Before you make a thing

For his course on Technology & Society, Jentery Sayers has created a document entitled “Before you make a thing” that is a fantastic overview of how to critically approach designing and making with technology. The guide is divided into three sections: Theories and Concepts, Practices, and Prototyping Techniques. Here are a few of my favorite bits:

Examine the “default settings” of technologies; doing so asks for whom, by whom, and under what assumptions they are designed, and who they may exclude and enable. All projects have intended audiences, even if those intentions are not always conscious or deliberate.

Remember that data are produced, not given or captured; doing so emphasizes how this becomes that, or how data is structured, collected, and expressed for interpretation. 

Conjecture with affordances; doing so demonstrates how design is relational. It happens between people, environments, and things; it’s not just a quality or property of objects.

Make a useless or disinterested version of your project; doing so may underscore the creative and critical dimensions of technology and society. After all, not all technologies must increase productivity or efficiency. Consider the roles of technologies in art, theory, and storytelling. 

There’s a wealth of great guidance for both craft and thinking here, along with links to source materials for more in-depth study — go and read the whole thing!

Make America Geocities Again

Clockwise, from top left: Data Diaries, by Cory Arcangel; My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, by Olia Lialina; Arngren.net; Form Art, buy Alexei Shulgin; Cameron’s World, by Cameron Askin.

It’s 2018 and the web feels…sanitized. It’s an odd word to use amidst the rampant trolling and politics and problematic speech. But when you look at the systems we use to communicate with each other, we all assemble into the neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs that have been assembled for us, we write on our writing platforms and share on our sharing platforms and artfully compose photos on our photo platforms. We complain about the landlords but we still use all of the privately owned public spaces of the internet as our de facto watering holes.

We’ve all become expert users, but we’re no longer makers. Not in the same way.

I grew up with a web that was more rudimentary in its capabilities but it was clay in our hands. It was material for creating. And some of what was created was gaudy or ridiculous, but it was craft. It was our own glue and yarn creation, not some shiny cookie cutter assemblage we made from a kit. So, while I appreciate the elegance and gloss and ease of use of the tools and platforms we have available to us today, they feel so prescriptive, so limiting, and frankly, so dull.

And yet we are in a moment that has the potential to be so expressive. We are in a moment of political rage, we are in a moment of frustration and creation, where people are coming together and rising up and reclaiming systems and processes to better express their voices. But the internet, our digital infrastructure, offers weak tea, tools designed for an orderly way of being. The idea of a radical tweet or a movement-instigating Instagram post seems laughable. Where is the radical net art of this moment? Where are our geocities pages, our generative bots, our fantastical creations? Why aren’t there more of them?

So why not reclaim the tools of our digital landscape? Why not put our hands in the clay again and see what sculptures emerge? Let’s break out of the sleek, efficient, factory-sealed futures that have been engineered for us to complacently exist in and instead play and rage and make in the wide open fields that have lain falllow too long. Embrace the maximalist moment every design pundit tells us we’re in and make your big and weird thing. Let’s re-learn our tools. Don’t be intimidated by the over-complicated way you’re supposed to build things on the internet today (or, you know, go deep there if that’s your thing) — write your most basic html and JavaScript, just get your hands dirty in the tools again. Just start making and see what comes out of you. What would happen if we all did?