The Invisible Interface

At our meeting on December 1, our group met with Rob Duarte, who — as an artist — offers a unique perspective on how objects can be used as a critique of culture and culture’s tacit political ideologies. What makes these critiques powerful is also what makes them scary.  The “work” may not always be seen as a product of its original intent.  A satirical critique about consumer culture may also be seen through a lens of real needs or wants.  A simplified realization may require an understanding that is unrelated or contrary to the artist’s beginning desires. Duarte’s machine that inserts razor blades into apples, for example, capitalizes on commodified fears in recent cultural memory. It may well be this element of danger that engages the mind for critique and inspires a potential deeper realization: If there were no danger, would there be no need for critique?

One comment that surfaced during discussion was a statement about Millennial Culture: We may realize what is happening upon consumption, but accept the message for its convenience. Similarly, artistic critiques may incite concern that we will one day stop questioning our involvements and simply accept a dystopian society of our own making — we might accept the interface as something invisible.  On the one hand, although invisibility of any interface can make things easier, on the other hand the interface’s invisibility limits creative potential. (For example, the digital camera that adjusts your blurry picture, even if blurring was the intent.)  An invisible interface obscures options that the user can’t see and may not think about.  As more features become embedded in our tools and as interface becomes a more integrated component of human activity, how will this affect our critical making?

Finally, extending Duarte’s theme to questions of alterity: Who makes these interfaces?  As these interfaces become more invisible and embedded, they may subtly alter our personal frameworks — they may begin to alter how we view the world.  As Duarte states, artists mean to create work that provides a frame for others to see the world differently.  Programmers and marketers provide frameworks for access, and the frameworks in turn become embedded cultural practices, wherein users inherit their biases. If consumer culture continues to be built on a principle of invisible interact, then the frames of a select few could conceivably dictate the experiences of whole communities.  An alterity lens might require expanding these constructive frameworks to include more viewpoints.  It might also mean looking at the technologies we use every day, recognizing the biases that went into making them, and finding ways to counter these biases in our daily lives.


The Digital Realm of Artistry

At our Digital Scholars meeting this past Friday, we were honored to have Rob Duarte’s expertise in teaching us about Digital art work. Duarte gave a in depth presentation that consisted of past electronic devices that made a major comeback into modern day art world. The artwork that I appreciated most was the pho bowl with the built-in cell phone holder. This concept is cool and disturbing: cool because we can multitask while eating, disturbing because when we go into restaurants and social gatherings as a society almost everyone is on cell phones. People never look up to essentially enjoy the surroundings around them. Another cool digital artwork invention was the lie detector test that another artist recreated. This particular lie detector test interviewed the autobiographical books of former presidents such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Duarte himself created a very intriguing digital art piece. Duarte created a machine that inserts razor blades into apples. This type of art work can be seen as fearful or a cautionary tale. Either way its brilliant to have in the realm of digital artistry. Digital artwork in my opinion does many things, it teaches us where we have been in the digital world and what our future may look like if we stayed on the same track or sway away from our digital pass and evolve into something we cannot yet describe.

“Am I a man or a machine?” (Dunne, 21). Humans have put so much time and energy into making machines that machines are becoming apart of us. In many of the Digital artworks that we had to examined in the readings a shared trend was man as the machine. Digital Artist such as Marco Zanuso, Matthew Archer, Lisa Krohn, and Stelarc the artist to name a few have incorporated actual human artificial intelligence in their digital designs.

With all the defaults in machines created by humans only reflect the actual defaults of humans. We cannot be perfect therefore our work in machine will never be perfect. In the realm of digital artistry, it captures the imperfectness of the human through the machine.

How Do We Recognize and Create the Ideologies in Electronic Objects?

And How Do We Find Their Alternative Purposes?

For the December 1 meeting of the Digital Scholars Reading group, Rob Duarte will join us to discuss the relationship between technology and people, focusing on the implicit ideologies that are assimilated into their making. His project “Prototype for a Machine that Inserts Razor Blades into Apples” asks us to consider the absurdity not only of machines that outright state their potential harm, but also of the technologies that we rely upon daily. How can we recognize the ideologies behind our use or employment of electronic objects and how does making them transparent provide us with answers about how to use them differently–even when doing so complicates the most seemingly mundane?

