Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Teaching Carnival: When I grow up I wanna be a teacher

This fall I'm teaching ANTH/SOCI 2035 - Introduction to Sociology of Science & Technology. Although it's the third time, only now is it starting to feel good, like a favourite sweater or the right rhythm, properly worn. I've changed the class each time because each time I've learned something new about teaching and learning, and even a bit about who I am and who I want to be. (What can I say? I'm a geek.)

So the first thing I decided was to want more for, and expect more from, my students and the teaching assistant this time. I refuse to pander to the lowest common denominator in all other areas of my life, but I let them slack off a bit last term. And I have lots of small goals this term, instead of trying to do and change too much, too fast. In terms of content this year, knowing that I'll be teaching the fourth-year seminar version next term has made it much easier to focus on what an introductory class needs.

A consistent challenge in designing and teaching this course has been the number and range of students. There are 70 students from 8-10 different disciplines in the arts and sciences that take the class; most are second-year, but a strong minority are third-year undergrads--and this makes for a wildly variable knowledge and skill set with which to work. But thankfully, it also makes it near impossible for me to be surrounded by like-minded people who agree with me all the time. I've yet to have a student in this class who didn't teach me something valuable!

(Incidentally, this makes me think a lot about professional environments because it's such a different scenario. No, seriously, think about it. How often do you know--or know of--the people you see speaking at a conference? How often do you run across perspectives that are seriously divergent from your own? How do you deal with difference and disagreement? What are your social--not individual--ethics? Sociologist Nick Stevenson suggests this: "[C]osmopolitanism, education and citizenship should be judged by the extent to which they enable citizens to learn from one another and engage with the Other. It is this rather than the passing on of radical certainties that is likely to enhance the necessary dialogic capacities suitable for a global age."

This is hard. Personally, I can't stand indignant dilettantes and knee-jerk anti-intellectualism--which makes it particularly challenging for me in some scenarios. But we all have monkeys we need to get off our backs, so this is basically a problem we all face. I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes how we challenge others, or how we disagree, is more important than whatever we're disagreeing about. Repeat after me: "Don't be an asshole. Mean people suck." The best thing about the recent week-long workshop at the Banff New Media Institute I attended was that most people didn't know each other beforehand, and most would never have run into each other if left to their own devices. We were challenged to make new friends and learn from them; we were compelled to trust strangers even though they offered us no truth in return. We were encouraged to take the non-disciplinary route, but we were allowed to 'agree-to-disagree' with each other. It was very very good.)

So, back to the course structure. I have them for a three-hour class once a week, and I've had great success with dividing that time equally between lecture, group discussion and workshop activities. I should note though that this arrangement would be significantly more difficult and less effective without a teaching assistant. It really does take two of us (although it should take seven of us, damn it) to interact with a group that large.

This year I've organised the class into two distinct parts: one foundational and the other exploratory. For the first five weeks students are assigned a short textbook to read: Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach. This gives them a solid introduction and frees me to cover specifics in my lectures. The workshops during this half of the class are strongly methodological. We go out to do observational exercises, we look at different ways of interpreting what we see and do, and we explore ways of working together based on shared concerns rather that matters of fact.

The second half of the course is divided into three themes that allow students to further explore some of the issues covered in the first half. We'll be focussing on technoscience in terms of risk and control; bodies, subjects and objects; and publics and democracy. Students are assigned a selection of book chapters and articles to read, and the content takes on more overtly political and ethical issues. In part, this is due to my committment to critical pedagogy, and also to my interest in fostering some kind of service-learning and social ethics. Workshops become more experimental and playful--How to Start Your Own Biotech Cult in 5 Easy Steps--while also becoming more critically rigorous.

I've decided to change the assignments a bit too. There are still no exams, and students are still required to complete a major research project on a technological device they use every day. But I've divided that assignment into two: the first one is the library research bit, and the second is observational and interpretive. For the first time I've created a list of journals from which the students must get their sources--I did this to introduce them to a coherent body of literature and community of scholars with shared concerns, and to encourage them to browse past issues instead of only searching databases. The second assignment requires that students keep personal use logs, and then apply some of the ethnographic and anthropological methods we explore in the workshops to their own experiences. The objective of both assignments is to teach students about science and technology as material culture, and to cultivate a responsible and reflexive attitude towards their own consumption and use of new technologies.

A third research assignment was also added in order to get students to engage with difficult theoretical concerns in manageable ways. The topic is cyborgs and hybrids, and students are required to answer three essay questions based on a set of assigned readings and additional library research. And finally, in order to encourage dialogue students are required to moderate a small group discussion on assigned readings, and in order to encourage social and political awareness they are required to give a short presentation on current events in science and technology. (Take, for example, the most excellent discussion topics provided by The Planet Formerly Known As Pluto and Reclusive Mathematicians And Their Genius Prizes.)

And the last change I've made that I want to mention is the decision to post all my class handouts on the course blog. Over the term students--and others--can downlod pdfs of all the assignments, reference guides and workshop activities. I've put a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license on them all, so feel free to do with them what that allows and let me know!

Reference:
ANTH/SOCI 2035 - Winter 2006
ANTH/SOCI 2035 - Winter 2005

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Moving stills

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Buildings for objects



Trinity College Library, Dublin and Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura, Rio De Janeiro

Simply stunning places - it's still important to touch what we know. Today's databases may have larger holdings but they lack the spatial and cultural greatness I see here.

More at the nonist: Red-Hot and Filthy Library Smut (via cnwb)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reflecting back on screens: inclusion & exclusion

I'm back in Ottawa after a week in Banff with some really great people doing really great stuff, but before I switch my attention to fall teaching I'd like to think out loud about a few things that keep coming to mind.

