Thursday, January 3, 2008

PLSJ reader survey

One of the methodological arguments I've made in my dissertation* is that over the past five years this blog has provided me unparalleled means by which to engage people in other places, including outside academia.

I found it relatively easy to describe what I think the blog has offered me, and assess what that might mean for social and cultural research, but I'm not comfortable describing or assessing what the blog has been--or done--for others.

I can't speak for anyone else and standard metrics provided by sites like Technorati or act more like citation indices (not always the best way to measure impact) than the kind of anecdotal conversation that is so often central to blogging practice itself.

Analysing the hundreds of comments that have been posted here is one possibility, but I think there's a simpler and more practical option that I hope that you'll be able to help me out with, please.



Thanks so much for your continued reading, and your participation in this short survey is very much appreciated.

- Anne

* My dissertation will be made available online after it is defended in 2008.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

Collaborative work is hard, and other thoughts on research residencies

When I was invited to be a peer advisor or mentor for a new kind of research residency at the BNMI I was absolutely thrilled at the possibility of exploring research outside of a university setting. At the end of the first week I can definitely say that I'm still excited, but it's also much more difficult than I anticipated.

On a personal level, I find myself wondering if it was an unforgivable kind of arrogance that allowed me to believe that the past ten years of research and five years of teaching hundreds of students from over a dozen different disciplines in the arts and sciences would serve as some sort of preparation. On an institutional level, I find myself wondering if the university really is the only place where people have the desire and opportunity to explore interests that are contrary or irrelevant to their own. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that a research residency modelled on artist residencies is fundamentally different than university or classroom-based research, and probably should not be evaluated by the same criteria.

Unlike my regular working and learning environment, we are here for a short and intense period of time to work specifically on our own projects. We come from incredibly different places and perspectives, and there is no expectation of shared concerns except for at a most general level. We find ourselves in unfamiliar settings, at different stages of research inquiry, and we're often unsure of what we're doing. While I do believe that this is an exceptional collaborative programme and environment, I think it might be more appropriate to say that we are actually working beside each other, rather than with each other.

Of course, I want to be clear that I think the BNMI staff are amazing and the residents are an extremely talented and interesting bunch. It's not other people making it so challenging for me, but rather me struggling to understand my own role here. If these kinds of collaborative research opportunities are to become more common, and still be productive, then I suspect we need to start better preparing ourselves and our students for the challenges we may face outside of our traditional domains.

From what I understand, lots of artists don't want to be researchers, or more precisely, don't want to have to be identified as researchers in order to get respect--and that seems completely reasonable to me. But it is also very difficult to exchange perspectives and skills under these circumstances. How long can an academic speak before they are accused of lecturing? What's the difference between a discussion and a conversation? When does an offer to share become an imposition? At what point does autonomy become offensive, or authority become oppressive? Are inter-personal or cross-cultural differences at play?

To be honest I don't have any answers. Hell, I don't even know if these are good questions. But I am really looking forward to the next three weeks--even if if they end up being some of the most challenging I've experienced.

UPDATE 02.07.07

When it comes to how sociologists understand artistic practice and how artists understand sociological practice, Nina recommends reading:

Howard Becker, Art Worlds (more)
Gary Fine, Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art & the Culture of Authenticity
Alex Coles (ed.), Site-Specificity: The Ethnographic Turn

I've also made a note to check out Alex Coles & Alexia Defert's The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity and Becker's New Directions in the Sociology of Art & Studying New Media

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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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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 Centreís Creative Electronic Environment.

More information and to apply

We're looking forward to hearing from you!

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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 Latourís "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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Saturday, February 10, 2007

In the pipe, amongst other things

Everything below will be posted online as it becomes available.

"Touchpaedia 1.0" - an 'encyclopaedia of touch'

(For Touch.)

"Mobile Publics and Issues-Based Art & Design" - a book chapter that, amongst other things, takes a critical look at what we mean by 'public.'

or Sampling the Spectrum, edited by Barbara Crow, Michael Longford and Kim Sawchuk.)

"Seams and Scars, Or How to Locate Accountability in Collaborative Work" - an essay that, amongst other things, looks for evidence of erasure.

(For Uncommon Ground, edited by Cathy Brickwood and David Garcia.)

"Towards issues-based art and design research" - a presentation on, amongst other things, how to do 'public' research.

(For Mobile Nation Conference, Mar 22-25, 2007.)

"Blogs as Modern Equipment?" - a paper about, amongst other things, methods of anthropological inquiry.

(From dissertation to journal submission.)

"Ubiquitous Computing as Technosocial Research Agenda" - a paper about, amongst other things, how claiming that ubicomp already exists confuses the issues.

(From dissertation to journal submission.)

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