Monday, March 31, 2003

Digital Cities

I'm working on a new course syllabus right now, and want to include something on digital cities, mobility and augmented spaces. A few examples spring to mind:

Next Memory City (Canada)
Three works - a very large-scale photograph of Toronto, video images of Venice, and sound recordings from both cities - form a triptych, and in its folds we encounter a place which is neither Venice nor Toronto. By displacing our experience of time and location, Next Memory City reveals previously invisible aspects of our shared urban existence. The fabric of emergent urban forms is here made momentarily real.

David Rokeby's contribution, Seen, traces the movement of people through the Piazza San Marco in Venice. His presentation at Doors 7 looked at flow and control, humans and machines:

When feedback loops exist between humans and machines, interesting factors come into play. It has been determined that consciousness tends to operate at a delay of about 1/10 of a second. Computers tend to respond in much less than 1/30th of a second. As a result, the feedback between human and machine can creep under the level of consciousness, invisibly reinforcing and attenuating various aspects of the complex stream flowing through the loop. Such feedback systems have their own synergetic characteristics. And because the fastest responding element of the system is usually the computer, what is most reinforced through the loop is often defined more by the computer than the human ... As we move into a scenario where more-and-more less-and-less conspicuous computing devices populate our lives, we need to pay careful attention to what is being reinforced and what is being discouraged in our relationships with these devices. The prospect of pervasive computing poses the difficult challenge of guaranteeing a pervasive humanity flowing through these systems.

Amsterdam Real Time (Netherlands)
During two months all of Amsterdam's citizens [were] invited to be equipped with a tracer-unit. This is a portable device developed by Waag Society which is equipped with GPS: Global Positioning System. Using satellite data the tracer calculates its geographical position. These tracers' data are sent in realtime to a central point. By visualizing this data against a black background traces, lines, appear. From these lines a (partial) map of Amsterdam constructs itself. This map does not register streets or blocks of houses, but consists of the sheer movements of real people.

The beauty, as I saw it, was in the question: "What/Where/When/Who is Amsterdam? Amsterdam is the ever-changing - personal and collective - movements of the people. These movements are traced in real-time, and projected into the past and future. Add the ability for users to simultaneously create/witness/collect memories and myths - of the lived city - and we're good to go!"

New York Songlines: Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets (USA)
New York has its own giants, heroes and monsters who left their marks and their names on the land around us. If we learn their stories which are written on our streets and avenues, we'll have a much better chance of knowing where we've been, and where we're going. To this end I offer these as the New York Songlines. An oral cultures uses songs as the most efficient way to remember and transmit large amounts of information; the Web is our technological society's closest equivalent. Each Songline will follow a single pathway ... Don't feel you need to travel in a straight line, however; at most intersections you can click on one of the arrows to turn the corner and explore a new Songline.

Intelligent Street (UK/Sweden)
We shall install the intelligent street in the entrances of the University of Westminster Harrow Campus and the Interactive Institute, Sweden, from May 2003. The intelligent street will enhance the experience of users in both locations by creating a gentle sonic playground that reflects the cultures of its users, entertain and act as a talking point. Users will be able to interract by sending SMS messages from their mobile phone. A display in each location and on the web will give optional information about how users are engaging. Over time, 'intelligent' algorithms will build up a picture or memory of the culture and behaviour of users. Users (students) at Harrow and in Sweden will have the opportunity to design and contribute elements of sound to be incorporated.

I'd love to learn of similar projects - know of any?

Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Shape of Social Computing Applications

You know, Stewart Butterfield is on-to-something here and here and here.

Identity. Presence. Relationships. Conversations. Groups.

If I understand correctly, Stewart is describing a code platform that models these "technologies/devices/dimensions" and allows people to create their own layers of meaning (on top of the models). Sort of like controlled-chaos. Given the limitations of binary code, I think this is a reasonable approach. But I'd like to better understand how we (are able to) move between the (objective) models and the (subjective) narratives.

As an aside, it also seems to me that Stewart is describing things we do (sharing, collaborating, playing), in contrast to things we have (reputation, identity) - whereas I understand all of them as what we do - as our social practices. But I'm not sure how that plays out here.

Of course, Stewart is applying this thinking to The Game Neverending, and he rallies threedegrees, eyebees and quek as the shape-to-come for social computing applications. But what first attracted me to GNE were these quotes:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

And what I want to know now is how PLAY fits into notions of the swarm...

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Chromaticism and Jazz

Chromaticism: a) of, relating to, or giving all the tones of the chromatic scale; b) characterized by frequent use of accidentals.

It is useful to consider chord/scale relationships when playing chromatically, so that you can deliberately choose a scale that will increase tension, and then resolve it by returning to an expected scale. It is not always necessary to relate everything to the original scale, however. The line itself is more important than its relationship to the chord. Sometimes the melodic line that follows most naturally from what you have played so far is not one that would have been suggested by the chord specified at that point in the progression.

Listening to Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and John Zorn certainly does conjure rhizomatic lines of flight...

