There is no hard dividing line between hammer and poem when it comes to making (and studying) culture.
— Steven E. Jones, Against Technology
Ned Ludd’s anger was not directed at the machines, not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.
— Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?”
Who wants to take the first swing?” Sledgehammer in hand, I am standing on the loading dock at the back of the Critical Media Lab, staring down at a bewildered dozen graduate students from the University of Waterloo’s Experimental Digital Media (XDM) program. Their eyes dart back and forth between the hammer and the dusty Pentium III computer on the concrete floor at my feet. For a moment, there is silence, and then nervous laughter. Someone sneaks a quick photo of me as I smile provocatively at the group. Then a few hands go up. I daresay none of those hands ever held a sledgehammer. The first student, wearing mandatory eye protection, takes a powerful swing, and we all shudder a little at the thud and crash. The second student opens a cleft in the computer case, and the box falls on its side, revealing the soundboard, fan, and speaker. The reluctance is now gone, and one by one the students take a whack at the machinery, shattering the motherboard, compacting the CD-ROM drive, and flaying the tin frame that holds it all together. Pieces fly everywhere as the last few students take their turn with the sledgehammer. When the ritual is over, bits of plastic, silicon, and tin are strewn across the floor. The Pentium III looks like it was put through a trash compactor — or something worse, something much more violent and insidious. I prop up what is left of the box in the same place where we started the ritual. The fan hangs by a sad, single wire. “How did that make you feel?” I ask.
In 1995, when Kirkpatrick Sale picked up a sledgehammer and smashed the monitor and keyboard of an IBM PC in front of a bemused crowd at New York City Hall, he was transported by the experience. As he recalls in an uncomfortable Wired interview with Kevin Kelly (2005), “It was astonishing how good it made me feel! I cannot explain it to you” (Kelly and Sale). The somewhat less zealous students in my “Digital Abstinence” seminar did not report feeling “good” — let alone “badass,” to cite Pynchon (1984) — about their Luddistic actions. Whereas Sale revels in “the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides [of the CRT monitor] into the spotlight,” my students expressed concern about the potentially toxic bits of lead and mercury from the brittle, exploding circuit boards. Other students saw the whole exercise as a waste; the computer could have been used as the guts of a retro arcade cabinet. Or better, it could have been donated to a community organization. The parts could have been upcycled to invent experimental devices.
Clearly, I was not dealing with a group of Luddites, or at least not the machine-smashing brand of Luddite. However, these students signed up for the class because they shared a suspicion about the excessive role of digital media in their lives. Over the course of the term, they would create pinhole cameras and learn to patiently develop photo paper in a darkroom. They would also explore “digital abstinence” by making Arduino-based devices, such as Adam Cilevitz’s (2015) prototype for a digital chastity belt, an ironic and humorous device that speaks to the eroticism of handheld device usage. While the students would certainly not call themselves Luddites, the work they completed is by all means neo-Luddistic. Is it possible to imagine a version of digital humanities (DH) based on the same sort of make-oriented, neo-Luddistic practices? How would it work, and what would it accomplish?
At the opening of his interview with Kevin Kelly, Sale notes, “We modern-day Luddites are not, or at least not yet, taking up the sledgehammer and the torch and gun to resist the new machinery, but rather taking up the book and the lecture and organizing people to raise these issues” (Kelly and Sale). He unabashedly claims that contemporary Luddites “confine their resistance . . . to a kind of intellectual or political resistance.” Sale clearly distances himself from the arson and murder with which some bands of Luddites were guilty, but perhaps he goes too far in his intellectual position. As his technophilic interviewer was well aware, intellectual resisters armed with books do not hold the same cultural capital as computer resistors developed at the rate of Moore’s Law. Smashing a desktop computer with a sledgehammer was ridiculous in 1995 when the real “enemy” of the Luddites was the Mosaic browser. In the same vein, technologies are already deep into obsolescence cycles by the time humanities scholars publish articles about them. With these issues in mind, the DH neo-Luddism I propose intervenes directly in the production of technoculture rather than responding to it post hoc and primarily in a medium (books) to which technoculture is resistant. DH neo-Luddites do not abandon scholarly writing; they supplement it by creating critical objects-to-think-with that provide alternative models for digital media production — models that do not respond dutifully to the demands for efficiency and commercialization that characterize prevailing conceptions of “innovation.”
