HSS8121: Theoretical approaches to the public. Foundations


In this session we will:

  • Examine some ways that different societies at different periods in history have described the role, function or nature of the public
  • Think about some of our preconceptions about what does and does not constitute a public
  • Look at some contemporary theories about publics have been influential in research practice
  • Reflect on the above as it relates to our role of putting creative work in to the world

Key vocabulary

All the definitions below are from the OED (which btw you have full access to as an ncl student here) unless otherwise stated.

Dialectics, ‘Logic, reasoning; critical investigation of truth through reasoned argument, often spec. by means of dialogue or discussion.’

Sophistry, ‘Specious but fallacious reasoning; employment of arguments which are intentionally deceptive.’

Publicity, ‘The quality of being public; the condition or fact of being open to public observation or knowledge’

The Public Sphere. There are many definitions but broadly we mean a discursive space where political concerns are developed. Habermas used the term ‘Öffentlichkeit’

politische Öffentlichkeit: “political public sphere” (or sometimes the more cumbersome “public sphere in the political realm”)

literarische~Öffentlichkeit:”literary public sphere” (or “public sphere in the world of letters”)

repräsentative Öffentlichkeit: “representative publicness” (i.e,.,the display of inherent spiritual power or dignity before audience)

(Translators foreword to Habermas, J. (1991 [1962]). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. (T. (trans) Burger, Ed.). Cambridge MA: MIT Press pxiv)

Conjoint action, ‘..the agency behind the emergence of a public.’ Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. p100. The forces or factors that make people and things come and act together (my addition)

Agency and actants/actors, Agency is the capacity of someone, something or some other phenomenon to effect change. Actors/actants are those who have agency (my notes)

Interessement, In Actor Network Theory, Interessement is the process by which actors become enrolled in a network. (my notes)


Philosophy of the public in 8 images

Print the seventeenth century, Leviathan Hobbes, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1852.

Classical Publics and later

Plato and the role of dialectic in articulating and creating public knowledge, justice, politics and philosophy.

The Body Politic

Hobbes in Leviathan (first published 1651) dismisses the use of such arguments (and strategies, techniques etc derived from Socrates) as sophistry. Coming from experience of the civil war Hobbes wanted public life to be founded in certainties which he rooted in the monarchy. Influenced by Galileo he attempted to apply deductive reasoning to a political philosophy. The role of a governing body with whom we form part of a social contract is to decide upon first principles from which we can derive everything else. Those include the fact that we are cast into a material world of chaos, violence and fear and it is the task of humans to achieve peace through social contact. He establishes first principles of mind and matter and deductively infers from them what a just and proper society should be. Because humans’ experience of nature varies from person to person an objective account fo nature is impossible. In his words, there is no “right Reason constituted by Nature,” His response is to setup an arbiter of truth in response.


The Public Sphere

It is no exaggeration to say that much of what we take for granted as to the basis of our rights and participation in publics derives from Jürgen Habermas’ work on the public sphere. Habermas was influenced by Kant, Hegel and the Frankfurt school (marxist literary theory). Interestingly what Habermas shared with the Frankfurt school (and Adorno in particular) was the idea that the masses had become corrupted and were no longer capable of revolutionary thought or action. What’s particular to Habermas is his framing of that corruption as an impoverishment of the public sphere.

In ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’ Habermas makes a distinction between early forms of publicity (p7) in feudal societies (for instance through courtly displays, etiquette and practices) and those which arose post-enlightenment. In feudal societies on the King or Queen was a public person, and indeed the public and private realms were not separated.

‘The bourgeois is distinguished from the courtly mentality by the fact that in the bourgeois home even the ballroom is still homey, whereas in the palace even the living quarters are still festive. And actually, beginning with Versailles, the royal bedroom develops into the palace’s second center. If one finds here the bed set up like a stage, placed on a platform, a throne for lying down, separated by a barrier from the area for the spectator, this is so because in fact this room is the scene of the daily ceremonies of lever and voucher, where what is most intimate is raised to public importance.’ Habermas, J. (1991 [1962]). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. (T. (trans) Burger, Ed.). Cambridge MA: MIT Press. p10

Meanwhile with the rise of commercialism and the mercantile class forums arose in which particular kinds of public discourse came to be.

‘The “town” was the life center of civil society not only economically; in cultural-political contrast to the court, it designated especially an early public sphere in the world of letters whose institutions were the coffee houses, the salons, and the Tisclgesellschaften (table societies). The heirs of the humanistic- aristocratic society, in their encounter with the bourgeois intellectuals (through sociable discussions that quickly developed into public criticism), built a bridge between the remains of a collapsing form of publicity (the courtly one) and the precursor of a new one: the bourgeois public sphere…’ ibid p30

From the end of the 17th and through the 18th Centuries, the rise of coffee houses or public salons centralised the public sphere in towns (rather than palaces) and brought about a special place for the artist and writer in public life. Here the middle classes could be exposed to new literary, philosophical or artistic ideas. Aristocrats, bourgeois and intellectuals would meet if not on the same terms than at least in the same places. For our purposes it would be as if Slavoj Zizek, Kate Middleton and Tim Martin (owner of the Weatherspoon pub chain) would regularly hangout in our local branch of Costa.

