Saturday, October 30, 2004

On cities and technologies (yet again)

Liz reports from the Distributed Form: Network Practice conference at Berkeley, and this observation of hers makes me want to watch the archived webcast:

"The digital - instantiated as a metaphor, and in specific tools - becomes the servant of the architect's creative process. And after the process is complete and the building is fully designed, the digital then (for them) seems to disappear, leaving the building as the only evidence of its passage. A neat concept - except in its ceding of all agency to the architect, and its utter denial of the increasing presence of the invisible landscape of information flows in the build structures around us."

Peter took extensive notes on a recent talk by Manuel Castells on cities in the information age. I've always thought Castells was considerably more astute than Bill++ Mitchell, and this reconfirms it. I especially like his discussion of heterogeneous and networked metropolitan regions - similar to Steve Graham's work - which does much to undermine the urban vs. suburban debate.

And speaking of suburbia, last week I noted Molly's proposed suburban computing presentation. (I also posted on ethnoburbs at spaceandculture, for anyone interested.) Anyway, my primary concern with this suburban/urban divide is precisely that it is a divide and one, I feel, that is increasingly unproductive.

First of all, suburban living often gets dissed by urbanites - hell, the word urbane automatically positions urbanites as more refined, and although the 'sub' in suburban means 'near' an urban area, the prefix also means below and by extension, less suave. But I digress.

Personally, I don't think Molly at all meant to insult suburbanites in her proposal. But as soon as one conjures the urban/suburban dichotomy something weird happens, not least of which is the tendency for suburbanites to defend themselves. And, in fact, that is what Elizabeth Lawley did. And Molly responded by advocating for the richness of suburban life and denying its inferiority, yet still maintaining the urban/suburban dichotomy.

So back to the unproductiveness of this dichotomy, especially as it influences technology design. First of all, the urban and suburban are treated as mutually exclusive, if interconnected, categories. As such it is easy to deny their mutually constitutive aspects. They are also macro- or structural categories quite separate from the micro- or lived experiences of their inhabitants. Now, I don't mean to reduce this to an equally reductive debate between structure and practice, or structure and agency, but it is important to be clear about the qualitative differences between understanding cities as places (i.e. nouns) both urban and/or suburban, and cities as diverse actions (i.e. verbs) of diverse people.

When we talk about designing technologies for cities, I trust (hope?) that what we are really talking about is designing technologies for people in cities. It makes more sense then, to me, to focus on what people do. Now, of course this involves the where and when of people doing things, but context is much more dynamic than structure. And most importantly for this discussion, context extends beyond the common definitions (and spaces) of urban and suburban.

If cities are indeed polycentric, then the suburb ceases to relate to an urban core. At best we have many suburbs related to many centres which, in turn, suggests networked or assembled shapes where the urban and the suburban are increasingly difficult to distinguish from each other. Add to this mangle the actions of people, objects and ideas and we have to deal with concepts quite different from the urban and/or suburban.

Rather than focussing on either urban or suburban or even location-based computing, I'd like to see a focus on computing for people. Sounds straightforward enough, and I'm sure that most people working on urban/suburban/location-based computing would say they are doing exactly that. But, quite frankly, I'm not sure that's true. After all, when we put place before people, we put structure before agency, and technology before sociality.

Re-envisioning tech/design

Several years ago, when I critiqued prevailing HCI models, claiming that the relationship between people and technology was much messier than assumed, that context was much more dynamic than suggested, I was told that there was no room in those discussions for "that flaky philosophy and social studies of science and technology shite you do". So when I hear about what Paul Dourish is working on these days I (quite gleefully) think that perhaps the HCI community is finally learning from these and similar critiques. Well, either that or Dourish is also doing "flaky philosophy and social studies of science and technology shite"...

Amanda's notes on a recent lecture of his:

"The 'social impacts model' looks at new technologies and how they impact society, but treats technology as if it simply happens, without examining how it comes about. The 'rational choice' model examines how technology is designed to fulfill existing needs, but this is also only half the picture. Dourish claims we can’t talk about one without talking about the other because they are 'mutually constitutive' ...

While human-computer interaction is often depicted as 'user interface' sitting atop software, OS, and hardware, this builds in a strong separation between people and technology. In fact, there are aspects of humanness, practice and assumptions at all levels of technology. After all, it is people who are designing that hardware ...

Dourish also discussed his work on context, which largely involve pointing out that context is a lot more complicated than 'context-aware' application designers seem to think ... Context, far from being a static thing, is dynamic and maintained or changed through our actions."

And speaking of more social and fluid understandings of people, technology and design, I can't wait to hear more about Dan Hill's self-centred design:

"I'm dubbing this practice of building around your immediate context 'self-centred design' (after a suggestion from m'colleague Andrew McGrath of Orange) which is not at all intended in a uniformly pejorative sense - I'm seeing it as an alternative to user-centred design (UCD). I presented this idea - a small step forward from the hackability presentation - at a UCD seminar in San Francisco. I'll be trying to suggest an ideal relationship between the processes involved in self-centred design (aka, to a certain extent, situated software or amateurized design) and the deep insight enabled by grounded ethnographic research ... If both can lead to the creation of products which enable adaptive design, I think we're getting somewhere."

Ubicomp experience guidelines

All watched over by machines of loving grace: Some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings
by Adam Greenfield

"Principle 1. Default to harmlessness.
Ubiquitous systems must default to a mode that ensures their users’ (physical, psychic and financial) safety.
Principle 2. Be self-disclosing.
Ubiquitous systems must contain provisions for immediate and transparent querying of their ownership, use, capabilities, etc., such that human beings encountering them are empowered to make informed decisions regarding exposure to same.
Principle 3. Be conservative of face.
Ubiquitous systems are always already social systems, and must contain provisions such that wherever possible they not unnecessarily embarrass, humiliate, or shame their users.
Principle 4. Be conservative of time.
Ubiquitous systems must not introduce undue complications into ordinary operations.
Principle 5. Be deniable.
Ubiquitous systems must offer users the ability to opt out, always and at any point.

