Minimal Definitions

In May 2015, Alex Gil wrote a compelling piece on minimal computing and “producing our own scholarship ourselves.” There, he made the following remark, “I prefer to approach minimal computing around the question ‘What do we need?’”

Here, I want to follow Gil’s piece by outlining my own, admittedly unpolished observations on the topic. The emerging definitions of minimal computing and its frameworks fascinate me, in part because they engage various histories of technology at the intersection of aesthetics and politics. They also help us grasp possibilities for future work. While what’s below warrants more detail and thus more complexity, I hope it at least continues the conversation Gil so graciously began over a year ago.

So, what might we mean when we say, “minimal computing”?

Minimal Design

To me, minimal computing immediately suggests minimal design, especially as it pertains to workflow and communication. Following the Unix philosophy of DOTADIW (“Do One Thing and Do It Well”), minimal design applauds and even fetishizes simplicity; it boils practice down to necessities. The Jekyll site generator is an obvious example: “No more databases, comment moderation, or pesky updates to install—just your content.” From a technical perspective, this design strategy entails responsiveness across devices, optimization, few dependencies, and an investment in plain text, unembellished layouts, and basic templates. Changes to the style and structure of a project should be few and far between. Both conceptually and practically, design should be in the background; it should not be pronounced or assertive. Sites and software should not be feature-rich, either. While a given project may require some programming (e.g., in Ruby), technical details and configurations are rendered less significant than the message or substance of composition: “just your content.”

One issue with minimal design is its vexed relationship with legacies of elegance in programming (e.g., pure function, no unnecessary code, or desugaring a language) as well as the pretentiousness of some minimalist design (e.g., refinement through the use of essential elements). Even if minimal design is mostly about reducing forward, bold, or resource-heavy design, related legacies of elegance and minimalism typically aestheticize politics through a mastery of form, content, and even matter. To remove excess components or use only essential elements is to define, often implicitly, what and for whom “excess” and “essential” mean in the first place. In calls for minimal design, we might therefore ask where the mess is, how content becomes “just content,” and what sort of expertise and decision-making minimization assumes. It is often important, for example, to share the mess of development with others, and minimalist aesthetics may all too easily afford an impression that everything has been polished or refined from the start (e.g., a form outside of history or an idea from the heavens), even when the source files are available (e.g., via GitHub).

Another issue is the tendency of minimal design to parse content from media instead of underscoring the palpable reality of their contingencies. Theoretically speaking, this split is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Unless we resort to idealism, I’m not sure how we can even imagine content or media in a vacuum. Yet, in practice, the labor of computing and new media are often divided along these lines, with values ascribed to those divisions (e.g., programming is a service that supports writing, or writing is a service with programming as its source). Thus, a more persuasive approach may be refusing notions of pure content, pure medium, or pure design to then examine their entanglements (e.g., writing through programming, or programming as writing). Among recent publications, W.J.T. Mitchell’s “Addressing Media” (2008) points us in this direction, and various practitioners, such as Elizabeth LaPensée, Mark Marino, Allison Parrish, Anastasia Salter, and Annette Vee, are currently working through these entanglements of writing with programming.

None these remarks is intended to diminish minimal design projects or software such as Jekyll. I use Jekyll for my own teaching and research. When compared with platforms such as WordPress, it’s quite conducive to making, maintaining, updating, and reusing course websites, for instance. Nevertheless, the discourse of “minimal design” as a synonym for “minimal computing” may mask the totality of production in favor of demarcation or distillation (e.g., as if programming isn’t involved in the composition process, or as if the web is ever just content). As a way to engage the discourse and practice of minimal design, we might consider what we marginalize, reify, or appropriate through minimal design techniques and minimalist aesthetics, in addition to how we define “we” in relation to necessity and simplicity. How are we to interpret the renaissance of simple sites or flat interfaces? What’s the link between simplicity and trust? Who or what does simplicity ignore? We might also explore how necessity is intertwined with creative action (as distinct, if you will, from work or labor; see Arendt [1958]) and whether such necessity is external to minimal computing. Is necessity something we seek as a result of minimal computing projects (e.g., they meet certain research or community needs), or is it internal to praxis itself (e.g., products are unimportant or of secondary interest)? Is necessity ever fulfilled, and who assumes or is given responsibility for fulfilling it?

