Saturday, November 30, 2002


I LOVE this Barbie.

Mental illness as social illness?

Suicide now accounts for a third of all deaths among women in the Chinese countryside. "Dr Michael Phillips, who helped lead the study, told the BBC that while 90-95% of those taking their own lives in the West suffered significant mental illness at the time of attempting suicide, around a third of those in China did not. "It appears that many of them are impulsive events following an acute fight or an argument with the husband or a parent or a mother in law," he told the World Today programme. In China, there is also a lack of social and religious taboos against taking one's own life. "In some particular villages it almost becomes normalised. If a young woman is having trouble, this is one way she'll express her displeasure," Dr Phillips said.

I've wondered if women in the West are more often diagnosed with depression than men, not because of more prevalent mental illness, but because of social statuses and situations that wear them down...

Quantum computing making 'tremendous progress'

The first element of a device that many believe holds the best hope for quantum information processing has been completed by Australian researchers, while an Austrian team has reported the first truly quantum calculation. The achievements go some way to dispelling the widely-held idea that doing anything useful with quantum computing is decades or even centuries away.

On Women Bloggers

Lisa Guerney, in the NY Times (requires registration), writes about the male-dominated blog world. One might balk at her characterisation of bloggers as "legions of online narcissists" but the author was more concerned with the lack of female voices. The article gets weird when this turns into a tired discussion around men in the public sphere and women in the private sphere. Then comes this killer statement: "People who track blogs hate to make generalizations, but many acknowledged that female bloggers often have more of an inward focus, keeping personal diaries about their daily lives. If that is the case, the Venus-Mars divide has made its way into Blogville. Women want to talk about their personal lives. Men want to talk about anything but. So far the people who have received the most publicity (often courtesy of male journalists) appear to be the latter."

Elizabeth Lane Lawley responds to the same quote, "I think this is close to the mark, but not exactly right. The "inward focus" rings true, but the "personal diaries" does not. The women whose blogs I read seem to speak with more of a personal and recognizable voice. But what they write goes far beyond a personal diary. They write about research, about law, about information architecture, about copyright, about gender, and about blogs themselves. But they write about them with grace and style, with a voice that is unmistakably theirs, unmistakably personal. I like that." So, for her, it seems to be more a matter of voice than of gender. And Torill Mortensen examines the notion of a "high profile" blogger and the ability to decide for oneself.

My take? Almost every facet of my professional life is male-dominated and 99% of the blog-related email I get is from men. But do I consider myself a Woman Blogger? Not really. I mean, yes, I am a woman and a blogger, but that combined identity doesn't really occur to me. And neither do I read certain blogs because they are written by men or women. I too look for voices and interests that appeal to me - and my favourite blogger is a man. But part of what I like about his writing is that I can feel it - it has a distinct and personal voice. Does that make him a woman blogger? Not bloody likely. These categories are useless to me. At the same time, some email I get is quite obviously written by heterosexual men to a woman they assume is heterosexual - so being a woman online does make a difference... but probably no more than being a woman in flesh-space.

The City

Ruavista: Signs of the City. Ruavista explores city streets and urban life through all kinds of signs: street graphics, architecture, street sounds... These signs are materials to help you decipher the city and make it your own. (via v-2)

Friday, November 29, 2002

Networks and flows

Explorations of Manuel Castells' "space of flows" (annotated bibliography)

Ulf Hannerz - Flows, boundaries and hybrids: keywords in transnational anthropology (pdf)

Felix Stalder - The Space of Flows: notes on emergence, characteristics and possible impact on physical space

The Disappearing Computer Initiative: Emerging Functionality

Geert Lovink: Dark Fiber "examines the inner workings of social networks beyond intention and rhetoric. Net criticism should not so much be defined as yet another emerging discipline with literary criticism and cultural studies as its predecessors, but rather it is described as a collaborative form to create networked discourses in which theory and practice, code and content, reflection and production, interface design and network architecture are closely intertwined." See also: A Virtual World is Possible, Autonomy Design and The New Actonomy

Assembling the Digital Sky

"Scientists in the United States, armed with a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, are building a National Virtual Observatory (NVO) that will make the world’s huge store of astronomical data available to anyone with a Web browser."

I love archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy - "The sky is the same. The constructions placed upon it vary by culture [and through time]. Ethnoastronomy seeks to explore and understand these constructions and their places within the larger cultural milieu." And I hope that they'll give us the option of engaging the cultural origins of skywatching and how different cultures identify constellations.

The highland Andean Quechua people consider the Milky Way to be a giant river, and accordingly, the surrounding constellations include animals like llamas, and different intensity star clusters form clouds. And there is no empty space: spaces without stars also become part of the celestial landscape, sort of like reverse-constellations.


"Quite unlike the metallic contraptions that march stiffly through sci-fi movies or the mindless, stripped-down devices that heft parts on our assembly lines, the new robots have more brain than brawn. Each possesses a detailed picture of its own inner workings—encoded in software-based models—that gives it the ability to respond in novel ways to events its programmers might not have anticipated. Because many of these inward-focused, self-reconfiguring machines don’t move, some computer scientists call them immobile robots, or “immobots.”

This isn't the ARPANET

"The Internet has become more vulnerable in recent years as it has become more commercialized. As the Internet has become commercialized, the major network providers have moved toward a “hub-and-spoke” model that funnels Internet connections through major hub cities. The biggest impact would be felt in the small and medium-size cities whose only or main connections to the Internet come through the major hub cities. Larger cities often have multiple connections to the Internet in and out of the city and would be harder to completely disconnect from the Internet. The actual impact of a network disruption would depend on a variety of factors, such as the cities affected by the disruption. Grubesic said the most severe impacts would occur if telecommunications equipment were destroyed in the six largest Internet hubs: Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, and Washington, DC." (via ethno::log)


"Where computer case hacking and retro-modding is an art form!" (via boingboing)

Thursday, November 28, 2002

On social systems and cybernetics

Thanks to Matt Webb for a definition of social systems taken from cybernetics. But I'd just like to point out that the cybernetics (including second-order cybernetics and notions of autopoesis) definition does not overcome the critique of structuralism/functionalism in sociology.

If you're interested in this critique, continue reading - if not, bail out now ;)

Niklas Luhmann’s autopoetic systems are self-governing spheres of interaction and “autonomous in the sense that external impacts are selected by the system or transformed by the field itself" and Luhmann employs an auditory metaphor, “resonance." Modern society is characterised by highly specialised, self-sustaining and prescriptive systems which serve identifiable social functions. For Luhmann, society is nothing but reflexive, self-recursive communication. The social still constitutes a whole, but one without centre or unity, where systems sit side-by-side, differentiated by function and stabilised communications.

The definition of society elaborated by Georges Bataille combines homogeneity with the notion of heterogeneity. For Bataille, heterogeneity comprises everything that homogeneity excludes or marginalizes. As Albertsen and Diken describe, “any heterogeneous social element is defined by its intensity and the affective reactions through which it breaks the laws of homogeneity, as in the cases of excess, delirium, madness and violence. But this is not all; elements that appear to be constitutive of homogeneity can also belong to heterogeneity… [and at the same time heterogeneity] is what escapes, or what flows in and through homogeneity.”

Zygmunt Bauman reiterates the importance of heterogeneity and also emphasises ambivalence. He locates ethics at the centre of social behaviour, but an organic ethics based on facing ambiguity and making moral choices, rather than one based on an external rule-set or system. In this way, Bauman (following Levinas) replaces the notion of society with one of sociality: the interpersonal negotiation of ambivalence and heterogeneity. He is concerned not with what holds us together (society) but with the morality that emerges in social interaction.

Bauman (following Georg Simmel) also invokes the concept of habitat. Away from society, and towards sociality, habitat is a complex system; the context in which agency operates. Habitat is where sociality takes place, a territory characterised by indeterminacy and ambivalence. Simmel’s stranger “comes today and stays tomorrow… [and is] an element whose membership within the group involves both being outside and confronting it.” Bauman uses the concept of the stranger to demonstrate that sociality consists of belonging to more than one category: always ambivalent, contingent, inconsistent and indeterminate. Neither fixed nor clearly bounded, sociality is hybrid and heterogeneous. Accordingly, for Bauman, the social can only define itself against its strangers.

The sociological critique continued with Actor-Network Theory (see posts on agency below) and most recently appears in social theories of fluidity and flow. The point has been to get away from notions of SOCIETY (systems and relationships) and move towards questions of SOCIALITY (practices and performances). An un-binding, if you will.

I guess part of my research is meant to see how these critiques can be applied to the design of new technologies - but it seems to be quite difficult to shift discussions of systems and relationships to practices and performances. I fear some consider it too subtle a point, and not worthy of rigorous examination...

A space for half-formed thoughts

Via blackbeltjones: Philip Tabor on A space for half-formed thoughts. There is much of value there, but I found it disappointing that this space is (only?) considered as a space of imagination (of cognition without sociality).

Tabor writes of psychologically charged space: constructed by the body; a physical substance, and structured by invisible forces. "In objective, scientific terms this space is a fantasy: it doesn’t describe the space in which real buildings are built. But it does reflect some psychological truth. In some ways real space differs from charged space in the same way that clock time differs from the fluid and discontinuous time we experience in our heads."

What about lived space and social space? When sociologists talk about virtual space, they are able to articulate virtualities - those pragmatic social experiences that take place. By leaving it in the space of the mind we have no way to work with what people do. Tabor describes how "forces within the organism or the building, and the forces outside it, bend and sculpt it into a shape adapted to its current location in time and space." At least some of those forces aren't invisible - they're socially manifest and can be localised in subjects and objects.

Also: more good thoughts on what has come from the Doors Conference at cityofsound.

The Things We Build

Fascinating stuff on American concentration camps and the Japanese internment at Social Design Notes. The archaeologist in me was most taken by this essay on the actual sites.

On Designing Social Agency - Story Version

In the essay "A Collective of Humans and Non-Humans," Latour tells a brilliant story about guns and people. I'll try to condense 2 1/2 pages of his text.

"Who or what is responsible for the act of killing? Is the gun no more than a piece of mediating technology? The answer to these questions depends on what mediation means." A first sense of mediation is what [he] calls the program of action: "the series of goals and steps and intentions that an agent can describe in a story like the one about the gun and the gunman."

Latour asks: In a shooting (murder) who is the actor - the citizen or the gun? He says the actor is someone else - the citizen-gun or the gun-citizen. That we are different people with guns in our hands and that guns are different when we hold them: essence is existence and existence is action. "You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you. A good citizen becomes a criminal, a bad guy becomes a worse guy; a silent gun becomes a fired gun, a new gun becomes a used gun, a sporting gun becomes a weapon. The twin mistake of the materialists and the sociologists is to start with essences, those of subjects or those of objects.. If we study the gun and the citizen as propositions, however, we realize that neither subject nor object (nor their goals) is fixed. When the propositions are articulated, they join into a new proposition."

