Friday, February 25, 2005

Out of focus

out of focus

Thursday, February 24, 2005


No sadness today. No self-pity either. Just sheer anger.

(Mum and Dad, please stop reading now because I know the language will be unacceptable.)

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I'll not be able to defend my dissertation by the end of the term. This means I'll need to register for the spring/summer term (and, of course, tuition increases in May) and then defend by the end of August. But my teaching contracts and SSHRC funding run out at the end of April. And even though I have guaranteed university funding for September - when I'll no longer be a student - they won't pay it out over the summer when I will be a full-time student. So not only am I about to lose all my income, but I will have new bills to pay and full-time unpaid work to do.

What the fuck am I supposed to be learning from this experience?! I've been taught how to develop and use the most precise ideas and language to explain and critique these sorts of situations, but every step of the way they remind me that there's little I can actually do. It's like being forced to take it up the ass and then sweetly say "Please Sir, can I have some more?" Fuck them. I fucking hate this shit.

Pragmatism is better than skepticism is better than utopianism

Urban Nomads : A lifestyle transformation from passive to fully mobile integrated being by Widianto Utomo

Techno-utopianism: high
Critical perspective: low

Shelter : Third World Ingenuity and the Legacy of the Urban Nomads

Techno-utopianism: low
Critical perspective: high

MP3 Wednesdays

Ring of Fire - Social Distortion, 1990 (Johnny Cash, 1963)

More Than A Feeling - Sleater-Kinney, 1997 (Boston, 1976)

Mexican Radio - Polvo, 1992 (Wall of Voodoo, 1982)

All covers. All good. (Part II)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Alternative distributions

I'm fascinated by using vinyl to do more than record music - and by ways of distributing information that have (almost) been forgotten.

According to this Slashdot thread and comments, John Logie Baird recorded 30 line video onto 78rpm records in 1928 as part of his research into early television broadcasting. Then there were records released in 70s and 80s that contained computer programs as part of the audio. In the early 80s software was distributed on acetate records in magazines. (Around the same time both television and radio broadcast computer programs that could be taped and used on your computer). And now Beige Records' The 8-Bit Construction Set, where the "inside tracks are audio data which can be dubbed to cassette tape and booted in your respective atari or commodore 8-bit computers".


Material worlds redux: potential networks

If Eric Paulos & Tom Jenkins' Jetsam project adds a much-appreciated sense of temporality to explorations in urban computing, then Angie Winslow & Bryan Boyer's UTILITY WORKS offers a much-needed critical eye:

"UTILITY WORKS seeks to acknowledge the importance of the mundane physical spaces where we play out our lives and provide new ways for the population to inscribe themselves into these informal public spaces. In an effort to draw new connections across our cities, UTILITY WORKS perverts existing municipal street furniture which will become points of mediation between disparate physical urban environments and the people that inhabit them. With these new urban experiences UTILITY WORKS seeks to provoke a renewed awareness of self and environment through a reexamination of familiar civic objects that we interact with every day. Just as a mirror reflects our bodies back to us, this project becomes a way of reflecting the virtual back into the physical urbanscape. Existing parking meters, post boxes, and garbage bins - the furniture of the mundane - will be activated to shape and articulate the informal public spaces of the city."

Parking Meter | Post Box | Garbage Bin

"Trash connects us all. We all produce it. Yet this term, 'all' is too broad. Who has toiled to produce the plastic in your soda bottle and who will have to live with it after you throw it away? The Garbage Bin seeks to illuminate this facet of our position as a node in the global economy/ecology by making explicit connections between us and our waste. By describing the geographical life of our stuff/trash we hope to illuminate the links that we share as consumptive individuals.

This intervention is realized by scanning the barcode of waste when it is being deposited into the bin. The bin reshapes its designated space on the street by projecting cradle to grave geographical information about the object onto the street. Until another piece of trash is thrown away and scanned, the garbage bin will project information about the location of manufacture and likely resting place of the product."

This kind of object-oriented geographical information not only connects the local to the global, but it also encourages accountability to a larger world. I do think though that it would offer a stronger critique if it used more local and social information. For example, instead of just giving a city or country of origin, I would love to see it tell a story of who makes it and how. In other words, putting people in the picture makes it that much easier to feel a social or cultural connection, instead of simply a geographical one.

Also: Bryan's Harvard GSD blog from the Archinect Schoolblog project

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

I know there is love

I know there is love


RIP Hunter S. Thompson

Ralph Steadman, Vintage Dr. Gonzo

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Material worlds

While not a big fan of Intel's Jabberwocky project (the background research on familiar strangers was much more interesting to me), Jetsam - part of their Urban Probes research programme - completely fascinates me.

