STS, Critical Design, and the Critical Digital Humanities

— James W. Malazita —

Since the turn of the century, the humanities and social sciences have seen a surge in the inflection of computational and technological methods throughout our research practices. 4S’s “Making and Doing” sessions, alongside research initiatives like Carl DiSalvo’s “adversarial design” and Phoebe Senger’s “culturally embedded computing,” are among the more familiar examples of materially engaged STS scholarship. History and Literary Studies are currently grappling with the impact of the Digital Humanities, the incorporation of data-intensive and visualization methods in traditionally text-dominated disciplines. Conversely, the boundaries of “hands on” fields like Industrial Design and Architecture are blurring via the integration of critical theory and political perspectives through design practice, represented by movements such as Critical and Speculative Design.

While the blending of humanities and social science research with technical practice is not in of itself new (constructivist pedagogy and humanities computing, for example, each saw some sustained success in the late 20th century), the kinds of hybridization seen in critical “making” and the critical digital humanities today have a distinct epistemological flair about them. As the “STS, Critical Design, and Critical Digital Humanities” 4S track would demonstrate, contemporary techno-humanistic fusion is less about creating new research outputs by adjuncting technological skills, and more about using digital and material methods themselves as venues of critique. In particular, materially-engaged STS critiques humanities and social sciences scholarship as a set of epistemic and institutionalized practices—they represent the active “making” of new forms of politically-engaged and reflexive scholarship.

In our track, the critique—and in some cases, outright criticism—of the material, epistemic, and administrative infrastructures of STS was a consistent theme. Dean Nieusma’s “STS through/with Design” discussed the tensions produced among STS scholars when incorporating technological practice—and therefore technological practitioners—into STS education. These tensions include frictions around notions of “robust” scholarship, the boundary-policing of the borders of STS research identity, and the competition for institutional resources (not least among them: new faculty lines). My own paper, “Toward a More ‘Critical’ Critical Design,” reflected upon the political and epistemic structures enmeshed within digital production platforms. Those structures, I argued, can actively undermine STS scholars’ critical capacities by producing us as epistemic subjects—to borrow from Karin Knorr Cetina—who reproduce the epistemic divide among “technical” and “social” research practices.