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Anne Balsamo on “Designing Culture” (Media Systems)

What would it mean to have “big” projects — bigger than a single investigator, lab, or even institution could handle — that are not arranged by science and engineering concerns, but by cultural concerns? In this talk from the Media Systems gathering at UC Santa Cruz, Anne Balsamo gives the shape of two major, ongoing digital humanities projects of this sort: the AIDS Memorial Quilt Browser and FemTechNet.

Balsamo comes to these projects from a history that ranges from creating one of the first pieces of feminist computational media activism to being brought into PARC as a humanist (becoming a translator between the discourses and practices of art, science, design, and engineering). As she explains, her training in the cultural analysis of emerging technologies prepares her to ask questions such as:

How does the future — which I will argue begins in our imagination — become the present? Which means: We always have an idea about where we’re going, what we want to do with our technologies. And the question for me becomes, how does that thing that is so possible, and so full of possibilities and potentiality, become the present we live in? And then, by that time, what is already foreclosed upon, or what is still possible?

This transformation is the work of what Balsamo calls the “technological imagination” — the “quality of mind that enables people to think with technology to transform what is known into what is possible.” As she says, “This imagination is performative; it improvises within constraints to create something new.” And through a humanist/cultural inflection it “asks not only what can be done, but also, more importantly, what should be done.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt projects she discusses offer a thought provoking pairing with the Living Liberia Fabric project discussed by Fox Harrell at Media Systems (in a video we will post next week). Both investigate remembering through computational media, in an era when, as Balsamo references in Wendy Chun’s work, we must be reminded that memory and storage are not the same thing. Both are driven by cultural concerns, with innovations in design and technology shaped by their cultural mandates.

Now is also a great moment to be sharing Balsamo’s discussion of FemTechNet — not only because it is Ada Lovelace Day but also because its first major intervention, a reimagination of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) as a DOCC (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) is now underway. Here Balsamo discusses some of the genesis and goals of the project (which began with a close reading of Wikipedia) under its prior, harder to pronounce name: MDCLE (Massively Distributed Collaborative Learning Experiment).

If you wish to discuss the ideas in Balsamo’s talk further, please leave comments here or take to Twitter with the #MediaSystems hashtag. There’s also more on the AIDS Memorial Quilt projects coming up in Donald Brinkman’s talk from Media Systems (to be posted a future week). And watch for Fox Harrell’s talk, with some closely related themes (one mentioned above), next week!


This material is based upon a project supported by the National Science Foundation (under Grant Number 1152217), the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, Microsoft Studios, or Microsoft Research.


About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is an Associate Professor at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author


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