Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Writing Culture: The beauty of fieldnotes and the death of Edward Said

A fascinating read: Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1881)

Although they contain scant ethnographic information, Fletcher’s writings provide an important insight into the attitudes of many white scientists and administrators in the late nineteenth century with regard to what they termed "the Indian Question." As Native Americans faced the threat of white westward movement and land-hungry settlers, as well as brutal military aggression, many concerned Americans felt that the only way to "save" the Native American from extermination by civilization was to introduce them into American society – to "Americanize" the Native American. Many late nineteenth century Americans envisioned the movement of American civilization as the inevitable evolution of man’s mental and physical capacities. In contrast, Native American societies were considered to be primitive relics of man’s ancient past, and therefore in danger of extinction. Alice Fletcher subscribed to this theory, and although many of her comments may seem nothing short of absurd to our late-20th-century sensibilities, her writings reflect the attitudes regarding the movement of history and social evolution prevalent in her day.

Additionally, the text provides a rare glimpse of the trials early ethnographers faced. Like many of her contemporaries, Fletcher was untrained in ethnographic methods, and her notebooks chronicle her burgeoning understanding of the methodology of fieldwork. She also struggled to cope with the racial confrontations implicit in her ethnographic project. She recalled on the first leg of her trip to the Omaha reservation, "As we sat eating our dinner, Wajapa said, 'I believe all white men tell lies.' … I looked up as he spoke and found him looking at me with a seriousness and concentration of gaze that I can never forget. In it was memory, judgment based on hard fact. There was seemingly no appeal – two races confronted each other, and mine preeminently guilty."

I was trained during the era of anthropology that proclaimed as we write culture, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about others. But still bound by the rules of scientific inquiry, we do not publish our field-notes. They are carefully sifted through and selectively presented in ethnographic accounts, our original observations and interpretations hidden in old notebooks that no one ever reads. In all fairness, we protect these notes to ensure the confidentiality of our informants. And so it seems that it is only after an anthropologist - and her subjects - die that we may read these observations.

Personally, I think it's worth the wait. In fact, I've never read fieldnotes that didn't strike me as interesting. There is something about the rawness - a peculiar combination of vulnerability and certainty - that reveals the humanity of our studies and makes it difficult to separate subject from object. Good ethnographic accounts do that as well, making our field experiences present even if our notes are not.

And all this makes me think of Edward Said - far more than a Palestinian activist, Said was an absolutely brilliant scholar who illuminated the power relations inherent in Orientalist thought and challenged our perceptions of culture, us and other. He died last Thursday.

Monday, September 29, 2003

PLSJ Makeover

Why yes, things are looking different around here.

I was sick of looking at the site, and challenged myself to a 12-hour redesign (including production & testing).

I had only one guiding principle - to create something curvy and organic-looking with sharp geometric shapes ...

Well, it's now 8 hours and some odd minutes into the game, and everything is up and running except for a few pieces of content missing from the research and design section.

Comments? Suggestions?

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Testing

Sorry for the mess.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Today I am working on my thesis

It's dark and cold and rainy and the week already feels several weeks long with no end in sight. In situations like this I like to start the day listening to Silver Mt. Zion and Mogwai really loud. Nothing like tense, depressing music to cheer you up.

I've also set myself a concrete goal: I want to have my dissertation defended by this time next year.
No more fucking around.

And since it's been one of those weeks, I have rudely ignored Tobias' excellent post on Deleuze and Brian Massumi. (Incidentally, Tobias, I prefer Massumi to De Landa and think he does a great job of selectively advancing Deleuzian thought.)

[Next day update: ever procrastinating, I continue to play with quote boxes and css. Sorry for the mess.]

Thursday, September 25, 2003

On interdisciplinarity multidisciplinarity and leakage

In comments to this post, Joe recommended Lars Erik Holmquist's The PLAY Research Group: Entertainment and Innovation in Sweden (pdf). (For those of you who follow my research, you will know I am a big fan of the work that comes out of PLAY, the Interactive Institute and the Future Applications Lab.)

But here's the relevant bit:

Alan Kay once remarked that he was attracted to the MIT Media Lab because of the..."attempt to collide technology with the arts, rather than [to] collide technologists with artists," and continued "You're always better getting people who have already had that collision in themselves." In PLAY, rather than composing a multi-disciplinary group, we try to have a group of multi-disciplinary people ... No group member specializes in only one topic. A typical member has a degree in a relevant field such as computer science, informatics or fine arts, but a strong interest in several other fields such as electrical engineering, linguistics, literature, film, or music. Whether accompanied by academic degrees or not, a wide range of interests is seen as a vital factor in the composition of the group.

