Sunday, February 25, 2007

What's in the Other Corner?

I've just returned from an interdisciplinary workshop at Indiana University on "putting memory in place." The organizers wanted to explore the ways that memories and places are linked, the forces that lead to individual or social forgetting, and the potential role for technology in resisting these forces. The presentations and discussions were excellent. One of the things that I found most interesting about the workshop was that an interaction design class led by Marty Siegel was given the task of attending the workshop sessions and then presenting a new design to the workshop participants at the end. After listening and sketching for a couple of days, the IxD group described one new environment where memory could be put in place. They imagined an open multistory space that you could move about in, filled with soft music. In different places you could hear voices, stories about the past, whispers at first, one voice becoming stronger as you attuned to it. Their space was also shot through with invisible (or barely perceptible) beams of light. Breaking one of these with your hand, you could see a succession of images or a moving image projected onto it. Remembering in such a space could be quite social, as people oriented toward the stories that one another found compelling. The designers intended the vertical dimension of the system to represent the kind of layers that one finds in geological strata or geographical information systems. They also imagined that the media in the space would be live, updated with a mechanism something like RSS feeds or a mashup website.

While I was at IU, I also had a chance to drop in on a digital history grad class that Kirsten Sword is teaching based on the Clio Wired course developed at CHNM. I'm not teaching this term, so it was fun to get a chance to talk with students who are learning about digital history and excited about it. One of the questions that came up was the degree to which historians and other humanists should develop their own tools, and the degree to which they can depend on software or services created by others. When I visited Kirsten's class, I hadn't yet seen the outcome of the IxD process, but I think it reflects on this question.

One of the fundamental ideas of the design process is to submit what you come up with to a rigorous critique, and the workshop participants were happy to provide this feedback to the IxD class. Some felt that the class design was too cluttered, some that it was too uniform, some that it was too phallic. People were concerned about the psychic effect of projecting disturbing images onto one's own body. The design group took these comments in the constructive spirit in which they were offered. At the end of the session Marty squeezed himself into one corner and said "I often tell my class to imagine the design that we've just talked about is over here in this corner of the room. Now what's in the other corner?"

I think that it's very important to treat the development of technical systems as a form of critical, reflective practice. We make something as a way of understanding it. I'm toying with the idea of adding a studio component to my digital history class next year. My students are comfortable with reading papers and discussing them, and they quickly get comfortable with the practice of blogging. I'm not sure, however, that they think of themselves as makers, and the studio process might be very valuable for them (and for me). We know what's in this corner. What's in the other one?

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