Thursday, June 30, 2005

Mis-seamed design: "a world falling to pieces being stacked back up...clumsily"

Pat (thank you!) turned me on to a new word today: dysraphism

In this interview with "para-digital" poet K. Silem Mohammad:

KSM: The best theoretical concept I can situate the Flarf collage process in relation to is Charles Bernstein’s 'dysraphism,' which he glosses in a note to his poem of the same name in The Sophist: 'Dysraphism is a word used by specialists in congenital disease to mean a dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts—a birth defect.... Raph literally means 'seam,' so dysraphism is mis-seaming—a prosodic device!' I don’t think I was actually thinking of Bernstein’s concept when I wrote these poems, but the idea of things wrongly sutured together, like the pathos of a badly taxidermied funny animal or a world falling to pieces being stacked back up in clumsily re-ordered columns, was there.

TB: Dysraphism as a prosodic device reminds me a little of a Steve Martin bit where he talks about teaching children the wrong words for everything. It’s a humorous but somewhat frightening idea which leaves plenty of room for paranoid projections...

Amazing. A "disfunctional fusion", "wrongly sutured" and also any failure of closure. In this last sense: a person, a project, a product, never finished, never proper. The "wrong words" and "paranoid projections" indeed! And "a world falling to pieces being stacked back up...clumsily" is such wonderful imagery - just think of your first clumsy gropes in the dark, or those voluptuous shapes that prove so unwieldy!

Relinquish control. Forget seamless or seamful design. It's all about mis-seams.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

No WordPress for you!

We're back to normal here after being offline much of the day. It seems that the "easy" process for installing WordPress and importing Blogger posts doesn't account for the kinds of mistakes someone like me makes. Another day...

Social computing

Browsing Jyri's links, I see that Microsoft Research has put up some videos of presentations from their recent Social Computing Symposium.

(Incidentally, in Firefox I clicked on the first presentation link and was immediately prompted with "Do you want to upgrade your browser with Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0?" and no ability to see the videos. Sigh.)

Of course, the people and papers I find most interesting are not among the video presentations, but Paul Dourish - like I have many times before - argues that "It is time for the notion of 'social software' to go away. It's a cute coinage, but conceptually it's at best vacuous and at worst downright dangerous ... Social software advocates often seem to miss the fact that many social scientists would question whether social networks exist or have any sort of analytic validity ... [and] the notion of 'social software' perpetuates an artificial separation between 'social' and 'non-social' software."

And Martin Dodge - who has also done excellent work with Rob Kitchin - critically discusses "recording regimes" like surveillance and sousveillance, and suggests that "an ethics of forgetting needs to be developed and built into the development of life-logging technologies" because "rather than seeing forgetting as a weakness or a fallibility ... it is an emancipatory process that will free pervasive computing from burdensome and pernicious disciplinary effects." (As an aside, it's nice to see people outside the disciplines that produce social and cultural theory work so well with it.)

Disappointing, but not surprising, the sociologists seemed particularly taken by analyses of social capital, or rather the relationships between information and social capital, and most people using social science frameworks were drawing from social psychology and 'natural' or biological models. On the other hand, Ken Anderson works with the "shift from social to sociality" - he cites Maffesoli, a sociologist I have long argued has important contributions to make to discussions of collective behaviour. (As far as that goes, so does Canetti on crowds and power.) And Warren Sack argues that "Chantal Mouffe’s theoretical foundations provide a more realistic departure point than the Habermasian ideals assumed by most technologists working in this area." Cool.

The anthropologist on hand - Microsoft's Anne Kirah - focussed on "people not technology" and on "everyday people's everyday lives". If Kirah is any indication, then anthropology at Microsoft is heavily invested in marketing (she uses words like "penetration" - and not in a good way). Plus, she talks about technologically "advanced" and "primitive" cultures and uses examples of cultural differences for humourous effect - and both are a bit dégoûtant in my books. But Genevieve Bell's presentation isn't online, and I imagine she would have taken a different approach.

(When I finally have the means to pursue in-depth field studies of research & design cultures, I can't wait to do conference and workshop ethnographies!)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Email from a student

Hi Anne,

Just thought I'd let you know that I finally got it.

Delays and glitches and distractions

Fascinating story in yesterday's NY Times about making technology happen when there are delays and glitches.