This reminds me of disciplinary heretics - those beautifully voluptuous people whose excesses leak out of their own disciplinary (and other) confines, those people who have the audacity to curve when everything else is straight.

And let's not kid ourselves - you can put together an interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) group, and if the people themselves aren't that way, voluptuousness will never prevail. They will hold themselves inside the lines, and will expect it of others.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

RFID "too good to stop"

The See-It-All Chip

"Privacy mavens are going to wring their hands over this, and I'm sympathetic," says [Paul] Saffo, "but RFID is too good to stop."

Shame that it gets discussed in such all-or-nothing terms ...

(via smartmobs)

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Hybrid Cities

My ever-thoughtful friend Fabio got me reading Anthony Townsend's recent dissertation, Wired / Unwired: The Urban Geography of Digital Networks, and it's good.

This dissertation examines the development of digital network infrastructure in the world’s great cities at the turn of the 21st century. Drawing upon the concept of cities as information systems and techniques of communications geography, it analyzes how the physical components of digital networks were deployed in major urban areas during the 1990s. It finds that historical processes and pre-existing differences between places shaped the evolution of this infrastructure at multiple spatial scales; global, metropolitan, and neighborhood. As a result, rather than bringing about the “death of distance”, digital network infrastructure actually reinforced many of the pre-existing differences between connected and disconnected places. With the telecom bust of 2000-2002, these differences were likely to persist for a decade or more. Yet just as the development of wired digital network infrastructure slowed, wireless technologies emerged as a more flexible, intuitive, and efficient form of connecting users to networks in everyday urban settings. As a result, an untethered model for digital networks emerged which combined the capacity and security of wired networks over long distances with the flexibility and mobility of wireless networks over short distances. This new hybrid infrastructure provided the technology needed to begin widespread experimentation with the creation of digitally mediated spaces, such as New York City’s Bryant Park Wireless Network.

On a related note, William Mitchell - his thesis supervisor - will be giving the keynote at UbiComp next month, speaking about his upcoming book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City.

And on a somewhat less related note, David Sucher at City Comforts has these brilliant (?!) things to say about yours truly ;)

[Update 25/09/03: Clay Shirky enthusiastically posted about Townsend's thesis at Many-to-Many, and neglects to mention that although the thesis is very well-written and interesting, there is an almost complete lack of critical perspective on the social and cultural impacts of wireless technologies. ]

Monday, September 22, 2003

In search of interdisciplinarity

Given my PhD studies and recent adventures in interdisciplinary design, I am very interested in the role of sociology and anthropology in the research and design of ubiquitous computing and mixed reality applications.

Current research in sociology and cognitive and computer sciences at the University of Surrey is closely related to my dissertation work: INCITE researchers are looking at connections between innovative ethnography, critical cultural theory and design, RIS:OME researchers are looking at regulation, information and the self: ownership and mobile environments, and the Interact Lab researchers are looking at pervasive environments and ubiquitous computing. However, there doesn't seem to be any obvious or overt connections between these projects - and I wonder how much influence sociology and anthropology actually have on the research and design of ubicomp ...

The RIS:OME project has organised The Life of Mobile Data: Technology, Mobility and Data Subjectivity conference, and I will be presenting a paper at the Alternative Mobility Futures conference at Lancaster University, but neither of these conferences seems to connect to the, shall we say, more technologically inclined - even when UbiComp researchers discuss mobilities and privacies here and here in prep for UbiComp 2003.

I am left wondering how successful our attempts at interdisciplinary research are actually going. The EC Convivio Network for social computing - our sponsors in Rome - seems dedicated to this sort of research and design, and I experienced the amazing work that comes from such an approach. And so when I read this Doors of Perception exchange, I found myself agreeing (and disagreeing) with both "sides" - and ultimately fearing we are no closer to true collaboration.

Now, I certainly don't mean to suggest a conspiracy - and I hold no particular discipline or sector any more or less responsible for this perceived lack. But, at least in my mind's eye, something is clearly (not) going on ... Am I misunderstanding? Too demanding? What do you think?

