Thursday, May 31, 2007

MediaShed +

During my recents visits to the UK, I had the pleasure of hanging out with some of the Mongrel & MediaShed guys, talking about everything from Mass Observation and soldering to the cultural impact of public art and lighting one's farts on fire. (I was the one classy enough to bring that last one up, not them.)

Anyway, a few of their projects strike me as really lovely and unstable balances between the creative and political, or the ethical and aesthetic. I appreciate how they value everyday life beyond technology, and how they manage to be critical without relaxing into dystopian fantasies. They appear to have a genuine curiosity for the people and objects around them, and seem to be most content when simply making stuff with others.

What could, I think, easily slip into a paternalistic or shepherding relationship with the people tends instead towards using technological prosthetics to temporarily assemble publics. (Note to self: How is that related to the Situationist 'Possible Rendez-Vous'?)

Just take their Telephone Trottoire project:

"The aim of the 'Telephone Trottoire' project is to engage the London based Congolese community in issues that affect their day-to-day lives. 'Telephone Trottoire' is based on a new form of 'contagious' telephone application developed by Mongrel and named after the Congolese practice of 'pavement radio' or the passing around of news and gossip between individuals on street corners. In Central Africa people defy media censorship by sharing news and gossip using 'radio trottoire' or 'pavement radio'. Built in collaboration with the radio programmes 'Nostalgie Ya Mboka' and 'Londres Na Biso', 'Telephone Trottoire' encourages London's Congolese community to pass around news stories and discuss them using a unique system of sharing content over the phone. The project engages the Congolese community on their own terms by using systems that draw from their own culture, beliefs and folklore – some stories are intended to provoke, some to entertain and some to educate. All allow listeners to record their own comments and pass the call on to a friend or family member by entering their phone number. Some are true and some are false – after all isn’t this all about gossip – the 'Telephone Trottoire'?"

Or their Video Sniffin' projects:

The Commercial

"When MediaShed members found out about ‘Video Sniffin’ on-line, a term given to the practice of picking up the public signals being broadcast by wireless CCTV, they decided to apply the technology to make a film. Young people from the local YMCA and others used a cheap video receiver from a high street store to ‘sniff’ the streets for CCTV cameras. After finding 24 cameras or ‘hotspots’ they then asked shop owners if they could make a film by acting out in front of their CCTV cameras and recording the signal. The shop owners were very surprised and happy for the young people to create a film this way. The final film was screened on a ‘video sculpture’ of 16 recycled PC monitors at South East Essex College on 29th April. This display was part of the final ‘Being Here’ event – Southend’s recent arts regeneration initiative. These kinds of projects allow people to see how a common technology that is normally used for the surveillance of the same young people can be repurposed by them for creative activities. The project created great interest from the local council and local businesses who positively engaged with the project."

minä olen

"Hijacking the CCTV cameras of municipal buildings in the town of Kokkola, Finland a group of young people from the immigrant class at Kiviniitty Secondary School made a film about their cultural isolation ... This provided the young people with a means of regaining control from the ‘institution’ influencing their future. The final film was installed at Tupakkamakasiini, Pietarsaari City Museum as part of a larger exhibition of Mongrel’s work, and was also displayed at Kokkola Town Hall bringing the heartfelt message to as many local people as possible. The young people, some of whom had only been in the country a matter of weeks, positively enjoyed the opportunity to invade ‘government’ buildings and felt an increased confidence within their surroundings. Additionally the film was used to encourage local ministers to continue to provide regular classes in the young peoples’ own language and culture."

The Duellists

"In March 2007 MediaShed were invited to the Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre to make a film combining free-media with free-running. Parkour or free-running involves fluid uninterrupted movement adapting motion to obstacles in the environment. Like free-media, free-running makes use of and re-enrgises the infrastructure of the city. Free-media film adapts environmental and discarded hardware to make filmmaking accessible to all. Working with Southend based professional parkour breakin' crew Methods of Movement a choreographed performance was filmed in the shopping centre over three consecutive nights. The film was shot using only the existing in-house CCTV network of 160 cameras operated from the central control room, with a soundtrack created entirely from the foundsounds and noises recorded during the performance. The finished film was screened at the Manchester Arndale (10th - 20th May) on the infrastructure plasmas, in an exhibition pod and inside eleven stores as part of a ten day exhibition entitled Art for Shopping Centres."

