Saturday, March 27, 2004

The space between 0 and 1

Everyday life calls. Will be back to 0s or 1s in a week or so.

Friday, March 26, 2004


In recent readings about parasitic / ephemeral / adaptive / relational architecture, how we play with it and how we try to control it, I came across Marjetica Potrc's exhibition on Urgent Architecture. For those who aren't familiar, Potrc is a Slovenian artist who explores subjects like contemporary building strategies and empty spaces in cities, along with virtual urbanisms (see also hybrid architectures), the different states of modern cities, and emerging public spaces and communities.

Excellent stuff.

Update 26.03.04

See also parasitoid life, parasitic computing and power harvesting. And Joey was telling me about some weird little robotic parasites that jump up and attach themselves to your pant-legs. But I forget the details.


Steve continues to find the good stuff - this time on superheroes.

Apparently my dissertation covers the next big step forward for computing. Well then.

Danny O'Brien muses on the everyday-ness of network etiquette.

MIT brings us Serendipity. I agree with Will that it must be ironically titled.

And I suspect we will live to regret this love affair.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Audio graffiti

Jonah's got AudioBored up and running:

Just finished version 2.0 of AudioBored, a public online message board and toolkit that lets people leave messages from any phone (mobile or fixed) that get posted to a shared public web-based bulletin board. Would love for people to try it out and leave some notes for each other. The functionality is pretty basic, call up a free number, follow instructions, and record a message! I'm working on some additions which will allow people to annotate their messages after they leave them and few other improvements. There's also a toolkit on the site and installation instructions for how to set up your own AudioBored! Try it out!

Sweet. My message is in the politics section ;)

On difference

Every so often I get interested in discussions on social software - although I still object to the phrase itself - and every so often I read something that makes perfect sense to me.

For example, I stand behind the idea that social relationships are far more complex than "friend" or "not-friend" but it never occurred to me that anyone would then try to come up with a broader but still definitive and static set of relations. Formal (machine-readable? predictive?) ontologies really weird me out; they conflict with pretty much everything I understand as a sociologist and anthropologist about social and cultural interaction.

But then I remembered how often I have to come back to the historical influence of cybernetic systems thinking on our understandings of networks and cities - and how that seriously limits the ways we are currently able to engage the social and cultural implications of wireless and ubiquitous technologies on daily life in urban spaces.

And, as Clay Shirky points out, historical debates in artificial intelligence (and, I would add, cognitive science) similarly limit the ways in which we are able to engage questions of social intelligence.

Of course I don't mean to suggest that the varied approaches to cybernetics or AI are wrong - but they do often embody fundamentally different paradigms of what it means to be social, and what comprises cultural practice, than used by many sociologists and anthropologists. I also do not mean to suggest these differences are irreconcilable - people like Paul Dourish are trying to bridge the gap in many ways - but I do want to suggest that we ignore them at our peril.

In 1605, Francis Bacon wrote that critical thinking involves:

having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and being a man [sic] that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture.

By acknowledging our own contexts and making a genuine effort to understand and accomodate other paradigms and problematics, we are unable to pretend that our understandings (and technologies) are value-free or unrelated to broader relations of culture, power and history.

And that, I believe, is our responsibility and our challenge...

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Glance

RAW an audio/photographic tool for conveying minimally-mediated impressions of everyday life by Joëlle Bitton, Stefan Agamanolis, Matthew Karau, Human Connectedness - MLE

Records and accounts of everyday life in our pasts and presents are often mediated by numerous third parties (researchers, producers, editors, and so on). We feel this mediation degrades the full sense of awareness and appreciation we could achieve of other peoples and places. The goal of the RAW project is to develop a new kind of recording tool, together with a method for processing and presenting the material captured with the tool, that enables a more direct, minimally-mediated relationship between its user and the later audience, possibly in a far away place or time.

I like this project - it takes a very different position on memory and mediation than I would, and it reminds me of glances and gazes.

Searching for superheroes in winter

My world is blanketed in snow again - will this winter never end? - and each day feels a thousand years long...

Since reading about the Guardians of the North, I also find myself spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about what power I would most want if I were a superhero. (Shape-shifting or invisibility? And what does that say about my obsessions with materiality?)

