Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On the cultural ambiguity of technological objects

Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?
Christine Rosen

"[H]igh-end appliances promise to help us overcome our weaknesses. Whether our failing is sloth, inhibition, ineptitude, or simply lack of discipline, the technologies will make it easier to master our domestic vices and cultivate our domestic virtues. Perhaps this is why high-end appliance manufacturers use epic language to describe their wares: to fortify our belief in the technology’s ability to conquer life’s crises and unleash life’s pleasures. We live in an age when appliances have histories and legends, and when we are expected to value the domestic technologies we purchase for more than their practical merit. Buying a particular stove like the Aga is buying into a particular 'lifestyle,' complete with magazines and social networks. As a result, domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning are not merely the drudgery of daily life, they are also extensions of the self...

So what benefits do these appliances bring? Do more advanced domestic technologies save us time, make us happier, expand life’s pleasures, or liberate us from life’s drudgeries? Our domestic technologies might make us more efficient, but they also impose higher standards of domestic performance. In some ways, this is obviously correct. Even the hardest working homemaker and her fleet of servants in ages past could never match the cleanliness made possible by certain modern machines. In the war against dirt and germs, times are clearly better. But the modern kitchen, for all its progress, tells a far more ambiguous story, one that is deeply revealing about the relationship between domestic technology and domestic happiness..."

(The kitchen illustration is from a wonderful old Catholic primer found on Flickr.)

Monday, February 27, 2006

Avant-garde? En garde!

In a couple of weeks, Regine Debatty will be presenting on these and related topics at ET2006:

The Digital Avant-garde Paving the Way for New Developments of Technology

"...Artists demonstrate that there are other ways to technologies, other territories to explore, and meaning to give to applications. The digital avant-garde observes the world with acute eyes and often has intuitions and insights on people's longings that no reports from highly competent sociologists could replace. Their ideas could potentially change the culture and mindsets of customers as well..."

Pimpin' artists and dissin' sociologists. What fun!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Andrew Moore's montages

Risks to social acceptance of pervasive computing

In reading Plugimi, the blog of Berlin design student Sascha Pohflepp, I came across this interesting article:

Bohn, J. et al., 2004, "Living in a World of Smart Everyday Objects: Social, Economic and Ethical Implications", Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 10(5): 763-786. (pdf)

The authors highlight privacy and surveillance as central concerns, and the three major changes to everyday life they see coming are in the realms of reliability, accessibility and transparency. They break these down into problems of manageability, predictability, dependability, delegation of content and system control, as well as object(ive) "accountability":
"If autonomous objects such as the previously mentioned smart doll start taking decisions on their own (e.g., buying new clothes), legal guidelines need to be drawn up in order to resolve who is ultimately responsible for these business transactions."
And they go on to define technological criteria for "social compatibility": transparency, knowledge sustainability, fairness and universal access. But my favourite part of the paper was their discussion of what it will take for people to actually accept smart objects (and make good all this potential for profit). They argue that we'll need to work through some issues of feasibility and credibility, artefact autonomy, impact on health and environment, and philosophical concerns.

The authors remind us that pervasive computing is being developed in technophile contexts driven by a sort of "metaphysical prophecy" that outsiders find implausible. The notion that smart devices cannot actually change the "hurry, rush, stress, and separation from other people, but only increase their efficiency" is seen as a substantial risk to acceptance.

(But then again, we know that domestic technologies haven't free women from drudgery and that hasn't prevented their acceptance. But this also makes me think of our grudging acceptance, and I wonder how much acceptance is enough? Plus, I've heard objections to the use of the word boffin to describe scientists & technologists, but I think the caricature speaks volumes about how non-specialists understand their relationships to these rarified worlds of practice.)

They also point out that networked objects have little or no autonomy and so only function when the infrastructure functions. Of issue is that the instability of networks threatens people's sense of the kind of "object constancy" they experience with a paper book.

(This position most clearly indicates to me the research cultures of the authors. In my own work I've noticed that the people most likely to challenge the inevitability of ubicomp (the *myth* of ubicomp) are computer scientists and engineers who always preface their discussions with "IF everything works properly..." and attempt to exploit the glitches as well.)

The authors further question the impact of such extensive consumption of raw materials and energy, as well as issues of disposal, inherent in a world saturated with little tags. Furthermore, they remind us that we have no conclusive information yet on the long-term health impacts of constant exposure to electro-magnetic radiation.

(I appreciate the focus on sustainability, but more than that, I think they do well to discuss the risks to our own bodies and surrounding environments.)

And finally, they argue that smart objects pose special philosophical risks because they are more "us" than "other", and seem to imply a further risk of conquest or internalisation of the 'natural' world (but the implications here are unclear and underexplored).

The art of Alex Gross

>Outer Space is a Lonely Place by Alex Gross

Outer Space is a Lonely Place

You might recognise his work from Last Gasp's Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art, but if not, here's The Art of Alex Gross, via Phantasmaphile.

