Tactical Humanities Lab

A hybrid space for technical production and humanistic inquiry.

WithU: Designing Products for Pets & Their Owners – Alice Liu

More than half of the global population currently lives in cities, with an increasing trend for further urbanization.

Houses are becoming less affordable. According to Zumper’s most recent national rent report, the price of one bedroom in New York City is $2,900, with two bedrooms growing 1.7% to $3,500. Living in cities also mess up people’s mental health. Research shows that people living in cities have a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders. In addition, the incidence of schizophrenia is twice as high in those born and brought up in cities. Moreover, in my personal experience as an international student, I found a lot of my friends experiencing homesickness, loneliness, and a very high level of pressure during their time far away from home. Therefore, I started this research seeking ways to help with city people’s mental disorders.

The idea came from Japanese animal cafes, where customers can play with resident animals while having a cup of coffee. “People today are under a lot of stress,” said Masayuki Takamatsu, board chairman at the Nihon Animal Therapy Association. “It has been proven in neuroscience that humans feel better after spending time with animals they like.” Seeing how popular animal cafes have become in Japan, I decided to focus my research on increasing the impact of animals (pets) on city people’s mental disorders.

Differing from the living situations in Japan, American apartments are a lot bigger in general. So rather than going to animal cafes, more people keep pets in their houses. Among my friends, a lot of them own a cat, a few own a dog, and even fewer own small animals like rabbits or guinea pigs. In order to get more users and testers, I chose to design the first product for cats and cat owners.

I interviewed my friends who own cats and observed them in their home environments, paying particular attention to the interactions between the owners and their cats, the products they use, and the environment itself. I saw that cats were rather clingy creatures. Besides sleeping and playing with cat toys, they love trying to get their owners’ attention. Among the five cats I observed, two of them love stepping and sitting on the laptop when my friends were trying to do work. “I love having Luna around my desk, even if sometimes she disturbs me a little,” said Chun Wang. “Usually she will just go back to sleep after me playing with her for a while. If she gets too excited, I’ll put a little box on the table and she’ll sleep in the box. Few cats can say no to little boxes.”

In Troy, New York (the location of my research & current home), the average size for an apartment is 1,047 square feet – which is enough for a party of two people and a cat – but even so, is still a bit crowded for most parties I interviewed. To optimally design for city people and their cats, I tried my best to minimize space usage while letting the cat keep their owner’s company as much as possible. Having that goal in mind, I sketched a student desk with a sunken area for cats to sleep in.

The shape and depth of the cat’s desk area are still being tested, and, based on user feedback, other functions might be added in the future.

While our users are testing the desk, we are trying to start designing our second product – which might be a hiking bottle for dogs. Keep an eye out if you’re interested! We are also constantly looking for cat owners to help with user testing, so please let me know if you are willing to help! Thank you:)

Jiawen Liu (Alice) is an Electrical Engineering and Design Innovation and Society major – interested in industrial design, theme park design, cultural anthropology, and filmmaking. Hobbies: traveling, road biking, being with animals, daydreaming… Favorite color: sky blue. Favorite food: chicken wings. Favorite animation: Spirited Away. Currently working on the project WithU – which seeks ways to increase the positive impact of animals on human mental illnesses through products.






Paraphrasing Kittler

“There is no comment”

Ezra Teboul – you can point out my mistakes at t e b o u e   a t r p i d o t e d u

Modular synthesizers have been right on time for their latest cyclical comeback thanks to a combination of things:

  • the relative affordability of making someone else assemble surface-mount-components for your hip new sound-making circuits.
  • the convenient and contagious standardization of Doepfer’s eurorack specifications.
  • the ever-increasing amount of “open” relevant resources, material and intellectual, available to those with disposable time and income on the internet, including access to relatively affordable and well documented parts.
  • (glibly) the general realization that, after all, maybe disco was cool.  

