Thanks, David, and thanks Massimo. It’s great to be here. It was eleven years ago that Massimo and I were at the sum­mer school for his­to­ry of sci­ence and Catherine Carson was there as well.

At the heart of every­thing I’ll talk about is a real hands-on project, some­thing that you can do at home and I would encour­age you to try this, or to try some oth­er man­u­al engage­ment in order to reach a deep­er under­stand­ing of media and their his­to­ry.

I’m going to start by explain­ing how to knit Morse code. Then I’m going to step back and show you doing some­thing as odd as knit­ting Morse code can increase under­stand­ing of math­e­mat­ics, of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, of media, and of the his­to­ries of each of those things.

Close-up illustration of how knit stitches fit together

Knitting is an ancient tech­nique for mak­ing a fab­ric out of a sin­gle yarn by inter­lock­ing loops. So if you have an exist­ing row of loops, each loop is lift­ed, you make a new one, and you slip it under an exist­ing loop. And this gets done repeat­ed­ly.

Illustration of some cloth and knitting needles and  showing the difference between knit and purl stitches

There are two ways that you could slip a new loop into an exist­ing loop. You can either be push­ing the exist­ing loop to the back of the cloth, in which case you’re mak­ing a knit stitch. Or you can be push­ing the exist­ing loop to the front of the cloth, in which case you’re mak­ing a purl stitch. In oth­er words, these two basic stitch­es in com­bi­na­tion cre­ate all kinds of dec­o­ra­tive designs, and so I want to call knit­ting a bina­ry oper­a­tion.

Photo of a small piece of green knit cloth, with three strings of letters or numbers below illustrating how stitch patterns are recorded

Which peo­ple some­times find hard to swal­low. So to make this a lit­tle eas­i­er to accept, I’m going to write this in the kind of bina­ry for­mat that we asso­ciate with elec­tron­ics. The first line that’s here describes a line of the seed stitch pat­tern is how you would see it in knit­ting instruc­tions. They will con­dense groups of knit stitch­es to call them “K3” for three knit stitch­es in a row. In the sec­ond line I’ve just expand­ed that, and in the third line I’ve made a choice to rep­re­sent a knit stitch with “0,” and rep­re­sent a purl stitch with “1.” You’re going to have to stop by your local knit­ting store for the details of how to knit, but that’s the way in which knit­ting is bina­ry.

In the 1800s there were many dif­fer­ent ways for com­mu­ni­cat­ing by elec­tri­cal tele­graph. Samuel Morse devel­oped a code in the 1830s that became dom­i­nant, and the rea­son his code caught on was that its sim­plic­i­ty made it very robust. His code oper­at­ed by switch­ing an elec­tri­cal cur­rent on and off for moments in time. The code was designed to be visu­al and to pro­duce a per­ma­nent paper record. So this round object on the right-hand side of the draw­ing is a reel of paper tape.

What hap­pened was this paper tape would roll past a sty­lus at a con­stant rate. If an elec­tri­cal sig­nal was telling that sty­lus to engage at a giv­en moment, it would leave a dot on the paper. But if the elec­tri­cal sig­nal was held on for a longer peri­od of time and the paper tape is rolling by at a con­stant rate, it would draw out a dash on the paper.

Then the teleg­ra­ph­er would use this code that asso­ciates dots and dash­es to let­ters and num­bers, and also punc­tu­a­tion, which don’t hap­pen to be on this par­tic­u­lar code, in order to trans­late a mes­sage from dots and dash­es back into words.

