Thursday, September 30, 2004

We are living in a materials world

TRANSMATERIAL is a catalog of materials, products and processes that are redefining our physical environment. Particularly good stuff can be found in the following chapters:

Repurposed (pdf)
Materials which act as surrogates replacing precious raw materials conventionally used in various applications.

Transformational (pdf)
Materials which undergo a physical morphosis based on environmental stimuli.

Interfacial (pdf)
Materials which facilitate the interaction between physical and virtual worlds.


Sensory memory

Weird. Hearing "The Ghost in You" by the Psychedelic Furs and feeling the warm sun on my bare shoulders, I just remembered what being thirteen felt like.

People v. technology

Gathering of the Tribes - Sousveillance
Call for Submissions

"We seek creative works exploring how individuals and cultures artistically respond to and represent our world under surveillance. New media performance emphasizing the importance of public reflection on ubiquitous surveillance and sousveillence is encouraged, as well as essays, short stories, poetry and visual works that assist in defining the ideals of human centeredness in a mechanical and monitored world."

Hmm. perhaps I will submit my percolating critique of sousveillance...

Remembering Charlie

Charles Gordon - in memoriam

When I first came to Carleton I found a friend in Charlie. He told me that in a place where everyone was brilliant, the best way to distinguish oneself was through kindness. He lived those words, and I only hope I do the same.

Every time I was on campus I would go into Charlie's office and we would talk about architecture, technology, material culture, the relation between social process and the designed product, and cats (oh, how he would have loved Enid Coleslaw!)

His knowledge on these subjects was boundless, and a constant source of inspiration for my own work. He is missed.

Contributions can be made to the Charles Gordon Lectures on Society and Design.

Disney and Ford, together forever

I've always despised Walt Disney's vision of social order, and Henry Ford was no better, so I guess it's only suiting that the Henry Ford Museum will be collaborating with Disney Imagineering to create a travelling exhibit on the architecture and design of Disneyland.

"The historical connection between Disneyland and The Henry Ford can be
traced back to Walt Disney himself and his first visit to Greenfield Village,
part of The Henry Ford, in 1940. He was so taken with Henry Ford's vision of
an idealized American village, he returned eight years later. These trips and
visits to other destinations and fairs across the country helped Walt frame
the concept of a 'Family Park' that would become Disneyland."

Although the Henry Ford - "the place where authentic American people, places and things captivate and inspire" - conveniently neglects the history of Ford workers, they do have Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House and the Ford-made limousine in which JFK was assassinated.

And, because it's important to know thy enemy, I'd go see the architecture and design exhibit. (via)

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The sociological imagination

One of the best things about teaching is seeing those things you take for granted light up your students - and then feeling yourself lit up again.

From C. Wright Mills' 1959 The Promise of Sociology:

"People do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction. The well-being they enjoy, they do not usually impute to the big ups and downs of the societies in which they live. Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of people they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of individuals and society, of biography and history, of self and world...

Surely it is no wonder. In what period have so many people been so totally exposed at so fast a pace to such earthquakes of change? ... The history that now affects every person is world history ... Everywhere in the underdeveloped world, ancient ways of life are broken up and vague expectations become urgent demands. Everywhere in the overdeveloped world, the means of authority and of violence become total in scope and bureaucratic in form ... The very shaping of history now outpaces the ability of people to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values. And which values? Even when they do not panic, people often sense that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis. Is it any wonder that ordinary people feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? That they cannot understand the meaning of the epoch for their own lives? ...

It is not only information that they need -- in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that they need -- although their struggles to acquire these often exhaust their limited moral energy. What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of that is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to content, that journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the sociological imagination.

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions ... The first fruit of this imagination -- and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it -- is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances.

In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one ... By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove ... The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

On culture and design

Making worlds

A Hacker Manifesto
by McKenzie Wark

"Hackers create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things. In art, in science, in philosophy and culture, in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information new possibilities for the world produced, there are hackers hacking the new out of the old. Hackers create these new worlds, yet we do not possess them. That which we create is mortgaged to others, and to the interests of others, to states and corporations who monopolise the means for making worlds we alone discover. We do not own what we produce -- it owns us...

Drawing in equal measure on Guy Debord and Gilles Deleuze, A Hacker Manifesto offers a systematic restatement of Marxist thought for the age of cyberspace and globalization. In the widespread revolt against commodified information, McKenzie Wark sees a utopian promise, beyond the property form, and a new progressive class, the hacker class, who voice a shared interest in a new information commons."

(Released in bits on nettime)

Mobile Barbie

Some time back I posted on the cell-phone and laptop carrying geek girl Barbie I coveted - and now it seems that Mattel India has gone one step further by launching the Instant Messaging Barbie doll (via):

"This is the first time ever that Barbie comes with a mobile phone with instant messaging and is dressed in the latest fashion, with matching accessories. She comes with a working cell phone, with which girls can not only message Barbie, but also message their own friends who have a similar doll. Now, it will also be possible to change the look of the phone to match Barbie's dress. Instant Messaging Barbie is priced at Rs 1199 [US$26] and is targeted for girls between five and 12 years."

Obviously Mattel knew that young people are driving India's mobile phone revolution, and Mattel does well in India, but I was surprised this would be the test market for such a product.

And for more on the world of texting, check out (although I wonder when texting will be as taken-for-granted as email?)


I'm listening to Ride and reading The Black Table, Taphophilia, Charlotte Street and Burnlab.

I should be preparing for class.

Risk, Play, and Chance

Oh Canada!

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, and one of our few public intellectuals, consistently advocates for Canadian interests in the face of pressures from the United States.

Recently he has argued against Canada blindly following American proposals (or worse) for new copyright legislation and broadcast control - but it was today's editorial on reducing Canada's innovation deficit and the importance of ensuring access to publically-funded research that really caught my attention and gets my full support.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Reading and writing too much tech-related stuff makes Anne a dull girl

I was telling someone the other day that I always find my research interesting - but that is only partially true.

To be honest, I often get sick of reading so much about technology. I often get bored with the hype and the repetition. I often get fatigued by the collection of information without reflection. And I often get depressed at my own complicity.

I am always weirded-out by people who say they know me because of what I post here. What do they really know? This weblog flattens my personality. It offers only glimpses and fragments of me.

There is - I am - so much more.

Saturday, September 25, 2004


Isamu Noguchi. Slide Mantra, 1966-1989, black granite. Installed at West 8-chome, Odori Park, Saporro, Japan.

"Sculptures form what I call a garden, for want of a better name. Its viewing is polydirectional. Its awareness is in depth. With the participation of mobile man all points are central. Without a fixed point of perspective all views are equal, continuous motion with continuous change. The imagination transforms this into a dimension of the infinite."

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum

If I have time during Spectropolis next weekend, I'll make the trip again.

Event watch (more)

No One Opens Attachments Anymore: an international artisans workshop
November 4th & 5th, 2004
InfoLab21 and Folly
Lancaster UK

Submissions Deadline October 17th, 2004

"No One Open Attachments Anymore will bring together a select and intimate group of creative thinkers in computing, engineering, design and the arts for two days of :::explorative activity and scientific inquiry::: to be co-hosted in the Computing Department at InfoLab21 and Folly new media centre in Lancaster UK. Our intention is to bring together artists and scientists from different disciplines so that we can explore the tensions that exist between arts/tech collaborations. Through explorative activity and dialogue, we expect to generate prototype projects and ideas for future art/tech collaborations.

You are invited to contribute to our two main themes which will explore the intimate spaces found in viral and virtual worlds: viral communities and self-replication; and, absent presence, virtual sensing and distant co-action. Sumissions are encouraged from creative thinkers in computing, engineering, design and the arts in the form of short papers or videos."

