‘tuning’, methaphors and a lack of theory? DRHA2010

Another interesting keynote during DRHA was that of Richard Coyne. Richard’s keynote was entitled Walking with Smartphones: Mobile Devices and Bodily Practices. He had originally intended to talking about mobile technology but from seeing a few of the conference presentations he decided to tweak or ‘tune’, if you will, his talk to focus on The Tuning of Place which acts as a metaphor for understanding pervasive digital media and its impacts and for thinking about sensual technologies. It was a very thought provoking talk, despite Coyne stretching the tuning a metaphor a bit too far, there is only so many times you can say ‘metaphor’ and ‘tuning’ in an hour long talk before those words begin to irritate.

Anyway, Richard suggests the idea of ‘tuning’ as a metaphor for the many ways in which we continuously adjust ourselves to our environments and to each other. That all of our ubiquitous devices and the networks that support them become the means of making incremental adjustments within spaces—of tuning place. But how exactly do pervasive digital devices—smartphones, iPods, GPS navigation systems, and cameras, among others—influence the way we use spaces? Richard believes that digital devices’ capacity to introduce small changes helps us to formulate a sense of place, in the same way that tuning a musical instrument invokes the process of recalibration.

Some key points Richard raised:

  • The tuning of place -Tuning is a really good metaphor for understanding pervasive digital media and its impacts and for thinking about sensual technologies
  • Places are inhabited spaces, populated by people, their concerns, memories, stories, conversations, encounters, and artefacts. The tuning of place—whereby people use their devices in their interactions with one another—is also a tuning of social relations.
  • Synchronization – clocks helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat the rhythm of the machine for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of hours, but of synchronizing ( Mumford 1934). Tuning is a more nuanced term for synchronisation.
  • Adjustment – the necessity of adjustment. Pragmatic tweaking and tuning in architecture. Processes of tuning can lead to consideration of themes highly relevant to pervasive computing: intervention, calibration, wedges, habits, rhythm, tags, taps, tactics, thresholds, aggregation, noise, and interference.
  • The digital tourist -The gaze of the tourist renders extraordinary activities that otherwise would be mundane and everyday. Tourist destinations can be sensuously ‘other’ to everyday routines and places.
  • Lessons for design:
    • From concentrations of expertise to the democratization of innovation
    • From mobile phones to fully featured smart phones
    • Form users to actors
    • From the synchronization of schedules to the tuning of social relations

What was interesting was the discussion that was being held on Twitter during the presentation, which focused on the fact that this presentation was heavy on theory. The whole conference was heavy on theory. Prompting Andrew Prescott to tweet “I feel deeply un-theorized” and “I think digital humanities has to engage deeply with theory and metaphor, otherwise it is just poor man’s computer science.”

I was resistant to Andrew’s comments at first, simply because ‘tuning’ although it was a great idea, hurt my brain. Coming from the professional sector into Academia has made me abandon quite a lot of theory uptake. In my previous job I had to put academic theory into public practice. I am interested in the practicalities, does it work in the real world approach. But I think Andrew is right, that has to change. I need to engage more with theory. But doing so is a daunting task. But another more worrying thought is that it’s not just me that needs to engage with theory more, but the discipline as a whole. More often than not it appears that the DH community has placed emphasis on development and implementation of let’s face it some pretty cool things, over theory. Is this intentional? is DH more concerned about the practicality of the stuff rather than theory? How do we as a whole become more theoretical about what we do? Particularly in an economic climate which means that we have to produce things harder, faster, stronger with fewer resources available to us and our institutions. Will a cut back in project funding from research councils, force us to slow down and think about the consequences and get back into the world of theory? It will be interesting to see how it all pans out, using grounded theory perhaps…

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