Designing Culture – Book Review
Reviewed for IML by Gabriel Peters-Lazaro
At our current moment of time, technological innovations arise and integrate into our lives with ever increasing rapidity. Altering our experiences in ways both large and small, personal and global, advances in smart-phone technology, computing power, social networked media, software development, media distribution and so on are changing how we work, play, learn, do business, interact with loved ones, build political movements, create art and more. Such innovations present themselves as challenging subjects of inquiry for interested scholars since the field of study is by its nature in such a state of rapid and ceaseless change. Likewise, for a technologist, engineer or other maker interested in developing new tools and platforms for popular use, the questions of how their contributions might integrate or alter the great flows of human culture can be daunting to the point of incomprehensibility. Creating a clearly articulated framework for addressing these questions and bridging the worlds of cultural theory and technology design is precisely the goal of Anne Balsamo’s book Designing Culture, and it feels as though it has arrived at a moment when it is very much needed.
In the introduction of her book, Balsamo sums up its overarching aim as follows, ‘This book seeks to extend the questions, methods, and analytics of cultural studies to those disciplines and domains of human practice that are centrally engaged in technological innovation’ (p 5). She offers examples of how innovation is a driving force in the contemporary world and makes a convincing claim that up until now, there has been too great a practical and intellectual division between the realms of ‘technology’ and ‘culture’. She adopts the term ‘technoculture’ throughout the book as a way of signaling the deeply interwoven nature of these two concepts. In this conflation, her sense of the technological object is not so much a specific device or invention, but rather a larger and more holistic view of the social and technical landscape in which such an object arises and acts.
Balsamo harnesses the varied experiences of her career to create a systematic framework through which to consider and enact projects of technocultural innovation. Balsamo currently holds joint appointments at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and in the Interactive Media Division of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She was also Director of USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML) from 2004 – 2007 and a research scientist at the storied Xerox PARC from 1999 – 2002. With these experiences and more she has been directly involved in the research, design, curation and production of a wide variety of innovative technocultural projects, examples of which form the basis for the chapter by chapter development of her ideas. All of the examples she offers as case studies involve multidisciplinary collaborations where the production process included deliberate attention to notions of culture in concert with the technological innovations in question.
Chapter 1 describes the production of an interactive documentary project called Women of the World Talk Back (a DVD of which is included with the book) that was presented in 1995 at a forum in China held in conjunction with the 4th U.N. World Conference on Women. In this chapter Balsamo applies her analytical framework and also introduces her larger political stake in the project, mainly the encouragement of innovation in the service of the expansion of democratic social ideals. Chapters 2 and 3 deal with Balsamo’s work at Xerox PARC and her involvement with the creation of museum exhibitions and public interactive works concerned with the histories of reading and the ways in which we imagine and bring about the future. Her accounts deftly weave together detailed insights into the design and production processes of specific works, as well as situating those efforts in a historical, theoretical and social context.
Her main organizational, inspirational and analytical tool, which she applies throughout these examples, is her system of ‘Hermeneutic Reverse Engineering’, described in 11 steps on page 17 of the introduction. As she says, ‘the protocols of hermeneutic reverse engineering identify both a set of research practices and a design methodology’ (p 14). She intends this as a tool both for the consideration and creation of innovative technocultural projects. In considering these steps, including items such as ‘analysis,’ ‘prototype,’ ‘production,’ and ‘critique,’ one sees that indeed she has skillfully synthesized a set of vocabularies and practices from the fields of design and academic research into one productive approach.
In her fourth and final chapter, Balsamo applies these concepts not to a finished project, but rather to a speculative consideration of the future of higher education and the role that its institutions can play in reshaping the world by reshaping themselves. She uses examples from her own experiences at USC and a series of efforts there to update scholarly practices to allow for a greater variety of information flows and digitally realized academic achievements to outline what she sees as the necessary steps for bringing about a productive future for educational institutions. Chief amongst these concerns is the idea that institutions need to create structural mechanisms to support and encourage truly multidisciplinary collaborations, facilitating the combined efforts of engineers and humanists, for example, to engage the challenges of contributing to the vast landscape of technocultural innovation and to train the next generations of students to play a vital role in the continuation of these large scale trends.
Being myself a current staff member of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy as well as a PhD student in the USC School of Cinematic Art’s iMAP program, I am closely acquainted with some of the examples that Balsamo gives and I can attest to an enthusiastic desire to see more such innovations implemented and supported in institutions of higher education. There is real need for projects like Designing Culture to help define the goals and tools of such endeavors. Her book is brilliant and constructive, lucid and compelling, useful in a practical sense and satisfying in a deeply contemplative way as well. It is a necessary and gratefully received contribution to all the fields that cross in its pages. It is also a very big undertaking; the print book Designing Culture is itself only one aspect of a larger transmedia project including the aforementioned DVD of Women of the World Talk Back and a densely populated website, designingculture.net, where many of the projects described in the book are brought together either as directly accessible digitally interactive works or as multimedia representations of such. Taken together, the Designing Culture project weaves together a rich landscape that rewards deep exploration, investigation and interaction. In many ways, Designing Culture is an invitation, a jumping off place, an opportunity for others to take up its questions and tools, to apply them, to recapitulate, curate and refine, to engage the process and move all of it forward together. Indeed, I recommend that you find the book and get started today.
(Crossposted at peterslazaro.com)