Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mixed technologies

Dan draws out adaptive design as machinic and modular. The projects he mentions are certainly interesting, and I love Cedric Price's work, but in my heart and mind adaptive design involves way more curves and passion than machines and modules.

He also noticed the same NY Times article I did - Confounding Machines: How the Future Looked - but apparently saw more loveliness in its collection of historical quotes on new technologies than I did. In particular Dan cites the following vision which instills in me little but horror and dread.

Bruce Bliven, "The Ether Will Now Oblige," in The New Republic, 1922

"There will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly worldwide concerts; when all universities will be combined into one super-institution, conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloose; when, instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bedtime story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world; when every person will be instantly accessible day or night to all the bores he knows, and will know them all: when the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation will have vanished into limbo."

And speaking of the New York Times, The Line Between Species Shifts, and a Show Explores the Move is definitely a keeper for my science & tech class. The article reviews the current Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom exhibit (scroll down a bit) at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and really focusses on the startling and unsettling aspects of hybridity. What's missing are the historical contexts of our mixing of cultures and technologies, and how inextricable they have always been from relations of power.

Also on the topic of new technologies:

Early Look at Research Project to Re-engineer the Internet

Computerizing the Campus Laundry (via)

Saturday, August 27, 2005


I have a problem

I don't understand why anyone would take pride in being able to withstand vast amounts of stress. Or why anyone would accept that having too much to do is an inevitable part of life. I've never wanted to be efficient or productive or controlled. In my mind, those are machine qualities and I don't want to be a machine.

But I have a problem.

I have deadlines. My office is a disaster area. Papers and books are scattered everywhere and I can't find anything I need. My email inbox is so full that all I want to do is delete its entire contents, or yell at the people who keep sending me messages.

And I don't know how to solve my problem without acquiescing to values that I do not hold.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Africa in motion

Before thinking that mobile phones are going to save the Africans, and even before giggling at the novelty of using cell-phones as currency, maybe a closer read of National Geographic's current special issue on Africa as "a million places" is in order?

Although the breathiness with which far too many magazines and blogs cover technology rubs me the wrong way, and even though the NG issue features the now trite photograph and story of an African (this one's in a tree) using a mobile phone, I appreciate that more energy is focussed on different kinds of mobility and change.

Today's Africa

Number of refugees:
15 million - 3.3. million who have fled their native countries because of conflict, some 12 million who are internally displaced

Annual rate of growth in urban populations:
3.5 percent a year

Safety in Circles

Percentage of population under age 25:
71 percent

Percentage of population dependent on agriculture for a living:
66 percent

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Cultural imaginaries

For my birthday, Nikki gave me a copy of Joanna Russ' 1975 sci-fi classic, The Female Man, and I'm thinking about reviewing it here as I read it.

I became interested in the book when doing some research on feminist and queer theory, notions of multiplicity, non-linear narratives and appropriating language. Amongst other things, I read Susan Ayres' article on The Female Man, and was struck by her discussion of Monique Wittig and Judith Butler and the ability to "speak our way out of gender".

I began to wonder what it would mean to speak - and act - our way out of technology.

Surely, I figured, that would involve resisting what I see to be Hardt and Negri's rather masculinist multitudes and other collections of logical singularities, and instead favouring emotional, unpredictable and voluptuous multiplicities. This has everything to do with how we value the individual, and I believe we need to imagine other than democracies of singular differences.

Julia Kristeva and others have written extensively on how people cling to particular (stable) identities in times of (unstable) crisis, on our desire to belong. But how can we connect with others if we don't know how to be alone? How can we give when we are constantly in a state of need?

In more grounded terms, for example, I'm interested the kind of hope that comes from refusing, rather than merely acknowledging, privilege. I'm talking about being so daring as to give up one's prominent place at the table in favour of three (or a hundred) less prominent voices. I'm talking about moving beyond lamentation to action.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Fall is my favourite time of year. It has something to do with cool breezes, fiery leaves, getting to wear cords and turtlenecks but no coat, classes starting... But after a four-month leave of absence from the university, I'm feeling a little anxious about getting back into it.