The final stage for Habermas (and here is where his work has the strongest connections to Adorno) is in what he sees as an impoverishment of the public sphere through the press and later, mass media. Habermas contends that the function of the press shifted from being a transmitter of public opinion (which was created elsewhere by intellectuals) to being a creator of it. The influence of money, through advertising, shifted the role of wealth holders (particularly property owners) to being the dominant directors of public opinion. Habermas concludes by saying that the manipulation of the public through a kind of uncommitted friendly engagement comes to be mimicked by the state, precluding the possibility for real political action.

‘As soon as the press developed from a business in pure news reporting to one involving ideologies and viewpoints, however, and the com- piling of items of information encountered the competition of literary journalism, a new element-political in the broader sense-was joined to the economic one. Biicher captures the trend succinctly: “From mere institutions for the publication of news, the papers became also carriers and leaders of public opinion, and instruments in the arsenal of party politics. For the internal organization of the newspaper enterprise this had the consequence that a new function was inserted between the gathering and the publication of news: the editorial function. For the newspaper’s publisher, however, this meant that he changed from being a merchant of news to being a dealer in public opinion.”‘ ibid p182

‘Paris in the year 1789 every marginally prominent politician formed his club, and every other founded his journal; between February and May alone 450 clubs and over 200 journals sprang up. As long as the mere existence of a press that critically-rationally debates political matters remained problematic, it was compelled to engage in continuous self-thematization: before the permanent legalization of the political public sphere, the appearance of a political journal and its survival was equivalent to involvement in the struggle over the range of freedom to be granted to public opinion and over publicity as a principle.’ ibid p184

‘Thus the original basis of the publicist institutions, at least in their most advanced sectors, became practically reversed. According to the liberal model of the public sphere, the insti- tutions of the public engaged in rational-critical debate were protected from interference by public authority by virtue of their being in the hands of private people. To the extent that they were commercialized and underwent economic, technological, and organizational concentration, however, they have turned during the last hundred years into complexes of societal power, so that precisely their remaining in private hands in many ways threatened the critical functions of publicist institutions. In comparison with the press of the liberal era, the mass media have on the one hand attained an incomparably greater range and effectiveness-the sphere of the public realm itself has expanded correspondingly. On the other hand they have been moved ever further out of this sphere and reentered the once private sphere of commodity exchange. The more their effectiveness in terms of publicity increased, the more they became accessible to the pressure of certain private interests, whether individual or collective.’ ibid p188

‘in the measure that the public sphere became a field for business advertising, private people as own- ers of private property had a direct effect on private people as the public.’ p189

DISCUSSION POINT:  Dean, Jodi. “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere.” Constellations 10.1 (2003): 95-112.


‘There are three features of the public sphere and of the sphere of politics in general that are central to Arendt’s conception of citizenship. These are, first, its artificial or constructed quality; second, its spatial quality; and, third, the distinction between public and private interests.’ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/#CitPubSph

As regards the first feature, Arendt always stressed the artificiality of public life and of political activities in general, the fact that they are man-made and constructed rather than natural or given. She regarded this artificiality as something to be celebrated rather than deplored. Politics for her was not the result of some natural predisposition, or the realization of the inherent traits of human nature. Rather, it was a cultural achievement of the first order, enabling individuals to transcend the necessities of life and to fashion a world within which free political action and discourse could flourish.’ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/#CitPubSph

‘The second feature stressed by Arendt has to do with the spatial quality of public life, with the fact that political activities are located in a public space where citizens are able to meet one another, exchange their opinions and debate their differences, and search for some collective solution to their problems. Politics, for Arendt, is a matter of people sharing a common world and a common space of appearance so that public concerns can emerge and be articulated from different perspectives. In her view, it is not enough to have a collection of private individuals voting separately and anonymously according to their private opinions. Rather, these individuals must be able to see and talk to one another in public, to meet in a public-political space, so that their differences as well as their commonalities can emerge and become the subject of democratic debate.’ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/#CitPubSph

Pragmatist Publics

‘Those indirectly and seriously affected for good or for evil form a group distinctive enough to require recognition and a name. The name selected is The Public’. Dewey, John, The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry. Penn State Press, 2012. p. 35

‘In The Public and Its Problems specifically, Dewey rejects as false the assertion advanced principally by journalist and social critic Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) that democratic life can simply be managed by experts without any costs to collective governance, and, indeed, freedom itself. This obscures, Dewey maintains, two important aspect of political life. First, how we come to understand political problems and respond implies a kind of local knowledge and communal vision that is beyond the purview of experts. Lippmann’s approach, he further argues, “ignores [the] forces which have to be composed and resolved before technical and specialized action can come into play” (NN). Second, and perhaps more importantly, a vision of democracy grounded in governance by experts misses the very reasons for democracy’s emergency – namely, to “counteract the forces that have so largely determined the possession of rule by accidental and irrelevant factors, and in the second place an effort to counteract the tendency to employ political power to serve private instead of public ends” (NN). A failure to have the public constitutively involved in decision making will inevitably be unable to remain attentive to public ends. This will leave the public at the mercy of political power rather than in control of directing that power toward beneficial ends.’ Rogers, Melvin L. “Introduction: Revisiting The Public and Its Problems.” Contemporary Pragmatism 7.1 (2010). pp3-4

‘In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey presents a public as a confedera­ tion of bodies, bodies pulled together not so much by choice (a public is not exactly a voluntary association) as by a shared experience of harm that, over time, coalesces into a “problem.” Dewey makes it clear that a public does not preexist its particular problem but emerges in response to it. A public is a contingent and temporary formation existing alongside many other publics, protopublics, and residual or postpublics. Prob­lems come and go, and so, too, do publics: at any given moment, many different publics are in the process of crystallizing and dissolving.’ Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. p100

Non-Human Publics

Jane Bennett

Here we will look at some more contemporary theorisations of publicity.