I think of (super)heroes - from Gilgamesh to Wonder Woman - and how they have always helped us negotiate ourselves and our places in the world by taking on the BIG questions. I think about how I idealise and long for superheroes in my daily life.

I wonder how our fantasies are related to our memories, and where HOPE comes into play? I want to know what it means to miss someone we have never met, or a place we have never visited.

When I think of all the words I long to say (there are moments they consume me) and I remember why I will not and cannot utter them, I wonder what happens when we amplify those whispers in the dark? (via)

And as work proceeds on my Forgetting Machine, I dwell on projects like Jim Campbell's Memory Works installation (via):

The Memory Works (1994-1998) are a series in which each work is based upon a digitally recorded memory of an event. Some of these electronic records represent a personal memory and others represent a collective memory. These electronic memories are manipulated and then used to transform an associated object mounted on the wall. Avoiding the usual notions of what a memory is, none of the original memories is an image or a sound. These works explore the characteristic of hiddenness common to both human and computer memory. Memories are hidden and have to be transformed to be represented.

And I imagine what kind of superhero duo REMEMBERING and FORGETTING would make...

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


My dissertation is driving me fucking crazy. Rules, protocol... other people. It's hectic.

I am less crazy now. Regaining a sense of action. Like pushing through the mud after a storm.

Sunday, March 21, 2004


Andy Kessler's WSJ: Hack This (Please) Thanks Jason!

LEGO X-Pod Play Off Thanks Liz!

[Update 22.03.04]

Worldbuilder, Lego real-time strategy game (via)

The Devil and iPod Fetishism

On the scale of the infinitely small

How to remake the world atom by atom? Conquering the Infinitely Small: Achievements and Promises of the Nanotechnology Revolution - essay by Philippe Mercure

When we die, will our houses die with us? Gathering the Echoes - science fiction by Jean-Louis Trudel

Saturday, March 20, 2004

New Dead City

While we were looking at the beautiful architectural sketches of Rossi's design for the cemetery at San Cataldo - a city of the dead - Joey told me about a proposal by Mikael Damant-Sirois, a student in her Networks and Navigation class.

Nautilus Memorium is the most brilliant social networking site concept I have ever seen. A bit tongue-in-cheek, the project is also profoundly sociable and intimate - based far more on quality than on quantity of relationship.

With Nautilus Memorium, people can create profiles of departed loved ones as a practice of memorial or remembrance - and perhaps take solace in helping them find quality companionship in the afterlife. In addition to submitting a biographical description for each soul you add, you are prompted to rank personal characteristics such as vitality and patience, as well as the characteristics they might look for in their companions. This information is used to indicate inter-personal affinities and individual souls, represented as glowing stars, cluster on screen - like constellations and galaxies of the dead. And, of course, this means that each time you visit your loved ones, you can meet their new friends.

This also reminds me of Eusapia, one of Calvino's invisible cities:

And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground. All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities. And, of these activities, it is their carefree moments that take first place ... [But] to be sure, many of the living want a fate after death different from their lot in life: the necropolis is crowded with big-game hunters, mezzosopranos, bankers, violinists, duchesses, courtesans, generals - more than the living city every contained ...

They say that every time they go below they find something changed in the lower Eusapia; the dead make innovations in their city; not many, but surely the fruit of sober reflection, not passing whims. From one year to the next, they say, the Eusapia of the dead becomes unrecognizable. And the living, to keep up with them, also want to do everything that the hooded brothers tell them about the novelties of the dead. So the Eusapia of the living has taken on copying its underground copy.

They say that this has not just begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.

Which in turn reminds me that the most sociable and intimate technologies will be those that involve a lot of slippage...

This and that, anthropology and technology

Content to be back at home after an excellent class last night. Joey's students are great and we had fun. I also got to meet some very cool people that I am looking forward to seeing again soon.

Current reading:
Where computers go to die

Simon (?) at Ideas Bazaar on Clay Shirky's relationships:

Anthropologists understand that kinship operates at three levels: terminology, rules and practice, and the inter-relationship between the three of these. This means at the categorical, jural and practical level: how are people related, what terminology is used to describe their relatedness, what behaviour is 'meant' to obtain between them (joking / avoidance?), and what behaviour does obtain in practice. Shirky seems to confuse the existence of a terminology with static relationships and fixed behaviours obtaining between people in this relationship. Anthropologists understand that a dynamic interplay exists across these 3 levels ... A detailed kinship terminology of the social universe that are social networking sites would be helpful in moving people beyond the 'number' of links, to the quality of these links and behaviours and relationships that exist between them.

