Academic journal article Visible Language

Meta!Meta!Meta!: A Speculative Design Brief for the Digital Humanities

Academic journal article Visible Language

Meta!Meta!Meta!: A Speculative Design Brief for the Digital Humanities

Article excerpt


In the technology industry, engineers and designers are working today on the computational capabilities of the next 5 to 20 years. In the process, corporations and startups sometimes use fictitious future scenarios to identify new opportunities, test high risk concepts, inspire teams toward a common goal, and generate consumer interest (Johnson, 2011). While these visions can play a crucial role in the technology development process, humanities-based future scenarios are largely absent.

Therefore, to insure that the culture, values, and practices of the humanities are not excluded from future technologies, this paper proposes a way to bring the speculative inventiveness of design together with the critical interpretation of the humanities to imagine what might be accomplished with digital tools that don't yet exist. In other words, the paper seeks to define a design brief for the creation of blue-sky, provocative visions that advance a humanities agenda not only to encourage technology development but also to:

* cast beyond incremental improvements to existing tools;

* investigate the impact of emerging technologies - such as artificial intelligence or the internet of things - on humanities practices;

* explore the implications of ideas too large, complex, or unconventional to be built quickly with the tools at hand;

* provoke debate about new directions in humanities research.

The humanities' agenda that concerns us here is one shared by humanists who, regardless of their home discipline, use methods founded in critical theory: reflective interpretation and social critique. Concepts that are core to this approach include subjectivity, ambiguity, the contingency of meaning, and observer-dependent variables in the construction of knowledge (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Pressner, & Schnapp, 2012). The question is, how do we create technologies - tools, environments, affordances, and computational capacities - that can embody and enable these concepts, requirements that make for an unusual and highly specific design challenge.

Digital tools designed for rating restaurants, scheduling appointments, or piloting airplanes typically require ease of use, categorical specificity, and even fail-safe precision, requirements that industry best practices were designed to address. But this paper asserts that the workflows, use cases, and feature-function matrices of software development that make such tools effective are a poor fit for the intentional fuzziness and nuanced positionalities of critical interpetation.

Therefore this paper seeks to identify a design approach, a design space, and a design process for developing innovative affordances to be used in the creation of humanities-based future technologies. Throughout, the concerns of the Digital Humanities provide the conceptual foundation; they bring the meta to our title. Humanists themselves play a central role, both as the imagined subjects for future digital tools, and as partners in their creation and critics of the outcomes.

The paper begins by identifying a design approach that can integrate the critical reflection of the humanities with the propositional orientation of speculative design by bringing together future visioning and critical theory. Next, it looks to critical theory and interface theory to define a design space by asking How can a future digital environment be designed to reveal its own constructedness? How do we situate the humanist within it, not as a user but as an irreducible subject? It follows with case studies whose design process incorporates critical making by beginning with ideas from recent Digital Humanities theory and through design and reflection ending with novel humanities-specific digital affordances.

The results of this analysis are brought together in the conclusion in the form of a speculative design brief for the Digital Humanities - as an unusual format for theoretical inquiry, and - to provide guidelines for designers and humanists to test new ideas, explore the implications of emerging technologies, and influence the creation of future computational capabilities. …

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