Friday, November 21, 2008

A Few Arguments for Humanistic Fabrication

By hooking a computer up to a machine that can add, remove, cut or fuse material, it is possible to turn a digital representation into a physical object. Most historians (at least ones reading this blog) are probably familiar with the idea of digitization; think of this as 'materialization', a reversal of the process. The humble printer is a kind of materializer for two-dimensional text and images. These other machines (often referred to as rapid prototyping or computer-aided manufacturing machines, or even 'replicators') allow their users to make manifest three-dimensional objects of plastic, wood, metal, or fancier composites.

Over the past few years, the price of rapid fabrication has been dropping, well, rapidly. A lab that once cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars can now be had for less than $20,000. Enthusiasts predict that the age of desktop fabrication is nigh; in the next few years we will all have devices on our desks that can print out 3D objects. (Neil Gershenfeld's Fab is a good introduction to some of the possibilities.) Small groups of DIY makers and hardware hackers are busy in their garages and attics trying to create a printer that can print a copy of itself, a machine that can print out a flashlight, one that can print a torroidal coil of candy, or burn a message into your morning toast. The popular appeal of all this activity is clear in the pages of MAKE magazine, or in the Discovery Channel's new show, "Prototype This".

There are a number of reasons why historians and other humanists should be getting involved in desktop fabrication right now. Here are a few.

We can't predict the future. In the 1960s, for example, it wasn't clear to everyone that there would ever be much reason for individuals to have the undivided attention of a single computer (never mind the dozens that we each now monopolize without thinking about it.) In retrospect, the people who struggled to get individual access to computers, who bought them from mail-order catalogs and built them at home, who taught themselves how to program even when that meant reading thick manuals and punching cards... well, now we know how that turned out. Using a computer-controlled soldering iron to fuse grains of sugar into candy sculptures may seem a bit tangential to the serious business of academia, but it's really too soon to judge.

Mind and hand. Just because the separation between thinking and making is longstanding and well-entrenched doesn't make it a good idea. At various times in the past, humanists have been deeply involved in making stuff: Archimedes, the Banu Musa brothers, da Vinci, Vaucanson, the Lunar Men, Bauhaus, W. Grey Walter, Gordon Mumma. The list could easily be multiplied into every time and place, but the main point is that getting your hands dirty might be worthwhile, even if you're not da Vinci.

Historic experimentation. People who work with material culture, the history of technology or experimental archaeology know that you can learn a lot about the past by handling physical stuff. Until recently, that usually meant that you needed to have direct access to the stuff itself. Now it is possible to fabricate physical models or artifacts that share properties with possibly rare or priceless originals. Paleontologists and zooarchaeologists can learn from 3D printouts of bones and fossils. Historians of science can more readily replicate past experiments. And so on.

Tangible / haptic history. More generally, it will become possible to materialize shapes, surfaces, textures and artifacts that resemble those of the past, and that can be touched, felt, handled, and manipulated. It is easy to imagine a new tangible or haptic history that follows and extends the sensory histories that are being written right now.

Critical technical practice. In the late 1990s, Philip Agre argued for a mode of research that involved both "the craft work of design and ... the reflexive work of critique." The benefits of this approach are already apparent in the digital humanities, where historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, artists, literary and media scholars, and their colleagues are busy both creating and critiquing digital sources. Why not extend this practice to rapid fabrication, microelectronics, new materials, robotics or nanotechnology?

Some of the barriers are easily overcome. When someone asks me why a historian would need an 8-axis CNC milling machine or an oscilloscope, I say, "Why not?" The limitations of our physical spaces can be more difficult to circumvent. Most of the teaching and research environments available to humanists at my university are designed to support solitary or small-group office work. These spaces are almost comically unsuitable for the kinds of things I try to do with my students: soldering, moldmaking and casting, building and lighting physical exhibits, programming in groups, creating displays or signage. Although I could afford to purchase a laser cutter, I can't vent the poisonous fumes from my workspace. Cutting wood with power tools will set off the fire alarm. I certainly couldn't set up a little foundry to explore the bootstrapping process that led from metal casting to machine tools. There isn't even anywhere to lock up student project prototypes so they won't be stolen or vandalized. When I have a chance to talk to planners or people purchasing furniture or whatever, I ask them to imagine spaces that are appropriate for an art class or a shop class: high ceiling, natural light, plenty of ventilation, cement flooring, workbenches on casters, locking cabinets, big blank walls that you can hang things on. No carpeting, no beige cubicles, no coffee tables with plants. Humanists won't be able to think of themselves as makers until we create spaces for them to make things in.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Hemlines and History Appliances