It seems to me that our conversations on new media art ultimately revealed that it isn't the newness of media that's so interesting, but rather the artness of it. (Yes, I know that's not a word, but bear with me.) While "user-generated content" - or, as I prefer, public authoring and participatory media - repeatedly came up in conversation, it was quickly distinguished from artistic practice. While no one seemed willing to come right out and say it, I think the implied distinction was primarily quality-based, and both aesthetic and cultural quality are notoriously subjective.

My keynote address (which I'll post as soon as possible) chose to turn "screen" from noun to verb in an attempt to draw out the ways in which new media art and design practices involve acts of inclusion and exclusion. I tried to unpack a few of the primary metaphors that feed our notions of mobility, and I invited people to reimagine their senses of community and citizenship based on what it means to be in or out. The point of all this, of course, is to get producers of all sorts to acknowledge their own screening processes. In my mind, the most pressing political and ethical challenge facing us today is how we account for, and become accountable to, differences in perspective and practice. In other words, who gets to decide what constitutes quality content? The government? The broadcaster? The company? The artist? The designer? The academic? The public? And which public is that exactly? When it comes to collaboration, whose interests take precedence in which contexts? (As one artist said to me after my presentation, "I've realised I value art more than people.")

In my panel presentation (which I'll also post shortly) I discussed what I consider to be Proboscis' exemplary collaborative work, and how it was this sense of collaboration that helped shift a broadly technology-focussed project to a culturally-focussed one, or more specifically, how the two became entirely inseparable. Fiddian Warman also showed us a couple of Soda Creative's projects that specifically engage some of these questions, albeit in indirect ways. Both Nahnou-Together and b.tween2cultures explore what it might mean to create distinct cultural identities - together. Or how about this? The Residents and MOMA's new River of Crime Community Art Project seeks out a space for professionals and amateurs to work together. As "an exploration of the rise in popularity of instant-video-creation due to the proliferation of inexpensive video cameras, as well as both still cameras and phones that shoot video," ROCVID invites anyone and everyone to make a video - any way they like - to go with an audio clip provided by the legendary music group. Mass art and art for the masses indeed.

I'm sure I'll continue to think about these things as I prepare for my lecture on mongrel practices of art, design and anthropology at UIUC art + design next month, and as always, comments are welcome.

And for anyone interested, here are all my Interactive Screen 0.6 posts:

IA Screen : Introducing the Canadian new media context
The Convergence Conundrum: A Cross- Canadian Perspective on the Business of Content
Technology, Privilege and Innovation: The Legal Perspective
Creative Commons: Art, Activism and the Database
The View from Outside In: Margins of Art and Activism
The View from Inside Out: Margins of Technology and Business
Playing the Interface
Serious Games: Understanding the grey area between learning and playing
Filming Outside the Cinema
Blast Theory - Day of the Figurines workshop
The Impossibility Box: An Emotional Computation

(photo: Peter Horvath)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"The Impossibility Box: An Emotional Computation"

In the closing keynote, Daniel Canty spoke to us about technology and metaphor, or the relationship between language and materiality, and popular scientific texts as books of wonders. He started with the phrase "smart dust" and spoke of the tendency of technology to be preceded by metaphor, which compels us to talk about things that don't exist as if they did. Computers as the dream of pure logic, blackboxed. The emotional vectors of technology. (Daniel speaks like Matt Webb, so follow along as you can! My comments in parentheses.) The death of God, machines - if built properly - can do anything. Cybernetics. Social control. Neo-liberalism. Objectivity of systems. How to construe technologies as something other than technology? Wittgenstein says: "The world is always the case." (Yes.) Language is not purely linguistic. "I love tautology!" says Daniel. Words are things other than the things they name. Wittgenstein again. Material semiotics. Words do things. Words are materials. Words are translations of the truth, the "thingness of things"? The world "outside" of us, mathematical, quantifiable. But there are no things as such, things are in constant translation and some translations are better than others. Language is the most pliant of all interfaces. Language as form of life. Metaphor as language, thought and action. Understanding can not be separated from culture and embodiment. Lakoff and Johnson's metaphors we live by. Vision is not a field. Metaphor is always partial. Metaphors displace. Yet, metaphors are still "true." Social and personal. There is interaction before there is interactivity, both subjective and objective. "Metaphor is imaginative reality." All experience is cultural. Logic is a metaphor we chose to live by. (Sigh.) AI as "as if." (The virtual is also "as if.") Metaphor. The list of what no longer belongs to us. Trying to make dust smart is kind of sad. We want to find logic everywhere. To pretend that computers will become emotional on their own. To instrumentalise the absence of God. But god is in the details. Not pervasive computing, pervasive metaphor. Language as illogical. To undo matter. Smart dust is neither smart nor dust - it is a metaphor for what we expect of technology. (Sweet.) Art is the metaphorical pursuit of truth. Playing hide-and-seek with walkie-talkies. Pleasure in being better than logic. Never never land. The memory of what we were.

(Oh, this was very very nice. Stream of consciousness.)

Blast Theory - Day of the Figurines workshop

Blast Theory - Day of the Figurines Blast Theory presented Can You See Me Now? earlier this week at the Banff Centre, and today we're going to spend two hours on some of the primary design challenges facing their new project Day of the Figurines. (I'll write in real-time and post it at the end of the workshop.)

Nick described the development process, which began with modelling imaginary towns - a twist on the site-specificity of their prior work. The length of the game - 24 days - and the use of common technologies (mobile phones) is meant to encourages players to relate their play to everyday life, but in slow and reflective ways.

Matt talked about the kind of social interaction possible where people have no homes, no money, no certainty, etc. What kind of community is possible then? They wanted to create a game that destabilises relationships with a kind of moral ambiguity. (Sounds like real life, no?) Nick mentioned early players taking complete advantage of the imaginative possibilities - like setting cows on fire, riding deers and stealing cars from other players only to sell them back. (Apparently there's an operator that physically moves each of the figurines every hour of game play - I'm completely fascinated by this role. Must ask Matt more...)