Hear, hear! See also Socio-technical Kin.

Technoanimism & Ubicomp. Unlike Howard, I don't like the phrase technoanimism; it reminds me of the ill-named modern primitives. He also points to Mike Kuniavsky's essay on ubicomp and animism, which I think is interesting, but a bit off:

It's already difficult to predict how technological objects will behave when their functionality is hidden in black boxes and radio waves. Once these technologies are widely distributed in everyday objects, the environment they create will become too difficult for us to explain in purely functional ways. When we don't have a good functional model to explain how things work, we anthropomorphize them. And when enough things around us recognize us, remember us, and react to our presence I suspect we'll start to anthropomorphize all objects.

First, why would we want to explain our interaction with technology in purely functional ways? Second, do people really practice animism only when they lack functional models for interpretation? That seems to suggest that animist understandings are somehow disfunctional or (yikes) primitive. And third, does not anthropomorphism require the transposition of human qualities onto an inanimate object? My understanding is that animism does not start from the premise that objects are inanimate. And anyway, all this relies on some weird distinctions between us and our technologies that I don't think exist in practice - but that's something else for another time.

Current listening:
The Buggles and Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Thursday, March 18, 2004


I love Cedric Price and Gordon Matta-Clark.

We were just at the price rossi stirling + matta-clark exhibit, and I was most impressed by the sketches and pamphlets for Price's Fun Palace and other explorations of indeterminate architecture: "The Fun Palace was not a building in any conventional sense, but was instead a socially interactive machine, highly adaptable to the shifting cultural and social conditions of time and place."

The portrayal of Matta Clark's Anarchitecture was also fascinating and the photomontages - like Conical Intersect - were gorgeous.

Tying this back to yesterday's post, see Entropy, Robert Smithson & Matta-Clark, and I am reminded of Chris Dercon's essay Misusing public space.

I also picked up a few books, and suddenly regret not being able to knit and read at the same time.

But I think it's almost time for cocktails...

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

On interconnections of art, science and technology

I first read MUTE magazine in 1997 and have been hooked ever since. I posted on Luciana Parisi's fascinating article last month, but since the rest of the issue won't be online until the next issue comes out, I thought I'd share a few of the articles that I keep thinking about.

In Abort, Retry, Fail, Simon Ford looks at early computer art - as it resurfaces through projects like CACHe, DAM and others - and some of the tensions between artists and technologists. In contrast to seminal, and largely utopian, British exhibitions like 1968's Cybernetic Serendipity, Ford writes:

The benign nature of computers and their manufacturers was always fiercely contested, not just amongst defenders of humanistic values but also amongst the most radical members of the counter-culture. Take for example Robert Smithson in 1969 who was invited by the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies to take part in the US section of the Sao Paulo Bienale. He eventually withdrew stating that: 'To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts. If technology is to have any chance at all, it must become more self-critical.'

Ford also points out that at a time when the cost of computing was prohibitive, and access was limited, collaborations between artists and technologists almost always required the sponsorship of big business. Along these lines, Andrew Pickering also takes an interesting look at cybernetics as science, technology, art, entertainment and business in The Tortoise Against Modernity (pdf), as well as at the work of Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask in Cybernetics and the Mangle (pdf).

Ford continues to question the potential of such collaborations by calling on the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, who wrote on technology and its mediated use:

By laying the basis for a perfect power structure, the cyberneticians will only stimulate the perfection of its refusal. Their programming of new techniques will be shattered by the same techniques turned to its own use by another kind of organization. A revolutionary organization.

In Museum Epidemiology, Betti Marenko "considers the possibilities for art to subvert techniques of science without being contaminated by them." In last year's CleanRooms exhibit at the London Natural History Museum, artists - including the Critical Art Ensemble, Brandon Ballengée and Gina Czarnecki - engaged some of the ethical issues associated with biotechnology, but Marenko asks:

Can the mere act of site swapping - from the labs to the gallery - induce a shift in the signification of standard operations? The use of standard lab practices in art replicates the rhetoric of pro and contra that afflicts the biotech debate. This self-reinforcing, ultimately misleading dilemma raises moral questions whose resistance to resolution is indeed well appreciated by the corporate state and which diverts critque away from processes of production and consumption of biotech.

