experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

Introducing the More-Than-Human Lab

After five years of research and teaching, the Design Culture Lab has been retired and I’m excited to announce my new adventure: the More-Than-Human Lab.

This site will soon redirect to the new one, and I’ve exported all of the old blog posts so that the archive lives there. I’m also working on getting all of our project documentation online, but for now you can read a little about who we are and what we do.

Tomorrow is the first day of our fall trimester, and I’ll be recruiting new Master’s students into the More-Than-Human Lab research stream — so this week you can expect to hear a bit about that, as well as details on our current research projects, and some upcoming workshops and conferences.

Thanks to everyone who has come this far with me, and I hope you’ll visit the new site to see what happens next.

– Anne

PS. This tumblr is where I keep my lab notes, and I can still be found on Twitter

Posted: March 1st, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Announcements | 2 Comments »

Hacked!

The site has been hacked and not everything is accessible at the moment, but I’m working on it.

Thanks for your patience.

Posted: November 11th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Announcements | 1 Comment »

Three Uncertain Thoughts, Or, Everything I Know I Learned from Ursula Le Guin

This text was prepared as an invocation for an upcoming RMIT Design + Ethnography + Futures workshop on “uncertainty as an intrinsic part of future-making.” (Links added.)

One.

In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin writes, “The unknown, […] the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action . . . [T]he only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”

If the only certainty is death, then to deny uncertainty is to deny life.

My work (creative? social science?) is vital not in the sense of being necessary or essential, but energetic, lively, uncertain. In a short 2006 piece in Theory, Culture & Society, Scott Lash argues that the classical concept of vitalism has re-emerged in the face of global complexity and uncertainty, manifesting itself in cultural theory that acknowledges that “the notion of life has always favoured an idea of becoming over one of being, of movement over stasis, of action over structure, of flow and flux.”

In my research I take seriously the idea that what I am seeing, doing and making is emergent; I cannot know how — when, where, for whom or why — it will all end. I can only live with, and through, it. This means I do not want to convince others that I am right. (Have you ever noticed that Le Guin’s stories unfailingly explore ethics and morality without dealing in absolutes?)

I only — as if this were a small thing! — invite you to accompany me for a while, and see what we can become together. This is just — as if this too were a small thing! — one way of knowing the world.

Two.

In a 2014 interview for Smithsonian Magazine, Le Guin explains that the future is where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native. [It] is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”

My work makes things, and explicitly makes things up, in some near or far future. I practice different worlds.

Fictions and futures give me (you? us?) space to move, and be moved. This is the space of utopia, but not an idealist utopia set against a pessimist dystopia. Fictions and futures are literally no-places: real but not actual, and always vital. I feel as though I thrive in these spaces, both grounded and reaching toward the sky, open to the elements, potential.

But here’s something I’ve learned: I can’t make up anything and expect it to work. The stories need to resonate. And that means they need to be internally coherent and consistent, plausible. So I locate others and myself empirically, ethnographically. I look to the hopes and promises that bind us together, to the threats that rip us apart, and I look to the expectations that constrain and orient us along particular, but not certain, paths.

And then I imagine it (me, you, us) otherwise.

Three.

In her 2007 essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” Le Guin clarifies “although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important.”

My imagination has sought out this vital, “green country of fantasy” by focussing on possible futures for multispecies, more-than-human, agents. But I’ve yet to be successful in my quest to avoid anthropocentrism. (My dragons remain stubbornly human!)

Still: I follow Donna Haraway’s argument, in 2007’s When Species Meet, that “animals enrich our ignorance.” When I look at people and technology and design and everyday life with — and through — animals I am never more uncertain about what they all mean. To take animals (and other nonhumans) seriously forces me to let go of many preconceptions, even when I fail to imagine a plausible alternative.

But perhaps that uncertainty is only appropriate, too.

Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

More-Than-Human Design Research: Call for postgraduate applications

The VUW School of Design More-Than-Human Design Research Lab seeks postgraduate students who:

  • are critical, creative, and highly motivated;
  • want to better understand technosocial values and practices;
  • are concerned about the future of our planet;
  • care about animals, plants, and the land;
  • are interested in collaborating with social scientists, biological and materials scientists, engineers and technologists;
  • want to work with local communities and public organisations.