However, for all its increased cultural capital, and a general movement in music to implicitly and slowly attempt to come to terms with its deeply embedded exclusionary practices, the vague category of artifacts called “synthesizer” (hereafter, affectionately, synth) has received mostly occasional and fragmented critical attention (Sterne, Rodgers, Pinch, Bijsterveld, Born, Theberge, Taylor, Diduck, Nakai, Kuivila, Collins… if most of these cite each other they are usually operating independently). The situation is that those best situated to appreciate synths’ cultural / economic significance often tend to be ones least likely to also boil down exactly how synths’ dual status as artistic and technical objects may or may not make the required transdisciplinary reading difficult. The electronics themselves, and the practices (electrical engineering, computer science) they imply are challenging to apprehend on their own terms (please feel free to point me to studies of electronic music that deconstruct circuit schematics and code to prove me wrong and make my dissertation easier).

In other words – as Jessica Rylan, a synth designer, maker and user who also used to work for Don Buchla, bluntly pointed out when I interviewed her for my master’s thesis, electronics theory and circuit assembly / troubleshooting are hard and not everyone is particularly interested in dealing with them (although I believe everyone could if they had the resources and time they wanted). The less considered converse phenomena is that circuit designers’ work is rarely documented as making “cultural” references through their technical work. Challenges go both ways: making circuits is hard as well. You have to be a special kind of self-sabotaging to want to spend the time necessary to write down where every circuit idea, inspiration, decision came from, let alone share that information or figure that out for someone else’s work (although, in some ways, there are exceptions).

And in a sense, this intentional cordoning off of some questions makes self-preserving sense. Musicologists, operating in a well codified milieu, gain relatively little from reading into synthesizers (a thoroughly undeveloped scholarly subfield) as they might read into musical scores or ethnographic documentation. Designers don’t need much more than basic comparisons to pre-existing systems to advertise their latest hardware or software work (for behemoths like Ableton or Cycling ’74, they don’t even need to advertise that much). Understanding the cultural implications of technical decisions in electronic music, is, in a pragmatic-economic sense, the “basic research” of the field: it might make your music better and your scholarship more accurate, but for fields as cynical as small scale music hardware entrepreneurship and academia, those were never clear objectives in the first place anyways.

The arbitrary waveform generator is not a solution to these issues as much as it’s an acknowledgement of their existence and an opportunity to try and answer them as best we can (with questions). What does it mean to consider technical decisions as more or less explicit position statements? Is picking 1N400X series diode the same as writing a song with a mixolydian mode in any meaningful way? In turn, how do these decisions compare to writing songs about parents, doing dishes, or a time of your life so grim it is best portrayed as an apocalypse? Questions of scale and agency are at play here. Each of these decisions carries cultural baggage at different levels, with meanings as varied as there are listeners. There is no reason to expect consistent responses at the individual level. But technical work – in synthesizer design and beyond – won’t come to terms with those shapeshifting and scale-sliding meanings if it doesn’t develop the appropriate modes of acknowledgement and expression at all scales.

As discussed in a previous post, some scholarship around and outside music have acknowledged the potential and possibilities here (see the Rodgers or Haring pieces mentioned there). Since then, the waveform group has also read pieces by Alexander Weheliye and Katherine McKittrick or Alejandra Bronfman (unpublished, sorry). These detail how audio electronics eventually acquire cultural and individual meanings which its makers have very little control over home and back again. This is while they also detail the mechanisms taken by such processes in the past, and at various scales. For the tactical humanities lab, we’ve focused on the arbitrary waveform generator because it offered the most meaningful connections to imagined and actual communities.

Because musical electronics serve the vague purpose of helping with art making while being commodities hopelessly reliant on and symptoms of global manufacturing and consumption chains (Taylor , Theberge), they offer an interesting meeting point for ambiguously ambivalent interests which are rarely acknowledged by designers and makers (again, exceptions). The arbitrary waveform generator suggests what this might look like at the aforementioned multiple scales:

  • justifying arbitrary decisions in comments.
  • making references to music we think is relevant by copying the designs of the systems used to make that music in our digital environment and detailing that in more comments.
  • finding out ways to comment circuit schematics in addition to more traditional code or visual coding environments.
  • the open sourcing of our whole process so you can actually read those comments.