"Just as an archeologist excavates layers of debris from past civilizations to inform histories of ancient civilizations, so too can the discarded artifacts of today’s urban inhabitants be used to create the rich milieu of everyday stories of urban life. In fact, we can observe these patterns by extracting the secondary traces that are left behind by the flows of urban inhabitants – the archaeology of public urban trash... Our Urban Probe, Jetsam, explores urban public trash, its meaning, patterns, and usage, as it manifests itself in cities. Through this probe we hope to uncover new opportunities for technology to emerge across urban landscapes and further connect with our emotional experiences of living in cities."

trashaugmented trashcan visualisation

Using observations, interventions and interviews to glean information about how people interact with and interpret garbage in public spaces, they produced an augmented trash can which "exposes city dwellers to the pattern of trash interactions". The trash can records the objects thrown into it, and projects an image onto the ground of the collected artefacts. Over time, images disappear from the projection - just as artefacts disappear from the archaeological record. (Watch QuickTime movie of the can in action.)

Explorations in pervasive urban computing seem to be tending towards either gaming or narrative approaches to interacting with or understanding the city, and this project certainly falls under the story-telling category. But it's particularly refreshing to see our understanding of narrative engage a material perspective. After all, I've never heard a story that didn't involve people and things -- and surely we can do better than another city of bits.

For more on the urban probes methodology and the Jetsam project:

Urban Probes: Encountering our Emerging Urban Atmospheres (pdf) by Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins

And while I don't have time to get into it now, I still find it curious that Situationism is being mobilised to defend non-traditional or playful research practices -- rather than as a way of critiquing the politics and practices of technological use in everyday life. Plus, if they'd only brought in some relevant material culture studies instead of just using Lynch's image of the city...


The Garbage Project & "The Archaeology of Us" by William Rathje

Found Magazine



The Leonardo Electronic Almanac special issue on Locative Media

Deadline for proposals: 7 March 2005

"Submissions are sought which foreground not the technologies but rather issues to do with participation, perception and process, and that explore the critical context of Locative Media..."

CFP and submission details

Friday, February 18, 2005

Utopicity and a politics of hope

Re-discovering past potential futures and the politics of hope (pdf) by Inke Arns

"Most of the artists I was dealing with in in my research showed a dedicated interest in what Giorgio Agamben calls past potential futures, which is a slightly different concept than the interest in past futures. Opposed to actualities, which can be described as 'practical possibilities', potentialities represent 'abstract possibilities' each present is pregnant with. Such potentialities are present, but not yet active or fully acknowledged - some of these potentialities will even lead to dead ends or alternatively become dead media. According to Agamben, reactivating these past potential futures is central to a politics of hope...

Part of such a project or a politics of hope could be what I have called, in my research project on the paradigm shift in the way artists reflect the historical avant-garde and the notion of utopia, 'retro-utopianism'. Since the 1990s, with a younger generation of media artists (predominantly but not exclusively in Eastern Europe), there is a significant change in the reflection of the historical avant-garde which is grounded in a renewed interest in the notion of utopia (which is understood in a different way than the holistic or prescriptive utopias of the past). This shift is characterized by a growing artistic interest in bygone technological phantasies, formulated in early 20th century artistic and/or scientific contexts... In today’s technological environment, the notion of utopia is seen as a deeply emancipatory and visionary potential (therefore the connection to the politics of hope)."

On obstacles and small successes

I very rarely write about my experience as a PhD student, mostly because I don't consider it to be among my primary identities. But every so often - and especially this week - that status dominates my everyday life, and it really bites.

(Cue The Damned's I Just Can't Be Happy Today.)

My dissertation feels further away today than it did a few months ago. My committee is brilliant, but both my supervisor and my primary reader are at different institutions this year, and I've been without my local support network for eight months now and it's really taking its toll on me. Added to that is teaching two classes, which gives me the responsibilities of a full professor and none of the respect or rewards.

I talked with PT yesterday, and he told me I still need to learn to take more joy in my small successes. Like losing fewer than 5% of the students who originally signed up for my classes. Like teaching courses with no exams that students still bother showing up to every day. Like opening up a new world for just one person. Like finally understanding that one idea. Like being able to apply it to one other idea. Like writing the perfect paragraph. Or sentence. And thanks to some very kind readers, I have also been reminded that what I write here and elsewhere has occasionally been known to inspire.

All of these things are good and true, and I am heartened to know them. Really. But since I feel determined to wallow in self-pity a tiny bit longer, I would like to state for the record that the PhD experience is too often dehumanising and we should be ashamed that we do nothing to deter bright, confident and determined people from feeling utterly alone and defeated.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

MP3 Wednesdays

500 Miles - Down By Law, 1994 (The Proclaimers, 1988)

Emmaline - Urge Overkill, 1991 (Hot Chocolate, 1974)

American Woman - Butthole Surfers, 1986 (The Guess Who, 1970)

All covers. All good. (Part I)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Because he would have had the answer

I wanted to talk to Charlie about a few things that have been troubling me. So after class today I got a cup of tea because I knew I would be there for awhile, and I knocked on his office door. It wasn't until someone else opened it that I remembered that Charlie is dead, and I started to cry.