There is much more detail in the original piece, and I have concerns about some of Adam's assumptions about what constitutes ubiquitous systems - including who researches, designs, develops and uses them - that I will discuss later, but for now these ethical guidelines seem a good place to start.

The one thing I would like to ask Adam at this point is if he believes that his intended audience of information architects, usability specialists and user-experience designers actually have the power and the means to make this happen?

Friday, October 29, 2004

Mo' mobile city

MapTribe: A tool for collaborative mobile learning about the image of the city
Mauro Cherubini & Pierre Dillenbourg

I particularly like the The Lost City use scenario:

"A group of architecture students have to reconstruct the historical evolution of the city of Lausanne. They have to understand how the old urban structure of the city from the Middle Age survived and melted in the actual city. Instead of using a current map of Lausanne, they download on their phone the 1850 map. The group members split into the city centre and attempt to follow the old streets as displayed on the phone. From time to time, they bump into a building or they are not able to find where the urban tissue hides the old structure. In these cases, the students drop a landmark on the virtual map. Later on, in class, the actual map and the historical map are merged with the landmarks the students defined on their field trip. Finally, the professor collect the maps built by the students and use them in his next lecture."


"The project aims to strengthen research in Norway into humanistic perspectives on emerging digital communication forms & expressions & their information systems. Links are made between interaction design & information systems design & creative, social, & related commercial uses of mobile, ubiquitous technologies in communicating in public spaces."


Homo floresiensis

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Scale is a funny thing

I read a lot of news every day, but I most look forward to Ottawa's bi-weekly Centretown News, a free community newspaper produced by third and fourth-year students in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.

This paper is about where I live - my neighbourhood.

It's how I learned that the City of Ottawa and the Ottawa Police run a Graffiti Management Program downtown, where management means getting rid of it.

It's how I found out about proposed residential developments that would take at least five to eight years to begin construction on rental apartments set aside for low-income and affordable housing, because the company wants to build the purchasable buildings and "show its best work" first.

It's how I know that some folks who live by a favourite basketball court are so unnerved by people who play basketball and swear that they have lobbied the City to impose rules of conduct that, if not followed, will lead to removing the baskets. And it's how I heard that still other folks assume that all parolees are a danger to the community.

I guess what I'm saying is that despite the wonders of global communication and awareness, it's what's happening right here - locally - that impacts my daily quality of life most intimately. And in my research it would do me good to remember that scale is a funny thing...

Under a blood red moon

Blood Moon

Beginning at 9:14 p.m. EDT tonight there will be a total lunar eclipse:

"According to folklore, October's full moon is called the 'Hunter's Moon' or sometimes the 'Blood Moon.' It gets its name from hunters who tracked and killed their prey by autumn moonlight, stockpiling food for the winter ahead..."

UPDATE: Flickr users around the world capture the eclipse


I don't mind when I read it on boingboing (now updated), but when the BBC News reports that George Bush's web site cannot be accessed from outside the US, I would think they would have asked Canadians first. After all, we *are* a different country.

And while I'm on the topic of politics, I could have wept the other day reading a student essay on punk subcultures that did not once mention the political. On the other hand, Eminem's Mosh video gives it a good go.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


BBC broadcast legend John Peel has died.

In tribute, you can request a favourite Peel Session track. I vote for The Slits.

We wish you the best upon arrival at your final destination

Wireless Cities by Kevin Werbach in TheFeature

So who will make them work?

"Municipalities and other government entities are good at providing foundational infrastructure, which the private sector builds upon. 'It's like when [the government] built roads, they brought you to a destination. They didn't get you inside the building or the office. If you have the infrastructure there, you provide the opportunity for building to provide services,' [Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff] explains. Cities have two unique assets: physical infrastructure such as light poles that can make ubiquitous coverage possible, and a willingness to provide baseline connectivity in areas where there might not be positive return on investment for a private service provider. The private sector can do the rest."

The use of the word "destination" implies a neutrality that surely will not exist in practice...

Weaving conceits: random thoughts

I've been going through notes and essays from a few years ago when I was really interested in weaving as a conceit, or extended metaphor, for describing techno-social, um, fabrication:

"At a technical level, weaving is to form by interlacing: warp elements are held stable while weft elements are moved through the framework. At the metaphorical level, we can also weave the fabric of society, although this implies that the collective body serves as the stable warp element and the individual body as the mobile weft. A related metaphor would be weaving our way through a crowd, in which the practice of weaving can be twisted to involve moving a stable element through a mobile element: the person navigates the chaotic crowd to emerge (on the other side) intact.

Technically, weaving involves the production of a textile, or fabric, and so weaving is always already fabrication. To fabricate is to construct something new from existing parts; to assemble or aggregate disparate materials into a whole. We devise in our minds new combinations or applications, and we create devices (something devised or contrived and mechanisms designed to serve special purposes)."

My recent interest in knitting has rekindled my interest in these ideas and I am working to fit them into my dissertation discussions of mobility, stability and power. Along these lines, I was reminded of xurban_collective's 2002 project Knit++. Ryan Griffis describes the project and draws out its political dimensions:

"_Knit++_ presents an interface that allows visitors to navigate through narrative, pictorial, and animated information that, when seen in the context of the project, makes connections between textiles, computer and social networks, and institutional power ..."

This connection between weaving and Luddites and power fascinates me. Helen Whitehead's 2001 project Web Warp & Weft also connects it to computer technology:

"There are surprising and unusual resonances within the creation of what might on the surface seem very different products: both [weaving and the Web] are concerned with frames, print, pattern, layers, colour, nomenclature, technology, narratives, commerce, leisure and much more. The Luddites in Nottinghamshire in the early 19th century rendered stocking-frames unusable as a protest about the terrible treatment of the workers. The industry then was in a difficult state, as it is now. The word 'Luddite' has now moved from the textile to the computer industry, becoming a term to describe all those opposed to progress in computer and machine technologies. And most recently the fall of the dot.coms has mirrored the fall of the textile industries."

