Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Biomaterials research watch: future silk

Long-time readers may recall my fascination with the desire to mass produce spider silk--something notoriously difficult because spiders are highly territorial and cannibalistic and cannot be housed together in the numbers needed to make this possible. For those unfamiliar, spider silk is one of the holy grails of materials research because it has a tensile strength greater than steel, the extensibility of rubber, the water uptake capability of wool, and is biodegradable.

Fibre researchers are particularly interested in its potential use in biomedicine, and since the early 2000s researchers have looked at different ways that the necessary silk proteins could be created. Cows, hamsters, transgenic goats and even bacteria have all been made to produce the proteins needed to make silk, but it has proven much more difficult to replicate a spinneret, the spider's spinning mechanism. This is further complicated by the desire to "improve" on the spinneret by making it capable of faster spinning, since the biotech industry moves faster than nature.

In 2006, engineers at MIT came closer to understanding how spiders spin silk, and today's news reports that German researchers have constructed "a device that consists of three channels etched into glass" that can control the levels of salt and proteins needed to make silk. However, the same article also quotes researchers at Oxford Biomaterials saying that "certain wild silks are stronger when you unravel them than natural spider silks" so it may be that spiders get passed over for Chinese and Indian wild silkworms.

Still, processing silk is very expensive, and it's hard to say how viable either will be for the type of mass production needed to keep American soldiers alive longer, let alone to make implantable medical textiles for the rest of us.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Reimagining the everyday

I love getting email about new research, art and design projects that address theories and critiques of everyday life!

Alexis Lloyd's paper Performing the Mundane: Interventions in Everyday Life (pdf) "explores the ways in which artists are utilizing design objects, performance, and interventionist practices to create spaces for play, ritual, and poetry in the midst of everyday experience. Specifically, the paper examines these issues through an analysis of the works of Andrea Zittel, Improv Everywhere, and Tim Etchells."

The Concrete JungleWhile Alexis' locative media projects are also interesting, it was actually The Concrete Jungle street art installation that made me smile the most. Maybe it's my love of miniatures and animals, but there is something simply joyous about this kind of interaction design. Sure some critics could dismiss it as cloying, but consider these two points. First, unlike most work in ID, it doesn't cater just to the technological elite. In fact, I imagine all sorts of gadget-less people quite delighted by small gorillas swinging from fences, and rhinos storming over parking meters. Secondly, it does not require any direct interaction. While walking down a busy urban street, to simply catch a glimpse of a tiny lion stalking a tiny herd of antelope is enough to change one's frame of mind without demanding immediate action. In other words, the intervention is subtle and open-ended. Very, dare I say, everyday life.

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I love carnivalesque moments or events precisely because they disrupt time and space, and force me to acknowledge things that I might otherwise miss or avoid. But I also like to remember that Walter Benjamin characterised boredom as "the apogee of mental relaxation," the "dream bird that hatches the egg of experience," the "threshold to great deeds." In places that constantly seek to move faster, to stimulate further, the ability to actually be bored is a triumph of sorts. It means we haven't been captivated by the spectacular, that we've managed to resist the logic of efficiency.

In their Open 11 essay, Mindful Disconnection: Counterpowering The Panopticon from the Inside (pdf), Howard Rheingold and Eric Kluitenberg remind us that when we design for urban computing the important question is "whether we can develop procedures, methods, possibilities, spaces for 'selective connectivity', which make it practical to choose to extract ourselves from the electronic control grid from time to time and place to place." At the end of the article they list a bunch of interesting projects that offer the possibility to disconnect--note how some are illegal.

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Returning to the notion of wild versus domesticated spaces, Robert Willim wrote to tell me about an interesting project he's done with Anders Weberg, Domestic Safari: Home as a Wild Place. They asked "What if we started to see the material worlds of domestic settings as wild places? Is there a potential for the exotic and uncanny in the inconspicuously mundane?" and eventually came up with a ten minute film that takes the viewer through three different homes in Finland, Italy and Sweden. As they explain: "This audiovisual excursion aims to call forth imaginaries and a profane illumination that disorient and estrange the materialities of everyday reality."

Domestic SafariPersonally, I did find it disorienting. There are bits that appear to take place underwater or on the forest floor, rather than in a house--and the music can be more than a bit discomforting. This is no home I'd want to live in! But I'm intrigued by the idea, and I hope they put up some more documentation. I'd like to know what they think we can learn from repositioning the domestic as the wild...

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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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"Holding theorems in their hands": The Hyberbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project

"For Ms. Wertheim...the project embodies the 'beauty and creativity that comes out of scientific thinking,' what she refers to as 'conceptual enchantment.' As it turns out, the gorgeously crenellated, warped and undulating corals, anemones, kelps, sponges, nudibranchs, flatworms and slugs that live in the reef have what are known as hyperbolic geometric structures: shapes that mathematicians, until recently, thought did not exist outside of the human imagination ... It wasn’t until 1997 that Daina Taimina, a mathematics researcher at Cornell who had learned to crochet as a child in Latvia, realized that by continually adding stitches in a precise repeating pattern she could create three-dimensional models of hyperbolic geometry. For the first time mathematicians could, as Ms. Wertheim said, 'hold the theorems in their hands'."

