Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Wearable Interfaces, Smart Materials and Living Fabrics

I'm really looking forward to participating in Fleshing Out: Wearable Interfaces, Smart Materials and Living Fabrics on 9-10 November, 2006 @ at V2_ in Rotterdam.

The first day involves a series of presentations and discussions by some amazing researchers, designers and artists on topics ranging from electronic garments and biojewellery to research collaborations and policy. Here's a bit of what I'll be talking about:

Of seams and scars: Tracing technological boundaries and points of attachment

In a world where new technologies often seek to be seamless in both principle and execution, boundaries between things become increasingly difficult to identify--let alone account for, and be accountable to.

However, tracings of these cuts and joinings remain visible as seams and scars, and so we can look to them in an attempt to better understand these emerging material and symbolic cultural practices.

Wearable technologies and smart fabrics bring together computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology and other materials sciences to reshape our very understandings and experiences of embodiment and embodied interaction.

With a curious combination of robustness and fragility, a multitude of objects and subjects are being measured, marked, cleaved apart, further manipulated, and then fashioned back together again in new arrangements.

By looking at the seams in fabric we can focus on what is being joined, and how the joining is accomplished. When we see a scar on flesh, we can concentrate on how wounds are made, and how they heal.

This presentation will take up several examples of seams and scars that appear in new textile technologies, and articulate critical matters of social and cultural concern that encourage further reflection and discussion.

The second day is a workshop "to analyse best practices in the interdisciplinary field of wearable technology, come up with scenarios, and research the possibilities of setting up new innovative projects." This sounds particularly promising, especially since I'm part of the "Critical Intervention (or Direct Action)" group with Kristina Andersen and Joey Berzowska, and the other groups include materials science and textiles, grow your own tissue engineering, and fitness and performance. Sweet!

But if wearables are your thing, be sure to check out the Make Your Own Wearable Workshop @ Mediamatic in Amsterdam, 10-12, 2006 as well. And while I'm at it, also related is the RFID and the Internet of Things Workshop from 14-16 November also @ Mediamatic. Stay tuned for reports from Timo Arnall and I on how these different workshops relate to our upcoming work for the Touch project.

Just one last thing: I'll also be in London both before and after this for a few days finishing up some work and (yay!) hanging out with friends. If you want to get together, please let me know by email or sms.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I (HEART) COMICS

For the symposium I recently attended, I added, for the first time, something personal to my biography - and at least half a dozen people wanted to talk to me about that instead of my presentation, which I thought was cool.

You see, I love comics. I don't tend to go for manga, nor do I really get into traditional superhero comics - but I do think that superheroes are super interesting and that Dan Clowes' Eightball #23 was a brilliant, if unconventional, contribution to the genre. So the comics I like the most tend to be found in the corner of the comic store labelled as (sigh) "alternative" or "underground" or sometimes simply "adult." I also like what literature-types call "graphic novels," although I'm with Clowes when he says they're really just "comic-strip novels" or long comics. (Of course there are graphic novels that compile serialised comics, and then there are comics that are published as one long story. I like both.)

I like lots of different kinds of stories, but I was introduced to the world of comics through Los Bros Hernandez. I have to smile remembering when we were 16, and Colleen & I used to get called Maggie & Hopey, but before that I'd never read stories about women that I enjoyed as much as the ones in Love & Rockets. (If you only ever read two graphic novels, they really should be Palomar - which collects Gilbert's comics, and Locas - which compiles Jaime's work).

Anyway, I think I actually squeaked with excitement when I saw Gilbert Hernandez's new graphic novel, Sloth, on the shelf at Midtown Comics last Sunday. And it's good. Really good. You can check out the first few pages here.

I also brought these home:

Jessica Abel - La Perdida
I read the first few in serial form and am looking forward to reading the rest. It's all about the spaces-in-between...

Alison Bechdel - Fun Home
I wasn't familiar with Dykes To Watch Out For, but I read a Guardian review of Fun Home and thought "This chick is super cool!" so I bought her book.

Marjane Satrapi - Chicken With Plums
The latest from another of my all-time favourites. Wickedly human stories.

