Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Tomorrow is the winter solstice and I will be back in the New Year.

May your light burn bright on this longest night and continue to keep you safe, happy and warm in the days ahead.

Oh yeah. And don't eat the yellow snow.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Efficiency and innovation

Today's NY Times has a fascinating article on Dell's approach to R&D, productivity, labour and manufacturing.

"Inside Dell ... computer software clocks the assembly-line performance of workers, whether they're putting together PC's or the servers and storage equipment that Dell sells to large companies. The most able are declared 'master builders' and then videotaped so that others may watch and learn. The weak are told that it takes a special set of talents to cut it on the Dell factory floor - and shown the door ...

The labor costs of a PC are 'roughly 10 bucks,' [Rollins] added, meaning that payroll costs account for maybe 2 percent of the overall cost of the typical Dell PC. Five years ago, it took two workers 14 minutes to build a PC; it now takes a single worker roughly five minutes to do the same."

Described in the article as more Wal-Mart than Ford, their focus on efficiency conjures Dickensian workhouses. But competitors like Sun and HP explain that with this efficiency comes a loss of product innovation and quality. One of the ways Dell keeps costs down is to spend only 2% of their budget on research and development, while their competitors spend between 5% and 8% on R&D. And others point out a decrease in employment opportunities.

"Innovation inside Dell is instead more about how one produces, packages and markets a product than it is about improvements in the product itself ... [and some say that] when Dell squeezes the profit out of a market it also squeezes out everyone's ability to innovate in any meaningful way ... People may marvel over Dell's manufacturing prowess, but the company is proving so efficient that it expects to employ only 1,500 people at its new North Carolina plant when it is fully operating."

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Kula mail

Anthropology is figuring in tech news more and more often, but this New Scientist story really impressed me.

"The 'kula' exchange of the Trobriand Islands was first documented in 1922 by Bronislaw Malinowski, a pioneer of social anthropology. One of kula's key features is an apparent element of altruism that is missing from a simple, two-way exchange of gifts. Because the chain of gift-giving passes from island to island in a circle, no community receives a present from the one it gives to.

Malinowski found that kula cements social bonds between island groups, and according to anthropologist Richard Harper this makes it an ideal basis for new ways to make technology useful. That is why Harper, along with many others of his profession, is increasingly being employed by the Research and Development departments of high-tech firms to apply lessons learned from traditional customs to tomorrow's high-tech products and services.

Harper has been working for Vodafone in the UK since 2003, where he has adapted kula-style gift-giving rules to encourage social bonding among groups of people in phone-texting networks. Under his guidance, Vodafone has launched its Postcard service. You send an MMS picture-and-text message to Vodafone, who will print it as a postcard and mail it to whomever you want. Like the islanders' gifts, Vodafone's postcards are permanent - unlike text messages.

The idea is that the recipient will then want to send a postcard of their own, perhaps to a third party, and so draw more subscribers into the network. Exchanging more valuable artefacts, such as music or video files, may be next."

I have to admit that this kind of cultural (re)appropriation and commodification weirds me out a bit, but I'm thrilled that electronic communication is being used to produce material artefacts. When I think of all the digital photos and email messages that we won't ever be able to (re)discover in someone's attic or yard sale, it's small efforts like this that give me hope.


Student loan update, and some thoughts on Deleuzian networks of control

Yesterday the Royal Bank returned the money they withdrew from my bank accounts.

Since sending my letter on Tuesday, the CBC has been the only news source to publish it and the Royal Bank the only institution to contact me. Of course I didn't expect to change the world in three days, but I am a bit disappointed and disheartened that no one else I contacted considered my experience and concerns either news-worthy or significant enough to respond.

Despite the kindness of the gentleman from the Royal Bank who called me, my money was returned not because an error had been made, nor because the bank wanted to accept responsibility for their role in my situation, but because the bank "valued" me as "a long-time customer" and because they were sorry that, despite me being "proactive" and doing my part, "the process failed" me. In other words, the bank positioned itself as another victim of "the process" and my money was returned only as an act of "customer service".


I submitted my University-signed confirmation of enrollment on October 15 - two weeks before the deadline. All paper records indicate that the bank received that confirmation the same day. But for one of my three loans, the bank also requires electronic confirmation from the National Student Loan Centre - which receives its electronic confirmation from the University - and they did not receive that final electronic confirmation until November 22.