Apparently Humvees suck if you want to survive an attack, and the US military wants more robust vehicles like the Rhino. Unfortunately, so the argument goes, there are policies in place that make the acquisition of new technology difficult. Funding is lost and manufacturers struggle to deliver products on-time and up-to-military-spec. Politicians argue that people are dying because inflexible procurement policies are preventing US troops from successfully adapting to new combat conditions. The military seems to be forced into extreme measures like buying the legal rights to armor design in order to route around delays caused by exclusive manufacturers. And, apparently, the problem isn't new. In a 1996 paper presented at the Army's armor conference: "We need to invest more in the details of the design, to integrate state-of-the-art material, which, while costing more, weighs less and provides greater levels of protection. Finally, we must overcome the paradigm that wheels are cheap and 'throw away.' The vehicle may be, but the occupants are not."

This tale of technology is really a story of combatants and labourers, officers, bureaucrats and politicians. We're invited to sympathise with the soldiers and their families, and become part of a long-time struggle to better protect lives and prevent loss. We're asked to appreciate how, when the military tries to do just that, it's crippled by government rules and sabotaged by corporate greed. But we're also shown how the military routes around obstacles and how they use parts to hack together new vehicles - which ironically suggests how adaptable they can be. And finally, we're always encouraged to see technologies as the people who make and use them, while at the same time never once questioning the rightness and righteousness of the technology itself - or the war.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Blogger is being weird this morning. I have to log in every time I try to do something and it buggered up my css too when I finally managed to get that last post up. One of these days I'll get around to switching over to WordPress.

Mobility and design

Bodies in Motion: Memory, Personalization, Mobility and Design
June 25, 2005 - June 28, 2005
Banff New Media Institute

"What are the design and creative capacities of memory rich materials and forms? One of the proclaimed goals of pervasive computing research is to develop invisible distributed sensor networks to record various aspects of our activities. Wearable computing research is similarly concerned with questions of memory, in particular contextually-specific memory. The summit will also examine the idea of alternate display substrates (e.g., walls, garments, or furniture) that recall their 'history of use,' or how embodied memory can be communicated through augmented data.

What drives the contemporary desire in the technology world for total data memory? How does data memory sit beside new kinds of memory capacities in other materials? Memory is closely linked to histories and the interpretations of history. Some of the best mobile experiences combine local memory, histories and place. What models of memory and mind are used in designing technologies that remember? What are the ethical implications of memory machines? What does this mean in time of war, increased security? How do we include the need, capacity, and desire to forget? How do we include trauma?"

These events are usually streamed live, so check back over the next few days to see what's happening. In the meantime, you can also check out the archives for last month's summit Bodies in Play: Shaping and Mapping Mobile Applications.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The promise of verbs

I'm happy to see that my friend Trevor is blogging again - and each time I read about his dissertation research I am all-over-again awed by how he can make theology seem mundane. It's beautiful.

But right now I'm focussed on this bit:

"At the simplest level should I talk about the body using nouns or verbs? Is the body a person so that I privilege identity or the self when talking about the body? Is the body a place or a site open to the construction of a particular kind of building or colony? Is the body a thing so that I can account for it as an object, albeit a very special kind of object? Or should I employ verbs in approaching the body, so that I privilege what bodies do: bodies that touch, feel, see, occupy attention, smell, taste, hear, hum, move, relate, love, burn? Or, as much of contemporary thought on the body actually proceeds, should I privilege the adjectival body: the political body, the economic body, the female body, the gendered body, the black body, the brown body, the red body, the white body, the textual body, the machine body, the virtual body, the cybernetic body, the body of a cat, the body of Christ?"

I'm all for privileging what bodies do. And I'm all for using verbs more than adjectives and nouns. They are always already in motion. If we haven't been turned into stable adjectives and nouns then there is still hope. Plus, it just sounds way more appealing to be/have a body that touches and tastes and hums and relates and loves and burns...

Sajjadah 1426

A reporter contacted me recently wanting to learn about interesting things that people are doing with art and technology. I mentioned a couple of projects but then told her that, really, no one keeps track of these things better than Regine and Jo. And, sure enough, I was really impressed this morning when I read about Soner Ozenc's Sajjadah 1426 project. (Flash site, look under product design.)

The project uses an embedded compass module and EL wire embroidery to trace small patterns onto a Muslim prayer rug, which then glow with varying degrees of intensity based on the rug's spatial relation to Mecca. Inspired by how rug patterns "bring the atmosphere of a mosque" to wherever the person prays, and the need to orient the rug and body towards Mecca, the project quite beautifully explores the embodied and material aspects of faith, as well as physical ways of expressing the ideal qualities of light.

Of course, the wire isn't strong enough to withstand someone actually sitting on the rug, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful to me. I've written before about the material culture of rugs, and I see all sorts of potential in ways that art and technology can come together to explore and express cultural values and practices. But there's something special about working with textiles - something ancient and familiar and rich...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Local rhythms

Over at spaceandculture last month, I posted about my vegetables. Well actually, about how eating local organic produce has changed the way I understand land, labour, food and my body's relationship to it all. You know, embodied interaction.