Questions should be directed to Jennifer Sheridan, Ubiquitous Computing Group, Lancaster University

For those not familiar with Jenn's research and practice, check out Understanding Interaction in Ubiquitous Guerrilla Performances in Playful Arenas (pdf) and her work with thePOOCH, Innovative Interactions Lab, where folks "explore non-navigational spaces and interfacelessness; use less technology, not useless technology; like extreme prototyping; and build rather than blog." Sweet!

Event watch

The Upgrade! Montreal launches its first gathering of new media artists and curators on October 1st, 2004 at the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), Montreal.

The Upgrade! is a gathering of local practitioners and curators in the digital arts (new media, computing, video, net and technology arts). At the first Montreal edition, The Upgrade! NYC founder, digital arts curator and artist Yael Kanarek will be speaking on The Upgrade!’s unique history as well as discussing and presenting her work in new media. Following the inaugural Upgrade! Montreal, DJ and host tobias c. van Veen will provide a warm techno atmosphere in which to mix and converse.

If you need something to do before or after, there's always the Centre Canadien d'Architecture and the Musée d'Art Contemporain, or shopping for vinyl at Primitive and Disquivel and thift-store hunting around Mont-Royal.

Hooray for wonky research

In light of my comments on government-funded research and academic accountability in yesterday's Guardian interview, my good friend Daphne writes to say that the "annual slagging of SSHRC-funded research has reared its ugly head...the hunting season is declared open!"

Lobby group highlights 'wonky' projects (pay access only)

"The federal government handed out $86 million Thursday for a host of exotic university research projects, including studies on British carnal relations in the 18th century, intimacy between Ottawa escorts and their clients, hockey violence, cottage life and leisure walking. The projects also included a study on the cultural history of impotence and studies on 'shopping for pictures in early modern London,' the 'cassette revolution' in modern Egypt and 'understanding feelings of guilt in a retail purchase context'...

'Some day there will be a request for a study trying to find out how taxpayers put up with this kind of misuse of our tax dollars,' said John Williamson, the head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. 'The studies flunk the test of common sense in providing some kind of benefit to taxpayers, and they all seem to be kind of wonky'...

A spokeswoman for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) defended the grants, noting many projects in the list obviously be of benefit to society. 'Some of the titles are a bit misleading,' she said. 'Some of them may seem salacious, some of them may seem outrageous and some of them may seem obscure and esoteric. But the point is it reflects a broad range of interest, you're cultivating a broad range of interest and you're also cultivating research talents among the next generation of thinkers and researchers.' Dunne added that topics that appeared obscure in the past have recently become subject to unexpected attention."

By those "standards" I suspect my research would also be considered wonky. But, um, you'd think the SSHRC spokesperson could have come up with something a little better than that in our defense. Especially since we never hear a peep of complaint about the millions of dollars of research funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Sigh.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Look Mum & Dad, I was interviewed and sound like a proud socialist!

Inside the ivory tower

"Blogging is allowing academics to develop and share their ideas with an audience beyond the universities. But as Jim McClellan reports, not everyone is convinced."

The article covers everything from how blogging improves academic research and student learning to how it threatens traditional scholarship. In addition to my small part, there are insightful comments from some of the academic bloggers I regularly read. Good stuff.

On culture and technology

BBC News reports that, despite a lack of promised support from industrialised nations, a global fund designed to shrink the technology gap between rich and poor nations is to be launched in November.

Picking up on similar threads, Mike Masnick in The Feature reports that "some African leaders have decided that they can lift nations out of poverty if they just had more mobile phones" - but that they "might be better served trying to solve more fundamental issues first."

I certainly don't believe that technology will "save" people. And I firmly believe that the historical problem of "third-world" poverty will not be easily overcome - especially as long as we still assume that overcoming the "digital divide" is our best option.

But I cannot abide by the primitivist racism of this article. Masnick refers to Melanesian cargo cults as the actions and beliefs of people who were "a bit confused" and who "never understood what was really happening." Say what?! When searching the wikipedia, did he miss the entry for ethnocentrism?!

But maybe I shouldn't be pissed off at Masnick. Reading the wikipedia entry for cargo cults that he linked in his article, I learned that physicist Richard Feynman was the one responsible for coining the phrase cargo cult science (see also cargo cult programming) and teaching whole generations of technologists that it's okay to ridicule or dismiss cross-cultural practices you think are stupid (or at least less well-informed than your own). Sigh.

On a related note, in Race, Sex and Nerds: from Black Geeks to Asian-American Hipsters (via), Ron Eglash takes a look at the primitivist and orientalist racism (as well as sexism) that continue to block access to science and technology.

The article also brings up Sharon Traweek's excellent ethnographies of scientific culture and practice, and cited her observation "that the ability to 'ignore the social' (and thus express one's dedication to the asocial, universal realm of physics) is considered to be a sign of a good physicist." Hmm. Perhaps this explains Feynman's ignorance towards other cultural practices and values?!


For those unfamilar with Traweek's research, and anyone interested in better understanding how culture has come to be absent from so much discourse on science and technology, I highly recommend her book Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists, and her article Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science (pdf), which begins:

"Many would argue that Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published over thirty years ago in 1962, launched the new empirical researches into the practices of scientists. Nonetheless, Kuhn's work did not, in fact, disrupt the familiar litanies about science. Until the late seventies most historical, sociological, and philosophical investigations about science, technology, and medicine continued to assume and celebrate, but did not investigate the notion that scientists had invented a perfect way of knowing, quite free of all human constraints..."

Thursday, September 23, 2004

My hero

Sound this

Dissertation writing moving nicely to The Kills and Shellac.

In search of play

The question of play is central to my dissertation, and I am currently revisiting and refining my position that play is a world-building activity.

When people talk about technology and play, they are usually talking about games and game-play, and I prefer to leave the ludology-narratology debate to the games studies folks.

My central concern right now is what can be called the problem of structure. You see, whether we take Huizinga's Homo Ludens, Caillois' Man, Play and Games, Gadamer's ontology of the work of art in Truth and Method, Derrida's structure, sign and play in Writing and Difference, or even Sutton-Smith's Ambiguity of Play, the concept and practice of play are always tied to structure.

Play is most often described as something that happens outside of 'reality', and therefore comprising its own structure, or as something that shapes and changes the very structure of culture or society itself. Either way, we're stuck with a structural understanding that doesn't have the conceptual or practical agency of a word actually rooted in the notion of movement and action.

So what would a non-structural approach to play look like? What is the space of play? How can play serve as a method of critical inquiry?

Thesis update


My dissertation-in-progress is more than an attempt to write something academic without a colon in the title, but I thought that would be a good place to start.

And I didn't want my thesis to be entombed on some library shelf. I wanted it to be alive - to be playful and fun. I also wanted it to be accessible and interesting to everyone from my family and friends, to technologists and designers, and of course to the academic community.

So rather gleefully turning my back on the traditional chaptered thesis, and figuring the university wouldn't approve a mobile sculpture or even a movable book, I am currently working on a combination of web short-texts, graphical non-fictions, and academic backgrounders.

The reader will be able to engage - and disengage - my project at any point in the narrative. It is non-linear and uses three forms of communication to convey varying depth and complexity.

In terms of content, my dissertation takes three threads - mobilities, urbanisms and technological designs - and weaves them together with the concept of play.

It combines theoretical work with ethnographic interviews to critically explore emerging relationships between urban experience and wireless technologies.

If all goes well, I should have the first draft complete by the end of the year. Yay!

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Architecture, space and informatics (Pt II)

Following the lengthy post below on the theoretical aspects of Brian Lonsway's lecture, I wanted to add two ways he - and his partner Kathleen Brandt - are mobilising these ways of thinking in architectural and technological practice.

The first project is not online *, but really caught my fancy: Blue-Screen Activism. Imagine you are in a mall, surrounded by people wearing branded clothes and carrying branded bags. Video of these passersby is being captured in real-time and wirelessly transmitted to a van in the parking lot. In this van, computers are busy replacing the surfaces of clothing and bags with bluescreens that can display any message you desire. These modified scenes are then broadcast to large public displays in-and-around the mall. Imagine the GAP sweatshirts replaced with child-labour statistics, or the Apple Store bag that says SHOPPING ≠ FREEDOM. Nice.

