The possibility of full and equal participation in the digital humanities has become the focus of much recent discussion around the diversity, definition, and scope of the field. Many of those who feel left out argue that a lack of funding or infrastructural support can pose an insurmountable barrier to digital humanities work. Some wait for a grant to hire developers to carry out their visions, others for a fully funded DH center at their universities to “support” them. In my estimate, the sense of exclusion based on access to infrastructure or funding comes from a failure to recognize that many individuals and groups in the United States and abroad do not have recourse to such infrastructure or funding and are already doing valuable work. We need not wait for the affordances of infrastructure. In fact, I would argue that scholars adopting an infrastructure prematurely, or receiving a large grant for a project, might keep themselves from acquiring an intimate knowledge of the digital technologies they seek to employ and, by extension, from the means of producing their own digital humanities knowledge.
Through my work with Global Outlook::Digital Humanities—a special-interest group of the Alliance for Digital Humanities Organization charged with breaking down the barriers that hinder communication and collaboration between scholars around the world—and more recently, the Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities—dedicated to the rapid prototyping of speculative ideas in the humanities—I’ve come to view the barrier-to-participation question through a global lens. How can one work with computers in the humanities when one is situated in a place where the hardware is more than a decade old, or where the Internet connection is unreliable, if it exists at all? How can one “do digital humanities” when one earns a living outside of a cultural or academic institution, or when one must do one’s work hiding from the authorities? How can one begin to understand digital humanities knowledge produced under such conditions, whether practiced in the Global South or in that global south that de facto inhabits the North in its underserved and therefore marginalized populations?
My own answers to these questions have recently found an unlikely echo in the work of Cuban designer, architect, and theorist Ernesto Oroza. Oroza’s web project, Architecture of Necessity,1 presents a compelling example of digital curation, but his most important contribution to our conversations about diversity, definition, and scope—and by extension barrier-to-entry—comes from his work as an impromptu ethnographer of Cuba’s DIY culture. In this work, he not only describes the practices of a people who have embraced a hacker ethos, but also develops several concepts that are immediately applicable to the domain of digital humanities. One of these, “the architecture of necessity,” emerges from the example of Havana, a city that has grown according to an unpredictable logic, despite repeated attempts at planning, centralizing, and legislating. The digital humanities has also grown in the space between ambitious, well-funded, and meticulously planned projects and a bevy of prototypes and one-offs. The difference can be caricatured by comparing a robust digital collection built by libraries using Fedora and a quick-and-dirty digital archive built on Omeka by a professor and a graduate student. But in the end, the aggregate—the true shape of the field—begins to resemble the Havana that Oroza describes.
Another concept, the “Moral Modulor,” refers to an individual who finds a way to make his or her environment livable—literally—with very few resources at hand. These intrepid urbanites transform the world around them by ignoring certain codes and expectations and by appropriating what is readily available. The Moral Modulor cannot afford to wait for a government grant and yet must learn how to “make a window,” to borrow a phrase, in order to ensure survival. As opposed to Le Corbusier’s modulor, a physical scale based on human proportions to bridge discrepancies in measurement, the Moral Modulor provides us with a moral scale to bridge divergent measures. The proportion is need, and its basic units are survival and love. Imagine now if we were to build our new republic of letters, our digital humanities, using this ruler.
My favorite of Oroza’s concepts, “the technology of disobedience,” describes objects employed with complete disregard for their intended use: a tray used as an antenna, a clothes dryer used as a house fan. A truly disobedient technologist is never happy with a black box. The black box exists to be opened and tinkered with, or used for a purpose not found in the manual. As a graduate student, I once used the diff algorithm to help me detect transpositions in texts, by simply dumping every longest common subsequence2 into a table and rerunning the algorithm. I called it “the poor man’s fuzzy matching,” for lack of a better term. At the time, I didn’t have the conceptual framework to realize that I was engaged in an act of technological disobedience!
