Friday, January 26, 2007

Stay tuned

"JSN reached up to the row of glowing buttons across his forehead and changed his mind with an audible click."

I've decided that I really don't like how the new year has begun so I'll be restarting according to the Chinese calendar. That means I have some things to wrap up in the next few weeks before I find my proper rhythm.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Design research as critical practice

Updated 16.01.07 Here is an annotated copy of my presentation slides: Design research as critical practice (pdf)

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This Friday I'll be participating in Carleton's School of Industrial Design 29th Annual Seminar, Balancing the Equation: Technology + People + Design.

Invited to discuss social and cultural aspects of design, I thought I'd use as my starting point design anthropologist Dori Tunstall's provocative statement "Design education focuses too much on 'practice' and not enough on 'research'."

I don't entirely follow the distinction that she and H. Russell Bernards make, but I do think that there is a tendency in design to draw hard (and unrealistic) boundaries between theory and practice. Fortunately, I think that one way we can all get past this opposition is to look directly and critically at how research - as theory and practice - is done.

I'm still putting the final touches on my presentation, but I'll post the annotated slides here after my talk.

Tuesday gazette

Are technologists finally looking beyond Garfinkle? Academics in Copenhagen are no doubt in for a treat when Adrian Mackenzie, Greg Wise and others join their upcoming seminar on Ethnography and Technology in relation to Gilles Deleuze's Philosophy. And to see how some archaeologists are applying these ways of thinking to their studies of material culture, check this out.

Nokia has released their first mass-market NFC handset, but as Timo puts it, "NFC technology offers very little without a supporting infrastructure of regionally specific ticketing, payment and custom services." It's funny how often we have to devise uses for our devices! But while we're on the topic of temporal order in tech design, apparently the iPod was designed after Apple had mastered both the iTunes technology and the iTunes store.

In other news John Thackara suggests that "Design schools should relocate en masse to favelas and slums. These informal economies are sites of intense social and business innovation." I know he's trying to get people to look beyond traditional sources of inspiration but, in my view, his habitually flippant way of doing so does little more than evidence the desires of the over-privileged.

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)

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