Thursday, September 29, 2005

On community, trust and social software

I'm finalising next term's syllabi, and in shifting the focus of the urban cultures course to mobilities, communities and citizenships, I've been thinking a lot about Jean-Luc Nancy's and Alphonso Lingis' work.

In Being Singular Plural, Nancy defines existence as always already co-existence, where our 'being' is only ever our 'being-with' each other. Like Sennett's description of public space as where we negotiate the unfamiliar and the different, Nancy's 'being with' is not about dwelling amongst those just like us, the familiar and the safe, but about "abandonment and exposure" to the unfamiliar and risky in each other and the world around us. This is indeed a political maneuver, and one which privileges heterogeneity over homogeneity. Or as Davis puts it in Laughter; or, Chortling Into the Storm:

"Jean-Luc Nancy's Inoperable Community and Maurice Blanchot's Unavowable Community both offer a post-humanist take on 'being-with.' They describe a community that exists not in the common work effort but rather in the moment of 'unworking,' in the hesitation, the backspin, the crack up. It exists as what is in-common before any projected telos. The members of a post-humanist community, Nancy suggests, find communion across the exposition of their own unsharable finitude, which becomes the very condition for their commonality."

I've also been re-reading Alphonso Lingis' The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. I'm most interested in the idea that real value is found not in what we have in common, but in what makes us different. I like his discussions around being bound to someone - or something - that offers us no truth. Like Nancy, Lingis focusses on death or finitude as an integral part of being-together, as something we have in common despite all our differences.


I can't help but notice the fundamental difference between these definitions of community and the ones I see informing mobile 'social software'. After all, most applications start from the point of view that community emerges from common interests and goals, and almost always builds on pre-existing connections. (It is networked after all, they argue.) This encourages researchers and designers to say that community per se can't be built, but the conditions in which it 'naturally' emerges can be, or at least be supported.

(The technology-as-platform position shares much in common with the city-as-stage position, and both stand apart from any notion that we can't help but to be community, or urban - in Lefebvre's sense and not in opposition to the rural - or technological, etc. because they're always already part of being social.)


One of the topics that researchers and designers often bring up when they talk about supporting social interaction is trust, where trust connotes a certain amount of stability and safety, offering shelter from chaos in much the same way that public behaviour is controlled. In Lingis' book Trust, he argues that the trust inherent in travel can show us how its value is found in experiences such as bravery, lust and joy. Contrary to the familiar trust between friends and family, on which most social software is modelled, Lingis passionately evokes this notion:

"Trust laughs at danger and leaps into the unknown."

Again, what makes this interesting is how much it differs from the idea that we form community along lines of similar or shared efforts. Instead, these kinds of community and trust revel in the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unknown, the irreconcilable. Their value is in what they teach us about things falling apart, about encountering and negotiating difference, about existence as difference and repetition, where repetition implies multiplication rather than preservation, about change. In these communities the sensual life prevails--and it is gloriously risky and difficult to control.

By defining community as something that requires we already know each other (by either one or six degrees of separation) and that we share interests, efforts or goals in common, and by committing these assumptions to architecture and code, we effectively deny people using these applications the ability to find community and trust in 'others,' and ultimately discourage people from changing, or becoming 'other' themselves. In this scenario, the radical promise of connection and cooperation between different people is undermined by conservative notions of connecting and cooperating only with people like us or, in some twisted expression of personal freedom, only with the people we choose.

[Note to self: remember to post notes on Derrida's book about Nancy and touch and its usefulness for understanding embodied interaction.]

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Comments have been suspended again as I try to figure out how to deal with the latest rounds of spam. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Quick links

Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies
"The criterion for religious belief systems that wish to have their moral recommendations felt and acknowledged is the capacity to take the standpoint of the other."

An Epidemiology of Representations
"[P]reservative processes are always partly constructive processes. When they don't replicate, this does not mean that they make an error of copying. Their goal is not to copy. There are transformations in the process of transmission all the time, and also in the process of remembering and retrieving past, stored information, and these transformations are part of the efficient working of these mechanisms."

Native Ingenuity
"Inca metallurgy was as refined as European metallurgy, but it had such different goals that until recently scientists had not even recognized it as a technology...Europeans sought to optimize metals' 'hardness, strength, toughness, and sharpness.' The Inca, by contrast, valued 'plasticity, malleability, and toughness.' Europeans used metal for tools; Andean societies primarily used it as a token of wealth, power, and community affiliation."