(Update) John Zorn on game composition:

From 1974 until about 1990, a large part of my compositional time was spent devising music for improvisers, what I now call "game pieces." Tying together loose strings left dangling by composers such as Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, and Stockhausen, I began to work out complex systems harnessing improvisors in flexible compositional formats.

Working on a blackboard, ideas would come slowly, often staying on the board for months before all the various elements seemed balanced and complete. I tried to make every piece a world in itself, and often they took over a year to write. These pieces have somehow lasted, taking on a life of their own ...

Xu Feng was written right after Cobra and was quite a departure in many respects, in a sense moving from abstract to concrete, theoretical to practical. After perfecting the concepts of infinite systems in the large scale pieces Track and Field and Cobra, I began to mold subsequent game pieces more toward specific sound worlds, giving pieces exact instrumentations and introducing sound "modifiers" — (specifying sound parameters) into the options available in structuring form and content. The intention of this place was to create a fast-moving, energetic, almost competitive Kung-fu environment, inspired by the Martial Arts actress for which the piece is named.

Faceted Id/entity

Danah Boyd's MSc Thesis, Faceted Id/entity: Managing representation in a digital world, for the Sociable Media Group at MIT Media Lab:

In order to manage one's identity and representation, individuals rely on contextual information about the environment around them. While they are quite adept at negotiating the complexities of contextual feedback in the physical world, the digital realm challenges their expectations by providing an entirely different set of rules. Focused on giving users control over their digital identity, the thesis research documented at this website discusses issues of contextual negotiation, self-awareness, and faceting of one's identity for management purposes. I approach the subject first by analyzing how people negotiate context and identity in the physical world; using this perspective, I discuss how the underlying differences in the digital world alter people's notions of context and identity. With those differences in mind, I argue for a design approach that empowers users by giving them tools for self-awareness and identity management.

Very interesting. Thanks Peter. And Molly - as we discussed - online identity may no longer be news, but blogs are social computing applications (Stewart Butterfield's phrase) and identity is most definitely still a part of sociality, and relevant to design.

Current Reading

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Antonin Artaud and Cruelty

The other day, in Powell's Books, I bought a copy of A Shock to Thought: Expression After Deleuze and Guattari, edited by Brian Massumi. So far, it's really interesting. I particularly enjoyed Catherine Dale's article, Cruel: Antonin Artaud and Gilles Deleuze, which she begins with this quote by Artaud:

Everything in the order of the written word which abandons the field of clear, orderly perception, everything which aims at reversing appearances and introduces doubt about the position of mental images and their relationship to one another, everything which provokes confusion without destroying the strength of emergent thought, everything which disrupts the relationship between things by giving this agitated thought an even greater aspect of truth and violence - all these offer death a loophole and put us in touch with certain more acute states of mind in the throes of which death expresses itself.

According to Dale, "Deleuze follows Artaud's pursuit of 'the terrible revelation of a thought without image, and the conquest of a new principle which does not allow itself to be represented' ... [as] Artaud's theatre is not designed to represent or reproduce (describe) man but to create a being which moves ...

Recalling Artaud's idea that 'cruelty is nothing but determination as such', Deleuze writes, 'we should not be surprised that difference should appear accursed, that it should be error, sin, or the figure of evil for which there must be expiation. There is no sin other than raising the ground and dissolving the form' ... Artaud's cruelty is severity in thought, diligent and strict, 'Cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination' ...

[And Deleuze writes that] the good that Artaud distinguishes from continuous evil is the good which 'knows how to transform itself, to metamorphose itself according to its encounters ... Of course there is no more truth in one life than in the other; there is only becoming, and becoming is the power of the false of life, is the will to power."

In other words, both Artaud and Deleuze associate cruelty with determination, stability and difference, and thereby favour contextual becoming, movement and metamorphosis (although not as simplistically as I make it sound).

As Artaud writes, "it would be a very great consolation for me to think that even though I am not all of myself, not as tall, not as dense, not as wide as myself, I can still be something."

I really like Artaud. Even though he was crazy. And more scientific theories of emergence could learn from this sense of becoming.

Wrapping up Portland

I'm back home from IA Summit and slowly, but lovingly, re-engaging familiar routines like email and blogging. (UPDATE 28/03/03: My paper and presentation can be found here.)

Portland was interesting. First, anti-war protests (see local SMS smartmobbing) turned the downtown area into a bloody police-state, with riot cops at every turn and helicopters in the sky. Scenarios like that give me the creeps, make me kinda angry, and never make me feel safe. (But then again, I grew up in South America and have seen people killed in similar situations.) And it is only now that I am able to acknowledge the degree to which current events impacted my experience of the conference - but more on that in a bit.

