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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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good times Mtl: decrepitude, location, selfhood, prosthetics, interfaces, postphenomenology, quantum physics and things going on this week

We went to Montréal by VIA 1 - my favourite way to travel but I still think wi-fi should be included in the ticket price. First, we managed to catch the CCA between exhibitions, which was a bit of a drag but there were some really lovely photos by Naoya Hatakeyama of architectural models of New York City and Tokyo. The exhibition was supposed to be about scale, but I was more taken by how old, decaying models can so realistically convey a sense of contemporary urban decrepitude. It made me think about the beauty of lo-fi prototypes.

The 4S conference was not what I expected, or rather it was more conservative than I had hoped. For the first time in a long time I had the sinking feeling that sociology was lagging behind social change.

However, I did hear some good talks the first day: in a session on Web 2.0, I was impressed by how people were attempting to explain post-panoptic surveillance using phrases like "participatory-surveillance" and "lateral-surveillance." But the best question I heard on all this was "Now really, isn't this just phatic communication?" (Remembering that networked phatic communication is more than just "ambient intimacy" or "co-presence" because it always already involves speech acts, and thus does things.) In discussion, it was asserted that Web 2.0 is about assemblages and everyday life, so old skool cyberspace and cyberculture studies seem to miss the point. It's not about individual sites, but the relationships between different sites. We need to ask why del.icio.us? and why/not flickr? or why/not jaiku? Just like television is about the entire schedule - the flow of shows, commercials, teasers, etc. - and not just individual shows.

I met Ingrid Erickson (scroll down a bit to find her), who's interested in the implications of ubiquitous computing on social practices, space and place, and is currently studying "the use of geotags in Flickr and mobile presence indicators in Jaiku." If you do either of those things and would like to participate in her doctoral project, just send her an email. What I appreciated the most about her presentation was her insistence that (online) presentations of self be understood not just in terms of identities, but also in terms of activities, locations and connections. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but think of how often you hear about social networking sites as vehicles for identity-management? Or in terms of presentation of self (which at least considers identity and activity, if not also connections)? The locative aspect is really important - not because we're finally merging the physical and the digital, but because spatiality and temporality have always been crucial to social and cultural interaction.

Cynthia Schairer also gave an intriguing talk on prosthetics. Citing disability studies instead of cultural theory, she first cautioned against fetishising or romanticising prosthetics. I took this is an omen, as I had actually come to hear her talk because I like to imagine that I wouldn't mind being rebuilt like the Bionic Woman. But the important bit is that she argued against envisioning prosthetics as extensions of the self, and instead repositioned them as interfaces between the body/self and the world. By focussing on how a prosthesis can create a whole social body, we erase the physical body's work and pain. (Those sexy cheetah legs require gaining a huge amount of hip and thigh strength and relearning one's sense of balance because of differences in bipedal and quadripedal locomotion, and all prosthetics run the risk of chafing and infection.) Instead, she argued, we need to attend to the kinds of "tenuous and incomplete connections" at hand. Anyone interested in mobile, wearable or embedded technologies might learn something valuable from this position: a focus on prosthetic technologies as interfaces rather than extensions brings into high relief matters of infrastructure and issues of access and use, and highlights techno-social fragilities that challenge technologically deterministic perspectives.

On day 2, I made it to Peter-Paul Verbeek's presentation on bringing Don Idhe's postphenomenology and Latour's actor-network theory together, as he argued in his book What Things Do. I like his ideas about technological mediation, but can't quite manage to sign up for Idhe's perspective that holds it all together. I really do favour the kind of radical empiricism that Latour advocates, with its focus on (externalist) action and descriptive methods rather than (internalist) perception and normative interpretation.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 'Translating Latour' session I was starting to feel ill enough to go back to where I was staying and rest a bit. Unfortunately, I just kept feeling worse and worse and eventually decided to return to Ottawa. That means I missed the rest of the conference and spent the weekend in bed, which was definitely not what I had planned. (I also didn't expect to run into a student doing her observation assignment at the train station, but that's another story.) In any case, other highlights of my truncated trip included meeting Marguerite Bromley - who kindly took us through XS Lab's recent e-textile projects - and catching up with Joey and Chris Salter.

