Thursday, November 29, 2007

A question for cultural linguistics geeks

I've always struggled with the locative case. I mean I understand that a grammatical case involves distinct noun forms, and that this one refers specifically to location. But in English prepositional phrases are used to indicate location.

It's like the English language fetches things from somewhere 'out there' and puts them in place, while languages that use the locative case seem to structure the world so that things only ever exist in place.

Does this make sense?


Friday, November 23, 2007

Space and Culture

I've finished migrating Space & Culture over to Wordpress - please update your news readers with our new Feedburner feed.

The latest post compiles a bunch of things I've noticed over the past month or so into a gazette format. Happy grazing!

It'll still take me some time to categorise all the posts, but it's actually kind of fun doing it. I also tweaked a Wordpress template, so please let me know if you have any problems with it.


Friday, November 16, 2007

No uncertain terms. All uncertain terms.

Clive Thompson - Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law

"Turns out, the real culture war in science isn't about science at all it's about language. And to fight this war, we need to change the way we talk about scientific knowledge ... It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle in no uncertain terms."

In this short article, Thompson talks about how the deliberately nuanced and tentative language of science is exploited by creationists and others who take advantage of the vernacular sense of theory, as in "Oh, so that's just your theory, not a fact!" Although he seems to have little faith in the public, he recognises connections between language and power, and in the process touches on important critiques of hyper-relativist social constructionism, as well as much older questions about truth, including the possibility of codifying it. I've heard it explained that people become desperate for certainty in times of uncertainty. And as much as I disagree with creationists, I can't help but think Thompson's plan would come back to seriously bite us on the ass.

Update 16.11.07 - In the comments Nick left a link to a Guardian story about Steve Fuller, who I think is a super interesting sociologist. Check out his take on ID, and the explicit attention given to authority and power.

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What we learn

Via DO, What I Learned in Art School (Is it Design Thinking?)

"In art school, I learned:
  • How to champion and defend my ideas.
  • How to distinguish between personal and professional critique.
  • How to respectfully and constructively critique my peers. How to attack the ideas of my colleagues and still have drinks with them that same night (and maybe even sleep with them hey, it is art school)
  • How to test drive a hundred different ideas through sketching, cobbling, and envisioning them, before finally settling on which one to go ahead and build.
  • How to tell when I am done a project that could just as easily be improved endlessly.
  • How to tell when an idea that is precious to me is actually holding me back. And then to feel good about throwing it away.
  • How to have the confidence to present my ideas in public without fearing that they will be stolen. And how to take it in stride when they inevitably are.
  • How to distinguish between taste, technical skill, and empirical efficiency.
  • How to detect bullshit, and to avoid generating it myself (note that not all art school grads learn this).
  • How to go the extra mile to make something high-quality.
  • How to recognize talent in my peers.
  • How to collaborate with my colleagues effectively to reach a common goal.
  • How to be deeply competitive without being a dick.
  • How to make something new just for the sake of being new.
  • How to build off of, and give credit to, the ideas of my predecessors both contemporary and in history.
  • How to save ideas that Im not ready for and keep them for future use (usually in sketchbooks).
  • How to start all over again from the beginning.
  • How to teach all of the above."

Despite my skepticism that anyone is that well-adjusted, what a great list! I'm going to show it to my students and ask them if they see any overlap with what they're learning as non-artists and non-designers. I think it would be fun to come up with my own list too, so stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, what are some of the important things you learned in school? Are they similar to, or different from, things you've learned on the job?

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The very definition of stress

I just got a phone call from an extremely aggressive collection agent named Michelle, who berated me for defaulting on my $55,000 student loan, which apparently went into repayment in May 2006. Then she accused me of avoiding them (they had an address that hasn't been valid since July 2006 and a few hours ago was the first I heard of them looking for me).

I politely explained that was impossible: I've been registered as a full-time student since before that time and am not required to pay on my student loan while I have that status. I also explained that I'd been required to submit a confirmation of enrollment form (with current contact info) to both federal and provincial student loans offices in the fall of 2006 and again last month, for this academic year.

When I asked how it was that neither of my provincial loans had gone into repayment, but the federal ones had, she said it wasn't her problem. She said there were full-time students in her office as we spoke that had failed to update their addresses on time, and it was her job to collect the money we all owed. She said that the government wouldn't help me and the university wouldn't help me and that refusing to pay that $55,000 debt was not advisable.

