Sunday, June 25, 2006

BNMI 2006/2007 residencies

I'm really pleased to be involved with this year's Banff New Media Institute Co-Production Program - currently accepting applications for the 2006/2007 residencies.

These sweet gigs are where small, diverse groups of artists, designers and researchers from around the world get to spend a month together working and playing at a place with really great facilities, in one of the most gorgeous locations on earth - and I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to get in on that! But here's the official blurb:

"BNMI’s Co-production program is devoted to creative pluralism, different lines of inquiry, production and presentation of the work of new media practitioners. It fosters exchange, debate, discussion and uninhibited artistic exploration. The connections and points of departure related to art, technology, knowledge, communities of practice and cultures are continuously explored, by bringing together interdisciplinary participants in intensive co-production new media lab residencies.

BNMI offers three distinct annual block residencies known as the Co-production Lab Program. Each residency is led by three peer advisors and has room for 10 participants (individuals and/or small teams). Accepted participants can engage in all forms of new media investigation that queries the field. Our facilities support the production and exploration of interdisciplinary forms of practice and technologies including interactive expression, mobile media, visualization and collaborative practices, television, video, post-production, 3D modelling, animation, physical computing, immersive experiences, prototyping, and beyond."

Along with Andreas Broeckmann and Sarat Maharaj, I'm excited to be one of the peer advisors for the Reference Check Co-production Lab, and here are descriptions for all three residencies:

Almost Perfect
Program dates: November 05, 2006 - December 02, 2006
Application deadline: July 15, 2006

Almost Perfect is a rapid prototyping lab that explores the creation of pervasive mobile media in the Banff region. With the dedicated support of peer advisors, technicians, and production facilities, participants can develop basic to advanced level prototypes in the areas of locative media, site specific work, telematics, audio art, and responsive environments. This residency will also explore the political and social economic contexts of locative media and the wireless spectrum. Almost Perfect is a joint venture between BNMI and HP Bristol. Prototype development will be realized through the use of GPS enabled HP iPAQs and software developed by HP Research Labs Bristol.

Liminal Screen
Program dates: March 05, 2007 - March 30, 2007
Application deadline: October 02, 2006

Liminal Screen examines the ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy of cinema in current new media practice. Working with peer advisors and technicians, participants are invited to work independently or collaboratively to focus on questions of screen-based work that is in transition.

Reference Check
Program dates: June 24, 2007 - July 21, 2007
Application deadline: December 01, 2006

Reference Check invites post graduate students and researchers whose work connects to new media, to come to Banff to develop concepts, create prototypes, have group discussions, and realize projects. This residency will support the professional development of participants and explore different modes of inquiry, questions of research, reflect upon different kinds of learning experiences, and question how new media finds validity in the contemporary and globalized world. Reference Check welcomes applications for both theoretical and applied research at all stages.

Residencies cost around CDN 1800 (about GBP 900 / EUR 1300 / USD 1600) and scholarships may be available for accommodation and meals. Travel and project costs are also your responsibility, so you'll need some kind of institutional funding and the time to sort all that out.

For details on the application requirements, see BNMI Co-Production Lab Program Application Requirements (PDF)

We're looking forward to receiving your proposals!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Near field interactions

Timo, Julian and Nicolas have organised an interesting workshop for NordiChi on near field interactions. They're looking for people who want to make stuff and they're interested in user-centred approaches to understanding "the physical, contextual and social relationships between people and the networked things they interact with". Papers are due 1 August, and the workshop is 14-15 October, 2006.

I'm already overscheduled this fall so I won't be submitting anything, but I'd like to put this quote from Baudrillard's 1968 discussion of furniture and interior design in The System of Objects out there for people to consider:

"Today, at last, these objects emerge absolutely clear about the purposes they serve. They are thus indeed free as functional objects - that is, they have the freedom to function, and (certainly so far as serial objects are concerned) that is practically the only freedom they have. Now, just so long as the object is liberated only in its function, man equally is liberated only as a user of that object."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Women who seek to be equal with men lack imagination*

While we move into our new house next Monday, friends in London can go hear Ariel Levy and others debate "raunch culture." I read Female Chauvinist Pigs last year, and enjoyed it enough that I gave a copy to Es on my last visit to London. (Matt - did you ever read it?) It's not the greatest book but it's thoughtful and culturally current, and I found it to be an excellent discussion starter with both male and female students who (much to my horror) keep insisting that the feminist project is complete.