If nothing else, minimal design matters for minimal computing because it surfaces the motivations and ideals of praxis through attention to aesthetics, which may not be explicit about the contingencies of their aims. In addition to, “What do we need?”, minimal design also asks, “What don’t we need?” Perhaps the answers to these two questions are identical, yet they may spark different conversations en route.

Minimal Use

Maybe minimal computing has more to do with the material particulars of computation than the plain text, layouts, and interfaces of minimal design. In this regard, a minimal approach reduces the need for not only substantial storage and processing power but also a reliance on middleware, databases, peripherals, and substantial pieces of hardware. Such reduction should increase access while decreasing technology’s environmental effects (e.g., by reducing waste and energy consumption). The overlaps with minimal design are obvious here, especially if we foreground dependencies. However, interests in minimal use of resources shift from “just your content” to a persistence across settings and material conditions. How can we do more with less, and how durable is our work across platforms, geographic locations, economies, and infrastructures? With these questions in mind, minimal computing may afford some important counterpoints to the impulses of “big” and “macro” thinking, at least when we determine how much technology a given project demands and at what costs. We witness, for instance, a gradual move from mainframes, supercomputing, and even personal computing (PC) to distributed computing (or big hardware to small hardware), with the latter lending itself to “post-PC” physical computing platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi as well as operating systems such as Chrome. Big data no longer requires big computers.

From my perspective, the primary issue confronting this sort of minimal computing is the emerging politics of an Internet of Things (IoT), which is conducive to networked surveillance, reliance on the cloud, and the proliferation of algorithms and computer vision for decision-making (e.g., Haraway’s informatics of domination [1991]; see also Aneesh [2006], Browne [2015] and Sterling [2005]). We hear about “smart cities” and “smart oceans,” which, at least in theory, may help us become more aware of our consumption habits or our treatment of nature as a standing reserve. Critical work in this area (e.g., by Beth Coleman, Jennifer Gabrys, and Jeffrey Schnapp) asks how such intelligence is embedded in culture. How is a subject defined? How do environments or objects produce data? What happens when small hardware components are distributed across infrastructures? Who gets to access what sort of data?

With an IoT, we see a curious irony at play: a reduction in the size and demands of hardware decreases the perceived mediation of social and environmental relations (e.g., Weiser’s ubiquitous computing and calm technology [1991]) while also increasing the programmability of those relations and even of matter. (Perhaps matter is a relation, but that’s material for another thought piece.) As hardware gets smaller, networks grow. But, as we need to use less tech to build durable intelligent systems with more influence, we also need to ask how agency, accountability, and responsibility are changing (e.g., Barad’s agential realism [2007]). While not all minimal computing projects are IoT projects, the latter are susceptible to assumptions that networks or algorithms alone create data or make decisions. That is, if technology is out of our way or rendered invisible with an IoT (if we use less technology in our everyday lived realities), then it accrues even more authority as an agent or participant (e.g., it uses us). To better understand this tendency, minimal computing techniques could help us research how IoT infrastructures are manufactured (beyond concepts, metaphors, and interfaces), under what assumptions about agency and authority, and through what types of human and nonhuman contributions. Research in minimal computing may also highlight how the reduced use and costs of certain platforms are articulated with subscription services and the labor demanded by those services (e.g., what we are paying to access data in the cloud and how we compensate people for the work of data production). As we minimize reliance on particular resources, what vulnerabilities emerge? As we reduce dependencies and repeated use in one area, how do we increase dependencies and repeated use (knowingly or not) in others?

From this perspective, minimal computing as the minimal use of resources underscores how social processes change alongside infrastructural shifts and trends. (For more on infrastructure studies, see Bowker and Star [1999], Mattern [2013], Parks and Starosielski [2015], and Starosielski [2015], e.g.) With these changes come questions of where we locate agency amidst the programmability of matter and relations.