The second project is called Prudent Avoidance:

"The Prudent Avoidance Device consists of a sensing apparatus worn by a participant, and a data modeling and web broadcast system for data analysis and presentation. The sensing device detects exposure to a wide range of electro-magnetic frequencies in the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) range that are suspected of having harmful effects on human life. In laboratory and field studies, the health effects of these frequencies have not been proven to be either benign or dangerous; thus, national and international regulating agencies have suggested 'Prudent Avoidance' of them for individuals. Without knowledge of where they exist and how they are dispersed, however, such avoidance becomes impossible.

To help make such effects more evident, the Prudent Avoidance Device collects a variety of information on exposure durations and frequency levels that are then correlated with a user's physical location. The data is subsequently uploaded to a publicly accessible website and presented as a kind of interactive 'documentary.' Visitors to the web site are able to follow the lives of the participants (represented by images, geographically mapped exposure data, and correlations of exposure levels with international standards) as they navigate a public space filled with ELF emissions. As the prototype is advanced, we desire to make the device sharable, and collect these 'data-driven' narratives from multiple participants. In this way, the website will act as a repository of these logged testimonials, allowing visitors to even situate their own spatial experiences within the context of the represented data and better understand the collective impact of this invisible phenomenon."

I like wearables projects that seek to render the (dangerously) invisible visible, like Katherine Moriwaki's Inside/Outside bag and Urban Chameleon clothing, or Play Research's reach in bag and Davide Agnelli et al.'s Fashion Victims bag.

What distinguishes Prudent Avoidance, I think, is the web component and collective, subjective data analysis. Very interesting.

* As a side-effect of constantly blogging my research, I find myself increasingly irked by academics who don't post their projects and papers online. Sigh.

Architecture, space and informatics (Pt I)

Yesterday I went to Brian Lonsway's lecture at Carleton's School of Architecture. Currently, he is Assistant Professor of Architecture and Director of the Informatics and Architecture program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and his research focusses on the relationships between architecture and informatics (cf. Hayles and Haraway, the critical study of computation within social and political contexts). More specifically, he spoke about the need to develop meaningful definitions of space within computer-mediated, interactive spatial environments. Right on.

Unfortunately, I found his talk a bit hard to follow, but I have tried to turn it into something meaningful and useful to me:

First, he distinguished computing from computation and informatics. Computing, he argued, is something we do with computers, or get computers to do for us. Computation is something that engages the essential (logical) aspects of computing. And, as mentioned above, informatics is the critical study of computation. He spoke of "mistaken dimensionality" or mistaking computing for computation, and called for a renewed and critically aware understanding of how space is organised or assumed in computation.

The first type of spatial organisation he discussed was metaphysical - the type of approach that breaks down space into discrete entities and works hard to find universal patterns and grammar. (Remember that metaphysics is concerned with the true nature of the universe.) The related desire to find a language for architecture draws on the work of Chomsky, and is well known from the work of Lynch, Alexander and Mitchell. These approaches to architecture and space emerged alongside the philosophy of cybernetics and the development of modern computing, so it should come as no surprise that they share many assumptions about what constitutes space and spatial experience (i.e. Cartesian and cellular). However, in part because these histories and philosophies are connected, they are also often taken for granted and thus "scientistic" architecture has been subjected to little or no critique.

The second type of spatial organisation he discussed was differant - the type of approach that searches not for universals or essences, but focusses on difference/différance (cf. Derrida). It is concerned with spaces of ambiguity and negotiation, rather than certainty and predictability. In linguistic terms, it is concerned with neither signifier nor signified, but rather with the space between the two. In other words, it seeks to understand de-temporalisation and de-spatialisation: interstices, gaps and fragments. This space is, by definition, critical of, or even opposed to, the types of metaphysical organisation described above. As such, its primary concern is critique: to find all the bits that get left out of, or contradict, metaphysical approaches. In my mind, the usefulness of these ways of thinking is found precisely in the ability to engage the differences between the virtual and the actual.

It strikes me that the virtual most often stands for "that-which-may-as-well-be". In that sense, we are able to experience it as "real". But many social and cultural theorists argue that the virtual shouldn't be contrasted with the real, it should be contrasted with the actual. What's the difference? Well, when I watch videos on MuchMoreRetro, I recognise "the 80s". More accurately, I recognise the (static and universal) myths and symbols of the 80s. In other words, what I'm watching is the virtual 80s, which is plenty real, but isn't much like the actual 80s of my experience. This sense of the virtual, or the abstract(ed), is not unlike Baudrillard's simulacra.

The problem, we can argue, is when this sense of the virtual or might-as-well-be, is used to build places that ostensibly represent or recreate things as-they-really-are. What we quickly see is a disjuncture between the pattern, the model, the equation, the algorithm, etc. and people's actual lived experience. Brian Lonsway gave the example of a care facility built for Alzheimer's patients. Designed according to the understanding that people suffering from the disease still had long-term memories, it was assumed that a place that recreated their past would make them feel more "at home". In this case, the care facility did not look like a hospital, but rather like a 50s theme-park. Of course, this is a virtual 50s that was designed - one where women were not stuck in the home and Black people were not segregated. What's important here is that this virtuality had actual consequences: it erased particular histories and experiences.

Another example Brian gave was the Celebration Health Imaging Center, located in Disney's town of Celebration, Florida.

"At the Celebration Health Imaging Center, we understand that our guests may be intimidated by the sights and sounds of the large equipment usually associated with CT Scans, MRI scans, and other tests. We are committed to changing the way you experience health care. We feel the key to helping patients overcome their anxiety and discomfort is to create a healing environment that replaces traditional settings. This is the premise behind Seaside Imaging. This peaceful virtual beach is designed to immerse our guests in a relaxing experience and furthers our dedication to providing a healing environment."

Again, although this is a real (virtual) space, the actual consequences include a masking or hiding of technology, as well as a rather disembodied (eased) experience of the (dis-eased) body.

Now, one of the ways architects are moving away from metaphysical organisation and towards differant organisation, Brian argued, was through what he called organisations of agency. Rather than treating space as inactive, or acting only as a repository, we could organise space as monadic (not cellular) or Leibnizian (not Cartesian). We could also find ways to think about data subjectively, rather than as truth. We could focus on designer agency and motivation, as well as on design as relational and contingent. The closest architects are getting to this way of thinking, he argued, is with parametric design.

Rather than pre-conceptualising form, as patterns tend to, parametric modelling focusses on assembly, or what in my discipline is referred to as becoming. Parametric design is iterative and changes are easily made through(out) the process of assembly. As such, it is never really done, and follows principles also advocated in notions of adaptive or hackable design. Work that falls within this type of spatial organisation includes that of Greg Lynn and Michael Silver - and with any sort of luck will find a voice at next week's Non Standard Praxis: Emergent Principles of Architectural Praxis With/in Digital Technologies conference at MIT, the bastion of metaphysical ways of organising space and culture.

Monday, September 20, 2004

On fundamentalism and virtual terror

Jean points to Melissa Gregg's recent paper Where is the law in 'unlawful combatant'? (doc).

She begins by conjuring the now familiar music that inspires US soldiers in Iraq - and appalls people at home - then suggests that she worries much more about those inspired by religion. I've excerpted a big chunk below, but the whole paper is well worth a read.

"Why am I worried? Because in their patriotism, the singer-soldiers caught by Gittoes' camera see a religious act. When someone's saying 'God is on our side' they're no longer talking about the nation-based context for which, whatever the rules of war might be, such rules are relevant. They're talking about a Holy War. It has different rules. And how to hold them to any actual legal account is the problematic I want to address here...

