Crossing all the wires: Cultural Engineering and Electrical Theory?


In order to do interdiscplinary work, it is not enough to take a ‘subject’ (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists of creating a new object, which belongs to no one. Roland Barthes in “The Rustle of Language”(1)

With a background in multiple disciplines, it’s been an ongoing search to find a comfortable place where my practical and professional interests can operate. In most situations, one or more are either surpressed, discouraged or hidden to the point of not even mentioning this or that expertise. (Witness, as I did recently, several versions of my “human resources” style resume that does not mention a Ph.D.)

Under what circumstances might one be in a position to be un-disciplined? Another way of saying — how can a diversity of expertises, approaches, points-of-view and perspectives become actionable means for shaping material culture beyond the conventions that disciplinary norms enforce. By disciplinary norms, I mean the carefully plotted points-of-view and networks of knowledge (épistémè) creation and circulation that allow specific ways of “doing work” rather than others. Ways of doing work is a broad way of stating that disciplines are defined by what can be said, written, constructed, explained — and specifically by what instrumental, creative and normative means that is accomplished. Like the tradecrafts, there are well-defined things that specific disciplines take as “their problem” and their approach to defining and working on what that discipline stakes out as their problems.

Engineers, to be vague, have specific problems that they take on. Designing more energy efficient, green-disposable power sources, for example. Things get confusing if an engineer decides to work outside of, or stretch the boundaries of, their discipline, say by prioritizing the aesthetic rather than instrumental functionality of a circuit board design.

This ongoing search took me through enough disciplined environments to know that disciplinary work practices are far too efficient for innovation. Every gear in enterprise knows perfectly well what it’s supposed to do and what the linkages around it are meant to do to couple the system into a smooth, producing machine. If a gear decides that it’s going to start operating like a cam — well, that just can’t happen.

What do you do with an engineer’s obsession with making things and a cultural theorists passion for deeply understanding all the crazy new ways we have for creating, circulating and making culture? And what do you do when you want to cross all the wires and make cultural engineering projects with engineered theory?

Step 1. Pretend you don’t have a doctorate and just engineer stuff. Just make digital things and shrug absently when people ask you what you mean when you make off-hand references to Goffman and Foucault.

Step 2. Art-technology. The “Art” prefix — it opens up the possibility for discussions about culture to be invested in engineering work, which is a terribly brilliant and deceptively simple work-around. Ideally, at best, it allows the engineering of technology to be understood as a cultural practice, which it always has been. The hyphenation is a band-aid though for what should evolve into an entirely distinct undisciplined approach to materializing ideas beyond the confines of routine “product” manufacturing. What I mean is, in one scenario that would be awesome to consider, things-made are not least-common denominator sorts of routine objects. They are rich in their diversity and provoke one to curiosity, encourage new perspectives or ways of seeing the world. Rather than seeing the world as a place to be exhaustively photographed, for example, and making zillions of subtly varying but essentially identical digital cameras and shoving them in anything (like telephones) that do not already have cameras — what sorts of things-made would encourage me to do something else exhaustively — like monitor my consumption of unrenewable resources, for example?

I spent years in the dot-com where there was at least a small bit of opportunity space for exploring strange, new ideas with multi-talented and multi-disciplinary groups. I had a committed and earnest foraging within the art-technology world that the largesse of bloated dot-com enterprises bolstered.

I would like to go to the CES show one year and catalog as an explorer to a new land might, the product phylum. Would it be diverse and thick, or unsettingly flat and repetitive — “things that play sound”, “things that play sound and are black”, “things that play sound, are black, and also make telephone calls”.

Step 3. Academia. This could be a place — it turns out it isn’t, I’m just saying — where rigorous interdisciplinarity is practiced. My realization of the challenges here are best described with a story. One day early on I walked across campus to the engineering quad to see about using the machine shop there. There was one of those “we’ll be back” style clocks that indicated a short window of opportunity to get ahold of someone in there. I think it was about four hours a day. The doorbell to the shop door had been removed so I had to knock hard on the door. The knocking was answered by a shop guy. When I explained I was a professor from just across campus at another school, he only said — “I don’t know if we’re supposed to work with you.”