David B. - Epileptic
I've heard good things about this... It's dark and gorgeous to look at, and I have a deep thing for intimately cut stories too, so we'll see.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Dissertation interlude: ethics and aesthetics

I. When social science and design come together we can create new spaces for ethics and aesthetics to converge. This convergence is complicated by how each practice understands and operationalises these concepts, but it is through this messiness that goodness and beauty come to struggle, and love and hope persist.

II. Neither social science nor design practice prefers messes. Shared expectations revolve around clarity, consistency and coherency--and there are indeed many things in this world that are clear and definite. But what about all the other things that resist being sorted or pinned down? “If this is an awful mess . . . then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?” (Law 2004:1). What interests and values are served by forcing them to comply with an order? Can we imagine different ways of engaging these messes?

III. Rather than having to do with morals, ethics also refers to ethos, or the characteristic spirit and sentiment of a people. This bottom-up rather than top-down approach to social conduct is also related to Latour’s “parliament of things” and his call for assembling around matters of concern rather than matters of fact: “There are no more naked truths, but there are no more naked citizens either. The mediators have the whole space to themselves” (Latour 1993:144). Aesthetics, not in the sense of art but in the perception of the beautiful, also arise from ethics. These concepts can be used to help social scientists and designers engage and evaluate social and material interactions within increasingly messy collectives of humans and non-humans (Latour 1999).

IV. Following Maffesoli (1996), ethical action and aesthetic experience are always already productively combined in social and cultural life. As Shields (2002:205) further explains, “Ethics alone is insufficient to make changes or guide actions. It is a content that requires a form – an aesthetics . . . Aesthetics alone is equally insufficient, for it leads to an aestheticized politics of manipulation and of form alone without content.” The remaining challenge, then, is to assemble and mediate shared matters of concern in an attempt to negotiate--and create--goodness and beauty in our lives and work.

V. According to the OED, voluptuousness is “suggestive of sensuous pleasure by fulness and beauty of form.” As such it also falls within the realm of an ethical aesthetics, and can thus be mobilised as a means of engaging each other. As Lather (1993:686) argues, a sense of voluptuous validity “goes too far toward disruptive excess, leaky, runaway, risky practice; embodies a situated, partial, positioned, explicit tentativeness; constructs authority via practices of engagement and self-reflexivity; creates a questioning text that is bounded and unbounded, closed and open; [and] brings ethics and epistemology together.”

VI. This is difficult work. Both designers and social scientists have been trained to do - and are rewarded for - the opposite. “So…faith has to be constantly replenished – and…hope which is crushed by history and experience. Yet people do get up and fight again, and they often do that despite any promises of success” (Zournazi and Papastergiadis 2002:84).

CUPE4600-Contract Instructors

"Do you support your Negotiating Committee up to and including strike action?"
92% voted YES

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Looking back on Architecture and Situated Technologies

Okay, back from NYC and all immediate teaching concerns dealt with, I'm going to try to put down some of my reflections on the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium. It's proving to be a bit difficult because I genuinely enjoyed all the presentations, but can't really figure out what to take from them. Or rather, I'm not sure there was any whole that could be taken away. But first things first, here is a copy of my presentation slides and notes:

Technosocial Devices of Everyday Life (1.01 mb pdf)

The organisers have asked all the speakers to submit their presentations so that they can be posted to the symposium website, and we were told that audio files of all our talks would be made available there too. I'll actually wait until I can see/hear all the presentations again before commenting specifically on their content, as my handwritten notes seems to be a bit lacking in consistency and coherency.

For now I might just note that Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Usman Haque's work continues to impress me, and Charlie Gere's presentation on the Catholic liturgy and the cultural importance of ritual really struck a chord with me as well (it also reminded me of some good conversations I've had with Rob and Joost). But I do have a few thoughts on the event as a whole that I'd like to think through here, so please bear with me.

For one, I learned something about myself: It seems that I am profoundly uncomfortable being filmed all the time. The entire three days were recorded by some very nice people, but not once was I asked for my permission nor was I ever told what the ultimate objective or product would be, or where it would be made available. Perhaps this is simply a difference between ethnography and documentary, but it struck me as a bit off. I'll also admit to being fairly unimpressed that I had to be interviewed on film after several drinks. (Don't worry Mum, I wasn't drunk!) But I wasn't straight either, as we were nearing the end of a leisurely group dinner after a full day of presentations. Now, I mean no disrespect to the film-makers because they were lovely; it was the process as a whole that weirded me out. Pushing my personal reservations aside, I do suspect there will be an interesting record of how multidisciplinary collaboration does - and does not - work, and that's valuable.

