Investigating Normal

A first course in integrating mechanical, electrical, and software systems

Assistive technologies usually refer to prosthetics and medical aids: tools, devices, and other gear that either restore or augment the functioning of body parts. Historically, these have been designed for people with diagnosable disabilities. In this course, we look at medical as well as cultural tools that investigate the “normal” body and mind, and we design our own devices—high-tech, low-tech, digital or analog—with these ideas in mind. Through readings, site visits, guest speakers, and projects, we investigate both traditional and unusual prosthetics and assistive technologies, broadly defined. We talk to end-users, to engineers and industrial designers, to artists, and to others whose technologies assist with visible and invisible needs, externalize hidden dynamics, and create capacities far beyond or outside ordinary functionality.

Key to our discussions will be the implicit and explicit narratives that get created by and with prosthetic technologies. We’ll look at popular prosthetic tools and examine how their users “perform” them, keeping economic and socio-political factors in mind. We’ll also investigate the ways these narratives get lumped together or distinguished from the available and popular cultural narratives about the cyborg self, about human-machine interfaces in general. With this analysis in mind, I’ll ask you to consider new possibilities for manufacturable prosthetic and medical technologies in the interest of better treatment, especially if that’s where your personal interest lies. But I’ll also ask you to engage in what’s been called interrogative design, or critical design, or resonant design: that is, problem finding as well as problem solving; suspending questions by pressing together, in one artifact or set of artifacts, seemingly disparate or opposing ideas; thinking about what Anthony Dunne calls “para-functionality”: design that lives among recognizable realms of utility, but expands, as he says, beyond conventional definitions of functionalism to include the poetic, or activist, or socio-political.


Instructors: Sara Hendren and Zhenya Zastavker


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