Golan Levin: And we’re back. The last pre­sen­ta­tion of our after­noon ses­sions today is Professor Daniela Rosner, who is a pro­fes­sor in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. Her research inves­ti­gates the social, polit­i­cal, and mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances of tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment. She’s the author of Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design, which inves­ti­gates new rela­tion­ships between tech­nol­o­gy and social respon­si­bil­i­ty. Please wel­come Daniela Rosner. 

Daniela Rosner: Thank you so much Golan, and thanks also to Tom and Bill, and all the folks behind the scenes. I’m real­ly look­ing for­ward to explor­ing some of the top­ics that we’ve seen over the past few days in a new con­text. And for me this is about sort of telling what I’ll be call­ing these impos­si­ble sto­ries with design work. 

Whose stories underpin design? And what methods might be possible if designers tell those stories differently?

And this has been sort of a longer project that a few years ago crys­tal­lized in a book that Golan just men­tioned. And I’m gonna be fram­ing some of the ideas today around these core ques­tions of sto­ry­telling that we heard in han­nah’s talk, for exam­ple, and many oth­ers that are about sort of what sto­ries are under­pin­ning our prac­tices, and then what meth­ods might be pos­si­ble if we were to tell those sto­ries differently. 

And when I kind of came into my prac­tice, there was a lot I could kin­da dive into to see and expe­ri­ence the sto­ries of design. But in many of those pieces I found that there’s kind of a ten­den­cy to cel­e­brate schol­ars like John Dewey, Herbert Simon, Donald Shure, and peo­ple that have had so much to offer the design fields but also who have had lit­tle to say about some of the more hege­mon­ic or patri­ar­chal lega­cies that have defined and shaped design work. 

Design needs to account for its past to speculate about its futures

And over the past cou­ple years there’s just been so many very new and excit­ing sto­ries that chal­lenge some of those exist­ing canons. And I want to point to these sto­ries as sort of a range of work that is real­ly vital to what we might think of as the work of design which is futur­ing. But by doing so through the past. So by telling and account­ing for what we’ve been through. And I’ll men­tion that actu­al­ly one of these texts, The Social Life of DNA is authored by our new Deputy Director for Science and Society, Alondra Nelson that was announced today by the administration. 

So, sort of speak­ing about these kinds of sto­ry­telling prac­tices as a mood of fab­u­la­tion, we start to explore what we do in design as a way of telling, retelling, this core work of speak­ing to the world around us. And for me that came out of think­ing through a con­cept of fab­u­la­tion in the schol­ar­ship of Saidiya Hartman and Vinciane Despret, who have sep­a­rate­ly dis­cussed fab­u­la­tion as a kind of sto­ry­telling that’s blend­ing the real and the imag­i­nary, and sort of build­ing new worlds around them. So Saidiya Hartman coined the phrase crit­i­cal fab­u­la­tion” in a vivid essay called Venus in Two Acts. And she’s describ­ing sort of writ­ing against the lim­its of an archive. These archives that are ren­der­ing, lives Venus who’s an enslaved woman, unknown or unknow­able, their sto­ries unrecorded. 

And she writes, By play­ing with rear­rang­ing the basic ele­ments of sto­ry, by re-presenting the sequence of events in diver­gent sto­ries from con­test­ed points of view, I have attempt­ed to jeop­ar­dize the sta­tus of the event. And in that she’s imag­in­ing what might have hap­pened, what might have been said, what might have been done. So this retelling from the past. 

And in a kind of sep­a­rate account, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, Despret is describ­ing a kind of com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship between ani­mals and sci­en­tists, where they’re kind of invert­ing sto­ries told about sci­ence, with sci­ence. So she’s writ­ing, To cre­ate sto­ries, to make his­to­ry, is to recon­struct, to fab­u­late, in a way that opens up oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties for the past in the present and the future. So again link­ing these sto­ries of chronology. 

Now, bring­ing a kind of fab­u­la­tion or fab­u­la­to­ry prac­tice to design, I want us to try to under­stand design a bit dif­fer­ent­ly, as a kind of multi-bounded process that starts as very small ges­tures and begins with doing the impos­si­ble. And what I want to start with is actu­al­ly a small clip from a project I began with col­lab­o­ra­tors Samantha Shorey, Helen Remick, and Brock Craft. And what we began with is just a moment in a 2008 minis­eries that was as you can see show­ing two women seem…to be rolled-up sleeves, pass­ing a kind of nee­dle through this sort of grid of eye­let holes. 