Joey also introduced me to Barry Sanders, Director of the Institute for Quantum Information Science at the University of Calgary, who was at the conference checking out what the social scientists were saying about the scientists. I thought his suggestion that there should be someone there studying the people who study people was wonderful, and we talked a lot about emerging technologies and how future-oriented technology visions are instrumental in positioning current research. I've taken up the connection between actual and imagined techno-social spaces in my dissertation, as well as in an article that's currently under review, so stay tuned for more on that! Barry also introduced me to all sorts of things about physics culture, including entire journals dedicated to the problem of instrumentation and the ability to formally appeal publication rejections. In return, all I could offer was the suggestion that he might enjoy classic lab studies like Sharon Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes and Karin Knorr Cetina's Epistemic Cultures. But I can't wait to visit his lab the next time I'm out west!

So, good times - and if I were still in town this is where you'd find me over the next few days:

Tonight, STUDIO XX - Feminist art centre for technological exploration, creation, and critique - is celebrating their 10th anniversary with "the release of xxxboîte, a collection of critical writing and a DVD compilation of works celebrating the last 10 years of Montreal’s own new media and network arts centre for women." Bonne fête et félicitations!

Kick off the 2007 HTMlles festival with a toast to the community that made it all happen. New texts from one of the four founding mothers, Kim Sawchuk, as well as extraordinary artists, Anna Friz, J.R. Carpenter, Michelle Kasprzak, and Marie-Christine Mathieu, and a DVD compilation that is part humourous, part touching, and all guerilla girl action - a true portrait of Studio XX!

HTMlles8 - "The festival's eighth edition investigates social, political, territorial, personal, and conceptual mobility. Occurrences and exclusions, detours and thorough-fares, in as much as parameters and expansions define the movement of ideas and people. This year's artists explore this theme in the context of the body, the environment, urban and cultural landscapes, social-political ecologies and barriers, as well as measures and tools of both control and renewed autonomy in an increasingly advanced technological world."

Ayesha Hameed, one of this summer's BNMI Reference Check residents, has co-authored a paper with Leila Pourtavaf - Border Controls / Border Movements - and she'll have a video installation up as well.

And as if that's not enough...



Drawn & Quarterly is one of my favourite comics publishers, and their good-looking new store launch party is this Friday night. I'd go just to see if Julie Doucet is there. She's fucking brilliant. Oh, and to pick up some new comics of course.

À la prochaine...

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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
Antropologi.info:
- 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 casca@connect.carleton.ca 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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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Society for Social Studies of Science (and a side of soft computing)

Things will be quiet around here for the next few weeks as I work madly to meet some journal and university deadlines, but I still need to migrate Space and Culture to wordpress so updates on that end are more likely. (I also still keep track of everyday life at plsj.tumblr.com.)

Thanksgiving this year falls near peak harvest time (sweet!) and we've got a visit with much-loved friends from London that will involve us traipsing all over the Gatineau Hills and Ottawa Valley before hopping on the train to Montréal.

I'll be in town for the 4S Annual Meeting, which takes place October 11-13th. If you're in Montréal then too, please give me a shout!

This will be my first 4S meeting and I'm really interested in getting a sense of the research culture. Like many professional organisations, they offer a mentoring programme that sounds like a great idea. But I keep seeing the "senior/junior scholar" distinction made, and I start to get uncomfortable. If we only exist in hierarchical relation to each other, does mentoring encourage only one-way (i.e. top-down) exchange? And how does such an organised programme differ from simply introducing oneself and having a conversation?

But mostly I mean research culture in terms of kinds of research. Epistemology geeks (including me) must be excited by the "Ways of Knowing" conference theme, which led to a stunning array of interesting topics in something like a dozen concurrent sessions. Overwhelming to say the least, but I'll do my best to blog what I see, hear and do while I'm there.