I wanted to ask him how I could teach my students to be excited about learning. I wanted to ask him how I could convince them of the value of asking more questions and understanding different perspectives. (I wanted to ask him how to get students thinking beyond Foucault!) I wanted to ask him when we know we've failed as teachers. I wanted to ask him how he keeps doing what he does every day, even when his students seemed completely disinterested in the things that light him up.

But, most selfishly, I wanted to ask him why I should keep doing what I do. Because he would have had the answer. And right now, I don't.

Clothes that bite back

Philip Worthington's Wearable Warnings:

"The prototype design is a coat with warning strips of fur that become electro-statically charged in situations where the wearer feels threatened. When charged the fur begins to stand on end; a visual indication that the wearer is uncomfortable. If someone invades the wearer's personal space they will begin to feel a second warning; as they enter the coat's electrostatic field they will feel tingling skin sensations and their hair will stand on end. The fur will begin to twitch toward them and emit crackling sounds. If the 'threat' proceeds to touch the fur then 100,000 volts of electro-static charge discharges from the fur, into the offenderís body (non-lethal but definitely a bite)."

If this jacket had a collar like a frilled lizard instead of that razorback boar fur, I'd wear it in a flash!


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Subverting the City

I've just learned that this week at 7:55 PM (GMT), Channel 4 is running a series of shorts called 3 Minute Wonder: Subverting the City.

On Thursday night, the Wrights & Sites film - A Mis-Guide To Milton Keynes - is showing and I would love to see it.

Their mis-guides are brilliant and Milton-Keynes is just fascinating, so if any of my UK readers could pretty please record and share it, I would be very happy!

Many voices

PLAN: On Locative Media's European Reception by Marc Tuters

This commentary on the recent PLAN event in London - and on locative media in general - focusses on its characterisation by the broader European electronic arts community as a (somehow unified and homogenous) practice that avoids positioning itself as politically avant-garde. In other words, seeming "relatively content to directly collaborate with industry and government" is apparently not compatible with a critical position.

As an academic, I lurk at the very edge of the new media arts world. In other words, I keep up on my reading but I am not an artist. In fact, it was only at last year's Mobile Connections conference at Futuresonic that I got my first direct exposure to the arts community.

At the time, I was quite confused and disappointed by the overt hostility towards any sort of politics or practice that diverged from the norm. In the social sciences, politics and political practice are just as highly contested as anything else, and to think that there can be absolutely 'acceptable' or 'unacceptable' politics makes no sense to me. Personally, and not a little ironically, I found it rather oppressive to be discouraged from engaging different or more nuanced understandings of politics, ethics and production. After all, I had always been taught that critical theory began - not ended - with the Frankfurt School.

Plenty of artists and researchers (both academic and corporate) have dismissed my work as being dull, irrelevant, or insufficiently revolutionary, and in the end I can only assume we have divergent interests, desires and agendas - despite my, I think, genuine appreciation of their work. Nonetheless, PLAN is an EPSRC-funded initiative to investigate what sorts of collaboration are possible between the sciences, arts and industry. And while I heard scientists express overt interest in more critical approaches, and I listened to industry researchers hoping the audience wouldn't throw things at them, I wondered how the arts community would extend the proverbial olive branch.

But in the end, I don't think that it's productive to talk about artists any more than it makes sense to treat all academics, corporate or government researchers as if they were the same. Clearly, we all share an equal ability and responsibility in keeping potential collaborations open and just, and this is no time to crush the diversity of cultures at hand.

(Marc's article via Turbulence's always interesting networked_performance blog)


For critiques of locative media, see:

Drifting Through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure by Brian Holmes

Questioning the Frame: Thoughts about maps and spatial logic in the global present by Coco Fusco

In the neighbourhood

Love Lewisham. Hate graffiti. Help us.
"You can now use your mobile phone to help keep Lewisham's streets clean! Download the free application today and then start taking pictures of any street cleaning problems in your area. Click a button and your image and description will be sent to us immediately. We will try to fix it as soon as possible."

No doubt a good way to get nasty mattresses off the street, but it seems to be promoting a moral agenda rather than encouraging cleanliness or hygiene.

Still, it's interesting to see a community decide what constitutes graffiti and what does not. And I while I suspect there is nothing the borough will - or can - do about advertising pollution, it's nice to see someone complain.



Everything he ever wrote was a love letter in disguise.  From

Today I am going to read and write everything as though it were a love letter.

Monday, February 14, 2005

In favour of boredom

Piercing the Spectacle: A Situationist Critique of Computer Games by Brenda Laurel

" Interactivity as we constructed it back in the days of early PCs and console games was a very hopeful thing... But read the texts of our games, examine the roles of our player-characters, and see how we enact the spectacle...

