Thursday, September 24, 2009

Towards Rural Computing and the Internet of Companion Species

After spending seemingly endless years researching and writing a dissertation, I don't think it's unusual to want to get as far away from the topic as possible. So I'll be the first to admit that this time last year I didn't want to hear the phrase "urban computing" ever again, and if anyone asked, I said that I was more interested in rural computing.

Sheep Crossing by Dana Spencer

At the time, the imperative to get on with urban computing was bound to people quoting that well-known and UN-endorsed statistic about half the world's population becoming urban. (If only people showed that kind of interest in, and commitment to, issues that affect women—also half the world's population!)

So when I read Russell Davies' recent post on what he's called "ruricomp," I perked up. In fact, I even made a little cheering sound when I read this bit:

"Half of us - an entire half - still don't live in cities. This may be a shrinking proportion of the world but it's still a lot of people, and (apart from some privileged bits of the West) it's the poorest, less mobile, less educated proportion. Most people are moving to cities to escape poverty, surely the people left behind merit some attention."

Yes! As I've said many times, who and what get excluded from design visions are just as interesting and important as what and who are included. Western philosophers have long held that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest or least fortunate members (in other words, who we ignore or abandon) and contemporary notions of cultural citizenship rely precisely on how well we interact with people who are different from us.

During my doctoral defense, the examiners were quite concerned about a design imperative that, at worst, seemed to condemn rural spaces and people to irrelevance and, at best, reinforce some of the current divides that actually serve to disadvantage both "sides." I found myself ill-equipped (and unwilling) to provide an argument in favour of predominantly urban, or even exurban, computing. And I began to think more seriously about what might constitute non-urban or rural computing.

Those who know me know how much I love animals, and so it won't come as a surprise that when I think of rural life I think about all the animals. More specifically though, I think of where the Internet of Things might meet Donna Haraway's notion of companion species. How are we all connected? What do we make (of) each other?

I was doing research on farming and country life in New Zealand, the crises currently facing the wool industry, and how Icebreaker has been so successful in marketing their merino products by tracking their wool back to individual farms through their wonderful baacode service.

We know that RFID is widely used in livestock management, but that's not what Icebreaker is working with. So what if they were? And what else could we come up with if we started doing new technology design research in more rural contexts? What new relationships and opportunities would we discover?

While my first reaction to Icebreaker's current catalogue cover was "Oh Hell, No!" it's basically the same statement that led me to my new research project, Counting Sheep.

I'm interested in better understanding how the Internet of Things relates to agricultural production, and some of my first fieldwork will tackle wool-related cultural industries like the Golden Shears shearing and wool handling championships in Masterton. Next year marks the 50th anniversary, so I'll be in full ethnographer mode for the early March events, and again at the amazing Running of the Sheep event in Te Kuiti, in April.

I'm not sure what kinds of connections between sociality, spatiality and materiality I'll find, but I come from a country that has a strong rural constituency and I'm going to another, so I think it's high time to see if Russell is right:

"[M]aybe we could think about network technologies as a way to reintegrate rural and urban rather than accelerate the dominance of one over the other ... If we can stop the countryside becoming a Cursed Earth, we might not need a Mega-City."

What do you think?


Blogger enrique said...

A huge freakin' YES to this post! I'm often amazed that no one out there actually defines the word "urban." I have a feeling that many of those who use the term have a very outmoded or even narrow reading of the term. A city is more than large buildings. A city is much more than just occurrences of density. Density can even be isotropic and, in some instances, non-vertical. Ed Soja, my former teacher, used to berate us when we used to talk about density. He would say something like "Los Angeles is the densest metropolitan region in the country." Some will disagree. Some will use different data. And in the end, I think one way to think about these issues of rural vs. urban is to recall Raymond William's observation about the "problems of perspective" such divides cause. For example, although the October revolution was an "urban" revolution, the Cuban was "rural". Right?

Is this the beginnings of a push for "regional computing"? But even the term "regional" smacks of midcentury orthodoxy.

Lemme think about this more ... but, like I said, YES!

OpenID speedbird said...

So my response to you is going to be largely the same as my response to Russell, which is, "Good on you, I wish you the best, but I can't join you."

And that's simply because I have little enough experience with rural or smalltown settings, and most of that negative; because I have no feel for what people in those settings experience or value or actually do believe; and because in that context more than most I am an interloper, an alien and a walking, talking dissonant note. It would be the worst sort of hubris for me to try to design systems and services responsive to the needs of rural people.

