Academic journal article Visible Language

Critical Interfaces and Digital Making

Academic journal article Visible Language

Critical Interfaces and Digital Making

Article excerpt


If humanists are interested in creating in their work with digital technologies - the subjective, inflected, and annotated processes central to humanistic inquiry - they must be committed to designing the digital systems and tools for their future work.

- Johanna Drucker

Chronicle of Higher Education (2009)

It has been more than five years since Johanna Drucker issued this challenge to the emerging field of digital humanities, suggesting that it was incumbent upon scholars to deepen and broaden their practice to leverage not only the affordances of computation when undertaking data-driven research and publication but the design and development of digital tools as well. The argument, in some respects, seems all but self-evident. Of course tools matter; the basis for much that drives cultural critique and ideological analysis rests on theorizing underlying causes and systems - value systems as well as class, economic, and technological ones - that drive cultural practices and artifacts. Why wouldn't humanists reflexively adopt a critical and proactive stance toward the tools for their stock-in-trade, especially those that shape basic practices of research and writing? The answer lies in a technologized extension of the "two cultures" bifurcation articulated by C.P. Snow more than half a century ago. Already in 1956, Snow had identified "a gulf of mutual incomprehension" between the intellectual life of humanists and scientists in the academic cultures of Britain and the United States (Snow, 1963). For Snow, the stakes of this divide were nothing less than the intellectual vitality of the western academic establishment.

Today, a great many humanists remain alienated from the hardware and software upon which their work has grown increasingly dependent. Obvious exceptions exist, but the convergence of digital technology with the practices of humanism has often been an uphill struggle - one that continues to this day, with battles taking place in tenure, promotion, publication, and hiring committees as much as in the classroom. A promising antidote has emerged in movements with names such as "critical making" (Ratto, 2011), "critical design" (Dunne and Raby, 2013), "reflective design" (Sengers, 2006), "reflective HCI" (Dourish, 2004), "critical technical practice" (Agre, 1997), "value-sensitive design" (Friedman, 1996), "reflective practice" (Schön 1978) and other combinations of similar words. Each of these takes a slightly different approach to reaching its intended audience, which ranges from designers to consumers to technologists. What they all have in common is a shared interest in developing strategies for merging theory with practice, thinking with making, values with materials.

This essay explores the question of whether physical making is essential to the evolution of the digital humanities. What is it about getting one's "fingernails dirty" (Hertz 2012) that makes this activity uniquely worthwhile? Are the insights gleaned from physical making categorically different from those deriving from parallel movements on behalf of code literacy, data literacy, or software literacy? Does the impulse to defamiliarize the tools of digital scholarship - to go "under the hood" - work on a metaphorical level or only a literal one? Underlying these questions is a concern that focusing on material practice could inadvertently reify a binary long ago dismantled by historical materialism - i.e., that physical circumstances and human labor are always already foundational to the production of technology, culture, and ideology. This essay argues that the payoff of a revised conception of critical making may take place in the comparatively ethereal realms of software and ideation as well as physical making, and that particularly productive points of convergence may be found at the intersection of software development, user interface design, and information architecture.

Critical Making

A significant subset of critical making focuses on the extension of computation into physical spaces and material objects via practices such as fabrication, laser cutting, 3D scanning and printing, and so on. …

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