Now how to bring this back to mobility, stability, power and the conceit of weaving...?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Early wireless royalties

The B.B.C. Stamp & Post Office Registration Scheme

"In Britain, the BBC was instrumental in the 'roll-out' of commercial wireless during the 1920s. During those early days of broadcasting the BBC raised a large part of its revenue from royalties arising from the mandatory application of the BBC stamp to commercially produced wireless sets and wireless 'accessories'."

Via my Dad, whose latest crystal sets bear the mandatory manufactured-and-approved-in-Britain seal.

Variable cloud, max 13

Do-It-Yourself Design: Just Point and Click

Constructivist Compositionals

Smart fabrics make for enhanced living

Game appeal for Uruguay's voters

Natalie Jeremijenko: The WorldChanging Interview

Hackers are Cool, Conviviality is Warm: Some half-baked thoughts

Howard Lovy on receiving the Foresight Institute's 2004 Prize in Communication:

"Nanotechnology to me is, pure and simple, a … great … story. It's a story that contains, within it, many chapters large and small. My God, it's a story of grinches and greed, it's a story of men and women with vision, it's a story about humankind's relationship with the world around, it's a story mushing molecular objects together like, in the words of a great nanoscientist, 'boys and girls in love.'"

Saturday, October 23, 2004

What I read online today

Molly Steenson on suburban computing:

"With all the discussion about mobile technology and the urban context, we forgot something big: the suburbs. In 1999, almost half of the United States' total housing was located in the suburbs. Mostly, it's the isolated smart home that gets attention. Yet teens with Frappuccinos and commuting parents in minivans heavily use mobile technology. So what needs to go into a study of suburban computing? Where do we need to start, what should we consider, and why haven't we gotten around to it sooner?"

I don't think it's been forgotten - it just assumes a fundamental distinction between city and suburb that is, in my mind, overstated and not as important as particular mixes of people, objects and practices in each space. A micro-level focus should slide between both realms.

Terra Nova asks about the responsibilities of game developers (and players) in creating the worlds in which we dwell:

"How socially edgy (vs. neutral) should our virtual worlds be, and [should] those sharp edges be mutable against player social norms and player actions? Should 'official' world actions (e.g. GM orchestrated ones) be evaluated differently than player ones when it comes to measurement against real world norms? When should real world sensibilities pre-empt in-world, fictional assumptions?"

I often think of designers and developers as stage-builders. As such, they provide a space for play. Whether we choose to do good or bad on that stage is, in part, limited by its potential.

Future Now looks at why people will annotate physical space and what we need to make it work:

"People will take the time to compose a message and tag that message to a place because they want you to know that they were there, or because they have information that will be relevant to you later when you're in the same location, or some combination of both ... Ultimately, these types of annotations are still meant for other people -- what is the sound of an unread geo-annotation? -- but the value for the viewer will largely be to participate in someone else's experience and get a sense of the unrecorded history of a place ... What's most crucial for this future to thrive? Interface. Simple, convenient interfaces for inputting annotations, and uncluttered, filtered interfaces for receiving annotations. Trust systems, social networks, and personal profiles & preferences will be necessary tools for survival when every urban street corner may have hundreds of annotations."

While I see these desires and needs being partially true, I cannot help but see cultural and class biases here. Uncritical assumptions and buzzwords like these can lead to dodgy design.

UPDATE - Peter writes:

"I would argue that if people are annotating space only to serve others, it will never, or only rarely, happen. What do I care what some stranger 8 months from now thinks about what I wrote at the corner of New Montgomery and Market in San Francisco? What on earth could I possibly say that's meaningful to them? What benefit do I derive by acting as a tour guide to a stranger? But I will note things that are important to me, much the same way I do in, so that it helps me remember."


The message was of optimism with little thought to environmental or sociological consequences

Showcasing Technology at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair (via)

"In many ways the exhibits at the World's Fair showcased new technological frontiers: the Space Age, the Information Age of computers and communication, the Consumer Age of new materials and products for everyday life, and the Atomic Age of electricity 'too cheap to meter.' The message was of optimism with little thought to environmental or sociological consequences ...

The information exhibits proclaimed two broad themes; that rapid, globalized communications would draw people together and breakdown barriers of misunderstanding, and that the products of the information age, including automation, would save much time and labor."

Hmm. I'm not sure the messages or themes have changed much in forty years.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Social tech is performative

Sony continues to piss me off with their thug attitude, but the Malleable Mobile Music system is my idea of truly social (i.e. performative) mobile tech.

"'Historically, music was never meant to exist in isolation,' Tanaka says. 'There was always a physical, acoustical, and even social context. These kinds of technologies can add some of those elements back in to the listening experience' ...

As one participant naturally sways to the groove, the PDA's motion sensor detects his motion and shifts the tempo of the song. With the song's intensity building, another listener subconsciously grips her PDA tighter, introducing echo effects into the mix. The closer that listening partners move to each other, the more prominent their part in the song becomes. Meanwhile, the software applies various 'error correction' techniques to prevent an onslaught of arrhythmic noise, unless of course that's the goal. As they listen to it, the mobile music orchestra transforms the tune into a dubby, spacey version of the familiar Bjork song ...

Someday, malleable music may even become an art form in its own right, leading to a duet between the artist and the audience."

Check out the Ubicomp 2004 paper for more detail.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Spirits open to the thrust of grace

autumn maple leaves on the sidewalk

Quick links

Monday, October 18, 2004

Bow before your masters!

I may not get to see Slint reunited (big sigh) but you'd better believe I'm going to see GWAR in a few weeks.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The things I take for granted

Lingerie saleswoman: "Would you like the thong that matches your bra?"

Me: "No, thank you."

Lingerie saleswoman: "Is it because you think they're uncomfortable?"