In the following interview with Oroza, I try to tease out some of his ideas so as to introduce his thinking for a digital humanities audience, while at the same time not losing sight of the particular geopolitical situation that gave rise to his work. I hope that readers can extrapolate from our conversation and begin to answer questions of need, affordance, and purpose for their own projects, whether beginner or advanced. It is also my hope that, in this glimpse of the Cuban DIY scene, readers will be prompted to consider how their DH work may connect to projects at the intersection of computing and the humanities that are rooted in other communities and environments.
ALEX GIL (AG): Since I saw the video “Cuba’s DIY Inventions from 30 Years of Isolation”3 on YouTube, I’ve been trying to get my hands on all your works online and on paper. Your concepts—architecture of necessity, technological disobedience, Moral Modulor, to name a few of the most important—have become very important for my own thinking on what a few of us are calling minimal computing.4 As you know, this interview will appear in Debates in Digital Humanities5 2016. Although no definition holds for long, we could say for now that digital humanities refers to a wide range of practices at the intersection of computing (GIS, data wrangling, web design, etc.) and the humanities (history, literature, art, music, etc.). Your concepts and work have much to say to our field, and my hope for this interview is that we could tease out those contributions. Thank you again for agreeing to do it.
Growing up in Santo Domingo, I saw much of what you call the architecture of necessity—not as much as Cuba, to be fair, but enough for me to recognize right away what you were pointing to. Santo Domingo was also a “ciudad sin terminar” [an unfinished city], as Alejo Carpentier would call it.6 If I understand you correctly, what is wrong in this picture, regardless of the economic causes—capitalism or socialism—is the concept of finishing itself attached to the desire for “development.” My first question to you, then, is one that you ask us: “What is a finished stairway?”7
ERNESTO OROZA (EO): First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to discuss these ideas.
The question does not seek an answer, just points toward a possibility: in asking, I propose.
In the text, the question points to several readings. The first—and it is a question that many pose within the field of architecture—assumes urban and architectural regulations as conceptual and textual architectures that can be challenged, and that allow for interventions. In other words, some Cubans understand the legal code as a physical space rife with potentialities and limitations, with fulcrums, inconsistencies, enclosures, gaps. A second reading points in another direction, as you point out, to us as citizens, and to the weight of our preconceptions and social commitments in our daily actions. I’m speaking of our notions of progress, quality, beauty, and social status. The charge applies to the urban regulators, architects, and governments, as well as to the populations that live in conditions of urgency.
To make matters worse, in our poor countries we only know the models—the material world we aspire to—through the media, print ads, and audiovisuals like movies or soap operas, or from photos our family members send us from “developed” countries. Our attempt to imitate these concepts and material cultures wears away our economies. And we often fail because we simply don’t have the productive means.
In this sense, it’s a shame that the cost of a stair doesn’t simply respond to the size and the type of materials employed, the cost of the legal process—permits, licenses—the design cost, or the labor involved. To these essential costs to make a stair you have to add the cost of making a stair that meets social and class exigencies and commitments. What to make? A balustrade that references colonial architecture or a simple, functional, and austere railing? I’ve been able to verify that some of these houses, oozing with concrete and urgent family needs—in response to a context full of restrictions—end up generating enormous costs due to formal and class exigencies.
Besides the idea of the complete, the finished, the idea of progress contains other qualifiers we can use to reformulate the question. We have been convinced that we need whole objects, polished surfaces, coherent forms. Sometimes these demands come from the past. For example, all new buildings in Cuba, even if they are built using contemporary means and to respond to current needs, are required by urban law to correspond and integrate with—in formal terms—the old buildings around it. Then we have the demand that comes from the future—Progress—and the one that lurks from the past: the demand to guard tradition, to correspond to the symbolic power of the colonial presence, which we now believe forms part of our cultural capital.