Guardian: Thongs, implants and the death of real passion

Levy's argument basically revolves around the notion that contemporary female sexuality is not as progressive as it is commercial, that we are making ourselves and each other into commodities for (primarily) male consumption, and that we are more and more complicit in our own objectification. While I wouldn't want this to be a final declaration on the state of today's feminism, I don't disagree with her assessment. Where she fails to meet my expectations is in her apparent willingness to absolve men of their complicity as well. Her position reminds me of the public service ads that encourage women to leave abusive relationships. The ads are good, but I'd still like to see some that tell men to stop abusing women. And although I think she overstates a few things, and her arguments lack the nuances of class and ethnic differences that would make them more solid, it really saddens me that almost every review I've read is based on the terribly naive and unproductive anti-porn/pro-sex dichotomy. In my mind, the fact that people call her a prude and ask her if she's worried that the conservative right support her position only indicates how little progress we've actually made.

* I first saw this second-wave feminist slogan in the back pages of RE/Search's Angry Women anthology in 1991. I couldn't reconcile it with my riot-grrrl attitudes of the time, but over the past few years it has started to make a lot of sense. I've never aspired to mediocrity and I can't feel proud of gaining acceptance from either the lowest common denominator of contemporary masculinity, or the self-proclaimed feminist male who continues to support, defend and protect women in the most patronising ways.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The latest addition to my collection of Lovely Ways of Representing the Passage of Time

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Ideas really matter

On behalf on the American Philosophical Association, John Cleese explains why philosophy is important. The short answer, of course, is that philosophy provokes thinking. While all of the short clips are worth a listen, here are a few I really liked:

Philosophy has been the sparkplug for the lives of heroes. (mp3)
Philosophy bakes no bread--but can enrich the meal of life. (mp3)
Would dictators suppress philosophy if it did not have real power? (mp3)
Global uniformity has benefits--but at what cost? (mp3)
Are our neighbors any good? Should we ignore them, or help them? (mp3)

I feel bad every time philosophers or theorists feel compelled to defend their usefulness, or justify their existence. (I feel even worse when I do it myself.) But here's the thing: as long as designers keep asking me when I'll get to the part that helps them actually make something, and as long as technologists keep telling me that their work is not political, I will continue to insist that we need to SLOW DOWN and THINK ABOUT THINGS a bit more.

From No Dogs | or Philosophers allowed

Update: Monty Python - International Philosophy (playing football with the great philosophers)


Friday, June 16, 2006

Cheese and the politics of technology

I've always been dumbstruck by the fact that people ever saw fit to approach an animal like a yak or a buffalo and try to milk it, let alone figure out how to ruin and rot milk in order to create something fresh and beautiful. Cheese is amazing. (People are amazing.)

Cheese is also really political. For the MILK project, Esther Polak and colleagues started to get at that when they used GPS technology to trace certain mobilities in milk and cheese production across Europe.

Stilton Montgomery cheddar

I remember reading an article about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and how the rural artesans distinguish their cheese from more industrial varieties (like Grana Padano) by agreeing to particular manual production methods. Although these methods are more time-consuming and costly, they produce local culture as well as cheese, and consumers are willing to pay for this social artesanry and its environmental benefits.

Originally made by 13th century Benedictine monks, Parmigiano Reggiano became the first cheese in Italy to be economically and politically protected by a formal, but voluntary, organisation. In the 50s, they officially set out the Parmigiano Reggiano production area, comprising three provinces and parts of two more. This territory was extra-political in the sense that it ignored established political boundaries in favour of topographic and socio-cultural ones.


The supply chain is made up of local dairy farmers, cheese-makers and ripening firms. Thousands of farmers deliver milk twice a day to hundreds of cheese dairies, and the dairies then sell their cheese to a small number of ripeners or wholesalers. The intimate connections between dairy farmers and cheese-makers ensure that milk and cheese production are sustainable, holistic and communal processes. The production process also creates ample, stable employment opportunities, and many work not for profit but to keep the collective culture going. But calls for cost-reduction in a global market reach even the farmers, who are increasingly turning to feeding technologies that affect milk quality, which then affects cheese quality.

Raw Milk Camembert Stilton

According to the article, Parmigiano Reggiano production practices suggest that high levels of collective performance are most likely when people are focussed on a highly specific and local product. Collective performance also increases when each member of the co-ordinated supply chain benefits economically, and when collective agreements are continuously negotiated. These agreements are crucial in determining the roles new technologies will play in their production processes, and by extension, in their everyday lives. The greatest risk to the producers is that the cheese lose the distinctive qualities that create demand, and "productive" or "beneficial" technological interventions are currently the single greatest threat to this distinctiveness.

Cheddar Montgomery in Anschnitt Cheese!

So this is what I get from the cheese-makers: Not only do we need to focus on how new technologies are playing out in local contexts, but we also need to pay more attention to HOW WE WORK.

What are the research and design equivalents of Parmigiano Reggiano production? Who are the producers of our raw materials? Who turns those materials into something new? How do the technologies we use shape the products we create? How are the different makers connected to each other? What makes these relationships and their products distinctive and valuable? Is it a beneficial and satisfying relationship for all - or only some?

