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Donald Brinkman on “Tin Cupping for Plutonium” (Media Systems)

How can people embedded in large, for-profit companies find a way to direct some of the present expertise and resources to make a positive difference? In this talk from the Media Systems gathering, Donald Brinkman describes how he has worked to do this within Microsoft. In particular, he describes Microsoft’s role in enabling the digital projects engaging the AIDS Memorial Quilt that were also discussed in Anne Balsamo’s talk.

These projects explore the potential of digital memorials in an era when, as Balsamo references in Wendy Chun’s work, “we must be reminded that memory and storage are not the same thing.” Balsamo and collaborators began exploring the concept of creating a digital version of the quilt, allowing one to see and move across its massive surface, in 2001. With the emergence of national support for the digital humanities, a 2010 NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grant allowed them to begin work on the project — and led to an invitation to include their digital version in the physical display of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall being organized by the NAMES Project Foundation for 2012.

From here a level of complexity in collaboration began to take shape that testifies to the many potential ways that computational media can engage memorialization and memory, as well as to the range of organizations enthusiastic to contribute to this work. The University of Iowa’s Digital Studio for Public Humanities began working with Balsamo and her team at USC on a mobile web app, allowing people to find their way to desired panels on the Mall and also experience the quilt remotely. Brinkman became involved, bringing both Microsoft Research’s expertise as well as the software and groups of two of their collaborations: the ChronoZoom team (at UC Berkeley and Moscow State University) and the LADS team (at Brown University). This made it possible to pursue both an interactive timeline and a table-sized zooming display of the quilt itself, but there weren’t enough development resources to complete all three projects before the quilt was due to be installed on the Mall. By tapping into the Garage program, which encourages Microsoft employees to dedicate time to charitable causes, all three projects were brought to fruition in time. Together they helped demonstrate that computational media experiences can not only provide access to works that are otherwise unavailable, but they can powerfully complement the experience of works that are physically present, contributing to the occasioning of remembering and testifying — as well as to education and critical reflection.

Brinkman believes there are four key ingredients to making this kind of powerful collaboration possible:

  1. Deep Data – that is culturally meaningful
  2. Passionate Partners – that are doing it because of personal belief
  3. Terrific Tech – which the people involved understand deeply
  4. Plutonium

The last of these he sees as having a set of possible ingredients:

  1. Free (as in beer) labor – such as the Garage program
  2. Matching funds – given by anyone from internal product groups to outside foundations
  3. Free tech – such as hardware donations, in return for things like publicity or a broader range of software
  4. Expertise – people who can help tell the story

If you wish to discuss the ideas in Brinkman’s talk further, please leave comments here or take to Twitter with the #MediaSystems hashtag. Also, as with most of our previously-posted videos PDF slides are available on the main Media Systems page for this talk. The full report from the Media Systems project — “Envisioning the Future of Computational Media” — is now available for download and print-on-demand. And watch for our final video, from Michael Mateas, coming next!


This material is based upon a project supported by the National Science Foundation (under Grant Number 1152217), the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities (under Grant Number HC-50011-12), the National Endowment for the Arts’ Office of Program Innovation, Microsoft Studios, and Microsoft Research.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of these sponsors.


About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author


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