Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What we see as evidence

The Art of Science

"The Art of Science will examine how scientists, and a group of artists who collaborate with scientists, construct their extraordinary images and use them in research... Textual material accompanying each group of images will discuss the image-making methods used by the scientists and how they interpret visual data, addressing issues such as colorization, computer manipulation, and the preparation of specimens. The exhibition will consider key questions such as: Are biological specimens altered during the process of preparing and imaging them? How important is subjectivity to scientific interpretation? How significant have images become to the progress of scientific discovery?"

I'm completely fascinated by what Karin Knorr-Cetina calls "technologies of representation" - where scientists use object traces (like photos) to stand in for the objects themselves. This sort of scientific practice requires specific technologies - such as telescopes or cameras - to remove real-world constraints of location and time, and thus allow analysis of the outside world to proceed inside the lab. For example, Knorr-Cetina discusses how astronomy changed from being a field science practiced only at night to an imaging science where astronomers could observe pictures of celestial phenomena anytime, anywhere. In addition to this portability, image processing may include the addition of colour "to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye". In these processes of representing nature, the scientist too becomes an instrument: one who recognises and decodes the proper signs in order to 'discover' scientific fact.

This tension between image and interpretation was also at play in the early days of photography. For example, in 1852 Marcus Root described a daguerreotype as a "literal transcript" that "will serve, perhaps, even better than its living original". At the same time, he considered it a "monstrous absurdity to regard the art itself as a mere process of mechanical transcription". In other words, if photographs were to be considered an original art form then a photographer would have to be more than "a mere mechanic".

Another example comes from Thomas Thurston's study of photographic evidence in 19th century American courts, where he notes:

"Photography's initial reception underscored the contradiction between its acceptance as testimonial aid— a reproduction of the real— and as commodity— a production of the photographic artist. Its apparent reflective plagiarism of nature especially recommended its use as evidence. However, as photographic technology advanced and the recognition of the manipulation involved in the production of the photographic work increased, skepticism as to its evidentiary value grew stronger. The legal profession's increasing reliance on expert testimony also tarnished the photograph's reputation for incontrovertibility, for as its use became more common, photographic experts began to face each other across the courtroom."

Sound familiar? Today, we argue about the reliability of DNA evidence, suggesting that it is only as good as the people processing it. I also think about how much of our current scientific knowledge is at a distance - molecular biology, particle physics, nanotech etc. all deal with things invisible to the human eye - and I think we'll increasingly need to critically understand the relationships between the world around us and our representations of it.


After completing my PhD coursework, at the end of May 2002, I decided to start a weblog as a way to keep track of my comprehensive exam and dissertation research. Now, three years later, there are approximately 1500 posts and more than a quarter million words taken from what I have read and describing what I have seen, where I have gone, who I have met, what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. Writing in my weblog has become my public performance and my private practice: a fragmentary record of my interactions with others: my testimony, my evidence, my selective witnessing. Part deep thinking and part what my Mum would call verbal diarrhoea. Always me.


Every grad student hears that in order to finish writing a thesis you have to stop reading. I've never been any good at not reading.

Nonetheless, I am marking the May 2002-May 2005 archives as the only weblog content I reproduce & use in my dissertation.

Thanks so much to everyone who has read and commented on this site over the past three years - in many ways we've written my dissertation together.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Why so different?

Discover Dialogue: Evolutionary Biologist Mark Pagel

"We have the capacity to scramble up all the cultures every generation. We can all interbreed, and we can all eat the same food. So there’s no reason why we should maintain all this separation. Yet we do. What is fascinating about human cultures is that despite every opportunity for us to be swamped by the cultures around us, somehow the cultures are quite strong, as if deflecting the cultures around them."

Not one for sociobiology or assembly rules for cultural interaction, interviews like this usually just pass right by me, but Pagel and anthropologist Ruth Mace make some interesting points about difference. Plus, the idea of cultural deflector shields makes me giggle.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Mundane Computer

The Mundane Computer: Non-Technical Design Challenges Facing Ubiquitous Computing and Ambient Intelligence * by Allan Parsons

(updated 29/05/05)

One of the things that has come to concern me is my own tendency (and that of others) to stress that deep understandings of sociality and materiality are crucial to research in ubiquitous computing because they were part of Weiser's early visions. But surely we can come up with better reasons than "because Weiser said so". In part, I think this will require a greater focus on the multiplicity of wireless, wearable, context-aware and networked computing. Whatever you want to call it - ubiquitous, pervasive, ambient, locative - we are not talking about a unitary movement here. And as Parsons puts it in the article above,

"While ubiquitous computing is only a social paradigm by metaphorical overextension, remaining primarily a technical concept, the same cannot be said of the notion of ambient intelligence. The European Union, for example, uses the notion of ambient intelligence in an attempt to define a future social and economic space which is increasingly pervaded by computing intelligence as the 21st century unfolds ... In order to release the potential socio-political gains from, and the economic potential of ambient intelligence, significant and underpinning research of a focused nature will be required, including research into socio-technical design factors, support for human-to-human interaction and the analysis of societal and political development."

Well put. Parsons also offers a solid introduction to a variety of EU government research initiatives, and draws attention to particular kinds of political intervention in the production of new technologies. Parsons then continues to articulate a field of the everyday:

"The major contextualising horizon is no longer the workplace or the home, but has become the nation state and the dynamics of international relations. One may be performing a particular task in a specific location, but one may also be performing 'national security', and possibly some form of nationalism ... From this perspective, the everyday is globalised ... Yet, experientially, the everyday remains localised or proximate, located and situated. Actions, although often enacted simultaneously, differ in their nature and consequence, unfolding according to different spatial, temporal, practical, symbolic and institutional horizons."

Where we most seriously diverge, it seems, is in Parsons' tacit acceptance of ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and future studies as the best means to understand these complex relations. (The sociotechnical assemblages that Parsons cites are not particularly amenable to any of the above approaches.)

The contributions of phenomenology (I follow Merleau-Ponty more than Heidegger) and the hermeneutic tradition (esp. via Gadamer & Ricoeur) in social and cultural studies cannot be overstated. I also recognise and value the focus on agency and practice, as well as reflexivity, in ethnomethodology & symbolic interactionism - but in the end I prefer to work on critiques of functionality, order, predictability, singularity and rationality. (This also means futurism is out.) So while I fully support Parsons' claim that continuing research will need to be "extended and collaborative" - these days my focus is turned to critically evaluating what different perspectives and interests make possible (or impossible).