When I first saw this, as maybe you might think, this remind­ed me of anoth­er kind of prac­tice, one we’ve seen over the past few days, one of weav­ing, right. It’s almost a tex­tile they’re mak­ing. But here the weav­ing is using uncon­ven­tion­al mate­ri­als like wire and mag­net­ic rings in this odd loom. And you’re see­ing this weav­ing hap­pen­ing in a kind of you fac­to­ry set­ting. And over the scene that you just saw is the voice of a man­ag­ing direc­tor named Richard Battin. And he says, We called this the LOL Method, the Little Old Lady method of wiring these cores.” 

So this footage is only a few sec­onds long. It’s silent if not for that nar­ra­tion. And it’s one of the only sur­viv­ing accounts of the women who phys­i­cal­ly wove soft­ware for the Apollo mis­sions dur­ing the 1960s.

So I was men­tion­ing Richard Battin because again his voice was nar­rat­ing the sto­ry of the oper­a­tors who were doing a spe­cif­ic kind of work. They were weav­ing the soft­ware for the Apollo mis­sions dur­ing the 1960s. So they were thread­ing wires around and through doughnut-shaped mag­net­ic cores that were called the core memory. 

And this is a tech­nol­o­gy that was pret­ty preva­lent across the 1950s and 60s, and it was the prin­ci­pal mech­a­nism by which com­put­ers were stor­ing and retriev­ing infor­ma­tion. So if you think about a wire going through one of those dough­nuts, would cre­ate a 1, a bit. And then going around it would cre­ate a 0, bypass­ing it. 

So at this moment, com­put­ers looked pret­ty dif­fer­ent from the com­put­ers we see every day. These were mas­sive room-sized machines. This was in 1961. There was punch­cards that were used to run them. 

And the con­trast of what they need­ed to pro­duce to fit a com­put­er in into the cone of a rock­et, they need­ed a tech­nol­o­gy that was obvi­ous­ly easy to con­dense but also that could with­stand extreme vibra­tions, like extreme tem­per­a­ture changes, and that was light enough to be car­ried to the Moon. 

So most of what we know today about this mis­sion comes from sto­ries that were told by Battin, right. And what we began to do with a kind of fab­u­la­to­ry approach in design is to look at the wider sto­ry and start to ask how we might share and think through a retelling of it through a mate­r­i­al process and making. 

So, we began to look at the wider process of core mem­o­ry rede­vel­op­ment, which includ­ed these very cool P2P core mem­o­ry planes I ordered on eBay. And sort of hold­ing them in my hand they remind­ed me of anoth­er form of sort of memory-making of sorts, a kind of prax­is of quilting. 

So in the next few months we devel­oped what we came to call a core mem­o­ry quilt. This was a quilt that was made up of the patch­es that were hand­wo­ven, still, and were made of core mem­o­ry them­selves. So it was sort of cre­at­ing these new points of encounter with those old­er materials. 

So, work­ing across a range of archival and cur­rent mod­ern technology—Arduino boards, look­ing at patents that would have shift across the 1950s and 60 to show what sort of miss­ing fig­ures, right, the peo­ple oper­at­ing these machines, how those bod­ies were work­ing with them, and explor­ing the very scales of pro­duc­tion that the core mem­o­ry was built on. We cre­at­ed a kind of trav­el­ing object that we took the to a series of work­shops, from Maker Fairs, edu­ca­tion con­fer­ences, his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy spaces. 

And in this series we asked peo­ple to assem­ble some­thing we called kind of patch kit. So we gave them a core mem­o­ry kind of board loom, and strings, beads, these sort of kitschy almost craft mate­ri­als. And with them, they were able to access our archive of media mate­r­i­al. So we had a col­lec­tion of first-hand accounts of core mem­o­ry pro­duc­tion that we col­lect­ed along the way. And plug­ging the patch into the quilt then would play aloud these oral accounts of core memory. 

But as they did this, of course we had to tweak those as well. So we cre­at­ed a kind of bot-like Twitter stream that would replay those same accounts of the weav­ing process. So for exam­ple one tweet said, The female oper­a­tors were good at it, and those that stood around telling them what to do were ter­ri­ble at it,” from Edwin [B…?].