And speaking of underground art, is it just me or does Juxtapoz magazine not remind you of Thrasher magazine and the commodification of skater culture?

Meaning by Alex Gross


Friday, February 24, 2006

Where things come from and where they go

When I consider ideal applications of mobile technologies, one of the things I consistently return to is the potential for rfids and such to inform and educate consumers, and ideally, to facilitate greater interaction and accountability between regulators, producers, distributors and consumers in the process.

I think that art projects like MILK and How Stuff is Made are totally brilliant. I also love Christien Meindertsma's FLOCKS project that Regine blogged the other day. (Actually, when reading an article about it, I learned that rfids are also being deployed in archaeological excavation and artefact reconstruction. Cool.)

But what's it going to take to get ideas like these out of the lab/museum/festival circuit and into my local stores and services? I mean I love these sort of story-telling and mapping projects, but what about putting that sort of creativity to use in mundane but nonetheless politically-charged activities like buying food? And I don't just mean for well-to-do hipsters who invest substantial energy in establishing organic, fair-trade identities - I'm talking about good and useful stuff for tired single-mums buying groceries on the way home from work, or temporary labourers stopping at the Food Bank when money is short.

Things are very hip now, and hip things resist critique

So I've been thinking about the Internet of Things and going back over my dissertation's discourse analysis sections (including the bits on technological inevitabilities) to make them tighter.

In their introduction to a 2002 TCS Special Issue on the Object in Social Science, Pels et al. open The Status of the Object with the observation that by 1999 things were being seriously revitalised in social and cultural theory:
"After poststructuralism and constructivism had melted everything that was solid into air, it was perhaps time that we noticed once again the sensuous immediacy of the objects we live, work and converse with, in which we routinely place our trust, which we love and hate, which bind us as much as we bind them. High time perhaps also, after this panegyric of textuality and discursivity, to catch our theoretical sensibilities on the hard edges of our social world again, to feel the sheer force of things which strike back at us with unexpected violence, in the form of traffic jams, rail accidents, information overload, environmental pollution, or new technologies of terrorism. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of this new constellation is our (re)discovery of the multiple new ways in which social and material relations are entangled together, blurring conventional distinctions between the software and hardware of our social lives."
Notice how the rhetoric also conjures a sense of hybridity: we're engaging a world that is strangely feminine in its softness and emotion, and yet masculine in its hardness and force. Is this our re-shaping of Haraway's cyborg for the ubiquitous era? My students resist Haraway as a threat to their (taken-for-granted) senses of humanity and sexuality, just as they resist Latour's proliferation of hybrids as "too messy", and even our renewed focus on complexity as, no joke, "too complex".

If our return to the object (to the real?) signals a collective desire for more solid ground, do we not risk creating new forms of obduracy that threaten both current and future efforts towards change?

We're witnessing, I think, a broader cultural-historical phenomenon in which academia and technologists are only two 'singular but plural' speakers among many. And so technologists today also speak of embodied interaction, augmented reality, spatial-annotation, etc. as inherently hybrid processes and objects.

But here too, we risk a rather messianic return to the physical after realising the trappings of the immaterial, an exaltation of the relatively stable in the face of increasing instability. Extending Pels et al., above, how can we use examples of technological reification and fetishism (present in discourse and action) to understand ubiquitous hybridity as something about which we remain rather ambivalent, if not overtly conflicted. What can our attempts at stability, standardisation, naming, etc. tell us about how we value motility, or the ability for mobile computing to move.

When things are really popular it's really quite unpopular to question or resist them.

(You know, like when critical commercial practice comes off a bit like Simon Cowell and critical academic practice gets dismissed as hairy, angry, militant, man-hating lesbian ranting or hairy, pie-in-the-sky, idealist, out-of-touch blathering.)

So when
the question of "thingness" is swaddled in the promise of an open-source zeitgeist and competitive advantage, as in pervasive computing and locative media, then critique itself poses a complex risk most often countered by further entrenchment and intractability.

And now here I am waiting for pop to eat itself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

CFP - Silence, Suffering and Survival

Society for Social Studies of Science - 2006 Annual Meeting
November 2-4, 2006
Vancouver, Canada

"This year's theme is 'Silence, Suffering and Survival', and it is designed to explore the overlooked spaces, boundaries, actors, networks, and artifacts of science and technology. We welcome papers and panels that address questions about the silences of silencing, unintended consequences, and persistence in science, technology and STS. The topic is meant to open up and stir discussion about theorizing in areas we may have overlooked such as the process of secrecy under which processes of silence are often conducted. Possible topics might include the science and technology of slavery, disability, survival, warfare, peace, and quantification. Discussions might address de-moralization and re-moralization within science, technology and STS, the sort of silence/noise created by technology/science, and how technology/science create and alleviate suffering and/or survival. This could include processes of survival that are often off the record, such as workarounds, 'older ways of knowing', older (non-scientific) ways of knowing, and …?"