I'm also looking forward to staying with my friend Joey Berzowska, who has agreed to me interviewing her for an upcoming issue of Bitch Magazine. We'll be talking about her latest project, SKORPIONS, the intersections of technology, fashion and social critique, and what it's been like working in the male-dominated field of wearable computing. Stay tuned!

P.S. I'm looking forward to the conference and I'm happy to be a 4S member, but I gotta say that their website generally sucks and the meeting section is just painful. I mean, seriously, who thought it was a good idea to make the only version of the programme a 119-page pdf? Would it have killed the designer to create a simple html version that could give me, at a glance, a decent sense of what I can expect? And don't get me started about the registration process. Sheesh. It's all the more incomprehensible, and embarrassing, because these folks supposedly exist to foster social understandings of science and technology. Then again, maybe it's just part of the general suckiness of academic websites. University sites are often pretty good, but check out individual academics and research initiatives and you'll see what I mean.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Locative media today

Locative Media Summer Conference
Universität Siegen
3.-5. September 2007.

Opening Speech
Greg Elmer (Toronto, CA)
Disaggregating Locative Networks

Sociotechnical Space
Joe McCarthy (Palo Alto, USA)
Friendsters at Work: Displaying Social Media Streams in the Workplace
Christoph Rosol (Weimar, D)
From Radar to Reader. The Origin(s) of RFID
Adrian Mackenzie (Lancaster, GB)
The Act of Locating Wirelessly

Mapped Space
Jeremy Crampton (Atlanta, USA)
Can Peasants Map?: Map Mashups, the Geo-Spatial Web and the Future of Information
Lev Manovich (San Diego, USA)
New Spatial Media?

Locative Media Design
Mark Bilandzic (Munich, D) & Marcus Foth (Brisbane, AUS)
CityFlocks: A Mobile System for Social Navigation in Urban Public Places
Dimitrios Charitos (Athens, GR)
Towards a Conceptual Model for Supporting the Design of Location-based Systems for Social Interaction within Urban Public Space

Locative Media Art
Patricio Davila, Geoffrey Shea & Paula Gardner (Toronto, CA)
PORTAGE: Locative Media at the Intersection of Art, Design and Social Practice
Tina Bastajian & Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam, NL)
Geo-Genealogies: Tracing the Possible Lineages of Locative Media

Locative Media Activism
Drew Hemment (Manchester, GB)
Locative Arts and Locative Activism
Mark Shepard (Buffalo, USA)
Locative Media as Critical Urbanism

Locative Media Aesthetics
Marc Ries (Leipzig, D)
Where Can I Become? Geoaesthetic Considerations on Locative Media
Miya Yoshida (Berlin, D)
Techniques of Mobility, Aesthetics of Flatness

Locative Media Wanderer
Ben Jacks (Oxford, USA)
Locative Media, Pervasive Computing, Walking, and the Built Environment

Locative Media Urbanism
Viktor Bedö (Pécs, HU)
Pattern of Locative Urban Knowledge
Katharine S. Willis (Weimar, D):
Situating Encounters
Martijn de Waal (Groningen, NL)
No more bowling alone? Locative Media and Urban Culture

Locative Media Games
Sophia Drakopoulou (London, GB)
Collective Participation and Broadcast: How Data Bound to Locality Re-appropriate Physical Space
Britta Neitzel (Siegen, D)
Location-based Games and Appropriation of Places

Some interesting stuff here, but why, oh why, is it still so hard to get academics to post things online?

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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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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Social Technologies Summit

Back in my home-sweet-home and madly preparing for my third cross-Atlantic trip in as many weeks, I'm really pleased to announce my upcoming role as Mistress of Ceremonies for the Social Technologies Summit at Futuresonic 2007 next week in Manchester.

This is the first time I'll be taking on more of a curatorial role, and am very excited about the stellar line-up we've organised. Check it out:

USE YOUR IMAGINATION
Friday 11 May 2007, 10am-6pm

Leading figures from around the world are converging on Manchester for Use Your Imagination, a unique one-day event presented by Imagination@Lancaster, Lancaster University's new interdisciplinary research institute, as a part of the Social Technologies Summit and Futuresonic 2007 Urban Festival of Art, Music and Ideas.