Key design challenges:

1. deterministic vs open structure game-play (how do you orientate, motivate players and let them explore on their own? given freedom of texting, why not let players invent their own world? what about persistence?)

2. sustaining an immersive fiction over 24 days (player investment: the board, the figurine, the website. the physicality, the relationship with the figurine, etc.)

3. fitting into player's daily lives (unwanted texts are annoying, what about not-always-on phones/players?)

4. UGC vs authored content (can we allow players to create their own objects, destinations, etc? no.)

5. spatial play vs temporal play (from geographical model to hub.)

6. slow pace of game (how do you hold people who only play for a few minutes a day? how to make a virtue out of slowness?)

7. limitations of text-messaging (what if texting costs each time? what about the anonimity and intimacy of texting?)

Exercise 1 - Think of a key moment in your life and write in down in 160 characters, bearing in mind that you're sending it to a stranger!

Here's mine: We walked inside the belly of a whale. It was beached a very long time ago. I felt the giant ribs enclose me and I felt safe.

Exercise 2 - Tell a story over seven days, one text message a day. 160 characters each day. Where do you make the breaks? How does this shape the narrative?

Then they did a survey of people's texting habits - the Canadian context is so different from the UK! Texting is really not overly common here... The important point is the the matter of cultural context. We still need to ask *how* ubiquitous these ubiquitous technologies actually are. There's also this matter of time, and a sort of txt lurking: just because I don't reply doesn't mean I'm not following... There's also the matter of power relations... do we make certain people wait longer than others? (Jan Christoph described some Italian teenage girls they studied who kept separate paper logs of their text messages, that could indicate popularity... fascinating!)

Design techniques for fitting in with daily life:

in general:

- mobile games are based around very short play sessions
- you choose where and when you play
- are often single player

in contrast, Day of the Figurines:

- invites players to imagine a persistent universe over 24 days
- to maintain a sense of their figurine's location and state over that time
- asks players to respond to events in the town
- tries to co-ordinate multi-player play

Lessons learned from Laban, Summer 2005

- there is no good time of day to play
- players prefer a response when actively choosing to play
- inactive players were sometimes hounded out of the game by too many messages
- inactive players could sometimes take hours or even days to respond to the game or other players

**

This was just the right amount of detail to help me understand what kind of challenges they're facing - and just enough detail to get my mind moving at top speed about the kinds of experimental ethnography (to complement the existing ethnomethdological studies) that could be done here... Must talk more with Matt and Ju and Nick...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"Filming Outside the Cinema"

I have to admit that I'd not given much thought to film outside the cinema, web film or live video, or anything like that, but I've spent lots of time here hanging out with Peter Horvath and I'm impressed.

Peter Horvath, Tenderly YoursPeter makes very beautiful films for the web, and you can check them all out online. Today he showed us The Presence of Absence, which was comissioned for the Whitney Museum's Artport in 2003, and then Tenderly Yours from 2005, which "resituates the personal, casual and ambiguous approach of French new wave cinema in a net art narrative that explores love, loss and memory. The story is recited by a striking and illustrious persona, who moves through the city with her lover. Her willful independence is intoxicating, though her sense of self is ambiguous..." Gorgeous.

Mia Makela (SOLU) described her work as videoprocessing, or moving stills, and as play or montage. Her videos are also online, and she showed us UKIYO-E and FIELD REPORTS, which she said was indicative of her style and love of experimental electronic music. Both were very dirty and noisy - I totally loved them - and I can't wait to see SOLU in action tomorrow night. She closed by saying how much possibility there is in live or expanded cinema, a field she intriguingly describes as "spoken language without written grammar."

Randy Knott then showed us some of IAMSTATIC's shorts, including Cloud Nine and Healthy Boy. He also showed some commercial work they did for CNIB's Lake Joseph Centre, where blind people can have fun and even waterski. (I was actually really impressed by this - the idea of trying to communicate what that experience might be like. Personally, it never occurred to me that blind people waterski. That's wicked.) The final short he showed was his pretty (and) unsettling Institutional Mechanisms.

Multimedia performance artist Julia Heyward rounded out the panel by showing us some of her work, although I wasn't able to find any examples online. Miracles in Reverse (2001) is "an interactive hybrid family/music album that tells various versions of the artist’s life story from the point of view of Jesus, Mom and an alien." I found it rather disturbing but I liked it. The Gabriel Frequency was also impressive, but a bit heavy for me in the middle of the afternoon.

Daniel Canty moderated the panel and mentioned how Randy's films are kind of lonely, or about loneliness, or something - and I found myself thinking that many of the films we saw made me feel lonely. Some in the same way that Radiohead's Just video does, and some like my favourite Lars von Trier's films: lonely and traumatised too. Good stuff.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"Serious Games: Understanding the grey area between learning and playing"

Michael Magee and Owen Brierley talked about how game playing is always already a learning experience - along the lines of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You.

Serious Games Initiative
"The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy."

Serious Games: Improving Public Policy through Game-Based Learning and Simulation
Serious Games Summit 2006
Serious Games Canada
Canadian Game Studies Association

Interesting stuff, but I would have loved to hear more critical discussion of military games and the civilianisation of technology. Someone brought up Pax Warrior - an interesting twist on the war game based on inspired by the absolutely tragic experiences of General Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda, where Canadian peace-keeping forces were abandoned by the UN and were not able to stop the genocide of hundreds of thousands. (If you haven't seen Shake Hands With The Devil, I highly recommend it.) My concern is not just with the skills that can be learned in serious games, but the values too. Mia asked about activist games or games for social change, but the panelists pointed out that their value depends on who is trying to do the indoctrinating or resocialising.