Our hope is a combination of small changes in design and documentation practices can help assess the reality of our current setting, if not change it (yet). In other words, if there is no such thing as an ethical electronic device under capitalism, what is our responsibility as designers in this privileged space of the “not-quite-as-essential” devices embodied by “synths?” How do we respond to it? Does it affect the functionalities of the system we are designing? Does it affect the characteristic of music made with that system?

Ezra Teboul is HASS fellow in RPI’s Tactical Humanities Laboratory researching labor and agency in musical electronics.

Domestic Robots, Social Robots?

Let me set a scene: A woman kisses her baby’s head, stands up to give her husband, holding their child, a warm smile and comforting pat on the arm as she leaves the house. Moments later, the ubiquitous Alexa (complete with cheerfully neutral feminine voice) chimes in, “Here’s your reminder: Laura left a teething ring in the freezer.” Then, “Laura made a play date for three pm.” Then, “I’m reminding you: Laura loves you, and you’re doing a great job.” This commercial for Amazon’s home robot, alternately Echo/Alexa dependent upon your penchant for anthropomorphizing, displays the continued relationship between technology and gendered household labor by illustrating the embeddedness and invisibility of female emotional and mental labor involved in making life easier for others through the instrumentalization of technology broadly construed to make life easier for everyone. Despite the presentation of Alexa as an independent house helper, in the practice of this commercial she becomes a disembodied extension of the mother, infantilizing the father.



2019 seems to be the moment of the domestic robot, or robotic technologies which often utilize AI and which are designed to make home life and domestic labor easier for the user. Everywhere you look, advertisements boast the time and labor saving benefits of domestic robots. More and more often, these robots are becoming integrated into every day life: a recipe is pulled up by the user without any touch or effort of finding it themselves; an alarm is requested of the robot by a user; a ding notifies a user during work that their vacuuming for the day has been completed; blueberries are ordered by a rogue child.  Why vacuum or take time to order your goods/set an alarm/add events to your calendar manually, when you can merely ask a robot to do it for you? These technologies advertise their ability to make life much easier for their users. As a function of this ‘ease’ of use, these robots are gathering information on the user throughout the course of every day living.

There are many potential courses of analysis delving into the dynamics of the underlying capitalist and financial motivations of this behavior; however, I am most interested in the social aspects of these robots. How do the robots come to “understand” their users through this attention to and analysis of them? How do users come to understand the function and usability of these devices in ways which create them as static objects in relation to the user’s subjectivity? How do interactions between these domestic robots and their users come to define domestic relationships, user subjectivity, and rules of interaction both inside and outside of the home?

These are many of the questions driving my exploration of domestic robots as social robots. Having access to the “space” of the Tactical Humanities Lab has provided me the opportunity to get down and dirty with some of these devices, in order to “play” and explore boundaries and relationalities of these devices with their users. Treated much like a multi-species participatory observational ethnography, I am hoping to expand my understanding of the ways in which these devices function with users, with each other, and with(in) their environments.

Jamie Steele is a doctoral student in Science and Technology Studies at RPI. Her research interests are the intersections of technoscience studies, feminist/queer inflected critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and popular culture. In addition to her analytic work on the Alien films, she is currently exploring gendered aspects of embodiment and minds in the development of artificial intelligence.

Is the Modernization and Increasing Popularity of Rave Culture Having Negative Effects on the Quality of Dance Music?

Some people are just different, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it’s hard to be different in our society. People bottle up their emotions, their weirdness, what makes them unique. They hold it inside waiting for the night that they can let it all out. The night where people just like them gather in an undisclosed location and go crazy for a couple of hours. The music is loud, people are dancing, and the DJ is killing it. To them it’s not just a concert, it’s not just somewhere you can go and dance. No, it’s more than that. It’s a community. It’s a form of self expression. It’s an experience unlike any other. It is a rave.

Since the early 90’s, in cities around the globe, ravers have gathered in abandoned warehouses and underground clubs. The music may have changed over the years, but the community didn’t. As electronic music became easier to produce and consume, the scene just kept growing. The beats became harder, the genres expanded, and the attendance at once underground events skyrocketed.