A key premise of the mobile-technology game industry is that the pleasure of interactivity is preferable to boredom. Who would choose simply to sit on a train or wait in a line when you could be distracting your brain and hands with a game? Idleness, slowness, contemplation, being mentally present in a situated context have no place in this wired world. But for those who were alive before this hyperactive culture grew up around us, it was during those interstices of life's activities that we breathed, relaxed, observed, thought things over. Listen up - even the smallest fragments of your idle time have now been colonized with meaningless, addictive junk. Junk that is part of the fabric of the Spectacle...

Just as games can entrain us to enact the Spectacle, they may enable us to enact its converse. Situationists call this sort of reversal a reconstruction. Game designers have it in their power to reconstruct notions of personal awareness, choice, and agency in ways that might seriously disturb the consumerist ethos that has been prepared for us. Now, that could be really fun." (via)

I think that Laurel's nostalgia for the early days of digital interaction is a bit misplaced, but I will stand behind anyone who reminds us of our complicity in producing the society of the spectacle.

When it comes to mobile and pervasive computing, I don't worry about privacy as much as I worry about contributing to the commodification of everyday experience. I don't worry about surveillance as much as I worry that chance encounters and serendipity may disappear. I don't worry about trust as much as I worry about where we will find quiet, slow spaces for reflection.

The paper I'm working on right now involves going beyond Situationist critiques of everyday life - such as dérive and détournement - and critically evaluating strategies offered by Lefebvre, de Certeau, Benjamin and Kracauer.

For example, I've written before about the DIY ethic and its potential for creative agency, but I'm beginning to believe that simply reconfiguring the means of production (or consumption) will be insufficient. In The Mass Ornament, Kracauer writes about boredom as a way of resisting constant distraction or, in other words, defying Debord's spectacle and Lefebvre's colonisation of everyday life by the commodity. But Highmore suggests that Kracauer also shares an affinity with 1970s punk: "to declare yourself bored is not a mark of failure but the necessary precondition for the possibility of generating the authentically new (rather than the old dressed up as the new)."

If our future indeed brings computing into every facet of our daily lives, then I suspect boredom may be our best option. As Kracauer suggests:

"Boredom becomes the the only proper occupation, since it provides a kind of guarantee that one is, so to speak, still in control of one's existence... [O]ne flirts with ideas that even become quite respectable in the process, and one considers various projects that, for no reason, pretend to be serious. Eventually one becomes content to do nothing more than be with oneself, without knowing what one actually should be doing... And in ecstasy you name what you have always lacked: the great passion."

So much shared material culture

No doubt incredibly late to the party, I've nevertheless become strangely obsessed with the What's in your bag? group photo pool on Flickr.

Maybe it has something to do with my mother's purse, an object so private and sacred that as a child I could only imagine the magic it contained. And now I have the chance to peer into hundreds of bags, contents spilled in a mess or neatly arranged, glimpses into people's public/private lives. It's like having x-ray glasses, except that people want me to look.

But really it's the very mundane-ness of all this that appeals the most. And yet, I am slightly surprised at how many bags contain similar objects. Everyday things. Boring objects. Nonetheless can't-live-without things. So much shared material culture! No longer a cabinet of curiosities, but a shrine to the banal.

My own bag, dumped on the floor this afternoon, personal I thought, or at least idiosyncratic, suddenly fades into the collective 'bag'. Even my own notes are joined by others, and my objects becomes subjects. Of interest perhaps, or of interpretation.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The potential and the actual

Bruegel, The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559

Pieter Bruegel, The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559

This is also the fight between the everyday and the carnivalesque, between the potential and the actual. Bahktin has been criticised for putting too much faith in the transformative power of the carnival, mostly because it is produced within the world it seeks to change.

But what if we reframe our sense of everyday life? What do we need to move from the abstract to the probable? Rob says performative relations play out between the ideal and the actual, and representative relations play out between the possible and the real. Where is everyday life? Or ordinariness?

Notes on everyday life

Barry Sandywell, 2004, The Myth of Everyday Life, Cultural Studies 18(2/3):160-180

Epistemologies of everyday life

Critical: everyday reality as a domain of materializations and incarnate practices; technologically mediated interactions between lifeworlds and systems; technoscience as a powerful force in late modern societies (eg. Lyon)

Dialogical: the complex heteroglossia of daily life articulated in speech genres and cultural forms; sociological hermeneutics investigating the reflexivity forms in which different individuals and groups live out their relationships to their everyday activities (eg. Bahktin, Bauman, Gadamer)

Heterological investigations of 'molecular' power, the micropolitics of everyday social practices, the multidimensionality of the ordinary (eg. de Certeau, Deleuze, Guattari, Maffesoli)