And actually, now that I think about it, I really don't envy the organisers for having to get so many different, bright and intense people to work together. Still, I'm not convinced that "underspecification" was the best approach given that we had so little time. For example, Saturday was spent working together in small groups in order to produce some kind of public performance by the end of the day. Several participants were unclear about, or uncomfortable with, all this performance stuff and others, I think, were too quick to dismiss their concerns as "performance anxiety" or an inability to "go with the flow." Lots of different kinds of people, for different kinds of reasons, like a bit of structure to guide them, and the extreme open-endedness of our activities was bound to unsettle them and probably could have been both anticipated and accommodated.

Having said that, I was very fortunate to have spent the entire day having entirely too much fun with Eric Paulos, Peter Hasdell, Michael Fox and Mark Shepard. In order to explore situated technologies, Mark asked us to come up with ten possible users, ten possible uses, and ten possible sites of use - and from there we narrowed it down to "stray animals," "enabling criminal activity" and "churches" or urban sanctuaries. Ultimately we devised an amusing underground network that transmitted messages encoded in dog urine. And like I said, it was good fun, but I'm not sure if or how it helped the audience better understand or engage the idea of situated technologies.

And, like all good conferences, the best moments were spent shooting the shit with interesting people. Special thanks go to the organisers Mark Shepard, Omar Khan and Trebor Scholz for their efforts and great conversation. Thanks also to our hosts from The Architectural League of New York, The Urban Centre and Eyebeam. I also have to say that this event was better administered than any other I've experienced. All those everyday things that make and keep people happy - travel arrangements, good accommodations, plenty of food and drink, etc. - were brilliantly taken care of by Jessica Blaustein of the Architectural League. Jessica is also an impressive scholar in her own right, and her interests in multidisciplinary studies, publics and public programmes are very much in sync with my own, so it was great to meet her as well. And last, but certainly not least, I very much enjoyed conversations and people-watching with Richard Coyne and others at our super rockandroll hotel.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Situated technologies, agency and underspecification

Last night around 80 people crowded into a small hot room at the Urban Center to listen to Mark Shepard, Omar Khan and Trebor Scholz introduce topics related to Architecture and Situated Technologies. I have notes scrawled over a programme that I'll sort out later, but a couple of things stuck in my head that I hope we get back to today.

First, there appeared to be some sort of assumption that 'things' are about to take on agency. This is a very strange claim to someone who studies material culture because agency is understood to always already include people and objects.

Second, there was quite a bit of focus on 'underspecification' - which solicited vigourous nodding amongst the audience but then seemed to lead conversation into a false dichotomy between underspecification and overspecialisation. (This also manifested in Trebor's call to stop "hiding behind professional language" as if there is some sort of evil intention - or weak character - behind specialist language.)

In any case, things get going in an hour or so this morning, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Street-level New York City

I'll be in NYC this Thursday through Monday - the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium runs Thursday evening, Friday and Saturday and that leaves me some extra time to hang out.

I'm looking forward to listening to what the streets have to say, but if there's anything else that I shouldn't miss, or if you'd like to get together, please leave a comment, email or text me.

(photo credit + saster.net)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dear Rob,

Hope this note finds you well and enjoying your sabbatical in balmy Brazil. The leaves have changed colour here and it's getting cold at night, but the Farmer's Market at Landsdowne is thriving and the neighbourhood kids are getting ready for Halloween.

I've started working part-time with Timo Arnall's Touch project, based at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, and this is what I'll be doing with them in the coming months.

Next week, I'll be in NYC for the Architecture & Situated Technologies symposium. My presentation focusses on three contemporary and global modes of power - discipline, control and terror - and how these interests and values become manifest in pervasive computing. By looking at the culture and science of safety, I locate ubicomp as exercises in power at both micro- and macro-scales. Ultimately, my objective wasn't to suggest abstract guidelines for the development of new technologies, but rather to articulate and explore specific arenas on-the-ground in which intervention and action are possible and productive. I'll let you know how it goes.