"I could replace the gunman with a 'class of unemployed loiterers,' translating the individual agent into a collective; or I could talk of 'unconscious motives,' translating it into a sub-individual agent. I could redescribe the gun as 'what the gun lobby puts in the hands of unsuspecting children,' translating it from an object into an institution or a commercial network; or I could call it 'the action of a trigger on a cartridge through the intermediary of a spring and firing-pin, translating it into a mechanical series of causes and consequences. It is neither people nor guns that kill. Responsibility for action must be shared among the various actants."


This conjures neither the design of information nor of experience. And I don't think it involves the same sense of (motivational) agency as applied in most Action or Game Theory I've read (although that hasn't been very much, so please correct me).

The point of Latour's story, in part, is to demonstrate that whatever intentions can be attributed to either people or guns dissolve as soon as they engage each other - and emerge again as a hybrid with new collective intentions. My first thought is that we can't design for that, or at least, that we can't really design *for* the intentions/functions of machines or users.

The social context of design is more than the relationship between consultant and client, the social complexity of any given organisation or set of information/content, or even watching users. The social context of design involves the notion that we are dealing with (and are part of) a collective hybrid in which humans and non-humans are made relevant and indispensable to each other through a process of granting consent to each other. And this process is not value-free. (As an aside - I'd like to see discussions of the ethics of ubiquitous technologies move beyond issues of privacy and control.)

This may affect how designers understand who and what they're crafting. As it stands, all variations on user-centred design take for granted that products should be made relevant to their users. And in cooperation with good marketing, it is possible to make a product indispensable. The part I see missing is the process of granting consent to each other - whereby people and objects (products/machines/interfaces) reciprocally create each other as a hybrid. In other words, allowing people and objects to engage each other in ways that allow people and machines to really perform and change together (to have agency in space and time). Of course this includes not only the design of technologies but of their (social) applications.

What types of social interaction are we designing? Should applications of technology be socially virtuous by any standard? And this makes me think of an earlier post where I thought about Adam Greenfield's notion of "safe harbours of slow time" in which we are granted respite from risk and speed to engage more fully with subjects, objects, activities and ideas. This is surely a space of performance and enrolment. We can temporarily slow the flow, engage it and negotiate it, and emerge again. A designer can build a space for this to happen.

And I should think some more about what might constitute a Temporary Autonomous Zone alongside a Temporary Occupied Zone. This could be helpful in describing the interface between people and smart fabrics, and maybe design could be described as a weaving together of these spaces...


"The controversial Italian doctor Severino Antinori has announced that the first human baby clone will be born in January 2003."

"Dr Harry Griffin, the deputy director of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where Dolly was born, said: "There are many losses before implantation, during pregnancy, and many cloned animals die within a few hours or days of birth. So it's a very risky procedure; and there's no reason to suppose it's going to be any easier in humans than it is in those species which have been cloned so far."

If I remember correctly, it took 200+ tries to produce Dolly. I've often wondered what sort of creepy creatures came before the one we could identify as a sheep - and extending these thoughts to the realm of humans really freaks me out...

On Agency - Theory Version, Pt. I

I want to concentrate on two particular aspects of (social) agency put forth by Bruno Latour in his book Pandora's Hope: A Proliferation of Hybrids and A Collective of Human and Non-Humans.

[It seems to me that most technology design that takes into account concepts of "agency," uses cognitive rather than social criteria. And there's nothing wrong with that, but I'm more interested in concepts of *social* agency - and so we'll start with Latour.]

Latour is one of my favourite sociologists - first, because he is French and they don't seem interested in maintaining rigid distinctions between sociology and anthropology; second, because he is a beautiful writer and that should count for something; and third, because he has articulated notions of non-human actors (what he calls actants).

He wasn't the first to think this way, and if you're interested in the history of these ideas, I recommend you check out the work of Michel Serres and Michel Callon. There is also a good MA teaching unit and bibliography from Lancaster University on these and related subjects. You can also take a look at critiques of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to see the current state of inquiry. This should also give you a good sense of my understanding of social systems theory and some of its problems. And if you are interested in notions of FLOW, you might like to trace the development of these ideas from earlier work in ANT.

Serres proposes the social is always already materially heterogeneous, and it is the object that stabilises sociality. Latour draws out a collective of humans and non-humans, extending sociality to objects. Purity, or pure form, is replaced by a proliferation of hybrids. Recalling the notion of a continuum, Callon and Latour claim that their “general symmetry principle is thus not to alternate between natural realism and social realism but to obtain nature and society as twin results of another activity… network building.” Differentiation has always been part of modernity, but so too have transversal connections (de-differentiations): linkages and networks across the divisions which create relative stabilities. According to Latour, social interactions are actively localised by objects, framed by associations between humans and non-humans. And these frames comprise convoluted networks, constructed simultaneously by hybrids of human, technological, natural and material elements. Latour’s actor/actant is something that acts or to which activity is granted; defined by what it does, by its performances. And actions may be understood as factishes: part fact, part fetish, performed and always emerging.

An actor/actant must be made relevant to others (interessement), be made indispensable to others (translation), and be granted consent by others (enrolment). Translation refers to “all the displacements through other actors whose mediation is indispensable for any action to occur… chains of translation refer to the work through which actors modify, displace, and translate their various and contradictory interests." Immutable mobiles allow new translations and articulations, while simultaneously keeping other relations intact. As such, actor networks are characterised by constant transformation through performative practices. They do not seek to explain what is between local pockets of order, but to claim that there is nothing in between them, nothing but networks. Spatiality/sociality is transformed into associations between actors and between networks; scale is understood in terms of connections.

According to John Law actor-networks can often deal with inconsistency and complexity, but there remains a tendency towards drawing things together: controlling, limiting and mastering disorder with the network. Challenging ANT, Mol and Law argue that the “social doesn’t exist as a single spatial type. Rather it performs several kinds of space in which different ‘operations’ take place… There are other kinds of space [where] neither boundaries nor relations mark the difference between one place and another. Instead, sometimes boundaries come and go, allow leakage or disappear altogether, while relations transform themselves without fracture. Sometimes, then, social space behaves like a fluid”. Drawing on the notion of flow from the work of Deleuze and Irigaray, Rob Shields explains that flows are spatial, temporal and, importantly, they are also material. “The significance of the material quality of flows is that they have content, beyond merely being processes… Flows signal pure movement, without suggesting a point of origin or a destination, only a certain character of movement, fluidity and direction… It is not that they are relational between objects or fixed points – which are taken as immutable mobiles – but they are the being of relation."

Enter D&G.


Given my interest in the social construction of scientific knowledge, I've been meaning to follow up on the Bogdanov Affair - and in the few weeks since I've been paying attention, it's been renamed the Baez Hoax! Still, some of the best discussion I've found is on Google's sci.physics.research newsgroup - including comments by Alan Sokal. And who knew that these folks were so witty?!

As someone who knows nothing about theoretical physics, I stare blankly at their proofs, but love that these equations appear within people's responses. It's like they suddenly start speaking another language ;) But I don't really need to understand in order to appreciate a certain aesthetics - and I'd love to see what a wicked collage artist could do with bits and pieces of these posts...

Also: Howard Rheingold discusses Smart Mobs on The WELL. (via peterme)

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Usually my horoscopes speak of misery and gloom, but not today

"LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): What metaphor shall we choose to refer to the role you've played so skillfully in recent weeks, Leo? Archaeologist of the abyss? Plumber of the undertow? Scavenger of the scrap heap of history? I love the brazen resourcefulness you've summoned as you've cleaned out the gunk that was clogging up your depths. In any case, it's now time to crawl up out of the muck and onto center stage. You're primed to start blinding us all with your light again."

Email limbo?

Ever wonder where lost email go? In the process of switching things about the other day, I seem to have lost some email. Since I now know of eight messages that disappeared - if you recently (past few days) sent me a message - chances are I did not receive it. And it would be great if you could send it again, please and thank you.

Querencia and Amnesty

A recent post by Adam caught my attention:

"Querencia is a place where one feels secure, 'a place from which one's strength of character is drawn.' In Spain, it is the place in the ring where the wounded bull goes to renew his strength and center himself, ready for a fresh charge. What a beautiful concept: A place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs... But thus my take that we need digital querencias as well - safe harbors of slow time, where ideas can be nurtured to fruition, evaluated with respect to the fullest of their resonances. This would be a parallel to the rush of aggregated feeds: switching metaphors, a slower-moving branch, not a tributary, of that mighty river. The digital querencia has a lot of resonance with the 'moments of amnesty' from ubiquitous computation I was talking about..."

I love this idea of "safe harbors of slow time" - which reminds me of concepts we worked with in archaeological interpretation. In The Structures of Everyday Life, Fernand Braudel advocates a model of history involving change at the level of structure (longue durée), at the level of conjuncture, and at the level of event (événement). Of interest here is the longue durée - literally, the "long time" - but equally able to conjure "slow time" in comparison to the more short-term and immediate changes of conjuncture and event.

I often find online explorations of ideas to move too quickly. I don't mind the fragmentation of ideas, but I do get concerned that digital memes never hang around long enough to engage us in more than fleeting ways. Moments of "slow time" are crucial to human experience and understanding. They also afford us the opportunity to be and to dwell - in the way that phenomenologists describe. And I like that.

But back to querencia - which I take to describe a place of being - and the importance of "amnesty" (from the Greek amnesia). Being and dwelling are always already connected to memory - to familiarity and even to provenance. But querencia also refers to "a place in which we know exactly who we are" and thus conjures nostalgia, of dwelling through memory. And that is also a bit of a dangerous place where we can forget things that shouldn't be forgotten...

So - Adam's suggestion is a lovely compromise: "a parallel to the rush of aggregated feeds". I imagine the Temporary Autonomous Zone alongside the Temporary Occupied Zone. Places where we can be cared for and find safety - and places of risk and uncertainty. But I'll have to think some more on this one ;)

That's an Ape, not a Monkey

"A public inquiry into controversial proposals to build a new primate research facility on the outskirts of Cambridge, UK, is set to begin on Tuesday."

Some professor once remarked that the greater apes (gorillas, chimps and orangs - our closest relatives) have the cognitive abilities of a five-year-old child, so we shouldn't be able to do anything to them that we can't do to children. I like this measuring-stick ;)

A quick Google search on "primate research" will give you a sense of how much work is going on in this area - and of the controversy involved.

And, finally, if it has a tail it's a monkey - otherwise, be sure to call it an ape ;)

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Mostly fixed

The site's been up and down the past couple of days as I switched hosts and played with some new comment functionality. It seems to be working fine now - we'll see how it goes ;) I needed a way to easily mark my original research notes from my updates - and now you have a way to comment too! Enjoy. Special thanks go to Craig.

Still working on rss version...

Monday, November 25, 2002

All Music

Not a Real Canadian?

I loathe the Canadian winter and so every year, I spend the first few days of snow thinking about the coming summer - some six months away! Gives me something to look forward to so that I can survive the environmental bleakness ;)

So next May, I might head for England. Through our university exchange program, I can spend the summer registered at Lancaster University. I've wanted to talk to the sociologists there for years... And there are some folks I'd like to see in Nottingham, and of course, in London. Any interesting events scheduled yet? Any suggestions for places to visit or people to meet?