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Passing by critique

David Herman asks if Prospect's list of the world's top 100 public intellectuals signals the demise of Said's "oppositional intellectual"? The list is predominantly American and British, although almost half of the list comprises U.S. residents. Only ten are women. Most work in strategic studies and policy. Gone are the representatives of the Great European cities and ideas, but more importantly, gone too are those people who "wrote prolifically, championed unpopular causes and w[ere] often linked to the revolutionary left."

"With Freud and Marx gone, what is left of the theory revolution? Outside the academy, virtually nothing. Ageing paperbacks full of long, incomprehensible words. No Homi Bhabha or Gayatri Spivak, no Hartman, Bloom or Fish. Baudrillard, Eco, Gates, Paglia and Slavoj Zizek are the last spear-carriers, and what a strange crew they make. Philosophy, too, has been routed. Dennett, Habermas, Nussbaum, Rorty, Singer and Walzer. Four from the American northeast. Again, such a list would have been inconceivable at almost any time in the 20th century."

Now I'm all for a changing of the guards, but I'm already alarmed at the lack of critical thinking in the world. Are these really the values we want to bring into the future? The people we trust to make our world a better place?


I found the Prospect links above in an interesting post at Design Observer, which indirectly looks at critical design through the problem of design criticism:

"[D]esign's default position, which most designers accept, whether they create products or graphics, is to grease the wheels of capitalism with style and taste, as CalArts teacher and type designer Jeffery Keedy once put it. Design is deeply implicated. It is one of the ways in which capitalism is most obviously expressed, and never more so than today when design is widely regarded as a miracle ingredient with the power to seduce the consumer and vanquish less design-conscious competitors.

There is no reason why design criticism should not take a critical view of design’s instrumental uses and its wider social role, or the lack of it, but there seems to be little motivation to produce this kind of criticism ... Instead, among the academics, there was vague talk about 'criticality' as a desirable goal. But criticality in relation to what? And to what end? How are designers going to become critical in any serious way if they are not exposed to sustained critical thinking about design in the form of ambitious, intellectually penetrating criticism? If design educators think as critically as they like to claim, why aren’t more of them producing this kind of writing in an attempt to shape public awareness?"


This reminds me of those cut-and-paste weblogs that end up listing project after project after project, turning design/tech into one giant (and oh-so-searchable) advertisement. Talk about greasing the wheels of capitalism and cool! Don't get me wrong: I am mostly bored to death by Naomi Klein. But where are the design and tech critics? What kinds of questions are they asking? And do they wear black turtlenecks?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

When we don't want what we can have

Ever since visiting the future tech exhibitions at Epcot when I was 10, I've been fascinated by the "digital home". Now focussed in the Innoventions pavillion, Disney still puts on a good spectacle (I mean, damn, Monsanto has an exhibition called "Beautiful Science"!) and trade show, but even the most spectacular exposure to new technology does not necessarily translate into real-world desire.

The Economist: The Digital Home | Science Fiction?

"'We view the digital home as critically important,' says Craig Mundie, one of three chief technology officers at Microsoft, the world's largest software company. 'The home is much more exciting than the workplace.' Computers have already led to small revolutions in boosting productivity in the office and helping people to communicate and to be creative, he says, so 'we're pretty confident' that computers will have a similar effect on the way people consume entertainment...

Their first challenge in stimulating any sort of consumer interest is the difficulty of merely explaining what the digital home is supposed to be. You might think, for instance, that the term refers to the long-established trend away from analogue and towards digital media...Confusingly, however, that is not what vendors mean when they talk about the digital home. Instead, they invariably mean a home in which all sorts of electronic devices—from the personal computer (PC) to the TV set-top box, the stereo, the game console and, in some versions, even the garage door and refrigerator—are connected, both to one another and to the internet...The excitement, therefore, is not so much about content being digital, but about its delivery switching from physical things (such as CDs) to photons (such as wireless downloads or streaming), because this requires consumers to buy new gadgets...