I know that the fall term is going to be demanding. First and foremost, the dissertation needs to be submitted. So many good ideas have been shelved in order to comply with formal rules and informal expectations that some days I barely recognise my own project. Nonetheless, I think I've finally found a way to satisfy them and me, so now I just have to do it. I also have a TA position - only 10 hours of work a week so that I can concentrate on my own research and writing before teaching two courses in the new year. And I'm looking forward to two conferences: in October I'll be presenting a paper called "Virtually pervasive, actually local: mobile & context-aware computing" at the Insides, Outsides and Elsewheres conference, and in November I'll be in Berlin for Design Engaged 2005.

Hmmm. It seems that writing this all out has already made me less anxious. Good.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


This is for you Matt, because you asked.

To be honest, I don't know if I think these are the most important books I've read in university, or even the most intelligent, but they've been the ones I've most often returned to and the ones that continue to inspire me. Covering topics as diverse - and yet interconnected - as ontology and epistemology, space and time, science and technology, power and everyday life, these books may not have all the right answers, but I do believe they ask all the right questions.

Feyerabend's Against Method

De Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life and The Practice of Everyday Life Vol. 2

Deleuze's The Fold and D&G's A Thousand Plateaus

Lefebvre's Rhythmanalysis and The Urban Revolution

Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and Aramis, or the Love of Technology

Zournazi's collection of interviews, Hope: New Philosophies for Change

Stenger's The Invention of Modern Science

I also think the line between fiction and non-fiction is tenuous at best, and because love stories and comics are so often underrated, I would have to include the following.

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Embroideries

Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda

Mark Kalesniko's Mail Order Bride

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera

Anything and everything by Los Bros Hernandez, but Gilbert's Palomar collection and Jaime's Locas collection are simply flawless and good places to start

José Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda

Julie Doucet's Dirty Plotte series

What I did learned on my summer vacation

1. Portages are not for the weak or lazy, but they get you to amazing places where you don't see other human beings for days on end.

2. Just because you go to a garlic festival doesn't mean you should buy more than 50 heads of garlic.

3. Old school feminist sci-fi kicks ass.

Friday, August 5, 2005

Gone paddling

We're going here. Back in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, August 4, 2005

"They wrestled with how to reconcile the cinematic suspension of disbelief with the scientific method..."

Pentagon's New Goal: Put Science Into Scripts

"Fewer and fewer students are pursuing science and engineering. While immigrants are taking up the slack in many areas, defense laboratories and industries generally require American citizenship or permanent residency. So a crisis is looming, unless careers in science and engineering suddenly become hugely popular...And what better way to get a lot of young people interested in science than by producing movies and television shows that depict scientists in flattering ways?

Dr. Gundersen, meanwhile, offered Valerie Weiss, a participant in the 2004 workshop, as a potential success story. A film buff at Harvard while she was getting her Ph.D. in biophysics, Ms. Weiss switched careers to film four years ago and is now trying to sell a comedy built around a Bridget Jones-like biochemist who applies the scientific method to her hunt for a mate."

Hmmm. And I thought the original Bridget Jones did women a disservice! Mind you, unlike their teacher, I've no objection to a movie where the main character is a virus.

Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005)

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Users, activities, practices etc.

For the past month or so, I've been working with a brilliant psychologist on a design project and trying to understand the privilege accorded to psychology in human-computer interaction. My colleague is perhaps the archetypal user-centred researcher and designer, and we share many common assumptions and interests. But we also come from different academic cultures and we bring fundamentally different ideas to the table.

My interest in human-computer interaction began with an interest in how humans were being defined. In broader terms, I was interested in the cultures and practices of HCI and design. Very quickly I learned that psychology and/or mental models were the dominant paradigms; Kuhn's normal science in action. So, from my perspective, activity theory is always already part of user-centred design, and vice versa. They are part of the same tree: a mental or cybernetic species. Whether modelling users or activities, the models are systemic, relatively stable, quantifiable, hierarchical, discrete, and often predictive. More importantly, they make it difficult to imagine other ways of understanding.