Stewart Brand gave the keynote speech, and while he may have lacked the polish of Larry Lessig and Richard Florida at SXSW, his is undoubtedly a brilliant and beautiful mind. He spoke about How Buildings Learn, as well as the Long Bets Foundation:

The purpose of the Long Bets Foundation is to improve long-term thinking. Long Bets is a public arena for enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake. The foundation furnishes the continuity to see even the longest bets through to public resolution. This website provides a forum for discussion about what may be learned from the bets and their eventual outcomes.

and the amazing Rosetta Project:

The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone. In this updated iteration, our goal is a meaningful survey and near permanent archive of 1,000 languages. Our intention is to create a unique platform for comparative linguistic research and education as well as a functional linguistic tool that might help in the recovery or revitalization of lost languages in unknown futures.

What all three - Brand, Florida and Lessig - presentations had in common was a focus on the "common good" from a broadly humanist perspective. I don't generally care for that line of thinking, but, more specifically, each man (alas, that never goes unnoticed by me) treasured diversity, creativity and collective action, and I can appreciate that. Still, I find it difficult to negotiate between live-and-let-live positions and notions of accountability, especially when I do not believe in the superiority of rationalism. But I have to think on this some more...

Back to the conference. The first presentation I saw attempted to apply principles of emergence and sociobiology to information architecture. I don't think it was successful, but I admit I went because I really dislike sociobiology. (The roots of my discontent can be traced to the recognition that for every sociobiological explanation, there is also a cultural explanation. And since I would never say that humans are only culture, I must also oppose the evolutionary determinism of sociobiology. At its worst - its most controlling - sociobiology has been allowed to justify everything from "born criminals," phrenology and the "Hottentot Venus" (Saarti Baartman's remains were repatriated to South Africa in 2002), to extremes of eugenics and genocide. And while my position differs significantly, I very much appreciate the critique of sociobiology offered from this religious perspective.)

I was pleased with my presentation - but it did begin a peculiar set of happenings around national identity. I shared an hour time slot (at the end of the day) with the only other talk on government Web sites, presented by Sanne Peek from the Netherlands. And if you will allow me a gross characterisation, the Americans did not seem particularly interested. Don't get me wrong. I heard excellent questions and lovely compliments from several Americans, but I think I may have been approached by every Canadian and continental European at the Conference (although there weren't that many of us). It seemed that Canadians and Scandinavians were more interested in - and familiar with - working with diversity, and various forms of institutionalised multi-culturalism. It was even suggested that my case study project was possible precisely because I was working with Canadians. (What does that mean?) At the same time, there was a palpable lack of international attendance, participation, and perspective.

My dear and respected friend Adam Greenfield gave a presentation on doing information architecture in Japan - which seemed to elicit similar responses from Canadians and Europeans in the audience - and which he intelligently reflects upon here. I was there for the discussion he describes, and there was a part of me that most definitely agreed with the perspective that stung Adam. Now this caught me off-guard, mostly because I tend not to think about people - and especially my friends - in terms of nationality. But what occurs to me now, is that two weeks ago I would have respectfully challenged his ethnocentrism, but two days ago I challenged him (somewhat disrespectfully) for being American. That's fucked up and for that I apologise. I had underestimated how much this whole-war-thing is bothering me, and how I've become really touchy about how judgement and intolerance creates others, because others are objects to which we need not be accountable.

Since I was arguing with Adam and others after his presentation, unfortunately I missed Mark Bernstein's presentation on what might be loosely described as architectures of control. This disappoints me precisely because I tend to share the perspective that most information architecture (over)values control, or as Mark aptly puts it: The early rhetoric of information architecture has been predominantly the language of engineering: hierarchical decomposition, systematic nomenclature, and precise measurement are its constant themes. The contemporary role of the architect, in contrast, emerged from a reaction "against" engineering: the Bauhaus Manifesto proclaims Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau! But he doesn't romanticise the architect, or claim that (cyber)spatial metaphors are simple, and he further explores these problems in Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas.

But, as in Austin, I particularly enjoyed the company. I shared excellent nighttime conversations with Peter Merholz (who just started up his blog again - yay!), Victor Lombardi, Erin Malone, Christina Wodtke, Nick Finck, Peter Morville, Mark Bernstein and others. Thanks to all. And I had the wonderful fortune to spend my time with Juanita Benedicto, of the excellent - and missed - New Breed Librarian, and all-around way cool chica! ¡Cuídate mucho, mi amiga! And still, Fabio was greatly missed and there was more than one occasion that really could have used the vitality of Mike, Toke and Molly. Cheers guys!

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Westward bound

As the Americans and the British go to war, I will be on my way to cloudy and rainy Portland, Oregon. My plans seem so unimportant in comparison, and my heart aches when I think of all the suffering to come.

I read this when it was published at the end of January, and I think I'll read it again: 100 Poets Against the War.

George Murray, one of the participating poets, says "So many people seem to think that the poet or poetry doesn't have a useful place in society. But poetry is the oldest form of the evening news, and it used to play a very critical role politically.”

All sorts of queer and strange projects

In Parliament this week, Mr. Ted White, Canadian Alliance MP for North Vancouver, shared this bit of wisdom as part of a larger rant on government spending:

I could stand here for a whole day talking about things like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. One of my pet hates is its $120 million a year, pretty much unaccounted for, which is spent on all sorts of queer and strange projects. That is hundreds of millions of dollars wasted. It does not produce any wealth in the country at all. Most of what the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council hands out in grants appears to go to financing vacation time for academics to travel to other countries and take photographs. It is certainly not contributing to the running of the country.

