New Blog Site



It includes everything here plus new and additional materials on FemTechNet, my Theory Performance in Brussels, my new work on the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

New Project :: Ways of the Hand – Tinkering in a Digital Age

Ways of the Hand, a project by Anne Balsamo 2013


This project explores the notion of “tinkering as a 21st century literacy.”   Tinkering involves strategies of improvisation and iteration.  As a practice of the technological imagination, it pushes the boundaries of original contexts.  It creates hybrids from heterogeneous parts and components.  It incorporates media strategies of collage, appropriation, and montage.  It encourages open-ended exploration of possibilities.  It develops porous and ad-hoc communities.  It is a key reproductive practice of contemporary culture.

The Ways of the Hand project includes 14 video postcards from makers and tinkerers who participated in Maker Faire, 2009 in San Mateo, CA.  I had the opportunity to ask them about their motivations and aspirations for their making practices.

Ways of the Hand:  Introduction by Anne Balsamo

Ways of the Hand:  Interview with Dale Doughtery, founder of Make Magazine

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Carl Pisaturo

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Peter Weijmarshausen

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Wendell Oske

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Wendy Ju

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Roger Sonntag

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Mark Alexander

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Stephanie Vincent

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Phil Jergenson

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Nemo Gould

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Michael St. Clair

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Mike Petrich

Ways of the Hand: Postcards from Maker Faire 2009, Geever Tully

Additional videos on the importance of Tinkering in a Digital Age, produced at the Convening on Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age, organized and facilitated by Anne Balsamo (then at USC) that was held at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford University, Oct 23-25, 2008, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

John Seely Brown: Scientist, Speaker, Writer, Teacher, Former Chief Science Officer for the Xerox Corporation discusses the notion of the Open Architectural Studio model of learning.

Mike Petrich: Co-Director of The Learning Studio at the Exploratorium, SF, CA, advocates for tinkering as a part of every public school curriculum.

Allison Clark: Founder of the Hip Hop Information Technology Tour that is designed to encourage students to tinker with technology in unconventional ways.

Eric Siegel:  Director of Exhibits at the New York Hall of Science talks about the importance of people and especially peers in cultivating creativity and imagination among museum visitors.

Jaime Cortez: Artist/performer/teacher in Bay Area California identifies roadblocks to creativity in traditional school settings.

Beginning with the Summit on Tinkering held at the Carnegie Foundation in 2008, and continuing through the investigation and interviews with makers and tinkerers at Maker Faire in 2009, I was interested in documenting the wide range of tinkering and making practices in contemporary US culture.  A report on this research manifested as a taxonomy of tinkering practices that encompasses diverse strategies, structure and logics of tinkering.  Through talking with Makers and tinkerers of all ages and backgrounds, we learned that tinkering involves four key components, that can be “open” or “closed”:

  • Materials
  • open: raw, found, basic, low-level, primary, elements
  • closed: kit, preassembled, higher-level, systems
  • Workflows
  • open: unscripted, exploratory, experimental, iterative processes, self-determined
  • closed: scripted, step-by-step instructions, tutorial, start-to-finish
  • Contexts
  • open: multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, hybrid, self-motivated
  • closed: well-established culture or subculture, work-for-hire, made-to-order
  • Platforms
  • open: open source, cross-platform,multi-platform, multi-system
  • closed: closed-platform, commercial, restrictive licensing & use

And while it is difficult to imagine a time when TINKERING was considered a positive attribute of an active imagination, in fact, there was a time in US history when tinkering was actively discouraged.  In her book, Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (Penn UP, 2005: 137), Kathleen Franz reproduces this “Anti-Tinkering Manifesto” circulated in 1934 by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague about the dangers of tinkering with the beauty of the automobile.


An Anti-Tinkering Manifesto

Appropriated from Walter Dorwin Teague

(Industrial Designer writing in 1934)


The days of aftermarket accessories and tinkering ended with the rise of professionals in the 1920s.  In order to redesign a product, one has to understand the universal principles of good design. 