Jane Bennett’s work Vibrant Matter (2009) fits, broadly, into a canon of contemporary scholarship that emphasises a ‘flatter’ ontological perspective on agency in the world. Her work is of particular interest to us here though because of her re-application of ideas from John Dewey’s work which she extends significantly to reconsider publics which might include non-human actors in the form of, for instance, animal and plant life, infrastructure, machines and software or other factors. Her main contribution in this space is to observe that Dewey’s idea of ‘conjoint action’ is not dependent on acts of independent will, as perpetrated by solely humans.

What is conjoint action?

‘Like the conjoint action of Darwin’s worms, the conjoint action of Dewey’s citizens is not under control of any rational plan or deliberate intention. No efficient cause  of the problems it generates can really be pinpointed. What is more, there is no action that is not conjoint, that does not, in other words, immediately become enmeshed in a web of connections.’ Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2009. p100


making things public exhibition – parliament of things

Michel Callon and Bruno Latour

‘Interessement is the group of actions by which an entity (here the three researchers) attempts to impose and stabilize the other actors it defines through its problematization. Different devices are used to implement these actions. Why talk of interessement? The etymology of this word justifies its choice. To be interested is to be in between (inter-esse), to be interposed. But between what? Let us return to the three researchers. During their problematization they join forces with the scallops the fishermen, and their colleagues in order to attain a certain goal. In so doing they carefully define the identity, the goals or the inclinations of their allies. But these allies are tentatively implicated in the problematizations of the actors. Their identities are consequently defined in other competitive ways. It is in this sense that one should understand interessement.’ Callon, Michel. “Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay.” The Sociological Review 32.1_suppl (1984): 196-233. pp62-63

 Publics in Practice

In Critical Heritage (e.g. Sharon MacDonald and Rodney Harrison)

‘What would it mean for us to consider the futures which are arranged or assembled across a series of different fields of practice—in the decision making processes involved in nuclear waste disposal, in the processes of conserving endangered languages, in global seed banks, in the care and management of local parks, and in household practices of curating heirlooms collectively? How could this new comparative perspective, which considers not only formal heritage prac- tices but also a range of alternative forms of caring for the future, help us remap the field of heritage?’ Rodney Harrison (2015) Beyond “Natural” and “Cultural” Heritage: Toward an Ontological Politics of Heritage in the Age of Anthropocene, Heritage & Society, 8:1, 24-42, DOI: 10.1179/2159032X15Z.00000000036 p35

‘The aim of the collaborative research program Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage is to understand the practices by which futures are assembled in a range of different domains, and to consider how those practices, and the forms of value that they produce, might be creatively redeployed to produce innovation within new con- texts. Accordingly, this research program will explore the processes and material and discursive practices by which heritage is “assembled” within a broad range of domains, which have typically not been considering comparatively, to consider the ways in which the forms of value and alternative practices and processes of future-making involved in each might inform one another.’ ibid p36

In Design (Infrastructuring)

‘The relevance of Dewey’s perspective springs precisely from its tie to issues. It is the dynamic and contin- gent nature of a public, its fluid qualities as an entity, that allows a public to form and unform in concert with the evolving social conditions, and it is the manner in which diverse individuals are enlisted to contend with the effects of particular issues that make a public a useful perspective for design.’ Dantec, C. A. Le, & DiSalvo, C. (2013). Infrastructuring and the formation of publics in participatory design. Social Studies of Science, 43(2), 241–264. http://doi.org/10.1177/0306312712471581

‘The idea of infrastructuring through design employs the distinction between PD concerned primarily with design-for-use, centered on useful systems, and PD focused on design-for-future-use, structured to create fertile ground to sustain a community of participants.’ ibid p247

In a project which provided new ways of accessing networks of resources for the homeless,

‘The design and deployment of the technology intervention, called the Community Resource Messenger (CRM), was located at a local emergency shelter for single-mother families. Given the context, the resources captured and presented by the system focused on employment opportunities, programs, and locations where these families could find permanent housing, information about schools and childcare, and general information about health care and local community news.’ ibid p248

‘This shift, instigated by the case manager’s use of the CRM, exposed the attachments the staff had to issues around sharing information and effectively managing limited resources. It prompted the staff to renegotiate how they coordinated their activities and integrated their case management work with the technology. This was, in our view, the work of infrastructuring, where the staff, as a public, recognized that their attachment to issues of sharing informa- tion (how widely? to whom? when?) was changing as a result of an intervention that provided new capabilities. In other words, a new socio-material relationship had emerged.’ ibid p249

Activity Resources

Get WiFi analyser here for android and here for iPhone


DMS8012: Live Electronic Performance – Session 1


Patches for PureData


HSS8123: Minimal Resources for Electric Sound

Notes from todays session


and the sound file from our in class performance

HSS8121: Public Art

Slides from Gabi Arrigoni’s introductory lecture on public art

Public Art for CAP

DMS8013: Creating an Annotated Portfolio


  • To discuss assessment for the module
  • To gain familiarity with recent research from Research Through Design advocating Annotated Portfolios as a documentation and writing practice
  • To practice annotation!


