Saturday, January 31, 2004

My other place

Things might be a bit quiet around here as I try to breathe some life into the Space and Culture blog, and convince Rob that he should be posting there as well...

Please feel free to drop by and offer words of encouragement.

Sol y sombra

Torero - Ruven AfanadorTorero - Ruven Afanador

Ruven Afanador's photos of toreros from Colombia, Mexico, Perú, and Spain. Oh my, how very beautiful.

The first time I went to a bullfight, I was nervous and anxious. I had no desire to watch an animal suffer, but in the face of my mother's unwavering insistence that we experience all aspects of the cultures of the countries in which we lived, I silently capitulated. And few experiences in my life would compare to the astounding beauty and eroticism I saw that day. The matador was the most stunning creature I had ever seen: his costume reminded me of a peacock, and his back arched like a suspension bridge when he stood in front of the bull. I was afraid for him, and I resented the animal he challenged. The competition was extraordinary, and enthralled with their dance, I sobbed when the bull finally fell. I looked at the matador and he may as well have been glowing: not a piece of clothing ruffled, nor sweat or a drop of blood. He was perfection and calmness in the face of chaos. When they gave him the ears and tail - the ultimate reward for a good fight - I stood and cheered. I was 11 years old and so began a love affair that persists to this day.

In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes writes:

So the young matador is a prince of the people, a deadly prince who can kill only because he exposes himself to death. The bullfight is an opening to the possibility of death, and it is subject to a precise set of rules ... It is up to the matador to discover what sort of animal he has to contend with, in order to transform his meeting with him from a fact of nature into a ceremony, a ritual, a taming of the natural force. The bullfighter must first of all measure himself against the horns of the bull, see which way the bull charges, and then cross himself against the bull's horns ... This is done by the strategem of "breaking the bull's charge," cargar la suerte, which is at the heart of bullfighting ... By capework and footwork, the matador makes the bull change direction and go toward the field of battle chosen by the bullfighter; leg forward, hip bent, the matador summons the bull with the cape, bull and bullfighter moving together, achieving the perfect pase, the astonishing instant of a statuesque coupling, bull and fighter interlaced, entwined, giving each other the qualities of force, beauty and risk, in an image that seems at the same time immobile and dynamic. The mythic moment is restored: man and bull are once more, as in the labyrinth of Minos, the same.

(photo link via ashleyb)

Friday, January 30, 2004

Running through Venice just like everyone else

My friend Liz was kind enough to share this wonderful story with me:

I just saw this incredible academic (history) talk called "Running Alternatives: Spies on the Streets of Early Seventeenth-Century Venice" that I am burning to tell someone, anyone about. Do me a favor and listen.

In the presentation, this absolutely insane (or very sane, I don't know) grad student retraces a frantic chase that a pair of counter-espionage agents took through the streets of Venice in November of 1622. One spy, Domenico, is a gondolier and would-be spy recently dismissed from the household of the Spanish ambassador; the other, Vano, is his world-weary handler in the Venetian espionage service. It is Domenico, pursued by Spanish assassins, who runs across the Bridge of Angels and turns left into Paradise Alley; it is Vano, writing deadpan reports to their Venetian masters, who tells the story of Domenico's flight. A month later, Vano writes in a later report, the Spanish ambassador and Domenico meet in the neutral ground of a church. The Spanish ambassador promises Domenico that all will be forgiven and that Domenico will have a place again in his household if Domenico tells Vano that another man, Battista, is a double agent passing false reports to the Venetians. Domenico promises to do so, but then makes a full report to Vano of the entire conversation. Five months later the two are dead, hung by Venice for perjury. In his confession before his death, Vano writes that he is innocent of the accusations, and that if he did do something wrong, it was "for the good."

Jonathan (that's the student's name), is trying to figure out what went wrong. In an attempt to reconstruct the fateful assassination attempt, he tries to follow Domenico's path (as reported by Vano) on a map of Venice. But there's a problem: you cannot now and never could turn left into Paradise Alley from the Bridge of Angels. The two are separated by a few streets, so either Domenico or Vano lied. The distance from the bridge to the alley is at best a two-and-a-half minute run, with a number of twists and turns. Jonathan, obsessed with the missing two-and-a-half minutes, goes to Venice in pursuit of the two hapless spies and the lost time.

He finds neither.

Instead, he tries to imagine what happened by creating a set of comic book spreads telling the story from Domenico's point of view, using photos he took in Venice. He retells the story as if it were a movie script, at one point making the pun: "cut to the chase." Ha, ha, ha, he says. He tries a deliberate parody of 19th century pedantism, and makes a decision tree for all the possible rationales for the Spanish Ambassador's offer to Domenico ("Reason 2C: The offer is not genuine; it is designed to make Vano suspicious of Domenico, but remove suspicion from Battista, who actually is a double agent." "Reason 3A: There was never a meeting at all. Vano is lying in order to make his life look more perilous than it is."). He starts seeing echoes of the textures of Venice's buildings in Vano's reports: the variegated browns of the cramped, ornamented script eerily resemble his photos of Venice's 400-year-old wooden walls and brick fronts. He makes drawings in the style of 17th century woodcuts of all the people who end up dying by May, 1623. Then he adds a portrait of himself, following them.

He never figures out what happened in November of 1622. Instead he finds a set of alternative chases through the streets of Venice. And each chase ends at the gallows. Jonathan claims that now he can't find a publisher for his book on the parallels between espionage and history, can't find a job, can't get academic respect. It's a fantastic story, and he tells it well. I wanted so hard for him to find everything he wanted, even though the point of the story is, after all, that he's running through Venice just like everyone else.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Social beasts

Molly's got a new blog and she's called it Social Beasts. Sweet!

i'm taking a look at issues of design for social networks. it's not specifically about social software (a moniker i find a bit dubious) -- what i'm teaching at ivrea is that you can't just do user-centered design, but you have to look at the dynamics of a social network in order to understand what really motivates the people you're studying.

It's no surprise that I think it's all good to think about the social bits!

I'm really looking forward to this - and the next time we see each other, we'll have to discuss post-structural ways of looking at social interaction... it's not all power laws and sunshine, you know ;)

Now that I think about it, when focus shifted from "online community" to "social software," associated methods and theories shifted too. The (quantitative) structural and systems approaches of social software leave little room for (qualitative) processual approaches to community or cultural interaction. But more on that some other time...

Update (29/01/04) - Two things:

1. Many thanks to those who recently invited me to join Orkut. Of course I signed up and played around, and then sent an email to the admin folks asking them to delete my account (don't get me started on how I feel about not being able to delete my own account). I'm not trying to be difficult or anti-social, but I just don't see the point of sites like these. They remind me too much of high school - and I hated high school. I do, however, enjoy all sorts of other types of social interaction (including email) so if you'd like to talk to me please feel free to write me directly :-)

2. Interesting post on the failure of the social network sites. "So why don't they work? Because they are not social networks." Exactly. And they sure as hell aren't communities either. Why did it take someone so long to say this?! (via m2m)

But I'll stop here, before I become indistinguishable from a curmudgeonly old man.

Update (30/01/04) - Michael has an excellent post about why social software doesn't work. "What designers of systems like Friendster and Tribe think are social networks is different from what social networks actually are. What TeledyN [linked in #2 above] misses is that his definition of social networks isn’t social networks either ... Real social network software looks a lot more like Echelon or CAPPS than it looks like any variant of Friendster, Tribe, or Orkut. In fact, it looks a lot like Big Brother. And that’s never going to sell." Heh heh.

Update (31/01/04) - Hmm. Michael claims that with sites like Orkut, "You don’t build networks; you play the network game." Seems he's right ;) I just received this message:
Hi Anne. At your request, your account has been deleted. Thanks for playing.

