Saturday, November 26, 2005

Gone on sabbatical - redux

"Something cold and soft was falling on her ..."

Seriously this time: I've got loads of work to do. I'll be back here in the new year - dissertation submitted - and until then, occasionally at spaceandculture. Cheers.

Friday, November 25, 2005

More on ethnography and design

Last week was the first Ethnographic Practice in Industry Conference. I had posted the cfp and was just waiting to see what came of it. Well, all the abstracts are online and the draft (i.e. incomplete) conference proceedings are now available online for a limited time - get the pdf version here.

Of particular interest are the following papers:

Abstract. I begin with some questions: how have the theories and methods which subtend design research been changed by their migration from academy to industry? How have they adapted to their new commercial culture? What languages and customs have they had to acquire to fit in? To address these questions, I consider a facet of design research which I think most problematically bears the marks of this passage: how we choose who we will study. I go on to think about both the causes and implications of exclusions so often resident in this choice. The ideal that drives my analysis forward is that design researchers are in the business of designing not products for "users," but landscapes of possibility for public life. A final suggestion, inspired by my recent work on Internet-based personal photography and here briefly sketched, is that design researchers take the publicness of our work more seriously-that we design for it.

Abstract. This paper raises issues around commercial ethnographic praxis and its relationship to social and cultural theory. Michel de Certeau’s theories around everyday life practices and Karin Knorr Cetina’s concept of postsocial objectual practice are juxtaposed in order to explore how commercial ethnographic practice might seriously engage with theory and transcend some of the assumptions that currently constrain its application within industry.

Abstract. A historical and comparative examination of ethnographic practice in sixteen nations around the globe reveals that theory-practice relations in anthropology and ethnography (A/E) have been shaped and re-shaped over time and space by complex contextual influences. This paper explores the evolution of theory-practice relationships in A/E over various regions of the world, tracing the beginning of a theory-practice ‘split’ from its origin under British colonialism, to its reappearance and institutionalization in post-World War II America, and explaining its absence in the ‘Second and Third Worlds’. Global practice in ethnography now appears to be converging toward a re-integration of theory and application across multiple disciplines and professions (a ‘hybrid’ approach), as ethnographers work to address urgent and poorly understood problems that are not
well theorized.

Unfortunately missing are workshop results and these papers:

Abstract. It has been nearly 15 years since Donna Haraway wrote in Simians, Cyborgs and Women that, "In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse and in daily practice we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras." While Haraway’s referent was not the community of practitioners, scholars and change agents assembled for the EPIC conference, her attention to the arrangement of material goods, human labor and social relations in processes and histories that have consequences for people’s lives resonates with the themes addressed in the workshops and with concerns that bring many of us to this conference. In this talk I will explore how ethnographic praxis is constituted by a mixing of such pure categories as, virtual – real, local –global, material – social, spiritual – secular, research – design, mercantile – humanitarian, and academic – applied. I will close with a call to celebrate our hybridity – our lives on the margins and our pragmatism.

UPDATE: Nancy White's notes & Dina Mehta's notes

Abstract. In order to set the scene for the panel on methods, I will be drawing on C Wright Mills' injunction to avoid the fetishism of method. Mills urges us to think about our methods in terms of a process of craft production. I want to explore what key elements of this craft might be, beyond the usual focus on actual techniques such as interviewing or ethnographically informed data collection. Foregrounding the papers in the session, I will examine ideas of value, temporality and transformation (and perhaps even transgression).

UPDATE: Nancy White's notes

See also:

Technology Review: Corporate Ethnography summarises EPIC 2005 (thanks Nicolas)

I also find the following journals are good at covering these and related topics:

Design Journal
Design Issues (a favourite)
Design Philosophy
Design Studies
Environment & Planning B: Planning and Design (another favourite)
Journal of Design History

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A brief hiatus from my hiatus to try to make sense of a few design and social science things

"Clifford Geertz, the eminent American anthropologist, once gave the following piece of advice: 'If you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or its findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you should look at what the practitioners of it do.'"

So begins Simon Roberts' review of Ethnography for Marketers by Hy Mariampolski. (Actually, the post begins with Simon saying that it's a "tragic book" and that his review should have been more forthright. But that's all good, better late than never.) In any case, his review highlights something I have also witnessed in "design research" or "design ethnography". Simon writes:

"Th[e] focus on the practical and logistical is understandable but it betrays a common confusion as to what ethnography is, its roots and how this informs what we do as researchers and what we give our clients. Mariampolski seems to be writing about one aspect of ethnography, the act of doing fieldwork, focusing almost exclusively on being in the field.