He wouldn't be the first conservative engineer to dismiss the value and validity of social science and humanities research, but comments like that really piss me off. Queer and strange, indeed! If it bothers you too, please write and tell him what you think.

Thanks, Daphne.

Suppose - New Media Research and Application

If you find yourself in Nottingham, UK, I really hope you check out Suppose's Events "live discussion, performance, illustration and exploration of interesting work from diverse fields ... in a pub." (And in a pub - how civilised!)

The next event will take place March 20, 2003. "Computational Audio/Visual Aesthetics and the Glitch: glitch art auteur Beflix demonstrates his unique approach to art generation live, generative audio artist Vastik Root makes a rare public appearance to show his new work and Suppose's own Ed George experiments with generating artwork from Unreal Tournament game data. Computational Aesthetics showcases radical new thought and methodologies in art production." Wow.

Allen Coombs was kind enough to send an invitation - thank you, Allen - but unfortunately I am not able to jump the pond to attend. But you should go to each and every event if you can. It's not very often that academics, practitioners and the interested public get together to learn from each other, and that is something I whole-heartedly support. If you can't make it either, do check out the Suppose research blog.

First International Moblogging Conference

Tokyo. Early summer. The First International Moblogging Conference.

What we'd like to see is presentations relating to your experiences of mobile publishing, either textual, visual, audial, or a combination of the above. How, if at all, has the act of moblogging changed the way you understand place? How has it affected your patterns of socialization? Do you understand moblogging as augmented reality, or transitional ubicomp, or wireless songlines? Do you have a prototype device you'd like to share, or an application searching for an audience? This would be the natural place to discuss it, in front of the forty or fifty people in the world most dedicated to pushing the boundaries of the mobile self-publishing experience.

Very cool. And since I won't be able to physically make it to Tokyo, I'm hoping to serve as a virtual participant in their augmented reality ;)

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Sometimes I don't want life to imitate art

Roy Lichtenstein, Reclining Nude, 1980

I woke up at 06:00 and felt like this painting, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up again at noon, I felt better.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Art and new technologies

Via SmartMobs: the first graduate level art course explicitly on Wireless Art, or using WiFi as an artistic medium. According to the instructor, Yuri Gitman, "This class leads students through a series of projects and lectures aimed at pushing the boundaries of both art and wireless technology by using WiFi for purely artistic and expressive ends. I'm the instructor and also an artist-in-resident at Eyebeam(.org), a leading art and technology organization in NYC. I was responsible for the Noderunner game, which was posted at a few months back. In any case, the class website is updated often, as it's a blog, and will host links to the projects we create."

It will be interesting to see if these art projects serve as social and technological critique. I still maintain that interactive textiles are the closest we've come to creating truly wearable computers, and I suspect that these technologies emerge, at least partly, in resistance to the limitations of (soft) people wearing (hard) machines. This makes me wonder what a critical wireless art project would look like? What would it feel and sound like? How would it resist itself? Or would it fully submit?

This also reminds me of some amazing projects by the folks at FoAM, and Sponge: "Sitting at the nexus of several areas of socio-cultural work including investigative art, speculative design, techno-scientific research and critical public discourse, Sponge was founded on the idea that both art and its conceptualization must be immanent in everyday economy." Very cool.

Representing Many Voices

On Thursday I am off to Portland to attend IA Summit 2003, and present a version of this paper.

These thoughts are the beginnings of a story about people and technology. In the summer of 2002, we started a small Web design project with a few basic goals and a few people. In the beginning it was just me, a social anthropologist who practices information architecture, and the new Knowledge Products and Mobilisation team at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Now nearing completion, our project actively involves many people with a wide variety of roles, needs and wants. This story is about how we went from being a team of few with few goals, to being a team of many with many goals. In describing this process and growth, I want to draw attention to two things: the social software IA as ethnographer, and the benefits and risks of collaborative and emergent design practices.

Key lessons learned:

1. Design expertise is still required.

Some people don't want to have a say. Some people don't want others to have a say. It is the role of the information and interaction designer to represent voices that are absent and to negotiate shared understandings despite differences. Principles of good design still apply, and the designer should also represent her own communities of practice in the collaborative process.

2. Diversity is crucial for creativity.

A large part of being social is who we are able to be in the presence and absence of others. Less diversity means less chance to become something else, less ability to create and to re-create our identities and devices. The role of the designer is to ensure that diversity is encouraged and supported at each stage of his design process. Ignoring or controlling the multiplicity of participants limits the potential of what can be created. Designers should also explore and cultivate non-hierarchical ways of leading.

3. The project is never done.

Social software should be encouraged to hack itself. We experienced crisis each time we were about to reach consensus on issues of design and community. When we finally agreed that we couldn't design the experience from beginning to end, we stopped trying to close something that struggled to stay open. We began to take pleasure in the process of building, which led us to create something that would continue to allow more changes as needed or wanted.

