Sunday, April 13, 2008

It's a mad, mad, mobile world

As widely reported, The Economist has tackled the topic of mobility in a special report, starting with a piece called Nomads at last:

"Urban nomads have started appearing only in the past few years. Like their antecedents in the desert, they are defined not by what they carry but by what they leave behind, knowing that the environment will provide it.

'Permanent connectivity, not motion, is the critical thing.'

The most wonderful thing about mobile technology today is that consumers can increasingly forget about how it works and simply take advantage of it."

The first description and Castell's claim are seriously sticking in my brain, not least because "permanent connectivity" is quite different from standard definitions of either mobility or nomadism, and it's difficult to reconcile this view with news that wireless cities are easier said than done.

The unrestrained glee of the last statement I excerpted just makes me sigh, mostly because I remember Yvonne Roger's warning that the purely convenient and efficient life raises ethical issues not unrelated to those of "the world of the landed aristocracy in Victorian England who’s day-to-day life was supported by a raft of servants that were deemed to be invisible to them."

And speaking of mobile technologies, Nokia Design seems to be everywhere these days. Check out this long NY Times Magazine story on the work of Jan Chipchase and Duncan Burns. And they've been busy recruiting as well: Adam Greenfield is off to Helsinki this summer to start his new "plum gig", and Julian Bleecker reports leaving academia to pursue a more "relevant" career.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I have serious concerns about academia, but I figure that's all the more reason to try and improve it. Call me a Canadian socialist, but I believe in government and non-profits and academia, and I don't see how turning my back on them will help me or anyone else. Plus, I'm pretty sure that "escaping" academia for the corporate world just implicates us in a different set of problems. Still, I wish both Adam and Julian only the best. Congrats gentlemen! I know I'm not the only one looking forward to seeing what your insights and enthusiasms bring.

Oh, and while I'm still on the topic of nomads and Nokia, did you know that Nokia China recently sponsored a 100 day roadtrip? Sharing this memory is made possible by Nokia and my N73/N95.

To see what some artists are up to in the arena of the mobile these days, check out wooloo.org's NEW LIFE BERLIN, "a contemporary art festival dedicated to new modes of moving and existing." The June 2008 event will be structured along three themes: transnational communities, artistic social responsibility, participation and intervention.

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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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Friday, June 15, 2007

Call For Papers: Wireless Technologies, Mobile Practices

Canadian Journal of Communication
Special Issue on: Wireless Technologies, Mobile Practices

Mobile wireless devices such as handheld pdas, cellular telephones, and portable computers are part of a changing landscape of communications and culture. In the last decade alone, for instance, the use of cell phones has increased fourfold in Canada signaling a remarkable shift in the telecommunications industry, the convergence of a number of technologies onto a single platform, and new ways of conducting person-to-person communication and creating community. In addition to these devices, Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth, WANS, and GPS comprise integrated segments of the new infrastructure of the so-called wireless world as well as an emergent vocabulary for citizens and consumers. The Canadian Journal of Communication invites submissions, in English or in French, for a forthcoming special issue on mobile communications and wireless technologies. We are interested in innovative, critical approaches that decipher a range of mobile technologies and practices in wireless contexts. Possible themes include:

- Everyday uses: sharing our lives via the mobile (text, voice, video)
- Civic engagement, activism and mobile technologies
- Wireless services and emergency communication
- Privacy, surveillance and mobile phones
- Community Wireless Networks
- Policy: CRTC regulations and spectrum policy
- Mobility, Labour: new conditions of work
- Shifting notions of space, place and time in a mobile world
- Rhetoric and discourses on mobility and wireless worlds
- Art, design and mobile technologies
- Mobile genres and cellular convergence
- Global and international perspectives on mobile technologies

Full-length papers (@ 7000-9000 words) should be submitted electronically following the guidelines laid out on the CJC submissions website. Make sure to write in all caps "MOBILE" in the Comments to the Editor field, and to include it on the cover page of your article as well. Do not include your name on the cover page.

Deadline for papers is Sept. 1, 2007 Oct. 1, 2007. Papers selected by the editors will then be sent for peer review for final decision.

