Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Connecting people at what price?

Update 29.11.06
Okay, fine. I admit it. I'm not as concerned with environmental sustainability as I am offended by crass consumerism. But since avoiding overconsumption has a positive effect on environmental sustainability, I figure we can all be happy. And this makes me really happy: The Christmas Resistance Movement!

Happy Holidays!


Because special people deserve special gifts, I hope you enjoy your new:

o Mobile phone
o MP3 player
o Digital camera
o Computer
o Television
o Other ____________________________

Did you know that more than 140 000 tonnes of computer equipment, phones, televisions, stereos, and small home appliances accumulate in Canadian landfills each year? And that's not counting all the hazardous electronic waste, including cadmium, lead and mercury, that gets shipped to developing countries for disposal!

But new technology needn't be so wasteful and there is much we can do to ensure our own responsible use and disposal of electronics. Please reuse and recycle:

Apple Computers: Electronic Recycling
Bell Mobility: Recycle, Reuse, Redial
Dell Computers: Recycling
Electronics Product Stewardship Canada
Fido: Handset and battery recycling or disposal
Hewlett-Packard: Return & Recycling
Natural Resources Canada: Office of Energy Efficiency & ENERGY STAR®
RBRC: Call2Recycle
Rogers Wireless: Phones for Food
Telus Mobility: Return & Recycle
University of Victoria: Environmental Indicators

Peace and Love

Watching TV last night I was reminded just how strong the push to consume really is - especially this time of year.

For example, the latest Rogers Wireless ad - "gifts so nice they'll thank you twice" - has a young woman soliciting the help of her friends to come up with 1000 songs for the mobile phone she plans to give to a guy she has a crush on. The ability to personalise the phone with hand-picked songs reminded me of how we used to attempt to seduce each other with mixed tapes. I couldn't help but smile that the practice still exists, but it saddened and irritated me to see how expensive and wasteful it has become. I mean, is this really what we have in mind when we call for more technologies that bring us together?

The phone she gives to the guy is a Sony Ericsson W810i - and its price ranges from $150 to $360, depending on the service plan chosen (although the "choice" is actually determined by the credit rating of the customer). Now, the idea that love can be purchased isn't new: since at least 1947 De Beers has encouraged men to spend two months salary securing the committment of the women they wish to marry. But the Rogers' scenario isn't marriage, and it seems like a pretty expensive (in the broadest sense) gift to impress someone who probably already has a cell phone!

While I'm hopeful that not many people have the financial means to shop like this, it did get me thinking about how many people will give and receive mobile phones and other electronics for the holidays this year - and how many of these people already have fully functional devices that will soon end up in the closest, or worse. Much much worse.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

New course: Science, technology and innovation

Next term I'll be teaching a fourth-year undergraduate seminar on science, technology and innovation, and I've set up a website/weblog for students and anyone else who is interested. If you don't have access to an academic library and would like to read any of the assigned articles, please just email me.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Becoming the salmon

"don’t flounder, anne, become the salmon. jump up the stream, against the flow! you just know those salmon are having a kick arse time, showing off to each other, fucking around, dodging bears and shit. it is the extreme sports of the fish world. phding as extreme sport!"

Hmm. Should I be concerned that this is probably the most helpful thing I've heard in a while? Nah. I'm just gonna go with it. Thanks Glen for speaking my language. (photo)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In the presence of grace

When I was in London recently, I overheard a couple arguing late at night. The woman wept and repeated over and over again, in a quiet but defiant voice, "I am not a queen. I am not a queen. I am not a queen. I am not a queen."

When I was a child, I listened to the Litany of the Blessed Virgin and wished I was Catholic. I knew I would never be a queen, but saw no reason why I shouldn't be graced by the presence of one. To this day I linger in front of her statues.

(photos by wakalani and selva @ flickr)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

There's nothing wrong with getting really angry sometimes

The past two days have seriously tested my faith in academia, both in terms of student committment and professional integrity, and now this thread (probably nsfw) tests my faith in humanity as a whole. But, damn, I think that I Blame the Patriarchy might be my new favourite blog, and Twisty Faster my new hero. Thanks Kristina!