In relation to the question of what is expected of us, in recent years I’ve found some confluences with the thought of Julio García Espinosa, the author of Por un cine imperfecto8 [Toward an Imperfect Cinema]. Specifically with the ideas he develops in his film Son o no son.9 In this movie, García Espinosa, who wrote and directed it, has a choreographer ask the following question: “What are they expecting from us?” For the choreographer, immersed in an ontological debate, to make a musical show for an international tourist audience in Cuba means minimizing the complexity of the cultural product of the island and to assume the codes of understanding and tastes of the middle class—which, as Julio says, is neither a class, nor has taste. The question of the choreographer continues: “Where can our [underdeveloped] countries find women of the same size, who look the same, all capable of raising their legs at the same time?! Too much is expected from us indeed!!” While the choreographer speaks, the camera pans over a motley crew of very different human biotypes and ethnicities.
AG: In our first conversation, you warned me, just in case, not to fetishize work done out of necessity. I agree that the danger is real. Hopefully our audience will be self-aware enough to see the real contribution of those who must operate out of necessity as the contribution of peers, and perhaps to agree with you, that we would benefit enormously to adopt some of these practices without the financial necessity to do so. This brings us to the idea of necessity itself, and its correlate, the Moral Modulor:10
The Moral Modulor, unlike the “Corbusierean” Modulor, is a human being at the same time as a measuring tool. He embodies the human potential to understand urgency and inscribe it in space. He adds, to the order established by human dimensions, the moral dimension that necessity recovers.
I hear two possible interpretations of the word “necessity” here. We can think of necessity as constraint, but we can also hear it as moral demand: “What do we need to do?” How do you see these two possibilities play out in the Moral Modulor?
EO: The Moral Modulor is a very specific social being for me. The concept came from concrete, lived experiences. I would see the Moral Modulor every morning in Lawton, the neighborhood where I used to live in Havana; on many occasions, I was the Moral Modulor. The Moral Modulor is an individual who has the impulse to rebuild human life, and this is something he does for his children or for his family. With no means, his days are busied with searching for food, water, resources, or finding a roof. This character is similar to the individual who lives “below zero” as described by Glauber Rocha, or the sub-proletariat of Pasolini. This new Modulor perceives the world on a very precise moral frequency: he only sees what is useful. As he travels around the city he only sees potential stairs, windows, doors, or walls. His condition allows him to discriminate against the superfluous or the useless. When he builds a space, the Modulor rejects from its construction social or urban contracts. From his buildings we see evacuated all the stupid pressures that we accept from context and society.
This Modulor not only inscribes his physical and spiritual dimensions on space, he also traverses the city, observes, asks, appropriates, copies, gathers, and negotiates. An example that shows how this individual operates are the windows that appear spontaneously in blind side façades—these blind façades exist because another building that stood on the side no longer exists. These buildings have not been repaired or painted for decades. The Moral Modulor takes a hand out of the window, which he himself created with a hammer and a chisel, and paints the border of the window as far as his arm can reach. Moral and anthropometric inscription, this gesture has the value of re-signifying that this house belongs to him and that a family lives here.
AG: In Rikimbili you notice “des modèles de comportement face aux technologies et surtout face à cette autorité et cette vérité supposée des produits capitalistes” [models of behavior in the face of technologies, and above all, in the face of the authority and the supposed claim to truth of capitalist products]. You call these models “désobeissance technologique” [technological disobedience]. You go on to describe the contours of the phenomenon:
Les pratiques productives du début des années quatre-vingt-dix s’inscrivent sommairement dans le registre de la réparation et de la récupération d’objets issus d’une réalité matérielle vieillie, insuffisante et pauvre. L’individu prétendait simplement élaborer un succédané instantané, un objet ou une solution transitoire qui résoudrait son problème jusqu’à la disparition de la crise. . . . À force d’ouvrir les objets, de les réparer, de les fragmenter et de s’en servir à sa convenance, le Cubain finit par mépriser les signes qui font des produits occidentaux une unité ou une identité fermée. (20–21)
[The productive practices of the 1990s inscribe themselves summarily in the register of reparation and recuperation of objects borne out of an aging, insufficient, and poor material reality. The individual pretended simply to elaborate an instant substitute, a transitory object or solution to solve a specific problem until the crisis subsided. . . . Forced to open the objects, to fix them, to fragment them and use them at their convenience, Cubans ended up rejecting the signs that make an occidental product whole or possessing a closed identity.]