Cheese! Parmigiano

And if all that wasn't enough reason for you to pay attention to cheese (!) apparently sweet dreams are made of cheese and even cheese waste can be good.

Maybe after my PhD, I'll get into local cheese - do an internship at Monforte, or with the folks who make maple cheese, or maybe even at the fromagerie with the happy sheep. Until then, I guess I'll just keep reading Big Cheese Stories and learning from the cheese-makers.

(Photo credits, left to right: Row 1: maitre-philippe, aaroscape; Row 2: nothing, podchef; Row 3: damon allen davison, niznoz; Row 4: maitre-philippe, nothing; Row 5: nothing, maitre-philippe)

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Black ink

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Slums and shadow cities are where other people live

I'm almost done my journal review of Neuwirth's Shadow Cities and Davis' Planet of Slums, both of which I enjoyed for different reasons. I assigned Shadow Cities in class last year, and will bring in Planet of Slums next year, so this also partly serves as a pedagogical exercise for me.

Anyway, I've noticed that online reviews of Davis' work sometimes include comments about how the lack of empirical research makes it less valid or respectable than Neuwirth's journalistic account. Or I've seen the claim that Neuwirth's direct experience makes his account more reliable. Besides my reservations about empiricism (see Feyerabend amongst others on that matter), this strikes me as somewhat like saying that Dawn of the Dead is more authentic than Shaun of the Dead - it misses the point of each movie.

I don't want my review to focus on which vision of emerging global urbanism is the right one, or even the better one. I want to focus on the questions they each asked, and the ways in which they went about answering them. More specifically, of course, I want to focus on the spatial and cultural questions. I went back and re-read Rana Dasgupta's The Sudden Stardom of the Third-World City, and am now trying to get at the two books in terms of affective space and cosmopolitanism.

Stay tuned for the draft, and ideas or comments on the books are most welcome.

Globalising knowledge

The current issue of Theory, Culture & Society problematises global knowledge and rounds up a stellar collection of short and sweet encyclopedia articles covering everything from media, religion, gender, copyright, race, discipline, technology, aesthetics and markets, to bodies and even life itself.

Rob writes about virtualities and knowledge spaces, while Joost covers the network--and I also recommend Yeoh on mobility and the city, Maciel on the unclassifiable, Galloway on protocol, Roberts and Mackenzie on science, Fischer on science, technology and society, Knorr Cetina on the market, Bell on performative knowledge, Wong and Bishop on junk space, Venn on collections and rubbish, and Michael Gardiner on everyday knowledge.

(cross-posted to spaceandculture)

Science, ethnography and marketing

After adjusting my thesis deadline, I decided to catch up on some reading and I came across John Thackara on a BusinessWeek article on consumer ethnography. In typical fashion, he confuses critical assessment with personal insult, but I'm curious to see what got him so wound up so I click the link. (Don't get me wrong, I really liked all sorts of things about In the Bubble, but man, that guy is so bitchy without being witty that it's hard to take him seriously be impressed. Rick Poynor is a much better critic, I think. But then again, icons and idols are always too much...)

BusinessWeek: The Science Of Desire

"In recent years, New York's Parsons School for Design and Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design have put anthropologists on the faculty. Ditto for many business schools. And going to work for The Man is no longer considered selling out. Says Marietta L. Baba, Michigan State University's dean of social sciences: 'Ethnography [has] escaped from academia, where it had been held hostage' ... Practitioners caution that all the attention ethnography is getting could lead to a backlash. Many ethnographers already complain about poseurs flooding the field. Others gripe that corporations are hiring anthropologists to rubber-stamp boneheaded business plans."

Then I remembered reading it on the anthro-design list. I thought the article was anti-academic and a bit condescending to all ethnographers, but probably in-sync with the values and experiences of the BusinessWeek audience.

I did, however, particularly appreciate Jim Combs in the comments:

"'...ethnographers, a species of anthropologist who can, among other things, identify what's missing in people's lives...'

Perhaps this is a bit backwards. We ethnographers, especially working for business clients, tend to find out what's missing in people's products and services, and we find opportunities within people's lives for those improved products and services. People's lives tend to be complete. It's non-optimally designed products and services that tend to have the holes."