Anyway, each week we get a message from the farm about the week's selection - and this came today:

"Mother Nature has certainly been playing with us over the last two weeks. The unseasonable extreme heat destroyed our baby spinach stands (by causing them to bolt or go to seed prematurely which causes them to be bitter) as well as many of our lettuce stands. Then there was the torrential rainfall which flooded many of our outdoor lettuce stands as well as large sections of our fields. We are not sure how many salad greens we will have in this week's basket. There may be none in the basket for this week at all – but we will have new stands ready by next week. The torrential rains have also put us behind in our June planting schedule. And then there were the frequent power outages caused by severe thunderstorms which stressed our refrigeration units and probably caused our micro-greens and salad greens to overheat last week. If you received bad ones or ones which didn't keep well, this was the reason. We are also changing the packaging of the micro-greens which we think will improve their shelf life in very hot weather. The thin plastic bags have not kept them very well. And if that wasn't enough, we have had very cold nights at the farm over the weekend! On the bright side, the long range forecast shows that normal weather for this time of year will return this week. This is just all part of farming! We hope to still have asparagus this week, but it will be ending very soon for the season – so enjoy it while you can - and baby pak choy, fresh komatsuna, chard, and tender broccoli raab."

I notice that when my body remembers the weather described, and when I can imagine these conditions also effecting the plants and the people who tend them, it seems only appropriate that the food supply is disrupted. At the risk of sounding like a bloody hippie, I have to say that being part of the same rhythms is really satisfying.

Oh Canada!

So Rick Mercer has a new blog and I'm still laughing from yesterday's post. This is good.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Environmental science rules & rewards

The first-ever Technology issue of Sierra Magazine

The general tone is set in this article about how "the absence of firm rules and responsible incentives" has discouraged scientists and engineers from doing right by us all:

"Technology is a servant, and it does its master's bidding. In this country, those who control technology have asked it to make them richer and more powerful, and it's done that — but at the expense of other people, other generations, and other species... The planet cannot sustain 6 billion humans aspiring to better lives without 21st-century solutions. We need the services of science and technology, and the skills of engineers. We need to enlist human genius to solve problems, not merely to increase profits. Our role as environmentalists increasingly will be to make sure the appropriate rules and incentives are in place, and then to stand back and let the engineers get to work."


Case histories (Mobile Bristol)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the suns stands still

Summer Solstice, New York City
Sharon Olds

By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.

Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life...


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Ubicomp real but not always actual

"Commercial hype and utopian anarchism, to my mind, mystify rather than illuminate the significance of the mobile phone... You will look in vain to find genuinely critical research on the mobile phone that opens up debate on its cultural value and social purpose ... While the mobile phone extends and increases the sheer volume of communications, does it actually improve the quality of communication? ... From a sociological point of view, actual and potential social uses across the generations and in different circumstances of life are more important topics for discussion than sheer technological capability and overhyped marketing gimmicks."

From Jim McGuigan's Towards a sociology of the mobile phone

For an article trying to drive home the point that more critical approaches are necessary, the content is strangely off-topic. Nonetheless it points at something I've been working on: the difference between actual and virtual new technologies. For example, I keep reading that "ubiquitous computing is already here" but I think this needs some qualifying in order to be meaningful and actionable beyond "so we'd better do something".


When I first saw the tetrology of the real and the possible outlined in Rob's book The Virtual, I choked. Originally striking me as hopelessly complicated, I've come to really appreciate the degree of precision it compels.

Following Proust, Bergson and Deleuze, he positions the 'virtual' as real but not actual (l'actuel). ** The tetrology then juxtaposes the 'real' (existing) with the 'possible' (not existing), and both in relation to the 'ideal' and the 'actual'. From that we get:

- the virtual as a 'real idealisation' or the 'ideally real' (e.g. a memory)
- the concrete as an 'actual real' (e.g. the everyday taken-for-granted)

- the abstract as a 'possible ideal' (e.g. a concept)
- the probable as an 'actual possibility' (e.g. a percentage)

So this is where things get interesting for me: If we're going to talk about ubicomp being 'already here' I want to distinguish how it exists. In other words, I'd like to be clear on how it is manifesting as both virtual and concrete, and what the relationships between the two involve. (These questions can also be asked of, say, the 'real user' or the 'real world' in which we interact.)