The word "hat" encoded as Morse code, then as binary, then as  a series of stitches

Like knit­ting, Morse code is built out of two fun­da­men­tal units. The two parts, though, are not these dot and dash, but rather the two pos­si­ble answers to whether a sty­lus is engaged at any giv­en moment in time. So if I write out the word hat” and trans­late it into Morse code, and then what I’ve done on the third line here is to say whether the sty­lus is on or off at a moment. So if I want to make the four dots that make up the h” in hat,” then I want the sig­nal to be on then off then on then off, on then off then on, and then this is impor­tant, three offs. Three moments of off” because that’s going to sig­nal I’m at the end of a let­ter and the start of a new one. And then trans­lat­ing the on and off part to some­thing that looks like bina­ry elec­tri­cal code is pret­ty straight­for­ward. Here I’m going to choose 1 for on” and 0 for off.”

Because I’ve rep­re­sent­ed the knit­ting and the Morse code both in this sys­tem of 1s and 0s, it’s prob­a­bly pret­ty obvi­ous how I then com­bine these two things. I’m just going to take that 1 and 0 line that I’ve got for hat” and push it back to the purl and the knit stitch­es.

That is the basic method by which I put Morse code into a num­ber of dif­fer­ent objects.

A red knit sweater with a pronounced linear pattern down the front

Image: InVisible Culture, Knit for Defense, Purl to Control”
[sweater cred­it­ed as Subtle Distress”]

This is the sim­plest piece. It’s the SOS Sweater, in which this emer­gency call which is made up of three dots then three dash­es and three dots is repeat­ed down the front cen­ter of the sweater. This ends up look­ing like rib knit. Well, it is rib knit. In fact, a knit­ter would say, What do you mean it’s dot dot dot? That’s a 1 by 1 rib knit, fol­lowed by a 3 by 1 rib knit, fol­lowed by a 1 by 1 rib knit.” And that just shows you again how these sys­tems can go back and forth between each oth­er so sim­ply. That easy trans­la­tion between knit­ting and Morse code, things which on the sur­face seem to be so very dif­fer­ent from each oth­er, starts to reveal why a bina­ry sys­tem is so pow­er­ful.

Between any pair of sys­tems of the same order, that is sys­tems that have the same num­ber of ele­ments, there is an obvi­ous seam­less trans­la­tion. You’re just going to assign each ele­ment of one sys­tem to map to one ele­ment in the oth­er sys­tem.

What makes bina­ry sys­tems par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful is that their ele­ments can be asso­ci­at­ed to the fun­da­men­tal dichoto­my of exis­tence and non-existence, such as the pres­ence and absence of an elec­tri­cal pulse at a giv­en moment in time. Most of our cur­rent com­put­ers depend ulti­mate­ly on extreme­ly com­pli­cat­ed and extreme­ly numer­ous com­bi­na­tions of bina­ry instruc­tions that address the same ques­tion over and over: fire a pulse of elec­tric­i­ty right now? Yes or no.

One of my moti­va­tions for knit­ting Morse code is a sort of pop­u­lar math one. I want to increase under­stand­ing of bina­ry sys­tems. I actu­al­ly used to do math­e­mat­ics for quite a while, and I taught math­e­mat­ics and I guess I still have that sort of math geek vein in me. But I believe that there’s a cer­tain kind of pow­er that comes with the knowl­edge of how machines work. In a time when our soci­ety is com­mu­ni­cat­ing by using dig­i­tal elec­tron­ic tech­niques, and ana­lyz­ing with dig­i­tal elec­tron­ic tech­niques, and enter­tain­ing our­selves with dig­i­tal elec­tron­ic tech­niques and so on, I think it would be ben­e­fi­cial for peo­ple at least to under­stand what does that mean? What’s a dig­i­tal elec­tron­ic tech­nique?

I also think that if users of media had some con­cep­tu­al knowl­edge of bina­ry sys­tems, it could lead to a bet­ter user expe­ri­ence. And I’m very open here with what I mean by bet­ter. This could mean a more sat­is­fy­ing user expe­ri­ence, it would mean a more pro­duc­tive one, it might mean a more crit­i­cal user expe­ri­ence. But I think it would be bet­ter informed, regard­less.

