Ratto, Matt. "Critical Making"

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[edit] Critical Making : conceptual and material studies in technology and social life

by Matt Ratto

Reviewed by Spencer Roberts

This article deals with the concept of “critical making” and discusses two separate situations in which the authors attempted to use the theory to create a connection between technology and social theory by having participants create technological artifacts.

Section I describes the context of the experiments, which is the larger scholarly debate over the interaction between society and technology. One of the approaches maintains that technology limits human action and can be understood as a “deterministic” view. The other main view is that technology holds great potential for allowing expansion of human experience and increased liberation of information. Though there are newer theories emerging that create a balance between these two views, the “deterministic” viewpoint is most common. The article points out that this dichotomy is rarely experienced in human interactions with technology and provides some insight into why this might be the case.

Because of this apparent disconnect between the theories on human-technology interaction and the reality of our social understanding of technology, the author decided to use “critical making” to explore the reconnection of “lived experiences with technologies” to “conceptual critiques”.

The concept of critical making is not to produce a specific prototype or useful artifact, but to encourage and stimulate interaction between the participants with regard to both the physical creation of the artifact and the development of critical theory to understand and explain the artifact. The authors relate their work to constructionist theorists such as Papert in that they focus on the process and interaction necessary between different humans and between humans and technology in order to create a technological artifact.

Section II describes the first of the two situations in which the critical making process was attempted. At the RCA/Imperial event, a lecture was given to highlight the debate over distance-learning, in which the hosts framed two positions: critics who claim distance education lacks personal interaction and thus is simply a content-delivery system, and other who say that those limitations have been overcome by higher bandwidths and new interaction technologies. The participants were then given the tools, components, and online resources to build a robot that would achieve motion through a vibrating bristle. The end of the program involved discussing the issue of distance education and how the building exercise reframed the participant’s views. Unfortunately, the authors found that the participants were largely unaffected by the exercise and had trouble connecting it with the theoretical issue.

Following those disappointing results, another conference was held in Amsterdam that focused on the concept of “walled gardens” within the open-concept Web 2.0 designs. The participants were given the necessary elements to construct electronic devices resembling flowers that could both transmit and receive signals that would influence the lifespan of their battery. The hope was that the participants would discover some higher understanding of social interaction and the dangers or benefits associated with “walled gardens”. As participants designed their “flwrs,” the drawbacks of a closed system soon became apparent, and a dialogue was established to optimize the overall lifespan of the flwr network. Despite the fact that neither the physical making nor the social dialogue are particularly innovative or novel in their own respect, the development of social dialogue through the act of making a material artifact indicates the importance of constructionism.

The final section of the article lays out the discoveries made throughout the process of organizing the two conferences and the implications of the lessons learned. The difference between ‘caring about’ and ‘caring for’ an issue became significant, as the participants attended due to their ‘caring about’ an issue but failed to make connections if they were not compelled to ‘care for’ the matters at hand. Critical making is concerned with altering the relationship between technology and society from a ‘matter of fact’ to a ‘matter of concern’. The authors hope that future efforts will limit the divide between social sciences and humanities, use constructionism to allow the creation of physical artifacts in educations, and provide further connection between practice and theory.

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