Social Knowledge Creation/Designing Knowledge Spaces
Critical making integrates the previously disparate fields of more abstract, conceptual critical theory and a sustained commitment to design and building. Scholars accept that knowledge is frequently created through the collaboration of various individuals, methodologies, and tools; the design of these interactions, or the space where the interactions occur, needs to be critically examined and implemented. As such, a key consideration focuses on how to design digital projects and spaces that stimulate social knowledge creation while maintaining certain ethical or discipline-based standards. Articulated through ideas of “learning by doing” and hands-on collaboration, critical making often focuses on social knowledge production with a more literal interpretation of the term "production."
Creation-as-Research is one aspect of critical making that occupies the discussions around knowledge spaces and scholarship. The offset argument is the need for more research in, and appreciation of, such an approach as it offers productive tensions between projects and various approaches (Chapman et al.). Of all the perks of research-creation, one can mention the multidimensional outcomes that give researchers a window to different perspectives. It becomes possible for a project to address more tangible issues once the work is critically made to serve for such purposes. In addition, research-as-creation is an evolved method that makes it possible for researchers to test their designs in a practical manner, especially in relation to the design of knowledge spaces. As one of critical making's several methods, research-creation extends its reaches to encompass several fields in the humanities, which is calling for its adoption as a more common practice.
The process of creating knowledge through making involves a variety of different making practices, processes, and products. Critical making involves practice-based research where one critically analyzes and reflects upon the processes of making and experimenting as a method of creating knowledge through hands-on prototyping and iteration. In “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” Ratto explains, “I see the intention of critical making projects as somewhat different in its explicit mappings between scholarly research on critical social issues and design methodologies and its intention of furthering critical knowledge through joint material production” (Ratto 2011: 252). By generating knowledge through critical making, scholars come to understand the social life of materialized and prototyped information, critically analyzing how users interact with new technologies, and how meaningful improvements can be made through further experimentation and iteration. Ratto outlines three key stages to critical making as a scholarly endeavor: First, a review of the pertinent literature, theories, and concepts must take place. Second, a group of scholars, students, and/or stakeholders (or citizen-scholars) collaboratively design material prototypes guided by the applicable theories and concepts from the literature review. Finally, the third stage is an iterative process where ideas and material prototypes are improved through revision and reflection. Scholars who engage with critical making practices collaboratively and socially create new knowledge with a community of users as the social life of technologies and digital objects is investigated.
Critical making creates a space for citizen-scholars to participate in the collective and collaborative gathering and generation of knowledge on a specific topic. Citizen-scholars provide localized expertise and experience, a different set of interpretive and practical tools, and often a strong desire to make and design knowledge that is accessible to, and easily understood by, their peers. Ratto’s goal for scholarly applications of critical making is socially- and community-focused. The goal, he explains, “is therefore to use material forms of engagement with technologies to supplement and extend critical reflection and, in doing so, to reconnect our lived experiences with technologies to social and conceptual critique” (Ratto 2011: 253). Through the sharing and joint processing of results, and the ongoing critical analysis of the processes, materials, design, social uses, and functionality of the iterated digital object, participants collectively create knowledge with real world societal applications through practice-based research. Practice-based research is a process-driven rather than product-driven form of knowledge creation where the shared act of making, constructing, and critically reflecting becomes more important than the final generated object. Constructivist and constructionist pedagogies emphasize processes of learning through lived experience and hands-on learning. This approach is particularly useful in the visual and performing arts where students are trained to apply knowledge to the ways in which they perform their bodies and experiment with the ways knowledge from the classroom can be practically applied to their careers as makers of art, theatre, music, and interart works.
In “Using Blogs for Better Student Outcomes,” Sara Haefeli asks how using blogs can improve student writing outcomes. Often when students write concert reviews they look to models on the Internet written by authors who are not formally training in writing about sonic phenomena. Music students, amateurs, and many professional arts reviewers have difficulty expressing sonic experiences through different modes of expression. As Haefeli explains, “I find that my music students may be passionate about works or performances, but often do not have the skills to communicate their musical insights” (Haefeli 2013: 39). Students can become those models of writing by authoring blogs. When students are asked to write a piece that will be accessible to the public, a different approach to writing takes place. They are no longer writing for the deadline, but instead writing with a specific audience in mind.
As pedagogues, scholars are continually encouraging students to improve their analytical and critical thinking skills through writing. Writing is a form of making and creating knowledge through processes of thinking through, analyzing, and theorizing pre-existing texts and experiential encounters. Students learn through the processes of making texts how to appraise, differentiate, evaluate, identify, classify, and argue about cultural texts, social movements, events, and so forth, which circulate in society. The blog format encourages students to generate writing pieces as a form of public humanities work, connecting their ideas, writing, and perspectives to a wider public audience, making their scholarship available and accessible beyond the academy, and connecting students to a broader professional community interested in similar subject matter. In the musicology classroom, for instance, where performers, academics, and educators come together in the study of the cultural history of music, students also learn that writing can take a variety of forms in professional arts and humanities contexts and can be communicated in different ways. For example, performance stream students learn that they must communicate themselves, their musical background, and their brand as a soloist or ensemble precisely and evocatively in different ways to different audiences. Writing a grant application requires a different set of rhetorical tools, writing devices, and approaches to knowledge mobilization than an artistic bio and program notes for a recital, or a read paper as a component of a lecture-recital.