Minimal Consumption

In areas such as political economy, many critics are skeptical of action focused on reduced consumption (e.g., it’s too responsive, or it tends to ignore conditions of production); nonetheless, this approach appears common in minimal computing, where consumption may be decreased through critical use. Consider the minimal consumption of proprietary technologies, which almost always depend on cycles of planned obsolescence; or slowing down the transformation of consumption into production via the careful deliberation and study of technologies (e.g., reading history and theory alongside computing, or experimenting with multiple infrastructures against early adoption of the dominant platform); or increased collective consciousness about how and why digital technologies are sourced, manufactured, accumulated, and discarded. These examples stress how reduced consumption operates against consumption’s increased speed and turnover, and they also privilege conscious attention to embodied labor processes.

Yet time remains a fundamental challenge for reduced consumption, especially as we assert the need for more imagination and research (especially collaborative research) amidst the storm of progress and its attendant metrics. After all, reduced consumption is frequently associated with creativity, craft, experimentation, or serious leisure (Stalp 2006), not work. In many sectors, it brushes against the grain of progress. It is not immediately productive of value (including products or commodities), and it’s quite difficult to measure as an output or task in management software. Plus, many practitioners struggle to carve out such time and to convince institutions that it’s necessary for informed or critical production, even if many creative and experimental practices can be performed quite quickly, perhaps out of habit. The deliberation afforded by careful research may therefore be less a question of moving fast or slow and more about how time is valued and negotiated within institutions. What are we given time to do? What’s expected of that time? When, echoing Stuart Hall’s work on cultural studies, do we have moments and spaces to interrupt “This is so, is it not?” with “No, it’s not” (Hall 1990: 14)? As computing increasingly ravels with progress, crisis, efficiencies, metrics, “common sense,” and “practical training,” these moments and spaces appear all the more crucial to decision-making.

For me, then, this is the crucial question concerning reduced consumption: How might minimal computing increase our shared capacities to think or imagine, and not just our individual capacities to work or produce? Such shared capacities are what Marx (1857-58), Nick Dyer-Witheford (1999), and Christian Fuchs (2016) call the “general intellect.” Minimal computing suggests we can engage shared capacities to think or imagine without resorting to theory/practice or yack/hack binaries (e.g., internalized life of the mind vs. externalized products of work). For example, researchers may study the histories and politics of technologies by prototyping them with physical computing techniques (see Edward Jones-Imhotep, Kim Knight, Bill Turkel, and Vibrant Lives). However, this critical approach need not render history or politics as something discrete or measurable (to be consumed). Instead, prototyping becomes experimental inquiry (see Daniela K. Rosner), or the creative potential to conduct compelling research through technologies against positivist or instrumentalist orientations.

If we describe minimal computing as minimal consumption, then minimal computing is about what we need (see Gil) and also what we want. It might help us determine how much time, or what sort of time, is necessary to conclude which infrastructures and practices are most desirable, where, and by whom. In this sense, it’s not about asceticism or withdrawal. It’s about interventing in norms via heterogeneous time.

Minimal Maintenance

We might say that minimal computing simply decreases the maintenance of machines and related configurations/formats (e.g,. the release of new standards and technologies to rejuvenate production). With less fixed capital and fewer updates required by a given system, perhaps we can focus more on content and shared capacities to think and imagine. Or, without so many WYSIWYG interfaces (What You See Is What You Get), perhaps we can attend more to writing, language, and composition (again, see Weiser [1991]).

Like many other perspectives on this list, this position is intimately related to other factors, especially minimal use and minimal design. Still, an emphasis on maintenance is more of a “long now” issue popularized by Stewart Brand and Brian Eno but also studied by scholars such as Kari Kraus. It asks us to consider the formats we choose, their change histories, their flexibility over time, and their demand for updates. For example, where will this GO::DH project be, and in what state, in 2056? An emphasis on maintenance also privileges stewarding over other paradigms for scholarly communication. For me, an important byproduct of long now thinking and maintenance is the question, Who do we expect to keep these machines running, and for how long? What’s an ethical expectation? What’s realistic? What remains and gains traction after the whiz bang of new tech subsides? Or, following work by media scholars such as Wendy Chun (2008) and Mark Sample (2010), what if we foreground ephemerality over persistence or permanence? What does ephemerality teach us, and how does it endure?

On the one hand, minimal computing may be about long-term control over means of production. If we control the means, then we may also oversee maintenance, design, and distribution. On the other hand, minimal computing may encourage low-cost or low-stakes experimentation (e.g., Kathy Harris’s notion of “single-day bloom and fade projects” [2013]), without much concern for persistence or related maintenance issues. More important, combining studies of the persistent with the ephemeral highlights how practitioners invest in the materiality of minimal computing for its aesthetics and politics (e.g., the speculative aesthetics of the long now and the labor politics of maintenance). In fact, the very notion of materiality suggests something is not material, or something cannot be permanently inscribed, captured, stored, preserved, or the like. With maintenance (however minimal), there are always changes, and minimal computing brings the importance of these changes to our attention.

Minimal Barriers

Given its associations with open software and hardware, minimal computing may be defined as a reduction in barriers to entry and access. For example, it may use source materials that can be modified and are licensed for distribution (e.g., Creative Commons). In this case, an important question is how much knowledge “open” assumes prior to participation. That is, access to source materials alone does not equal democratization; people still need to know how to participate in production. Also, as Chris Kelty (2008) demonstrates, openness is part of a social imaginary steeped in technical and moral practices. It cannot be reduced to a technical feature. Such technical features may include paywalls as well as file formats, both of which are frequently referenced in debates about open access.

Of course, minimal computing may also rely on design strategies and standards that strive for universal access (e.g., by everyone regardless of disability; see the W3C) and avoid or reduce features, such as hover states and animations, that are not easy to see, read, hear, navigate, or find. These approaches tend to underscore consistency, the fundamentals of design, shared accessibility guidelines, a healthy skepticism of early adoption/implementation, responsiveness across devices and platforms, personalization, clarity, description, and regular evaluations (or user testing) of content across needs, audiences, and settings (e.g., the use of WebAIM, JAWS, Dragon, and W3C Markup Validation Services). They also position exclusionary design as bad design. While this position may differ from the legacy aesthetics of minimalism (e.g., refinement through the use of essential elements), design performed according to accessibility guidelines increases the robustness and overall quality of projects.

From yet another perspective on entry and access, minimal computing engages social approaches to materials and built environments (e.g., Sara Hendren’s Adaptation and Ability group at Olin and Hannah Perner-Wilson’s Kit-of-No-Parts [2011]). Here, “minimal” implies low-tech methods whereby materials are responsive and even shape themselves to the needs of specific people or situations. These methods redirect physical computing research from an IoT extraction of data (or the treatment of environments and people as data) toward social and cultural praxis premised on negotiations with materials and structures. If an IoT is motivated by reducing barriers to data gathering (through the use of sensors and addressable objects) for social/scientific progress, then adaptability and negotiation paradigms seek to reduce barriers to mobility and participation. Of course, this scenario need not be a zero sum game (e.g., surely there are various manifestations of an IoT; contrary to the vernacular, it is not the IoT). Nevertheless, there is, at least historically speaking, a tension between progress and negotiation as frameworks for technology and action.

Across these examples, minimal computing as minimal barriers foregrounds the motivations for rendering content and computing accessible, including how “entry” and “access” are defined and which barriers are reduced or removed.

Minimal Internet

Following projects such as Gil and Dennis Tenen’s No Connect (a static site generator that works on a local machine or a USB key, without an HTML server), perhaps minimal computing is computing off the internet. This approach retains the affordances of new media when practitioners cannot or do not use the internet for distribution and exchange. As Gil and Tenen suggest, histories of “sneakernets” (exchanging files via removable media) are points of comparison here. These histories may inform how practitioners reduce the attack vectors and vulnerabilities (e.g., cross-site scripting, SQL injections, and directory traversals) of activist projects targeted for hacking and other forms on online violence. (For an example project, see #feminism action defense.)

As the GO::DH mission reminds us, the distinction between choice and necessity is significant in this instance. When is minimal computing a trend (e.g., in high-income economies), and when is it a reality (e.g., where people cannot physically/socially access the internet)? How do we practice minimization without romanticizing life before or without the web? Through shared capacities, how do we collaborate across economies and settings instead of appropriating cultural forms and practices?

