Tools, Technologies, and Infrastructures

Last December, a discussion regarding the differences between tools, technologies, and infrastructures took place on WPA-L, a listserv for writing program administration. Late in the conversation, I offered the following as a first stab at the issue after someone suggested that the term “technology” was introduced in the 20th Century. I’m posting my response here, slightly edited, as a placeholder to return to at some point.

While I understand the desire to tease out the differences between technology, tool, and infrastructure, I don’t believe there is a simple way to do so. Technologies can be tools and tools can be technologies. A glance at the OED, as Rich Haswell suggested, is instructive here. First, we learn that the OED lists its first known usage of the word technology back to 1612 in the context of a discourse or treatise on an art or arts. Second, if we just limit ourselves to entries 4a-c, we learn that technology can encompass a body of knowledge; the application of that knowledge; a process, method, or technique; and specific objects such as a machine or a piece of equipment. The definitions, along with their earliest recorded usages, are:

4.a.: The branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this. (1787)

4.b.: The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively. (1829)

4.c.: The product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. (1898)

While literacy is a technology, pens and paper can also be technologies. Writing and rhetoric, too.

So, what is a tool? The OED lists 4 major definitions with a total of 11 distinct meanings. We can, I think, be selective and just look at definitions 1.a and 2.a:

1.a: a mechanical implement for working upon something, as by cutting, striking, rubbing, or other process, in any manual art or industry; usually, one held in and operated directly by the hand (or fixed in position, as in a lathe), but also including certain simple machines, as the lathe; sometimes extended to simple instruments of other kinds (c.888)

2. a: Anything used in the manner of a tool; a thing (concrete or abstract) with which some operation is performed; a means of effecting something; an instrument. (c.1000)

A tool, then, can be something – physical or abstract – which we use to perform an action to make something happen. A pen can be a tool, and so can language. Literacy and writing, too.

Does this mean everything is a technology? No. Our naturally occurring vocal cords are not technologies; however, as we use them to perform actions to make something happen, we could call them tools. That said, I’d invoke Marshall McLuhan here and limit tools to extensions or products of our physical and mental faculties. So, while an idea – the product of our thinking – could be a tool, our vocal cords are not.

For infrastructure, the OED gives us “A collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation.” As such, infrastructures are made up of technologies and tools as well as other things. For instance, the infrastructure of literacy within a particular context would include one or more languages and scripts as well as the writing materials used in that culture, all of which are both technologies and tools. The infrastructure of literacy would also include the means by which it is learned and taught, as well as the social, political, cultural, and economic forces that support, promote, and reward literacy within its particular context.

Therefore, we can’t say categorically that a pen is a tool and writing is a technology. They’re both. The distinction between technology and tool isn’t determined by what something is but by how it’s being considered and discussed. We think of something as a tool when we consider an object (physical or abstract) as an instrument by which we may effect change. We think of something as a technology when we consider the object as the application of mechanical arts and applied science to make things (including processes – processes are things) and when we think of something as the product of the application of mechanical arts and applied sciences.

Oliver Sacks on the Unreliable Nature of Memory

Or, if you prefer, the creative nature of memory. We are populated selves, as Kenneth Gergan might say.

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. [Read more.]

Day of DH: Making and the Physical-Digital Interface

An Arduino with BOE shield

Parallax BOE Shield and Arduino – the brains of our BOE robot.

I’ve been meaning to write for some time about my growing interest in making, specifically in Arduino, Processing, and paper circuits. While I’ve tinkered with coding over the years, I’ve never had an interest in electronics, at least not until last summer. I bought an Arduino last September, sponsored a high school making club during the fall, designed a Making and Writing course before I decided not to teach at the high school this spring, and introduced Arduino-based robotics and Processing into our homeschooling curriculum. (Oh, btw, as of this fall I’ve been co-homeschooling a 9th grader. I really should be better about blogging.) I’ll post more about my making activities and how they fit into my academic endeavors soon. In the mean time, here’s a post on making and the physical-digital interface I’m cross-posting from my Day of DH blog.

As a technorhetorician, a media ecologist, and a digital humanist, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the physical-digital interface of physical computing and interactive programming.

A lot of this interest is playing out in my exploring both the Arduino microcontroller and the Processing programming language. As the Arduino programming language and integrated development environment (IDE) are based on Processing, the two work quite well together.  For instance, there’s the example project that interfaces an Arduino with Processing to creating an RGB LED lamp, the color of which is based upon word frequency within an RSS feed, or the much more simple example of simply turning on an LED by mousing over a Processing-created image, which I was able to do in just a few minutes. You can see the results in this Vine. Apologies for the shaky video – I held my phone with my weak hand as I used my better hand to control the mouse.

And then there’s these digitally interfaced physical books, from the basic MaKey MaKey + graphite + Scratch to Jie Qi’s Circuit Sketchbook

to Waldek Węgrzyn’s Elektrobiblioteka that uses conductive paint-based silk screen printing and a small embedded microcontroller to create touch-sensitive illustrations that call up and interact with digital content.

While I’m still learning both Processing and Arduino, as a digital humanist I’m often thinking of the ways in which we might use a visualization and generative art program like Processing to process and interact with text. For instance, there’s this fairly straightforward visualization of Goethe’s Faust and this “tube map” that’s created by inputting  text. More interesting, however, are things like the codeable objects Processing library and the potential for interactive books making use of paper circuit technologies and embedded microcontrollers.

