Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Case histories (Mobile Bristol)

People have often asked me which of my case studies is the 'best' project - like they can be definitively ranked - to which I have always, and truthfully, answered, "I think all five are really interesting. That's why I chose them." **

"Cases are rarely chosen because they are thought to be representative, but generally because of their illustrative significance. Criticism of case studies should therefore be directed towards their logical consistency and not towards their statistical generality" (Mitchell as cited in Jackson 1984:107).

In other words, don't evaluate a case according to how well or poorly it represents (all versions of) the subject, but rather evaluate it according to its own strengths and weaknesses, to whether or not its individual story is convincing. And actually, in my dissertation I refer to them as case histories rather than case studies. While a case study "uses evidence governed by the rule of exhaustiveness", a case history, in the tradition of Freud and Foucault, involves "evidence governed by rules of 'intelligibility', denying the natural science project of producing final pronouncements."

In Michel Foucault, Cousins and Hussain (1984) further explain that Freud's interpretations of dreams and Foucault's case histories do not :

"accord privilege to the search for origins which function as a point from which a causality and a narrative can be deployed and where elements borrow their identity from their origins. Beginnings are only 'configurations of elements' not origins ... [Case histories] neither 'demonstrate' metaphysical positions, nor do they reconstitute the analysand's past as a [final] 'history'... [Instead they] make a problem intelligible by reconstituting its conditions of existence and its conditions of emergence."

So why, for example, is the case of Mobile Bristol interesting? What is its "illustrative significance"? Well, for one, its ability to work - and I would argue, rather gracefully - across traditional boundaries between private and public interests:

"The Mobile Bristol Toolkit is a limited version of the Mobile Bristol Application Development Framework which has been created to ease the development and deployment of locative media. The [free download] toolkit enables almost anyone to author location-sensitive, media-oriented, mobile applications called mediascapes and to try out their creations on a handheld device with an attached GPS unit."

Not surprisingly, the commercial version of the application development framework comes with fewer limitations on its use and greater support, and has led to customer products as diverse as Node and the BBC Festival of Nature Walk. On the private-side of things, they also work for themselves, and with industry partners, to research technological issues for infrastructure rollout.

At the same time, Mobile Bristol has collaborated to varying degrees with artist-researcher projects like Urban Tapestries and the currently-on Stimmen über Berlin - "the realisation of a dream of peeling back the layers of a city, accessing those stories, those events that remain undocumented, the happenings and thoughts that shape people's everyday experience". Additionally, Mobile Bristol's own research, especially in the 'lifestyle and experience design' area, has often involved working with artists on popular public projects (like Riot 1831!).

This slippage between private and public is particularly interesting (and not easily-resolved) when questions of ethics and accountability arise - but that's something for another time.

** I did originally (in 2003) choose one other interesting project, but they declined to participate in my study.

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