In “Unraveling the Narrative Approach: Twine as Music Pedagogy,” Colleen Renihan details one recent pedagogical experiment using Twine as a digital mode of narrative analysis in instrumental compositions in the music appreciation for non-major classrooms. Renihan has applied the use of Twine to explore the narrative and representational properties of music to help students understand, and then explain to peer-users through game-making and gameplay, the musical elements they hear in a piece of music that lacks a text to garner meaning from. By breaking down and unpacking meaning, structure, and musical features, and communicating musical analysis to a user in the form of a story, students interpret a piece of music sequentially in an accessible multi-modal format. How can the process of making help students work through structural and stylistic elements of the sonic texts analyzed in the musicology/ethnomusicology curriculum? Twine is used in musicology classes for music majors and non-majors to adapt and remediate a performative work with an environmentalist message to a digital game space. The objective was to make an ephemeral piece, its structure, and its message accessible to a larger audience by presenting these elements of the music through an alternate format. Reproducing a performance environment in a digital environment requires the final version of the interface design for public game play to include thick affective description and multimodal media objects. The addition of visual materials to aid in the explanation of the music can serve as a tool for communicating complex musical terms and ideas to a general audience. Using Twine to guide an audioviewer through the narrative of a piece can create a new experience of the work in a digital space in a format where the user actively engages in the temporal unfolding of the work as they physically transition between different moments in the musical and/or literary narrative structure of the gamified musical work.
One challenge of translating a performative work to a digital game space concerns the issues of game challenge and difficulty. While the performance moves through a linear space with the participant (audience) moved successively from stage to stage over the course of a performance, adaptive measures are needed in the game to further complicate the movement and solidify Schafer’s nature-based message as they encounter and are sent-back by various human and nonhuman inhabitants of the forest. Future iterations of pedagogical applications of game design could directly incorporate sound materials and paramusical ephemera by secure permissions to include audio from the commercially recorded CD, using field recordings from ethnographic research, and working alongside archives to enhance the aurality of the game each student designs.
Both Haefeli and Renihan’s pedagogical approaches to learning and creating social knowledge through processes of making in the musicologies classroom–for instance, creating writing for digital spaces, interpreting music by creating games, creating sound studies prototypes, and recording and composing digital sound objects–take cues from design theory that values prototyping, versioning, iteration, and productive failure. It is an experiential learning model where students learn to equally value both the development process, as well as the final product/assignment. Incorporating learning activities and technologies that foster collaborative cultural and aesthetic value of music results in meaningful learning experiences.
- Chapman, Owen, and Kim Sawchuk. "Creation-as-Research: Critical Making in Complex Environments," RACAR: Revue d'Art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 40.1 (2015): 49-52.
- Haefeli, Sara. “Using Blogs for Better Student Outcomes,” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 4/1(2013): 39–70.
- Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” The Information Society 27 (2011): 252-260.
- Renihan, Colleen. “Unraveling the Narrative Approach: Twine as Music Pedagogy,” Engaging Studies: Essays in Music Pedagogy 3 (2015). http://flipcamp.org/engagingstudents3/essays/renihan.html
Design Thinking in Digital Humanities Centers and Labs
This section focuses on three readings by Bruno Latour, Amy Earhart and Neil Fraistat to explore the concept of design as it relates to spaces for social knowledge creation. Design thinking is present throughout the cycle of project envisioning and planning, including research, analysis, presentation and publication. Fostering collaborations across disciplines and departments, as well as within and beyond institutional walls, stimulates interactions and sustained discussions for richer project development. Latour’s proposed philosophy of design provides the theoretical framework on the importance of design principles within the production process of social knowledge creation. Earhart looks at the function and development of digital humanities labs and their outgrowth from traditions of design labs, art studios and science labs. Fraistat expands the discussion of digital humanities labs to include centers as well and focuses on their value as community resources for bringing together technology and humanities scholars in collaborative, interdisciplinary work.
In Bruno Latour’s keynote lecture, “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Towards a Philosophy of Design,” delivered at a meeting of the Design History Society in 2008, he explores the evolving concept of “design.” Due partially to an increased comprehension and extension of the term “design,” the line between the materiality of an object and its aesthetic aspects is slowly diminishing. Latour points to five key notions of the concept of “design” in unpacking the meaning and larger understanding of the term. First, there is a humility inherently implied in the act of designing something that is absent from the more foundational tasks of constructing or building. Secondly, an attention to detail is present in the skillfulness and craftsmanship essential to a design project. The skills and crafts of interpretation are addressed in Latour’s third principle, which links the analysis of an object’s design to a larger understanding of its meaning. The fourth connotation of the word “design” is linked to the idea of redesign—meaning that the process never starts with a truly blank slate but is always building on a previous idea, problem, or issue. Designing is closely linked to trends and tastes at a moment in time and is explicitly transitory in nature. Finally, materiality and morality come together in the expanding concept of “design” to involve an ethical dimension of the quality and address the normative question of good versus bad design. Latour concludes with a challenge for new innovations to represent not only objects but also the space that they inhabit, and on a larger scale, “the conflicting natures of all things that are to be designed” (p. 13).
Amy Earhart’s chapter, “The Digital Humanities as a Laboratory,” in Humanities and the Digital, looks at the prevalent use of the science laboratory model for scholarly working spaces. Science laboratories influence the establishment of digital humanities labspaces in that they both draw from traditions of working with tools and equipment for theoretical and applied research. However, digital humanities labs go a step further by also providing project support, technology training, programming space, and conference rooms. In addition to physical labs, there are also virtual labs or “collaboratories,” such as HASTAC, which exist without walls. In their ideal form, most digital humanities labs foster a collaborative work environment that bring together scholars from varied disciplines and break down hierarchies between technical and research positions. For these reasons, Earhart believes that the digital humanities would be well-served to look beyond the sciences to the models of art studios and design labs.
