Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Biomaterials research watch: future silk

Long-time readers may recall my fascination with the desire to mass produce spider silk--something notoriously difficult because spiders are highly territorial and cannibalistic and cannot be housed together in the numbers needed to make this possible. For those unfamiliar, spider silk is one of the holy grails of materials research because it has a tensile strength greater than steel, the extensibility of rubber, the water uptake capability of wool, and is biodegradable.

Fibre researchers are particularly interested in its potential use in biomedicine, and since the early 2000s researchers have looked at different ways that the necessary silk proteins could be created. Cows, hamsters, transgenic goats and even bacteria have all been made to produce the proteins needed to make silk, but it has proven much more difficult to replicate a spinneret, the spider's spinning mechanism. This is further complicated by the desire to "improve" on the spinneret by making it capable of faster spinning, since the biotech industry moves faster than nature.

In 2006, engineers at MIT came closer to understanding how spiders spin silk, and today's news reports that German researchers have constructed "a device that consists of three channels etched into glass" that can control the levels of salt and proteins needed to make silk. However, the same article also quotes researchers at Oxford Biomaterials saying that "certain wild silks are stronger when you unravel them than natural spider silks" so it may be that spiders get passed over for Chinese and Indian wild silkworms.

Still, processing silk is very expensive, and it's hard to say how viable either will be for the type of mass production needed to keep American soldiers alive longer, let alone to make implantable medical textiles for the rest of us.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Phenomenology, smart materials and ambient robotics

Jill Coffin was another Digital Media PhD student I met at GA Tech, and I had the pleasure of talking with her about phenomenology in art and design practice (pdf), as well as the opportunities and challenges of collaborative work.

Although I'm not much of a Rorty fan--I prefer the work of Merleau-Ponty and especially the ethics that arise from Alphonso Lingis' phenomenology--I was impressed by Jill's desire to find common ground with HCI researchers by focussing on embodied interaction - especially since such collaborations with artists affect notions of scientific validity.

People who keep up on ambient computing might also recall Breeze, a cyborg tree project that was exhibited at ZeroOne in 2006. Like XS Labs' Kukkia and Vilkas dresses, Breeze uses the shape memory alloy Nitinol to guide its movements.

YouTube: Breeze

Robotany is a collaborative of Jill Coffin, John Taylor, and Daniel Bauen to combine nature and robotics. At the Robotany blog, you will find "documentation and tips on how to build ambient robots using smart materials."

We talked a bit about totems and talismans as participants in embodied interaction--and all without claiming anthropomorphism--but I think that's a topic that deserves far more attention than we were able to give it over tea.

Now, if I could just remember the name of the conference she was telling me about...

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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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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Affective Politics in Urban Computing and Locative Media

The Responsive Objects, Surfaces and Spaces (ROSS) research group at Georgia Tech has very kindly invited me to give a lecture tomorrow, so this afternoon I'm off to Atlanta.

With my dissertation going to defense soon, I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to present a core point of my argument to such a smart and creative group for feedback.

Affective Politics in Urban Computing and Locative Media
Emerging technoscientific knowledges and practices can be seen to actively mobilise and manipulate particular affects to political ends, including the very definition of what constitutes political action. Building on ethnographic research with several pervasive computing design projects, this presentation addresses some of the affective politics that accompany the treatment of cities as interaction design spaces and publics as co-creators. By advocating playful presents and hopeful futures, a number of contemporary projects in urban computing and locative media seek to re-invigorate urban public spaces and re-vitalise the public sphere. But the associated forms of technologically mediated spatiality, temporality and embodiment raise interesting questions about technological determinism and the limits of critique. What kinds of relations are possible in these scenarios? Which concerns are intensified, or diminished?

Georgia Tech ROSS Lecture Series
Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 12:00pm
TSRB 132

I hope to see you there and for anyone else who is interested, I'll post my slides and notes here afterwards.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Intensities and multitudes

Pieter Bruegel
The Fall of the Rebel Angels

"In Bruegel's rendering, the violence is expressed not in the bitter nature of the battle--indeed St Michael and his sparse troops do not appear particularly threatened by the demons--but by the intensity of the fall--infernal and endless--of this crawling, hideous multitude that invades the entire surface of the picture, in a remarkable unity of action which increases its impact."

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Social sciences and design: managing complexity and mediating expectations

For reasons of pedagogy and social responsibility, Tony Dunne is one of my favourite designers and I'm particularly taken by his ideas about designing for debate. In setting briefs for students in Design Interactions at the RCA, he says "design proposals should pose questions rather than provide answers, making complex issues tangible, and therefore debatable." To purposely intervene in an issue without trying to solve a problem is a difficult activity, but one with extraordinary possibility if done well. Plus, the archaeologist in me knows the ability of material culture to make "tangible, and therefore debatable" things that are complex, fragmented and strangely ephemeral.

For details on how to design for debate check out this talk from last year's Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign event in Potsdam:


Now, the idea that design can play a productive role in managing complexity is hardly new, but I do see a lot of potential in designing and using objects (things) to engage publics around particular issues, or matters of concern. Pushing this connection between sociology, anthropology and design, I see this kind of work as another way to facilitate public understandings of emerging technologies, or to mediate public science and the co-production of scientific knowledge--but there's no reason to limit its application to the realm of technoscience as it is equally well-suited to intervening in many aspects of everyday life. (Proboscis' Feral Robots and Snout projects also demonstrate a lovely combination of technoscience and everyday life.)