-- NY Times: Want to Save a Coral Reef? Bring Along Your Crochet Needles (Um, that would be crochet hooks and knitting needles.)

"Every person who takes up this craft creates new species of crochet organisms and we have come to see the project as a collective experiment in textile-based evolution. Just as all living creatures result from variations in an underlying DNA code, so the species in these handi-crafted reefs arise from deviations in a single simple algorithm. Slight variations in the kind of yarn, changes in the rate of increasing stitches, even shifts in crochet tension make significant differences to the morphology of the finished form ... Ways of constructing once perceived as 'merely' women’s craft, and dismissed from the cannon of scientific practice, now emerge as revelatory forms of a more complex, embodied way of thinking about the world both mathematically and physically."

-- The Crochet Coral Reef At The Chicago Cultural Center

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Of materials and bodies

If I had $500 that I didn't need to, say, pay rent or eat then I'd subscribe to Princeton Architectural Press' Materials Monthly. After reading Dan's positive review, I checked out the current issue (pdf) and longed to touch the sample materials with my own hands. As he says, "the ability to pick up, touch, rub and generally explore the tactility of materials is surprisingly affecting." See also: Transmaterial and Transmaterial 2

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I never regret my decision to stop practicing archaeology, but not a day goes by that I don't miss feeling what I do. Having an aching back from sitting at the desk too long is not the same as feeling a burn in my thighs from squatting in an excavation pit, or climbing up mountains. I no longer put unknown objects in my mouth and use my tongue to identify them. (Bone sticks, ceramic grits and stone is just really hard.) And it's been far too long since my hands have touched something that hasn't been touched in centuries, or traced grooves in an object made by hundreds of other fingers doing the same. When I touch certain stones I can still hear the sound of water running over them, and when I run my hands over old Peruvian textiles that I've collected, I can remember the scent of wet alpacas and the relative coarseness of llama wool. I recall how mineral and vegetable dyes feel different as a pestle grinds them against a mortar, and smell different when cooked.

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A couple of years ago I worked with a bunch of 13-14 year olds to come up with new mobile phone ideas. Granted we were limited to creating quick-and-dirty prototypes out of paper and textiles, but everyone was already interested in making phones softer and more flexible.

Now there's Nokia's Morph concept and Qian Jiang's Softphone concept. While not as cool as Schulze & Webb's metal phone, or as hardcore as this electronic tattoo display that runs on blood, there is something intensely beautiful--and maybe even more convincing--about this kind of design thinking. All soft computing and tangible interaction.

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Embodiment studies - because my interest in materials is never separate from my interest in bodily experience.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The transformation of pasture into fleece

When I finished my Masters, I wanted to study with Penny Dransart at University of Wales, Lampeter. Obviously I went on to do other things (even though I still study humans and non-humans) and her work is still totally brilliant:

Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric: An Ethnography and Archaeology of Andean Camelid Herding

"Through a richly detailed examination of the practices of spinning yarn from the fleece of llamas and alpacas, Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric explores the relationship that herders of the present and of the past have maintained with their herd animals in the Andes. Dransart juxtaposes an ethnography of an Aymara herding community, based on more than ten years fieldwork in Isluga in the Chilean highlands, with archeological material from excavations in the Atacama Desert. Relevant historical evidence is adduced. This work investigates the material culture of pastoral communities at the transition from a hunting and gathering way of life over three thousand years ago, its relationship with the domestication process, and how spinning and weaving in contemporary Isluga express the values of a herding way of life. These values are intimately related to the perceived importance of the landscape with its resources of earth and water in the transformation of pasture into fleece. Impeccably researched, this book is the first systematic study to set the material culture of pastoral communities against an understanding of the long-term effects of herding practices. It offers original insights into understanding gender relations among the herders who establish the working relationships with their animals that enable them to produce yarns and fabrics, while also adopting a dynamic perspective on studying technical changes that have occurred in the textile production in the Andes."

Also: Kay Pacha: Cultivating Earth and Water in the Andes

Photo by Max xx

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The cultures of things

Dream Machine: The Snooze Button by Daniel Steinbock

"Modern citizens of industrialized nations live by the linear, mechanical clock, not the Sun. Office buildings have controlled climates and artificial lighting, making sunlight unnecessary for productive work. Thus work schedules are divorced from circadian rhythms, imposed by business constraints, rather than the environment. In order to live according to arbitrary time schedules, citizens use technologies that impose arbitrary sleep cycles on the body. Consider the alarm clock: a direct technological intervention in the natural sleep process. It forces the linear mechanical time-sense of a globally-synchronized waking world upon the cyclic, mytho-logical dreamtime of the sleeper. The alarm clock enables its user to arrest sleep at any time of morning or night. College students, with class schedules that vary throughout the week, often choose alarm schedules that are similarly uneven; waking at 8am for an early class, then sleeping in until 11am the next day. The alarm clock is the thing that does the work of shoehorning the necessity of human sleep into the artificial constraints of the workaday waking world."