BACKGROUND

The World Wildlife Fund and other scientists recently reported that the Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past forty years, and researchers across disciplines refer to our current era as the Anthropocene: a period of unprecedented human influence on the planet and its resources. Natural resource management and contemporary climate change are arguably the most pressing political, economic, ethical, and environmental challenges facing humanity—and we need new ways of thinking, making, and doing things with (not to) the nonhuman world. The More-Than-Human Design Research Lab explicitly addresses these issues and concerns by dedicating itself to the development and assessment of new empirically-grounded theoretical models and creative research methods.

After decades of object or technology-centred design practices, human-centred approaches now dominate the discipline. This shift to better support people’s needs and values provided a much required corrective, however it has arguably resulted in an opposite, but similar, imbalance. More-than-human design acknowledges the deep interconnectedness of social, biological, and material life–focussing on relations between humans and nonhumans.

Anthropologists, cultural geographers, and sociologists of science and technology have long focussed their attention on holistic or ecological ways of understanding interactions between people, places, objects, and ideas. Well-established, and continuously evolving, theoretical frameworks and research methods have tackled the question of how people shape, and are shaped by, their relations with nonhuman animals, plants, materials and artefacts.

This kind of thinking also recently found its way into technology design with the challenge to take nonhuman animals more seriously, and the formation of a standing Animal-Computer Interaction Special Interest Group (SIG). However, it is also true that technologists and product designers have long been part of environmental research and resource management. A more-than-human design focus brings people back into these equations without losing the focus on animals, plants, and other materials.

The More-Than-Human Design Research Lab aims to:

  • determine and describe how design theory and practice can move beyond the product or the human to more explicitly address the relations and interactions between social and material worlds;
  • identify, compare and contrast strategies for design to actively support, and participate in, activities for public engagement with science and technology.

To accomplish these aims, we have two primary research objectives:

  • develop and assess combined empirical and creative research methods;
  • create and integrate specific designs into broader academic, government, industry, and community-based initiatives in environmental stewardship and resource management.

And the following postgraduate teaching and learning objectives:

  • recognise how cultural values and technoscientific knowledge shape our understandings of, and interactions with, the natural world;
  • identify and differentiate the roles of culture, science, technology, and design in environmental stewardship and resource management;
  • design visual, object and/or service-based responses to cultural, technoscientific and/or environmental issues;
  • assess the relevance of design choices and analyse their impact;
  • communicate effectively both verbally and in writing.

Recent and upcoming projects led by Dr Anne Galloway include meat and wool in an Internet of Things, public controversies surrounding native wildlife conservation and cats, and the use of UAVs (drones) in livestock management. The research and design skills needed to work on these projects range from biological and environmental sciences, ethnography and speculative design, to coding for identification, location and sensor technologies, data analysis and visualisation, video production and post-production, and web design.

Paid research assistantships for 2014-2015 are available on a competitive basis, and the following list is indicative of the range of methods and tools needed to accomplish our objectives, working in collaboration with Prof Winston Seah (VUW Engineering & Computer Science):

  • qualitative methods (including ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, analysis & writing)
  • video production & post-production (including GoPro HD cameras)
  • physical computing (including RFID, GPS, UAVs, microcontrollers & sensors)
  • data analysis & visualisation
  • web & mobile media design

Applicants are also highly encouraged to propose any and all interesting projects related to human-animal-machine ecologies and/or how design can help bring humans and nonhumans together in environmental stewardship and resource management.

PROGRAMME DETAILS & DEADLINES

Master of Design — applications accepted year-round

Doctor of Philosophy — applications due 1 March, 1 July, and 1 November

For those applying from outside NZ, here is some helpful information on student visas.

WHY VUW & WELLINGTON?

This is a great place to live and grow your career!

You’ll be surrounded by exciting research and have access to excellent facilities.

Good scholarships are available on a competitive basis, and the School of Design offers additional teaching and research opportunities.

Wellington is awesome.