Last semester you were introduced to some foundational questions about the nature of artefacts, knowledge and making as they have been expressed in literature on Research though Design. In particular I want to think about the problem that Annotated portfolios are cast against. Those include:

  • That there is a creeping ‘scientism’ in some kinds of approach to design in HCI literature
  • That rationalising discourse about design undermines its value
  • That writing about objects ignores embedded and embodied knowledges

Annotated portfolios are not the only response to these problems. Some conferences (including ACM DIS and RtD) are developing alternative publication and presentation models which also speak to the same issues.


  • How do the idea of an ‘annotated portfolio’  differ from other ways you’ve seen of writing about objects.
  • What do you think these ideas emphasise that other writing practices (for instance curatorial texts) don’t?
  • What are the drawbacks of an annotated portfolio approach? Does this have to be a purely summative activity?

Activity: Annotating your work

You have brought some documentation of work you have made. With a partner discuss some of the points of interest of this work. What does it do? How did people talk about it? What were you thinking about as it was made?

The programme

Over the course of the module we will construct a portfolio based around three provocations. Together your responses to these provocations will constitute your assessment. A sneak preview is included below.

Portfolio item 1
Making things talk

You have been introduced to a number of local and remote ways of making technologies communicate with one another. At the same time we’ve looked at some of the history, politics and theory of network communication exploring crossovers between each. For your portfolio you should make an artefact or artefacts under the theme/provocation of ‘Making things talk.’  You’ll need to think about what it means to talk, converse, communicate and how that merges with issues of machine conversation.

Portfolio item 2
Boxes that do things

We have worked over the past two weeks with physical interactivity and some forms of rapid prototyping or digital making. Our provocation this time is called simply ‘boxes that do things.’ The humble laser cut box has found its way into a cult of digital prototyping as a housing for musical controllers, a place where other skills such as carpentry come into contact with electronics, or a thing in its own right with its own set of boxy affordances. Your box will exhibit not only a novel interaction but will also be concerned with its own ‘boxiness.’ How can you connect the physicality of a box with some foundational problems for interaction? As before you may build on examples we’ve made together but should extend them significantly treating your work as an independent art/design study which engages aesthetically as well as technologically with our sessions and your own interests.

Portfolio item 2
A waste of good data

Our colleague and friend Sean Cotterill once described a particular kind of overblown data sonification practice (for example making orchestral music out of large hadron collider data) as ‘a waste of good data.’ for me this phrase captures a host of interesting thoughts about the way we encounter, interpret, conceptualise or use data. Your challenge is to identify a ‘good’ data source and create an artefact (in software, hardware or both) that provocatively ‘wastes’ it. In annotating this work you can draw out what you feel are some of the ideas about what data is or can be that your work provokes. What makes quality data and how do you waste it?


In all of the above you may build on examples we’ve made together but should extend them significantly treating your work as an independent art/design study which engages aesthetically as well as technologically with our sessions and your own interests.

 Today’s sketches

Are here

Further Reading

  1. Boehner, K., Vertesi, J., Sengers, P., & Dourish, P. (2007). How HCI interprets the probes. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems  – CHI ’07 (p. 1077). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. http://doi.org/10.1145/1240624.1240789

  2. Chris Elsden, David Chatting, Abigail C. Durrant, Andrew Garbett, Bettina Nissen, John Vines, and David S. Kirk. 2017. On Speculative Enactments. Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: 5386–5399. https://doi.org/10.1145/3025453.3025503

  3. William Gaver. 2011. Making Spaces: How Design Workbooks Work. In Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems – CHI ’11, 1551–1560. https://doi.org/10.1145/1978942.1979169
  4. William Gaver. 2012. What Should We Expect From Research Through Design? In Proc. CHI 2012, 937–946.
  5. Bill Gaver and John Bowers. 2012. Annotated Portfolios. interactions 19, 4: 40–49. https://doi.org/10.1145/2212877.2212889
  6. Höök, K., Bardzell, J., Bowen, S., Dalsgaard, P., Reeves, S., & Waern, A. (2015). Framing IxD knowledge. Interactions, 22(6), 32–36. http://doi.org/10.1145/2824892
  7. Jarvis, N., Cameron, D., & Boucher, A. (2012). Attention to detail. In Proceedings of the 7th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction Making Sense Through Design – NordiCHI ’12 (p. 11). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. http://doi.org/10.1145/2399016.2399019

  8. Jenkins, T., Andersen, K., Gaver, W., Odom, W., Pierce, J., & Vallgårda, A. (2016). Attending to Objects as Outcomes of Design Research. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI EA ’16 (pp. 3423–3430). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. http://doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2856508

  9. James Pierce. 2014. On the presentation and production of design research artifacts in HCI. In Proceedings of the 2014 conference on Designing interactive systems – DIS ’14, 735–744. https://doi.org/10.1145/2598510.2598525
  10. Mads Hobye. 2014. Designing for Homo Explorens: open social play in performative frames. Faculty of Culture and Society Malmö University, http://muep.mau.se/handle/2043/16510

HSS8120 Writing Reflective Essays

reflective essays

HSS8121: Media Archaeology

 What is Media Archaeology

According to Jussi Parikka and Erkki Huhtamo,

It investigates “alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition…” (Huhtamo & Parikka,Media Archaeology, 2011 ).

