Friday, February 29, 2008

Of materials and bodies

If I had $500 that I didn't need to, say, pay rent or eat then I'd subscribe to Princeton Architectural Press' Materials Monthly. After reading Dan's positive review, I checked out the current issue (pdf) and longed to touch the sample materials with my own hands. As he says, "the ability to pick up, touch, rub and generally explore the tactility of materials is surprisingly affecting." See also: Transmaterial and Transmaterial 2


I never regret my decision to stop practicing archaeology, but not a day goes by that I don't miss feeling what I do. Having an aching back from sitting at the desk too long is not the same as feeling a burn in my thighs from squatting in an excavation pit, or climbing up mountains. I no longer put unknown objects in my mouth and use my tongue to identify them. (Bone sticks, ceramic grits and stone is just really hard.) And it's been far too long since my hands have touched something that hasn't been touched in centuries, or traced grooves in an object made by hundreds of other fingers doing the same. When I touch certain stones I can still hear the sound of water running over them, and when I run my hands over old Peruvian textiles that I've collected, I can remember the scent of wet alpacas and the relative coarseness of llama wool. I recall how mineral and vegetable dyes feel different as a pestle grinds them against a mortar, and smell different when cooked.


A couple of years ago I worked with a bunch of 13-14 year olds to come up with new mobile phone ideas. Granted we were limited to creating quick-and-dirty prototypes out of paper and textiles, but everyone was already interested in making phones softer and more flexible.

Now there's Nokia's Morph concept and Qian Jiang's Softphone concept. While not as cool as Schulze & Webb's metal phone, or as hardcore as this electronic tattoo display that runs on blood, there is something intensely beautiful--and maybe even more convincing--about this kind of design thinking. All soft computing and tangible interaction.


Embodiment studies - because my interest in materials is never separate from my interest in bodily experience.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The transformation of pasture into fleece

When I finished my Masters, I wanted to study with Penny Dransart at University of Wales, Lampeter. Obviously I went on to do other things (even though I still study humans and non-humans) and her work is still totally brilliant:

Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric: An Ethnography and Archaeology of Andean Camelid Herding

"Through a richly detailed examination of the practices of spinning yarn from the fleece of llamas and alpacas, Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric explores the relationship that herders of the present and of the past have maintained with their herd animals in the Andes. Dransart juxtaposes an ethnography of an Aymara herding community, based on more than ten years fieldwork in Isluga in the Chilean highlands, with archeological material from excavations in the Atacama Desert. Relevant historical evidence is adduced. This work investigates the material culture of pastoral communities at the transition from a hunting and gathering way of life over three thousand years ago, its relationship with the domestication process, and how spinning and weaving in contemporary Isluga express the values of a herding way of life. These values are intimately related to the perceived importance of the landscape with its resources of earth and water in the transformation of pasture into fleece. Impeccably researched, this book is the first systematic study to set the material culture of pastoral communities against an understanding of the long-term effects of herding practices. It offers original insights into understanding gender relations among the herders who establish the working relationships with their animals that enable them to produce yarns and fabrics, while also adopting a dynamic perspective on studying technical changes that have occurred in the textile production in the Andes."

Also: Kay Pacha: Cultivating Earth and Water in the Andes

Photo by Max xx

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The cultures of things

Dream Machine: The Snooze Button by Daniel Steinbock

"Modern citizens of industrialized nations live by the linear, mechanical clock, not the Sun. Office buildings have controlled climates and artificial lighting, making sunlight unnecessary for productive work. Thus work schedules are divorced from circadian rhythms, imposed by business constraints, rather than the environment. In order to live according to arbitrary time schedules, citizens use technologies that impose arbitrary sleep cycles on the body. Consider the alarm clock: a direct technological intervention in the natural sleep process. It forces the linear mechanical time-sense of a globally-synchronized waking world upon the cyclic, mytho-logical dreamtime of the sleeper. The alarm clock enables its user to arrest sleep at any time of morning or night. College students, with class schedules that vary throughout the week, often choose alarm schedules that are similarly uneven; waking at 8am for an early class, then sleeping in until 11am the next day. The alarm clock is the thing that does the work of shoehorning the necessity of human sleep into the artificial constraints of the workaday waking world."

"In dreaming, identity explodes. Dissociated from artifice and perception, the dreamer is monad: window-less yet luminous, god-like yet amnesial. Dream logic plays at synaesthesis. Things in dreams become disarranged and confounded with their personal meanings and web of associations -- memory and fantasy, desire and fear, Self and Other, love and death, sex and flight. Whether paradise or nightmare, the dreamer is locked in a room with no doors to open, no walls to break down, and no eject button. In waking, identity collapses. The body concretizes at a locus in spacetime: lying in bed, a familiar room, morning light slanting in, plans for the busy day solidify and arrange themselves. If motivated, the sleeper's body rises from bed -- now heavy with the weight of materiality. The snooze button acknowledges the body's resistance to artificial awakening. What an absurd subversion of will power to provide a mechanism for procrastinating past a self-imposed waking time..."

Part of Ten Things 2007 - a class with Michael Shanks about design

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How would you evaluate a chair?

I was just looking at student project proposals for Dori Tunstall's design research methods course, and I was quite impressed by how the following two projects merge the concerns of anthropology, art and design:

Anna Leithauser, MFA Student Graphic Design, The Art of Bookspines (pdf)

The project investigates the use of bookspines as designed objects, as consumer items, and as decorative art. The goal is to study both how bookspines have impacted the design, sales, and evolution of books and how changes in the book industry have affected bookspine design.

Brett Jones, BFA Student Graphic Design, Expensive Sneakers in the Hip Hop Community (pdf)

This project studies the role of the marketing of African-American hip-hop rappers and athletes in making expensive sneakers a necessity and obsession in the African-American hip-hop community.

