Thursday, January 21, 2010

Week 436

I keep reading all these interesting people's weeknotes and I'm going to see if I can get in the habit too. The truth of the matter is that when I have a lot to do I get really bad at recognising what I've already done, and that makes it really hard to motivate myself. So here I am in the spirit of "reflecting on your work, your achievements, and what's on deck." Phil Gyford smartly started writing weeknotes in his 335th week of freelancing, and since I like the idea of recognising how far I've already come, I've decided to start counting from the first day of my PhD studies and that makes this my 436th week of research. I'm not sure what I'm going to write about, or if I'll actually manage to do it every week, but there you have it. "Let the great experiment begin!"

This week was shaped by two big tasks: the design of my new Design Anthropology course and my preliminary proposal for a Marsden Fund research grant.

First, after posting the first draft of my course outline here last week I got some good constructive criticism. But I also got some rather unconstructive criticism along the lines of designers saying it's too much anthropology and anthropologists saying it's too much design -- and that really discouraged me. Plus, most people had suggestions that would completely change it into their dream course, and that also didn't feel very helpful. The end result was me looking at the outline for hours and hours and making nothing more than minor tweaks. But an unexpected breakthrough came yesterday after a meeting with Miki Szikszai, the CEO of Snapper. It turns out that the company is busy moving from ActiveX smart cards to Java smart cards which will allow them to provide a platform for developers interested in RFID. While that in itself is really interesting - and I'll come back to it in another post - the important thing for my course is that I immediately recognised the opportunity to work on something that interests both me and them, and offers students the opportunity to work with a local company on matters of design and culture in everyday life. So I'll be talking more with their developers, designers and marketers to identify some research and design concerns that will help me create briefs that fit into the course objectives. I'll also be going to their Summer of Code SmartCard workshop on 1st February, and will report back on how that, and our meetings, reshape the course.

Second, research applications challenge me at the best of times but add my lack of familiarity and experience with the NZ academic system and I've been faced with a whole new set of unexpected challenges. I circulated my one-page draft to a dozen overseas colleagues and got some really positive feedback and constructive criticism. But I ran into trouble when it came back from local colleagues and not one person was clear on what I am trying to accomplish. Obviously, not being able to identify clear research objectives is an instant fail in the world of funding applications so I started to panic. In fact, I'm still struggling to get it all down on one page -- constantly swearing that the detail people are asking for is better left to the full proposal. But I know that argument will be irrelevant to the Marsden referees because all they have to go on at this stage is that one page. So I'm stuck. Our research office is holding an open session tomorrow afternoon to give people feedback because Monday is a holiday and applications are due next Thursday. This means I've got to come up with another decent draft to take in tomorrow, revise it over the weekend, and run it by a few more people next week. I can do that, right?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CFP: Politics of Design Workshop

Politics of Design
International Workshop, 24-25 June 2010, Manchester, UK.

"In the last decade numerous STS trained scholars engaged in a venture of unpacking design practices. Yet, to study the practical course of design means to be simultaneously involved in the subject of politics and in the particular sort of politics that is centred on objects (Latour & Weibel, Making Things Public). Recent studies in political philosophy and STS have argued that politics is not limited anymore to citizens, elections, votes, petitions, ideologies and particular institutionalised conflicts (DeVries, What is Political in Sub-politics?), and have reformulated the question of politics into one of cosmopolitics (Stengers, Cosmopolitics; Latour, Politics of Nature) and ontological politics (Mol, Actor Network Theory and After). The “political” is not defined as a way of codifying particular forms of contestation but as opening up new sites and objects of contestation (Barry, Political Machines).

Looking to assess the multifarious ways design can be “political” and the various sites of politics of design, this workshop will explore a range of questions pertaining to theory and methodology:
  • To what kind of politics can we get access when we strive to unravel design not through ideology but through the work of designers, their rich repertoire of actions, their controversies, concerns, puzzles, risk-taking, and imagination? And likewise, what kinds of politics are embedded in the objects of design, with their multiple meanings of materiality, pliability, and obduracy?