'When you ask customers what they want, they will never tell you. You have to show them first,' says Microsoft's Mr Mundie. That is why Microsoft has, since 1994, had an impressive (or, to some people, intimidating) mock digital home on its campus in Redmond, Washington State, which it updates with the latest gadgets. Intel, NETGEAR, HP and most other self-respecting technology firms have similar mock-ups for display. There is, argues Motorola's Mr Burke, a huge 'need to educate consumers about the value of a connected home and lifestyle.' Outside the controlled environment of a mock home or conference demonstration, however, educating consumers tends to backfire. That is because real-world digital homes usually do not work very well."

Oh, and maybe because we don't need "educating"?!

There are also some interesting points at the end of the article about companies continuing to "preach interoperability while pursuing proprietary hegemony" and the implications for consumers.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Fall: autumn is the only season that gets a second name

Finally got my TA assignment for the term, so tutorials start next Tuesday. I've been trying to use the past couple of weeks to catch up on some work, to (re)establish some sort of schedule or routine. There are paper and abstract deadlines, funding and job applications, finalising next term's courses, and doing everything possible to avoid another student loan fiasco. I've a much loved friend visiting this week, the leaves are beginning to change and the nights are breezy and cool, so I'm happy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Still vibrating from the beauty of it all

Sigur Rós

Saw Sigur Rós and Amina last night. So. Very. Good.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Public science and social software

I'm currently smitten with DEMOS - "the everyday democracy think tank" - and despite having never met any of the people involved, and not knowing terribly much about them, I fantasise about running away and joining such a circus. (Note to self: see if there is a Canadian equivalent.)

This morning I read a recent report of theirs: The Public Value of Science, Or how to ensure that science really matters by James Wilsdon, Brian Wynne and Jack Stilgoe.

Produced within their nanodialogues project, partly funded by the UK's Sciencewise initiative, the report begins:

"Even in long-established democracies, people do not feel that they have ownership, control or even much influence over the technologies that are exploited by their governments and by commercial enterprises...The scientific community is beginning to realise, but often reluctantly accept, that we scientists need to take greater notice of public concerns, and relate and react to them. Expressions of despair at public ignorance, impotent polemics about the advantages of technology, assertions that our economy is threatened by reactionary attitudes, attempts at manipulation of the press, are all totally inadequate responses. Neither will mere lipservice about the value of public engagement be helpful...The time is right for examining the means and the details of public engagement. One step forward might be for the scientific community to accept that it does not own the science that it pursues. Another step may be for government to place more value on proper public dialogue, and to facilitate it better...In this pamphlet, we argue that despite the progress that has been achieved over the last five years, a fresh injection of energy and momentum is now required. Otherwise, we will end up with little more than the scientific equivalent of corporate social responsibility: a well-meaning, professionalised and busy field, propelled along by its own conferences and reports, but never quite impinging on fundamental practices, assumptions and cultures."


Anyway, the report covers everything from the ways scientists and government see the public, to the increasing relevance of China and India in global scientific and technological production, to relationships between science and business, to the limitations of linear models of innovation, to public discourse and public value, to problems of determinism and reductionism, to changing scientific cultures themselves.

"Scientists need more frequent opportunities to talk about the choices they are making, the assumptions their work reproduces, and the purposes to which it might be is our belief that Britain’s hope of becoming 'the best place in the world to do science' rests as much on giving scientists and engineers the freedom and incentive to renew their institutions and practices as it does on ten-year frameworks and R&D targets...

Despite the progress of the science and society agenda, there are still those who maintain that the public are too ignorant to contribute anything useful to scientific decisionmaking...As we emphasised in Seethrough Science, upstream engagement is not about members of the public standing over the shoulder of scientists in the laboratory, taking votes or holding referendums on what they should or should not be doing...This agenda is not about imposing cumbersome bureaucratic structures on science, or forcing lay people onto every research funding committee. Questions about structures do need to be considered, but are a sideshow compared with the far more important – and exciting – challenge of building more reflective capacity into the practice of science. As well as bringing the public into new conversations with science, we need to bring out the public within the scientist – by enabling scientists to reflect on the social and ethical dimensions of their work."

Interesting how they leave unchallenged the assumption that national fitness on the international playing field requires certain scientific and technological capacities. Interesting how they grant agency - visibility and power - to the scientific community. Interesting how they blur the boundaries between public and private.

