Monday, April 2, 2007

Mobile Nation 2: Relentless Empiricism

One of the best things about a conference focussed on methodologies is that you get to hear a lot about how people actually work, and you get to hear a bunch of original research results. Ethnography, participatory action research, participatory design, iterative engineering and rapid prototyping all focussed prominently at the event, and I was completely captivated by several presentations.

First up was Nina Wakeford, now directing INCITE: Incubator for critical inquiry into technology and ethnography from its new home at Goldsmith's College. I've always been particularly interested in Nina's work because of her close collaborations with Intel Research in the US. Not only does she regularly work between academic, corporate and public contexts, but also between the cultures of Britain and America. Nina's presentation focussed on a 4-week project done in collaboration with Intel's People and Practices Research Group. Building on Marcus' multi-sited ethnography and the logic of association, the INCITE team explored the mobile actions of cyclists, and focussed on the ways in which this research could be presented back to Intel. In this case, she suggested, mobility acted as a boundary object but warned against the dangers of using mobility as a master trope because of its tendency to flatten out difference into mere itineraries and trajectories.

I was particularly impressed by two examples of how the research was presented in the Intel cube farm. First, there were interview quotes stenciled onto the windows--a lovely example of absent-presence and suggestion that the world outside was simply overflowing with people's experiences. But here's the best part: just imagine how words describing hectic London streets read when superimposed on highly manicured greenery and orderly parking lots! Ahahaha. The other intervention I really liked was two large-scale photos of London buses hung from the ceiling and spaced just as far apart as the area through which riders typically pass. Apparently there were "safety" concerns and some people did whatever necessary to avoid having to pass through the narrow passage. Both efforts concentrated on embodied experience, which is particularly difficult and also very important if you're trying to get people to imagine the mobility of people they cannot follow.

People in the audience, me included, were most interested in how Nina's team was actually able to intervene in corporate culture, and Nina explained that part of the project's goal had always been to find ways to intervene visually, so all the photos and maps and videos and texts did just that. A normally sterile environment--I've been there and *totally dehumanising* is the first thing that springs to my mind--was temporarily overrun with visual stimuli and material culture that did not belong. According to Nina, this accomplished two things: it compelled Intel to start training their own people to work on the act of "translating" between communities of practice, and it worked to displace the object of their study. In other words, rather than allowing Intel to believe it was simply studying "mobility" the research also served to clarify that they were actually studying fit-bodied white males more interested in riding than getting to their destination.

This last bit struck me as really important, especially after audience members started asking James Katz what his statistical data meant for them. Nina introduced James' keynote presentation by championing an empirical approach to research; she cited a major project she had worked on where the people who made all the decisions were working on assumptions that had little or no empirical grounding, and how frustrating and self-defeating that can be. And certainly, as a general position, I support what I like to call relentless empiricism as something crucial to our understandings of social and cultural relations. But here's the thing: not all empirical data is equal and none of it is absolute. Now I'm not talking about "reliable" or "relevant" versus "unreliable" or "irrelevant" information, although all the sciences, including sociology and anthropology, delineate criteria for each. I'm talking about different kinds of knowledge having different capacities.

For example, I was first introduced to James' work in his and Mark Aakhus' 2002 edited book Perpetual Contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance and I'm looking forward to reading his latest book, Magic in the air: Mobile communication and the transformation of social life. His research is really interesting; I always come away from it with lots of questions and possibilities for future research and I think that's great. His keynote was chock full of fascinating behavioural frequencies and quantities around cell phone use and that was great too. I mean, he showed an amazing hand-carved wooden 'phone' from Namibia that had been branded Sony before Sony Ericsson started making cell phones. Suggests fascinating relations between materiality and brands, no? And I keep thinking about how people fake using cell phones, which suggests that they are devices not just for communication at a distance but also in the immediate vicinity of the user. I don't think this is an issue of privacy or publicity, although I also don't think there are ways to effectively describe what's going on here. (Nod to Nigel.)

But I also think, and I'm not the only one, that James' work sometimes suffers a bit from its distanced perspective, or view-from-nowhere. More to the point, I think that substantial confusion arises when quantitative and speculative research results are presented to others quickly and without context. People reasonably want to know which results are "factual," "certain" or "actionable" and which ones are not. Despite James' clear insistence that the results should not be seen as predictive, I'm not sure that non-researchers understood the overall relevance, or capacity, of this kind of research. But ultimately, it was James' position that surveys be used as experiments and proxies be used to study potential user behaviours, which should have resonated with anyone familiar with prevailing HCI research models.

This brings me to the fourth keynote, which went to Marc Davis of Garage Cinema fame, and current Social Media Guru at Yahoo! Research Berkeley, who spoke about context, content and community. (Man, I'd completely forgotten about that American tech-job-title thing and I have to laugh. Sorry!) Anyway, Marc had my full attention as soon as he said that he left academia so that he could have access to the volume of data collected by Yahoo. Now I completely disagree with his claim that this ginormous database is a great representation of the sum of human behaviour (I think it tells us more about Yahoo than people-in-general) but I can totally appreciate the evil genius possibilities of infiltrating that mine! Then he told the audience about his training in rhetoric, so I sat back to enjoy the show.

