The User, the Learner and the Machines We Make

In general we can say that minimal computing is the application of minimalist principles to computing. In reality, though, minimal computing is in the eye of the beholder. A Raspberry Pi could be understood as an example of a minimalist piece of hardware because the creators reduced computing components to what they saw as a bare minimum to achieve simple tasks. The learning curve for using one, though, can be threatening to beginners, and therefore requires more than minimum effort.

On a user interface, on the other hand, eliminating clutter (unnecessary buttons, distracting design, etc) can also be understood to be part of a minimalist approach, making it easier for users to engage. Google’s success, for example, may be owed to the reduction of the search function to one box. In order to achieve this feat, though, we estimate that Google uses an enormous amount of code and data in the back end, needing enormous computing power in turn.

I prefer to approach minimal computing around the question “What do we need?” If we do so, our orientations vis-a-vis ease of use, ease of creation, increased access and reductions in computing—and by extension, electricity—become clearer. In this sense, we aim to understand ways of building that could be referred to as “architectures of necessity” as Ernesto Oroza would call them.

Oroza tells us the story of a man who wanted a little bit more space. Here’s his story:

He lived with his mother in a space that was so small that it couldn’t legally be considered a house. He expanded into the hallway, built a kitchen and refurbished the bathroom. He changed the status of the property and acquired a title for it. He got his hands on a permit to build on the roof, as he thought about moving out on his own. In order to do this he had to build an exterior stairway. He set to work on the structure indoors and started the paperwork to divide the property. The appearance of an exterior stairway before the process of dividing the house was finished could be considered a violation, and he could be fined or even lose all property rights to the house he had built.

He understood that the description of the house and its parts depends on the cultural understanding that we have of it, that laws depend on this understanding.

Then, what is a stairway? How does one describe it? Could he build a structure in front of his doorway that looks nothing like a stairway but serves the same function? Maybe just objects stacked in such a way that one can climb and descend them? Or an object by Ettore Sottsass, a stack that includes all of Feijóo’s books, a Franz West sculpture, anything?

He decided on a conceptual shortcut: he built the stairway and waited to be fined. In this way, he gained time. The Law demanded that he cease building the stairway until the paperwork needed to divide the property was finalized.

Years went by. He used the unfinished stairway.

What’s a finished stairway?

When I ask “what do we need?” I’m asking scholars around the world—librarians, professors, students, cultural workers, independent: What is enough? What’s your finished stairway? Needless to say, workers in the humanities have many diverse goals, so we can focus here on what we consider the most important shared one: the renewal, dissemination and preservation of the scholarly record. I take for granted the intersections of our work with the human record writ-large, and the pressing work of scholarly critique of the present, our teaching and the public humanities.

My own posing of the question “what do we need?” comes from an acknowledgement of the hybrid and global future we see being shaped for the scholarly record: parts digital, parts analog. In this new mediatic environment we continue to protect, study and renew the analog, as we attempt to harness the new media in smart, ethical and sustainable ways. For several reasons, this implies learning how to produce, disseminate and preserve digital scholarship ourselves, without the help we can’t get, even as we fight to build the infrastructures we need at the intersection of and beyond our libraries and schools. This means that my minimal computing does not stand in as a universal call, but rather as a space for new questions and practices, an injunction to constantly repeat the question, “what do we need?”

Most scholars need to write and make public. That is one of our core activities, the renewal of the scholarly record, and yet, the writing done today using proprietary tools like Microsoft Word or Google Docs, often required by editors, create a disconnect between scholars and the socio-technical mechanisms that are needed to go from the file formats generated by these proprietary applications to a relatively accessible record. As Dennis Tenen and Grant Wythoff put it in “Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown,”

More than causing personal frustration, this reliance on proprietary tools and formats has long-term negative implications for the academic community. In such an environment, journals must outsource typesetting, alienating authors from the material contexts of publication and adding further unnecessary barriers to the unfettered circulation of knowledge.

The culture of “user friendly” interfaces that helped popularize computers for almost three decades now, and which underlines the dominant role of .docx, .pdf and .epub files today, has also led to some basic misunderstandings of what computers can and should do. In the case of writing, the expectation that you should get what you see continues to distance producers from their tools. As with any human tool, we need to understand computers a bit more intimately if we’re going to use them with any degree of critical awareness, and in order to avoid falling into what Matthew Kirschenbaum dubs the “haptic fallacy,” or “the belief that electronic objects are immaterial simply because we cannot reach out and touch them.” In our case this need comes with some urgency because what has remained invisible or grossly misunderstood to producers of scholarship in certain parts of the world are the material conditions of their own knowledge production—digital and analog—with noxious effects for labor and ecological practices.

In “Sustainable Authorship,” Tenen and Wythoff recommend a workflow that goes from the creation of a text to the generation of different file formats for web and print that involves open technology that is relatively easy to learn, to share and to preserve. Minimal computing of the Wythoff and Tenen variety represents then a return to basics that opens up the possibility of understanding small, but more complete “technological stacks” in order to reconnect producers of scholarship to the tools they use. In their case, minimal computing reconciles minimal knowledge with the production of a minimal artifact, without creating necessary friction for the readers. The learning curve may seem steep, though, for a large number of scholars, despite the reassurances and encouragement of those who consider them minimal. Again, we must ask, “what do we need?” Scholars don’t strictly “need” to use the minimal approach recommended by Tenen and Wythoff (as in, they are not required to use them by those who promise to take care of the rest). And yet if we do, we are on our way to fulfilling the need to write and publish in sustainable and ethical ways.

Another consequence of reconnecting with our knowledge production is an increased awareness of the cost of scholarly and human memory on the molecular arrangement of the planet. As Stefán Sinclair and others reported on Twitter, in a recent talk at the joint ACH & Canadian DH Conference 2015 in Ottawa, Wendy Chun prompted the audience to “print it out and delete it,” citing the ecological cost of storage for digital preservation. Minimal computing shares these concerns, prodding a creative practice that seeks to reduce our impact while achieving our needs. “Print it out and delete it” is a radical answer. We, of course, are concerned about the whole tree, not just the root. The alternative futures implied by Chun’s call implies a minimal computing practice where we open up scholarly artifacts for dissemination for a window of time, say one year, then we intentionally shut them down after interested parties have had a chance to “print.” The resulting impact on the consumption of paper and other materials would clearly lead to other problems. This is precisely why minimal computing cannot be a set of decisive answers focusing exclusively on the digital, but rather a set of tentative answers and provocations around the hybrid analog/digital ecologies of the world to come.

A purpose dear to us at GO::DH is access. If we believe that we should have a robust scholarly record available to scholars everywhere trough that global library we call the internet, we eventually must agree that the burden of cost should be lifted from the reader. No model we see, though, convinces us it can give vast-scale access to all networked scholars around the world other than the simplest model: producing our own scholarship ourselves. To do so, we may just have to displace the reliance on “user friendly” mechanisms, and learn how to make our own, imperfect as they may be. In the process of learning how to do so, we may also learn how to leverage institutional and extra-institutional structures for preservation and discovery. But even more importantly, we may yet regain our class consciousness as workers of memory.

What about you? What’s your finished stairway?


Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Materiality and Matter and Stuff: What Electronic Texts Are Made Of.”