Everyday life vs. ordinariness

"There is no such thing as 'everyday life'. 'Everyday life' as a homogeneous entity or as a veil of illusory experience has never existed. In fact, this view is one of the myths sustaining the Eurocentric social-imaginary universe. The homogeneous category of 'lifeworld' (and lifeworld subjectivity) is no longer seen as a simple identity, but is redefined as a complex site of contestation and difference ... Ordinariness turns out to be the hybridized 'non-place' where collective memory, the struggle for the meaning of sociality, identity and history are represented and performed on a day-to-day basis across a spectrum of social and political struggles and conflicts ... In reality, everyday experience is a wholly mediated, contested, and processual site of material and ideological struggles, a screen of unsatisifed hopes, desires and dreams as well as a nostalgic icon of value and order ... Where the grammar of everyday life intoned universality, homogeneity and passivity, the heterology of ordinariness opens the way for a more radical politics of experience informed by an agonistic conception of culture and sociocultural change."

Friday, February 11, 2005

Global (material) culture

Interesting discussion gathered around Jamais Cascio's recent post on Negroponte's $100 laptops for the developing world.

I read worldchanging regularly and learn all sorts of things, but I've always considered their approach more than a little tech-heavy, especially given the authors' explicit recognition that global needs are complex and often not within the realm of technological fixes. So rather than asking whether Negroponte's vision of making laptops more affordable for the world's poor actually answers a stated need or desire for any of these people, the post focusses on the best form factor for cheap mobile computing. Granted, a laptop may very well not be the best we can come up with, but surely a critical perspective should extend to people's quality of life and not just to the quality of their tools.

The comments on this post are particularly insightful as they focus on just that: the everyday lives of people in so-called developing nations. To give Jamais due credit, he answers their concerns intelligently and tries to temper the equally biased view that the developing world is so inherently different (and yet somehow internally homogeneous) that solutions from the developed world are often meaningless if not downright inappropriate. Lots to think about.

But then I read David Weinberger's comments on the Negroponte announcement:

"Assume for a moment that it works. Imagine hundreds of millions of kids with networked laptops running linux and using open source applications: The outburst of creativity. The sudden change in social connection. The access via VOIP to the voices around the world. The sudden isolating of Microsoft. And, these puppies don't come with DRM burned into their circuits. Negroponte and his colleagues are moving the world forward. The $100 laptop is a platform for emergence."

Never let anyone tell you that technological utopianism is on the decline! To me, this is much more dangerous than gadget fetishism.


I found myself rather disappointed yesterday when only one student of fifty-three in my sociology of science & tech course chose to do their research project on global issues. I am careful to teach them that our understanding of scientific research and technological development on a global scale must acknowledge and account for unequal political and economic power relations, and the organisation of cultural difference. And while I seem to have found some success in getting them to appreciate these issues at local and national scales, I just can't seem to find the way to get them to look beyond that. Or even to understand that the local and the global are connected in more ways than just climate change. But I think all of this is related to something that troubles me much more: their too often completely uncritical acceptance of the authority of science and the neutrality (or worse, the superiority) of technology. I'm also beginning to sense that in our desire to teach students the importance of ideas and words, we have neglected to teach them the importance of material culture. They all understand the communication issues related to mobile phones, but none seem to be able to identify the material culture of mobile tech: from the sourcing of raw materials, to manufacturing, distribution, and eventual disposal or recycling.

I should have assigned John Law and Kevin Hetherington's Materialities, Spatialities, Globalities (pdf).

Thursday, February 10, 2005

MP3 Wednesdays

Christianity is Stupid - Negativland, Escape from Noise, 1987

Stepchild - Bran Van 3000, Discosis, 2001

Shizku Is Color Of Tears - Pugs, Bite the Red Knee, 1997

And on a completely unrelated note, I think that Propaganda by Deed should definitely be resuscitated. I'm not behind the terror and violence of course, but give me one good reason why I shouldn't believe that revolution "consists more of deeds than words", and that action is the most effective form of change.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Rubbed raw

So I've been thinking about rawness. More specifically I've been thinking about when I was a child: that time in my life before I learned that one is not supposed to enjoy having one's skin rubbed raw.

(Get your minds out of the gutter! I'm thinking about skinning my knee, getting rug burns or 'Indian' burns, things like that. It's the rawness that I'm interested in.)

So why rawness? Because I've been thinking about social friction - and why we talk about that and not about social rawness.

Some time back I posted a link to Rune Huvendick Jensen and Tau Ulv Lenskjold's Designing for social friction (pdf). Their paper draws heavily on my own work, but takes an important diversion into the realm of friction. They define friction as the "process which separates different expressive behaviours and contexts from each other" as well as the "‘rubbing off’ of people on each other" and the "constant actualisation of difference". In other words, friction appears to be an organising force, as well as a force for change. They go on to claim social friction as an integral and critical part of everyday life, a means by which we shape our worlds. Seems reasonable. Unfortunately, the remainder of their argument lacks enough coherency and consistency to help me understand what makes this idea interesting for design practice. (What, exactly, are they advocating as critical methodology?) Nonetheless, I've greatly enjoyed having my mind stretched into the very idea of friction, and over the past few months I've tried to unpack what that might mean.