No one can tell me what happened between October 15 and November 22. Although I clearly existed in the material world, my data-self was effectively disappeared.


Deleuze got it right: we no longer live in Foucault's disciplinary society; we live in societies of control.

"In the societies of control ... what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code... The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become 'dividuals,' and masses, samples, data, markets, or 'banks' ... The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network ... Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt..."

In the case of student loans, we would do better to avoid the language of systems (the term I let slip out) or process (the bank's favoured term), both of which imply some sort of predictability and stability that are absent. What we are all embroiled in is a network in the Deleuzian sense. We are not dealing with enclosed spaces where someone is responsible; we're dealing with a fluid space where no one is accountable. The university says it's the banks and the government. The banks say it's the university and the government. And the government says it's the university and the banks. The network encourages a constant state of movement, continuously avoiding being bound and continually passing responsibility to the next module.

This type of control is particularly insidious because there is no panopticon. Control is diffuse and we can't locate - or fix - responsibility and accountability long enough to affect change. And it's particularly dangerous because it allows each of us to play the victim of an imaginary structure.

Friday, December 17, 2004

The person has become the portal

Howard Rheingold in TheFeature on research at the University of Toronto's NetLab, where Barry Wellman and colleagues say:

"Changes in the nature of computer-mediated communication both reflect and foster the development of networked individualism in networked societies. Internet and mobile phone connectivity is to persons and not to jacked-in telephones that ring in a fixed place for anyone in the room or house to pick up. The developing personalization, wireless portability and ubiquitous connectivity of the Internet all facilitate networked individualism as the basis of community. Because connections are to people and not to places, the technology affords shifting of work and community ties from linking people-in-places to linking people at any place. Computer-supported communication is everywhere, but it is situated nowhere. It is I-alone that is reachable wherever I am: at a home, hotel, office, highway or shopping center. The person has become the portal.

This shift facilitates personal communities that supply the essentials of community separately to each individual: support, sociability, information, social identities and a sense of belonging. The person, rather than the household or group, is the primary unit of connectivity. Just as 24/7/365 Internet computing means the ready availability of people in specific places, the proliferation of mobile phones and wireless computing increasingly is coming to mean an even greater availability of people without regard to place. Supportive convoys travel ethereally with each person."

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Access, agency, and authorship

Engaging The City: Public Interfaces As Civic Intermediary
A 2-day workshop @ CHI 2005

Conceived of as an exchange of expertise, this 2 day workshop will be comprised of a day of field work and a day of discussion of designs for public interfaces. We will use Portlandís public spaces as field work sites and common points of reference on which to base subsequent discussions of designs for public interfaces ...

As interest in the city as a viable site for HCI research grows, the organizers of this workshop aim to shift the research perspective from the architect's plan view to the street level. No longer reducing the city to a dense population of users, we challenge our participants to consider the city not just as a backdrop for interactions but as an inalienable part of interactions that happen within it. By reorienting ourselves, we move beyond the city as a muse to the city as a resource for public exchange.

This workshop is designed to explore notions of exchange within an urban landscape. What relationships do we have with the city? What do we give and take from it and each other in its embrace? How is this exchange enacted in and upon the city in everyday life? And how can technological innovation capture or foster this exchange? ...

We would like to gather a representative group of social scientists, technologists, urban planners, architects, artists, and designers whose work addresses issues of shared public interfaces and interactions. Participants will be selected based on a demonstrated interest in the topic, seen through position papers that consist of:

- A discussion of background, interests, current work and relevance to workshop goals
- An object/image/idea which represents an active exchange with the city
- Participants should be prepared to demonstrate this item's context within the theoretical framework of access, agency, and authorship

Submission deadline: January 10, 2005

MP3 Wednesdays

Do You Wanna Touch? (Oh Yeah) - Joan Jett, 1981

I Know What Boys Like - The Waitresses, 1982

Heartbreaker - Pat Benatar, 1979

Johnny Are You Queer? - Josie Cotton, 1982

I was watching MuchMusic Retro recently with some girlfriends and it reminded me of some old favourites. They may not be musically brilliant, but when I was a girl these women were my heroes and they still make me feel as though I could burst with joy!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Student debt costs more than money

This morning I sent the following letter to all major Canadian newspapers, Maclean's Magazine, CBC Television and Radio, Carleton University, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Graduate Students' Association of Canada, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Royal Bank Student Loan Centres, Royal Bank Media Relations, the Ontario and Alberta Ministries of Education, and to my MPP/MLA and MP.