See you in Portland?

On Community and a World without Ends

I have to start by noting that it sucks being at the mercy of Blogger's servers. On the upside, my recent inability to post has forced me to listen to other conversations more carefully.

A few days ago, I posted a link in my comments to Trevor Bechtel's interesting comments around community and individuality, but they really deserve to be placed up front.

I have deep abiding committments to myself and to individuality. I routinely force myself on my community. I think that it is me as an individual that chooses to do this and I think it is a good thing. One reason why I do this is because I am so committed to my community. My community needs my voice. In the end for me those committments to community outweigh my other commitments, but for me, committments to community also empower my sense of self and my sense of individuality. What doesn't make any sense to me is thinking of having committments to self and individuality in the context of independence rather than community... I do want to speak of a community's story. This is unified in the same way that any story has a loose coherence. But different characters fill stories with life and the different characters don't always agree, they challenge each other and support each other... Communities embody living stories. I think that this has nothing to do with a single, large, collective mind. There is a difference for me between unified and unity...

Trevor also connects these ideas to a meme currently making the rounds: the Internet as a world of ends.

I don't think I am an end of the Internet. I feel more like a point on a curve. I shift and sway as other points, bigger and smaller exert gravity on me.

AKMA continues this thread by writing:

[T]he whole individual/community discussion fails, to the extent that it adheres to these binary alternatives (or even, as I will propose, a spectrum between the two poles). Non-binary! ...No doubt you all can identify other dimensions of being a person that don’t reduce to I vs. C, but which intersect, bend, warp, twist that axis and along with all the other characteristics, in deeply complex and particular ways... the World of Ends consists not in independent individuals who are the stopping-point of action and discourse, but to pools of shared interests, to groups of sympathetic friends, to communities where one member’s grief and fear and loss are shared and addressed by the whole network of participants. It’s not a World of Ends, it’s a World without Ends, all the more so on the Web, where we’re so persistently joined with one another...

And I responded that "I couldn't agree more that we are living and describing a world without ends, rather than a world of ends. I admit to finding binary constructions inadequate, not least because they suffocate a gentle part of me that strives for flexibility and tolerance. I believe in individual and collective spirit, but only if they allow and account for a wide diversity of constantly changing interests and experiences. Recent travels brought to my attention how difficult it can be to distinguish between social presence and absence. With mobile technologies, interactional contexts appear voluptuous, taking place not within the boundaries (or ends) of here *or* there, but in shifting spaces of the here-and-there. And I've always believed that being social, in large part, involves what we are able to be in the presence and absence of others. I also believe that to draw clear distinctions between individual and community tends to deny our experiences and potentials in the world."

Friday, March 14, 2003

Calm technology

This afternoon I was telling my students about my trip to Austin and found myself dwelling on the Detroit Metro airport. You see, I've never flown through there before and was completely taken by the tunnel between concourses A and B-C.

The tunnel really conjures a sense of flow.The tunnel is a 12 1/2-foot high tube encased in steel and concrete and situated 6 feet beneath a taxiway. It has two moving sidewalks. The walls are lined with 7 1/2-foot-tall translucent glass panels. Fox Fire Inc., a specialty glass maker in Pontiac, created the curved panels and sand blasted the glass to create fluid swirls. Hidden behind the glass panels and ceiling fabric are rows of light-emitting diodes and an audio system. Controlled by a computer, the thousands of miniature lights splash subtle hues of blue, green and red on the glass and fabric. Mills James Productions Inc., a production company in Columbus, Ohio, created two 12-minute sound and light shows for the tunnel's computer. Both feature original music. "If you have moving sidewalks and music and lights, it makes it a fun experience and you forget that you have a 700-foot walk."

Let me just say that physical distance was irrelevant to me as I walked through the tunnel three times in a row (and I hear there's another at O'Hare, so you might find me there at the end of May). I loved it, but it was better than fun. I found it extremely calming after negotiating the chaos and crowds of concourse A. The subtle darkness, gently swirling colours and liquid music had a palpable effect on people moving through the tunnel. Crowds dissipated and slowed down. People smiled. I wanted the whole airport to feel that good, but realised the tunnel probably wouldn't feel that way if it didn't stand in such sharp contrast to the spaces before and after. It really was a sort of perfect liminal space. Definitely one of the better designed (computer-driven) architecture experiences I've had. It demonstrated such attention to context and affect, and celebrated flow over control; a social space of art and technology.

Digital Genres

Alex Golub passes along the Call for Papers for the Digital Genres: Semiotic Technologies this Side of the Millennium conference, taking place May 30-31 at the University of Chicago.

What can slash, blogs, massively multiplayer games, fan fiction, chat rooms, and other popular genres tell us about how humans communicate? And how do they shed light on human meaning making more generally? Moving away from Seldes' concept of 'art' to a more embracing notion of 'genre' as a general method of understanding the structured, meaningful, and dialogic nature of cultural production, the conference examines a wide variety of cultural production enabled by digital technology. Please join us... Papers do not need to be overly-academic if you are not yourself overly-academic.

