Archives for the month of: May, 2011

In Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman has an essay that describes his experience playing The Sims:

My SimChuck has absolutely no grit.  He is constantly bummed out, forever holding his head and whining about how he’s ‘not comfortable’ or ‘not having fun.’  At one point I bought him a pretty respectable wall mirror for $300, and he responded by saying ‘I’m too depressed to even look at myself.’  As an alternative, he sat on the couch and stared at the bathroom door. … I hope I never own a bed.  But don’t tell that to SimChuck.  Until I bought him his $1,000 Napoleon Sleigh Bed (‘made with actual wood and real aromatic cedar’), all he did was cry like a little bitch.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that this doesn’t sound very productive, but surely, if there’s one thing that we know about computer games, it’s that they’re supposed to teach us the skills that we need to get by in our real lives.  So instead of trying to instill some grit in a Sim, what happens if you apply the same thinking to your own routine?

Take any simple thing that you already know how to do–eat, brush your teeth, dress yourself, answer the phone, write a book (any of the things that you’d think shouldn’t faze your Sim)–take one of those things and measure it along any dimension(s) that you care about.  Then break it into a bunch of tiny moving parts, and try to improve them one at a time.  When you’ve put the process back together, measure it again to see if your changes made a difference.  Revert any change that didn’t improve things.

Programmers call this “refactoring,” but really it isn’t a new idea.  In Walden, Thoreau wrote that “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Academics should already know that process is more important than product, as the idea shows up in various guises throughout the canon, but its surprising how few of them act like they know it.  Really, your CV shares the same relationship to a life of research and teaching as a coprolite does to a good meal.

When I return from my sabbatical, the second thing that people are going to ask me is “was it productive?”  I think I’m going to say, “Well… it was byproductive.”  And then we’ll see where the conversation goes from there.

From 2005 to 2008 I kept a research weblog called Digital History Hacks. As an open access, open content publishing platform, the blog served my purposes nicely. It was less well suited to sharing open source code, however, and didn’t support humanistic fabrication at all. Adding a private wiki helped a little bit, but didn’t go nearly far enough. So I decided to build The New Manufactory around the following ideas.

Working in the Heraclitean mode. If it ever made sense to divide scholarship into phases of research and writing, it no longer does. We now have to work in a mode where things around us are constantly changing, and we’re trying to do everything, all the time. As Heraclitus supposedly said, “all is flux.” So until your interpretation stabilizes…

  • You keep refining your ensemble of questions
  • Your spiders and feeds provide a constant stream of potential sources
  • Unsupervised learning methods reveal clusters which help to direct your attention
  • Adaptive filters track your interests as they fluctuate
  • You create or contribute to open source software as needed
  • You write/publish incrementally in an open access venue
  • Your research process is subject to continual peer review
  • Your reputation develops

Assemblages and rhizomes. Digital scholarship adds algorithms, source code, digital representations, version control, networked collaborators, application programming interfaces, simulations, machine learners, visualizations and a slew of other new things to philology. Beyond that, fabrication adds tools, instruments, materials, machines, workbenches, techniques, feedstock, fasteners, electronics, numerical control, and so on. The things that we have to figure out don’t come in neat packages or fit into hierarchies.

A tight loop between digitization and materialization. Digital representations have a number of well known qualities: they’re perfectly plastic, can be duplicated almost without cost, transmitted in the blink of an eye and stored in vanishingly small physical spaces. Every digital source can also be the subject of computational processing. So it makes a lot of sense to create and share digital records. Freeing information in this social sense, however, doesn’t mean that information can or should always be divorced from material objects or particular settings. We can link the digital and material with GPS, RFIDs, radio triangulation, barcodes, computer vision or embedded network servers. We can augment the material world with digital sources, and increasingly we can materialize digital sources with 3D printers or inexpensive CNC mills and lathes.

Everything should be self-documenting. Recording devices like sensors, scanners and cameras can be built into the workbench. They can automatically upload and archive photographs, videos, audio files and other kinds of digital representations. Electronic instruments can be polled for measurements. Machine tools can report their status via syndicated feeds. When we make and use things in the world, we can make and make use of born-digital data, too.

Co-presence and telepresence. Human beings (and other primates) learn by watching one another’s eyes and hands, so why not make it possible to do this remotely? Workers at a pair of augmented workbenches could be made aware of one another’s actions by a stream of low-latency signals. Sensors and actuators could support remote gesture, touch, manipulation and a sense of presence. Services like Pachube can be used to leverage this information, so that it can be remixed and repurposed.