And now for something less serious, but no less important

I'm a little late in mentioning it, but Adam is lit up these days. First he takes on those who like to self-righteously piss on Starbuck's and Ikea. After all, I agree that stickin' it to The Man is a lot more complicated than NoLogo-style activists would have us believe. But here's the important bit:

What I would sorely like to do is channel all the resentment currently directed at what are, after all, relatively benign inhabitants of the corporate sphere where it belongs, to drop all of that change energy on the institutions that actually are responsible for far greater deformations of the world. Is a little sense of scale too much to ask for?

Nope. Makes perfect sense to me. Not every fight is a good fight, and learning to fight the right battles may be tricky, but it's pretty important. It also helps to understand what sort of change you are trying to affect. If you're looking for points of intervention, you should probably understand the differences between points of decision, production, consumption, destruction and, my personal favourite, points of assumption.

And today Adam posted on something I have also noticed recently: what happens when the fringe goes mainstream? He uses porn as an example, and I have often wondered what will happen to notions of intimacy in a porn-saturated world? How will it change the ways we understand gender, sex and sexuality? How we view our own bodies and desires? Or how we react to the desires and bodies of others? And what about when all of this is directly - and for some, exclusively - tied to mass production and consumption? And then I wonder what is considered fringe sexuality when porn/BDSM/whatever is mainstream? What does it mean to be on the sexual edge these days? But then again, I'm not sure I really want to know ;)

Ethics and politics

Irritant has a nice post on a conversation between Slavoj Zizek and Udi Aloni at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London on Tuesday night.

I would have loved to be there, and to own a copy of Aloni's Local Angel DVD and book (with commentary by Avital Ronell, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek).

Steven Shaviro wrote on Zizek's politics last summer. I would agree that he is a very powerful thinker - and not least because he asks such bloody good questions that it's okay when you can't agree with his answers. In December Steven also posted on Zizek vs. Deleuze - a must-read for philosophy geeks.

(I am also mesmerised by his recent post on the fiction of Can Xue and impressed by his charitable review of Bill Mitchell's latest book.)

James Hurley's Real Virtuality: Slavoj Zizek and "Post-Ideological" Ideology is a thorough review of Zizek's The Plague of Fantasies and a nice introduction to his philosophy and political theory, including his associations with other post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

I also have to mention Latour's Iconoclash as an important intervention into discussions of contemporary ideological practices.

(And if anyone has ever wondered what type of philosophy I follow, this is the best reading list I know of. Not all my cup of tea - but pretty close. And good to build social and cultural theory.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras

(plus en français)

Information cities

The February issue of Communications of the ACM includes some interesting articles on Information Cities (ACM membership required to read full articles).

Lee Sproull & John F. Patterson's Making information cities livable looks at cities of people rather than cities of bits:

No one says, "I live in Manhattan because it contains so much information" or "I was really happy to move out of Elmtown because it contained so little information." Information is but one part of what makes cities lively and livable. Designers and policymakers focusing exclusively on the information component of information cities miss the fact that much of what makes physical cities desirable places to live and do business in, as well as just to visit, is the interactions among people ... Designers of infocities must look beyond providing information to providing support for the active participation of residents in the life of the city ...

Broadening the focus of a community's Net-based infrastructure from providing information about a particular community to supporting participation within it raises a host of research issues for designers of both computer tools and social tools. Here, we raise four policy issues. The first is the question of how open or closed infocities associated with local communities should be? ... The second issue is the size or granularity of an infocity associated with a physical community. In the physical world, people inhabit multiple, nested, partially overlapping local communities and neighborhoods. The same is probably true in an infocity associated with a physical community. How can these different, but related, spaces be represented and navigated? ... The third issue is the digital divide. Conventionally, it has been framed in terms of access to computing technology. However, even when unequal access is no longer a significant concern, the digital skills divide may still be a concern ... The fourth issue is the relationship between physical city participation and infocity participation ... A potential negative consequence of providing support for electronic participation is that people participating face-to-face might be lured away from these venues to the more comfortable and convenient electronic forms of participation. The history of technology and social change is full of unintended consequences. That would probably be a bad one.

On the more techical side, in Blending digital and physical spaces for ubiquitous community participation, Elizabeth Churchill, Andreas Girgensohn, Les Nelson and Alison Lee write:

Much effort has gone into creating online spaces for people to meet, network, share, and organize. However, relatively little effort has gone into creating awareness of online social activities in physical community places ... We have found that development of online forums in communities of interest and practice is usually a slow process. Little is done to promote them, and, unlike physical community gathering places, casual, drive-by encounters are unlikely. When developing such forums, we therefore provide windows blurring the notional boundary between digital and physical activity spaces and look to blend online and face-to-face community participation. We focus on enabling unplanned, everyday encounters with online community activity by publishing the interactive, multimedia content associated with online community spaces in physical gathering places through large-screen public displays.

The paper discusses the use of FX PAL's Plasma Poster Network at two professional conferences, and in order to evaluate its applicability outside contexts where there is a high knowledge of, and interest in, experimental technologies, they have recently "installed a digital community bulletin board in a café/gallery in San Francisco, linking it to an online community space where content about café activities is posted."

It should be interesting to see how that works out, and it reminded me of Eric Laurier's current research project, The Cappuccino Community : cafés and civic life in the contemporary city.

For more on everyday life in the caffeinated city, see also: A café as it happens; having breakfast out (Eric Laurier) and An ethnography of a neighbourhood café: informality, table arrangements and background noise (Eric Laurier, Angus Whyte, Kathy Buckner).

If you like more political perspectives, you might enjoy Raoul Vaneigem on The Space-Time Of Lived Experience (1967).

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Conferences as boundary practices

As my thesis progresses, so too unfold my explicit concerns with the ethics and politics of emerging technologies. To me, this is crucial to sociality - or what it means to be social - and one of the reasons I find many discussions around "social software" to have little to do with sociability.

How often do we ask if people even want particular technologies? Or if certain technologies should be developed at all? Where do we get together to talk about who gets to make these decisions in the first place? When do we suggest that it might be good to slow down a bit and find out who benefits from our innovations and who does not? Or why they might be advantageous in some contexts and not others? How do we ensure that everyone's experiences and voices are heard - and valued?

When Bill Joy suggests that technological progress might not be all good - and that scientists should have to follow a code of ethics - he becomes Killjoy, the Luddite. Now, I don't entirely agree with his position but it also seems we are not very forgiving of critical perspectives on scientific and technological innovation. Clearly, we are too often skipping the middle ground between unbridled technological development and fear of technological change - and I think we need to spend some quality time in that space sorting things out.

And just as important is ensuring equal access to these spaces.

In a couple of weeks, some very bright and dedicated people will be converging at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference - and even more very bright and dedicated people will not be able to afford to attend. Boo hoo, say some. Well, yes and no. Sure, I wish I had the money to go - these are just some of the presentations I would like to see - but it is not irrelevant that conferences like this are more exclusive than inclusive. How can we expect discussions of technological divides, when the barrier to entering the conference itself is so high?

Even excellent blog coverage doesn't give absent voices a presence at the conference - where alliances will be forged and decisions will be made.

It makes me think about how academics have long been derided for ivory tower elitism - yet despite certain barriers to participation (like specialised language) many academic conferences and lectures are free to attend and open to the public. Technology conferences, by-and-large, not only have similar cultural barriers but also significant economic barriers to participation.

And this has ethical and political - social and cultural - implications. Even when technology conferences have panels specifically dedicated to grassroots innovation and the wireless commons - again with very bright and dedicated panelists - I can't help but wonder how many non-profits or other grassroots organisations can actually afford the registration fees, not to mention the travel and accomodation costs? With these sort of access issues, are we only paying lip-service to the people these technologies are supposed to be helping? Who, exactly, benefits from these conferences?

I don't have all the answers. Hell, I only have a few of the questions. But I do believe these are important matters.

What do you think?

Make your own axis

RED#NET - a multi-functional, permeable, portable surface that reroutes and reapplies public space - spanning gaps and blocking flow.