I'm looking forward to this and hope to see you there!

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Wrapping up Austin

I'm back at home in the Land of Ice and Snow. Luckily, I arrived to my sweetie and a bunch of flowers the colours of fire (meant to ease my sense of losing the southern sun).

I really enjoyed the final day and night of my SXSW experience: hanging out at the Hotel San Jose, dangling feet in the pool and sharing excellent conversations with Mike, Toke, fellow Canadian and charming young man (yes, too young for me!) Marty Spellerberg, Andrew Otwell (who is every bit as smart and interesting as I thought he would be!) and many others there and later at Bruce Sterling's party. The social atmosphere made the trip.

But what about the panels and talks? I think I enjoyed the final day the most. Richard Florida gave a passionate presentation on the Rise of the Creative Class - a really cheesy title that does a disservice to his insights into the relationships between diversity, innovation, technology and socio-economic quality of life. (Update: Heath Row's transcript of the talk.)

I also really enjoyed the Beyond the Blog: The Future of Personal Publishing panel. "This session explores emerging technologies in the field of online publishing, including weblogging and moblogging through wireless devices, nascent desktop applications, and digital identity. The panel will also examine how these trends relate to traditional site feedback mechanisms. Paul Bausch (Blogger), Anil Dash (, Justin Hall (, Ben Trott (Movable Type), Mena Trott, moderator (Movable Type)." (Update: Heath Row's transcript of the panel.)

But I'm so lame that I can never articulate a question until I've had some time to think about what I've heard - and by then the panel was over. There was some discussion of the reverse-chronological format of blogs: that it provides a "hint of structure" (not random posts), a "sharing of time" (with readers) and a "social contract" (to update content regularly). But I found myself thinking that it also privileges the new, and creates temporal boundaries. This isn't a bad thing, and I think it's worth considering a bit. I'm not the first to notice that blog conversations tend to fizzle once they fall off the front page and into the archives. Sure, old posts can be commented, but those conversations are taking place in different contexts. A conversation we have in real time is not the same as one we have in present time about something (a post) in past time. (Shite. And I'm supposed to be working on becoming more clear in my writing!) My point is that we're looking at constantly shifting contexts, shifting uses, shifting practices, shifting meanings, shifting understandings. To represent that, to nail it down, with only quantities of points of connections suggests that our social experiences of blogging can be effectively, and adequately, defined in terms of linear and causal relationships based on the transmission of data quantities. We always talk of networks and nodes, but didn't hypertext originally offer us more flexible, more rhizomatic possibilities? It seems to me that blog and blog-related software (like aggregators) seek to control - if only by filtering and structuring - the flow. And that's not very sociable if you appreciate serendipity.

Will blog software development include hiring ethnographers to study how blogs are actually used? I've already said I'm not talking about simply tracking source or provenance, or number of connections. Not even about trust mechanisms like FOAF (which I think has interesting potential). I'm talking about how each time a post is referenced somewhere away from its place of origin, it is recontextualised and takes on a more or less different meaning. During the panel discussion I was struck by the lack of consideration for any type of tool that could point to (measure) the qualitative experience of blogging - wouldn't that be valuable information if one were developing the next wave of blog-related applications? I'd like to know how social interactions differ amongst different types (genres? voices?) of blogs. I'd like to better understand how excited people (including myself) were when we actually met some of our favourite "people behind the blogs" while at SXSW. I just think blog-spaces are much bigger (less contained?) than they sometimes appear.

So, all-in-all, my trip to Austin ended very well. Good people, good talks, good food and good drinks. New friends to keep in touch. What more should I want? (On second thought - I can't believe that I missed an opportunity to see The Roots for the second time in two years! That sucks.)

UPDATE 15/03/03:

1. Heather Champ, Jason Nolan, Katharine Parrish, and Ana Sisnett looked at Conceptual Firewalls to participation in blogging. Heather's comments on gender really resonated with me: In 1995 I went to Internet World and Mac World. The most strongly I feel the division is at conferences and in the materials that are handed out to me. Last year, when I came to SXSW, I felt like it was predominately a white male conference. It's so terrible. Look, it's Joshua Davis, but where are the women? This year, SXSW has made more of an effort to find a balance. I'm concerned about women who are coming after me, who look at these materials, and who feel whether these events speak to them. Anil recently posted a photo of Dave Winer's recent panel at Harvard, and it struck me that it's white, it's male, and they have beards. There were two women there? Those people don't speak to me. Is this the face of blogging?

2. Mikela and Philip Tarlow gave an interesting presentation on being Digital Aboriginals - anthropological metaphors pull through for us again with a concentration on storytelling and (nomadic) tribal relations for a digital era.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Now reporting

Wow. I actually thought I would blog my SXSW Interactive experience, but find myself doing so only now that I am too hungover to socialise. The ethnographer in me has taken over: I have watched with utter fascination all these people together, armed with wireless connections, tapping away at keyboards, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between presence and absence.