The more a cause and effect explanation for terrorism is avoided, the more abstract it becomes and the more virtual any reaction to it can also become. A literally senseless cycle develops where any potential threat to the State can be co-opted into the same abstract battle. Right now, as leaders clamour to describe their contrasting regional concerns within the vote-pulling vocabulary of terrorism (the only vocabulary that George W. Bush appears to have mastered), we lose sight of the fact that 'International terror is not an "ism". It is a criminal tactic of publicity seeking for a cause, one to which the West seems astonishingly vulnerable'. The terror tag is so attractive for political leaders because it evacuates the possibility that an identifiable grievance might underwrite individual acts of dissonance. Yet it also works well in the political schema Agamben outlines, where Western leaders are forced to maintain a constant State of Emergency, for this is their sole remaining purpose and claim to legitimacy. Or as Simon Jenkins writes in The Times: 'Just when the West has conquered communism, it craves a new and potent enemy. It almost takes comfort in the car bomber'.

The War on Terror is successful because it has found a way to define a politics of the multitude—albeit a particularly vicious and gruesome one—in terms that sustain the State. It's not in terrorists' interests to have their causes lumped in to one blanket category. Those given the label are denied specific recognition as radicals supporting an actual cause, no matter how vague the cause may be. The word terrorism now has a consequence all of its own, without reference to any actual event or political tactic. And as long as this hegemonic articulation continues, as the song goes, we remain condemned to sing along to the 'United States of Whatever'...

In this paper I've tried to suggest a different site for political investment than the innate radicality of a virtual politics. While I remain open to the idea that our best hope may include the forms of mobilisation advocated in recent Italian thought, I also remain wary of the Right's current success in this same terrain. Our current political categories and concepts struggle to cope with the religious conviction underpinning justifications for the War on Terror."

And for background:

Steven Shaviro on Hardt & Negri's Multitude

Antonio Gramsci

Giorgio Agamben

Blue Note

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Performing code

Hacking Perl in Nightclubs
by Alex Mclean

I've found the experiences of dancing and programming to have a great deal in common. With both I am immersed in an abstract world of animated structures, building up and breaking down many times before finally reaching a conclusion. Indeed, when the operation of even the dullest data-munging computer program is visualized, for example in a debugger, it does seem to be dancing around its loops and conditions -- moving in patterns through time.

In other words, a musical score is a kind of source code, and a musical performance is a kind of running program. When you play from a musical score or run a program you are bringing instructions to life.

So a piece of composed music is like a Perl script, but let's not forget improvised music. The rules behind improvised music -- for example improvised jazz -- develop during a performance, perhaps with little or no predefined plan. Where is the comparison with code here? Well, how many times have you sat down to write some Perl without first deciding exactly how you were going to structure it? Perl is great for improvising. The question is, can you write improvised Perl scripts on stage?

Wonderful. Thanks Andrew!


Chromaticism and Jazz

The performativity of code: software and cultures of circulation (pdf) and Java™: how Internet programming practically imagines virtuality (pdf) by Adrian Mackenzie

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Bits and pieces

Jean Arp, Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-17

Jean Arp, Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916–17.

Jean Arp, Biography


The Exquisite Corpse is a database of possible stories, a map of tellings and retellings, a network of routes from one beginning to many possible endings.

Low-level detail

The past eight days have sucked. Our bottom floor flooded not once, but twice. Furniture ruined. Carpet pulled up. Mould and mildew infested walls. Stench. Totally uninhabitable - and the bedroom and bathroom are down there. Everything should be repaired by next Wednesday but, quite frankly, I can't wait to move. Or at least sleep in my bed again. And believe it or not, the thing that made me laugh the most this week was playing with Enid and her new George W toy. Small pleasures.

Friday, September 17, 2004


by Claude McKay

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

And Sebastiao Salgado photographs the Other Americas, where I grew up.


Thursday, September 16, 2004

Digital Street Game

Call to Play >>

Digital Street Game is a hybrid game of misadventure set on the streets of New York. It’s a battle for turf, a contest of wills – in short – an excuse to explore the city.

Players compete for turf by performing and documenting ‘stunts’ on the physical streets of New York in order to claim territory on a virtual map. Stunts are comprised of a random combination of 3 elements: 1) an object commonly found in the city (e.g. bodega) 2) a street game (e.g. stickball) and 3) a wildcard/urban situation (e.g. happy hour). Players interpret these elements as they wish, then stage and photograph their stunt in order to claim a spot on the map. The more stunts players perform the more turf they claim. But of course some players may want to compete for the same territory. In order to hold on to territory, players’ stunts must score high with the rest of the game community.

How to play >>

Go to the site and register, select an intersection to claim and get your randomly generated stunt. From there add your own ingredients (friends, mischief, whatever) to pull it off. Photograph your stunt in progress and upload to the site to claim your turf. Repeat as necessary.

When to play >>

The game can be played at any time. There’s no official beginning or ending. In other words it’s ongoing.

Stunts we love >>

For a quick sampling of stunts, here are some of our favorites.


Congratulations to friends Michele Chang and Elizabeth Goodman for their hard work getting Digital Street Game out-there-in-the-world. Now go play!

Fighting for broadcast freedoms

I haven't had much patience for the self-righteous rhetoric that Adbusters has pushed in the past so-many years, but I can say that I completely support their right to air their advocacy messages on television.

On September 15, Adbusters launched legal action against four of Canada's biggest television broadcasters – CTV, CanWest Global, CBC and CHUM.

If you walked into your local television station today and tried to buy 30-seconds of airtime, you would likely get the same response we continually get. Boiled down, the refrain goes something like this: We will not accept your money. We will not accept your messages. We're in the business to sell ads, not spread your ideas.

Meanwhile, corporations have virtually unlimited access to the media to push their products and agendas...

Indeed. I find it absurd that standard adverts aren't considered advocacy - after all, they advocate consumerism. It only seems fair and democratic that people should be able to advocate anti-consumerism and any other ideological position that is not in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And don't even get me started on media monopolies.

I hope Adbusters kicks some ass in the name of broadcasting freedom! (via)

It's so much more interesting when things fail

Cheers to doorsofperception for reminding me about a conference that caught my interest in the Spring and was shortly thereafter forgotten:

Urban Vulnerability And Network Failure: Construction And Experiences Of Emergencies, Crises And Collapse

"The core aim of this conference is to explore the ways in which reactions to, and experiences of, the collapse of technical and networked infrastructures within and between cities are constructed, experienced, imagined, represented, and contested. We seek in particular to explore these themes under conditions of growing infrastructural stress, re-regulation, globalisation, increasing concerns with failure, the changing geopolitical situation surrounding the 'war on terror', and the strong fascination for infrastructural collapse within contemporary culture."

Interesting papers?

Clogging up the City: Flows of Fat in Bodies and Sewers (pdf) by Simon Marvin and Will Medd

Rethinking Networks and Network Failure: Some Reflections from the Israeli-Palestinian Arena (pdf) by Jan Selby

Ladbroke Grove: or How to Think about Failing Systems (pdf) by John Law

What is to be feared?: Vulnerabilities, Precautions and Preparedness in Extreme Spaces – Making a Living and Building a Modern Society in Arctic Greenland (pdf) by Birgitte Hoffmann and Ulrik Jørgensen

Lot lizards, good buddies and network science

"I am a truck driver and I feel sick to my stomach every time I get near a truck stop and hear the 'lot lizards' (prostitutes) on the CB radio asking if any drivers want 'commercial company.' A real bad area for this is Lake Station, Indiana. There are four truck stops within spitting distance of the interstate, and the lot lizards and the 'good buddies' (male prostitutes) run wild with little or no police interference. In cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, they are a major problem for drivers. We all get a bad name from the ones who frequent prostitutes and bring sexually transmitted diseases back to the family."

- Letter to the editor in response to Forbidden Science: What can studies of pornography, prostitutes, and seedy truck stops contribute to society? (Discover magazine, August 2004)

See also:

Trucker Music

Review of Toronto artist Andrew Harwood's 2004 Trucker exhibition

IMDB - Convoy (1978, Sam Peckinpah)

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Mobile phones for the other 90%

CNN reports that telco companies are now realising that most people can't afford to pay $800 for a mobile phone. Wow. No shit.

