Radical Engineering: An Ethnography of Promise
Paper short abstract:
With the notion of 'promise', the paper thinks through imaginaries of emerging technologies in engineering, based on a two-year long ethnographic fieldwork in the "Dynamic Medium Group," an influential research collective in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Paper long abstract:
This paper is about a specific form of engineering and design in the tradition of Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay, whose aim is to perform work on the computational medium. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork in the "Dynamic Medium Group": a highly influential research collective in the San Francisco Bay Area. The group, working under the lead of Bret Victor, consists of a handful of engineers, who focus on building the conceptual and technical foundations for a new "dynamic spatial medium." Drawing on this two-year long fieldwork, the paper will argue that at the core of this endeavour is a set of promises, most notably the promise of making history by working on the medium. With the notion of 'promise', the paper thinks through the social and technical gesture, with which the group constructs futures, and as such itself as a strong subject. The research group makes promises by building them into prototypes, by extracting new promises out of these prototypes, and by using prototypes to make their promises convincing. This paper shall explore how internally, promises produce both coherence and conflict. Externally, the research group tries to fight off attempts to use or understand their work without buying into the full set of its promises. Even though their promises consist of daring junctures of speculation and technology, they are positioned as opposites to techno-solutionist shortcuts situated in the Silicon Valley and beyond, and are directed against current digital media and their commercially-driven development.
Anthropology and emerging technologies [FAN panel]