Me: "Um..."

Lingerie saleswoman: "Because I promise you'll get used to them."

Me: "I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to get used to your underwear."

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Smell ya later!

I have 82 essays to mark, 2 papers to review, tons of packing, and a much anticipated move into our new house.

I'll be back next week - probably not rested, but surely happy.

The end of technological progress

The Technology Of Uselessness
by Critical Art Ensemble, 1994

"To expand on the suggestion of Georges Bataille, could the end of technological progress be neither apocalypse nor utopia, but simply uselessness? ...

Pure technology in this case would not be an active agent that benefits or hurts mankind: it could not be, as it has no function. Pure technology, as opposed to pure utility, is never turned on; it just sits, existing in and of itself. Unlike the machines of the utopians and dystopians, not only is it free of humanity, it is free of its own machine function - it serves no practical purpose for anyone or anything.

Where are these machines? They are everywhere - in the home, in the workplace, and even in places that can only be imagined. So many people have become so invested in seeing technology as a manifestation of value or anti-value, that they have failed to see that much of technology does nothing at all."

A five dollar paperback book will dance on the grave of a five thousand dollar computer

Global Algorithm 1.9: Unstable Networks
by Bruce Sterling, 1996

"There's nothing more grotesquely temporary than a computer ...

I moved house recently. This caused me to make a trip to the Austin city landfill. Austin has a very nice landfill actually, it's manned by well-meaning Green enthusiasts who are working hard to recycle anything usable. When I went there last month I discovered a heap of junked computers that was two stories high. Dead monitors, dead keyboards, dead CPUs, dead modems. The junk people in my home town get a stack that size once a week.

I had to pay some close attention to that mighty heap of dead computers. It had all the sinister lure of the elephants' graveyard. Most of those computers looked like they were in perfect working order. The really ominous part of the stack was the really quite large percentage of discarded junk that was still in the shrinkwrap. Never been used, and already extinct ...

Even paperback books have a far longer lifespan than computers. It's a humble thing, a book, but the interface doesn't change and they don't need software upgrades and new operating systems. A five dollar paperback book will dance on the grave of a five thousand dollar computer."

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Your own post-war utopia


With production done, keep an eye out for Leisurama - A Documentary (via) and until then you can read a bit about Leisurama Living.

While I'm certainly impressed by the list of included furnishings, my Leisurama home wouldn't be complete without the finest chaises-longues of the era. More seriously,

"A prototype of the Leisurama house gained international recognition in 1959 when it was displayed by the United States as a typical American home at a Moscow trade fair. Vice President Richard M. Nixon noted that it was available to the average American worker. The exhibit prompted the famous 'kitchen debate' when the Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, claimed that Leisurama's General Electric kitchen, with its modern appliances, was purely for show and the house meant for only the rich."

According to the NY Times real estate desk, originally priced between $11 000 and $16 000, and marketed as a vacation-house, Leisurama homes in the Montauk area were selling for around $400 000 in early 2003.

And while I find it fascinating that some people have kept the original homes and their furnishings intact, I find it even more interesting that most have been renovated over the years. The original aluminum windows rusted in the sea air and provided little insulation for those who wanted to dwell in the houses year-round. In addition to replacing windows and siding, ceilings have been raised, and second floors and skylights added.

I love that even pre-fab architecture is never done -- and I'm reminded how design specs and marketing projections often enough fail to account for potential, let alone actual, long-term use.

Communication: fitter, happier and more productive

Not all critiques are created equal

Reading Christine Rosen's Our Cellphones, Ourselves and her comments in Saved, and Enslaved, by the Cell, I am reminded that some critiques of technology are more conservative and nostalgic than others.

I mean, what exactly are the implications of saying that mobile phones are eroding our sense of community and etiquette? What does it imply when we say that mobile phones undermine self-reliance? All of these things are historically White, middle and upper-middle class Protestant values that have served to advantage some and not others. For every person who has succeeded because of her hard work, there is someone who failed because of his laziness. For each topic absent from polite conversation, there is a history erased. For every cherished community member, there is a condemned outsider.

I support different politics.


Sunny with a high of 15

Thanksgiving dinner was supergood, and since my mother taught me to be a polite guest, I didn't launch into my yearly Why-the-hell-do-the-Americans-continue-to-celebrate-the-genocide-of-so-many-millions-of-Native-Americans-under-the-pretense-of-honouring-the-spirit-of-exploration?! Columbus Day rant.

In other news:

How many famous women architects come to your mind? Perhaps many have, like Marion Mahony, been lost in the shadows of "great" men... (via)

We have always been hybrids! A group of British scientists believes people should be viewed as 'superorganisms,' made of conglomerations of human, fungal, bacterial and viral cells.

The Urban Tapestries team has made the UT Web Browser (registration required) and location-based RSS Feeds available for people to explore content created on the system during the trials. Go-go public authoring!

On a related note StoryCorps demonstrates that if you give people a voice, they will speak their experiences and histories.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Death of an agile intellect

RIP Jacques Derrida .

"If this work seems so threatening to them, this is because it isn't simply eccentric or strange, incomprehensible or exotic (which would allow them to dispose of it easily), but as I myself hope, and as they believe more than they admit, competent, rigorously argued, and carrying conviction in its re-examination of the fundamental norms and premises of a number of dominant discourses, the principles underlying many of their evaluations, the structures of academic institutions, and the research that goes on within them..."

Saturday, October 9, 2004

Festive days ahead

The McLuhan International Festival of the Future opens tonight in Toronto.

Events include derives with the Toronto Psychogeography Society (and don't miss Shawn Micallef's Toronto Flâneur column), the You are Here: How Location-Aware Media Are Transforming Our Urban Environments roundtable discussion, the Vision for the Future design charette, and all-day-every-day, the P2P 30-foot interactive marquee and the wonderful [murmur] project.

I'll be back on Tuesday, after Canadian Thanksgiving, and filled with turkey and pumpkin pie.

