Designing Woman: An Interview with Anne Balsamo (Part Two)

You worked at Xerox PARC, which, as you note, has become a mythic locale in the early history of digital technology. What do you think the current myths about Xerox PARC get right and what do they misunderstand?

Among the many lessons I learned during my time working at Xerox PARC is the understanding that the future is created first in the imagination, and then is enacted through the many activities of the research laboratory (among other places). Contrary to the old adage–that the best way to predict the future is to invent it–what I came to appreciate is the important role of narrative in creating an imaginary relationship between the FUTURE and the present. The first act of innovation is an act of story-making–which involves the spinning of a narrative that features technologies, materials, beliefs about “needs” and “opportunities,” and is performed by researchers who (as in the case of Xerox PARC) are employed in the business of innovation. I’m not sure how that matches with the cultural work of Xerox PARC today–the scene has changed in the decade since I left. But I suspect that the researchers there are still eagerly engaged in the cultural processes–and performance–of innovation.

You argue that technologists should “pay attention to the technological literacy of the intended users off the technology-under-development.” What advice can you offer to technologists about the best way to “pay attention”? What are the “ethical responsibilities” of technologists in regard to those who will be left behind if their tools and platforms are more widely adopted?

My approach to the topic of “paying attention” is grounded in the theory of “strong objectivity” developed by the philosopher of science, Sandra Harding. This argument is best situated within the debates about objectivity, scientism, and relativism of the late 1990s that were spurred by important work in critical feminist science studies. Harding argues that we need NOT to abandon ideals of “scientific objectivity”–as some feminists might have than been accused of advocating–but rather we need to be more RIGOROUSLY objective in understanding that reality is multidimensional; and that science, to be a truly objective explanatory enterprise needs to engage the minds and points of view of people who have been trained (socialized) to see the matter of the world from different perspectives.

Perhaps the key issue here is that what we are to “pay attention to” is multidimensional; thus the ethical responsibility of any technologist is to actively seek to see the world through different eyes, and not to assume that the point of view that one embodies is privileged as the only “point of view.” Haraway calls this the “god trick.” The ethical response is to understand how one’s perspective is always partial, and to seek out other points of view (as it were) when developing or experimenting with the creation of new technologies.

I don’t see the issue as one about people who will be “left behind”–because I understand that technologies are not simply objects, but rather a whole technocultural formation. Everyone lives in a current technological cultural moment that is constantly unfolding; an individual’s position within that technocultural formation is what we really need to address when we think about “access to technology.” No one is actually “left behind” in a cultural formation; they are differently positioned, constrained, enabled, empowered, with different (and often unequal) access to resources such as tools, knowledge, economic goods. I would argue that issues that are framed in terms of “people left behind” do not reflect a complex understanding about the nature of technoculture and cultural reproduction. To frame this question in this way presupposes an answer that puts the emphasis solely on “access to technology.” Yet we know that simply providing access–dumping computers into classrooms for example–doesn’t work to address the broader issues of inequality in power, economic resources, and intellectual support. Its time to start thinking more complexly about strategies for rearticulating dominant technocultural formations to allow for more liberatory and equal participation.

What is Literacy? from Anne Balsamo on Vimeo.

What does your book’s focus on “design” contribute to the larger conversation around New Media Literacies and Digital Learning which has been sparked by the recent interventions of the MacArthur Foundation?

As I elaborated in the book, I make explicit the connections between the processes of design thinking and the skills and sensibilities that you list as key 21st century literacies. I argue that we need to teach designing practices across the curriculum; I support the notion that “design is a new liberal art.” The issue of designing (design thinking, critical design skills) emerges as an important topic as we come to appreciate the many ways in which young people use new digital technologies to create and participate in innovative learning experiences. As they are called to be “designers/authors” of their own learning experiences, they will be well served (I assert) by learning also important design methods and critical frameworks for the analysis of their designed efforts.