Next month I'll be going to Rotterdam to participate in the FLESHING OUT : Wearable Interfaces, Smart Materials, and Living Fabrics seminar. I haven't, ahem, fleshed out my presentation enough yet, but I'm thinking along the lines of the culture and politics of soft and voluptuous technologies. (You know, Irigaray's notion that feminine touch brings us back into the world?)

In other news, I'm suffering a bout of righteous socialist furor over the gross exploitation of my labour as a sessional lecturer at Carleton. I mean for fuck's sake, it's not like I work in a coal-mine or anything brutal like that, but I do work in a public institution and I make CAD$4880 (gross) to teach a class of 70 students for four months. Could you always do that with a smile? Knowing that the TA for the class is making almost the same amount for a small fraction of the total labour required? (That's not at all their fault, but still!) Knowing that the same contract at Ottawa U pays CAD$6000? Knowing that the university takes back $2058.60 of that for your tuition - despite the fact that you haven't taken a class in four fucking years?! Knowing that the first year or two after graduation will be working at the same pay scale? Knowing that at the same time student loan payments will be $900 a month? I've said it before, and I'll say it again. This is all completely uncivilised!

On the other hand, can I just say how much I still love teaching? Every single day I learn something new from students, and this seems to be a really good bunch - despite the fact they they are almost completely incapable of following directions! But seriously, we may not get to hold class in a virtual world, but we do get to hang out and discuss sexism and racism in Mac ads, as well as talk about how the internet is falling apart, and how Google "acquired" YouTube for $1.65 billion, which means the founders are now very wealthy and happy young men. It's fun!

Well, that's about it I guess. But before you think I've forgotten, I want to let you know I'm on it and I'm doing my very best - which all things considered is pretty damn good! Check your email next week.

Take care for now,
Anne

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Technologies situated in urban cultures of fear and safety

Two tasks today, and one is to finish off my presentation for the Architecture and Situated Technologies symposium in NYC next week. I'm still not entirely clear on the scope and focus of the event *, but since I have only fifteen minutes to present something, I've chosen to focus on - and thus open up for discussion - one matter that I believe is instrumental in shaping pervasive computing.

If the internet emerged from war, then so too is ubicomp - it's just a different war. For all the ideal (and idealist) research in mobile, wearable, distributed, networked and context-aware computing, it's actually on-the-ground right now as part of a bigger technosocial exercise in managing security and terror. This isn't the network society - it's the risk society and bare life.

So I'll be talking about technologies situated in urban cultures of fear and safety, technologies situated in everyday life, technologies of inclusion and exclusion: from the rfid tag in my cat and the young woman who uses her cell phone to discourage unwanted male attention, to workplace and schoolyard biometrics, as well as contactless payment services and smart cards. I'll talk about spatial surveillance as social sorting, about locative media and their relation to refugee camps, and about how the imperative to be "connected" and experience the "good life" shapes individual and collective expectations around technologies and urban life.

But mostly I'm just looking forward to discussing this and more with the other participants and the audience. If you're there, please come say hello.

*To be honest, I found the associated list discussion interesting in its range of perspectives, but without the moderators anchoring the content, it quickly eluded my grasp. I mean, collaborative practice shouldn't mean a free-for-all. I don't support generalised or universal guidelines, but that doesn't mean that playing together doesn't require temporary rules of engagement, or some form of contextual etiquette. After all, it's not just academics who are capable of abstruse conversation.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

I'll be the first to note that the historical reasons for celebration can be a bit unsettling, but I totally love Thanksgiving. I mean, it happens when the local landscape is at its most awe-inspiring and when the harvest is abundant, but most importantly for me, it's a gorgeous long weekend spent doing nothing but cooking, eating, drinking and laughing with the people I love. Oh, and being reminded that the world is small and I have much for which to be thankful.

Friday, October 6, 2006

Schulze & Webb grasp good design

Jack Schulze & Matt Webb, two of the most talented and fun people I know, have a new blog: Pulse Laser.

(Get that title! It's almost as good as the crazy prog-rock-meets-Archigram aesthetic they seem to dig as well. I mean, how can you go wrong with a "spaceships and politics!" - not to mention "more exploration of robot arms" - approach to "design, the new world of product, and interactions"?! Matt and Jack rock my world. )

But seriously, there's some good thinking and writing and drawing going on there already - although I am having some problems with the feed link (a little help guys please?).