In any case, this article is well worth a read for anyone interested in pervasive computing, national economic and social policy, everyday life and ways of understanding.

* Tangentium is an online journal devoted to alternative perspectives on IT, politics, education and society.

No wi-fi for you

Joe shares an interesting story about a local Seattle coffeehouse that has shut down its free wi-fi on Saturdays and Sundays because "it seems that nobody talks to each other any more" and "many of these patrons will camp six to eight hours -- and not buy anything". The matter of 'squatting' is interesting, but I don't understand what's going on there and, like Joe, I'm most interested in what might make computing (appear to be) more reclusive than reading - an activity that does not seem to have the same effect in this establishment.

In part, I think we still consider reading to be a leisure activity and computing to be work-related, and social custom suggests that the latter should not be 'interrupted' . (I'm reminded of Anthony Burke's comments about 'making perfectly good leisure spaces into workspace'.) In part, I think that computers are simply harder to 'use' than books or newspapers and so the 'user' may appear less open to 'interruption'. (And now that I think about it, we could probably ask more questions about how 'interruptions' play out.) I think that Joe makes a strong point about visibility as well: it's much easier to see what another person is reading than what they are doing on their computer. This visibility offers greater opportunity for interaction because people have a more obvious and tangible subject/object through which they can interact.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

"I feel that utter truth is essential"

Part 3 - In which Anne has an epiphany about her dissertation, and learns another lesson about power

Anne: (sigh) This is really hard.

Wise Person: Have you considered just giving them what they want and expect?

Anne: Why should I? All it does is protect and perpetuate the same kind of knowledge we've always produced!

Wise Person: (laughing) And you think you're going to change that with your dissertation?

(a long pause)

Anne: Probably not.

Wise Person: Well, then?

Anne: Well then.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Turned over to the words of men

I admit to be rather poorly read and largely disinterested in psychoanalytic theory, but I really dig the work of Luce Irigaray. In This Sex Which is Not One Irigaray troubles that idea that woman can be best understood in relation to man (i.e. women without penises are nothing) and argues that if female desire is always located with the male, then so too is her pleasure. "Thus, women don't define their own sexuality, desire, or pleasure." As a woman, I have to say that doesn't sound very appealing but neither does it seem entirely accurate.

Indeed, Irigaray positions female pleasure as distinctly 'other' and as auto-erotic, where we always already touch ourselves:

"A woman 'touches herself' constantly without anyone being able to forbid her do so, for her sex is composed of two lips which embrace continually. Thus, with herself she is already two - but not divisible into ones - which stimulate each other."

And she goes on to say that women have distinct and recursive language patterns that allow us to play more with words and selves. Very seductive thinking.

And so I wonder how it applies to other 'objects'. If we allow technological practice to be captured or "turned over to the words of men", do our devices stand to lose their voluptuousness, their multiplicity, their mobility?

The ethic of aesthetics

It's Got a Hold on You by Douglas Rushkoff

"We form emotional, almost spiritual attachments to the objects in our lives... Does the same thing happen between people and their cell phones? And if it does, is this level of object infatuation a good thing for the industry, or an obstacle to selling more phones? ...

On an anthropological level, we humans can't help but relate to the immense power [of cell phones] with a bit of fear, reverence and mystery... My guess is that users' desire to relate to their handheld wireless technology in spiritual and magical ways will only increase. But this may happen in different ways in different places. Cultures where this technology is new, such as those visited by Bell, relate to the phone object in a magical way, but are just beginning to develop a spiritual sensibility about the software and applications they use. Cultures where phones are already integrated into the fabric of life, however, already use a wide array of spiritual applications, but are just beginning to develop a sense of totemic connection to the cell phones, themselves. Of course, the more valuable people perceive their individual cell phones to be, the less likely they may be to trade up for new ones. Still, for savvy manufacturers and operators, there's still plenty of room to build on these growing trends...

Although I usually come down hard against such tactics as exploitative or degrading of people's beliefs, I'm finding it hard to feel too terrible about gods, goddesses and other mystical traditions being incorporated into phones as a form of brand differentiation. In a sense, integrating them all with each other only underscores what a central role traditions, technologies and target marketing now play in our lives, and forces us to make a more conscious choice about what we believe in, and why."

I read Rushkoff's articles because he's a tech commodity fetishist - in this case, somewhere between "Yay capitalism!" and "Yay occultism!" - and I don't think that way. But I keep returning to the last thing he says (above) about imbroglios of tradition, technology and target marketing. In The Time of the Tribes, Maffesoli argues that mass culture has broken into tribes, that groups form along shared aesthetics - consumer lifestyles & tastes - which generate their own situated ethics to challenge traditional universal morals. These forms of ethical aesthetics have weak powers of discipline (the ability to exclude) but strong powers of solidarity (the ability to include). Now before the hippies get excited about all this empowerment and coming together, let's not forget that, say, neo-nazis and anti-abortionists form tribes too.

If we go back to Rushkoff's article we can see descriptions of mobile phone tribes that rather obviously combine aesthetics and ethics. However, unlike the (rather archaic evolutionary) anthropological sense of tribes that come out in Rushkoff's accounts, Maffesoli's tribes can be distinguished in terms of multiplicity. In other words, people actually belong to many overlapping and even contradictory tribes. And because our social identities and ethics change across these contexts, social status becomes more ambiguous. Bringing it back to mobile phones, Maffesoli's work challenges us to re-evaluate the role of the object in these collective relations. What's the difference between a phone's brand identity and its use value? Would a discretely-branded phone somehow fix identity? Rushkoff seems to suggest that we can choose the phone that best matches our ethics, but if we follow Maffesoli we can ask what ethics will emerge from these collective aesthethic encounters?

Thursday, May 26, 2005



Perhaps the most salutary aspect of Ricoeur’s work is that it has precisely the opposite effect of either the polemical or the psychedelic modes of intellectual intervention. It synthesizes, rather than obliterates. It treats the process of interpretation as an act of opening to the possibility of communication with the entire human community — not as the moment when Narcissus becomes fascinated by the image in the pool...