While the process of knowledge production may be more closely linked to the sciences than traditional humanities exploration, the digital humanities by their nature are bonded with the humanities. By looking to the maker tradition of arts and design programs, digital humanities labs benefit from the influence of their process-oriented approach and gain value as spaces for innovation. A dynamic space for exploring problems and research considerations should also be a neutral space, akin to a design lab that encourages equitable collaboration. A model for crediting individual contributions to a project is essential for developing shared ownership and providing equal recognition for both faculty and alt-ac professionals. Reviewing the Collaborators’ Bill or Rights from an NEH Off the Tracks workshop and the INKE project model of credit attribution, Earhart concludes that specific guidelines for the field should emphasis “shared data, appropriate credit for work, and the importance of mentorship” (p. 396). As innovation relies upon the creative process as well as collaboration of key stakeholders, the best work is produced in cooperation with others rather than in a vacuum.
In his essay, “The Function of Digital Humanities Centers at the Present Time,” in Debates in Digital Humanities, Neil Fraistat explores the evolution of humanities computing centers on college campuses and presents a representative overview of the operations of a center. The earliest centers provided models for the application of computing technology to the humanities, supported the theorization of digital humanities, and became advocates for the burgeoning field. Fraistat suggests that digital humanities centers are now “key sites for bridging the daunting gap between new technology and humanities scholars,” although there is no cohesive single model applicable to all centers.
While they typically function as community resources for their universities and foster an environment of collaboration, most are focused inward on their home institutions and rarely collaboration with other centers or cultural institutions. Campus pressures may stymie external collaborations, but even on home campuses, there are tensions created between humanities centers due to a perceived hierarchy of the classification of a service unit versus a research center. Competing for prestige and limited grant resources, digital humanities centers working in isolation miss the opportunity for tackling larger issues in the field and building shared resources and repositories. To bring together a global cyberinfrastructure, centerNet was founded in 2007 to build a shared community of practice and a virtual research environment. To date, it includes 191 digital humanities centers.
Expanding upon Fraistat’s concept of linked digital humanities centers, GLAM institutions existing outside of academia also have the qualities ascribed to digital humanities centers, including the creation of digital tools and repositories, training students through internship programs, hosting local digital humanities classes, organizing seminars and lectures, and working with staff from other departments on the shared creation web resources and interactive exhibition components. This is all within reach of substantial primary source materials and typically open-source resources. Although the scholars and technicians working in cultural heritage institutions are often are not as formally organized as on-campus digital humanities centers, they share the same concerns regarding interdepartmental collaboration and the production process of social knowledge creation.
Exemplary Instances and Open-Source Tools
- centerNet, an International Network of Digital Humanities Centers, lists 191 centers for humanities cyberinfrastructure across the global: http://centernet.adho.org/.
- Earhart, Amy. “The Digital Humanities as a Laboratory.” Ed. David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson. Humanities and the Digital. Boston: MIT Press, 2015, p. 391-400.
- Fraistat, Neil. “The Function of Digital Humanities Centers at the Present Time.” Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Debates in Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012, p. 281–291. Available at http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/23.
- Latour, Bruno. “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Towards a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk).” Networks of Design Meeting of the Design History Society. 3 Sept. 2008, Cornwall: 2008. Available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/112-DESIGN-CORNWALL-GB.pdf.
Speculation and Conjecture in Social Knowledge Environments
The adjectives “speculative” and “conjectural” have long been used dismissively in academic scholarship to convey a lack of rigour in critical argumentation. The connotation that speculation and conjecture are antithetical or even antagonistic to academic knowledge production can be traced back to the long-held cultural assumption that objectivity and distance are both requirements of sophisticated critical inquiries. While this scientistic model for knowledge production has historically permeated the social sciences and humanities, recent work in digital humanities and in humanities more broadly has pushed against positivistic assumptions of objectivity in the pursuit of knowledge. Digital scholars such as Lisa Samuels, Jerome McGann, Johanna Drucker, and Kari Kraus have sought to reposition the roles of speculation, conjecture, and play as sophisticated and even essential components of knowledge production in the humanities. Among other things, these scholars argue that humanists are always engaged in an ongoing act of speculation; this scholarly practice makes digital humanities an intriguing site for critical making or for working through the details of speculative practices.
Discourses may have emerged from the digital humanities because of the discipline’s long and fraught history trying to situate itself within the academy. In its early days, the digital humanities were met with resistance by traditional humanities scholars—the procedural, mathematical, and data-driven models for analysis seemed antithetical to the work of humanists, which is contingent on complexity, ambivalence, and plurality. Johanna Drucker notes that as the digital humanities were accepted into the academy, they “promoted the idea that formal logic might be able to represent human thought as a set of primitives and principles, and that digital representation might be the key to unlocking its mysteries” (4). In other words, the digital humanities were “formed by concessions to the exigencies of computational disciplines” (4).
To counter these cultural assumptions, recent scholarship contends that speculation (Drucker), conjecture (Kraus), and deformance (Samuels and McGann) should be embraced because of their ability push against instrumentalist notions that intersections between computational technology and humanities research necessarily adhere to scientistic models of objectivity. These small shifts in digital humanities praxis can yield radical results—particularly when combined with more traditional new media practices such as fabrication, prototyping, and remediation.
