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Brainstorm! Syllabus for course on gadgets, design fiction, and design history

Clearing out the gadget drawer

The following is a draft syllabus for a small doctoral course that I will propose for the Umeå Institute of Design. We have talked about possible opportunities for research- and teaching collaboration between the history of technology approaches that I work with and the design researchers at UID, and this is one first attempt at doing so. Ideally, the course would involve both design and history students. It will require a certain amount of research from the students, but the final output will not be a standard text. Instead, I would like them to work in small groups to make a poster of some kind that can be put on display as a public exhibit of some kind.

Any comments on this proposal? I’d be particularly grateful for suggestions for readings – shorter articles in particular.

Design Fictions and Design Histories: Exploring the Past Futures and Future Afterlives of Technological Gadgets

PhD Course Proposal, 5hp
Umeå Institute of Design

Finn Arne Jørgensen

Ubiquitous and mobile, technological gadgets open our everyday lives to a world of entertainment, information, and utility. This course explores the design, production, use, and disposal of such gadgets, particularly focusing on the creation of narratives or design fictions surrounding new technologies. How do gadgets get their shine of novelty and desirability, the fabled “reality distortion field” of Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc.? How and why are gadgets so rapidly overtaken by obsolescence? What happens to our gadgets when we no longer want them? And why do we no longer want them in the first place?

In exploring these questions, the course combines approaches from design fiction and design history to understand the material and cultural, historical, contemporary, and prospected future of technological design. Science fiction writer and futurologist Bruce Sterling called design fiction “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Design fiction places novel designs within narratives about their use and utility. The imagination encouraged by design fiction as a practice is often directed towards the future, as a way of imagining the future lives and users of the design in question.

This course seeks to complement design fiction with design history to help us open up the idea of an unchangeable design past. As historian of technology David Edgerton has stated, “the technological boosterism of the past has too often been turned into the history of our material world.” The past tends to write its own future. It makes the evolution of certain technologies seem necessary and self-evident, where things could not have been otherwise. Alternatives and predecessors end up on history’s scrap heap, literally and metaphorically. In this process, obsolescence often becomes synonymous with progress. Can design history help us create alternative design fictions about technological gadgets?

Learning Outcomes
At the end of the course, students should be able to:
– recognize the ethical, political, and societal stakes of artifact design
– demonstrate and evaluate the methods of design fiction and design history
– offer historical and cross-cultural perspectives to the production, us, and disposal of gadgets
– discuss the principal approaches to and challenges of extended life-cycle analyses of technological designs

Suggested reading

The student assignments will focus on object biographies, integrating both design history and design fiction approaches. The students will work in groups of 2-3 people to produce a poster exploring the past futures and future afterlife of one particular gadget.

Teaching at BAS; thinking about learning spaces

Bergen School of Architecture at night

I gave a lecture on the history of the Norwegian leisure cabin, emphasizing the infrastructural and systematic nature of the many interlocking technologies embedded in the cabin, for the students at the Bergen School of Architecture this week. We also discussed where the ideal of cabin living comes from and how the cultural and material history of the cabin shapes particular trajectories, possibilities and limitations for change.

After my lecture, I got a chance to listen to the students present their projects – this semester, the students all work on examining the relationship between the cabin and the primary home. While they of course had some interesting thoughts and perspectives on the cabin, I found the project format they followed perhaps even more interesting.

Architecture student projects in studio space

I think the studio space allows the architecture students to work with, manipulate, and visualize information – and to structure it into coherent arguments – in different ways than humanities students generally can. The information our students work with is almost exclusively text, and it lives in the students’ heads, in text processing programs on the computer, and in printouts meant to be read in a particular sequence. The information and the ways in which the student structures it into an argument is quite abstract, as it never leaves this private loop between the student’s mind, the computer, and the printout. The architecture students work in small groups of 2-3 students and approach their assigned topic in a much more physical way (yet still with the same tools as humanities students). The studio space with its large wall spaces allow the students to structure their project differently. A vertical row of printed sheets contain a series of claims about cabins and primary homes. These claims are supposed to be clear, forceful, and preferably a bit provocative. For each claim, a vertical row of sheets contain information that supports the claim.