(updated 15.08.06)

"Playing the Interface"

:: Fiddian Warman

Fiddian spoke briefly about user experience and "permeable interfaces." He introduced another of Soda's creative partnerships, School Robot test drive, but mostly focussed on Sodaplay and Playforge which encourage radical and open modification. He closed by describing his PhD project and punk band, Neurotic, which involves pogo-ing robots. (How cool is that?!)

:: Mia Makela a.k.a. SOLU

Mia spoke about the VJ scene and live cinema, with its inherent difficulties, and how we lack any systematic study or understanding of how it works. She also mentioned how women approach her about the content of her work, whereas men approach her about the software, as if there is a technology that magically makes it all happen. When it comes to interfaces, she talked about the difference between making a really good door knob versus being interested in what's on the other side of the door. Visual work is currently drawing on audio work, but can we treat images the same way as sound? Is visual remixing the same as audio remixing? Can the software interfaces work along the same principles? For example, being able to manipulate images in 3D space is much more flexible than traditional 2D interfaces. She also spoke about community software development in this area, and honestly it sounded more dramatic than a Portuguese soap opera. Today, Max/MSP and Jitter, Puredata and Processing are the most used tools, and the community development model is crucial for allowing people to feel as though the tools they use have been made with them in mind. DIY programming offers people social status as well as technical control. Mia also mentioned Toshio Iwai's TENORI-ON and soundtoys.net as exemplary interfaces.

:: Randy Knott

You can see the range of Randy's work in his flickr sets, but he focussed his presentation on interface experiments like A is for Apple. He also showed tonnes of gorgeous work that you can find on IAMSTATIC.

In discussion, Mia also raised a very interesting issue or concern: that of software or technological mastery. How is it even possible when the next version is always around the corner?

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.

"The View from Outside In: Margins of Art and Activism"

This panel discussion took a look at how art and activism "share a common belief in the value of the renewal of 'point of view'."

:: Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Cheryl sang for us again - god, it's so beautiful - and then talked about drumming and singing as technology, which is really lovely too because it draws out the sense of culture that I most appreciate: not a thing we have, but rather what we do. She also talked about the aboriginal desire to "not become roadkill on the information highway" and how the internet could be used to expand age-old Native path-making practices.

She explained that there was some early concern about how the internet might act as yet another means to commodify Native culture, but she asked if Native peoples wouldn't want their children to be able to find them online, as part of that world too? To this end her work has included the Drumbytes, Kids From Kanata and Dene/Cree Elderspeak projects.

Cheryl's also played with the notion that everyone can be indigenous in the sense that we all come from, and have responsibilities to, what we call home. This work received a lot of criticism from aboriginal communities who, for obvious reasons, want to protect their identities - but she still tried to push concepts of identity, including her *awesome* treatycard project, which played with the notion that a Treaty Card (the Canadian certificate of "Indian Status") is something that non-Natives would covet, by allowing anyone to create or modify their own Treaty Card. Her most recent project is wêpinâsowina: offerings (to the spirits) which allows people to make prayers online.

:: Fiddian Warman

Fiddian talked about some of Soda Creative's work, like VisionLondon 2012 which allows students to express their visions of future life in London through new media production, and Nahnou Together, which connects children and young people in London and Damascus. Along similar lines, b.tween2cultures.net joins children in the UK and China through images uploaded to flickr, to create a kind of semantic dialogue between people. Very nice. Irrepressible.info was created for Amnesty International to disseminate banned information around the world, in numerous languages, and raise awareness around internet censorship. Also very nice. His main point, of course, was to remind us that interactive media can be effectively and successfully used to participate, to communicate, to change the world, to make a difference. Right on.

In discussion it became sadly obvious, but not entirely unexpected, that these kinds of projects struggle the most to secure adequate funding. In terms of public participation and involvement, the technology issue is still important. Cheryl mentioned how many Native communities still only have dial-up connections, and Fiddian credited existing techie communities for spreading the use of social software, even when the political motivation was lacking. Interestingly, Fiddian also mentioned the differences between UK committment and that from Damascus and China - apparently UK participants have been far more skeptical and have ultimately participated to a far lesser extent. (How embarrassing is that?!)

"Creative Commons: Art, Activism and the Database"

:: J.R. Carpenter

J.R. gave a short presentation titled Pre-Cursor, which focussed on precursive forms of media that have influenced her work in fabricating fiction and recycling code: "I'm looking for something new. I'm looking for something familiar, to hold against so much newness."

Particularly impressive are her "lab reports" which manage to draw out the secret emotional lives of (those-oh-so-objective) scientists:

Forsaken Orbit
I edited texts from the NASA website, taking the "high" out of the "tech" talk of Galileo Obiter engineers, who were clearly distraught at having to end the life of their intrepid satellite.

Also very lovely in terms of space and culture:

The Guide Book: How I Loved the Broken Things of Rome
The cluttered interface of How I Loved the Broken Things of Rome is inspired by the pedagogical style of the modern guide book and a 500 year history of travel writing.

The Neighbourhood: Entre Ville
Entre Ville is an amalgam of the graffiti tags, gardens, garbage and gossip of my back alleyway... You can't make this stuff up.

She spoke a bit about being compelled to link things up, to take advantage of all these databases we keep and to use technology to archive and disseminate everyday life. She also makes tiny paper zines or mini-books of these projects which provide a wonderfully complementary material component to her (re)collections, that you can also (re)collect.

:: Kate Armstrong

Kate presented some of her work on mobility, flow, things and distributed networks:

ArtCamp - associated with Upgrade Vancouver, this is an experimental "un-conference" where participants self-organise and programme their shared experience, challenging traditional hierarchical and invite-only conference structures. It takes place in Vancouver on September 21st, so stay tuned for more on that.

If you were recently at ISEA, you might also remember the In[ ]ex project: "an audio sculpture which creates a mesh network by releasing thousands of embedded wooden blocks into the world. The mesh network collects and processes data to form a sound environment in the space of a shipping container. This project takes place in the context of shipping and distribution of goods and the movement of people in the two port cities of Vancouver, British Columbia, and San Jose, California. In[ ]ex engages both the subject of things and the mechanisms by which things are distributed in the global economy."