So where does that leave us? In Just Sugaring the Pill?, Miria Swain asks:

Rather than sci-art, why not simply a case of science genuinely interested in art, or art informed by science? ... Sci-art, it would seem, has become a victim, like sci-fi, of the institutional snobberies and intellectual elitism that plague both art and science worlds. The idea that science and art can somehow meet on common ground - that scientists can speak the same language as artists and vice versa - often entails compromise and more often than not it is the art that gets compromised. Where art is subordinate to science, it does not challenge scientific hierarchy but reinforces it by suggesting that the only successful projects are those in which art becomes science.

All I will add to this is that our current socio-technological imbroglios call for the same thing Robert Smithson advocated thirty-five years ago: greater critical awareness on the part of science and technology. Without it, we remain at the mercy of our machines.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Bound to Montréal

So the past couple of week's weather has been so weird that it now feels more like late fall than early spring - which of course sucks. Nonetheless, I'm happy with recent accomplishments and looking forward to going to Montréal on Wednesday.

I'm going to hang out with the fabulous Joey Berzowska, meet some interesting-sounding people with whom I will be in a workshop at the end of April, visit the out of the box exhibition at the CCA, buy too many books in the wonderful bookstore there, and drink cocktails in the late afternoon.

For three or four hours on Thursday night I will be taking over Joey's Second Skin and Soft Wear course at Concordia to, amongst other things, get people talking about intimate and playful technologies. This gig is open to the public and you are most welcome to join us. Of course, if you would otherwise like to get together in Montréal on Wednesday or Thursday, just let me know.

À bientôt!


Adam and Andrew on SXSW. Steve on diabolical instruments and Alex too. Foe Romeo on collections and something else for people who like counting things (via). Thomas on compiling crowds and Liz on virtual crowding. Will on hacking politics, and Danny O'Brien too.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Cities and mobility

Sunday, March 14, 2004

The world at play

See Astrophysicists in Captivity

"I want to play, I waaannnttt to plllaaayyy," howled one toddler in the crowd, who evidently believed the scientists were engaged in some sort of nifty new game. The scientists might not disagree with the toddler's assessment.

Science Live: The Race to Decode the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image

Science Live offers the public an unprecedented opportunity to watch competitive space science in action, as teams of astrophysicists from the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, and Stony Brook University race to decode strange space objects revealed in a newly released Hubble Space Telescope image ... Surrounded by racks of computers and working against a backdrop of the spectacular new image displayed on the Museum's 16' x 9' Astrobulletin, the Science Live astrophysicists will crunch numbers and debate around the clock in an attempt to be the first to publish results. Scientists will provide progress reports for the public daily throughout this weeklong event.

I LOVE THIS. Science in action. Perform or else.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Working at everyday life

Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

I always thought that work is never just work...

Welcome to Paterson, New Jersey, cradle of the Industrial Revolution in America and the largest silk manufacturing center in the nation. Here you can see and listen to the people who take care of nails and hair in life and death, people who work with machinery, people who, after work, make clothes for themselves and others, people who come from places far away, people who prepare food, people who read palms - and just about everyone else.

via Plep

(cross posted to space and culture)

Friday, March 12, 2004

These boots...

Via socialfiction comes SEVEN MILE BOOTS:

The project SEVEN MILE BOOTS is a pair of interactive shoes with audio. One can wear the boots, walk around as a flaneur simultaneously in the physical world and in the literal world of the internet. By walking in the physical world one may suddenly encounter a group of people chatting in real time in the virtual world. The chats are heard as a spoken text coming from the boots. Wherever you are with the boots, the physical and the virtual worlds will merge together.

(Katherine points out that one of the creators behind this project is Laura Beloff, who also created HAME, an "interactive installation with sounds and stereographic video-projection on sculptural objects" - about desire, hysteria, frustration and boredom.)

A different take on wearables comes from the BLEEX project - which serves up bionic legs for soldiers.