Ethnography, however, is as much about interpretation, the post-fieldwork-fieldwork, as it is conducting participant observation. Ethnographers can draw on a wide body of literature, concepts and intellectual tools that allow them to make sense of their experiences. It is the 'making sense' that is the productive, valuable activity and what clients pay researchers to do.

To focus so strongly on the fieldwork seems to me to reveal the dynamics of the market research industry itself: namely 'fetishise' the method, commodify it and then sell it by the unit. Ethnography offers the opportunity to sell thinking not research, but this book offers little in the way of insight into how to think ethnographically."


Imagine, if you will, a designer for which everything revolves around the doing of design, and the material making of design objects. She gets frustrated with theoretical discussion; she wants to stop talking and start doing. For her, design production is always tied to making something. But not anything. Not ideas. Or words. Or performances. Or texts. Our designer struggles to imagine a collective of humans and non-humans, but is confident in her call for getting on with it. Will she do this playfully? Sure. But also in goal-oriented ways. Useful ways. Real ways. After all, she is busy building the internet of things (btw - check that report's rhetoric). Our designer clearly separates thinking from doing, talking from making. She prefers one rather than the other, as if she's being made to choose. To her, assembling sounds inefficient, or irrelevant; just more talking heads, less action, less stuff. She is confident that she does everything she reasonably can. She believes her products will be used exactly as people see fit. She works to put an object out there as quickly as possible, and then she lets go. Whatever happens, it will emerge, naturally, as it is meant to. (Cue Austin Powers saying "Yay capitalism!")

Christena Nippert-Eng has written that one of the strongest contributions sociology can make to design is the application of "distinctive conceptual and analytical frameworks". In other words, and just as Simon says above, how we make sense of things, our ways of thinking. But this still leaves us in the position of having to justify our value and worth; it is we who are charged with convincing others. In coversation with our designer above, we might feel compelled to prove our points to her. After all, she speaks the language of proof and we're taught to describe people in their own language. But what if our ideas can't or shouldn't be proven? What if they can't or shouldn't prescribe direct action? Does that make them worthless to our designer? And if so, what kind of designer does she make?

And elsewhere, Lucy Suchman's Anthropology as 'Brand': Reflections on corporate anthropology (pdf) is still my favourite take on relationships between anthropology and corporate research. In it, she unpacks the assumption that the telecom industry's increasing interest in anthropology and ethnography is indicative of some sort of industry turn towards 'the social' and leaves us with this brilliant scenario:

"Our work as [corporate] anthropologists sits uncomfortably inside the close-knit interweaving of consumer experience understood as something prior, discovered through anthropological investigation and then addressed by design and marketing, and consumer experience understood as constituted through activities of design and marketing, in their contributions to the creation of desire and the crafting of cultural imaginaries. I don’t believe that we can resolve this tension."

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Design engaged

What do we want? Radical living.  Taken by Adam Greenfield
"What do we want? Radical living."
Photo by Adam Greenfield.

Back from London and Berlin, and re-ensconced in my daily routines, I wanted to resurface long enough to post a few reflections on my experience at Design Engaged and an annotated version of the presentation slides for my talk on Design in the Parliament of Things (pdf).

Those who know me, or who read the blog regularly, recognise that my primary interests in design are its practices and politics, and although I enjoyed all the presentations, I found the first morning's talks to be most relevant to my research.

Adam Greenfield depressed us all by recalling that the world is going to shit - and then gave us hope by reminding us that we will always have the local and the everyday as spaces of creativity and possibility.

Matt Ward gave a fantastic presentation on critical utopias of difference, and asked the best questions every time.

Joshua Kauffman discussed Langdon Winner's (in)famous example of politically-motivated design: Robert Moses' bridges designed with a height that prohibited the passage of buses - and therefore of Black or other poor people - into certain areas.

(DE wasn't the proper venue for academic critique, but I should have at least mentioned that, apparently, buses have always travelled along Long Island's parkways and, even though Winner's example is counterfactual, its iconic status has served well as cultural myth or moral tale.)

My presentation drew directly - if only partially - from my dissertation's use of Latour's Dingpolitik and Stengers' Cosmopolitiques. For further reading along these lines (and for the sources of the quotes I used) I highly recommend the interviews in Hope: New Philosophies for Change and the essays in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.