Deadline for Submissions is April 3, 2006

It's a mad, mad, modular world

Click! - Work, play & LEGO (pdf) by Robert Willim

"Lego can be linked to the way in which images of Framfab as a company were created. The Mindstorms components and the colorful Lego blocks in the box caught the attention of visitors when they came to the office...In many respects, the Mindstorm props in the office harmonized with the image of innovative, deeply involved hackers...The blocks were like a discreet promise of playfully simple innovative products and growth. The pieces of Lego in their box became a motor that powered fantasies and images of the company. Through their power to symbolize and steer associations, they fitted the placing of Framfab in various media, particularly as a backdrop to politicians’ encounter with the young company...

A computer, like most other digital media, is a highly complex artifact. Using various modular solutions is a way to simplify both the use and the development of the technology. As a stage in this simplification it may be necessary to have models to think with. In the development of Brikks, something physical and material was therefore used as an aid to thought, to pinpoint what was going on under the shell of the digital equipment. This physical and material aid was Lego...Building with Lego means using prefabricated bricks which can be combined, within some limits, into various creations. Prefabrication recurs in several contexts connected with IT around the turn of the millennium.

Willim goes on to describe how the company is involved in "rhetorically prefabricating the future" of (their) technology-in-the-world, a focus I find particularly helpful in questioning the 'inevitability' of technology. And if we take that our words are always already embodied, then "pre-fabricating" objects with our words is even more interesting. (Note to self: I should ask Trevor about this - it has something to do with the virtual becoming actual.)

"Playfulness and pleasurable work are mainly a positive thing. Yet this does not mean that the attempts to integrate work and leisure at Framfab were without problems. Several of those who worked at the Framfab office were so involved for a time that it was difficult to discern whether they really did it because it was fun or were exploited as a result of their delight in their work...Working hours and the employees’ attitude to their work had to show flexibility. We are justified in speaking of flexploitation, that is, a give and take of freedoms and benefits on the part of the management. Employees were expected to be adaptable, and flexibility was simultaneously viewed as a kind of freedom."

This reminds me that adaptive architectures encourage modular solutions in both product and process. After all, these sorts of inscriptions and modulating forces are at the heart of control societies.

It's also interesting to note how all this future-building affected the everyday present of Framfab workers (and how that part of the process was excluded from their rhetoric):

"The work was not fun all the time, it was not always stimulating to work and be in the office. Especially at times just before deadlines there was not much room for playfulness. One of the employees with whom I spoke, for example, said that he felt like a zombie before a deadline. In these strategic periods, time became a paradoxical experience of stagnation and gloominess. Several of the people I interviewed also found the fragmentation of the work irritating. The days were timetabled in smaller and smaller parts according to a pattern which dictated that more work should be done in the same time. Time was cut up into pieces. The direction of day-to-day work thus became elusive. The present felt chaotic...In a for-profit stock-exchange-quoted company in which time is money, play easily crystallizes into something that gradually becomes less and less playful. This was never made visible in the rhetoric about the playful enterprise of the new economy."

For my purposes, I'm interested in what happens when the rhetoric doesn't match the reality - or maybe when the map no longer even tries to resemble the territory because its not connected in such a way that it matters. How do we understand our intervention in these processes? What sort of modular roles do we play in this modular world-building? How are we responsible to anyone or anything outside our own module(s)?

Technological intervention and inevitability

How many people read their own blog?

I read mine damn near every day - which I'm pretty sure can't be all good. Of course, blogging has been a central part of my research methodology for the past three years, and in my dissertation I describe that I've actually written it through my blog. (The recursivity of this isn't irrelevant: blogging as one of my primary research methods has been a place to think out loud, a form of catharsis, and a way to practice. As such, its history reads not unlike a romantic novella with all its pitfalls.)

Latour and Woolgar describe how, in any inscription, "all the intermediary steps which made its production possible are forgotten" - resulting in black boxing and the like. Definitely, but my blog has, to varying extents, remembered the production of my dissertation as well. (What gets remembered and what gets forgotten in this blog as inscription/device has been one of the most interesting things to look at in my analysis.)

But here's the most important thing I think I've learned: blogging as a research methodology works best (i.e. is most critical and creative) when there is conversation, or more specifically when there is a convergence of difference along shared matters-of-concern. (Yes, my experiments continue!) For example, take last Monday's post, Technological inevitability and intervention: the comments are far more insightful than the original post.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Found in Philadelphia

Saturday, February 18, 2006

In no particular order

The Flower Girl

Friday, February 17, 2006

Thingers rather than thinkers III

"Things were pourtrayed before thoughts by those who were thingers rather than thinkers." -- G. Massey, 1883

Things before thoughts. Assemblies before assemblages?

Thingers rather than thinkers II

Thing, Old English, assembly, council, suit, matter, thing; Old High German ding, public assembly for judgement and transaction of business; Modern German ding, affair, matter, thing; Old Norse {th}ing, public assembly, meeting, parliament, council; also in pl., objects, articles, valuable things.