Configuring technologies and users

User-Centered Design and the Normative Politics of Technology (pdf)
by Karin Garrety and Richard Badham

Reflecting on the application of UCD methods to particular design projects, the authors describe the advantages and limitations of such modernist and normative tools. While their very abstraction and formality allows them to be applied in a variety of contexts, the associated conflation of knowledge and certitude is considered to be ill-conceived. The discrete categories of UCD methods work not because they are "true" but because they are actively reshaped by designers and users in pre-existing social, political and technical contexts to create new ones.

Configuring the User as Everybody: Gender and Design Cultures in Information and Communication Technologies (pdf)
by Nelly Oudshoorn, Els Rommes, and Marcelle Stienstra

Working with the knowledge that technologies have a life history that goes beyond the design trajectory of any specific product, the authors demonstrate that this broader context shapes not only the technology but also the user. Following social-democratic ideals, the mandate to design something that could be accessible and useful to everyone resulted in simultaneously configuring a generic user that represented - and worked for - no one in particular. On the other hand, design practices were seen to reflect predominantly masculine values and further discourage the representation of multiple perspectives needed to disrupt the user-as-everyone model.

The Domestication of New Technologies as a Set of Trials (pdf)
by Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen

Rather than understanding technological adoption in terms of technological innovation invading pre-existing cultural habits and practices, where individual decision makers simply choose to accept or reject new technologies, the author looks at the successive trials or phases of adoption which mobilise - bringing together and pulling apart - a variety of actors, things and people, systems and relationships.

(PDF links are valid only until October 31, 2004)

Limited time offer

For those who don't have access to academic libraries, full texts of Sage journal articles are available online until the end of the month - and the list of journals is most impressive.

I mean, where else will you find academic obscurities like Randal Doane's Theses on Sleater-Kinney (pdf) or Nancy Scheper-Hughes' Parts unknown: Undercover ethnography of the organs-trafficking underworld (pdf)?!

For revealing the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power...

NPR: "Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, becoming only the ninth woman to receive the honor. In bestowing the award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences praised 'her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that… reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power'."

BBC News rounds up the initial European press comments. According to the Tribune de Geneve, "The jury gave the award to a woman who does not mince her words, except to spit them out in your face."

Washington Post: "Lamb-Faffelberger calls Jelinek's writing 'creative resistance.' 'She digs down to the bottom and looks at those who are suffering greatly under the anti-Semitism that is still smoldering under the rug, the xenophobia that is still smoldering under the rug, the Catholicism with all its negatives,' said Lamb-Faffelberger ... The sex she portrays is raw, depraved, sadomasochistic. Her work has at times attracted the label 'pornographic'."

CBC: "She is 'a very unusual, completely offbeat, radical and extreme writer, and as a result of that, very controversial,' Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a prominent German literary critic, told the Associated Press. Nevertheless, he found it 'very pleasing' that the Nobel Academy chose Jelinek – a feminist, leftist and pacifist writer whose work explores issues such as sexuality, the role of women, violence and power in our consumer society ... Horace Engdahl, secretary general of the academy, anticipates some criticism for selecting a writer who is not easily accessible to the average reader. 'She'll be seen as an exclusive writer that perhaps the average person will have a hard time embracing," he said. "But I think readers will get used to her in time'."

I wonder if she'd be seen as so radical and controversial if she weren't a woman?

Friday, October 8, 2004

Maybe a bath...

Aack. It should be clear by now that today has turned into one-of-those-days-where-I-can't-seem-to-focus-on-anything-long-enough-to-actually-get-something-done.

Oh, I could be writing my dissertation. Or marking the 82 student essays on my desk. Hell, I could even be finishing next term's Urban Cultures syllabus.

But no.

I listen to bad 80s music. I read The Policeman's Blog. I talk to my cat (ostensibly because all my friends are working). And I drink more coffee than one person ever should.

I mean, my god, instead of contemplating taking a walk or an early afternoon nap, I think "maybe a bath..."

The department of gluage and scissorology

Happy fourth anniversary to the always-wonderful wood s lot.

Mentors and role models

As I finish my PhD, not a day goes by that I am not inspired by Rob Shields and - don't hurt yourself laughing - Joan Jett.

Who are your role models?

Para los que entienden español

Cada día leo blogs españoles y nadie lo sabría. Pienso que es una vergüenza, y deseo dar crédito a algunos de mis favoritos:

Blog de Viajes, La ciudad imaginada, Magda Bandera Bitácora,, Santos y Demonios, y Libro de notas - especialmente los contenidos propios como Ropa tendida por Hilario Barrero y Percepción del amputado por Marcos Taracido. Gracias.

When location means something

Via Adam comes red | blue:

"a free Java™ app that figures out where you stand, or perhaps more accurately, where you are standing in our [i.e. America's] politically polarized country. By taking your current location, and finding the nearest individual donors of campaign funds from the publicly available data from the Federal Elections Commission, red | blue is able to provide you an accurate reading of the political leanings of your surroundings -- red for Republican or blue for Democrat."

This reminds me of election time, when wandering my neighbourhood I saw mostly NDP and Green signs in people's yards and I felt at home. When running errands in other places, I would see Liberal signs and think, oh, that's interesting. But when I entered an area where there were only Conservative signs, I left as quickly as possible ;)

But seriously, as Adam points out:

This strikes me as among the first of a wave of similar (and eventually far less kludgy) applications that, building on the social-networking and other databases already in place, will begin to reveal those latent currents and flows. As to what we do with that information - whether it's self-reinforcing or creatively disruptive - well, that remains to be seen, doesn't it?