And Geert Lovink says,

‘Media archaeology is first and foremost a methodology, a hermeneutic reading of the “new” against the grain of the past, rather than a telling of the history of technologies from past to present. No comprehensive overview of the media archaeology approach is yet available, but we could mention a few scholars, such as Friedrich Kittler, Siegfried Zielinski, Werner Nekes, Jona- than Crary, Katherine Hayles, Werner Künzel, Avital Ronell, Christoph Asendorf, Erkki Huhtamo, Paul Virilio and others.’
(Lovink, My First Recession – Critical Internet Culture in Transition, 2003)

’In his Archaeology of the Cinema C. W. Ceram states: “What matters history is not whether certain chance discov- eries take place, but whether they take effect.”4 When Hertz experimented with electromagnetic waves he meant to prove Maxwell’s mathematical calcu- lations of the electromagnetic field; almost by accident he thereby practically invented radio transmission technology.5 How can we write media history when media systems create their Eigenzeit?’ (Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, 2013, p57)

We can say that Media Archaeology is not a single methodology, but an orientation – a direction which is common to a loose group of researchers (a lot of whom are German and related to a particular kind of german media theory and philosophy) and a particular flavour of research. If methodology is ‘a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity’ (OED) then really Media Archaeology exists at a level of abstraction above this. It is an associated set of theories, methods, methodologies and skills which emphasise a close reading of technology itself, not just in its ability to be a cultural phenomenon. As Friedrich Kittler says:

‘History is not a list of, “directors, stars, studios and celebrities, which in the end remains organised around a series of titles” ‘ (Kittler, Optical Media, p. 26).

As Ernst summarises,

‘Equally close to disciplines that analyze material (hard- ware) culture and to the Foucauldian notion of the “archive” as the set of rules governing the range of what can be verbally, audiovisually, or alphanumeri- cally expressed at all, media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practicing media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans anymore, become active “archaeologists” of knowledge.’ (Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, 2013, p55)

And for example Lori Emmerson says,

‘my sense is that as you use a machine like the Altair, your contemporary laptop gradually loses its aura of magic or mystery and you start to palpably experience the ways in which your laptop consists of layer upon layer of interfaces that remove you ever more from the way your computer actually works. For another thing, more often than not, using the Altair opens up the possibility for reseeing the past—what if the computer industry took a slightly different turn and we ended up with Altair-like devices without screens or mice? And therefore using this obsolete machine also opens up the possibility of reseeing the present and the future’ “As if, or, Using Media Archaeology to Reimagine Past, Present, and Future: An Interview with Lori Emerson,” International Journal of Communication Vol. 10 (June 2016)

Also worth looking in to is Lisa Gitelman Raw Data is an Oxymoron

In practice

Although he is not usually referred to in the ‘canon’ of MA, we could look at Matthew Kirschenbaum’s archival practice with electronic literature as an example of MA in practice.

Meanwhile Wolfgang Ernst frequently uses the spatial and temporal specifics of technological kinds of writing to discuss and problematise the way we understand time and in particular historical narrative.

‘…the historical mode of describing temporal processes has been confronted with alternative modelings of time, When it comes to describing media in time, this aporia becomes crucial, since one can no longer simply subject media processes to a literary narrative without fundamentally misreading and misrepresenting their Eigenzeit. Historical media narratives take place in imaginary time. Storage technologies, on the other hand, take place in the symbolic temporal order…’ (Ernst, in Huhtamo and Parikka, Media Archaeology, 2011, p. 242)

‘But is radio, when playing, ever in a historical state? Is it not in fact always in a present state? The medium only appears to conform to the logic of historical epochal concepts; in actuality, it undermines this logic and sets a different temporal economy. For example, an original record- ing resonating today from an old tube radio, provided it can still run on 220 volts, hardly makes history audible. A tube radio thus practices compressed time with respect to our sensory perception, as long as this is not overlaid with “historical meaning,” which corresponds not to the actual media work- ings of radio but rather to the logic of inscribed historiography.’ (Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, 2013, p159)

Ernst makes the point that our language and methods of discussing, and modelling time in terms of historical narratives just aren’t up to the task of considering what technological (particularly electronic and computational) media actually do.