At this point in time, I'd say that ubicomp is 'real' in a virtual more than concrete sense. In other words, much of what we associate with pervasive computing is myth in the anthropological sense. It comprises memories and dreams of where we've come from and where we want to go. Whether or not these are 'accurate' representations is irrelevant: they are real in their ability to create and hold shared meaning, and they are real in their ability to act or change things.

"Realization is a process of bringing the possible (the abstract or the probable) into existence in a manner that resembles it. In contrast, the virtual is fully real but can be actualized as the concrete. For Deleuze, 'the actualisation of the virtual...always takes place by difference, divergence or differenciation. Actualisation breaks with resemblance as a process no less than it does with identity as a principle. Actual terms [the concrete] never resemble the [virtual] singularities they incarnate. In this sense, always a genuine creation'" (Shields 2003:30).

So this brings me to the point where I can distinguish actions in pervasive computing that seek to bring the possible (e.g. democratic ideals) and the probable (e.g. statistics) into existence, from the processes by which the virtual (e.g. connection through sharing) is actualised (e.g. connection through exclusion).

In other words, I'm interested in describing ubicomp in terms of how it acts in virtual, concrete, abstract and probable ways. From a sociological perspective, the most interesting part of all this is understanding how change happens, and more specifically, how new technologies come and go by flowing through these different 'states'. (Not flow in Csikszentmihalyi's psychological sense, but rather in the social sense described by, say, Bauman and Urry).

Next: how processes of realisation and actualisation can be understand in terms of individuation and transduction.

**Incidentally, in conversation I've found it extremely difficult to reclaim this meaning from its more popular use referring to the intangible or not-physical. This opposition between the digital (cyberspace) and the physical ('real world') is also crucial to the underlying logic of pervasive computing, and to my mind, highlights how little has changed in our thinking since the heady days of the internet - but I'll get back to that some other time. For now, I'll just note that ubicomp involves a lot of talk about bridging the gap between the digital and the physical - with almost no questioning of what constitutes the gap, let alone that assumed to be on either side. I mean, imagine what kinds of bridges we'd have if architects and engineers didn't ask what was being spanned!

Monday, June 20, 2005

Happy Father's Day

This is my favourite picture of me and my dad. On the back, in my mother's handwriting, it reads "June 1974 - Greece" and below, "Anne and Daddy at the seaside". I was almost two, but I have to ask Dad how old he was.

I love how small we are, and how big the world is. I love that we're at the centre of it all, between land and sea. I love that it's faded pink, that it has a small stain on it, that it's covered in scratches and fingerprints. And I love that whenever I look at it I hear this song.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Into the very jaws of hell

Jack Mottram points at this BBC story about a South African anti-rape device and says only two words: vagina dentata. Brilliant.

From Times Online:
"The device, which Sonette Ehlers, its inventor, has patented, is worn like a tampon but is hollow. In the event of a rape, she said that it would fold around the rapist’s penis and attach itself with microscopic hooks. It is impossible to remove the clamped device without medical intervention ... Charlene Smith, a leading anti-rape campaigner, said: 'This is a medieval instrument, based on male-hating notions and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of rape and violence against women in this society. It is vengeful, horrible, and disgusting. The woman who invented this needs help'."

I'll be the first to say that's one super-scary-sounding-contraption for both men and women, and it raises interesting questions about whether this represents an acceptance of the inevitability of rape, but have these critics never heard of the vagina dentata and women powerful enough to literally eat men alive?

Related: Anita Ingmarsdotter and FemDefence

Le Avventure di Pinocchio

Last night we went to see The Old Trouts perform Carlo Collodi's Le Avventure di Pinocchio and it was dark and sad and violent and funny and gorgeous. (Damn that sanitising Disney!)

The set alone would have made this production of Pinocchio, but there was also booming percussion, eerie violin and operatic voices. Pinocchio took the form of several hand and head-mounted puppets of differing sizes in order to convey the proper perspective; marionettes and scenery cut-outs were used to convey wonders like a flight across changing landscapes, floating on an ocean of tears and dwelling in the belly of a whale. Now that I think about it, the uncompromising artificiality of its look - including the obvious play between people and puppets - was amongst the most satisfying elements for me. (And there's a lesson there related to seamless technologies versus 'beautiful seams'...)


The puppeteers took minor liberties with Collodi's story, but it remained a complex moral tale about becoming human. ("The wood out of which Pinocchio is carved is humanity itself.") Highlights include its political and social satire, such as Pinocchio's imprisonment for being poor and the mocking of the judicial system with a brilliant court for "preposterous demands" complete with gorilla judge and screeching monkeys. When asked what he had done to deserve becoming a real boy, Pinocchio asks what real boys do to deserve it - after all, they're just born that way. Also, and contrary to the Disney version, when Pinocchio meets the moralising cricket he immediately smashes him to death. Very nice. Other favourite scenes involve a mad knight, his ass and a fantastic/scientific machine that, instead of turning Pinocchio into a real boy, mistakenly turns him into an ass. And, of course, the constant theme of life as other people pulling our strings. Stunning. (Now if only I could see The Unlikely Birth of Istvan as well...)

