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 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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