Drucker, in her monograph, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, reflects on the projects and practice of her Speculative Computing Laboratory at the University of Virginia. Drucker argues that speculative computing is an act that repositions the subjective, personal, situated self within the histories of professional practice (5). This act, she argues, is actually an intrinsic practice in all intellectual pursuits even if not explicitly stated. Likewise, Drucker notes that speculation is an imaginative practice that helps to reposition knowledge (digital or otherwise) as an experience rather than an accumulation of data-driven information (7). This theorizing of digital practices informs Drucker’s praxis, in which critical making constantly contends with the fact that the digital is both an application or a process, and an ongoing theorization of cultural life (9).
Kraus, Samuels, and McGann, by contrast, turn to conjecture and deformance to demonstrate how theorizing the past and imagining what meanings might have been possible, is actually a powerful step in working towards the future. Kraus’s work in conjectural criticism contends that conjecture is a kind of play—or, a form of “subjunctive knowledge” (para 7)—that concerns itself with cultural “transmission, transformation, and prediction (as well as retrodiction)” (para 4). Conjectural criticism becomes a way to uncover meanings that are obfuscated by traditional paths of knowledge creation and dissemination while also presenting a method of computation that emphasizes play over procedure. Although Samuels’s and McGann’s concept of “deformance” was circulating long before Kraus’s piece on conjectural criticism, they also present a model for understanding the future through a speculative or conjecture-oriented interrogation of the past. In “Deformance and Interpretation,” Samuels and McGann argue that the act of undoing or “deforming” a text can help refute “normative” conceptions of knowledge conveyance and help us “work toward discovering new interpretive virtues.” Like Kraus, Samuels and McGann advocate for a culture of playful “what if” analyses of (literary) texts.
This section does not strictly address the pragmatics or particulars of critical making in knowledge production; rather, it traces a line in scholarship that led to a surge of critical maker spaces and digital humanities labs. While the digital humanities are often closely aligned with the supposed “objective” methods of scientific and computation processes, the repositioning of humanistic practices within this branch of scholarship has led to a progressive understanding of computers as sites of inquiry rather than mere tools for production. Computation allows for scholars to disrupt models of linearity and objectivity—looking to the past to imagine complex futures.
Exemplary Instances and Open-Source Tools
- The Scholars’ Lab. University of Virginia, http://scholarslab.org/.
- The Scholars’ Lab (SLab) is a collaborative Digital Scholarship Centre at the University of Virginia. The researchers at the SLab specialize in digital humanities, geospatial information, and scholarly making and building, and they emphasize speculative computing practices. The SLab was founded in 2006 and was originally led by Bethany Nowviskie.
- The Maker Lab in the Humanities. University of Victoria, http://maker.uvic.ca/.
- The Maker Lab in the Humanities (MLab) is a collaborative Digital Media Centre at the University of Victoria. It was founded in 2012 by Jentery Sayers. The researchers at the MLab specialize in experimental prototyping, physical computing, digital fabrication and exhibits. The MLab has been working on a book project called Prototyping the Past, which engages explicitly with speculative and conjectural research practices.
- Chan, Tiffany. The Author Function: Imitating Grant Allen with Queer Writing Machines. University of Victoria, https://github.com/eltiffster/authorFunction.
- Tiffany Chan’s MA project, The Author Function: Imitating Grant Allen with Queer Writing Machines, is an excellent example of speculative scholarship in the Humanities. Chan trained an Artificial Neural Network to write in the style of a nineteenth-century author. However, the aim of the project was not to create a perfect Allen-esque bot, but rather, to speculate about possible and/or plausible future scenarios for machine learning in composition and literary studies.
- The Ecotopian Toolkit. University of Pennsylvania, https://ecotopiantoolkit.wordpress.com/.
- The Ecotopian Toolkit was a conference in Environmental Humanities hosted by the University of Pennsylvania in April 2017. The conference asked participants to speculate on utopian scenarios and ecological tools to expand the potentials of the Anthropocene. This is one example among many modern conferences that emphasizes the radical possibilities of speculation in Humanities-centred scholarship.
- Drucker, Johanna. “From Digital Humanities to Speculative Computing.” SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, U Chicago P, 2009, pp. 2–18.
- Kraus, Kari. “Conjectural Criticism: Computing Past and Future Texts.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 4, 2009, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/4/000069/000069.html.
- Samuels, Lisa and Jerome McGann. "Deformance and Interpretation." New Literary History, vol. 30, no. 1, 1999, pp. 25-26. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/jjm2f/old/deform.html.
Making Inclusive Knowledge Spaces
Maker culture emphasizes collective production, learning through doing, and shared learning. Yet, maker culture, like hacker culture, has come under criticism for lack of representation beyond a largely white, Euro-American, male demographic. In response, feminist makers and hackers have worked to address marginalization and lack of diversity within technology communities through the development of women, queer, and trans-friendly spaces (Nguyen et al. 2016; Rogers 2018). By looking at readings by Matt Ratto (2011), Lilly Nguyen, Sophie Toupin, and Shaowen Bardzell (2016), and Melissa Rogers (2018), this section will discuss some of the values of critical making in relation to feminist scholarly practice to consider the importance of developing inclusive knowledge spaces for feminist making, hacking, and crafting.
In “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life” (2011) Ratto defines critical making as “a mode of materially productive engagement that is intended to bridge the gap between creative physical and conceptual exploration” (252). By bringing together two typically distinct modes of engagement – critical thinking and physical making – critical making uses material engagement to support and extend critical reflection. Ratto sets out three stages of a critical making project: first, a review of academic literature, concepts, and theories; secondly, a group joint design of prototypes; finally, an iterative process of reconfiguration, conversation, a reflection. The process begins with a scholarly basis, then the project develops through collective hands-on experimentation followed by critical reflection. Again, the key difference for Ratto between critical making and conceptual art and design is its “focus on the constructive process as the site for analysis and its explicit connections to specific scholarly literature” (253).