- Scott McLemee, Remembering Ricoeur

Update: Obituaries

Le Monde: Paul Ricoeur, philosophe de tous les dialogues
NY Times: Paul Ricoeur, 92, Wide-Ranging French Philosopher, Is Dead
The Guardian: Paul Ricoeur

Commodity fetishism

Nothing Comes Between Me and My CPU : Smart Clothes and 'Ubiquitous' Computing
Mark Andrejevic
The promise of interactivity is quietly but systematically undergoing a downgrade that will require a lot less activity on the part of the user – and a lot more on the dispersed ‘smart’ objects that will eventually populate their lives. This article reads the promotional literature on ‘smart’ clothes through the lens of Benjamin’s discussion of fetishism and flânerie, considering the ways in which such clothes provide a mobile form of bourgeois interiority: a ‘casing’ that allows the user to make an individualized impression on the world. The promise is one of comfort and convenience, offered in exchange for the ability to gather detailed information about consumers. Smart clothing realizes the phantasmagoria of the commodity world described by Benjamin – one in which the commodities embark on a life of their own, taking on the active role ceded by the pacified consumer. At the same time, one can recognize in the digitally encased consumers the after-image of the flâneur insofar as they participate in the work of being watched. The article concludes with a discussion of the uncanniness of this re-emergent form of commodity fetishism.

Notes to follow.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

"How research is done, innovatively and creatively"

(Re)Creating: Methodologies, Practices, Concepts New Scholars Symposium

1-3 September 2005, Goldsmiths College, University of London

The purpose of this symposium is to address how methodologies are recreated in the process of doing a PhD. It will explore the challenges and opportunities of working in innovative ways which draw on established methodologies and the extent to which new practices and concepts are reshaping the discipline.

The symposium begins from the premise that there is increasing interest in rethinking and reorganising sociological research according to different issues such as time, space, body and image. Although such concepts do not replace traditional issues like gender, race, class, or age, they do recreate the production of sociological knowledge.

A variety of formats will be used to explore these issues including papers, thematic roundtables, practical and conceptual workshops and keynote presentations based around the doing of research.

It will be of interest to new scholars (current PhD students and those who have completed their PhDs in the last five years). The symposium is funded by the ESRC and there will be no charge to participants.


Proof of difference

Interesting debate between Elizabeth Spelke and Steven Pinker about sex differences.

If I had to pick a winner I'd choose Spelke, but more interesting to me are their assumptions and how they made their arguments:

"First, we agree that both our society in general and our university in particular will be healthiest if all opinions can be put on the table and debated on their merits. We also agree that claims concerning sex differences are empirical, they should be evaluated by evidence, and we'll all be happier and live longer if we can undertake that evaluation as dispassionately and rationally as possible. We agree that the mind is not a blank slate; in fact one of the deepest things that Steve and I agree on is that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is a fascinating and exhilarating experience to study it. And finally, I think we agree that the role of scientists in society is rather modest. Scientists find things out. The much more difficult questions of how to use that information, live our lives, and structure our societies are not questions that science can answer. Those are questions that everybody must consider..."

Kuhn's "normal science". Popper nods. Wittgenstein shakes his fist. Feyerabend shakes his head. If I had to pick a winner, I'd say I don't agree to the rules.


Notes to self

To do

interview transcriptions
types for Craig
university administrative crap
watch Dr. Who tonight
AoIR stuff
article revisions
proposal reviews

Not to do

Dwell on the fact that there are only two or so weeks left before "you should assume that you have not been successful on this occasion". Feel lazy for devouring Palomar when you could be writing. Fret about you know what.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Network failure

"Walkie-talkies are preferable to cell phones in that their signals do not depend on satellites, relays, or any other external aids."

This preference refers specifically to surviving a zombie outbreak, and while that should be good enough reason to pay attention, it also brings up the interesting question of what happens when networks are down.

As part of the Communications, Catastrophe and the Future of Cities research group at NYU, Anthony Townsend and Mitchell Moss' recent report, Telecommunications Infrastucture in Disasters: Preparing Cities for Crisis Communications, looks specifically at telecom infrastructure failure during urban disasters:

"A key lesson of September 11 is that our increasingly complex infrastructure for telecommunications is no longer under the control of a single entity that can be held to standards of reliability... The three major broadcast networks are now supplemented by hundreds of cable and satellite networks. Vertical disintegration, particularly in the provision of Internet services, has led to layered infrastructure that further complicates the goal of network reliability. Finally, our increasing dependence upon the limited capacity and fickle nature of wireless networks remains the great unspoken Achilles' heel of emergency telecommunications..."

People keep telling me that ubicomp is right here, right now. But I'm hardly the only one who says, "Yes, well, IF it all works THEN..." What kind of network society exists when the network breaks? And where do we locate accountability in the societies of control?

Anthropology in the Financial Times

Office culture by Gillian Tett

"Is it valid for anthropologists to use their skills to serve giant corporations and governments? And can a discipline better known for examining the culture of exotic tribes really have anything relevant to say about the modern world of companies?"

An interesting introduction to issues faced by anthropologists working in government and industry today - from the perspective of those who do it. Combining a brief history of the discipline with its increasing presence in the public and private sectors, the article asks what happens when academic research is no longer a valid pursuit in and of itself.

I was a bit put off by the author's dismissive tone when discussing the objections or concerns of other anthropologists, but it does seem that critique sometimes comes off as moral righteousness and I've yet to see anyone react well to that. Leaving aside the obvious observations about editorial style and audience demographics, just a couple of quick thoughts:

Simon Roberts : "As a discipline, anthropology suffers from being far too introspective... it has to get involved in the outside world if it is to have an impact."

I don't think anthropology is too introspective, but I do think that change happens when we engage the world. It seems absurd to say there are places where anthropologists shouldn't work, but things we should and should not do is another matter.

Ken Anderson : "When I was at grad school my supervisor did not want me to do anything applied - that was not considered the right track. The key point to realise is that a consumer can always say no to anything that a corporation comes up with, so what we are doing is not like colonialism."

I don't think that the consumer can always say no, and I do think that corporate anthropology shares certain traits with colonialism. That doesn't make consumers sheep, or make anthropologists colonial.

Anyway, worth a read. It's supportive of anthropological research in technology design and development. It sees the value. It's looking in the right direction. The key is to not stop asking questions.

(Thanks Simon!)

Monday, May 23, 2005


Musical baton*

Total volume of music on my computer

23.6 GB, 406 artists, 3254 songs, 19.3 days of continuous listening. (Roughly half my CD collection and nowhere near the amount Dan has.)

The last CDs I bought

Mogwai - Government Commissions
Gang of Four - Entertainment! [Rhino Expanded]

Song playing right now

The Meters, Tippi Toes, from The Meters

Five songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me

Lucky by Radiohead, from OK Computer
The Roots' Dynamite, from Things Fall Apart
East Hastings by Godspeed You Black Emperor!, from F#A# (Infinity)
Liz Phair's Flower, from Exile in Guyville
Mote by Sonic Youth, from Goo

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, this is not in any particular order and my answers would probably be different on a different day.