This is very effective rhetoric. They take many of the principles of science, technology and society research and recode them in terms that revive and revitalise socially and culturally acceptable views from Kuhn's normal science, capitalist economics and participatory democracy. Interessement, translation and enrolment in action.


In my dissertation, I discuss the prevailing tendency of "social software" to define "social" in terms of connected individuals. This privileging of individualism, I argue, not only demonstrates cultural and class biases, but also points at some of the limitations of network models of interaction. To focus on connecting individuals along the lines of shared interests and practices is indeed a type of social interaction, but it shouldn't be confused with public value. Even when artists and designers choose to focus on the "public" dimensions of "social" software, they often resurrect the sense of public implied in the "collective," a form of anti-structure if you will, and sometimes a remarkably insular and homogenous one at that. In many cases, "social" software involves technology "for" the people or technology "by" the people, but only rarely do the two come together. Network models are uniquely amenable to connecting and maintaining such discrete pieces in part because they manage or control the types of connections that can be made, and so public wifi networks and other open or hackable architectures are never public in the sense of being "for" and/or "by" everyone.

In The Fall of Public Man, Sennett explains that in the mid-1400s, the "public" was identified with the common good. In the early-1500s, it was identified with being open to general observation and scrutiny, and by the late-1600s, "public" was contrasted with "private" or being sheltered by family and friends. The 1700s witnessed the struggle for public order - or the imposition of private (elite) norms and expectations outside the home environment. By the 1800s such movements admitted defeat, and those private citizens who could afford to seek protection from "public chaos" did. Segregation - most often justified in terms of "shared interests" and which could just as easily have been described as "irreconcilable differences" - became the new norm.

Sennett's public space is seen to be a special region of sociability where, if private refers to that familiar and homogenous, then public comprises the unfamiliar and heterogeneous. So if public life consists of negotiating difference and complexity, and we tie this sense of public to our definition of the social, then how many "social software" projects are actually social? Where in our collective social softwares are our public values?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Lately I've been listening a lot to CBC's satellite radio Galaxie Ambient. I like it and here's what I've learned so far:

1. Ambient music is creepy and soothing.

2. Hours can pass before I notice that it's actually not been the same song playing the entire time.

3. I don't understand why anyone would want to dance to sounds like these or model human-computer interaction on experiences like these.

Topical suggestions, explanations, clarifications, protections, negations, lamentations, afflictions, seductions, prolongations and projections are most welcome.

Still searching for the social in mobility

In thinking about differences between Nokia and Motorola, and mobile tech industries in general, I browsed Matt Jones' and Timo Arnall's links, and a few things keep circling around my brain.

In a podcast of an interview with Anssi Vanjoki of Nokia on social computing, I got a slightly vague, but definitely people-centred, picture of mobile computing. Like Matt, I find their position to be generally encouraging, but I harbour some serious reservations about how industry seems to be incorporating ideas and pratices from academic and other cultural contexts.

Now, it strikes me that Nokia has been proclaiming this 'social turn' as the next big thing since at least 2000, and I'm not entirely sure where it's got them - or us. Should we really assume that all people everywhere want to collect digitial ephemera and log their lives as they go by? I don't mean to accuse or pressure the fine folks and friends who work for them, but what other kinds of mobile sociability can I look forward to? Are open APIs - or other solutions that assume technology is a mere platform or stage for social interaction - really the best we can do?

After 2001, when Motorola released Sadie Plant's report On The Mobile (pdf), I bet few if any people in the mobile industry kept up on, say, the resulting Nettime critiques, which exhibited their own biases and unsupported assumptions but nonetheless raised crucial questions about how to understand mobility and social interaction.

So, when Nokia says they support social or more "humanised" computing, what are they really talking about? What kinds of sociability? What kinds of humanity? And how can we tell the difference between marketing hype and the complex actualities of production and consumption?

Social computing doesn't begin in the hands of users. It emerges in discussions and decisions made in corporate boardrooms, government offices, design specifications, marketing strategies, etc.. Contrary to popular opinion, we're not dealing with discrete pieces here. Unless everyone acknowledges and becomes accountable for their roles in making and re-making technologies, no amount of openness or hackability or respect for users will lead to "social" computing.

Overheard in video store

Clerk: You look like you listen to punk rock.

Customer: I listen to lots of music. But really I love 80s music.