Ratto’s articulation of critical making practice also emphasizes care and critical investment. For Ratto, caring is not just a matter of feeling, but a form of applied, responsible work. He argues that “‘caring for’ seems a necessary step toward reconnecting society and technology” (258). A key component of critical making is how this caring and investment connects the participants lived experience to the critical perspectives it explores. In many ways, Ratto’s articulation of critical making echoes contemporary feminist concerns around care and accountability. His emphasis on embodiment and personal experience to make new connections “between the lived space of the body and the conceptual space of knowledge” (254) echoes feminist arguments rooted in the always situated, embodied, and partial nature of knowledge. Nguyen, Toupen, and Bardzell comment on the difference between making and hacking on a gendered spectrum between transgression and masculinity (hacking) and care and femininity (making). With its ethos of care and investment, critical making helps to introduce “a new lexicon of care and repair into technological praxis and reveals the formerly invisible work of technological production” (Nguyen et al. 2016).
Nguyen, Toupin, and Bardzel discuss, in “Feminist Hacking/Making: Exploring New Gender Horizons of Possibility” (2016), how feminist thinking is adopted by feminist hackers and makers. They describe two main forms of feminist research critique in hacking and making: the design of women, queer, and trans-friendly spaces for hacking and making, and “both a method and a framework to introduce new kinds of expertise, such as craft and care, in conversations of information technology” (Nguyen et al. 2016). By departing from a strict focus on technology and the masculinity of hacking, feminist inquiry can introduce “alternate values of inclusion and intimacy.” Notably, they argue that while hacking and making exist as distinct technocultural discourses, many of their practices overlap and they are in dialogue and continuity. As such, after describing some of making and hacking’s defining characteristics, the authors treat them as a compound entity. Still, as mentioned above, there may be greater overlap between critical making methodologies and feminist approaches than there is with traditional, masculinist hacker culture. As the authors point out, “feminist technologists have explicitly taken up the discourse of making in direct response to the hegemonic masculinity of hacker culture.”
Situating hacking and making within the history of craft “reveals the ways in which women’s work has historically been disqualified as value-adding labor and therefore distinguished from masculine domains” (Nguyen et al. 2016). In contemporary hacking/making cultures, the language of participation, sociotechnical access and inclusion, and innovation is particularly compelling (if idealistic) and contemporary feminist hacking/making draws from “multiple histories of craft, design, and computing.” The authors highlight research projects examining issues of gender inclusion and access in hacker/maker communities, citing the example of LilyPad Arduino. A hack of Arduino, LilyPad Arduino was created by Leah Buechley in response to an observation that Arduino resonated more with men than with women. She designed it particularly for women to use in e-textile projects. A study by Buechley and Hill (2010) found that 65% of LilyPad Arduino projects were led by women, compared to 90% of Arduino projects which were led by men. The case of LilyPad Arduino shows that these technologies are not inherently masculine.
The chapter “Making Queer Feminisms Matter: A Transdisciplinary Makerspace for the Rest of Us” (2018) by Melissa Rogers uses examples of previous workshops at the Women’s Studies Multimedia Studio at the University of Maryland to elucidate her transdisciplinary research and pedagogy strategy. She argues the need for feminist, queer, and anti-racist making spaces cannot be underestimated (235) and that “queer feminist cultural production not only deepens our understandings of why making matters to the humanities but also expands narrow definitions of ‘the digital’” (234). She cites Fox, Ulgado, and Rosner on how the feminist practice of hacking is embedded “in the labor of craft as well as the shaping of feminist identities” (237). In this approach, hacking is less about the products than the resultant cultural shifts. Rogers’ chapter fundamentally highlights the importance of institutional space dedicated to feminist, queer, anti-racist knowledge through making. Her discussion of the fraught issues of gender, sex, race, and class in contemporary maker cultures echoes Nguyen, Toupin, and Bardzell’s discussion of the limits of supposedly open spaces in which barriers to entry are often structural rather than technical.
Through the example of a series of workshops, “Interactive Textiles,” Rogers articulates her queer feminist pedagogy where craft is praxis that helps to foster a curious and critical attitude toward technology (238). She explains how these workshops, like Ratto’s articulation of critical making, are more about process than product to resist the fetishization of technologies. Craft, like making, can be a means of breaking down the Cartesian mind-body dualism as it is not just a form of knowledge, but a practice (242). In crafting, like in critical making, activities which are typically considered mutually distinct are performed simultaneously, such as thinking and making. Ultimately, Rogers suggests spaces like the Women’s Studies Multimedia Studio “reorient digital humanities to different subjects and subjectivities, different bodies, different tools and media, and different practices of knowledge production” (243). While understanding knowledge production as a collective, embodied process, critical making and feminist approaches to making, hacking, and crafting also share values such as an emphasis on care and personal investment. There is a pressing need for the development of institutional spaces which support these lines of inquiry in inclusive and accessible environments.
Exemplary Instances and Open Source Tools
- The Arduino LilyPad system is a set of sewable electronic pieces designed for e-textiles and wearables projects. It can be sewn to fabric and similarly mounted power supplies, sensors and actuators with conductive thread. Using the LilyPad system is a way to “experiment with electronics through the lens of crafting or fiber arts.” The system was designed by Leah Buechley while pursuing her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder. The commercial version of the kit, which launched in 2007, was collaboratively designed by Leah and SparkFun Electronics. See https://www.sparkfun.com/lilypad_sewable_electronics and https://store.arduino.cc/usa/lilypad-arduino-main-board.