With the increase in popularity, the word “rave” started to lose meaning. It went from being a community to just being a concert for a growing trend known as EDM. Electronic Dance Music is a decent overarching description for the type of music played at raves, but the music being attached to this tag is far from something a real raver would consider to be dance music. With artists like Marshmello hitting top 40 with EDM tracks, is rave music losing its individuality? Is it losing its meaning? Are songs now just manufactured to “go hard” and make people dance, or are there still strong emotions coming through in modern music? Is rave music inherently obscure, or is popularity only bringing more success to the rave scene? Will rave music end up other once popular genres like rock and roll, blues, and hip hop? Will I be listening to EDM on the radio when I’m 50?

I’m going to find out the answers to questions like these and more. I’m going to be sampling groups of ravers who listen to different types of rave music and even interview some big name DJs to see what their take on the situation is. I mainly am focusing on the New York City rave scene since there will be many differences in different cities. After drawing some conclusions from my data, I’m going to be designing and prototyping a game that will address the concerns of the community. I want to experiment with games that can be played at raves and games that can function as online spaces to hold raves.

I had previously done research in emotion in electronic music coming from a production standpoint. I produced a series of experimental pieces, learned how to sing, and practiced professional level mixing and mastering to try to make my own production have more emotion. I hope I can show off all the practice I’ve being doing as well as the research I’m doing now to create a meaningful experience for ravers in the NYC community.

Jon Castro is an undergraduate GSAS and CS dual major. His research questions how different people interact with music and how modern pop music differs from years prior.

Check out Jon’s Twitter here & his SoundCloud below!

Announcing “Bales of Amber”: A video game on ecosystem education, individual impact, & whales – Jennifer Bourke

Julia was an office worker in The City until the day her daughter died. Then she became part of the Animal Factorization Initiative, and now she lives within a whale.

Bales of Amber is an educational, surrealist, post-apocalyptic, speculative fiction game about a disastrous whaling industry. In this game, the player explores human interaction with themselves, others, and with the environment they live in. The player begins by waking up and setting off to do their chores. These chores include things such as spreading Ambergris and collecting phytoplankton from the teeth of their assigned whale. Each day they will do more chores, find more puzzles, and meet new friends to find out what truly is going on.

Bales of Amber focuses heavily on issues of environmental health, issues of capitalist production, and worldwide disaster as a result. This project teaches the players about what whales do for the ecosystem and what the everyday person can do to stop their decline. By collecting and spreading whale feces across the ocean, the player learns that whales are one of the biggest stimulators of the nitrogen cycle. When talking to their neighbor, they play a battleship-esque game with them, and that teaches them about the fact that 15% of whales die every year due to ameteur boating accidents.

I aim to finish a working prototype by the end of April so I can pursue grants and/or Kickstarter funds, and I recently completed an early-production video trailer for the project:

Jennifer Bourke is a third-year GSAS/EArts student with a passion for environmental education and hugging cats. She believes that every serious situation requires a touch of humor, and that Trader Joe’s brand Everything But The Bagel Spice is the most important invention of the century. In addition, she wishes she could have pet lobsters in her bathtub, but her roommates will not hear of it.

Project Introduction: Meditations on Memory – Emma Goldman

The idea of digital versus analog recollection is a driving force. When I began this project, I didn’t fully know what I was expecting of it, or myself, in the process. I wanted to build something immersive and nostalgic and home-y, but struggled with the initial direction. There was no real storyboard for this, it built itself as I was rediscovering my past and overlaying it with that of others. Meditations on Memory (the working title for this piece), came from a place of something unknown and desired. I knew I wanted to open a dialogue about the way we remember things, and how these memories can become universal in different ways. Humans, in many ways tend towards the egotistical (not necessarily in a negative context, but simply that of seeing themselves everywhere), projecting ourselves into the images/memories of others, in places we feel most comfortable.