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Technology, design, culture and the city

Space and the social

Tobias reports on psychogeography at Next Five Minutes in Amsterdam.

On a related note, in Rome I met Martin and Andreas, two cool Danish architects currently working on their PhDs - and I think they would enjoy these links too.

city comforts | generaleyes | glowlab | headmap | icon's blog | metal machine music | notes from somewhere bizarre | social fiction

(Thanks Wilfried for pointing out that the original post was a bit confusing - between jetlag and a cold, my brain is a bit fuzzy these days.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

End of day thoughts

My advisor is away, and I teach his Urban Cultures class this week.

I need to re-read Dunne and Raby's Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. And The Practice of Everyday Life (including Living and Cooking) again - and connect them to strategic design.

I have two articles past due. (Bad Anne!) But I'm on it, I swear.

I will be participating in the Intimate Computing workshop at UbiComp (12-15 October in Seattle). And in the Collaborative Cartography and Locative Media panel at VSMM Hybrid Realities: Art, Technology and the Human Factor (15-17 October in Montreal). Drop me a line if you're going to be at either place.

After much this and that, today I took a year-long teaching assistantship for Power and Everyday Life.

Mozzarella di Bufala - my new favourite cheese - arrives by air at the local Italian deli every Thursday. Sweet.

Massages are good. Really good.

Happy to be home

Back from my trip, and happy to return to cool weather and the creature comforts of home. A wee bit of jetlag made it impossible to sleep but I'm being thrown right back into the thick of things so here we go.

Internet access was limited to about 15 minutes on weekdays the entire time I was in Italy, which gave me just enough time to read and answer important emails. If you wrote me during the last two weeks, I will do my best to respond in the next couple of days.

Our mornings were spent in lectures: I have posted my notes according to the day they were written - this means that OVER A DOZEN SEPARATE POSTS HAVE JUST BEEN PUBLISHED, but it helps me maintain my archives. READ FROM BOTTOM TO TOP.

Afternoons were spent in design ateliers: details on our work are still to come ...

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Report from Italia - Parting Thoughts

Finally got to do some sightseeing and shopping - unbelievable to have spent two weeks here and see almost nothing. Most people checked out the city last weekend when I went north, and I am disappointed that I didn't get to see the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta ... but I do not regret my decision and will simply have to return with my sweetheart.

Still, I can say that the piazzas, fountains and Roman ruins do not fail to impress and standing at the umbilicus mundi was pretty cool. And despite enjoying my tour of the grand Italian fashion houses, it is the smaller local designers that are making really beautiful and cutting edge clothing.

The last couple of days were hectic but I really enjoyed working with the people in my atelier group. A wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and personal styles made things a little difficult at times, but I still believe that diversity fosters creativity and this is the best way to do it. I also enjoyed meeting all the others - and special thanks go to Freddie, David and Magnus for being so damn brilliant and fun!

Friday, September 12, 2003

Report from Italia - Invisible Cities III

The prototypes are finally done and we will present our work to the group tomorrow morning. Do not have digital copy of the presentation ... WHO DOES?

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Report from Italia - Invisible Cities II

Atelier Design Brief complete: "From Bovine Horde to Urban Players: Re-envisioning Tourism"
Do not have digital copy ... WHO DOES?

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Report from Italia - technical rationality + aesthetics + phronesis = design

wisdom and artistry

politics and art are one

speculative propositions:

neither statements of fact

nor prescriptions of what ought to be

phronesis: an anxious act of political love

(Pelle's most inspiring presentation slide)

Report from Italia - Collective Design and A Digital Bauhaus

Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Report from Italia - Invisible Cities

My design atelier (the Promiscuous Horde, led by Alan Munro) is developing a prototype under the theme of Invisible Cities - or ways to augment our experience of the city. SWEET!

More soon ...

Monday, September 8, 2003

Report from Italia - Varese and Mantova

I am now on the train returning to Roma. Fabio and Molly (arriving from Ivrea) met me at the train station in Milano on Friday and we drove the hour or so to Fabio's house.

Fabio and his very lovely fiance Valeria live in a gorgeous old building near the small town of Varese, close to the border with Switzerland, in an area filled with beautiful lakes and lush vegetation. The church bells ring every hour and fill the air with sound, although it was the incredible warmth and generosity of my hosts that I most cherish and will not forget. Grazie!

