Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mai 68 : une révolution sociale

NY Times photo essay: Paris, May 1968

IHT: May 1968 - a watershed in French life
Reuters: Forty years on, France still fascinated by May 1968

And let's not forget that today is International Worker's Day.

The Brief Origins of May Day: "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Computing culture at Georgia Tech

Back from a lush, if a bit too warm for my post-winter constitution, Atlanta, I'll cover my talk in a separate post--but first I want to talk about the amazing grad students I met. They appear to work in a much more driven and stream-lined university environment than mine, and while I have some reservations about this educational model, there's no doubt that good people are getting some good work done there.

[Campus sculpture photo by highstrungloner]

It was really good to see Susan Wyche again, and if you're not familiar with her doctoral research on technology and spirituality in cross-cultural context then I highly recommend it. I wish I had more time to talk with Chris Le Dantec, a doctoral student "researching the social impact of technology, specifically looking at how marginalized communities like the homeless are affected by the social changes inherent in the adoption of new technologies." His work with Keith Edwards, Designs on Dignity: Perceptions of Technology Among the Homeless (pdf), was recently awarded best paper at CHI 2008, and it's well worth reading. Normally, value-sensitive design (pdf) makes me a bit nervous because of its tendency to reinforce universal humanism, but their paper really emphasises the importance of creating context-sensitive information and they fully recognise that technology is not a panacea for social problems. Furthermore, the paper raises important concerns about connection versus disconnection, since "the need to stay connected to the rest of society is a major concern for the homeless, yet as those connections become increasingly mediated by technology, the risk of losing touch becomes greater."

All of this reminds me of my conversations with Carl DiSalvo. I first met Carl when he was a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon, and now he's Assistant Professor at GA Tech. We continue to share an interest in activist research: This visit I pointed him to work in activist anthropology and he pointed me to a new book, Engaging Contradictions: The Case for Activist Research (pdf here), that looks quite interesting. We also share a commitment to designing with and for emergent publics-in-particular, rather than pre-existing publics-in-general, although I wish we had more time to talk about the limitations of defining citizenship along the lines of what can be gathered by individuals through sensing technologies.

I also had a great conversation with Jasper Sluijs, who finished an MA in cultural studies before starting his MS in Digital Media at Georgia Tech. We talked about Deleuze and Brian Massumi's work on affect, and the politics of using 'official' data in personal informatics and data visualisation projects. When faced with 'facts' it's very difficult to intervene as citizens because the matters at hand appear done or closed, while a focus on unresolved concerns still offers the possibility of action and hope for change. For example, rather than presenting crime statistics or environmental data as objective truths, it would be interesting to explore how these data are collected in the first place, or how different types of data could be collected. Not only does this encourage more actionable research and design projects, but it makes explicit the politics and ethics of their underlying logics and practices.

Jasper collaborated on Greetings from Atlanta!, an interactive postcard and short paper on re-appropriating the city (pdf), and I
also briefly met Adam Rice, another Masters student and part of the team that worked on the Imaging Atlanta: Transportation project. A visual exploration of transportation "not in motion," the panoramic photos and descriptions of Atlanta transport scenes "allow us to view and consider our movement through space and perhaps more importantly, to devote pondering attention to the spaces we move through, but often fail to see."

And last, but certainly not least, Ozge Samanci was kind enough to demo Tangible Comics for me, and I was really impressed by her enthusiasm for exploring the boundaries of comic book form. Not only is their embodied comics storyline fun (and feminist!) but it was wonderful to actually feel my body moving through a graphical narrative. Ozge's personal comics are also lovely representations of ordinary things and everyday life. (I submitted a link to Drawn! and I hope her work gets some more exposure there.)

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Intensities and multitudes

Pieter Bruegel
The Fall of the Rebel Angels

"In Bruegel's rendering, the violence is expressed not in the bitter nature of the battle--indeed St Michael and his sparse troops do not appear particularly threatened by the demons--but by the intensity of the fall--infernal and endless--of this crawling, hideous multitude that invades the entire surface of the picture, in a remarkable unity of action which increases its impact."

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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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Friday, February 8, 2008

Pragmatist politics

"The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse."

- Slavoj Zizek


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contrapower harassment in academia

This afternoon I was talking with a colleague about a problem in academic work that rarely gets discussed: the personal harassment of professors and teaching assistants by students. Now, I think it's a difficult topic to broach for two related reasons: "personal harassment" is difficult to define, and what definitions we do have of harassment are often predicated on the assumption that 'superiors' cannot be harassed by subordinates or 'inferiors.' In other words, despite disagreement on what actions or events actually constitute harassment, in academia it is almost always considered an abuse of power. This means that if an instructor claims he has been personally harassed by a student people respond with vague suspicion and questions like "Doesn't a student have to have power to do that?" - or with vague mockery and questions like "How can a professor lack the power to stop it?"

But isn't power more complex than that?

When I got home I looked up Carleton's Discrimination and Harassment Policies and found that, like most workplaces in Canada, they only address human rights violations.

