Open design can be employed to develop a critical perspective on the current institutions, practices and norms of society, and to reconnect materiality and morality. Matt Ratto introduces ‘critical making’ as processes of material and conceptual exploration and creation of novel understandings by the makers themselves, and he illustrates these processes with examples from teaching and research.

Matt Ratto

As noted by other authors in this collection, open design practices, communities, and technologies signal shifting relations in the world of design – between experts and novices, between proprietary and open access to information, and between producers and consumers of media and technologies – to name just a few.  TREND: NETWORK SOCIETY

In addition to these more obvious shifts, open design also encourages an increasingly critical perspective on the current institutions, practices and norms of technologically mediated society. Open design, particularly in regards to digital hardware and software heralds new possibilities for artists, scholars and interested citizens to engage more fully in a simultaneously conceptual and material critique of technologies and information systems in society. Rather than just bemoaning the restrictions placed on users by institutionalized technological systems, engaged makers have the increasing ability and opportunity to constitute and construct alternatives. Such alternatives do not always replace the existing systems, nor are they often intended to. Instead, these material interventions provide insubstantiations of how the relationship between society and technology might be otherwise constructed. Again, this is particularly true for complex hardware and software solutions  OPEN EVERYTHING that have traditionally been seen to require proprietary and closed development in order to ensure success.

Commons-based Peer Production

For example, the many open hardware and software cell phone projects, such as the tuxPhone project started in 2005, provided conceptual and material guidance for the increasingly open development of cell phone operating systems and applications. If nothing else, such projects demonstrated the institutional and legal hindrances to such open developments, revealing that the problems in creating open alternatives were not just technical in character. WYS ≠ WYG While the technical processes and results of projects like tuxPhone provided various kinds of guidance as to future handheld projects and the availability of open hardware alternatives, another important result of this project involved increasing the visibility of the institutional, organizational and legal arrangements that linked cell phone hardware and handset manufacturers to the telephony service providers – arrangements that made opening up the application and operating system development environments tricky at best. In point of fact, it ultimately took market leaders with a lot of pull – Apple and Google – to begin to untie the closely coupled linkages between cell phone applications, operating systems, hardware, and service agreements, and, in doing so, provide transformative competition in the cell phone market.  ARCHITECTURE Both Apple and Google have done so in very different ways and for their own ends. However, Apple and Google’s process and the technical and social choices that they have made are differently open and understood differently by those designers and makers who followed the open cell phone projects, compared to those who did not experience the open cell phone developments as they unfolded.

Open design heralds new possibilities for artists, scholars and interested citizens to engage in a simultaneously conceptual and material critique of technologies and information systems in society.

Yochai Benkler, writing about open source and open content development initiatives, has described these communities and practices as ‘commons-based peer production’ 1 – a somewhat more inclusive term than the narrower ‘user-generated content’ that is currently in vogue.  DOWNLOADABLE DESIGN One claim he makes is that these practices can result in different products and services than those currently produced through proprietary market forces. For Benkler, commons-based peer production can result in more than just open but substantively similar products and services. Instead, these practices can produce entirely novel results – and more importantly, they can serve audiences and needs that are under-addressed by the marketplace.

The above example demonstrates that open design potentially provides more than just another way of designing and creating novel products and services. Instead, and I repeat the word ‘potentially’ here, open design, when embedded in practices of socio-technical reflection and critique, provides the possibility for truly innovative thinking and making, the result of which is not just more of the same, but includes novel and more comprehensive understandings as to the relationships between social life and technical work. In our own scholarship and teaching, we call such potentials ‘critical making’.

Critical Making

The term ‘critical making’ is intended to highlight the interwoven material and conceptual work that making involves. As a teaching and research strategy, critical making shares an emphasis on ‘values’ with both critical design and other critical practices – such as the critical technical practice 2 from which it derives, as well as value-sensitive design 3 and values-in-design. 4 I take the exploration of values in society and their implementation and concretization within technical artefacts as my starting point, choosing to explore these through a series of processes that attempt to connect humanistic practices of conceptual and scholarly exploration to design methodologies including storyboarding, brainstorming and bodystorming, and prototyping.

I call this work ‘critical making’ in order to highlight the reconnection of two modes of engagement with the world that are typically held separate: critical thinking, traditionally understood as conceptually and linguistically based, and physical ‘making’, goal-based material work. I see this as a necessary integration for a variety of reasons: first, as a way of overcoming the ‘brittle’ and overly structural sense of technologies that often exists in critical social science literature; second, as a way of creating shared experiences with technologies that provide joint resources for transforming the socio-technical imagination; and third, as a site for overcoming problematic disciplinary divides within technoscience.