As usual, I started with definitions. The word 'friction' comes from the Latin to rub or to crumble, and it refers to the force that resists relative motion. In social terms, this is fully consistent with the idea that friction organises. It also refers to clashes or disagreement, and starts to share commonalities with chafing. To chafe is to warm by rubbing together, but also to irritate and make sore, and again in social terms, chafing involves movement that affects change. However, at this point I got distracted by the idea of something rubbed raw. To be raw is to be uncooked, unprepared or imperfectly prepared, lacking experience or refinement, as well as lacking covering, being exposed and susceptible to hurt.

It was then that I remembered being a child: the sheer joy of being raw and the games we played to make ourselves raw again and again. I was uncooked, unprepared, imperfect, exposed and vulnerable. In retrospect, I would describe that as always existing in a state of potential. Instead of feeling scared, I felt free. Instead of feeling pain, I felt alive. I loved being rubbed raw. And despite being told that was more than a little twisted, I continue to seek out things that make me feel raw. And now I want to explore what social rawness is - and how it differs from social friction...

Stanford Humanities Laboratory

A week or so ago I posted on the Stanford Humanities Lab Crowds Project, and the rest of their work is equally interesting.

For example, Michael Shanks' Traumwerk project asks questions of direct interest to research in pervasive computing:

"How is a sense of place, or the sense of an historical moment constituted? What are the dynamics of group cultural creation? How is social memory defined? How might an anthropologist work with a community to explore their sense of cultural memory? How might an archaeological team, in a site report, retain the multitemporal and cultural complexity of a place, its remains and the different disciplinary approaches adopted in an archaeological project? How might a family or community produce a creative scrapbook of their lives and memories, without reduction to stereotypes? How might an archive be constructed collaboratively in order to allow patterning and connections to emerge and change, rather than be built into the categorization of a methodology?"

Students of space and culture should also enjoy the Berlin: Temporal Topographies project:

"Berlin: Temporal Topographies is a multimedia, web-based research and teaching project that investigates the historical and cultural layers of a city. The project takes Berlin-arguably one of the most rich, contradictory, and multi-layered cities in the world-as its point of departure and seeks to develop a research platform and pedagogical methodology for studying the history of the city space."

There are also interesting projects on body language and visual perception that investigate embodiment and communication. And for anyone interested in play and games, How They Got Game: The History and Culture of Interactive Simulations and Video Games explores the history and cultural impact of video game genres including storytelling, strategy, simulation, sports, and shooters.

More: Stanford Humanities Lab

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Nostalgia and imperfect assimilations

History and the Politics of Nostalgia by Marcos Piason Natali

"Throughout eighteenth-century Europe the word would gradually be adopted by specialists and laypeople alike to describe a disease provoked by excessive attachment to a distant homeland, a condition at first thought to be common particularly among natives of mountainous regions. By the end of the eighteenth century, the notion was expanded to include pathological attachment to any faraway place and, later, to distant times and persons ... The word nostalgia would [later] come to be used increasingly as a means of representing problems of a different sort, namely ones related to politics and empiricism. The force of the term’s accusatory energy would be based not on medical discourse but on ideas about politics and history, as these were expressed in philosophies of history, in political discourse, and in psychoanalytic theory. In effect, the word was transformed from a disease of memory—one of the maladies de la mémoire—into a problem of the imperfect assimilation of the categories and practices of history, that is, the condition of those who did not have what in modernity gradually became the dominant relationship to the past. Nostalgia thus became a label used to define those who fell outside of the modern framework."

from Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies Issue #5 : Nostalgia

On the persistence of the everyday

URBAN TAPESTRIES: the spatial and social on your mobile (pdf) by Nick West

Please forgive the long excerpts, but I want to get at these points as a whole.

"This spatialisation of the social is essentially a cloud chamber for everyday life: what was once invisible now becomes visible and leaves its trace behind ... The key here is persistence: the messages acquire qualities of space as they endure and accrete in a particular location. The spatiality of this process seems two-fold. Some annotations will, of course, carry a specifically spatial component... But there's an indirect spatiality at work here, too: even the most fleeting of notes becomes spatial once it is placed in a larger metropolitan archive of urban annotation. Future urban archaeologists will be grateful to find the verbal, visual and audio ephemera of our age already tagged with a geographical coordinate and awaiting their analysis...

The flows of everyday life exist already -- our small contribution is to point to a way in which an archive of this life can be created in the midst of our daily flows, in the hope that these flows will begin to more concretely shape the physical environments in which they take place... But the important point is that these experiments point to a potential change in the perceived topology of urban space. Not only will cities be open as they currently are to a wide variety of inhabitants and experiences, but the built environment itself will acquire exponentially more architects...