And in one moment in this process, Helen Remick, who was a mas­ter quil­ter col­lab­o­ra­tor, reflect­ed on this object as a con­trast to the microchip. She said, I’m hav­ing fun real­iz­ing we’re cre­at­ing a macrochip. We could con­tin­u­ous­ly open it up, put our bod­ies inside it, and repair it our­selves. It is very dif­fer­ent from our rela­tion­ship with modern-day elec­tron­ics that tend to be so finite we can­not expe­ri­ence that kind of care.”

At the work­shops we ran it did­n’t take long for folks to bring up this kind of odd rela­tion­ship we were draw­ing between weav­ing, tex­tile work, and engi­neer­ing and tech­nol­o­gy. So peo­ple want­ed to know a bit about the lan­guage we were using and how we were mak­ing sense of it. What did the oper­a­tors call them­selves, for exam­ple. And hop­ing to shed some light on this, I decid­ed to reach out to a man named Frederick Dill, who is a pio­neer­ing engi­neer, he’s a co-inventor of the semi­con­duc­tor laser. And I’d been in con­tact with him through­out this process. 

Until this discussion I had never heard of stringing cores as a weaving problem, but it is certainly a good view. —Frederick Dill

Dill recent­ly sent me a 1957 vol­ume of Digital Computer Components and Circuits, and he had cre­at­ed this beau­ti­ful­ly typed, print­ed note that said, Until this dis­cus­sion I’d nev­er heard of string­ing cores as a weav­ing prob­lem, but it’s cer­tain­ly a good view.” The cores are those dough­nut shapes. 

You have focused on the threads (wires), where I focused on the cores. I looked at the wires through the cores in terms of what electrical signals they provided and what voltages appeared at their ends from the various electrical currents through the single core or array of cores. I could see how the wires were passed through the cores. Your focus on "weaving" is an equally valid viewpoint, but a different one. It sort of assumes that some particular configuration of weaving will produce what is needed…which is totally correct. —Frederick Dill

Then I asked him what he meant by this com­ment, and he replied in email, You have focused on the threads, where I focused on the cores. Your focus on weav­ing is an equal­ly valid view­point, but a dif­fer­ent one. It sort of assumes that some par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion of weav­ing will pro­duce what is need­ed, which is total­ly correct.”

So look­ing at the weav­ing along­side the elec­tri­cal cores we saw an almost new atten­tion to this labor of pro­duc­tion along­side the thing. And that meant iden­ti­fy­ing the weave as a piv­otal inno­va­tion, like he said, the mech­a­nism that is need­ed, in Dill’s words. This is a real­ly unusu­al insight not just because of its wide­spread omis­sion from core mem­o­ry lit­er­a­ture but also it’s a deep­er recog­ni­tion of embod­ied prac­tice, or bod­ies at all as core con­trib­u­tors to engi­neer­ing. And Helen Remick again remind­ed us one after­noon quilt­ing is sim­i­lar­ly not just hen work, it’s not just back work, net work, it’s also new work, joint work. 

So as we built the quilt we encoun­tered the process in ways that change pub­lic accounts of this mis­sion, such as the MIT muse­um footage that said—the inter­view­ing jour­nal­ist, She does­n’t have to think about which core it goes through next?” 

Jack Poundstone replies, No, the machine does that for her.”

These are por­traits of kind of unthink­ing execu­tors of code rather than inven­tive con­trib­u­tors, which sort of rever­ber­ate through­out these pub­lic accounts. 

Looking inside digital culture means both looking back in time to the roots of the computing industry and the specific material production practices that positioned race and gender as commodities in electronics factories. —Lisa Nakamura

So this kind of reminds us and cau­tions us almost against what Lisa Nakamura has talked about, as you look inside a machine you might see the Intel danc­ing bunny-suited clean room work­ers hap­pi­ly mak­ing chips for free. She says instead, Looking inside dig­i­tal cul­ture means look­ing back in time to the roots of the com­put­er indus­try and the spe­cif­ic mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion prac­tices that posi­tioned race and gen­der as com­modi­ties in elec­tron­ic fac­to­ries.

So this project is real­ly think­ing about design meth­ods in a way that posi­tions it as chal­leng­ing his­to­ries in ways that not only reassert divi­sions between the cog­ni­tive and the man­u­al, but they’re hid­ing all the classed, gen­dered, racial­ized labor with­in inno­va­tion work. So this is about reck­on­ing with those metaphors and conditions. 

