Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ursula Franklin, technoscience and everyday life

This term we're reading Technoscience and Everyday Life, a great little book by Mike Michael. In our first lecture and discussion on Friday, we'll be taking a look at the connections between theories of everyday life and social studies of science and technology.

"As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any activity that does not occur within this house. All are affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house."

- Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, 1989 CBC Massey Lecture Series

Our objective is to begin to identify what constitutes a critical perspective on technoscience and everyday life, and I'm looking forward to introducing students to Ursula Franklin -- scientist, scholar, feminist, pacifist, environmentalist, activist, and one of my heroes.

Believe it or not, it was only in 1984 (at the University of Toronto) that she became the first female in Canada to receive the rank of Professor. Interviewed last year, at age 85, Franklin was asked if people are right to call her a radical, and she responded:

"I hope so. I think a radical means one can look and think without being prejudiced by existing structures, and remove what is unnecessary or atrophied. It’s like getting all the silt out of a spring, so that the water is clear. That’s not a bad thing to do."


Related posts: An Extraordinary Mind (26.01.03)

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good times Mtl: decrepitude, location, selfhood, prosthetics, interfaces, postphenomenology, quantum physics and things going on this week

We went to Montréal by VIA 1 - my favourite way to travel but I still think wi-fi should be included in the ticket price. First, we managed to catch the CCA between exhibitions, which was a bit of a drag but there were some really lovely photos by Naoya Hatakeyama of architectural models of New York City and Tokyo. The exhibition was supposed to be about scale, but I was more taken by how old, decaying models can so realistically convey a sense of contemporary urban decrepitude. It made me think about the beauty of lo-fi prototypes.

The 4S conference was not what I expected, or rather it was more conservative than I had hoped. For the first time in a long time I had the sinking feeling that sociology was lagging behind social change.

However, I did hear some good talks the first day: in a session on Web 2.0, I was impressed by how people were attempting to explain post-panoptic surveillance using phrases like "participatory-surveillance" and "lateral-surveillance." But the best question I heard on all this was "Now really, isn't this just phatic communication?" (Remembering that networked phatic communication is more than just "ambient intimacy" or "co-presence" because it always already involves speech acts, and thus does things.) In discussion, it was asserted that Web 2.0 is about assemblages and everyday life, so old skool cyberspace and cyberculture studies seem to miss the point. It's not about individual sites, but the relationships between different sites. We need to ask why del.icio.us? and why/not flickr? or why/not jaiku? Just like television is about the entire schedule - the flow of shows, commercials, teasers, etc. - and not just individual shows.

I met Ingrid Erickson (scroll down a bit to find her), who's interested in the implications of ubiquitous computing on social practices, space and place, and is currently studying "the use of geotags in Flickr and mobile presence indicators in Jaiku." If you do either of those things and would like to participate in her doctoral project, just send her an email. What I appreciated the most about her presentation was her insistence that (online) presentations of self be understood not just in terms of identities, but also in terms of activities, locations and connections. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but think of how often you hear about social networking sites as vehicles for identity-management? Or in terms of presentation of self (which at least considers identity and activity, if not also connections)? The locative aspect is really important - not because we're finally merging the physical and the digital, but because spatiality and temporality have always been crucial to social and cultural interaction.

Cynthia Schairer also gave an intriguing talk on prosthetics. Citing disability studies instead of cultural theory, she first cautioned against fetishising or romanticising prosthetics. I took this is an omen, as I had actually come to hear her talk because I like to imagine that I wouldn't mind being rebuilt like the Bionic Woman. But the important bit is that she argued against envisioning prosthetics as extensions of the self, and instead repositioned them as interfaces between the body/self and the world. By focussing on how a prosthesis can create a whole social body, we erase the physical body's work and pain. (Those sexy cheetah legs require gaining a huge amount of hip and thigh strength and relearning one's sense of balance because of differences in bipedal and quadripedal locomotion, and all prosthetics run the risk of chafing and infection.) Instead, she argued, we need to attend to the kinds of "tenuous and incomplete connections" at hand. Anyone interested in mobile, wearable or embedded technologies might learn something valuable from this position: a focus on prosthetic technologies as interfaces rather than extensions brings into high relief matters of infrastructure and issues of access and use, and highlights techno-social fragilities that challenge technologically deterministic perspectives.

