Critical Making

Mon/Wed 9:30–10:45 / Room L114 in 12WV

Critical making is hands-on hardware practice as a form of reflection and analysis: a way of thinking through what (and how) computing and digital media mean by understanding how they work, building on the literature of media studies and the digital humanities. This course complements other courses in Media, Culture, and Communication by turning from software to hardware, to the physicality of computation and communications infrastructure. We will take objects apart, literally and figuratively, and in the process will learn to interpret and to intervene – using prototyping, reverse engineering, hardware hacking, design fiction, scenarios, fabrication and other approaches – in the material layer of digital technologies. Students will produce individual “provocation projects” and team final projects that explore, explicate and challenge contemporary technological life.

Contacting me + office hours from 15:30–17:00 on Monday (740, 239 Greene St)

Assignments Participation will be based on attendance, diligent reading, and active participation in all class activities. Students will be responsible for producing a “provocation project,” a critical hardware intervention done by individual students to critically reflect on one of the class themes (due 3/25), and a “final project,” done in teams to produce a more complex object to intervene in one of the areas discussed in class (due 5/4). Every week will include a smaller, faster assignment related to a facet of critical making and design. Detailed instructions will be provided to students in class for these assignments.

Participation: 20%
Provocation Project: 30%
Final Project: 50%

Grading rubric
A = Excellent This work is comprehensive and detailed, integrating themes and concepts from discussions, lectures and readings. Writing is clear, analytical and organized. Arguments offer specific examples and concisely evaluate evidence. Students who earn this grade are prepared for class, synthesize course materials and contribute insightfully.
B = Good This work is complete and accurate, offering insights at general level of understanding. Writing is clear, uses examples properly and tends toward broad analysis. Classroom participation is consistent and thoughtful.
C = Average This work is correct but is largely descriptive, lacking analysis. Writing is vague and at times tangential. Arguments are unorganized, without specific examples or analysis. Classroom participation is inarticulate.
D = Unsatisfactory This work is incomplete, and evidences little understanding of the readings or discussions. Arguments demonstrate inattention to detail, misunderstand course material and overlook significant themes. Classroom participation is spotty, unprepared and off topic.
F = Failed This grade indicates a failure to participate.
Plus and minus grade indicate the standing within the above grades.

Weeks 1–4: Thinking Through Making
An introduction to critical making, digital humanities, hardware literacy, and infrastructure studies, bridging from other classes (sound studies, visual culture, gaming, values in design).

Week 1: Introductions
Introduction to the course concepts and process; we all meet each other; overview of projects, readings, ideas and methodologies.

1/27 - Introductions, discussion of the experimental and participatory nature of this class
1/29 - Overview of core concepts, methods, formation of project teams, open teardown nominations // Due: Phone maps

Week 2: Making and Thinking Hardware
Reading: Ratto, Matt: “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” Sengers, Phoebe: “Interview”

2/2 - What does it mean to think with making and hardware?
2/4 - Working things out // Due: Critical making exercise

Week 3: Diegetic Prototyping and Critical Design Scenarios
Reading: Bleecker, Julian: “Design Fiction: Props and Prototypes”

2/9 - Understanding prototypes, diegesis, and design fiction
2/11 - Discussing the work of critical design // Due: Diegetic prototype

Week 4: Doing (and Questioning) Carpentry
Reading: Bogost, Ian: Chapters 2 and 4, Alien Phenomenology. Barad, Karen: “Posthumanist Performativity”

2/16 - President’s Day: no classes
2/18 - Discussion of “carpentry” and ontography as practice // Due: final teardown object votes

Weeks 5–8: The Big Teardown

Week 5: “I Fight for the User”: The Politics of Hardware Access
Reading: Silvanovich, Natalie: “Many More Tamagotchis Were Harmed in the Making of this Presentation” and Tamagotchi ROM dump blog excerpts. Torrone, Phillip: “The Owner’s Manifesto”

2/23 - Discussing the meaning and implications of hardware access: when, how, why, why not
2/25 - How to access teardown object? // Due: Alarm report on access + closure

Week 6: Infrastructure as Material
Reading: Susan Leigh Star, “Ethnography of Infrastructure”

3/2 - Discussion of the theory of infrastructure, come prepared with examples
3/4 - Models and examples of infrastructure analysis // Due: Design of a critical standard

Week 7: Understanding Logistics
Reading Easterling, Keller: “Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft.” Dan Williams, “Christmas in Yiwu.” Maxwell, Richard and Toby Miller: “E-Waste: Elephant in the Living Room”

3/9 - Thinking with extraction, manufacture, and consumption
3/11 - Modeling and interacting with logistics // Due: Personal inventory and map of two logistics zones

Week 8: Spring Recess, no classes

Week 9: “Maker is Always Plural”: Communities of Hardware
Reading: Turner, Fred: “Prototype.” Deb Chachra: “Why I Am Not a Maker”

3/23 - Discussion of hardware communities and cultures and the use of prototypes
3/25 - Brief student presentations // Due: Provocation projects

Weeks 10–13: Assembling Things Together
Having delved into a single, specific object we now put it into steadily larger material contexts, using theory and practice as a lens: flows of materials, capital, and energy from the body to the planet.

Week 10: Affordances and Ergonomics: Making the Body
Reading: von Uexkull, Jakob: A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: with a Theory of Meaning, excerpts.

3/30 - Discussion of affordance theory and ergonomics
4/1 - Discussion of prosthetics // Due: Empathy tools

Week 11: Making the City
Reading: Hill, Dan: “The Street as Platform”

4/6 - The city as setting for critical making
4/8 - Understanding the city as a hardware space // Due: Thematic walkscape instructions

Week 12: At Scale: Hyperobjects
Reading: Muecke, Stephen: “Global Warming and Other Hyperobjects.” Natalie Jeremijenko, “Interview”

4/13 - Discussion of the idea of the “hyperobject,” context and scale
4/15 - What are the limits to thinking about objects? // Due: A hyperobject design

Week 13: World Games
Reading: Fuller, Buckminster: “Comprehensive Designing.” Jolliffe, Daniel: “Eight Missing Projects of the Maker Generation”

4/20 - Discuss and debate the concept of comprehensive design and systemic social problems
4/22 - Thinking with things, large and small // Due: Scenario planning projects

Weeks 14–15: Intensive Final Project Collaborations
Student teams (or individuals, in some cases) present their in-progress projects in a series of circulating talks and demonstrations, with in-class feedback and production help from ourselves, other students, and guests.

Week 14: Collaborative Workshop Session

4/27 - Open workshop with crit, feedback, and circulation between teams
4/29 - Open workshop: polishing, refinement, presentation focus

Week 15: Final Presentations

5/4 - Presenting Final Projects, I
5/6 - Presenting Final Projects, II