In this passage I hear a transformation of consciousness, almost a class consciousness, that leads to the culture of technological disobedience that you so shrewdly document and extol. Debating your work recently with a friend, he argued that what you describe here is just “hacker culture.” Although I argued for the cultural specificities of the Cuban phenomenon, I would like you to weigh in. What, if anything, is of universal or at least extra-Cuban in the phenomenon you describe? What is specific to the Cuban context? At the end of the day, are we talking about a global “hacking” phenomenon?
EO: I think we have all been pushed to this situation globally, no matter where we live. The artifacts that Cubans took apart and altered in Cuba are industrial objects that belong to the same logic that is being “hacked” and questioned everywhere on the planet. I’m referring to industrial objects informed by logics of limited use, exclusive technical principles, commodified lifestyles, and abusive production relationships. The difference I would draw from “hacker culture” and the Cuban phenomenon is that in Cuba everyone participates. Everyone takes apart the fan, the telephone, the washer machine, the car. Nelida, my mother-in-law, was doing these things in my house long before I was. I was too absorbed studying radical Italian architecture from the 1960s to notice my mother-in-law was doing radical design in our own home, whenever the fan broke or we needed a new water line. I think when the hacker movement includes stay-at-home parents, doctors, sportsmen, musicians, workers, then both phenomena will be homologous and your friend will be completely right. What we share in this global saga is the unexpected turn of the Arvatovian object: beings are the ones who can now see through opaque objects!
AG: You mention your mother-in-law. I have seen my mother do these sorts of things since I was a little boy: practical solutions for a million things using empty plastic bottles, cans, sticks, whatever. This sort of culture seems to be passed on in Santo Domingo through an oral and matrilineal tradition. Could we say that technological disobedience has a feminist component, or at the very least matriarchal?
EO: Yes, women assume enormous responsibility for the survival of the family. They organize activities, lead by example, inspire, push. They understand the biological rhythms of the house, the interrelation of all activities, the subplots of need, and not only as a reaction to the masculine tendency to delegate responsibility.
I wrote a brief text in the 1990s about this. It began like this: “We will win, mami, I swear.” I dedicated it to the mother, but also to the girlfriend, to the spouse. We Latinos use the word mami in a wider range than maternity. I continued: “. . . let the voices of power say what they please, I know that she is the one who throws us into the weightless abysm of utopia, with her breath on the nape, beyond emptiness and money in flight.” Cuban women assumed the compromise with survival. Many were very ready. The older ones because of the so-called “escuelas hogaristas” [home-ed schools], prior to the revolution. The young ones because of the large presence of women in technical careers, many of them staying alone as the men quickly emigrated to the United States looking for opportunities to send remittances.
AG: The Coca-Cola Company has launched “the 2nd Lives” campaign11 ostensibly to help consumers recycle their bottles. This campaign shows us that capitalist giants can appropriate “technologies of disobedience” for their own purposes, in this case to whitewash the fact that they produce those plastic bottles in the first place. Technology produced under the conditions you describe in your book Objets réinventés seems almost impossible to trademark by their creators, and yet companies like Coca-Cola seem perfectly capable of turning them into commodities. In your estimate, should technological disobedience continue to take place outside of trademark or copyright law? Perhaps in their fissures?
EO: I hope their executives pay more attention. Thousands of users on YouTube are telling Coca-Cola to get out of the food market and move to other sectors away from drinks. The videos show all the great ways Coca-Cola can be used for removing grease or rust, specifically in order to clear electrical batteries, pots, and toilets. They soon will understand, thanks to the vernacular imagination, that they should be addressing other needs and not competing with other drinks.