To Whom it May Concern

Just two weeks before Christmas, the Royal Bank emptied both my bank accounts of their balances. And this isnít the first time. You see, Iím one of the Canadians privileged enough to have received student loans from the Governments of Canada, Ontario and Alberta ó and unlucky enough to have done so during the period in which the Government decided that the loans would be repaid to the banks instead of to them.

Each fall I must prove to the bank that I am still a full-time student. It is my responsibility to fill out the correct forms, stand in line at the University to get these forms signed, make sure the University contacts the Ministry of Education on my behalf, and then deliver the forms in person to my bank. Each September for the past four years I have spent four or five hours doing this, another ten hours arguing with the Royal Bank when they withdraw money from my accounts because some part of this system fails, and then countless hours worrying about how to pay rent and buy food.

I did everything I was supposed to, and yet everyone I talk to says itís not their problem and nothing changes. My bank accounts are still empty and I donít know what else to do.

But let me back up a bit.

Iím currently completing the final year of the PhD programme in Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa. When I returned to school for my doctorate degree, I did so with generous financial support from Carleton, an Ontario Graduate Scholarship and, for the past three years, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship. I am very honoured to have received these awards, although I think it must be said that after tuition is paid, I live below the poverty line for my efforts. Since Iíve been a full-time student for the past four years Iím exempt from making payments on my student loans. This I appreciate more than many people might imagine, since I borrowed over $50, 000 to complete my BA and MA degrees, and my monthly payments are the amount most people pay on their mortgages. I will not be able to borrow money for a home or even a car (no, I donít own one now) until my outstanding loan is paid off ó at which point I will be 45 years old!

Please donít get me wrong. Without these loans I would not have been able to attend university, and there is nothing I can think of that is more valuable to me than my education. Iíve never defaulted on my loan payments and Iím willing to accept the current terms of repayment ó although I do believe that the public could come up with more creative alternatives that would benefit everyone concerned. But right now Iím concerned with how the student loan system disadvantages people as much as it benefits us.

Maybe I shouldnít be surprised that getting a system between governments, universities and corporations to work is easier said than done ó but what we have is a mess and Iím not willing to accept that this is the best we can do. Some things are too complicated: weíre talking about a system with parts that require paper forms, and other parts that only accept electronic submissions. Other things are too simple: weíre dealing with a system that requires face-to-face communication, but prohibits individual people from making decisions and taking action. In any case, weíve created a system that places all the responsibility on the borrowers and none of the accountability on the lenders.

It doesnít take a PhD to understand that there is something wrong here and that someone needs to change it. If we truly believe ó and our current government says they do ó that bureaucratic transparency is crucial in a democracy and that a well-educated population is essential to the future social, political and economic welfare of Canada, then we need to seriously and carefully re-evaluate what an education costs, and not just in financial terms. At the end of the day, Iím afraid I will only remember what my government took from me rather than what they gave. And I donít know if Iíll be able to live with ó and give back to ó that country.

Anne Galloway

Update: I just got news that an edited version of this was selected as the CBC Letter of the Day for December 14. And we're off to a good start!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Luhmann in Oslo

The entire University of Oslo's Designing Design Interface and interaction: Social software seminar is online as a bunch of mp4 files. I haven't had much luck in accessing them, but will keep trying. Webb and Greenfield were there, and given my recent posts about complex systems, I'm looking forward to hearing Terje Rasmussen on Luhmann and Social Software.

I'm not so much a supporter of Niklas Luhmann's ontologies (a.k.a. his anti-critical, second-order cybernetics, grand theory of autopoietic social systems) as I am a believer that he was a good problematiser. You know: good questions, not so satisfying answers.

Anyway, yeah, so good to see conference archives like this. Wish it happened more often.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Innovation through people-centred design

Innovation through people-centred design - lessons from the USA (pdf) (reg. required)

Simon points to the final report from a UK mission to see what American design companies are up to these days. I haven't had a chance to read it all, but a few things immediately stand out.