Discussing Timo's recent, and most excellent, post on the dashed line, Matt notes that "the dashed line for RFID is doubly appropriate first because the field is invisible and, second, because indicated interaction hasn’t happened yet–it exists only in potential." Indeed!

And this post on model-train hobbyists reveals the kinds of genuinely ethnographic sensibilities that Matt works with (I like to think this has something to do with our excellent conversations over the years ;)). Notice the detailed observations - the pointing and describing of what he saw - as well as the attention given to cultural expectations of personal privacy. But then we get to the interpretive bits, the reflexive bits, and things get really interesting.

"Nothing has changed. The technology is the same as it was [18 years ago]–the trains are controlled with a voltage knob wired to the track, and the points are controlled by switches directly connected. I guess I was expecting some involvement of computers, or some automation… but maybe that’s not the point. I did see two chaps operating trains on the same layout, communicating only through on-layout signals, just as regular train operators would. It’s apparently very absorbing, operating the controls...I don’t know whether this was true when I last went to an exhibition, but the technology was surprisingly unreliable. Trains often needed assistance to get over a rough patch in the track, especially at slow speeds, and people were often doing small amounts of maintenance...I was surprised not to see any futuristic trains...Perhaps this is simply because layouts with more points are more exciting, and futuristic, high speed trains don’t work like that...But it was disappointing to see the lack of change over the past two decades..."

Matt's assumptions about technology, and his expectations of technological progress over time, become very apparent in these excerpts. But what if the values these hobbyists associate with their craft include the beauty and nostalgia of keeping history alive? Or the joyous absorption of manual work and constant maintainance? What if there is a desire to resist automation and ease of use? What could we learn then about what people want and expect from new technological designs?

Matt's thinking leads him to ask, amongst other things, "what a model railway hobby would look like using modern technology and an internet sensibility." This made me think of my dad and crystal radio hobbyists. The hobby involves old, sometimes even obsolete, technologies - and yet the hobbyist community uses the internet, a current technology, to stay connected. The model railway guys get together through public exhibitions; the crystal radio guys get together through newsgroups. Both hobbies are largely solitary activities, done in the privacy of their homes. But getting together with others who share the interest, and who can provide material support for it, is integral to the survival and development of the hobby - and to the technologies used by the hobbyists. I assume that a big part of the pleasure in each case involves the back-and-forth that happens between individual activity and social interaction. This back-and-forth action is also a big part of computer hacking, car-modding and crafting of all sorts. The exhibition, the conference, the auction - we need these spaces to come together to trade things and ideas. As Matt says, "Nothing has changed."

And as if that's not enough to hook me, Jack posts a sketch of "a phone dock that distributes all the things I use in the phone into discrete physical instances locally. Pretty self descriptive really, a receipt printer pushes out text messages as they arrive. To make a call, stamp out the number, or add a name card from the Rolodex, then pull down on the indicator lever, the end blinks while it rings and snaps back when the phone returns to idle or someone answers."

Wow. And actually, I think the pleasure in this design is very similar to that experienced by the model railway and crystal radio hobbyists: a tricky combination of simplicity and complexity, and perhaps as well a desire to directly manipulate, and thus genuinely grasp, how things work. Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Here's to biting the hand that feeds

"Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood challenged the adage that you can never be too rich or too thin, with ready-to-wear collections on Tuesday that were full of wit and subversion.

Some would call it biting the hand that feeds, but provocation is second nature for the veteran designers, who both started out in the 1970s punk era.

[...]

For spring-summer 2007, he was inspired by the 1980s craze for aerobics. In Gaultier's hands, this meant high-heeled sneakers, dumbbells made from disco glitter balls and an overweight model in a corset who drew loud cheers from the audience.

So much for the debate about skinny models.

'Working out and aerobics are great, but it's also great that she feels good about herself. The important thing is to feel comfortable with your own body,' he said, referring to the plus-size model. 'There is beauty in everything, not only in the very thin.'

[...]

Westwood launched a stinging attack on the trophy wives that make up a large portion of the luxury good industry's clientele.