For example, good automobile design constitutes a principle of fitness that expresses the perfect adaptation of means to an end.  The laws of fitness are unchangeable and invariable—principles that can be studied and learned.  Understanding these principles distinguishes professionals from amateurs.

Any organism must be conceived as a unity, one theme, one purpose, must dominate it; all its elements must be integrated as closely as possible so that it looks as if it had been poured in a single mold.

Tinkering destroys unity.

Excerpted from:  Kathleen Franz, Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (Penn UP, 2005: 137)

The unfolding text project is called:  Ways of the HAnd:  How We Make Culture through Tinkering, Hacking & Upcycling.

Chapter 1:  DIY as an Emergent Cultural Formation

Chapter N:  A Taxonomy of Tinkering

Bibliography on Tinkering, The Hand, and Learning


PROJECT UPDATE :: AIDS Memorial Quilt Digital Experiences 2012

The AIDS Quilt on the National Mall, 1996

The AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out on the National Mall in Washington DC 1996.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I collaborated with a team of research-designers to create several digital experiences for the Quilt 2012 events that unfolded in Washington DC from June 27-July 27, 2012.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a unique work of international ARTS ACTIVISM that reflects the worldwide scope and personal impact of the AIDS pandemic.

  • The textile Quilt is composed of 48,000 individual PANELS that commemorate more than 93,000 NAMES.
  • The size of the physical Quilt measures more than 1.3 million square feet.  If laid out in its entirety, it would cover more than 29 acres of land.
  • It would take a visitor more than 33 days to view every panel—spending only 1 minute at each panel.
  • It is the largest LIVING MEMORIAL of its kind in the world.

Digital Experience Tent at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Washington D.C.

These experiences were created in collaboration with Dale MacDonald from Onomy Labs,  Julie Rhoad and Roddy Williams from the NAMES Project Foundation, Jon Winet and his team from the University of Iowa’s Digital Studio for Public Humanities (DSPH), and Andy VanDam and his LADS team at Brown University.


The work was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humantiies, Microsoft Research, and USC Fund for Interdisciplinary Innovation.



Visitors to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival view the digital AIDS Memorial Quilt on an interactive tabletop browser

Digital Experience #1:  The Interactive Tangible Browser for the AIDS Memorial Quilt enables viewers to SEARCH for a NAME that is commemorated on a Quilt panel, VIEW Quilt blocks, BROWSE a virtual “Quilt” that is composed of 5800 individual digital images, and ZOOM among different viewing distances: from a bird’s eye view to a view of an individual Quilt panel.

Close up of Chris Parsel’s digital panel and Billy Howard’s photograph that inspired the panel




USC student and AIDS Quilt Docent, Brittany Farr and a young visitor explore the Interactive Timeline of the History of AIDS

Digital Experience #2:  The Interactive TIMELINE for the History of AIDS  and the AIDS Memorial Quilt recounts key events and episodes in the 30-year history of the AIDS pandemic and the 25-year history of the creation of the Quilt.

This experience was created by Lauren Fenton and Rosemary Comella at USC in collaboration with Microsoft Research and the ChronoZoom team.


The AIDS Quilt Touch mobile web app goes live on June 27, 2012

Digital Experience #3:  The mobile web app AIDS QUILT TOUCH enables a web-user to SEARCH for a NAME on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, VIEW Quilt Blocks, COMMENT on a specific panel or on the Quilt, and LOCATE the display of a specific panel during the Quilt 2012 events.

USC student and AIDS Quilt Docent, Tisha Demanjee uses the AIDS Quilt Touch mobile web app to help visitors find a quilt panel on the National Mall, 2012


The mobile web app was created by a team at the Digital Studio for Public Humanities at the University of Iowa under the direction of Jon Winet and Mark NeuCollins.