- Critical Making Lab is “a shared space for opening up the practice of experimentation with embedded and material digital technology to students and faculty in the Faculty of Information [at the University of Toronto].” See https://www.criticalmaking.com.
- Fashioning Circuits uses wearable media as a lens to consider the social and cultural valences of bodies and identities in relation to fashion, technology, labour practices, and craft and maker cultures. A public humanities project, it combines scholarship, university coursework, and community partnerships. It was launched in September 2011 as part of a series of independent studies in the graduate program in Emerging Media and Communication (EMAC) at the University of Texas, Dallas and “the goal of the project is twofold: to explore the ways in which fashion and emerging media intersect and to work with community partners to introduce beginners to making and coding through wearable media.” See https://www.fashioningcircuits.com
- Mothership HackerMoms is “the first-ever women’s hackerspace in the world. We were founded in April 2012 by and for creative mothers and our families”. HackerMoms has been widely covered in the press as a pioneer in the emerging DIY culture that’s now embracing women and children: “We give mothers of every gender the time and space to explore DIY craft and design, hacker/maker culture, community workshops, entrepreneurship and all manner of creative expression—with on-site childcare.”See https://mothership.hackermoms.org/.
- The Women’s Studies Multimedia Studio at the University of Maryland is a “multi-purpose event space and lab… dedicated to fostering connections between Women’s Studies and digital humanities, and presenting art, performance, and scholarship that critically engages issues of identity and difference.” See http://wmst.umd.edu/academics/multimedia-studio.
- Nguyen, Lilly et al. "Feminist Hacking/Making: Exploring New Gender Horizons of Possibility." Journal of Peer Production, issue 8, 2016, peerproduction.net/issues/issue-8-feminism-and-unhacking/feminist-hackingmaking-exploring-new-gender-horizons-of-possibility/
- Ratto, Matt. "Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life." The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 252-260, doi:10.1080/01972243.2011.583819
- Rogers, Melissa. “Making Queer Feminisms Matter: A Transdisciplinary Makerspace for the Rest of Us.” Making Things and Drawing Boundaries: Experiments in the Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, pp. 234- 248.
Theories and Applications of DIY Technoculture: Fanfiction
In her book, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, Anne Balsamo asserts that “the real business of technological innovation is the reproduction of technocultures over time” (Balsamo 5). Balsamo’s term “technoculture,” “a concept that formulates technology and culture as a specific unity” (Balsamo 5), provides an accurate picture of the current method of cultural evolution. Technology and culture have changed drastically in the last one hundred years, and technology is now firmly entrenched in many cultural practices. Technology does not decide culture or vice versa, technology and culture inform one another, and, rather than viewing them as separate entities, they must be seen as codependent forces. Engaging critically at the intersection of technology and culture, from theoretical concepts to contemporary iterations, illustrates how technocultures have evolved to serve the needs of those who feel underrepresented and underserved by mainstream culture, with specific focus on fanfiction as a digital space carved out by young women and the queer community where they can remix mainstream culture to better represent their lived experiences and their creative desires.
What is now termed “fanfiction” has long been a part of literary practice. As long as there has been a canon, there have been people presenting their own interpretations and versions of that canon. However, with the advent of the Internet, fandom culture and fanfiction has grown exponentially. There are now a myriad of fanfiction archives on the Internet with innumerable works contained in them. Unfortunately, despite the volume of work being produced, fanfiction has been dismissed, both socially and academically, as an illegitimate form of fiction. There are three main reasons for this dismissal: first, it is dismissed because it is unpublishable; due to copyright laws, fanfiction cannot be published. Therefore, it is work being done for free, without hope of monetary reward or literary recognition. Second, fanfiction is dismissed because it is not curated. Unlike works which are published, fanfiction does not go through an editing process. Fanfiction is not edited for content, grammar, or spelling, and it can be posted as it is written. Therefore, there is no quality assurance in the work. Third, and foremost, it is dismissed because it is the purview of young women and the queer community. These are two demographics whose interests, opinions, and output are often considerate to be frivolous and unserious. Fanfiction is, therefore, summarily dismissed as smut written by little girls that cannot be of any creative or academic value. This stance is not only based in erroneous assumptions, but is essentially untrue. Fanfiction as a remix technoculture alone is a rich area deserving of serious attention and study.
When looking at technology and culture, it makes the most sense to proceed chronologically; before moving onto fanfiction, this section will first establish the basics of technoculture and the questions, problems, and issues the concept encompasses. Peter Block’s article “Technology, Culture, and Stewardship,” adapted from his own book on the concept of stewardship, is from 2005 and serves as a theoretical foundation for a discussion of how care must be taken to ensure that technological innovation does not simply reproduce existing patriarchal and capitalistic paradigms. He terms this act as “stewardship”, which “means a choice to (1) act in service of the long run, and (2) act in service to those with little power”, as opposed to “the common practice in most organizations, [which] acts in service of the short term and works in the interest of those with high power” (Block 9). He calls this the “business perspective”, which basically serves as a stand in for the concept of capitalism. Essentially, this perspective is what keeps technological advancement adhering to an outmoded set of values, to the idea that “what is good for business is good for the world” (Block 10). Block sees stewardship has the solution to the “narrative of scarcity,” the anonymity of globalization, and the lack of personal accountability in leadership, all the problems created by business perspectives narrowing digital possibilities. Therefore, the concept of stewardship requires not only that technology be unshackled from capitalist business practices, but that it must be actively used to service those who require it, rather than those who can pay for it.