* I'd pass the baton on, but you know...

In response to the email accusing me of being no rock 'n roll fun, I pass the baton to Jean, Matt, Steve, Michelle and Biella.

BTW - All the answers above are true. Today's picks would be different, but also true.

Oh anthropology redux

zephoria left some interesting comments to my recent post about anthropology. She asks:

"But why should anthropologists get protective? The biologists certainly don't when you snap up their texts. And i'm not sure the CS PhDs consider themselves anthropologists. If anything, they see theselves as learning ethnography."

First of all, let's not confuse ethnography with anthropology. One is a research method and the other is an institutionalised field of study. Second, my post started to get at what I think can be summed up like this: anthropology isn't better, but it is unique.

A few things come to mind:

The line between collaboration and appropriation is thin.

We know that knowledge and power are inextricable. We know that scientific knowledge is, amongst other things, a set of practices and power relations. We know that scientific research has more public and private support than the humanities, arts and social sciences. And when scientific disciplines, or inter-disciplinary departments residing in science or engineering faculties, explore and adopt the methods of non-scientific disciplines, we know that there are different power relations at stake than if it happens in reverse.

When we tie any kind of research to funding, production, commodification and consumption - and how can we not? - then we also know that how research acts in the world, how it shapes the world, is an integral part of its ethics. And here's where things get difficult.

The kind of anthropology with which I align my interests is decidedly political, critical. Its ethics are particular to its history and I, for one, will support them. If, as zephoria says, "sociologist is becoming the label that folks give to anyone who does anything remotely social" then I hope to always be considered an anthropologist.

You see, I don't want everyone to know and do the same thing. In inter-disciplinary research particularly, I want everyone to do what they do, from their perspective, best. I want many voices. I want friction between values, desires and interests - and I want us to have to play them out. Of course this doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn the ways of other disciplines. That's like refusing to speak anything but English when you travel; it's rude at best. And I don't see computer scientists trying to pass themselves off as anthropologists any time soon.

But for me, this isn't an issue of identity, or identity-crisis, but rather a matter of use and exchange. And I can't say that cooperation and sharing are necessarily good or equal exchanges. (The punk rock part of me is now muttering something about hippies.) Or that topics like this can be effectively resolved by advocating either disciplinary or inter-disciplinary futures. If we learn one thing from anthropology, it's that nothing is more important than context.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The power to influence and offend

Via Mr. Hill, the new Urbis exhibition, punk: sex, seditionaries and the sex pistols
"Rediscover the fashion, music and graphic design surrounding the Sex Pistols which rejected the establishment, and in the process became a cultural phenomenon. Punk charts the relationships between the Sex Pistols, Malcom McLaren, Vivenne Westwood and Jamie Reid and the designs, fashion and cultural icons they collectively created.

Featured in the exhibition are previously unseen items including outrageous anti-fashion creations from McLaren and Westwood’s shop SEX (later Seditionaries), some owned by Sex Pistols band members, original handwritten lyrics from songs on Never Mind the Bollocks, rare designs of promotional items and album covers, and photographs from the Sex Pistols on tour.

Punk shows how this collection of work achieved iconic status and still has the power to influence and offend. Punk also features rare material and objects illustrating the Manchester punk scene of the time, curated from private Manchester collections."

I've only been to Manchester once, and briefly, but I fell in love with the place. The people were excessive: they laughed too loud, wore clothes too tight, fought too much, drank too much, worked too hard. They were beautiful. Old and new physically chafe there, rubbing the city raw. It was beautiful. [.]


Women in punk

Review of 'Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk'

"I would rather fill my head up with the romance of revolutionary significance than admit that we have emptied the last dregs of meaning out of the whole damn thing. For to do so would be to acknowledge that yes, punk is dead, and we were born far too late in the day to so anything more than kiss its arse goodbye..."

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Postsecret music

I continue to be obsessed with postsecret and wondered what sorts of music secrets I have. So...

When I was a little girl I serenaded an older schoolmate with I Was Made For Loving You. And he laughed.

When I was a little girl my dad told me that I Will Survive was a "very important song". And I still believe him.

Oh anthropology

I still consider myself an anthropologist, although I'm not always sure that's correct.

My BA was in anthropology - in the tradition of culture area studies and equal attention to the four sub-disciplines. My MA was in the same kind of anthropology, although my thesis focussed on Andean archaeology and ethnohistory. My PhD is in sociology, although most of what I do draws on social studies of science & technology and cultural studies. I continue to be grateful that I took so many science classes - especially in the biological sciences - but I've never taken a statistics class. And throughout these twelve years of schooling, I found constant companionship in philosophy, history, architecture and art.

So what's the relevance of all this? To be honest, I'm not sure. But I think it demonstrates the possibility of an inter-disciplinary education within the traditional confines of disciplines and faculties. When computer science PhD students are snapping up anthropology books left and right, it's not without good reason that anthropologists try to protect their field and credentials. But I wonder if we stop to consider how incredibly inter-disciplinary our own field has always been?

In the end, I think it's the specifically holistic and contextual approaches of anthropology that still encourage and allow me to identify with the discipline. Even though all sorts of anthropologists would distance themselves from my work, there is still room for me and my research within this domain - and I can't say that about any other.

Current reading: Savage Minds and Digital Genres

Friday, May 20, 2005


I actually made a gleeful squeak when I saw Regine's post on designer Elio Caccavale and bioethicist Richard Ashcroft's brilliant myBio dolls:

"A collection of educational dolls exploring the emergence of biological hybrids in biotechnologies, and our moral, social, cultural and personal responses to the strange and different in human biology and also 'transhuman' creatures."

myBio doll

That's gotta be Nexia's spider-goat! I wrote a short paper about the spider/goat/human assemblage a couple of years ago - and it continues to be my favourite example of transgenics research. I love that the mass production of spider silk is still a holy grail of materials research. I love that we want it so bad that we think "Why not use a goat to produce spider silk?" and that makes sense. I love that, because of timing and such, after medical devices, the most obvious application of this new material is "biodefense therapeutics". Of course! Nexia recently sold all its work on Protexia to PharmAthene (dig that web site!) although they still seem to be working on BioSteel, and still seem to be stuck at the how-to-spin-it-into-fibres stage. (Spiders are way better at spinning than we are.)