The business case?

"With many markets in the developed world maturing, handset makers and service providers are looking for new ways to generate revenues. One way is to target the lower income subscriber. Today we have one billion subscribers and we need to get another billion subscribers."

Yeah. I always thought the principles of capitalist profit dictated that you sell as much as possible, so why telcos have only targeted the top 10% of the world's earners has always struck me as kind of weird. But I'm no economist, so I'm probably missing some sort of simple explanation.

But back to the idea that they want to sell to the other 90%. If you believe in the digital-divide, that probably sounds like a good idea. But let's not forget that companies aren't concerned so much with improving access (and quality of life) as they are with making more money. Not that that's inherently wrong or anything - just clarifying.

Anyway, I think the more interesting part of the article looks at services:

"Service providers have also come up with innovative ways to cater to the needs of the low-end consumer, using the text message as a virtual prepaid calling card. The consumer sends a text message to a number saying they agree to pay, and in return receives a specific amount of airtime. This system is paperless and cheaper to operate than other prepaid services. Normally mobile users need to buy credit card-style vouchers bearing an identification number that they key into their handsets to add airtime. Under the electronic system, operators do not have to print vouchers or be involved with distributing them. Therefore, they can afford to sell airtime in smaller amounts."

Hmm. Micro-payments for phones. I can see that working for all sorts of people and circumstances, and not just in the developing world.

Now just imagine what else we could come up with if we thought more about people other than well-off, white, male alpha-geeks...


Green machines

It's not like I think about it all the time, but I do get really freaked-out when I think about all the waste produced in the manufacture and disposal of electronic equipment.

E-waste is a growing problem - and that doesn't even cover the environmental waste and social impact of mining for metals in the first place.

Now, pretty much all major manufacturers have recycling programmes, but when companies like NEC say they're releasing new notebook computers made of biodegradable plastic, I really smile. Even if I wonder why it took so long, and why everyone doesn't have to do it. (via)

See also:

E-Waste: Dark Side of Digital Age

Greenpeace's Chemical Home campaign evaluation of computers and mobile phones

E-waste rules still being flouted

Wireless: the New Recyclable

Vintage wireless

My father is an extraordinary tinkerer - and lately he's been geeking out on antique crystal radio sets like these and these and these. (Did you know that crystal sets have no oscillator so, say, the government or police can't determine the frequency you're listening to?) Anyway, it was my dad who got me interested in the beginnings of radio and early wireless, and reminded me that what I study has a pretty long history.

When I was visiting last month, he showed me a few old crystal sets he'd reconstructed and a stunning horn loudspeaker he'd scored. Since crystal radios are only AM receivers, he was telling me that he planned to modify a case so that it housed an FM receiver. I got really excited because it meant that this antique radio and loudspeaker could then be used to listen to music via my iPod/iTrip. I mean, how cool would that be?! I could just hear and feel the warm fuzziness...

Now it turns out I'm not the only one to be thinking along those lines. Today's Wired news reports:

"In the back streets of Tokyo's upscale Aoyama district, there's a little antique store quite unlike all the others in the neighborhood. Located on the second floor of an old apartment building, And Up specializes in selling antique radios and, of all things, iPods. The store's owner, 50-year-old Takeyuki Ishii, recommends plugging an iPod into an FM transmitter and listening to music through the speaker of an antique radio. Ishii believes there is aural magic in the combination of the very old with the very new. Playing an iPod through an old radio or tube-driven amplifier gives it a special warmth and atmosphere, he says...

"I want these kids to know the great culture we had as well as some of the great engineering and design work of the mid-20th century," he said. "The industrial goods of today become obsolete too fast. We aren't given enough time to digest them. I think now is a good time to stop, look back and learn from some of the great work we have begun to forget."


And speaking of old-meeting-new, I dig the look of Nokia's new 1920s-inspired fashion collection. (via)

Fall knitting

I'm learning that when one's taste in knits tends towards post-apocalyptic trash and absurd loungewear, it's damn hard to find patterns.

I mean, sure, I can knit myself an electric blue version of this gem. But after I finish my poncho, what's next?

Well, there's this wicked cardigan, a sweet bag, and some wontons and eggrolls for Enid Coleslaw. That's what.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Don't Waste Your Time

Maurice Tabard, Ne gaspillez pas votre temp/Don't Waste Your Time, 1927

Urban operations

Urban Warfare: Its History and Its Future (PDF)

"The urban environment, considered in military terms, is a unique environment, both in terms of its essential character and its behavior. Faced with the complexities of this environment, military analysts have resorted to explaining cities as a 'system of systems,' as if cities were only the product of architectural designs and engineers' drawings. Those would not be cities but monuments. The first, most elementary, feature of any urban environment is that it is a place where people have collected more or less permanently. It is therefore to the human qualities of the urban environment the military planner must first look if he hopes to understand how armies can function in such a place.

"When a military force acts in an urban environment, its essential humanness guarantees that the environment acts in return; that is, the relationship between a force and a city is dynamic. The dynamic interaction between cities and the military forces operating in them redefines and reshapes those forces over time. Because of its dynamic quality, the urban environment works as an important 'third force,' uniquely influencing the behavior of all sides engaged.

Attacking the Heart and Guts: Urban Operations Through the Ages (PDF)

"One of the most important reasons for attacking a city was to capture the enemy's political, economic, or cultural center, thereby destroying his morale, his ability to sustain a war, and his capability to govern. In other words, the city was attacked because it was the enemy’s center of gravity.

"Twenty-first century cities are much larger than cities were just a hundred years ago. Cities are not as homogeneous as they once were. Modern-day buildings within cities are generally much more resilient than those of previous ages. In effect, rather than being a single fortified entity, modern cities have the potential of being developed by a defender into dozens or hundreds of individual mutually supporting miniature fortresses.

"Modern urban operations also require a unique understanding of the physical and human aspects of the urban center. Commanders and their staffs must understand the intricate infrastructure of the modern city, just as the general commanding a besieging army had to understand the design of a fortress city. In addition, even more so than historical commanders whose societies were less sensitive and media aware than modern Western culture, modern commanders must have a thorough understanding of, and a plan to deal with, the urban population."

Corners & intersections

Cities, Corners - an exhibition on the role of the city as a meeting place:

"Starting from the consideration of the corner as the quintessence – the minimum expression – of a city, the exhibition offers a tour in which corners signify the ultimate in urban confluence and human intersection. It is an exhibition on the material of cities, on stones and on people... The city is the sum of corners; the city is a repetition of corners. The value is precisely the crossroads, the intersection...

Reflecting on points of intersection and corners leads us to reflect on contrast, consensus, conflict and commonality in difference: the true nature of urban life. This exhibition shows the visitor how encounters, intersections and interchanges, surprises and options, fear and conflict, milestones and references all materialize at corners. Ultimately, it portrays urban corners as illustrations of the diversity of cultural and geographical conditions."

photos | video

Toronto: The ugliest corners in the city

Our corners, our selves: Our intersections should be microcosms

Cutting Corners: Why intersections matter

David Kapp: Painted Streets/Urban Grids

And (mmmm...) TransUrbanism

The city's substance is hardly material/architectural anymore. Public squares, market places, the layout of streets seem no longer relevant to how the city is experienced.

the war president sings

sunday bloody sunday

words & music: U2
vocals: george w. bush
all the rest: rx


Sunday, September 12, 2004

Current reading (on virtual places)

Guide to Ecstacity by Nigel Coates

Welcome to one of the great cities of the world. Ecstacity is here and everywhere, a place where people and cultures meet. It blends everyday qualities drawn from Tokyo, Cairo, London, New York, Rome, Mumbai, and Rio de Janiero, into an urban kaleidescope marked by cultural infusion. Despite its proliferation of lifestyles and global communication, Ecstacity puts emotion first. It is utopian in so far as it exists in the mind. Experiences are its bricks and mortar. Six guides are going to introduce you to it...