Kate also spoke about how networks operate in physical space and possibilities for playful social and political intervention, like collaborations with Glowlab's Drift Relay project and the Tactical Magic Ice Cream Unit which distributes ice cream and propaganda, or "food for thought".

Monday, August 14, 2006

"Technology, Privilege and Innovation: The Legal Perspective"

Ravi Shukla works in internet law in Toronto, and spoke about how when the revolution comes it won't be blessed by lawyers. On the margins of law you get to see what's really going on, because the legal system is fundamentally conservative in the sense that it supports the status quo or existing social order. (He made a great side-point about how we can't then expect to use the legal system to overturn the conquest and protect minority Aboriginal rights.) He described the internet as a highly disruptive technology that has shaken up business models and continues to challenge legal models. From this perspective he focussed on iPods/iTunes and Google.

Ravi continued to explain that the iTunes Store has a low-profit margin, especially compared to the high-profit margin of iPod sales. But you can't have an iTunes store without copyright law, and so the iPod fundamentally leverages intellectual property law. Canadian copyright law is often described as user-rights based, and there was some speculation if the iTunes Store would even come to Canada given the connection between it and owner-rights based copyright law. The eventual introduction of the service actually ended up demonstrating that our laws are not as user-rights based as we like to think.

Google, on the other hand, exploits loopholes in trademark law in its ranking protocols and the ability to use brand names for keyword searching and advertising. (BTW - do a Google search for Google and note the absence of sponsored links!) However, the legal technicality is that the "functional use" of these terms is not trademark infrigement, and search engines are arguing that their software functionality should qualify in this way.

He also talked a bit about how companies use open-source strategies in ways that are quite interesting, and not uncommonly profit-driven. In collaborative cases, it's even possible for a player like IBM to open-source a product and therefore make it difficult or impossible for smaller players to make a profit from a similar product. In other words, open-source can also be used as a strategic business weapon, so it shouldn't be assumed to always be positive.

(Like anything, context is crucial. Following up on my earlier point about portals: portals aren't the problem as much as how they can serve particular interests. For example, a government portal has the power to delineate what constitutes national culture and that can be problematic, especially when the state becomes the arbiter of cultural taste and quality.)

Stephen Selznick then joined us by telephone and started by suggesting that the formal legal system is not always the best way to deal with the question of intellectual property. Consider how judges unfamiliar with new technologies are asked to rule on internet IP. What words or concepts or things will the judge remember when she makes her decision? When he passes IP legislation, what does that mean to him personally, as compared to real estate law which anyone who has bought a house knows at least a bit about? So what is IP? Well, how about "I Know It When I Seize It"?

Working outside the legal system are things like "self-help remedies such as technical protection measures and anti-circumvention legislation," like 'renting' a dvd movie from a kiosk that burns you a copy that only plays a set number of times based on what you pay. But he also mentioned making illegal hacking-type things (like the DeCSS program?) and that doesn't sit well with me at all, but I'm finding it really difficult to follow the legal-speak so maybe I'm misunderstanding something.) He also talked about "collective, as opposed to personal, administration and enforcement of rights in new technologies - the carrot versus the stick approach" and alternate dispute resolution (ADR) that takes place outside the legal system. He explained that this is useful for balancing the rights of an innovator to capitalise on her creative work and the rights of the public to benefit from technological innovation, but I'm not entirely sure how that works.

(Actually - if you're a legal-type, especially of the Canadian variety, please help me understand all of this...)

Stephen referred to three spheres that govern us: government, courts and self-regulation. In a totalitarian situation it would be all government and in "true" democracy it would be all self-regulation, but really we just need a good balance betwene all three. In tech-culture, early adopters are protectionist (conservative) rather than interventionist (radical) in terms of self-regulation, and while it may involve greater technological expertise and nimbleness, it is often elitist. This, then, needs to be balanced with government or public interests.

In discussion, Ravi commented on how we're using technology to make decisions for us. (I think this is similar to some of Alex's points on protocol, and I think this is socially, culturally, politically and ethically dodgy at best.) Kate Armstrong asked how self-regulation relates to user-generated content, and I suddenly remembered Foucault's panopticism and the creepiness of watching ourselves and each other. I'm not sure if her question was actually answered but it does bring up some interesting issues that I hope we get back to.

"The Convergence Conundrum: A Cross- Canadian Perspective on the Business of Content"

Marc Beaudet, from Montréal web production and service company Turbulent Media, talked about how the cell phone is not an important medium in Canada at the moment, but that may change as multi-media convergence increases in importance and phone technologies improve. Canadian broadcasters are the major force in convergent media production and the key player in promotion strategies. Media producers, then, are still "taking orders" from those who control the means of "convergent funding" and dissemination. More funding is coming from private interests, so that much original content is emerging in the commercial context. As we're still doing web-based work this is particularly difficult since many people expect web content to be free.

Nichole McGill introduced Canadian Heritage's culture.ca portal to Canadian content online in both English and French, and the culturescope.ca portal to Canadian cultural policies. Susan intervened and asked about convergence, especially in terms of user-generated content. (I'm still amazed that the government still follows the web portal model, but Nichole says they're re-evaluating that right now too. Man, government is slow to change!) Nichole also said that user-generated content is gaining interest, but there are concerns about how to aggregate it and how IP will work since we still work with a government-based, top-down funding model. They'e asking if there should be some sort of Canadian MySpace or flickr because of our "proud to be it, but hard to see it" sense of being Canadian, and the need to foster more Canadian content for local and global audiences. Primary funding vehicles include the New Media R&D Initiative and the New Media Research Networks Fund.