But I'd also like to spend some time in Boston and New York... good thing I still have six months to think about this ;)

Horizon 4 - ubiquitous, wireless and wearable computing

In May, I attended the Banff New Media Institute's Intimate Technologies/Dangerous Zones Summit. I had an ugly flu, and couldn't be nearly as sociable as I would have liked - so I didn't have the best of times...

Don't get me wrong - I met some great people!

Sha Xin Wei's work at GeorgiaTech's Topological Media Lab (along with sponge and foAm) is fascinating, and I thank him for always responding to my questions.

Maggie Orth and Joey Berzowska are doing amazing work at International Fashion Machines. And I was really impressed by Orth's dissertation (MIT Media Lab).

Sue Jenkins Jones was kind enough to send CDs of her work and the Textiles Futures program at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, in London. Very cool.

Ingrid Bachman's Interactive Textile Group at Hexagram (currently offline for updates) seems to be doing wonderful things, but, despite occassionally finding myself in Montreal, I have yet to manage a visit. In her presentation, she discussed a scarf she wove - the loom's movements were directed by seismographic information - and the resulting patterns on the scarf could be successfully read by seismologists. I thought about this earthquake scarf for weeks, and somewhere in my stacks of paper is an essay I wrote about it and the performance of science.

And the list goes on... I had never seen computing mesh so clearly with my ideas as did the work on interactive textiles! Voluptuous, intimate... beautiful.

But I have to admit I wasn't very interested in the discussions on surveillance ("dangerous zones") - with the exception of Konrad Becker's crazy-cool presentation on technology and social control. Steve Mann came at us through the ether and it was just disappointing...

SO - drawing on this conference, the latest edition of Horizon Zero looks at the public/private aspects of ubiquitous, wireless and wearable computing. All sorts of interesting stuff.
AND - I'd love to hear from people who recently attended either Ubicomp or Doors - is there any overlap between these discussions and what you saw?

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Sites that almost slipped by without mention - and that would have been a shame

Hope you enjoy these as much as I have:

Matt Webb's Interconnected
Fabio Sergio's Freegorifero
Chad Thornton's Brightly Colored Food
Stewart Butterfield's Sylloge
and Jonathan Jaynes' Diary of a Superfluous Man.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Magical realism, Part 2

dearest anne,

stumbling upon your page amongst so many ones and zeros made me think of a certain ann (née) hathaway. i'll admit that i've not much to say at the moment, but i can say that there were some things on your web page that made me smile out loud. i didn't have the time to look at everything, but there were lines and words that made me think not only of a famously unknown jilted wife, but also of three enormous tableaux called something like 'man condemned to death' atop a hill in barcelona and of how the scent of bitter almonds inevitably reminded dr. urbino of the fate of unrequited love. that's enough for now...

with love and squalor,



Thank Wittgenstein

Christopher Robinson: "You heard it here first: We declare war on nouns! Nouns are evil. Nouns promise more than they can possibly deliver! Empty signifiers -- to hell with them all!"

Right on! Does this come in a t-shirt version?

Monumentality and dwelling

There's something about the relationship between monumental architecture, memory and dwelling:

space + time
In The Production of Space, Lefebvre writes "the monument thus effected a ‘consensus’... rendering it practical and concrete. The element of repression in it and the element of exaltation could scarcely be disentangled; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the repressive element was metamorphosed into exaltation." Somewhat, the appeal of a monumental space is its perceived ability to answer all our questions even before we ask them. That is, monuments are “imposing in their durability... [they] seem eternal, because [they] seem to have escaped time. Monumentality transcends death...”. In this way, monumental space is “greater” than human beings, as the unfortunate reality of decay and death is reformulated as a splendid living space. But Lefebvre reminds us that “this is a transformation, however, which serves what religion, (political) power and knowledge have in common."

In order to understand how monumentality is produced, Lefebvre advocates a focus on the active “texture” of space, rather than on the “reading” of architecture and space as “texts”. Texture consists of spaces covered by networks or webs; monuments constitute the anchors for these webs. And monuments have “horizons of meaning,” where different actions in different times constitute and reconstitute a multiplicity of meanings attached to that space: the “mortal ‘moment’ (or component) of the sign is temporarily abolished in monumental space."

"Monuments should not be looked upon as collections of symbols (even though every monument embodies symbols - sometimes archaic and incomprehensible ones), nor as chains of signs (even though every monumental whole is made up of signs). A monument is neither an object or an aggregation of diverse objects, even though its ‘objectality,’ its position as a social object, is recalled at every moment, perhaps by the brutality of the materials of masses involved, perhaps on the contrary, by their gentle procedures. It is neither a sculpture, nor a figure, nor simply the result of material procedures... What appears empty may turn out to be full [as the body] is transformed into a ‘property’ of monumental space, into symbols which are generally intrinsic parts of a politico-religious whole, into co-ordinated symbols."

And finally of interest here, Lefebvre describes two primary processes which function in monumental space: “1) Displacement, implying metonymy, the shift from part to whole, and contiguity; and 2) condensation, involving substitution, metaphor, and similarity." Social space, or the place of social practice, is condensed in monumental space. Each monumental space “becomes the metaphorical and quasi-metaphysical underpinning of society, this by virtue of a play of substitutions in which the religious and political realms symbolically (and ceremonially) exchange attributes - the attributes of power; in this way the authority of the sacred and the sacred aspect of authority are transferred back and forth, mutually reinforcing one another in the process."

Part II - How is monumentality lived?

Stepping back for others

There's nothing so gratifying as being able to do what you do best, and then having others push it to do what they do best.

Fabio Sergio on structure, performance, building and the role of designers in evocation. And I love his final question: if buildings learn, what do they dream? This reminds me of someone in one of my classes a few years ago who wanted to know if cyborgs feel pain... These are my kind of questions ;)

Next on my task list: figure out the difference between emergence and evocation.

Friday, November 22, 2002

Magical Realism

Macondo is a nice site dedicated to the work of master author Gabriel García Márquez (via plep).

Growing up in South America first introduced me to the literary tradition of magical realism, and a few years ago I had the pleasure of teaching a course in Latin American Studies for which I assigned One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of the textbooks. Sometimes it was much easier getting students to think about things through a work of fiction, and this is one of the greatest.

On magical realism - something close to my heart: "These writers interweave, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as with materials derived from myth and fairy tales... These novels violate, in various ways, standard novelistic expectations by drastic -- and sometimes highly effective -- experiments with subject matter, form, style, temporal sequence, and fusions of the everyday, the fantastic, the mythical, and the nightmarish, in renderings that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic."

Brilliant and beautiful writing...

Theory - Part 3

This brings me back to my post on social software because I implicated Mr. Shirky in those comments, and accordingly, if unwittingly, suggested something beyond my particular position or context. As field-notes, my comments are always placed in a broader context of study - of which readers may not be aware. And to be honest, I can't always find a way to make them relevant to everyone who reads them. (You may find it interesting that I tag my posts with certain words that help *me* remember other connections and hint at larger life experiences that impact my thinking. It's a way of tracking relationships between events and ideas.)

This morning I received a message from Mr. Shirky that expressed confusion over what the hell I was talking about - and not the expected confusion that arises when one cites D&G ;) I could have made it more explicit that I used his post as a way to jump to something else I was interested in. I've been working at textual analysis, and what caught my interest was the possibility of using constitutional documents to say something about online sociality. But again, as a theory wank, my concern really revolved around how these texts could be interpreted (there is never just one answer and every answer has its consequences). It was never my intention to suggest that his *goal* was to develop models for online social systems. He was quick to point out that he shares my sense that "human social relations defy systematization" and that he couldn't "understand what [I] read in those documents that led [me] to assume they were proposing such systems." First, I tend to believe that intentionality is not something we can get at, and it never occurred to me that I might be suggesting what such documents propose or intend. I was interested in what such documents might do - in the sense of what sorts of boundaries they create and how those boundaries impact sociability in particular spaces and times.

But this also suggests to me that Mr. Shirky and I are working with different notions of what constitutes a system, a problem I also acknowledged in my responses to Peter Merholz, as well as with different notions of what constitutes sociality. Truth is, I didn't provide clear definitions, and that led to generalisations and possible misunderstandings that could fuck things up. Anthropology and sociology use related, but different, definitions of systems than those employed in the hard sciences and engineering... and I fear I became involved in a conversation where we may have been speaking at cross-purposes. So, shame on me for not recognising this sooner! Add to this my understandings of sociality, which have nothing to do with the cognitive sciences, and we find ourselves in a mess ;)

Without wanting to be antagonistic, Mr. Shirky raised a point that I've already responded to him on, but that I think is worth opening up to broader discussion. He wrote that "These constitutions, in other words, are ways of governing without systematizing, and the simple automations in these systems (karma, posse mailing list, whatever) are ways of helping the core group, however defined, identify exactly those events that are most in need of human intervention. Seen in this light, a constitution is a kind of filter for identifying anomalous social events."

I would begin by arguing that there is no way to govern without systemisation (the question remains what might constitute any particular form or texture of systemisation) - so in that sense, I am interested in how boundaries are negotiated, in what remains fluid and what remains stable. This, of course, assumes that the role of any system or framework is, in part, to define what is relevant and what is not (the problem of context). These criteria need not be fixed or rigid, but I do not believe that these criteria are ever value-free. Mr. Shirky acknowledges that in the documents at hand, it can be difficult to identify the boundaries - and I completely agree - but that shouldn't absolve us of our responsibility to find the boundaries and try to understand even the most temporary of their implications. By claiming that *any* social event is anomalous it is implied that there is a norm which is being violated, that there is something that doesn't fit in the container.

And my task is to identify the container, figure out when and where it leaks, and what the implications or consequences are. And this brings us full-circle to my position as theory wank. I don't always succeed at making this information useful to people - and in that sense, I have indeed failed at what I consider an academic duty. But I can't let that stop me trying to answer my questions and I only hope that occasionally I am able to provide ideas that will help you answer your own questions...

Peace out.

Theory - Part 2

Relatedly, I've been corresponding with Erik Peeters in South Africa about ethics and Hakim Bey's TAZ - and yesterday he took me to task:

"Anarchy sounds a lot better when you aren't starving to death. [Bey's take on art] appears to me to be uniquely applicable to western, and rich society. The challenge to art in South Africa is a lot more existential. Poets make no money, no-one, not even the most successful writers, gets to live off art alone. Thus I find the anarchy called for a little spurious - it is an anarchy you can afford because your continued survival is guaranteed by the well-fare state. Your personal course of study would be entirely impossible in South Africa - no-one would pay for your internet connection. Also, I find your concept of contexually contingent ethics highly dangerous. South Africa currently is gripped by an ethics of violence. If you go over there as a tourist, chances are almost even that you'll get raped, or killed. These are contextually contingent ethics - their origin can be studied and possibly analised. However, these ethics also threaten the life of my parents and parents-is-law. Under the circumstances, ethics suddenly become a lot less negotiable. The anarchy suggested by the internet is a rich man's anarchy - and it depends for its life on the very capitalist forces it pretends to abhor. Statements made about morals need to count in the place where people actually live, in the place where real choices have to be made. For instance, I can't afford much moral ambiguity in relation to the past of my country - either apartheid was wrong, or it was right. It leaves no space for grey areas."

