Critical making, as a term, was initially used by Matt Ratto in 2008 and first published in 2009 to describe the combination of critical thinking with hands-on making—a kind of pedagogical practice that uses material engagements with technologies to open up and extend critical social reflection. In Ratto and Hoekema’s words, “critical making is an elision of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world—‘critical thinking,’ often considered as abstract, explicit, linguistically based, internal and cognitively individualistic; and ‘making,’ typically understood as material, tacit, embodied, external and community-oriented” . Ratto wanted the term to act as glue between conceptual and linguistic-oriented thinking and physical and materially based making with an emphasis on introducing hands-on practice to scholars that were primarily working through language and texts, such as those in the fields of communication, information studies, and science and technology studies .
Because of its stress on critique and expression rather than technical refinement and utility, Ratto acknowledges that critical making has similarities to the practice of critical design, a term popularized by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby . Critical design comes from the background of industrial design and builds objects that work to challenge the narrow conventions and biases that products play in daily life, primarily those that determine that products need to be convenient, affirmative, soothing, and empowering for the user. Critical design is focused on building industrial design prototypes that question the way products reinforce a banal and comfortable status quo by being efficient, optimized or comfortable, and instead pushes users into more complex emotional and psychological territory by questioning social norms and stimulating discussion and criticism of design itself . For example, critical designers often build products for a dystopic future, with the prototypes professionally documented and communicated through narrative video or images: “Products … as a special category of object, can locate these issues within a context of everyday material culture. Design today is concerned with commercial and marketing activities, but it could operate on a more intellectual level, bringing philosophical issues into an everyday context in a novel yet accessible way” .
- Hertz in the Studio for Critical Making at Emily Carr University. Hertz is interested in extending the concept of critical making from a process-oriented workshop model for disciplines like information studies into more studio-oriented fields like industrial design and electronic art.
Despite their similarities, a number of key differences between critical design and critical making exist. Critical making, as envisioned by Ratto in 2011, was much more focused on the constructive process of making as opposed to building an artifact. While critical design is focused on building refined objects to generate critique of traditional industrial design, critical making was initially conceived as a workshop framework with the final prototypes existing only as a remnant of the process . Critical design, on the other hand, tends to be focused on building objects that document well, with the artifacts themselves challenging concepts like optimization, efficiency, social norms, and utopianism. Critical design is object-oriented; critical making is process-oriented and scholarship-oriented: “Critical making emphasizes the shared acts of making rather than the evocative object. The final prototypes are not intended to be displayed and to speak for themselves” . Ratto’s emphasis is on using hands-on techniques to augment the process of critical thinking about information systems, while Dunne and Raby’s critical design is primarily focused on building photo and video props for the construction of a speculative narrative to help us rethink designed objects and consumer culture.
As a process and scholarship-oriented practice, Ratto’s critical making resembles the field of “values in design,” a concept most closely affiliated with Helen Nissenbaum . Values in design is an approach to studying sociotechnical systems from the perspective of values, and starts from the assumption that technology is never neutral: “Certain design decisions enable or restrict the ways in which material objects may be used, and those decisions feed back into the myths and symbols we think are meaningful” . Values in design is an approach to scholarship and a workshop method that strives to unpack the assumptions behind technological designs and increase understanding in how technological objects shape social values. Although objects are at the heart of this process and scholarship, the understanding of these objects is of prime importance. Like in Ratto’s critical making, technological objects are primarily to be studied, worked through, and understood through a value-oriented process of scholarly inquiry. Critical making explicitly names making as an important part of this process, while making is optional in the process of values in design. Critical making is like values in design, but the former clearly emphasizes the value of material production as a site for critical reflection, following the “material turn” that highlights material objects as a key part of social processes and conceptual frameworks . Ratto’s term of critical making is a constructionist approach to work through values in design, information studies, or science and technology studies .