Also: Learning from Ecstacity (Quicktime movie)

Jonathan Bell reviews the first showing of Ecstacity in London ("Someone, somewhere, in their infinite wisdom had decided that this temple of very contemporary decadence was the ideal place for the launch. Perhaps it’s a neat fit, especially when you consider Coates’s work has a rather showy, superficial, blank sexiness.")

The Guardian - Skin and Bone and The Observer - Sights and the city

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Questions about ubicomp and other tales of ordinary madness

Emily Zak is currently researching ubiquitous computing and invisible interfaces at the University of London, and she recently asked me to answer some very complex questions. I've posted some thoughts below:

Emily: With a lack of consensus about what ubiquitous technology is - pervasive, ambient, tangible interfaces, 'Calm Computing,' 'Transparent Technologies' - in your view what is ubiquitous or pervasive computing, where is it located or how is it mediated?

Anne: I'm partial to the terms ubiquitous and pervasive because they get at, what is to me, the core of the mythology: a design and engineering paradigm based on the assumption that computing can, and will, be distributed everywhere (i.e. not just on the desktop). Currently it is, by-and-large, located in laboratories and universities in the developed world. What I mean is that ubicomp isn't out-there-in-the-world-with-people yet, and likely won't be for decades to come, if it ever manifests itself as projected.

But this question of ubiquity is complicated and should be unpacked a bit. Unfortunately, Weiser's choice of the word "invisible" seems to be responsible for so much confusion; I don't think it was ever meant to be taken literally. The legacy is that ubicomp still tends to be discussed in terms of "seamless" interfaces, despite Weiser's clarification that "seamfulness" would be rather important. Researchers like Matthew Chalmers have tried to revive this concept, but it's a bit unclear to me what that might actually involve. It also seems to conflict with massive funding programmes like the EU's Disappearing Computing initiative.

Recently I've also noticed a shift away from describing ubicomp as allowing "anywhere, anytime" information, and towards getting people "the right information at the right time." A subtle difference but, I think, evidence that we are starting to understand that total ubiquity - or "always-on" computing - is not only technologically difficult, if not impossible, but also socially undesirable. Nonetheless, I think the obsession with "information" still misses Weiser's point about the importance of people.

Emily: Mark Weiser and others describe the drive toward ubiquitous computing as humane - with computers "getting out of the way." Are there assumptions being made about what is innately human and not-human activity and what is the everyday?

Anne: Weiser said that computers needed to move from the centre to the periphery of our attention, and this is, I think, the type of invisibility he imagined. The problem, as he understood it, was that desktop computers are somehow dehumanising, that they isolate us and take too much away from our quality of life. Of course there are assumptions being made in these scenarios about what computers, people and everyday life are - that's one of the things about ubicomp that interests me the most - and these assumptions rarely, if ever, get questioned.

The types of socio-cultural theory and method most often used within the human-computer interaction community include ecological or systems approaches, ethnomethodology and phenomenology. It is not coincidental that all these ways of thinking are ontologically and epistemologically compatible with the general principles of cybernetics - among other things, it makes translation between (and enrollment among) the necessary players much easier.

On the other hand, studies in science, technology and society, as well as cultural studies, critical theory and continental philosophy, including feminist theory, have challenged these ways of understanding human (and human-computer) interaction. Researchers like Donna Haraway, Manuel de Landa, Bruno Latour, and Lucy Suchman have been instrumental in these critiques of technoscience - but the body of relevant literature is huge and I won't get into it here.

Emily: How do concepts of intelligent technology, or discourses increasingly mediated by such technologies, challenge the assumption and primacy of human agency and pose ethical and philosophical questions about the nature of agency and intelligence? Further, how do embodied or situated practices, and networks of agency maintained at the sites of innovation, laboratories and research centres, influence the development and application of new media socio-technologies?

Anne: My own research draws a great deal from the work of people like Latour (especially for his notions about collectives of humans and non-humans), Adrian Mackenzie (for ideas about transduction, space and culture), and Deleuze & Guattari (for notions of mobility and becoming). One thing they all have in common is a blurring of the traditional boundaries between subjects and objects, which automatically reframes the issue of social agency.

Lucy Suchman has written about situated accountability, which suggests some sort of contextual (perhaps bottom-up) ethics will be necessary, but I do tend to agree with Latour that we are far from having a political and ethical position that is adequate for the interconnectedness conjured by his collectives, and technologies like ubicomp. In a world where we still argue about whether it is guns or people that kill people, I'm not quite sure what it will mean - in practice - when we say that neither guns nor people kill, but rather it is an assemblage that can be described as a person/gun that kills.

Connect this to the matter of spatial practice and things get even harder to pin down. I draw mostly on notions of flow - from Deleuze, to Rob Shields, to John Law - in my research. In this way we must also deal with the question of time, and it becomes difficult to say that innovation is maintained at any particular site as, in practice, it flows through many sites.

My dissertation delves deeper into these and similar questions, but you'll have to wait a few more months for that, I'm afraid. In the meantime, I hope you continue to ask excellent questions and I wish you the best of luck with your own research!

Mobile movies

Textual @traction - an interactive short film by Ieuan Morris

"The film centres on a young man who finds a lost mobile phone and starts replying to text messages from a mystery stranger. What makes the film unique is that the audience does not actually get to see the messages on screen. Instead, by pre-registering, they receive the texts to their own phones at the same time as the characters on screen."

Sounds interesting. (via)

Friday, September 10, 2004

Bearing witness

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is one of my favourite graphic novels:

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

I love her account of the introduction of the veil in school (Ooh! I'm the monster of darkness!) and the tales of reading Marx and playing revolution with childhood friends fill me with glee every time. But mostly, I adore it because it's the story of a brilliant and wondrous girl learning about the absurdity of life, love and war.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Persepolis 2 was recently published in English.

And for those who read French, you can also pick up Persepolis 3 & 4 - aussi incroyable!

Remembering the dead

I watched a documentary on The Weather Underground the other day, and I keep thinking about how former members described their actions and beliefs as reasonable, if idealistic, given the situation in Vietnam and their desire to not allow the losses to go ignored - to "bring the war home."

Today I think it is irrelevant whether we remember them as revolutionaries or terrorists - we've never been clear on the distinction anyway - because I too want all wars on foreign soil to be brought back home.

Tonight, and Win Without War are hoping to do just that with their candlelight vigils.

My thoughts are with the families and friends of the dead on all sides. Peace.

Engaging design

Design Engaged 2004
Amsterdam, Netherlands
November 12-14, 2004

Design Engaged will be a chance for designers to gather to discuss current challenges and opportunities. What do new technologies like pervasive computing offer designers? What obstacles do you find in coming up with innovative ideas, and how do you collaborate with others to make those ideas happen? What do fields like architecture or software development have to offer design, and vice versa?

Design Engaged will bring together artists, designers, academics, technologists, and writers. Some have worked together before, some have not. Some are theorists, some are practitioners. Participants have a chance to make new connections and build on old ones.

With so many friends participating in such a fun city, it makes me extra sad I can't afford to go! But I'm counting on them to keep us informed...

Thursday, September 9, 2004

The triumph of the mundane

It's pouring rain, the windows are open, my coffee is strong and hot, I'm listening to Slint, and kitty Enid Coleslaw is tearing about the house with a gorgeous energy.

The risk of techno-orientalism

Props to Katherine Moriwaki for coining reviving the phrase techno-orientalism, which she used to describe a tendency for mobile-tech researchers, when seeking "non-Western" cultural examples, to repeatedly call on Asia.

Actually, Katherine and I were recently at a conference where the phrase "Asian culture" was used so much that we had to ask which Asian cultures were being discussed - and Sha Xin Wei very politely stepped up to remind the room that Orientalism comes with a lot of baggage.

