Sustained disruption

William Turkel’s presentation and workshop last week opened with the notion that those who engage in physical computing have the opportunity to “build objects that convey a humanistic argument.” This reminded me that DH scholarship isn’t constrained to data and digitization. While access to digital information and artifacts plays a huge role in the genesis and momentum of the digital humanities, working with data can simply be seen as working with knowledge in the most popular medium of the day. The systems we work within have multiple entry points, and many possible layers to manipulate. Beyond software (and the industry and implications of big data), physical computing and fabrication offer us an alternative way to formulate questions about interfaces, manufacturing, and the politics of innovation.

Always when working with computers and digital tools, we confront not only the black box of processes that we don’t fully understand, but also the scholar’s entanglements with the prescriptions and rules of consumer technology. But a physical computing project works on a more fundamental level of abstraction. While, as Tukel pointed out, there is always a proprietary (non-transparent) layer involved, a physical computing project does allow its maker to experiment with and change a different set of parameters and functionalities than software allows. It’s important that we have permission and the resources to take a hands-on approach to computing because it can disrupt and deepen our relationship to the technologies that we’re ultimately accountable for when DH practice becomes critique.

But I got the feeling that Turkel wasn’t overly concerned with that kind of broad or absolute speculation. I’m interested in the fact that Turkel’s lecture and workshop didn’t necessarily move in the direction of solving what it means to work with hardware, sensors, or fabrication. His talk sidestepped making heavy-handed theoretical claims or predictive expansions on his opening thought, and instead moved into a discussion of his students’ individual projects. I’m not sure his lecture outline was a statement in itself, but it did seem that he refrained from making explicit claims about the need for or purpose of physical computing in answering DH objectives or critiques. Turkel seemed to be saying that while physical computing—as a medium for play and exploration—can represent ideas and embody cultural critique, the future of the humanities does not depend on our mastery or reinvention of microchips. Even though we are bound to make objects that convey arguments, Turkel’s pitch for the essentialness of making didn’t seem wholly contingent on the scientificness or theoretical stakes of our approach. Perhaps “making” outside one’s comfort zone is important in itself, and represents a commitment to the interdisciplinarity that we have presumably already embraced.

I’m interested in the simplicity and purity in the invitation to play and fail, and wonder about this as a sustainable framework for understanding new tools and asking new questions. It’s interesting that Turkel made a few references to his love of kindergarten, and the values we lose after we leave that early classroom environment—a place of beginnings, an environment that’s ideal for experimentation.

In a sense, humanities scholars who decide to delve into hardware hacking, software, and interface design are also engaged in a kind of beginning or frontier. This last week, I’ve found myself asking questions about the relationship of beginnings to experimentation and play, and wonder how Turkel’s hands-on imperative will evolve as the contexts, spaces, and available expertise for making technology grow and change.