What would animals say if we asked the right questions? —Despret 2016

And draw­ing out crit­i­cal fab­u­la­tions in this process was a process of reck­on­ing. So what helped it us think through is a kind of alter­na­tive to many of the sort of typ­i­cal dimen­sions or tenets of design. 

So a set of habits of being that might result in oth­er ways of mak­ing things. Instead of indi­vid­u­al­ism, we could ask how might we inquire in con­cert with those in design set­tings. And instead of objec­tiv­i­ty we might ask what his­to­ries of prac­tice have been sup­pressed or elid­ed. And oth­er than a uni­ver­sal view of the world, can we look at the intri­ca­cies and and ask what rep­re­sen­ta­tions feed a pre­vail­ing design nar­ra­tive, and who do they rep­re­sent? Who are those peo­ple? And in con­trast to a solu­tion­ist gaze we can think about what forms of ongo­ing care and thriv­ing already exist with­in a design space. 

Design Fabulations: Collaborating with Ghosts [Alden Foster 2015]

So tak­ing this fab­u­la­to­ry prac­tice as a way of telling sto­ries, we can start to kind of awak­en these silent ways of know­ing, and even decon­struct design meth­ods to open up dif­fer­ent possibilities. 

And as I kind of close, I want to just bring this back to some of the kind of ways that in sort of a stan­dard design pro­gram, how you would spec­u­late on the future. And one way kind of comes down to some­thing called spec­u­la­tive design, where there’s a cone and you’re in the present right now. And there’s many ways you can go. You can go to the prob­a­ble, the plau­si­ble, or the pos­si­ble. And then as Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby re-represent this in the image here, there’s the prefer­able that offers a kind of new way of see­ing. It’s an inter­est­ing way to predict. 

But as Ebru Kurbak recent­ly con­test­ed, there’s a tra­jec­to­ry from past to present that does­n’t look at the influ­ence of the past, right. She’s try­ing to high­light that there’s new ways of see­ing open­ings and clo­sures that come from the process of look­ing backward. 

And I’m going to sug­gest that maybe fab­u­la­tions is more than one per­spec­tive, right. It offers a way of think­ing about the past in a way that’s not just about fill­ing gaps but about the kind of haunts, the ghosts, the traces that are still act­ing in the world today. These are the silences that are still— In the con­text of our core mem­o­ry work, you’re see­ing the com­put­ing field con­tin­u­al­ly reen­trench­ing inequal­i­ties in the present. And those silences are bear­ing wit­ness to that and contributing.

Now, you might con­trast a spec­u­la­tive lens with the more typ­i­cal mode of tra­jec­to­ry from empa­thy to test­ing, and I would sug­gest that in fact many of those same era­sures are hap­pen­ing because of an absence of reck­on­ing with the past. That we con­tin­ue to not see their oper­a­tion today. 

So when we look at the world around us and see you know, AI that are con­tin­u­al­ly cod­ing ideas of servi­tude in sort of gen­dered or racial­ized forms, or we’re look­ing at mis­in­for­ma­tion, dis­in­for­ma­tion, that fills our devices, allow­ing for unac­count­ed tech firms to roam free, what what we might be feel­ing like is we’re walk­ing along a kind of Möbius strip, right, we’re always mov­ing but there’s nowhere to go. 

And I want us to kind of move through a dif­fer­ent pic­ture of design, maybe an affective, emo­tion­al jour­ney. What if we moved from design apa­thy to design opti­mism, to design pes­simism, and final­ly design reck­on­ing. A kind of jour­ney through a design process that acknowl­edges that many times we don’t have many options of how to cre­ate a bet­ter world, but that we need to still reck­on with those exist­ing and pre­vail­ing and injustices.

So I’ll now end this talk with a kind of open­ing for ask­ing what what is required to imag­ine a free state or tell an impos­si­ble sto­ry,” a quote from Saidiya Hartman, open­ing up the pos­si­bil­i­ty for doing oth­er­wise in the world today. 

And with that, thank you so much and I real­ly look for­ward to questions. 

Golan Levin: Daniela, thank you so much. So, there are ques­tions. And the first one I would like to send your way is from Lea Albaugh, who’s one of the cura­tors of the Art && Code fes­ti­val. And she says— We talked about this a bit in the chat for Laura’s talk ear­li­er. She’s curi­ous about your take on the tightrope between posi­tion­ing fiber arts prac­tices as unique­ly mar­gin­al­ized his­to­ries, and the knowl­edge that high­light­ing that can entrench the prob­lem. And she goes on to say, I know I—Lea—grapple a lot with the Did you know that weav­ing was the first com­put­er,’ which is sort of wrong in a way that miss­es the inter­est­ing points but fun­da­men­tal­ly well-meaning.” 