Clerk: Like The Cure?

Customer: I like The Cure.

Clerk: Echo and the Bunnymen?

Customer: Echomen? Never heard of them.

Clerk: Echo and the Bunnymen. What about Joy Division?

Customer: Who?

Clerk: Do you like The Clash?

Customer: Sorry. You've lost me again.

Clerk: Do you even know when the 80s was?

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Open to US college students in any field--and worth $10 000 in scholarships, a Motorola apprenticeship, a Bluetooth-enabled car, and assorted Moto schwag--the MOTOFWRD College Competition:

"As technology continues to become more advanced, we demand innovations that help us live life wherever, whenever and however we want. We refuse to settle for less than a life that's constantly fun, exciting, productive and connected.

How do we do it? It's called seamless mobility.

Seamless mobility is a set of solutions that provides easy, uninterrupted access to information, entertainment, communication, monitoring and control when, where and how we want regardless of the device, service, network or location.

Now Motorola is challenging YOU to think FWRD and demonstrate your vision of seamless mobility for the future."

I dunno, sounds like a lot of self-absorption, pressure and demands to me, but in the Seamless Mobility Backgrounder (pdf) for the press, they assure us that "seamless mobility makes the experience of technology effortless and has the potential to enrich lives, drive economic expansion and impact broad segments of society."

The student visions of future seamlessness will be assessed by the following judges: James Canton, Dennis Crowley, Cory Doctorow, DeeDee Gordon and Omar Wasow - and don't forget to check out their position statements on our wireless futures too.

And from the press release (pdf), we get a great look at Motorola's innovation and marketing strategies:

"'Through the MOTOFWRD competition we are inspiring rising innovators to inspire us,' said Ed Zander, chairman and CEO, Motorola, Inc. 'The ability to dream, to imagine the possibility, is one of the greatest assets of today’s youth and this program allows the next generation of scientists, inventors and designers to show us their best.'

'The emerging communication environment will be designed and defined by today's young people who will mold and shape the available technologies in innovative ways,' says Shiv Bakhshi, Ph.D., director for wireless research at IDC. 'It has always been the prerogative of youth to challenge established orders and today's youth, more than any technology company or regulator, is likely to drive the need for seamless mobility'."

Wow. Identify your market, get them to work for cheap and then sell their ideas back to them. Smooth. I can't wait to see what the finalists come up with, and what Motorola does with this!

Updated 9/9/05


Decided in my very flesh...

Manifesto in a Clear Language
by Antonin Artaud

"I destroy because for me everything that proceeds from reason is untrustworthy. I believe only in the evidence of what stirs my marrow, not in the evidence of what addresses itself to my reason. I have found levels in the realm of the nerve.

I now feel capable of evaluating the evidence. There is for me an evidence in the realm of pure flesh which has nothing to do with the evidence of reason. The eternal conflict between reason and the heart is decided in my very flesh, but in my flesh irrigated by nerves..."

(via wood s lot)

Friday, September 9, 2005


Today is the first day of classes, and since fall term TAs don't start working for another couple of weeks, I thought I'd work on the classes I teach in the winter term. The courses are the same as last year - science & tech and urban cultures - but I want to make some changes.

Utterly discouraged by my fourth year students' inability to creatively engage social and cultural issues, to produce or evaluate non-scientific or non-textual knowledge, I've decided to add two small assignments for the urban cultures course.

Show-and-Tell : Students are required to bring an interesting object to class each week. The artefact - extraordinary or mundane - must be found somewhere in Ottawa and tell us something about the people or places around us. Each seminar will begin with students presenting their things to the class in traditional show-and-tell style and include critical discussions around issues of material culture.

Invisible Cities : Using a combination of observation, written, photographic and audio documentation, and critical interpretation, students are required to submit a short (5-7 page) ethnographic narrative of Ottawa according to the themes presented in one of Calvino's Invisible Cities.

In other words, I want them to go 'find' one of Calvino's cities in Ottawa and tell a story about it. For university ethics reasons, they can't do participant observation, and I'll have to give a brief lecture/workshop on other ethnographic methods and on interpretive frameworks, but I think this is a nice combination of empirical and creative work. I also want them on the ground, so to speak, actively engaging -and reimagining - the city in which they live.