[Crossposted to Cliopatria & Digital History Hacks]

The Stock Market Skirt is a robot of sorts. Created a number of years ago by Toronto-based media artist Nancy Patterson, it consists of a party dress on a dressmaker's mannequin and a number of monitors displaying stock tickers. As prices fluctuate, "these values are sent to a program which determines whether to raise or lower the hemline via a stepper motor and a system of cables, weights and pulleys attached to the underside of the skirt. When the stock price rises, the hemline is raised; when the stock price falls, the hemline is lowered." I can only assume that the edge of the dress is rumpled up on the floor these days, and that the motors are somewhat the worse for wear.

The exhibit, of course, is a playful reinterpretation of George Taylor's hemline index. In the 1920s, Taylor, an economist at the Wharton school, observed that skirt lengths were correlated with the state of the economy. Since then, the observation has continued to be relatively robust, and these days has been extended into many other domains, like music and movie preferences, the water content in foods, and even the shapes of Playboy playmates.

I think the stock market skirt is a great example of what I call a "history appliance." The idea is supposed to be whimsical: what if a device could dispense historical consciousness the way a tap dispenses water? I've found that academic historians have a much harder time entertaining this question than public historians do. After all, the latter have a long tradition of trying to build events, exhibits and situations that communicate interpretations of the past in ways that supplement the written word. A diorama, for example, represents the past faithfully along some dimensions, but not all. You can do scientific tests on an artifact--if it isn't a fake, its material substance can be informative about past events. (Ditto if it is a fake.) You can't necessarily do scientific tests on a diorama, and yet it is possible for it to communicate information about the past veridically.

For a historian, the correlation between stock prices and hemlines raises questions of agency, and we feel comfortable exploring those on paper. Nothing foregrounds agency like a robot, however, and historians shouldn't shy away from building them into their historical interpretations.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Bridge Goes Both Ways

This week I found myself in a somewhat unfamiliar situation. Along with Randy Shifflett and Fabio Lopez-Lazaro, I was asked to represent the discipline of history at a community building meeting of the LIKES (Living in the KnowlEdge Society) project at Virginia Tech. There, surrounded by computer scientists, engineers and other 'hard' scientists, we had to explain some of the challenges that face people who wish to integrate computation into historical research and teaching. In many ways, it was a return to fundamentals. We explained that many facts about the past are readily quantified, but that doing so often misses the point. Historical examples raised by our non-historian colleagues often focused on names and dates, and we had to tell them that the really interesting action is usually elsewhere. We reviewed ideas of contingency, counterfactual reasoning, and ambiguity. We explained why it usually doesn't make sense to project anachronistic categories and ideas onto past situations. We discussed the holism and methodological individualism of most researchers in our field.

When asked what kind of computational tools historians and other humanists need, the best metaphor that I could come up with drew on Jim Clifford's ideas of travel and translation. It would be easy to make tools that quantified how many miles you traveled on your vacation, how many feet you were standing from the sculpture when you took the picture, how you rated your meal in Venice on a scale of 1 to 10 ... but it would completely miss the point. Instead you want ways to help you translate, to capture and document your experiences, to cue your memories, to support your storytelling, to deepen your interpretations and understanding.

In this blog, I've assumed that most of my audience would be historians and other humanists who are interested in exploring digital and computational techniques at a number of levels. The LIKES meeting reminded me that the bridge goes both ways, that computer scientists, applied mathematicians, science educators and others are also interested in ways that their skills and tools might be applied in new domains. So, for those of you coming in the other direction: welcome! Here are a few things you might be interested to know:
  • Historians who are interested in quantification already know about and use spreadsheets, databases, mathematical models, computer programs and visualization. Historians who aren't interested in quantification won't be happy with a definition of 'qualitative' that consists of "leaving the numerical scale off of the axes of your graph."
  • The best way to promote computation amongst humanists is to emphasize social and textual applications of computing, especially ones that augment the power of individuals to do research that draws on collections of cultural / heritage materials that are distributed across many different repositories.
  • Verbs, not nouns. John Unsworth's paper on scholarly primitives is a good place to start.
  • There are a number of good books that take a humanistic perspective while still being sensitive to the potential of instrumental thinking. I particularly like Philip Agre's Computation and Human Experience and Lucy Suchman's Human-Machine Reconfigurations.
Tags: digital history