Paola Antonelli writes in Seed Magazine about curating MoMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition:

"Fundamental to this emerging dialogue between design and science is the appreciation of the role of scale in contemporary life. Today, many designers have turned on their heads several late 20th-century infatuations, for instance with speed, dematerialization, miniaturization, and a romantic and exaggerated formal expression of complexity ... The focus now is on ways to break the temporal rhythms imposed by society in order to customize and personalize them. If design is to help enable us to live to the fullest while taking advantage of all the possibilities provided by contemporary science and technology, designers need to make both people and objects perfectly elastic ... These new principles embody the great responsibility that comes with design's new power of giving form and meaning to the degrees of freedom opened by the progress of science and technology."

It's certainly nice to see designers seriously take on something other than the creation of consumer products, but I'm not sure design has that much power to change the world. Still, this general perspective ties in with some interesting theoretical and methodological issues in contemporary social and cultural studies that are worth exploring further. (In fact, Goldsmith's Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process ran an interesting seminar series this year on design and social sciences, featuring friends and colleagues including Matt Ward, Alex Wilkie, Tobie Kerridge and Nina Wakeford. I also see that Mike Michael and Bill Gaver have been working more on the intersections of sociology and design, so that should also be interesting to follow.)

My dissertation deals quite a bit with the expectations that surround urban computing and locative media, or the ways that particular technosocial visions serve to shape relations in the present and delineate future scenarios that include some things and bracket out others. While this may appear to be of purely sociological or anthropological interest, by acknowledging the role that design plays in these processes, design can also reflexively and responsibly intervene again through the creation of objects that mediate these expectations. Such activities also bring issues of scale and temporality to the forefront, arguably better enabling a wider range of people to act in situations that affect them. But in order to get a sense of how these activities can also limit what we can do, check out this assessment of UK think tank Demos' Mobilisation document and the enactment of future users (pdf).

In any case, as soon as I've got the dissertation defended (stay tuned for news on that!) I'd like to do more work in this area. There's just so much to think, and do and make...

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

It's a mad, mad, mobile world

As widely reported, The Economist has tackled the topic of mobility in a special report, starting with a piece called Nomads at last:

"Urban nomads have started appearing only in the past few years. Like their antecedents in the desert, they are defined not by what they carry but by what they leave behind, knowing that the environment will provide it.

'Permanent connectivity, not motion, is the critical thing.'

The most wonderful thing about mobile technology today is that consumers can increasingly forget about how it works and simply take advantage of it."

The first description and Castell's claim are seriously sticking in my brain, not least because "permanent connectivity" is quite different from standard definitions of either mobility or nomadism, and it's difficult to reconcile this view with news that wireless cities are easier said than done.

The unrestrained glee of the last statement I excerpted just makes me sigh, mostly because I remember Yvonne Roger's warning that the purely convenient and efficient life raises ethical issues not unrelated to those of "the world of the landed aristocracy in Victorian England who’s day-to-day life was supported by a raft of servants that were deemed to be invisible to them."

And speaking of mobile technologies, Nokia Design seems to be everywhere these days. Check out this long NY Times Magazine story on the work of Jan Chipchase and Duncan Burns. And they've been busy recruiting as well: Adam Greenfield is off to Helsinki this summer to start his new "plum gig", and Julian Bleecker reports leaving academia to pursue a more "relevant" career.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I have serious concerns about academia, but I figure that's all the more reason to try and improve it. Call me a Canadian socialist, but I believe in government and non-profits and academia, and I don't see how turning my back on them will help me or anyone else. Plus, I'm pretty sure that "escaping" academia for the corporate world just implicates us in a different set of problems. Still, I wish both Adam and Julian only the best. Congrats gentlemen! I know I'm not the only one looking forward to seeing what your insights and enthusiasms bring.

Oh, and while I'm still on the topic of nomads and Nokia, did you know that Nokia China recently sponsored a 100 day roadtrip? Sharing this memory is made possible by Nokia and my N73/N95.

To see what some artists are up to in the arena of the mobile these days, check out's NEW LIFE BERLIN, "a contemporary art festival dedicated to new modes of moving and existing." The June 2008 event will be structured along three themes: transnational communities, artistic social responsibility, participation and intervention.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Teasing only the ones we love

NY Times: April Fool! The Purpose of Pranks

"[P]ractical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group, anthropologists have found — an integral part of rituals around the world intended to temper success with humility. And recent research suggests that the experience of being duped can stir self-reflection in a way few other experiences can, functioning as a check on arrogance or obliviousness.

The 1960s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman reportedly divided practical jokes into three categories. The bad ones involve vindictive skewering, or the sort of head-shaving, shivering-in-boxers fraternity hazing that the sociologist Erving Goffman described as 'degradation ceremonies.' Neutral tricks are more akin to physical punch lines, like wrapping the toilet bowl in cellophane, depositing a massive pumpkin on top of the student union building, or pulling some electronic high jinks on a co-worker’s keyboard (though on deadline this falls quickly into the 'bad' category).

What Hoffman called the good prank, which humorously satirizes human fears or failings, is found in a wide variety of initiation rites and coming-of-age rituals. The Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia.

Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity — only to find a sample of human feces.

The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery.

'These kind of tricks are very common,' Dr. Turner said, 'and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored'."

I'm all for "tempering success with humility" but for the more political variety, nothing beats RE/Search's PRANKS! and PRANKS 2.


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