Drucker: Blind Spots

Johanna Drucker has an essay in the Chronicle about how humanists should be involved developing their work environments, Blind Spots. She has a nice phrase for the attitude by some scholars that someone else should do the work of developing the knowledge environment of the future – she calls it the “hand-waving magic wand approach to the future”. She concludes here essay,

Unless scholars in the humanities help design and model the environments in which they will work, they will not be able to use them. Tools developed for PlayStation and PowerPoint, Word, and Excel will be as appropriate to our intellectual labors as a Playskool workbench is to the chores of a real plumber. I once bought a very beautiful portable Olivetti typewriter because an artist friend of mine said it was so elegantly designed that it had been immediately put into the Museum of Modern Art collection. The problem? It wasn’t designed for typing. Any keyboardist with any skill at all constantly clogged its keys. A thing of beauty, it was a pain forever. I finally threw it from the fourth-floor tower of Wurster Hall at the University of California at Berkeley. Try doing that with the interface to your university library. Now reflect on who is responsible for getting it to work as an environment that supports scholarship.

We face a critical juncture. Leaving it to “them” is unfair, wrongheaded, and irresponsible. Them is us.

Johanna’s essay is addressed to scholars reminding us that we need to take responsibility for working things out. There is, however, another audience that needs to be addressed and that is the audience that believes that humanists aren’t the right people to be involved in designing infrastructure. The argument would be that there are professional software engineers who are trained to design portals for communities – they should be given the job so we don’t end up reinventing the wheel or doing a poor job. Obviously the answer lies in a creative design collaboration and humanists with computing development experience can play a crucial role in the mix, but how do we build such teams?