If you have any questions about postgraduate studies with the More-Than-Human Design Research Lab, please contact Dr Anne Galloway (anne.galloway AT vuw.ac.nz).

Posted: October 6th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs | No Comments »

Who owns the monkey selfie?

Macaque selfie

All of my students from the past few years will recognise this macacque selfie because I use it in my intro lectures and, frankly, pull it out every chance I get simply because I love it. But fellow explorer amongst the more-than-human, Michelle Bastian sent along a story this morning that made it even more interesting:

Wikipedia refuses to delete photo as ‘monkey owns it’

Wikimedia, the US-based organisation behind Wikipedia, has refused a photographer’s repeated requests to remove one of his images which is used online without his permission, claiming that because a monkey pressed the shutter button it should own the copyright. British nature photographer David Slater was in Indonesia in 2011 attempting to get the perfect image of a crested black macaque when one of the animals came up to investigate his equipment, hijacked a camera and took hundreds of selfies.

But after appearing on websites, newspapers, magazines and television shows around the world, Mr Slater is now facing a legal battle with Wikimedia after the organisation added the image to its collection of royalty-free images online. The Gloucestershire-based photographer now claims that the decision is jeopardising his income as anyone can take the image and publish it for free, without having to pay him a royalty.

“I’ve told them it’s not public domain, they’ve got no right to say that its public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up.” Mr Slater said that the photography trip was extremely expensive and that he has not made much money from the image despite its enormous popularity. “That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot. Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images. Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away,” he said.

Wikipedia at war! “Monkey selfie” sets off bizarre copyright dispute

Any artist whose livelihood is under assault from today’s cavalier attitudes toward copyright can empathize with Slater. But there are some fascinating legal issues to ponder here. Because it is apparently true — at least in some legal jurisdictions – that the person who takes the picture is the person who owns the copyright, no matter who owns the camera.

The natural objection to this line of reasoning is obvious: Monkeys are not people!

But, what if they are? Or, more precisely, what if we aren’t far from the day when monkeys finally win their right to have their day in court?

Look at how this challenges so many of our assumptions about agency, authorship, and ownership!

Does the monkey have agency? Clearly.

Is the monkey the author-photographer? Sure.

Is the monkey the owner? Possibly.

And if this nonhuman has agency, and the power of authorship and ownership, what about other nonhumans?

What about the camera? What kind of agency does it have? Can a camera author an image? Own a photograph?

Mr Slater says “Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away.” But it’s not entirely clear who “they” is.

Is it Wikipedia? The legal constructs of public domain? Cheaper photography equipment? Monkeys?

Who owns the monkey selfie - poll results

When I checked the Telegraph‘s “Who owns the monkey selfie?” poll earlier, popular vote gave the monkey a slight lead and it seems to be holding steady…

It’ll be interesting to watch how all this unfolds.

UPDATE 08/08/14

Wikipedia’s monkey selfie ruling is a travesty for the world’s monkey artists

“And it’s not just monkey photography that’s at stake. Animals should not be denied any intellectual property rights simply because they are animals. In a better world, we would have treated our nonhuman artists and inventors with respect. For example:

  • The San Diego Zoo should have obtained signed release forms from their pandas before splashing their images all over merchandise.
  • Sledgehammer manufacturers should be paying royalties for chimpanzee patents on “A Method for Pounding One Thing With Another Thing Comprising of a Substantially Hard Material Such that the Previous Thing Breaks.”
  • Whale musicians should be compensated for the numerous recordings of whale songs that have been sold without their consent.

We all know that artists will not create art unless they are given the unconstrained power to delete their work from the internet no matter where it appears or what it is used for. Our legal regimes have denied this right to animals, so it’s clear they are to blame for the severe dearth of animal art.

It is an incontrovertible fact that a society with more monkey selfies is better than a society with none, so, as long as monkeys are denied copyright, we all lose.”

No incentive

How That Monkey Selfie Reveals The Dangerous Belief That Every Bit Of Culture Must Be ‘Owned’

Who owns monkey selfie? Photographer says monkey was like his assistant

Slater takes the lead in the Telegraph poll

Slater’s edged out the macaque for the lead!

Posted: August 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »