The languages of making: Five questions with Adam Hutz

Adam Hutz is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric, whose research focuses on the ways in which we map virtual spaces. When he’s not working on that research, he can often be found at Jacobs Hall or the CITRIS Invention Lab: he’s woven hands-on making into his graduate experience, participating in Jacobs Institute Chief Learning Officer Eric Paulos’ Critical Making course (first as a student, and more recently as a graduate student instructor) and taking on projects like developing assistive technologies. We talked to Adam about how rhetoric and design relate, and what he’s learned from bringing them together.

You work across a wide range of practices and disciplines, from critical theory to hands-on making. Does your work in your home department — rhetoric — inform your work in design and fabrication? On the flip side, do design and fabrication practices inform your work in rhetoric?

Adam in a Critical Making course session.

I think, in an abstract sort of way, that “design” and “rhetoric” have a lot in common from the very beginning, and so I see them as being in constant dialogue with each other. Both disciplines concern themselves with “appearances” — how things come across to particular readers in particular contexts — and this is true whether you’re looking at a monument, a painting, a poem, or a political speech. Stepping back a bit, it’s easy to see how the disciplines of “rhetoric” and “design” actually study the same basic building blocks of expression: artisans combine signs to explore ideas of greater and greater complexity. And this works across the board, whether you’re thinking about the specific tessellations in the marble blocks that make up the Taj Mahal; or how particular rhythms invoked in a Fleetwood Mac outro unsettle the rest of the song; or even how a smartphone’s beveled screen makes an argument for or in contrast with the phone’s prior generations.

And the similarities between design and rhetoric don’t end at the level of semiology, either: both disciplines are difficult to define (and explain!), and both seem to at least attempt to describe nearly everything that there is in the world. If design is the study of “all things human-produced,” then rhetoric must be the study of “all things human-expressed” — which may, now that I think about it, actually comfortably include the former.

When I first took Eric Paulos’ course Critical Making in spring 2015, every new skill registered as a new kind of language to me: you would learn the “discourse” of the laser cutter, and then the discourse of the 3D printer, and so on until you knew all of the languages of making. This is, for me, one important way that rhetoric informs making — the fact that I will think of each new kind of “making” in the language of language itself. Making informs rhetoric, on the other hand, by reminding me that the physical world is ultimately responsible for nearly all of the lines of inquiry I produce. That is to say, in the ivory tower it’s easy forget that only through the specific material actions of the body do thoughts become manifest in the world, and only through an understanding of the physical processes behind reading, writing, speaking, and thinking can one fully engage with philosophy.

Your research has looked at virtual spaces and the ways that we map these spaces. In the design field, technologies from augmented/virtual reality to novel conversational interfaces are currently raising interesting conversations around notions of space and how spaces are designed and experienced. Could you talk a bit about your interests in virtual spaces, and how this might relate to work in design and technology?

One of my favorite “authors of the virtual” is a scholar named Jonathan Crary, and one of the reasons I like him so much is that he somehow manages to write compellingly about our current epoch while almost never mentioning any technology built after the mid-1800s. But in a rare move in an introductory chapter of probably his most well-known book, Techniques of the Observer, he breaks away from his historian’s oculus and asks a few dense questions about what it means to “observe” in the 21st century:

“The most urgent questions, though, are larger ones. How is the body, including the observing body, becoming a component of new machines, economies, apparatuses, whether social, libidinal, or technological? In what ways is subjectivity becoming a precarious condition of interface between rationalized systems of exchange and networks of information?”

These (admittedly tough to parse) lines betray Crary’s feeling that the “human” can be easily washed away by the tumult of the 21st century. He argues in his book that, where once the eye could be taken as the dominant and undisputed arbiter of reality, where seeing was believing and believing seeing, today we have become adrift in incomprehensible streams of data, built environments, white noise, alienating social networks, labor divorced from the physical, and an unyielding array of interpellations by distant and often synthetic beings. What even are humans anymore among all of this new chatter? And, moreover, where are they?

I’m interested in how we map virtual spaces because “mapping” seems to me to be what people do in order to understand where they are in the world, and it also seems to be a subject profoundly complicated by the introduction of virtual space into the human experience. Where are we when the land fades away to reveal the limitless Cartesian grid of the holodeck? Do we continue to “map” the virtual until the very process of mapping breaks down? And what then? These are all questions I obsess over — questions of “place” — in my own writing and research.

Identity Armor, a prototype from the spring 2017 Critical Making course.

This past spring, you were the GSI (graduate student instructor) for Critical Making, a course taught by the Jacobs Institute’s chief learning officer, Eric Paulos. Can you tell us a bit more about that class, and your experience helping facilitate it?

For me, Critical Making was the beginning of a kind of awakening towards the material I underwent about halfway through my doctoral career at Berkeley — and also incidentally the first course I took in any building north of Moffitt. The class had been in development for only a few semesters, and was at that point still taught in the Invention Lab. We didn’t yet have access to the massive reservoir of tools and resources provided by the Jacobs Institute. For 3D printers, we had three Afinia H-Series models to choose among. Still, they were enough to communicate what I feel is the most powerful idea behind 3D printing: that, with a little training, the right software, and a few hours of access, any person with a creative spirit can draw objects directly out of the ether of their imagination and into the world of things.

This past semester I had the unique pleasure of watching 37 students make all of the discoveries I made, plus many, many more, empowered as they were by the full might of the Jacobs Institute’s brilliant staff and trove of cutting-edge tools. Following Dr. Paulos’ guidance, our students were invited to push the envelope of what was possible (and sometimes also what was advisable) to discover and develop new ways of challenging the status quo in all areas of society. One group created “growable clothing” to undermine and critique fast fashion; one group created a haunting monument of a hand that, when touched, would vocalize the desensitized emails students get disclosing where assaults had taken place on campus; one group made a fully-functional rickshaw and accompanying app, called “Uberik,” to call attention to the labor practices of an unnamed company in Silicon Valley; one group created “identity armor,” which, at the push of a button, would raise dark shades and a voice modulator in front of the user’s face to protect them against iris scans and voice capture — insinuating the possibility of a dystopian future (and present) where such protections are essential; and dozens more provocative, thoughtful, and technically demanding projects too numerous to name here.

Critical Making strives to push against the presumption students sometimes have going into prototyping courses that design has to be assistive, or at least “pleasing,” by alternatively asking: “What if a design was willfully difficult? Inconvenient? Needlessly complex? Or called attention to an absurdity that’s often overlooked?” The results, I can safely say, have been illuminating.

What are you working on right now? Any pet projects?

Always! This weekend, incidentally, I was working on an assistive walker for my dog, Irma (yes, a “pet project”… please forgive me). I used Fusion to model the device, Illustrator to finish the cut files, and a Jacobs-provided laser cutter to punch out the pieces from plywood. I then tested the mockup for fit, and plan to use Jacobs’ OMAX waterjet cutter (on which I was just recently trained!) to cut the final design out of aluminum when I’m certain the files are ready.

Another piece of enabling technology I’m working on right now is a personal elevator to be used for helping individuals with limited leg strength ascend from the floor after falls. I’m developing this machine in league with Berkeley’s EnableTech, a club that meets in Jacobs during the spring and fall semesters, and we’re excited to report we just ran our first few successful test-lifts with our need-knower at the end of last semester. Our next goal is to make the lift more portable by replacing the heavy frame with aluminum (as opposed to water-jet steel), and power it using pneumatics.

Finally, I’ve been assisting with a project called “Helping Hands: Playground Edition” to help build a modular prosthetic device for kids that, in contrast to most prosthetic hands available today, can be used in playground settings for hanging, swinging, throwing, and catching.

What’s your favorite thing that you’ve made while at Berkeley?

For my team’s final Critical Making project in 2015, I did the mechanical development for Hugwear, a “wearable pet” designed to help calm down kids with difficulty managing their emotions. It’s a simple device: it curls up and makes sad noises when it detects its user is upset, and uncurls and makes happy noises when pet. But it was my first introduction to the world of animatronics, and I had a lot of fun showing off the creature to dozens of kids at two different Maker Faires — one in San Mateo, and one in Washington, D.C. — and it is still one of my favorite ideas to date.

Learn more about Adam’s work here.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

By Laura Mitchell