In practical terms, this plays out in our design work as follows: Anthropologist comes up with ideas; Psychologist gets the facts. Psychologist operationalises; anthropologist theorises. I think, at their core, these divisions are rooted in differences between, and attitudes towards, quantitative and qualitative knowledge. In many ways the tensions, both imaginary and real, are quite productive. In other ways the relationships are rather limiting. For example, to be making these divisions at all attests to the power of the paradigm to limit our field of vision. In fact, as in many other contexts, it's quite easy to take on and enjoy only the expected roles. But what if I don't want to be that anthropologist? What if she doesn't want to be that psychologist? What do designers mean when they demand the "practical application" of ideas? Do they assume ideas are inherently other than practical or applicable?

But back to HCI, CSCW, user-centred design and activity theory, I see only functional, structural, behavioural and developmental models. People - both in who they are and what they do - are reduced to something programmable. And I think this has something to do with why computing technologies ultimately lack the pervasiveness of other technologies and the historical success of "everyday objects". They are, by definition, restrictive. I know that sounds counter-intuitive in these heady times of DIY techno-media democracy, but think about it. Can computing technologies be anything other than systems and networks? The best it seems we can do is to build open systems; ones that adapt and respond. The humanities and social sciences follow suit, although I hope we'll one day concede that offering up assemblages and flows as alternatives to systems and networks is really not all that imaginative.

Yes, I actually believe that we're intellectually impoverished - especially when it comes to something as crucial and banal as technology in everyday life. The sense of hope that pervades technological (sub)cultures is often utopian and future-oriented, but seems to do little to comfort us during the minutes and hours before we go to sleep tonight. I mean, really, where is that sense of humanity?

While I would certainly advocate a focus on what people do, rather than who they are, I would want to be clear about what I think we can know about what people do, and what value can be assigned to that knowledge. For example, Bonnie Nardi explains that "Activity Theory emphasizes that human activity is mediated by tools in a broad sense. Tools are created and transformed during the development of the activity itself and carry with them a particular culture - historical remains from their development. So, the use of tools is an accumulation and transmission of social knowledge. Tool use influences the nature of external behavior and also the mental functioning of individuals." In other words, the relationship between people and computers is one of feedback and iteration, the same processes valued in user-centred design. If early computing design put the object itself at the centre of the process, then contemporary design puts people and/or activities at the centre. In both cases, relationships are hierarchical, or at least centripetal.

Now this sense of tools or object-orientedness should be distinguished from notions of material sociality that come from social studies of science and technology. For example, Jyri's post on Knorr-Cetina's lab studies got a lot of blog attention, but I didn't see any discussion of how she defines 'tools'. For example, integral to her argument is that a scientist is rendered an instrument of measurement just as an instrument of measurement is rendered a scientist. In other words, 'tools' simultaneously comprise both subjects and objects. They don't successively act upon each other; they are always already each other. This kind of thinking departs from the more familiar "unreflexive, over-rationalized and objectivist theoretical and explanatory analytics" associated with activity theory and even ethnomethodology and related practice theories in sociology.

But now, in my mind's eye, I see Andrew smiling wickedly and asking "So how does all this help me design something good?" and I repond, also with a sly grin, "It should help you understand the cultural contexts in which you work, and that understanding should help you imagine and build other worlds." It should point at where we've come from and where we're trying to go. It should shine a light on openings and closings. It should make us question what we want and what we do. It should make us probe what is possible but it should not tell us what to do.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Catching up

Midtown Manhattan was hot, dirty, and crowded on Friday morning. Seeing so many seriously-armed military guys around the trains and subways was a bit weird, but we did find refuge in a fascinating shop that sold thousands of different kinds of buttons. (It reminded me of a cabinet of curiosities, lovingly arranged from ceiling to floor.) We also strolled through Bryant Park where, of a hundred or so people present, I counted 14 using the free wi-fi. Other than that, we were in meetings all day, and then we came home. Quite honestly, the highlight was re-reading some old Love & Rockets comics and finally getting to read the last issue of La Perdida.

This morning I read Peter and Andrew's comments on Don Norman's recent article on human-centered design and activity theory. Peter says he's surprised I haven't anything to say, to which I can only respond "But I do! I just haven't had any time recently." So as soon as I get a chance, I'll post some thoughts on what it means when HCI almost exclusively continues to define humans/users according to psychology (i.e. mental function), on how the early Russian activity theorists differ from contemporary researchers like Engeström and Nardi, and on how activity theory differs from, say, social and cultural practice theories and the object-oriented sociality that Jyri has mentioned.

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