Minimal Externals

Minimal computing also brings to mind histories of do-it-yourself (DIY) or do-it-ourselves (DIO) production involving minimal external intervention (e.g., self-publishing). Practitioners may steward their own data, publish their own content, write their own scripts, build their own hardware, or avoid proprietary technologies. Of course, the cultures of DIY and DIO may range from radical to socially conservative (see their variants in punk, indie game dev, and “slow computing,” e.g.); however, a key issue across this range is how control is articulated. Is a project seizing the means of production because its practitioners have been silenced, ignored, attacked by, or excluded from existing norms, forms, and outlets? Or is the desire for control more about possessive individualism or free will? How are cultural values assigned to the means as opposed to the mode of production, and under what assumptions about whether/how technology changes culture?

At stake here are the ways in which practitioners determine how stages of production (such as fabrication, circulation, exchange, consumption, and use) mediate social relations and agency. While this observation may sound rather theoretical, attendant issues of power and self-organization shape an array of minimal computing practices, such as where repositories are housed, who maintains and contributes to them, who moderates and reviews them, and how they are accessed now and down the line.

Minimal Automation

We might also understand minimal computing as minimal automation, or the reduced reliance on algorithms and software that magically (or so it seems) process this into that. From this position, minimal computing may be more invested in instruments than machines, as the latter alienate and objectify knowledge production while the former merely aid or guide it. Projects involving minimal automation would ostensibly afford greater personal or collective awareness of how decisions are made and data is produced, even when those decisions and data are processed at a rate beyond human perception and apprehension.

Minimal Space

As the size of computers decreases, presumably their demands for physical space decrease, too. This twofold decrease raises a number of social issues steeped in design: When and why do we need physical spaces, such as labs and studios, for technological work? How are spaces, norms, and social relations changing as many people rely less on desktop computers? How do we understand communication and attention during this shift (Hayes 2007)?

On the one hand, the lack of physical space required for computation suggests increased flexibility. Work can be conducted in a variety of places, and data is easier to move around, too. We may no longer need the “brick and mortar” venues we once did. Or, spaces start to resemble new media (Manovich 2001), at least in their modularity and variability. We see multi-purpose rooms, co-working offices, pay-per-use venues, and event hubs within the same building, for instance. Yet, on the other hand, this “pop up” flexibility places a particular burden on claims for, and the costs of, dedicated spaces (e.g., why would you need a lab or studio for that?), which remain central to community organizing and experimental inquiry. Practices often need places to call home or for culture to congeal.

Minimal Technical Language

Perhaps minimal computing means minimal technical language, or less investment in performing the language of field specialization. This idea is conjectural at best. Nevertheless, I’m considering possibilities where an emphasis on social issues could reduce or reposition the use of technical language in conversations about computing and technologies in particular. Pamela Z’s compositions and Carolyn Marvin’s research on inventing technical expertise via discourse and communication (1988) come to mind here, as does Alexander Galloway’s remark that Argus was “bored to death” by Hermes’s “tales about technology” (e.g., the “story of how the reed pipe was invented”) (Galloway 2014: 36).

But none of these observations suggests that technical details (or historical details, or conceptual details) do not matter. They certainly do, and they are undoubtedly significant (see Kirschenbaum’s convincing notion of a medial ideology [2008: 36], e.g.). Rather, I’m suggesting that, with computing work, it’s easy to become preoccupied with technical details and specialization, which often ostracize people or inhibit participation, especially by those who are unfamiliar with or skeptical of certain technologies. Maybe, then, minimal computing could become a space for building a common language about shared concerns across technology and culture. This language could be informed by various experiences and specializations, with an emphasis on privileging difference while also collaboratively identifying and approaching pressing problems. It’s a bit blue sky, I know. Still, as I mentioned before, minimal computing could be approached around the question, “What do we want?”

Minimal _______

I did not account for all the minimals or their particulars here. The ones I did include do not cohere into a single paradigm or method, either. For now, I’ve also resisted any sort of synthesis, but I hope to pursue such work with others as we proceed with the Minimal Computing Working Group. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts at jentery@uvic.ca or @jenterysayers. Thanks for your time.