Faculty profile: Professor Matt Ratto

New laboratory has students thinking critically

Despite its unusual name, the Critical Making Laboratory at the Faculty of Information attracted a dozen students this past winter (1).  

Photograph of Professor Matt RattoBob Ree is one of them. “This place is a mess,” he laughs on a spring day as he’s finishing up his project. The small lab is littered with connectors, plugs, wires, cable jumpers, and yes even dental tools. Bob is tapping away on the only desktop computer at a tall square table.

A Master of Information candidate, he says the “novel, unique, and current” course has inspired him to write a thesis in critical making. Half the class time is spent in the lab, located in the iSchool’s building at 45 Willcocks Street (2).

Started by Professor Matt Ratto in the fall of 2008 with part of his $10,000 Connaught New Faculty grant, the 15’ x 18’ lab is filled with Swap Shop furniture, a stash of random office supplies borrowed from the Faculty’s basement, and a variety of advanced technological components, including Arduino micro-controllers, “Wii chucks” repurposed from the Nintendo Wii video game, small servo motors, sensors, and electronic circuitry.

During the 13-week course, students made objects such as a wearable device that discourages slouching, a photocopy machine that controls what and how much can be copied, a 'biased' voting machine, and even a digital 'flower.'

By using technology, students can create devices/objects to better understand and question the ethics and biases that go into making them.

About Arduino

Most projects make use of the aforementioned Arduino, an open-source micro-controller that acts as an electronic translator between the analog 'real' world and the zeros and ones of the digital environment.

Developed originally by designers and artists, as well as engineers, this hardware technology encourages students with little training in computer hardware or software to create complex digital objects. However, making digital devices is not the primary goal of the lab.

Information and social issues

Rather, the method of the course – what Professor Ratto calls 'critical making' – is intended to supplement critical thinking about information and social issues.

For example, one issue explored by the class is the social values of digital technologies. By using technology, students can create devices/objects to better understand and question the ethics and biases that go into making them.

“The academic venue is a valuable space for addressing social issues and considering ways to improve the social world. I think doing so should be part of academic work, and U of T is an ideal place to do that.”

Students may ponder how a resin chair might be made from materials that are more environmentally friendly. They may be assigned a visual stereotype in order to see how others perceive us. By using various technologies, Ratto believes students can look at technological objects and consumer products differently.  

"You can’t study an object after the fact," he says. “You need to do it through shared making and be part of the process.”  This hands-on approach helps to develop students’ critical thinking, he says; thus, the name of the lab.

About Matt

Professor Ratto was previously at HUMlab at the University of Umea in Sweden, and is a founding Professor Ratto and student Bob Lee, working in the Critical Making Labmember of the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Amsterdam. Born in a small town near San Francisco, Matt obtained his MA and PhD in Communication from the University of California in San Diego.

After a few years as a stage actor and a few more as a computer engineer, he found himself asking difficult questions.

“In the mid-1990s, I was searching for alternatives to commonplace perspectives on digital technology. I needed to find a way to think about it that didn’t just say that it was all good or all bad.”

His interests eventually narrowed in on the relationship between society and technology and how they interact, and this propelled him toward research.

“The academic venue is a valuable space for addressing social issues and considering ways to improve the social world. I think doing so should be part of academic work, and U of T is an ideal place to do that.”

Role, value, and life cycle of objects

In joining the iSchool during summer 2008, Ratto wanted to inform students about the role and value of objects in our society, since he believes people aren’t given the information and skills they need in order to consider the labour and other resources that go into the production of objects.

“We strip the history from things and replace this with a monetary value,” he says.

“We strip the history from things and replace this with a monetary value,” he says.

As a result, Ratto says we need to reclaim how things are made, to understand the ramifications of the lifecycle of objects. In particular, he often finds choices made around information technology are based on an inadequate knowledge of their origins. “It would be a better world if we understood how things are made, so we can make things differently.”

Making of the Critical Making Lab

It was this premise that led to the creation of the Critical Making Laboratory.

Orange table with signs saying "Critical making lab"Before you think that Ratto is trying to appeal to the environmental/green movement, he is not advocating going back to nature. He is more interested in having students being engaged, doing, reading, and thinking critically about the relationship between information, technology, and society.

By studying the relationship between making and thinking, students can potentially come up with new forms of technology, or make better decisions about which technologies to adopt in their personal and/or professional lives. Consequently, products that are critically examined might provide opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint, lessen production costs, or engage in new kinds of social justice through more conscionable objects, he explains.

Inclusive design open house

In April, students held an inclusive design open house where they demonstrated their work.

One student project featured a 'Social Crown,' a wearable device in the form of headphones, which allowed people to electronically tag the social capital of the wearer through LED switches – whether the person may be straight, sober, single, white, smart – and so on. The object of the device was to make apparent the ways in which digital technologies such as Facebook, change the relations between personal information and public space.

On the importance of reflectionStudent Ginger Coons in the Critical Making Lab, in front of her poster

Ratto encourages students to reflect upon, and even question his methods, because that’s all part of the critical thinking process.

Back to Bob, who agrees reflection is vital in class, “if only because such thought processes are so absent from the way most people interact with their environment. When man-made things become accepted and taken for granted as some sort of ‘truth,’ it paves the way for all sorts of negative results.”

Because of this approach, Ratto believes that when students become workers or entrepreneurs, they can have more confidence in their abilities, and in their engagement with technology.

Updates
(1)  This profile is based on an article published in Informed Magazine in 2009.  Student enrolment in INF2241H has risen since the course's inception.
(2)  The lab has since moved to the main iSchool building at 140 St. George Street.
 

Courses taught by Professor Matt Ratto

INF1003H  Information Systems, Services, and Design
INF2241H  Critical Making: Information Studies, Social Values, and Physical Computing
INF2242H  Studying Information and Knowledge Practices

LEARN MORE
Professor Matt Ratto
Master of Information (MI) program at the iSchool
MI program – Critical Information Studies (CIS) path