If anyone in London goes to the exhibition, please let me know what question(s) they ask about the doll above.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Overheard through the window

Sound of metal and wood falling, electric tools abruptly halting, loud shouts.

Voice 1 : "What happened?"

Voice 2 : "Frank almost killed himself!"

Sound of uproarious laughter. Tools start up again.

Construction work sounds more fun and exciting than what I'm doing.


"As a political poster artist, it is important for me to remind myself of ways to develop art that speaks to a mass base of people, so that my the art becomes something functional and not something to be purchased and sold. My posters don't belong in galleries, they belong in schools, in the streets. Art in this country is commodified and transformed into something for commercial consumption. Our role as artists is to use our art to transform and inform a radical consciousness and to move the people."

-- Favianna, via Social Design Notes

While I do think it's possible to "move the people" with commercial products, the mass commodification of radical ideas and marginal practices is not without consequence. Here's Fortune magazine on The Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy :

"[A] number of factors are coming together to empower amateurs in a way never before possible, blurring the lines between those who make and those who take. Unlike the dot-com fortune hunters of the late 1990s, these do-it-yourselfers aren't deluding themselves with oversized visions of what they might achieve. Instead, they're simply finding a way - in this mass-produced, Wal-Mart world - to take power back, prove that they can make the products that they want to consume, have fun doing so, and, just maybe, make a few dollars...

A few large companies, too, are finding ways to tap into the movement. While most of the leading-edge DIYers view open-source software as their inspiration, Microsoft sees a role for itself. The company's Visual Studio Express software - slated for official release later this year - is designed to bring coding to the masses... Microsoft estimates there are six million professional developers and 18 million amateurs: hobbyists, tinkerers, students. The company hopes to make Visual Studio Express the Esperanto of amateur builders. Brian Keller, product manager for Visual Studio, says he looks forward to the day when "my mom can sit down and watch a video and learn how to build an RFID reader for herself."

Don't get me wrong. Generally I stand behind what some folks call 'mass amateurisation' - or more specifically I support challenges to traditional professional expertise. But when Microsoft or the BBC want me to "play" with their products it's different from when I play with my friends and peers. Not necessarily worse, and wonderful in all sorts of ways, but different nonetheless. Started as basically DIY efforts, Flickr has become Flickr/Yahoo and Dodgeball has become Dodgeball/Google. Blogging the latest conference I attended or building patio furniture from the latest issue of Ready-Made is different than squatter entrepreneurship. Assembled relations shift, will continue to shift, and that's never a neutral occurrence. And you know what? When I moderated the Designing for Hackability panel at DIS last summer, I could not engage one single person on the implications of commodifying the hacker or DIY ethic. In worst case scenarios I was shut down by the claim that such concerns were utterly irrelevant. The Man: 1 Radicals: 0.

Update 20/05/05. Interesting discussion here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

"An artist must regulate his life"

A Day in the Life of a Musician by Erik Satie
"Here is a time-table of my daily acts. I rise at 7.18; am inspired from 10.23 to 11.47. I lunch at 12.11 and leave the table at 12.14. A healthy ride on horse-back round my domain follows from 1.19 pm to 2.53 pm. Another bout of inspiration from 3.12 to 4.07 pm. From 4.27 to 6.47 pm various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, natation, etc.)..."


Related: rodcorp's how we work.


spider web through an electron-microscope

Seams, beautiful and otherwise

UK artist Jess Loseby explores "borderlands and 'beautiful seams' between the ubiquitous worlds of computing and the 'real' (domestic)". After Weiser, ubicomp became more about seamlessness than seamfulness, although Matthew Chalmers has further explored these "beautiful seams" from a range of perspectives in computer science, phenomenology, neuroscience, semiotics, hermeneutics, CSCW and gaming. (His perspective, sometimes more successfully than others, combines embodied interaction with a world-as-text/code.)

But what are these seams? And how are they beautiful?

Chalmers writes:

"In good MR and AR (and ubicomp) design, according to Weiser, interaction using heterogeneous media is so tightly coupled in user activity that the obvious differences and boundaries—what he called ‘seams’—between the parts of a system become less significant than the quality of interaction with the whole. The seams are perceivable—the technology is ‘seamful’—but we can call the whole system a single, hybrid object because coupled use of the parts is so unproblematic in users’ interaction i.e. interaction is non–rationalised and seamless..."

He advocates seamful design:

"One of our responses has been to explore seamful design, a less well–known
concept that involves understanding and accepting ‘seams’ such as gaps and breaks in functionality, and the limits of sensing, communication and representation. Seams in interactive system designs and infrastructures show through in users’ interaction, but we can design for such seams. We can help users understand and adapt our systems and their activity, with design that weave transparent use and more analytical use together into what Weiser called ‘the fabric of everyday life’."

[Note to self: Chalmers and his colleagues have dropped the "beautiful" part of "beautiful seams". I should ask why.]

But back to the seams, those "obvious differences and boundaries" between things, or the gaps, breaks and limits of technology. Is a seam a liminal space? Hybridity is found only at system/macro scale. A seam is not a fold (also next month).

More later.

Update 18/05/05 - Ubicomp 2005 Workshop: The Spaces in-between: Seamful vs. Seamless Interactions

Monday, May 16, 2005

Questioning ubicomp, circa 1995

"While conceiving of a technology that it regards as having potentially revolutionary effects on everyday life, the thinking underlying Ubiquitous Computing fails to show the slightest inclination to call technology into question. Although it is willing to examine other approaches to computing, the primacy of the unfolding of technology over the satisfaction of humans needs, and the self-sufficiency of this unfolding are taken as absolute givens. Taking into account the primacy given to technology over needs, the proposed massive penetration of everyday life by a particular kind of technology, the attempt to immerse the technology into the background partially as a way to bypass resistance to the technology, and the fact that these developments are not questioned but regarded as absolute, we characterize the thinking underlying Ubiquitous Computing as an emerging form of technological absolutism...

Although it is implicitly recognized in the proposals that certain groups show more reluctance than others to accept current computing technology, nowhere is to be found in them any concern regarding the possible acceptance or rejection of this invasive technology by the community at large. Its acceptance appears to be completely taken for granted... Thus, the thinking underlying Ubiquitous Computing exhibits a highly unreflective submission to the powers of technology - which to some extent echoes a similar unreflection predominant in the community at large - by taking for granted that the unfolding of technology does not require any justification outside of itself.