Through Dunne and Raby’s synthesizing the use of imaginative speculation (such as in film and literature), we can support our discussion of the relationship between man and machine by thinking of the complexities of working with and around the perceived and actual limitations of technology. Electrical objects at face value are often placed in a vacuum where we can only see it for its initial purpose and not for any other uses. The easily accessible function and programming of technology limit the challenge of its users to further expand our perception of the world and view technology narrowly. This “user-friendliness” minimizes our ability to expand its uses because they are reductionist and limits our creativity. Dunne discusses how this streamlining leads to a dependence of people to their technologies in his work Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design.

When the phrase “enslaved to the machine” is said, I tend to think of the familiar dystopian scenery mentioned in Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. The advancement of technology surpasses its creators and humanity witnesses the political ideologies that were all along just behind the surface of their electrical faces. Dunne’s Hertzian Tales provides us with questions about the transparency of our technologies political ideologies. Any utopian technology would function as most believe they do, which is apolitical. However, the reality we face as creators is that our ideologies are implicitly assimilated into the objects that we create.

Utopia, an ideal discussed further by Dunne and Raby is noted by Erik Olin Wright as an impossibility, a fantasy “morally inspired designs for a humane world of peace and harmony unconstrained by realistic considerations of human psychology and social feasibility” but we are encouraged to continue striving for it. There have been notorious individuals who have attempted this and have failed. However, when it comes to innovation in technology and art, this desire for progress is valuable. It’s not so much the pursuit of making Utopia real but the pursuit of getting as close as possible so the alternatives are visible.

These alternatives to the functions of technology as we know them are apparent in Charles Dodge’s use of a speech-synthesize computer, originally used for speech research, to “Speech Songs“. This creative use of technology for its unintended purpose exemplifies the ideologies of a machine and just one of the ways a machine can be alternatively used to create something new and interesting. I viewed this project as also answering the question “When does the purpose that a technology serves in our lives become more valuable than the technology itself?” If the purpose of a technology is altered or expanded upon it continues to remain valuable. It is however up to its creators and users to determine the alternative purpose a technology provides.

What exists? What is good? What is possible? — Critical Making

How do we allow for the possible in design? How and when do we admit to the possible? In his talk on “Political Ideology in Electronic Objects” given to the FSU Digital Scholars Reading group, Rob Duarte will ask the audience to consider the relationships between people and their technologies, and additionally what ideologies or potentialities are embedded within the ways objects are engineered.

Design is often clandestine in its accompanying ideologies or critical implications. The surreptitious and quiet ways in which potentialities can be lurking within design can be hard to surface and hard to articulate. In the documentary on the font Helvetica, a graphic designer states that asking someone what they think about a font like Helvetica is akin to asking them “what they think of off white paint.” Duarte lays bare the sneakiness of design and simultaneously plays with the literal naming conventions of design blueprints and patent applications in his project titled “Prototype for a Machine that Inserts Razor Blades into Apples” (2012) for the Critical Making handmade book series. Duarte presents the design for a machine that will, as described, insert razor blades into apples. The object has a seeming pointlessness but it also jabs at the ways in which potential harm is often ignored or submerged under the guise of utility. Can we imagine if the Samsung phone was titled “Machine that may explode on a plane”? There are affordances and constraints with all tools, but there are also potential benefits and potential dangers that we may need to be critically aware of.

Oliver, Savicic, & Vasiliev offer the “The Critical Engineering Manifesto.” (2011) along these same lines. The ten point manifesto lays out a philosophy of vigilance and skepticism in regard to the role of the engineer who “considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat” and who “notes that written code expands into social and psychological realms, regulating behaviour between people and the machines they interact with.” The critical engineer maintains vigilance about the potential affects of a design and, as I describe it, subscribes to a type of “care-fulness”. This emphasis on care echoes a previous talk earlier this semester when Anais Noony discussed how “Putting an ethics of care into operation” was crucial as we move forward into a world where data prediction and cloud computing create unparalleled relationships between man and machine,

Noony warned against the dangers of not recognizing the relationships between man and machine, and thoughts of the future bring me back to the question I began with “How do we allow for the possible in design?” In “Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming,” (2014) Dunne and Raby introduce us to the concept of speculative design. In fine art, we regularly see imaginings of the possible—abstract paintings, fictional novels, universes within science fiction, etc—but where does this happen in the world of design? In imagining design in other worlds, we would have the opportunity for play with alternate worlds that could eventually make landfall among us humans.

