Bethany Nowviskie

5 spectra for speculative knowledge design

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[Last weekend, I joined the inspiring, interdisciplinary Ecotopian Toolkit gathering hosted by Penn’s Program in Environmental Humanities. (How lucky was I? We even got a sneak peek at the Pig Iron Theatre Company’s stunning symphonic meditation on the Anthropocene, A Period of Animate Existence, which will premiere in Philadelphia later this year.) What follows is a short talk I gave on the last day of the conference. The beginning of it is stuff you may have heard from me before. An augmented, footnoted, slightly more sober version is bound for an edited collection by Martin Eve and Jonathan Gray, on the “past, present, and future of open access.”]

This is a talk about how we might realize digital libraries, archives, and museums as more socially just and hopeful (maybe even “Ecotopian”) knowledge infrastructure. Three threads from Afrofuturism are woven through all it. They take form of a question and a set of twinned assertions. The geopolitical and environmental inflection-points that have been the subject of this conference demand that we answer the question in the affirmative, and that we actively encode the assertions—these two key Afrofuturist assertions I’ll share—into the very weft and the weave of our digital libraries: from the deep structures in which we store, deliver, protect, and preserve cultural and scientific data; to the ontologies and metadata systems through which we produce information and organize, rationalize, and make it interoperable; to those surface platforms and interfaces for discovery, contemplation, analysis, and storytelling that must be forevermore inextricably algorithmic and humane. What do I mean, humane? I mean predicated on decisions, understandings, and ethical, empathetic engagement with communities understood both locally and (as they say) “at scale.”

So first you’ll get the question from me, and then the assertions. And it’ll be in their light that I want to present five spectra along which I think digital cultural heritage and open science platform-designers must more self-consciously work, if we mean to do our part in the project that has brought us together this week—that is, if we want to contribute basic knowledge infrastructure for toolkits to meet present challenges and far-future, global and interpersonal responsibilities.  Read the rest of this entry »

iv. coda: speculative computing (2004)


[Shannon Mattern’s wry observation that “speculative now seems to be the universal prefix” got me thinking about time and unpredictability, and reminded me that my PhD thesis — Speculative Computing: Instruments for Interpretive Scholarship — is now and forever the same age as my eldest kid: 13 years old. Here’s the coda.]

By now the term “speculative” has slipped into my writing in several different contexts: first when I cite Swift’s satire of a Llullian combinatorial device busily cranking away in cloudy Laputa (a “Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical means”), and then in Ada Byron’s early realization that algorithmic devices like Babbage’s Analytical Engine have subtle, extracurricular benefits:

For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formulae of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.  This is a decidedly indirect, and a somewhat speculative, consequence of such an invention.   (Lovelace, “Note G”)

It returns later, when I describe and interrogate the notion of aesthetic provocation and speculate forward from the subjective and intersubjective premises of IVANHOE to its possible manifestation as Ivanhoe Game software.  And of course every branching past or future expressed through our Temporal Modelling nowslider tool is a concretely-imagined, interpretive speculation.

Speculation is the first denizen of the curious realm of the  ‘patacritical, that “science of exceptions” which seeks to expand our scope of thinking about ordinary and extraordinary problems through the proposal of “imaginary solutions,” solutions which crack open the assumptions through which those very problems are framed. Read the rest of this entry »

speculative collections

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[This is the text of a talk I gave last week, as “Speculative Collections and the Emancipatory Library,” to close a Harvard symposium honoring Dan Hazen, about the future of academic library collecting. See also #HazenatHarvard tweets as assembled by Merrilee Proffitt, and an excerpt from a prior talk (“Alternate Futures/Usable Pasts“), which introduces the concept and offers some paths in.]

[Edited to add: and please read the wonderful “Liberatory Archives,” by Jarrett M. Drake, which takes up many of the same themes as the talk below, and was apparently delivered on the same day! Maybe it’s time? Hurry up please it’s time.]

Reproducibility. Openness. Transparency. Rationality. Interoperability, and an orientation toward interdisciplinary problem-solving. Mine is a non-exclusive list, to be sure, but you might recognize these as values driving data management in the sciences and social sciences, and underlying the creation of collections, interfaces, and infrastructure in what we call “data-driven” fields. They have their problems of positivism, these values—and it has become the necessary project of many thinkers in the library and information science community to demonstrate how underlying assumptions of neutrality and universality in them—and therefore in our practices of selection and description, our design of search mechanisms, and even in many libraries’ public service policies and stances around them—are in fact decidedly non-neutral expressions of dominant, sometimes oppressive ideologies.

But I’ll risk the ire of friends to say that—taken together—the value-sets of open science represent a quality I find disappointingly, maybe even irresponsibly absent from digital library interface design and collection-building. They represent a forward-looking temporal orientation. And I think we feel the absence of that orientation, particularly, now that we are so decidedly past the era of collecting “on spec”—past, that is, being able to hold an image of libraries un-stuck in time, libraries on the long tail, libraries with a far, far future reach—where we invest in and gather materials that may have no immediate use-value.