Moving forward six years, Anne Balsamo, who, in the introduction to Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, continues the theoretical work of Block by suggesting that technological innovation should not be the domain of organizations or even governments, but rather of the individual. Balsamo seeks to further Block’s desire to move away from capitalistic values and create a new concept of creative industry, which collapses the barrier between amateur and professional.
The official histories of science and technology contain accounts of significant contributions by so-called amateur scientists and technologists, as well as the accounts of how the demarcation between professional and amateur has been institutionalized, politicized, and deployed in the service of the consolidation of power. The membrane that separates professional from amateur science has always been leaky (Balsamo 3).
The removal of this barrier is facilitated by the interdisciplinary, open source model of knowledge espoused by cultural studies, and the collapsing of the technological and the cultural as two distinct parts of human life. “Recent advancements … have not simply rearranged the technological infrastructure of human life, they have reconfigured what it means to be human by reconfiguring the spaces of possibility for the formation of social relationships, as well as for the production of human life” (Balsamo 4). As the stewards of both technology and culture, scholars must define what it means to be human and to create and implement tools which complement and further scholarly efforts, and especially to ensure that the dominant patriarchal and capitalist paradigms are not simply being reproduced.
However, it is not enough to make the membrane between the professional and the amateur malleable. Technoculture must seek to reorganize social thinking about what is of value, what is legitimate, and give voice to those who have been denied or dismissed in the mainstream. In her 2015 article, “Jennifer Lawrence, Remixed: Approaching Celebrity Through DIY Digital Culture,” Akane Kanai uses the lens of two subjects that are often dismissed (largely because their consumers and users are made up largely of young women and the queer community) as unacademic: celebrity and Tumblr blogging. It is impossible to summarize Kanai’s thorough, insightful, and nuanced study here, but the part of her paper most germane to this section is that, through “‘meme’ GIF reaction blogs on blogging social network Tumblr, which use GIFs excerpting about three seconds of action from film, television and other Internet video clips, matched with situational captions, to construct a self-narrative of everyday experience” (Kanai 323), young women use the intersection of celebrity and self in order to examine, interrogate, and often subvert the gendered expectations of their lived experience. Kanai uses Jennifer Lawrence as an example, partially because of her ubiquity, and partially because she represents the socially defined role that young women are encouraged to emulate – the pretty but klutzy, self-deprecating cool girl, who is relatable to women and desirable to men. Kanai notes the ways that these GIF reaction blogs use Lawrence’s public persona as a way, not only to dissect mainstream performative femininity and its prescribed conventions, but to “remix” it to better represent their own lives and various modes of being. “While deceptively simple in appearance, digital DIY remix, I suggest, can say much about gendered, raced and classed assumptions underpinning the everyday experience of audiences, as well as their reception and use of celebrity” (Kanai 337).
Remix technoculture does not stop there. Almost since the invention of the Internet, fanfiction archives have existed. Fanfiction represents one of the most popular, and the most fascinating, examples of a remix technoculture. This discussion will focus on Archive of Our Own, now the most popular and populous fanfiction archive currently operating. Archive of Our Own represents a perfect example of the type of technocultures the foundational texts were advocating, where Block’s “business perspective” is eschewed, Balsamo’s breakdown of the binaries between amateur and professional is collapsed, and Kanai’s assertion that remixing popular culture allows those outside the mainstream to make works that more closely resemble their lived experiences is constantly put into practice. “Fans are able to interact with and revise beloved texts to suit their own desires within purpose-created fan sites online. This allows them … to retroactively imbue commercially created texts with censored content through fanfiction, photo manipulation, fan videos, and other media” (Duggan 39). Most importantly, the remixing work that they do is largely created by, and in service to, those who are underserved by fiction as a whole. The main point of difference between the canon and the fan-created literature of the archives is that “many of the changes they make relate to gender and sexuality” (Duggan 39).
As mentioned in the introduction, a major objection to the legitimacy of fanfiction is that it is unpublishable due to copyright issues. The fact that fanfiction is such a popular form of writing, despite the lack of possibility for monetary or critical success, illustrates a technoculture that has gone against Block’s “business perspective.” If the work being done by these authors and websites is not for monetary gain, then they are not bound by the traditional capitalist restraints of more traditional forms of publishing. Furthermore, in shaking off the traditional aspects of fiction writing, fanfiction is freed from the constraints of marketing. Where more mainstream depictions of homosexual relationships center on either the homophobic obstacles these relationships face or the problem of masculinity in a male, homosexual identity (Duggan 40), fanfiction authors are free to express their perspective without being tethered to marketing strategies or target audiences. “Such troubling of the economic and power structures that govern the commodity from which fan writers craft imagined realities is a clear example of how the innovation of desire-led and aberrant methods create material transformations” (Pester 123). Fanfiction is, in a sense, defined by its unpublishability. Not only is the context created by the original work often essential to the text, but the nature of fanfiction writing is fostered by this lack of obligation to a more traditional publishing structure. Fanfiction authors are allowed the level of “stewardship” they have because there is no question of finances. Instead, they serve only their own creative ideas and desires, and react solely to the feedback from their readers.
