Engaging with work that is critical and technological at the same time is important in digital humanities. Matt Ratto worked as a researcher at Umeå University in the Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and in HUMlab in 2007. He is d eveloping ‘Critical Making’ as a strategy for teaching and research.
Image left: Matt Ratto is Associate Professor and Director of the Critical Making lab in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.
Matt Ratto was awarded his PhD in Science and Technology Studies at the University of California, San Diego, in 2003. His ideas about Critical Making developed during his time at Umeå University.
“I saw that very many humanistic researchers worked materially, but that part of their work was seldom reported or valued in the same way as the final result. The knowledge that was valued was that which could be described by means of language; texts, lectures, and so on. I am not saying that this is wrong, but I believe that knowledge created through material engagements can add a further valuable dimension to the research. Material work is already being used as a method in several branches of humanistic research, for example archaeology, but no system or framework exists for it. That is one of the things I would like to see in place and for this reason I have tried to investigate and describe what material and critical work can be done in humanistic research today,” says Matt Ratto. He continues to work with HUMlab in various capacities.
Practical workshops in Critical Making
To show how material creation can enhance the possibility for critical review, Matt Ratto arranges regular Critical Making workshops. Participants create from kits, which do not always have a given solution but which require the participants’ active involvement.
“In the exercises I often try to get at what I call digital materiality. In language, this becomes a contradiction, what is digital is not material, and we need to separate the two. But that is where the language tricks us; there is a clear linkage between digitality and materiality and I try to bring this out by allowing participants to build digital units out of physical material. I have, for example, held workshops — for the first time in HUMlab in 2013 — where participants have had to build a ‘fixel’, that is to say a physical pixel in paper form. Then they have had to think about what remains of the pixel’s original form and characteristics after it has been transferred from the digital to the physical world. Is it there perhaps that we can find the digital’s materiality?”
Image: Matt Ratto answers a question from a Critical Making workshop participant, Photo: Elin Berge.
Understanding by doing
Language today acts as a universal way of handling and understanding all kinds of problems, both in academia and in other places. According to Matt Ratto, there are certain phenomena that we cannot just read about in order to fully understand them; we must also study the physical material.
“Working with the material ‘hands on’ and being allowed to create rather than read about it gives a deeper and different kind of understanding. I believe that free creative work can be of importance for the very problem definition in a study; when we experiment with doing, we can discover problems that we do not discover through text. This type of understanding was not previously valued as highly and was not regarded as ‘proper’ research. Nor can Critical Making be fully understood merely by reading about it. To make this clear, I have included kits in my academic articles that one needs to assemble and think about to be able to understand the research that the article describes in depth.”
One important purpose of Critical Making is to visualise the linkages between digital and physical worlds.
“My intention with working with Critical Making is to visualise how society and technology create each other and develop interdependently. In this respect the humanistic researcher has an important task: to get people to understand what the technical choices they make mean and the impact they have on society in general. How technology is used is of importance to societal development. People’s behaviour in social media, for example, also has an impact on society’s social structure outside the digital world. We can choose to buy a certain computer or a certain mobile phone and that too affects how the world develops. I don’t think we can fully grasp that merely by reading about it,” says Matt Ratto.
New sources of critical reflection
“I am convinced that by working more with making, people can become better at critical reflection. One example is how we think about Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM is systems can restrict how we are allowed to use digital files. I can, for example, download and read a book on my tablet computer. On the other hand, I can generally not read the book on any other tablet than the one intended, I can’t send the book to a friend and I can’t copy it. There are blocks on the digital files that limit my use of them and these systems set even more restrictions than copyright normally does. Our cultural context is created by us approving these systems and for this reason it is important that they are visualised. I think very many people see problems with systems like DRM but nonetheless do not change their behaviour, and one of the reasons for this is that we only read about them. Giving less abstract and more practical and tactile knowledge about them makes it easier to act against the problem,” says Matt Ratto.
In Critical Making there are elements of activism that aim to increase awareness of the processes that digital technology and society give rise to.
“In my Critical Making workshops, we have worked with practical examples that show how absurd systems like DRM are. For example, one group created a physical book that destroyed itself if it was removed from a certain room. We would never allow that kind of restriction in the physical world. Critical Making can thus create new sources of critical reflection.”
What makes Critical Making different from other kinds of practical experiments, art or smart design?
“Critical Making is not only making for yourself. A good work of art can both mean meaningful creation to you and provide food for thought for the viewer, but in Critical Making everyone who comes in contact with the experiment is also given the opportunity to make and do. Critical Making is characterised by active participation where there is no set solution, but where one makes one’s own solution through critical reflection.”
What future do you see for Critical Making?
“In recent years I have been trying to legitimise and establish Critical Making in the research community and create a framework that defines what Critical Making is. Developing one’s ability to think critically, also by creating, is a necessary task for all researchers, regardless of field.”