He also has a lot of interesting things to say about counting,

‘The numerical order, the basis of digital technologies, has always already been performed as a cultural practice before becoming technically materialized.’ (Telling vs Counting in, Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, 2013, p147)

To tell, we learn, as a transitive verb, means not only “to give a live account in speech or writing of events or facts” (that is, to tell a story) but also “to count things” (to tell a rosary, for example). The very nature of digital operations and telling thus coincide.’ (Telling vs Counting in, Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, 2013, p147-8)

The conjunction between telling stories and counting time is more than just a word game: verbs like conter, contar, raccontare, erzählen, and to tell are testimonies to a way of perceiving realities that oscillates between narrative and statistics.’ (Telling vs Counting in, Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, 2013, p149)

I found this work (actually earlier published versions of this work) extremely compelling during the early stages of making this piece, Mark Inscriber.

Ernst also maintains the Medienarchäologischer ‘fundus‘.

In Art Practice

Often this work takes the past as a point for a future imaginary.

Zoe Bellof A World Redrawn

Jamie Allen’s ‘The Lie Machine

Aura Satz ‘Spiral Sound Coil

Pablo Garcia’s ‘Profilography

Imaginary Magnitude, By Stanislaw Lem

And (though he doesn’t use this term himself) we could think of our own Diego Trujillo-Pisanty’s most excellent ‘This Tape Will Self-destruct‘.

In Pedagogy

We’ve previously talked about Julian Oliver’s work. He and Danja Vasiliev have a series of workshops around understanding network fundamentals. Jussi Parka points out that,

‘We can speculate that such ideas and practices as Weise7- group’s are an indirect response to what Geert Lovink (2012: 22) has called the need for ‘materialist (read: hardware- and software- focused) and affect-related theory.’ In this case, theory is not executed only in the normal written format but as engineered situations: the other material infrastructures and modes of expression in which power operates, from code to networks.’ Parikka (critically engineered wireless politics, 2013)

He notes that,

‘In real time computing systems, however, the collection, organization and storage of information leads directly to action, to integrated surveillance and control over the object environment. This dynamic marriage of information and control in real time systems is a fusion of knowledge and action, and, through directed action in real time, information is expressed as power. (Sackman, 1968: 1492) (in Parikka,critically engineered wireless politics, 2013)

These workshops (and others like them) are oriented towards a kind of techno-politics based on hacking intervention and self-enablement (however genuine this ends up being). There’s a like-spirited endeavour in this paper which I saw present in Xcoax – a symposium you should all make yourselves aware of.


What does the Sack piece tell us about the way that memory has been conceived of in the history of computer science?

Warren Sack in: Fuller, Matthew. Software studies: A lexicon. Mit Press, 2008.

Electronic Memory in Practice

In this section we are going to have an archaeological look, a dig in fact, at electronic memory. To do this properly there are a certain number of things we need to understand first.


how does binary work?

1 bit – 2 possible states
2 bit – 4 possible states
3 bit – 8 possible states
4 bit – 16 possible states
5 bit – 32 possible states
6 bit – 64 possible states
7 bit – 128 possible states
8 bit (a byte) – 256 possible states

Here’s a way of working out the value:

(image cc wikivisual 2015)

(then add the results : 32+8+2=42)

And here’s another way:

how to read binary

(image cc wikivisual 2015)

(then, again, add the results : 32+8+2=42)

This is how we combine single bits to create more and more memory. But what we are interested in is how, on a the level of both logic and components, this works.

Latches and Flip flops

Latches and flip flops (we can talk about the difference – it depends who you ask) are an essential part of computer memory. Some version of this circuit is inside the most fundamental aspects of computer memory. They are therefore massively significant in thinking about what we mean when we say ‘computer memory’. We are going to build a state saving circuit ( a flip flop) and use it to explore what we do and don’t know about digital memory and how we can use that as part of a research and creative methodology.

History and archaeology of the flip flop.

Here’s the original patent, designed with vacuum tubes.

And what do vacuum tubes do?

How does it work?

Let’s hear a nice (rather slow) explanation.  To understand what flipflops are and why they are important we first need to know a few things.

Like what is boolean logic?

How can we combine two NOR gates into an OR gate? Simple (ish)! We invert it! See a bunch of examples here. Take one and explain it to your partner!

Step one: Building a NOR gate

This circuit uses transistors

Transistors are manufactured in different shapes but they have three leads (legs).
The BASE – which is the lead responsible for activating the transistor.
The COLLECTOR – which is the positive lead.
The EMITTER – which is the negative lead.



Here’s our circuit diagram. (and below obviously), all credits to HyperPhysics

Step Two: Combine two NOR gates into a flip flop.

Look at the diagram below. How should we wire up our NORs to make a flip flop?

2 NORs making a flip flop. CC wikimedia


It works, what next?

A flip flop gives us a single bit, held in memory (as long as there is power). Here are somethings I want us to discuss:

  • what is the significance of holding one piece of memory – what can that memory mean? What can it do? Wittgenstein asks of a man given a piece of paper which asks for 5 apples, the following ‘But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?” Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’? No such thing was in question here, only how the word ‘five’ is used.’ What do we mean when we say a bit ‘means’?
  • Now imagine we have an encoding system for that bit. e.g. 0 = ‘apple’, 1=’pear’. How does that affect the above?
  • Stepping outside this question for a moment – how many real-world applications for the storage of one bit of information can you think of? How about for 2 or 3 bits?
  • If we all combined our individual bits into a large register – what could we store? How could we act?