(via personaldebris)

Emotional landscapes

This weekend Opportunity sees Meridiani Planum and Anne sees A Silver Mt. Zion.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

The humblest fungus

Hypogymnia imshaugii or forked tube lichen

From the Lichen Portrait Gallery. Stephen & Sylvia Sharnoff also take amazing photos of fungi and slime molds.

The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest to us, compared with a mere mass of earth, because it is so obviously organic and related to ourselves, however remote. It is the expression of an idea; growth according to a law; matter not dormant, not raw, but inspired, appropriated by spirit. If I take up a handful of earth, however separately interesting the particles may be, their relation to one another appears to be that of juxtaposition generally. I might have thrown them together thus. But the humblest fungus betrays a life akin to our own. It is a successful poem in its kind.

- Henry David Thoreau

A (pretty) mixed bag

Strictly Kev's 40-minute Raiding the 20th Century - A History of the Cutup / tracklisting here. Wow. WOW! (via cityofsound)

Steve at snarkout looks at the camera obscura, camera lucida and art history.

And via consumptive - the Dictionary of Fever.

The Speech Accent Archive: 298 Native and non-native speakers of English all read the same English paragraph. Interesting. (via k10k)

Friday, January 23, 2004

DIY Blogging

It may be my long love of punk rock and 'zine culture, and it may be that I am getting older, but this is the best story about weblogs I have ever read and nothing short of bloody inspiring:

Weblogs are a party, damn it, and sometimes they're publications too, or instead, and sometimes they're diaries, sometimes they're pieces of art, sometimes they're tools for self-promotion, sometimes they're money-maknig ventures, sometimes they're monuments to ego, sometimes they're massive wanks, sometimes they're public services, sometimes they're dedications of faith, sometimes they're communities. Always, they are a public face, one chosen and crafted to varying degrees, of the people who write them. They are avatars, masks, or revelations of our deepest selves. They are political or philosophical, merrily inebriate or sententiously sober. Do not listen to those who would tell you what they are not ...

Write well, write badly, whatever, just create. If you are saying things that stir people, they will respond. If you can't write well, write with such passionate muscularity that people stand back and go 'whoa!' Make things, reach out to people. If you write well, keep doing it, and get better, and don't kiss ass for personal gain. If not, just go, bash that keyboard, make a hideous, amateurish squall, one to which, if it has some kernel of glorious truthtelling, people will respond.

Difference is good. (via v-2)

Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Sounds of Mobility, Part II

I've always been attracted to what can be broadly referred to as sounding technologies - or devices that make sound. For last week's Approaching the City colloquium at the University of Surrey, I submitted a poster on The Sounds of Mobility and began to discuss my inspiration in the space and culture blog - some of which I'd like to repeat here and build on.

The archetypal mobile sound device is the Sony Walkman - introduced in 1979 - or similar personal portable stereos. Originally seen as terribly anti-social technology, Walkman users in headphones were derided for shutting themselves out from the world around them. More recent research (by people like Michael Bull) continues to acknowledge the isolating aspects but also the ways in which people actively use Walkmans to negotiate space, time and boundaries of self.

In October, I posted on tunA - a project of the Human Connectedness Group at Media Lab Europe - which begins by asking "Can the Walkman become a social experience?" tunA uses iPaqs and ad-hoc wireless networks to allow users to listen to what other users in close physical proximity are listening to, creating a sort of shared listening experience. Community is based on a love of music, and Mark Frauenfelder recently suggested that technologies like this will help turn strangers into friends.

One of my dissertation case studies - Sonic City - takes mobile sounding machines to a new level by creating a "system that enables people to create music in real time by walking through and interacting with the urban environment." What makes Sonic City particularly interesting in my mind is the use of the city itself as interface, or more precisely, city sounds used to generate electronic music and city soundscapes.

In the tunA scenario, users remain isolated from their surrounding physical environment but connected to other people. In the Sonic City scenario, users remain isolated from other people, but are connected to their surrounding physical environment. What both have in common is the use of headphones, which limits how sound can be heard. And sound may very well be irrelevant if it isn't heard.

What I really mean is that sound made is not the same as sound heard - although both are interconnected. For example, while headphones may isolate their wearers from external sounds, they also prevent public disruption associated with boom boxes or the ill-named ghetto blaster. And it is this disorder that interests me because without the ability to disrupt, mobile sounding technologies are limited in their ability to critique daily life in urban or other public spaces.

A less obvious mobile sounding technology is the skateboard. As Iain Borden reminds us in Skateboarding, Space and the City, while the skateboard's main purpose is not to make sound, the sound of skateboarding is integral to its experience. It is part of how skaters sense surface conditions, speed, grip and predictability. But other people hear the sounds - the noise - of skateboards as well:

Skaters ... add another sound component to the non-skater's experience of the urban realm; the skateboard's distinctive sounds are unlike any other others in the city, and overtaking slower pedestrians can cause them consternation: "When a group of kids skates down a sidewalk you can really hear it" ...

The use of ramps in urban areas ... almost invariably brings complaints from neighbours about noise, because the repetitive cracks and grinds ... create a sound pattern more akin to that of a construction site than to that of a residential area.

Because skating interferes with the "normal" and "acceptable" use of public space, our attention is shifted to the relations between public action and silence. In other words, we can do what we want in public space, so long as we don't make any noise while doing it. Skateboarding challenges those limitations on public performance; it acts as social critique.

Both tunA and Sonic City may be understood as critical technologies, in the tradition of conceptual design, but their inability to disrupt public space prevents them from also being powerful types of social critique.

On the other hand, Glitch - part of the Tejp project and another of my case studies - is a good example of a critical technology capable of social critique:

An array of speakers are hidden in public places. When passing by the project site, people receiving sms or incoming calls involuntarily cause loud transient glitch noises to be heard along their path. The nature and origin of the noises are familiar and easily identifiable but the speakers are hidden. Because of the linear disposition of the speaker array along a usual pedestrian path, the glitches stalk the person during the whole phase of mobile communication initiation.

Glitch draws our attention to the use of private technologies in public spaces, as well as amplifying less visible or audible signals, and consequently serves as a critique of some of the social and environmental aspects of mobile phones.

When we still focus so much on visual technologies and representation, as well as usability, sounding devices offer unique opportunities for abusability and technological and social critique - especially when used to challenge our understandings of public and private, local and global interaction.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The Sounds of Mobility, Part I

Walking through sound by David Toop

Electricity liberated humans from darkness but fixed them in space; audio and visual recordings liberated humans from transience but fixed their experiences into frozen memories. Wireless technologies have proved just how willing people are to be disconnected from the umbilical cords that connect them physically to the power grid and to telephone networks ...

Artists who work with soundscapes – recordings of environmental sound either presented as documents in themselves or incorporated into musical compositions or installations – may deal with concerns ranging from conservation, noise control and urban planning to neglected historical narratives, personal memory and the immersive atmosphere of place. Perhaps the highly charged issues raised by walking through sound can interlock with the promise of wireless technology: freedom to roam, a reaction against passive consumption, active discovery in habitual environments.

Thanks Lalya!

On my mind

Paul Ford on Class: How the other 0.1% lives

Imagination is an Instrument of Survival by Christina Ulke (including the Los Angeles Art and Technology Hackers Club and Brainstorm Cluster)

De-Colonizing the Revolutionary Imagination: by Patrick Reinsborough (especially the section on direct action at the point of assumption)

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project

Snarkout blog (including the brilliant tagline: if all is mobility, mathematics won't do)

Adam Greenfield on public space, and its negation

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Mobility is political and networks fail

Howard Rheingold's latest article in TheFeature, Urban Infomatics Breakout, looks at relations between wireless technologies and the city - and despite reservations I discuss below, I think he is quite right to suggest discussion in terms of open and closed networks:

I believe the most important critical uncertainty today is whether location-based media will develop as an open system like the Internet, where everybody will be free to associate a review, a photo, a video, a map, a work of art, a political polemic, a database, with specific locations -- or whether information associated with places will be a closed system where only those who buy a certain brand of proprietary software or only those who own the local franchise will have the right to write geodata to the readers almost everybody uses. Will entire populations of city-dwellers create, use, and exchange information and media associated with geographic locations? Or will the right to write or access restaurant reviews, geospecific photographs, neighborhood crime stats be constrained? ... Will the cities of 2010 be inhabited by billions users of geolocation information systems and weavers of ad-hoc communication networks? Or will we be passive consumers of pre-packaged content fabricated by a few dozen synthetic superstars.

