Materializing the past: approaching media history in humanities scholarship and teaching

Special Session [224] at the Modern Language Association Convention

Speakers: Steven Hammer, Jim Brown, Rachael Sullivan, Annette Vee (respondent)

Philadelphia Marriott, Room 308

Friday Jan. 6, 8:30 AM

Historically-minded digital media studies is a means of making contact with the materiality of tools we use and critique in both our scholarship and pedagogy. This panel demonstrates that the work of scholarship and teaching in the humanities can benefit from media-historical perspectives. As Wendy Chun, Tara McPherson, Lori Emerson, and others have argued, understanding computing's past brings awareness of the economic, political, and ideological forces that constitute computing's present. Through tracing these origins, paradoxical and ambiguous as they often are, we can find the grounds to question digital culture's norms and contextualize the technologies that support innovative literate and artistic practice in contemporary life. The panelists analyze cornerstones of digital culture to show that media history as a method is vital to cultivating a more socially-conscious and critical digital future in the context of humanities research and teaching.

In "Composing Sound Through—and Beyond—the R[ear]view Mirror," Steven Hammer critiques dominant audio editing processes and interfaces. The vast majority of contemporary sound-writing takes place in digital audio editors and digital audio workstations (DAWs), ranging from open-source software like Audacity to professional grade platforms like Pro Tools. Like most technological shifts, DAWs reuse concepts, processes, and interface design from past technologies, especially from magnetic tape-based recording studios. While DAWs have made composing, editing, and mastering sound more accessible and efficient, they have also further separated users from the materials, interfaces, and embedded politics of such interfaces. Such separation, most often done in the name of "user-friendliness," perpetuates a longobserved trend that, according to Hawisher and Selfe in 1991, frames emerging technologies in "overly positive terms...[that] may be dangerous if we want to think critically about technologies and its uses" (56-7). In other words, as new technologies "progress," their materials and means of production become increasingly black boxed; users do not know—or rather, do not need to know—the processes underneath the interface. In this presentation, Hammer will provide a brief history of the DAW, critique dominant timeline-based layouts and interface-specific workflow, and offer some DAWs, editing tools, and other audio philosophy-practices that depart from and challenge some of the problematic aspects of dominant DAW interfaces. Finally, he will discuss ways we might implement these alternative interfaces and processes when working with audio in scholarly and pedagogical contexts.

In "Resurrecting HyperCard and Composing With Dead Media," Jim Brown asks: What do we learn about the history of computational media and multimedia systems by composing with defunct tools? What possibilities have been overshadowed by our desire for newer systems and interfaces? In March 2004, Apple discontinued HyperCard, its popular hypermedia authoring software that allowed users to place text and graphics in "cards" and to organize those cards in "stacks." It also offered a scripting language called HyperTalk, which (like HyperCard) was aimed at non-programmers. Apple's decision to let HyperCard fade away means that today's authors and programmers cannot easily use it. While it is possible to run HyperCard on a modern computer, it requires the installation of special software and some technical expertise. But what would be the value of resurrecting such a platform and using it to create interactive media? Drawing on work in media archaeology, platform studies, software studies, and digital rhetoric, this presentation shows that using HyperCard as a writing platform can help us examine this influential software as a historical artifact. Teaching the history of computational media is best approached by directly interacting with platforms, and this presentation will demonstrate how composing with HyperCard opens up a range of questions about digital writing. By comparing HyperCard to some of its contemporaries (such as Storyspace, which was used to create a number of canonical works of electronic literature) and some currently available systems (such as Twine, which has helped launch a wave of textbased games released on the Web), we can see how HyperCard influenced the systems we use today. However, we can also examine how HyperCard opened up pathways that contemporary platforms did not necessarily pursue. This presentation will use HyperCard as one example of how we might use dead media to investigate our digital pasts.

Finally, in "Users by Design," Rachael Sullivan calls for renewed study of design practices in computer history. She considers the example of Bill Atkinson, who was an influential interface designer at Apple in 1983, when the company was about to release the most iconic invention in the era of personal computing: the Macintosh. His comment that "when I was working on the Mac, we thought the person we were building it for was a fourteen-year-old boy" inadvertently reveals that, for Atkinson and other designers on his team, "the audience" constitutes a boundary line: some users are in the fold, and others are simply not part of the plan. Through this and similar examples, Sullivan demonstrates that understanding the rhetorical choices of designers is one important step towards contextualizing digital inequalities and effecting positive change. It is unfortunate that the history of design, in general, has privileged finished objects and images, almost completely ignoring the study of design as an activity and practice in its own right (Dilnot). Likewise, the primary sources that illustrate the history of computing—interviews, memoirs, photographs, sketches—are often used to nostalgically celebrate the achievements of visionaries. Less often do we see cultural critique applied to the history of design practices and rhetorical choices. How did the designers of landmark technologies in the history of computing imagine their audiences—their ideal users? Drawing on recent scholarship at the intersection of rhetoric, literary studies, and media theory (Hayles, Emerson), Sullivan contends that Apple's decades-long construction of the "ideal user" is inextricably tied to ideologies that undergird today's "toxic technocultures" (Massanari). Pushing against such exclusionary tactics is especially important for novice computer users and students, who are often surprised to see that activist, experimental, and non-Western approaches to technology design envision different and more diverse audiences.