  • How does design’s potential to bring an ever-greater number of non-humans into politics contribute to the re-composition of the common world, the cosmos in which everyone lives? What are the politics of the relations invoked by design practices? Is design “political” because it brings together land and NGOs, gravity laws and fashions, preservationists and zoning regulations, architectural languages and concerned communities, dives and stakeholders, land registers and modernists, and if so, how?

  • What are the multiple design sites where political action might be seeping through? How is politics carried out today in sites often unrelated to the traditional loci of political action: in building development companies, planning commissions, building renovation sites, urban spaces, local communities, architectural offices, public presentations of designers? And what can we learn from the different, even unexpected forms of concernedness that we may come across in such contexts?

  • How and under which conditions does design become one of the means through which politics is being carried out? How does design turn the “public” into a problem - and thus engage and mobilise it - triggering disagreements and generating issues of public concern? How do designers and planners make their activities accountable to citizens?

  • If the “political” is considered a moment in the complex trajectory of design projects, processes and objects, what are the methods we use to account for them? How can we map, track, trace and document ethnographically and historically these moments of becoming political?"
The workshop is expected to attract a diverse group of scholars from the fields of STS, architecture, geography, political economy, environmental psychology and planning, design studies, sociology, cultural studies and political sciences.

Keynote speakers:
Andrew Barry, Oxford University
Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Foreign Office of Architecture (FOA), London & Princeton University, USA

Applicants should submit a 250-word abstract and a short CV in Word format to Albena Yaneva with a copy to Andy Karvonen by February 25, 2010. Accepted participants will be notified by March 1, 2010. Authors of accepted abstracts should confirm their participation in the conference by March 15, 2010 and submit a completed paper of no more than 10 pages that summarises the main points of the presentation by May 21, 2010.

This conference is organised by Albena Yaneva, Simon Guy, Isabelle Doucet, and Andy Karvonen from the Manchester Architecture Research Centre (MARC), the University of Manchester. For additional information about the conference, please contact the organisers through

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Design Anthropology Course - Version 1.0 2.0

After sorting out the differences between what I want to do with my second-year design anthropology course and my third-year design+culture course, I've finally managed to come up with a draft for the first one. I haven't worked out all the details yet, and I'm not at all sure I've got it right, so I'm posting it here in the hope of getting some comments and suggestions that will make it better. By way of introduction, I should point out that I really want to focus on doing design research. I haven't assigned mandatory readings for class each week, but am in the process of compiling a reserve reading list for students who want to learn more. Most of our work, then, will be studio and assignment based. (The assignments are very general here, but will have much more detailed instructions.)


Designers have always been interested in how people interact with each other and the world around them, but the past decade has witnessed increased attention to how these interests are shared with anthropology. From concerns about how different people live, to ways of understanding material and visual culture, this course will take a critical and creative look at how designers can draw from methods used by anthropologists to better understand the contexts of their designs—and engage with a variety of people, places and objects in productive ways. A combination of lectures, studio practice and hands-on assignments will focus on how anthropologists and designers know and make things. Students can expect to explore new ways of thinking, doing and making, and in the process, develop a foundational toolkit for conducting their own anthropologically-informed design research practice.


Week 1: Introduction
Week 2: The Ethics of Working with People, Pt I Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories) Directed by Bent Hamer, Norway, 2003, 95 min. + discussion
Week 3: The Ethics of Working with People, Pt II Ethnographic authority & codes of conduct
Week 4: Collecting Information & Making Things, Pt I Surveys, participant observation & interviews
Week 5: Collecting Information & Making Things, Pt II Cultural probes, prototypes & workshops
Week 6: Documenting Your Fieldwork, Pt I Field notes, maps, sketches, photos, video& audio
Week 7: Documenting Your Fieldwork, Pt II Online & offline archives
Week 8: Making Sense of What You See, Do & Make, Pt I Texts, images & objects
Week 9: Making Sense of What You See, Do & Make, Pt II Ethnographic & design fictions
Week 10: Presenting Your Design Research, Pt I Written & visual ethnography
Week 11: Presenting Your Design Research, Pt II Material & performance ethnography
Week 12: Open topic to be decided by students