In many ways, this is not very different from how we teach effective writing. The vertical row can be considered the outline of a whole article – a series of arguments that build on each other to a logical conclusion. Each horizontal row can be considered a paragraph, with the claim serving as the topic sentence, and the following sheets the supporting evidence in each paragraph. The architecture students use visual sources, statistics, newspaper articles, and traditional academic scholarship to support their claims.

Furthermore, the output of all these group projects is collected into a book – this is not uncommon for architecture and design students. I saw a couple of examples of previous project books made by BAS students, and they looked really nice. Having such an end product seems to motivate the students to work even harder on getting their projects done well. I wonder how it would work to do something like this in a class for history students? Can and should we train our students to work with more than just text in the most abstract possible sense? I think so.

SHOT 2012 in Copenhagen

I’m at SHOT 2012 in Copenhagen this week, the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, though I’m only halfway attending the conference. For the last two years, I have served on the Executive Council of the organization, and we met all day on Thursday. The conference itself started today, but besides from chairing one session on technology and propaganda, I have only hung out in the coffee area (the ceiling is depicted below) to watch my kids (who are here with us this week), talk to old and new friends, look at new books from the few presses who were present (the book exhibits are always much nicer at the US meetings), and to discuss a potential book project with an aquisitions editor from a university press. To me, this has become the real purpose of going to the main conferences in my field – listening to paper presentations in sessions is just something I do if a paper looks particularly interesting (this is different in smaller, more focused conferences, though).

Copenhagen Business School, Kilen building

I’ve come back to SHOT every year since the Amsterdam meeting in 2004 (where I met my wife!), and a significant part of my professional network grows out of my continued presence at this conference. The other graduate students I got to know back then are now gaining tenure one after another, working on exciting projects and driving the field forward (or sideways. Or in other directions – I did not mean to imply a linear progress story…). I think there is a good lesson here for young scholars wanting to get to know the key people in their field – just ignore whoever is important right now, get to know your cohort instead. They will be the key people in not too long! And you can be one, too!

On a side note, it’s been interesting to see how SHOT has continued to have a rather modest social media community, unlike for instance ASEH, where the Twitter backchannel was quite humming at the 2012 meeting. We have generally only been 4-5 SHOT people on Twitter, and the #SHOT2012 hashtag hasn’t seen all that much traffic. I wonder if this indicates a lack of excitement in the field, of scholars not all that interested in engaging with each other. Or are the SHOT conferences still small enough that people feel they can get a good enough overview and talk to all the people they want to in person? I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect any change will have to come from the next generation of SHOT scholars.

Next year’s SHOT conference will be in Portland, Maine – I’m really looking forward to going there! New England is a rather unexplored area for me, except for my visit to Boston this spring.

Visiting UVA and the Scholars’ Lab

Beautiful Alderman Library, where Scholars’ Lab is located

I’ve spent the last week on the beautiful grounds of University of Virginia, where I’ve visited Scholars’ Lab and given two talks (one for the brand new Engineering and Society department and one for the Scholars’ Lab). This is all part of what I call my great digital environmental humanities tour, where I plan to visit quite a few digital humanities centers of the next year and a half. The UVA visit is the first one, and in the spring I plan to go to Stanford and UCLA. It’s all generously funded by the internationalization funding that came with my wonderful tenure-track job in Umeå.

The gate to one of the gardens around The Lawn

One of the reasons why I’m enjoying this stay so much is that I have a long-standing connection to UVA. I lived here for a year, in 2005-2006, with my wife, who got her PhD from here. We even got married in one of Thomas Jefferson’s gardens. During this year, I was a visiting researcher in what was then the STS department, working on my dissertation and generally having a great time. I haven’t been back since Dolly defended her PhD in 2008, so a visit was much overdue.

I met with the environmental history grad students in the Sally Brown Reading Room, where we had a very good discussion of the state of Nordic environmental history

The Scholars’ Lab

The Scholars’ Lab is a wonderful place, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to connect with the people here. It is one of the most outspoken proponents of digital research and scholarship in the US, under the leadership of Bethany Nowviskie. The lab faculty and staff has developed software applications like Neatline (which I’ll talk about shortly). The lab provides space for students and faculty to meet and work, with plenty of computer equipment. It also hosts a speaker series (where I gave a talk) and arranges workshops on a number of topics. In other words, the lab’s mission is very similar to HUMlab’s.