"The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits harassment related to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability, pardoned conviction, or sexual orientation. Disrespectful behaviour, commonly known as 'personal' harassment is not covered by human rights legislation. While it also involves unwelcome behaviour that demeans or embarrasses an employee, the behaviour is not based on one of the prohibited grounds named above."

Most research describes personal harassment as workplace bullying, and "disrespectful behaviour" may just be a polite Canadian way to describe the assholes we all work with. But did you know that workplace bullying is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment, and that less than 15% of workplace bullies are punished? More insidious still may be the psychological or emotional effect over time. As Robert Sutton explains, one of the main problems with workplace (and I'd say all) bullies is that "their uncivilized interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions — five times the punch, according to recent research ... It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole." In other words, it's hard to do good work in a hostile environment.

Returning to the university context, workplace harassment is possible between colleagues, and between faculty or staff and students. Student harassment of professors, or any harassment by subordinates, has been referred to by researchers as contrapower harassment. Apparently it happens most often to women, even more often to women of colour, and it is not only males who do the harassing. Matters of age and class only compound these issues, not least because they increase the number of socially and professionally subordinate positions that can be used to encourage or justify harassment. While sexual harassment garners the most attention, most contrapower harassment occurs in more subtle ways--it can include everything from being consistently dismissed or ignored to verbal abuse and overt threats. At the institutional level, anonymous teaching evaluations regularly provide students the opportunity to make accusations that have real (i.e. professional) impact but that never need to be supported, and cannot be verified. Private meetings also offer students the opportunity to say and do things that can easily be denied.

My own experiences of contrapower harassment at Carleton have ranged from (rare) sexual advances by male students to (quite common) encounters with hostile students, both female and male. In fact, I have never returned marked assignments without at least one student becoming so agitated that I have had to end the conversation. I've had students here crumple up their paper and throw it at me, yell at me, call me a bitch, accuse me of setting them up to fail, and threaten to report me to the chair or dean. But most simply demanded, not requested, better marks--as if good grades are a right and not something that is earned--and then became aggressive when I did not accommodate them.

Are these students assholes, mean or just lacking maturity? Are these behaviours part of Carleton students' habitus--and if so, what is it about the structure of education here that encourages these attitudes? If it isn't just a problem here, but also at other universities, then is it a problem with higher education or is it better connected to broader societal shifts?

Update 30.01.08: Since posting this, I've received over a dozen email about this problem from faculty across North America - including stories that make my experiences pale. Ed Bilodeau's thoughtful blog response takes a closer look at why the problem persists, including an unwillingness or inability to discuss the issues publicly. I can certainly appreciate this, but I also try to remember that silence begets approval.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Blogging as affective politics

Melissa Gregg's discussions of intellectual labour and the politics of academic speech have made a valuable contribution to my dissertation's discussion of blogging. In particular, her 2006 book Cultural Studies' Affective Voices "draws attention to the significance of individual writers' voices in maintaining commitment to scholarly life" and she brings this perspective to bear on PhD and junior faculty blogs in her articles Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship and Banal bohemia: Blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk (Draft).

Her basic argument about early career blogging is quite elegant:

"The participatory nature of writing, response and counter-argument on blogs allows for ongoing debate, critical refinement and thinking-in-process. In this sense, what is rarely acknowledged about blogging is how much it contributes to and mirrors traditional scholarly practice rather than threatening it. One of the main reasons graduate students have taken them up with such fervour is that blogs offer solidarity out of isolation, especially on long projects. They create the conditions for collegiality, brainstorming and frank, fast feedback while also generating and maintaining interest, enthusiasm and motivation. Even the best supervision in the most convivial university department cannot offer this kind of support on a regular basis. The persistence with which established academics condemn blogging as a distraction preventing graduate students from timely completion and participation in their desired career does a disservice to the many instances whereby blogs are utilized as a sophisticated research tool. It also wilfully ignores the wider economic and political circumstances making the potential for a tenured academic career increasingly unlikely for a new generation of graduates.


Blogs are a modest political tool in that they can help overturn the hierarchies of speech traditionally securing academic privilege … Blogs allow us to write in conjunction with non-academic ‘peers’ and ‘colleagues’ who not only value and improve our ideas but practice their own rigorous forms of assessment, critique and review. Blogs are counter-heroic in that they expose the life of the academic as banal. They help lay bare the fallacy of the ivory tower scholar secluded from the concerns of the ‘real world’" (Gregg 2006:153-158).


"For those entering the academy today, the natural order of succession and class reproduction that once applied to their vocation is changing at a macro level. Diminished opportunities for tenure and the casualisation of the academic workforce pose fundamental problems for the model of patronage and initiation that typified the profession earlier.


That those in tenured positions did little to resist casualisation or the increasingly gruelling requirements for tenure are simmering tensions on many junior faculty blogs. However accurate, this is a genuinely felt generational grievance that spreads beyond the blogosphere. It is directed towards senior scholars who are perceived to have had a less brutal experience of professional advancement and failed to protect this possibility for others.