Students are expected to attend class weekly and actively participate in studio activities and discussions. (Due Weekly – 10%)

Assignment 1 – The Joys and Sorrows of Encountering Others

Students are required to read a selection of fictional narratives that describe cross-cultural encounters and reflect on the history, politics and ethics involved in these relationships. Using these writings and reflections as inspiration, students must write a personal essay (500 words) that describes their understanding of social ethics–i.e. being accountable to, and for, others –and how this might shape their approach to design research. (Due Week 5 – 20%)

Assignment 2 – Domestic Design: Probing Culture

For their major project, students will be provided with a choice of domestic design briefs. In order to collect and analyse contextual information relevant to this project, students are first required to construct and deploy a “cultural probe” (cf. Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti 1999). Students must then use the information collected to formulate a design concept and use scenario. (Due Week 7 – 30%)

Assignment 3 – Domestic Design: Evaluating Prototypes
Students are required to prototype and test their design with 2-3 people who participated in the cultural probe phase of research. Students must use the results of this research to critically evaluate their prototype(s) and present final design specifications and use scenarios. (Due Week 12 – 40%)

So. What's good? What sucks?

UPDATED 14/01/10 Revision to assignments: Assignment 1 changed to Project 1, reduced in length and weight to 10%. Project 2 as follows:

Project 2 –Probing Domestic Culture & Design
For their major project, students will be provided with a choice of domestic design briefs and will be required to work progressively and iteratively through a set of related design research assignments.
Assignment 1 – Understanding Cultural Probes
Due Week 5 – 15%
Students are required to review 3 books and/or journal articles that address the design research methodology of “cultural probes” and submit an annotated bibliography.

Assignment 2 – Designing Cultural Probes
Due Week 7 – 20%
Students are required to design a cultural probe kit that contains the necessary tools for 2 participants to collect and create information relevant to the student’s chosen design brief.

Assignment 3 – Deploying Cultural Probes
Due Week 12 – 30%
Students are required to distribute approved cultural probe kits to 2 people (consenting family and/or friends) for a period of 7 days. Using the results of the probes, students must generate and refine design concepts in order to represent 2 possible design scenarios through writing, drawing, photos, sound and/or film.
I'm particularly interested in pushing/testing the boundaries of cultural probes - especially as tools that are more "informational" than "inspirational" - and so a lot more effort will need to be put into the assignment details, but this points at where I want to go...

Monday, January 11, 2010


I'm looking for a reading (fiction or non-fiction) that explores the ethics of living and working with others. It would ideally touch on matters of culture, history and power - stressing the importance of building rapport, developing empathy and cultivating reciprocity. It should also be suitable (ie. not too long and/or complicated) for second year undergraduate students.

If you have any suggestions, please email or leave a comment here. Thanks!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Everyday RFID

My first experience with RFID in New Zealand was when I was issued my university ID card - you know, the one that gets you into buildings and lets you check out library books - and I promptly put it in my wallet and forgot about it.

My second encounter with RFID was purchasing a Snapper card for public transit. Recently introduced in Auckland and currently used by one third of Wellington's population, Snapper works just like an Oyster or Octopus card - what's with all these sea creature names, anyway? - that cost me $10 to buy and charges me 25 cents every time I top it up or "feed" it at one of many local Snapper merchants (unless I want to pay online by credit card, for which there is currently no charge). Alternatively, the $25 Snapper Reader plugs into your USB port and is marketed as a way for households to "feed schools of Snappers."