Dunne and Raby paint playfulness and experimentation in a positive light. Through experimentation, values can be laid bare and ideal realities can be imagined. This could be a re-imagining of interfaces as Emerson and Dunne point to. Our re-imaginings could also be things like redefining things like music or speech as Charles Dodge did with “Speech Songs,” an early electronic music piece that used samples of speech to create musical pieces. What is speech? What is music? The technology Dodge utilized allowed him to push at these fundamental questions and do so in a way that was aesthetic and delightful to listeners. Additionally, BPNichol used early tools like the Apple Ile, an early desktop computer, to create kinetic poems, altering the relationship a user would have with a desktop computer.  

BpNichol’s kinetic poetry was influential to other artists and poets, but his means of implementing his poetry on a desktop computer posed problems when the machine he used became obsolete. This begs the question “what is possible and for how long?” We often think of the digital as permanent, but obsolecense complicates the relationship between humans and machines. We run against another challenge of how do we choose what to preserve and what do we do about the translation from one machine to the next? What is lost? How do we allow for growth and for persistence of forms?



Political Ideology in Electronic Objects

Friday, December 1, 12:00-1:15 pm
Williams 013 (“Common Room,” basement level)

Political Ideology in Electronic Objects: A Conversation with Rob Duarte

Students, scholars, and aficionados of visual and material rhetorics, new media poetics, gaming technology, user experience, and speculative fiction may be especially interested in our final meeting of the semester. Digital Scholars welcomes Rob Duarte, Assistant Professor in Art and co-Director of the FSU Facility for Arts Research, for a discussion of the relationship between people and their technologies. More specifically, Duarte will invite us to consider the potentialities of critical making, the parameters of critical engineering, and the relationships between the material world of electronic objects and the im/materialities of language, poetry, and text. Drawing on his recent artist-in-residency at University of Colorado’s Media Archaeology Lab, Duarte will also ask us to attend to the political ideologies “embedded” in the electronic objects we use and with which we interface with relative ease—what Jean Baudrillard might have called experiencing the pleasure of the integrated circuit (Xerox and Infinity, 1988). On the one hand, when does our usage afford us a powerful form of critical coding or distance? On the other hand, when does our usage become the embodiment of caricature (Dunne, 2014, p. 22), or little more than an ideological enslavement (Virilio, The Art of the Motor, 1995)? Participants are invited to read the following in advance of our meeting:

All are welcome. We hope you can join us,


Whose Job is it Anyway? “Black Digital Humanities”

Kim Gallon notes that while work on racial, ethnic, and national difference is “emerging in the digital humanities,” discussions about “the lineage of Black Studies within the digital humanities are almost nonexistent.” She later claims that “precise definitions of what constitutes the black digital humanities are elusive” and that it is really just “a constructed space to consider the intersections between the digital and blackness.” Rochelle Terman similarly notes that there is an “uncertain relationship between Black Studies and digital humanities.” Terman notes that there are a variety of issues to consider: many Black Studies departments are resistant to new technology; many Universities don’t see Black Studies as part of the “cutting edge” work of digital humanities, and thus come to them last; Universities don’t always see the ways that race factors into digital humanities projects, and see contributions made by black scholars on digital humanities as separate from a more general understanding of digital humanities, “sequestering the distinctive digital humanities projects created by Black Studies scholars”; the stereotype that “Black folks don’t do technology.” All of this works against the fostering of a healthy relationship of Black Studies and digital humanities.

