Media Archaeology Lab, Lab Notes 2/6: Re-figuring

Today was my first day in the Media Archaeology Lab, where I will be spending the month as an artist/researcher in residence. As part of this experience, I’ll try to publish semi-daily lab notes to document my experiments and reflections on this blog. Forgive any typos 🙏

Today, I started by flipping through a few books about software. Some of the books I remembered and documented: Cybernetics, Art and Ideas (Jasia Reichartdt), Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation (Joseph Weizenbaum), Apple Machine Language + Apple ad insert (Don & Kurt Inman), Artificial Intelligence: Making machines “think” (Neill Graham), Bob Neill’s Book of Typewriter Art, Future Stuff (Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein).

I was particularly struck by seeing Weizenbaum’s 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation, a book I read years ago that aims to push back on technodeterminist narratives, side-by-side with a book from 1989 titled Future Stuff: More than 250 useful, time-saving, delicious, fun, stimulating, and energy-saving products that will be available by the year 2000. 

Future Stuff attempts to predict – with a shocking amount of confidence! – which tech products will be available in 11 years, alongside stats like Odds (e.g. 100% confident), ETA (e.g. 1990), and Price (e.g. $18,000). This includes products that actually are in the market now, like on-demand film streaming, a desk treadmill, and interactive gaming, but also wacky products like the walking TV and the self-improvement chamber. Reading through these listings, I’m struck by how confident the tone of the book is: Of course these products will be on the market. There is a pervasive feeling that these technologies are not only things that people really need, but their development is ultimately inevitable. The future is already planned.

Conversely, Joseph Weizenbaum’s pivotal book Computer Power says that nothing about the future is inevitable. In the book, he pushes back on the idea of technodeterminism:

“The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it. But, in fact, there are actors!” 

Joseph Weizenbaum

Writing during the Vietnam War, Weizenbaum was keenly aware of how engineers and technologists had contributed to the development of war machines. By treating technological development as inevitable, he argues, we may be setting up the conditions under which oppression, violence, and other harms can occur. I really enjoyed this blog post by Librarian Shipwreck that explores some of the ways Weizenbaum’s words continue to prove relevant in the current time, as we navigate conversations about AI products like ChatGPT, for instance, without interrogating their limits, their impact on society, or the ways they could reify existing power relations.

That blog post introduced me to several other essays by Weizenbaum on ethics in computing. In a 1983 piece in the New York Review of Books, “The Computer in Your Future”, he writes:

“The computer has long been a solution looking for problems—the ultimate technological fix which insulates us from having to look at problems.”

Joseph Weizenbaum

By removing any discussion of power and incentives from narratives around technological innovation, we submit ourselves to someone else’s fantasy of what the future will look like.

This month, I will be thinking a lot about knitting as a feminist technoscience, and what it can teach us about imagining or re-figuring (to use Donna Haraway’s language) different technological futures through string figures. How can we take these visions of the future from the past, and re-figure them into new, material forms? How can we imagine futures that are relational, connective, and that center care? Knitting is both material and metaphor in my project.

Tomorrow I’ll be setting up my knitting machine and all my electronic components in the lab, so I’ll have more time to do some physical experiments with knits and sensors.


Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation, Joseph Weizenbaum

Computers enable fantasies – On the continued relevance of Weizenbaum’s warnings, Librarian Shipwreck

The Computer in Your Future, Joseph Weizenbaum, The New York Review of Books

Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway

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