The event sets out to :
  • Inspire people with the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Introduce artists, designers, social researchers, activists, engineers and computer scientists to what excites each other
  • Enable people to meet in structured and informal ways
  • Seed new collaborations.
10.30am - 12.30pm, Contact Theatre
COLLABORATING ACROSS BOUNDARIES
Steve Dietz (YProductions)
Giles Lane (Proboscis)
Linda Doyle (Trinity College Dublin)
Charlie Gere (Lancaster University) - Chair
Kristina Andersen (STEIM) - Discussant

2pm - 4pm, Contact Theatre
SOCIAL TECHNOLOGIES
Paul Domenet (Saatchi & Saatchi)
Nina Wakeford (INCITE, Goldmsith's)
Alan Dix (Lancaster University)
Eric Paulos (Intel Research) - Chair
Laura Watts (Lancaster University) - Discussant

4pm - 6pm, Contact Theatre
PARTICIPATORY WORKSHOP
Facilitated by Anne Galloway, please come meet the participants and other practitioners - and find your new collaborative partners!

6pm - 8pm, Council Chambers, Steve Biko Buidling
DORKBOT
An open session for people doing strange things with electricity.

ENVIRONMENT 2.0
Saturday 12 May 2007, 10am-12:45pm

Working in partnership with the Manchester-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Creative Concern, Futuresonic and FutureEverything are launching a 3 year project addressing the sustainability of future arts and culture. The project will seek to minimise the environmental impact of the Futuresonic festival (including travel to and from the event!) and also to explore broader issues connecting Futuresonic's interest in mobile and social technologies with the new urgency surrounding climate change.

Today's digital culture promotes an always-on internet that can be accessed anywhere, while on the move. How can free and open source hardware help minimise the environmental burden of the technology we use, and how can thinking about new technologies be harnessed to improve our stewardship of the environment?

10.30am - 12.45pm, Contact Theatre
ENVIRONMENT 2.0
Eric Paulos (Intel Research)
Stef van Dongen (Enviu)
Shaun Fensom (Independent)
Steve Connor (Creative Concern) - Chair
Anne Galloway (Carleton University) - Discussant

Although I'll basically step aside after this session, I highly recommend sticking around for the remaining Free Studio / Estúdio Livre tactical media and cultural hot spots discussions & events:

FREE STUDIO
Saturday 12 May 2007, 2pm - 9pm

There is today a grass roots open source movement that is sweeping across Brazil like wild fire and captivating the world's imagination. Futuresonic 2007 invites leading figures from Brazil and around the world to participate in a high profile conference session on this movement.

2pm - 4pm, Contact Theatre
FREE STUDIO
Cristiano Scabello (Estúdio Livre)
James Wallbank (Access Space)
Matthew Edmondson (Open IT Up)
Dave Carter (Manchester Digital Development Agency) - Chair

4pm - 6pm, Council Chambers, Steve Biko Building
Free Studio Presentations Pt. 1

8pm - 9pm, Contact Theatre
KEYNOTE
Claudio Prado (Brazilian Ministry of Culture)

FREE STUDIO
Sunday 13 May 2007, 12pm - 5pm

Free Studio Presentations Pt. 2
Zion Centre, Hulme

And as if that's not enough, there are tonnes of other fun things to do. I'll definitely be catching the Faust show on Friday night - part of the Music for the Beep Generation line-up - and the Art For Shopping Centres exhibitions.

Hope to see you there!

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Off for (partially) unknown territories

Well, I'm crossing the ocean again this weekend because of a generous invitation to give the opening keynote at the ENTER_Unknown Territories Conference in Cambridge next week. Here's the short abstract for my talk:

"Where I come from, this is how we do things" and other ethics of collaboration.

