Sunday, June 1, 2008

Networks of Design

Networks of Design

3-6 September, 2008
University College Falmouth
Cornwall UK

Networks of Design "responds to recent academic interest in the fields of design history, technology and the social sciences in the ‘networks’ of interactions that inform knowledge formation and design. Studying networks foregrounds infrastructure, negotiations, processes, strategies of interconnection, and the heterogeneous relationships between people and things."

Thematic Strands

Networks of Texts: including images, documents & databases
Networks of Ideas: including theories, disciplines & concepts (among them ANT)
Networks of Technology: including mechanical & virtual technologies
Networks of Things: including material & technological artefacts
Networks of People: including collectives & individuals

If I could choose one conference to attend this year, this would be it, and if their website were better designed I'd be able to link directly to the completely amazing line-up of people and papers.

(I also hope to one day finally see an academic conference website that at least publishes abstracts, if not full papers, as well as author contact information. Apparently the irony of excluding these is lost on them.)

In any case, keynote speakers include Bruno Latour and my friends Matt Ward and Alex Wilkie will be presenting "Made in Criticalland: Designing Matters of Concern." Right on.

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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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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Human terrains and other entanglements

After a wonderful visit with friends from London, we're off to Montréal in the morning for the 4S conference -- more on that as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, I was searching academic job postings this morning and was seriously alarmed at how many PSYOP positions were available. This is a difficult topic I don't have time to tackle right now, but I want to collect some links here on the US military's "human terrain teams" and anthropological ethics that I can return to later.

The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture (pdf) by Montgomery McFate
US Army:
- Networds: Terra Incognita and the Case for Ethnographic Intelligence
- The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century
New Yorker: Knowing the enemy
CS Monitor: US Army's strategy in Afghanistan: better anthropology
NY Times: Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones
SF Chronicle: Montgomery McFate's Mission
Boston Globe: Efforts to aid US roil anthropology
Economist: Armies of the future
Savage Minds:
- Anthropologists as Counter-Insurgents
- Some general thoughts about anthropology, interrogation, and torture
- Cultural Dynamics in Interrogation: The FBI At Guantanamo
- Professor Griffin Goes to Baghdad
- More and more anthropologists are recruited to service military operations
- The dangerous militarisation of anthropology
- Anthropology and CIA: "We need more awareness of the political nature and uses of our work"
CAC Review: Anthropology's Dirty Little Colonial Streak?
David Price: Writings on Anthropology's Interactions with Military & Intelligence Agencies
NCA: Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency

In related news, the 2008 CASCA conference theme is 'Ethnography: Entanglements and Ruptures' with a special symposium on 'The Promise and Perils of an Engaged Anthropology'. Catherine Lutz is giving the keynote talk entitled "Ethnography in an Era of Permanent War" and abstracts for papers and panels can be sent to by October 15th.

UPDATE 02/11/07: David Price's article in CounterPunch - Pilfered Scholarship Devastates General Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Manual - raises serious questions about academic integrity and the role of the University of Chicago Press in publishing the Counterinsurgency Field Manual for the public. (Thanks B!)

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Connecting anthropology & art

I was working on my paper for the CJC special issue on wireless technologies and mobile practices when my friend (and exceptional research artist*) Kevin Hamilton sent me a link to a workshop held earlier this year at Manchester Metropolitan University called Connecting Art & Anthropology.

Because I'm writing about connections between critical cultural studies and art in the development of pervasive computing and locative media, I was excited to see Amanda Ravetz draw out some of the affinities and discomforts between two practices dedicated to defining culture:

"A consistent issue for contemporary art practice has involved negotiating the borders between ‘life’ and ‘art’ that originated in part from Kant’s idea of a distinct realm of aesthetic human judgement. Anthropologists on the other hand are trained to approach each aspect of sociality in relation to a wider context. The western conception of art – as something transcendent and external to everyday life – is understood by anthropology as socially and historically contingent. However, the line that separates these two positions is neither stable nor neutral... "

Even closer to my interests, Pavel Büchler hints at "particular issues for the recent forms of artistic practice that seek a close critical participation in the social, for the validation of their results, for their sense of purpose, integrity and legitimacy, for the ways in which they conceptualise and reflect on their own condition and so on" - and perfectly sums up my own academic concerns about art:

"When anthropologists are interested in art, they are interested in what art can make of life. When they ask ‘What is art?’, they want to know what life is - or, more accurately, how life is lived, experienced and expressed. And when they enquire about what it is that artists do, they want to find out how their diverse creative pursuits are shaped by the specific cultural and social relations and practices which, at any given moment, make both art and life what they are."

