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Designing Culture :: The Project

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What would it mean to take culture seriously as the foundation for the development of innovative technologies?

The Designing Culture Project addresses this question.

This project expresses and enacts its insights through different media: as a print book, as an interactive multimedia documentary on dvd, as a museum exhibit, as a set of cultural mappings, and as a set of short video primers.  This blog is yet another of the vectors that extends the project into new territories.

Each vector of the project will go public at different times: the blog launched June 15, 2010. The website (www.designingculture.org) launched with the publication of the print book, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work (Duke University Press, 2011).

The first part of the book title, Designing Culture, describes the broad focus of the project: to document and analyze the processes whereby culture is reproduced and intentionally created through the creative practices of professional as well as amateur designers.  Culture, in this sense, is produced through the act of designing.  The second part of the title, The Technological Imagination at Work, suggests the book’s more narrow focus: to examine the way in which culture influences the practices of technological innovation.  Here culture is understood as a force that shapes the possibilities and constraints of the technological imagination.

At its most basic level, the technological imagination is a character of mind of those who design, develop, analyze, and use technologies.  Because technology and culture are inextricably twinned, we must understand that this imagination is first and foremost an encultured sensibility.  Although it is universally accessible, it is unevenly manifested.  It is the wellspring of innovation, at the local level, the community level, and the global level.  People develop it as they engage with the materiality of the world, which includes, of course, the digital as well as the physical.  It is evident in architectural grand gestures and the ephemera of everyday life.  It is as often taken-for-granted, as it is a source of anxiety.  It is the subject of reverence and mysticism.  It is exercised by millions of people every day around the world in the course of living life and making do.  It is one of the most important epistemologies of the 21st century.  For all these reasons, I argue that this imagination needs to be explicitly trained to think more complexly about the nature of technology.

Thus begins the process of taking culture seriously in the face of the increasing complexity of technological innovation.

The print book includes six chapters, each of which discusses a digital artifact, interactive, or exhibit whose design was explicitly influenced by questions or methods borrowed from cultural theory.  The point is to elaborate the relationships between culture and technology as these are expressed both as theoretical discourse and as technological innovations.  In the process of designing artifacts and technologies, theoretical insights were also redesigned and retooled.  In this way, every innovation was a tool to think with.  In essence, the print chapters stage a conversation with the traces of these technologies that are now collected as bits and pieces of a digital archive.  The website www.designingculture.net serves as the virtual archive of the memories and traces of a set of material practices.

“I offer this transmedia project as an “Evocative Knowledge Object” (EKO)—an object to think with—that combines the material and the digital, the abstract and the representational. The knowledge evoked is not “contained” in the book, the author, or the reader, but rather is manifested through the physical interaction and engagement with the objects that take different forms: materially, digitally, visually, and textually.”

For humanists, the book remains the privileged signifier of academic credibility.  Curiously, the value of the book as a testimony to scholarly trustworthiness is not due to the size of the audience it reaches immediately, which is likely to be smaller than the other forms of technological media such as museum exhibits and websites that I discuss in this project.  Rather, its value is tied to its particular affordances that allow for the expression of complex explanations of abstract ideas and of critical analyses of particular texts, applications, and situations.  I am keenly interested in how the book is recalibrated in relationship to new modes of dynamic knowledge production and to new forms of cultural experience that are occasioned by the use of digital networks.

This print book is a boundary object.  It was never one thing.  From the beginning, I imagined it as a multimodal information system that both follows and revises the genre conventions of the academic monograph. It adheres to the genre conventions of a scholarly project in that it elaborates the cultural and theoretical significance of a set of specific technological artifacts, professional design-research practices, and institutional formations.  It is a project that is designed to enact its own theoretical assertions about the importance of taking culture seriously in the creation of new technologies.