It appears then, that in the name of 'enhancing the world' the proposals for Ubiquitous Computing constitute an attempt at a violent technological penetration of everyday life. For how else could we characterize a proposal that advocates the pervasive transformation of things into surveillable objects, the substitution of 'real world' situations by digital surrogates, and the transformation of our surroundings into responsive artifacts by massively populating them with micro-processors and related devices - all of these transformations being mainly driven by technology itself?"

Agustin A. Araya, Questioning ubiquitous computing, Proceedings of the 1995 ACM 23rd annual conference on Computer Science (subscriber link)

Ten years later, can we really say anything has changed? Add to this what are being defined as the current Social Implications of Ubiquitous Computing and the situation looks rather bleak indeed.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

You are a commodity

AW 11 : Bikini Lady

Be sure to check out the back issues as well. Via things.

Scientists are people too, and this is how science is done

One of my students last term said that the best thing he got out of the class was the knowledge that "scientists are people too". He didn't mean that scientists appear inhuman, but rather that we are taught to see experts and authorities as somehow superhuman - and it was good to understand that, in many important ways, scientists are just people, that they can be understood sociologically and anthropologically, just like everybody else.

We had just finished reading laboratory ethnographies by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Sharon Traweek, and we spent quite a bit of time talking about Traweek's descriptions of becoming a physicist. It would have been brilliant to discuss Richard Feynman's letters as well as they almost perfectly enact Traweek's "male tales of a life in physics".

Not only do the excerpts demonstrate the versatility, humility, wit and compassion we've come to expect from our heroes (or what Traweek calls statesmen), but we also get a glimpse of the values attached to the practice of science, of physics. Perhaps none of the letters put forth these mangles and values so clearly as one to James Watson after reading a manuscript of what would become The Double Helix:

"Don't let anybody criticise that book who hasn't read it through to the end. Its apparent minor faults and petty gossipy incidents fall into place as deeply meaningful and vitally necessary to your work (the book — the literary work I mean) as one comes to the end. From the irregular trivia of ordinary life mixed with a bit of scientific doodling and failure, to the intense dramatic concentration as one closes in on the truth and the final elation (plus with gradually decreasing frequency, the sudden sharp pangs of doubt) — that is how science is done. I recognise my own experiences with discovery beautifully (and perhaps for the first time!) described as the book nears its close. There it is utterly accurate.

And the entire "novel" has a master plot and a deep unanswered human question at the end: is the sudden transformation of all the relevant scientific characters from petty people to great and selfless men because they see together a beautiful corner of nature unveiled and forget themselves in the presence of the wonder? Or is it because our writer suddenly sees all his characters in a new and generous light because he has achieved success and confidence in his work, and himself? Don't try to resolve it. Leave it that way. Publish with as little change as possible. The people who say "that is not how science is done" are wrong.

In the early parts you describe the impression by one nervous young man imputing motives (possibly entirely erroneous) on how the science is done by the men around him. But when you describe what went on in your head as the truth haltingly staggers upon you and passes on, finally fully recognised, you are describing how science is done. I know, for I have had the same beautiful and frightening experience."

February 10, 1967

In this letter we get a glimpse of science being done - and not just science as product. We can see the awe, the privilege and confidence, the uncertainty and the fear, the competing views. All those relations, all those emotions, that do not make it into the product that earns one a Nobel Prize but nonetheless continuously shape the scientist's "discoveries".

Now, I don't want to suggest that autobiographical accounts are the best or only way to understand scientific practice, but they do challenge us with other perspectives to consider. For example, discussion threads like this one from an evolutionary biology post-doc raise intriguing questions about how science is practiced. We can see things like competition amongst the ranks, arguments over ownership, gendered problem-solving, value differences between industry and academia, and people's experiences conflicting with expectations.

What makes this forum - and Feynman's letters - most interesting to me is the social and conversational aspect. They make it difficult to interpret scientific practice outside of its sociality, outside of the stories people tell about other people. But this, in and of itself, isn't special. Most scientists will tell us that Kuhn was right to point out that scientific communities produce scientific knowledge. What Kuhn's account misses though is how scientific communities are not isolated from the world-at-large.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Tumbling promiscuous

"...Mr. Lear, the Polly and the Pusseybite peruse their journey in a benevolent boat. Mr. Lear, the Polly and the Pusseybite incidentally fall over an unexpected cataract, and are all dashed to atoms. The 2 venerable Jebusites fasten the remains of Mr. Lear, the Polly and the Pusseybite, but fail to reconstruct them perfectly as 3 individuals..."

The Adventures of Mr. Lear, the Polly and the Pusseybite on their way to the Ritertitle Mountains by Edward Lear, 1866


Maps and memory

IHT: We simply can't stop shooting
"Many new photographers - and the newly prolific - extol a new category they call ephemera. It might include a picture of an interesting glove on the sidewalk. Seen through the lens of a camera that never requires its owner to pay for film, the mundane takes on new meaning...

Lewis compared mushrooming digital photography to a map of the world that grows in detail 'until every point in reality has a counterpoint on paper, the twist being that such a map is at once ideally accurate and entirely useless, since it's the same size as the thing it's meant to represent'..."

You know, I'm guilty of making statements like "X takes on new meaning" but unless one can explain what those new meanings are, I suspect the statement itself has little meaning. More interesting perhaps are Lewis' comments above, taken from this 2003 Wired piece on memory overload, in which we begin to see what is at stake. I'm reminded of conversations with Matt where we discussed the pleasures and perils of fetishising the mundane, including the idea that perhaps ephemera should not be rendered with so much precision. As Lewis writes:

"Mechanical memory - to its unexpected advantage - degrades. Colors fade, negatives crack, manuscripts grow brittle, grooves get scratched. What emerges from these depredations is a crucial sense of both the pastness of the past, and its presence. Time takes just enough out of acetate and celluloid to remind us of the distance between now and then, while leaving just enough to remind us of the nearness of our own history. But digital memory - ubiquitous, fathomless, and literally gratuitous - serves neither idea: The past is always here and always perfect; everything can be represented, no moment need be lost. Moreover, all of it is as good as new, and every copy identical to the original. What's missing is a cadence, a play of values, or a respect for the way loss informs our experience of time. Like the map that's as big as the world itself, it's useless precisely because it's too good."

What's relevant here are the politics and ethics of collecting and representation. I recall the role of images in ordering the Indian world and wonder how we are ordering ours. I wonder how we are now collecting the universe. We continue to be seduced by decay and ruin, while simultaneously representing those desires in beautifully immortal ways. And still, computer code becomes unreadable, memory devices fail or degrade. Without our material scrapbooks and albums, what will persist as long as Harappan pottery or even as long as Andean textiles? Is the only way to keep the digital alive to use it, to keep it in motion?

