Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work

September 8, 2011

Isn't it time we started taking culture seriously in the design of technological innovations? Here, cultural theorist and media designer Anne Balsamo throws down the gauntlet in a manifesto for true interdisciplinarity. Treating "technology" as a post-disciplinary topic, she makes a compelling case for the transformation of universities through an "operational, technical and epistemological reboot".

Her exploration of technological innovation and digital cultures takes the reader on a journey through 15 years of multimedia collaborations, offering rich descriptions of specific projects that necessitated the development of shared meanings across cultural domains in order to create new technologies, pedagogies and technological literacies. Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work is a published text that forms part of a transmedia project, with further resources available on a companion DVD and a website, http://designingculture.net.

Inviting the reader into her world, Balsamo offers fascinating biographical accounts that display interdisciplinarity at work, including the development of a multimedia documentary made for the 1995 NGO Forum in Beijing and the development of an interactive museum exhibit by the PARC research centre in Palo Alto, California, in the late 1990s. Her genealogical description of the development of interactive exhibits leads to further reflections on the role of museums and science centres as sites for technology transfer.

These forays into the inner sanctum of true interdisciplinarity lead readers to the penultimate chapter, which is likely to be of considerable interest to many Times Higher Education readers. "Designing Learning: The University as a Site of Technocultural Innovation" offers a broad sweep of the hot topics in "Education 2.0", and considers a veritable who's who of education and media theorists, including John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Lev Vygotsky, Sherry Turkle, Henry Jenkins and David Buckingham.

Here, Balsamo summarises recent developments, including the Open Education Resource movement, the rise of networked distributed learning environments and new forms of literacy and scholarship. Interestingly, she includes the Open Participatory Learning Infrastructure Initiative, which seems to have had limited impact, and yet excludes key influencers such as danah boyd (an expert on youth social networks) and Martin Weller (who researches open scholarship).

Admittedly, even within the scope of a book, it is difficult to map out the key thinkers among the plethora of emerging ideas and theorists. Nevertheless, Balsamo brings her wealth of experience to bear and makes a sharp, informed and convincing case for rethinking university structures as a result of shifting educational paradigms centred on convergence and participatory culture.

What she does exceptionally well in Designing Culture is to unpack a range of multimedia collaborative projects and contexts for techno-cultural innovation through thick description underpinned by cultural theory, feminist philosophy, new media theory, information design, museum studies, engineering design research and educational theory. Through analysing the cultural, social and pedagogical practices in multidisciplinary collaborations, Balsamo uncovers the ethical issues around designing technocultures and highlights the flaws of institutional structures that serve as a barrier to truly interdisciplinary technological research.

This is an erudite yet accessible cross-disciplinary text that makes a substantial contribution to the field of cultural studies, and also serves as a welcome and timely call to arms not only for scholars and scientists in the humanities and technology, but also for those engaged in educational policy, institutional strategy and innovation.

Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work

By Anne Balsamo. Duke University Press 312pp, £71.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780822344339 and 44452. Published 25 July 2011

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