Thursday, March 27, 2008

How The University Works

I recently read the introduction (pdf) to Marc Bousquet's new book, How The University Works, and this bit is really sticking with me:

"Degree in hand, loans coming due, the working partner expecting a more fair financial contribution, perhaps the question of children growing relevant, the degree holder asks a question to which the system has no answer: If I have been a splendid teacher and scholar while nondegreed for the past ten years, why am I suddenly unsuitable? Nearly all of the administrative responses to the degree holder can already be understood as responses to waste: flush it, ship it to the provinces, recycle it through another industry, keep it away from the fresh meat. Unorganized graduate employees and contingent faculty have a tendency to grasp their circumstance incompletely—that is, they feel 'treated like shit'—without grasping the systemic reality that they are waste. Insofar as graduate employees feel treated like waste, they can maintain the fantasy that they really exist elsewhere, in some place other than the overwhelmingly excremental testimony of their experience.

This fantasy becomes an alibi for inaction, because in this construction agency lies elsewhere, with the administrative touch on the flush-chain. The effect of people who feel treated like waste is an appeal to some other agent: please stop treating us this way—which is to say to that outside agent, 'please recognize that we are not waste,' even when that benevolent recognition is contrary to the testimony of our understanding ... The difference in consciousness between feeling treated like waste and knowing one’s excremental condition is the difference between experiencing casualization as 'local disorder' (that authority will soon rectify) and having the grasp of one’s potential for transforming the systemic realities of an actually existing new order. Where the degree-holding waste product understands its capacity for blockage and refuses to be expelled, the system organizing the inside must rapidly succumb."

I feel my excremental condition. Bring. It. On.

See also: Bousquet's How The University Works Blog and Tiziana Terranova and Marc Bousquet, Recomposing the University, Mute Magazine, 2004

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Techno-determinism, temporality and the problem of critique

Pervasive computing is X (although it could be Y or Z).

Good things should be enabled.
Bad things should be opposed.

X is good, so enable the technology.
X is bad, so oppose the technology.

In opposing pervasive computing that is X, one supports those who would enable it to the degree that one is denying the possibilities of pervasive computing being Y or Z (instead of X).

Just thinking about the problem of collusion...

"So, then, how do we analytically separate the possible or impossible inevitability of the future from a [given] case? I suggest we do it by separating the (alleged) inevitability of the future from the inevitability of the present. There is such a thing as the inevitability of the present ... If, then, we want to criticise technological determinism, we should not criticise descriptions when they describe an unfolding of a present, even when that present consists of a long chunk of time, like, say, 20 years ('cars and roads will still be the dominant machinery of transportation in 20 years time'). If, however, we want to argue that a particular unfolding of events is an unfolding of a present time, we have to argue the case empirically. It cannot be assumed. And the arguing may be difficult and uncertain."

-- Lars Risan, The Duration of the Present and the Risk of Not Telling Large Stories

Thx Sam.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Underground aesthetics and ethics

SeeShell by Johanna Brewer

"SeeShell is my new project, an augmented Oyster Card (the RFID-enabled Underground ticket) holder which displays, over time, the journeys a rider has taken.

When a user passes their Oyster card (which is inside the SeeShell) over the touch-in point at the gate to the station while they are entering or exiting, the SeeShell, using RFID, senses which station the user just passed through and over time a map of the stations they have visited begins to emerge on their Oyster Card holder.

When you purchase an Oyster card it is not necessary that you give up your identity, but you must register the card if you want to purchase a monthly or yearly pass. Registration allows you to recover a lost or stolen card, but obviously comes with the trade-off of having all of your journeys (which are traceable) linked to your name. The Oyster system already tracks users' journeys but there is no convenient way for the users to access or make use of that data.

By building SeeShell on top of an already existing system, I hope to show how lived patterns of mobility might be leveraged in new ways and placed back into the hands of their creators."

