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

Recovering Silenced Voices

At our meeting on November 9th, our reading group explored representation in digital archives. The digital archives that we explored where Black at Bryn Mawr, Visualizing Emancipation, and O Say Can You See. Each of these archives took a unique approach to visually representing racial history in the United States. Black at Bryn Mawr was started by Bryn Mawr students Emma Kioko ’15 and Grace Pusey ’15 in the Fall of 2014. Through the use of historical artifacts, such as pictures, documents, letters, ect, Kioka and Pusey composed a digital walking tour that illustrates the racialized history of Bryn Mawr. The digital walking tour represents the racial history of the college through discussions of place. Viewers are taken to different buildings on campus that represent the racialized views of the college. One particularly powerful visual representation on the map is Rockefeller Hall, known historically as “the servant quarters”.  The authors note “At Bryn Mawr, servant corridors communicated clearly the expectation that Black men and women should do their work without being seen or heard, thereby bypassing any need to acknowledge or credit them for their labor”( Kioka and Pusey 2015)

The second Archive that our reading group spent some time looking at Visualizing Emancipation. Visualizing Emancipation “organizes document evidence, about when, where, and how slavery fell apart during the American Civil War.” When viewers first click on the map they are bombarded by various data points that each represent a historical event. Once one clicks on the point a window will pop up details the event. Viewers can also click a link at the bottom of the pop up to be taken directly to the source for that event. In representing the archive visually on a map, it allows viewers to draw conclusions about what sort of vents were taking place where as well as where the greatest concentration of events took place.

The third archive that we briefly took a look at was O Say Can You See. This archive “documents the challenge to slavery and the quest for freedom in early Washington D.C.”  There are many ways to go about navigating this site. You can navigate by people, families, cases, and stories.  If one chooses to navigate by selecting a specific individual to follow then one will be brought to a sort of map detailing the chosen person connections. If one chooses to navigate by case then one is able to actually see some of the historical documents and the ruling of the case.

Though all of these archives go about presenting the artifacts contained in them differently, they all tell of a highly racialized history within our nation. One where certain voices are silenced because of their skin color. A country where we as digital scholars must engage in these types of recovery projects in order to begin to give voice to the silenced.


Post-Meeting Discussion Threads: Voices of Representation in Delineated Archives

As we complicated the readings with our discussion, we also highlighted a couple of digital archives outside our original collection, as well:

O Say Can You See: Early Washington DC, Law & Family


Visualizing Emancipation.

These both gave us a gateway into discussing ethical presentations of curated materials as both, like the Black at Bryn Mawr project, deal with presenting historical artifacts in a way that paints a multi-perspective narrative that deploys a representational memory. While all three of these archives resounded thoughtfully with us, they each utilize different tools for navigation and making meaning.

Even more interesting, all three occupy space within black studies and create a new, critical perspective. As Terman notes, “the challenge Black Studies scholars face . . . [is] how to produce quality content that is centralized enough to provide a cumulative critical apparatus, as opposed to a flurry of unorganized memes.” This is, as Terman goes on, even more difficult within the context of Digital Humanities as we think about ontologies. Each of these three archives can easily be delineated as “Black Studies” scholarship, but defining the specifics as to why this is so becomes murky. As Wernimont discusses when exploring feminist interventions, our understanding of the methodologies and criteria for classification impact our understanding of them. While the scholarship we read before our meeting and the discussions we had in class found us grappling with these ideas, we realized the inherent difficulty in approaching these topics was in securing an answer to these questions. That is to say, while dealing with power relations and alterity, a meaningful representation has to be one that calls these ethical considerations into question for there to be meaning present. As Gallon so concisely notes, “to get caught up in the exact definitions or questions of ‘who is in or who is out’ in black digital humanities is to ignore how the very nomenclature of blackness as a complex and rich history that moves in the same conceptual orbit as the term ‘digital humanities.’”

As all three of these archives are recovery projects (they pull forward and present historical artifacts for a more complex understanding of silenced voices), representation and identity are at the forefront of each. But because of the nature of archives, there is also a flattening happening. Collectively, we pushed back against what this flattening took away from these projects as we examined what it allowed. Interestingly, it was in this space that we managed our most productive conversation about the nature of DH and representation. This also gave us a more complex understanding of what each of these three archives were framing. Black at Bryn Mawr, for instance, in exploring identity and space, situates its meaning in the representation of the present. We are meant to see how these artifacts still hold power and where, specifically, that still resonates or is obscured in the now. With O Say Can You See, we are instead meant to grapple with just how widespread and inescapable the lack of humanity was in a specific moment in order to trace how these structures are still impactful.