In attempting to construct the relationship between these two fields, Gallon suggests that we turn to “the ‘technology of recovery’ that undergirds black digital scholarship, showing how it fills the apertures between Black studies and digital humanities.” Recovery projects “help to unmask the racialized systems of power at work in how we understand the digital humanities as a field and utilize its associated techniques.” It certainly makes sense to me that we should utilize the techniques of digital scholarship in order to help us recover the role of the African-American in American history. The projects we looked at all help us to see this role. However, I think that claiming recovery projects as the main function of Black Studies within digital humanities can be interpreted as sequestering the projects done by black scholars. If we understand recovery projects as recovering Black history, and we see it as the work and main contribution of black scholars, then white people are potentially free to remove themselves from the work in two key ways: (1) this is a history of black people for black people, and thus it is not my history, (2) as a white person I do not need to, and indeed should not attempt to, do recovery projects that look at oppressed groups, because that work belongs to them. In the former, we see that those who aren’t black are free to remove themselves and their historic role in this history. In the latter, we can see that those who aren’t black may see recovery projects that look at black history as the responsibility of black scholars or they may want to contribute but do not want to speak for the black person or take the work that is being defined as that of “Black Studies and digital humanities.”

The Black Thought on Digital Humanities

Through Rochelle Terman’s blog “Black Studies and Digital Humanities: Perils and Promise” she challenges issues on Black Digital Humanist and their displacement among the Digital Humanities community. The area that Terman focuses on is Black Studies and trying to convert a part of it to being digital. This is admirable, but because Black Studies or African American studies has only been studied at some institutional levels the past 50 years, my guess would be that it is either neglected or remains “unfixed” if no one thinks it is broken. While other fields of studies thrive, and prosper Black Studies is left behind to play catch up.

However some schools such as CUNY strive to make the unreachable reachable for people of color in Digital Humanities. I think it’s brilliant that they are digitizing racial violence and injustice that date back over a hundred years. The Grassroots project at CUNY is what I find most intriguing. They are not looking for people who are actual experts in this field to the actual digitizing but they are letting people of all different background do the digitizing, which in my opinion only makes the project more fulfilling. According to Amy E. Earhart and Toniesha L. Taylor “We select technologies with low entry points so as to encourage this range of participation” (Earhart & Taylor, 2016). This makes for easy access for people who are trying to understand what digitizing is and by having easy access people who would usually see digitizing as a challenge can now picture themselves as digital humanists. CUNY is cutting edge when it comes to diversity by reaching out and working with colleges such as Prairie View A&M University and Texas A&M University on digital projects.

Another interesting digital Humanities project would be Amistad. This digital Humanities project focuses on integrating African American History into the social studies curriculum in K- 12 schools. This curriculum could have not come at a better time. The United States of American is in my opinion going through anew enlightenment era. This project shows great growth in the future on how children will understand race issues in America and be the face that can change injustice in the future. It all starts with dismantling a system that is not all inclusive and make it to be an equal playing ground for all. This project allows for students to see themselves in text and learn that they can to do great things.

When completed, it will include hundreds of rare and iconic photographs, audio recordings, news clips, and excerpts of oral history interviews with a descriptive narrative text explaining significant themes and key events in African-American history, from slavery to the twenty-first century. (Amistad, 2009)

The same argument can be made for Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Black at Bryn Mayer was a concept started by two students Emma Kioko and Grace Pusey. This project came at a time of injustice, when a confederate flag was hung in a dormitory on campus. This shed light on the campus and the students no only wanted to bring light to what was going on but a solution to help inform further students of why this flag was so hurtful. According to the student of Bryn Mawr College.

The purpose of Black at Bryn Mawr is to build institutional memory of the College’s engagement with race and racism, enabling future students to hold both themselves and the College community to higher standards of awareness and accountability to racial power dynamics inside and outside of the classroom. It explores the experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff at the College from its founding in 1885 to the present day. (Black at Bryn Mawr, 2017)

Not only has Bryn Mawr come a long way with racial and injustice issues on their campus they are also coming a long way when dealing with female familiarity in Digital Humanities. Bryn Mawr College has partnered with the Seven Sisters Digital Humanities project, which documents the history of women in higher education.

Women are often left behind when it comes to recognition in higher learning. Jacqueline Wernimont brings important awareness when it comes to male driven tools in the use of digital humanities. However, Wernimont’s argument is limited by her own use of the term “Feminist intervention.” She fails to define her sense of feminism as it is generally understood. Feminism is not an inclusive term and often leaves out women of color. Hence, the terms Black Feminist, Womanist, Chicana Feminism, etc … the list goes on. Not all women identify themselves as feminist, so by saying that her article is problematic. It begs the question of who and what are being left out of the equation. Bringing light to women’s issues in digital humanities is awesome, but it has to be all women no matter how they might identify.

-Barbara Twyman