My desk was located right next to the Scholars’ Lab’s Makerbot – “The Replicator”

I was also curious to hear more about the Praxis Program, which “realigns graduate methodological training with the demands of the humanities in the digital age.” The library has had a graduate fellowship in the digital humanities for six years, and the Praxis Program is an attempt to take this training even further. The Praxis Program is in many ways a digital apprenticeship, where six graduate students gets to work with the Scholars’ Lab team to design and build a digital research tool. The tool is not the goal, however – instead, the Praxis Program aims to develop transferable skills such as coding, planning, project management, teamwork, and so on, with the goal of creating “scholars comfortable designing effective user experiences, writing and working with open source code, engaging broad audiences, managing teams and budgets, and theorizing their work within the rich tradition of humanities computing.” I believe this is something that we should really try to implement in our own graduate students in Sweden, both on Masters and Doctoral levels.


My main reason to come to the Scholars’ Lab, however, was to do some work on setting up a pilot project website using Neatline, a software application developed by the lab to let scholars “tell stories with maps and timelines.” I have done much thinking about the mediation of places and of ideas of nature (partly through my affiliation with the Media Places project), and I think digital tools like Neatline can be quite helpful in visualizing and analyzing the way narratives and knowledge about both abstract and concrete places and spaces are mediated and distributed in different configurations over time. I only had time to do some initial work on the actual website, but I got the chance to discuss my ideas and the possibilities and limitations in Neatline with the developers.

I have forever joined the group of Scholars’ Lab fellows and friends on the lab’s Wii.

I have three more days in the US, most of which I’ll spend in the Washington, DC area. On Sunday there are museums to visit – the National Museum of American History was closed for renovations last time I was here, in 2008, and it has some quite nice history of technology exhibits from what I hear. The American Art Museum has an exhibit on “The Art of Video Games” that looks absolutely fabulous. The National Book Festival is also on this weekend, so I will certainly take a walk along the Mall to see what’s happening.

On Monday I will go out to George Mason University to visit the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media – I visited there for two weeks in 2008, so they are old friends. On Tuesday, I will visit the Library of Congress, where another friend will show me the ropes. I hope to find some useful material for one or two of my ongoing research projects.

Virginia skies

Sometime during this stay I might stop at the National Geographic Museum to look at George Steinmetz’ desert photos. I am certainly going to Sushi Taro for some of the best sushi in the world, and very possibly to Smoke and Barrel for some fine and rare beers. Plenty to do, in other words.

CFP: Digital Natures, ESEH 2013

I plan to organize a session on “digital natures” at next year’s ESEH meeting in Munich, to explore the places where the digital and the natural meet. Find the full CFP below the image.

Aram Bartholl, “Map”, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bartholl/3385796780/

Digital natures
I am looking for participants for a session examining the intersection between digital technologies and the use and management of nature at the European Society for European History biannual meeting in Munich, August 20-24, 2013. Aligning with the conference theme of “Circulating Natures,” the session will explore how knowledge and ideas of nature in general and places in particular circulate between digital representations, public discourses, and bodily experiences of being in nature. I can mention a few possible topics: How have GIS technologies transformed the management of natural areas? How are digital maps used in trekking and nature tourism? Can digital art increase awareness of environmental issues? How have nature experiences and environmental concerns been translated into computer games?

The session takes as its starting point that the act of representing nature in text, in images, in maps, in geospatial data, or other media, is one of authorship, of exercising definitional power over the world. Our perception and experience of a place is shaped as much by the available information as it is by the place itself. This mediation of nature is of course nothing new, but has it changed with digitization? The shape and influence of digital natures, however, cannot be taken for granted. How do users and producers negotiate over the meaning of digital technologies in natural spaces? And over the meaning of natural spaces in digital technologies?

My own paper will explore what the knowledge of space and place means in the age of GPS, ubiquitous geospatially-aware devices, and pervasive digital mapping through a case study of GPS-assisted hunting in Scandinavia.

Anyone interested in participating should contact Finn Arne Jørgensen at finn.jorgensen@idehist.umu.se no later than September 15, 2012.