In an article I wrote last year, I suggested that "moving through the city, and through public spaces, has always been a performative practice where the citizen is relatively able to use the material world for her own purposes and enjoyment, and engage in critiques of everyday life. Where ubiquitous technologies might fail is if they prevent or inhibit the ability of a person to experience the city on his own terms; if they start from a premise of what the city is rather than allowing it to emerge through the movements of its people."

In the same paper, I wrote that "...ubiquitous computing is the archetypal hybrid and mobile technology at work within a society of control ... Despite the appearance of novelty, ubiquitous computing draws on a long and complex history of relations between materials and ideas, industry and business, government and law, individuals and groups, to name but a few. All of these processes have been mobilised - and will continue to be mobilised - to shape Ubicomp as we know it ... For example, the technology that allows someone on the street to record their thoughts at a particular location and share it with others ... also mobilises local and global procedures and policies surrounding the use of city architecture and public space, the manufacture, implementation and ownership of computer hardware, and socio-technical assemblages for the acquisition and administration of data."

In other words, an 'open' technological system can be rendered impotent if it is embroiled in broader (social, political, economic, ethical etc.) systems that are 'closed'. Part of the struggles experienced by open-source initiatives and P2P networks is the very reality of their interconnection with contradictory practices.

But I'm also concerned that Howard may be following Bill Mitchell's utopian optimism a bit. He writes:

When trying to envision the cities of the future today, one driving force we can be fairly certain about is the decreasing cost and increasing adoption of mobile communication devices; Moore's Law, Metcalfe's Law, and Reed's Law all work together to guarantee that a large chunk of the population will be carrying wireless supercomputers in their pocket a decade hence.

I'm afraid I don't see things working so smoothly - or equitably.

Steve Graham's work is much better prepared than Mitchell's to discuss the politics of mobility. Author, with Simon Marvin, of the excellent Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (Chapter 1 here, notes here), he most recently edited the very interesting and useful Cybercities Reader.

Graham also leads the Urban Technology Design and Development research group of the Global Urban Research Unit at the University of Newcastle. And David Wood and Steve Graham recently presented a paper (doc) at the Alternative Mobility Futures Conference at Lancaster University, in which they persuasively argue that there is "a tendency towards technological lock-in which threatens to divide contemporary societies into high-speed, high-mobility, connected and low-speed, low-mobility, disconnected, classes."

In addition to the politics of mobility, networked cities also raise issues of network failure. (Many researchers at UbiComp 2003 commented on Mitchell's keynote assumption that this technology will actually function, let alone function well all the time.) In April, the Global Urban Research Unit will be organising the Urban Vulnerability and Network Failure: Constructions and Experiences of Emergencies, Crises and Collapse conference to address these very concerns.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Urban folds

Andie sends word of this lovely student project:

23 cent stories is an open-ended experiment in emergent narrative.

If a city is an infinite vessel of memory and desire, then the postcard imprinted with its image serves as a distillation of those ineffable quantities into a singular, poetic totem - paragraph length and, for the modest price of a stamp, distantly transmittable.

With the city of New York as muse and the written postcard as medium, we invite you to peruse our racks and the evolving repository of tales they contain, and to send us your own stories of the city based - as closely, tangentially or even fictively as you care - on your experiences or fantasies of its towering monuments, urban folds and hidden histories...

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Almost wireless

Introducing the Carleton University Library Wireless Network:

The Library has decided to engage in a wireless pilot project to verify that there is sufficient interest in supporting wireless access in the Library (and on the rest of campus). We are the first department to deploy an officially-sanctioned wireless network on campus.

Is this the only wireless network on campus? No; having said that, unfortunately we have no information about any other campus WLANs as to purpose, availability or accessibility.

We will be allowing people to access all Library-related resources, such as the catalogue, our web site and all electronic resources for which the Library has a subscription. We will not be offering full access to the Internet at this time.

Since this is a pilot project, we want to start small to ensure that we have it right before we get too dependent on the technology.

Computing and Communications Services has an agreement with its Internet Service Provider that all users must be identified before they are allowed to access the Internet. The Library must also observe this agreement. Unfortunately, there is no uniform authentication or logging process for all members of the University community. Once this capability is made available, we will modify the authentication mechanism for the wireless network and we will remove the access restrictions.

We are working on a document that describes the user access requirements and some rules for behaviour. We will not permit anyone to run an ad hoc network or to install a rogue access point as this will interfere with the running of our own network.

Please forgive my utter lack of enthusiasm.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

The sounds of living - Part 2

The Sound
Kim Addonizio

Marc says the suffering that we don't see
still makes a sort of sound -- a subtle, soft
noise, nothing like the cries of screams that we
might think of -- more the slight scrape of a hat doffed
by a quiet man, ignored as he stands back
to let a lovely woman pass, her dress
just brushing his coat. Or else it's like a crack
in an old foundation, slowly widening, the stress
and slippage going on unnoticed by
the family upstairs, the daughter leaving
for a date, her mother's resigned sigh
when she sees her. It's like the heaving
of a stone into a lake, before it drops.
It's shy, it's barely there. It never stops.

- from The Philosopher's Club (BOA Editions, 1994)

(via wood s lot)

The sounds of living

AUDITORY INTERFACES: The Use of Non-Speech Audio at the Interface
Unpublished manuscript by William Buxton, William Gaver, Sara Bly

The chapter on Everyday Listening is particularly interesting:

Hearing the pitch of a sound or its loudness is an example of musical listening. But we often hear events, rather than sounds. Listening to airplanes, water, birds and footsteps are examples of everyday listening. This is a different sort of experience than that described by traditional psychoacoustics. Instead of being concerned with our ability to perceive attributes of sounds themselves -- their frequency, spectral content, amplitude, etc. -- everyday listening is a matter of listening to the attributes of events in the world -- the speed of a passing automobile, the force of a slammed door, whether a person is walking up or downstairs ...

... while walking down a city street we are likely to listen to the sources of sounds -- is that car heading our way? How close is that guy walking behind us? Most of our experience of hearing the day-to-day world is one of everyday listening: we are concerned with knowing about the events going on around us, what is important to avoid and what might offer possibilities for action. But occasionally we might listen to the world as we do music -- to the humming pitch of a ventalator punctuated by a syncopated birdcall, to the interplay and harmony of the sounds around us.

(via InfoDesign)

Friday, January 16, 2004

[grid::ritual] Textures of everyday life

When it comes to ritual, my mind floods with everything I have been taught as an anthropologist. I think of exotic rites and personal passages. I think of the extraordinary.

But rituals don't have to be extraordinary. In many ways, rituals are so common that we take them for granted.

Michel de Certeau - Jesuit and scholar - wrote on many subjects, but for my purposes I often look to his writings on the practice of everyday life - and his work with Luce Giard and Pierre Mayol on living and cooking.

As Luce Giard explains, why and when with Michel de Certeau we paid attention to everyday life:

It is a sensitive eye which perceives the passing beauty of a gesture. It is a keen ear which remarks the melodious quality of a voice coming from a crowd. It is a benevolent heart and a generous mind which enjoy the encounter of other people. Everyday life provides countless opportunities to practice the social art of admiring our contemporaries' creativity in adapting mass production and social constraints to individual lifestyles. To pay attention to small details and ephemeral things of beauty will not radically transform the world, but it could help make it more hospitable.