In a paper on underground aesthetics (pdf) for IEEE Pervasive Computing last year, Arianna Bassoli, Johanna Brewer, Karen Martin, Paul Dourish, and Scott Mainwaring explain how Londoners used to give their paper day-travel tickets to strangers at the tube station when they were done travelling for the day and wouldn't need them anymore. They also describe how free newspapers are commonly left behind so that other passengers can read them. While the authors recognise these material objects as "potential interaction points" that "acknowledge current and future passengers," I think they underestimate the ethical implications. Whether or not there is any direct (i.e. conversational) interaction, in both scenarios people act as though they are socially obligated to each other. The ethic of this paper-based aesthetic involves collective action. In political terms, we could call it community or citizenship.

The SeeShell project works within the framework or system afforded by the Oyster card. Since the RFID-based card is a personalised and reusable device, there is no opportunity or need to share it in the same way as the day-travel card example above. We might even go so far as to say that its use encourages personal rather than social relations. By positioning agency in terms of how "users can conveniently access and make use of data," the SeeShell project may indeed offer the individual new means of self-awareness and aesthetic expression. But this kind of parasitic or participatory surveillance does nothing to encourage a social ethic that binds people to each other, or a sense of citizenship that challenges the surveillant assemblage and its atomising effects.

I'm not saying that I don't like the project, or that all projects need to be social and political. What I'm saying is that as new technologies attempt to shift from interaction models to participation models, we might take a closer look at what we mean when we describe design in terms of user empowerment. What kind of agency or power is this?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Quote of the day

"The engineering sensibility, which so often seeks to breed out the unusual and enable replicable results, has a very hard time with the idea that people might want to find what they weren’t looking for."

-- Rick Prelinger, [iDC] Media dies more slowly than some would like

Friday, March 14, 2008

Reimagining the everyday

I love getting email about new research, art and design projects that address theories and critiques of everyday life!

Alexis Lloyd's paper Performing the Mundane: Interventions in Everyday Life (pdf) "explores the ways in which artists are utilizing design objects, performance, and interventionist practices to create spaces for play, ritual, and poetry in the midst of everyday experience. Specifically, the paper examines these issues through an analysis of the works of Andrea Zittel, Improv Everywhere, and Tim Etchells."

The Concrete JungleWhile Alexis' locative media projects are also interesting, it was actually The Concrete Jungle street art installation that made me smile the most. Maybe it's my love of miniatures and animals, but there is something simply joyous about this kind of interaction design. Sure some critics could dismiss it as cloying, but consider these two points. First, unlike most work in ID, it doesn't cater just to the technological elite. In fact, I imagine all sorts of gadget-less people quite delighted by small gorillas swinging from fences, and rhinos storming over parking meters. Secondly, it does not require any direct interaction. While walking down a busy urban street, to simply catch a glimpse of a tiny lion stalking a tiny herd of antelope is enough to change one's frame of mind without demanding immediate action. In other words, the intervention is subtle and open-ended. Very, dare I say, everyday life.


I love carnivalesque moments or events precisely because they disrupt time and space, and force me to acknowledge things that I might otherwise miss or avoid. But I also like to remember that Walter Benjamin characterised boredom as "the apogee of mental relaxation," the "dream bird that hatches the egg of experience," the "threshold to great deeds." In places that constantly seek to move faster, to stimulate further, the ability to actually be bored is a triumph of sorts. It means we haven't been captivated by the spectacular, that we've managed to resist the logic of efficiency.

In their Open 11 essay, Mindful Disconnection: Counterpowering The Panopticon from the Inside (pdf), Howard Rheingold and Eric Kluitenberg remind us that when we design for urban computing the important question is "whether we can develop procedures, methods, possibilities, spaces for 'selective connectivity', which make it practical to choose to extract ourselves from the electronic control grid from time to time and place to place." At the end of the article they list a bunch of interesting projects that offer the possibility to disconnect--note how some are illegal.