I knew what he meant — there was probably some allocation of resources from budget centers or whatever the hell, and that meant that there were only certain ways he could get paid, based on hours worked on specific job numbers or something similar. That’s the practical side of it. But, the systemic side is that, despite the lofty words in university presidents’ addresses, the institutions themselves have epic inertial forces that will not make them anything close to interdisciplinary. Definitely not when the research agendas from major support centers (Microsoft, NSF, Google) emphasize research that is strictly “pure” — a keyword for “back to basics” style disciplinarity. So long as universities have “schools” containing disciplines, their politics and squabbles and mud-wrestling over who gets what money and requisitions for jobs and crap — interdisciplinarity will remain a useful meme for five-year master plans and the like. What a mess.

I’m a bit skeptical these days about what interdisciplinarity is meant to accomplish, or has been able to accomplish. My criticism is that one sees work that has disciplinary terrains butting up against each other, and nothing transformative or unexpected. You can see the “statistics” influence with the “art component” — data visualization, for example, that creates meaning and has a refreshing legibility over pie charts, for example. In my mind there are entirely new practice idioms to be discovered that interdisciplinary won’t find. Interdisciplinarity creates hyphenated practices — art-technology; data-visualization. What I hope for are undisciplined ideas that transcend and create entirely new practices, new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing.

Academia was supposed to be the place where rigorous interdisciplinary practice can thrive, or at least be explored as a possible new way of creating and circulating culture of all sorts. This was a naive expectation, but I suspected a certain degree of naivity on my part. It’s difficult to get things done and expensive when you are able to find support. I enjoy quick sketches of ideas, rather than drawn out, epic, multi-year projects. I tend to work with very light infrastructures that do not need huge overheads. The Near Future Laboratory projects entail a few people, a computer or two, some low-cost components, writing our own code, open-source kits. There are no cyclotrons or gene sequences or tons of beakers and bunsen burners or huge administrative staffs or someone at the top who taxes your hard work by taking overhead expenses or anything.

I’ll just bullet the serious challenges academia poses to The Near Future Laboratories way of getting stuff done:

* Disciplinary despite the lip-service given to interdisciplinary. But even interdisciplinary is bunk — lots of walls exist on the ground, and interdisciplinarity is flawed philosophically.

* Innovation for me means probing existing boundaries, frameworks, ways of seeing the world, understanding for porousness. Disciplinarity hates porous borders.

* There’s little interest in probes and sketches. It’s either an epic project or nothing at all. The short incursions don’t count for much. I find them invigorating.

* You end up publish/sharing your work to about 500 people. At a pay-per-view conference that costs about $3000 to attend, all-in. I get more single-user visits on a blog post for a three weekend project that costs me $300 out-of-pocket to put together. No kidding. The old publishing/circulating practice is a dead skunk. And that it counts for “more” on the resume than knitting together new practice communities, developing soft toolkits through your blog and sharing insights, ideas and work as it happens rather than 8 months later — that just doesn’t make sense. And most of it is perpetually locked away in institutional journals that no one without a university affiliation will likely ever, ever see. No wonder academics question their relevancy — their institutions are still in the 19th century.

* You get peer reviewed by people who literally are not your peers.

* 36% overhead tax on every dollar you bring in to do your work.

Enough said.


Step 4. Design-Technology. That episode at the machine shop door emphasized the intractable nature of practicing undisciplined creative work in a setting with well-policied disciplinary schools. Some time after this episode, I happened to be at Art Center College of Design. There, while walking to a student’s studio, I came across their shop. It was a hive of activity — lots of students working on stuff. Shop supervisors were around and seemed eager to assist students. Most of all, I was drawn to the openness of the shop. It ran along a long corridor with a window showing you what was going on inside. It was a strong contrast to the other shop..with the door and the removed doorbell and the four hours a day of access.

Seeing this shop made me think about design — something about which I had only the barest of knowledge. I don’t really know what design is, other than the idea that there are designers who design things. There are practices like industrial design, furniture design, lighting design, and so forth. There are design schools where design is learned and taught. But, something was going on here, as I saw just on the surface in this shop. Things were being made; ideas were being explored and probed and materialized here.

Considering design broadly — still without knowing precisely what it is — that experience in early 2006 made me start to consider seriously how I could learn from design to broaden my practice. What was there in design that I could draw from to knit to my history and experience with engineering/technology/art/culture-theory? What would a hybrid, undisciplined design-technology-engineering-art-culture-theory practice look like?

I’m going to find out.

4 thoughts on “Crossing all the wires: Cultural Engineering and Electrical Theory?”