The second objection often raised to fanfiction is the lack of more professional editorial structures, such as a formal editing or peer review process or quality requirements. While many fanfiction archives have few rules relating to which works can and cannot be posted (Archive of Our Own, for example, states on their website that “unless it violates some other policy, we will not remove Content for offensiveness, no matter how awful, repugnant, or badly spelled we may personally find that content to be”), the lack of a professional governing body does not mean that fanfiction archives are the Wild West. Fanfiction communities have fashioned their own methods of peer review and editorial processes. “AO3 and Fanfiction.net allow authors to upload a chapter at a time as they create their stories. Readers have the ability to comment on, or review, each chapter as it is published … reader feedback on these sites helps authors as they continue to craft their stories by providing critique on the story or characters and suggestions for its progression" (Hill 848). There is also a more traditional structure available. Authors will often partner with a secondary reader, called a Beta Reader, who will proofread their work and often offer critical feedback and suggestions. In addition to the model of more “professional” publishing practices, fanfiction archives have taken the traditional form of the archive but have made important changes and adjustments to suit their own needs. These archives use metadata to organize and catalogue their contents, usually in the form of author generated tags.
AO3 offers a unique approach in that while contributors can take on the initial cataloging responsibility of adding tags to their work, AO3 checks and corrects metadata added to submissions … AO3’s wrangling guidelines are extensive and cover the various media (e.g. movies, books and literature, etc.), characters (authority files), and relationships (e.g. platonic, sexual, crossovers). These guidelines detail explicit instruction on naming and tagging practices within the community and are broken down by base rules, media (e.g. anime and manga, books and literature, movies, music and bands, etc.), nonfandom, fandom, and “no fandom” tags (Hill 851).
Not only has the canon been remixed, but also the traditional structures of editing, publishing, and archival organization; the boundaries between the professional and the amateur, the author and the audience, the editor and the curator, all collapse. Breaking down these binaries, fanfiction represents a space where the concepts of publishing, archives, curation, and writing as an exercise have been remixed, creating an entirely new praxis.
Finally, the most important reason for the dismissal of fanfiction as a serious creative practice is that it is often the purview of the young, especially women, and the queer community. It is clear in the creation and figuration of this technoculture that these groups feel undervalued and underserved in mainstream literature.
Mary Sue, a fan-fictional female captain of the starship Enterprise from 1974, now stands as a metonym for characters and narrative quirks created by fan writers. A ‘Mary Sue’ is often the insurgence of a female-led plot line, but can include same-sex romance or non-Western settings, as in Kirk and Spock homoerotica or Harry Potter in Kolkata (ibid.). Such rescripting tactics are not necessarily meant as aggressive statements, but as the desire of marginalised groups to see their own identity and conflicts reflected back in the cultural products over which they enthuse. Yet Mary Sues represent important epistemological mediations ‘confronting the traditional production of knowledge by reworking the canon to valorize women and marginalised communities’ (Pester 123).
Through the remixing of the canonical material, these authors transform the work to more accurately represent their lived experiences and provide better representation for those who are so often denied. Fanfiction can insert female protagonists into genres in which they are underrepresented, such as adventure and science fiction narratives. These female characters, because they are often written by women, provide a stark contrast to the often two-dimensional female figures of popular culture. Even when these characters are involved in romantic and sexual situations, the feelings and desires presented represent the author's - and reader's - ideal desires for those situations, rather than reproducing the dominant, patriarchal, heteronormative practices familiar in more commercial formats, such as Hollywood romance films, sitcoms, and even classical literature, which is largely written and produced by straight, white men.
In contemporary fanfiction, an even more important trend is the proliferation of same-sex relationships. This may be a reaction to the trend of “queer-baiting” in mainstream media, a term which describes the attempts to appeal to the queer community by hinting at homoerotic desires between characters, but ultimately never following through, for fear of alienating other viewers. Fanfiction often remixing the canon to include sexualities and gender identities which are more fluid. According to the 2017 AO3 Top 100 Stats (centrumlumina), 68 out of the top 100 romantic pairings are “slash”, meaning male/male homosexual pairings. Unfortunately, similar statistics for transgender characters in fanfiction could not be found, but anecdotal evidence (such as Rae Binstock’s Slate article “Why Do Queer People Write Fan Fiction? To See Themselves in Mainstream Culture”) suggests that fanfiction is far more inclusive of a variety of gender expressions than mainstream media.
This distinction makes fanfiction such an important digital space, and one which deserves more serious attention. Remix technoculture, as created by young women and the queer community, is at the important forefront of digital knowledge spaces which must become a part of dominant academic and non-academic consciousness. Not only does it represent a perfect intersection of culture and technology, but it is a technoculture built on the relationship between those two concepts. In a culture that produces media which does not represent the lived experiences, ideas, and desires of such a large part of it’s population, technology has been used to create a space for works to be create which not only disrupt concepts of canon, but of gender, sexuality, sex, and romance.
- Balsamo, Anne. Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. Duke University Press, 2011.
- Block, Peter. “Technology, Culture, and Stewardship.” Organization Development Journal, vol. 32, no. 4, 2014, pp. 9-13.
- centrumlumina. “AO3 Ship Stats 2017.” 3 August 2017. http://centrumlumina.tumblr.com/post/163750676579/now-presenting-the-fifth-annual-ao3-ship-stats-top
- Duggan, Jennifer. “Revising Hegemonic Masculinity: Homosexuality, Masculinity, and Youth-Authored Harry Potter Fanfiction.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature, vo. 55, no. 2, 2017, pp. 38-45.
- Hill, Heather and Jen J. L. Pecoskie. “Information Activities as Serious Leisure Within the Fanfiction Community.” Journal of Documentation, vol. 73, no. 5, 2017, pp. 843-857.
- Kanai, Akane. “Jennifer Lawrence, Remixed: Approaching Celebrity Through DIY Digital Culture.” Celebrity Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 322-340.
- Pester, Holly. “Archive Fanfiction: Experimental Archive Research Methodologies and Feminist Epistemological Tactics.” Feminist Review, vol. 115, no. 1, 2017, pp. 114-129.