Today I will pay attention to what I normally take for granted, and I'd love to hear what you notice if you do the same.

More [grid::rituals] here. Thanks for reminding me Andie!

Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Ford Sociological Department

In 1913, the Ford Motor Company established a Sociological Department "to promote the welfare of employees." In addition to providing thousands of immigrant labourers with home visits, the department supported English and acculturation classes that culminated in spectacular melting-pot pageants. Ford's Sociological Department also published pamphlets such as a 'Typical Case of Poverty Relieved by the Hiring of an Unemployed Man by the Company' (photos here). People said Ford was trying to make the world a better place.

On January 5 1914, Ford announced the revolutionary five-dollar, eight-hour day:

What the company announced was not a plan to pay workers an hourly rate equivalent to five dollars a day. Instead, the company announced a plan to allow the workers to share in the company profits at a rate that promised five dollars a day ... The five-dollar profit sharing plan was designed by the company to include only those who were 'worthy' and who would 'not debauch the additional money he receives'.

The Sociological Department, under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, was put in charge of administering the programme and investigating the home lives of workers: "investigators from the Sociological Department visited workers' homes and suggested ways to achieve the company's standards for 'better morals,' sanitary living conditions, and 'habits of thrift and saving'."

Ford workers would come to redefine what was meant by quality of life in the era of mass-production.

Inspired by welfare capitalism, Ford's "philosophy adopted a paternalistic attitude toward workers that, in Ford's case, was rooted in the Protestant work ethic. Ford believed in it and wanted his employees to adopt it..." And Ford's social standards reached far beyond the confines of work-life. The PBS film Demon Rum documents the Sociological Department's efforts to "end the working man's drinking habit" and how the "success of the small program led to a national prohibition campaign."

Apparently, many workers felt the wage - and social benefits - outweighed the intrusions into their personal lives. And many people found ways around the rules.

But, damn, that's creepy sociology! (And not just because our cultural mosaic approach to ethnic relations makes more sense to me, despite its own multicultural high weirdness.)

The continuing adventures of the Ford Sociological Department, Detroit, 1922

(from Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides)

The curtain parts to gasps and scattered applause. A painted flat shows a steamship, two huge smokestacks, and a swath of deck and railing. A gangway extends into the stage's other focal point: a giant gray cauldron emblazoned with the words FORD ENGLISH SCHOOL MELTING POT. A European folk melody begins to play. Suddenly a lone figure appears on the gangway. Dressed in a Balkan costume of vest, ballooning trousers, and high leather boots, the immigrant carries his possessions bundled on a stick. He looks around with apprehension and then descends into the melting pot ... Now SYRIA descends into the pot. Then ITALY. POLAND. NORWAY. PALESTINE. And finally: GREECE.

Wearing embroidered palikari vest, puffy-sleeved poukamiso, and pleated foustanella shirt, my grandfather bestrides the gangway. He pauses a moment to look out at the audience, but the bright lights blind him ... In the front row Henry Ford nods with approval, enjoying the show ... His blue seagull's eyes dart from face to face as the English instructors appear onstage next. They carry long spoons, which they insert into the pot. The lights turn red and flicker as the instructors stir. Steam rises over the stage.

Inside the cauldron, men are packed together, throwing off immigrant costumes, putting on suits. Limbs are tangling up, feet stepping on feet. Lefty says, "Pardon me, excuse me," feeling thoroughly American as he pulls on his blue wool trousers and jacket. In his mouth: thirty-two teeth brushed in the American manner. His underarms, liberally sprinkled with American deodorant. And now spoons are descending from above, men are churning around and around ... as two men, short and tall, stand in the wings, holding a piece of paper ... and out in the audience my grandmother has a stunned look on her face ... and the melting pot boils over. Red lights brighten. The orchestra launches into "Yankee Doodle." One by one, the Ford English School graduates rise from the cauldron. Dressed in blue and gray suits, they climb out, waving American flags, to thunderous applause.

Introducing the Ford Sociological Department, Detroit, 1922

(from Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides)

Someone knocked on the door ... Two men stood on the welcome mat. They wore gray suits, striped ties, black brogues. They had short sideburns. They carried matching briefcases. When they removed their hats, they revealed identical chestnut hair, neatly parted in the center.

"We're from the Ford Sociological Department," the tall one said. "Is Mr. Stephanides at home?"

"Mr. Stephanides, let me tell you why we're here."

"Management has foreseen," the short one seamlessly continued, "that five dollars a day in the hands of some men might work a tremendous handicap along the paths of rectitude and right living and might make of them a menace to society in general."

"So it was established by Mr. Ford" - the taller one again took over - "that no man is to receive the money who cannot use it advisedly and conservatively."

"Also" - the short one again - "that where a man seems to qualify under the plan and later develops weaknesses, that it is within the province of the company to take away his share of the profits until such time as he can rehabilitate himself. May we come in?"

Once across the threshold, they separated. The tall one took out a pad from his briefcase. "I'm going to ask you a few questions, if you don't mind. Do you drink Mr. Stephanides?" ...

Meanwhile, the short one had entered the kitchen. He was lifting lids off pots, opening the oven door, peering into the garbage can. Desdemona started to object, but Lina checked her with a glance...

"How often do you bathe, Mr. Stephanides?" the tall one asked. "Every day, sir."
"How often do you brush your teeth?"
"Every day, sir."
"What do you use?"
"Baking soda."

Now the short one was climbing the stairs. He invaded my grandparents' bedroom and inspected the linens. He stepped into the bathroom and examined the toilet seat.

"From now on, use this," the tall one said. "it's a dentifrice. Here's a new toothbrush."
Disconcerted, my grandfather took the items. "We come from Bursa," he explained. "It's a big city."
"Brush along the gum lines. Up on the bottoms and down on the tops. Two minutes morning and night. Let's see. Give it a try."
"We are civilized people."
"Do I understand you to be refusing hygiene instruction?"

... The short one now reappeared from upstairs. He flipped open his pad and began: "Item one. Garbage in kitchen has no lid. Item two. Housefly on kitchen table. Item three. Too much garlic in food. Causes indigestion."

Call for Papers

Internet Research 5.0: Ubiquity?

International and Interdisciplinary Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers
University of Sussex, England, 19-22 September 2004

Deadline for submissions: 2 February 2004

The internet seems to be at once everywhere and invisible but simultaneously it structures only a fraction of the communications of the total global community. It can facilitate greater interaction, understanding and political activism; being used at the same time to exclude, destroy and exploit. The much cited ubiquity of the internet needs to be examined in both the contexts in which it is accepted and those in which it is contested.

The theme of ‘ubiquity?’ addresses the following questions: Is the internet everywhere? How and where does the internet appear and act in technical, social, political, or cultural contexts? What does it mean to have access and who does and doesn’t have it? How does the presence of the internet affect individuals, communities, families, governments, societies and nation-states? What are the implications of ‘internet everywhere’? Submissions addressing these and other questions regarding the internet are welcome.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

We are so small

I'm one of these people who gets really excited when I think about the Mars Exploration Rover Mission - but mostly I love listening to how super excited the NASA scientists get about things like airbag trails left on the surface!

And have you ever wondered what a galaxy like ours looks like when it is being suffocated and ripped apart? It's strange how something so violent and sad can be so beautiful.

(via ambiguous)

And keeping with the post's title, Jeremy Wells describes living in São Paulo:

"This place is so completely fascinating, but so difficult to depict. The enormity of this landscape, its instananeous architecture, its constant self-reproduction - this comes to the senses as a sort of overwhelming depth ... I constantly fall asleep while mentally peeling away the layers of sounds that drift in through my window - voices, cars, televisions, speakers, buses, firecrackers, radios, helicopters, airplanes - a constant violence, but oddly comforting, like listening to the world turning."

