Made in the (Canadian) Shade: Reporting from HASTAC 2013

HASTAC logoAt one point in Paola Antonelli’s HASTAC 2013 keynote, she gave a dispirited frown and held out her thumb and forefinger, pinky extended, clutching an imaginary teacup.  She was considering the recent explosion of 3D printing and the sometimes unfortunate products of easy fabrication. Just because we can make something, she said (to paraphrase), doesn’t mean we should. Blind replication, without studied attention to the responsibilities of design and making, can only bring us closer to the auteur designer’s worst nightmare: a world glutted with anonymous, unnecessary teacups.

Making—of the physical, digital, real, unreal, and augmented real sort—was the bolded text of this year’s HASTAC convention. Our host, York University, launched Sensorium, a space within its fine arts department for collaborative, interdisciplinary making and scholarship; folks from the Maker Lab in the Humanities, the Ontario Augmented Reality Network (OARN), and the Lab for Humanistic Fabrication were all on hand with MakerBots in tow; Antonelli (Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development at the MoMA) gave her keynote discussing 21st-century design principles—a general-purpose recipe for artful and socially conscious making; there were lovely MA thesis films from several film and design students; the Mozilla-sponsored first-night reception showcased their WebMaker tools; and several presenters addressed the predominant notion that “if you’re not building, making, or crafting, you’re not doing X” (where “X” was everything from DH to good pedagogy).

As far as this last bit goes, I tend to agree…for the most part. The category “made” is pretty vast—vast enough to be nearly all-inclusive (not so unlike its offspring subcategory: “digital”). Even thoughts are, at some level, the products of human craft. Nonetheless, over-developed thought is often pitched as the foil to maker mentality—why lounge about ineffectually thought-mongering when you could be rolling up your revolutionary sleeves, building the binoculars through which to see the first light of a new synthetic dawn?

Why indeed? The thing is (and I think most HASTACers would acknowledge this), empty-headed making is no better than empty-handed thinking. If anything, the role of the humanist scholar-maker is to inject some sensibility, sensitivity, and thoughtful head-scratching and why-asking into the far-too-naturalized process of building as simply a means to an end…or a means to not much at all. Because what humanists are good at, among other things, is asking the question—before it’s too late—“to what/whose end?”

Refreshingly, at HASTAC the post-industrial chic of making was not simply and unhelpfully set against a stodgy, milquetoast (and caricatured) version of critical thinking. Instead the dialectic of making and pondering, doing and wondering, fashioning and resisting fashionableness for its own sake was the rule of the day.

The panel I participated in, for example, was all about the development of critical apparatuses for annotating and reviewing web-based work: making digital tools specifically for annotating digitally built (or at least digitally hosted) products. Kurt Fendt of MIT’s hyperstudio was there presenting on his team’s Annotation Studio software and UI, and Jonathan Reeve of New York University offered his own preliminary plans for a similar tool—with the added ability to manipulate text and create multiple versions.

For my own part, I was introducing Anvil, which in its own way is not so far removed from the world of the built and the tool-oriented. Yet, despite the soot, steam, and bellows behind our name, what we’re building is really less about the forged and the coded, and more about the ongoing process of creating narrative: narrative around the value of digitally built publications, around the need to recognize other sources of publication outside the (necessary) circuit of university presses, around the process of creating guidelines for review, around assessing value (or resisting status quo assessments of value), around the great good work of scholars actively adding to central conversations in their fields but going unacknowledged because that work happens to exist in a medium and in an ecosystem that persists outside of the narrow channel of higher-ed publishing.

Ultimately, this continued need for thoughtful discourse to accompany the trend of boutique (and scaled-up) making was the real takeaway from HASTAC. In other words, if you’re not telling a good story with and about your buildings and your made things, then whether or not you’re doing X is pretty immaterial. In other other words: good narrative will always be substrate to good works, regardless of their media.