The physical representation of this project has been one of the primary focuses in the current stages of planning, as the digital is in flux and grows/changes as I do. The original presentation was in a room with three projected screens on varying surfaces. The first was a flat, plaster wall, the second a brick, textured wall, and the third a sheet hung across the room. Of this presentation, the sheet I thought was the most interesting and effective in portraying the feelings I had imagined. It gave the narrative a base in a home-like environment and opened new ways of viewing I hadn’t even considered in production. The most interesting thing about the sheet was the addition of dynamic viewing that it opened to the audience. The sheet allowed for viewing on both sides, allowing for the play of shadows to become a new part of the story. This was particularly important given the original vision of this piece involved the shadows of the observers a lot more than the first showing allowed. The use of shadow was meant to literally project the viewers into the video, physically placing the individuals into the piece so that they might see themselves more literally. This technique is something I hope to utilize more in the future of the piece.

Other considerations I have been making in the evolution of this project is the way the environment effects the way it’s viewed overall. The hope is that Meditations…can be a moveable piece, curating individualized experiences per location so as to best fit the given environments.  However, there has to be some sort of consistency throughout the pieces that will eventually make up this unit so finding the right setting is the current focus. An idea I’ve begun dabbling with for this is that of the living, or bedrooms in houses. Taking things like curtains, and altered furniture to create a more home-like atmosphere. I think of it in the mindset that so many stories are told and written in those rooms, that having that environment recreated, even indirectly, might make the viewing experience more digestible.

 Another main factor I’ve been taking into consideration in the development of this project is the attention span of the viewers. The initial version was a whopping 6 minutes and 30 seconds, all of which were incredibly fast paced, and (I think) lacking in a lot of ways. While the imagery was nice, many of the clips felt rushed and left the observers either confused or wanting more (not in the best way). I think that slowing many of the clips down, and breaking them into smaller vignettes that can later be pieced together (also in response to the given venues) is something that has worked greatly to the evolution of the piece. This breakdown has also allowed me to piece together stronger stories over the varied screening surfaces (no longer necessarily limited to just three) because of the way shorter pieces of narrative can be carried out over a longer time utilizing a lot more stillness [i.e. if there are three screens and each has a similar image at different points in a story, two of the screens can be still while one progresses towards the next until all three have played].

I’m really excited to continue working on this project and to see how physical production might change the way it can be observed as a whole. I’m also looking forward to sharing the experience here, so keep an eye out for what’s to come!

If you’re interested in seeing the original video that accompanied this installation, feel free to view it here, just know a whole lot is changing!

Also! If you want to read/look at the stuff I’m lookin at (for this project) rn, here are some links/titles:

Emma Goldman is a Junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute pursuing a dual degree in Philosophy & Communication and Media. Over the past year they have begun a dive into media production, primarily focused on allowing for more accessible communication in technical areas. They also have a black cat named Cagney who they love very much.

Exploring the Consumption of Genetics: Society, Identity, & Misconceptions – Hined Rafeh & Hazelle Lerum

The direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA test market has exploded in recent years as gene sequencing has become cheaper, and demand for ancestry-based genomic testing & medical health testing has increased as consumers have become (arguably) increasingly gene-literate. However, the policy surrounding these products has a long and winding history, as well as conditions surrounding the sharing and use of DNA data for research and commercial means.

Politicizing DNA, the Tactical Humanities Lab project led by Hined Rafeh, will explore the nuances of DTC genetic test regulation and its categorization as a medical device. It will also explore the recent FDA-approval of popular test company, 23andMe, in its endeavors to distribute tests that can identify pathogenic alleles with the intent of identifying genetic disease risk–think BRCA2, the widely recognized gene that is responsible for some forms of breast cancer.

Major questions guiding this research include: What regulatory standards exist for DTC genetic tests, and how do these standards change the way genetic results are represented? How does the gene become a tool to categorize ethnicity, disease and other identities? How is genetic health risk defined by government agencies and medical institutions, and how are these definitions communicated to the public?

Additionally, this project will explore the data paths that DNA follows after you spit: where does your biological information go, and who gets to use it? What pathways exist for revoking consent, and who can be harmed by the sharing of genetic information?