Katherine Lee, from Video in Studios in Vancouver, talked about user-generated content such as music and video, and the blurring of roles in traditional content production. While the technology and means of dissemination are here - and we expect this sort of accessibility - she asked where and how professional (artistic) content producers can position themselves now. She made an interesting, if rough, analogy between home-grown content and coffee-growing, where producers are not as well compensated as they should be. (I imagine a sort of organic, fair-trade Canadian content industry and culture, and I get kind of excited...)

Wayne Clark, from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, wrapped up the discussion by talking about what Canadian media convergence has accomplished so far. He mentioned the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund and convergent media like the Degrassi tv show website, and focussed mostly on ad revenue models and the difficulties of making media fit the mobile phone.

This got me thinking about the success of CBC Radio 3 as convergent radio, web and mobile media, and I asked the panelists to speak a bit about this... everyone agreed that CBC Radio 3 rocks, but it was interesting to learn that it isn't as popular in Québec.

Daniel weighed in with a critique of our continuing top-down funding structure - he believes that culture should not be a "national property" and that we really need to get more in touch with what's happening from the bottom-up and give power to these producers as well. (Score!) Nichole acknowledged that this sort of paradigm shift is in the works, but again, bureaucracy is slow to change. Marc commented also that content producers here are not really independent or self-defined, but I have to wonder what an "independent" sector might actually comprise...

More after lunch.

IA Screen : Introducing the Canadian new media context

For the next six days I'll be participating in the BNMI's Interactive Screen event. You can check out the live audio stream during the days ahead, and I'll do my best to post notes and comment as we go along.

Susan Kennard & Daniel Canty started us off this morning with a brief intro to the Canadian context:

- margins, media, migrations: new media should not be only self-referential

- triple bottom line: social, economic, ecological

- new media as non-disciplinary or post-disciplinary work

- new media as social vector, as ethical vector, as world-building

Self-described Cree & European half-breed Cheryl L'Hirondelle welcomed us to the Native lands of the Banff area with gorgeous drumming and singing that served as a wonderful reminder of the cultural richness and complexity that Canadians live with every day.

I really loved Susan and Daniel's description of new media as non- or post-disciplinary practice, and Susan closed the intro with a brilliantly critical comment by Geert Lovink on the current status of multi-disciplinary work that I've asked her to forward to me so that I can post it here too.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Culture matters: designing for mobile and locative media

I'm off to Banff early tomorrow morning for the BNMI's Interactive Screen 0.6 event - really looking forward to hanging out with interesting people in one of my favourite places and excited because I'll finally get to play Blast Theory's Can You See Me Now? mixed-reality game, instead of just reading about it!

On Monday I'll be giving a short presentation as part of The View From The Inside Out panel with Jan-Christoph Zoels from Experientia/IDII, and Mark Resch from Onomy Labs. I thought I'd talk a bit about my research - what I see as significant interests and values shaping, and being shaped by, contemporary locative media design practices and the shifting relationships between, and amongst, producers and consumers. Ultimately, I'd like to connect these local observations to more global concerns of community and citizenship in the 21st century, and discuss what I see to be some of the most insistent challenges facing practitioners everywhere today.

On Thursday I'll give a longer and more detailed keynote address - I posted the abstract last month but here it is again:

Technosocial Screens: Mobilities, Communities, Citizenships

screen, v. to show, or hide from view; to sift or separate; to shelter or protect

New interactive technologies promise to reconfigure relations between producers and consumers, public and private, physical and digital, local and global - and in these shifting scenarios the screen takes on a multitude of roles. Not only are screens changing size and resolution, some are becoming softer and more flexible, and others are disappearing entirely. Some screens offer a bird's-eye view of the world that we can hold in our hands, and others tell us where we are - or could be - at any given moment. Whatever the type of screen, we can be sure of one thing: people, places, objects and ideas are being screened at the same time.

Together we will explore some of the critical ways in which new media technologies shape, and are shaped by, our changing experiences and understandings of community and citizenship. What kind of shelter and hope can we expect from a world of everywhere and anywhere media? From what, and whom, are we protecting ourselves? How are these technological practices sorting our everyday social, cultural and creative relationships? What, and whom, gets hidden - or cannot hide? How can new media technologies explore different ways of belonging and being together? How can they encourage diverse and lively participation and representation around shared matters of concern?

As always, I'll post my presentations when they're done, and I'll blog my reflections as the week progresses.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Knitting and public politics

Les Tricoteuses "Our local editor recently told us that the mayor of Rockland, Me., in a petulant moment, spoke in an unseemly manner to a lady member of the city council, suggesting she refrain from knitting as her activity distracted attention from serious business being considered. Our editor seemed to dismiss the matter as petty frivolity and faulty manners. I think not. I believe this is meaningful in our time. It is a good sign and shows what is going on." (src)

What is it about knitting in public that can be so unsettling? Are we afraid that someone knitting cannot, or worse yet does not wish to, engage with those around them? (Women have long gathered to knit and gossip.) Is it the intrusion of a private activity into public space that unsettles? (Like the laptop user at the local cafe, or the conference backchannel?)

My first exposure to the direct connection between women, knitting and politics came as a child when we learned about the French Revolution. French women of that time, I was taught, were so cruel and callous that they knit while watching public executions by guillotine. But were les tricoteuses cunningly crafty or simply handling stress by handling objects? Dickens seemed to believe the former. In the characters of Madame Defarge and her shadow The Vengeance, from A Tale of Two Cities, he memorably unites this ruthless revolutionary female spirit and knitting. Defarge is notoriously obsessive and vengeful in her knitting as she encodes in her stitches descriptions and names of enemies of the Revolution.

A subtle public politics always ran through the more affective dimensions of knitting. Knitting was encouraged as a means to treat hysteria and depression, as a means to give women a creative purpose, as a means to keep women productively occupied, and yet also as a means for women to be materially and socially expressive in ways that allowed them to exist, and persist, beyond the private realm. The social history of embroidery samplers is quite illustrative of this kind education and communication.