Rather than picking up the sledgehammer, DH neo-Luddites might emulate the habits of Friedrich Kittler (1996): “At night, after I had finished writing, I would pick up the soldering iron and build circuits” (in Griffin 731). This quote has been used by various DH scholars (including myself) to encourage a make-oriented approach to scholarship. It was not used by Stephen Ramsay, however, when he suggested at the 2011 Modern Language Association convention that “Digital Humanities is about building things” (“Who’s In and Who’s Out”). In fact, soldering and building circuits — let alone writing — did not make it to Ramsay’s list of DH technai, which included “data mining, xml encoding, text analysis, gis, Web design, visualization, programming, tool design, database design” (“On Building”). Wrapped up in my call for a DH neo-Luddism is an expanded definition of DH beyond the traditional humanities computing tasks on Ramsay’s list.
I am not entirely prepared to follow Gary Hall’s (2012) polemical provocation that “There Are No Digital Humanities,” but I agree with his point that all humanities research has persisted and evolved in a digital context. The subset of the humanities cited by Ramsay is a recent and specific response to institutional and cultural pressures. However, this response, which we have come to call digital humanities, does not account for all things digital in humanities research. As Hall notes, “The (supposedly predigital) humanities can be seen to have already had an understanding of and engagement with computing and the digital.”
With this context in mind, I describe the work of Kittler and other media theorists — whether they solder or not — as digital humanities research. Kittler is a special case, due to his tactile approach to media. To understand the depth and range of his research, consider that he not only wrote media theory but was also a maker who “bought parts from all over the world, had building instructions sent to him, screwed, soldered, glued parts together” (Gringmuth). Although Kittler does not make the connection explicit, his tinkering cannot be separated from his archaeological media theories. I am calling for a version of DH that makes the connection explicit, and does so to provide modes of digital production that are not complicit with technocapitalism and also resist appeals to progress for the sake of progress.
By challenging prescribed notions of DH, I fall into the trap of self-definition. As Rita Raley (2014) suggests in “Digital Humanities for the Next Five Minutes,” this trap is at once “semantic and substantive, practical and ideological, individual and tribal, and wholly academic” (28). It is also, in her words, a waste of “bandwidth” (28). Still, my attempt to carve out a place for neo-Luddism as a humanities research practice requires looking carefully at those practices, already listed by Ramsay, that usually come to mind when we hear “digital humanities.” Raley’s qualification of self-definition as “wholly academic” also corresponds with a problem noted by Hall, Alan Liu (2012), and others, namely that the growth of DH results from broader institutional needs to, in Raley’s terms, “make knowledge useful” (32). This utilitarian process bypasses the humanities’ core commitment to be careful, critical, and even contemplative about culture. Such a commitment is often inefficient or defies institutional demands for commercializable innovation. Raley suggests that, rather than acceding to the technocratic pressures of university administration, DH might provide a space to “tinker with the symbolic order of computing, such that it is not ultimately constrained by an agenda of efficiency, rationality, and optimization” (40). This anti-bureaucratic view of DH obviously falls in line with a neo-Luddistic ideology, but neo-Luddism requires a concerted effort to think outside of bureaucratic academia altogether and consider culture at large, including the problems posed by a technocratic apparatus that values efficiency above all else and is driven by narratives of progress and innovation. As Thomas Pynchon suggests in his 1984 essay, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” the Luddistic work of William Blake, Lord Byron, and various gothic novelists was an admittedly “irrational” response to an “emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing.” While neo-Luddism may seem romantic, or even futile, the vocal and visible attempt at resistance is what matters.
In Against Technology: From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism, Steven E. Jones (2006) identifies three specific “hats” of contemporary neo-Luddism, based on color categories used to identify hacker ideologies: green (eco-critics), red (leftists), and black (anarchists). These categories are not discrete. Two or more may go hand in hand. Green neo-Luddites such as Langdon Winner and Bill McKibben are concerned about technology’s environmental impacts. Red neo-Luddites, a category that might also include Winner and McKibben, resist the local and global economic disparities engendered by the neoliberal logic of technological innovation. Scholars such as Jacques Ellul might fall into this category, but so would any activist who attempts to find life outside of technocapitalist consumption. As for the black hat neo-Luddites, consider Chellis Glendenning’s (1990) ridiculously simple proposal that “all technologies are political,” enmeshed as they are in bureaucratic and economic networks of production and consumption. Keeping in mind the political thrust of technological innovation, as I write this chapter Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is touring my innovation-frenzied campus, meeting with start-ups, promising funds for tech research and development, and celebrating the city’s new Google headquarters as the shape of things to come (Outhit). I would really like to see teams of DH scholars working in the same physical space as tech start-ups, sharing tools to build digital products and services that challenge the market-driven understanding of “innovation.” This work might not require black hat anarchy, but it would certainly require DH scholars to consider their work within the broader scope of technocapitalist production.
