Daniel Chavez Heras, PhD student at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, shares how the University’s ‘Unmaking Club’ — a creative approach to teaching technology to students — is helping to train the next generation of critical technologists.
Nearly every aspect of our lives is now entangled with digital objects, services, and infrastructures: from our jobs to the way we spend our free time; from the public sphere and our social selves; to our homes, our cars, and even our romantic relationships. No longer imagined as an abstract virtual space, digital technology has infiltrated the material world, with objects and beings of all kinds increasingly connected in what has been called the Internet of Things.
The most conspicuous example is perhaps the telephone, which is of course now the smartphone and of which there are about 5 billion currently in use around the globe. But this was followed by a legion of smartphone siblings: the smart kettle, the smart fridge, the smart toilet. And these are all increasingly regulated through AI home assistants, such as Google Home, the Amazon Echo, Tencent’s Xiaowei, or the recently announced 'Beeb' — a competing voice assistant from the BBC. Similarly, outside the domestic space there are new types of connected public and private infrastructures: networked vehicles, roads, connected cameras and sensors of all kinds, some of which even allow networks of connected animals and plants (yes, there is an internet of trees and an internet of cows).
A teaching challenge
On the face of this, one of the challenges when teaching technology to younger generations is how to get students who have never been in a world without the internet or mobile phones to think critically about the connected world in which they live. How do we prompt them to question, for example, the power relations embodied in these networks of connected objects? Who owns the data they generate, who is in a position to exploit this data, and who makes the objects used to gather it? Where are these objects made? How are they made, and by whom? These are all pressing questions that emerge from relatively well-known debates in academic circles in recent strands of digital humanities, such as the datafication of societies , critical infrastructure studies , platform economies , etc. Yet, these are also some of the questions that students tend to struggle with the most in the abstract. Newer generations tend to live in already-connected societies and experience them as a collection of integrated and consolidated digital services; without having lived through the process of transformation from analogue to digital, it can be more difficult for them to imagine or understand the forces that brought us here.
To meet this challenge, some colleagues and I at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London argue that the approach of scholarship needs to adapt too, in order to give students the necessary skills and concepts to understand how this connected world is realised. Digital humanities has a rich history of interdisciplinary work as well as a healthy vein of critical approaches to technology, and yet many of its insights have not been fully adopted nor have they meant radical changes in teaching over the past decades. To be sure, it is preferable to have students learn coding as well as some critical theory, but to teach them one module on each subject misses the larger epistemological problem, much in the same way that adding some ethics on top of AI research will not result in fairer or more democratic AI systems. A critical approach is needed.
One suggested way to enact some change in this regard is to promote what Phil Agre, a former Associate Professor at UCLA, called a 'critical technical practice' as a model for research and teaching in our department. According to Agre, such a practice entails having 'one foot planted in the craft work of design and the other foot planted in the reflexive work of critique' .
In our case, the initial goal was to find a way to ‘unmake’ the connected world. We wanted to give our students a way to think of the Internet of Things as the result of a process that brings together material elements, human labour, and algorithmic thinking, and to encourage them to re-discover some of the objects they take for granted. Or, in the words of my colleague Mercedes Bunz, to show them how 'things become media' , by guiding them through this becoming end to end: from cardboard to code to interaction to data.
The Unmaking Club
To test this idea, last year we piloted our first 'Unmaking Club', where students were asked to design and make a connected object of their own, initially mimicking one whose functioning they were familiar with. The idea was to instill in them a sense of curiosity about how these connected objects operate, and then show them how the link between intangible code and embodied experience is being constantly redesigned, and that it could be also redesigned by them. Along the way students also picked up basic coding and prototyping skills, but most importantly, they learned how these practices fit more generally in the production of the Internet of Things.
The club took place over five, three-hour sessions between December 2018 and March 2019. These sessions were open to all students from our department, undergraduates and postgraduates alike, and were organised as an optional afternoon activity loosely based on the Raspberry Pi (a small, low cost and open source computer).
What we did
The initial step was to learn to control the general purpose input and output interface (GPIO pins) of the Pi. Thanks to the excellent cardboard circuit controller provided by my colleague Alex Hadwen-Bennett, we could get started right away with some basic operations, like controlling a button, or an LED.
Once we knew how to regulate the inputs and outputs in the Pi, we connected a camera to it so that it could see the world around it. We tested taking and manipulating pictures automatically, and we used a cardboard box enclosure to set it up on a college window to make time-lapse videos.
Finally, we moved our circuitry to a breadboard, and put everything together to create the prototype for a tweetcam.
The tweetcam box has a camera, a buzzer, an LED, and a button. When it’s on and the button is pressed, there is a beep and the LED lights up, a picture is taken and immediately tweeted to a test account.
This box initially does nothing that a modern smartphone cannot do. However, in creating it ourselves, we helped students pose questions of design and interaction. By changing only a few lines of code and/or the shape and disposition of the object itself, we could quickly iterate alternative versions of our tweetcam and test how people reacted to these alterations. This playful experimentation in turn opened up creative and critical possibilities.
What if our tweetcam was connected to a different box in a different part of the world, a box with other buttons pressed by other users who, unbeknown to us, were taking pictures remotely, or were deciding which pictures were published and which were not? What if there was a third box elsewhere through which yet other users were collecting these decisions and learning from these behaviours? How would we feel about this? How do these different types of interaction support or challenge our ideas of privacy, or freedom?
These were some of the questions we explored during the mini project. And these are some of the practical skills developed:
- What a Raspberry Pi is and how to set one up.
- How to control the Pi using Python (a popular programming language).
- How to connect basic circuitry using cables, LEDs, a breadboard and a camera.
- How to put this together inside an object using cardboard and tape.
- How to connect our object to the internet and to social media.
- How to design and test different types of interaction with our connected object.