With an emphasis on understanding and working with social context rather than task completion, the mission sought to better understand things like: "How research techniques such as ethnography are used and valued in organisations", "How cross-cultural or sub-cultural understanding is used" and "How findings are translated into actionable knowledge for designers and engineers". Interestingly, while many companies understood the importance of understanding social context, others pointed out that in practice "thinking about social context [came] after the fundamental design ideas had been formulated." Hmm. I've always believed that the time for intervention is in the early stages, in the first articulation of a design problem or scenario.

In the report, Rachel Jones focusses on the development of innovation processes, and found that only 2 of 20 visited companies had people-centred processes in place. Not surprisingly, organisational barriers were cited as the primary obstacles, and Gary Mortensen-Barker takes a closer look at organisational culture. Paula Neal addresses the issue of translating research insight into innovative product design and development, pointing out that "the translator is not a person, it's a process." Andrew McGrath looks at the intersections and integrations of design and branding - something I've always had a hard time with and will need to read more carefully.

Dan Hill had mentioned his participation in the mission, and in the report he unravels some of his ideas about "self-centred design". I admire Dan a great deal, but have to admit his choice of words in this case doesn't sit right with me. To be self-centred is so... negative. Egotistic. Conceited. The opposite of sociable. Nonetheless, I love the ideas behind the words. Dan is interested in destabilising the power of the designer and in nurturing the creative capacities of users, or more precisely, in harnessing the design capabilities of all people. Believing in amateurs. Good stuff. For example, he writes about how IDEO encourages clients to become designers and how SonicRim "explores collective creativity". He also points out something important: while most or all of the companies visited understand the value of transparent, participatory and ethnographically-informed design, they also understand that anthropological ethnography is a long-term activity and there is still a need for rapid prototyping. In the end, Dan calls for a "careful integration" of the two to achieve a truly adaptive design process.

I was also quite struck by Nina Wakeford's comments on dialogues between designers and academics. Not surprisingly, Intel's People and Practices group and companies like FXPal stand out with high degrees of reciprocity between academia and industry. Nonetheless, Nina describes two major barriers to the use of academic research in design practice: "the difficulty of dealing with specialised terminology and contrasting frameworks for problem solving" and "a lack of clarity amongst US companies about how to measure the positive 'value-added' of academic research, in particular in comparison to user research generated by consultancies." Her recommendations include considering the communication of academic research as itself a "design challenge best tackled by a multidisciplinary team of researchers and designers" and that academics should consider how to actively engage with design agendas, while designers should also consider how they can engage with academic research.

Friday, December 10, 2004

"It is not size but what you do with it that counts"

BBC News: Lifestyle 'governs mobile choice'

"Consumers are far more interested in how handsets fit in with their lifestyle than they are in screen size, onboard memory or the chip inside ... 'We have to stop saying that these technologies will change their lives,' said Dr Michael Bjorn, senior advisor on mobile media at Ericsson's consumer and enterprise lab. 'We should try to speak to consumers in their own language and help them see how it fits in with what they are doing'..."

For example, Ericsson's research says that when people want to capture a significant event in their lives, they use a digital camera; if they want to capture a moment in everyday life, they use a camera phone.

I'd like to understand more about how that works. Especially how events differ from moments, and how technology plays a part in those differences. I'd also like to see if and how Ericsson turns this knowledge into marketing strategies, and how that plays out in terms of consumption and identity.

Networks, flows and fluids

Networks, flows, and fluids - reimagining spatial analysis? by Kirsten Simonsen, 2004

"In a very complex field spanning diverse subjects such as social theory, cultural studies, sociology, economics, geography, and planning, these spatial concepts - networks, flows, and fluids - are used as building blocks of a new orthodoxy of the theorization of social life; a theorization that is argued to favour a focus on process, connectivity, and mobility at the expense of an alleged former focus on boundedness, hierarchy, and form ...

[T]hree strands of work (more or less interwoven) are contributing to this theoretical development. These are the identification and celebration of network organization as a superior form in several fields, the import of new sociotechnical hybrid ontologies, first and foremost from French poststructuralist philosophy, and the development of relational urban and global theories often incorporating elements from both of the other strands ...

[But researchers need to] go beyond the moment of fascination, reflect on their theoretical and political implications, and reconsider the proper domain for their application."