Daniela Rosner: Mm hm. So I mean, there’s kind of mul­ti­ple ques­tions in that. There’s the retelling of a tech­ni­cal sto­ry in a way that that you might not think is tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect, right, in the sense that cit­ing weav­ing as the ori­gin of com­put­ing, well, is it? Does it mat­ter if it is? And I think some of the sort of of prac­tice of retelling is also about real­ly grap­pling with the sense that the wrong is also impor­tant, right. So call­ing out a par­tic­u­lar sto­ry like weav­ing as the ori­gin, like what work does that do? Does it allow us to to maybe imag­ine things dif­fer­ent­ly today? To imag­ine like our inher­i­tance in com­put­ing being one of tex­tile work? How does that open up dif­fer­ent kinds of rela­tion­ships to maybe inti­mate rela­tions to the tech­nol­o­gy that’s so closed like our auto­mo­biles that we have no idea how they work today. And that I think is a grap­pling in the right to repair move­ment, that start­ed to say no, we need to have the right to open up those cars and under­stand how they work and repair them our­selves, because cor­po­ra­tions are not allow­ing us in. And in fact, with tex­tiles as we’ve seen with many oth­er projects today, it’s inter­est­ing to see those auto­mat­ic inti­ma­cies that are built into the lega­cy of craft. I would say they’re pro­duc­tive in either way. 

Levin: There’s anoth­er— One of your last slides had four dif­fer­ent types of design. Could you men­tion again, what— It was a sort of black and white and yel­low slide with four drawings.

Rosner: Yeah.

Levin: What were the four names? For the sort of—towards the future, you were saying.

Rosner: Exactly. It’s sort of this emo­tion­al jour­ney through design where instead of you know, design empa­thy we start with design apa­thy. Many peo­ple just don’t care about design because most peo­ple do not con­sid­er them­selves design­ers, right. And so mov­ing from there to a space of opti­mism where a lot of—this is a sort of tra­jec­to­ry that I often see with stu­dents of mine where you sort of get excit­ed and inter­est­ed and you know— So you see your­self as impli­cat­ed in the design world. And then we notice all the chal­lenges that can no longer be denied that are pop­u­lat­ing our news feeds, right, of dis­as­ters of design. So that’s design pes­simism. And then final­ly design reck­on­ing, where we kind of acknowl­edge them all. 

Levin: This is a term I haven’t heard before. And one about which Kate Hartman asks, How might design reck­on­ing be best intro­duced as a broad­er prac­tice?” It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing term, and it’s got a…got an edge to it. 

Rosner: Cool. Yeah, I’m writ­ing— That’s the title of some­thing I’m writ­ing right now. It’s a longer, book-length project, and I’m real­ly— I mean, if any­one’s inter­est­ed in chat­ting, I have much to say the topic. 

Levin: Could you explain design reck­on­ing some more, and what—

Rosner: Yeah. Sure. So, reck­on­ing being…there are many uses of the term. It’s a pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ing term. It has a pret­ty inter­est­ing her­itage in reli­gious text, right. If you think about the day of reck­on­ing, what that means to be sort of account­able and account­ing for a mas­sive change. But reck­on­ing is also not one with res­o­lu­tion. It’s not some­thing where you’re look­ing for a fix. And so it’s kind of…in sim­plest terms, a kind of con­trast to the tech­nofix, right, where we’re just…we see that we can solve some­thing with a dif­fer­ent design. Whether it’s of a thing, or an insti­tu­tion, or you know a world like our soci­ety, there’s a lot of this think­ing through of a kind of sim­ple fix to the prob­lems that we have. And as tied to the theme of this talk, I think it’s much more about grap­pling with our past and our present, and how those rela­tion­ships work to…can define in not deter­mi­na­tive terms, but real­ly shape the world that we can be. So, reck­on­ing again is this crit­i­cal, engaged, effort­ful work to be with our world, and to see you that we can nev­er ful­ly change it but we can try in small ways again and again. So it’s actu­al­ly a more hum­ble approach to that kind of work of revi­sion or rev­o­lu­tion­ary change.

Further Reference

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