The history of American anthropology is closely tied to the study of culture areas: "contiguous geographic areas comprising a number of societies that possess the same or similar traits or that share a dominant cultural orientation." Originally proposed at the turn of the last century by Otis T. Mason, the Smithsonian's first full-time curator of Ethnology, the tradition of culture-area studies continues to this day -- for example, my MA culture-area specialisation was the Andes -- and this practice has played a pivotal role in the construction of anthropological knowledge (or what we mean by "culture") along with what is known as the anthropological "other."

This exotic "other," most often living in equally exotic far-away lands to which the anthropologist adventures, is also the subject of Edward W. Said's Orientalism. Although his work has been critiqued on the basis of its oversimplification of the colonial experience, and denial of what can be described as Eastern orientalism, it was seminal in drawing attention to Western political power, scholarly authority and intellectual discourses of "otherness." As he wrote on Orientalism 25 Years Later:

'There is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation. There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control.'

These days Said's archetypal Oriental tends to be called Asian, but too often still represents or stands in for all Asian peoples - as if there were no differences between India and Laos and Sumatra, for example. With Asia leading as the largest market for mobile devices, and a common model for ubiquitous urban computing, Asian people are increasingly of interest to Western technology business and design cultures.

Anthropologists and other social scientists like Mimi Ito (University of Southern California), Genevieve Bell (Intel Research) and Shin Dong Kim (Hallym University), have focussed research on Asian techno-cultures without falling prey to techno-orientalism, but an interest in Asians-as-market risks slipping into a new version of Orientalism: that of Asian-as-consumer. And while that interest may not be for what Said called "purposes of control," it can certainly be argued that it is for purposes of profit, which are hardly politically neutral.

And as Katherine points out, even the best intentions to increase our scope to include perspectives beyond European and American contexts can result in singling out Asia as "other" - which is not really much better, even when it seems positively super cool. (For current examples of Japanophilia one need only pick up a copy of Wired magazine, and not just for the regular Japanese Schoolgirl Watch column. Or for those who love Asian pop-culture in general, or don't know that K is for Kogal, there's always Giant Robot. And on the darker side, don't even get me started on Asians-as-model-immigrants or unspoiled brides!)

So what's my point? Simple: as we look to Asia for example and inspiration for the brave new wireless world, we need to be careful to avoid sweeping generalisations and techno-orientalism. Asia is home to a wide range of cultures and peoples with distinct histories and current practices that reach far beyond (mobile) technologies - all of which deserve our equal attention and respect.

After recently having the pleasure of meeting Shin Dong Kim, Director of the Institute for Communication Arts & Technologies at Hallym University and Chair of the upcoming International Conference on Mobile Communication in Seoul, Korea, I am even more convinced that greater cross-cultural awareness and cooperation between scholars, designers, technologists, business-people and the public will be crucial if we are to build a truly inter-connected and humane world.

(And incidentally, with an equally long history of dismissing Africa as the Dark Continent and it now emerging as the fastest growing region for mobile communications we also risk doing the same with its richness and diversity of cultures - and that wouldn't be good either.)

[UPDATE: I thought I might mention that my friends laugh their asses off and refer to posts like this as "verbal diarrhoea". Just so you know you're not the only one.]

Rural mobility

With all the hype about huge urban WiFi networks , it's refreshing to see this story:

'Walla Walla County is better known for wheat fields than Wi-Fi. But a small community-owned utility in this agriculture-dependent region has constructed one of the largest wireless Internet networks in rural America, rolling out high-speed connections across about 1,500 square miles...

Usually in these open spaces, there is a lot less interference than there is in the big cities, both in terms of physical impediments like buildings, but also in terms of radio frequency interference... People ask if this is a niche application. The answer is no. There are thousands of these rural utilities across the U.S. that we think are great opportunities.'

I'm not sure this is a solution, as some claim, to the so-called "digital divide" (really, how crucial is it that rural people be able to 'view online photographs of farming equipment from nearby auctions'?) but using WiFi to 'control or monitor applications and equipment on the farm' sounds like it might make a real difference in quality of life.


Learning architecture

The Archinect School Blog Project

'We have recruited representatives from a collection of architecture programs around the world to maintain blogs documenting their experiences and discoveries from each institution during the fall 2004 semester. The goal of this unprecedented endeavor is to provide a voyeuristic view into the environments of some of the most intriguing academic institutions for architecture.'

Right on!

(Cross-posted to space and culture)

Ubicomp 2004

So, I'm not at Ubicomp this year, and I'm relying on Katherine and Jonah to keep me informed.

First off, the keynotes look more interesting than last year's: Janet Abrams opened with a discussion of "ludic(rous)" experiments in ubicomp design and the importance of people and place. Right on. And Robin Milner will be speaking about some of the models needed to understand the coming Global Ubiquitous Computer, an "organism that is partly artefact and partly natural phenomenon." Count me in on social/cultural concepts like beliefs, intentions, mobility, obligations, provenance and reflectivity.

Interesting-looking demos?

Matthew Chalmers et al's Seamful Games. [See also Notes on Seams, Seamfulness and Seamlessness - How designers can help users to exploit shortcomings of technology by Antti Oulasvirta]

Gauri Nanda's bYOB (Build Your Own Bag)

And I'm curious about Urico Fujii and Ann Poochareon's KU: iyashikei-net, a networked sculpture that allows people to communicate through tears.

The list of interactive posters is a bit vague, but Michele and Liz have one up on Digital Street Game, and Kaki and Jonah have one up on - which I will be checking out in-action at Spectropolis in a few weeks. I'm also curious about Wendy March et al's The boundaries of ubiquity.

Later today I'll post my comments on the papers from the Ubicomp in the Urban Frontier workshop - and tease out Katherine's comments about "the nouveau orientalism of technological discourse."

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

It's a good morning

With classes starting tomorrow, and yesterday my last day of vacation, I had planned to get to work today - at least on the few dozen still unanswered email in my inbox, if not on my own research. And, since life is unpredictable, I also have to take my sick kitty to the vet and be here when the contractor comes to fix the water leak in the ceiling. So what better way to avoid all of the above than by checking out weblogs and such?

After all, that's how I learned that other people love Muppet mad scientists as much as I do. And (via) how I listened to Slowdive and Shellac and other fine bands. And, last but not least, how I found a chic hat pattern from 1938 that I'll knit as soon as I finish my poncho.

It's a good morning.

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Remembering Canadian labour

Jos Montferrand, Legendary Lumberjack

On Labour Day

Canadian Museum of Civilization: Canadian Labour History (1850-1999) and The Labour Stamp: The Image of the Worker on Canadian Postage Stamps

CBC Archives: 1968's Women in the Labour Force and 1969's Remembering the Winnipeg General Strike

Canadian Labour Congress

And for world-wide labour news, see LabourStart (although I do wonder how many trade unionists speak Esperanto)

Saturday, September 4, 2004

Love as a device

I have been re-reading Man Alone With Himself, the last part of Nietzsche's Human, All-Too-Human, and I find myself imagining uses for this strategy:

'Whoever wants really to get to know something new (be it a person, an event, or a book) does well to take up this new thing with all possible love, to avert his eye quickly from, even to forget, everything about it that he finds inimical, objectionable, or false. So, for example, we give the author of a book the greatest possible head start, and, as if at a race, virtually yearn with a pounding heart for him to reach his goal. By doing this, we penetrate into the heart of the new thing, into its motive center: and this is what it means to get to know it. Once we have got that far, reason then sets its limits; that overestimation, that occasional unhinging of the critical pendulum, was just a device to entice the soul of a matter out into the open.'

When I think of all the ways we strip raw the subjects of our adoration, I suspect that the consuming desire to crawl inside the ones we love may be more honestly the desire to turn them inside-out just so that we can see them better...