When I gave my presentation at the ID seminar a few months ago, I talked to an elder statesman in the field who took umbrage at my insinuation that designers haven't always done research. I agreed, apologised, and commented on how often people both under- and over-estimate others. Marc echoed that sentiment when he claimed that, even though both are wrong, humanists and social scientists see computation as mere instrumentality (to which I would respond, yes, but never mere!) and that computer scientists see the humanities and social sciences as word games which are not actionable (to which I would respond, yes, people play word games and words do things!) He said we need to ask and answer fundamental questions, learn each other's languages, and together reimagine both. Sounds just like my kinda goal: comprehensive and foundational change!

But I have to admit that it's really difficult for me to trust American tech company values and rhetoric. For example, Marc explained how this research is important to Yahoo in terms of their 2007 mission statement: "to connect people to their passions, their communities and the world's knowledge" and told us that Yahoo works to "invite, capture, connect, guide, and monetize human attention." Is it just me or is there not some sort of weird paternalistic thing going on here? All a bit caring and a bit oppressive? I wish we had had more time to discuss how these models of social behaviour help create technologies, people and relationships rather than represent existing ones.

On a broader scale, I do struggle with both government and corporate presentations sounding like sales pitches or campaigns, and I often find the performances difficult to trust. In some ways I think I would be much more comfortable if I had some sort of proof that they were aware of their biases and were willing to be held accountable to, and for, opposing viewpoints. Now, while reflexivity and positioning are crucial to social and cultural research, we don't treat them uncritically. For example, rapport, or the ability to gain the trust of field informants, was once considered mandatory for reliable data collection, but there is increasing acknowledgment that pluralism includes conflict and distrust. So, what is required to work productively with people one doesn't trust?

Back to the topic at hand, Marc explained that they've learned that they need to design a system, not an application or interface; they need to design the network topology, design the network data and metadata, design to optimise certain nodal activities, design metrics, monitoring and analysis mechanisms, and design ways to rapidly and iteratively modify all of this. It was useful to get a sense of how systems-thinking plays out in Marc's position: like a working platform or stage, I think. And since more general systems-based or broadly ecological-focussed models are currently being mobilised to expand upon long-standing network paradigms, I think it's worth mentioning that systems-thinking has a long and controversial history in sociology and anthropology, and I know that guides me into other conversations about systems. I, for one, need to get really clear on what someone means when they say "system" so that I don't fall back on my (often negative) assumptions.

In sum, the three keynotes focussed broadly on empirical research methods were all very interesting. I think I got a good sense of where different people come from and where they want to go, and it generally looks interesting. One of the things I mentioned in my later presentation, but bears repeating, was that I would still really like to see greater acknowledgement of, and engagement with, different and sometimes oppositional ways of understanding the world. What I didn't say was that I also think there are better and worse ways of doing this and I witnessed both at the conference. A stellar moment for me was when Nina called attention back to Nigel's thoughts on affective contagion, and the implication that intensity of emotion can be expressed but not necessarily shared. It was good to be reminded that how we communicate is just as important as what we communicate, and that learning each other's languages involves more than words.

When it comes to conflict in multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural research collaborations, I think we need to do better than conflict management or, shudder, conflict resolution. I mean, by-and-large, these are not terror situations we're talking about. But part of relentless empiricism, I believe, is always keeping one eye on ourselves and one eye on each other. Wait, that sounds a bit creepy. What I mean is that we have to better include ourselves in our studies and projects, not in some sort of pathetic confessional way, but as a situated means of providing and engaging context. (Thanks again to the very astute woman who approached me after my talk and said I could better lead with "I study us." Totally!) And as I asked at the end of my talk, how well are researchers, artists and designers able to move in and out of different contexts and identities? What kinds of embodied experience, material and symbolic culture work to keep relations fluid? How can we best produce local and reflexive knowledges around shared concerns?

Next: Mobile Nation 3: In Vivo Design

Previous: Mobile Nation 1: Halos

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Blogger Florence Chee said...

Wow Anne, thank you for such a great synopsis and critique. A really informative post! Looking forward to hearing more.

Anonymous Sam Kinsley said...

Thank you for your revealing summation of an interesting array of presentations. I would like to underline one of your final points, the importance of recognising ourselves as being always already situated in the arena of research. I would argue that this is an incredibly important aspect of studying existing and nascent technologies. As geographer Sarah Whatmore ('Generating Materials' in Pryke Rose & Whatmore 'Using Social Theory' 2005, 101) highlights, Isabelle Stengers, philosopher of science, suggests a 'recasting in intellectual and social terms of engagement between science and politics'.

Stengers herself makes the point, very clearly:

'it is a question of inventing apparatuses such that citizens of whom scientific experts speak can be effectively present, in order to pose questions to which their interest makes them sensible, to demand explanations, to posit conditions, to suggest modalities, in short to participate in the invention' (Stengers 'The invention of Modern Science' 2000, 160).

Further, Whatmore (2005) flags that Latour suggests in his essay 'Circulating reference' (1999) that whilst he is careful to position himself within the event of research by a constant reference to 'we', he never appears in the photographic research documentation.

To find a route through we might usefully turn to Stengers' significant philosophical project of 'cosmopolitics'. By which we are compelled to attend to the creative and sometimes contrary potentialities generated in and by exchanges between researcher and researched. I take heart (as a first year PhD student) in seeing this coming through in spades in your research, as documented on this blog. I look forward to reading/seeing/sensing(!) more.

Blogger mattw said...

Whoa, system as stage.

That thought will take me a long, long way.

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