Hmm. Theory meets practicality, and for Erik, theory loses the battle. I'll be the first to admit that he makes some really valid points about the digital divide, and ones that should never be ignored when discussing new technologies. And while I respectfully disagree about there being "no space for grey areas," I completely agree that ethics need to be local rather than global, and in that sense I am only ever writing from my position in the world. If you find yourself in a different situation, it's entirely possible that you will have no use for my ramblings.

On being a Theory Wank

My friends are right - I am a qualitative theory wank - with all the good and bad that comes with that. And the past 48 hours have really given me a taste of what that can mean ;)

So let me start by telling you what PLSJ means to me. By the time I finished my BA in anthropology I was convinced that anthropologists create a peculiar type of cultural knowledge because they do not give people access to their field notes. Last month I posted some comments on the role of reflexivity and transparency in the production of academic knowledge. I set up this site as a way to engage these topics as I do my research. But it turns out that my professors had a point - we can't anticipate people's responses to our thinking out loud and that sometimes causes problems. I still believe that posting my research notes serves a valuable purpose, even if it serves me most of all ;) I would much rather engage people with half-baked ideas than to simply give access to my final response (which can seem more definitive than it actually is). I'm flaky, and hopeful, enough to believe that by doing so, I open rather than close the discursive space. I am a qualitative researcher and, accordingly, it is never my task or goal to tell you "what it all means"...

So why all this concern? On Tuesday I did some thinking out loud about social software and since then I have received an unusual amount of correspondence. First, let me say that I was really pleased to hear from so many intelligent people, and even a little flattered that they would find my comments interesting. But I also seemed to have stumbled upon a community about which I know very little. I am not a techie, and I only occasionally practice at design. That either group of people would find my research as anything but tangential to their practice comes as a bit of a surprise! And I promise I will respond to each of you individually as I get the time.

As I've said many times, my primary concern is social and cultural theory and I work with examples of, and ideas around, new technologies to advance these theories. I am often reminded by my friends that being a theorist is a dangerous job - in many ways we don't need to answer practical concerns and that can be quite off-putting to people who actually need to accomplish something "real". I never forget my place of privilege: I am supported by the State - by Canadian taxpayers - to think about things and to imagine different realities. And while that may indeed be work, it sure as hell isn't considered a job.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Ack! Not more on social software!

Recently pointed at Matt Webb's comments on social rhetoric. Interesting.

And I've had a chance to think about some of Peter Merholz's comments on my earlier post. BTW Peter, thanks for outing my insecurities so clearly ;)

After reading them the first time, I went to chat with one of my Phd committee members - someone who very much appreciates a systems approach to sociality. As he pointed out, systems thinking stands out simply because it focusses our attention on relationships rather than on elements. I guess I had taken that focus for granted (never underestimate what different generations of scholars are exposed to - or the influence my supervisor will have on my thinking for years to come), and I was more concerned with what comes after that.

Our conversation leads me to qualify a statement I made in my post: since there are many types of systems thinking, I should better articulate which kinds strike me as inadequate. And I'll have to get back to you on that one ;) The only thing I can say right now is that I respectfully disagree with Peter that systems thinking has always given us adequate accounts of biological, let alone social, systems. *Strict* systems thinking is far too contained - too concerned with order and purity - for my liking. Sometimes Science has a nasty habit of presenting interpretation as fact; my basic position is that scientific knowledge is no less constructed than social knowledge (it is social knowledge?), and I take issue with certain ontological and epistemological assumptions... but I was reminded of Michel Serres' take on unstable systems, and I see a lot of merit there.

And Peter's comments about academics and non-academics are very valuable to me. I do try not to use a lot of jargon when I write, but I do forget sometimes that readers may not have been exposed to people and ideas I take for granted. (Once you have the words for certain ideas, it's hard not to use them.) Having said that, it's a bit difficult to provide adequate context for a broad readership. He writes: "The Web is an amazing entity in part because it allows for a fairly seamless bridging of academic and non-academic life." True, but it seems that we still have a language/worldview barrier to overcome; negotiating a shared vocabulary is not always easy. I've added some links to my earlier post in an attempt to provide some context...

But it was the final comments that made me smile the most! Alas, Peter and everyone else will have to bear with me on those questions. If I had all the answers, I'd be defending my dissertation tomorrow ;)

Looking for the collective?

If the idea of Smart Mobs gets you all excited, or if you're just interested in collective or group behaviour, I highly recommend two books:

1.) Elias Canetti on Crowds and Power. I particularly enjoy Canetti's take on the mobile vulgus, the moveable or excitable crowd.

Canetti offers an explanation of the ways crowds form, develop, and dissolve, using taxonomies of collective (masse) movement as keys to the dynamics of sociality and sociability. And Canetti’s crowds are performed as collective multiplicities, actual and virtual, de-differentiated and always already present. For Canetti, the most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge: “Before this the crowd does not actually exist; it is the discharge which creates it.” This moment is one of de-territorialisation, when we are freed from the burdens of distance; but during a discharge the crowd is also an illusion, in danger of dissipating and being re-territorialised and closed. The destructiveness of crowds is an attack on all boundaries, and de-territorialisation makes possible the crossing of boundaries. To this, Canetti adds the eruption: the sudden transition from a closed to open crowd, the crowd overflowing. So the performances that bind the crowd may also push the boundaries of the crowd until it disintegrates. “The crowd is open so long as its growth is not impeded; it is closed when its growth is limited… The stagnating crowd lives for its discharge… the process here starts not with equality but with density… In the rhythmic crowd… density and equality coincide from the beginning. Everything here depends on movement." The rhythmic, or throbbing crowd is characterised by a specific state of communal excitement: “the means of achieving this state was first of all the rhythm of their feet, repeating and multiplied,” not moving, but gathering intensity at one place and creating frenzy. In this sense, the stagnating (closed) crowd is always becoming the rhythmic (open) crowd.

2.) Michel Mafessoli's The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. The mobile vulgus can also recall the place or experience of (collective) recognition, of memory, and of Mafessoli's "ethic of aesthetics."

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Understanding Play: Games and Storytelling

Got some interesting links today from Prof. Dennis G. Jerz on Interactive Fiction. Amongst other things, he's working on this IF glossary and book.

This led me to Roger Giner-Sorolla's 1996 Crimes Against Mimesis (any aspect of an IF game that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality.) He writes, "There are three possible elements of challenge in a game: coordination, chance, and problem-solving. Chess is an example of a game that is pure problem-solving; a slot machine is a game that is pure chance; and a shooting gallery is a game that is a pure test of hand-eye coordination." (I am reminded that several people wrote to discuss play as problem-solving, which does not easily fit into the categories I mentioned earlier.) In terms of my initial criteria of simulation or mimicry, Dr. Jerz also points at Emily Short's Desiderata for a Physical Simulation Library.

I mentioned Espen Aarseth's book Cybertext a few days ago, and certainly Jill Walker and Torill Mortensen know way more about this stuff than I do... And at Peter's suggestion, I'm also tracking down a copy of If/Then: Design Implications of New Media.

And now this makes me wonder how we might distinguish between play and games. Justin wrote that "the most obvious differentiation that I can come up with is that a game generally has a pre-determined win/lose state, whereas play may continue indefinitely. This, of course, has its exceptions..." and he pointed me at Danny Hills' keynote at the Game Developer's Conference "back in 2000 where, among other things, he discussed the how's and why's of Play, and also talked about why Play is so important."

Thanks for the wonderful feedback - I've got some interesting ideas to work with.

More on social software

As the current BoingBoing guest blogger, Clay Shirky is collecting a list of formal constitutional documents for research into what works in social software. "In keeping with the great tradition of chaos in online social systems, everything here documents some crisis or period of prolonged difficulty. These documents are concrete wisdom about social software."

LambdaMOO Takes A New Direction, by the Wizards of LambdaMOO -- The wizards depart, and then return quite crankily.
How Did the Moderation System Develop? from the slashdot FAQ. -- Gaming the system as the principle concern of system design.
Our Replies to Our Critics from the Wikipedia FAQ -- Leverage for a core group to keep things on an even keel.

Okay - let me see if I understand correctly: 1. Online social systems are chaotic. 2. Chaos creates crisis and order emerges as codified constitutional documents. 3. Constitutional documents represent concrete social wisdom. 4. Wise online social systems are ordered.

As an academic, my primary interest is social and cultural theory as related to virtual spaces and new technologies. So my concern here is what notions of sociality are being employed in the definition(s) of social software. This may seem tangential to design, but I would argue that the models we use to develop new technologies actually help constitute our experience of the social. In other words, technologies are never neutral, and the relationship between people and technology is one of reciprocal construction.

So how is sociality being defined? In a word, as a system. A quick-and-dirty history of social systems theory begins (and ends?) with functionalism, the most influential form of social explanation for much of the past century. The functionalist perspective holds that society, as a system, is separated from the external environment by a boundary that maintains internal order. At the micro level, interaction between people can be viewed as a functional system: the interaction will have a purpose, and the social system of rules and conventions, strictly speaking, coordinates not the people but their actions. For theorists like Niklas Luhmann, this is a good thing, as it removes the burden of responsibility from individuals. For theorists like Habermas, this poses a threat as it removes society from the control of the people who constitute it. (I filtched this bit from a textbook, so please forgive the generalisations.)

At the risk of alienating myself from every computer engineer and challenging conventional design wisdom, my position is that systems theory is completely incapable of explaining the richness of human interaction and sociability. And I don't want new technologies designed along those lines, because I don't want my experiences as a social creature to be defined in those ways.

Working as an information architect allows me to indulge my desire to bring order to chaos, to impose control. But I'm no longer convinced that should be my goal.

Dervin outlines how we have understood the concept of information over time:

1. Information describes an ordered reality.
2. Information describes an ordered reality but can be "found" only by those with the proper observing skills and technologies.
3. Information describes an ordered reality that varies across time and space.
4. Information describes an ordered reality that varies from culture to culture.
5. Information describes an ordered reality that varies from person to person.
6. Information is an instrument of power imposed in discourse on those without power.
7. Information imposes order on a chaotic reality.
8. Information is a tool designed by human beings to make sense of a reality assumed to be both chaotic and orderly.

Definitions 2-7 are variations on definition 1: all rely on notions of a fixed and orderly reality against chaos. Definition 8, on the other hand, allows for the experience of a world simultaneously ordered and chaotic. While Dervin may partially rely on notions of unity, she moves us away from notions of order and denies notions of purity by creating a hybrid definition of information.

Deleuze and Guattari claim that every social phenomena faces escapes and inversions, and it is in these lines of flight, where there is leaking between segments, that sociality escapes organisation and centralisation. And so it is to these lines that we must look to find the socially meaningful. De-territorialisation is characterised in terms of nomadic subjectivity, and nomadism is based on freedom of movement, on choice, on becoming. Nomadic space is smooth, without features, undifferentiated from other spaces. Nomadology itself is a line of flight, a process which constantly resists the sedentary and the fixed.

