Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Stream of consciousness, inconsistently punctuated

I've complained before that 'critical computing' can seem strangely apolitical and I've wondered what is actually being critiqued when designers claim inspiration from, say, Situationism. (Simon Pope refers to a "wilful skimming of the surface of psychogeography".) But sometimes I think that all I really want is a good definition of what critical computing is or can be. Is critical computing the same as critical design or critical use? At what point, and how, does technology become critical? The Critical Computing conference in Aarhus in August starts with a deceptively simple and killer question: "Is empowerment still the objective?" and goes on to include concerns around quality and ethics -- so it seems to me there is still hope.

I should be working on my presentation for the MDCN Symposium but I keep getting distracted. I submitted the following abstract:

Across and Between Design Cultures

My doctoral research has included five case histories of pervasive computing design - representing various combinations of academic, artistic and corporate practice. In addition to the critical evaluation of publically available materials, questionnaires and interviews were employed to get a sense of the social and cultural values informing the work of each project. By positioning technology research and design as sociological and cultural enterprises, I believe that we may better understand how, for example, public and private as well as collective and individual interests are negotiated across and between sometimes contradictory and conflicting cultural contexts. In this presentation I will discuss how particular relations can be mobilised in the research and design of pervasive computing - and how these processes can both encourage and challenge collaborative, participatory and cross-disciplinary practice.

It seems particularly dense to me right now, and I wonder what exactly I should say. As I watched pigeons and people in downtown Boston, I realised that I shouldn't be surprised that everyone wants to know about someone else, and often about the Other. Academics want to know how artists do it; artists want to know how corporate researchers do it; and everyone wants to know who pays. I try to come up with three points. I want to talk about process. I want to talk about responsibility and accountability. I want to talk about funding. I need to choose some interview quotes to use.

In looking over the schedule, I think it'll be an interesting few days. (I hope my cold goes away first.) When I read Tobias' previews, I get all geeky and want to know the differences between "mobility", "flow", "circulation" and "flashes". I wonder if anyone will try to untangle the locative / site-specific / located / emplaced mangle. And if anyone will find hope, as Teri does, in moving beyond database(d) technologies, or as these folks do, in non-tech practices like walking.

I also see that John Thackara's In the Bubble is now out and about, and I want to know how space and place each get chapters! ("What is the difference? Well, place is meaningful space. Okay, but if a space isn't meaningful how do you know it exists at all?") And I go back to his 2001 essay The Design Challenge of Pervasive Computing (pdf) and smile at bits of his manifesto: "We will deliver value to people, not deliver people to systems" and "We will not fill up all time with content". (I also reread his closing comments about Ivrea and wonder what it means now that it is gone.) Andrew brings up related points in his review of Malcolm McCullough's Digital Ground and design emerges, first-and-foremost, as situated and embodied. But not particularly critical.

I recall being told once: "My work shares a lot of common questions with yours, Anne, but my use of Heidegger and phenomenology is more old skool than your use of Deleuze" and wondering if that is really true. I take for granted that being is related to time; that context and embodiment are crucial. But I oppose Heidegger's essentialism, partly because I believe that essentialism shares too much in common with fascism and unforgivably limits who we can be. In any case, these political implications lead to my interest in becoming over being. I need to understand how we can change. I need to believe that things can change.

This reminds me of differences between diversity and multiplicity or hybridity. Diversity means difference and distinction, and it is generally held to be a functional "good". It is at the core of government multiculturalism and orders biological ecosystems. In Canada we mind our ethnic dis/ex/tractions and stand side-by-side; in healthy ecosystems each species does its bit for the whole. In both cases we have singular entities together, where every-body's an individual just like every-body else. On the other hand, multiplicity means more than one and generally refers to how the many relate to each other. No essence; only relation. This seems more appropriate to me - mostly because I know that not all cultures and times place as much value on individualism, separation and isolation as we do. Multiplicity is also more easily associated with hybridity and assemblages - but still concerned with connections between singularities.

When Castells assumes the network, when he conjures his dystopian space of flows, what people most seem to take from it is the utopian (re)call to space and body, resistence through placement. Pinning down what's important before it flows away. In pervasive terms, a merging of the digital and the physical. In design terms, situated and embodied interaction. In political terms, thinking globally, acting locally. Boundaries don't blur, they get folded. Hardt and Negri's multitude folds people together without fusing them; not community but coalition. DeLanda's emergent properties. The importance of individuation remains and I'm interested in where singularities go to die. Then again, perhaps they only overflow.

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