[Note council (thing) is different than judgement (ding). Council comes from Latin concilium, a convocation, assembly, meeting, union, connexion, close conjunction; sometimes an assembly for consultation, in which sense it became confused with consilium an advisory body.]

thing, v. (obscure)

1. To plead a cause, supplicate, intercede, make intercession; to bring to reconciliation.

2. To represent by things, i.e. concrete objects. Hence thinger

In 1883 G. Massey wrote in Nat. Genesis I. i. 16

"Symbolism was not a conscious creation of the human mind; man..did not begin by thinging his thoughts in intentional enigmas of expression. Things were pourtrayed before thoughts by those who were thingers rather than thinkers."

thing, n. (obscure)

1. A meeting, assembly, esp. a deliberative or judicial assembly, a court, a council

2. A matter brought before a court of law; a legal process; a charge brought, a suit or cause pleaded before a court.

3. That with which one is concerned (in action, speech, or thought); an affair, business, concern, matter, subject; pl. affairs, concerns, matters. (In early use sometimes sing. in collective sense.)

4. That which is said; a saying, utterance, expression, statement; with various connotations; a form of prayer; a story, tale; a part or section of an argument or discourse; a witty saying, a jest.

thing, n. (current)

1. That which exists individually (in the most general sense, in fact or in idea); that which is or may be in any way an object of perception, knowledge, or thought; a being, an entity.

2. Used indefinitely to denote something which the speaker is not able or does not choose to particularize, or which is incapable of being precisely described; a something, a somewhat. Also (often with initial capital) applied to some particular supernatural or other dreadful monster (i.e. the Thing).

3. That which is signified, as distinguished from a word, symbol, or idea by which it is represented: the actual being or entity as opposed to a symbol of it. in thing, in reality, really, actually (opposed to in name = nominally).

4. A being without life or consciousness; an inanimate object, as distinguished from a person or living creature.

Thing, n. (current)

1. In Scandinavian countries (or settlements, as in parts of England before the Conquest): A public meeting or assembly; esp. a legislative council, a parliament; a court of law.

1a. Thing-day, a day on which a Thing is held; Thing-dues, fees payable to a chief who presides at a Thing; Thing-field, -hall, -hill, -stead, a field, hall, hill, or place where a Thing meets, Thing-man.

Source: OED

Thingers rather than thinkers I

Regine recently posted on Peter Sloterdijk and Gesa Mueller von der Hagen's interesting Pneumatic Parliament. A comment on the ready-made-democracy currently being exported to the Middle East,

Pneumatic Parliament
"The mobile, transparent and self inflating plastic dome can be used all over the world to house parliamentary meetings. It can be transported in a compact container and dropped into regions where a change of political system is deemed 'desirable.' Within 90 minutes, the structure can house 160 Members of Parliament, offering the architectural conditions necessary for democratic processes, and as such forms a futurist contribution to the worldwide distribution of Western democratic principles."

If I weren't so put off by the current "democratise or die!" ethos, I'd think this is a damn fine idea, or least the kernel of one. I'm all for temporary flexible architectures for temporary flexible politics.

A parliament meets to deliberate, to negotiate, to make decisions. But we've come to distrust parliaments as government: all talk.

In 1611, W. Vaugn wrote in Spirit of Detraction VII. iii. 309

"Such persons be but parliamenting Parasites..letting their tongues runne before their wits."

Source: OED

The Anglo-Saxon precursor to parliament was a Witenagemot - an "assembly of wise men" or council.

In 1591, Lambarde wrote in Archeion 252

"The word Witena..doth include the Nobilitie and Commons, because they be Counsellors of the Realme,..in respect whereof the assembling of them, was of some called Wytena Gemote."

In 1874, Green wrote in Short Hist. i. §1. 4

"Their homesteads clustered round a moot-hill..Here, too, the ‘witan’, the Wise Men of the village, met to settle questions of peace and war."

Source: OED

Wikipedia: Witenagemot
W.G. Collingwood, Law Speaker, 1870s"The witan was in some respects a predecessor to Parliament, but had substantially different powers and some major limitations, such as a lack of a fixed procedure, schedule or meeting place...Witans met at least once a year and commonly more often. There was no single seat of the national witan; it is known to have met in at least 116 locations...The meeting places were often on royal estates, but some witans were convened in the open at prominent rocks, hills, meadows and famous trees."

British artist W. G. Collingwood's 1870s depiction of the Icelandic Althingi (the world's oldest formal parliament) in session.

I see this "lack of fixed procedure, schedule or meeting place" as much more of an advantage than a limitation. That sort of flexibility is particularly well-suited to coming together around matters-of-concern when and where they arise. I also really like this sort of meeting-in-the-open, both metaphorically and literally.