"With some women brain-work is impossible. It produces all sorts of diseases and makes them at once a nervous wreck.... The quiet, even, regular motion of the needles quiets the nerves and tranquilizes the mind and lets thought flow freely." (src)

Despite being handiwork or manual labour, knitters often discuss the mental benefits of their activity: "If the pattern isn't too taxing, and if there are no distractions while I'm knitting, I can sometimes enter a fluid state of thinking that is superior to my usual clunky, solid state of mind." (src)

Other descriptions evoke Madame Dafarge in their simultaneous sublimation and manifestation of inappropriate or unwanted female emotions: "The knitting puts up a small but substantial barricade between me and the rest of the world . . . Pretending to be absorbed in my knitting takes the edge off interacting with certain other people, too . . . I tighten my grip on my needles and grimace meaningfully at my last few stitches, pretending I've just made a mistake . . . It might be dangerous, though. I'm not a warm, fuzzy woman; I rely on my knitting to be warm and fuzzy for me. When I give something I've knitted to friends and relatives, there's genuine affection knitted into the baby sweater or hat or Christmas stocking, but I'm concerned that my thoughts would still betray me if anyone could decipher my knitting." (src)

Knitting can also involve a sense of mastery and control, it can be a source of pride, and a way of claiming space for oneself - a room of one's own in the larger world. "When I am stuck in a waiting room, or locked in a carpool line, or trapped watching something insipid on TV with my children, I might look glum. But as long as I have my knitting with me, I am more likely gleeful. I am supposedly wasting my time in those situations, yet for every row I finish, I snatch pleasure and satisfaction for myself." (src)

Perhaps this is where the public discomfort comes from? A woman knitting in public is self-possessed, she almost flaunts her ability to be productive when others can't, to create when others can only consume. From this emotional politics she can also claim moral righteousness, and in the multi-tasking dimension, she can claim superior skill and challenge the notion that public space is unitary or unified in process and product.

But women have also knitted for public spaces and for the public good, and this involves a different kind of public politics. For example, the Red Cross has a long tradition of war-time knitting, from distributing patterns suitable to the WWII environment to today's afghans for Afghans project, which is also completely fascinating in terms of culture and language.

"The November 24, 1941, cover story of the popular weekly magazine Life explained 'How To Knit.' Along with basic instructions and a pattern for a simple knitted vest, the article advised, 'To the great American question ‘What can I do to help the war effort?’ the commonest answer yet found is ‘Knit'.’ The article pointed out that hand-knitters were turning out garments for soldiers despite the fact that machine-knitting was more efficient. Knitting gave people at home a way to help.



'The men hardly have time to grab their guns before their wives and sweethearts grab their needles and yarn,' claimed Time on July 21, 1940. Knitting provided warmth and comfort for the soldier and therapeutic distraction for the knitter ... [On January 22, 1942 The New York Times wrote] 'The propaganda effect of hand knitting cannot be estimated in terms of hard cash, but it is considerable. A sweater for a bluejacket. A helmet for a flying cadet, made by some devoted woman in a small town far from the war, is sure to arouse interest in the navy or Air Force among the friends of the woman doing the knitting. And she herself feels that she has an active part in this vast conflict; she is not useless, although she can do nothing else to help win the war'." (src)

After the war, knitting re-entered the predominantly private, female domain - despite the increased drive to turn middle-class women into consumers who buy things rather than make them. The state of knitting today draws on all the periods and attitudes described above to, ahem, stitch a new sense of public politics.

"Some see crafting as a stance against mass culture and consumerism: individuality triumphing over uniformity. And then there's the green perspective: better to turn old fabric into something original instead of contributing to landfill. There's the subversive, punk-rock DIY attitude...And then there's the feminist perspective, a re-think of the 1970s equation that domesticity equals oppression. Now that crafting is a choice rather than a necessity (mothers no longer having to knit just to clothe their kids) its association with drudgery has disappeared. Where many second-wave feminists saw crafts as synonymous with the kitchen sink, today's young feminists see them as a potent form of expression." (src)

Craftivism is based on the claim that "protest and dissent come in many different forms." The Revolutionary Knitting Circle is dedicated to "building community, and speeding forward the revolution, through knitting." microRevolt uses knitting and other needlework as means to "investigate the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism to inform the current crisis of global expansion and the feminization of labor." As Mike Press at craft research puts it: "This, it seems to me, follows the long historical role of craft which is a way of thinking and acting upon the world as a means of self-development, critical reflection, education and making culture."

In my view, it is this making of culture that is so important and valuable when it comes to public politics. Knitting's strongest contribution, then, is a persistent demonstration of the ability to craft culture materially, socially and ideologically. The question that most interests me at the end of the day is what kinds of culture and politics are being crafted, and by whom?

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Employer sabotage: turning students into waste products

The "Informal Economy" of the Information University
Marc Bousquet

"One of the reasons that graduate employees are so vocal is because the transformation of graduate education accomplished by the three-decade conversion of the university to a center of capital accumulation needs to be viewed as a profound form of 'employer sabotage'—most graduate employees find that their doctorate does not represent the beginning but instead the end of a long teaching career: as I’ve observed in another venue, the 'award' of the doctoral degree increasingly represents a disqualification from teaching for someone who has already been teaching for a decade or more. In the course of re-imagining the graduate student as a source of informationalized labor, the academy has increasingly evacuated the professional-certification component of the doctoral degree (the degree plays a key role in the way professionals maintain a monopoly on professional labor; however, now that work formerly done by persons holding the degree is done by persons studying for the degree, the degree itself no longer represents entrance into the profession). The consequence of this evacuation is that the old fordist sense of the doctoral recipient as the 'product' of graduate education has little meaning—instead, the degree holder must now be understood in systemic terms as the waste product of graduate education—not merely 'disposable,' but that which must be disposed of for the contantly-churning system of continuously-replaced student labor to function properly."

