Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ubicomp 2006, science fiction, community, research and design

Joe McCarthy is quite simply one of the most intelligent and kind people I've met in my travels over the years, so I was very happy to hear that he has just joined the Nokia Research Center, Palo Alto as Principle Scientist - congratulations Joe! And thanks to him, I also got to wake up this morning and read about the first day of Ubicomp 2006.

Between Vernor Vinge's recent talk at the Austin Game Conference about the rather unpleasant ubiquitous future outlined in his novel Rainbows End - "Where walking around with your brain jacked into some 'net' made you an edgy rebel in the cyberpunk lexicon, in Rainbows End you're just another consumer" - and Bruce Sterling's continuing popularity as a tech conference keynoter, I have to wonder about the role of science fiction in tech design today.

According to Thoughts on the Ideal, in yesterday's lecture Sterling said that "The great key to originality is hiding your sources." Um, is this how our thinking on pervasive computing will continue to unfold? Charming.

But Joe offers a bit more insight when he talks about Sterling's keynote. Apparently he said that "what appealed to him about ubiquitous computing was 'the majesty of the ideas and the lyricism of the language'." Well, I guess I have something in common with the guy now because I've got to say that's one of my favourite bits too. But Joe continues:

"After making the case for SPIMES, and the need for design for sustainability, he railed against artificial intelligence, panpsychism, magic, fundamentalism and fanaticism. I think his book is great, but -- perhaps because I'd already read the book -- the presentation was not as inspiring as I'd hoped ... and I didn't appreciate the way he treated questions, and questioners."

Given my own interests, I'm all for this sort of skepticism--but when someone presents their ideas without contextualising them within broader intellectual, cultural and historical concerns I can't help but think it can only be self-serving. (At least in most cases I can read or listen to what Sterling has to say, which is more than I can say for some other "experts.") I guess my point is simply that where--and who--we get our ideas from is just as interesting and important as what those ideas are, and how we use them. (A little reflexivity goes a long way!) Plus, I know that Joe's not the only one who doesn't appreciate aggressive, disrespectful or unkind interactions between people. They don't foster dialogue--they close minds and shut down conversations. But enough ranting!

I was happy to see that Susan Wyche continues to do very good work around the role of history in designing (for) the future. As Joe described her approach: "Exploring yesterday's future helps defamiliarize the present, and better recognize the insights history has to offer." I was also interested to learn that Beki Grinter and Ken Anderson "discussed some of the problems inherent in ethnographic studies of the use of an artifact that has gone where few artifacts have gone before"--like the public toilet, apparently. I also like the comments about iterative combinations of qualitative and quantitative methods that Joe mentions, although it seems to me that quantitative methods are still being trotted out to save qualitative methods from their perceived inadequacies, a.k.a. "Real Science To The Rescue!" And, like Joe, I was surprised to hear that mobile phones are now appearing prominently in the brave new ubicomp future. Anway, I'm looking forward to reading more as the conference continues.

Update 27.09.06

You can check out Sterling's lecture here, although I have no idea what edited "for the public" means.

Also, Joe continued to post his thoughts on Day Two, Day Three and Genevieve Bell's paper on techno-religious practices, and Molly also posted her reflections on the Exurban Noir workshop and the potential for architectural discourse and practice to intervene in these matters of technology. Good stuff.


Anonymous Trevor F. Smith said...

Beki's research on teen messaging is fascinating reading for anyone thinking about the effect of technologies on social patterns.

Anonymous David said...

Principle Scientist sounds like a great job! But I have a niggling fear that he's been duped and is really only going to get to be Principal Scientist, which sounds more important but less fun ;-)

Anonymous AG said...

...but when someone presents their ideas without contextualising them within broader intellectual, cultural and historical concerns I can't help but think it can only be self-serving.

But not everyone is even capable of doing so! In fact, I'd argue that the majority of non-academics are almost by definition not capable of such scene-setting, and the "fault" (to the degree that there is one) lies not so much with them as individuals as with the ungodly-enormous body of knowledge one would need to claim familiarity with in order to do so to your satisfaction. (I am clearly making an assumption in that very last clause, and I apologize if it is unjustified.)

This is one of the very factors that, in my opinion, keeps discussions of computational ubiquity from being anything but the province of an elite: think of the luxuries of time and quiet an ordinary designer would need to have access to, in order to situate an idea they believe to be novel in all of its relevant contexts. It's certainly taxed my ability, anyway.

I don't know what Bruce said. I wasn't there. But to suggest that all attempts to share ideas are somehow "self-serving" if they do not proceed from an explicit precedent-setting preamble leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That may well be the sine qua non of academic knowledge production...but we are not all academics. Should we have to be, in order to contribute to the conversation?

Anonymous anne said...