Related news, also coded in terms of business interests and values:

PCMag: How To Build A Better Product—Study People

"'Intel has sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and ethnographers on-staff…learning how people want to use technology, then going back to the engineers with that information, who use it to figure out how to sell more chips for Intel,' said Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst with In-Stat. Microsoft, meanwhile, is using 'personas' to identify the archetypical consumers that will be using its products, including its new Vista platform. The company's researchers put together detailed profiles to help identify the different features each category of customer would need. 'Anthropology and ethnography help you understand the people,' Kaufhold said. 'The great thing about people is that they don't move nearly as quickly as technology does, so you can do a fifty-year plan on the evolution of consumers, which would probably be more accurate than a fifty-year plan on the evolution of technology'."
Ethnography at the MSI meetings

"The stand-off between qualitative and quantitative methods may still have hot spots in the academic world, but this contest is now over in the corporate world. The corporation is method agnostic. Now that ethnography has been blessed by both A.G. Lafley and the Marketing Science Institute, it a method in good standing, and no longer the dubious stranger who just keeps 'barging in.' In the early days of corporate ethnography, the insights were sufficiently robust that the method could be forgiven some of its eccentricities and eccentrics. That's now over. New standards are coming. Some practices and practitioners will have to go. Qualifications, rigor, discipline, quality control, these are the new watch words."

Updated 9.06.06

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Networked things and the old/new objectivism

I'm finding there's a lot to be said for working slowly but persistently in the background as conversations on 'The Internet of Things' proceed apace.

Julian and Nicolas at Reboot

"The Internet of Things is the underpinnings for a new kind of digital, networked ecology in which objects become collaborators in helping us shape our individual social practices towards the goal of creating a more livable, habitable and sustainable world. 'Blogjects' — or objects that blog — captures the potential of networked Things to inform us, create visualizations, represent to us aspects of our world that were previously illegible or only accessible by specialist. In the era of Blogjects, knowing how even our routine social practices reflect upon our tenancy can have radical potential for impactful, worldly change. Nowadays, the duality between social beings and instrumental inert objects is suspicious. In this epoch, a renaissance in which imbroglios of networks, sensors and social beings are knit together, everyone and everything must cooperate to mitigate against world-wide catastrophic system failure."

It's nice to see someone else use the word imbroglio, and much of what they talk about is what I've been writing about for the past four or five years. But it also gets me thinking: the importance of the object has always been central to the practice of science, engineering and design. Of course it's fair to say that the belief in objectivity has been undermined in recent decades, but I don't see a concurrent decline in the desire for it, or the will to it - and mastering an object still offers substantial rewards. (Incidentally, it's easy enough to make the case that feminist critiques of science and technology have done the most to challenge the subject-object dichotomy, but feminist voices are almost entirely absent in the male-dominated conversations around networked things.)

In any case, what strikes me in this "renaissance of things" is the creeping tendency to fetishise (to reify?) the object. This happens too in social software, and user-centred design. Both 'the social' and 'the user' become paramount, yet remain unexamined. More people are citing Latour's influence, often summarised along the lines that objects have agency too, which is technically correct. But Latour isn't interested in objects, he's interested in relations - in actant-networks, collectives of humans and non-humans, and processes of translation.

If we actually follow Latour, or any of the critiques of ANT, then it's not the things themselves that are interesting, but rather the imbroglios they comprise. Julian and Nicolas suggest this when they claim "a new kind of digital, networked ecology in which objects become collaborators," but objects have always been collaborators. The word 'object' comes from Latin 'to throw in the way,' which may explain why people fall back on the idea that we now need to integrate all of these objects into our understanding of the digital. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, the digital is always already material and real. So why a "renaissance" at all?

Well, I think that Julian would recognise that 'The Internet of Things' is a theory-object, but I'm not sure anyone is trying to figure out how 'The Internet of Things' is an actant-network (although I try to draw out the imbroglios I see). Oddly enough, I think Bruce Sterling may get it more than most because he understands what it means to manipulate words, to shape things - which is related to what Callon and Latour call translation, or the ability of actants to forge alliances and make things happen.

(I was recently told, most ungraciously, that I tend to be aggressive when I should be diplomatic which, if true, would make it a struggle to convince others that I am 'right' or what I say is 'true.' But that's quite fine with me. I'm way more interested in when, following Callon, "translation becomes treason." After all, I really don't believe that consensus-building is the best way to adapt to constantly-changing worlds.)

But here's Bruce recently teaching at the European Graduate School.

He tosses out multiple fragments, all in disarray, and asks the students to re-assemble them for three audiences: 1) clear-thinking intelligentsia who want to deconstruct the chaff and rid themselves of hype and corny hucksterism; 2) experimental alpha-geeks who want to pull it right out of the carton and fire it up; and 3) the Davos Forum: top CEOs, ministers of state, crucial decision-makers, and policy wonks.

This roughly follows Callon's process of translation: problematisation, interressement, enrollment and mobilisation. The maps Bruce asks the students to draw are attempts to stabilise networks that constitute 'The Internet of Things' in ways that allow particular interests to be acted upon (and others to be discarded). Now I can't tell which photos represent which maps, but this one really caught my interest:

The Ubiverse

This isn't a Venn diagram or even a network map - it's a universe, a singularity, a dynamic but closed system. They've mobilised a world where "there's no escape from ubiquity."

The translation was successful, but not even a little treasonous.

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