Friedrich Nietzsche was acutely sensitive to place

Nietzsche: The Problem of Autumn
by David Farrell Krell and Donald L. Bates

'Friedrich Nietzsche was acutely sensitive to place: to the taste of sea air, to the sweep of wind across the coast, to the narrow confines of medieval walls or the tumbling breadth of an Alpine vista framed by the window near his writing desk. He was convinced that the effects of environment, climate, and terrain on one's life and thought were both tangible and profound. The places where Nietzsche lived and worked include some of the most beautiful places in Europe. In The Good European, Krell and Bates explore for the first time Nietzsche's Epicurean appreciation of the beautiful cities and landscapes in which he worked and their effects on his thought.'

For example, in Human, All-Too-Human Nietzsche writes:

'Direct self-observation does not by any means suffice for self-knowledge. We need history, inasmuch as the past wells up in us in hundreds of ways. Indeed we ourselves are nothing other than what we sense at each instant of that onward flow. For even when we wish to go down to the stream of our apparently ownmost, most personal essence, Heraclitus's statement holds true: one does not step twice into the same river.—The maxim has by now grown stale; yet it is as nourishing and energizing as ever. So too is the maxim that in order to understand history one must search for the living remnants of historical epochs—and do so by traveling, as the venerable Herodotus traveled to sundry nations...'


Networks, flows and power

Flowmaps, The Imaginaries of Global Integration
Brian Holmes

'In an unforgettable phrase from Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon writes: "To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization." Half a century later, Fanon's phrase demands we ask this question: To what extent, and with what consequences, have the world's populations assumed the electronically mediated culture of global integration? How heavily does the new immaterial realm weigh upon those who have chosen or accepted to speak its language? In the syntactical structure of gobalization, industrial and financial flows are inseparable from centralized military command, networked communication, and the broadcast news-and-entertainment media. It is through these standardized vectors, and through the almost inconceivable diversity of the groups and individuals inhabiting them, that the integrated planetary system "thinks" – or dreams...'

Brian Holmes recently participated in the Networks and Power panel at Ars Electronica. (via)

Also on the topic of flows, check out Motion Traces, the Ars Electronica Futurelab's latest media art project.

Friday, September 3, 2004

Dead questions favour dead minds

I've posted a short Guide to Critical Thinking for students and anyone else who is interested.

Comments are welcome.

Can we teach the joy of thinking?

I have been blessed - and cursed - with a curious mind. I say cursed not simply because curiosity killed the cat, but because it makes it very difficult for me to understand people who seem to lack curiosity about themselves and the world around them. This difficulty causes me the most grief when, every fall, I am faced with students who appear to utterly lack curiosity. When I am in a good mood, I ask myself how that is even possible. When I am in poor humour, I wonder why they've bothered to go to university at all.

Sound harsh? Well, it probably is. And no doubt oversimplified. But here's the thing: in a world where people are not equal in terms of interest, how can we teach wonder?

You see, I wonder all the time. Actually, I would need several lifetimes to understand all the things I wonder about. I don't know how not to wonder. I keep a notebook that contains only questions - hundreds of them - which I share with my students whenever they say they can't think of anything to research or write about. Colleagues have warned me that I am "giving away" my ideas for future research and, presumably, some sort of future glory. But for me, the beauty and the reward is in our ever-changing understandings - and it sure won't be me who definitively sorts the world. I only hope there are enough people who keep asking hard questions.

I genuinely believe that the pursuit of knowledge is never done. This is, in part, related to my understanding that there is no absolute, determining, objective truth in the world - a position which obligates me to continue asking questions and forces me to acknowledge that no knowledge is neutral or impartial.

If the best we can offer is subjective, multiple, and partial truths, then learning and understanding requires critical thinking, the questioning of assumptions, self-reflection and self-awareness. In a world that doesn't want to "waste time" with things other than "the facts," it turns out that these inter-related practices are, by far, the hardest ones to teach. And I can't help but to believe they are the most important.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Even turtles need adventures

Three miles is quite some distance to travel and for a tortoise it is a very long way...

"Herman, a 30-year-old female tortoise, escaped from her owner's garden in West Lilburn, near Alnwick in May. She crossed the River Till, avoided being eaten by wild animals or crushed by cars, and is believed to have survived on grass and dandelions. A passing postman found the tortoise on Amerside Moor on Friday."

How wonderful!

Years ago, one of my box turtles, Louise, ran away - and I always imagined she went on a great adventure. (I also had a tortoise named Henry Miller who eventually laid eggs and revealed her true sex. I wonder if Herman did something similar?)

Thanks Jason!

Devil's Triangle

Despite receiving email more-or-less as usual, I just changed some settings and - after apparently disappearing into the Devil's Triangle of email - 95 messages sent over the past few weeks just arrived in my inbox.

If you were one of the senders, please bear with me as I attempt to answer them in the next day or so. Thanks.

On mobility

Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice - "A primary act in the symbolic transformation of the territory, an aesthetic instrument of knowledge and a physical transformation of the negotiated space, which is converted into an urban intervention."

Themes in Cross-Cultural Contact - "Armies, colonists, merchants & traders, missionaries & pilgrims, diplomats, travelers & nomads, and modes of transport."

In Transit: Mobility, City Culture and Urban Development in Rotterdam - "Mobility is not solely a logistical or technocratic challenge in the modern city, but also a key conditioning factor in urban development."

Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media - "How we now perceive buildings and places at high speeds, across great distances, through edited and multiple reproductions. Nowadays, our views of the architectural landscape are modulated by the accelerator pedal and the remote control."

A Question of Place exhibition - "mobilizing Aboriginal knowledge in a way that forms and informs discourses on contemporary art, architecture and theory... drawing out relationships to the land that provide new insights into the meanings of place and community."

RoAM: A Reader on the Aesthetics of Mobility - "Under five themes – narrative, representation, glocalisation, telematics, velocity – ideas around what it is to 'roam' are explored [through] discourses from art, cultural studies, design and politics."

In Transit - Clarke Robinson's "Interviews and Photographs of People on the Bus" in San Francisco.

An Exeter Misguide - "Many of the walks were developed in conjunction with Exeter citizens, creating a variety of perspectives on the way we negotiate the city. We aim to help local people to discover the unknown side of their city and to celebrate each person's unique sense of place."

73urbanjourneys - Katrina Jungnickel "explores, experiences and captures the textual, visual and sensual narratives of the mobile London urban experience."

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Small revolutions (and other beautiful games)

"Surrealist games and procedures are intended to free words and images from the constraints of rational and discursive order, substituting chance and indeterminancy for premeditation and deliberation... In one particular and important respect Surrealist play is more like a kind of provocative magic. This is in its irrepresible propensity to the transformation of objects, behaviours and ideas. In this aspect of its proceedings Surrealism makes manifest its underlying political programme, its revolutionary intent."

The above quote comes from The Book of Surrealist Games which, after an evening of fun with friends, inspired me to create an online version to play:

PLSJ's Surrealist and Other Beautiful Games

Low viscosity, floating on water

After not really blogging for several weeks, I'm finding it a bit hard to get back in the flow of things, but with the academic year starting soon and the next four months dedicated to finishing my dissertation (yay!) I'm sure it will come back to me.

I've spent this morning catching up on my favourite blogs, and following some interesting threads. Here are a few things that caught my fancy:

- Matt Webb finds a leopard in the garden

- Howard Rheingold reviews Rich Ling's The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society

- The Feature: Encouraging Cameraphone Use -- For Less Than Encouraging Reasons

"For all the attention cameraphones, or any mobile technologies receive for being 'disruptive devices,' it is important to remember that technology itself is neutral. Wireless devices can just as easily aid the oppressor as the freedom fighter."

WTF? How does that indicate neutrality?!

- Peter Lindberg and Matt Jones on computers and architecture

- Ross Mayfield on the reliability of the Wikipedia and Caveat Lector on heuristics (UPDATE: Matt Jones on the difference between authority and autonomy)

- Peterme on ethnoclassification and vernacular vocabularies

- Simon Roberts on the politics of glancing - to which I will shamelessly add this

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