Using Snapper for transit is interesting - especially when you see the "how to" video posted on Go Wellington's public transit Snapper page. I can't embed the video here, so you'll have to follow the link yourselves, but here's an icon and partial text transcription to familiarise you with the interaction designed for "tagging on" and "tagging off":

How to tag on correctly
Place your Snapper flat to the reader
Hold card flat and still
Wait for the green circle

How not to tag on
Don't swipe too fast
Or make quick movements

Remember to tag off
Hold your card flat and still to the reader
And wait for green circle

So basically, the rule is that whether you're coming or going, be sure to touch the reader and don't move until you get the green circle. First, this is interesting when you remember that these types of cards are actually contactless - they can be read up to several centimetres and don't require any touching at all. Second, this is interesting because people seem to want to move the card around so much that they have to be repeatedly told not to. Why do you think that is? Is there really no technological solution that would prevent us from having to adapt or change our behaviour? (Should there be?)

Now let's consider the "tag on" - "tag off" system.Clearly it's necessary to calculate the length of a trip, but I'd love to see the technical process made much more transparent and intelligible than in this description:

Q: Why do I need to tag off?
The Snapper system uses GPS (Global Positioning System), to record which stop you get on the bus and where you get off. This information is used to calculate the correct discounted fare for the journey. If you don't tag off the system assumes that you travelled to the end of the line. The tag off penalty for both GO Wellington and Valley Flyer is the full cash fare. So if you don't tag off your fare is calculated to the end of the line, and you do not receive the 20% discount.

And what happens when cards/readers/people fail?

Q: My card just gives me a red cross not a green circle. What is wrong?
The Snapper may not have sufficient value stored on it to pay for the fare. If you have plenty of value on your card, then it may be that the bus reader has not read your card clearly. Remove your card from the reader and give it five clear seconds before trying again. Remember to hold it flat and still against the reader and wait for the green circle. Then you are good to go.

So I get the red cross about a third of the time I use my card which suggests I don't get close enough to the reader or am totally inept at standing still. I am also unable to carry my Snapper card and my university access card in the same wallet because it breaks the system and I get a fail warning. This reminds me that I don't think it will be very long before I have several RFID cards that will apparently require several different wallets - and that will enable me to move as gracefully as a crash of rhinos. Of course, Snapper have already thought of this and offer local secondary schools the opportunity to embed Snapper tags in their student IDs. But really, is one card/fob that rules them all the only answer?

Incidentally, Snapper isn't limited to buses - taxis will start accepting Snapper payment in March, beginning with the Total Mobility scheme, "a subsidised taxi service for the 7500 people in the Wellington region who, because of a disability, cannot use regular bus or train services." And like Octopus or Suica cards, I can also use my Snapper card to pay for items at Snapper merchants (which are mostly dairies or convenience stores). And now that smart card (RFID-enabled) transit is becoming more widespread or normal, it's the added ability to purchase things via RFID that interests me.

For example, I want to understand if or how it's any different from the introduction of Interac in Canada or Eftpos in New Zealand - both of which arguably replaced cash years ago? And I wonder what we stand to lose in our never-ending quest for convenience?

Take the $40 Snapper USB
"The Snapper USB allows you to feed directly from your credit card and still does everything that a regular Red Snapper does. You can still feed your Snapper USB at any Snapper Retailer, just like a regular Red Snapper and it can be age-enabled so that if you're at school you'll automatically get a child discount on the bus. Attach your Snapper USB to your key ring, mobile phone, handbag, or wallet for easy access any time."

or the new “I Snapper NZ” key tag, which was recently renamed the Snapper Sprat in a public contest. If I can use my existing Snapper card in all the same ways, why would I purchase one of these products? Have they been designed for people who don't use public transit and want something smaller and sexier?

I also noticed that Snapper CEO Miki Szikszai commented on Timo and Jack's Immaterials video, saying that they "would love to see if you could map our devices in this way." This got me thinking about how smart and aesthetically-pleasing videos could be exactly what I want to help customers understand how Snapper uses RFID and GPS - and what is at stake socially and culturally (eg. privacy vs. anonimity, traceability vs. surveillance) if this is the path we choose to follow.