On day 2, I made it to Peter-Paul Verbeek's presentation on bringing Don Idhe's postphenomenology and Latour's actor-network theory together, as he argued in his book What Things Do. I like his ideas about technological mediation, but can't quite manage to sign up for Idhe's perspective that holds it all together. I really do favour the kind of radical empiricism that Latour advocates, with its focus on (externalist) action and descriptive methods rather than (internalist) perception and normative interpretation.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 'Translating Latour' session I was starting to feel ill enough to go back to where I was staying and rest a bit. Unfortunately, I just kept feeling worse and worse and eventually decided to return to Ottawa. That means I missed the rest of the conference and spent the weekend in bed, which was definitely not what I had planned. (I also didn't expect to run into a student doing her observation assignment at the train station, but that's another story.) In any case, other highlights of my truncated trip included meeting Marguerite Bromley - who kindly took us through XS Lab's recent e-textile projects - and catching up with Joey and Chris Salter.

Joey also introduced me to Barry Sanders, Director of the Institute for Quantum Information Science at the University of Calgary, who was at the conference checking out what the social scientists were saying about the scientists. I thought his suggestion that there should be someone there studying the people who study people was wonderful, and we talked a lot about emerging technologies and how future-oriented technology visions are instrumental in positioning current research. I've taken up the connection between actual and imagined techno-social spaces in my dissertation, as well as in an article that's currently under review, so stay tuned for more on that! Barry also introduced me to all sorts of things about physics culture, including entire journals dedicated to the problem of instrumentation and the ability to formally appeal publication rejections. In return, all I could offer was the suggestion that he might enjoy classic lab studies like Sharon Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes and Karin Knorr Cetina's Epistemic Cultures. But I can't wait to visit his lab the next time I'm out west!

So, good times - and if I were still in town this is where you'd find me over the next few days:

Tonight, STUDIO XX - Feminist art centre for technological exploration, creation, and critique - is celebrating their 10th anniversary with "the release of xxxboîte, a collection of critical writing and a DVD compilation of works celebrating the last 10 years of Montreal’s own new media and network arts centre for women." Bonne fête et félicitations!

Kick off the 2007 HTMlles festival with a toast to the community that made it all happen. New texts from one of the four founding mothers, Kim Sawchuk, as well as extraordinary artists, Anna Friz, J.R. Carpenter, Michelle Kasprzak, and Marie-Christine Mathieu, and a DVD compilation that is part humourous, part touching, and all guerilla girl action - a true portrait of Studio XX!

HTMlles8 - "The festival's eighth edition investigates social, political, territorial, personal, and conceptual mobility. Occurrences and exclusions, detours and thorough-fares, in as much as parameters and expansions define the movement of ideas and people. This year's artists explore this theme in the context of the body, the environment, urban and cultural landscapes, social-political ecologies and barriers, as well as measures and tools of both control and renewed autonomy in an increasingly advanced technological world."

Ayesha Hameed, one of this summer's BNMI Reference Check residents, has co-authored a paper with Leila Pourtavaf - Border Controls / Border Movements - and she'll have a video installation up as well.

And as if that's not enough...



Drawn & Quarterly is one of my favourite comics publishers, and their good-looking new store launch party is this Friday night. I'd go just to see if Julie Doucet is there. She's fucking brilliant. Oh, and to pick up some new comics of course.

À la prochaine...

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Society for Social Studies of Science (and a side of soft computing)

Things will be quiet around here for the next few weeks as I work madly to meet some journal and university deadlines, but I still need to migrate Space and Culture to wordpress so updates on that end are more likely. (I also still keep track of everyday life at plsj.tumblr.com.)

Thanksgiving this year falls near peak harvest time (sweet!) and we've got a visit with much-loved friends from London that will involve us traipsing all over the Gatineau Hills and Ottawa Valley before hopping on the train to Montréal.

I'll be in town for the 4S Annual Meeting, which takes place October 11-13th. If you're in Montréal then too, please give me a shout!

This will be my first 4S meeting and I'm really interested in getting a sense of the research culture. Like many professional organisations, they offer a mentoring programme that sounds like a great idea. But I keep seeing the "senior/junior scholar" distinction made, and I start to get uncomfortable. If we only exist in hierarchical relation to each other, does mentoring encourage only one-way (i.e. top-down) exchange? And how does such an organised programme differ from simply introducing oneself and having a conversation?