These annotations will be only indirectly social: their authors won't talk directly to one another; they will leave their commentary, like urban messages in a bottle, for others to read. Their audience is implicit rather than explicit. Sociality only emerges as the result rather than being the motivating cause. The social builds by accretion, by the appearance of multiple annotations at the same place, or on the same theme...

These small experiments foreshadow an open and persistent archive of the city, with each entry grounded in the geographical space that the city already inhabits. Urban annotation thus becomes a process of involution, an intensive rather than an extensive phenomenon: a potential anti-sprawl."

The article specifically addresses the spatialisation of the social and the socialisation of the spatial, but I take issue with the idea that they have ever been separate. Perhaps Nick and I are just defining our terms differently. After all, he considers non-spaces to be "placeless" and I would disagree. To say that mobile phone conversations lack a spatial component seems off to me. What Nick seems to be describing as spatial phenomena appear to have more in common with notions of timelessness and monumentality than with location in either space or time, and at the same time be limited to geographic location.

But moving along, I am particularly interested in his characterisation of everyday life and the notion of persistence. Where I think Nick and I first disagree is in his belief that archaeologists will be grateful to find cultural artefacts already tagged with geographical coordinates. In my experience, geographic location was the easy part; context is the difficult bit. But this notion of an archive is intriguing. What kind of artefact will this be? How will we know its place? How will we understand its social and cultural context, and not just its geographic location? If Nick's vision comes true, if we will be excavating "accretions" of data that have "endured" through space and time, what exactly will we know about everyday urban life?

I'm also curious about his assumption that these accretions will have greater power to act, to shape the physical world in which we live. Act how? Shape how? I understand the idea that the city can be seen to have more builders, more architects, but what exactly will they be able to build? Put another way, what would an archaeologist identify as their cultural artefact(s)? If accretions of data take on qualities of monumentality, what is the place of the monumental in everyday life?

As for the relation between annotation and sociality, I have to say I don't understand how the social emerges as a result of annotating space, or how it manifests itself only in the accretion of annotations, as history so to speak. Is he limiting sociality to direct (i.e. same space-times) interaction between people? That seems to me to be the opposite of duration.

And finally, I really want to better understand what he means by a "process of involution, an intensive rather than an extensive phenomenon: a potential anti-sprawl". What does that have to do with the persistence of the everyday?

Any thoughts?

Monday, February 7, 2005

Archaeological futures (Pt. 2)

In The life of an artifact, Michael Shanks argues that the "radical opposition of people and things should be rethought" and the great contribution of archaeology to material culture studies is its understanding of duration, or what he calls "continuity ... with lacunae".

Beginning with the understanding that archaeologists work with dates attributed to the creation of artefacts and the time of their entry into the archaeological record, he adds the time of the archaeological find (in the present) to effectively stretch or extend the duration of an artefact and force us to articulate points (of intervention) along a space-time continuum.

"When a building collapses, the order of its construction and interior spaces disperses. We meet the commixture of materials and things in our excavation whose object is, among other things, to reorder, to abolish the disorder of collapse and dilapidation, to find significance and signification in the apparent chaos. Archaeologists clear up and tidy the remains of the past. But we might remember too that the litter and discard which accompany decay are interesting in their heterogeneity: juxtapositions of fibula and quernstone, gold ring and ox scapula in sifting through the cultural rubbish tip. The strange and oftentimes surreal juxtapositions of things with which archaeologists deal may be dismissed as distraction, or reduced to manifestation of cultural practices about which we know well; but a sensitivity to the strangeness of litter can reveal preconceptions about our cultural classifications...

I am arguing that the archaeological experience of ruin, decay and site formation processes reveals something vital about social reality, but something which is usually disavowed. Decay and ruin reveal the symmetry of people and things. They dissolve the absolute distinction between people and the object world. This is why we can so cherish the ruined and fragmented past..."

Shanks looks closely at the life-cycle of a Korinthian perfume jar to demonstrate the symmetry between objects and people:

"[T]o identify this as a 'pot' does not explain the particular life and historicity of this artifact - its movement through production, exchange, consumption, deposition, decay and discovery, reconsumption in the 19th century museum and 20th century text...

This particular artifact brings together clay and potter, painter and new brushes (for miniature work), a new interest in figurative work, the interests of patron perhaps and trader, heterogeneous elements in its figured designs (animals, warriors, monsters, violence, flowers, special artifacts), perfume (it is a perfume jar), oil (perfumed), the body (illustrated and anointed), travel away from Korinth (its place of making), ships, sanctuary of divinity, colonist, corpse and cemetery (pots such as this were given to divinities and the dead). The perfume jar helped constitute the nineteenth century art museum (albeit in a small way). This pot has been mobilised many times in defining the discipline of classical archaeology. And this life-cycle can be extended to include myself and a reader - the pot unites us here even now, mobilised as it has been by me in this project of mine..."