Anne Galloway prepares the ground for the conference panels by critically assessing the relations between people’s ethics, aesthetics, world-views and expectations – and the challenges and opportunities posed by cultural difference in collaborative practice. How do we make sense of our actions and the worlds in which we live? What happens when we encounter difference or opposition? What would collaboration without consensus involve? Where do we locate accountability, and to whom and what are we responsible? How can we evaluate the ethics of collaborative work and play?

While the entire conference line-up looks great, I'm particularly looking forward to the following sessions: Toolshift / Mindshift and Uncommon Ground-Creative Encounters Across Disciplines and Sectors, which builds on a new book called Uncommon Ground. I wrote a short essay on seams and scars for the collection and the book launch takes place the night before the conference.

BBC journalist Bill Thompson will also be chairing a session called Control Technology: Knowing Me, Knowing You – Ah ha! that I really want to catch because he said in a recent article that he'll "be making some of the people there feel pretty uncomfortable about their attitude to personal privacy ... [because] there is a danger that the art, like other aspects of control technology, will only serve to dull our senses and dampen our indignation, leading us to feel that the unobserved life is not really worth fighting for." Wow.

As if that's not enough, there are some great sounding workshops too, including the Proboscis Public Authoring Zone and Bricolabs, and a cool 'Local/Food' Picnic Performance at the end. If you're there please come say hello - and if you can't make it, you can always keep up on blogspot, flickr and myspace.

I'll also be in London visiting friends and doing a bit of work a few days before and after the conference, so if you'd like to get together or know of something I shouldn't miss, please just drop me a note.

**UPDATE 1.05.07**
I enjoyed the event and met some really good people, but until I get some breathing room to write up my reflections I'd just note that I was particularly impressed by CRUMB's Bliss Out Centre, which I think should be part of every conference, and Mongrel's MediaShed project. Check them out! And with one unforgettable exception, I received much positive interest in my presentation. I focussed on the anthropological concept of ethos, which means I purposely avoided telling people what they should and should not do. I think this is really important, and I'll post some more thoughts on the topic as soon as I can. Thanks again to the organisers and to everyone for coming out.

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Mobile Nation 2: Relentless Empiricism

One of the best things about a conference focussed on methodologies is that you get to hear a lot about how people actually work, and you get to hear a bunch of original research results. Ethnography, participatory action research, participatory design, iterative engineering and rapid prototyping all focussed prominently at the event, and I was completely captivated by several presentations.

First up was Nina Wakeford, now directing INCITE: Incubator for critical inquiry into technology and ethnography from its new home at Goldsmith's College. I've always been particularly interested in Nina's work because of her close collaborations with Intel Research in the US. Not only does she regularly work between academic, corporate and public contexts, but also between the cultures of Britain and America. Nina's presentation focussed on a 4-week project done in collaboration with Intel's People and Practices Research Group. Building on Marcus' multi-sited ethnography and the logic of association, the INCITE team explored the mobile actions of cyclists, and focussed on the ways in which this research could be presented back to Intel. In this case, she suggested, mobility acted as a boundary object but warned against the dangers of using mobility as a master trope because of its tendency to flatten out difference into mere itineraries and trajectories.

I was particularly impressed by two examples of how the research was presented in the Intel cube farm. First, there were interview quotes stenciled onto the windows--a lovely example of absent-presence and suggestion that the world outside was simply overflowing with people's experiences. But here's the best part: just imagine how words describing hectic London streets read when superimposed on highly manicured greenery and orderly parking lots! Ahahaha. The other intervention I really liked was two large-scale photos of London buses hung from the ceiling and spaced just as far apart as the area through which riders typically pass. Apparently there were "safety" concerns and some people did whatever necessary to avoid having to pass through the narrow passage. Both efforts concentrated on embodied experience, which is particularly difficult and also very important if you're trying to get people to imagine the mobility of people they cannot follow.

