Friday, April 20, 2007

Off for (partially) unknown territories

Well, I'm crossing the ocean again this weekend because of a generous invitation to give the opening keynote at the ENTER_Unknown Territories Conference in Cambridge next week. Here's the short abstract for my talk:

"Where I come from, this is how we do things" and other ethics of collaboration.

Anne Galloway prepares the ground for the conference panels by critically assessing the relations between people’s ethics, aesthetics, world-views and expectations – and the challenges and opportunities posed by cultural difference in collaborative practice. How do we make sense of our actions and the worlds in which we live? What happens when we encounter difference or opposition? What would collaboration without consensus involve? Where do we locate accountability, and to whom and what are we responsible? How can we evaluate the ethics of collaborative work and play?

While the entire conference line-up looks great, I'm particularly looking forward to the following sessions: Toolshift / Mindshift and Uncommon Ground-Creative Encounters Across Disciplines and Sectors, which builds on a new book called Uncommon Ground. I wrote a short essay on seams and scars for the collection and the book launch takes place the night before the conference.

BBC journalist Bill Thompson will also be chairing a session called Control Technology: Knowing Me, Knowing You – Ah ha! that I really want to catch because he said in a recent article that he'll "be making some of the people there feel pretty uncomfortable about their attitude to personal privacy ... [because] there is a danger that the art, like other aspects of control technology, will only serve to dull our senses and dampen our indignation, leading us to feel that the unobserved life is not really worth fighting for." Wow.

As if that's not enough, there are some great sounding workshops too, including the Proboscis Public Authoring Zone and Bricolabs, and a cool 'Local/Food' Picnic Performance at the end. If you're there please come say hello - and if you can't make it, you can always keep up on blogspot, flickr and myspace.

I'll also be in London visiting friends and doing a bit of work a few days before and after the conference, so if you'd like to get together or know of something I shouldn't miss, please just drop me a note.

**UPDATE 1.05.07**
I enjoyed the event and met some really good people, but until I get some breathing room to write up my reflections I'd just note that I was particularly impressed by CRUMB's Bliss Out Centre, which I think should be part of every conference, and Mongrel's MediaShed project. Check them out! And with one unforgettable exception, I received much positive interest in my presentation. I focussed on the anthropological concept of ethos, which means I purposely avoided telling people what they should and should not do. I think this is really important, and I'll post some more thoughts on the topic as soon as I can. Thanks again to the organisers and to everyone for coming out.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Leave the house now!"

Everyone laughed last year when I made a pet emergency survival kit, but when I got the phone call from the gas company this morning, Enid and I were ready to go!

We're back home from our little adventure now, safe and sound and happy to have each other.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Takk!

Now back in Ottawa but thoroughly depressed to find it cold, dark and rainy, I'm nursing a nasty cold I picked up and wishing I was still in warm and sunny Oslo.

By all accounts, my lecture went well and Timo Arnall and I even got interviewed for Norwegian national radio! The local news (in Norwegian) chose to focus on Nokia senior designer Tapani Jokinen's presentation, which reminded me that presentations broken down into easily digested chunks and slogans are more amenable to being repeated. I didn't give people anything that clear-cut to take away, but that's actually part of the point I was trying to make: Life is messy but protocol is not.

I also spent two days in a workshop with Timo and Mosse Sjaastad's physical computing and interaction design students, learning about their projects and helping them get to know what anthropologists do. This was truly a highlight for me because they were incredibly talented students who quickly grasped some of our basic methodologies and were completely open to getting out there and seeing what's going on. Of course, many designers find this sort of thing interesting but struggle to see how it can directly contribute to, or improve, their work. If I succeeded in communicating only one thing, I really hope it was that they should question their assumptions and value what people already do.

After six days hanging out in west, central and east Oslo, I could still attest to how beautiful the city is. The streets are clean and safe, public transport is good (I really liked the ferry) and people take advantage of public spaces. I particularly enjoyed spending time in the wonderful cafes and restaurants in Grünerlřkka, where I made friends with skillingsbolle and had some really excellent sandwiches. Timo and I also visited the Viking Ship Museum and the Folkemuseum. I had underestimated how beautifully engineered and crafted the Viking ships were, and the building in which they're displayed, designed by Arnstein Arneberg, really cultivates a sense of reverence. Both the ships and the small collection of artefacts also offer a lovely take on notions of mobility: the Vikings were great travellers and they used a wide variety of materials and decorative styles from the places and peoples they encountered. We spent most of our time at the Folkemuseum admiring Norwegian vernacular architecture. The large open-air museum has a collection of farmhouses and gorgeous storage buildings from 1200-1900, as well as a stunning stave church from the 13th century. I also enjoyed the small Sámi exhibition which included a section on contemporary life, including political struggles, which prevented the museum from acting as a tomb.

Special thanks to Finsk-norsk kulturinstitutt, Norsk Form, AHO and DogA for sponsoring the lecture, to Grafill for the beautiful accommodations, and to Timo, Mosse and Even Westvang for their excellent hospitality and conversation. I can't wait to return!

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Beklager, jeg snakker ikke norsk - and other messes

My god, Oslo is a beautiful city. The sun is shining, Timo and I are having lunch, preparing our lectures for this evening. He'll be talking about the Touch project, and I'll be talking about how messy places layered with digital information can really be. John Law has written extensively on mess in social science research, and I couldn't agree more that "dominant approaches...cannot know mess, except in their aporias, as they try to make the world clean and neat." Unsurprisingly, these kinds of methodological issues are also prevalent in the research, engineering and design of pervasive computing. But just as social and cultural life isn't neat and clean, networks and other technological systems fail.

I've been writing about messy technosocial assemblages for the past five or so years, and in the field of HCI, Matthew Chalmers and colleagues have long focussed on technological glitches - their research is concerned with practical uncertainties and inaccuracies, as well as "opportunistic presentations that may be...discordant, deliberately leading users to pause or reflect" - and Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish recently wrote on messiness as alternative ubicomp. Timo was also telling me about Fabien Girardin's presentation at LIFT a few months ago, and this is all a very good sign, I think.

But tonight I'll be using Chris Jordan's iconic images of consumption and disposal in order to speak about 'layers' in terms of the politics of accumulation and excess.

More on that and other things later.

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Internet of Things: Where milk is commented, eggs come with rss feeds and the shelves are full of FUN.

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

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