The first article above writes that Caterina Fake "argues that people just have to get used to a new way of interacting with photographs", that

"The nature of photography now is it's in motion. It doesn't stop time anymore, and maybe that's a loss. But there's a kind of beauty to that, too."

But what's in motion? And what's this about not stopping time? Digital photos not only capture moments, they date-stamp them; similarly GPS gives precise geographical coordinates at a particular moment in time. Does she mean it just goes on and on and on?

Mobility is only total(ising) when it's forced, and even then we rest, remember and forget.

(original story via del.icio.us/nsop)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Fleshy politics of recognition and respect

Boy and Cat are acting as if heatstroke were imminent in our house, but I think the temperature's kinda nice. Plus, it's supposed to drop to zero tonight and I'm more wondering if that'll hurt the tulips, which reminds me that I didn't make it to the fashion show last weekend, and I like the dresses as much as the flowers.

In any case, it makes it a good day for thinking about my submission to the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies conference : Insides, Outsides and Elsewheres.

There are two themed sessions - one on unfinished projects and the other on comics - that really intrigue me, but I'll be sticking with my doctoral project for Rob's Ritual Virtualities, Performative Materialities session:

"This session considers the contribution that an understanding of the virtual can bring to an analysis of cultural intangibles. After Proust, the virtual is ‘ideal but not abstract, real but not actual’. To what extent can the cultural be understood as a dialectic of the material and virtual, mediated by ritual forms and performativity? What are the losses and risks in this move to a set of theorists including Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Butler and Whitehead? What are the ethical and aesthetic gains and how might this contribute to a fleshy politics of recognition and respect? Papers combining both theory and a strong sense of embodiment(s) within the everyday are welcomed."

Of course, it was the "fleshy politics of recognition and respect" bit that instantly seduced me. Lots of social anthropologists - including me - make fun of cultural studies, but they're the only people I know who ask these kinds of questions and that's all good by me. (Plus, Rob's my advisor and one of my favourite humans and I know I'll have fun.)

Oh, and since I've had a wicked crush on negative politics of late (you know, captivated by anti-fascism, anti-realism, anti-essentialism, etc.) I think writing this abstract might lure me back into a politics of hope.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Locative media in the wild

From Brett Stalbaum and Naomi Spellman comes an invitation to submit a letter of interest for a 4-day interdisciplinary workshop to be held in July 2005 at the Crooked Creek Research Facility in the White Mountains of Inyo County, California.

I can't seem to find it posted online, but here are the important bits:
The goal of this workshop is to share knowledge, methods, and tools between various research disciplines that have a focus on human interaction with space. Our hope is to identify common interests as well as blind spots among a range of disciplines, in order to enrich the various practices represented, and to inspire new areas of research. Four individuals will be chosen to participate. Each will be provided with overnight accommodations, all meals, travel expenses ($300 cap), and $500 compensation.

The fields of cognitive science, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, psychology, dance, art, computer science, the earth sciences, and geography are concerned with the negotiation of space. Recent advances in wireless telecommunications, sensor technology, and Geographic Information System tools have inspired a tide of experimental creative projects. These tools are being used to address how communication, navigation, and big data are played out in space. As the landscape and urban streets become the canvas for ubiquitous computing applications, what kinds of possibilities emerge? How can research across multiple disciplines enrich the various practices?

While the workshop is intended to yield useful tools and problem-solving methods for all workshop participants, we are most concerned with fostering an interaction among disciplines, and examining and expanding upon how researchers approach spatial problems. Discussion and facilitated activity will set up a framework for activity over the 3-day workshop. Participants will be asked to present and demonstrate their own approach to spatial problems, and to collaboratively address problems outside their discipline. The problem(s) addressed will be culled from workshop participants.

Participants may be at any stage in their career, and do not need to be affiliated with an institution, academic or otherwise.

Please email a short letter of interest to naomi.spellman@gmail.com with "Locative Workshop" in the subject line. Attach your CV. Explain how your research activity or practice relates to this general theme. Include any specific information you deem relevant. Letters of Interest should be received by June 10, 2005.

Questions should be directed to naomi.spellman@gmail.com or stalbaum@ucsd.edu.

The eye of man

Yevgeni Khaldei may be most famous for his war photos, including the Soviet capture of the Reichstag and the ruins of Nuremburg :

Yevgeni Khaldei, Ruins at Nuremburg, 1945

In those bleak pictures, it's hard for me to see anything left of the man who made these playful self-portraits a decade or so earlier:

Yevgeni Khaldei, self-portrait, 1934Yevgeni Khaldei, self-portrait, 1936

Yevgeni Khaldei, Untitled Self Portrait Photo-collage, 1933-1936


related: on photographs

Not all wireless created equal?

John Emerson posts two interesting news stories: one on the use of independent radio in Ecuadorean protests and another on the use of mobile phones in Chinese protests - and then asks if the mobile phone story seems to have gotten more media attention because its kind of wireless technology is more sexy. Maybe. And maybe also because forms of techno-orientalism continue and because a lot more money is at stake.


Landscape of I.T. in Nations

Industry Canada: Radio, Spectrum and Telecommunications

Industry Canada: Spectrum, Information Technologies and Telecommunications Gateway


inno’v@-tion2 : Canada Foundation for Innovation

Current reading


Max Ernst - Mission of Burma, Signals, Calls and Marches

Don't You Want Me - The Human League, Dare!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Secret lives of puppets

Marionettes by Scott RadkeMarionettes by Scott RadkeMarionettes by Scott Radke

Scott Radke's marionettes and more puppetry at spaceandculture.
"Puppeteers... are discovering that audiences don't want yet another take on realism. People want the artificiality of puppets; they want to suspend disbelief and use their imagination. 'I think there's a hunger for spectacle - for those things that were there before realism took over,' [Old Trout] Balkwill says."

(from Puppet Regime by Bruce Weir, enRoute magazine April 2005)

Sorta related: Theatre of the Absurd.

A few thoughts on disciplinarity and an aside on convalescence

Latin convalescere, from com- + valescere to grow strong, from valEre to be strong, be well

I got outside yesterday after a whole bloody week in bed. I don't remember the last time I was so sick - or the last time sunshine and fresh air felt so enlivening. Of course, since I managed to sleep as much as the cat every day, I figure I needed the rest.

And now that my brain isn't quite so addled, I can read danah's post about interdisciplinarity. The thing that caught my attention this morning was her comment about the underwhelming quality of job talks she's seen/heard recently, and her question: "Why aren't there scholars right now who make my jaw drop?"