Now imagine applying this sense of symmetry and duration to a mobile phone. Or an RFID tag. Neither emerge as simple devices or singular objects; both are multiplicities, as objects and in their relationships with (other) people, places, ideas and practices. For example, the mobile phone extends from mines in Africa to landfills in America, and takes on multiple identities in-between.

We need to begin by excavating, or looking closer at the points, and the spaces in-between, in the life-cycles of technological objects. At the same time we also need to recognise that a focus on their secret lives will not be enough. Our understanding of these assemblages must embody - and enact - a greater sense of hybridity and duration.

Archaeological futures (Pt. 1)

When I was in London, several people asked me how I came to study what I do and I gave long, convoluted explanations instead of getting at the heart of the matter: I am here now because I couldn't become the kind of archaeologist I wanted to be.

When I got my Masters in archaeology, debate centred around post-processualism or interpretive archaeology, and the work of people like Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks, Chris Tilley, Julian Thomas and Christopher Chippindale.

Unlike the archaeologists that came before them, these guys refused to separate material evidence from its "political, moral, rhetorical, and aesthetic concerns", both past and present. It sounds pretty straight forward, but there was a lot of resistance from generations of archaeologists trained as empirical scientists to uncover neutral objects and (rather heroically) discover the truth of the past. Context (or more specifically relative positioning) was of utmost importance when accounting for an artefact's provenance, but any sense of broader social, cultural and political context was considered irrelevant. In other words, there was a disconnect between the objects of study and their role in creating and performing culture, including how they are used by archaeologists and others, in the present, to (re)create the past.

My specialisation (and great love) was Andean archaeology and ethnohistory - a field very strongly influenced by processual, or empirical and positivist methods and theories. I recall one conference where someone began his presentation by positioning himself as post-processualist, and people boo-ed loudly and left the auditorium. At the time, associating oneself with these radical ways of thinking was tantamount to career suicide, and since I was committed to the ideas and their potential, I moved away from archaeology.

So what does all this have to do with mobile computing? Well, quite simply, my interest in ancient technological practice led me to current and future technologies. I heard all sorts of talk about human-centred technology, assumed a committment to understanding the complex relations between people and objects, and thought that I would finally be able to put my archaeological knowledge to good use. Five years later, I still see this potential and have enjoyed many small successes, but I've also come to understand that the dominant paradigm(s) of computing design have a lot in common with processual archaeology, and similar barriers keep popping up.

I am still frustrated by the idea that technological objects are seen to be neutral, or that their meaning is only activated by (end) use. In my mind, the great failing of user-centred design is that designers are absolved of any responsibility for shaping artefacts and culture. Isabelle Stengers brings the same critique to Kuhn's account of paradigm shifts because he left scientists accountable only to each other. I also still hear much talk about providing (under-configured) stages for interaction, where we will encourage (allow) people to use technologies in ways not intended. That sounds a lot like anthropologists supporting (letting) their informants speak for themselves. What arrogance! And, dare I say, what short-sightedness when it comes to understanding context, or the relationships between people and places and times and things!

Over the next few weeks I'm going to try to work through my archaeological knowledge and connect it to contemporary social theory on mobilities and flows. I think I've seriously underestimated the potential of making direct comparisons, and am curious to see where it leads.

Floating Points lecture

Video of my Floating Points 2 lecture is now available - and it's the first time I have ever seen/heard myself speak. It's kind of funny, but now the questions people asked make much more sense! And of course, comments and questions are still welcome.

In retrospect, I might re-phrase or refine a couple of points, and it would have been much more entertaining if the words "tension" and "potential" had solicited the same screaming response as words of the day did in Pee Wee's Playhouse, but all-in-all I think it went just fine. I'm even impressed by my sense of optimism and should remember more often that I actually feel that way.

Saturday, February 5, 2005

London > Ottawa

Back from a brilliant trip to London - and a rather blissful five days without once checking my email or going online - jetlagged, but really happy.

PLAN was good fun - tons of interesting people, but not near enough time to talk with everyone who inspired me. If you were there and I didn't get to chat for more than a minute, and subsequently didn't come even close to answering your questions or comments, please email me and we'll pick it up again.

For those who couldn't be there, I'm sure there must be lots of notes around but I'm too tired to look for them, and so for now here are just a few from Molly Steenson, Nicolas Nova and Tom Carden.

There were too many interesting presentations to mention now, but I was very impressed by Eyal Weizman's talk - Molly's notes are here - and I'll write about that later. All the speakers are also supposed to submit their presentations, so check the PLAN site in the coming days.

I didn't get to see all of my favourite Londoners, but new ones have been added to the list, and I got to spend time with people I adore as well as get together with friends I haven't seen since doing my Masters. But special thanks have to go to Matt and Es - who gave me a comfy bed, all the hot tea I could drink, and excellent conversation the entire time. And actually, the new background photo here is a pic Matt took at the Archigram exhibit last year - cheers!

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