And as if that's not enough, the Connecting Art & Anthropology website contains all the documentation for how 14 workshop participants responded to this intriguing brief.

Anyway - good stuff and lots to mull over as I continue writing!

* To learn why I prefer the term "research artist" to "artist researcher" you'll have to wait for the paper.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

August is for writing

After a couple of weeks of weather in the mid 30s (celsius) I'm mostly used to it, but the humidity here is killing me. It makes everything more difficult to move through. Plus, I'm having one of those slightly shocking mornings when I realise that I've way more work to do than I anticipated.

I'd like to write a short essay about my single greatest challenge during the BNMI residency: understanding how "research" is differently defined and practiced by social scientists and artists. I think this has interesting implications for collaborative work, and for how we approach creative interventions and technological innovations.

In other news, I'm teaching a new 2nd year undergrad course this year: "Power & Everyday Life." I'm currently working on the syllabus and deciding whether or not to assign textbooks or compile a reader myself. And it runs full-year so I have to plan twice as many lectures and seminars and workshops and assignments as I have in the past.

I've got two journal papers due by end of August: one for a special issue on software and space and the other for a special issue on wireless technologies and mobile practices. That's 14000-18000 words currently unorganised and/or unwritten and/or lost in dissertation.

Which reminds me I've also got a dissertation to submit. Because as we all know: "A good thesis is a thesis that is done."

So all things considered, I'm really glad that I'll be home for awhile. I want to make it back to Oslo and London in the fall, and there's the 4S Meeting in Montréal in October, but that's all the travelling I've got planned and it's quite enough. I'm also hoping to have friends (you know who you are!) come visit.

But thankfully summer's not over yet. There are still flowers to smell, dinners to cook, cats to take naps with, novels to read, walks and bike rides to take, and garlic festivals to attend! You know what they say about all work and no play...

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

"[T]he anthropologist who took the techniques of a particularly vibrant period of research into non-western societies and applied them to her own, western milieu..."

Guardian: Dame Mary Douglas: Brilliant and prolific anthropologist famed for her social theories about cosmology, consumption and risk

Times Online: Professor Dame Mary Douglas: Challenging and wide-ranging social anthropologist whose ideas and influence reverberated far beyond her discipline

Although she was more of a structuralist than I would ever care to be, Mary Douglas was one of the first anthropologists I read and I still come back to her ideas. As undergraduates we were assigned Purity and Danger to read, and to get a sense of how current STS scholars are still using this work check out Benjamin Sim's article, Safe Science: Material and Social Order in Laboratory Work which explains laboratory work and scientific practice in terms of order and pollution. Outside of science and technology studies, it was Donna Goldstein's wonderful ethnography Laughter Out of Place that helped me better understand the potentially disruptive and revolutionary potential of humour--something Douglas argued in the mid-60s.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Thursday gazette

Back at home after a super swell time at the Social Technologies Summit in Manchester--special thanks to all the wonderful participants and to the Futuresonic team who consistently held the backend together and made my job easier.

Drew Hemment deserves all the credit for coming up with the conference theme and convening the event - and that's no small feat! - while I helped him with programming the speakers and took care of schedules and briefings and the event's overall interaction design. I'll post more properly on what we did as soon as I get the chance, but for now I'd just note that organising and facilitating a conference and workshop is totally different from being a participant--both challenging and satisfying in unexpected ways!

I also managed to get out a bit while I was there and I have just one thing to say: if you ever have the chance to see Faust, don't miss them! (Hint hint: they're touring the UK in June and this is what you can expect.) Such beauty in timing, noise and destruction, which despite the overwhelmingly masculine tone of the event reminded me of Kali and Coatlicue, I could only have been more pleased if it were Can I had seen.

Anyway, I've got just over five weeks at home before I head off for a month in Banff, and I've got a much loved boy and cat to spend time with, flowers to plant, book clubs to join, bbqs to host and attend, bike rides to take, and yes, a bunch of work to do.

But before I forget, here's a quick list of things that've recently caught my eye:

BBC: "I think that concerns about robot rights are just a distraction. The more pressing and serious problem is the extent to which society is prepared to trust autonomous robots and entrust others into the care of autonomous robots."

NY Times: How the Inca Leapt Canyons

Guardian: "Just as we built up roads, the next step in civilisation is to build a total information network that will form part of the fabric of things around us."

IHT: Human skin is an anthropologist's map

BBC: "The safe development of a new technology should not depend on whether an academic wins a highly competitive research grant."

[Updated 18.05.07 for clarification.]

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