I’m Grant Wythoff, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University, where I am supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation’s Scholarly Communications and Information Technology Program. I study the history and theory of media technologies, twentieth century American literature, and digital approaches to humanities research. Specifically, I’m interested in the ways people think through tools, especially when those tools are highly complex, broken, or brand new, compelling their users to imagine new applications and possibilities. In addition to my work as an undergraduate educator, I am a teaching fellow at the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), an academic and cultural enrichment initiative for high-achieving, low-income high school students in central New Jersey.
My current research project is a cultural history of the gadget in twentieth century America. Today, the word “gadget” evokes smartphones and GPS receivers: digital devices that pack a countless range of functionalities in a small, black box. Many humanists argue these digital gadgets are fundamentally altering the ways we read, communicate, and even think, citing decreased attention spans, fragmented reading and viewing experiences, and the depersonalization of social relationships. But a look into the etymology of the word “gadget” tells a very different story, one in which the functionality of this indeterminate object (“gadget” is, after all, little more than a placeholder for an anonymous tool) shifts dramatically according to the needs and desires of the era. As a genre of technology consisting of many different kinds of tools — for instance, a sailor’s marlinspike (1870s), a wire-tying cotton baler (1910s), a dashboard-mounted tire gauge (1930s), a bi-directional toothbrush (1940s), the portable television (1960s), and the personal digital assistant (1990s) — its evolution allows us to analyze a distinct shift in the imaginative space between tools and their users.
The other things that occupy my time include working as project manager on Princeton Prosody Archive, a full-text searchable database of writing on the rhythm, intonation, and utterance of language from 1750-1950, under the direction of Meredith Martin. Recently, I was a research fellow at the Values in Design Doctoral Workshop in Irvine. As a result, I’ve been collaborating with a group to produce a physical knob that controls the “volume” of social media feeds. I also serve on the steering committee of the Princeton Digital Humanities Initiative, where we are working to facilitate an already rich number of digital research projects across the campus.
I get most of this done from the 1850s farm house my wife and I rent in central New Jersey, where we keep a small flock of chickens and an unkempt garden.
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