Politicizing DNA seeks to empirically explore the language around direct-to-consumer genetic test policy, including politically-salient terms such as “genetic risk” and “medical device.” This will be accomplished by policy analysis, website analysis, and analysis of the actual materials that are shipped with a genetic test. We intend to accomplish this by focusing on several of the biggest DTC genetic test companies, such as 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and FamilyTreeDNA.

Previous research under the Politicizing DNA project included an analysis of race as presented by DTC genetic test companies. The findings, spearheaded by undergraduate researchers Paloma Alonso and Hannah Lightner, uncovered ill-defined terminology and unfeasible promises of ancestry on these companies’ websites. For example, instead of using race, the three genetic companies used the terms “ethnic groups and tribes,” “populations,” and “ethnic populations.” Very few companies addressed the reality of the social construction of race, instead presenting a biologically essential view of race and genetics.

Going forward, Hazelle Lerum and Hined Rafeh will continue this research with a bigger focus on the policy and regulation of DTC genetic tests themselves and the data gathered by DTC genetic companies. This research will trouble the uncertainties surrounding popular conceptions of DNA and what it means for us as a society, and identify the groups that are most vulnerable to the use and abuse of corporatized genetic health testing.

Hined Rafeh is a HASS fellow and PhD student in the RPI STS program, and her research explores genetic testing, technoidentities and critical scientific engagement.

Hazelle Lerum is an undergraduate student pursuing a B.S. in Science, Technology, & Society. Her research explores the politics of direct-to-consumer DNA tests, the dangers of toxic sex toy materials, and the intersection of art and environmental justice in citizen science. She is a founding editor of the self-publishing collective Pale Mountain Press, and enjoys writing in her free time.

Introducing the Tactical Humanities Lab of 2019

The Tactical Humanities Lab (THL) at Rensselaer is our effort to epistemically and institutionally produce DH and DH labs as within the boundaries of STS. The word “tactical” has for us a double meaning. First, it is a recognition of the deployment of the term already in DH, used somewhat flippantly as a way to “get things done” (Kirschenbaum 2012) in the contemporary university. While we certainly do not support the managerialization of higher education, we believe that “tactical” in this sense can be more than just a way of “accepting [our] parasitic relationship to the host” of academic administration (Raley 2014). Tactical-as-instrumental can also a way of making humanities and social science research knowable to administrative systems, funding systems, and broader cultural narratives of academic research. In this way, “tactical” DH operates as a intra-institutional translational platform (Malazita, 2018a), in similar ways that translational medicine practices have been constructed as ways of empathetically bridging biomedical research and diagnostic practices with patients and the public (Wang 2012).

Second, we use “tactical” in de Certeau’s form, as the practice of small-scale, everyday resistances to larger systems of power (de Certeau 1980). Part of this commitment is disciplinary; STS scholars tend to construct the field as strongly oriented with social justice and normative approaches to scientific, technological, and knowledge practices. Another part is our location in an engineering-centered institute, where laboratory practices and technoscientific innovation are the major knowable genres for framing social and political change.

The THL takes a bottom-up approach to DH laboratory practices. Rather than having one or two longer-term projects administered through the lab director, graduate and undergraduate students propose semester-long projects to the lab, and are free to work individually or in groups. Though several projects continue for multiple semesters, every semester-length segment is structured via a particular development and dissemination plan. The lab assumes no prior expertise in technical work or critical inquiry; students and faculty share readings, run discussions and workshops, and skillshare throughout the semester. The topics of these workshops and reading groups vary depending on the projects pursued in a given semester. The lab has no formal funding model or physical space–students and student projects are funded through a combination of scrapped-together internal and external sources, including bits and pieces of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rensselaer-based internal “accelerator” funds, faculty startup funds, Independent Study credits, and preexisting institutional research infrastructures available for supporting undergraduates. Our physical lab presence manifests through distributed temporary spaces, generally either in a conference room outside of Malazita’s office, or throughout various electronics, fabrication, and computer labs on a campus designed for STEM students.

