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

I have had a chance to watch Anne Balsamo at work in many different contexts -- as a junior faculty member at Georgia Tech focusing on cyberfeminism and reconceptualizations of the body; as a designer in residence at Xerox Parc where she was developing devices intended to embody alternative conceptions of the future of publication and reading; as someone dispatched by the MacArthur Foundation to encourage us to reflect on the nature of "design literacy"; and most recently, as a colleague at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC where we are working together to launch an expanded ebook project. She is someone who has been able to pursue a shared research agenda in a range of different contexts (both academic and industrial) and in the process, to build upon the work of others around her, to carry with her what she's learned into these new spaces. What I love about Balsamo is her fearlessness in moving beyond her own comfort zone and her ability to inspire creativity and reflection in those she finds around her. I am so blessed to have a chance to work with people like Balsamo and her other colleagues at the Innovation Lab on a regular basis. Her newest book, Designing Cultures: The Technological Imagination at Work, could only have come about as a result of her experiences working in these many different environments. It is one part autobiography, one part portfolio (she shares some of her great projects through an attached disc), and one part theoretical reflection. Above all, it is an intervention by someone deeply rooted into the humanities into the current debates about technological innovation. Her conceptual models and frameworks are sure to spark discussions at digital humanities labs around the world, but my hope is that they do not end there, that they offer engineers and programmers and designers a way to reflect on their own contributions to culture (and their own contexts of innovation).

In this interview that follows, we talk together about some of the key themes of her book, which, as the title playfully suggests, deals both with the design of culture and with the cultural contexts where design takes place.

Designing Culture: the Technological Imagination at Work from Anne Balsamo on Vimeo.

Early in the book, you make the statement, "the wellspring of technological innovation is the exercise of the technological imagination." Can you break that down for us? What is the "technological imagination" and how does this concept bridge between technology and culture?

Inspired by the concept of the "sociological imagination," first developed by C. Wright Mills in the 1960s, I define the technological imagination as a mindset that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible. This imagination is performative: it improvises within constraints to create something new. It is through the exercise of their technological imaginations that people engage the materiality of the world, creating the conditions for future world-making. Most importantly, this is the capacity to understand that all technologies come from somewhere, that they could always be different from what they are, and that they always have multiple and contradictory impacts.

In the active engagement between human beings and technological elements, culture too is reworked through the development of new narratives, new myths, new rituals, new modes of expression, and new knowledges that make the innovations meaningful. When people participate in the activities of producing "innovation," their technological imaginations are engaged in a complex process of meaning-making whereby both technology and culture are created anew.

Throughout the book, you talk about "innovation," which as you note is a widely deployed concept these days. What do you mean by "innovation" and how does your use of the term differ from some of the notions currently shaping industry and government discourse?

Innovation is a process, not a product. Innovation changes how life will be lived in the future. I think that many people--industry pundits and government spokespeople--believe that innovation is a "thing." I make the distinction between "invention" which implies the creation of new things--new applications, services, devices, processes--and "innovation" which is the process whereby the elements of human life are rearranged such that life in the future is lived differently.

You suggest that a key aim of the book is to get your humanities colleagues more engaged with the process of technological innovation. Why? What will they gain from participating in a process which may seem alien to many of them? What will humanities people bring to the table that is currently missing from our conversations around technology?

I argue that the process of technological innovation is actually NOT at all alien to humanists; it is the process of engaging with technologies to change the shape of the way culture is lived, reproduced, and expressed in the future. This is an abiding interest and contribution of the humanities that is more commonly understood as the process of education through their engagement with a range of technologies of literacy (i.e., the book, historical narrative, aesthetic materials of expression). If one believes, as I do, that innovation is the process whereby culture is rearranged, then it is easy to see the valuable role of humanists in providing the tools and the critical frameworks for understanding not only how culture might change in the future, but also how current cultural arrangements structure conditions of possibility of any effort of innovation.

How a Robot Got its Groove from Anne Balsamo on Vimeo.

Our colleague, Tara McPherson, has argued that issues of gender and race tend to be pushed aside when people talk about designing new media. How and why do these questions surface throughout your book?

This book, indeed the entire project that goes by the name "Designing Culture" is a direct outgrowth of my earlier work on the biotechnological reproduction of gendered bodies. In my first book, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Duke 1996), I examined the cultural implications of what were then (in the 1980s-1990s) emergent bio-technologies. What I learned through that project was how to critique the technocultural arrangements that reproduced gendered identities for the bodies that engaged with new technologies (body building, cosmetic surgery, surrogate motherhood, computer-mediated communication, and virtual reality). By the time I finished, I realized that if I were to take my feminist political commitments seriously, it was not enough for me to critique the ideological work of emergent technologies, I had to go further to examine how the critique might suggest ways of doing things differently in the future.

In some sense, all my work is influenced by Donna Haraway's assertion that "all technologies are reproductive technologies." Whereas the first book examined a broad range of BIOLOGICAL reproductive technologies that were innovative during the last two decades of the 20th century, the new work examined what I believed were going to be the DOMINANT reproductive technologies of the 21st century: digital media technologies. This "turn to reproduction" is but one way in which feminist theory--as a way of thinking gender--informs all my research.

Thus I formulated new research questions that directed my attention to study and participate in the processes whereby new technologies are developed which enabled me to build a framework to understand the techno-social-cultural conditions of technological innovation. Put simply, I continued to study the processes of technologically-assisted cultural reproduction...but with the new project the focus was on the creation of new digital media technologies rather than on biological technologies.

To follow these questions, I turned my attention to the investigation of the practices of technological design and I immersed myself in projects that would allow me to learn how to use new media technologies to create new digital applications. My first project--to create the interactive documentary called "Women of the World Talk Back"-- was the result of my experiments with a range of (what were then) innovative new media digital authoring tools for the purposes of creating feminist activist interactive media. Through collaborations with colleagues and students--who had a much more developed set of technological design skills than I did--my technological imagination was inspired and shaped to think differently about the cultural possibilities of new technologies.

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.