But I prefer not to make such a clear cut between the economically established industrial imaginary and the popular imaginary without means. Coca-Cola was a popular idea. The car as well as electricity were astute ideas that consolidated themselves economically because, among other things, they found the necessary economic means to expand and consolidate. Popular culture also uses standards to disseminate its artisanal ideas, even if standardization is an industrial idea. It’s important to rethink the positive impact that popular culture has on generic and standardized objects, usually stigmatized in contemporary cultural discourses because of the alleged damage they bring to regional cultures. The truth is that the standardized object behaves like a vector for the spread of astute ideas, a flammable material in intellectual terms. In the 1990s, for example, Cuba had no TV antennas; suddenly the roofs were covered by peculiar antennas made out of aluminum trays. These standardized trays were designed to ration food in school and worker cafeterias in socialist countries. Because everyone knew the tray in Cuba—and it was the only piece of available metal—the dissemination of the antenna was immediate after some Cuban made the first one.
To come back to your question, this action by Coca-Cola, which has less pathetic precedents in ColaLife [a system to distribute medicine in Africa], is showing us that when an infrastructure auto-hacks itself, it subverts the political component behind reuse and refunctionalization. But Coca-Cola is not changing the state of affairs for the better. On the contrary, they make it worse. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what they do. Renewed answers will always come from the resistance.
AG: In a certain sense, the relationship between the tech industry and the precarious academic is that of the industrialized countries and Cuba. Major technologies happen to us. From my desk I observe four phenomena. First, there is the resigned use, where researchers adapt to the tools that fell from the clouds, that they could understand—obedience. Second, the use that changes the technology, equivalent to your “refonctionnalisation.” In this second one we can place a large portion of digital humanists. The third, of course, is those who truly reinvent. And, finally, a small but growing minority that are interested in reparation. How do you see connections between the work you do and the digital world?
EO: I understand your parallels, but I’m not sure if the relations you propose are equivalent. The Cuban problem is exacerbated by the absence of relations between Cuba and industrial countries. In any case, Cuba has relations with markets, mostly secondhand, free-duty zones in Panama and Taiwan, for example. So we have contact with the worst industrial and technological problems today: low-quality objects, decontextualized utensils, products that become obsolete on the production line. This relation also has enormously adverse impacts on the island’s economy because of the excessive accumulation of the endearingly named Objetos ociosos y de lento movimiento [“lazy and slow moving objects”]. The numbers offered by the government of products sitting in warehouses, enormous lots obtained dearly in the duty-free zones of Panama, now rotting because of the reluctance of the Cuban consumer to acquire them at retail prices, are alarming. The government should liberate them in bulk and people would find a way to reuse the materials in other ways, to serve other functions.
Now that I’ve added this caveat to your question, let me try to answer. First of all, I think digital humanists won’t be able to escape their precarious condition. And this fate is both stimulating and fruitful. The behavior of Cubans today in relation to the crisis can indeed be extrapolated to many other sectors of modern life experiencing exclusion and difficult access to resources. Misery is not an alternative, but an individual with consciousness of her needs and finding solutions for herself is. In my experience, answers ooze from circumstances. Sometimes reparation is the only way. Sometimes reinvention, reuse, or refunctionalization are inevitable or irreplaceable. Sometimes, many times, these gestures can be combined, answers contaminate one another, they turn hybrid.
It seems obvious to me that these activities will be ever more present in the digital realm because of the growing range of services provided online and the monopolies of some software providers. At the same pace that our lives become digital, inequalities are transferred and spread in the new medium, and there they will encounter astute answers, detours, and appropriations. From the breakdown in your question, I see the digital humanist as the change agent, who not only will seek astute solutions, but who will fight against the status quo. Perhaps this will distinguish them from the Cuban who deployed her inventiveness to survive, but did not try to change the general conditions around her.
Last night, while answering your questions, my MacBook Pro laptop cable broke. I noticed because of the burnt smell. My first reaction was to find the cost of a new one on the Internet. You can’t find it for less than $30, and a minimum of five to fifteen days delivery. It was that, or work for half an hour following instructions on YouTube to make the repairs. This thing had no screws! I had to use a saw!
April 29, 2015
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English by Alex Gil.
2. That is, the longest exact string in sequential order shared by to the two texts compared by Juxta.