Three tasks I’m working on today is organizing a session on making, making pedagogy, and critical making and design for CCCC 2015, brainstorming a possible DIY craft and making workshop for the same, and figuring out if I’m ready to propose a paper circuits workshop for THATCamp DC at the end of this month.

And later today, as a last-minute addition to today’s home schooling (as in decided about 10 minutes ago), we’re going to have our first go at programming an ATiny85 chip and using it to make this paper-based microcontroller:

You can find the tutorial at Jie Qi’s The Fine Art of Electronics.

Of Black Holes, Maelstroms, McLuhan and Poe

A simulated black hole.

A simulated black hole from Ute Kraus’ “Step by Step into a Black Hole.”

An article in the MIT Technology Review reports that researchers have found that vortices in the south west Indian Ocean and in the South Atlantic are mathematically equivalent to black holes. Cosmology in general and black holes in particular have long been an interest of mine. I believe I did my first report on black holes in elementary school and as an undergraduate I took two astrophysics courses on stars and galaxies, the upper division course essentially a course in cosmology. In that course it was six or seven physics majors and me, and I for the course I researched the possibility of mini-black holes making up dark matter in galactic halos.

While this article is fascinating in and of itself, I’m particularly draw to its referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Decent into the Maelstrom” which so captured McLuhan’s own imagination:

The vortices that can form in turbulent water are a familiar sight. Edgar Allan Poe described just such a whirlpool in his short story “A Descent into a Maelstrom” which he published in 1841:

“The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel…”

In this passage, Poe describes one of the crucial feature of these rotating bodies of fluid: that they can be thought of as coherent islands in an incoherent flow. As such, they are essentially independent of their environment, surrounded by a seemingly impenetrable boundary and with little, if any, of the fluid inside them leaking out.

If you’re thinking that this description has a passing resemblance to a black hole, you’d be right. Haller and Beron-Vera put this similarity on a formal footing by describing the behaviour of vortices in turbulent fluids using the same mathematics that describe black holes.

Surfing business man from The Medium Is the Massage

Page 150-151 from McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage.

While McLuhan first makes use of Poe’s “A Descent into a Maelstrom” in the Preface to The Mechanical Bride, he returns to it time and again throughout his writings and lectures.1

Based on this MIT article, I’m now thinking about what McLuhan doesn’t pay attention to in Poe’s story, that is the description of the broad belt, what the MIT article calls “coherent islands in an incoherent flow.” What might the media/environmental equivalent of this belt of “coherent islands in an incoherent flow” be? Or is it even relevant because McLuhan clearly positions us within the maelstrom, inside the black hole, and, therefore, beyond the belt?

  1. As can be seen in the image above, on pages 150-51 of The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan and Foire juxtapose an image of the surfing business man with McLuhan’s claim that Poe’s story “The Descent into the Maelstrom” can serve as “a possible stratagem for understanding our predicament, our electrically-configured whirl.” For more context on McLuhan’s use of Poe’s story, see this segment from Kevin McMahon’s documentary McLuhan’s Wake and “Lobby” and “Chapel” from Paul Guzzardo’s “BuildBetterBarrel,” a series of nine new media events that takes its name from McLuhan’s use of Poe’s story. []

Preserving Digital Work: The Variable Media Questionnaire

The Variable Media Questionnaire is resource for helping creators think about sustainability and preservation of their digital work, originally designed by Jon Ippolito while working in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim and now faculty at the University of Maine’s New Media Department. The project, in its third generation, is now being developed by the University of Maine’s Still Water lab under the direction of John Bell.

The Variable Media Questionnaire is designed to help a work’s creators and users write guidelines for translating their works into new media once the original medium has expired. This Questionnaire is unlike any protocol hitherto proposed for cataloguing or preserving works. It requires creators to define their work according to functional components like “media display” or “source code” rather than in medium-dependent terms like “film projector” or “Java.” The variable media paradigm also asks creators to choose the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the inevitable slippage that results from translating to new mediums:storage (mothballing a PC), emulation (playing Pong on your laptop), migration (putting Super-8 on DVD), or reinterpretation (Hamlet in a chat room).

Ippolito has a short article on the questionnaire, “Accommodating the Unpredictable: The Variable Media Questionnaire,” which is taken from the book Permanence through Change: The Variable Media Approach.

New Book Series: Practices in the Digital Humanities

Series editors Liza Potts and Kathie Gossett announced today the launch of a new book series Practices in the Digital Humanities with a partnership between the University of Michigan Press and Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences.

From the book series page:

Series Goals
This book series is focused on the practices of the digital humanities by providing best practices, models, case studies, and examples of how to build to standards, architect experiences, manage systems, and manage projects. Bringing together experts from across the digital humanities, this series will be written by digital humanities scholars for digital humanities scholars. This series will also provide digital humanities graduate students with a much-needed source for the practice of digital humanities. This book series will fill a major need for books on practice from the digital humanities perspective by providing specific examples of how to design, develop, and maintain digital humanities projects.

Proposed Subjects and Topics
For this series, we have identified some initial topics. This list is in no way comprehensive; we encourage you to propose books outside of the topics below if they relate to practices in the digital humanities.

  • Building archives using various tools and techniques
  • Architecting user experiences for various audiences (scholars, students, publics)
  • Tracing digital culture and social media
  • Managing projects, budgets, and expectations
  • Mobile application design and development
  • Systems administration for large-scale and small-scale projects
  • Sustainability and maintainability of digital projects
  • Open source policies and challenges
  • Copyright and intellectual property
  • Implementing tools and policies for digital scholarly publishing
  • Building networked communities, followers, and fans
  • Designing database structures
  • Alt-Ac Voices
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