Saturday, July 24, 2004

Ubicomp and Situationism

I keep trying to figure out why Situationism is the social-cultural theory of choice in so many (city-based) ubicomp projects and discussions. I guess I care because critical theories of everyday life are of particular interest to me, and I often enough see designers and technologists appropriating these perspectives in ways that, at best, lack nuance and, at worst, suggest misunderstanding.

Now I'm not trying to be difficult, but I am concerned that some people outside the social sciences and humanities are taking these critiques of everyday life out of context. What I mean is that terms like subjectivity, reflexivity, performativity, sociality, culture, collective action, ethics, practice, difference, city, urban, production, consumption - and even everyday life - come with problematic histories of their own. They are not givens and there are large bodies of literature that are being overlooked.

But I also don't mean to suggest that there isn't good work out there. For example, Rune Huvendick Jensen and Tau Ulv Lenskjold recently presented Designing for social friction: Exploring ubiquitous computing as means of cultural interventions in urban space (pdf), which is quite interesting despite a few obscurities, over-generalisations and limited perspective.

What remains most unclear in the projects and discussions that come to mind is how designers and technologists are dealing with critical theory and notions of strategic or tactical cultural intervention. Is it enough to say that a given ubiquitous computing application allows people to produce their own content or experience the city on their own terms? Who provides this technology in the first place? Who uses it? And for what? The technology itself still seems to be considered neutral, and the vision of social and cultural (inter)action is most often utopian.

I'd be most interested to hear from designers working with Situationist theory or other critiques of everyday life. What are the benefits of such approaches? What are the differences between critical design and critical technologies? What types of social and cultural critique become possible, or desirable?


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