Now I think it's time to introduce myself to the Snapper folks and see what they're up to. Stay tuned?

Update 11/01/10: I added some links above to other smart cards, and here are a few more: myki (Melbourne), SmartRider (Perth), TCard (Sydney). Unlike the Hong Kong, Tokyo and New Zealand cards, the Australian ones (like most others in the world) seem to be exclusively for transit use. I've also made contact with Snapper and am looking forward to a visit with them soon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

CFP - Speculation, Design, Public and Participatory Technoscience: Possibilities and Critical Perspectives

EASST Conference 2010
2-4 September, 2010
University of Trento, Italy

Speculation, Design, Public and Participatory Technoscience: Possibilities and Critical Perspectives

"Over the past decade there has been an increasing engagement between design and STS. One emerging and novel area of exchange is concerned with exploring the ways in which practices of 'speculative design' and STS concerns of publics, participation, politics as well as expectations come together to inform one another, to critique one another, and to collaborate in developing new modes of co-production of contemporary technoscience. Although such associations are promising, they are nascent and in need of articulation and critical examination. Our proposed track is intended to provide the beginnings of such articulation and critical examination, by soliciting participation from STS scholars, design researchers and from practicing designers.

By speculative design we refer to a set of design practices and outcomes that are moving away from common notions of design as "problem-solving" or "styling", towards framing design as a means for surfacing and materializing issues and contributing to the formation of publics and futures. In this move, design is increasingly cast as a possible mode of intervention into technoscience, thereby establishing renewed associations with STS. With speculative design the performativity of the object comes to the fore as a concern for both designers and theorists, as its objects and outcomes are often brought into being to, and interpreted as, materially and discursively enacting values, identities, agendas and beliefs. A challenge for STS then is to describe and characterize the performativity of the objects of speculative design in new ways that avoid recourse to the familiar positions and debates concerning 'the political of artefacts’.'

In this track we will solicit participation from STS scholars, design researchers as well as practicing designers. Our objective is to present a range of scholarly approaches and exemplary projects in order to explore and outline this field of convergence. Within the track, presentations will be organized thematically. Key questions we hope to address include the following:
  • How does a convergence of STS and speculative design reframe the notion of intervention?
  • How does the convergence of STS and speculative design perform issues of politics and the political?
  • How does speculative design operate to articulate issues, and what are its limitations in these endeavors?
  • What kind of futures and expectations are performed in the doing of speculative design?
  • How can we understand novel objects and materiality as forms of engagement and involvement?
  • What are working strategies for supporting this convergence of STS and 'speculative' design?
  • What are the limitations of STS methodologies in contributing to the design process and analyzing the objects of design?
  • What are limitations of design practice and methods to seriously taking up STS concepts and methodologies?"

Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent by email (following website instructions) by March 15th 2010.

Session convenors: Carl DiSalvo (Georgia Institute of Technology), Tobie Kerridge (Goldsmiths College, University of London) & Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Thinking about research funding

The new year is really bringing home how much farther I have to go in getting accustomed to the changes in season and academic calendars here in the southern hemisphere. It's summertime now, and although classes don't start until March I've got lots to do before then: research funding applications to complete, articles to write and revise, courses to prepare...

Securing external funding is pretty much the holy grail of university research, so I'm shooting for a Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fund Fast-Start Grant. This grant is pretty interesting, actually. Unlike Canada's SSHRC grants - which helped support my doctoral research - the Fast-Start programme specifically "enables emerging researchers to establish research momentum." In practical terms, this means that I don't have to compete with established researchers and although the available funding isn't nearly as much as a standard research grant, I can hardly complain about $100K per year for three years. It would give me the opportunity to establish a new research programme, publish some articles and even support a research assistant or bring in a post-graduate student. Plus, scoring one of these grants increases the likelihood of me securing a standard research grant in the future.