This trans­la­tion that I’m mak­ing from Morse code to knit­ting is inten­tion­al­ly play­ful. It’s an exag­ger­a­tion to show just how far a binary-to-binary trans­la­tion can be pushed. And because knit­ting is warm and fuzzy, this math­e­mat­i­cal top­ic becomes a lit­tle more approach­able.

There’s also a ben­e­fit here in bring­ing togeth­er two dis­sim­i­lar bina­ry sys­tems, and this gets at one of the oth­er rea­sons that I did this project. Morse code knit­ting, as Massimo said, is a com­po­nent of a larg­er study that I’m doing on the cul­ture of bina­ry sys­tems across many cen­turies. One premise of that his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion is that the pow­er­ful adapt­abil­i­ty of bina­ry sys­tems is revealed part­ly through their diver­si­ty.

Just take the exam­ple of knit­ting and Morse code. Different peo­ple tend to know these things. After Morse code fell out of use in teleg­ra­phy, which in the US was around the 1910s when it became auto­mat­ed, there were basi­cal­ly three groups of peo­ple who knew was Morse code was. Boy scouts, mil­i­tary per­son­nel, and two-way radio hob­by­ists, each of those groups being pre­dom­i­nant­ly male.

Knitting, on the oth­er hand, since at least the 19th cen­tu­ry has most­ly been done by women and girls. The gen­der divi­sion in the knowl­edge of those two bina­ry sys­tems was very well illus­trat­ed by an inter­ac­tion I had very ear­ly in this project. I had a fel­low­ship at this inter­na­tion­al artist’s res­i­den­cy pro­gram and they were hav­ing an open stu­dio night. They were encour­ag­ing peo­ple to open their stu­dio and show what they were doing. I didn’t have much togeth­er yet. I was still plan­ning this project. But I decid­ed that I would make a small knit Morse code doc­u­ment as I went through every­body else’s open stu­dios.

So here I’m lis­ten­ing to a vio­lin per­for­mance, in the back row try­ing to be unob­tru­sive. At one point dur­ing the evening a cou­ple approached me. They were prob­a­bly in their ear­ly 70s, and they asked me what I was doing. I man­aged to say that I was knit­ting Morse code and my German broke down pret­ty quick­ly after that because I had to pause to explain why in the world am I doing this and what does this mean.

While I was paused, some­thing real­ly amaz­ing hap­pened, which was that the woman start­ed to point out the dif­fer­ent stitch­es, and they’re talk­ing back and forth and the man even­tu­al­ly read a cou­ple of words out of this piece of knit­ting to me. So I know they weren’t bluff­ing. He read this doc­u­ment, and unfor­tu­nate­ly I don’t know exact­ly what they said to each oth­er. If my German were stronger I wouldn’t have giv­en them enough time for all of this to unfold. But I found this to be a great demon­stra­tion that tra­di­tion­al­ly fem­i­nine knowl­edge and tra­di­tion­al­ly mas­cu­line knowl­edge could unite to deci­pher this very strange doc­u­ment.

Within the frame­work of this broad­er project on the cul­tur­al his­to­ry of bina­ry sys­tems, if you start look­ing at dif­fer­ent times and places, the asso­ci­a­tions with and the uses of bina­ry sys­tems, are aston­ish­ing­ly var­ied. They go far beyond gen­der.

Leibniz, the German philosopher-mathematician, was the first European to write about bina­ry sys­tems. He inves­ti­gat­ed their poten­tial for analy­sis in math­e­mat­ics and log­ic, the kinds of things you would expect of Leibniz. He also, in one of the most unusu­al appli­ca­tions of bina­ry sys­tems that I’ve seen so far in my research, pro­posed that bina­ry could be used for cross-cultural reli­gious con­ver­sion. So when I had God” and noth­ing” up on that pre­vi­ous slide that was not a joke, that’s direct­ly out of Leibniz.