Thanks Trevor, and David, um, yes, Principal Scientist is what I meant ;)

AG - There's no need to fixate on academia here. I do hold myself and other academics to standards of contextualisation that are 'proper' to our trade. But that's not what I'm talking about, and that's not what I expect from others. I'm thinking about a culture of individualism that favours the idea that single minds think singularly original thoughts.

As someone who values collectivism over individualism, I also think of those cultures and languages that do things a bit differently. I'm not in my office right now, so please excuse the lack of detail I would normally cull from my books, but there are people in the world who have no word for "I" or whose vocabulary and grammar require that any statement of knowledge be preceeded with its source. Knowledge based on the senses ('original' or 'empirical' in our terms) is thus distinguished from information supplied by a variety of external sources (judged for 'validity' according to the 'reputation' of the speaker).

So rather than couching this in terms of academics versus non-academics, I'm much more interested in the idea that all knowledge is social. What I mean is that knowledge-making is a collective action. We have ideas and opinions because of things we've witnessed and conversations we've had. One need not resort to academic citation practices (or depth and breadth of knowledge) in order to make these processes more transparent.

I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate a sense of intellectual community or collectivity when our ideas and opinions are presented as if they come from nowhere. Ironically, this 'view from nowhere' (or from 'on-high') is most often what pisses non-academics off when they encounter academic authority and elitism. And I discourage it in all contexts.

What I am asking is that we take the time to be reflexive, to acknowledge our own influences, and to open up space for other people in conversation by making it apparent that we have already engaged with others to reach the point where we're at. Without context, and especially if someone is acting on the premise that sources ought to be hidden (which was the quote in my post) then, yes, I do believe it is self-serving. It privileges the individual and notions of originality and singularity--and those are simply not values I share.

Anonymous Joe McCarthy said...

Anne: I'm honored by your kind words, and will simply note that in my experience, "you spot it, you got it" :-).

david: keen observation on the spelling ... and upon reflection, I do intend to be more principled than principal, as my leadership style tends very strongly toward the collective rather than any presumption of primacy or self-importance (or at least, that's the way I like to think of myself).

Adam: you were "present" at the conference yet again via Yvonne Rogers' fabulous talk yesterday (as I noted in my most recent notes).

I want to clarify that although Bruce Sterling did say "the key to originality is disguising your sources", he did, in fact, reveal several sources throughout his talk (including Adam's book, Everywhere).

Ironically, Bruce's does invoke a spirit of collectivism -- technical and social ... or, as he likes to put it, technosocial -- in his book (Shaping Things), but I don't think this aspect was emphasized well during his talk.

Anne, I love your observation about all knowledge being social. Much of the debate we had during the town meeting yesterday was, at its core, about what kind of knowledge we want to invite and accept into our community ... and I, for one, will continue to champion an inclusive and expansive approach to our ongoing quest for collecting and sharing our insights and experiences.

Anonymous anne said...

Joe, one of the things I continue to admire about you is your ability to act in the interests of an inclusive collectivity. Nokia is lucky to have you on board!

Anonymous molly said...

My take on Bruce was less flattering. This is maybe the sixth or seventh time, if not more, that I've heard him speak. I loved the last time, at SXSW, where he recited poetry and his voice broke: stunning. And on this go, I was glad to hear him give props and name people like Ulla Mariaa and Adam.

This time, he was snotty and smarmy and mean to his audience. He's always got a mean streak and we all know it's there, but this time he was just an asshole. And after hearing some variant of this talk over and over, I wonder when he's going to get beyond industrial design and memes he keeps perpetuating that don't spell well.

Anonymous Chris said...

Regarding the video of Bruce's talk being "edited for the public", I've just watched it and noticed that it's been censored in two places.

At 48:46 where he's ranting about the names of diseases like malaria and encephalitis,

And again around 53:30 where he digresses from an answer to Paul Dourish's (?) question about infrastructure, and starts ranting about magic again.

I'd be interested to know what was so objectionable that it had to actually be removed before putting this online.

Maybe magic pushes some of Bruce's buttons that shouldn't be pushed in public, but that's certainly no reason to behave in such a way towards your audience. (e.g. the totally inappropriate response around 59:00 to a point about values within myths and fairytales reflecting long-standing human needs.)

I saw Bruce talk in London earlier this year, and after watching this video I can't see myself bothering to go and see him again.

Blogger enrique said...

It's interesting, because only a couple of days ago, Molly and I were talking about Mark Wigley's excellent "Network Fever". If anything, that article provides a good example of why precedent-setting is important -- it can act as a corrective device, a way of recalibrating the trajectory of a particular set of arguments. Kinda like re-breaking a bone and re-setting it in place.

If everything is indeed a Warholian fantasy -- an "echo of an echo", then it is a worthwhile pursuit to locate the source of the noise.

In copyright law, there is a term for a work of authorship based on another's copyrightable work -- it's called a "derivative work." And although a derivative work merits it's own copyright status, it always acknowledges the previous copyrightable work from which it is derived.

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