I asked if there was anything I could do to clear up this obvious mistake. She said "No!" I insisted she provide me options. She said to fax every piece of paper I had to confirm my registration and address. I asked who I could contact at Student Loans. She gave me a toll-free number and snidely said "Good luck!" I politely thanked her and hung up. Then I felt like I was going to explode. Or implode. Or something equally devastating and terribly messy.

After writing it all down I feel better, but no more optimistic about how this is actually going to get fixed. Student loans and I have never had a loving relationship, but I think I may have to hire a lawyer this time. Luckily, like all students, I have copious amounts of free time and an endless bankroll, so this should be super easy. Sigh.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A few questions about design ethics

For the past few years I've taught mostly STS classes, and teaching power and everyday life this term has been an interesting shift that's really challenged me to question what might constitute ethical practices of everyday life. For example, I've been following with some interest recent debates about anthropologists consulting for the military. Given historical and current geo-politics I wouldn't do it, but over the years I've heard researchers and designers say everything from "The pay is great!" and "Who else do you think funds this kind of work?!" to "Someone's gonna do it, so it might as well be me!" and "I have no problem with this."

Only a very few have bothered to ask "Doesn't it depend on how the research/consulting is done, and how it's used?" Score for attention to situational rather than universal ethics--but are 'we' really such an individualistic bunch? And at what point can we say that someone subscribes to a standard of ethics but not to ethical practice?

Over at Design Observer, Elizabeth Tunstall has written a piece asking What If Uncle Sam Wanted You? or more specifically, "What if the U.S. Army asked designers to join teams to do 'service design' projects in Afghanistan?" It's worth reading the whole thing for insights into the different perspectives of anthropologists and designers, and then move over to her blog for how she's actually a bit concerned by designers' responses to the article.

I'd wager that for most people attracted to, and trained in, understanding social and cultural interaction, the confounding bit is the value these designers placed on individual choice instead. But as Dori more pointedly asks: "As design seeks to expand its progressive impact on business, government and society, I wonder if we, designers as thinkers, can continue to afford to see ourselves in such individualistic ways."

I think it's interesting, too, that she brings her students into the discussion. Time and time again at conferences and workshops, I've noticed significant differences between those who actively teach and those who do not--especially when it comes to witnessing cultural (including generational) changes. In fact, the classroom is one of the very few places where I encounter difference that I am not allowed to ignore, or to circumscribe in ways that reduces or flattens it to conversations amongst 'equals' - and that is something I believe more designers could stand to do in their own work.

What I mean is that things are changing. My students also see themselves as part of a bigger, more diverse, more unequal, and more interconnected world--and they have different ethical expectations than most of the established practitioners I meet. They have genuine concerns that professional life will involve more ethical standards than ethical practices, and they object to this. Given these and other differences, it's not surprising to have seen their concerns casually dismissed as youthful naivety, and formally opposed as threats to lifetime career interests.

But for me, the more disturbing bit is that these concerns are actually given a lot of lip-service, in much the same ways as ethical guidelines can become ethical alibis for practitioners who ally themselves in abstract, but not concrete ways.

So let's get more specific: Is consulting for the military unethical? Well now it depends, doesn't it? I recently had a very interesting conversation with a scientist who regularly consults for the US military. He argued that the issue should not be if consulting is unethical or not, but rather what kinds of consulting may be unethical. I agreed, and when I asked him for an example he claimed open research as the most important value for scientific research, and explained he would only work on projects that did not involve non-disclosure agreements and proprietary research. For him, closed or restricted knowledge, whether supported by the military or a corporation or the university, was simply "bad" science. And this made me wonder if designers have a sense of "bad" design that might preclude, for example, working on proprietary projects with NDAs?

Historically, design interests have been so well aligned with the logic and desires of capitalism that many a joke has been made about whether design can ever be an ethical practice. But most designers I know don't find these jokes very amusing, and I've never met a designer who enjoys being characterised as a dilettante when it comes to social, political and ethical matters. At the same time, many have become very frustrated at the suggestion that they simply not work with clients they think 'do harm'. They insist: "That's not a very practical option!" which, ironically, returns us to jokes at their expense.

But are design's clients only ever the ones who, for example, require NDAs and create proprietary knowledge? Of course not. Designers do have and make choices every day, but there appear to be rather serious obstacles to seeing these choices as something other than individual or personal matters. And this, of course, makes it very difficult to hold them socially accountable for their actions, or inactions.

In any case, I certainly don't have all the answers and I'd love to hear from students, teachers and design practitioners about any of these things! What do you think?

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