"In dreaming, identity explodes. Dissociated from artifice and perception, the dreamer is monad: window-less yet luminous, god-like yet amnesial. Dream logic plays at synaesthesis. Things in dreams become disarranged and confounded with their personal meanings and web of associations -- memory and fantasy, desire and fear, Self and Other, love and death, sex and flight. Whether paradise or nightmare, the dreamer is locked in a room with no doors to open, no walls to break down, and no eject button. In waking, identity collapses. The body concretizes at a locus in spacetime: lying in bed, a familiar room, morning light slanting in, plans for the busy day solidify and arrange themselves. If motivated, the sleeper's body rises from bed -- now heavy with the weight of materiality. The snooze button acknowledges the body's resistance to artificial awakening. What an absurd subversion of will power to provide a mechanism for procrastinating past a self-imposed waking time..."

Part of Ten Things 2007 - a class with Michael Shanks about design

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How would you evaluate a chair?

I was just looking at student project proposals for Dori Tunstall's design research methods course, and I was quite impressed by how the following two projects merge the concerns of anthropology, art and design:

Anna Leithauser, MFA Student Graphic Design, The Art of Bookspines (pdf)

The project investigates the use of bookspines as designed objects, as consumer items, and as decorative art. The goal is to study both how bookspines have impacted the design, sales, and evolution of books and how changes in the book industry have affected bookspine design.

Brett Jones, BFA Student Graphic Design, Expensive Sneakers in the Hip Hop Community (pdf)

This project studies the role of the marketing of African-American hip-hop rappers and athletes in making expensive sneakers a necessity and obsession in the African-American hip-hop community.

I was recently asked to explain what I think the connections are between anthropology and design, and I tried to describe how both involve thinking, doing and making.

Objects That Look

"Despite police ‘crackdowns’ and the increasing availability of willing sexual partners online, the canal remains popular with men seeking anonymous and impersonal encounters with other men. During my fieldwork I employed a combination of ethnographic voyeurism and online ethnography to gain an insight into this capricious and difficult to access group. Sketch enabled me to place the witnessed body into a photograph of the empty site, avoiding the ethical, legal and practical complications of recording participants’ identities during ‘the act’. The downside of the technique was that ultimately the other becomes my creation in the collages. However this feels a more honest representation of my experiences and the men’s objectification of each other when cruising."

Michael Atkins, MA Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester

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Design Anthropology – When opposites attract (pdf) by Werner Sperschneider, Mette Kjærsgaard and Gregers Petersen

"Design anthropology is a point of view: Not our (the designers) point of view not their (the users) point of view, but an additional point of view, a double perspective ... There are different levels of intervention in the field with users, but design is always a social activity. Involvement in situated practice is about people and their activities, and understanding one's social intervention through a piecing-together."

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"I think there is a role for anthropology along all of the steps of the design process. But of course I would say that. Anthropology can help inspire new designs by providing profiles of users and stories about contexts of use. Anthropologists can play on design teams as designs get developed to sensitize designers to culturally and context specific issues. And finally, anthropologists can evaluate the effectiveness of designs through studies of actual use in context, either prototype, pilot, or after product roll-out."

- Mimi Ito, Interview with Mimi Ito by danah boyd

Today in class we watched Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary on Edward Burtynsky's photos of where things come from. Everyone claimed that technological progress comes with a high price. No one felt they could do anything about it.

Design Education as Applied Anthropology by Anthony Inciong

"Design education for me is an opportunity to connect with the world in a variety of ways. My goal is to exploit a potential – to reveal how an anthropological perspective might be used to raise the potency and relevance of design ... I’m not proposing a creativity-eschewing, scientific study that has us spinning our wheels ... I’m interested in developing a practical method that accounts for our propensities as creative individuals but also facilitates our putting those to use in appropriate ways."

Visualizing Information for Advocacy (pdf) by John Emerson

IxDA video: Ethics of Everyday Design by Gabriel White

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Light touches

For Timo:
"Text messages also carry a tactile quality. Like the photograph, the text message is a kind of pointing, saying 'I am here' or 'look at this'. Texting is also an accumulation of light touches – presses on a keypad rather than the click of a camera shutter. Even more, text messages often arrive with a tactile sensation, a vibration that acts like a tap on the shoulder.



Text messages carry their tactile experience with them. They are the product of touching, announce themselves with touches, are revealed by touches and erased with a further touch. We no longer carry photographs in lockets, trapped in jewellery worn next to the skin, but remember those close to us through their words, transmitted in 160 characters or less from their hand to ours."

-- Matt Locke, Light touches – text messaging, intimacy & photography

'Texting: Grand Street' photo by moriza

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