The above probably sounds familiar to many DH laboratory practitioners–especially the contingent funding, space shifting, and sweat equity involved in holding a physically situated research practice together. Building momentum towards continuous operation is also complicated by the term-to-term, student-driven nature of the lab’s research foci. The structure of the lab leads to the production of a wide variety of epistemic subjects and objects. The students and faculty represent multiple disciplines, including STS, Arts, Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Sustainability Studies, and Game Design. The project topics range across critical technical education, data visualization, reverse-engineering and hacking hardware, web-based media production, game production, bioart, installation design, and furniture design. While the array of projects and disciplines can sometimes lead to a feeling of disjointedness at the beginning of the semester, all projects are united by two lab “requirements:” the projects must be oriented toward a social or political goal, and the research teams should be interested in making their object “knowable” by DH and STS audiences.

Project Description: Circuit Bending – Ezra Teboul

The focus of our research is on the topics of foxhole radios & analog/digital synthesizer interfacing and their role(s) as technological marginalia. These technologies take advantage of significant scientific discoveries – such as radio, signal generation, and processing – and use them, there is no better word to describe it, for fun.

Our preliminary research shows that although foxhole radios had the potential to be tactically momentous in times of war or duress, not a single instance of “useful” foxhole (or penny-diode) radios has been documented. Similarly, synthesizers and further electronic music instruments were often born from the surplus of war-era research. The influence of this research being either literal (the EMS prototypes were assembled using leftover bomber parts that were bought secondhand in Ladbroke Grove, London) or somewhat indirect (military funding was one of the drivers of miniaturization that in turn led to the development of transistors and integrated circuits, the maturation of modular synthesizers, and, surprisingly, hearing aids – see Mills, 2010).

Aware of the sociocultural implications detailed by Sterne and Rodgers (2011), this project uses the premise of a fairly practical design challenge to ask (yet again, some might add) how a utilitarian project can be grounds for the expression of social ideals. In short, we are designing an arbitrary waveform generator in a way which can allow for the control of a hardware eurorack modular synthesizer from any Open Sound Control (OSC) capable networked device. Our prototype uses a Beaglebone, a Bela cape, C++ code, and some Pure Data patches. However, the specifics of these technical systems are less important than our recognition that they all come with some cultural and ideological baggage that prescribe the way in which we deal with their affordances and constraints. If artifacts have politics (Winner, 1988), how can artistic uses of “non-essential” systems play with these politics in a productive way?

It is important to note that we are not starting our research from scratch. Kirsten Haring’s 2006 book on the technoculture of Ham radio – amateur systems that also emerged from the surplus of WWII research – could be called a retroactive analysis of the macro effects of gender, class, and race-dependent technological developments of “non-(or less-)essential” systems. Haring’s book makes it quite clear that although the ARRL – the organization connecting amateur radio operators – eventually came to hold political weight, the origins of the practice built its somewhat significant and longlasting power as an aggregate of anecdotal, parallel, and personal developments – combining to form more than the sum of its parts. Rodgers’ more recent article Cultivating Activist Lives In Sound echoes Haring’s aforementioned point(s) as well, offering a list of possible angles from which sound can be a valuable starting point for activism. Rodgers goes on to state:

” a sonic activist might endeavor to do a small action in support of most or all of the above aspirations each day. For me, this list is a useful compass and practical guide, so that I can routinely ask myself: In what ways does my music-making today address X? How does my research further Y? If I’m not doing enough to support Z, what needs to change? It reveals how there can indeed be many approaches to cultivating an activist life in sound— many areas toward which we can direct our efforts—resulting in a proliferation of sonic-political acts that have local and far-reaching ripple effects..” (p.82)

We are not lying to ourselves about the revolutionary potential of our arbitrary function generators. We do see it as a way to elucidate other arbitrary or under-documented decisions in signal synthesis, processing and analysis (there is no political history of square wave, even though it is basically the building block of all modern communication and includes a number of standards which can be implemented in an even wider number of ways – all of which carry material significance and consequences), but that in itself is not necessarily the only motivation behind our process. Rather, I hope this project can serve as a template within sound studies and music technology for how to take devices which seem agnostic or apolitical, and show how developing them with institutional support is inherently political and should include everyday concerns of those politics. There are not many precedents for that in sound, and very few have been written about (see Rodgers, Pink Noises, 2010).

