. In Alexandra Bal, Jason Nolan and Yukari Seko’s chapter, they consider ‘hacking’ as a ‘bottom-up learning process’ which consists of ‘altering a pre-existing situation to produce something new.’ This statement alludes to a material form of hacking in which things – objects, materials, technologies – are played with as a process of learning. Other chapters similarly emphasise experimenting with materials (tinkering, for example) as a way to understand the world (Ratto, Carl DiSalvo and Steve Mann) and also the social relations within this world (Bal, Nolan and Seko; Kafai and Peppler; Jenson, Dahya and Fisher). Kate Milberry, however, returns to hacking’s more political roots through considering (online) hacking as a contemporary form of Marx’s ‘emancipated labour.’ She argues that through online hacking practices, ‘tech activists are remaking the Internet after the image of the better world they seek...’

This volume is useful in helping the reader navigate heterogeneous approaches to critical making and social media while showing how each can facilitate a form of DIY citizenship. The diverse worlds from which these chapters emerge – Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Education, Sociology, Art, Architecture and Design – demonstrates the need for a volume like this. The essays in this volume are testament to the potentiality of making, hacking and other modes discussed in engaging citizens in activities that could constitute political or, at the very least, provide alternatives to an increasingly individualised society.
Danielle Child is a lecturer in art history at Manchester School of Art. Her current research is on social models of labour in contemporary art making, including art activism and socially engaged art.