My INCS 2014 Presentation: Steampunk, or an Alternate History of Victorian Physical Computing.

Posted by Roger Whitson on March 27th, 2014


[Slide 1]: So, I sketched out some observations on the paper that I uploaded, but I thought I’d give you an “alternate” version of the presentation today. Today, I’m talking about three things: 1) Steampunk; 2) Alternate History; 3) Physical Computing. Here, you have that third  term. Physical computing is the building of any interactive system using electronics and programming. So, this is basically a breadboard (basically a way to put together electronics w/out soldering) connected to a a few LED sensors (sensing light), servos (helps to control electricity by providing feedback), and actuators (converts energy into motion). Physical computing is really about creating objects that interact with the environment, but it is also (I’d argue) a very different vision of computing that insists upon its physical/material existence.
[Slide 2]: Physical computing is also very reminiscent of Victorian imagery surrounding visible gears, wires, and technology. Much of our technology is constructed to obscure its guts. This is a 1910 French postcard from a chocolate factory depicting life in 2000, with what it calls a “correspondence cinema.” It’s kind of life Skype, imagined with Victorian affordances. I show this because many of these images and designs become the foundation of the genre steampunk.
[Slide 3]: Steampunk started as a literary genre devoted to ‘what if’ stories. The benefit of steampunk to both Victorian literary scholarship and the digital humanities is in its imagination of alternatives. Gibson and Sterling imagined a historical alternative where Babbage actually created the analytical engine and ushered in the information age in the 19th century. More recent steampunk novels depart from a historical reference entirely, and employ Victorian design and motifs in fantasy worlds – like the work of China Mieville.
[Slide 4]: People working in design and physical computation also employ Victorian tropes in their work. This is an attempt to redesign the clumsy Google glass as a monocle. The interesting thing for me is the idea that we can return to earlier design tropes to challenge how people currently interface with technology.
[Slide 5]: Another example: Joshua and Karen Tanenbaum created the “Reading Glove,” that presents a turn-of-the-century story of British spy  in French-occupied Algiers via several objects that are grasped by the glove. You might have seen it at MLA this year in the Pathfinders Electronic Literature exhibit curated by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. Here’s how Joshua and Karen Tanenbaum describe their project: “When the palm of the glove comes in contact with the tag on the object, a segment of recorded audio narration is played back over the speakers. Several seconds before the clip ends the tabletop display delivers a set of recommendations on which object to pick up next by enlarging and brightening photos of the object.”
[Slide 5] Here you can see some photos associated with the electronics of the glove. My question is whether such work can be described adequately as a form of digital humanities or even Victorian digital humanities? Does “Victorian” describe a temporal period? an ethos of building? or something else?
Thanks!

 

 

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