I feel like I've been punched in the kidneys. Thanks Glen ;)

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Being funded isn't getting paid, and autonomy isn't agency

Yesterday I was going over my dissertation's analysis of UT's funding, which I describe as a complex and dynamic assemblage of social, material and financial relationships, and I stopped to look up "funding" in the dictionary. The OED says it means "to supply with funds, pay (a person); to finance (a position or enterprise)." But each of the historical quotations references government or philanthropy, making it clear it's to be distinguished from regular pay from an employer.

Graduate students in Canada compete for both funding and employment. For example, I was funded by the federal and provincial governments, and by a public university, in the form of scholarships and fellowships. In exchange for these taxable funds I am given a great deal of personal autonomy and I must complete my degree. The final products here are my dissertation and me, a credentialed practitioner, both of which ostensibly serve the public.

When I started my PhD, the $35,000/year SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship didn't exist, and no one enrolled before the programme started can apply for one. My Doctoral Fellowship paid $19,000 a year, but today they pay $20,000. In any case, all award recipients are expected to be engaged "full-time" with their studies, and can only accept "part-time" employment in addition to this funding. All tuition fees are deducted from this amount, and since Carleton doesn't offer lower post-residency fees, I pay full tuition until completion.

The StatsCan low-income cut-off is currently around $19,000 for metro populations - this means that after tuition is paid, I live under the "poverty line". If I'm fortunate enough to get a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship next year then I can expect to earn $30,000 that year. But since I can no longer claim student status I'll be required to begin repaying my student loan. In my case, that's around $900 a month and that means it's entirely possible that I'll be living even further below the poverty line after graduation.

Of course the ideal scenario is to make the transition directly to a tenure-track position, but that's about as likely to happen as me waking up tomorrow with a third breast. As it stands, I have tuition and living expenses covered until the end of August. Teaching one class this term will pay my tuition but not my living expenses; I'll need to find employment in order to finish my degree. And, of course, what now threatens to postpone my completion is exactly what has delayed my progress so far: the desire to avoid poverty.

So, back to this idea that funding is not the same as getting paid. Certain activites, like academic research and art, are more often project-based and therefore well-suited to commission or competition. But these kinds of labour are valued differently (dare I say less?) than "regular" jobs or, as some prefer, "real" jobs. Actually, it's considered to be a bit of give-and-take: you can't tell me what I can and can't do, but I can't expect to be paid as much money as someone you do get to tell what they can and can't do. I'm being paid, so the story goes, with money and freedom.

Now here's the question: does anyone else sense a weird tension here between autonomy and agency? What exactly am I free to do? And what are others free to do to me? Or with the products of my labour?

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Teaching Carnival!

At any given time I can think of a handful of reasons to doubt an academic career, but teaching is never amongst them. It's one of the few things in life I've really wanted to be good at, mostly because my teachers, for better and worse, have been extremely influential socialising and enculturating forces in my life. The best ones are my real heroes, influencing and inspiring me every day, and the worst are recorded in a notebook I've kept for the past thirteen years. Weird obsessive-compulsive, I know, but pretty damn useful as a way to teach myself to be a better teacher.

Still, in my experience the best way to get stronger is to play with stronger players, and the online version of this for me is the Teaching Carnival, a bi-weekly collection of blog posts "related to teaching in higher education." I think that description sounds far too dull for posts that made me laugh so hard I snorted tea out my nose, posts that made me yell at the screen, posts that changed the way I think and do, but there you go. I read every single post last year and promised myself that this year I would be an active contributor.

September 1st is the first carnival for the 06/07 academic year - and it's being hosted at WorkBook. Any and all topics are welcome, but in his call for carnies George has also come up with a list of possible topics to get us started:

  1. What are you doing differently this year compared to last year? Why?
  2. What kind of preparation for teaching did you get in grad school? Was it adequate? What should have been done differently? How are you preparing the next generation of grad students for the classroom? How does the way you were taught affect the way you teach?
  3. What sorts of innovative writing assignments are you using? I am particularly interested in disciplines other than English, since I believe that writing should be a part of almost all courses. How do you evaluate your students' writing? Do you use a rubric?
  4. Are your students engaged in service learning? What kinds of connections between the classroom and the community are you making?
  5. How does information technology figure into your teaching?


As my mind melts in the crazy hot and humid weather, these are quite helpful... I did change some things for the second-year STS class... To get in on the first carnival, be sure to email George (georgehwilliams at gmail dot com) with your nominations and/or tag your own by the end of the month. And, of course, past carnivals continue to be great reads.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Too much information

Kaki was telling me yesterday about getting up every morning at 4:30 to go surfing, and how being in the ocean like that just puts everything in proper perspective. As I find myself getting more and more wound up by people and things that really don't matter or interest me, her words stuck with me the rest of the day. So I got up early this morning to do my yoga and meditation routine outside before it gets too hot, and then I sat down to read the news.

I learned that we're getting closer to being able to become invisible and that for all its weirdness, alchemy was also a "direct engagement with the political, economic, religious and intellectual realities of the early modern world." I read that Israel has expanded their ground offensive despite increasing human and environmental catastrophe, and Fidel Castro has temporarily passed state control to his brother, which has led to Cuban expatriates rejoicing that he may soon die.

And then I realised, much to my horror, that in less than 15 minutes I had effectively abolished all the positive effects of my earlier activities. I felt overwhelmed and tense and started thinking about those people and things that really shouldn't be upsetting me. And then - surprise surprise - I didn't feel like writing. So I'm going sailing this afternoon, and tomorrow I'll experiment with having only three applications - Word, iTunes and iChat - open until the day's writing is done.

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