On other fronts, Howard Rheingold reports on Annotating the Planet, Microsoft Style:

"Keep in mind that devices that connect you to the infosphere also connect the infosphere to you. State agencies and your nosy in-laws will know your every move, and if you are a target of one of those with access to the surveillance sphere, you won't find it easy to elude them. Mostly, they will use their powers and their communication channels to give you 20% off on your favorite detergent. The ordinary everyday transaction, however, when it is multiplied by ALL the transactions taking place in the world, is a mighty force. If billions of people begin to use purchasing power to support their values and beliefs, what kind of economics, what kind of governance will result? When we routinely connect our telephones to the physical world by reading or tagging, will we become more or less free than we are today? And can we have a conversation about that question before mass-adoption makes it moot?"

Thursday, October 7, 2004

Empathy ≠ Reflexivity

Following up on yesterday's thoughts on reflexive design and some of the comments, I just read Design by Fire's really interesting Please make me think! Potential dangers in usability culture and the equally-interesting comments. (Thanks Fabio!)

[Aside: I hate pandering to the lowest common denominator. I think it lowers expectations, which subsequently lowers potential, which leaves us floating in a sea of mediocrity, and I don't think aspiring to mediocrity is a good thing.]

But to the point, the post and comments reminded me how empathy is often conflated with knowing your audience. While empathy certainly encourages us to be more aware of others in the design process, without reflexivity we are no more aware of ourselves - and that leaves out an integral part of social interaction.

The primary advantage of reflexivity is its ethics and politics - by denying design from nowhere, it demands accountability in the greatest sense. As Lucy Suchman points out in Located Accountabilities in Technology Production (pdf), accountable design involves:

1. Recognizing the various forms of visible and invisible work that make up the production/use of technical systems, locating ourselves within that extended web of connections, and taking responsibility for our participation;

2. Understanding technology use as the recontextualization of technologies designed at greater or lesser distances in some local site of practice;

3. Acknowledging and accepting the limited power of any actors or artifacts to control technology production/use;

4. Establishing new bases for technology integration, not in universal languages, but in partial translations;

5. Valuing heterogeneity in technical systems, achieved through practices of artful integration, over homogeneity and domination."


Peterme has a nice little post on the importance of ethnography in design research, and echoes something I have written about here many times. He says:

"I fear we're giving ethnography short shrift. We're cherry-picking a few methods, applying them in a rapid fashion, and patting ourselves on the back for 'understanding people' ... I think it's a shame that we study users for 2-3 weeks, get all pleased with ourselves, and move on. We ought to be cultivating relationships with our subjects, and engaging with them for weeks, months, even years ... "

In this case, something is clearly better than nothing, but one of the things I see as persistently absent in "design ethnography" is anything that resembles (critical) anthropological interpretation. What I mean is that data gathering methods, either short-term or long-term, are only as useful as the knowledge they produce. I don't mean to harp on this point, but again, what we're talking about here is that a broader understanding of context and a commitment to reflexive and ethical participation in the design process makes all the difference if we truly want to create technologies that honour the diversity and complexity of people's social and cultural experiences.

Drexlerian dreams and other politics of science

Fascinating Wired article on Eric Drexler and the hectic politics of science.

For all-things-nano, albeit from a rather uncritical perspective, check out Howard Lovy's nanobot. Related is Lawrence Lessig on Stamping Out Good (Nano)Science.

For a more critical take (i.e. critical of science as well as politics) take a look at work by Daniel Greenberg, as well as Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy or classic social and cultural studies by Sharon Traweek and Karin Knorr Cetina. And for the more philosophically minded, you can't beat Isabelle Stengers.

RFID to the rescue

I'll be adding this USA Today piece on the future of RFID to my ever-expanding file of techno-hype-from-MIT that begs for rhetorical analysis. The vision of domestic bliss described here is the Jetsons minus Rosie the maid-bot and gender-weirdness.

In other areas, recent MIT grad Stephen Ho has developed what he calls "location-relaxed storage":

"Basically it means that instead of organizing a warehouse by putting items in their carefully defined proper places, RFID will make it more efficient to just throw everything everywhere. It's the total chaos warehouse."

At least that's kinda funny. (via)

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

On being political

I love Margaret Cho - and she brings up some really interesting points in her candid post about why she's political:

"I have not been able to make myself think or talk about the situation in North Korea. My avoidance stems from fear that my American-ness, hard won and fought for on a daily basis, might somehow be diminished because of my ethnic association with the perceived 'enemy' ... Going out of my way to prove that I am an American does not support the idea of being American. I should not have to lessen my interest in what might transpire between North Korea and the US in order to re-establish the image that I have created for myself as a patriot ... Trying to banish my ties with North Korea doesn't reinforce stereotypes that I currently do my best to fight, rather it creates new ones. I become the 'One who refuses to see the self.' I add to the culture of invisibility by becoming complicit with it ...

I am diminished by not seeming to notice that North Korea is there even though my family is from there, even though many of my family still live there, even though my ancestors were literally torn apart by civil war that divided the country while the people were still one. My association is painfully close and avoidance is the only way I know how to retain my American identity. It is ridiculous and embarrassing. I hate feeling this way, because it forces me to see how far racism has affected me. It has gotten into the way that I think, the way I live, the way I feel about myself, the way that I fear that I am being perceived. Not only that, it has gone entirely unnoticed, until the moment that I step outside myself and acknowledge the truth. I am a racist ...

I try everyday to challenge myself further and I believe in doing this, I slay the monster bit by bit. This is why being political is an essential part of my life. In the end, it is all that I have."

I believe that, in the end, being political is all that any of us have. It's how we know who we are and who we can be.

Where's Chris? (on reflexive design)

Chris Heathcote has hacked together a feature on his website which reports his current position via his mobile phone. Yes, that means anyone can find out where Chris is at any given time. Of course, when Matt checked he was several kilometres into the Baltic from Helsinki, but right now he appears to be getting on or off a tram, in the rain. What I find curious is how knowing this immediately makes me think of Chris shielding me from the London rain this past spring, and I smile. It's such a lovely way to draw out a series of movements and memories in space and time.