  1. Great post, thanks for that. I don’t really consider myself as interdisciplinary, although I work across different disciplines, and unfortunately I can’t really say I am transdisciplinary either. But I’ve experienced some of the same difficulties in academia, and I share your doubts about academic publishing. There is huge pressure to publish my PhD thesis, but I know if I publish it as a book, only about 100 people will end up reading it. If I put it on my website, like I did with my MA thesis, I can easily get 10 times as many downloads in a year (whether people actually read it, is a different matter). There are little pockets of transdisciplinarity here and there (the Wissenschaftskolleg here in Berlin is one of them), but they tend to be even more elitist and exclusive than the rest of the academic world. I am also quite interested in “autonomous” universities that seem to be en vogue among avant-garde academics, but of course they suffer from a severe lack of funding and respectability. I totally agree with your conclusion, however: universities need to be less disciplined, especially at a time when the pressure on academics to be efficient and productive (i.e. to deliver marketable research) is so great.

  2. Great stuff. You are providing me with some theoretical underpinning for understanding what I do. It delights me to no end to see someone doing something with cultural theory. I hypothesize that this will eventually be recognized as very important. Technical fields are not always introspective, and can be downright contemptuous of the attempt to be so, but that notwithstanding, the claim that there is no need for a theory or philosophy is just evidence of a very poor default model that is going unexamined.

    I work in industry. I’m a chemist, but a work in a very un-chemocentric company. I benefit greatly from the fact that the engineering mindset that prevails here doesn’t generally understand what chemistry is, or does, only that it solves a lot of problems for engineers.

    Solving problems that arise gives me a lot of space and freedom, credibility that the core (or corps) of chemistry people here have bought by inventing things and solving problems that are quite outside the largely electrical engineering worldview prevalent here.

    Since chemistry is not defined at my work as exclusively ‘making molecules’ or ‘stirring things in flasks’ or ‘finding out what this material is’, I have had the great privilege of fiddling around with things outside my discipline, so much so that now, I can sit down with CAD tools and design parts, or put together circuits to do things. I am not, classically defined, a chemist any more. Chemistry informs and propels most of what I do, certainly. But I am freed to ignore a lot of boundaries. I am generally able to look at business and technical problems as opportunities to learn something new, then, with luck and work, to invent something new.

    it counts for “more” on the resume than knitting together new practice communities, developing soft toolkits through your blog and sharing insights, ideas and work as it happens rather than 8 months later — that just doesn’t make sense. And most of it is perpetually locked away in institutional journals that no one without a university affiliation will likely ever, ever see. No wonder academics question their relevancy — their institutions are still in the 19th century.

    In a few sentences, you sum up why I did not stay in academia. There are many more constraints imagined in industry than actually exist- if one can figure out how to pursue passions that will create value, there is a lot of freedom. It depends a lot on the culture of the firm. But the opportunity exists, and I think that based on the success I see where I am, this model of ‘un-disciplined’ innovation works well enough that I would not consider setting up a business any other way.

  3. Julian,
    Interdisciplinary is a requirement. Interdisciplinary is a curse. Interdisiplinary is a noun. Interdisciplinary is a verb. Interdisiplinary is the crafting of haiku and thinking of that haiku as a craft (both kinds).

    I work in national defense. Believe me, it’s all of the above. You’ve said in 10,000 words what I practice every day. THE REALLY HARD PART IS FINDING SINGLE DISCIPLINARY PEOPLE WHO ARE OPEN ENOUGH AND CREATIVE ENOUGH TO _GET_ WHAT YOU PREACH TO THEM (or to help you get shit done). Your machine shop experience epitomizes this.

    Second really hard part: the balancing act between learning skills to enhance what you do, and doing what you do. It’s too hard, as one example, to learn coding if you’ve NEVER DONE IT. It takes too much time from your interdisiplinary design (!) work. It’s also too hard to read Von Neumann if you need game theory. BUT YOU NEED TO. So, how can one build a HEALTHY tension between the two themes — doing, and learning to do? At my ripe old age (fifth decade — eat my dust), you are trying to accomplish faster and faster — and there never seems to be enough hours. I LONG for days when I said: “there’s nothing to do.” But I digress.

    The best way I can put it: we (ID’ers…you know what that means) need to “set conditions” for later exploration or exploitation, rather than trying to achieve some effect. Going for an effect is meaningless in a world where context evolves at the rate of empirical scenarios fed by 24/7 media (press+web+communities). Setting conditions is the next skill to be mastered. I’m working on it.

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