But Why? Let’s talk about that

  • What elements of media archaeology (if any) do you identify in your work?
  • What would be the impact of this method?
  • Returning to our project, how could you take this exploration of digital memory further, how would you develop it?


Suggested readings

What is Media Archaeology? Parikka, 2012, Polity

Media Archaeology, Huhtamo & Parikka (eds), 2010

Digital Memory and the Archive, Ernst, 2012, University of Minnesota Press

Deep Time of the Media, Zielinkski, 2008, MIT Press


HSS8121: Dan Foster Smith

DanFS_Yossarian 48

HSS8121: Serena Korda


DMS8013: 6. Terrible Interactivity: From Diegetic Prototyping to the ‘Gestural Excess’

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 15.28.36


  • To thinking about what makes interaction successful or otherwise
  • To develop a critical position towards interaction as a cultural entity
  • To familiarise ourselves with some tools, techniques and considerations for building interactives


This session is not intended to teach you how to make good interaction (though it will certainly help). Instead I want to provide something of an overview of some different approaches to interaction from the field of Interaction Design itself, HCI, software studies and STS. We’ll look at the following:

  • Affordance (and affordance ecologies)
  • Fictionality and Prototyping
  • Embodiment
  • Public Interaction

Perhaps the most important point I want to make today is that interaction involves our bodies, and the way that this is framed is vastly important for the way that we encounter the world and the way that that is imagined in the future.


“specific combination of the properties of its substance and its surfaces taken with reference to an animal” Gibson, J. J. (1977). The Theory of Affordances. In R. Shaw & B. J (Eds.), Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology (pp. 67–82). Book Section, Hillsdale, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p67

‘Affordances are properties of the world that are compatible with and relevant for people’s interactions. When affordances are perceptible, they offer a direct link between perception and action; hidden and false affordances lead to mistakes. […] The notion of affordances is in many ways the epitome of the ecological approach, encapsulating ideas about ecological physics, perceptual information, and the links between perception and action. In this account, affordances are the fundamental objects of perception. People perceive the environment directly in terms of its potentials for action, without significant intermediate stages involving memory or inferences. For instance, we perceive stairways in terms of their “climbability,” a measurable property of the relationship between people and stairs.’  Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems Reaching through technology – CHI ’91 (pp. 79–84). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. http://doi.org/10.1145/108844.108856

Gaver (and others) make a distinction between affordance proper and ‘perceived affordance’. An affordance is a relational property of the world. A perceived affordance is just what it sounds like – the sensory + cognitive combination in an animal that allows it to act on an affordance. He also notes how artefacts may cluster so that the affordance of one item supports another.

‘nested affordances describe affordances that are grouped in space. For instance, a handle alone only appears to afford pulling. A door alone may suggest an affordance for manipulation due to its partial separation from the wall, but not what sort of manipulation will be effective. Only by seeing the affordance of pulling the handle as nested within an affordance of pulling the door can opening the door be a perceptible affordance.’ Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems Reaching through technology – CHI ’91 (pp. 79–84). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. http://doi.org/10.1145/108844.108856

Fictionality and Prototyping

The discussion above is very much centred in HCI/Interaction Design literature and framed by references to areas like cognitive psychology. It’s very much involved with the interplay between the real world and technological simulations of it (think of onscreen buttons mimicking ‘real’ buttons). IT’s all the more interesting then that recently in Interaction Design questions around the value of fiction and speculation for proposing, developing or presenting prototypes have emerged. This discussion could become very broad indeed but lets examine a couple of example prototype interactions.

Propositional Prototypes

More from MIT Tangible Media Group

Kinetic Blocks is a prototype of a new kind of tangible interaction. One of the things that’s interesting (and problematic) about this kind of interaction is that it is so ‘pure’. It is a product of a bunch of researchers sitting around and saying ‘wouldn’t it be neat if…’ Applications come afterwards – effectively post interaction design. I tend to think of this kind of interaction design prototypes as ‘propositional’. They propose a kind of interaction with the expectation that something/someone will come along and partake in the conversation.

You can find a fascinating historical critique of the MIT Media Lab (which is distinct from the Tangible Media Group) here.

 …this particular brand of humanism has always been tied to an imaginary future, it was a particular kind of inhuman humanism that began in the Architecture Machine Group and went on to flourish in the Media Lab. This philosoophy constantly invokes an imagined future human who never really comes into existence, partly because the future is ever-receding, but also because this imagined future human is only ever a privileged, highly individualized, boundary-policing, disembodied, white, western, male human.’  Lori Emerson, 2016

Diegetic Prototypes

A stage further from this is the so-called ‘diegetic prototype’. The most famous example being the ‘Minority Report’ gestural interface. Diegetic prototypes are embedded in the ‘diegesis’, the fictional context of a film. Some commenters have noted that this is a convenient backdoor to getting your prototype / proposition accepted as normal, natural maybe even inevitable.