Yesterday we drove the few hours to Mantova to meet Howard, who had been promoting the Italian translation of Smart Mobs at a literature festival. After exploring the town's piazzas and shops, we shared a lovely dinner and many hours of excellent conversation: it is so good to be among friends ... and we all wished that Adam could have joined us.

This morning Valeria and Fabio took us to a monastery on the Lago Maggiore (I really will post the pictures eventually) and we shared brunch before driving back to the train station in Milano. I saw Molly off to Ivrea and shortly boarded my own train (non-smoking this time).

Now I think it is time to nap ...

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Report from Italia - Travelling and the City

I am currently on the train to Milano, to finally meet Fabio and Molly after a busy first week in Roma. The only available seat was in the smoking section, and I did not know it was possible to smoke as much as the two older gentlemen beside me have been and despite turning up the volume of my music, I cannot seem to block the smoke from my senses. I think it will be a long trip, but out the window I can see rolling hills, old stone houses, vineyards, fields of sunflowers and olive trees...

But what about Roma?

Yesterday at dusk we visited the property of the Knights of Malta - perhaps the world's smallest sovereign state. Surrounded by an imposing wall, you cannot go inside but are able to look through a keyhole in the main doors. Astoundingly, the keyhole offers a direct line of sight to the Vatican, as if to keep an unflinching eye on the Church. Never have I seen such a small design feature embody such history and power, and all while it limits one's gaze. Stunning. And no doubt a bonus for conspiracy theorists.

My hotel is very near to the Roman Temple of Minerva, and in a city where the Empire remains visible at nearly every turn, these ruins do not even show up on maps. We have been so busy, I have seen little else of the city and am looking forward to next Friday and Saturday when I will finally have a chance to explore. In the meantime, I plan to continue to enjoy the wonderful food and wine.

I am sharing a room with two brilliant women: Frederique (from Amsterdam) and Joana (from Lisbon) and I have never been with so many creative, intelligent and diverse people: computer scientists, architects, graphic designers, engineers, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, industrial designers and others from Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Portugal, France, Germany... It's amazing really.

Friday, September 5, 2003

Report from Italia - Designing Mixed Reality

More notes on Liam Bannon lecture:

MR Research & Design Space

** Materiality of objects (centrality of artefacts in everyday life)
** Human Activity (fundamental human being-in-the-world)
Engagement (excite, motivate, enhance)
** Interaction (human play as narrative, not action-reaction)
Multimodality (using several senses)
** Sociality (allowing for collaboration)
Augmentation (better paper, not no paper)

[** within the field of sociology/anthropology]

Report from Italia - On Forgetting

Information taken out of context can be dangerous. Memory is important and interesting but SO IS FORGETTING.

We need to forget certain things to survive and stay together. What will happen if everything is tracked and recorded. How will we be able to forget? Will the owners and administrators of the data allow us to forget?

For example, we have social and cultural practices (expectations and norms) in place that accomodate comments MADE IN PASSING ... what if certain comments are not allowed to pass?

Report from Italia - Conceptualising Human Activities in Context

Notes on Liam Bannon lecture:

When we define interaction or even design, it may be more useful to say that the definition is not one for all space and time, but rather in a particular place, with particular people, trying to accomplish something in particular ...

We do not want to actually "interact" with a computer - we want to DO something and have the computer mediate (assist/improve/simplify etc.) this "doing"

We need to explore the design space where we DO NOT MODEL THE USER ...

[Hear hear! Just say no to personas!]

We have moved from the physical to the digital (Negroponte) and now back to the physical (AR, UbiComp etc.)

[Is this merely reactionary? Are we returning to universalist or (yikes!) positivist, systems thinking?]

Taking inspiration from Engelbart - augmentation NOT substitution

Computers cannot make meaning - what we need to do is put that in the hands of users ... Sensors can give indications of certain parameters without telling you what that state IS ...

[This is still modelling: the parameters themselves have been interpreted as meaningful enough to measure and/or track ... This thinking does not go far enough ...]

See also: Liam's publications on interaction design

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Report from Italia - Generative Art

Notes on Riccardo Antonini lecture:

Mixed Reality as GENERATIVE ART

Think about what this can mean ...

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Report from Italia - Power Laws in Design

Notes on John Thackara lecture:

"Little changes in design thinking can have profound effects."

Innovation space comprises physical and social contexts, actors, systems of interaction (open?), interfaces + tools, and stories (interaction as narrative). We need a balance between synchronous and asynchronous, social and solitary, local and longitudinal approaches.