In other words, it's not about being inside or outside of a system, but rather about trajectories of movement, or directionality. So when it comes to using constitutional documents as a means of understanding sociality, we are stuck defining this process as one of containment. In any process of containment, we must define "in" and "out" - and this is, by definition, reductive and exclusionary.

Last year I wrote a paper on the Hacker Jargon File as allegory. We could view the Jargon File as the definitive statement on hacker culture, but we would be remiss if we neglected how the editor(s) decide what constitutes hacker jargon, or the criteria for inclusion in the lexicon. The Jargon File itself is both absolute and relative: there is such a thing as the “hacker community,” the people and practices involved in constructing, maintaining, sharing and changing the file; and yet the “community” remains heterogeneous and unfixed. The file itself is in a state of flux, as a “living document,” never finished. It contextualises, decontextualises and recontextualises hacker slang and shared meaning. And my analysis does the same. And so too the authors of each text are contextualized, decontextualised and recontextualised in the process of reading and writing. Together we make an unruly bunch, difficult to pin down, to stabilise, even temporarily. At this point, instead of trying to bring order to this chaos, to stop the flow, to say “what it all means,” I want to draw attention to the sense of mobility, of leakage. For if I can say anything about these objects and subjects, I can say that they do not cooperate with traditional notions of object and subject. These categories resist me, and I resist them; we may even contradict each other. All I can do is point to these places of movement, of contradiction, of interpellation. My exercise then becomes one of allegory – to represent that which cannot be represented. I can write of texture, but not of form. I can “evoke but not describe.”

So now I'm working on how technologies can be designed to evoke, rather than to describe; to perform rather than to represent...

Top of the Food Chain to Ya!

Challenging the supremacy of humans... All about malaria "the disease that's killed half the people that ever lived" and parasites.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The Stooges

If there's a song out there that bears your name, may it be as wickedly sweet as Iggy and the Stooges "Ann" (1969)

you took my arm and you broke my will / you made me shiver with a real thrill / you took my arm and we walked along / down the road to a quiet song / i looked into your cool cool eyes / i felt so fine, i felt so fine / i floated in your swimming pools / i felt so weak, i felt so blue / ann, my ann / i love you / ann, my ann / i love you right now!

Too much time?

Check out this cool clock. (Thanks Jason!)

And as if I didn't have anything better to do - I went shopping for my nephews' Christmas present, a Logiblocs Super-Inventor Kit. How cool is that?!

Chronicles of a PhD, or Tales of Ordinary Madness

Bukowski knew it well: we're Perverse Creatures. And I'm okay with that.

In a recent attempt to grasp some personal goings-on, I reread parts of D&G's A Thousand Plateaus. It consoles me ;)

But now I'm all fixated on de-territorialisation, re-territorialisation and lines of flight... and for sure that's a space of perversion.

I'd like to know how you play

I'm currently zipping through the literature on PLAY - and four types repeatedly come up: games of chance, games of competition, games of simulation or mimicry, and games of vertigo (making your head spin). The first thing I do when I read something is to gauge it against my own experience - and so I find myself thinking that I gravitate towards games of competition and vertigo.

I was one of those kids who loved spinning round and round until I fell over. Now I actively seek out mental vertigo - the practice of cramming a bunch of disparate ideas into my brain and spinning them about to see what happens. I am a geek and I love this. But the competition thing makes me a little uncomfortable: I'm not much of a fan of organised sport (with the exception of the World Cup and rugby), religion or rampant capitalism - and yet I find myself inescapably drawn to the world of academia, with its inherent competitiveness. (We'll just skip any psychoanalysis of this...)

My concern is that these types of play inadequately account for social interaction in space and time. There is a tendency to regard playfulness as a separate space (one of leisure rather than work) and, consequently, as non-productive behaviour. And that doesn't seem right to me. As much as I believe that we don't always interact in order to achieve something, I'm suspicious of any account that claims our interactions are non-productive. Of course, the question then becomes "What is being created?"

So, while I can only offer my gratitude for helping me with my research, what I would love to know is: How, When and Where do you play? And if you're so inclined, try to give a stab at what you think is produced through your playfulness. That would be way cool ;)

On qualitative methods and textual analysis

After reading Christine A. Barry's Choosing Qualitative Data Analysis Software, I've been playing with ATLAS.ti, NVivo and N6 - software packages that allow you to code qualitative data into hermeneutic units.

I wanted to try it out on a small project of tangential interest before applying it in my PhD research - I guess I just want to have some idea of the limitations and implications for knowledge production. And coding information is never a value-free process. After all, we need to tell the software what to look for, and by asking some questions rather than others, I delineate boundaries of inquiry and interpretation. As Barry points out, "The main worries are: that it will distance people from their data; that it will lead to qualitative data being analysed quantitatively; that it will lead to increasing homogeneity in methods of data analysis; and that it might be a monster and hi-jack the analysis... [and some] features might indeed lead researchers to perform types of analysis more suited to quantitative data. Counting occurrences, giving more weight to more frequent events, ignoring isolated incidences, and formulating and testing out rigid hypotheses are not sensible ways to analyse qualitative data. This type of analysis would lead to clashes between method and approaches to epistemology and explanation favoured by qualitative researchers."

Already I am concerned with the inability to deal adequately with rhetorical or narrative analysis, and I might need to turn to a program like Ethno2 for event structure analysis - although I'm equally concerned with the limitations of any analysis that seeks to structure data sequentially, and suggest causal relationships...

Monday, November 18, 2002

Connecting Flows

Via v-2: Fabio Sergio's Connectedland - "From a world where people's main issue has been managing information we might be thus evolving to a connected world where problems will also come from managing interaction. With content. With other people. With the devices that allow us to interact with content and people. A world where fluidity of interaction with information will be at least as important as information itself. A world where we'll fear being cut off from The Network, with the resulting inability to access our sources of knowledge. A world of interaction anxiety."

Hmm. Interesting, but that sort of space doesn't strike me with fear or anxiety - it just seems ambiguous (but check de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity).

Virtual Spaces and Flows - there's so very much to think about since reading Matt's notes on the Doors of Perception Conference...

Note to Helsinki: Rob - are you paying attention?


"If you're watching the Net, Dr. Grether is watching you."

Prof. Reinhold Grether's enormous list of links to new media artists, online researchers and publishers. It's oddly organised and hard to navigate, but there are tons of interesting people and projects listed.

Saturday, November 16, 2002

There are some brilliant women in Norway...

Torill Mortensen's blog Thinking with my fingers discusses, amongst tales of teaching and academic weirdness, "Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs), media studies and reader-response theory, role-play games and online communication - put together at random." And if there were an email address on the site, I would send her a message about how incredibly interesting I think it all is ;)

I'd also like to thank Torill for introducing me to Jill Walker's blog. She's finishing off her PhD on the "relationship between reader and text in digital narratives" at the University of Bergen. (And her advisor is Espen Aarseth, author of the excellent Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.) Good luck, Jill!

And to top it all off, the two of them have written a great paper on blogs in research, Blogging Thoughts: Personal Publication as an Online Research Tool (pdf) - inspired by their own sites, which "were originally used as a way to keep our focus while online, serving as constant little reminders of the real topics we were supposed to write about. They soon developed beyond being digital ethnographers' journals and into a hybrid between journal, academic publishing, storage space for links and site for academic discourse." Cool.

jill/txt also points at some damn smart and interesting women bloggers. So far, I've managed to check out: Lisbeth Klastrup at the University of Copenhagen, Elizabeth Lane Lawley, techno-librarian, and grumpygirl, who writes about yours truly: "I bet she never wears mismatched socks." And it's true, I don't ;)


To be honest, it never ceases to amaze me that we still engage in the nature/nurture debate, as if we have to choose one or the other. From my perspective, there is little difference between biological determinism and the notion that we begin as tabula rasa - both positions are too sharply contained for me.

In Sociobiology and You, Steven Johnson writes that "To include biological explanations in a discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations." I think Johnson is quite brilliant, but I agree and disagree. I am in favour of more inclusive accounts of human/social existence, and it seems rather obvious to me that we are products of both our biology and our environment - so, of course, we should not be afraid of complementary explanations.

But, in Universals, Human Nature and Anthropology, Donald Brown writes that "Whereas some things were "obviously" natural, and some were just as "obviously" cultural, there was no method for separating the cultural from the biological in cases where they might be mixed." And it is in these grey spaces, where things are not clear-cut, that meaning and power are negotiated - and a complementary position can quickly be realigned as an alternative position.

So while I agree that biological explanations should be taken into account (anthropology can be quickly distinguished from sociology because of its traditional sub-disciplines: culture, linguistics, archaeology and biology), I would draw attention to the notion that (hard) science currently has more social/public, if not ontological and epistemological, authority than do the (soft) humanities. And in that sense, when we invite Science to the table, it can have a stronger voice that is able to threaten, if not eliminate, other kinds of explanations.

I'd like to go to Iceland

I've travelled quite extensively around this little planet of ours, but there are still many places I'd like to go. Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Cappadoccia in Turkey. And Iceland: "The island of contrasts, where heaven and earth meet, and where the sagas of the Vikings were written, a land of glaciers, erupting volcanoes and the magnificent midnight sun."

Maybe it is all the geo-thermal energy and the amazing Icelandic Sagas. But then again, I just want to see the land that inspired the likes of Mum, Sigur Rós, the Sugarcubes and Bjork.

On Voice

Recently reread the interview with Diamanda Galas in the RE/Search book, Angry Women.

Galas was once called "Tura Satana without cleavage" - but it is her voice that really marks her. And by that I don't just mean her three-octave range and propensity for unsettling sounds.

She once said, "My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends and a tool in the torture and destruction of my enemies... The voice is the primary vehicle of expression that transforms thought into sounds, thought into message... From the Greeks onward, this voice has always been a political instrument as well as a vehicle for transmission of power."

(As an aside: if you find yourself in Los Angeles on November 21st, try to catch the Velvet Hammer Burlesque show that reunites Tura, Haji and Lori Williams of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! fame, along with other Meyer favourites, Kitten Natividad and Cynthia Myers.)

Friday, November 15, 2002

Barbarians at the gate

"For the inhabitants of Europe nearly 700 years ago, the threat of bioterrorism--in those days from Mongol hordes storming across Russia--was all too real. In 1346 the Mongol army hurled plague-infected cadavers into the besieged Crimean city of Caffa, thereby transmitting the disease to the inhabitants." (via dublog)

"In his contemporary account of the Black Death, the Italian Gabriele de' Mussi tells of a mysterious illness sweeping across Russia and decimating the advancing Mongols led by Janibeg, Khan of the Golden Horde. As the death toll from the plague mounted, so did tensions between the warlike Mongols and Italians plying their trade on the Black Sea. Those tensions exploded in 1343, with the Tartars laying siege to Caffa, an Italian trading outpost. Three years into the siege, however, the plague began to spread among the Mongol troops surrounding Caffa. The dying Tartars, stunned and stupified by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege, de' Mussi wrote. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside."