Each of these experiences illustrates the important role of collaboration among humanists and technologies in projects that take culture seriously for the purposes of technological innovation.


A woman weeps after viewing digital image of her husband's panel displayed on the AIDS Quilt Touch Table and interactive browser, 2012

In another sense, these digital memorial projects manifest the poetry of interactive experience design.  To participate in the creation of applications that touch the hearts and souls of visitors has been a profound experience for me, not simply as a designer and digital humanist, but as a member of a generation who came of age as the AIDS pandemic spread throughout the globe.


Anne Balsamo: Principle Investigator, Grants from NEH, Microsoft Research, USC. Currently Dean, School of Media Studies, New School for Public Engagement, New York. Formerly, Director of Research in Public Interactives Team at University of Southern California. Served as project coordinator and lead experience designer.

Dale MacDonald:  Currently Director of Creative Technologies, School of Media Studies, New School for Public Engagement, New York. Formerly Chief Technology Officer, Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California.  Co-director of the creation of the digital experiences for QUILT 2012 events.  Served as lead researcher for all digital experiences and project coordinator for all the tech teams.

For a full list of credits, see the full report on the AIDS Memorial Quilt Digital Experience Project.


AIDS Quilt Touch Facebook page

AIDS Quilt Touch Mobile web app

Deep Zoom Interactive Version of Digital Quilt

AIDS Quilt Interactive Community-Sourcing Archive App




The Many Ways to Collaborate at USC

In Fall 2011, I taught a graduate seminar at USC that was the capstone for the iDiploma program.  One of the creative outcomes of the course was a collaborative effort to itemize the many ways of collaborating at USC.  The result was rendered as a bold and beautiful graphic poster image by the international artist and graphic designer, Michael Bartolos.


Designing Culture :: The Book | Now Available!

I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new book Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work (Duke University Press).

The book calls for taking culture seriously in the design and development of innovation technologies.

I assert that the wellspring of technological innovation is the technological imagination.

Following this, I examine key sites for the cultural reproduction of the technological imagination:  the research university, the industrial research lab, and the science/technology center.

Much of the material in the book draws on design-research projects I’ve been involved in over the past 15 years.  Based on these experiences, I offer several “lessons” about the nature of innovation in contemporary culture.

  • Innovation is a process, not a product
  • Innovation is a multidisciplinary endeavor
  • Designing is a key site for the exercise of the technological imagination
  • The future begins in the imagination; designers hack the present to create our futures
  • Working with other people to make things is important for the construction of shared knowledge
  • Every technology has contradictory and multiple effects
  • Collaboration across differences is the key to techno-cultural innovation
  • The creation of new technologies always involves the design of new cultural possibilities
  • Designing culture is, therefore, an ethical project
  • Understanding the relationship of culture and technology is an ethical imperative

The print publication is part of a broader TRANSMEDIA PROJECT simply called Designing Culture.

Packaged with the book is the interactive multimedia documentary, Women of the World Talk Back, created by Mary Hocks and Anne Balsamo in 1995 based on our participation at the 4th UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China.

Other media elements available at the website include:

  • video archives and interactive applications relating to the Experiments in the Future of Reading EXHIBIT created by RED @ PARC in 2000
  • examples of interactive digital WALL books
  • interactive MAPS of matters of concern for the technological imagination
  • short VIDEO primers on key themes of contemporary technoculture

Designing Culture is a tour de force, offering a unique vision of the
possibilities for a contemporary cultural studies. Refusing to separate
research from pedagogy, technology from culture, or innovation from
imagination, Anne Balsamo maps the concrete complexities of specific design processes, and opens up new ways of thinking about and teaching technocultures in relation to broader socio-political fields. Her book is required reading for anyone working with contemporary cultures.

