Radical engineering: an ethnography of promise
Paper short abstract:
Based on fieldwork in the "Dynamic Medium Group," an influential research collective in the San Francisco Bay Area, this paper focuses on a specific form of engineering and design, based on a set of promises, most notably the promise of making history by "working on the medium."
Paper long abstract:
This paper is about a specific form of engineering and design in the tradition of Alan Kay and Douglas Engelbart, 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 and designers working towards building the conceptual and technical foundations for a new "dynamic spatial medium." Drawing on this two-year long fieldwork, the paper will show that at the core of these engineering and design endeavors 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 gestures, with which the group constructs futures, and as such itself as a strong subject. The research group at stake makes, develops and stabilizes their ambitious promises through various forms of prototyping. Internally, these 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 the technosolutionist shortcuts situated in the Silicon Valley and beyond, and are directed against current digital media and their commercially-driven development.