Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"The View from Inside Out: Margins of Technology and Business"

I had the absolute pleasure of being on a panel this afternoon with two very bright guys - Jan-Christoph Zoels and Mark Resch - and if I may say so, I think it went very well.

I talked a bit about two technosocial trends I find particularly interesting: an increasing intimacy (with all its risks and pleasures) between the digital and the physical, and shifting relationships (not always equitable) between producers and consumers. I focussed specifically on technology, locative media, space and culture not as things we have, but rather things we do. As I've written many times before, I prefer this orientation because it allows me to articulate places of intervention, as things-in-progress are not done, and so offer the possibility and hope of change. I also stressed how all of these practices involve power relations, and so become political and ethical matters as well. I positioned locative media as means to practice and collect everyday life, and concluded by asking all practitioners to consider two issues of cultural importance: who gets to decide what is remembered and what is forgotten, and how authorship relates to ownership.

Mark followed up with a great presentation on the emerging edge-culture of makers. After so many years of having to adapt to new technologies, he's very optimistic about our increasing ability to make technology adapt to us. He described this shift away from technology as final destination to technology as medium, and presented a number of projects and concepts that deal with the notion of presence. I was most intrigued by his observations of a robotic (?) dog he and colleagues at Xerox PARC designed to demonstrate text to speech technology. He described that most people had no interest in the technology itself, but as soon as it was embodied in a dog it resonated with them. He discussed how we are quite tolerant of the mistakes people make in everyday conversation, or more specifically how we do not let these mistakes interfere with our understanding of what a person is saying. On the other hand, we're far less tolerant of machine mistakes. I think this expectation of machine perfection is really interesting, especially as Mark described that people were simply amazed that a "dog" could speak at all, so were more inclined to forgive its mistakes.

Jan-Christoph introduced us to some fascinating work that Experientia did for Nokia Insight & Foresight on the role of submission and dominance in social relationships, and how that might impact mobile phone use. He discussed ways that interfaces could be designed to allow the kinds of direct intrusions we subject friends too, rather than the more subtle indicators used in IM, like simply indicating online availability. (Essentially they were looking for the digital equivalent of me bursting into your office demanding your attention right now.) He also discussed the kind of dominance parents have over their children, and how this can manifest itself in terms of controlling how much airtime kids can access, as well as the kind of physical submission or asking of permission that accompanies the simple act of laying one mobile phone on top of another as a prelude to information-sharing.

So together we discussed the social and cultural implications of (re)embodied interaction and shaping new/old relationships with people, objects, ideas, events and activities. Daniel Canty asked a question about privilege and the culture of makers, and later on I tried to explain that maker culture as we know it here and now is not particularly applicable to other cultural contexts. My point was not that "third world" people don't make things, and exquisite things at that, but rather that the making of things is not so much a leisure (or hipster) activity for some people. I also wanted to draw out this matter of making and quality or taste - as not all made objects are considered equal. Who gets to decide what constitutes innovation or quality? Is something more or less innovative if it is made out of necessity? - such as in the tech repair and repurposing cultures of India or China that Jan Chipchase has so beautifully documented online.

I certainly don't think that we came up with all the answers, but I do think we started asking some really good questions. And last but not least, I'd like to thank Valérie Lamontagne for doing an excellent job moderating the panel, and the audience for asking such good questions.

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