But mostly I mean research culture in terms of kinds of research. Epistemology geeks (including me) must be excited by the "Ways of Knowing" conference theme, which led to a stunning array of interesting topics in something like a dozen concurrent sessions. Overwhelming to say the least, but I'll do my best to blog what I see, hear and do while I'm there.

I'm also looking forward to staying with my friend Joey Berzowska, who has agreed to me interviewing her for an upcoming issue of Bitch Magazine. We'll be talking about her latest project, SKORPIONS, the intersections of technology, fashion and social critique, and what it's been like working in the male-dominated field of wearable computing. Stay tuned!

P.S. I'm looking forward to the conference and I'm happy to be a 4S member, but I gotta say that their website generally sucks and the meeting section is just painful. I mean, seriously, who thought it was a good idea to make the only version of the programme a 119-page pdf? Would it have killed the designer to create a simple html version that could give me, at a glance, a decent sense of what I can expect? And don't get me started about the registration process. Sheesh. It's all the more incomprehensible, and embarrassing, because these folks supposedly exist to foster social understandings of science and technology. Then again, maybe it's just part of the general suckiness of academic websites. University sites are often pretty good, but check out individual academics and research initiatives and you'll see what I mean.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Regulating new (mobile) media in Canada?

What: CRTC Public Hearing
When: Monday 17 September 2007 at 9 am
Where: Conference Centre, Phase IV, 140 Promenade du Portage, Gatineau, Québec

As the Americans make their move on net neutrality, in just over a week the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will begin the public hearing to review its "approach to ownership consolidation and other issues related to the diversity of voices in Canada".

While I find many of the related issues interesting and important, I'll be there because the CRTC "has never [before] assessed whether policies need to be in place with respect to the ownership of new media undertakings in order to ensure an appropriate diversity of voices on these important new platforms." In other words, this will be the first time that the government looks specifically at regulating new media and I want to be there.

I definitely care how the CRTC tackles the matters of net neutrality, cultural plurality, public broadcasting and how technology policy is always already cultural policy, but my current research means I'll also be paying close attention to all things mobile. Major funders for new mobile media research and development in Canada include Canadian Heritage's Canadian Culture Online programme, the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund and smaller programmes like the NFB's mobiDOCS initiative, so I expect they'll have reps there. I also hope to see some of the folks from OCAD's Mobile Experience Lab and the various Mobile Digital Commons Network projects too. But mostly, I'm curious to see if there are any private citizen concerns.

And since I've recently been writing about the differences between mobile media and wireless technologies (like the new smart meter just installed in our house), I'm also interested in seeing how these concerns play out in relation to the Broadcasting Act's mandate that the Canadian broadcasting system "should be regulated and supervised in a flexible manner that is readily adaptable to scientific and technological change [and] does not inhibit the development of information technologies and their application or the delivery of resultant services to Canadians."

Stay tuned for more after the 17th!

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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 1, 2007

Just some thoughts on breaching & bodies

One of my favourite academic journals is Body & Society, which gives great coverage to feminist concerns around biotechnology, supports my longstanding intellectual fascination with inter-sexuality and trans-sexuality, and generally keeps me questioning the boundaries of the flesh and how we treat bodies.

So when I read CASPIAN's "anti-chipping bill," a.k.a. Bodily Integrity Act, I was immediately impressed by their desire to take what is normally presented as a (purely, simply) technological issue and reframe it as a matter of breaching bodily boundaries and threatening our very wholeness and virtue as people, as human-beings.



How exciting! This question of bodily integrity provides some of the most creatively and critically engaged class discussions I experience with students each year. Normally I shy away from the claim that Art acts as a (superior?) boundary object in collaborative research projects, but it does seem to act as some sort of prosthetic in a pedagogical setting. When I've had students from more than a dozen disciplines across the arts and sciences, it's been critical art projects by the likes of Stelarc, the Biojewellery folks, Creative Art Ensemble and SymbioticA that have provided us with anchors and pivots. I think that our very best learning moments have been a lot like how Canetti describes feasts in Crowds and Power:

"There is more of everything than everyone together can consume and, in order to consume it, more and more people come streaming in. As long as there is anything there they partake of it, it looks as though there would be no end to it [...] There is no common identical goal which people have to try and attain together. The feast is the goal and they are there [...] People move to and fro, not in one direction only. The things which are piled up, and of which everyone partakes, are a very important part of the density; they are its core. They were gathered together first, and only when they were all there did people gather round them..." (Canetti 1998 [1960]:62).