Returning to the notion of wild versus domesticated spaces, Robert Willim wrote to tell me about an interesting project he's done with Anders Weberg, Domestic Safari: Home as a Wild Place. They asked "What if we started to see the material worlds of domestic settings as wild places? Is there a potential for the exotic and uncanny in the inconspicuously mundane?" and eventually came up with a ten minute film that takes the viewer through three different homes in Finland, Italy and Sweden. As they explain: "This audiovisual excursion aims to call forth imaginaries and a profane illumination that disorient and estrange the materialities of everyday reality."

Domestic SafariPersonally, I did find it disorienting. There are bits that appear to take place underwater or on the forest floor, rather than in a house--and the music can be more than a bit discomforting. This is no home I'd want to live in! But I'm intrigued by the idea, and I hope they put up some more documentation. I'd like to know what they think we can learn from repositioning the domestic as the wild...

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Art calls

Iraqi Memorial: Commemorating Civilian Deaths

"The purpose of this project is to honor and commemorate the deaths of thousands of civilians killed since the commencement of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' on March 19, 2003; to establish an Internet archive as a living memorial that will serve as a repository of memorial concepts; to mobilize an international community of artists to contribute proposals that will represent a collective expression of memory, unity and peace; to encourage the vigilance of contemporary memory in a time of war; to stimulate an understanding of the consequences and costs of 'the war on terror'; to support the moral imperative of recognizing the deaths of Iraqi civilians; and to create a context for the initiation of a process of symbolic, creative atonement."

Call for Proposals and Guidelines for Entries


Update: Foreign Policy in Focus | Memorializing Iraq


Rhizome Commissions Program

In 2009, Rhizome will award seven commissions with fees ranging from $3000-$5000. This year, Rhizome has expanded our scope, formerly focused strictly on Internet-based art to encompass the broad range of practices that fall under new media art. This includes projects that creatively engage new and networked technologies to works that reflect on the impact of these tools and media in a variety of forms. With this expanded format, commissioned works can take the final form of online works, performance, video, installation or sound art. Projects can be made for the context of the gallery, the public, the web or networked devices.

Download the Call for Proposals (doc) | Submit a Proposal



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

If it can't be made at home, maybe it can be made in transit

For years I've been waiting for someone to invent the energy-efficient refrigerator that grows food instead of just storing it. I always imagine the outside door full of plants that are both edible and beautiful. My own year-round greens and micro-greens garden, some heirloom tomatoes and beans, a few organic mushrooms grown in a dark section at the bottom... Perfect!

Well, it doesn't look like my fridge will be happening anytime soon, but I'm always interested in organic, local and sustainable agricultural processes. Enter the future of fungal freshness: Agata Jaworska's thesis project Made in Transit, "a supply chain concept in which the food grows on board a vehicle on the way to the supermarket, shifting the paradigm of packaging from preserving freshness to enabling growth, and shifting ‘best before’ to ‘ready by'." (via)

I have some concerns about the labour repercussions--a local organic farm employs and trains dozens of young people every year--but I appreciate Jaworska's explicit acknowledgment that the Made in Transit concept is complementary to, and not a replacement for, other kinds of production. I also agree with her that it raises interesting and important questions about sustainability and the relation between local and global systems:

"Developments in local agriculture can go on as normal, just as developments in my mother’s garden will also go on as normal. For this project I was interested in tackling global chains and wondered if they could be done differently, and indeed address their sustainability...Indeed, next time a kid asks me where mushrooms come from, I’ll have to tell him that they may soon come from trucks...And is this a utopia or a dystopia? Well it’s not as romantic as going to the forest but I hope it turns out to be more sustainable than the way it is currently done, given our global state of affairs. I think it shows that sustainability is not as clear cut as one would think, and dare I say, that local is not always better than global?"