An assembly is different than a parliament. An assembly brings things together - but not necessarily for decision-making. To semble is to "make like," and the prefix -a means to "motion onwards or away." Assemblies, then, also suggest convergence without consensus. The value is in the (be)coming-together, and without necessarily becoming-same.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Imbuing the ordinary with a sense of the numinous"

In Shining Tree of Life: What the Shakers did, Adam Gopnik tells a very nice story about blurred boundaries between "goods and the good", and the complex roles of humanism in design:

"What distinguished the Shakers was their odd join between violent anti-worldliness and thoroughgoing commercial materialism...It is here, ironically, in the need to make things to sell to other people, that the first stirrings of a distinct style begin. This is not to say that the objects were made insincerely, or that Shakerism in design was a scam. The built-in cupboards and chairs and ladders constructed only for other Shakers, in Shaker communities, are made in the same spirit as the things for sale. The point is that no line was drawn the other way around, either: what was made for sale looked like what was made for sacred. The urge to make consumer goods is, after all, one of the keenest spiritual disciplines that an ascetic can face: it forces spirit to take form. An ascetic drinking tea from a cup decides not to care what kind of cup he’s drinking from; an ascetic forced to make a cup has to ask what kind of cup he ought to drink from...

[The] Shaker box...bends around, and each element has a logic to it—the copper tacks to prevent rust, the beautiful embracing swallowtail fingers to keep the box from cracking—but it has none of the 'that’s that' shortcut simplicity of folk objects; instead, a kind of underlying delirium infects it, an obsessive overcharge of finish, the sense of a will to perfection investing an otherwise humdrum object. 'Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle' was a Shaker motto. 'God is in the details'—but the details have to provide evidence of God...

Yet all these elements—the flat grid patterning, the acceptance of asymmetry, the tolerance for the drumbeat repetition of similar elements without an evident hierarchy of form—add up to a simple idea: Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape...Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think 'pictorially' about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems...

The love of asymmetry, which seems to us so sophisticated, involves a violation of the same taboo, since symmetry is the essence of human beauty. All Shaker design implies a liberation from 'humanism' of this kind. When we make objects that look like us, we unconsciously are flattering ourselves. The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

This doesn’t mean that the Shaker objects are 'inhuman' in the sense of being cold. They aren’t cold. The brooms and clocks and boxes create an atmosphere of serenity, loveliness, calm certainty. But these are monastic virtues rather than liberal ones. We miss the radical edge of Shaker art if we don’t see that it is not meant to be 'humanistic'."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy Valentines

Michael Drayton
Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee

Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee:
That dangerous eye-killing cockatrice,
The enchanting siren, which doth so entice,
The weeping crocodile—these vile pernicious three.
The basilisk his nature takes from thee,
Who for my life in secret wait dost lie,
And to my heart sendst poison from thine eye:
Thus do I feel the pain, the cause, yet cannot see.
Fair-maid no more, but Mer-maid be thy name,
Who with thy sweet alluring harmony
Hast played the thief, and stolen my heart from me,
And like a tyrant makst my grief thy game:
Thou crocodile, who when thou hast me slain,
Lamentst my death, with tears of thy disdain.

Anna Akhmatova (translated by Jane Kenyon)

There is a sacred, secret line in loving
which attraction and even passion cannot cross,—
even if lips draw near in awful silence
and love tears at the heart.

Friendship is weak and useless here,
and years of happiness, exalted and full of fire,
because the soul is free and does not know
the slow luxuries of sensual life.

Those who try to come near it are insane
and those who reach it are shaken by grief,
So now you know exactly why
my heart beats no faster under your hand.

Photos from Bill Owen's Suburbia, 1972 | Poems from Valentine's Day Poetry: Love isn't always pretty, by Robert Pinsky (via)

PS - before you buy that dozen roses, consider the Kenyan man who waters them every day but whose wage does not allow him to buy water for his family.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Technological inevitability and intervention

I spent the weekend revising my dissertation's discussion of the "inevitability" of pervasive computing.

In my interviews, we discussed the "whys" of locative media and among the answers were: 'we're doing it because we can' and 'we're doing it because they're doing it, whether we want them to or not'. In both cases, and in articles like this too, technological development and implementation is considered absolutely inevitable, and by extension, natural or normal.

This same belief in inevitability has also figured prominently in my informal discussions with designers over the past few years. Comments typically go something like this: 'ubiquitous computing isn't just coming, it's already here, and our efforts should go towards doing it right'.

In fact, it has been very rare for a discussion to engage the possibility of no technological intervention at all. And trying to discuss how someone's career is heavily invested in maintaining this sense of inevitability around technology is rife with social dangers. (Let me just say it's amazing how quickly a conversation amongst friends can deteriorate into accusations of academic arrogance or irrelevance!)

But where I'm struggling the most in my revisions is around the matter of intervention. In other words, if pervasive computing is inevitable, what's the best we can do? (What are the limits on our agency?) If ubicomp is going to be different or better than what we've made so far, why are we still resorting to utopian/dystopian discourses just like we did the early days of the internet?

Saturday, February 11, 2006


The aesthetics of decision-making

Still thinking about artistic autonomy and complicity, and my own tentative attempts to apply Latour's notions of assemblies to research and design practices, I came across an interesting Bureau d'études piece on "reciprocal expertise" and the "aesthetics of decision-making".

