Q&A: What can we learn from the hidden history of technology design?

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Before we started to LOL at funny cat videos on the internet, the “laughing out loud” acronym had a different meaning.

Women wove wires through small magnetic beads by hand to build the core memory ropes and planes that stored information for Apollo guidance computers. The original caption for this photo described these women as “space-age needleworkers.”Raytheon photo courtesy of the collection of David Meerman Scott, author of Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program

During the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s, the LOL, or “little old ladies,” method referred to the women who wove wires through and around small magnetic beads by hand to build core memory objects. These objects, which took the form of ropes or square planes, stored information for the computers that would guide astronauts in space.

This is just one of the hidden histories of design that University of Washington assistant professor of human centered design and engineering Daniela Rosner explores in her new book “Critical Fabulations,” published in June by MIT Press. The book highlights the idea that design stories from the past can show today’s designers how to create more inclusive technology.

In the case of the Apollo guidance computer design, Rosner showed that the “worlds of handwork and computing, or weaving and space travel, are not as separate as we might imagine them to be.” To raise awareness of this connection, Rosner and her team developed a “core memory quilt” that they presented at workshops and smaller weaving circles across the country over the past two years. Participants wove their own core memory plane quilt squares using conductive thread and beads. When the participants attached their finished squares to the quilt, it sent tweets and played sound clips from engineers describing the real core memory project. The paper describing the quilt won a Best Paper award at the recent CHI 2018 conference.

Local quilter Helen Remick (left) and Rosner with their electronic quilt. Rosner, Remick and their colleagues designed and created the quilt to teach current designers about the Apollo guidance computer core memory weavers.Mark Stone/University of Washington

UW News sat down with Rosner to learn more about what it means to uncover the hidden figures in the history of technology design.

Your book is called “Critical Fabulations.” What is a fabulation?

DR: For me, a fabulation has been a mode of essentially telling stories that underpin design but that are undertold or silenced.

In retelling those stories, which is the project of the book, you come up with different theoretical commitments which then, in turn, shape your methods. So my book offers a series of case studies that show how retracing design stories produces different presents and futures.

Close-up of an Apollo guidance computer core memory plane, which was created with wires and small magnetic beads. Each bead contains one “bit” of memory.Mark Stone/University of Washington

Do you have an example you can walk me through?

DR: I would love to talk about the core memory project. So the canonical view of the Apollo guidance computer is that there are these key innovators that were part of the mission. And we hear their stories through documentaries like “Moon Machines” in which Richard Battin, who was an engineer on the Apollo project, describes the way the computer was constructed. And we get this little view in the documentary of some of the work behind the scenes, but we don’t see very much beyond that.

So you found out about the LOL method from the “Moon Machines” documentary! How did you link the core memory project to quilting?

DR: To get started on this project, we wondered if we could get ahold of any of the original core memory planes. So I went to eBay to see, “Huh, what can I find?”

The original planes that stored information for the Apollo guidance computers reminded Rosner of quilt squares.Mark Stone/University of Washington

We discovered this beautiful core memory plane. When I held this in my hands, I thought: “Wow, this is incredibly similar to another form of memory work: the work of quilting.” I thought about the connections to quilting and the histories that I had just started uncovering. Who were these women who were constructing these planes? In particular the raw descriptor of the LOL method, the little old lady method, really drew me in.

I was incredibly lucky to team up with UW Department of Communications doctoral student Samantha Shorey and Helen Remick, who is a quilter who also had a long-standing practice of working with obsolescent technology like old film strips. When we started working on this, we were thinking of it as a way to explore methods of design that allow us to re-presence this history but then also expand what we think of as a design method.

What did you find as you were working on this project?

The electronic quilt features 49 patches that are connected together by conductive thread that feeds into an Arduino microcontroller at the top (shown here with Remick’s hands).Mark Stone/University of Washington

DR: I found a few things. One of them is that it complicates this separation between cognitive versus manual labor. We see how the material labor, the hands, involves intellectual labor as well. These two can’t be torn apart.

This means embracing those connections throughout a design or engineering project instead of the sort of siloed effects that we have. It also means valuing process in addition to outcome, which is something we just so rarely do in computer science and engineering.

I really like this idea that, from past examples, design actually includes both manual and intellectual labor. Why is it important for current designers to incorporate these elements?

DR: If we think about leaving design up to just certain groups, it’s going to reproduce racial and gendered inequalities. I think that’s a key point. Design seeks to upend these inequalities, but it often contributes to reinforcing or further entrenching them in ways that it just doesn’t see because it doesn’t ask the hard questions.

Designers have been skilled in making these very pretty pictures of the future. But we’re less good at designing what might go wrong or how. In order to do that, we need to look to the past and the stories we tell.

The quilt follows the traditional “Trip Around the World” pattern and features original core memory planes (shown here) as well as planes woven by workshop participants (on the table).Mark Stone/University of Washington

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To learn more about “Critical Fabulations,” check out Rosner’s blog post on Medium.

For the CHI paper, HCDE senior lecturer Brock Craft is also a co-author. For the core memory project, Rosner has also collaborated with HCDE professor Nadya Peek, UW Information School doctoral student Rose Paquet Kinsely, HCDE master’s student Josh Baker and HCDE undergraduate students Ruotong Xu, Kyle Musselwhite, Aleenah Ansari, Alaa Amead and Nava Yael.

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