I think we all have archipelagoes in our minds


Thursday, March 11, 2004

Memory is fraught with tension

Logging your life as you go by, or not.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


I woke up this morning, after fitful sleep, to sad news, a strange request and Jean's intriguing post on personal traces written into the living network.

And I have tons of work to do.

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Today is International Women's Day

"The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own times, by spreading the light of freedom and of truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future."

--Abigail Scott Duniway, suffrage organiser

Monday, March 8, 2004

Sunday morning reading

Saturday, March 6, 2004


There is something about rainy days that makes me want to post to my blog - even when I have nothing to say.

I could write about the contract I am working - about open source technology implementations.

Or I could write about listening to My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain - about gentle noise.

I could also write about the proposal and articles I am writing - about hackability, playfulness, mobility and cities.

But really, I have nothing to say.

Update 12/03/04: Sweet. My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields first interview for 12 years. (via)


I just found out about the Theses Canada Portal - and have spent the past half-hour looking up my friends' and classmates' theses.

My MA thesis is here - all 259 pages of it, including lots of pictures (despite not including two). And man, does that abstract ever make it sound treacherous full of obstacles!

Open sound systems

Radio Vox Populi (via

Radio Vox Populi is a realization of the people's voice, taking the content of the weblogs and broadcasting it back to the world. As weblog authors update their sites their writing is collected, synthesized into speech, and streamed to listeners as an Internet radio station. Live from the commons 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

PANSE - Public Access Network Sound Engine (via Jonah)

It's a streaming audio program with a built-in tcp server. It's meant to be an open platform for experimental interactive audio-visual netart and is open to all. So-called "modules" (clients) can be created using Flash, Java, Perl or whatever else you can think of. Messages can be sent to it to control the highly flexible audio that is set up as two 16 step sequencers, a monophonic synthesizer and an effects generator. But it also streams out numerical data about the audio being played. This data can be used to control visual representations. It's very interesting to see how the design of an interface effects the way people interact with such a project. As with my previous projects, PANSE is multi-user based, so if more than one person is interacting with it at the same time, they will see and hear what the others are doing. This is why I prefer to call them modules rather than clients. It's like a modular synthesizer where seperate units control seperate aspects of what's going on. In PANSE, not all of the interfaces allow control over all parameters. In fact, currently there is only one interface that allows control over all of the different parameters.

Friday, March 5, 2004

The power of place

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez writes:

"We will not leave," she said. "we will stay here, because we have had a son here."

"We have still not had a death," he said. "A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground."

Xeni Jardin writes:

When I stepped on board flight 889 from LAX to Guatemala this time, I knew it would be different, but I didn't know how. Almost midnight. Most passengers were guatemaltecos weighed down with bags full of things from America to bring home to families. We waited, passengers filed on with bursting suitcases. Flight attendants wheeled on a brown-skinned woman in a wheelchair whose body was limp, eyes dim and half-closed. They pushed her into place, strapped her down, we waited again. I dozed off, and woke up minutes later as attendants rushed back to her seat with oxygen and first aid kits. They called for paramedics. They called for doctors. No one could feel her pulse. The paramedics arrived, huddled for a while, then confirmed she was gone. One of the female flight attendants started crying. The woman in the wheelchair had terminal cancer, she said. "It's always like this on 889. They always want to return home to die."

And Elena writes:

In theory radiation will stay in Chernobil area for the next 48.000 years, but in reality first people must start to populate those area already in some 900 years. This is when the most dangerous elements will dissapear. their half-value period is from 300-900 years. I suppose there will be someway discovered to neutralise or clean up the radiation in the next 100 years. Well, if our government will finance our science as they do it now, then we won't be able to rid of this and will have to wait this 900 years untill radiation will evaporate by itself. Actually, some people coming back to their homes and settle down, those mostly old people who do not care if they die today or tomorrow. important is to die at home.

(last link via Warren Ellis)

In praise of strong monosyllabic words

Cunt: A Cultural History by Matthew Hunt

Well done! But then, I've always liked the word. (Sorry, Mum.)

Thursday, March 4, 2004

All locative, all the time

Marc Tuters comments that he posted this blog entry to the locative list and Anselm Hook ( replied with Pros and Cons of peer to peer based maps.

Well worth a read.