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Hacking utopia

Besides all the obvious drawbacks of having to postpone my research trip to the UK this month, I'm particularly saddened about not getting to visit my friends Katherine and Jonah.

So if you find yourself at transmediale.04 at the end of the month - and really, why wouldn't you want to go? - give their awesome workshop a go and say hello for me!

"MIDI Scrapyard Challenge is an intensive one-day workshop where participants build simple electronic music controllers (both digital and analog inputs) out of found or discarded "junk" (old electronics, furniture, outdated computer equipment, appliances, turntables, monitors, gadgets, etc.). Participants also build simple drawing robots or "DrawBots" with motors, batteries, and drawing markers that can be connected to the MIDI interface. At the end of the day or evening, the workshop participants have a small performance/concert where they play their instruments together as a large ensemble. No electronics skills or any experience with technology is necessary for the workshop."

Monday, January 12, 2004

All About Eve

Bette Davis as Margo Channing

In keeping with my recent fascination with old movies - currently giving me the most joy in life - last night I saw 1950's All About Eve, with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. The movie still holds the record for most female Oscar nominations in one film (four, although none won) and it's amazingly witty and wonderful.

Roger Ebert wrote, "Growing older was a smart career move for Bette Davis, whose personality was adult, hard-edged and knowing. Never entirely comfortable as an ingenue, she was glorious as a professional woman, a survivor, or a bitchy predator. Her veteran actress Margo Channing in 'All About Eve' was her greatest role; it seems to show her defeated by the wiles of a younger actress, but in fact marks a victory: the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty."

Sadly, I don't think we would make a movie about women like this today.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

What socio-technology can learn from theology

By far one of the most interesting and inspiring people I met last year was Trevor Bechtel - he is a lecturer in theology and ethics at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and, along with (the equally impressive) AKMA, he is Project Coordinator for The Disseminary. But most importantly Trevor is a really smart, really passionate (in that gentle sort of Mennonite way), really funny kind of guy. After the Digital Genres conference we spent an afternoon walking around downtown Chicago, looking at buildings, talking about embodiment, virtuality, technology and ethics. It was perfect.

To be honest, I was kind of surprised we had so much in common. I mean I don't consider myself a heathen, but Trevor is a man of god after all! It's just that everything he said made so much sense to me - even if we didn't always agree. As it turned out, our dissertations had several areas of overlap - not least being a mutual concern with accountability. Trevor has made me think more about technology and ethics - and for that I am most grateful. (And I want to ask for Trevor's permission to discuss his absolutely fascinating dissertation proposal - How to Eat Your Bible: Performance and Embodiment for Mennonites - and not just because I love the title. Please?)

Anyway, it seems he was recently reminded of something he said to a student about "over-theologizing" : Our job is probably not so much to pin things down as it is to lift things up. I love this idea, and think it is applicable to far more than thinking about theology. It is also good advice for thinking about socio-technology, as he adds that theology is more like a prism than words etched in stone.

And a few days earlier, he wrote about the value of (faith) communities: "People need people to be held accountable and people need faith to be held accountable and people need people of faith to be held accountable. But most importantly, some of these people need to be people that we disagree with. We need expressions of faith that are different than our own not just to know who we are but also to make sure that that is who we want to be. We need to have these disagreements in spaces that are bigger than us."

I understand faith here in its broadest sense - conviction, sincerity, fidelity, allegiance - and what strikes me as most interesting and most valuable is this idea of space to make sure that that is who we want to be. What kind of people do we want to be, as individuals and collectives? What sorts of technologies do we want to build?

This isn't indifferent space - it needs to be actively negotiated every step of the way. We need to think about and discuss and understand what is at stake when we model things a certain way, when we predict certain outcomes, when we dream new beginnings.

Coming full-circle in recent wanderings, The Happy Tutor extends Trevor's comments about community to the net and emergent democracy. (Although I don't entirely share his position - it is quite interesting.)

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Alternative Mobility Futures: Play

I should have been presenting my paper Playful Mobilities: Ubiquitous Computing in the City at the Alternative Mobility Futures conference at Lancaster University today - but mostly I'm sad about missing the other papers.

Playful Mobilities, Part I (pdf)

Abstract. What does it mean to move playfully, or to be playfully mobile? Various emerging wireless and ubiquitous technologies suggest types of mobility that are decidedly playful – and that bring to discussions of mobility multiple notions of play. When we ask about the relations between sociality, technology and mobility, we are often enough asking what is at play, and to be at play is to be active and operative, to change position, to be mobile. But what kind of movement is this? What is being moved? Where, when and how do people and objects and ideas move? This paper asks these and other questions by relating discussions of movement in art and technological play to several recent explorations in wireless computing. These examples of ubiquitous computing in the city can be seen to delve into different aspects of playful urban mobilities, from formalised games and performances to technological subversions. In keeping with the theme of play, this paper will also experiment with more playful ways of producing academic work and serve primarily as a contextual guide to my conference presentation.

Still in search of technology and the social

When the comments to a post exceed a dozen printed pages, it's probably time to summarise and reposition.

I think it does a disservice to the people and positions involved in this discussion to describe it as binary vs. anti-binary, but I did begin by describing Joi's question "Which comes first, technology or social norms?" as reductive - and I still think it is. So Joi rightly wants to know why that is problematic. OK - but before I say why, I feel compelled to say that I have very much enjoyed my recent conversations with Joi, even though we do not agree ;)

In part, Joi speaks and acts from a position of privilege - he has social and financial influence, he can set agendas. If he is not able to firmly set the terms and positions of a debate, he is at least capable of limiting the terms and ascribing positions. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who believes that with privilege comes responsibility - Joi's concern with fairness suggests he also understands that. But responsibility - accountability - may be different from fairness.

Jean Burgess took Joi's original question and compared it to "issues like media effects debates: 'Is television harmful or not harmful to children' - which implies that we all accept the proposition that the media can have 'effects' in the first place." Michael disagreed with the part of danah and Joi's original discussion "that placed responsibility on the technologist to a) assume that her technology would have transformative effects on society and b) think about those effects and try to design around them" and adds that "binaries tend to get people in trouble when they aren't able to (or no one listens when they try to) unpack the binary positions ... By setting what the terms are, you also set what the terms aren't, and without the ability to unpack and uncover the nuances this can become a big problem."

Jeremy Hunsinger writes that "the problem with binaries is that in all likelihood in the world, what we represent as binaries does not exist in that form at all, rather there is a transition between the two poles, a spectrum if you will, that we tend to leave out." Abe Burmeister says "the act of creating a binary is also an act of exclusion. Now I'd certainly agree that the binary has its uses, like running the computer I type this on for one ... But beyond that it constrains the way people interact with the world."

Frank Paynter says "I am not a person who would argue against the value of binary analysis. But I don't think Joi's question lends itself to same. Rather, I think a better field definition is called for... what technology? What social norms?". Kevin Marks suggests that "people take complex smooth phenomena and turn them into single-bit on/off categories" because that's what single neurons do - and that greater nuance with many variables takes "a lot more neurons or bits." Adam Greenfield says "I hold fast to the idea that 'we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us' - provided of course that you take the trouble to connect the end of the clause back to the beginning, in a chicken-and-egg loop of, yes, overdetermination."

But what about Joi's concerns and questions? He writes "I think that the process of translating and dealing with binaries opens up new views and relationships and I think it is the Venn diagram that I am striving for ... This process of swinging around binaries to outline contexts is a process. Maybe not in the same way you are using the word, but my goal is not to end up on one side of a binary or another, but to synthesize a position that emerges from the 'friction' ... I worry less about rigor or documentation of the process and more about the experience and the direct impact on society. I understand the necessity of rigor, process and structure and am fascinated by it intellectually, but my happiness comes from its application in my life."