Leibniz wrote sev­er­al let­ters around 1700 to Jesuit mis­sion­ar­ies who were math­e­mati­cians serv­ing in China. He pro­posed to them a way that they could maybe con­vert the Chinese emper­or to Christianity. Missionaries had made some progress with the emper­or, but he just was not buy­ing the Christian sto­ry of cre­ation. Leibniz knew from the Jesuits that he was in cor­re­spon­dence with that there were points of bina­ry analy­sis in ancient Chinese phi­los­o­phy. He also knew that the Chinese emper­or was inter­est­ed in Western math­e­mat­ics, and Leibniz was work­ing on bina­ry sys­tems. So Leibniz told the Jesuits they should appeal to this Chinese prece­dent and to the emperor’s inter­est in Western math­e­mat­ics, and to argue by anal­o­gy. He said tell the Chinese emper­or that if he can accept that all num­bers come from 0 and 1 (you can build every sin­gle num­ber) then he should be able to accept that God could make the whole uni­verse from noth­ing­ness and the uni­ty of his being. This is actu­al­ly a cre­ation expla­na­tion that even I can almost accept.

One of the Morse code knit­ting pieces that I made con­tains the text from one of Leibniz’ let­ters, and I tried in my knit­ting to do what Leibniz was doing by ref­er­enc­ing ancient Chinese phi­los­o­phy, which is to pack­age it in a way that eas­es cul­tur­al accep­tance. So this is in the shape of a Chinese hand scroll. It’s made out of silk, it’s 88 stitch­es wide which is a num­ber that’s sym­bol­ic of dou­ble pros­per­i­ty in Chinese cul­ture, and so on.

Leibniz’ argu­ment for the Christian cre­ation sto­ry based on bina­ry struc­ture shows that just about any char­ac­ter­is­tic can be linked to bina­ry sys­tems. I’m almost always asked, when I tell peo­ple I did this project, espe­cial­ly when they see some of these pieces, how long it took to make these things. This one actu­al­ly took the longest, although it’s by far not the largest. I didn’t keep track. I couldn’t if I had any inten­tion of fin­ish­ing this project. It took a ridicu­lous amount of time. Suffice it to say that I did it while I was bliss­ful­ly unem­ployed. But even if you don’t have the pres­sure of a tick­ing tenure clock, it’s a rea­son­able ques­tion to ask, why would you actu­al­ly knit Morse code? Why do this by hand (the whole thing is by hand by just me) instead of writ­ing an arti­cle about this as being a pos­si­bil­i­ty?

That gets into the way that I feel that the Morse code knit­ting con­sti­tutes a kind of study of media, and par­tic­u­lar­ly a pop­u­lar study of media. I want to reach a broad audi­ence. I want to expand who’s par­tic­i­pat­ing in the dis­cus­sions about media. Analogous to what I said regard­ing the impor­tance of some pop­u­lar under­stand­ing of bina­ry in a dig­i­tal soci­ety, I think that it’s essen­tial to expose and to talk through ques­tions relat­ed to media, beyond the aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles that we sit in.

These knit objects have a tac­tile and a visu­al allure that I can say in all humil­i­ty is greater than that of a schol­ar­ly arti­cle. Again, the cozi­ness of knit­ting helps in that regard. But the puz­zle ele­ment is also appeal­ing. Once peo­ple real­ize that there’s some kind of mes­sage in these objects, they’re very curi­ous to know what the knit­ting says. And their desire to uncov­er the secrets engages an audi­ence in an activ­i­ty of under­stand­ing the Morse code knit­ting.

One thing they’re going to get out of that Leibniz scroll is a nice lit­tle his­to­ry of sci­ence les­son about how impor­tant the ear­ly mod­ern Jesuits were in spread­ing sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge inter­na­tion­al­ly. But all of the rest of the pieces in this project bring up ideas of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and media.