My research falls within the second strand, drawing on "hybrid 'nonessentialist' ontologies" and spatial concepts of flow - all outlined clearly and concisely by the author. But the rest of the paper is where it gets interesting, as it focusses on "the degree to which a language of geometry infuses the discourse."

The author argues that while the types of geometry favoured in these concepts of networks, flows and fluids is much more unstable and messy than Cartesian space and Aristotelian place, they similarly result in a "universalization of spatial form (or movement) indifferent to the (human or nonhuman) entities they connect." Ostensibly predicated on the understanding that it is impossible to talk about space as something separate from social processes and practices, ontologies or paradigms based on spatial elements like networks, flows and fluids can have the effect of returning our focus back to matters of space rather than the social.

If I agreed that the spaces of networks, flows and fluids are "indifferent" to humans and non-humans, I would have to agree that this is a possible, and unfortunate, outcome. But I don't think they are indifferent.

I've definitely been suspicious of the language of geometry and systems -- not least because I think it does, inadvertently or not, lend a positivist authority that is neither necessary nor compatible. But as I understand things, hybridity does not imply any sort of absolute lack of difference, and especially not indifference in the sense of impartiality, neither right nor wrong. (Hyper)Relativism has always been criticised because of the implication that all things are equal - or even worse, that all values are equally good or true. But relativism is not the same as relational thinking, which I understand to be at the heart of theories of networks, flows and fluids. The very premise of relational thought is to understand the relations between people, practices, objects and ideas -- or, more precisely, the ways in which difference is organised over space and time in these hybridised mangles and messes.

I think that we can do better than rely on the language of the complexity sciences in our explications of the social - and if not, at least admit that what is being proposed is neither particularly novel nor enlightening.** But to claim that notions of networks, flows and fluids ultimately demote the social is to misunderstand the arguments and stakes at hand.

** Okay, that's harsh and not really so. But my point is that this language, this rhetoric, makes social and cultural theory appear fashionable and sexy - and I don't think that should be our goal. Plus, it puts the complexity sciences on a pedestal where they appear beyond the reach of critique - and that's not productive for any discipline.

Complexity sciences and the humanities

Somewhat related to my recent musings on post/humanism, Diana Lobb reviews Paul Gilroy's Against Race and claims it as an improvement over "humanities [research that tries] to borrow the credibility of the 'master' discourse by shaping its discourse as pseudo-science." Katherine Hayles responds, and Lobb responds to Hayles' response. Interesting. (via)

BTW - If you ever have the chance to watch academic disagreements in person -- even if you don't understand what they're arguing about -- they're shrewdly entertaining performative events. And if you're really lucky, the academic performers will become progressively more hostile until you can no longer tell the difference between an intellectual debate and a bar fight. In both cases, we can assume it's more fun to be a spectator and, in either case, be sure to have a drink in hand and get ready to place bets!

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Serres' open systems and dynamic stabilities

The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory, & Thermodynamics by Michel Serres

"Right in the middle of the traditional classification of beings, a classification that no longer makes sense since matter, life, and sign are nothing but properties of a system, we find exactly what I want to talk about: the living organism. Most often conceived of according to the models we have already considered, the organism has been seen as a machine (by figures and movements, or by invariance through variations) from the classical age up to the recent notion of homeostasis. Equilibrium and mobility. It is evidently a thermodynamic system, sometimes operating at very high temperatures, and tending toward death according to an unpredictable and irreversible time (that of ontogenesis), but going up the entropic stream by means of phylogenetic invariances and the mutations of selection. It is a hypercomplex system, reducible only with difficulty to known models that we have now mastered.

What can we presently say about this system? First, that it is an information and thermodynamic system. Indeed, it receives, stores, exchanges, and gives off both energy and information-in all forms, from the light of the sun to the flow of matter which passes through it (food, oxygen, heat, signals). This system is not in equilibrium, since thermodynamic stability spells death for it, purely and simply. It is in a temporary state of imbalance, and it tends as much as possible to maintain this imbalance. It is hence subject to the irreversible time of the second law, since it is dying. But it struggles against this time. We can improve upon the classical formulation of this problem. Indeed, due to the energy and information torrent which passes through the system without interruption, it is henceforth impossible to conceive of it as an isolated-closed system, except, perhaps, in its genotypical form. It is an open system. It should thus be regulated by a thermodynamics of open systems which has been developing over the past ten years and which provides a complex theory for this state of imbalance. In and by this imbalance, it is relatively stable. But here invariance is unique: neither static nor homeostatic, it is homeorrhetic.