Friday, June 17, 2005

Inscription, enrolment and agency

"The state is going to be recording everything we do, why shouldn't we make our own recordings -- if only to challenge the accuracy of what others capture?"

In Inscription: Surveillance Turned Inside Out, Howard Rheingold talks to Microsoft sociologist Marc Smith about "ways to use tomorrow's panoptic snooping technologies".

I was instantly struck by Smith's use of the term "inscription" - instead of "authoring" and despite AURA's call to "annotate the planet" - a term which Rheingold describes as relating "to behavior that leaves traces detectable by others." But because words do things, because speech acts, inscription also means enrolment** in particular contexts, identities and practices.

The current obsession with tagging and projects like Urban Tapestries, Yellow Arrow, Grafedia, MapHub (and, oh, about a million others now) all work off the general idea that "regular" people can, and indeed should, declare and order their experiences and ideas, and share them with other people.

I don't know where or when "bottom-up" became an absolute social, cultural and (cough) ethical good, but classification, authorship and/or publication are not simply matters of production, or more specifically, about changing the means of production. First of all is that pesky matter of consumption and use: how are people actually consuming and using this information? Second, into which (unequal) arrangements or assemblages do all these practices enrol us?

For example, do we really want to say that when Microsoft or Nokia record everything that it is inherently better than when The State does it? What kind of agency do we actually have? When we use our blogs for 'impression management' or when we post pictures of ourselves to Flickr to have more control over what appears in searches, what kind of agency is that?

** In the work of Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, enrolment refers to the "process in network-building in which actors' support is gained for development of a sociotechnical entity, their role defined and their interests and identities orientated to suit." In other words, an actor/actant must be made relevant to others (interessement), be made indispensable to others (translation), and be granted consent by others (enrolment).

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Killing : time

Crafting : hanging mobiles

Listening : Black Ox Orkestar

Writing : a paper on design and communitas

Fantasising : a fervent affair with the Doctor

Update - still killing time, I thought I'd had enough playing dress-up and returned the fixed photo background. Sous les pavés, la plage!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

From the critical to the creative

Burn the Panopticon: Irigaray's Ethics, Difference, Poetics
Simone Roberts

"The customary gesture in academic work is progress by critique (or attack,) forward motion by negative gestures, discovery of short-comings in the works of other academics. This critical method is essential to refining accuracy in our perceptions and interpretations ... [H]owever, I believe that another gesture is necessary. That gesture should be a compliment to critical and questioning efforts -- a creative gesture. These creative gestures should be informed by the critical mode, work in tandem with it, but should build on the revolutionary and liberating strengths to be found in those theories, in our several cultures, in people ... 'True intellectual debate,' [Hutcheon] reminds, 'is not a matter of protecting vested interests and must involve better than search and destroy missions' ... This essay teases out each of those levels of meaning at work in [Irigaray's] An Ethics of Sexual Difference. It also argues that an ethics of difference, and a poetics to support it, are needed in order to move the course of history in a more fruitful and fecund direction."

Update 15/06/05 - Irigaray's work is dense and it's nice to see people trying to work with her philosophies. I like her focus on the fluid multiplicity of feminine sexuality, and I've been reading An Ethics of Sexual Difference and Elemental Passions as part of my ongoing attempt to articulate a voluptuous ontology and epistemology. I'm also reading Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural Curiosities for ideas about order and excess, and hints of voluptuous methodologies.

Update 20/06/05

"People seem, these days, a little sick from experience, callused. Not that this condition is really our fault. Very few people are trained to remain open to possibility, to seek action, to remain compassionate while protecting themselves from scarring in the face of one global, national, local or private atrocity after another. It is a very difficult balance, and a disaffected kind of withdrawal seems the most common response to it all. But that ironic apathy will not do. Wonder may be the way out...

In Descartes' French, wonder is a translation of l'admiration, which carries the sense of astonished marveling before something extraordinary, of joy in the beautiful and the immense, enthusiasm, enchantment. It is the emotion which corresponds to the sublime.

'Wonder is the motivating force behind mobility in all its dimensions. From its most vegetative to its most sublime functions, the living being has need of wonder to move. Things must be good, beautiful, and desirable for all the senses and meaning, the sense that brings them together . . . . [One must] find a vital speed, a growth speed that is compatible with [one's] senses and meanings, . . . to leave an interval between [oneself] and the other-subject, to look toward, to contemplate -- to wonder. Wonder being an action that is both active and passive. The ground or inner secret of genesis, of creation?'" (An Ethics 73).