Through blogging, early career academics are making this unpalatable condition public. They reveal a fast receding loyalty to the promise that the university life was supposed to offer but does not deliver. Having grown up unable to ignore the realities of economic rationalism on their employment fortunes, these bloggers’ experiences of becoming professional differ from their predecessors ... This newly marginalised middle-class professoriat blogs to gain support for work and life choices that they feel have been constrained by wider social pressures; they write to retain a degree of credibility from a sympathetic audience.


By virtue of their positions, junior faculty and PhD bloggers are structurally prevented from influencing many of the decisions immediately affecting their work lives. In this situation, their readership communities offer a form of solace and support as they struggle up the career ladder, while the blogs themselves provide resources for others considering a similar move" (Gregg 2007:29-31).

And for more on academic or research blogging, don't miss Jill Walker's Blogging from inside the ivory tower.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

No uncertain terms. All uncertain terms.

Clive Thompson - Why Science Will Triumph Only When Theory Becomes Law

"Turns out, the real culture war in science isn't about science at all — it's about language. And to fight this war, we need to change the way we talk about scientific knowledge ... It's time to realize that we're simply never going to school enough of the public in the precise scientific meaning of particular words. We're never going to fully communicate what's beautiful and noble about scientific caution and rigor. Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle — in no uncertain terms."

In this short article, Thompson talks about how the deliberately nuanced and tentative language of science is exploited by creationists and others who take advantage of the vernacular sense of theory, as in "Oh, so that's just your theory, not a fact!" Although he seems to have little faith in the public, he recognises connections between language and power, and in the process touches on important critiques of hyper-relativist social constructionism, as well as much older questions about truth, including the possibility of codifying it. I've heard it explained that people become desperate for certainty in times of uncertainty. And as much as I disagree with creationists, I can't help but think Thompson's plan would come back to seriously bite us on the ass.

Update 16.11.07 - In the comments Nick left a link to a Guardian story about Steve Fuller, who I think is a super interesting sociologist. Check out his take on ID, and the explicit attention given to authority and power.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Observation # 457

It is only with artists that I become a scientist.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Assembly of First Nations - National Day of Action

Friday, May 25, 2007

"[W]e need many different prostheses..."

"Instead of the radiant citizen standing up and speaking his mind by using his solid common sense, as in Rockwell's famous painting 'Freedom of Speech', should we not look for an eloquence much more indirect, distorted, inconclusive? In this show, we want to tackle the question of politics from the point of view of our own weaknesses instead of projecting them first onto the politicians themselves. We could say that the blind lead the blind, the deaf speak eloquently to the deaf, the crippled are leading marches of dwarfs, or rather, to avoid those biased words, let's say that we are all politically-challenged. How would it look if we were chanting this more radical and surely more realistic slogan: 'Handicapped persons of all nations, unite!'?


If we are all handicapped, or rather politically-challenged, we need many different prostheses. Each object exhibited in the show and commented in the catalogue is such a crutch. We promise nothing more grandiose than a store of aids for the invalids who have been repatriated from the political frontlines —and haven't we all been badly mauled in recent years? Politics might be better taken as a branch of disability studies."

- Bruno Latour, From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik (Introduction to Making Things Public)

(Late 16th century prosthetics by Ambroise Paré, via BibliOdyssey)

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Shepherding the politics of pervasive computing, Part I

The idea that ubicomp would first be picked up - mobilised - by people who value security and convenience has been argued by myself and other academics for years now, although Adam Greenfield has arguably done the best job articulating this in a systematic and accessible way for non-academics. In his article Policing the Convergence of Virtual and Material Worlds, Dion Dennis further fleshes this out when he identifies, following Foucault, an "economic pastorate" or shepherding function for pervasive computing:

"These devices produce continuous technological grist for the shepherd/police. But the shepherd is no longer a deity, a titular head of a church, a teacher or a priest. In a prototypical 'post-human' moment, the shepherd-function has routinely become the task of the mobile digital machinery ... [T]he result of active and formal corporate and governmental 'securitization' initiatives often restructure (and reduce) the creativity and scope of the public commons for purposes of capital extraction and, through an ersatz moral discourse, to tie such extraction to an expansion of political and social control ... As with the criminalization of drugs a generation earlier, economically incentivized political moralists assume the role of shepherds, busily 'selling' a redefinition of the boundaries between the tolerated and intolerable."

I find that last statement to be particularly intriguing because it explicitly ties shepherding to moralising, and I have a decided interest in challenging top-down morals with bottom-up ethics or ethos. More specifically, I've become increasingly concerned with actual strategies and tactics used to promote political action in this arena.

Put otherwise, I think that the shepherding role is not just the formal domain of economic and political elites that Dennis identifies, but also the more informal domain of today's critics of pervasive computing. The pressing problem at hand, as I see it, is that we're not being any less moralising.

In my next post I'll unpack that last claim using examples from a recent presentation I gave, the different responses it inspired, and how I'd like to proceed in doing technosocial critique.

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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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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Passion and longing

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