Thursday, January 4, 2007

2007: More humour, less irony

"The invitations which were sent out were written upon Western Union telegram blanks with an Edison electric pen. When the guests arrived and entered the gate, the house appeared dark, but as they placed foot upon the lower step of the veranda a row of tiny electric lights over the door blazed out, and the number of the house appeared in bright relief. The next step taken rang the front door bell automatically, the third threw open the door, and at the same time made a connection which lit the gas in the hall by electricity...

Mr. William J. Hammer's "Electrical Dinner," New Year's Eve, 1884

Ah, the wonders of new technologies! It's worth reading the whole description of that magical evening, if only because it's striking how similar it is to current visions of smart homes for the future. (The only thing missing is the obsession with security.)

Now, despite a certain amount of earnest hand-wringing by design critics over the implications of technological failure in these scenarios, science-and-tech types have been making fun of such scenarios for some time already. And this reminds me of Isabelle Stengers' discussion of irony versus humour in assessing the social and political dimensions of technoscientific practice.

The ironic take, she argues, is favoured by sociologists and other critics in part because it allows them to "transcend" the scenarios they describe, to maintain "a more lucid and more universal power to judge that assures his or her difference from those being studied." (This is just one reason why I don't support universal guidelines for design, or ethics.) Humour, on the other hand, is described as "an art of immanence" where people implicate themselves as producers and products of these practices and objects. This is crucial if one seeks to change things: "Humor produces...the possibility of shared perplexity, which effectively turns those it brings together into equals." And as Stengers concludes, if irony is seen as "an instrument of reduction" then humour may be understood as a "vector of uncertainty" (The Invention of Modern Science pp.66-67).

My own work has always preferred the uncertain in the sense that it focusses on how things come to be, and sometimes how they don't. For one, it forces me to deal carefully with the question of time, and this is related to my skepticism towards any claim that critique and futurism can work together. When it comes to new technologies - like those associated with pervasive computing - critiquing and prescribing for future scenarios is always dodgy because the "relevant" events haven't actually happened. Better, I think, to focus on what came before and what actually exists now - and how, or if, technological diffusion is actually happening. (This is somewhere between being re-active and pro-active.)

So one of my research goals this year is to really focus on the relationships between past, present and future in technological development - and find ways to engage with more humour than irony.

(Hammer's electrical dinner link via things magazine)


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I fail to see how aiming for humour rather than irony will give you any advantage when attempting to remain sensitive to time, and thereby avoid positioning oneself as transcending the scenarios of technology one describes. It looks like you want to avoid the issue of reflexivity. Did I misunderstand you? That is what I read in your post.

Rather than focus on the sentiments, I'd suggest you look closer at the ruse, or self-denial if you prefer, often played by designers and developers of pervasive environments like smart homes. It is just too easy to say that savvy observers have made fun of such scenarios for years. Sure, one of my doctoral professors, Robert Boguslaw who is long deceased, wrote a book in the early 1960s called The New Utopians, criticizing the early precursors of these visions of artificial intelligence advocacy.

Yet, the fact remains that these utopian visions remain dominant in the area of ubiquitous computing, just like they did among artificial intelligence, expert systems, robotics, and machine learning advocates over the past few decades. To his credit, Greenfield recognized this in Everyware. However, Lucy Suchman's second edition of Plans and Situated Action, Human-Machine Reconfigurations, provides the frame of reference in which to understand its import to social and cultural analysis. Forget humour, concentrate on the human-mahcine configuration.

Larry Irons

Anonymous anne said...

Larry - I think, yes, perhaps you do misunderstand. Or I am not clear ;)

Stengers suggests that humour is about immanence, and that of course *is* related to time. And sure, it's easy to say that "savvy observers have made fun of such scenarios" - just as easy as it is to say that designers are deluded or otherwise hampered by their utopianism. There comes a point, I think, when critique can become too smug to be of any use.

I've always been impressed by Suchman's work, but I do think that *how* we tell the stories of human-computer configuration is just as important as their content. One of the things that makes Suchman's revisions so interesting is that she has brought feminist critiques of technoscience and STS studies to bear on problems she considered to be entirely within the realm of ethnomethodology in the first edition.

Nonetheless, one of the reasons I suspect that STS studies have been met with such resistance in the sciences is because of their ironic tone. No one enjoys being judged from on-high, even if the judgements are appropriate, nor told what to do, even if the intentions are all good.

In reading your latest blog post I am reminded that this focus on "seamlessness" in ubicomp has changed considerably over time, and especially in the past few years. Greenfield's critique comes directly from work by Matthew Chalmers, who along with Kristina Hook and others has been systematically addressing the actual seamfulness of ubicomp *despite* its claims and aspirations to seamlessness for several years.

I think that is it also worth exploring seamlessness as *more* than a utopian ruse. The role of elder statesmen is particularly important in the sciences, and Weiser (who can now only be his words) is pivotal in that role. Students write me often to ask why his vision of seamful interaction has been perverted, even ruined. I have to wonder why his vision is still the one used for comparative purposes.

Anonymous anne said...

It looks like you want to avoid the issue of reflexivity.

Wow. I missed that in my first read! This is most emphatically not the case, as pretty much all my research and writing up to this point has made clear. In fact, it is a certain amount of reflexivity that compels me to ask if there are more productive ways of engaging people and instigating change than by distanced critique or behavioural prescription.

Finding (broadly) humourous ways to make my point may indeed foster more egalitarian and hopeful alliances. In my experience, irony tends to encourage defensiveness *and* absolve people of responsibility. (See for example, how much misogyny passes as ironic feminism these days!)

Anonymous Linda said...

aren't there ways to be pro-active through critique?...if not, I fear I'll never get a job after I finish my anthro degree :)


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