Make a Digital Artifact that Helps Somebody

So, your goal is to create a purpose-built digital artifact. But what even is that? Can it be just anything?

Well, yes and no.

A digital artifact is a human-made object in digital space.

We make digital artifacts every time we interact with one another, or even with ourselves, in digital space — in ways that, however they appear to us, the users, are structured at base as 1s and 0s. (For information scientists, digital artifact means something else; they understand digital artifacts as flaws in collected data, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

I’m going to briefly explain digital artifacts in terms of calendars and appointments.

Your cell phone or email-linked calendar is a digital artifact in its own right. And it is littered with further digital artifacts: your appointments (i.e., the record of all the intentions for ordering time and space that you set down, some of which you likely accomplished!). The medium, the calendar itself, is one sort of digital artifact. The record of your plans is another.

Digital artifacts are purpose-built when they are meant to further somebody’s goals.

Google Calendar is purpose-built, for instance. It exists, on the one hand, to help you organize your life. Nice, right? But, it also exists to harvest your data — as much of it as possible, just like Facebook and every other “free” service provided on the internet. Google collects extraordinary amounts of data (here’s a breathtaking list from 2008: it’s so much more now, ten years later). It uses that data in a lot of different ways, perhaps most especially to help other people sell you things (and ideas and political preferences, etc.). Primarily, it uses your data to further its bottom line.

Google Calendar can be understood as a purpose-built digital artifact because its makers are using its digital structures to achieve specific ends.

If you are a user of Google Calendar, you know that the way this digital artifact is structured is meant to help you, the user, organize your life. That is its purpose for you. But, in a sense, that purpose is secondary. Its primary purpose is to harvest your data. To achieve that primary purpose, the digital artifact must be constructed in such a way as to persuade you to use it regularly — maybe even to replace your physical calendar. As such, it is also structured to help you organize your life. But the ends its makers seek to achieve are their own ends, not yours. As a whole, Google Calendar exists to harvest user data efficiently in order to assist Google in making a profit.

The appointment you make in Google Calendar is also a purpose-built digital artifact, but in a different way.

You make an appointment by typing or by speaking into your phone, and blammo, a digital record is created. That record is an artifact, a remnant of your presence in this (digital) world. It is purpose-built, inasmuch as you hope having it in your digital calendar will help you make the appointment at some future moment. But, by contrast with the enormous apparatus of Google Calendar as a whole, the appointment is a relatively small thing. You enter the relevant data, the appointed time comes and goes, and the artifact itself is forgotten. Forgotten by you, that is.

Google, of course, remembers. And, even beyond digital calendars and the like, most digital artifacts are remembered by somebody or something, somewhere. Many web pages, for instances, are saved in the internet archives of the Wayback Machine — recorded there for posterity. But for you, the major purpose of the digital artifact that is your appointment is achieved once the appointed time and date arrive and pass. Perhaps you’ll look back through your digital calendar at some point, trying to remember what you did at a certain moment, but more often, you will not.

Google Calendar is a purpose-built digital artifact in a strong sense.

It is intended to endure and to continue working over time. It exists (primarily) to serve its makers’ financial interests, and accomplishes that by (secondarily) helping its users to organize their lives. Its makers are consciously negotiating the constraints of digital media in a very full way; they are writing code, designing user experiences. The appointment you make in Google Calendar is also purpose-built, but not in a strong sense. You could as easily have made the appointment in an analogue, physical calendar or appointment book (though coordinating with others would look different). You create the appointment to help yourself do something, and it is of little use to you after that something is finished. Heck, you likely don’t even put all of your appointments into your calendar!

Both Google Calendar and the appointments you make there are purpose-built, but we can say that Google Calendar is far more intensively purposive than your appointments. You could easily make your appointments with pen and paper instead (perhaps you do!), and anyhow you do not want much from those records: just that they get you to where you’re going, and maybe help you remember some of where you’ve been. Google Calendar wants more. It wants your data, and it keep wanting it, and more of it. It wants your friends’ and your neighbors’ data. And it has to be a digital object. There is no analogue substitute that can equally well serve Google Calendar’s primary purpose. It would take a Borgesian team of spies covering the world to collect that same amount of data just by watching you!

So, we say that both Google Calendar and your appointments are purpose-built digital artifacts, and both are built to help their makers (and the former is also, secondarily, built to help its users). Of the two, though, only Google Calendar is a purpose-built digital artifact in a strong sense.

Not every digital artifact is purpose-built to help somebody — but many are.

It probably goes without saying, but lots of digital artifacts are not intended to help their users. Google Calendar may be primarily intended to help Google, but to do so, it has to help you, too. The same cannot be said of all digital artifacts.