Standard methods of technological design—whether through consumer culture or traditional fields of science and engineering—often produce systems that lack cultural richness, emotion, and human-oriented values. Engineering, for example, often overemphasizes principles like efficiency and productivity that contributes to a consumer-oriented culture that overworks, overproduces, and overconsumes. Critical making intervenes by giving designers and the public an opportunity to break out of this cycle, step back, and mindfully reconsider a broader spectrum of human experience. It also strives to highlight people, perspectives and practices that are forgotten in conventional product development workflows: and consider the diverse complexities of what it means to be human.
My interest in the term critical making comes from a perspective of hands-on technology development and studio practice—in makers becoming more critically engaged with their medium. In other words, I see the term as useful in encouraging the builders of technology—whether hackers, engineers, industrial designers, or technology-oriented artists—to step back and reevaluate the assumptions and values being embedded into their technological designs. Sengers and others describe this as reflective design, where “reflection on unconscious values embedded in computing and the practices that it supports can and should be a core principle of technology design” .
This reflectiveness is especially relevant to the maker community that has emerged over the last decade through open source hardware projects like the Arduino, social structures like hackerspaces, products like inexpensive 3D printers and publications like Make . The maker movement can be defined as a “convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans . . . [that] tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3D printers” . Maker culture can be seen as a form of depoliticized hacking, with the attributes of cryptofreedom and the hacker underground removed by Dougherty and others at Make to be more palatable to a commercial market [2, 14].
Critical making, as I see it, is useful in reintroducing a sense of criticality back into post-2010 maker culture: to un-sanitize, un-smooth and re-politicize it.
Critical making, as I see it, is useful in reintroducing a sense of criticality back into post-2010 maker culture: to un-sanitize, un-smooth and re-politicize it. My perspective on critical making is interested in mobilizing approaches from experimental media art, critically engaged industrial design and computer science interaction research that take cultural production and humanities-oriented inquiry seriously within the context of building functional technologies. Approaches include the concepts of critical technical practice, values in design, critical design, and reflective design [1,15, 4, 21]. This body of scholarship argues that all built technological artifacts embody cultural values, and that technological development and hands-on making can be combined to build provocative objects that encourage a re-evaluation of technology in culture. Arts-oriented contexts include the terms of interrogative design, critical engineering, perverting technological correctness, adversarial design, tactical media and works of contemporary media art—all of which take an attitude of humanities-based inquiry into the production of art objects and technologies [27, 17, 11, 3, 7]. These approaches are helpful in tempering the optimism of maker culture and reconnecting it with its historical, tactical and controversial histories.
The way to improve Ratto, Dunne and Raby’s approaches is to extend their inquiries and proposals into material speculations: built and functional devices . Interactive prototypes and their subsequent evaluations are significant for two key reasons. First, they embody actionable design strategies in a form that is accessible to the public, interaction design community and translatable to the practices of technology designers [23, 8]. Second, the prototypes materially articulate particular stances and ideas that can be informed by perspectives in philosophy of technology. In this way, they can operate as a type of boundary negotiating artifact or boundary object—objects that coordinate the perspectives of diverse communities of practice [12, 22, 26]. In addition to public legibility, material speculations can mediate exchanges among scholars in different fields, including computer science researchers, philosophers of technology, media theorists, and interaction design researchers. Critically made objects can be documented online, exhibited in public art galleries, or published as case studies in academic papers—and can work to expose the hidden assumptions within the designed objects around us and be embedded in technological systems to a wide audience. They can enable individuals to reflect on the personal and social impact of new technologies, and provide a provocative, speculative, and rich vision of our technological future that avoids the clichés of consumerist-oriented industrial design.
Objects are effective as things to think with—things can link concepts in a different way than language can, have a life of their own and travel through different contexts. Although constructed objects are often imprecise in communicating ideas in comparison to language, things have the strength to hit with powerful and forceful impact. Critically engaged language can do detailed surgery on a topic, but critical objects can hit like an emotional sledgehammer if thoughtfully implemented.
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