I have some questions about how they come to their conclusions but mostly I'm impressed by how they blatantly seek affective change. (Or is it affective contagion?)

For example, the material, embodied, performative and productive aspects of their engagement with CCTV allow MediaShed to avoid more distanced intellectual debates on public vs. private, or surveillance vs. sousveillance. Rather than pointing at our docility and predicting our decline into dividuation, there's something creative and hopeful in these projects. And despite their rather earnest charter, it's not particularly idealist or utopian. But it does remind me of what Anna Munster refers to as actualising bodies and abstracting selves, which she also basically applied to Harwood's earlier Uncomfortable Proximity project.

MediaShed projects also rely on old technologies like radio, video, telephone. I think this is important simply because "ultimately, new cultural phenomena rely on encounters with the old," and because these technologies still require people to serve as active broadcasters and receivers.

(I mean, I suspect that part of why RFID or GPS seem so hard to work with critically is because the myths of pervasive computing are so ahistorical, and because the communication model underpinning them practically strips out human intervention. Although I have some concerns about the tyranny of participation, I really don't see "participation" becoming an issue - positively or negatively - for pervasive computing. Current discourse and practice allow it no space, but I think that if we can temporarily converge as publics around it then there's still hope.)

Anyway, good stuff and lots to think about!

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

If I could interview the ethnographers...

Just reading this BBC article on Jan Chipchase, I finally got a glimpse of what I've always wanted to know: What, exactly, does he produce for Nokia? Well, for one, it's patents.

Apparently being a bit daft, I hadn't thought about this before. But then I thought, "Wow, that's got to be an important difference between corporate and academic anthropology/ethnography!"

And all of this reminded me that for years I've wanted to do an ethnographic study of corporate ethnographers. Well, actually, I'd be just as happy to interview tech-company folks like Jan and Genevieve Bell. In fact, here's what I'd ask:

1. Can you describe the skills and credentials you've gained from academic, corporate and fieldwork contexts? Are these abilities and statuses transferable? When is 'translation' most successful and when is it most challenging?

2. What is the relationship between method and theory in your work? What is your relationship with study participants? What are the products of your work? How do you account for their validity, relevance and value? What role does intellectual property play in all this?

3. Do you believe there is a place for critical social and cultural approaches to technology in your work? If so, what form and function might they take? What would their strengths and limitations be? If not, what are the reasons why?

4. What role do public relations (media interviews, lectures, blogs, etc.) play in your work? What are the benefits and downsides of having public personas? How do you negotiate boundaries between public and private life, or work and play activities?

Although, if you believe that ethnography is generally interpretive work then you would, and should, expect me to go beyond this and try to make sense of the answers.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

"[W]e need many different prostheses..."

"Instead of the radiant citizen standing up and speaking his mind by using his solid common sense, as in Rockwell's famous painting 'Freedom of Speech', should we not look for an eloquence much more indirect, distorted, inconclusive? In this show, we want to tackle the question of politics from the point of view of our own weaknesses instead of projecting them first onto the politicians themselves. We could say that the blind lead the blind, the deaf speak eloquently to the deaf, the crippled are leading marches of dwarfs, or rather, to avoid those biased words, let's say that we are all politically-challenged. How would it look if we were chanting this more radical and surely more realistic slogan: 'Handicapped persons of all nations, unite!'?


If we are all handicapped, or rather politically-challenged, we need many different prostheses. Each object exhibited in the show and commented in the catalogue is such a crutch. We promise nothing more grandiose than a store of aids for the invalids who have been repatriated from the political frontlines —and haven't we all been badly mauled in recent years? Politics might be better taken as a branch of disability studies."

- Bruno Latour, From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik (Introduction to Making Things Public)

(Late 16th century prosthetics by Ambroise Paré, via BibliOdyssey)

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

"[T]he anthropologist who took the techniques of a particularly vibrant period of research into non-western societies and applied them to her own, western milieu..."