And while it wasn't the stench that killed them, they died nonetheless. One more reason to believe the Mongol hordes were pretty damn scary...

Fashion victims, beware trustworthy computing

Infineon demonstrates "a jacket with a voice controlled MP3 player, and the garment can even be washed. A number of other manufacturers are also demonstrating "wearable" electronics including Hitachi, Philips (which showed us a computer on a tie 12 years ago), and IBM. Security firms are also interested in the textile chip technology. Shall we see the day when the Trustworthy Computing that Microsoft touts will electrocute you if you download a pirated copy of Windows 2007 into your electric underpants?" Heh heh. (via boingboing)

PhD blues

PhinisheD - a site for when You are sick to death of people asking you "How is your dissertation [or thesis] coming?" (but you really would like to talk about your troubles in finishing -- with anybody except those who keep asking, no matter how genuinely concerned they may be, or may seem to be) and You are not getting the kind of support you need -- from your university, your employer, your family members or friends. Maybe you don't even know what kind of support you need, just that you don't have it! and How to Write a PhD Dissertation, which is actually kinda funny... (via jill/txt)

And since no one knows procrastination better than grad students, new fodder can be found at Steven Johnson's blog. Yippee!

Thursday, November 14, 2002

London Social-Software summit

Tom sums up Clay Shirky's talk on social software. One comment in particular catches my eye:

"We are ill-served by the current metaphor of architecture and space, instead we should consider the construction of social software as like building a ship: Ships are places where people come together... but they come together in order to get somewhere."

My bias: I can't imagine a concept of sociality that disregards space. I don't just mean architecture (although that is surely a part of it) but the actual socially constructed, lived space of everyday life. But it's the shipbuilding metaphor that really gets me. In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy writes about the ship as container and suggests that it wasn't just that slaves were being transported across the ocean, but that slavery - or Black consciousness - was. And perhaps more importantly, just as the ships moved through space and time, so too did concepts of slaves and slave-owners. In other words, diasporas involve the movement of people, and everything they take with them - including things that don't survive the voyage and new things acquired along the way.

So what does this have to do with ship-building? Imagine how the ships themselves may have been different if the builders knew this and built for it...

First, I guess I just don't see how a ship is different from a building, since both provide contexts - possibilities and constraints - for human interaction. They are both places. Second, I'm not sure that people necessarily come together in order to get somewhere. User-centred design can have a tendency to reduce social interaction to the completion of tasks, a sort of social-Darwinism that assumes we are motivated to achieve. And while I don't mean to suggest that there are no such things as user-goals to be facilitated, I believe that focussing on notions of effectiveness and productivity can be overly restrictive. Of course this is not black-and-white, and sometimes this approach is exactly what is needed. But I'm interested in the ways in which we might learn to identify when it is useful and when it isn't - and what, then, we might do instead.

It seems to me that designing for sociality/sociability (for community?) requires greater metaphorical flexibility than concepts of ship-building. For me, the ships themselves are never as interesting as what is, or can be, moved in them. And while I can appreciate the connotations of craft - of beauty and utility of construction - we would still be creating containers, and some things don't fit in certain vessels. This suggests that our first challenge is to figure out what can and cannot (should and should not?) move...

A typical needs assessment, or a proposal, outlines goals and objectives - to contain a project's scope and clearly delineate boundaries. This eventually leads to setting design parameters, which in turn tend to set contexts of interaction. And that can be fine. But what difference does it make if we don't set constraints? Do we - and our projects, our jobs - really fall into chaos and anarchy? And so what if they do? I think of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zones as the (contingent) absence of containment - and my experience as a social anthropologist, a woman, a person, suggests that if spaces of real creativity exist, this is them. They are spaces of becoming, of possibility, of exploration, of leakage.

But I'll be the first to say that it's a little frightening if what I am effectively suggesting is that we build leaky ships...

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Radha and Krishna

The relationship between Radha and Krishna is one of history's greatest mythological loves - and their story was told in song. The notes issued by Krishna's flute were described as 'avatars of forces of nature' - sounds so powerful that they embodied the energy of the cosmos. But like all good myths, the stories are allegorical - and despite the intense earthly passions told within, ancient Sufi poets wrote of love for God.

HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux

"Clearly, people in the Linux community would like for more women to be involved in Linux, but most people don't know why so few women are involved or how to change that. This HOWTO is an effort to summarize the explanations, recommendations, and opinions of the women who already are interested and active in Linux. This document began with the verbatim recommendations of the women who attended the LinuxChix BOF, and was added to by many more women in the months following the original BOF. In other words, this HOWTO represents the feelings and opinions of real women involved in Linux. While we represent the women who "made it," we still have fairly important insights into why other women left or never entered the Linux community, as well as being keenly aware of the pressures which are currently pushing us out of the community."

And the Plastic commentary.

How the mobile changed the world

"Mobile phones have launched revolutions, saved lives, destroyed relationships and spawned a whole new genre of utterly pointless communication. James Meek looks at how the mobile phone has changed our world."

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Mmmm... comics...

Via mefi: The Lambiek Comiclopedia. Thousands of artists. Very cool. Among my favourites: Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb, Julie Doucet, Roberta Gregory and Eric Stanton.

Monday, November 11, 2002

These two go together

Apparently, menopause isn't a disease after all

The medical community rethinks its long-time position that menopause is a condition that can, and should, be treated by medical intervention.

And while I let out a sigh of relief that I may, after all, be allowed to age gracefully - I can't help but wonder if men will be afforded the same opportunity. Viagra sales depend on the ability to convince men that medical intervention is a reasonable response to changes in the male life-cycle.

I guess it just bugs me that people can be reduced to their hormones and sexual responsiveness - and then held to it for their entire lives...

Wear This!

A NY Times article teases us about our techno-lust for wearables.

"It's cool to have one," said Matthew Cossolotto, the spokesman for Applied Digital Solutions, and one of the few people to already have a chip implanted under his skin. Who wants to be the last person on the block to get the latest in piercing?"

"You're taking me down a road I've never speculated about," Mr. Cossolotto said when asked to consider future possibilities.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

I like people again

A bit of a nasty hangover (mental note: don't start so early in the afternoon) has slowed me down this morning, and I took the opportunity to answer some email. Given my recently flagging faith in humanity, I was really pleased to have gotten so many intelligent, funny and kind messages - thanks to all.

Craig nicely appropriated - for the anti-intellectual property movement - the statement (quoted from this article), "Not only do we lose the benefits of the new technology, but we also, and more importantly, fail to understand what the new technology means." Justin gave me a new excuse to use during awkward moments: "But if some drunk dude is going to push me... I don't have time to ask myself "What would Jesus do?" Heh heh. Someone from South Africa (I'm so sorry I deleted your messages and can't remember your name!) wrote about Aristotle's concept of mimesis not suggesting a copy, but rather a re-creation or re-imagining. A subtle point, but very valuable... And an old friend wrote to remind me that "It's not just about who you're with. It's about who you get to be when you're with them." A guiding principle of social anthropology, and one I've recently had trouble applying to my own life's work. Thank you ;)

But I promised myself I would actually do some research this weekend - no rest for the wicked - and currently on my desk are: Geert Lovink's Dark Fiber and Suguru Ishizaki's Improvisational Design.

Saturday, November 9, 2002

It's Friday afternoon...

I've got a cold beer and we're listening to The Damned - Machine Gun Etiquette.

Have a great weekend!

Pre-Columbian stonework, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder and the perseverance of the voluptuous

Adam got me started with one of my favourite sculptures, Noguchi's Slide Mantra ("Feel it with your hips") and I'll add In Silence Walking.

After Noguchi returned from the Andes, he made Cloud Mountain and Rain Mountain, which deeply resonate with my experience of the highlands. Shapes are difficult there.

Hyslop suggests that the “symbolism of rocks and stone outcrops in Inka culture was so complex that one cannot simply refer to a ‘cult of stone’ or the ‘sacredness of rock’ and expect to explain why such stone is important." In Inka architecture, which Paternosto refers to as "sculpture in-the-round," there is a quality of stoniness. "This stoniness responds to deeper causes: stone appears to represent itself, its own essence, because it was, beyond all other things, a transcendent material, significant in and of itself, heavy with symbolic potential. A Western artist uses sterile, neutral materials, but among the Incas, the sculptural medium itself was numinous. From time immemorial stone has been contemplated as the intrinsic structure, the very foundation of the universe, and has had a multiplicity of referents and meanings in different cultures."

Noguchi claimed that he worked with wood, stone and clay because "the energy of nature is built into these materials." And Moore's Reclining Woman was influenced by one of the Chacmool at Chichén Itzá - he wrote that "Mexican sculpture, as soon as l found it, seemed to me true and right, perhaps because I at once hit on similarities in it with some eleventh-century carvings l had seen as a boy on Yorkshire churches. Its 'stoniness,' by which I mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture."

The Inka - and contemporary Native Andeans - consider stone itself to be waka, or sacred, and stone takes on an almost "ontological sense of the foundation of being." Paternosto continues to describe that "the fundamental asymmetry of Inca sculpture is the direct result of its adhesion to the primordial form of the chosen rock, the waka - an adhesion that is substantially analogous to the accommodation of topography typical of Inca buildings, which are the true outgrowths of an ‘organic architecture’. The sculptural transformation of rock... involves its incorporation into the cosmos: therefore it takes place in situ, within the numinous natural surroundings... [and] the ‘memory’ of the stone’s original form is never totally erased. It remains rooted, immobile, in a landscape with which it establishes an infinite number of relations."

I don't necessarily see the whole transcendence/universality thing going on, but I am interested in the possibilities of being. Especially when it suggests the shape of stability and movement, as in Noguchi's and Moore's sculptures. Calder's Mercury Fountain sends 150 litres of mercury circulating through the sculpture, and setting it in motion, while simultaneously allowing people to throw coins onto the (relatively stable) surface of the mercury. As with Pre-columbian stone sculpture, and the work of Moore and Noguchi, it becomes difficult to establish boundaries, where things begin and end, or when they stay still and move.

Patricia Lather writes about a "voluptuous validity, [where] the residue… exceeds the categories, [instigating] a disruptive excess." The politics of excess, of leakage, of “going too far” bring “ethics and epistemology together in self-conscious partiality, an embodied positionality and a tentativeness which leaves space for others to enter, for the joining of partial voices." This will create a “constantly moving speaking position that fixes neither subject nor object."

In stark contrast to architectures of control, voluptuousness suggests shape out of control, contingent ordering and meaning. This is a space of possibility and virtuality; of becoming, as much as being. A space of play not unrelated to the voluptuousness of the female form, the body's productive capacities, and its inherent dangers. Historically, women's bodies have been seen to beg for control and containment - a view that coincides with the shape of scientific objectivity. In refusing containment, the female form embodies difficult shapes, peaking and plunging where the male form stays straight. Voluptuousness recalls Moore's descriptions of "tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness" and "fertility of form."

Friday, November 8, 2002

Methink'st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.