It is a river that flows and yet remains stable in the continual collapse of its banks and the irreversible erosion of the mountains around it. One always swims in the same river, one never sits down on the same bank. The fluvial basin is stable in its flux and the passage of its chreodes; as a system open to evaporation, rain, and clouds, it always-but stochastically-brings back the same water. What is slowly destroyed is the solid basin. The fluid is stable; the solid which wears away is unstable - Heraclitus and Parmenides were both right. Hence the notion of homeorrhesis. The living system is homeorrhetic."

Existential computing

Steve Mann has been named the recipient of the 2004 Leonardo Award for Excellence for his article Existential Technology:Wearable Computing Is Not the Real Issue (pdf).

"In Mann's winning article, the author presents 'Existential Technology' as a new category of in(ter)ventions and as a new theoretical framework for understanding privacy and identity. His thesis is twofold: (1) The unprotected individual has lost ground to invasive surveillance technologies and complex global organizations that undermine the humanistic property of the individual; and (2) A way for the individual to be free and collegially assertive in such a world is to be 'bound to freedom' by an articulably external force. To that end, the author explores empowerment via self-demotion."

I don't particularly share his views, but I've always liked his Griefcase, and for anyone interested in technology and socio-cultural agency, this is a worth-while read.


The joys of teaching

With the exception of the final exam, my teaching duties are done for the term. Sweet. Of course, I'm still working on the syllabi for the two courses I teach in January: Introduction to Sociology of Science and Technology and Advanced Studies in Urban Cultures. They're coming along nicely, but need to be finalised by next Wednesday and the readings sent to the printer.

I find the fourth-year urban cultures course much easier to plan. Despite the fact that the class draws a multi-disciplinary bunch, I can count on certain interests, knowledge and skills. Second-year intro classes are tough. The readings can't require a lot of background knowledge and, in this case, the subject matter is often quite challenging.

The only thing I know for sure is that I love what I teach - it never ceases to amaze and delight me. And students, in turn, teach me all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

MP3 Wednesdays

Henry Lee - Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, 1996

Angelene - PJ Harvey, 1998

Stagger Lee - Nick Cave, 1996

I've never been a huge fan of Nick Cave, but Murder Ballads is a great album, and I've always loved PJ Harvey. These songs? Intriguing characters. Good stories. Life can be horrifyingly beautiful.

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Science and power

Isabelle Stengers' The Invention of Modern Science is my favourite book on the historical relationship between science and culture, and a core text for my sociology of science and technology course next term.

In this excerpt from Steven Shaviro's review, he discusses how science negotiates truths, rather than illuminating The Truth:

"As for science, the problem comes when it claims to explain everything, when it arrogates to itself the power to declare all other forms of explanation illegitimate, when it abstracts itself away from the situations, the events, in which it distinguishes truth from fiction, and claims to be the repository of all truths, with the authority to relegate all other truth-claims to the status of discredited fictions. As Stengers notes, when science does this (or better, when scientists and their allies do this), science is not just political, but is playing a very particular sort of power politics; and in doing so, science is certainly not disinterested, but in fact expressing extremely strong and powerful interests..."

Mobile exposures and social fabrics

Heidi Tikka
Mobile exposures and social fabrics

"In marketing imagery, mobility is posited as a new kind of freedom, a disembodied experience of riding the airwaves, free from the constraints of time and space. But what kind of freedom, and whose freedom is in question? By foregrounding the experience of families with small children, Tikka's mobile pieces expose the limits of mobility and propose ways of using wireless imaging to break up the triangular space of home, work and the daycare center. A key tactic in breaking the constraints of this space is based on the way mobile devices are used for being present elsewhere, in other people's lives Ė via immediate situations, feelings and thoughts communicated in SMS or MMS messages. But despite the ubiquitous 'anytime, anywhere' possibility of communicating, mobile messages always also involve a very specific somewhere and sometime, and this specificity of experience is what Tikka wants to convey ..."

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Ludic ≠ playful

Flow, Seduction and Mutual Pleasures (pdf) by Torill Mortensen

I don't remember the last time I read a paper on gaming and play that I enjoyed so much!