'I am expensive. I am subsidized by all the poor people in the world. I dress as though I were a gift to unwrap. I am a rich American heiress looking for a husband,' read her acerbic show notes.

'I play with dolls, that is what fashion designers do,' she said after the show. 'But Barbie herself has got a hole in her head.'

The designer told The Associated Press she was not afraid of driving away customers with her criticism of logo-driven consumerism."

IHT: Veteran designers break the rules with subversive shows

Don't get me started on the nature of this subversion or the body image politics in Gaultier's show, but that outfit is SUPER SWEET, and Westwood cracks me up.

On mess and method and designing for debate

I've read Latour's awesome Socratic explanation of ANT many times, but today Jean focussed on something that I still need to get a better handle on in my writing:

Professor — I would leave aside all ‘underlying frameworks’, if I were you.

Student — But, your sort of ‘science’, it seems to me, means breaking all the rules of social science training.

Professor — I prefer to break them and follow my actors.

Wittgenstein - the pragmatist - got it too: "Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything." (See also: On Certainty.)

Do we really need to explain how a person died in order to understand that they are dead? The explanation in that case is meant to be definitive: to account for death. But what about death are we wanting - or needing - to understand with such an explanation? Forms of life - and death - need to be experienced. What if we can point at them, maybe describe them, but never really explain them?

***

I'm currently revising (again!) my methods discussion. I never anticipated what a big chunk of my dissertation it would become, nor ultimately, how interesting I would find it.

Really, I've been a bit overwhelmed by how to deal with the unruliness I've encountered. And despite my reasonably strong grasp of the theoretical issues at hand, I've still found myself struggling to order these messes - to do exactly what I argue should not (or cannot) be done.

As John Law explains:

"Vicky and I were finding it impossible to map what was going on precisely because it was a mess. And, somewhat strangely in a way, our instinct was to ask reality to adjust itself so that indeed it could be properly mapped . . . [W]e were trying to study something that was turning out to be a moving target. Actually a shape-shifting target too . . . What on earth, we wondered, was it that we were actually studying? Why couldn’t we hold it still? Why did it keep on going out of focus? Why, when we were ‘supposed’ to be finding out about the treatment of ALD did we end up talking about other things? Related things perhaps. But nevertheless not what we were supposed to be talking about . . . Maybe we were dealing with a slippery phenomenon, one that changed its shape, and was fuzzy around the edges. Maybe we were dealing with something that wasn’t definite. That didn’t have a single form. A fluid object. Or even one that was ephemeral in any given form, flipping from one configuration to another, dancing like a flame."

Law also mentions the moral dimensions of these questions and observations. How much we expect ourselves and our colleagues to do "good" sociology. To get it sorted out. To explain it all. To resolve things. To reach conclusions. You know, all those things that Latour's student has been taught in her social science training too. All those things my professors taught me.

All those things that I'm not at all convinced are necessary, let alone valuable or, sometimes, even possible.

***

I get very frustrated when artists and designers demand I give them something useful to work with. That I tell them how to make better objects. That I effectively shut down discussion and debate instead of opening them up. I've been asked to bring more social and theoretical concerns to the table, but when I don't give them what they expect or desire, they dismiss the validity or relevance of my work, of sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy...

Of course it isn't that simple - astute readers may have noticed that I strip myself of any agency or responsibility in that rant, despite my repeated use of the word "I". And actually I'm just feeling really weird this morning about my talk at UIUC last week.

J. told me that I did the best thing possible: I gave them something to talk about, to argue about. (For a week now, apparently.) But because I've become all self-absorbed with the dissertation, all I can think is "Fuck. My methodology failed. There was no enrolment!"

***

But maybe I misunderstand. Maybe there is no failure. Or rather, maybe my expectations of methodological success are a bit off.

***

I manually searched through four years of blog posts and copied all the posts I thought were related to the trajectory of my research over that time. I printed them and cut/taped as needed to turn individual posts into individual artefacts. Then I arranged them on the dining room table. For several days I moved them around and used different coloured yarn to make temporary (but thematic) connections. I rearranged them chronologically, in reverse order of their publication, and I photographed all of this. Then I wrote about it. Again.

This world of thinking and ideas and writing was very much a material and embodied experience. In fact, we do and make things at each step in our research - they simply aren't things or products that others always recognise or value. And we're not the only ones with this problem.