-- from Wonder-Lust

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Choosing my way

"Composing is a terribly personal matter: the overcoming of difficulties, gaining knowledge, deciding upon a certain order, a certain method of constructing a new piece. This is important. You have to choose your way, you have to pick a proper path from an infinite number of possibilities."

-- Henryk Górecki

In describing the doctoral experience, Tom Coates suggests that we are more likely to succeed if we "take on relatively unambitious projects which don't stretch the assumptions or structures of the discipline too much". Sadly, I have to agree. But then again, I suspect that experience is common to many, if not most, people outside of academia as well. I mean, really, when has it been easy to change the ways things are done?

When - in composing my dissertation and myself - I do not have before me Górecki's "infinite number of possibilities" can I not still choose my own way?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Society ≠ social

MIT Technology Review decides emerging tech is becoming a social issue:
"In principle, we are interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society - and, in fact, it is impossible to write well about commercial and economic matters without glancing at society - but we seldom emphasize social issues. August will be different. That's all it's about.

There are good reasons why we have traditionally eschewed social subjects. Wired already addresses such issues. Also, there is something about the subject that seems to encourage bad journalism: otherwise good, sober, lucid writers go all Asimov: they posit unlikely, seismic shifts in human behavior on the most slender of evidence, their prose turns breathless and hyberbolic, and, in general, everything goes to hell.

But the biggest reason why Technology Review hasn't written about the social impact of technologies so much is that our subject is emerging technologies - and until recently, emerging technologies were mostly purchased by corporations and governments. The reasons for this are simple enough. Emerging technologies constituted an extraordinary capital investment, one well beyond the means of most people in their private capacities. Nor did most people see the need to experiment with really novel technologies. Personal computers, mobile phones, information networks - they all appeared first in commercial or governmental settings.

But this is changing: the spread of cheap laptops, handheld devices, affordable broadband access, WiFi, and a dozen other consumer technologies have led to a wonderful explosion of new, social technologies. Prominent among them is what we are calling continuous computing. I suspect that Technology Review will be writing about the impact of new technologies on ordinary society much more frequently.

These social technologies have attractions for the writer and journalist. Their effects really are interesting. They are aimed at much more than increasing productivity or promoting efficiency. When a lot of diverse people pursue their idiosyncratic interests, unexpected things happen. Lastly, they are much more fun!"

I can't believe we're still waiting for the social effects of technology! This guy makes it sound like new technologies miraculously emerge without any sort of social interaction or intervention. There are two flaws in this sort of thinking: 1) by focussing on society as the ultimate expression of sociality, we miss all the ways in which we are sociable at micro-scales of the everyday, and 2) by waiting to see what happens with already built technologies (including technological components) we tacitly accept that technological development is currently proceeding as it should.

This increasing interest in what the 'early adopter' (or more problematically, the 'common man') does with technology implies that this is where and when technologies go from being neutral to meaningful. Now I'd be inclined to agree that too many journalists and bloggers "go all Asimov" in the face of social dimensions of tech, but I think one of the best ways to dissuade this is to begin by acknowledging that social interaction with - and through - technology does not begin when devices leave the lab and enter the hands of users 'in the wild'. Technology is never without social interaction.

Over at IFTF's Future Now, where I found this article, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also takes this as further evidence that technologies are becoming more "democratic" - but in inquiring if there may be downsides to this trend he asks "is there an argument that the Old Days Were Better?"

Is that really what we want to be asking? Just because things are better than they used to be doesn't mean they're great. Where are the critical discussions of quality? And what kind of political agency are we actually talking about?

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Designing neither services nor products

On technology as material in design
Johan Redström

"Although hopes have been raised that new flexible technologies would support more adaptive and open designs, it seems there is more to the fixation of functions than deliberate intentions. A certain focus on the practical functions of technical objects seem to come not only from our basic understanding of these kind of things, but also from the situation we find ourselves in as we try to design them...

[W]hile we can determine the design of a thing, we can only predict its use. And this is where we risk fixating its functions and to some extent also ways of using it – confusing the two different tasks, that of designing the object with that of predicting its use, we try to determine its use the way we determine its design...

With respect to design, as in part being a clear statement of intended use that the user can understand and immediately relate to, this reduction in the space available for expression and explanation forces us to make decisions about what to bring forth and what to hide away. As we deal with the question of what to explain and express, we base our decisions on the notions of use that guide the design process. The surface, then, becomes a kind of interface supporting predetermined modes of communication. But we soon approach a situation where we seem to be trying to achieve the impossible, namely, to properly express the inner workings of the object while at the same time hiding its complexity...