This is my first visit here and I thought I didn't have any expectations, but it seems I did. The panels have been interesting but nothing more. I guess I expected it to be a little more cutting-edge? Larry Lessig gave a tight presentation on copyright and the Creative Commons, but keynote presentations aren't panel discussions. One of the best panels I've seen so far was Jeffrey Zeldman, Adam Greenfield and Todd Dominey on why they publish online. It was conversational, inspiring, and made me wish I were a better writer.

The best part has been meeting so many bright and fun people. I've particularly enjoyed my time with Molly Wright Steenson, Mike Buzzard and Toke Nygaard of Cuban Council and k10k, and of course, Mr. Greenfield - all of them hardcore in the best possible ways. I also had the pleasure of meeting Anitra Pavka and Nick Finck, who joined us for drinks last night and only added to my joy of finally finding a place that served real beer. Of course, I might not have tried to make up for lost days of drinking, but where's the fun in that?!

Todays' salvation has been gatorade and ibuprofen, but tomorrow is another day...

Friday, March 7, 2003

On to interesting and warmer places, and a bit on robots

I've got a thousand things to do today and my next post will be from oh-so-much-warmer-than-here Austin, Texas. I'll be attending SXSW and no doubt meeting lots of interesting people. If you see me, please come say hello!

Until then, check out this article:

Wataru Aso dreams of a day when robots are allowed to roam the streets freely, going about their business without a second glance from passing humans. As governor of Japan's Fukuoka prefecture, he wants to make the prefectural capital of Fukuoka City the place where that dream becomes a reality. The governor has submitted a proposal to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to create Japan's first robot-friendly zone and with it further his bid to make Fukuoka, which has a population of 1.4 million and is Japan's eighth largest city, the center of the country's growing robotics industry.

"You can build a robot that can do wonderful things in the lab but is useless on the street," said Shin Furukawa, director of corporate planning at Tmsuk. "Once you know their limits, you can find ways to overcome them." Furukawa has already taken one of his robots out for a brief excursion despite its questionable legal status, he said. From that experience he was able to gather a little information. But what was the biggest lesson learned on the mean streets of Fukuoka? "Kids kick robots," he said. "We have to make the bottom part of their structure a lot stronger."

Thursday, March 6, 2003

Mixed tapes (and CDs)

I love mixed tapes/CDs. I can remember four particular guys who succeeded in seducing me with mixed tapes. Aural seduction has always been very effective on me...

So imagine my joy when I just discovered Art of the Mix - a website "dedicated to making mixed tapes and cds. Browse the archive and check out recent submissions. Or, submit a mix yourself."

Since when was it cooler to be Canadian?

Actor Vince Vaughn on his recent stay in England and the unpopularity of Americans:

Man, it was bad. These girls saw us and were kind of flirting, and they kept asking us if we were American. Finally we said, 'Yes,' and they just took off. One girl turns and says, 'We were hoping you were Canadian.' Canadian? Since when was it cooler to be Canadian?

Greg says: "Welcome to the New World Order, baby."

Heh heh.

International Women's Week, Pt. 3

If there are any teenage girls in your life, and you want them to grow up to be confident and interesting women, then throw out every fashion magazine they have and get them subscriptions to these ultra-fine publications:

Bust: For Women With Something To Get Off Their Chests
Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture

These chicks have rocked my world since 1996 and one is never too old to enjoy them! Hey, and definitely guys too - after all, it was from Bust that I ordered my bestest friend Herb a t-shirt that says "Feminist Chicks Dig Me!". Life's an adventure when you wear a shirt like that, and my favourite moment was when Herb and I asked a Blockbuster Video clerk how he felt about the shirt. The young man took a deep breath and said "I don't like it at all. I was a Women's Studies major!" Herb and I laughed so hard we almost pissed ourselves.

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

From Smart Mob to Community of Practice?

Via Matt Jones, an academic paper by John Lester of Harvard Medical School, Integrating and Evolving a Mob: The Growth of a Smart Mob into a Wireless Community of Practice.

This is a good short paper, but it lacks any sort of critical sensibility. Neither Smart Mobs nor Communities of Practice are problematised, characterisations of HipTop community go unsupported, and I'm wary of the implication that Smart Mobs and CoPs exist on a sort of continuum of collective (mobile) action.

I understand presentation and publication limitations, but IMHO, this paper lacks academic rigour. Still, the author provides an interesting chronicle of a HipTop event, and it's worth a read.

Catching Up

The ever-observant and thoughtful Fabio Sergio explores possibilities for controlled disconnection in an always-on-world. While technologies like BuBL Space - You'll feel pleasantly isolated inside, even in a crowded place. Evaporate all phone signals up to three meters around. Enjoy the silence - promise almost total disconnect, Fabio suggests something more along the lines of selective invisibility.