In my mind, there is no "direct impact on society" that can be separated from process - and I don't understand how experience or action can be understood without rigour or documentation of process. I don't even think there is a feedback loop between technologies and society, because that would require us to separate the two in the first place. Joi also seems to think that intellect (understanding) and action (application) are two separate fields - and again, I disagree. And to find the "middle ground" in any of these dichotomies still suggests that there is a "true" position we can reach. I don't understand or experience the world in abstract terms of objective truth - although I would say that I am interested in the spaces in-between "truths."

And in the end, Joi says "I think I now understand people's point about the risks of binary simplification ... [but] I'm trying to understand the framework and if not binary, how do you organize 'the issue at hand' so we can begin charting the territory?"

I suggest starting with some reading along these lines:

Feenburg's From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads or pretty much any paper at the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University.

Bijker & Law's Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
Urry's Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the 21st Century
Latour's Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies
Lash's Critique of Information


Update 11/01/04: The Happy Tutor responds to recent conversations: "Anne changed the topic from justice, and fairness and profit, to false binaries. That seems to me to be bad move, and what it privileges is the position of the aloof spectactor who chides those who, in the heat of battle, are fighting for justice, for not writing about justice in a sufficiently skeptical way. If we follow Anne, we will write obscure essays in the now orthodox style of Derrida, but will have little impact on the evolution of social software as either a commons or a mall."

Smelling the ice roses

Been reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and loving it. In the Salon book review, Andrew O'Hehir describes the moral of the story quite nicely: "while facts can tell us a great deal about life, they are never quite sufficient to the task." And the story's protagonist believes that language fails to capture life's "complicated hybrid emotions." Agreed.

It's minus 25-30 degrees celsius here the past few days. That's pretty cold. But if you bundle up and venture outside nice and warm, with only your cheeks exposed, an hour-long walk through the ice and snow can be utter joy. I love the feeling of a warm body and cold cheeks! My frozen cheeks send flashes of electric light through my body and remind me that I'm sometimes scared by the intensity of my desires. Winter walks are good.

I learned that in England there are winter pansies - flowers that can bloom outside in the winter. (This amazes me.) Growing up in the tropics is what I hold responsible for never going a day of my life without thinking that I love, and now deeply miss, flowers growing around me. That's the saddest part of winter.

Been listening a lot to The Roots and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Groove is good in winter too, especially if you want to take time to smell the ice roses.

Friday, January 9, 2004

Space and Culture

My first and sustaining love is space and culture. My background is in anthropology and cross-cultural architecture, and I began my PhD specifically to study with my supervisor, Rob Shields.

Rob's the editor of the academic journal Space and Culture, and while we redesign the web site, I thought we could start a Space and Culture Weblog. It will, of course, focus on all things spatial and cultural.

You will recognise the template, because I am lazy and just wanted to get it up-and-running. I will continue to post there, although probably less frequently than here. So there you have it. Feel free to let us know what you think.

Thursday, January 8, 2004

The Danes get it! (Or perhaps I should live and work in Denmark.)

Nicolas Cederstrom, Rune Huvendick and Tau Ulv Lenskjold just finished their thesis at the IT University of Copenhagen - congratulations guys!

The full text is in Danish, but beginning on page 146, you can read English interviews with Giles Lanes about Urban Tapestries and with Lalya Gaye about Tejp. Good stuff!

And Rune was kind enough to pass along this English abstract:

Digital Unitary Urbanism.
The emergence of ubiquitous computing in city spaces poses new questions regarding the nature of the relationship between technology and everyday life, which can be answered through a socio-cultural investigation of the current technological development. This thesis presents the notion of Digital Unitary Urbanism as a theoretical platform from which to analyze and develop the social potential of ubiquitous computing. Digital Unitary Urbanism is inspired by the situationist artistic movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which aspired to stimulate and maintain permanent social dynamics in the city through playful interventions based on integration between art and technology. Digital Unitary Urbanism maintains this interest in technology as a means of evoking a new kind of urbanism characterized by the ability of individuals and social groups to appropriate and co-create urban space. Digital Unitary Urbanism represents a re-thinking of the functionalistic understanding of ubiquitous computing, which has dominated the field since Mark Weisers initial vision for a new computing era. The construction of Digital Unitary Urbanism is based on a utopian and idealistic approach and the thesis includes both a manifesto and a future vision for a possible urban situation based on the theoretical insights and ideals contained in Digital Unitary Urbanism. As such the thesis is meant to inspire and stimulate creative thinking rooted in the encounter between technology, everyday life and the city.

I found Rune's brand new weblog in my referrer logs, and other Danish daily reads of mine are Jens Christoffersen and Thomas Angermann. As if that weren't enough, two of the most interesting architects I have ever met - Martin Ludvigsen and Andreas Lykke-Olesen - are currently working on their PhDs with the InteractiveSpaces group in the Department of Computer Science, University of Aarhus. I wonder how a Canadian might score a post-doctoral position in Denmark ...

Mildred Pierce

Veda and Mildred

I can thank Sonic Youth for getting me to watch the 1945 film classic Mildred Pierce in my first year of university and I watched it again last night. It really is brilliant.

The film essentially begins when Mildred (Joan Crawford) tells her husband Bert to leave if he will not stop the affair he's been having - and when he does leave he challenges her to live without him and support their two daughters. This is a story of what one woman will do to give her family what she thinks they deserve.

(Mildred first supports her family not because Bert leaves her for another woman, but because he loses all their money in the stock market crash, feels emasculated, becomes despondent, stops working and the family ends up destitute. Presumably, this situation provides a reason, if not an excuse, for his extracurricular activities as well. James M. Cain's novel takes a much darker and critical look at the American Dream and although the utter bleakness of the novel's Depression-era setting is missing from the movie version, the film does offer an intriguing picture of middle-class aspirations in pre-war America. The movie also introduces the element of murder which, although a departure from the book, helped to create a wonderful example of film noir.)

Anyway, the women in this movie are still amazing almost sixty years later. Mildred herself is a complex character - part independent woman, part master manipulator, part guilty mother - driven by a simple (and perplexing) desire to do anything and everything for her eldest daughter, the horribly mean, selfish and materialistic Veda (Ann Blyth was very convincing and deserved her Oscar nomination!).

Mildred's friend Ida says "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." (Actually, I think that Ida is my favourite character: when given an approving once-over gaze by Wally-the-womaniser, Ida tells him to "Leave something on me--I might catch cold." More in keeping with the era, Ida's fierce humour and independence leads to her being treated like one of the guys, and she laments "When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings.")

There is also a really peculiar scene where Lottie, Mildred's African-American maid, remarks that she doesn't understand how Mildred can work so hard, and how she prefers to sleep in mornings while Mildred hardly sleeps at all. It seems Mildred is more than a bit of a martyr!

But back to the loathsome Veda - and the dreams of the American middle class. Veda treats Mildred horribly, saying things like "You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can't, because you'll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing ... With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls." Mildred's success as a business-woman is punished by her daughter and by her prior-to-the-Depression-wealthy-man-about-town and second husband Monty when he says "Yes I take money from you, Mildred. But not enough to make me like kitchens or cooks. They smell of grease." (This mutual dislike for the smell of grease is not all that Monty and Veda end up sharing.) And the film's original marketing as a thriller was not much kinder to her feminine character.

But Mildred Pierce is incredible - inspiring and depressing all at once - well worth watching again.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

In search of technology and the social

It's been a long time since I've had any interest in meta-blogging discussions, and I admit to being more than a bit surprised that Clay Shirky's Power Laws essay is still making the rounds but I am grateful that danah boyd has the sociological & cultural wherewithal to note that blogging is a privilege, and to claim that "until we decipher how our technologies promote privilege, we cannot create equalizing technologies."