PS - since it seems to be a feminist kinda Friday around here, why not check out Mark Frauenfelder's 7 punk and post-punk female singer videos & guess which one's my fave?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fleshing out, Pt. 2, in which science and industry speak

Just now, while responding to an email from a Dutch businessman who heard me speak in Rotterdam, it suddenly struck me that in yesterday's post I described artistic cultural practice in far more nuanced terms than I did business practice. I think the primary reason for this is that textile industry interests were, in my opinion, not well integrated into the overall programme and that made it easy for me to treat them as outsiders. But this is a reason, not an excuse, and now I'll try to better balance things.

Ger Brinks, global R&D director at Colbond, said something in his presentation that continues to stick with me, and deserves some attention. In describing the company's nonwoven textiles, 3D polymeric structures and composites, he genuinely lamented the fact that most of them are found underneath other things, or buried underground: "What a waste of these beautiful structures!" In that one deceptively simple utterance, textile science and art became allies along shared concerns of aesthetics and ethics.

It's easy to think that art and science and industry have irreconcilable differences, but this is only possible if the goal is to settle and resolve differences, or to make them compatible and consistent. Now just imagine how much more we could accomplish if our objective was not to change other people, but rather allow them to be themselves! I think most people understand this when it comes to personal relationships - just think of how a love affair can be doomed by this very same desire - but we seem to struggle applying it at larger scales.

This is actually something that I discussed a bit with both Ger and Michiel Scheffer, but it wasn't picked up by the other presenters or the audience. And although I do not share Ger's faith in Popper's science as falsification, neither do I share faith in some of the artists' perceptions of science. Unsupported cultural assumptions were rampant, and most people seemed to want to make more statements than ask questions. This tends to reinforce the notion of irreconcilable differences, and in my opinion, does little to foster productive collaboration.

But back to this email I received. To preserve the sender's privacy I won't attribute the following comments, but I think they're worth sharing:

"You got my attention, more of my attention, because of your statement not to produce anything. 'What can she tell me then?' I thought. I was gasping at you. (I hope you don't understand me wrong, expressing myself in English is not daily business.) You mentioned a field of thought that I never heard of or knew it existed. I tried to write things down and wrote in English not to lose any time in switching between languages. Still, you said so much in so little time. Of some points you made, I knew I understood what you said but I am not capable to say it again or to write it down...We talked about your presentation and all other things until it was the next day. Great!...Thank you again for opening my eyes / mind a bit further."

Let me say first of all that I think he flatters me too much, but I was so very impressed by the honesty of his statement that I think it's important to acknowledge. What I mean is that this excerpt offers an unusually candid view of what it can be like to navigate uncommon ground.

Notice the first moment of doubt: What can a thinker offer a maker? (This is a position I'm very familiar with - although I do maintain that I also produce things, they're just different things.) Still, he didn't get defensive and he didn't give up! But he also mentions something intriguing about my discipline: In part our job is to state the obvious. People often have a deep implicit understanding of what we're talking about but have never been tasked with, or rewarded for, making it explicit and then working with this explicit knowledge. Perhaps one of the greatest contributions social and cultural research can make to collaborative practice is a vocabulary or framework for understanding - and acting on - cultural difference and similarity.

In any case, I wish there had been more opportunity to engage each other's differences. There were no business people in our workshop, although the designers were familiar with having to answer to business needs. Still, I would have loved to have had the chance to speak with more scientists and members of industry. It would have made their appearance at the end of the event more culturally intelligible and, I think, encouraged a more lively sense of future collaborative action.

See also: Fleshing out reflections on art + science collaborations

(update 07.12.06 - links added)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Fleshing out reflections on art + science collaborations

I doubt anyone remembers this, but my PhD actually began as an exploration of biotech, nanotech and electronic textiles. (I'm not really sure how it changed focus to pervasive urban computing; my dissertation explains it as a rather arbitrary decision based on available resources.) In any case, the hook for me has always been the critical and ethical tensions between arts, sciences and publics--and the projects discussed at Fleshing Out got me more excited than I've been about anything in a long time. Sascha Pohflepp, who participated in our workshop the second day, wrote up his thoughts on the first-day seminar for we-make-money-not-art so I'll try not to be repetitive. While I thoroughly enjoyed all the presentations, and the company was brilliant,* I want to focus right now on a few concerns surrounding collaboration that I find myself still thinking about.