At the most ele­men­tal lev­el, the Morse code knit­ting high­lights that retriev­ing infor­ma­tion requires knowl­edge of mul­ti­ple cul­tur­al codes. If you attempt to read—what­ev­er that means—this Morse code knit­ting, you have to pro­ceed in steps. You’ve got to inter­pret the knit and purled stitch­es into dots and dash­es, then you’ve got to take that Morse code data and trans­late it into let­ters. And then depend­ing on your lan­guage skills you have to per­haps trans­late the German of the Leibniz let­ter or the English of the oth­er pieces. That requires a lot more patience than read­ing a text.

But think about what you’re real­ly doing when you read a text in which you’re…even one you’re flu­ent in… You have to under­stand how the text is laid out on the page, what’s the read­ing direc­tion, where do I start? What the char­ac­ters are, how they rep­re­sent sound, the com­bi­na­tion of sounds into words, the asso­ci­a­tion of words to ideas. It’s com­pli­cat­ed, and we take it for grant­ed so eas­i­ly. But all access to the con­tent of a medi­um depends on com­plex cul­tur­al codes, or call them skills. But there’s always work involved to get that mes­sage out.

A sec­ond lin­guis­tic con­cept that comes from the way the Morse code read­ing slows things down, or I should say the Morse code knit­ting slows down read­ing, is that it ends up sep­a­rat­ing the visu­al and the cog­ni­tive aspects of writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion. When you’re lit­er­ate in a lan­guage, the brain will leap instant­ly from a print­ed word to mean­ing. But look what hap­pens in the absence of lit­er­a­cy. Personally, I don’t read Russian, so when I see a word that’s in Cyrillic char­ac­ters I get stopped at the lev­el of image and my brain will see things that it doesn’t see in that bot­tom line. It’ll rec­og­nize shape and pat­tern. In the mid­dle line, which is translit­er­at­ed, I’m still going back to an ear­ly read­er stage where I might have to sound out the word or I will at least look at each let­ter.

Morse code knit­ting ends up enhanc­ing the vis­i­bil­i­ty of lan­guage by dimin­ish­ing readabil­i­ty. The multi-layered process of find­ing lan­guage behind the knit­ting is slow enough for the read­er” to notice a dis­tinct sequence of com­po­nent activ­i­ties. To stop tak­ing for grant­ed all that stuff that goes into read­ing. In that way, the close inspec­tion required to read Morse code knit­ting rais­es aware­ness of the dif­fer­ence between a mes­sage in terms of idea and con­cept, and the signs that are used to trans­mit a mes­sage through a giv­en medi­um.

This sort of atten­tion to the play between image and sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of lan­guage ends up link­ing Morse code knit­ting to word art. By that cat­e­go­ry I’m refer­ring to work where lan­guage gets used as a visu­al medi­um. These are just a cou­ple of pieces which you might have seen before, and there’s a whole genre like this. It starts in the United States around the 1960s.

I got inter­est­ed in what was going on in word art and I start­ed won­der­ing what would hap­pen aes­thet­i­cal­ly if you take an exist­ing piece of word art and you make it real­ly hard to read. So I want­ed to pro­duce some­thing that was already out there into the Morse code knit­ting. The piece that I chose as the source work is Jenny Holzer’s Truisms. This is a project in which Holzer wrote a series of about 250 very pithy state­ments and then she would pro­duce selec­tions of them. She did this on t-shirts, she put them on elec­tron­ic bill­boards. It’s amaz­ing that she got the con­sent of Caesar’s Palace to do this, but that was not the only one shown there. It was a cycle of sev­er­al of them. And she had them engraved and carved into bench­es, and she put this in lots of dif­fer­ent places, in lots of dif­fer­ent for­mats, which is one of the rea­sons that I felt it was a rea­son­able thing for me to extend this into knit­ting.

