Wednesday, March 12, 2008

If it can't be made at home, maybe it can be made in transit

For years I've been waiting for someone to invent the energy-efficient refrigerator that grows food instead of just storing it. I always imagine the outside door full of plants that are both edible and beautiful. My own year-round greens and micro-greens garden, some heirloom tomatoes and beans, a few organic mushrooms grown in a dark section at the bottom... Perfect!

Well, it doesn't look like my fridge will be happening anytime soon, but I'm always interested in organic, local and sustainable agricultural processes. Enter the future of fungal freshness: Agata Jaworska's thesis project Made in Transit, "a supply chain concept in which the food grows on board a vehicle on the way to the supermarket, shifting the paradigm of packaging from preserving freshness to enabling growth, and shifting ‘best before’ to ‘ready by'." (via)

I have some concerns about the labour repercussions--a local organic farm employs and trains dozens of young people every year--but I appreciate Jaworska's explicit acknowledgment that the Made in Transit concept is complementary to, and not a replacement for, other kinds of production. I also agree with her that it raises interesting and important questions about sustainability and the relation between local and global systems:

"Developments in local agriculture can go on as normal, just as developments in my mother’s garden will also go on as normal. For this project I was interested in tackling global chains and wondered if they could be done differently, and indeed address their sustainability...Indeed, next time a kid asks me where mushrooms come from, I’ll have to tell him that they may soon come from trucks...And is this a utopia or a dystopia? Well it’s not as romantic as going to the forest but I hope it turns out to be more sustainable than the way it is currently done, given our global state of affairs. I think it shows that sustainability is not as clear cut as one would think, and dare I say, that local is not always better than global?"

The whole interview is worth reading. If you're looking for more visuals, I'm not sure the accompanying two-minute animation does the concept justice, but Jaworska's recent presentation at a Pecha Kucha event in Rotterdam starts to get at the kind of details that allow us to imagine the potential of her vision:

YouTube: Made in Transit at Pecha Kucha

Packaging geeks can also get more info on the growing containers in this Culiblog post. And even if you're not that kind of geek, it's a great blog all-around so why not check out the entries in the locative food and urban agriculture categories?

And last but not least, if food and culture interest you as much as they interest me, I can highly recommend a subscription to Gastronomica, a brilliant journal on food and culture.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Urban computing: looking forward and looking backward

I've finally managed to find the time to read Mike Crang and Stephen Graham's recent paper, Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space--and it's really good!

As I've said many times, Graham's work on networked urbanism is superb, and Crang's work on space, culture and ethnography is also exemplary. Compared to American accounts that draw on cybernetics and systems-thinking in architecture and urban planning (think Bill Mitchell, Malcolm McCullough, etc.) I find the British cultural geography approach (following Nigel Thrift, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge) far better attuned to the variety and complexity of everyday lived experience, and the connections between place and identity (i.e. power) over time. Perhaps most importantly, I think this focus on spatialisation, temporalisation and embodiment leads to a critical approach that isn't undermined by the persistent techno-determinism and lack of socio-cultural nuance that tend to characterise the former.

I've argued before that ubicomp is both imaginary and concrete, and Crang and Graham also distinguish between various manifestations of ubiquitous computing:

"[There are] three key contemporary domains within which the reconfiguration of cities and their politics are being actively imagined and enacted through the imagination and deployment of ubiquitous computing (or ‘ubicomp’). This is going on, we suggest, through the production and dissemination of technological fantasies, the more practical processes of technological development, and the actual deployment of, and contestation over, operational ubicomp systems. These three vignettes address: commercial fantasies of ‘friction-free’ urban consumption; military and security industry attempts to mobilize ubiquitous computing for the ‘war on terror’; and attempts by artists to interrupt fantasies of perfect urban control through artistic use of new ubicomp technologies to try and re-enchant urban space and urban life" (791-792).

In my mind, the commercial promise (or threat) of ubicomp pales in comparison to military and government interventions in this domain. For example, in 2004 the US Defense Science Board:

"saw possibilities to exploit ubiquitous computing technologies in developing a massive, integrated system of surveillance, spanning the world, and tailored specifically to penetrating the increasing complexity of urban life. Such a system, it argued, would once again render the US military’s targets trackable, locatable – and destroyable. The purpose of the New ‘Manhattan project’, then, was seen to be to ‘locate, identify, and track, people, things and activities – in an environment of one in a million – to give the United States the same advantages in asymmetric warfare [as] it has today in conventional warfare’" (800).

