Saturday, July 21, 2007

Import-Export Specialists

James Clifford once said in an interview that he "often function[s] as a kind of import-export specialist between the disciplines" [On the Edges of Anthropology, 55]. I think it's a great description of a particular kind of academic work: finding an idea, tool or technique that is well understood in one context and putting it to use in another. It has particular relevance for the practice of public history.

While thinking about ways of enriching historical practice with digital sources and computation, I've had a lot of occasion to draw on programming, machine learning, and statistical linguistics. In part, these choices reflect my own interests and training before I became a historian. More than that, they're pretty obvious places to look for inspiration. In many ways, digital history is still very textual. It highlights the act of reading, most tools are designed to augment reading or serve as surrogates for it, and outputs are almost always textual in turn. This is as it should be. Most historians (myself included) love to read. Academic history will remain a primarily textual discipline for the foreseeable future.

As I've begun to explore the idea of creating devices and environments that convey a more ambient sense of the past, however, I've had to look a bit further afield for my imports, finding many opportunities to learn from people involved in interaction design, robotics, performance and electronic music. These scholars are often disciplinary import-export specialists in their own right. If you have some time this summer to spend hacking history appliances, here are some good starting points.

Interaction design. Try Bill Moggridge's Designing Interactions and Dan Saffer's Designing for Interaction.

Robotics. The behavior-based approach of Rodney Brooks and his colleagues starts with simple but fully functional creatures interacting with the real world. More complicated systems are built by adding layers of control which subsume lower-level functionality. This strategy lends itself to designing robust interactions between people and history appliances, as I will show in detail in a future post. The related Junkbots, Bugbots and Bots on Wheels is a good source of ideas and techniques.

I also really enjoy reading the blog of Ashish Derhgawen, who comes up with some very creative hacks on a fairly limited budget. This summer he's already figured out a way to use his cellphone as a remote door opener, written a program that can play the classic video game Pong by watching the screen with a webcam, and given one of his robots the ability to respond to claps and whistles.

Performance. The best book that I've found so far for hooking up sensors and actuators to your computer is Tom Igoe and Dan O'Sullivan's Physical Computing. Both of the authors are associated with NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and their focus on live events makes their work particularly useful for people who want to design experiences. The fact that they usually teach artists rather than engineers makes for a very readable work. Igoe's physical computing website is also a great resource.

Electronica. I like listening to electronic music, but hadn't learned anything about it until quite recently. What I've read about its history suggests that it is quite common for electronic musicians to spend a fair amount of their time building new instruments and exploring their creative possibilities. The Cycling '74 website has an interesting collection of resources, including videos, interviews and tutorials. The Create Digital Music webzine is also full of useful stuff. For me, electronica is Ultima Thule: so far out there that I have a hard time finding my most trusted landmarks (i.e., good books on the subject). Pinch and Trocco's Analog Days is an exception.

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