I don't, in other words, think there's actually a debate here. I don't believe anybody is arguing that cities are all that matter, or that people should only be thinking or talking about designing for them. But cities are all *I* can speak to, because the (20th Century, at least superficially Westernized) urban terrain is what I understand, what I recognize, what I relate to, and what I'm competent to deal with. And I'm fairly sure that's all anybody else is doing either.

Blogger enrique said...

I obviously meant "Raymond Williams", not "Raymond William" :)

To complicate this matters even more, I love this quote (via Ed Soja, 2002):

"A first step in rethinking the geohistory of cityscape is to release the force of synekism from its confinement to the moment of city-state formation, and to see it as a fundamental and continuous factor in the entire history of human society, from the deepest past to the immediate present. When this is done, the traditionally defined sequence from hunting and gathering to domestication and the formation of farming villages to the full-blown Agricultural Revolution and only then to the Urban Revolution becomes open to alternative interpretations. There is now sufficient evidence to suggest the possibility, at least in Southwest Asia, of putting cities first, that is, pushing back the origins of cities to a time before the Agricultural Revolution, and recognizing synekism, the stimulus of urban agglomeration, as one of the indispensable foundations not only for the development of agriculture but also for the appearance of agricultural villages, rural life, pastoralism, large-scale irrigation systems, writing, class formation, and the state."

Blogger Steve said...

Excited to see where these interests take you, Anne.

From a literary perspective, you might be interested in Angus Peter Campbell's book Invisible Islands. He recasts Calvino's collection of hypothetical cities as a Scottish archipelago - islands geographically distant but technologically central because of the various networks using them as a hub. A great read, that really upends assumptions about the urban and the rural. I'm hoping its the vanguard of a larger trend.

Blogger Anne said...

Thanks Enrique - I've become quite interested in how the boundary between urban and rural is really blurred in places like NZ. Not only does the country have strong historical "anti-urban" sentiments, but when the only cities are small cities then the definition of "urban" changes. I wonder if/how they experience regionalism?

Adam - I don't think anyone is purposely excluding the rural (that suggests a conspiracy ;)) but I am interested in how people only ever following what they know necessarily excludes what they don't. In my mind, the whole purpose of research (be it design research or any other kind) is to learn about - and ultimately become accountable to and for - things I don't yet know. Now, of course I'm not suggesting that you (or anyone else) become an expert on things rural. But it would be good to see accounts of urban computing explicitly account for what they exclude, and try to tangle with the implications of those choices. Relatedly, any interventions in rural computing should explain the whys and what fors.

Blogger Anne said...

Hi Steve! That sounds like a book I need to track down. If you ever find yourself in NZ please look me up :-)

Blogger Steve said...

Well, since you're the second friend to move to NZ recently, I may just have to come down that way. Besides, I spent a few hours in Auckland's airport once and have always regretted not giving myself some time between flights for a visit.

Blogger Anne said...

Steve - Well then you must visit us!

PS - I thought about you last week when I went to hear Nick Cave read from his new book and talk about writing. I think you would have liked him.

OpenID 6p00d8341bf70f53ef said...

A few items of potentially related / interesting work:

The Network in the Garden: An Empirical Analysis of Social Media in Rural Life, by Eric Gilbert, Karrie Karahalios and Christian Sandvig, CHI 2008.

Rural encounters: cultural translations through video,
by David Browning, Nicola J Bidwell, Dianna Hardy and P-M Standley, OZCHI 2008

I've read and highly recommend the first; I discovered the second in searching for the first, so thought I'd mention it.

Er, and since it seems that Blogger keeps substituting some random identifier for my Typepad OpenID identity in any comment I post here - when it doesn't abort the comment entirely (which happens whenever I hit "Publish" from the preview window) - I'll sign this more explicitly at the bottom rather implicitly at the top.

Joe McCarthy

Blogger said...


Journal review article in Personal Ubiquitous Computing which considers the urban locatedness of technology design and some themes to provoke alternatives: Bidwell & Browning 2010 Pursuing genius loci: interaction design and natural places. First published online March

Also i ran a conference in the field of Human Computer Interaction last year in Australia which had some of themes. Habitat & Habitus

Elizabeth Goodman's work in Alt.CHI is an interesting spin: Three Environmental Discourses of HCI


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