The central premise of the book is that the work of design is one of the most important sites of cultural reproduction in a digital age. When I turn my attention to the designing/authoring efforts of students, I understand that even when these students think they are making it all up for the first time, they are actually engaged in the process of reproducing cultural understandings that came before them, and setting up the conditions for the reproduction of these understandings in the future. Thus for me to teach design also requires the teaching of ethics and the training of the historical imagination….both of these concepts are less fashionable to speak of these days

DML efforts might cast these concerns as “civic engagement” or as topics for “learning games.” While there is nothing wrong with that approach–who could argue against “civic engagement” as an important topic for contemporary new media and digital learning–as I elaborate in the book I believe that there are additional insights to glean from discussions about ethics and about history in the context of understanding the praxis of designing and the reproduction of culture.

Given your discussion throughout about the need to reimagine the book, I am curious about the process which led you to develop Designing Culture as a print based book with digital extensions. What do you see each medium contributing to our experience of the whole?

The book and the digital projects were designed/authored simultaneously; but at any point, one creative project would take precedence over the others. This is because I’m not really good about multitasking at the broadest levels. It is also because the knowledge making process that is invoked during the course of creating digital media applications is different for me than the knowledge making process that emerges through the act of writing/authoring.

I wrote the book, as I explained in the conclusion, for personal, professional, and theoretical reasons. One of the most salient theoretical reasons is that the book is well suited to one of the most critical, but most commonly overlooked stages of designing: the stage when the designer returns to the design effort (and outputs) to critically assess the lessons learned and the cultural impact of the project. This stage of self-reflexive assessment is not easily accommodated in digital media genres of the museum exhibit, videos, interactive applications, and such.

The technological form of the printed book allows for the theoretical elaboration of abstract concepts and of self-reflexive accounts of designing practice. The book I wrote was neither a factual account of a series of moments long past, nor was it a simply a work of speculative design fiction. It was an authored account that was both factual and fictional; that was highly determined by my own biography and set of theoretical commitments, but not able to be reduced to either biography or theory.

If we return to C. Wright Mills notion of the “sociological imagination” we will hear him call for this kind of disposition–the sociological imagination for him was the capacity to make the connections between one’s own personal biographies and the broader social and institutional forces and formations that invariably shape those biographies. This is the deep theoretical tradition I was trained in as a cultural theorist: to seek to make connections between my personal investments and biographical moments and the broader technocultural formation that I participate in as a subject/author and that I am “subjected to” through the work of ideology and other shaping forces.

Moreover, the DESIGNING CULTURE project is an example of the technological imagination at work in that the project manifested across a range of media technologies: where each part of the project was realized and expressed in the modality that was best deployed for my particular authorial objectives. Here I borrow Mill’s insight to suggest that the technological imagination is the disposition that allows one to make the connections among technological forms and more personal/authorial objectives. Other people might call this paying attention to the “media specificity” of different modalities of cultural expression. Indeed that is what a good story teller always does: chose the best medium for addressing the desired audience that is matched with the story one wants to tell.

You are part of the leadership of the Annenberg Innovation Lab. What opportunities does the Lab offer you to push your concepts to the next level?

My work with the Annenberg Innovation Lab is very exciting for me because it offers an opportunity to collaborate with other people on the project of technological innovation that begins by taking culture seriously. This is the challenge that is laid out in the book: it is time to treat culture as a serious concept in our discussions, learning activities, design projects, and technological inventions.

Jonathan Taplin, Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, invokes the mantra for the lab as such: Every day culture eats strategy for lunch. This assertion resonates strongly with the main thesis of the Designing Culture project and sets the stage for a whole range of interesting experiments in the design of innovative technologies and the exercise of the technological imagination.

Anne Balsamo holds joint appointments in the Annenberg School of Communication and the Interactive Media Division of the School of Cinematic Arts. Her interest in the relationship between technology and culture informs her work as a scholar, teacher, researcher, entrepreneur, and new media designer. She is the recipient of a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create an interactive tangible interface for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In 2008 she received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study the future of museums and libraries in a digital age. Her next project investigates tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in a digital age. Her on-going research-design projects focus on the role of public interactives as a stage for technology transfer from sites of innovation (university labs and research centers) to the general public.

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