Lawrence Grossberg, author of Cultural Studies in the Future Tense

Designing Culture is a road map to the technological imagination, provided by one of our best theorists and practitioners. Anne Balsamo’s architecture of the future rests solidly on her own experiments, inventions, theoretical engagements, pedagogical innovations, and interactive hermeneutics. This is cultural theory at its best, brilliant, bold, and daring.”—Cathy N. Davidson, Duke University

“In this sweeping expansion of the classic innovation literature, Anne Balsamo portrays both the necessity and the challenge of cultivating the technological imagination in all of us. Her experiences as a researcher and designer who has worked across cultural domains—as a humanist in the academy, as a research scientist in an industrial innovation center, and as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley—give her a unique ability to foster conversations among diverse groups of thinkers who want to engage with issues of culture and technological innovation. Balsamo not only describes ways to take culture seriously in the design of new technologies but also elaborates why it is ethically imperative to do so. Her insights into expanding the traditional considerations of socio-technical design to consider issues of culture are coming at a critical time. This is a great book that should be read by anyone interested in creating new technologies of imagination—for enhancing learning in the twenty-first century and creating expressive cultural platforms for the future.”—John Seely Brown, former Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and Director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)

New Project :: Tangible Interface for Browsing the AIDS Quilt

Browsing digital images of the AIDS Quilt using Onomy Lab's Tilty Table







This project will develop an application that enables collaborative browsing of a database of images of panels of The AIDS Memorial Quilt that have been “virtually stitched together.”  The application will be used with Onomy Lab’s Tilty Table, a tangible interactive device that serves as a display surface for large-scaled images.

By tilting the tabletop, users can explore the expansive virtual Quilt.  By twisting the tabletop, users move between levels of view ranging from an extreme wide-angle view of the entire 60,000 panel Quilt, down to a close-up of a single panel.  When a user rests on one image, additional information is revealed: names, dates, geographic location.  The size and form of the device encourages collaborative browsing in public venues.  We offer it as an example of a evocative public interactive.

This project demonstrates the notion of a cultural technology; the built-form of the device augments the cultural meaning of the historical material.  Specific innovations include:  the creation of a (1) tangible interactive surface and (2) an application for collaborative browsing and searching of large spatialized images, (3) the involvement of the users’ body in the interaction with digital material, and (4) the circulation of an archive of historical images to a broader, public audience. The horizon of this project seeks to contribute to our understanding of the way in which mixed-media technologies (digital and physical) can augment practices of cultural remembrance.

We are working in collaboration with the Names Project Foundation — the organization based in Atlanta Georgia that is dedicated to preserving the Quilt and receiving new panels — to make their database of 6000 digitized images of Quilt blocks viewable on this tangible interface.  Each Quilt block is comprised of eight individual Quilt panels; each panel measures 3 ft x 6 ft.  To date there are more than 60,000 individual panels in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Next year, 2012, will mark the 25th Anniversary of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. We intend to have this application and device ready in time to commemorate that anniversary at the 2012 International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington D.C. in July of next year.

The project is supported by a Digital Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and from funds from USC’s Program of Advancing Scholarship in Arts, Humanities and the Social Sciences.

We are looking for volunteers to work on this and related efforts to create a digital presence for the Names Memorial Quilt at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington.  For more information contact:  Anne Balsamo at annebalsamo(at)gmail(dot)com


New Project :: The Distributed Museum

Where is the Museum in a Digital Age?

This project will explore the possibilities for innovative museum visitor experiences using a range of networked technologies and social media applications.  Based on an earlier research project previously supported by the MacArthur Foundation called “Inspiring the Technological Imagination: The Future of Museums and Libraries in a Digital Age,” this effort will include the creation of an interactive application that maps the distributed (digital and analog) spaces of the museum in networked cultures.

Co-Directed with Susana Bautista (Annenberg, USC), this project is sponsored by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of our new research track in PUBLIC INTERACTIVES and will involve collaborations with the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Susana and I presented the first version of this project at a Professional Forum at the Museum and the Web Conference in Philadelphia in April 2011.