humanities shift work

Anne Balsamo writes in Designing Culture that “Shift work is a fact of life in a 24/7 age. Unlike shifts that start and end with a punch clock, working the paradigm shift is one long now.” Designing Culture is a book about innovation and changing technological literacies; it’s a book about Balsamo’s unusual (for a humanist) experiences at Xerox PARC; and it’s about the future of the university in a digital age. But it is also a book that searches for and insists upon a role for the humanities in technological development. In the end, Balsamo summarizes that role in the following way:

Contribute expertise in the assessment and critique of the ethical, social, and practical affordances of new technologies; provide expertise on the process of meaning-making, which is central to the development of successful new technologies; provide appropriate historical contextualization.

Balsamo also describes roles for artists, social scientists, engineers, computer scientists, and physical scientists, but it is the humanist’s role that interests me here. Briefly put: to historicize, interpret, and critique. It’s a fair description inasmuch as that is what humanists tend to do in any context so it makes sense that they might serve that same role in technological development. Of course, the challenges are convincing others that such functions are valuable, and then that humanistic methods can provide knowledge that can be put to use in design. The first challenge could be tough, but I think the second is even more daunting as even the humanists themselves might baulk at the notion of being “useful.” In some ways though these two might be the same problem. That is, that if one can frame one’s work as useful, as contributing productively to a larger activity, then perhaps it becomes easier to see how the traditional methods of the humanities might be valued.

However, there’s another way to frame the shifting work of the humanities. Understandably, Balsamo’s book talks a lot about the future and the various ways that we try to imagine/describe it. What if the shift of the humanities was from interpreting the past to inventing the future? Here I am thinking of Greg Ulmer’s keen observation in Heuretics of the split between heuristic and hermeneutic uses of theory. The humanities have largely focused on hermeneutics, on interpretation, and have always made use of their theoretical methods (from poststructuralism and cultural studies to the digital humanities) for interpretive ends. Ulmer’s work though demonstrates the inventive potential of those methods. What is visible on the inventive edge of humanities methods is the capacity for speculating about human potential: what might we be? This can be dangerous work of course, and it is work that requires interpretation or historicizing. However it is also the kind of work that has value in design.

It is self-evident that we continue to struggle with figuring out how to live with digital media and networks. Sebastian Thrun’s recent admission of the failure of MOOCs to live up to their hype (stunning, I know) is one recent example. We clearly haven’t figured out how to design for learning on that scale (if it is even possible). But I am thinking more of Ian Bogost’s latest Atlantic piece on our state of “hyperemployment.”

After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands. Facebook notifications. Twitter @-messages, direct messages. Tumblr followers, Instagram favorites, Vine comments. Elsewhere too: comments on your blog, on your YouTube channel. The Facebook page you manage for your neighborhood association or your animal rescue charity. New messages in the forums you frequent. Your Kickstarter campaign updates. Your Etsy shop. Your Ebay watch list. And then, of course, more email. Always more email.

Bogost reminds me of Trebor Scholz’s description of “immaterial free labor” in this First Monday article. Scholz writes “People like to be where other people are. They enjoy using these platforms: from entertainment, to staying in touch with friends and family, to chatting, remixing, collaborating, sharing, and gossiping, to getting a job through the mighty power of weak links. It’s a tradeoff. Presence does not produce objects but life as such that is put to work and monetary value is created through the affective labor of users who are either not aware of this fact or do not mind it (yet).” Bogost and Scholz are each offering critiques of our wayward digital lives, the ways that we seem to become chained and addicted to our devices, the work we are continually doing in their name (even as we imagine we are saving labor), and the resulting wealth we are creating for others as prosumers.

If we are going to design culture, if we are going to take up the Xerox PARC refrain that the best way to invent the future is to build it, then we need to invent new ways of living, ways that are not in service to technology or profit but are also not blindly beholden to antiquated notions of human nature. Instead we need to recognize that we are inventing ourselves along with our technologies. No doubt it is a grandiose role to put oneself in: inventing future humans. And who knows to what extent any of us, or all of us, can really shape that future. But certainly not making the effort doesn’t make sense either. Nor do I imagine that as solely the role of humanists, as if we somehow know the answers as to what we all should or could be. But it is a place where humanists who take up an inventional approach to their methods could have a productive role.#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(402px,auto, auto,402px);}

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