A large piece of white knit fabric mounted on a wall

This piece is twelve feet wide, approx­i­mate­ly five feet tall. This con­tains a group of the tru­isms accord­ing to the rules that she had for the project. And the rules that she had in place also made her work very well-suited to pre­sent­ing in hor­i­zon­tal rows of knit­ting because what hope­ful­ly you can see here is that she would rep­re­sent each tru­ism on its own line when­ev­er that was pos­si­ble. Here I had the room to do that, and that means that on the left hand side you’ve got a flush mar­gin and on the right it’s bro­ken. So even if you don’t know that this has text in it, it kind of feels like text.

Additionally she would always take what­ev­er selec­tion she had made of the tru­isms and put them in alpha­bet­i­cal order. So again, you don’t have to know that this is in Morse code. You don’t even have to know that it’s text of any sort, but if you were to study it very close­ly, you would see that there is a pat­tern in which cer­tain lines that start with what turns out to be dot-dash, the let­ter A,” those lines are all at the top. It would be a heck of a Rosetta Stone puz­zle to get through it I think, but some­one could do that.

These points about the sig­ni­fi­ca­tion and the cod­ing of lan­guage I feel sit with­in media the­o­ry gen­er­al­ly.

The next point that the Morse code knit­ting rais­es is relat­ed to the his­to­ry of media. There are many tales about infor­ma­tion being car­ried through tex­tiles in lots of dif­fer­ent cul­tures. The old­est one that I’ve come across is the Greek myth in which Philomela has been raped, had her tongue cut out, and impris­oned, and she has no way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing what has hap­pened to her. Except she has a loom. So she weaves her sto­ry into a piece of cloth, has the cloth passed to her sis­ter, and the sis­ter can under­stand the infor­ma­tion in the cloth.

These span many cen­turies but go right to the present. Just a few years ago, there was a movie pro­duced Hollywood called Wanted which tells of a group of assas­sins who get their kill orders from the loom of fate.” The loom of fate will use a bina­ry code to put people’s names into a piece of cloth that it’s weav­ing.

With respect to the his­to­ry of media, I con­sid­er all of these sto­ries about mes­sages hid­den in tex­tiles to be evi­dence of a very long tra­di­tion of flex­i­ble think­ing about what could con­sti­tute a medi­um of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. That is, peo­ple have been cre­ative­ly imag­in­ing how to trans­mit infor­ma­tion for a very long time, and some of their meth­ods that they sug­gest­ed work per­fect­ly well with­out an elec­tron­ic net­work.

I don’t have time to explain this piece in great detail but briefly this is a sweater I made for myself that has text in it that’s per­son­al­ly mean­ing­ful. And because it’s in a code I can both have it wrap­ping me secure­ly, but I can be in pub­lic and have this mes­sage kept pri­vate. It’s also a per­fect­ly func­tion­al way to pass secrets. A spy can show up wear­ing a sweater that’s got infor­ma­tion in it, prob­a­bly passed through all kinds of search­es for the microdot or what have you, and if any sus­pi­cion is raised about the sweater as a source of infor­ma­tion you can unrav­el it real­ly quick­ly and all the infor­ma­tion is destroyed.

The leg­end about mes­sages hid­den in tex­tiles that I most want­ed to real­ize in the knit­ting was live record­ing of infor­ma­tion. So in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a nov­el from the late 1850s, there’s a char­ac­ter named Madame Defarge. She ends up serv­ing as a strange sort of sec­re­tary for a group of French rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies because in her knit­ting she hides the names of the group’s adver­saries. She gets away with doing this in pub­lic because she just looks like this harm­less woman knit­ting.

Kristen knitting while seated on a park bench, various people nearby or walking by

So I made four pieces in this record­ing series. The first was at this open stu­dios event in Stuttgart, and three at icon­ic pub­lic spaces in New York City, at Strawberry Fields, the memo­r­i­al to John Lennon in Central Park; every scholar’s favorite site, the main read­ing room of the New York Public Library; and in Grand Central Station.