The whole interview is worth reading. If you're looking for more visuals, I'm not sure the accompanying two-minute animation does the concept justice, but Jaworska's recent presentation at a Pecha Kucha event in Rotterdam starts to get at the kind of details that allow us to imagine the potential of her vision:

YouTube: Made in Transit at Pecha Kucha

Packaging geeks can also get more info on the growing containers in this Culiblog post. And even if you're not that kind of geek, it's a great blog all-around so why not check out the entries in the locative food and urban agriculture categories?

And last but not least, if food and culture interest you as much as they interest me, I can highly recommend a subscription to Gastronomica, a brilliant journal on food and culture.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

This winter: 374 cm and counting

Current view from the front porch.

Looking down the street this afternoon.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Representing the political agency of technological devices

Light Trail at Speed Bump by lilduckling

"In my view, the bottleneck is in the difficulty of describing what happens to agency when there are no anthropomorphic characters. And there is no vocabulary—no accepted vocabulary—to talk about that. So every time you do that, immediately people say—I know because I have done it many times—people say, ‘Oh, you anthropomorphize the nonhuman.’ Because they have such a narrow definition of what is human, that whenever a nonhuman does something, it looks human, as if it’s sort of a Disney type of animation. So if my ‘sleeping policeman,’ actually a speed-trap, begins to really do something, people say ‘yes, but you are projecting human intention onto it,’ even though it has been made precisely so that there is no policeman there and there is no human intention there and you break your car if you speed...I think that the bottleneck is that we don’t know how to define the nonhuman at all."

-- Where Constant Experiments Have Been Provided: A Conversation with Bruno Latour

In Guaman Poma's chronicle of the Inka there is an illustration of December's [June's] Inti Raymi festival, named after Inti, the Inka Sun God. In it, Inti and his consort Mama Killa (Mother Moon) wear human expressions.

A great Peruvian archaeologist once told me that Western scholars always misunderstand the sun in Inka culture. Inti, he explained, has a face not because the Inka anthropomorphised him but because the Europeans had no words to describe humans and non-humans as if they were the same.

I've always assumed he was referring to animism, but now I'm more intrigued by this question of lacking words to describe non-humans, and what this means if we try to account for relations between humans and non-humans.

If Crang and Graham are right, the biggest threat in a world of pervasive computing is the delegation of political agency to inanimate objects (i.e. computers) and invisible forces. In such a scenario, I find it useful to think of humans and non-humans as the same. Well, not actually the same, but certainly not different. I'm reminded that every RFID tag has a person--many people--attached to it. People who make decisions, people who are implicated and interpellated. And I wonder how can we best reveal--best represent--the people, the actions, the politics that are normally hidden in these devices. How can we communicate what these devices do? Or how they act?

Timo Arnall's Touch Project has investigated how RFID transactions can be visualised, including these RFID icons by Alex Jarvis and Mark Williams at Schulze and Webb, and Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim came up with these Everyware icons (pdf). In all these examples the driving metaphor is the transaction, or the exchange between human (user) and non-human (computer)--which is, of course, very useful from a usability and user-centred design perspective. It also makes sense if we assume that most of these devices will be used in commercial contexts.

But I'm interested in the political agency of these devices. I'm interested in ways we can represent the political relations they embody--something which must begin, I believe, with the explicit recognition that these exchanges or transactions involve unequal power relations.

How can we represent the reality that a given device or environment is collecting and correlating data in ways that are more powerful than our ability to resist? How can we demonstrate tactical potential in the face of strategic control? Perhaps more simply, how can we represent a given device or environment as an assemblage of people, places, practices, objects and ideas? How can we draw (out) its relations to others?

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"Holding theorems in their hands": The Hyberbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project

"For Ms. Wertheim...the project embodies the 'beauty and creativity that comes out of scientific thinking,' what she refers to as 'conceptual enchantment.' As it turns out, the gorgeously crenellated, warped and undulating corals, anemones, kelps, sponges, nudibranchs, flatworms and slugs that live in the reef have what are known as hyperbolic geometric structures: shapes that mathematicians, until recently, thought did not exist outside of the human imagination ... It wasn’t until 1997 that Daina Taimina, a mathematics researcher at Cornell who had learned to crochet as a child in Latvia, realized that by continually adding stitches in a precise repeating pattern she could create three-dimensional models of hyperbolic geometry. For the first time mathematicians could, as Ms. Wertheim said, 'hold the theorems in their hands'."