For my own reference, I've quoted a pretty big chunk of the article below, and highlighted bits I'd like to return to some other time.

"Art is now able now to concretely move into spaces which had previously been considered outside all artistic legitimacy. Principles of action, which may have had a utopian character some thirty or forty years ago - for instance, attitudes as forms, process-based or concept-based art, installation or situation art - can today be reinterpreted as operative modes of the real. The artist equipped with a mobile telephone and a portable computer is an off-site labourer. Potentially, art can happen anywhere. The experience of art can constitute a model for complex contemporary activities: the production of intelligibility is not linked to any prescribed finality. Perceptive competencies, specific to the artistic realm, thus enter into congruency with the development of a multimedia, multimodal world. With their common tools, the transversality of networks and the general transformation of activities, the public and the artist are potentially co-producers of the public sphere.

With the current self-externalisation of an ever-increasing number of artistic practices, questions arise as to art's use-value and operative value in unprotected spaces. Questions of this kind concern both urban practices and net-based practices, in which the public is no longer situated downstream but is already present within the artistic experience itself. The first place thus constituted is moreover that of information exchange and debate between the public and the artists. However, in this space, a number of different traditions and different cultures are at work. The need to exchange values in the course of the form-production process, complicating the exercise of art, also enriches it through the introduction of new differences. Art no longer has to seek out a public inasmuch as the latter is the necessary condition of the realisation of the exercise itself. The public sphere is no longer merely to come. It is already constitutive of the work's conception process. And it reconstitutes it continuously.

The potential diversity in terms of how participants interact fosters the implementation of competencies and opens up the project to new perspectives. Under such conditions, information exchanges between people enriches the knowledge of everyone individually, whereas the global competency of a group increases beyond the mere juxtaposition of forms of knowledge and abilities. Rather than reducing the singular to the collective, it is interesting to conceive the development of the collective in reciprocity with the development of the autonomy of each individual...

The rhythm of the city, in interaction with numeric space, is set by different agendas. The mirror of the virtualisation of exchanges, the project is developed around meetings, seminars, debates and forums. These meetings, generally exerting a pressure to attain certain objectives, overlook the very protocols which regulate them and that over-determine their effects. The culturally constructed procedures of deliberation and decision-making are in fact naturalised to the benefit of the status quo. These modalities deserve to be examined for what they are.

The space of the debate supposes certain concrete presences, which are deployed in specific spaces. Speech is implied in the bodies that conjure up a stage: tone of voice, audacity, timidity, annoyance, complicity, seduction, suspicion, aggressiveness, laughter, boredom, pleasure and so on. The quality of an environment, how close the chairs are placed to one another, the direction they are facing, the warmth or coldness of the site, as well as its acoustics, all influence exchange. The distribution of locations and roles determines the specific modes of circulation of speech. Discursive space is highly plastic.

Deliberation, for instance, involves a certain number of attitudes: it places value on negotiation rather than on taking power, on the quest for hypotheses beyond the mere expression of opinion, on translation abilities rather than the abstruseness of discourses, on the circulation of information rather than its retention. What are the rules of the game? Who gives whom the floor? What is the sequence of the different timeframes of expression and how is it arrived at? The way in which the information stemming from these exchanges is processed and the means used will orient the decisional consequences of the deliberation. Access to user-friendly, shareable and transmissible tools becomes both an aesthetic and an ethical question. The function of these tools, technically formalised, is to throw into question the attractors of meaning and the geometry of the bifurcations in which the debate unfolds its stakes and issues. The tools of deliberation are highly plastic.

Decision-making represents the horizon of deliberation. Therefore, the modalities of deliberation include, in fine, the stakes and issues which will determine the decision-making process and the actual decisions made. To that end, the space, the protocols of verbal exchange, as well as the media for processing the information are far more open-ended than usage suggests. These multiple dimensions can become the site of aesthetic investigations. The decision-making process is highly plastic."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Performing NAFTA with a transport truck and RFID

Exchange by Nancy Nisbet

"The Exchange project is an artistic inquiry that uses cultural resistance to unsettle questionable relationships between international politics, technological surveillance, and identity construction. Specifically this project addresses:

1. The politics of trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

2. Myths of increased national security through technological surveillance of people and commodities

3. Identity construction based on collections of economic and surveillance data.

One outstanding feature of the Exchange project is a cross-border performance that combines Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) surveillance technology, a full-size transport truck, and all of Nisbet’s personal belongings. In this sustained performance, Nisbet’s things will be inventoried, radio frequency tagged and freely traded with individuals encountered during the six month trip that circumnavigates Canada, the United States and Mexico. This project exchanges the studio for the roads, truck stops, border crossings and cities of North America. 'Exchange' creates through the untidy weaving of politics, surveillance technology and identity construction. From the spaces between these coarse threads will emerge resistance, solidarity, vulnerability and moments of human connection."