Photo of a small piece of Kristen's knitting, with translation of the encoded text beside

I made these pieces look like sheets of paper because I want­ed to use them in my his­to­ry class­room to show the com­pli­ca­tions of doc­u­ments. These pieces con­tain errors, basi­cal­ly at the lev­el of typos. They cer­tain­ly reflect the point of view of the recorder, and they reflect the lim­i­ta­tions of the record­ing method. Morse code is very bit-intensive, so you get this econ­o­my of words forced on you and I also com­plete­ly dis­pensed with punc­tu­a­tion, which could def­i­nite­ly cause con­fu­sion if you try to read this back.

There’s also infor­ma­tion in these doc­u­ments that could be very hard to make sense of. Why in the world was some­one buff­ing a Maserati in Grand Central Station? If you’re read­ing that doc­u­ment in an archive, you might want to skip over it as being an error just like the error where it says “BUY IX” instead of “BUY TIX” for buy tick­ets.” Or, if you want­ed to fig­ure out [if it’s] maybe pos­si­bly true, you’d have to do a lot of fur­ther research in order to find out that on the 29th of September, 2007 in Grand Central Station there hap­pened to be this dis­play of Maseratis, so okay it sort of makes sense they were buff­ing them and they would be in the mid­dle of things. So some­one there to doc­u­ment what was going on in Grand Central Station couldn’t help but notice it. It’s a very weird thing to have in a doc­u­ment about Grand Central Station.

I’ve used these pieces to open dis­cus­sions with my stu­dents about the prac­tice of his­to­ry. Historical research is chal­leng­ing enough. Luckily we don’t have to read this kind of knit doc­u­ment when we’re in an archive. But in order to under­stand the var­i­ous evi­dence that has been left by diarists, by bureau­crats, by jour­nal­ists, inter­pre­ta­tion is always nec­es­sary. To record events in knit­ting ends up under­scor­ing how doc­u­men­ta­tion prac­tices shape the his­tor­i­cal record. It reminds us that all doc­u­men­ta­tion is incom­plete and selec­tive, and that inter­pre­ta­tion is essen­tial.

To wrap up these dif­fer­ent issues that are raised by the pieces, I’d say that my aim was to cap­ture the inter­est of a gen­er­al audi­ence in an oth­er­wise eso­teric study. The Morse code knit­ting is over­all sup­posed to be an entry into this top­ic of bina­ry cul­tures. And in the process of uncov­er­ing mes­sages that are buried in the knit­ting, hope­ful­ly view­ers are encoun­ter­ing var­i­ous points about com­mu­ni­ca­tion. We’ve got some snip­pets here from the his­to­ry of media, per­haps more impor­tant­ly there’s an expo­sure of the con­ti­nu­ity of some long-standing chal­lenges with media, mean­ing I think that I’m demon­strat­ing that some of the con­cerns we have now about media pre-date our par­tic­u­lar tech­nolo­gies. People have been wor­ried about iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and modes of com­mu­ni­cat­ing way before elec­tri­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

I had hoped to raise all of those points with an audi­ence, and what came as a sur­prise was how knit­ting Morse code by hand actu­al­ly deep­ened my own his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing. For starters, it cer­tain­ly made me appre­ci­ate the clever def­i­n­i­tion of Morse code. That’s some­thing that you pick up any his­to­ry of the tele­graph and it will tell you that Morse code was bril­liant because it was easy to learn. And I’d read that enough times, I guess I sort of accept­ed it, but I must not have believed it on some lev­el because I nev­er tried to learn Morse code until I got that idea of walk­ing around and mak­ing a piece and I couldn’t have my cheat sheet in front of me. At which point I made flash cards and I couldn’t believe it. Within 24 hours, I knew the code.

I still sort of dis­miss this. I’m like, Well, this isn’t what teleg­ra­phers did. All I know is the cor­re­spon­dence between let­ters and their codes. I can’t hear Morse code. I can’t send it at a tele­graph key by typ­ing.” I thought I’m still far short of what a teleg­ra­ph­er would need to do to real­ly have the code in their body.