This plan is connected to broader trends in post 9/11 surveillance and has been integrated into the Pentagon's "Long War" strategy, which raises critical issues about who has access to citizen's ever-increasing digital traces. But access isn't even the primary issue--it's the government's desire to correlate and "backtrack" data so that potential behaviours and situations can be anticipated and controlled. This is what Felix Stalder is describing when he says that data traces don't just follow us, they precede us: "Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, we're treated according to whatever criteria have been connected to the profile that represents us."

This kind of seeing is anticipatory, and while it may have its origins in commercial marketing practice, this kind of social sorting has far more harmful implications than RFID tracking and Minority Report-style tailored advertising. The biggest issue, as Crang and Graham put it, is that "such a technological politics, of course, risks delegating whole sets of decisions and, along with that, the ethics and politics of those decisions, to invisible and sentient systems" (811).

In an early 2007 interview with Adam Greenfield, Régine Debatty asked why there was no mention of art practice in his popular book, Everyware, and he responded:

"Not referring to art projects was an explicit decision, based in part on my desire to limit the discussion to ways in which information processing would be showing up in everyday life. And almost by definition, however trenchant or clever the point of view embedded in them may be, art objects are simply not going to be relevant to that consideration."

I strongly disagree with that assessment of artistic relevance, and Crang and Graham's final section on artistic interventions that seek to "challenge or subvert (some aspects of) the dominant commercial and military visions" (805) successfully makes the point that locative media and art projects tend to inscribe memories rather than anticipate actions, and this tendency to look backward instead of projecting forward is important.

Rather than making us passive or controlling our actions in particular places, locative media and art "allow us to claim and mark our territory" (807) in multiple ways: as publics, as individuals, as citizens. While many projects can be seen to romanticise a renewed public sphere, the collaborative nature of most projects is still distinct from the one-way, top-down models offered by commercial and military players. They also tend to make socio-spatial relations visible, rather than rendering them invisible. The primary drawback here is that "these moves risk making what was formerly protected by its opacity and transitoriness, visible and recordable" (812). But as Crang and Graham also put it, "these artistic media are trying to densify the liquid – not solidify places" (810) and "the effect of memory is not the creation of perfectly known environments. Rather, it involves a destabilization of spaces, a haunting of place with absent others" (812).

However, it's in their conclusions that I find the necessary pragmatism and the most hope:

"Urban ubicomp clearly has a fetishistic power in appearing to finally offer solutions by rendering place and space utterly transparent in some simple, deterministic way. Indeed, we would argue that there is a danger that locative media are equally seen as a technical fix for oppositional voices and alternative histories in art projects. In this sense the myths matter and have effects. But they are only mythologies of a perfect, uniform informational landscape. In reality, the seamless and ubiquitous process of pure urban transparency that many accounts suggest will always be little but a fantasy. In practice, the linking of many layers of computerized technology is generally a ‘kludge’...


Far from the pure vision of what de Certeau calls the ‘concept city’, we may find the production of myriads of little stories – a messy infinity of ‘Little Brothers’ rather than one omniscient ‘Big’ Brother. Some of these may be commercial, some personal, maybe some militarized. There is a real issue about proliferating knowledges circulating routinely and more or less autonomously of people. But it would seem to us that the political options are not those of rejection or romanticizing notions of disconnection. Rather, it is to work through the inevitable granularity and gaps within these systems, to find the new shadows and opacities that they produce" (813-14).

For anyone who wants more, here are some notes on Stephen Graham's keynote at the recent Mobile City Conference that cover some of the same material.

Photos, Naccarato & David Foster Nass

Update 01/03/08: Fabien Girardin adds some interesting links to this discussion, and reminds me how little time I have to keep up on others' work right now. I can't believe I missed Nicholas and Fabien's recent pamphlet, Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities (pdf). The infrastructure section reminded me of Jeff Maki's very cool Critical Infrastructure project.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Now back in Ottawa but thoroughly depressed to find it cold, dark and rainy, I'm nursing a nasty cold I picked up and wishing I was still in warm and sunny Oslo.