-- NY Times: Want to Save a Coral Reef? Bring Along Your Crochet Needles (Um, that would be crochet hooks and knitting needles.)

"Every person who takes up this craft creates new species of crochet organisms and we have come to see the project as a collective experiment in textile-based evolution. Just as all living creatures result from variations in an underlying DNA code, so the species in these handi-crafted reefs arise from deviations in a single simple algorithm. Slight variations in the kind of yarn, changes in the rate of increasing stitches, even shifts in crochet tension make significant differences to the morphology of the finished form ... Ways of constructing once perceived as 'merely' women’s craft, and dismissed from the cannon of scientific practice, now emerge as revelatory forms of a more complex, embodied way of thinking about the world both mathematically and physically."

-- The Crochet Coral Reef At The Chicago Cultural Center

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"A very hopeful, gentler perspective of the world..."

Having nearly gone mad approving 80+ research topics over the past week, it's emails like this that make it all worthwhile:

Thank you so so so much for the advice on writing an essay in Friday’s lecture. Your class has been very insightful this year, and I have really enjoyed being in it because it has taught me so much and given me a very hopeful, gentler perspective of the world, and (as lame as it sounds) has given me a different outlook on how I view people based on the assignments, lectures, and exercises we have done, so thank you, you have saved me from becoming a crazy cat lady after all. (Sorry I think I took that too far.)


Saturday, March 1, 2008

Urban computing: looking forward and looking backward

I've finally managed to find the time to read Mike Crang and Stephen Graham's recent paper, Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space--and it's really good!

As I've said many times, Graham's work on networked urbanism is superb, and Crang's work on space, culture and ethnography is also exemplary. Compared to American accounts that draw on cybernetics and systems-thinking in architecture and urban planning (think Bill Mitchell, Malcolm McCullough, etc.) I find the British cultural geography approach (following Nigel Thrift, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge) far better attuned to the variety and complexity of everyday lived experience, and the connections between place and identity (i.e. power) over time. Perhaps most importantly, I think this focus on spatialisation, temporalisation and embodiment leads to a critical approach that isn't undermined by the persistent techno-determinism and lack of socio-cultural nuance that tend to characterise the former.

I've argued before that ubicomp is both imaginary and concrete, and Crang and Graham also distinguish between various manifestations of ubiquitous computing:

"[There are] three key contemporary domains within which the reconfiguration of cities and their politics are being actively imagined and enacted through the imagination and deployment of ubiquitous computing (or ‘ubicomp’). This is going on, we suggest, through the production and dissemination of technological fantasies, the more practical processes of technological development, and the actual deployment of, and contestation over, operational ubicomp systems. These three vignettes address: commercial fantasies of ‘friction-free’ urban consumption; military and security industry attempts to mobilize ubiquitous computing for the ‘war on terror’; and attempts by artists to interrupt fantasies of perfect urban control through artistic use of new ubicomp technologies to try and re-enchant urban space and urban life" (791-792).

In my mind, the commercial promise (or threat) of ubicomp pales in comparison to military and government interventions in this domain. For example, in 2004 the US Defense Science Board:

"saw possibilities to exploit ubiquitous computing technologies in developing a massive, integrated system of surveillance, spanning the world, and tailored specifically to penetrating the increasing complexity of urban life. Such a system, it argued, would once again render the US military’s targets trackable, locatable – and destroyable. The purpose of the New ‘Manhattan project’, then, was seen to be to ‘locate, identify, and track, people, things and activities – in an environment of one in a million – to give the United States the same advantages in asymmetric warfare [as] it has today in conventional warfare’" (800).