If I had the time (and the inclination) I would attempt a systematic survey and critical rhetorical analysis of "social software" discussions over the past two years, mostly because I never cease to be amazed by the lack of (post-structural) social studies in the discussions. (danah can be an exception, although I believe she has a background in the social sciences & humanities.) Now this isn't to say that technologists are incapable of discussing social issues, but they inevitably discuss them from technological perspectives. On the other hand, I discuss technology from social and cultural perspectives, and my favourite tech and design bloggers are distinctly sensitive to social, cultural, philosophical and artistic perspectives.

Anyway, I've been following an interesting conversation between Joi Ito (start here) and danah (start here) - catalysed by Cory Doctorow's brilliant "I have a special request to the toolmakers of 2004: stop making tools that magnify and multiply awkward social situations."

I was thinking that when Joi asks "Which comes first, technology or social norms?" the debate is made one of cause and effect (binary logic), and the question of what might actually constitute EITHER technology OR social norms is neutralised. When Joi suggests that we should be building norms together with the technologies, he is still working with binary logic, just of the BOTH/AND variety.

When danah responds to Wendy Seltzer's position (cited by Joi) that social norms may be "falling behind" technology with

"Social norms aren't behind; they're baffled at the direction in which things are going. They're pushing for a different direction and they aren't being heard. People are using technology to meet their needs, but they are not prepared for how the architecture is pulling them in a different direction ... Social norms pull in different directions than the market, the law or the technology. This does not mean that it is behind. Quite often, social norms leapfrog everyone else."

we get a position that also implies a closed system, where the cause and effect relationship has effectively been reversed (social norms shift from being behind, to in front of, technological innovation and use). In both positions, technology and social norms are givens - affecting and/or effecting the OTHER.

Is this what Lago read when he suggested both positions are technologically determinist? On this trajectory the debate shifts to more academic terms: danah clarifies her position and distances herself from both technological determinism and "pure" social constructivism. Certainly a preferable place to be in an academic debate - "bi-directional, non-deterministic process" - but not outside the starting dichotomy, where I would want to be - and I giggled when I read Joi's response that he's glad he's not an academic.

On another trajectory, Ross Mayfield also seems to stick with the binary in his Users Drive Policy round-up. And yet Joi seems to have taken another route recently by looking at ethics and the concept of fairness or justice - indirectly interrogating the concept of social norms, if not technology.

Please forgive the quick-and-dirty deconstructionist account of these conversations, but I do it in part to suggest that despite the mix of answers, the questions are only ever binary - and IMO these dichotomies do not make good social studies.

Update: Clay responds to Joi's question of whether blogs are just, and accepts critiques of his position on access and power laws.

And with a big (if somewhat sly) grin, I wonder if my words have less opportunity to enter that broader conversation because I don't use trackback?

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Ubicomp, space and culture

How exciting it is to find other PhD students working on similar subjects within different disciplines! (Thanks Thomas!)

Meet Luigina Ciolfi - a PhD student at the Interaction Design Centre, University of Limerick. She's working on interaction design for space, place and ubiquitous computing:

"My main research questions are how to understand the way the physical environment contributes to shape human activity, and what features of the physical world contribute significantly to develop the human experience of place. I am interested in the analysis of the concept of localised experience and place and what features of this concepts could be exploited for the design of interactive physical spaces. With respect to this, I am particularly interested in the development of technology to be situated in a public space, where users (and possible collaborators), information resources, cultural artefacts are co-located. Researching literature for my PhD I have become interested in disciplines such as Human Geography, Architecture and Landscape Design."

Her paper, Understanding Spaces as Places: Extending Interaction Design Paradigms seems to give a good overview of her position and interests.

As an aside, her advisor is Liam Bannon - one of the lecturers we had while in Rome in the fall.

Resist anarchists & the beauty of open access

Resist! Collective is an offshoot of the TAO Collective - Vancouver, and despite their over-the-top rhetoric, the Weblog posts interesting Canadian and other politico stuff along the lines of the anarchist

For the more tech-minded, is a "global database of noncapitalist technology initiatives" and I bet they would really appreciate new links.

Browsing through the 'open access space' section, I think of Yury Gitman's Magicbike project: “a mobile WiFi hotspot that gives out free internet connectivity to whatever space it is parked in. Magicbike explores a new delivery strategy for WiFi hotspots and brings Internet connectivity to yet unserved spaces and communities. But Magicbike is not only a moving hotspot but also an extremely mobile and discreet hotspot. It is perfect for setting up adhoc Internet connectivity for art and culture events, emergency access, public demonstrations, and communities on the struggling end of the digital-divide.”

Performative Social Science

Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture
Norman Denzin

"Performance Ethnography is divided into three parts. Part I covers pedagogy, ethnography, performance, and theory as the foundation for a performative social science. Part II addresses the worlds of family, nature, praxis, and action, employing a structure that is equal parts memoir, essay, short story, and literary autoethnography. Part III examines the ethics and practical politics of performance autoethnography, anchored in the post-9/11 discourse in the United States. The amalgam serves as an invitation for social scientists and ethnographers to confront the politics of cultural studies and explore the multiple ways in which performance and ethnography can be both better understood and used as mechanisms for social change and economic justice."

Saturday, January 3, 2004

Re/Constructing the past

The archaeology geek in me got all excited when I read about a new Siberian site dated to 30,000 BP. This is twice as old as any other site found on the Asian side of the Bering Strait, and stands to reignite the mother of all American archaeological dramas, the breaking of the Clovis Barrier - the idea that the earliest settlers of the Americas arrived around 13,000 years ago.

Clovis sites - named after hunting artefacts first found at Clovis, New Mexico - have long been considered to yield the earliest evidence for the peopling of the Americas. However, there is increasing evidence for earlier settlement, especially in South America, as well as alternative migration and cultural theories. (Monte Verde in Chile is now considered to have broken the Clovis Barrier, but not without a 20-year fight!)

In my mind, the most interesting part of this debate is how archaeological knowledge is created - or how archaeologists decide what constitutes a "site" or an "artefact" in the first place. (I used to work on what is called "non-site" archaeology - or isolated artefacts - and it is probably still considered to be "unscientific".)

Archaeology has always been political - from nationalist archaeology to questions of who owns the past - and the Clovis paradigm continues to raise issues of what constitutes "viable" archaeological evidence and interpretation, as well as what may be found beyond the Clovis Barrier.

The best professor I have ever had was Ruth Gruhn. Now retired, she still conducts excavations in Baja California and has argued brilliantly for a much earlier settlement of the Americas. She told me once that South American archaeologists are not accorded the same academic or professional status as North American archaeologists - and I thought she was exaggerating - but I will never forget the old Peruvian archaeologist who told me that during his career he had more often been treated as an informant than as a colleague by North American and European archaeologists.

Ruth also taught me that the "man the hunter" hypothesis has dominated for so long that archaeologists often don't even consider alternate lifeways, such as gathering or fishing, and subsequently are only looking in areas that could have supported big-game hunting. "For decades, North American archaeologists have discounted the South American evidence because it hasn't met their expectations or fit their models."

CBC's Quirks & Quarks ran an interesting programme on New Ideas About the New World and you can listen to Ruth (and others) there.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

New Year's Revelations

As I already tend towards resoluteness, it seems more inspiring to me to acknowledge my new year's revelations - those understandings recently made present and currently sustaining me.

The academic life can be strangely isolating. I work too much, and spend too much time online. Both give me a great deal of pleasure, but should be better balanced with being outside and playing and connecting with friends and loved ones. I've spent a lot of time with my sweetie recently and, after being together for six years, I am more convinced than ever that he is the one for me. I talked with one of my oldest and dearest friends the other day, and even though she lives across the country, just hearing her voice made me incredibly happy. She also sent me a William James quote that made me smile and think especially of people I care about but only have regular contact with online: "Wherever you are, its your friends who make your world." I love and need my family and friends - not only do they bring me great joy, but with them I am a greater person.

Happy New Year! May you usher it in with friends and loved ones - and make space for new relationships to come.

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