Neo-Luddism provides examples of how DH might move beyond its “wholly academic” practices to intervene in broader culture. Neo-Luddistic practices are motivated by political concerns found in humanities fields, such as feminism, Marxism, and eco-criticism, that work outside or alongside DH. They offer scholars opportunities to reconnect with humanities and social science methodologies that pay close attention to the “critical frameworks and politicized histories” that DH has ignored (Lothian and Phillips). DH neo-Luddism thus responds to Geoffrey Rockwell’s (2013) statement that we should focus less on “what we have been” than on “what we could be,” a suggestion that Raley also supports. However, one possibility for reimagining DH is to resurrect some historical humanistic concerns that DH has neglected. And, as I have noted, many of those concerns fall in line with neo-Luddism. Before pointing to a way forward, I would like to consider how traditional DH scholarship has not been neo-Luddistic. This exercise demonstrates the need for DH to adopt some political frameworks it otherwise ignores in the name of tool building, and to engage more critically with the technocapitalist practices it so willingly adopted.
What would a neo-Luddistic assessment of traditional DH scholarship look like? First, consider the green hat perspective. DH is criticized for generating numerous research tools that are rarely, if ever, used by the scholars for whom they were created. Claire Warwick (2011) points specifically to this problem in “Studying Users in Digital Humanities.” Her findings show that roughly one-third of DH projects from several prominent online archives remain unused by their intended audiences. A green hat neo-Luddite might ask about the resources that went into these projects. How much equipment was purchased, and how much e-waste was produced? What is the environmental cost of storing these resources, maintaining them, and making them available online? How much of that equipment went unused, cobwebbed perhaps in a lonely DH laboratory tucked away in the basement of a humanities building? Of course, asking such questions risks ignoring the possible pedagogical or even cognitive benefits of producing unused DH projects or vaporware. We might just as easily question the waste produced in the publication of a scholarly monograph. The point is that DH neo-Luddism takes into account its environmental footprint. Following Warwick’s advice, this practice at least means accounting for audience needs and habits.
The image of expensive computer equipment going unused in the name of DH research also brings to mind economic dimensions of the field. Since their inception, DH and humanities computing were viewed as two of the most viable methods for earning grant funding from government organizations and private companies. As Matthew K. Gold (2011) observes,
At a time when many academic institutions are facing austerity budgets, department closings, and staffing shortages, the digital humanities experienced a banner year that saw cluster hires at multiple universities, the establishment of new digital humanities centers and initiatives across the globe, and multimillion-dollar grants distributed by federal agencies and charitable foundations. (ix)
Alan Liu’s assertion that DH is driven by a questionable economic rationale (“The State of the Digital Humanities”) — one that might draw scholars away from critical and speculative research for the sake of landing a lucrative budget to fund an “instrumental” DH project rooted in institutional logics of progress and efficiency — is difficult to deny. One need only mention “big data” to summon the specter of seductive grant money for humanities researchers who might otherwise pursue non-digital projects that would go unfunded. There is no question that most DH work is complicit with the prevailing economic and corporate ideologies that drive technological innovation, and many DH scholars acknowledge this alliance. The problem is that such research risks flying in the face of critical practice and might proceed without questioning its own ideology, ethics, or sustainability. In this case, a neo-Luddistic approach is useful, since it provides a critical framework for understanding the various ideologies that inform digital work in the humanities.