Witnessing a technology as a naturalistic part of a cin- ematic landscape is significant, but it is not sufficient to convince audi- ences of a technology’s essential worth. Diegetic prototypes entail an additional visual and narrative rhetoric specifically framed so as to encour- age audience support for the development of the technology on the screen.’ p44


‘If scholarship in the history and sociology of technology has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that technological development is not inevitable, pre-destined or linear. Any number of obstacles can impede or alter the development of a potential technology including a lack of funding, public apathy over the need for the technology, public concerns about potential applications, or a fundamental belief that the technology will not work (Williams & Edge, 1996). For scientists and engineers, the best way to jump-start technical development is to produce a working physical pro- totype. Working physical prototypes, however, are time consuming, expen- sive and require initial funds. […] technological advocates who construct diegetic prototypes have a vested interest in conveying to audiences that these fictional technologies can and should exist in the real world. In essence, they are creating ‘pre-product placements’ for technologies that do not yet exist.’ Kirby, D. (2009). The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40(1), 41–70. http://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709338325 p6

A concrete example of this is Underkoffler and the his ‘g-speak’ (seriously) interface. The film apparently allowed him to sell it on to the military so in that sense I suppose we should be glad it’s so ridiculous.

‘These approaches [from potential funders] led to the funds he needed to start the company Oblong Industries and to turn his diegetic prototype into a physical prototype. This real world prototype in turn led to a development contract with defence giant Raytheon to produce gestural interface technology for the US military.7 From Underkoffler’s perspective, his work as science consultant on Minority Report was not simply a minor component in this story; his well-worked out diegetic prototype was the crucial element in the development process.’ Kirby, D. (2009). The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40(1), 41–70. http://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709338325 p11

The reason that diegetic prototyping as well as Design Fictions are so interesting in the context of Interaction Design is that they get a “get out of jail free” card for issues of embodiment.


Terrible interaction (such as the minority report interface) treats the body as mechanical. Not as a body, but as an animated corpse. It ignores affordance and the situated character of embodied interaction. To

demonstrate this there are always a couple of great (by which I mean terrible) kinect examples. As you watch ask yourself

  1. Whose body language is this? What culture (political, social, ethnic, professional) does it come from
  2. Who is the audience? Who is NOT the audience?

The V Motion Project from Assembly on Vimeo.

Live Looping with Ableton and Xbox Kinect from Chris Vik on Vimeo.


The Gestural Excess

contrast this:

with this

And to really bring it home lets play ‘KINECT PONG‘.  As we do so, let’s think about the ‘gestural excess’.

‘the style produced through gestural excess is a part of the social and embodied experience of digital game play, which exists in relation to — but is not indexed, measured or evaluated by — gaming technologies.’ Apperley, T. H. (2013). The body of the gamer: game art and gestural excess. Digital Creativity, 24(2), 145–156. http://doi.org/10.1080/14626268.2013.808967 p152

See also:
Freeman, D., Hilliges, O., Sellen, A., O’Hara, K., Izadi, S., & Wood, K. (2012). The role of physical controllers in motion video gaming. In Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference on – DIS ’12 (p. 701). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. http://doi.org/10.1145/2317956.2318063
Simon, Bart, Wii are Out of Control: Bodies, Game Screens and the Production of Gestural Excess (March 5, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1354043 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1354043

Public Interaction

Terrible interaction has no environmental awareness. Reeves et al note the many fine nuances involved in public interaction (particularly in explicitly public scenarios like interactive art).

‘Our taxonomy uncovers four broad design strategies: ‘secretive,’ where manipulations and effects are largely hidden; ‘expressive,’ where they tend to be revealed enabling the spectator to fully appreciate the performer’s interaction; ‘magical,’ where effects are revealed but the manipulations that caused them are hidden; and finally ‘suspenseful,’ where manipulations are apparent but effects are only revealed as the spectator takes their turn.’ Reeves, S., Benford, S., & Malley, C. O. (2005). Designing the Spectator Experience. In Proc. CHI 2005 (pp. 741–750). Portland, Oregon: ACM Press.

One of the things that the gestural excess teaches us is that gaming cultures have an aesthetic and social character which exists effectively around the game without being recognised by it. It’s kind of a paratextual element to the game(s).

Experimenting with Interactivity

Download the live face detection example here (you’ll need to install both processing video and OpenCV using Tools->add Tool and choosing the libraries tab).

We’re going to use this example to think about what makes a good or and interaction. One of the really tricky things about computer vision is getting the lighting setup right. So lets experiment.

factors to try are:

  • camera resolution
  • framerate
  • camera positioning
  • lighting -experiment with contrast, direction, intensity, diffusion

Then some straightforward ideas to try are:

  • make something happen when faces are detected (e.g. add a background)
  • work with the face pixels themselves
  • link some action or level of activity to the number of faces detected or their proximity

Terrible interactivity

As you’re doing the above – some of the things to think about (and be prepared to talk about later) are:

  • what does face detection afford?
  • what is the difference between doing this activity by yourself or in a group?
  • what are the people watching doing?
  • where are participants looking?
  • what do the participants think they’re doing?
  • how do the participants feel about what they’re doing
  • how are participants’ bodies used?
  • what is the fiction being proposed?



Read Kirby, D. ‘The Future is Now. Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development’

Download and install the OpenCV library for processing (go to tools-> add tool -> Libraries and search for OpenCV). Look through the examples and have a play seeing if you can adapt them.