And so I was real­ly shocked when I found myself direct­ly knit­ting ideas into Morse code. That hap­pened even as I was cir­cu­lat­ing through the open stu­dio event, just days after I had mem­o­rized Morse code. I was attend­ing per­for­mances, I was chat­ting with friends, and I would think a word and just knit it. I know that’s hard to believe and in fact that’s part of why I want to teach peo­ple how to do this. I think it’s amaz­ing what the ana­log, con­tin­u­ous body can do in a dig­i­tal, dis­con­tin­u­ous way.

Making words out of stitch­es also made me very aware of the bit inten­si­ty of Morse code. I was very frus­trat­ed at how few words I could get into one of those pages. Appreciating the bit inten­si­ty is equiv­a­lent to appre­ci­at­ing the speed of a teleg­ra­ph­er. A fast tele­graph oper­a­tor would send Morse code at about forty words a minute. That rate means that each bit of infor­ma­tion passed by in three hun­dredths of a sec­ond, or it means that the fin­gers are doing some­thing very pre­cise­ly at inter­vals of three hun­dredths of a sec­ond.

If what you’re try­ing to do is send a dot and you acci­den­tal­ly depress the tele­graph key for nine hun­dredths of a sec­ond, you have instead sent a dash. You have changed the mean­ing, maybe in a way that looks like a typo or maybe in a way that just gar­bles the mes­sage or changes mean­ing in a way that it gets mis­read.

Those are just a cou­ple of the exam­ples of how the process of knit­ting Morse code informed my work. I’d always tak­en objects into the class­room. I love to ask my stu­dents to think with their hands when they pick stuff up, and I think that these mate­r­i­al objects are impor­tant to under­stand­ing his­to­ry. But this was the first time that I had made some­thing as part of my research.

I’ve just begun to col­lab­o­rate with Edward Jones-Imhotep, who was also at this inter­na­tion­al grad­u­ate stu­dent sum­mer school at Berkeley eleven years ago, and Bill Turkel on a project that will look com­pre­hen­sive­ly at mak­ing as a research process. This is a method that we’re refer­ring to as human­is­tic fab­ri­ca­tion.”

One ben­e­fit of fab­ri­ca­tion is pop­u­lar engage­ment. I don’t want the Morse code knit­ting to be a unique project. I intend to offer a how-to guide. I want to encour­age peo­ple to explore this or their own meth­ods for putting infor­ma­tion into crafts. And giv­en the cur­rent, pret­ty wide-spread enthu­si­asm we have for mak­ing things, I think I can get some peo­ple to try this.

I also sus­pect that the pop­u­lar­i­ty of hands-on projects is what eased recep­tion of the Morse code knit­ting when it was exhib­it­ed. These were hand-crafted pieces put before an audi­ence in a set­ting for open-ended look­ing in a place that they could puz­zle through things on their own time sched­ule. There was a sheet that sort of explained what these things were and what the Morse code was and how you could do the trans­la­tion, and peo­ple took the time to do that.

I cer­tain­ly was not in con­trol of the audience’s train of thought when they were stand­ing in that exhi­bi­tion room, not the way that you would be in a tightly-structured piece of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing, walk­ing a read­er through an argu­ment. But I wit­nessed gen­uine engage­ment with some of these ques­tions that schol­ars are debat­ing. And I’m very com­mit­ted to includ­ing any­one who is curi­ous in the dis­cus­sion of media, their his­to­ry, and their con­se­quences.

I’ve strad­dled a lot of ter­ri­to­ry. I would real­ly appre­ci­ate your feed­back on which parts of this work, where I went too far, and any ideas that you have for expos­ing a cul­tur­al his­to­ry of bina­ry sys­tems to a wide audi­ence, or just for how we can relate schol­ar­ship to con­tem­po­rary issues gen­er­al­ly.

Thanks very much.

Further Reference

Kristen's artist's statement about Morse Code Knitting.

She also appeared on CBC Spark, speaking about binary systems.


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