Ezra Teboul is HASS fellow in RPI’s tactical humanities laboratory researching the music implicit in circuits and code.

From Teleology to Epistemology (Part 1)

There are certainly no shortage of think pieces, articles, and takes on the opportunities of introducing group-based, experimental, and “hands on” knowledges into Humanities research. In turn, there are hosts of critiques of the Humanities lab model and the Digital Humanities in general. Both the promoters and critics of DH practices (and the vast majority of scholars who occupy spaces orthogonal to these debates) approach DH with a similar assumption: that computational tools, thinking, methods, etc. have impacts on the types of scholarship that occurs in humanities spaces. These impacts can lead to new, exciting frontiers of knowledge, discovery, and community. Or, the unintended consequences of techno-fetishizing the humanities can undermine the foundations of critical thought, harm students, or put us in league with the systems of power that we should be attempting to dismantle.

From a Science & Technology Studies (STS) perspective, the shape of this debate is provocative. You could replace the words “Digital Humanities” with  any other contemporary sociotechnical phenomena–Facebook, algorithms, platforms, blockchain (ugh), Tesla–and the conversation would remain largely unchanged. Framed by proponents as revolutionizing an older form of practice, or of responding to some “new normal,” a technological phenomenon offers tools that, if wielded properly, can provide tractable solutions to intractable problems. Others caution that without proper oversight, moral authority, the participation of stakeholders, and rigorous evaluation, the unintended (or, frankly, intended) consequences of such a phenomena will cause harm, particularly to persons historically most vulnerable.

These two positions are not incommensurate. They sprout from the same ground. As Matt Wisnioski described in his 2012 book, the shape of this conversation didn’t come from critics of technology, but from technologists themselves, who were concerned with protecting their industries and disciplines from the 1960s backlash against WW2-era social and technical institutions. Rather than fighting the lost battle of the Progressive-era promises of technological innovation always leading to social good, engineers, scientists, and government officials changed the narrative of technological progress to incorporate, and then defang, their critics. This new narrative became what Wisnioski calls the “ideology of technological change:”

An ideology of technological change posited that technology was neither good, nor evil; neither was it neutral. Technological change was a semi-autonomous force that was accelerating rapidly, outracing the ability of social institutions [to] adjust. It produced tremendous opportunities, but also social dislocations, alienation, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Through rational management, however, technology’s negative unintended consequences could be minimized and its positive capacities maximized. (page 410)

In a forthcoming paper, I discuss how this rhetorical move came to dominate conversations in the Digital Humanities and in issues of tech and social justice more broadly. This is not to say that it is not vital to discuss the intersections of technological practices with and through marginalized persons and communities–as the our team hopes to make evident, the political in the digital is our central concern. Rather, the ideology of technological change frames these discussions teleologically–through questioning the inputs and outputs of technical practice. What are the impacts, the consequences, intended and unintended, of technology? What codes of ethics can we develop to rationally and ethically manage technical development? What sociotechnical systems can be built to manage other sociotechnical systems?

This rhetorical move is powerful. It places power back into the purview of technical institutions. Their power no longer becomes challenged, or delegitimized; it becomes something to be managed. The solution to which becomes to make sure we’ve checked in with the marginalized before we marginalize them more, or to place English majors in middle management roles in Silicon Valley. “The digital” stops being a contested term; it becomes concretized as a specific set of technical practices controlled by specific sets of people, rather than a contingent, shifting, historical phenomena. The muddled intra-actions that make up the digital become demarcated, cleaned, and categorized into chunks manageable by power.

So too with the Digital Humanities. As Adeline Koh has argued, the uncritical integration of digital tools into the humanities devalues the humanities. I would further this point–that even when being critical of the digital, the humanities still devalue ourselves when we accept wholesale the ideology of technological change–itself often packed with the digital phenomena we attempt to appropriate.

One of the goals of the THL is to challenge the ideology of technical change. One of our tactics is to move from teleology to epistemology–from asking not only what technologies do, to whom and for whom, but also how we know the boundaries of technical practice.