Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Computing culture at Georgia Tech

Back from a lush, if a bit too warm for my post-winter constitution, Atlanta, I'll cover my talk in a separate post--but first I want to talk about the amazing grad students I met. They appear to work in a much more driven and stream-lined university environment than mine, and while I have some reservations about this educational model, there's no doubt that good people are getting some good work done there.

[Campus sculpture photo by highstrungloner]

It was really good to see Susan Wyche again, and if you're not familiar with her doctoral research on technology and spirituality in cross-cultural context then I highly recommend it. I wish I had more time to talk with Chris Le Dantec, a doctoral student "researching the social impact of technology, specifically looking at how marginalized communities like the homeless are affected by the social changes inherent in the adoption of new technologies." His work with Keith Edwards, Designs on Dignity: Perceptions of Technology Among the Homeless (pdf), was recently awarded best paper at CHI 2008, and it's well worth reading. Normally, value-sensitive design (pdf) makes me a bit nervous because of its tendency to reinforce universal humanism, but their paper really emphasises the importance of creating context-sensitive information and they fully recognise that technology is not a panacea for social problems. Furthermore, the paper raises important concerns about connection versus disconnection, since "the need to stay connected to the rest of society is a major concern for the homeless, yet as those connections become increasingly mediated by technology, the risk of losing touch becomes greater."

All of this reminds me of my conversations with Carl DiSalvo. I first met Carl when he was a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon, and now he's Assistant Professor at GA Tech. We continue to share an interest in activist research: This visit I pointed him to work in activist anthropology and he pointed me to a new book, Engaging Contradictions: The Case for Activist Research (pdf here), that looks quite interesting. We also share a commitment to designing with and for emergent publics-in-particular, rather than pre-existing publics-in-general, although I wish we had more time to talk about the limitations of defining citizenship along the lines of what can be gathered by individuals through sensing technologies.

I also had a great conversation with Jasper Sluijs, who finished an MA in cultural studies before starting his MS in Digital Media at Georgia Tech. We talked about Deleuze and Brian Massumi's work on affect, and the politics of using 'official' data in personal informatics and data visualisation projects. When faced with 'facts' it's very difficult to intervene as citizens because the matters at hand appear done or closed, while a focus on unresolved concerns still offers the possibility of action and hope for change. For example, rather than presenting crime statistics or environmental data as objective truths, it would be interesting to explore how these data are collected in the first place, or how different types of data could be collected. Not only does this encourage more actionable research and design projects, but it makes explicit the politics and ethics of their underlying logics and practices.

Jasper collaborated on Greetings from Atlanta!, an interactive postcard and short paper on re-appropriating the city (pdf), and I
also briefly met Adam Rice, another Masters student and part of the team that worked on the Imaging Atlanta: Transportation project. A visual exploration of transportation "not in motion," the panoramic photos and descriptions of Atlanta transport scenes "allow us to view and consider our movement through space and perhaps more importantly, to devote pondering attention to the spaces we move through, but often fail to see."

And last, but certainly not least, Ozge Samanci was kind enough to demo Tangible Comics for me, and I was really impressed by her enthusiasm for exploring the boundaries of comic book form. Not only is their embodied comics storyline fun (and feminist!) but it was wonderful to actually feel my body moving through a graphical narrative. Ozge's personal comics are also lovely representations of ordinary things and everyday life. (I submitted a link to Drawn! and I hope her work gets some more exposure there.)

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