a tribute to Leah Buechley

Last year on Ada Lovelace Day, when we celebrate women in technology, I wrote about two inspiring friends: Johanna Drucker, who taught me letterpress printing (foundational to my thinking about design and the digital humanities in the context of evolving technologies of the book) and Bess Sadler, then of Scholars’ Lab R&D and now at Stanford, who had just released Blacklight into the world as a step toward making library research more joyful. This year, I got Ada’d my own self (thanks, Julie!), with a picture from a recent workshop that confirmed my desire to write about the amazing Leah Buechley.

Leah Buechley’s work speaks to everything I hold dear about the digital humanities: that it interprets, operates within, and both impacts and reflects the experienced world — of messy, embodied, personal, subjective, aesthetic, poetic, cyborgic, enveloping life. In other words, Buechley does high-touch as well as high-tech.

She brings a strong background in physics and computer science and an amazing design sensibility to her position as assistant professor of the MIT Media Lab‘s newly-formed High-Low Tech group, an interdisciplinary band of makers who situate computation “in new cultural and material contexts… by developing tools that democratize engineering.”

From their site:

We believe that the future of technology will be largely determined by end-users who will design, build, and hack their own devices, and our goal is to inspire, shape, support, and study these communities. To this end, we explore the intersection of computation, physical materials, manufacturing processes, traditional crafts, and design.

Since Buechley has been at MIT, she’s taught courses on the New Textiles and on Design for Empowerment (hooray!), and her students have created beautiful and inspiring work with interactive wallpaper and electronic pop-up books.

Buechley herself is the creator of the Lilypad Arduino, a miniaturized microprocessor and set of sensors, power sources, and other parts and pieces designed to be sewable, wearable, washable, tolerably aesthetic in design, and hacked together by YOU. She and her students have since expanded the concept to the Teardrop, a kit that allows you to paint functional devices on paper. You can watch a 2009 lecture by Buechley here, or get a sense of her research group’s work in this fun video. And if you really want to delve into the theory and practice of smart crafting, find some inspirational projects, or see how it relates to teaching and learning (where, for instance, it’s being used as a great way to re-energize girls’ engagement with science, engineering, and math), you could check out our Soft Circuitry Zotero Group — and even add some resources of your own!

This isn’t the first tribute to Leah Buechley, and I’m sure it won’t even be the last on Ada Lovelace Day — but I just want to say thanks. Thanks for reminding us — women and men, boys and girls — that we’re capable of fashioning our worlds.