Special thanks to Juanita for kind words, and for arming me with The Shakespearean Insulter.

What the hell is wrong with people?

Okay, I admit I'm in a piss-poor mood right now - but I hate having to delete posts because of creepy pervs who send me icky email in response. You know who you are - and you suck!

Sometimes teaching sucks.

After a week of thoughts dominated by information architecture and science, I was really looking forward to teaching this afternoon - to going home, as it were. But I forgot that they just got their papers back, and almost two-thirds failed. Welcome to first-year.

Suffice to say that when students get upset, things get ugly. And then they send you angry email.

Now I'm at home, armed with a glass of scotch, Black Flag playing really loud - and trying not to think about the inevitable fallout...

Heads up

The 2002 Leonid meteor shower promises a remarkable show in the early morning hours of November 19. And just in case you were wondering, Does Anyone Ever Get Hit by Meteors?

I used to think it was an interest, but really it's a fetish

I love miniature things, and especially miniature machines. I think it started with my father, a gunsmith who made functional quarter-scale replicas of old revolvers. They were so tiny and pretty - and they actually worked. Amazing! And when I was a child, I became very frustrated at the limitations of human eyesight and obsessively put things under my microscope so that I could see them better. Now I just spend way too much money on tiny toys that, if I were mechanically inclined, would promptly be disassembled and admired. Enter the age of nanotechnology, and my interest explodes into fetish ;)

Via dublog: Richard Feynman's 1959, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics and Nanogloss: The Online Dictionary of Nanotechnology.

This and That

"Two of the internet's 13 root name servers have been separated to improve the stability and security of the web's address system, following a major attack two weeks ago. The move is meant to prevent a power failure or similar technical problem from knocking both servers out simultaneously. It should also make it more difficult for hackers to attack the servers by targeting the same part of the company's network."

HP's wireless keyboards can transmit data to other computers in faraway buildings. "No this is not a feature but an astonishing security flaw." Uh huh.

Kudos to Matt Jones for replacing the word "information" with "meaning" in the Asilomar Institute's Manifesto. I was having a hard time figuring out what Andrew Hinton meant by information, and this makes much more sense to me. But can you imagine the glazed eyes if people were to start using a phrase like "Meaning Architecture" to describe what they do? Yikes! That reminds me of a consultant who used the title "Epistemologist" - which just scared the shit out of everyone ;)

Thursday, November 7, 2002

On Faceted Classifications

I've followed recent discussions on Ranganathan's Colon Classification system and its possible application to context-aware computing.

For those unfamiliar with this, Boxes and Arrows writes that the "system is based on Ranganathan looking for “universal principles” inherent in all knowledge. His belief was that if he could identify these, organizing around them would be more intuitive for the user. Rather than creating a slot to insert the object into, one starts with the object and then collects and arranges all the relevant pieces on the fly. This allows for greater flexibility and a high degree of specificity. The fundamental facets that Ranganathan developed were: Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time.

Personality—what the object is primarily “about.” This is considered the “main facet.”
Matter—the material of the object
Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object
Space—where the object happens or exists
Time—when the object occurs

And Elaine Svenonius' book defines facets as the "grouping of terms obtained by the first division of a subject division into homogenous or semantically cohesive categories...When a facet is semantically cohesive, terms in it are related by the paradigmatic relationships of synonymy and hierarchy, and the totality of facets used in the subject language is mutually exclusive."

Damn, I find that fascinating! But I think it suffers one flaw if we seek to apply it to context-awareness: context is neither homogenous nor cohesive, and any (semantic) attempt to make it so may inadvertently create representations and guide interpretations where they might be better left to emerge, or break-down, on their own. I'll be the first to admit that I know nothing about library science, and I could be completely missing the point here, but I do understand the concept of universals and its propensity towards boxing, or at least ordering, chaos. Even if the map does not preceed the territory, we're still left with a map - and maps are only ever partial truths, representations abstracted from performativity. I'd like to see context-awareness designed around principles of voluptuousness and leakage... and if this sort of classification can accomodate that, please let me know.


More on Asilomar: Taking the piss out of IA and the v-2 definition of the practice at its best: "truly innovative thinking about ways in which we might order information to allow the human texture to emerge from it. It's not, just, about findability as far as I'm concerned, but about the differences in voice and stance that distinguish one community from another, one company from the next, one blogger from all the rest."

I couldn't agree more - but I rarely succeed at convincing a client that texture and voice are what's important. They don't seem to speak that language ;)

And on Physics: the Metafilter community weighs in on the "Bogdanov Affair" - and largely on the side of Science...

But I got a kick out of John Horgan's article that describes the decline of Real Science into a state of Ironic Science (which "resembles literature or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, "interesting," which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth. Psychology and the social sciences, of course, consist of little BUT ironic science, such as Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and the more ambitious forms of sociobiology. Some observers say all these untestable, far-fetched theories are signs of science's vitality and boundless possibilities. I see them as signs of science's desperation and terminal illness.")

And out of fairness to a recent email, I'll concede that the Sokal comparison seems unwarranted. But, as with the Schon case, I reiterate my claim that these situations offer the opportunity for academic disciplines to rearticulate their boundaries and authority. And that's interesting enough for me.


Peterborough, Ontario is a weird little city. There's a big Quaker Oats plant that employs tons of people and, on windy days, makes the city smell like hot cereal. And it's home to Trent, Canada's self-proclaimed "Outstanding Small University," where I did my MA - and the only University where I've seen profs smoke up in their offices, you can submit a knitted scarf as a final project in Cultural Studies, and a bunch of things to which I was sworn secrecy ;)

One of my favourite things about living there for three years was being able to go into Marginal Distribution and root through the stacks. Fellow Canadians will appreciate being able to get the best of AK Press, Amok, Atomic, Autonomedia and Last Gasp books - amongst others - with no duty for over-the-border shipping.

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Kathy Acker

A recent Village Voice article reminded me how much I admire Kathy Acker. Actually, at age 16, she may have been my first meaningful exposure to a woman thinker (although I always assumed women c/would be scientists, and was quite shocked later on to learn that they're rare enough.)

Robert Lort's Deleuze and Guattarian approach to Acker is an interesting read. And this R.U. Sirius interview.

Research lens: wide open

When I was introduced to the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture a few days ago (after receiving some great feedback on my IA Summit proposal) I wondered how the hell it had slipped by me until then. PhD neuroses tend to let one assume that everyone else knows what's going on before you do ;) Described at as the "IA supergroup to end all such," I'm looking forward to seeing this new space develop. Something that immediately caught my eye was the assertion that IA is "a new kind of architecture that designs structures of information rather than of bricks, wood, plastic and stone. People live and work in these structures, just as they live and work in their homes, offices, factories and malls. These places are not virtual: they are as real as our own minds." Always interested in the ways people distinguish between the actual and the virtual, something about this statement rings strange... Maybe it's the implication that virtuality isn't real (physical?) but what exists in our minds is real (metaphysical?). I'll have to think on that one some more ;)

Also - Gyre: Tracking the Next Military and Technological Revolutions - which will undoubtedly suck up enormous amounts of my time in the coming week ;) - and this article in particular, where technological innovators ponder the ethical implications of their work. "There's an argument that perhaps we could simply close our eyes to new technology," Dr. Merkle said. "Occasionally, people argue that if new technologies pose new risks we should tell people they should not develop them." But then, he said, society would be worse off. "Not only do we lose the benefits of the new technology, but we also, and more importantly, fail to understand what the new technology means." Hmm. Good point.

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Cultural Studies gets revenge on Sokal?

Shit - almost missed this gem! Via The Register: "The physics establishment appears to be unable to decide whether papers submitted by two former French TV presenters are a scientific breakthrough or an elaborate hoax. The debunking to date has been done on Usenet groups and informally, over the Internet. The pranksters evaded the rigorous peer review process employed by scientific journals, and have succeeded in publishing four physics papers. The pair even won themselves PhDs into the bargain."

"But curiously, so arcane and abstract is the world of theoretical physics, that the work has yet to be repudiated. Usenet posters describe the papers as "laughably incoherent". A fascinating thread on Usenet begun by John Baez brought the hoax to light, and persistent questioning by Arkadiusz Jadczyk on his website has done much to expose the pair."

Sorry to all my favourite scientists, but after the Sokal affair, I can barely contain my glee at this possibility ;)

File under social engineering and access to information

Via 2600: "It was probably inevitable that the unprinted chapter of Kevin Mitnick's new book (The Art of Deception) would eventually find its way into the public's hands. Now it appears that this has indeed happened. As we reported in our current issue, there was a chapter where Mitnick told his own story about his years on the run, his frustration while in prison, and his overall background. In this chapter, he expressed a good deal of anger at the people who helped to capture him and who profited from his story - New York Times reporter John Markoff and computer scientist Tsutomu Shimomura. Before the book hit the stands, a threatening letter was sent to Wiley and Sons (the book's publisher) by Markoff's attorneys and the chapter was pulled. (Wiley and Sons claims this action was taken independently of the legal threat.) This, however, occurred after review copies with the chapter were sent out. Now the chapter has appeared in a public Yahoo! discussion group called kevins_story. We can only guess what will happen next." (Thanks John!)

Calling quantum hackers

NY Times: "The quirky world of quantum physics, where mathematical elements can hold multiple values and objects can be in several places at once, is heading toward commercial products. A start-up company, MagiQ Technologies, plans to announce today a cryptography — or code — system that uses a technology called quantum key distribution to thwart eavesdropping on a fiber optic communication channel."

"A limit of the system is that it would not work on the Internet, only over dedicated fiber cables in which the photon transmission can be carefully controlled. But outside researchers say that quantum cryptography does make possible electronic conversations that would be immune to eavesdropping. Industry analysts say that military applications would probably be the primary use for quantum cryptography."

More on tribalism - when Historians are accused of falsifying evidence

"Professor of History Michael Bellesiles announced his resignation from Emory University Friday, bringing an eight-month investigation into his research to an end. Bellesiles was under fire by fellow academics for alleged fraud in research conducted for his 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Arming America, which addresses the history of gun culture in America, posited that guns were not nearly as prevalent throughout American history than previously thought. Praised for its innovative use of probate materials as evidence, the book was awarded Columbia University's Bancroft Prize. Shortly after its release, several researchers, including law professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University, alleged Bellesiles falsified evidence to support his thesis. The allegations eventually forced Emory's hand into conducting both an internal inquiry and the appointing of the external Investigative Committee."