This plan is connected to broader trends in post 9/11 surveillance and has been integrated into the Pentagon's "Long War" strategy, which raises critical issues about who has access to citizen's ever-increasing digital traces. But access isn't even the primary issue--it's the government's desire to correlate and "backtrack" data so that potential behaviours and situations can be anticipated and controlled. This is what Felix Stalder is describing when he says that data traces don't just follow us, they precede us: "Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, we're treated according to whatever criteria have been connected to the profile that represents us."

This kind of seeing is anticipatory, and while it may have its origins in commercial marketing practice, this kind of social sorting has far more harmful implications than RFID tracking and Minority Report-style tailored advertising. The biggest issue, as Crang and Graham put it, is that "such a technological politics, of course, risks delegating whole sets of decisions and, along with that, the ethics and politics of those decisions, to invisible and sentient systems" (811).

In an early 2007 interview with Adam Greenfield, Régine Debatty asked why there was no mention of art practice in his popular book, Everyware, and he responded:

"Not referring to art projects was an explicit decision, based in part on my desire to limit the discussion to ways in which information processing would be showing up in everyday life. And almost by definition, however trenchant or clever the point of view embedded in them may be, art objects are simply not going to be relevant to that consideration."

I strongly disagree with that assessment of artistic relevance, and Crang and Graham's final section on artistic interventions that seek to "challenge or subvert (some aspects of) the dominant commercial and military visions" (805) successfully makes the point that locative media and art projects tend to inscribe memories rather than anticipate actions, and this tendency to look backward instead of projecting forward is important.

Rather than making us passive or controlling our actions in particular places, locative media and art "allow us to claim and mark our territory" (807) in multiple ways: as publics, as individuals, as citizens. While many projects can be seen to romanticise a renewed public sphere, the collaborative nature of most projects is still distinct from the one-way, top-down models offered by commercial and military players. They also tend to make socio-spatial relations visible, rather than rendering them invisible. The primary drawback here is that "these moves risk making what was formerly protected by its opacity and transitoriness, visible and recordable" (812). But as Crang and Graham also put it, "these artistic media are trying to densify the liquid – not solidify places" (810) and "the effect of memory is not the creation of perfectly known environments. Rather, it involves a destabilization of spaces, a haunting of place with absent others" (812).

However, it's in their conclusions that I find the necessary pragmatism and the most hope:

"Urban ubicomp clearly has a fetishistic power in appearing to finally offer solutions by rendering place and space utterly transparent in some simple, deterministic way. Indeed, we would argue that there is a danger that locative media are equally seen as a technical fix for oppositional voices and alternative histories in art projects. In this sense the myths matter and have effects. But they are only mythologies of a perfect, uniform informational landscape. In reality, the seamless and ubiquitous process of pure urban transparency that many accounts suggest will always be little but a fantasy. In practice, the linking of many layers of computerized technology is generally a ‘kludge’...


Far from the pure vision of what de Certeau calls the ‘concept city’, we may find the production of myriads of little stories – a messy infinity of ‘Little Brothers’ rather than one omniscient ‘Big’ Brother. Some of these may be commercial, some personal, maybe some militarized. There is a real issue about proliferating knowledges circulating routinely and more or less autonomously of people. But it would seem to us that the political options are not those of rejection or romanticizing notions of disconnection. Rather, it is to work through the inevitable granularity and gaps within these systems, to find the new shadows and opacities that they produce" (813-14).

For anyone who wants more, here are some notes on Stephen Graham's keynote at the recent Mobile City Conference that cover some of the same material.

Photos, Naccarato & David Foster Nass

Update 01/03/08: Fabien Girardin adds some interesting links to this discussion, and reminds me how little time I have to keep up on others' work right now. I can't believe I missed Nicholas and Fabien's recent pamphlet, Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities (pdf). The infrastructure section reminded me of Jeff Maki's very cool Critical Infrastructure project.

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