Theme park takes a trip back to the bad old days of East Germany. Recognising a surging need to reconnect with a state that now only exists in memory... The plan is for surly border guards to monitor the people queuing up to get in, to randomly search them, demand their euros are changed into DDR banknotes and warn them not to bring in "decadent" western literature on to the premises. Signs at the entrance will proclaim: "You are now leaving the German Federal Republic." (Via NSOP)

Dr Pepper is trying to use the grass-roots power of Weblogs to promote its new drink. Those spreading the news via their blogs won’t disclose their flackitude, says Springate, because officially they’re not paid Dr Pepper employees; they only get promo items like hats and T shirts. “We’re independent and can advertise Raging Cow the way we want,” says Nicole, 18, a Louisiana high-school senior with a popular blog. Uh-huh. And my students don't consider heavily branded clothing to be advertising.

Also, an English essay written by a British teenager in text messaging short-hand has reignited concern among teachers that literacy standards are under threat. I see this happening in my student's papers as well, and it appears to be more common among ESL students who are learning to write SMS-English before formal English. It's certainly strange, but I can't help but think of the controversy around the use of ebonics in American schools. (News links via BoingBoing)

International Women's Week, Pt. 2

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

More Speed: Wireless G

Latest WiFi standard 802.11G "works with the older one, costs about 50 percent more, and is five times as fast -- a blazing increase. However, that makes it about 50 times faster than most cable Internet connections, a level of speed that is irrelevant for many users, at least for now... Wireless networking has taken off in the last couple of years, especially in the home. Homes accounted for half the $1.7 billion in wireless networking hardware bought last year, according to Infonetics Research... WiFi comes in a bewildering array of flavors, technically defined as 802.11A, B and G. B is the oldest, slowest and most popular. A and G are speedier, but A is better for large groups of users located close to a base station, while G penetrates walls better and is backward compatible with B. That means that consumers will probably want to choose between B and G, makers say. Apple has already made the decision for Macintosh users. It only sells Wireless G base stations, since they work with B- and G-equipped computers." Wireless Speed Demon Hits Homes.

Want even more speed? Check out Cory Doctorow's recent article on overclocking: Maximum Overdrive.

Monday, March 3, 2003

It's been snowing all day and the sun is going down...

white light fades to grey

International Women's Week

This year, Canadians will celebrate International Women's Week from Sunday, March 2 to Saturday, March 8, 2003, with the highlight being International Women's Day on March 8.

The Canadian theme for 2003 is World-Wide Women (WWW): Surfing the Digital Revolution!

The advent of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet, has revolutionized the way people communicate, access information, create networks, develop business opportunities, etc. While bringing important economic and social benefits, this revolution also poses challenges and risks. This theme encourages Canadians to take a closer look at the impact of ICTs, in particular Internet applications, on women and their use as a tool to empower women and to promote women's equality.

For more information, see Women and ICTs - a Status of Women Canada Fact Sheet.

Each day this week PLSJ will post links that celebrate the strength and diversity of women. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 1, 2003

Reminders to self

Tomorrow is the deadline for proposals to the Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 16-19.

Student research papers need to be marked by next Wednesday.

Relax. Remember that last week you read 1402 pages of academic research and wrote 11 pages. And that it made you feel like shite.

Smile. Next week at this time you will be in Austin for SXSW. And it will be warm and the sun will be shining.

Be kind. To everyone. And especially to yourself.

Of Man and Machine

Jonathan Jaynes passes along a link to Steve (Cyborg)Mann's latest article in First Monday, in which he argues for Attribution-free Content Generation.

An important goal of attribution-free computing is to provide a system where individuals can collectively communicate, and collectively author work, in such a way that the work cannot be attributed to a particular member of the collective... A collective deconsciousness allows for a state of thought, that is neither conscious, unconscious, nor subconscious, but, rather, a shared stream of thought, that evolves into something greater than its constituent parts.

I really like this idea of collaborative authoring, but I could do without this "shared stream of thought" bit. Sounds too much like the Borg Collective to me - but that's always been my complaint about Steve Mann's work.

But then he brings up a point I really appreciate:

But the interface to a collective deconsciousness is not easy to use. However, ease of use is not necessarily the most important element. In the same way that television is easier to use than books, there has been a disturbing trend toward not learning how computers work (e.g. how to "read" source code), and to instead adopt the mind-numbing notion of sourceless software coming from a monopoly or cartel. Teaching children how to use tools like PowerPoint and FrontPage instead of GNU Linux is kind of like teaching them how to use a television instead of how to read.

My student's papers were due yesterday, and so I heard various tales of crashed computers and lost writing. It got me thinking about when operating systems bombed semi-regularly, and if you wanted to use a computer, you learned how to fix it. With today's greater OS stability and interface ease-of-use, general users have no need to learn how their computer actually works. We have no problem learning how to tell time, tie our shoes or ride a bike, but we expect not to have to learn how to use a computer! That's ridiculous.

In our efforts to make sure that anyone can use a computer, we have effectively black-boxed (naturalised, and rendered invisible) how computers actually work and simultaneously implied that no one needs to understand how to use one. This creates a peculiar distance between computers and users, at the same time as it blurs other human-machine distinctions. Most of all, I worry that this distance affects our sense of accountability - and that perhaps this is what allows people to say "It isn't my fault - the computer did it!"

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