Pop-up advertisements, for instance, are universally hated. (No, literally, they’re the most hated form of advertisement online.) It’s questionable whether they’re even built to help the companies whose services they advertise! And viruses, obviously, are often straightforwardly nefarious. They are digital artifacts that serve their makers’ purposes precisely by harming others.

More common, as you know from James Bridle’s “Something Is Wrong on the Internet,” are digital artifacts purpose-built to capture users’ attention in ways that serve the artifact-maker’s ends, but do not actually help the user at all. This describes any number of monetized YouTube videos, and probably a depressingly large collection of pieces of journalism. After all, clickbait is as economically remunerative as serious journalistic content (though various people are trying to address that problem).

So what can I do?

At this point, you may be feeling a little bleak. For a piece titled “Make a Digital Artifact that Helps Somebody,” there’s been a relentless undertone of negativity to this essay. But, of course, plenty of digital artifacts have helping people as — if not their primary purpose — at least one very significant aim. For instance, like hundreds of thousands of others (millions, even?), I’ve personally relied on YouTube videos for car repair help on more than one occasion.

Indeed, literally every link in this piece leads to a digital artifact purpose-built to help users who encounter it. Those digital artifacts are in all different media and on different platforms (there’s a website that hosts important literary PDFs, Medium essays free to the public like this one, a personal blog, the video above, private companies’ media reports, and more).

This piece itself is a digital artifact: intended to help you, in turn, to make a digital artifact that helps somebody!

Some purpose-built digital artifacts (like Google Calendar) are pretty ambiguous as to how much they help and how much they harm. (What amount of data harvesting would be a fair trade for a little help in organizing your life? Hard to say, right?) Other purpose-built digital artifacts (like the appointments you create in Google Calendar) exist mostly to help their makers, and are basically harmless (but also useless) to everyone else (except data harvesters). Still others, many others, are actively pernicious — like viruses or pop-up ads, which harm or at least annoy everyone who encounters them.

The good news is that there are literally millions, many millions, of digital artifacts that are purpose-built to help the people who encounter them. If you’ve read this far, it’s because you’re going to add to their number (or maybe you’re just curious).

Your goal here is to make a purpose-built digital artifact that helps somebody. For that, you need three things:

  1. A purpose.
  2. A somebody.
  3. A design approach.

In other words, you need a rhetorical frame of mind.

I’m not going to go deep here on rhetorical principles. You know already from reading Aristotle and Gorgias that many rhetorical principles can be brought to bear when trying to persuade an audience, that there’s no one right way to get others to share your purpose. Which rhetorical principles you draw upon, and how, is something to work out a little in advance, a little as you go along, and a fair bit more as you go back and revise.

I want to close instead by speaking generally to the why and the how of the three points noted above (purpose, somebody, and design approach).

First off, you need a reason for making.

Whether you’re writing an essay or blog post or series of tweets, creating a video, writing a few lines of code to rickroll your friends, or something else entirely, it needs to feel worth doing to you. How do you want to help other people better negotiate constraints in this world? Why? What sorts of reasonably small digital artifact can you make that would help accomplish that aim? Your goal here is to articulate a clear purpose for the digital artifact you will make, a pay-off. What, ultimately, is it for? Why might it be worth making? What do you hope might happen?

Then, you need someone to make for.

There is no “right” audience for your work, but the question of who is linked to the question of purpose, and you should have someone (or some collection of somebodies) in mind as you sit down to make. Who are you hoping to help negotiate constraints? Why this audience? At the same time, it’s important to recall that any digital artifact is, virtually by definition, potentially available to multiple audiences. This piece, for instance, is written for graduate students in my Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media Studies class at Northern Arizona University. (Is that you?) And it also may circulate elsewhere — such is the nature of digital spaces. So, it’s worth thinking about what other, less intended, audiences your digital artifact might reach.

Finally, you need an approach to designing.

How your digital artifact comes into being will depend on your approach. Put simply, how will you make it? Why? How will making it this way help you reach your intended audience? What design principles will guide you as you build your digital artifact? How will your approach to designing the digital artifact help it fulfill your purpose? How does this design approach help you navigate limitations on what you can do (because of time or resources, for instance)? What trade-offs are involved? Developing a design approach adds an extra step of reflection into the early stages of a project. The benefit is that, as you make your digital artifact, you’re better positioned to think about the choices you’re making — as a writer or videographer, multimodal designer and/or more.

Ultimately, you’re making a digital artifact that can help somebody else negotiate constraints.

Doing so calls for a certain measure of self-reflexivity on your part. What were your own constraints in this project, and how have you negotiated them?

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Rhetoric and politics: in search of democracy

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