The exchange project starts in Vancouver on May 1st and proceeds across Canada, stopping in Ottawa on June 6th and in Montreal on June 9th, and with stops all along the periphery of the U.S. beginning in July. More details are available in EXCHANGE 2006: A Performance of Resistance (pdf).

More Canadian comics

The Hall of Best Knowledge
Created by Ray Fenwick in Halifax

Play by Ray Fenwick

"Can one noble genius single-handedly educate all of mankind? Although not previously possible, the answer is now most assuredly 'yes'. The author of Hall of Best Knowledge, blessed with an almost unnatural intellect and refinement, bravely battles the problem of a nation’s ever-increasing ignorance one engaging concept at a time. The people call out for help, in one stupid voice, and they are answered with authority."

Strangers by Ray Fenwick

Crowded and blunt. Very nice. Via.

And don't forget this other excellent east-coast comic, sparse and smooth.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Designing (for) the future?

Matt Ward has some interesting comments about designing the future:

"[D]esigners engaging in ‘future products’ or ‘future scenarios’ need to paint a picture of the future, they need to use any means possible in order to make the audience ‘believe’ ... Design always engages in prediction, whether it’s how things are used or read, what social effects resonate from the design, or even down to the commercial success of the design. One of things I think design does very well within a research context is the construction of carefully crafted visions of the future – these visions open up potentials for the here and now."

Let's start with a contentious point: If design necessarily engages in prediction, then this primarily serves to underscore the capitalist contexts in which it functions and the narratives Matt mentions are little more than sales-pitches or ways of pushing new techno-social objects.

In reading John Thackara's In the Bubble, I was again reminded how woefully inadequate - even harmful - the currently reigning "predict and provide" business and policy model really is. I've always had a problem with technological futurism and futurology, and especially with the idea of predictability or foretelling. In my mind, they all stand quite opposed to the ideas of potentiality and hope that I hold in such high regard.

Of course, I'd prefer to think that Matt is right -- that these future visions are actually working to open up new spaces right here, right now. But one of the problems with utopian thinking is that it is so future-oriented: it discourages living-in-the-moment in favour of dreaming a different tomorrow. As a dreamer, I hardly want to discourage imagining alternative realities, but how are these "carefully crafted visions of the future" actually used in the present?

Of course, Matt wrote this post specifically because he had been impressed by Fiona and Tony's "scenarios exploring the ‘ethical, cultural and social impact of different energy futures’" for the Science Museum Energy Gallery. What I want to know is how designing a museum exhibition like this differs from, say, creating a BP "Beyond Petroleum" campaign or engaging in a General Electric ecomagination exercise?

Update 9 Feb 06:

Via Nicolas -- The business of future gazing

"Technology journalist Tim Phillips says: 'It's important to be able to say to people that you've got some idea coming down the road, and futurologists are a way of doing this. The problem is that if you're a futurologist there's no point in playing it safe. You have to be revolutionary and radical, you have to sell a big idea, or else what's the point of you? The problem is revolutionary, radical, big ideas very rarely come true'...

Trends analyst Dr Patrick Dixon says: 'You can get really focused on technology and the latest innovation, but the fact is the future is about emotion. It's about how people feel about technology, it's about how people actually want to live, and that's what really makes the difference.'"

I still don't understand how future scenarios open up spaces of possibility today. Can someone please explain this to me?

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Woman: flesh and metal


I'm already looking forward to participating in the Designing for Collective Remembering Workshop at CHI 2006 in Montreal in April. (Say hello if you see me!) And I'm happy that in the paper I submitted, I finally got to take a closer look at my forgetting machine.

Collective remembering and the importance of forgetting: a critical design challenge (pdf)

This paper takes the position that if the goal is to better understand designing for collective remembering, we cannot afford to overlook the importance of forgetting. Memories are understood as relations of power through which we, as individuals and groups, actively negotiate and decide what can be recollected and what can be forgotten. And without being able to decide what we can remember and forget, we are effectively left without hope of becoming different people or creating different worlds. Furthermore, these choices and decision-making processes not only relate to content generation or what data gets remembered (stored, displayed, etc.) in any given application, but they are always already embedded in our research and design cultures and practices. Ultimately, this paper argues for creating and supporting assemblies for deciding collective actions on collective matters-of-concern.

Biosecurities research

Laboratory for the Anthropology of the Contemporary
The Molecular Sciences Institute, Berkeley, USA

Led by Paul Rabinow, Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff,

"The work of LAC is based on the premise that no stable solution has emerged resolving the problem of how to think about the human today. We are confronted with a multiplicity of heterogeneous discourses and practices which put anthropos in question. Accordingly, LAC is directing its efforts toward observing and analyzing how discourses and practices in the life and human sciences are currently being assembled in relation to shifts in social and political life... At present, LAC is in the process of developing a long-term research program on contemporary problems of biosecurity* and emerging responses to these problems."