By all accounts, my lecture went well and Timo Arnall and I even got interviewed for Norwegian national radio! The local news (in Norwegian) chose to focus on Nokia senior designer Tapani Jokinen's presentation, which reminded me that presentations broken down into easily digested chunks and slogans are more amenable to being repeated. I didn't give people anything that clear-cut to take away, but that's actually part of the point I was trying to make: Life is messy but protocol is not.

I also spent two days in a workshop with Timo and Mosse Sjaastad's physical computing and interaction design students, learning about their projects and helping them get to know what anthropologists do. This was truly a highlight for me because they were incredibly talented students who quickly grasped some of our basic methodologies and were completely open to getting out there and seeing what's going on. Of course, many designers find this sort of thing interesting but struggle to see how it can directly contribute to, or improve, their work. If I succeeded in communicating only one thing, I really hope it was that they should question their assumptions and value what people already do.

After six days hanging out in west, central and east Oslo, I could still attest to how beautiful the city is. The streets are clean and safe, public transport is good (I really liked the ferry) and people take advantage of public spaces. I particularly enjoyed spending time in the wonderful cafes and restaurants in Grünerløkka, where I made friends with skillingsbolle and had some really excellent sandwiches. Timo and I also visited the Viking Ship Museum and the Folkemuseum. I had underestimated how beautifully engineered and crafted the Viking ships were, and the building in which they're displayed, designed by Arnstein Arneberg, really cultivates a sense of reverence. Both the ships and the small collection of artefacts also offer a lovely take on notions of mobility: the Vikings were great travellers and they used a wide variety of materials and decorative styles from the places and peoples they encountered. We spent most of our time at the Folkemuseum admiring Norwegian vernacular architecture. The large open-air museum has a collection of farmhouses and gorgeous storage buildings from 1200-1900, as well as a stunning stave church from the 13th century. I also enjoyed the small Sámi exhibition which included a section on contemporary life, including political struggles, which prevented the museum from acting as a tomb.

Special thanks to Finsk-norsk kulturinstitutt, Norsk Form, AHO and DogA for sponsoring the lecture, to Grafill for the beautiful accommodations, and to Timo, Mosse and Even Westvang for their excellent hospitality and conversation. I can't wait to return!

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Internet of Things: Where milk is commented, eggs come with rss feeds and the shelves are full of FUN.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

BNMI Reference Check: Now Accepting Applications

I'm very excited about my involvement with the Banff New Media Institute's first research-based Co-production Residency programme, Reference Check, taking place this summer in Banff, Alberta, Canada.

If you're doing graduate or post-graduate research on where art, technology and culture meet, and you fancy spending a month this summer in one of the most gorgeous places on earth, with excellent facilities, ten other researchers and three peer advisors, intensely thinking and talking and making and doing individually and collaboratively, then we want to hear from you!

The official call for applications is below -- note the dates and costs -- and if you have any questions or concerns about your proposed project or the application process, please feel free to contact me directly.

Reference Check: A Co-production Residency for Developing Researchers

Residency dates: June 24 to July 21, 2007
Application deadline: April 9, 2007

The Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) invites researchers working with new media at the masters, doctorate or post-doctorate level to spend four weeks at The Banff Centre this summer.

Join BNMI for its first independent research-based Co-production Residency program, bringing together a select group of researchers. Individuals and small networks who are working with art and new media as a research strategy are invited to explore the broader social contexts of technology and digital culture.

Participants will be supported to pursue their self-directed research. They will also be given the opportunity to reflect on the field of new media and contemporary issues such as creative pluralism and multiple modes of knowledge production.

Participants will have the opportunity to develop their research with a peer group of ten participants and the support and mentorship of BNMI alumni and Reference Check peer advisors. These advisors will work with participants individually and as a group to help focus their ideas, and suggest methodologies, collaborative and multidisciplinary forms, and ways of enhancing their work and impact in the world.

Peer Advisors:
Andreas Broeckmann
Anne Galloway (CA)
Sarat Maharaj (UK)

The total cost for this intensive, four-week residency program will be $1,369.80, (CND) plus applicable taxes. Nearly $7500 of additional in-kind support for each project will be provided by BNMI staff and the dedicated studio and production facilities at The Banff Centre’s Creative Electronic Environment.

More information and to apply

We're looking forward to hearing from you!

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