Of course, the competition is stiff; I think only around 10-12% of applicants succeed. The first stage involves submitting a CV and one page abstract of my research proposal. If I succeed at this stage, then I'll be invited to submit a more comprehensive proposal and budget. The reasons for failure at the first stage are pretty typical: there is no real hypothesis or aim, the wording is too vague or too jargon-laden, and/or the proposal does not fit the Fund's mandate. The first and third problems are easy enough to avoid, but the second one is tricky. A one-page summary is necessarily vague in comparison to a full description, and while the full proposal is refereed by specialists in my field, the abstract must be written for a research-literate but general audience. Choosing the "right" words for an unknown audience is tough. (I can't help but recall a journal reviewer who told me that using the French-language terms for ANT's processes of translation was "pretentious and unnecessary." And I've gotten enough negative feedback from designers about my "overly critical" or "irrelevant" comments that I sometimes fear and distrust speaking up at conferences.)

In any case, before the holidays I ran the first draft of my abstract by our faculty's research office and more questions than I anticipated came back to me. After meeting over coffee, I learned that I'm much more adept at plain-language speaking than at plain-language writing. I'm also much more successful at conveying excitement when I speak, even if it sometimes sounds like I'm more than a bit daft ("OMG!! This project is so completely awesome I can't believe it!!") So my task this week is to refine my abstract for simplicity and clarity. I need to be more focussed and systematic about explaining the whats, whys, whens, wheres and hows. I need to strike a better balance between referring to the background literature and emphasising how my work is "different and innovative." And last but not least, I need to come up with a concise statement about how my project is best suited to the Marsden Fund and not some other source. All in one page. (Sigh.)

Then I need to run it by colleagues for feedback and make the necessary revisions. The final version is due in three or so weeks. Wish me luck!

CFP - Design, Performativity, STS

EASST Conference 2010
2-4 September, 2010
University of Trento, Italy

Design, Performativity, STS

"This track provides the opportunity to explore the extent to which forms of enactment, rather than description, might allow us to talk about the different material and temporal textures of design, innovation, interventions and STS. It aims to consolidate and push so far dispersed discussions about the relation of concepts of performativity and design through an exchange of ideas and methods from STS and design practice, conceived broadly to include empirical examples and theoretical reflections as well as art-design-STS interventions (Jeremijenko).

There is a longstanding interest amongst STS scholars in the design of new technologies, products and services (e.g. Cockburn & Ormrod, Shove, Suchman, Woolgar), as well as extensive research on design interventions in the fields of science and medicine (e.g. Clarke, Dumit). In addition designers themselves are moving beyond the design of discrete products and have started to look to STS for ways in which open and thus more uncertain challenges may be conceptualized (Kimbell, Whyte). This track encourages papers from those working in a variety of institutional locations, both inside and outside academic research.

There is now a large body of work that explores how realities and representations are enacted simultaneously in user representations, prototypes, concepts and scenarios. A debate about the implications of the performative aspects of these representational and translation devices is long overdue. How does the current developments of non-representation and ‘messy’ approaches relate to process and the performative (Thrift, Law). How does mess relate to the performative? Are designers working in a non-representational way?

The aim of the track is to expand the debates about performativity in relation to processes of enactment and becoming, the material and temporal. These might include papers dealing with scripting, affordance, liveness, ‘performance’ as well as enactments in relation to technical objects, materials and mess.

Presentations might be ethnographic fieldwork reports, synthetic analyses from secondary data or mappings of the field. However following the implication of the conference theme to take seriously the performing of the social, as well as traditional papers we also invite presentation formats which themselves might take on a more experimental or performative mode in relation to design and STS, or are materially ambitious. What kind of materials might perform the social? In this way we recognise that the material and temporal conditions of the EASST conference situation - it’s own liveness in Trento - might themselves be re-designed to explore performativity. We hope this will encourage design practitioners or those working with art, design and STS materials to take up our challenge to intervene and interrogate STS’s own enactments."

Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent by email (following website instructions) by March 15th 2010.

Session convenors: Julien McHardy (Lancaster University), Trevor Pinch (Cornell University), Nina Wakeford (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

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