As for my science & tech class, I've been inspired by archaeologist Michael Shanks' class on Science, technology, and culture - the design of ten artifacts and books like Bruno Latour's Aramis to base the seminar/workshop component of my course on particular scientific and technological artefacts. I've also added a new assignment.

The Secret Life of Technological Objects : Students are required to submit a two-fold study of a technological device they regularly use. The first part of the assignment provides a cradle-to-grave account of the life cycle of their chosen device, and evaluates the potential for more sustainable, more cradle-to-cradle alternatives. Students are expected to critically account for the values and interests of business, government, and private citizens at each stage of the cycle. The second part of the assignment comprises a personal one-week use diary of the device. Students are required to keep a log of each time they use their chosen device, the social and cultural contexts of use, and personal reflections on the role of that device in their everyday lives.

In order to prepare students for this assignment, I'll need to give a short lecture/workshop on the product life cycle and interaction design, maybe play with some oblique strategies. Evaluation will focus on students' ability to assess micro- and macro-scale social and cultural contexts, as well as the material and immaterial processes involved.

Of course I've kept the standard research paper and/or academic article critique requirement for each class, but they receive different weights in order to accomodate these other assignments. I'm also looking at different ways of organising the three-hour block we have with each other each week. At this point, it also looks like the required reading lists will also change, although probably not substantially. I also haven't decided if or how to include a weblog component. Still, I'm getting excited!

Now if I could just get out of my head the advice I recently got from a department colleague: "Don't spend too much time working on, or worrying about, your sessional lecturer positions because they won't get you any closer to a tenure-track job." I mean, how depressing is that? Surely my students deserve better, and quite frankly, I expect more.

Updated 8/9/05

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Intimacy and obduracy

Man, I can't stand the word "glocal" and its derivatives, but danah's post on why Web2.0 matters raises some interesting points.

"On an economic level, globalization has both positive and negative implications. But on a personal level, no one actually wants to live in a global village. You can't actually be emotionally connected to everyone in the world. While the global village provides innumerable resources and the possibility to connect to anyone, people narrow their attention to only focus on the things that matter. What matters is conceptually 'local.' In business, the local part of glocalization mostly refers to geography. Yet, the critical 'local' in digital glocalization concerns culture and social networks. You care about the people that are like you and the cultural elements that resonate with you."

For a Ubicomp 2003 workshop, I described this sense of the local as intimate or close and I stretched Maffesoli's ideas about tribes (similar to danah's communities of interest) to pull out the political and ethical issues that are part of "the processes of bringing near and making present a variety of people, objects and ideas." My recent refinements of these early ideas will be presented in a conference paper next month on mobile computing as virtually everywhere (or global) and actually somewhere (or local), precisely in an attempt to bring politics a little closer to emerging technologies.

"Rather than conceptualizing the world in geographical terms, it is now necessary to use a networked model, to understand the interrelations between people and culture, to think about localizing in terms of social structures not in terms of location...It is not simply about global->local or 1->many; it is about a constantly shifting, multi-directional complex flow of information with the information evolving as it flows. It is about new network structures that emerge out of global and local structures."

The network model is a fine place to start--folks like Castells and Latour are definitely on to something--but I think the concept of flow more successfully gets us away from discussions of nodes and other stable representations like individuals and collectives, and forces us to focus on dynamics and difference. danah switches back and forth between network and flow models, but they are not the same and not necessarily compatible.

"But the goal should not be universal collectives but rather locally constituted ones whereby one participates in many different local contexts. This is critical because the individual and the collective do not exist without each other; they are co-constructed and defined by their interplay...We need to break out of the global village model, the universal 'truth' approach to information access. We need to situate information access in glocalized culture...Glocalized information access does not mean separate but equal. Instead, globally accessible information needs to be organized in a local context where meaning is made."

I appreciate her call to abandon universal truths when it comes to information access, but as Andrew puts it in his comments on danah's post, technology that "accomodates culture" is a tricky thing - especially when technology is always already cultural. When she talks about the "complex tango" of information flow, she conjures acts of leading and following, and even in her characterisation of "the unknown dance" of "technologists, designers, social scientists and politicos" she elicits only discrete pieces interconnected. With these metaphors our relationships emerge as both graceful and stumbling, but always structured. And if the primary lesson of structure is obduracy, then what are we up against and how do we ready ourselves?