Super interesting-sounding projects:

Nicolas Langlitz's Technologies of Interrogation investigates "the invocation of culture by actors in the security apparatus" and "the application of psychopharmacological agents in order to facilitate interrogation".

Andrew Lakoff's Biosecurity Scenarios: Planning for an Uncertain Future looks at "the work of strategic planners in transforming the illdefined threat of a bioweapons attack into a calculable risk".

And there are lots of working papers available too.


* biosecurity -- "the genealogies, imaginaries and emergent articulations of biological weapons and biodefence".

For the love of...

Betty Jo's Valentines

If Hallmark's commodified sentiments leave a bitter taste in your mouth, why not give one of these gorgeous cards? Susie Bright scanned a bunch of her mother's valentines from the 20s and 30s that you can print out and send to your sweetheart(s).

(via del.icio.us/kathrynyu)

And if you can make it to the Lake District in Cumbria, why not spend a few hours with your love and a llama? Lakeland Llama Treks is offering romantic walks around the lake, or if you haven't already found that special someone, you can opt for speed-dating via camelid instead.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Helping hands

In Artists Burnish RFID's Image, Mark Baard conjures RFID as rather complex social and cultural assemblages:

"[A]rtists in the United States and Europe are adding RFID to their palettes as well. They're drawing hip crowds as well as the attention of the RFID industry, which hopes to gain some good publicity for its controversial tracking technology.

'There is a lot of public aversion to RFID because of privacy issues,' said Paul Stam de Jonge, global RFID solutions director at LogicaCMG, a large European technology services company. 'And anything that will bring to it a more positive attitude will be beneficial.'


The RFID industry seems to be cautiously reaching out to artists. The trade publication RFID Journal recently invited artists from the RFID-Lab in The Hague to its European industry conference last fall...'It was quite remarkable to have been invited to this rather closed and expensive conference for executives,' said RFID-Lab organizer Pawel Pokutycki.

Accenture Technology Labs senior manager Dadong Wan said he's pleased the artists are drawing positive attention to RFID. 'Artists definitely have a role in facilitating and accelerating the technology by raising (the public's) awareness,' Wong said."

The inter-dependence of artists and technology industries is clear, but the politics and ethics perhaps less so. While not wanting to ignore the history of net-art and critical internet culture, it seems to me that wireless art is offering a special challenge to traditional leftist critique-at-a-distance.

By actively and explicitly embracing their inevitable interconnectedness, both artists and corporations are able to achieve things that are not possible if either resists or retreats from the other. This sense of communal exchange need not imply collusion or assimilation - although both are, of course, possible - and it need not imply consensus either. Convergence alone is politically and ethically worthwhile.

But "public awareness" is a funny thing, not at all homogenous or equal, and certainly not to be confused with "consciousness raising".

Friday, February 3, 2006

"Private theory into public discourse"

For their 70th anniversary, Penguin released excerpts from their past publications in the form of pocketbooks. I picked up a bunch in Heathrow airport and read them on the flight home. Somewhere in the middle of Roald Dahl's brilliant Tales of the Unexpected, I thought how great it would be if there were academic equivalents to these little books. You know, affordable and portable excerpts of important texts and such that people outside the field would rarely slog through. I imagined that editors could guide readers through the most critical ideas using comics or something, and even relate them to current events and issues. It would actually be fun, I devised, to read these little books. And then I kind of forgot all about it.

But reading the Doors of Perception newsletter this morning, I see that MIT Press has already gone and done something reminiscent of what I was thinking. Under the editorial direction of Peter Lunenfeld, they have created the Mediawork Pamphlet Series:

"Mediawork Pamphlets explore art, literature, design, music, and architecture in the context of emergent technologies and rapid economic and social change. Mediawork Pamphlets are 'zines for grown-ups,' commingling word and image, enabling text to thrive in an increasingly visual culture. But the aims of the series extend beyond creating theoretical fetish objects. Mediawork Pamphlets transform private theory into public discourse, visual experimentation into cultural intervention. Private theory refers to those ideas that circulate within the hermetically sealed spheres of academia and the techno-culture. The pamphlets select texts from these discourses, distill insights and interventions from them, design a supportive visual context, and launch these hybrids out into a greater public. The Mediawork Pamphlets series is not intended to 'replace' other forms of discussion – from books to journals to listservs to Web zines – but rather to create a new category of public visual intellectuals, and new categories of audience as well."


Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The everyday lives of come from aways

She's From Away

She's From Away 001 by Hope Larson

"I'm Hope Larson, an American cartoonist living in Canada. In December 2004 I became a permanent resident, and in April 2005 my husband and I moved to Nova Scotia, a fairly isolated province east of Maine. It's so far east that it's in the Atlantic time zone, which we didn't know existed! The locals call people like us 'come from aways.' It's not exactly a term of endearment...In October Mal and I moved into our first house, in a rural area north of Halifax. SFA is a chronicle of our lives as we continue to adjust to life in the Maritimes. Look for a new strip every Thursday."

Just look at how great that final frame is! (via and cross-posted to spaceandculture)

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