Tobie Kerridge, of the Interaction Research Studio in the Department of Design at Goldsmiths College, talked about the Biojewellery project. A collaboration with jewellery designer Nikki Stott and bioengineer Ian Thompson, the project has received a great deal of public attention over the past year and it was nice to get a better understanding of the details. I was really fascinated by the ethical dimensions of the work itself: apparently getting permission to take cells from people is no small feat, even when they volunteer, although I would have loved to hear Tobie reflect a little more critically on his comment that the project actually opened up kinds of scientific research that had not been possible before. For example, he explained that the project had access to primary cells, which other researchers did not: Students normally use cancerous cells and suddenly they were able to work with healthy cells, which of course behave differently. The project researchers also received ethical permission to simply experiment or "play"--something scientific researchers do not normally get to do. While this is, no doubt, exciting on many levels, it isn't ethically neutral and deserves further attention.

Based on the success of the project so far, a team of researchers based at Goldsmiths recently scored a big EPSRC grant in order to further investigate how public engagements with science and engineering can be mediated by designers. Anyone interested in public understandings of science and the future of multi-disciplinary collaboration should pay close attention to this one, although I do think that the opportunity to understand the social and cultural stakes of this work is slightly undermined by the lack
of a specialised and reflexive ethnographic component. And while I don't have all the project details, I am quite curious as to how "the public" are being defined, and encouraged--or not--to actively participate.

This matter of exchange between artists, scientists and publics also came up in Ionat Zurr's presentation on her work with Oron Catts and others. I was terribly impressed by how the Tissue Culture and Art Project engages what it might mean to be, or create, a semi-living object. For example, Ionat talked about their Disembodied Cuisine and Victimless Leather projects, which made me realise that it may very well be worth distinguishing between work that is horrifying and work that is unethical. Nonetheless, I was fairly uncomfortable with their decision to leave Australia, and go to France, simply in order to get the necessary ethics approval. I understand the theoretical manoeuvre there, but it strikes me as a bit more difficult or dodgy in practice. Then I remembered that I would cross national borders in order to get an abortion, for example, so it's probably worth looking more closely at how this boundary-crossing is actually quite important in negotiating contextual ethics. All sorts of thoughts are still percolating in my brain about this stuff, so I'm sure I'll come back to it in the near future. And, again, I think there is perhaps a missed opportunity to better engage and include sociologists and anthropologists in these collaborations as a means of exploring not just emerging techno-science, but the cultural practices that mobilise it--and are mobilised by it--in different ways.

This brings me to the workshop component of the event, a small-scale attempt at collaboration. After V2 kindly hosted the first day in Rotterdam we moved to the offices of Virtueel Platform in Amsterdam for day two. It was only then that I began to understand how the funding of the event itself impacted the structure and content of our activities. While we had been given almost full autonomy the first day, expertly synthesised and interrogated by Anne Nigten, the second day was more strictly controlled and participants were expected to answer to business interests. While I would consider the day an overall success, I think that we actually lost sight of any critical perspective at the end, and what had previously been a rather symmetrical exchange between people became rather asymmetrical. But let me back up a bit first.

The day was ultimately organised into three workshops: one on critical intervention, one on grow-your-own biotech, and one on materials science. Kristina, Joey and I organised and led the critical intervention workshop, and while I would do a few things differently, I think it went quite well. Thirteen people signed up, and we spent a couple of hours attempting to get people to engage matters of concern rather than matters of fact. Several people commented afterwards on how much they enjoyed the activity we set out for them, but I know that others found it very challenging. Each person was asked to write down one hope and one fear regarding the technologies they had heard about the previous day. Each person then had to draw one hope and fear that was not their own. In an attempt to be accountable for, and to, interests they did not necessarily share, participants were first asked to identify cultural values associated with each of these hopes and fears, as well as things people do to both support and threaten these values. As it turned out, this was quite difficult. The combination of non-native English speakers, and unfamiliarity with cultural research made the understanding of "values" rather problematic. But once we got that sorted the real challenge came: Coming up with an object or activity that would allow this other person's concerns to be addressed. It seemed to be very difficult for people to figure out what to do with, or about, divergent concerns--which is, of course, the primary challenge in all multi-disciplinary and collaborative work. It's hard, plain and simple. Nonetheless, I was terribly impressed how well everyone did! They opened their minds, and stuck with it despite the difficulties. It was good.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I'd like to say that the end of the day, in my opinion, was less successful. Each workshop group was required to get up in front of the entire room and explain what they had done. This was fine, I think, but the materials science workshop seemed to have been organised along different principles, and that surprised me. More specifically, they seemed not to have been particularly interested in the critical perspectives everyone else had engaged for two days. For example, when Angel Chang outlined the artistic vision for materials research I almost fell out of my chair. She talked about textiles that would allow people to change their outside appearance, but not the inside. Fun, huh? But she used the burqa as an example, as in if you found yourself surrounded by people wearing burqas, you too could put one on in order to fit in better. Treating the burqa as a fashion statement or accessory struck me as profoundly insensitive to cultural difference, not to mention that playing dress-up is not always appropriate. To add insult to injury, she continued to explain how artists could be inspired by military research and that social hierarchies need to be maintained, so of course there would have to be the high-tech equivalents of Prada, etc. I just sighed and felt utterly defeated.