Comments and queries can be sent to one of the special issue editors:

Dr. Barbara Crow, York University, bacrow@sympatico.ca
Dr. Kim Sawchuk, Concordia University, kim.sawchuk@sympatico.ca
Dr. Richard Smith, Simon Fraser University, smith@sfu.ca

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Takk!

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 Grünerlřkka, 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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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

Previous: Mobile Nation 1: Halos

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mobile Nation 1: Halos

Last night in Toronto, the Mobile Nation Conference wrapped up three days of really interesting presentations, workshops and discussions on research and design methodologies for mobile devices and applications. I'll break my reflections into three parts, each of which will cover a particular theme, starting with halos.

An absolute joy for me was Nigel Thrift's opening keynote, Halos: new apprehensions of political time and space, on what new political forms of togetherness might be possible in a mobile nation. I had the pleasure of being the respondent to his presentation, and only wish we could have spoken longer. I'd been aware he'd been working on the spaces of political feeling, and I was looking forward to see what this had to do with halos.

Nigel started by suggesting that one of the problems with politics today is that it's too limited in its understanding of what political activism might be. And to borrow the phrase he most often used as a response to my comments, I don't disagree. In the West, he explained, political activism is very normative, and martial--the single feature that most puts off large numbers of people and thus limits both individual and collective agency. He then asked how we can move to become different kinds of political subjects, and introduced the notion and process of affective flows.

Nigel described the halo in early Christian art in terms of its ability to create affective empathy, to signify infectuous relationships and chains of imitation. Take these paintings by Giotto:


In Meeting at the Golden Gate, Joachim and Anna seem to melt into each other's embrace and kiss, signifying great intimacy and passion. In The Kiss of Judas, Christ and Judas are almost as close physically but without the shared halo their distance and lack of shared affect is plain.

Nigel stressed that the important bit is that halos signify affective contagion, or the bringing together of people around shared affects or passions. The notion of affect is most often associated with Deleuze, but this also reminds me of the kind of politics I borrow from Latour, Marres, Stengers and Maffesoli.

He went on to explain that affective contagion is a largely biological, semi-conscious (also following Tarde) but definitely embodied process. I was reminded of how yawns are contagious. Animal behavourists have explained this as an evolutionary adaptation amongst pack animals in which the alpha male signals the pack to sleep when he is ready. I also remember reading somewhere that amongst people, yawns are only contagious if you like, or are neutral towards, the person yawning. This also suggests that refusing to catch a yawn, or share an affect, is a form of social resistance.

Nigel, again mobilising historical examples, pointed out that in the 17th century there was a common sense of activism rooted in passivity. Now this isn't a hippie kind of passive resistance, but rather the rejection of autonomous agency in favour of being one who acts for another, or is licensed to act by another authority. He pointed out that at the time this other authority was God, but reminded us that it doesn't need to be. He argued that the idea that acted upon, we act is still a powerful politics. In other words, there is still hope that we can be moved.

The second kind of halo he described was related to the videogame. Talking about environments as affective objects enabled by new kinds of material culture, he focussed on the ability to trap affect, to produce a world for objects--not just the objects themselves--and inscribe users in the process. By generating decisive moments and creating suggestable environments, with non-linear arrangements, dispositions and narratives, these spaces bring people together in order to produce particular affective moments and move people in particular ways.

In the 17th century, Nigel explained, public communication mostly involved non-discursive writing and in Victorian times there was still the notion that things like flowers had voices. I was reminded of Elizabethan writing rings, but his point was about allowing objects and surfaces to speak, and this led him to a third, and final, kind of halo involving fugitive knowledges. When he spoke of producing such spaces, he wasn't talking about bounded places but rather about embodied relations within space. This involves performativity, improvisation, producing, modulating and pushing affective flows. These kinds of knowledge, he explained, will probably be a bit ephemeral and a bit fugitive, and we may have to finally admit that we don't have the words to explain the social processes in play. I think that I really like this idea.