People in the audience, me included, were most interested in how Nina's team was actually able to intervene in corporate culture, and Nina explained that part of the project's goal had always been to find ways to intervene visually, so all the photos and maps and videos and texts did just that. A normally sterile environment--I've been there and *totally dehumanising* is the first thing that springs to my mind--was temporarily overrun with visual stimuli and material culture that did not belong. According to Nina, this accomplished two things: it compelled Intel to start training their own people to work on the act of "translating" between communities of practice, and it worked to displace the object of their study. In other words, rather than allowing Intel to believe it was simply studying "mobility" the research also served to clarify that they were actually studying fit-bodied white males more interested in riding than getting to their destination.

This last bit struck me as really important, especially after audience members started asking James Katz what his statistical data meant for them. Nina introduced James' keynote presentation by championing an empirical approach to research; she cited a major project she had worked on where the people who made all the decisions were working on assumptions that had little or no empirical grounding, and how frustrating and self-defeating that can be. And certainly, as a general position, I support what I like to call relentless empiricism as something crucial to our understandings of social and cultural relations. But here's the thing: not all empirical data is equal and none of it is absolute. Now I'm not talking about "reliable" or "relevant" versus "unreliable" or "irrelevant" information, although all the sciences, including sociology and anthropology, delineate criteria for each. I'm talking about different kinds of knowledge having different capacities.

For example, I was first introduced to James' work in his and Mark Aakhus' 2002 edited book Perpetual Contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance and I'm looking forward to reading his latest book, Magic in the air: Mobile communication and the transformation of social life. His research is really interesting; I always come away from it with lots of questions and possibilities for future research and I think that's great. His keynote was chock full of fascinating behavioural frequencies and quantities around cell phone use and that was great too. I mean, he showed an amazing hand-carved wooden 'phone' from Namibia that had been branded Sony before Sony Ericsson started making cell phones. Suggests fascinating relations between materiality and brands, no? And I keep thinking about how people fake using cell phones, which suggests that they are devices not just for communication at a distance but also in the immediate vicinity of the user. I don't think this is an issue of privacy or publicity, although I also don't think there are ways to effectively describe what's going on here. (Nod to Nigel.)

But I also think, and I'm not the only one, that James' work sometimes suffers a bit from its distanced perspective, or view-from-nowhere. More to the point, I think that substantial confusion arises when quantitative and speculative research results are presented to others quickly and without context. People reasonably want to know which results are "factual," "certain" or "actionable" and which ones are not. Despite James' clear insistence that the results should not be seen as predictive, I'm not sure that non-researchers understood the overall relevance, or capacity, of this kind of research. But ultimately, it was James' position that surveys be used as experiments and proxies be used to study potential user behaviours, which should have resonated with anyone familiar with prevailing HCI research models.

This brings me to the fourth keynote, which went to Marc Davis of Garage Cinema fame, and current Social Media Guru at Yahoo! Research Berkeley, who spoke about context, content and community. (Man, I'd completely forgotten about that American tech-job-title thing and I have to laugh. Sorry!) Anyway, Marc had my full attention as soon as he said that he left academia so that he could have access to the volume of data collected by Yahoo. Now I completely disagree with his claim that this ginormous database is a great representation of the sum of human behaviour (I think it tells us more about Yahoo than people-in-general) but I can totally appreciate the evil genius possibilities of infiltrating that mine! Then he told the audience about his training in rhetoric, so I sat back to enjoy the show.

When I gave my presentation at the ID seminar a few months ago, I talked to an elder statesman in the field who took umbrage at my insinuation that designers haven't always done research. I agreed, apologised, and commented on how often people both under- and over-estimate others. Marc echoed that sentiment when he claimed that, even though both are wrong, humanists and social scientists see computation as mere instrumentality (to which I would respond, yes, but never mere!) and that computer scientists see the humanities and social sciences as word games which are not actionable (to which I would respond, yes, people play word games and words do things!) He said we need to ask and answer fundamental questions, learn each other's languages, and together reimagine both. Sounds just like my kinda goal: comprehensive and foundational change!