Scientists are not the only ones who take academic authority seriously. In addition to comments by one Clayton Cramer, "Independent Scholar" (I suspect there's a reason for him working outside the community...), this discussion thread caught my eye:

"So the NRA once again has won in its campaign to silence those who would defy its vision of history and America. Interim Dean Robert Paul is disingenuous when he claims there is "intense scholarly interest" in the Bellesiles debacle. Anyone who has followed this internet-driven witch hunt, even if only reading the posts here at the Emory Wheel, knows this debate has nothing to do with scholarship. But it has everything to do with the gun lobby, right wing zealotry and personal vendetta." - Database administrator

"Bellisiles' supporters simply attacked the motives of Bellisiles' critics -- as if those mattered." - Attorney

"If Bellesile's critics were all professional historians, of which there are a great many in this country, then questions would not emerge regarding their motives. Remember, Arming America was peer reviewed prior to its publication. However, when forces driving this witch hunt include a law professor, a Yale educated linguist and an 'amateur scholar' [Cramer], then questions abound regarding their credentials as well as their motivation." - Database administrator (response)

Hmm. From what I've read, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Bellesiles' research, but don't let the vaguely conspiratorial position turn you off - my high score goes to the guy who was willing to suggest that the truth is political. As if the motives of critics mattered. Of course the motives of critics matter - there's some serious power at stake here! Reminds me of the saying "History is written by the Winners."

Monday, November 4, 2002

BITCH: It's a noun. It's a verb. It's a magazine.

I bought my first copy of Bitch at City Lights books in San Francisco many moons ago. It was badly photocopied, stapled and simply brilliant. Now with a glossy colour cover, it's still the smart and funny quarterly Feminist Response to Pop Culture I've come to love and support. Read the latest issue on transformation today (it's actually one of the few things I read from beginning to end) and there was plenty good ;)

Take Lisa Moricoli Latham's Double-Life: everyone wants to see your breasts - until your baby needs them, which looks at tension between social approval of the size of a pregnant or lactating woman's breasts (Wow! You look great! Your husband must love this!) and social disapproval of the decidedly non-sexual, breast-feeding breast (Do you have to do that in public?) In a pop culture that relies heavily on boob imagery, have we really come to the point where it is difficult to fathom or appreciate a woman's breasts beyond their iconic sexual status? This reminds me of a Breast Cancer Awareness billboard campaign a couple of years ago, which featured an attractive middle-age woman covering one of her breasts, and exposing the mastectomy scar where her other breast had been - several major US cities refused to allow them on city property because they were too graphic. And when Ontario passed the law that allowed women to be topless in public, there were countless comments on how it would be okay, but only "if the girl is hot".

Karen Eng's article, The Princess and the Prankster, looks at the work of Kristina Sheryl Wong and Gennifer Hirano and how they play with the legendary Asian sex goddess stereotype. Resistance: Asian-American art-grrl-style.

The current website feature is about Jessica Abel's La Perdida comic and living as an expat (An American in Mexico) but should be interesting to anyone living away from their homeland.

And in the Shove it media column (only available in print): Pondering the naming practice behind Anorex and Stimulant-Sensitive Anorex, new prescription diet-aids. Soma Magazine's August fashion spread featuring raped and murdered corpses, er, models. And Gene Simmons' Tongue in which he declares "I am attracted to women as sex objects, as I suspect most men are. It's high time men and women were upfront about that. Complain to nature. Man has two heads. We just don't have enough blood for both." (I guess you never lose the charm that comes from being in a band like Kiss.)

BITCH indeed. These girls rock my world ;)

Sunday, November 3, 2002

Adam's got the new site up and running - and it's super sweet!

I wanna go to the parasite museum he mentions - it sounds wonderfully creepy! But I'll refrain from sharing my own wonderfully creepy parasite stories for now ;)

When you don't live in a 9-5 world, this is a typical Saturday

I still haven't started marking the papers I need to hand back on Monday, but I feel as though I accomplished something worthwhile today ;)

Spent the afternoon with Trent, a smart and imaginative guy with a background in electrical engineering and computer science. And after the obligatory half-hour of establishing a common vocabulary, and drinking too much coffee, we made some progress. Although we spent most of the time talking about social engineering, I did manage to convey my notions of what constitutes a sociable machine. We were able to articulate that in order to be sociable, a machine (in part) should be able to be irrational, be deceptive, work with incomplete or "false" models, and be able to break down. In short, pretty much everything that programmers try to avoid or control, despite how difficult that can be. (Okay, I know it's not that simple but I gotta start somewhere!) We also spent a fair amount of time talking about mimicry and mimesis, and how machines that seek to copy an ideal sociality tend to be easily recognised as artificial - perhaps because we are actually accustomed to negotiating imperfection in other people. Anyway, he gave me lots to think about, and allowed me to get more comfortable with the basic rules and practices of engineering intelligent systems. I'm pleased.

And there was some very helpful feedback on my IA Summit proposal waiting for me when I got home. It seems that I failed to understand who my audience would be, so I'll take a go at a substantial revision as soon as I can. Thanks go to Karl for snapping me out of academic mode ;)

In the meantime, I'm tired and find myself wanting to be wrapped up in strong arms and left to think in comforting silence...

From the HCI Lab at Carleton

The most recent issue of the Lab's newsletter looks at Emotion, Aesthetics and Visual Literacy. Of interest:

Christine O'Corner's Using Activity Theory as a Framework in a User Needs Analysis;
An Interview with Bonnie A. Nardi on the importance and uses of activity theory;
Karin Lindgaard's article on Emotion, Reason and the Dichotomies That Influence Technology;
And an article by one of my committee members, Gitte Lindgaard, on The Tricky Relationship Between User Satisfaction, Aesthetics, Actual and Perceived Usability.

Saturday, November 2, 2002

True Love

My first exposure to archaeology, living in Athens.

Part 2

Went in search of a copy of Siouxsie and the Banshees' Christine (it's been so long since I've heard it...), but could only find their cover of Dear Prudence. Apparently, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence were living at an ashram in India when the Beatles came to stay. Prudence took her meditation very seriously, and rarely emerged from her room. Lennon wrote the song as a call for her to join them outside.


I have a big stack of papers to mark for Monday and I just can't seem to get motivated. So I've been looking at these instead:

The Cuban Poster Art Archive and Transnational Poster Art: GDR and Latin America (via dublog). Viva la Revolucion!

The Homeland Security Cultural Bureau looks at Cultural Sabotage and The Terrorists and Postmodernists (via socialdesignnotes). Nice satire!

And checking on recent additions to What would you have done differently? There might be a lesson here about actually following your heart. I think we'd all be happier if our partners really rocked our worlds and got inside us deeply ;)

Still struggling with the Schon fiasco

I'm completely fascinated by the controversy surrounding Hendrik Schon's fall from grace.

Scientists describe a sense of betrayal and strive to reestablish the authority of all of their work: The Materials Research Society "is pleased to note that through several attempts to reproduce the results, the scientific community was able to identify the flawed work. This self-checking process ensures that erroneous work, whether it is produced by genuine error or deliberate fraud, is always eventually corrected."

The struggle to regain control over truthful information has most recently spilled into cyberspace, where many of Schon's papers - now retracted by academic publishers - are still available, and presumably misinforming the public.

In tribal societies, shaming is a common and powerful form of social control. The tribe will physically, and symbolically, turn their backs to the offender and shut them out of the group. To be shamed is to be excommunicated - left alive, but alone. Without access to prior social bonds, the outsider effectively fades away from existence. But the tribe is always left with the task of reinforcing the norms that were violated - of reestablishing the "us" in the face of the "other".

Schon's case offers an interesting look at the social construction of scientific knowledge. There is real power at stake here - the validity and authority of Science has been undermined by one of their best, which consequently impacts the rest. Scientific research relies heavily on previous work - the ability to reproduce or invalidate someone else's experiments. Progress occurs, quite simply (so it's said) because each iteration of research gets us closer to the truth. Every scientist that cited Schon's work to support their own research now has to go back and do it again - knowing that it is based on faulty premises. But this situation also affords the opportunity to rearticulate the boundaries of scientific research and knowledge, to delineate what is good and bad, right and wrong. Constraints and assumptions that are often invisible become visible during crisis, and offer a unique glimpse of the rule-making process.

Contempt and decadence

Via Mefi, a beautiful piece of writing: Against the Grain (A Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, 1884.

Friday, November 1, 2002

I'm on it!

Currently reading Paul Dourish's Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, which as you might guess, deals with some of the sociable aspects of computing and particularly how they apply to context.

First, let me say that I really appreciate theories of practice - especially those that are phenomenological or influenced by Wittgenstein. But despite really enjoying the book so far, I still get this sense that sociological theory and method are underestimated. But that's a problem even within my own discipline, so today I won't fault people from other disciplines trying to make do with what we have ;)

Seems I have a double-task ahead of me - convince the sociologists and the computer folks that we can do better than Garfinkle's ethnomethodology...

Hotels on the Move

Cooper Hewitt's New Hotels for Global Nomads - A provocative exhibition that spotlights contemporary hotels as the crossroads of our connected yet nomadic society and underscores their role in cutting-edge architecture and design. (via nsop)

Nice exploration of the sublime and mobility - and hotels as virtual spaces...

The Matter of Convincing Others

Two British scientists are seeking £165,000 ($256,000) to carry out a large-scale study to discover if clinically dead people really have out-of-body experiences.

Fenwick and others are not positing life after death per se, merely consciousness after death. Nevertheless, the implications are enormous. If near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences don't come from the brain, where is consciousness based? "There are two ways to view the universe," says Fenwick. "Our current world model is that everything is matter." In other words, everything that we think of as "real" in scientific terms has a physical form that can be perceived by our senses. But this model, which philosophers call "radical materialism," cannot explain the existence of consciousness, which has no physical essence. So how do we account for consciousness? "There's a little (unexplained) miracle, and consciousness arises," Fenwick says of the current paradigm.

"However, another theory proposes that the basic building block of the universe is not matter but instead consciousness itself. This is described as the "transcendent" view, a perspective shared by many of the world's religions. "This second, transcendent, view of the universe makes it much easier to understand NDEs," says Fenwick, who believes that science will eventually replace the material view of the universe with the transcendent one.

"So will this convince the skeptics? "No, nothing will, but that's OK," says Fenwick, laughing. "It's how science progresses. Any research that says you have to have a major rethink in your world model is always rejected. But it will prove that consciousness is not in the brain."

I think I like this guy! I need to laugh more often when I run into opposition to changing the way sociology is done ;)

Ottawa wasn't always so boring - or maybe I'm just hanging out with the wrong class of people

LeBreton dig unearths seamy lifestyles. A hotel latrine has given up syringes and vials used in Ottawa's 1890s drug culture.

Oh, how I miss excavating treasures from latrines and piles of garbage!

"Dating back to the 1890s, the glass syringes and opiate bottles are part of a cache of artifacts recovered from a latrine at the Occidental Hotel, a raucous bar and inn that served the working-class Flats until the area burned down in 1900. Those vials packed an opiate punch that in late 19th-century Ottawa was legal and widely used by doctors, who prescribed opiate derivatives like morphine for ailments including menstrual cramps, tuberculosis, diarrhea and dysentery. Citizen advertisements for "fine-grade Turkish opium" dating from the same period show the drug was widely available, says Carleton University history professor Bruce Elliott."

"Were the opiates for medicinal purposes? "Not necessarily," said Mr. Daechsel, who speculated the hotel may have been used as a haven for drug users seeking a break from their hard-scrabble lives. "The one thing that struck us about all of the sites that we've been involved with," Mr. Daechsel said, "is that there was just an enormous amount of liquor being consumed on that site -- whether it was wine or harder liquor or beer."

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