And I agree with Matt - Chris' experiment is valuable to anyone working on ubicomp or locative media. As he explains:

"A bigger question is why publish this information in public. I must admit I'm not overly happy with giving everyone access to this data, but then again, this kind of service is the near-future that designers like myself have been preaching for years. It will cause privacy problems, it will cause social embarassment, it may change the way I live. Unless I try it myself, I will never know what unexpected consequences publishing this information will have. Self-ethnography is not scientifically valid, but I think it's one of the best ways of empathising with the problems new technology creates. If I won't use it, I shouldn't expect you to either."

Hear hear! Empathy for users should be part of the ethical and responsible design and development of any new technology. I've seen increasing interest in reflective design, which is a great start, but the anthropologist in me says that reflexivity would be even better - and more in keeping with Chris' self-awareness and empathy. Reflexive design practices would acknowledge the role of the designer in creating both users and technologies. It would force designers to be accountable for their assumptions and interpretations of social interaction, and the consequences of these positions. And it would encourage greater reciprocity and empathetic cooperation between designers and users.

One more thing: self-ethnography is also called auto-ethnography and it is considered valid research for a wide variety of problems. Its focus is on subjectivity and lived experienced, usually told as a first-person narrative. While able to slip into the worst sort of navel-gazing, the best examples of auto-ethnography draw out the kinds of self-awareness, empathy and reflexivity mentioned above. The edited volume Auto/ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social is an excellent introduction to the field.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004


In celebration of their first anniversary, WorldChanging has posted a bunch of guest pieces on, well, world-changing people, ideas and things.

Check out Dina Mehta and Rohit Gupta on changing lives in India, Bruce Sterling on the UN and the internet, Régine Debatty on decentralised fashion creation, Rebecca Blood on sustainable campuses, Nicole-Anne Boyer on models for global system change, Justin Thomas on natural products, Dale Carrico on public domain politics, Dominic Muren on deforestation and solar-cooking, Mike Millikin on biofuels, John Emerson on green maps, George Mokray on freedoms, Chris Phoenix on the Center for Bits and Atoms, and me on mobile living.


Also Ross Mayfield on political decision markets, James on alternative energy, David Weinberger on blogging outside the developed world, Christopher Allen on sustainable business, Meaghan O'Neill on tech entrepreneurship in East Africa, and Danny O'Brien on the Jhai project.

Better Things for Better Living...

I did some quick research on DuPont's famous "Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry" slogan and found a fascinating history of corporate public relations and advertising.

"DuPont has re-invented itself twice in 200 years, from an explosives maker to a chemical company, then to a science-based 'discovery' business ... Up to the early 20th century, DuPont, like most businesses, regarded its motives to be a private matter. But as the company grew larger after 1900, and its relations with the public more impersonal, older notions of propriety gave way to a new questioning that extended to businesses as well as to individuals ... DuPont would soon learn that the most effective way to address public perceptions was to work with rather than against the public’s desire for information."

DuPont's Advertising Division was established in 1911, and was followed in 1916 by the Publicity Bureau. The former was tasked with communicating information on products - the content of which was completely controlled by the company - while the latter conveyed information on products and events to outside writers and editors who then presented it to their readers. By the mid-30s DuPont suffered a horrible reputation due to its role as munitions supplier during WWI (they were called "merchants of death") and Depression-era sentiments towards big business. The company responded by sponsoring The Cavalcade of America - a radio and later TV drama about American history, and the role of DuPont during peacetime.

In 1938 DuPont reorganized the Publicity Bureau as the Public Relations Department, and in 1946 implemented the "precinct system" in which "business leaders at a local level explained DuPont's broad, societal contributions to employees and to their communities."

By the 1960s public sentiment began to turn against the widespread use of chemicals and in the 1970s greater concern for the environment contributed to DuPont's increasingly negative image. The "through chemistry" tagline was removed from the "Better Living" slogan in the 1980s to reflect diversification into other scientific fields, and in 1999 was replaced by "The miracles of science®." Over the years, it seems that DuPont had learned the importance of branding and trademark protection.

For example:

"when DuPont introduced a new elastomeric fiber called 'Fiber K' in 1958, it received little attention from consumers. Reintroduced two years later as Lycra®, the fiber was an immediate success. By the 1960s, the company was generating so many new products that it needed the help of a computer to create brand names that were memorable and universally appealing. As DuPont expanded across the globe, the company used computer technology to generate potential brand names and then ensure that they were appropriate in every language."

And the histories of Teflon® and Kevlar® required all sorts of advertising and public relations.

Better living through recycled technology

Worried about the environmental impact of technology? I am.

Social Design Notes' John Emerson recently interviewed Robert Lange, New York City's Director of Recycling and Waste Prevention, about the electronics recycling events currently taking place across the five burroughs. All computer equipment will be recycled and mobile phones will be donated to Collective Good.

If you live in Manhattan, your free drop-off day is 16 October, 09:00 - 17:00, at the Little Red School House on the corner of 6th Avenue and Bleecker Street.

Better living through technology

Mobile phone network reaches last of China's ethnic minorities: "The connection of the network has created good conditions for the Drung community to grow prosperous along with the rest of the Chinese people."

Fortune favours the brave: "It may be a relatively new technology but local councils believe Wi-Fi has huge potential to improve the delivery of traditional services and regenerate deprived urban areas." (via)

Better living through wireless technologies? We'll see.

All novel technologies came with hype:

Telephone and Telegraph. 1946. "Telecommunications workers in the analog era."

Communications and Our Town. 1947. "A telephone technician explains to two young boys how different types of communication foster links and interdependence between people."

The Nation at Your Fingertips. 1951. "How direct long distance dialing made the U.S. a smaller place, and how instantaneous direct communication between Americans without operator assistance became possible."

Once Upon a Honeymoon. 1956. "Delightful musical made to promote color telephones as a decorator accessory in the home."

The Town and the Telephone. Late 1950s. "Employee orientation film for telephone company workers explaining structure and corporate values of the Bell System. With excellent footage of communications workers and everyday life."