For my part, I believe that any critical scholar I fears that her my critiques will be taken for personal criticisms or antagonisms, that her my questions of clarification will be taken as having some sort of unpleasant agenda, or that her my concerns will simply be dismissed as pretentious or too obtuse. So I'm really pleased that Matt Webb's notes and Adam's comments do a good job of presenting my position. Gatherings like this are valuable test-grounds for moving ideas out of the academy and getting a sense of what other practitioners are thinking.

(I also have to thank Matt Webb and Matt Ward for patiently listening to me talk through these ideas before and after we got to Berlin. Now I still owe Webb a haiku on slowness, and if I could just get Mike and Eric to supervisualise the superpowers - both good and evil - that designers and academics wield, and make sure that no one ever visualises the gastromancer...)

Burn Cops stencil.  Taken by Matt Ward
"Burn Cops."
Photo by Matt Ward.

But also along the lines of such "small-p" politics, Michele Chang challenged us to imagine what might constitute public design, or the design of public spaces, and Louise Klinker reimagined file-sharing with her Crimewire project. Ulla-Maaria Mutanen and Jyri Engeström began to push towards a "big-p" Politics with ThingLinks, or "free product codes" that can be used to transform local crafts into products for the global market. I think this is a really interesting idea, although I remain unsure about the associated desire for commodification and tacit acceptance of the current playing field - it reminds me of something not dissimilar to passing.

(It was great getting to talk with Ulla-Maaria because I really enjoy her blog - although when we were talking about our love of soup, I forgot to mention that my favourite bits of her Crafter Manifesto are the points about materials and recipes.)

Otherwise, with all the force of wonder and joy, Matt Webb told us why he thinks global addressing smells bad, Jack Schulze stunned the room by demonstrating that liquid metal and other forms of materiality are where it's at, Chris Heathcote reminded us how important it is to play with our toys, and the fab designers from Stamen showed the first website I have ever seen that completely embodied the ways I think in my head. Timo Arnall and Nurri Kim also reinvigorated my love for the everyday and the mundane, although I wish we had had more time to discuss Timo's Touch project and the relationship between material culture and iconography.

Malcolm McCullough talked about things "ambient but not uniform" - riffing on ideas from Digital Ground. He has a fine sense of humour and an engaging speaking style, but I wasn't sure what to take away from his presentation. Just as with Bill Mitchell's arguments in Me++, I found Digital Ground rather common-sensically sensitive to human concerns, but unfortunately lacking critical discussion of the social and cultural power relations involved and their implications.

Ben Cerveny wrapped up the presentation component of the gathering with a really interesting discussion of play - or what he called Hyperdimensional Hopscotch. But once again, I wasn't quite sure what to take away from his talk. Sadly, I also wasn't feeling my best during his presentation, and wasn't able to ask him about the political and ethical dimensions of his argument. I've often found Ben's use of biological or systems metaphors to naturalise and normalise certain social and material relations, which has the effect of creating rather apolitical matters-of-fact rather than the charged matters-of-concern that would be more in keeping with his call for "making this now, together". (As an aside, Deleuze and Guattari also mobilise bio metaphors, and I am beginning to think that this appeal to authority is unnecessary at best, and disingenuous at worst.)

And as usual, the best bits of the event were talking and laughing with old and new friends. Special thanks go to Andrew Otwell for assembling so many brilliant people - including so many cool girls - and for getting us to do and make things together. Thanks to Mike Kuniavsky for making it so that I (and several others) could spend an afternoon wandering around Schoeneberg and drinking cappuccino with Erik Spiekermann and Susanna Dulkinys of United Designers. Thanks also to Christiane Woodley, David Erwin and others for such excellent conversation (although my mum would have liked it if David could have taken a decent picture of me as well ;)). And last, but not least, thanks to the fine folks at Spreeblick for the venue and the wicked conference buffets from which I happily ate too much every day.

Stay Rude - Stay Rebel poster, taken by Matt Ward
"Stay Rude - Stay Rebel."
Photo by Matt Ward.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Gone on sabbatical

Next up: Día de los Muertos,


a few days in London for socialising and research, a few days in Berlin for Design Engaged, and then home to my blog sabbatical and dissertation.

plsj in hiatus

1 a : a break in or as if in a material object : GAP

2 a : an interruption in time or continuity : BREAK

ORIGIN C16: from Latin hiatus "gaping" from hiare "to yawn"

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