The Locative Media Lab (in its bewildering number of incarnations) brings a bunch of super bright and creative people to the task of augmented reality. In addition to Marc and Anselm, Karlis Kalnins and Jason Harlan are Locative folks. (I participated in a panel with Marc, Jason and Karlis last fall.) As is Joshua Schachter - of muxway / / geourl fame. Joshua presented at ETCon, as did Jo Walsh - the person behind spacenamespace - and yet another of the Locative mesh. And then there's Wilfried Hou Je Bek - of the super-fine social fiction projects and blog, and Ben Russell - of headmap notoriety - responsible for some of my favourite work on mobile technologies.

These and other good people are also active on the geowanking list.

Still other people & events, all grooving on things mobile?
digifest 2004: On The Move
Psy-Geo-Conflux 2004 / 2003
Kate Armstrong and PING
P r e / a m b l e 2003


It's been a long time since I've talked with Stewart, but we've always shared an interest in play and the belief that it is integral to social interaction - so I was happy to see he has posted slides and comments on Ben, Eric and his presentation at ETCon.

Transcendent Interactions: Collaborative Contexts and Relationship-Based Computing

Valuable social bits:

Play is often about building things [including places] collaboratively ... Often the state of play arises spontaneously, especially in contexts where creative collaboration takes place ... The most expressive forms of play involve improvisational collaboration and sharing ... In any case, there is always some larger context than the one in which play occurs ... The rise of the network meant that there were, as often as not, humans on the other end of our computing activities ... We use computation to extend our relationships with others. Our computational acts and the objects they generate exist in the context of a relationship with another person or group ... The exchange of ideas between people flows through all aspects of our lives. Relationships are dynamic knots in those flows, which cannot be represented inside the architecture of a single application.

Valuable design bits:

Transcendent interactions refers to the goal of designing and developing software with the explicit understanding that any given interaction may exist outside the applications and systems produced ... Don't build applications. Build contexts for interaction ... The more the software acknowledges the human behind the user (or the player behind the character, or the person behind the database record), the more value will find - and create ... The [GNE] players had their own ideas. We learned what services to provide by watching their hacks ... Applications, like architecture, can shut down possibility ... The real action of inter-relation happens in the spaces between these monolithic structures. Play, improvisation and communication don't need containers, they need platforms.

Good stuff. And since my dissertation looks at playful mobilities, I will come back to related ideas in the coming months.

Update 04/03/04: Drawing on this post by Bill Burnham, Diego looks at the problem of "pure-play" social networking apps - or applications with "no stated purpose beyond the network itself." I've often thought that is a distinct flaw in social networking sites but I wish it wasn't characterised as "pure-play." It makes playfulness and creativity sound entirely frivolous and non-productive, and maintains a peculiar distinction between work and leisure. At the same time, I understand play to be more generative or performative than productive, and a process or practice to be distinguished from games or entertainment. That's not to say there isn't overlap (and in many languages no distinction whatsoever) but games have something to do with rules (including breaking them), and I think the concept of play is more ambiguous.

Wednesday, March 3, 2004

What do we do with technologies beyond our control?

So, the BBC reports that some 30,000 children in Scottish schools will be affected by a camera phone ban.

Despite no reports of misuse, camera phones are seen to be a nuisance around school, as well as potentially contributing to the circulation of child pornography ("If you can capture the image you can distribute it ... Once the image is out it can be used and misused.").

But here's the social clincher:

Carol Bartholomew, the council's convenor of children's services, said: "We have a responsibility to protect people. I think one of the problems with mobile phones is that when you have an ordinary camera you can see someone taking a photograph. With mobiles you can be totally unaware of someone taking a picture."

Frankly, I'm not all that interested in whether their actions are appropriate or not. But I am interested in how people actually react to potential risks. This is how some people are engaging new technologies and the increasing interconnectedness of people and information - whether we think it is reasonable or not. And I'd like to try to understand their concerns - before camera phones are ubiquitous and surveillance is no longer limited to the powers that be.

In this case, the objection seems to involve not knowing if we are interacting with technology - something intimately related to notions of the disappearing computer and invisible interfaces. If you can't see the camera, then you can't react to it. Technology risks becoming something done to you, rather than something done with you. The importance of social agency - or people's ability to act and take action - cannot be overstated. And before people say that technology is either good or bad, or that camera phones are both good and bad because they help people topple oppressive governments as well violate our privacy - I think that we should consider what people are enabled and supported to do with new technologies, and what they are not.