For me, the most useful and hopeful bit I got from all this is that there can be powerful and passionate forms of agency without autonomy. The relationship between agency and autonomy is a difficult one, but what I most appreciate about Nigel's perspective is that he brings this all back to the realm of the everyday and our relations with others. The notion that we can be--and indeed are--moved to defend or oppose certain values is really at the core of public relations and political action. But the notion of affect, or emotion, becomes really interesting in terms of how we do this. It raises the possibility that what one person considers respectful intervention is emotionally and bodily resisted by another person who sees those same actions as unbearably rude. I'm imagining a game called Share-the-Halo, in which we come together and perform our passions and then either embrace or distance ourselves from each other.

If I had been more on the ball, I would have spent some time discussing what all this has to do with the background image on my presentation slides:


In Bruegel's The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, I see the space of most hope for these kinds of political and ethical action, and the space of greatest potential conflict. I see people moved by divergent passions, arranged into temporary publics, a messy space that is not well-suited to clean explanations of networked sociality. In any case, I think that Nigel managed to move us closer to an idea of mobile politics and ethics than any other presentation at the conference and it set a great stage for what followed.

Next: Mobile Nation 2: Relentless Empiricism

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mobile publics and issues-based art and design

Mobile Nation Conference
22-25 March, 2007 - Toronto, Canada

Mobile Nation investigates design methods for locative technologies, devices and games, showcasing international research, design and engineering ... Participants will share expertise with WiFi, Global Positioning System (GPS), Bluetooth, Radio Frequency ID tags, intelligent garments, ambient media applications, and geo-locative gaming ... Throughout the conference we will be looking at research methodologies and ways that they will be integrated into industry, education, and creative practice.

Speakers | Programme | Workshop | Poster Exhibition

I'm really looking forward to this event - not only are there lots of interesting people participating but it's really nice to see so many Canadian researchers, designers and artists represent. Plus, I've long admired Nigel Thrift's work on technology and space so I'm excited that I'll be the discussant for his social geographies keynote. And at the very end of the first day Eric Zimmerman will be moderating discussion between Jason Lewis, Minna Tarkka, Suzanne Stein, Ron Wakkary and myself. I'll be presenting on some of the more practical aspects of doing what I call issues-based art and design research (you can get the extended abstract here but I like to think it'll be much better in-person) and I'm looking forward to the other presentations and discussions. If you're there, please come say hello!

This presentation actually draws on a chapter I recently wrote for Sampling the Spectrum, edited by Barbara Crow, Michael Longford and Kim Sawchuck, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

Mobile Publics and Issues-Based Art and Design (pdf)

Starting with the 'problem' of the public, I look to select historical and philosophical understandings of publics and politics. Building on the work of early American pragmatists like Walter Lippman and John Dewey, I focus on a public that is fragmented and contingent but still very much capable of judgment and action. In order to delve deeper into the kinds of situations or events in which these kinds of publics can come-together I find inspiration in the carnivals and feast crowds so eloquently described by Mikhail Bahktin and Elias Canetti, as well as in Bruno Latour’s "parliament of things" or dingpolitik. I follow that discussion with an overview of recent research into the social and cultural aspects of mobile, context-aware and pervasive computing, and I question the senses of 'public' and 'private' at play. More specifically, following Mimi Sheller, I ask what a non-network model of mobility might look like. The kind of fluid and messy picture that emerges ends up pivoting on acts of coupling and decoupling, or gelling and dissolving, multiple publics and privates around shared concerns or difficult issues. The chapter culminates in a discussion of what I call issues-based art and design, or those mobile and context-aware projects in which a 'public' is convened around a set of shared concerns or complex issue that cannot be adequately handled by more traditional means. More specifically, I look at mobile technologies being deployed in the interests of political and economic awareness and action, as well as environmental awareness and sustainability. Assessing the limitations and possibilities of these kinds of technological, artistic and design interventions, I conclude by asking where the most productive potentials for mobile publics can be found, and what it will take to actually mobilise them.

UPDATE 12.03.07

The new issue of Wi: Journal of the Mobile Digital Commons Network is out and it also takes a look at the benefits and challenges of collaborative research and design practice. Good stuff by Yasmin Jiwani, Alison Powell, Andrea Zeffiro & Daviid Gauthier, Kim Sawchuk & Barbara Crow, Michael Longford, and Janice Leung.

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