Challenging mobile technologies

Seven Challenges to our Shared Mobile Future by Marko Ahtisaari

More questions than answers, and a couple of good ones at that.

1. Reach

Following The Economist - assuming that mobile phones lead to economic growth and that economic growth is crucial to increasing quality of life - he asks "How can we viably scale down the cost of appliances, use and infrastructures to increase reach?". I'll give credit for his questioning access "as an end in itself," but I'm not convinced that access leads to improved quality of life. Plus, it's not clear what he considers to be "viable" means of getting more technology to more people, as this conflating of quantity and quality is tricky business.

2. Sometimes Off vs. Always On

I too am inspired by Sufi qawwali, but less so by Derrick de Kerckhove's brand of cognitive McLuhanism and the notion that "it is the world itself that has become always on." Nonetheless, I'm a big proponent of being able to make myself less available, less on, less connected. The key, it seems to me, is having real choice in everyday life - and I don't think that tech design alone can ever give me that.

3. Hackability

Yes, yes, I support notions of hackability, adaptability, etc., but am I the only one who has begun to hear a certain hollowness in these words?

4. Social Primitives

I don't need convincing that mobile technology is by-and-large about sociability, but I'm wary of basing decisions or actions on "big human fundamentals" or "primitives" such as gift-giving or sharing. Such practices are so highly contextual that I hate thinking about a universal or systems theory approach to them. And don't even get me started on the commodification of sentiment advanced by Hallmark and others.

5. Openness

I admire his ability to move beyond claims of openness as goodness, and ask more pragmatic questions like "Where is the architecture open and where is it closed? How and when do we transition between open and closed architectures?"

6. Simplicity

I'm quite taken by his parenthetical reference to hiding "irrelevant" complexity. In black-boxing, who gets to decide what makes a certain kind of complexity relevant or irrelevant? How does this impact hackability or adaptability if we can't - or don't want to - determine the ultimate use (value) of any given technological artefact?

7. Justice

This final challenge is positioned as a normative issue, but just as in Clay Shirky's work, the matter of how these very questions normalise certain relationships gets glossed over. Still, I like his hard questions: "What arrangements of inequality are preferable over others from the point of view of justice? How do we justify to each other the rules, architectures and tools we adopt in a world of freely forming networks?" Nonetheless, let's not forget that the question of justice itself is a hard one and it only begins with "for whom, where and when?"


Saturday, September 3, 2005


Friday, September 2, 2005

The great apes

Of all the social and environmental problems that keep me awake at night, there is something about the worsening situation of the great apes - gorillas, chimps, bonobos and orangutans - that really gets under my skin.

Fifi and girl play chess at the London Zoo, 1955Maybe it's because I've never forgotten learning that they have a level of cognitive development comparable to that of a five-year-old human child, and so I can't help but believe that they should be accorded the same protection and privileges - including not using them in experiments or for stupid tricks.

Maybe it's because chimpanzees are our closest relatives, intelligent and sociable like us, but we barely understand what that means and so we connect it to other things that scare us.

Maybe it's because Koko is the same age as me, knows 1000 words in sign language, loves her pet cats and enjoys gardening.

Maybe it's because an orang once looked me right in the eye and I recognised myself in him.

And then again, maybe it's because much of what we know about the great apes comes from extraordinary and compassionate women who challenged the boundaries of scientific research.

"Primates are a way into thinking about the world as a whole."
--Donna Haraway

For more excellent photos of apes, check out the Corbis archives.

Update 6/9/05

BBC News - Nations focus on great ape crisis

Support: Great Apes Survival Project, Jane Goodall Institute, International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Orangutan Foundation International.

Until 18 September at the Natural History Museum in London, Face to Face - Photography by James Mollison, "Extraordinary portraits of orphaned apes, highlighting the vitality and intelligence of these magnificent and threatened animals - our closest biological relatives." (Thanks Gary!)

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Quick links

For anyone interested in my forgetting machine, I think mlle. malaprop does a great job of opening up possibilities. (via)

Re-branding homelessness: design as activism?

I wonder how a phenomenologist would describe this kind of shared experience?

Apparently, "manufacturers will have to take a more girlie approach if they want to get women turned on to the latest gadgets." (via)

Rod on love and waiting

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