Mortensen takes a look at Csikzentmihalyi's theories on flow and Baudrillard's theories on seduction as they may be applied to the pleasure players derive from online gaming. Her studies of MUD culture repeatedly point at the pleasure players get from playing with other people, and as she states, "This fits awkwardly into the pattern of Csikzentmihalyi's steps towards happiness ... The flow experience ... is one of achievement, not interaction, an achievement that is rewarding in itself, not through the rewards from others."

In contrast, Baudrillard holds up seduction as opposed to production, and Mortensen argues that the quest element in gaming is only seductive when it is unresolved; in other words, to solve the quest is to be productive, not seductive. "The social aspect of MUDs ensures that the quest of playing can never really be solved. Through the interaction of other players the story keeps changing and new elements are constantly added." Continuing along these lines, Mortensen explains how some game admins choose to evolve the game-play as they go, keeping it flexible, open and mutually constituted. Not surprisingly, players who want a more ordered game universe in which they can gauge their own mastery against a set of fixed laws are frustrated by this sort of openness.

From this, Mortensen points out that players who derive their pleasure from mastery and control of the game - from being functional and productive - fit Csikzentmihalyi's theories on flow. On the other hand, players who value the social, interactive and uncertain nature of gaming fit Baudrillard's theories on seduction. And Baudrillard describes the former sort of functionalism as ludic but not playful:

"Obviously, the ludic cannot be equated with having fun. With its propensity for making connections, the ludic is more akin to detective work. More generally it connotes networks and their mode of functioning, the forms of their permeation and manipulation. The ludic encompasses all the different ways one can 'play' with networks, not in order to establish alternatives, but to discover their state of optimal functioning."

Sweet! In the attempt to reposition play as something not wasteful or frivolous, to establish it as a viable and valuable activity, theorists like Huizinga and Caillois turned play into something productive and functional - but not particularly playful or full of fun. As I've written many times before, I believe the sort of structural-fuctionalism found in Csikzentmihalyi, Huizinga and Caillois attracts folks interested in "social software" precisely because it meshes so well with traditional computer sytems thinking about networks and control. And as Mortensen explains, Csikzentmihalyi's theories on flow mesh nicely with ideas of the "self-made man" or the individual who works hard to shape her or his life. Unfortunately, this view tends to ignore external social and cultural power relations that influence quality of life.

By focussing on the ludic - by measuring the pleasure of games and play by functional and productive criteria - we miss the chaotic, voluptuous, and seductive qualities of play. As Mortensen concludes, the real dangers of gaming are not exposure to violence or social isolation, but rather in promoting a "society where delight is used to reach goals" and seduction is rendered empty and meaningless.


More papers from last month's the happening-right-now (thanks Matt!) Other Players Conference are online here. (via)

Saturday, December 4, 2004

Smoothing through a house

Beyond Appearances - Architecture and the senses

Fascinating article that asks, amongst other things, in a world where buildings are predominantly judged by their appearance, how does someone without sight experience architecture? I've excerpted my favourite bits below, but the whole conversation is well worth reading.

Alan Saunders: Now you talk about getting a more three dimensional sense. Like a lot of people I think given a choice, I prefer high ceilings to low ceilings, because I think they look more elegant; but are you aware of ceiling height when you're in a room?

Rebecca Maxwell: Oh, very much so. A low ceiling, well I don't know that it's a low ceiling, I feel an oppression that I work out by checking with someone else eventually, that it is connected with a low ceiling, or a disproportion of the space. I can't be geometrically accurate about that, but there are proportions that are comfortable and proportions that aren't, and the ceiling height is an important part.

Alan Saunders: Is that sense of oppression connected to any of what we think of as the five, perhaps we might call them the five traditional senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, or is it a separate sense, as it were?

Rebecca Maxwell: Well if one had to connect it to the five senses, one might say it's the sense of touch, but it's touch without a conventional physical contact. But I believe that there are a lot more senses. We haven't identified them and we don't use them. I think by identifying them we would begin to turn them on, as it were. You see, I think there is a sense of pressure, a sense of balance, a sense of rhythm, a sense of movement, a sense of life, a sense of warmth, even a sense of self, which psychology is beginning to recognise.

Alan Saunders: But let's just take touch. Do you think that architecture can offer a rewarding haptic experience?