While similar in practice to critical design and the other perspectives listed above, critical making has somewhat adjacent goals. As defined by Tony Dunne:

Critical design is related to haute couture, concept cars, design propaganda, and visions of the future, but its purpose is not to present the dreams of industry, attract new business, anticipate new trends or test the market. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the aesthetic quality of our electronically mediated existence.5

Critical making, on the other hand, is less about the aesthetics  AESTHETICS: 2D and politics of design work, and focuses instead on making practices themselves as processes of material and conceptual exploration. The ultimate goal of critical making experiences is not the evocative or pedagogical object intended to be experienced by others, but rather the creation of novel understandings by the makers themselves. Neither objects nor services are the currency of critical making. For me, it is the making experience that must be shared. Therefore, critical making is dependent on open design technologies and processes that allow the distribution and sharing of technical work and its results.  BLUEPRINTS In this way, critical making relies on a constructionist 6 methodology that emphasizes the materiality of knowledge making and sharing. The ‘objects’ of critical making are intended to be shared making experiences, curated through both material and textual instructions. Such curated ‘making experiences’ have long been the domain of technical and scientific education; any toy store can provide myriad examples, and electronic ‘kits’ are currently experiencing a renewed enthusiasm.  DIY What differentiates critical making is its attention to the interwoven social and technical aspects of modern life – what theorists call the socio-technical 7 – rather than being primarily about technical expertise or functional knowledge about the natural world.

These are fine-edged distinctions and might cause some readers to wonder why it is necessary to define yet another term for yet another design-based methodology. In point of fact, much of the ongoing scholarly and technical work associated with critical making was initiated by discomfort around the dissonance of the term – why in fact does ‘critical thinking’ seem such a common-sense term, while ‘critical making’ seems odd to most of us? I believe this stems from a continuing separation in Western society between ‘thinking’, which is understood as happening primarily in the mind or at most through the mediation of language, and ‘making’, which is understood as an a-conceptual, a-linguistic, and habitual form of interaction with the world.

Makers – and that involves most of us in one way or another – understand the fallacy of this position. The phrase ‘critical making’ is therefore intended to signal a deep research commitment to the co-constructed nature of our socio-technical world.

Critical Making Lab and Method

The Critical Making Lab at the University of Toronto is sponsored by the Faculty of Information, and by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It was established as a research, teaching and infrastructure project. Our main focus is the material semiotics of digital information. 8 AESTHETICS: 3D In the lab, we explore how addressing information as both symbolic and material object reveals intriguing connections and contradictions in the role of information in individual, cultural and institutional practice. We work to unpack the complexity of information through critical making experiences that link conceptual and physical exploration. These experiences may be curated for pedagogical or for research purposes, but each tends to consist of the following interactive and non-linear steps: a comprehensive review of existing scholarly literature on a socio-technical topic; the development of a metaphorically connected making experience, typically using the ‘kit’ form; the definition of instructions to assist participants in making a technical artefact as well as following a conceptual argument; holding a workshop with stakeholders using the kit and instructions; recording and analysing the results.

Critical Making Teaching

The first critical making course was held at the Faculty of Information in 2008. In the winter of this year, we taught a master’s level course that used making to explore critical information issues such as intellectual property, privacy, questions of embodiment, and so forth. In this course, we made use of the Arduino software and hardware development environment due to its open source nature and its active and supportive artist and designer communities. We explicitly chose to use a physical computing platform rather than a mainly software-based development for two initial reasons. First, the material, hands-on nature of the Arduino called attention to the physicality of information, an important aspect of our teaching and research goals. When working in the primarily textual world of software development, it is less obvious that material work is going on. The Arduino makes such work part of the development process, and the ‘push-back’ of the physical electronics – the resistance of reality to our attempts to contain it – is therefore more present. Second, the movement to the material world often seems to be accompanied by a less functionalist, more emotional and embodied reaction to the topics under construction/discussion. Together, the ‘push-back’ of the material and the embodied and affectual nature of students’ responses to it can engender a more invested and involved participant. These aspects of ‘constructionist’ pedagogy have been previously noted by science and mathematics educators. 9

However, a third reason to use more material forms of development emerged during initial experiences. The ‘making material’ of digital interactions and experiences soon turned out to be an evocative strategy for unpacking the social and technical dimensions of information technologies. For example, one assignment given to the students was to build a ‘physical rights management’ (PRM) system, a digital system that managed physical objects in similar ways to how digital rights management systems manage digital resources. We had initially devised this assignment simply as a way of ‘de-normalizing’ DRM practices by changing their context and making them unfamiliar – a sort of surrealist move of de-familiarization. The students took us at our word, looked closely at how DRM systems controlled digital resources and created often dramatic analogues (literally) of such control mechanisms.

For instance, one group of students built a model of a photocopy machine that used RFID cards to set permissions on the physical copying of books and journals. If these permissions were not followed, the system would automatically send a message to the appropriate (imaginary) authorities and display a message to the photocopy machine user to stay where they were until the police arrived. In the following year, students constructed an alternative PRM system, one that placed the control mechanism in the book itself. In this version, the books used a light sensor to detect when they were being photo-copied. If permissions on copying were breached, the book would ‘self-destruct’ by popping a balloon containing ink.  GRASSROOTS INVENTION

The ultimate goal of critical making experiences is not the evocative or pedagogical object intended to be experienced by others, but rather the creation of novel understandings by the makers themselves.