Guardian: Dame Mary Douglas: Brilliant and prolific anthropologist famed for her social theories about cosmology, consumption and risk

Times Online: Professor Dame Mary Douglas: Challenging and wide-ranging social anthropologist whose ideas and influence reverberated far beyond her discipline

Although she was more of a structuralist than I would ever care to be, Mary Douglas was one of the first anthropologists I read and I still come back to her ideas. As undergraduates we were assigned Purity and Danger to read, and to get a sense of how current STS scholars are still using this work check out Benjamin Sim's article, Safe Science: Material and Social Order in Laboratory Work which explains laboratory work and scientific practice in terms of order and pollution. Outside of science and technology studies, it was Donna Goldstein's wonderful ethnography Laughter Out of Place that helped me better understand the potentially disruptive and revolutionary potential of humour--something Douglas argued in the mid-60s.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Thursday gazette

Back at home after a super swell time at the Social Technologies Summit in Manchester--special thanks to all the wonderful participants and to the Futuresonic team who consistently held the backend together and made my job easier.

Drew Hemment deserves all the credit for coming up with the conference theme and convening the event - and that's no small feat! - while I helped him with programming the speakers and took care of schedules and briefings and the event's overall interaction design. I'll post more properly on what we did as soon as I get the chance, but for now I'd just note that organising and facilitating a conference and workshop is totally different from being a participant--both challenging and satisfying in unexpected ways!

I also managed to get out a bit while I was there and I have just one thing to say: if you ever have the chance to see Faust, don't miss them! (Hint hint: they're touring the UK in June and this is what you can expect.) Such beauty in timing, noise and destruction, which despite the overwhelmingly masculine tone of the event reminded me of Kali and Coatlicue, I could only have been more pleased if it were Can I had seen.

Anyway, I've got just over five weeks at home before I head off for a month in Banff, and I've got a much loved boy and cat to spend time with, flowers to plant, book clubs to join, bbqs to host and attend, bike rides to take, and yes, a bunch of work to do.

But before I forget, here's a quick list of things that've recently caught my eye:

BBC: "I think that concerns about robot rights are just a distraction. The more pressing and serious problem is the extent to which society is prepared to trust autonomous robots and entrust others into the care of autonomous robots."

NY Times: How the Inca Leapt Canyons

Guardian: "Just as we built up roads, the next step in civilisation is to build a total information network that will form part of the fabric of things around us."

IHT: Human skin is an anthropologist's map

BBC: "The safe development of a new technology should not depend on whether an academic wins a highly competitive research grant."

[Updated 18.05.07 for clarification.]

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Shepherding the politics of pervasive computing, Part I

The idea that ubicomp would first be picked up - mobilised - by people who value security and convenience has been argued by myself and other academics for years now, although Adam Greenfield has arguably done the best job articulating this in a systematic and accessible way for non-academics. In his article Policing the Convergence of Virtual and Material Worlds, Dion Dennis further fleshes this out when he identifies, following Foucault, an "economic pastorate" or shepherding function for pervasive computing:

"These devices produce continuous technological grist for the shepherd/police. But the shepherd is no longer a deity, a titular head of a church, a teacher or a priest. In a prototypical 'post-human' moment, the shepherd-function has routinely become the task of the mobile digital machinery ... [T]he result of active and formal corporate and governmental 'securitization' initiatives often restructure (and reduce) the creativity and scope of the public commons for purposes of capital extraction and, through an ersatz moral discourse, to tie such extraction to an expansion of political and social control ... As with the criminalization of drugs a generation earlier, economically incentivized political moralists assume the role of shepherds, busily 'selling' a redefinition of the boundaries between the tolerated and intolerable."

I find that last statement to be particularly intriguing because it explicitly ties shepherding to moralising, and I have a decided interest in challenging top-down morals with bottom-up ethics or ethos. More specifically, I've become increasingly concerned with actual strategies and tactics used to promote political action in this arena.

