Reading chapter 2 of Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole, I think I was most struck by the section titled “The Agency of Mediational Means.” In this section, Shipka talks about constraints in mediational and cultural tools.
Her first point, that “an action is simultaneously enabled and constrained by the mediational means or cultural tools employed,” was something I noticed right away as I was working on editing the video clips for my digital narrative. While Windows Movie Maker is a good free editing tool that enabled me to cut up and edit my video clips and add sound, it also forced me to pick from the small number of transition effects offered int he program. I had to spend time how to cut up my videos because it was not an intuitive process.The biggest constraint was that I couldn’t just upload my narration; I had to have a long enough video to fit the narration before it would play everything.
Shipka’s words and my own experience, therefore, emphasize the importance of paying attention to what tools you use. If you are not mindful of what tools you are using, only paying attention to what they enable you to do, you might miss the constraints that those tools also put on you. Unintentional constraints can be the downfall of getting a project done well or on time.
Shipka’s other main point in this section is that many times, constraints of a certain tool are only realized when that tool is replaced by a newer tool. She goes further, stating:
“Althouth it may often appear . . . that a cultural tool is naturally or in and of itself tied to superior levels of performance, it is often the case that the continued use of dominance of that tool is based on other factors such as historical precedent, fear of or resistance to change, or the fact that the particular tool has been invested with so much cultural or institutional authority that it appears natural.”
I feel like this is an especially important thing to remember when deciding what tools to use for your works as well. Microsoft Office is the standard for writing anything in academia, yet it can be a flawed and unhelpful system if you are trying to do powerful, custom work. In the 90s, the outlandish and disjoint design of the web made with old, un-standardized web development tools seemed natural; now, however, we recognize the design principles of past websites as horrendously hideous.
Just think about America’s use of imperial units instead of the metric system. We are one of the only countries left that hasn’t converted. Imperial units are ridiculous and make no logical sense. Yet we continue to resist the metric system, because it is the system that we are used to. The same thing is true of the universal QWERTY keyboard layout. This layout was designed for typewriters to stop jams, and despite the fact that much more efficient and comfortable keyboard layouts exist (such as the Dvorak keyboard layout), we are familiar with QWERTY, so that is what we use.
Using a tool because it is the standard–because everybody is familiar with it, even when it might not be the most effective option–can have benefits and drawbacks. Familiarity might make your audience more comfortable with your work, but it will not be as impressive. Your work might suffer because you did not use the best tool for the job. It is therefore important to carefully consider every tool you use, looking at all of the alternative options available to you. You need to decide if you want to use a specific tool because it is the best one for the job, or just because it is the one you are most familiar with.