I was recently asked to explain what I think the connections are between anthropology and design, and I tried to describe how both involve thinking, doing and making.

Objects That Look

"Despite police ‘crackdowns’ and the increasing availability of willing sexual partners online, the canal remains popular with men seeking anonymous and impersonal encounters with other men. During my fieldwork I employed a combination of ethnographic voyeurism and online ethnography to gain an insight into this capricious and difficult to access group. Sketch enabled me to place the witnessed body into a photograph of the empty site, avoiding the ethical, legal and practical complications of recording participants’ identities during ‘the act’. The downside of the technique was that ultimately the other becomes my creation in the collages. However this feels a more honest representation of my experiences and the men’s objectification of each other when cruising."

Michael Atkins, MA Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester


Design Anthropology – When opposites attract (pdf) by Werner Sperschneider, Mette Kjærsgaard and Gregers Petersen

"Design anthropology is a point of view: Not our (the designers) point of view not their (the users) point of view, but an additional point of view, a double perspective ... There are different levels of intervention in the field with users, but design is always a social activity. Involvement in situated practice is about people and their activities, and understanding one's social intervention through a piecing-together."


"I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitize designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out."

- Mimi Ito, Interview with Mimi Ito by danah boyd

Today in class we watched Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary on Edward Burtynsky's photos of where things come from. Everyone claimed that technological progress comes with a high price. No one felt they could do anything about it.

Design Education as Applied Anthropology by Anthony Inciong

"Design education for me is an opportunity to connect with the world in a variety of ways. My goal is to exploit a potential – to reveal how an anthropological perspective might be used to raise the potency and relevance of design ... I’m not proposing a creativity-eschewing, scientific study that has us spinning our wheels ... I’m interested in developing a practical method that accounts for our propensities as creative individuals but also facilitates our putting those to use in appropriate ways."

Visualizing Information for Advocacy (pdf) by John Emerson

IxDA video: Ethics of Everyday Design by Gabriel White

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Ethnography and design

LIFT08 Conference videos on ethnography and design:

Younghee Jung, Nokia

Genevieve Bell, Intel

Paul Dourish, University of California Irvine (USA)

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Pragmatist politics

"The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse."

- Slavoj Zizek


Boycott? I think not.

I fully support open-access scholarship, but find danah boyd's recent post on boycotting "locked-down" journals naive at best, and offensive at worst.

First of all, I think she overstates the "lock-down." I've published articles with Sage and Taylor&Francis, and was able to publish almost identical draft versions here. All I did was hand-write that provision onto my contract before I signed it, and no one ever objected. And while I agree that there is some sort of "black market" economy for exchanging articles, I'm willing to accept this as a viable tactic against an over-arching publication for profit strategy. In my experience, one of the quickest ways to alienate people from your cause is to invalidate existing acts of resistance because they don't fit your model. That's just scientific positivism applied to personal politics, and I don't like playing the "my politics are better than your politics" game.

This brings me to my main objection: danah's overall tone is so patronising to academics that I can't help but feel insulted. I mean, really, how do unsupported claims like this one - "If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them" - help our shared cause of reforming academic publishing?

Danah's position disrespects years of scholarship and community, and it dismisses outright the possibility that an academic might find genuine pride, or satisfaction, or joy in such work. Surely good ethnographers would want to ask a scholar what she gets out of a given practice before they tell her, or speak for her? And as an early career academic, I was most unimpressed by being given the option of becoming a "punk" or "conservative" scholar:

"Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you're in a new field. This may cost you advancement or tenure, but you know it's the right thing to do...

More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure. I understand why you feel the need to follow the rules. This is fine, but make a point by stopping this practice the moment you don't need it."

What is this, high school? I honestly fail to see how this "open" model gives me any more space to manoeuvre as a scholar, or as a human being.

In any case, Mel Gregg also takes issue with danah's "capacity to diagnose the pitfalls of an entire industry and the motivations of all of us who choose to work in it" and I appreciated Jason Wilson's comments on how journal publishing actually works. But since I also really like constructive criticism, and I haven't provided any alternatives here, I'll second Alex Halavais' suggestion:

"If you want to find the Achilles heal, the catalyst that would get things moving much faster, it's easy enough: follow the money. Pressure NSF, MacArthur, etc., to require open publication for all funded research. Get state legislatures to do the same for state schools: if you get a summer grant or fellowship, your work needs to be published in public, so that the public who paid for it can access it."

I encourage Canadian citizens and researchers to contact the following organisations to voice your opinions on these matters:

SSHRC | NSERC | Killam Trusts

Researchers can also apply for funding from the Government of Canada's Intellectual Property Mobilization Program (IPM).

Canadian Intellectual Property Office | HRSDC Learning and Post-Secondary Education | Provincial Ministries of Education

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
| Canadian Federation of Students

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On reading

Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other...

Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education, and our great store of literature. Of course, we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, and this is evidenced by the founding of working men's libraries and institutes, the colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Reading, books, used to be part of a general education.

Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less. And if children cannot read, it is because they have not read.

We all know this sad story.

But we do not know the end of it.

We think of the old adage, 'Reading maketh a full man' - and forgetting about jokes to do with over-eating - reading makes a woman and a man full of information, of history, of all kinds of knowledge.

But we in the West are not the only people in the world. Not long ago a friend who had been in Zimbabwe told me about a village where people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education..."

Friday, February 1, 2008

The light at the end of the tunnel...

One down, four to go!

1. Apply to graduate (deadline Feb 1)
2. Submit five copies of thesis for examination (deadline Mar 15)
3. PhD Dissertation defense (deadline Apr 30)
4. Submit five copies of thesis for binding
5. Convocation


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