Rebecca Maxwell: I'm glad you used that word in that way; I find myself an only person using it that way. Yes, look I take delight in the shapes of columns and the textures of walls in buildings, and I love to find apses and spaces that have no meaning at all. Yes, I think architecture could delight us more by focusing on other senses indeed.

Alan Saunders: You were talking about smoothing through a house and getting a sense of where there's a balcony and so on, where the outside air and sound is admitted; is your sense of the layout of a building altered at all if it's air-conditioned rather than naturally ventilated?

Rebecca Maxwell: Yes, an air-conditioned building feels dead. It has lost one of its features, one of its distinctions. It becomes all amorphous, too homogenous, and even the size of spaces is lost, yes, an air-conditioned building torments me, actually.

Thanks Julie!

Friday, December 3, 2004


All sorts of interesting people and ideas are popping up in the location aware media research discussion that runs until Sunday 12th December. The organisers' goal is to:

"identify critical issues, spaces of common interest, and potential blind spots for a proposed interdisciplinary research residency in location aware media [that explores and defines] the social and cultural implications of geographic information system tools and computerized mapping in a multidisciplinary setting."

If you're interested in these sorts of things, you might also consider submitting a paper to the Pervasive and Locative Arts Network (PLAN) conference and workshop taking place in London in February. Deadline for full submissions is Friday 10th December.

And since cheap flights can be had from London to Berlin, why not then head over to Transmediale 2005?

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Research on location-based mobile games

Adriana de Souza e Silva is a Senior Researcher in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, where she studies mobile communication technologies, "focusing on how these devices change social practices and the experience of urban spaces by means of location-based mobile games."

Her 2004 PhD dissertation (pdf) on "nomadic technology devices and hybrid communication places" looks particularly interesting:

"This dissertation addresses how mobile communication technologies, with a focus on cell phones, have an active role in creating new types of communication and social networks in a hybrid space formed by the blurring of borders between physical and digital spaces. It analyzes the transference of social places from cyberspace to hybrid spaces. Nomadic technology devices are responsible for producing new social networks in a space that interconnects the physical and the virtual due to their usersí perpetual mobility ... Nowadays, the constant connection to virtual spaces, allowed by new mobile communication technologies, transforms our social spaces, as well as the projection of our imaginary places in urban spaces..."

Update: Adriana de Souza e Silva also recently won the Opinion Award in trAce and Writers for the Future's New Media Article Writing Competition for her article, Are cell phones new media? (via)

'By their works ye shall know them'

Machu Picchu, detail - Edward Ranney, 2001

When I see Edward Ranney's photos of Inka stonemasonry, I am reminded why I wanted to be an archaeologist and the incomparable feelings of setting eyes and hands on these stones.

Saywite Stone, model of the Inka world - Edward Ranney, 2001

If I could add books to the Design Engaged reading list, I would have to include The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art, for its unique contribution to questions of materiality, design, space and culture.

MP3 Wednesdays

Sugar Craft (Yuka Honda remix) - Medeski, Martin and Wood, 1999

Satan's Church of Hypnotized Logic (Bill Laswell remix) - Medeski, Martin and Wood, 1999

MMW are one of my favourite bands and the original Combustication album is pretty much perfect. Bill Laswell is an icon of the NYC underground scene and Yuka Honda plays keyboards in Cibo Matto, another of my faves. They do MMW proud.

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Social-tech dump

Links now, comments later.

Howard Rheingold on the telephone's transition from appliance to fashion accessory

Julia Set on hacking reBlog

Chris Heathcote on the glue for ubiquitous computing

Peterme on self-serving social networks

Genetic modification can be great

If you lived in places where landmines continue to regularly kill or maim members of your community, I bet you'd think these plants are really really cool.

colour-changing plants for landmine detection

"A Danish company, Aresa Biodetection, has developed genetically-modified flowers that change color when their roots come in contact with nitrogen dioxide in the soil. Explosives used in mines produce NO2 as the chemicals gradually decay. The company plans to sow fields of NO2-sniffing Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale or mouse cress) in areas riddled with long-forgotten ordinance from Angola to Cambodia.

The effort's life- and limb-saving potential is staggering: More than 100 million land mines kill or injure 26,000 people in 45 countries each year. Today's most popular detection method is poking around with a stick."


CC Copyright 2001-2009 by Anne Galloway. Some rights reserved. Powered by Blogger and hosted by Dreamhost.