“Minimal Computing” is a Global Outlook::Digital Humanities (GO::DH) working group invested in the entanglements of computing with infrastructure and culture. I chair the group with John Simpson, and in Summer 2017 I taught a graduate seminar on the topic. That seminar drew from Hartmut Obendorf’s research (2009) to look at functional, structural, architectural, and compositional forms of minimal computing as a creative and analytical framework. Students and I foregrounded notions of access, infrastructure, labor, and persistence against various types of scope, function, and feature creep common in project design and development.

The official description of the minimal computing seminar is below. I link to the course website and syllabus as well as to “Minimal Definitions,” a thought piece I wrote about what we may mean when we say, “minimal computing.” The piece is a tad long, so I wrote a tl;dr version, too. Alongside these resources I link to the website for the GO::DH working group.

If you’re interested in learning more about minimal computing, then I recommend thought pieces on the GO::DH website by Alex Gil, Gabriel Egan, Joel Hughes, Kim Brillante Knight, Meredith Levin, Anne B. McGrail, and Stewart Varner in addition to projects by Gil, Manan Ahmed, Maira E. Álvarez, Sylvia A. Fernández, Kaiama L. Glover, Kelly Baker Josephs, Merisa Martinez, Roopika Risam, Linda Rodriguez, Moacir P. de Sá Pereira, Dennis Tenen, and the xpmethod group at Columbia University. There’s also the “Minimal Digital Humanities: Choice or Necessity?” panel (link below), which gathered at the 2017 Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia.

Thanks to Alex Gil and Brian Rosenblum for designing the Minimal Computing website, and to Gil, John Simpson, and Dan O’Donnell for collaborating with me to organize the group’s first meeting on 8 July 2014 in Lausanne.

An image of an abacus

Minimal Computing
Summer 2017 | UVic English 507 | Grad seminar for 12 students

Links: course website (HTML); syllabus (PDF); thought piece on defining minimal computing (HTML); tl;dr version of the thought piece (HTML); GO::DH working group (HTML); MLA panel (HTML)

This seminar introduces you to the histories and principles of digital literary and cultural studies. Digital literary studies involve the interpretation of electronic literature but also the use of digital technologies to examine and remediate literature. How, for instance, is literature composed for screens or through algorithms? Or how is it analyzed by machines and encoded for discovery, scanning, and preservation? Overlapping with many literary questions, digital cultural studies entail the interpretation of new media and computational cultures, but also the integration of digital technologies into cultural production. How, for example, do labour practices morph with the internet and social networks? Or how do scholarship and other communications transform or expand with platforms? Both fields are unique (or simply odd) within the humanities because they blend technical knowledge with creative and critical approaches to research questions. Both fields also engage matters of design: interests in interfaces, interactions, graphics, systems, code, reuse, stewardship, performance, materiality, and information architecture, for instance.

Given the centrality of design to digital literary and cultural studies, this introductory seminar combines cultural criticism with creative and technical practices by treating design as inquiry. Design is not something found in objects. A technology does not “have” design. Design is not an idea, either. A person does not imagine a design on their own. Like any labour practice, design is social; it is also a negotiation with materials and forces. In digital studies, design encourages us to ask how stuff is composed, under what assumptions, by whom, for whom, and to what effects. It also prompts us to consider how digital stuff and its conditions can change. What else was it? What else will it be? What else could or should it be? How does change happen not just around it, but with or through it?

Quite a mess, right? To keep us focused, this seminar narrows design in digital studies to minimal computing in particular. Minimal computing foregrounds access, infrastructure, and persistence against various types of scope, function, and feature creep now common in fields such as digital humanities, where projects are never done. This creep usually happens because technologies make it possible to add all the things to the inquiry at hand. Lines become increasingly difficult to draw as digital projects continue to grow. You could say minimal computing serves as a corrective of sorts; more accurately, it is an analytical and creative framework for navigating the politics and aesthetics of design in digital studies: a way to examine and critique as well as reuse, build, and preserve projects.

I selected minimalism as a heuristic for this seminar because it is: 1) conducive to an introduction; it fosters attention to specific elements of production while also bypassing assumptions of technical expertise, which may not be common in English studies; 2) impossible to engage meaningfully through critical distance alone; it entails the study of digital literature and culture from the “inside,” blending skepticism with immersion; 3) steeped in the contingencies of design; we can’t talk persuasively about minimalism as an idea or form outside of history, medium, setting, action, or ideology; 4) a popular research and discussion topic in digital studies right now, due partly to concerns about digital security, not to mention the constant maintenance and repair of digital projects; and 5) inclined to decentre the “digital” by entwining it with other formations; digital technologies and new media do not exist independently of mechanical procedures, analog machines, tactile media, people, and environments.

To be clear, minimal computing is not without its problems. Discursively, it functions within a collocation set that also includes “reduction,” “simplicity,” “clarity,” “limited,” “necessity,” “few,” and “flat.” These terms are value-laden; they weave materials and actions together with concepts and beliefs as they draw our attention to interesting design problems. Through case studies, workshops, discussions, project development, and a lecture or two, we will study that entanglement and those problems in the context of digital literature and culture. What are minimalist interfaces, architectures, media, and approaches in digital studies? What do they promise? What do they afford? For what are they responsible? When and why should they be adopted, rejected, or modified? By the term’s end, I’m not asking you to affirm minimal computing as a methodology or ideology. I am asking you to articulate your own position on minimal computing through an integration of immanent critique with experimental practice: to compose about, with, through, and against it. In doing so, I hope you develop a concrete sense of how digital literature and culture are written, read, and—most important for this seminar—designed.

For more information, please see the website and syllabus for this course.

Featured image includes the commands for the BF esolang. Public domain image of an abacus, from Albert Maltby’s “Map Modeling in Geography, including the use of sand, clay, putty, paper pulp, plaster of Paris … Also Chalk Modeling in its adaptation to purposes of illustration” (1895), care of the British Library on Flickr and used by the GO::DH Minimal Computing working group. I created this page on 15 July 2019 and last updated it on 30 January 2022.