Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hello World!

It's traditional when learning a new programming language to have your first program simply say "Hello world!" and terminate. It not only boosts your confidence, it signals that you've got all of the basics in place: an editor to create programs, an interpreter or compiler that can follow the instructions that you've programmed, and a way for the information to get out of the program and the computer into a form where you can make use of it. What you do at that point is up to you... hopefully more programming.

Over the last few years, I've been wrapping up my first book project: a study of how people reconstruct the past from various kinds of physical traces. My interest in the ways that material evidence and places can inform historical consciousness, and a growing interest in the potential of digital and public history, have led me to a related set of research questions. How can we use new technologies like ubiquitous / pervasive computing, ambient and tangible interfaces, and desktop fabrication to build historical interpretations into physical devices and environments? What happens when all of the bits that we've been creating through various kinds of digitization can become material atoms again? And how can this help us to better understand various pasts and make them usable in the present?

For a couple of years I've been doing projects with my students and research assistants that use technology to augment everyday places and objects, to put historical interpretations back into stuff. These projects have made use of GPS-enabled handheld and tablet computers; microcontrollers, analog sensors and actuators; and other electronic technologies. Up until now, however, we've had to buy physical components or fashion them by hand.

Last week, Adam, Devon and I had a chance to set up our new Roland Modela MDX-20 and try making something with it, a kind of physical "hello world."

The MDX-20 is a (relatively simple) computer-controlled milling machine. It is able to move a rapidly spinning, sharp tool in three dimensions, gradually removing material from a solid block, so that it comes to precisely resemble a three-dimensional model in the computer. What this means is that something that is almost purely virtual can be materialized in foam, plastic, wood, and other soft physical media. (Although our first efforts look pretty chunky, the machine is capable of much more precise contours--we have a lot to learn.) The MDX-20 also has a scanning probe, which we haven't had a chance to test yet. When used in scanning mode, the MDX-20 automates the creation of 3D models from physical objects. This allows you to start with one or more objects in the real world, scan them to create 3D models, edit or remix as desired, then replicate them in material form. At this point, the possibilities seem nearly endless.

In Thing Knowledge, the philosopher Davis Baird argues that "Things and theory can both constitute our knowledge of the world." Things can serve as models, physical representations that act in a similar way to theories. They can create phenomena, separating action "from human agency and buil[ding it] into the reliable behavior of an artifact." Or they can serve as measuring instruments, combining both representation and work (11-12). There's a long tradition of ignoring things to focus on ideas, cyberspace being one of many guises for idealism. It's time for digital humanists to say, "Hello, world!"

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Practices, Not Products

The first week of school is a good time to expect to see Murphy's law in action. This year my server suddenly decided to start falling over at diminishing intervals. A couple of weeks of sporadic debugging have left me where I started: with an unreliable server. All of the code and images for this blog are hosted there, so they are temporarily unavailable, and I had to scramble a bit to find a new online home for the group project that my students will be doing in their grad class in digital history. This summer, too, the keepers of my old standby the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography suddenly decided to overhaul their website. While I applaud the fact that they moved from Active Server Pages to PHP, I'm not so happy that so many of the code examples in Digital History Hacks and the Programming Historian have to be revised.

I've solved my server problem for the time being, or more accurately, sidestepped it, by moving a lot of my online stuff to a new home: In the process I was reminded again that wikis really are the fastest and most awesome way to get your stuff online in a form that is durable but plastic enough to be continually reshaped. I can thank Raymond Yee for the inspiration. Although I've used a number of online tools, it didn't occur to me that a wiki can replace most of them until I saw Raymond give a talk at THATCamp. Rather than bust out an Open Office presentation or something like that, Raymond pointed his browser to his own wiki, a "working space / public knowledge repository". He had already entered some of the material that he wanted to talk about, and as he gave his presentation he continued to edit. When his presentation was over, he clicked 'save' and everything was already available online.

The beauty of a wiki, as many people have noted, is that it allows online material to grow quickly and organically. Rather than try to build my new online presence in one pass, I was able to sketch the outlines of what I wanted to add. Now, every time I look at the site, I see a whole bunch of work that still needs to be done. I can chip away at it, rethink, reorganize, and everything remains available to other people. On some of the pages I've roughed out sections for my students or research assistants to fill in; I expect them to chip away, rethink and reorganize, too. In effect, wiki software can provide scaffolding for practices. There's no real final product, just the most recent edit. (And, of course, access to the entire history of edits).

This year, Rob MacDougall and I are teaching a new course on science, technology and global history, and I find myself in the (exciting? unenviable?) position of writing my lectures the week before I give them. A lot of my projects feel like they may be on hold until November, when I can hand the lecturing off to Rob and start to deal with some of the changes that have broken things that used to work. I can't feel too bothered, however. All is flux, especially on the internet. The trick is to find the techniques and tools that help you deal gracefully with change, to think in clay and not in stone.

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