Thackara's Law:
smart technology + pointless product = stupid technology

Design PROPOSITIONS not laws

1. social value, not technological value
2. conviviality
3. context = value (choronomy: the value of a biological organism is given by its context. See also SITUATIONISM and the SI archives)
4. P2P (not point-to-mass)
5. design people IN
6. new business models needed
7. LESS! brand intrusion, semiotic pollution, technological spam

See also: Design-recast: the world as spread-sheet for more on choronomy and design.

Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Report from Italia - Mixed Reality

The quick and dirty - more notes on Wendy Mackay's lecture:

Virtual reality (VR) creates a simulated and immersive environment; augmented reality (AR) was created in opposition and superimposes the virtual on the real; in mixed reality (MR), people interact with physical objects that are linked to virtual objects. AR includes wearable computing, and MR more specifically "takes physical objects and makes them virtual."

[I'm not sure I really understand the differences between augmented and mixed reality - and this inarticulate use of real and virtual is confusing ...]

Ubiquitous computing is currently focused on context - but the context of technology (eg. location-awareness) NOT of users. When we speak of "augmenting" reality, we may augment the user (wearables), we may augment the environment (smart spaces), and we may augment objects (e-textiles).

The design space for mixed reality technologies involves technical issues like capturing information from an object, presenting information to a user, and registering or tracking an object. Usability issues include how augmenting an object affects the user, and asking the simple question: "Are these technologies even useful?"

When we speak of "invisible" technologies, we may be describing "black-boxed" objects in which technological complexity is completely hidden or we may be describing "transparent" objects where technology is revealed by rendering the walls invisible (note that revealing complexity does not necessarily offer greater understanding of how the machine works).

The real question here though is IF interfaces should be invisible: how will users know what to do or what is being done?

Proposed research strategy: observe people in real settings; brainstorm new ideas with users; design systems grounded in real use. EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION.

Report from Italia - Convivial Design

According to our morning lecturers, The EU Convivio Network (our host) believes that the open discussion of the purposes of, and underlying values inherent in, our new technologies is of paramount importance for the future of European society. Designing new technologies raises issues of sustainability, aesthetics and quality of life, and successful design respects the diversity of human practice.

Wendy Mackay spoke on the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary design. For example, those trained in the human sciences tend to ask "How do I understand this?" while designers ask "How can I create this?" and engineers ask "How do I create this technically?". In many ways, the differences between approaches comes down to differences between obtrusive or unobtrusive research operations and universal or particular behavioural interpretations. For example, my research tends toward qualitative understandings of particular contexts, and that sometimes makes it difficult for me to understand and work with quantitative and universal explanations. The challenge is to create shared - but not necessarily common - understandings. What this means is that none of us has all the answers and we can all benefit from different perspectives if we are willing to learn from each other and put each others' expertise to use.

[Update: Been thinking about the distinction between shared and common understanding ... I like the idea of SHARED understanding more because it requires that we remain specialists. In other words, it requires that WE ALL DO WHAT WE DO BEST - and that if an engineer does some ethnographic studies she does not get to call herself an ethnographer (and neither does the ethnographer get to call himself an engineer if he does some engineering stuff). There is a difference between having a good understanding of what other people on the design team do, and becoming expert at it. This also relates to participatory or user-centred design: design expertise is still required even if "users" are more actively involved in the design process.]

She discussed how the best design is done with empathy for people whose lifestyles, values and experiences we do not necessarily share. Good design then is an expression of solidarity, flowing in and out of others. I like this idea, and it certainly shares much in common with what I understand as a sociologist and anthropologist. I also suspect that designers (in the broadest sense) who have no interest in different perspectives will always design things that have little chance of making the world a better place - and despite all our differences, it seems that all of us are here to do just that, to learn from each other so that we may build beautiful technologies. Wendy went on to explain that the basic design process for this type of collaborative and participatory design moves from observation to brainstorming to prototyping to evaluating - which of course moves us back to observation and begins the process again. Human and natural scientists, designers and engineers all have something to contribute to this process, and each will come to the foreground at different points.

Report from Italia - Prelude

Everything is good, but Internet access is only available at the design school and our time is tightly managed. My first night in Roma, a man passing me on the street grabbed my breast. My immediate reaction was to hit him. He laughed. I will write more as it comes to me, and post all of it when I get the chance.

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