Note — Jul 18, 2021

Unboxing the Toolkit

The excellent Shannon Mattern with an essay about toolkits, grouped in four categories: basic survival; toolkits as means of inclusion and structures of social relations; toolkits that facilitate material pedagogy; and toolkitting as a design method. Kind of fascinating to look at boxes of stuff and be able to find meaning in how they are constructed, produced, used, and everything one can read into them. They can be seen as boundary objects; mediators; translators; like maps, they are political in the choices that are made; some are meant to be scaled in production, while others “down-scale an intimidatingly inaccessible complex infrastructure to make it intelligible.”

The essay itself might be seen as a kit, weaving together meaning from the topics of survivalists, bug out vehicles, Black Lives Matter, Médecins Sans Frontières, IKEA, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Kathryn Shroyer describes how we can “cognitively offload information into the environment through the organization of tools”; kits are a mechanism for distributed cognition. […]

As Iris van der Tuin explains, toolkits are particularly useful in interdisciplinary research collaboration; they help to construct a shared language and process – they “externalize and formalize a set of steps,” as we saw with the Doctors Without Borders kits – and thereby cultivate “just enough commonality” to create “conceptual, epistemic, and empirical common ground.” […]

Kits are what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer call “boundary objects”: they’re “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites.” They’re mediators, translators. […]

As Audre Lorde has reminded us, tools forged through a particular politics – whether patriarchy or racism or neoliberal technofetishism – might not be able to undermine that political regime. Yet perhaps our toolkits can offer new ethical and pedagogical frames, reshaping the contexts for tool use – and informing the worlds we build with them.