But I have to admit that it's really difficult for me to trust American tech company values and rhetoric. For example, Marc explained how this research is important to Yahoo in terms of their 2007 mission statement: "to connect people to their passions, their communities and the world's knowledge" and told us that Yahoo works to "invite, capture, connect, guide, and monetize human attention." Is it just me or is there not some sort of weird paternalistic thing going on here? All a bit caring and a bit oppressive? I wish we had had more time to discuss how these models of social behaviour help create technologies, people and relationships rather than represent existing ones.

On a broader scale, I do struggle with both government and corporate presentations sounding like sales pitches or campaigns, and I often find the performances difficult to trust. In some ways I think I would be much more comfortable if I had some sort of proof that they were aware of their biases and were willing to be held accountable to, and for, opposing viewpoints. Now, while reflexivity and positioning are crucial to social and cultural research, we don't treat them uncritically. For example, rapport, or the ability to gain the trust of field informants, was once considered mandatory for reliable data collection, but there is increasing acknowledgment that pluralism includes conflict and distrust. So, what is required to work productively with people one doesn't trust?

Back to the topic at hand, Marc explained that they've learned that they need to design a system, not an application or interface; they need to design the network topology, design the network data and metadata, design to optimise certain nodal activities, design metrics, monitoring and analysis mechanisms, and design ways to rapidly and iteratively modify all of this. It was useful to get a sense of how systems-thinking plays out in Marc's position: like a working platform or stage, I think. And since more general systems-based or broadly ecological-focussed models are currently being mobilised to expand upon long-standing network paradigms, I think it's worth mentioning that systems-thinking has a long and controversial history in sociology and anthropology, and I know that guides me into other conversations about systems. I, for one, need to get really clear on what someone means when they say "system" so that I don't fall back on my (often negative) assumptions.

In sum, the three keynotes focussed broadly on empirical research methods were all very interesting. I think I got a good sense of where different people come from and where they want to go, and it generally looks interesting. One of the things I mentioned in my later presentation, but bears repeating, was that I would still really like to see greater acknowledgement of, and engagement with, different and sometimes oppositional ways of understanding the world. What I didn't say was that I also think there are better and worse ways of doing this and I witnessed both at the conference. A stellar moment for me was when Nina called attention back to Nigel's thoughts on affective contagion, and the implication that intensity of emotion can be expressed but not necessarily shared. It was good to be reminded that how we communicate is just as important as what we communicate, and that learning each other's languages involves more than words.

When it comes to conflict in multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural research collaborations, I think we need to do better than conflict management or, shudder, conflict resolution. I mean, by-and-large, these are not terror situations we're talking about. But part of relentless empiricism, I believe, is always keeping one eye on ourselves and one eye on each other. Wait, that sounds a bit creepy. What I mean is that we have to better include ourselves in our studies and projects, not in some sort of pathetic confessional way, but as a situated means of providing and engaging context. (Thanks again to the very astute woman who approached me after my talk and said I could better lead with "I study us." Totally!) And as I asked at the end of my talk, how well are researchers, artists and designers able to move in and out of different contexts and identities? What kinds of embodied experience, material and symbolic culture work to keep relations fluid? How can we best produce local and reflexive knowledges around shared concerns?

Next: Mobile Nation 3: In Vivo Design

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Trains and tumblelogs

So I'm teaching this afternoon and I'm off to Toronto first thing in the morning for the Mobile Nation Conference. I opted on the train instead of flying, which makes it a five-hour trip, but trains are my favourite form of transportation, I've got a stack of student papers to mark, and I'm looking forward to staring out the window as I eat my fancy-schmancy VIA 1 breakfast. I'll do my best to post my conference notes as I go, but the 3-day programme is, well, rather demanding. In any case, if you're there please come say hello!

In other news, Purse Lip Square Jaw now includes a tumblelog of things I find interesting but really don't have anything to say about. It's called, unimaginately enough, the plsj tumblelog and it comes with an rss feed. I started experimenting with Tumblr because del.icio.us has come to feel a bit too tight, and I really liked their recognition that I want to bookmark different kinds of things, and emphasise them in different ways. So far, so good. But I can't vouch for their customer service: after firing off an email to support last week, I still haven't gotten a response.

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