Who has what kinds of control in which situations? How does the design of an application or device help create these power relations? I don't have all the answers, but these are questions I ask every day as I write my dissertation.

And while we're on about technologies and control, Biella reports that her research on The Re-localization of Intellectual Property Rights and the Rise of Expressive Rights among Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Hackers is going really well. You should be able to find me and Biella hanging out at the HOPE conference in July in NYC - more on the last one here - chatting up hackers about social ethics and technology :)

You can feel my lips undress your eyes

If I were trying to seduce someone, I might try Franz Ferdinand's Darts of Pleasure.


mp3 here - thanks Patrick!

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Ethics and computer science

The current issue of Crossroads - the ACM student magazine - is on ethics and computer science. Since it isn't available online (?!) I wanted to highlight a few bits that struck me.

The ethical "case studies" included software piracy and privacy issues for data mining and database security - the two topics I most often hear technologists bring up as evidence they are aware of social issues and computing. But, really, the question of social ethics is much broader than that and I, for one, would like to see greater exploration of ethics and the role of computing in daily life.

In an opinion piece, Don Gotterbarn suggests that one reason computer scientists should consider social issues is because their actions directly impact other people, and with power comes responsibility. Pretty reasonable and straightforward. Unfortunately, in order to make this point he rallies a bunch of catastrophes and implies that people's very lives are on the line. Which is sometimes true, and always important. But without any discussion of more mundane or everyday impacts that computing (in its multitude of forms) has on people's quality of life, it is hard to convince a computer scientist working outside DARPA why she should care about doing the very best she can. And it makes it harder still to convince anyone creating and building and pushing new technologies that the ethical reach of their work is simultaneously much closer and farther reaching than they might suppose.

Identity and place

Zoe writes to tell me that the social research for the Urban Tapestries project is complete and a paper will be available online shortly. Until then, you can check out the summary of their work.

Here are some of the core research questions:

UT may be able to theoretically deepen people's connection to urban spaces and facilitate new kinds of collaborative relationships, but does it? Perhaps more precisely, do respondents want it to? For this investigation, one of our central questions asks: do people use UT in meaningful and interesting ways? Related to this question are a series of sub-questions including: What do respondents do with UT? Can UT reveal how people negotiate and make meaning of their urban spaces?

And although I'm not sure they managed to answer their questions, they do report some interesting finds:

The key features defining the relationships our respondents had with ICTs are the importance of control (or lack of it), socio-cultural contexts, expectation management, external or internal locus of control, and personal aesthetics.

It is clear that respondents used UT in order to negotiate boundaries and mark their territories, stake claims and identify their personal preferences ... In this sense, public authoring promotes a sense of control not only over users' territories, but also over their boundaries and their own role in those territories.

This suggests important connections between the construction of identity and place - something that is intimately connected to power and everyday life, but not entirely reducible to issues of privacy or trust or accuracy (which often seem to be more related to consumption than production). But I'll have to think on this some more...


Liz Goodman on mobile UIs - including the importance of context and pleasure:

The "are you my friend?" question is getting ever more unhelpful, as is the "are you a friend of my friend?" question. And the thinking of "location" as some sort of unified, uncomplicated set of numbers that we can all just integrate into existing interfaces is also pretty unhelpful too ...

But it would be nice if the little screen on the front of my clamshell acted like an always-open porthole, providing a limited, fleeting glimpse of a larger sea of social communications. I may not always have the time to read messages or participate, but its nice to hear my friends as a low murmur of conversation underlying the main activities of my day. Because that's what I did with shells when I was a little girl. I put them to my ear and listened for the ocean.

In other worlds, Downing Street Says summarises the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman's daily briefings and allows people to discuss the UK's goings on. Kind of like an interactive and communal CPAC - and I think it might be an interesting way to get young people more interested in politics. Right on. (via iWire)

The Deliberately Concealed Garments Project - clothing found hidden in buildings - is oddly fascinating. (via mefi)

And for fun, Invader Fractal. Mmmm. (via reblog)

Monday, March 1, 2004


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