I should first admit that my own jaw dropped at her question. I can think of all sorts of scholars who "help me see the world from an entirely new perspective" but then I'm not looking for "the next Foucault". And given that I've begun the great academic job search, and I hope to be giving my own job talks soon enough, her expectations startled me.

In the comments Doug Tygar writes:

"Turning now to the 'jaw dropping factor', I think many grad students in SIMS aspire to tenure track faculty appointments at top tier universities. Now, if a grad student believes she is at that level, isn't it natural that her jaw may be able to stay in a normal position through many talks -- the grad student know how good she is and it is human to rank people against ourselves (or at least our images of ourselves.)

Furthermore, having over my career met with about 200 to 300 candidates on job interviews, I can assure you that one is not at one's best when interviewing for a job at a super-competitive place like Berkeley. Usually the candidate is nervous... I can assure you that the correlation between quality of job talk and quality of faculty member is less strong than one might think.

[O]ne way young researchers flop big time is by proposing grand theories that should be jaw dropping ... but inevitably make them look like dilettantes."

No grand theories. Check. No looking like a dilettante. Check. No super-competitive places. Check?

Now I'm fully confident in my abilities and potential but I don't take that as any reason to assume I won't be sending out my version of this letter soon enough. After all, the application and interview processes are necessarily selective. Still, I do need to believe that the people making the selections are fully aware of these constraints and can imagine me without them.

(Aside: I support the idea that grad students should attend every defense and job talk they can. Just becoming familiar with the performance is invaluable, and it doesn't take long before you start to find your own way as well.)

But back to danah's post: unlike her, I don't think that interdisciplinarity and community (or cohort) are mutually exclusive. Wait. Maybe I do? If interdisciplinarity is something that happens between disciplines then doesn't it make its own field of study from these different disciplines? Like some sort of network(ed) scholarship? And how is that different from multidisciplinarity? I like multiplicities and multitudes. And I believe that communities can be formed or shaped by difference as much as by similarity. So where does this leave me?

(Aside: Social software almost always assumes that people come together because of shared interests and/or values. The mistake is to think that this is the only productive or creative kind of social relationship.)

The most satisfying inter/multi/disciplinary work in which I've participated allowed everyone to do what they do best, then to try on different hats, and again do what they do best, only better. Perhaps my dream is the kind of work that allows me to move from being a specialist to a generalist over-and-over again. That's not danah's "identity crisis" - it's simply shifting contexts, being social.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Mucking about

I'd like to say this is a well-thought-out springtime redesign, but the truth is that while I may not be able to string coherent sentences together right now, I can still copy, paste and play with css.

I haven't checked it cross-browser or anything remotely functional like that - so please let me know if it's crap - but I've had fun this morning and I quite like the new look & structure.

I also think I'm feeling a bit better. This is good.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

No dice

Until this morning, there was still hope I would make it to Montreal for the MDCN Symposium and give my presentation this afternoon.

But I'm still in bed, feeling only a few degrees above death, and feeling bad about backing out. Despite my love of the absurd, I've never been any good at not worrying about things I can't change.

I really wanted to hear Will Straw talk about the "circulatory turn" this morning. According to Tobias, "Straw has been working and researching the idea for some time and it seems that 'circulation' is about to blow up." Apparently Straw argues that circulation 'more aptly captures the mobility, the materiality and the socio-political economies of cultural artifacts, in cities and elsewhere' than 'a hermeneutics of the cultural object'." Is this flow? Mobilities? Fluid space? Are we talking about networks of passive agents?

Addled minds want to know.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Nothing is more important than balance

I may not actually be dying, but this is so not the common cold.

It's some getting-worse-every-hour-super-freaky-evil-mutant-ass-kicking-virus that wants to teach me that humans are not, in fact, the top of the food chain.

This morning a friend said: "We pay far too little attention to what our bodies tell us and far too much to the importunements of ambition".

And I knew, with the sort of absolute certainty available only to the fevered, that the Protestant work ethic kills people. Slowly perhaps, but faithfully.

I then decided that nothing I do is so important that it can't be postponed or cancelled--because nothing is more important than balance.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Stream of consciousness, inconsistently punctuated 2

I feel as though my sinuses are full of lead and I'm able to think only with enough clarity to acknowledge that even though I've survived cholera, I'm currently convinced that I'm going to die from a common cold. I also need to find my train ticket to Montreal. (I think it got sent to the department.)

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.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Of planes, contagion, punk rock, graphic novels, rhetoric, liminal spaces and something else to read

Every time I fly in a Dash 8 I get a nasty head cold when I come home. In fact, these are the only times I have gotten colds in the past five years or so. So today it's all about turboprop contagion machines, feeling a bit like a noodle and loving Kleenex.

I was so excited when I returned to find a copy of Palomar on my desk: Gilbert Hernandez's collection of stories from Love and Rockets. I also recently re-read Dan Clowes' weird and wonderful Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. And Craig Thompson's Blankets, which is beautiful and sad like Kalesniko's Mail Order Bride.

I also came across an interesting paper at wood s lot this morning. In Introduction: Rhetoric as Liminal Practice (pdf), Tracy Whalen focusses on the discipline of rhetoric in Canada, and begins with a better description of liminality than the one I used in conversation the other day:

"In liminal spaces we find ourselves on a threshold (or limen), caught between practices, cultures, frames for knowing the world, and modes of communication — between, for instance, the divine and secular, university and workplace, private and public, linguistic and nonlinguistic. This is an interstitial place, the place of in-between. Anthropologist Victor Turner theorized liminality (borrowing it from Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage) in his work on festival and communitas, liminality referring to those marginal social spaces outside of everyday constraint that liberate participants from routine activity. Liminality comes out of social rupture or discontinuity (pilgrimages, carnivals, religious conversions, life transitions, holidays, etc.) and, while not always neat and tidy, the event is transformative and generative..."

But I'm disappointed to see that my rss feeds are becoming more repetitive every day. I need something else to read. Suggestions?

Sunday, May 1, 2005


I had a good time in Boston - Andrew was a most charming companion, looking at seals and sitting in the sun by the ocean with Steve filled me with joy for hours afterwards, and I'm still giggling from The Zombie Survival Guide I picked up.

Special thanks go to Brooke Knight, Helen Thorington and Jo-Anne Green for their generous hospitality and, of course, to all the panelists for such insightful conversation. Stay tuned for the archived video.

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