While administrative imagination slowly catches up to the logic of the network—and while we work to realize “collective collections” that might mitigate this problem—local pressures move inexorably in, and train our attention on contemporary, not future needs: on meeting needs (as we say) “just in time.” Please don’t misunderstand. I do not propose that we adopt the values of open science wholesale (it will be a cold day in Hell when “reproducibility” takes hold in English departments—and “openness” itself has different valences and dangers across communities and fields). Instead, I suggest that we consider the cumulative effect of underlying value sets like these in terms of their temporal orientation—the degree of forward-lookingness and open-endedness inherent in the concepts we hold dear—and what that means for the systems we build. Read the rest of this entry »

alternate futures/usable pasts

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[While I’m cleaning up the text of a talk I gave at Harvard’s Hazen Symposium last week (see #HazenatHarvard or Merrilee’s Storify for tweets from many great presentations), I thought I’d share just the prelude and final paragraph to one that preceded it, and was really a first stab at the concept. This is from Marquette University Library in late September.]

[Update: “Speculative Collections,” the talk that followed, is now available.]

It wasn’t until I took a job in the library that I became unstuck in time. I thought I knew what time was, in that way that you think you know things, now, when you’re just out of your 20s and it’s possible you could have it all together. I thought I knew time as a young mother: how it drags and loops with repetition (sleep and milk and laundry); how quickly it passes, as little bodies grow and reach and change. I thought I knew it as a scholar. My academic training had been in classical archaeology, on the one hand, and poetry and textual criticism on the other—the meter of lyric verse and the history of print culture—with a weird stop-over in the middle to teach the design and aesthetics of video games. Each of these disparate fields has its own ticking metronome, its particular largo or accelerando. They have positionality as disciplines and different ways of positioning the objects of their study, all splayed out on timelines of their own making.

I thought I knew time, too, because I’d designed software to model it. Part of my dissertation work around (ahem) the turn of the century, in which I was grappling toward something I called Speculative Computing, had been to collaborate with a small team (Johanna Drucker, Jim Allman, Petra Michel, and many generous colleagues) in prototyping a tool for humanistic timelines. These were timelines not governed—as nearly all digital interfaces to time were then and still are—by the mechanical ticking of a scientific clock. We were funded, oddly enough, by a grant to Johanna from the Intel Corporation, which was interested in hardware requirements for the Don Draper-like transcendent moments they hoped you might have with the digital equivalent of your family’s slide carousel. They wanted to sell computers that were machines for memory, rather than just memory-machines. So they offered money (time is money) to some humanities scholars (who come cheap), to tinker with stretchy, squishy timelines, to imagine interfaces and interaction modes for the personal and uniquely human experience of time.

We created timeline tools for fiction and memoir and contested historical events, lines on which nothing could be pinned precisely, tools for sketching ambiguous causes and imprecise moments. Our Temporal Modelling Project made timelines for causal relations and visions proleptic—acts of revision and retrospect, anticipation, prediction, self-illusion, and regret. We modeled time that zips by, and time that drags its feet. We also built branching timelines, my specialty, in which the subjective observer’s standing-point—the moment of the now, my experience necessarily very different from yours even in the same instant—was like a bead: any number of beads, really, all valid imaginary nows—which could move freely back and forth along unraveling threads of time—concentrating them for a moment, maybe, into a contingent view of past, present, and future—but always in motion and part of a fabric of observation and interpretation, being perpetually unmade and made.

So I guess I was primed to look beyond progress narratives and linear conceptions of time. Read the rest of this entry »

everywhere, every when

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This is the text of a presentation I made yesterday at a wonderful Columbia University symposium called Insuetude (still ongoing), which is bringing media archaeologists together with stones-and-bones archaeologists. I started my talk with a bit of film, as a way of time-traveling to the middle of my theme, in part for the pleasure of taking a jarring step back out. Please watch the first 90 seconds or so of The Last Angel of History, a brilliant 1996 documentary by John Akomfrah. You can catch it in this clip. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now—what would it mean to take an explicitly antiracist approach to the digitization of cultural heritage? To its technological recovery? To its presentation, not as static content to be received, but as active technology to be used? What would it mean to create an actively antiracist digital library?

Let us first understand the construction of libraries in general, along with their embedded activities of remediation and digital stewardship, as exercises in spatial and temporal prospect. This is work that requires practitioners and builders to develop a geospatially expansive imagination, and to see their charge as having as much to do with things speculative as with retrospect—as much, that is, with scrying for possible, yet-unrealized futures as with reflecting documented, material pasts. If we agree that our collective network of libraries, archives, and museums should be made for prospect—with spatial scope and (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) holding “the future in their bones”—then taking up the design problem of an antiracist digital library, particularly in this country, means addressing one fundamental question.

Where and when do black lives matter? Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.