Put otherwise, I think that the shepherding role is not just the formal domain of economic and political elites that Dennis identifies, but also the more informal domain of today's critics of pervasive computing. The pressing problem at hand, as I see it, is that we're not being any less moralising.

In my next post I'll unpack that last claim using examples from a recent presentation I gave, the different responses it inspired, and how I'd like to proceed in doing technosocial critique.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Social Technologies Summit

Back in my home-sweet-home and madly preparing for my third cross-Atlantic trip in as many weeks, I'm really pleased to announce my upcoming role as Mistress of Ceremonies for the Social Technologies Summit at Futuresonic 2007 next week in Manchester.

This is the first time I'll be taking on more of a curatorial role, and am very excited about the stellar line-up we've organised. Check it out:

Friday 11 May 2007, 10am-6pm

Leading figures from around the world are converging on Manchester for Use Your Imagination, a unique one-day event presented by Imagination@Lancaster, Lancaster University's new interdisciplinary research institute, as a part of the Social Technologies Summit and Futuresonic 2007 Urban Festival of Art, Music and Ideas.

The event sets out to :
  • Inspire people with the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Introduce artists, designers, social researchers, activists, engineers and computer scientists to what excites each other
  • Enable people to meet in structured and informal ways
  • Seed new collaborations.
10.30am - 12.30pm, Contact Theatre
Steve Dietz (YProductions)
Giles Lane (Proboscis)
Linda Doyle (Trinity College Dublin)
Charlie Gere (Lancaster University) - Chair
Kristina Andersen (STEIM) - Discussant

2pm - 4pm, Contact Theatre
Paul Domenet (Saatchi & Saatchi)
Nina Wakeford (INCITE, Goldmsith's)
Alan Dix (Lancaster University)
Eric Paulos (Intel Research) - Chair
Laura Watts (Lancaster University) - Discussant

4pm - 6pm, Contact Theatre
Facilitated by Anne Galloway, please come meet the participants and other practitioners - and find your new collaborative partners!

6pm - 8pm, Council Chambers, Steve Biko Buidling
An open session for people doing strange things with electricity.

Saturday 12 May 2007, 10am-12:45pm

Working in partnership with the Manchester-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Creative Concern, Futuresonic and FutureEverything are launching a 3 year project addressing the sustainability of future arts and culture. The project will seek to minimise the environmental impact of the Futuresonic festival (including travel to and from the event!) and also to explore broader issues connecting Futuresonic's interest in mobile and social technologies with the new urgency surrounding climate change.

Today's digital culture promotes an always-on internet that can be accessed anywhere, while on the move. How can free and open source hardware help minimise the environmental burden of the technology we use, and how can thinking about new technologies be harnessed to improve our stewardship of the environment?

10.30am - 12.45pm, Contact Theatre
Eric Paulos (Intel Research)
Stef van Dongen (Enviu)
Shaun Fensom (Independent)
Steve Connor (Creative Concern) - Chair
Anne Galloway (Carleton University) - Discussant

Although I'll basically step aside after this session, I highly recommend sticking around for the remaining Free Studio / Estúdio Livre tactical media and cultural hot spots discussions & events:

Saturday 12 May 2007, 2pm - 9pm

There is today a grass roots open source movement that is sweeping across Brazil like wild fire and captivating the world's imagination. Futuresonic 2007 invites leading figures from Brazil and around the world to participate in a high profile conference session on this movement.

2pm - 4pm, Contact Theatre
Cristiano Scabello (Estúdio Livre)
James Wallbank (Access Space)
Matthew Edmondson (Open IT Up)
Dave Carter (Manchester Digital Development Agency) - Chair

4pm - 6pm, Council Chambers, Steve Biko Building
Free Studio Presentations Pt. 1

8pm - 9pm, Contact Theatre
Claudio Prado (Brazilian Ministry of Culture)

Sunday 13 May 2007, 12pm - 5pm

Free Studio Presentations Pt. 2
Zion Centre, Hulme

And as if that's not enough, there are tonnes of other fun things to do. I'll definitely be catching the Faust show on Friday night - part of the Music for the Beep Generation line-up - and the Art For Shopping Centres exhibitions.

Hope to see you there!

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