The absurdity of these modes of control was not lost on the students, who explicitly designed and built their systems based on an analysis of equally absurd methods that they had picked out from existing DRM systems.  KNOWLEDGE Following this assignment, students remarked that previously they had understood in an abstract way how DRM influenced the use and creation of media. However, by constructing their own PRM system and having to make decisions about how it might function, they not only felt that they increased their knowledge, but they also became more invested and in a sense responsible for the adoption and use of DRM. In previous work on critical making, we have called this the movement from ‘caring about’ an issue to ‘caring for’ an issue. 10

The course has since been taught in 2009 and will be taught again in 2010. However, teaching a course which is simultaneously technical, social, conceptual and material is not an easy task, particularly when that course is located within a social sciences faculty rather than one of design or engineering. Such faculties are not set up to handle simple requirements such as sinks in classrooms, or ventilation for soldering irons. The material nature of critical making as pedagogy is demonstrative of why such methods are not more integrated outside of traditional disciplines. However, open design tools and processes provide some of the infrastructure necessary to do this work.

Critical Making Research

In addition to the pedagogical goals outlined above, we are also engaged in critical making as a research strategy. This typically involves curating critical making experiences in order to engender insight and perspective on socio-technical phenomena for stakeholders and other participants. Here we draw upon ethnographically informed research methodologies such as action research 11 and more explicitly on the methods and perspectives associated with cultural probes. 12 Past research that we have undertaken using critical making has addressed the role of materiality in social research 13 and current projects address the socio-technical implications of bio-sensors and the labour and organizational dimensions of digital desktop fabrication. As in the teaching strategies described above, open design tools and processes are essential to the development of critical making as research.

Conclusion and Future Work

Critical making is an intensely trans-disciplinary process, one that requires research skills from humanities and social science disciplines and a familiarity with a wide range of scholarly literatures. At the same time, critical making requires some technical expertise on the part of the researcher, who must curate a technical experience for participants with little or no technical background.  AMATEURISSIMO

As a teaching and a research method, critical making is thus dependent on open design methods, tools and communities. To put it most simply, the expertise necessary to create prototypes and engage in processes of software and hardware construction must be open and available in order to allow for the kinds of critically engaged practices described above. Note that this is not about replacing or reproducing designers or design expertise. ‘Critical makers’ (understood broadly) emerge from a variety of disciplinary contexts and only some of them are interested or engaged in the kinds of tasks associated with design.

Equally, critical making requires institutional resources such as space, equipment and access to expertise that is not typical of the humanities or social sciences. We have been lucky to be located in a supportive faculty, university and funding context that is interested in methodological innovation and in trans-disciplinary research. However, problems still arise, with critical making being seen as either too technical for humanities and social science researchers and students, or, on the other hand, as not being technical enough for the development of novel technological skills and products. Open design methods and tools provide some guidance and support in this regard, but more work is necessary to establish making as an intrinsic part of social research.

Ultimately, we see the integration of socio-technical critique and material making as a necessary part of what Latour has called the development of a ‘cautious Prometheus’. 14 In his keynote address to the Design History Society, Latour lays out a model for acknowledging the interconnectedness of semiotic and material life. He also details design’s role in helping us move from considering material things as given, natural and uncontested objects, e.g. ‘matters of fact’, to thinking of them as being intrinsically political, contentious and open to discussion and debate. He also acknowledges the necessity of this transition for political and ecological reasons, but notes that this move is far from over. Latour raises the issue:

How can we draw together matters of concern so as to offer to political disputes an overview, or at least a view, of the difficulties that will entangle us every time we must modify the practical details of our material existence? 15

Open design is a necessary part of this development, but not just because it democratizes or ‘opens’ design to the masses. Rather than replacing professional design expertise and skill, our sense is that by encouraging and supporting design methodologies for non-traditional design ends – such as the socio-technical critique that is the main goal of critical making – open design helps bring about a kind of socio-technical literacy that is necessary to reconnect materiality and morality. This, ultimately, may be the most important consequence of open design.

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    Lamberty, K, ‘Creating mathematical artifacts: extending children’s engagement with math beyond the classroom’, in Proceedings of the 7th international conference on Interaction design and children, 2008 p. 226–233.
  10. Ratto, M, ‘Critical Making: conceptual and material studies in technology and social life’, paper for Hybrid Design Practice workshop, Ubicomp 2009, Orlando, Florida.
  11. Lewin, K, ‘Action research and minority problems’, J Soc. Issues 2(4), 1946, p. 34-46. Argyris, C, Putnam, R, & Smith, D, Action Science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.
  12. Gaver, B, Dunne, T, & Pacenti, E, ‘Design: Cultural probes’, interactions, 6(1), p. 21-29. DOI:10.1145/291224.291235.
  13. Ratto, M, Hockema, S, ‘Flwr Pwr: Tending the Walled Garden’, in Dekker, A & Wolfsberger A (eds) Walled Garden, Virtueel Platform, The Netherlands, 2009.Ratto, op.cit.
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