We gather 'round art projects (and government policies, technological devices, etc.) and debate if and how the body is sacred, what it means to be alive or dead, at what point humans become machines and vice versa, how much tinkering with 'nature' is too much, etc. And then students actually go out and do/say/think something differently. It's quite good.

Anyway, back to CASPIAN and their protests against implanting people with RFID tags. Notice how they support existing markers like Medic Alert bracelets, and accept the tagging of pets precisely because they're not people. They clearly accept that information should be bound to certain humans and non-humans, but they want to be clear that these markers or tags should not breach the flesh. More specifically, they want to make sure that RFID tags can't be implanted in someone without their informed and written consent. In other words, No Forced Chipping! (Apparently there were some US politicians suggesting that prisoners could be exempt from this right, but that didn't really go over well.)

Now, I've often wondered why RFID manufacturers don't simply avoid this whole issue by keeping their implantable tags for livestock and domestic animals and making attachable/removable RFID for people. I mean, I highly doubt that they're interested in challenging the widely-held belief that people are special (different from animals, more important than animals even) so why don't they just make special RFID for people? Then we can all get on to the pressing matter of which people should and should not be tracked and why or why not.

I mean, until I know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with my child or senile parent having disappeared, I won't say that it's always a bad idea to keep track of people. What I want to talk about is all the different ways we can keep track, and what they mean more broadly. For example, what if it does become "much cheaper to dump a lot of old people in a large hospital, where they could be cared for by machines"? Is this just a slippery slope argument? And even if it is does that mean we ought to ignore it?

But this matter of breaching is even more interesting to me because I think it has incredibly far-reaching consequences. It shows us where boundaries have been and it helps us define new ones. I also know that the actual act of breaching is highly contingent upon who does the breaching. For example, I'm pretty amazed that, for legal purposes, the body is differentiated by region and the crime depends on whether or not the bodily violation is surface-related or penetrative. And when there is penetration it gets ranked; some orifices score higher than others, and creating new orifices is another category of violation entirely. All of this is further complicated by the matter of consent; some breaches are acceptable if both the breach-er and breach-ee agree, others don't require mutual consent and in some cases the act is prohibited even if people consent. And just to make things even more complex, there's the issue of different cultures and different people having different boundaries. Just think "circumcision ritual" versus "genital mutilation." Or consider the aesthetics of this awarding-winning PS2 print advert, "Scars" :



Their "Plugs" and "Moulds" ads also reconfigure human bodies in interesting ways that question not just the integrity of our flesh but also of our selves :

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

"So. Anne. When are you going to be done your dissertation?"

Darwin 'was committed to publish'
"A Cambridge historian with access to Darwin's papers says there is simply no evidence to show the naturalist held back his evolution theory. Dr John van Wyhe says the scientist was just busy with other writings and also sporadically hindered by ill-health. 'If you read his letters from the 'gap years', as I call them, there are many references to his friends and relatives about what he intends to do with his theory - and that is to publish once he has finished his other work,' Dr van Wyhe told BBC News. 'The problem was that 'other work' took him far longer than he expected'."

Charles Darwin by Stephen Alcorn

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Research that makes people laugh and then think

"Humor is intrinsically a risky business, since it succeeds only if those present respond in the desired way. In mixed groups where some people are highly vulnerable in various ways and others are extremely secure, it is not an accident that humor tends to be initiated by the secure. It is also not an accident that the readiness of others to become secondary agents increases in proportion to the security and power of the joke's initiator ... If all the people involved are peers, then much of the moral danger involved in acts of humor is avoided. This is not because nothing can go wrong, but because if it does, there is some chance of a direct response. The situation is quite different if the people involved are non-peers." (Harvey, J. 1995. "Humor as social act: Ethical issues." The Journal of Value Inquiry 29:19-30.)

Tomorrow in class we'll be discussing the role of humour in science and technology, and the possibilities of humour as social and cultural critique.

Using the Ig Nobel Prizes and one of my favourite blogs - Improbable Research: Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK - as case studies, we'll be talking about humour, power and exactly what it is that people can laugh at and think about in these scenarios.

What about science and technology makes you giggle - or laugh so hard you snort liquid out your nose? And what do you think after that?

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