Century 21 Calling. 1964. "Romp through the futuristic landscape of the Seattle World's Fair, centered in the Bell System pavilion."

Finding humour in unlikely places

The Pigs by Paul Ford

"I forgot to tell you--when I was down in Maryland helping my mother after the flood, a woman came by the house and told the story of her three caged pigs. These pigs were nearly carried away during the flood. Lifted up in their cages by the raging torrent, they swam as hard as they could, their snouts barely out of the water, and they survived. Hero pigs! Brave swimming pigs! Pigs rising above obstacles! Unsinkable pigs with seven highly effective habits, getting things done! Give them ribbons, and rub their snouts. 'We're butchering them next week,' said the woman."


And while Paul says he's "ashamed that Space Moose made me laugh," I'm not. Space Moose was a staple of my undergrad, it's offensive, and it still makes me laugh.

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Hybrid spaces

John Paul Bichard's current project, Evidência, draws on two of my favourite things: hybrid space and forensics.

"Evidência takes as its starting point, an ending; a forensic space, a place in which remains and material take on new significance. From the objects and images, there are no definite conclusions, no clear narratives, just the threads of something that could have happened. The viewer is invited in, but in doing so enters the scene to witness part… of a crime, a conflict, a game?

Bichard has (re)constructed a forensic space, a small plot of land which is at once the scene of a crime and a fragment of a first person shooter videogame made 'real'. As a forensic space, it becomes a clipping, a piece of evidence removed from its original surroundings, as a games space, it is a trope, a snapshot of a brief violent action that would be lost as the player moves on to the next encounter."

The exhibition also includes photographic collages that invite viewers to construct their own disaster and decks of cards that "play with notions of evidence, authenticity and value."

John was also responsible for Condition Red, an online game where passengers on the ISEA 2004 ferry were invited to try to virtually sink the ship:

By participating, you become not only the protagonist, but, if you successfully carry out your task, one of the victims of this 'terror' attack. Alert condition is RED and you have changed the status of the ISEA ferry to that of 'terror target'.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

This metropolitan geometry of producing social meaning...

The latest reason I love wood s lot so much:

The Human and his Spectacular Autumn, or, Informatics after Philosophy by Anustup Basu

Now there's something to think on.

No what?!

No sign

AKMA asks: "Just what is being prohibited here? And from what other activities might one abstain, just to be on the safe side?"


CC Canada and moral rights

Why do I hear about interesting things the day *after* they happen? Yesterday, the Canadian version of the Creative Commons license was made public and the issues were discussed in an Ottawa Citizen news article. Now, I always have a hard time with legal-speak, and so I'm not quite sure I understand the moral rights issues, but I'm interested.

According to the cc-ca discussion archives, "existing functionality does not allow a creator to choose to retain or waive their moral rights when completing the licence generation form. As a result, a moral rights waiver or non-waiver must be encoded into the master licence or not mentioned at all." In July, the iCommons Canada group decided to include an assertion of moral rights in works licensed under the Canadian Creative Commons licence 2.0. By the end of August, this decision was reversed because some open-source community members withdrew their support for the cc-ca license, and "to introduce and retain this right in the cc-ca licence only serves to reduce interoperability" with the generic US license.

So, what is the moral right to the integrity of a work?

"This is the right that protects an author's work from mutilation or distortion ... The right of integrity also protects creators from having their works associated with products, services, causes or institutions that would harm their honour or reputation."

I don't know about the mutilation and distortion bit - what qualifies as such? - but I do know that I very much want to prevent my research being used by people I think are dangerous or who generally suck. And this got me thinking...

My research is federally-funded and I have no idea if they have any rights to it. I mean, can they do whatever they want with it? I would have been devastated to be one of the academics whose research was used to, say, help the Canadian government "assimilate" Native peoples into reservations or Japanese into war-time internment camps. And even if my government can't use my research anyway they want, I would also hate, for example, to have my work primarily serve the interests of profit and greed, or guide oppressive corporate practices like the exploitation of workers.

Do I have the moral right of integrity under standard Canadian copyright law? If I can't exercise that right under my cc-ca license, am I helpless to prohibit the use of my research in ways similar to those described above?

Friday, October 1, 2004

Thinking about cultural relativity

Pitcairn Island - midway between Peru and New Zealand in the South Pacific - is home to the descendents of the HMS Bounty mutineers and local Polynesians, with a fascinating history of British intervention and governance that continues to this day.

Of the less than 50 current residents, seven men (including the mayor) are now on trial for sexual abuse, ranging from indecent assault to the rape of a five-year-old girl. (via)

Now, here's the part that interests me: according to the BBC and the ABC, the charges stem from 1999, when an islander told a visiting British policewoman she had been sexually abused.

"Since then, new laws including a child protection act have been enacted and police and social workers have been sent to the island ... The defendants are expected to mount a defence based on a challenge to Britain's authority over the island."

But why focus on challenging British authority over their people?

"New Zealand prosecutors say there is an ingrained culture of using children for sex on Pitcairn [and] local women have argued the practice is an island tradition and consensual."

Fascinating. First of all, I don't know of any culture where it's acceptable to have sex with five-year-olds. But there are many cultures in which sexual activity begins much earlier than in Christian Anglo-Saxon traditions, and there is no reason to believe that Pitcairn is not one of them.

And so, leaving the case of the five-year-old aside, the real question here is who should be able to legislate the behaviours of the Pitcairners? Should it be a far-away people whose values and norms are based on different histories and situations? Or should it be the local people, with their intimate knowledge of centuries of life as one of the world's most isolated communities?

The history of imperialism and colonialism tells us that the conquering peoples most often impose their cultural norms on the conquered. Wars of independence - indeed all revolutionary acts - are fought not least because people want autonomy. They want to feel in charge of their own lives, want their own values to guide them.

When - if ever - do we get to impose universal morals or laws? And who gets to decide what they are?

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