A neo-Luddite assessment might at once critique DH’s lack of concern for the environment, its uncritical adoption of corporate ideologies, and — keeping in mind the black hat — its willingness to serve an institutional and political climate that views the humanities as an inefficiency to be fixed. While I am by no means calling for anarchy, I side with Raley’s contention, once again, that we should make space in the humanities — call it DH or not — for opportunities to “tinker” with technology without being constrained by goals of efficiency and commercialization (40). This reprioritization is precisely what the original Luddites promoted. Several scholars have attempted to rescue Luddism from its negative connotations. Following the work of Kirkpatrick Sale, Nichols Fox (2002), David Noble (1993), and others, Jones suggests that the original Luddites were not a motley crew of random anarchists who were raging against the machine. Instead, they were a fairly well-organized movement of craftspeople and laborers who were being squeezed by a specific set of economic and political circumstances. They were not resisting a general technological zeitgeist; rather, “they were protecting their trade — which, more than a job, was a culture, an economy, and a group of coworkers, a labor ‘gang,’ their social identity in the community as well as a technique or set of practices” (Jones 48). The original Luddites, Jones reminds us, were not anti-technological at all; in fact they
were themselves technologists — that is, they were skilled machinists and masters of certain specialized technes (including the use of huge, heavy hand shears, complicated looms, or large, table-sized cropping or weaving machines), by which they made their living. That living and their right to their technology was what they fought to protect, not some Romantic idyll in an imagined pretechnological nature. (9)
One might make a similar claim about humanities scholars who resist the lure of humanities computing and DH. For them, the problem with DH is not its technophilia, but its focus on making tools for the sake of making tools. Such a focus threatens the culture, economy, and social identity of humanities researchers. Many non-DH scholars are fighting to protect a culture and way of life that depend on specific technologies and labor practices, including writing technologies, critical writing skills, close reading, and space for contemplative thought within a world otherwise littered with digital distraction. DH neo-Luddites take these concerns seriously; but rather than picking up sledgehammers or avoiding digital tools altogether, they use soldering irons and other analog and digital technologies to build objects-to-think-with.
DH neo-Luddism, then, emerges alongside the burgeoning maker movement; however, it does so with a critical eye toward what, why, and how things are made. Jones’s description of contemporary neo-Luddites may help us to better understand the recent explosion of the maker movement. As he suggests, today’s “Neo-Luddites look to the Luddites for the moral authority of working-class experience, a grounding in material realities that seem increasingly elusive in today’s alienated, technologically mediated, virtual economy” (8). Regardless of whether they consider themselves to be neo-Luddites, this group of handiworkers searches for an authentic, hands-on experience that cannot be achieved in the cubicle at a tech company. Consider, for example, the title of Mark Frauenfelder’s recent book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World (2010). As editor-in-chief of Make magazine, Frauenfelder champions the idea that making things off-screen helps to counter a certain, perhaps undertheorized, malaise associated with digital culture, a diagnosis proposed more rigorously by philosopher Bernard Stiegler (2010). Several champions of the maker movement, including Kevin Kelly, Mark Hatch (2014), and Chris Anderson (2012), assert the same claim. In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Anderson suggests that “digital natives are starting to hunger for life beyond the screen” (18). However, the maker movement uncritically heroizes the individualism of white-collared tinkerers and fails to acknowledge its crass complicity with technocapitalism. As Evgeny Morozov (2014) suggests in a sharply angled assessment of maker culture,
A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channelling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors.
For this reason, grassroots makerspaces lauded by Frauenfelder, Anderson, and others are recognized as entrepreneurial opportunities. Consider the TechShop franchise run by Hatch, for instance. By the same token, the open hardware 3-D printer manufacturer Makerbot, which embodied a new cottage industry for revolutionary tool making and independent manufacturing, was bought by the Stratasys corporation. Even Arduino, which started as a loosely organized, non-commercial, open-source microcontroller platform shared by communities of makers, was scarred by secretive copyrighting, corporate greed, and an international brand war.
In an essay that has come to define the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris (1884) suggests that “a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body.” Much like contemporary neo-Luddites, Morris contrasts this exercise to the hopeless toil of working with new machines, which “cause a certain amount of misery among the workers whose special industry it may disturb.” As Morozov notes, the make-oriented impulse of the Arts and Crafts Movement serves as an iconic example of resistance to technological innovation; however, the movement’s inability to directly impact politics and institutions led to its ultimate demise. For this reason, the make-oriented work of scholars such as Anne Balsamo (2011), David Gauntlett (2011), Daniela Rosner and Sarah Fox (2016), and Matt Ratto, Sara Ann Wylie, and Kirk Jalbert (2014) should be a specific focus of DH neo-Luddites. Gauntlett suggests that his pedagogical practices might lead to “a whole new way of looking at things, and potentially to a real political shift in how we deal with the world” (19). Balsamo states that her own design work seeks to “inspire imaginations that are as ingenious in creating new democratic cultural possibilities as they are in creating new kinds of technologies and digital media” (7). These scholars work conscientiously within institutions to alter the landscape of digital media production. Ratto, Wylie, and Jalbert’s emphasis on “critical making” as a research platform is especially useful in this context, as it champions not just making, but making as a form of “technoscientific critique” (86). Indeed, DH neo-Luddism may be conceived as a speculative design practice that resists institutional demands for efficiency and marketability in digital media production. The trick is to wield these design practices toward the greatest possible impact, both institutionally and culturally. Returning once again to Pynchon, “What is important here is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.”