The moderator ended by asking the business people (who had lurked more than participated until this point) what artists would need to do in order to be taken seriously by industry, to which they responded that reduction and simplification would be in order, and no one disagreed! I couldn't believe it. The problem of oversimplification was contrasted with overcomplication, and any sort of meaningful debate was effectively avoided. Ionat, at least, brought up the fact that no one had questioned why we even need these new technologies, and I agreed that the technological imperative had gone completely unexamined. In the end though, these and other critical concerns were effectively dismissed, and artists were never given the opportunity to ask anything of business in return. But as far as I know, I was one of very few who found any of this problematic, so perhaps I'm missing something.
Nonetheless I do think it's very important to distinguish between emergent conflict and organised antagonism, and the final summary and suggestions for future research seemed to pit certain interests against others, and I do not believe this is a solid foundation for any sort of critical or equitable collaboration. I got to speak very briefly with some of the organisers of Uncommon Ground, and I would have loved to hear more about their experience in these areas.

In the end though, I had a tremendous time and I can confidently say that Fleshing Out was one of the best events I've attended. I am most grateful to the event organisers for their generous invitation and superb hosting, and I also very much look forward to building relationships with the amazing people I met and spoke with. When I have more time in the next few days (after teaching and jet-lag) I'll write up my reflections on some of the interesting design processes I learned about, and as promised, I will post my annotated presentation slides. It remains a consistent problem for me that the more excited I get, the faster I speak. This poses a problem for most people, but pretty much kills non-native English speakers and I believe I owe them more than that, so I want to thank them in advance for their continued patience.

* I've never attended an event with so many women. Those of you who know me know that some women strike me as complete rubbish, so don't take this as any sort of essentialist "woman" statement on my part, but when half the organisers, almost all the presenters, and a big chunk of the audience are women it can definitely change what is possible. In this case I was surrounded by exceptional women with incisive and critical minds, not crippled by arrogance or posturing, and open to true exchange and collaboration. It was, in short, an absolute pleasure in that regard. On the other hand, the event also seemed to attract particular kinds of men that I don't normally encounter, and I can say that I enjoyed their company just as much.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Further lessons learned

The same items I was allowed to carry through Stansted were seized in Rotterdam. The apparent reason for this discrepancy? The Brits (and me) weren't able to convert grams to millilitres and the Dutch were. Total cost: CAD 70. Ouch!

Lessons learned

Some people mistake understanding for originality. This, of course, creates completely unreasonable expectations around what they consider their "due."

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

On the cultural politics of technology

"[C]ultural competence to produce visions and to communicate between different actors is no guarantee that new technological solutions will emerge. To talk about the cultural politics of technology is not a path to a more efficient technology policy, but it is not a strategy to deconstruct such policies either. The idea of a cultural politics of technology is basically a methodological vision of a way to explore the relationship between culture, politics, and technology that emphasizes the cultural work that has to be performed in the conception, development, and implementation of new technologies as well as in efforts to do business when engaged in the production of providing technological visions."

Knut H. Sørensen. 2004. Cultural Politics of Technology: Combining Critical and Constructive Interventions? Science, Technology, & Human Values 29(2):184-190.

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