***

I still don't understand why I should set out rules for more socially and culturally responsible design. I don't believe in universalism. Plus, it implies that designers are separate from the objects they produce. That regardless of their own everyday values, their own worldviews and ways of living, there are external, relatively objective guidelines that will make it all better.

(An oddly similar logic runs through the following statement: "I have nothing against fat people; I'd just never want to be that way myself." How can we support in others what we are unable to tolerate in ourselves - and vice versa? This is also a matter of individual versus social ethics.)

A very insightful friend and colleague (I haven't asked permission to quote so I'll leave it anonymous for now) gets at similar concerns in artistic practice:

"Within theory, history, and other aspects of the humanities, it's enough to produce a discourse, to frame a debate, AS a discursive statement. In art, there seems to be more expectation of locating the work IN discourse, not AS discourse.

[...]

For those who produce discursive objects more than discourses, but are attuned to and interested in a theoretically informed understanding of their own lives and objects, there is a keenly felt desire for solutions. Even the most articulated and detailed description of Why Things are the Way They Are, and how we are implicated in the production of that Way, leaves one asking, "How can I make an object that escapes that Way?" or "What can my objects do differently?"

[...]

We need to help students understand the role of theory in practice as shaping who they are, and not just what they make. And we need to allow them to live with a split there - to experience what it is like to feel consciousness changing faster than the evolution and improvement.of dexterity. Our students may change the world, but I'm beginning to think that we shouldn't teach them that their objects can."

This last bit especially intrigues me. I doubt that this person would draw a hard line between us and our objects, but this does point out a reciprocal relation that often gets overlooked. (I also think some designers and artists still get too hung up on the notion that objects can be granted agency, as if it's something they don't already have.)

***

Rather than designing objects that can make the world a better place, Tony Dunne has advocated designing for debate as a means to critically engage theory and practice without a need for closure: "
Your design proposals should pose questions rather than provide answers, making complex issues tangible, and therefore debatable."

I think this is very good.

In a commercial context it may not be the only appropriate means of research and design, but surely it can play a valuable role in the early stages of a project, and as a means to move forward (or backwards or sideways) at each juncture in an iterative design process.

***

Life is messy. Things are messy. And people are especially (spoken in my best Sideshow Bob voice) messy. I could try to convince myself otherwise, to make it otherwise, but that doesn't sync with any of my actual experiences - or what other people tell me - and so I immediately consider it a lie.

***

These things and practices that constitute pervasive computing research and design - the subjects of my dissertation - have been quite unruly and uncooperative. "Moving targets" indeed. When so much seems only tangentially related doesn't that suggest the boundaries around what is relevant need to be reconfigured?

How can I - and why should I - clean this mess up?

Monday, October 2, 2006

Sunday gazette

As I get older, and more embedded in the polite politics of Canada and northern Europe, I sometimes forget how much I value the kind of passion that has always found its way in South American politics - the passionate politics I grew up with. I mean, check out the upcoming Submidialogia Festival in Olinda, Brasil (via). If you read Portuguese, I recommend checking out the original text - "O que queremos, de fato, é que as idéias voltem a ser perigosas" - but the English translation is still pretty good.

And while people still like to think that science is separate from both politics and passions, try telling that to string theorists and their detractors, or to those scientists who see God in the details.

Also consider this: "No matter what the demands of 'self-expression' may be, nothing is anything without fully articulate, conscious form." Including nighttime rainbows.

Then there is the passion given over to books - not just stories, but books. I am, today, almost finished reading Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. It's an unassuming book, but its story has made everything around me a bit more intense, and I'll be both immensely relieved and saddened when I'm finally released by it.

Mark Twain - "a passionate man rife with roiling contradictions" - asked in 1901 about The Person Sitting in Darkness and over 100 years later Peter Lurie has related concerns about how binary thinking and reductionism are our real weaknesses. (via)

And now for those suffering from boredom, or those who simply like to play, here are some Things you can do with absolutely nothing, Things you can do with very little and Things you can do with another person. Plus The Top Ten College Pranks of All Time.

Also: divine intervention, er, invention and 19th Century Circus & Magic Posters - note the persistent devil imagery (all via The Amazing Plep).

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