Unlike the Arts and Crafts Movement, DH neo-Luddism adopts the tools of the prevailing technoculture as a means to engage politically with that culture and its institutions. The equivalent for Morris and his companions would have been tinkering with steam-powered machines and electricity rather than turning to medieval handicraft. Of course, DH neo-Luddites, specifically those with media archaeological interests, might also adopt older technologies in their practices, but only to investigate contemporary technoculture. In my class on “Digital Abstinence,” for example, I asked students to make a functional pinhole camera using a shoebox, coffee can, or some other recycled container. They followed instructions on online discussion boards, shared design strategies, learned how to drill a pushpin into tin, and took a crash course in traditional darkroom film processing, which required interaction with people and spaces outside of their department. The slow and anticipatory process of exposing photo paper to light without being able to observe immediate results was complemented by the equally painstaking exercise of immersing the prints in chemical baths that — in rare moments of success, and often after several failed attempts — exposed, stopped, and fixed ghostly images onto the paper. The point of this non-digital project was to provide students with a conspicuously tangible counterpoint to digital photography as well as a time for reflection. Many students noted that this reflection was a rare opportunity in their otherwise busy schedules. The project led to some fruitful discussions, both online and in seminar, about digital media and instant gratification, participatory culture and cognitive capital, the pleasure and plight of being an anticipatory animal, and technological care or sorge, all informed by readings from Stiegler, Susan Sontag, and Martin Heidegger, among others.
By all means, the course was a neo-Luddite project. But does it qualify as a DH project? My first reaction to this question might be “Who cares?” As long as the handicraft led to critical reflection and productive discussions that challenged the logic of efficiency and innovation that dominate academic institutions and surrounding technocultures, the label of DH is not necessary. On the other hand, by taking on the mantle of DH research, this project challenges some of the unquestioned motivations and contexts of many DH practices, including those on Ramsay’s list.
The goal of discussing the pinhole camera assignment and practices like it is to underscore that — not to put too fine a point on it — DH neo-Luddism, like DH more generally, need not be defined as building digital tools. DH might thrive just as well on the creation of analog objects such as homemade radios, conductive play dough, and even media theory essays — as long as these objects-to-think-with are created in the context of digital culture, with the purpose of questioning technocratic ideologies that are uncritical in their modes of digital production and that constrain innovation to the standards of efficiency and marketability.
1. The “Digital Abstinence” course, conducted in the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo, involved a combination of readings, lectures, and seminar presentations, leading to a final design project and critical essay.
2. A sampling of the student projects from this class can be viewed at http://criticalmedia.uwaterloo.ca/crimelab/?p=1482.
3. Ramsay’s understanding of DH as a screen-oriented practice persists in an important article written with Geoffrey Rockwell, entitled “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities.” The article makes an excellent, thing-oriented argument for the role of prototypes in DH work. However, the “things” envisioned by Ramsay and Rockwell are limited to visualizations, concordances, and tools for text analysis. My hope is to expand the meaning of “building” and “things” in DH so that they are not entirely screen-oriented, but might include hardware prototypes, analog-digital hybrids, and so on.
4. On the notion of “tactile media,” see Rosner and Fox as well as Sayers and the Maker Lab.
5. Liu’s unique take on instrumentality is that “the digital humanities can most profoundly advocate for the humanities by helping to broaden the very idea of instrumentalism, technological, and otherwise” (“Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”).
6. On this topic, see Chachra. The issue of race and gender in makerspaces is also tackled with a hands-on approach in the work of Rosner and Fox.
7. See Banzi’s view of this controversy at makezine.com.
8. “Critical making” is also used to describe critically acute speculative design techniques taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. See Somerson and Hermano.
9. On speculative design, see Dunne and Raby.
10. I am not attempting to treat this classwork as an ultimate example; it serves merely as a relay to inspire other projects. Examples abound, including “residual media” in Charles Acland’s anthology and the High-Low Tech group at MIT Media Lab.
11. Many scholars have written about speed and the absence of reflection in contemporary culture. See, for example, Connolly. More recently, Berg and Seeber tackled the issue of speed and scholarship in The Slow Professor.
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