[W]hen the user leaves the domain of intended use, or when something does not work the way they expected, the surface the device presents to the user makes little sense. To be able re-appropriate and re-interpret such things, the ‘user’ would have to create a ‘new’ surface that better suits her needs and intentions – at least this could be one way of looking at what it means to be ‘hacking’ technical objects...

What is at issue is not whether designers are capable of designing nothings rather than things, that is to say, services rather than products, but rather whether designers are capable of designing things that are not finished. It is less a matter of designing a different sort of thing than a matter of a thoroughly different form of designing, one that is perhaps better described as form of ‘continuous design’ or ‘redesigning’."

Redström's dissertation work is really interesting and I've cited it in past papers - but now it is becoming less clear to me how technology is a "material" in design. The content I excerpted above then tends to focus on the design process rather than materiality per se. The introduction from Tony Fry & Anne-Marie Willis' forthcoming book Ecologies of Steel does a better job, I think, of tackling the question of materiality by using an ecological approach somewhat similar to my own use of multiplicities and assemblages.

Notes: technology as social enterprise

I'm currently revising the technologies chapter of my dissertation - the one that positions ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, wearable computing, ambient intelligence, augmented/mixed reality and locative media as social and cultural enterprises.

For each of these terms I asked the following questions about the contexts of production:

1. Where has the research emerged? (i.e. corporations, universities, artist communities)

2. How is the research funded? (i.e. public, private)

3. What are the research objectives? (i.e. definitions, projections)

4. What are the challenges and obstacles? (i.e. technological, political)

4. Where are the results of research presented? (i.e. conferences, journals, online)

5. What kinds of devices and/or products are being created? For what purposes?

I also asked the following questions about the contexts of use:

1. What are the use scenarios?

2. How is human-computer interaction understood?

3. What assumptions are made about social and cultural interaction?

4. How is context defined? How is 'everyday life' defined?

The part I'm revising is on what it means to say that these technologies are social and cultural enterprises. Basically it comes down to understanding that technologies embody complex relations - real, possible, ideal and actual - between objects, ideas, people and practices. In this sense, any given technology exists as a multiplicity of locations, materials, politics, economics, etc.

My focus on so-called 'emerging technologies' in their states of emergence (i.e. research & design) is deliberate and politically motivated. Because I'm interested in the ability to shape technological development, I want to better understand how particular technologies come to be. I want to identify what is at play: what the 'fields' are and how the 'rules' might be changed. But I also want to trouble the idea of 'shaping' technology. For example, I want to be clear about the politics and ethics involved in the desire to shape technology. I want to question 'mass amateurisation' (or what I call the rise of the 'quasi-professional') as more democratic (than what?) or as a necessary good (give a million monkeys a million typewriters...)

Saturday, June 4, 2005

Three day forecast

Today 26°C, tomorrow 28°C, the day after 25°C. And no rain. This is no time to be in front of a computer.

Have a great weekend!

Recommended listening: Sleater-Kinney's The Woods. They're also playing Montreal on the 19th at La Tulipe.

Friday, June 3, 2005

Working together

My friend Chris Heathcote is pretty hardcore in his demand that HCI & design research be 'useful' (i.e. materially and/or commercially prescriptive and actionable). Take his recent experience at this Nordic Design Research Conference :

"My biggest beef, as with pretty much all academic conferences, was that it was design researchers talking to design researchers. There were 2 or 3 commercial designers at the conference, a few more design undergraduates, but mainly academics. I try and go to these conferences to burst the membrane between academics and practitioners - and there are certainly a few people and ideas that I am glad to have seen and are directly useful to my work. But there remains a general distain in academia to sully their work with commercial concerns, especially when it opposes their viewpoint, research subject or methodology."

Ouch. No. Wait a minute. It's not about having my work "sullied" by commercial concerns, it's about not having to answer to (predominantly) commercial interests. It is a political manoeuver, but it's not a moral one. (Frankly, I'd prefer to see everyone's politics up front.)

I also think research should be useful - but I don't think that Chris and I would agree on what constitutes usefulness beyond "well it depends on what you're trying to do..." When I think of collaborative work I think along the lines of "equal pay for work of equal value" not "equal pay for equal work" - with all the difficulties that brings.

I also think we still have much to learn from each other about work as product and/or process, since this is where a lot of cultural value is placed. For example, as long as we maintain that code is not expressive and research doesn't make things, then we really don't understand much about each other, let alone value it.

And this raises a broader issue involving collaborative and cross-disciplinary work: what happens when opposing interests meet? Collaboration requires consensus on nothing other than goals, and we know friction (note I didn't say competition) to be just as productive, in both positive and negative ways, as cooperation.

So what do we want for ourselves and from each other? And is this anything we would want to represent in terms of "oughts" or "shoulds" for everyone?

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Sense world

"In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."

-- Albert Camus

Earlier : Hope, Passion, Love

Wednesday, June 1, 2005


Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC)
November 14-15, 2005
Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA

"The EPIC is a new conference at the juncture between ethnographic praxis and corporate research. EPIC presentations span a broad range of work from critical theory and application papers, to interactive demonstrations, videos, installations, posters and workshops. Beyond this, the conference aspires to promote the integration of anthropological perspectives, methods and theory into business practices; to advocate business decisions based upon sound research; to promote public recognition of practicing ethnography as a profession; and to support the continuing professionalization of the field. This announcement is for an early call for papers and workshop proposals within the scope of Sociality."

Papers, Abstracts Submission Deadline June 17, 2005

Thanks Chad

Update 01/06/05

Carl points me to this job opening in Redmond for a cultural anthropologist. Now if I could just stop laughing at the fact that they want a candidate who possesses "Stage Presence"... My best case scenario interpretation of this requirement is "No socially retarded academics need apply" but I fear worse.

Mobilities in everyday life; the one that is many

There are two descriptions of mobility to which I repeatedly return in my dissertation: the first is Sartre's description of Calder's mobiles and the second is this from Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 2 :

"Beneath an apparent immobility, analysis discovers a hidden mobility. Beneath this superficial mobility, it discovers stabilities, self-regulations, structures, and factors of balance. Beneath the overall unity, it uncovers diversities, and beneath the multiplicity of appearances it finds a totality. Analysis must maintain these two sociological aspects (incessant change, the disappearance of elements, nascent conjunctures - the structuring of the whole, relative stability) and grasp them in the wholeness of a single history."

In their article Rethinking everyday life, Seigworth and Gardiner cite the same passage - "the wholeness of a single history arriving in each moment" - and (re)vitalise it with this beautiful quote from Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet :

"I'm in a trolley, and, as is my habit, I'm slowly taking notice of the people sitting around me. For me details are things, words, sentences. I take apart the dress worn by the girl in front of me: I turn it into the fabric that makes it up, the work that went into making it - but still I see it as a dress and not cloth - and the light embroidery and the work involved in it. And immediately, as in a primer on political economy, the factories and the labor unfold before me - the factory where the cloth was made, the factory where the twist of silk, darker in tone than the dress, was made, which went into making the twisted little things in the border now in their place next to the neck; and I see the components of the factories, the machines, the workers, the seamstresses, my eyes turned inward penetrate into the offices, I see the managers trying to be calm, I follow, in the books, the accounts involved in it all; but it isn't only that: I see, beyond that, the domestic lives of those who live their social lives in those factories and those offices ... All of them pass before my eyes merely because I have before me, below a dark neck, which on its other side has I don't know what sort of face, a common, irregular green edge on a light green dress.

The entire life of society lies before my eyes.

Beyond all that I sense the loves, the secret life, the souls of all those who worked so that this woman seated in front of me in the trolley can wear around her neck the sinuous banality of a band of dark green silk on less dark green cloth.

I become stupefied. The seats on the trolley, made of tightly woven strong straw, carry me to distant regions and into multiple industries, workers, workers' houses, lives, realities, all.

I leave the trolley exhausted and sleepwalking. I just lived an entire life."

Nice huh?

For background see Leibniz's Monadology and Deleuze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Also D&G: "There are only multiplicities of multiplicities forming a single assemblage, operating in the same assemblage" (ATP:34)

Aren't all confessions collaborative art?

NY Times: Bless Me, Blog, for I've Sinned

"No fakeness? Oh, but there is. And it is the fakeness, the artifice and the performance that make this confessional worth peeking at. The secret sharers here aren't mindless flashers but practiced strippers. They don't want to get rid of their secrets. They love them. They arrange them. They tend them. They turn them into fetishes. And that's the secret of PostSecret. It isn't really a true confessional after all. It is a piece of collaborative art."


It's funny how in the space of a couple of days, you can see the coming year unfold.

I got my first academic job rejection: it made sense and was kind and I was grateful. So one more year in Ottawa. Consulting over the summer. Finishing and defending my dissertation. Teaching again (I've redesigned my classes). Applying for more jobs. Applying for post-doc research funding. Going to conferences. Publishing more.

(Have I ever said that I love what I do?)

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