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From the PLSJ archives: Anne vs. her mobile phone

Wednesday, 12 February, 2003
Anne vs. her mobile phone

As someone who spends so much time addressing the theoretical aspects of wireless communications, I would do well to note my *actual* experiences.

In the Spring of last year, I bought a Motorola Timeport 280. At the time, the only service provider who supported that phone was Fido, and it has since been discontinued. I didn’t need or want a PDA (fed gov’t workers here are decked out with BlackBerries), but I wanted something that could text, connect to the ‘Net and work anywhere in the world. Fine. Or so I thought.

Strike 1: Text-messaging is only available between mobile devices (phones, pagers, PDAs) on the Fido network. (To the best of my knowledge, this is true for each of the Canadian wireless providers.) Since I don’t know anyone (or don’t know if I know anyone) on the network, texting is pretty much useless to me. There’s something weird about community built around technology in this sense: what do I have in common with other Fido users besides using Fido-supported devices?

(Aside – I think one of HipTop Nation’s greater social strengths is connecting Sidekick users with non-Sidekick users in the common space of the Web. At a superficial level, I see very little interaction between the mobile bloggers themselves.)

Strike 2: It turns out that mobile Internet access is way too expensive for me in a cost-benefit sort of way. It insufficiently enriches my daily life, or more specifically, offers me little more than already afforded by the wireless LAN in my house. But then again, I’ve never seen an outside ad-hoc wireless network in action.

Strike 3: Game over. For a number of reasons, I have had no need to use my phone overseas. But today I called Fido to see what’s up with my phone while I’m in the States next month. It turns out that I have to request, in writing, the activation of roaming services 60 days in advance of when I need them. This phone is now officially *fucking useless* for every task I wanted it to perform.

As much as I hate Fido right now, I suspect this is also karmic retribution for my technolust.

Wow. I can’t believe the state of wireless technology (just) ten years ago!

I’d forgotten that I got my first mobile phone just ten years ago. That we had wireless internet in our house for the first time just ten years ago. That in Canada, in 2003, it wasn’t possible to send a text message to someone on another network, let alone another country. That the internet on my phone was just too bloody expensive (and the mobile web too limited) to even contemplate. That mobile service provision was based on such broken notions of social interaction and so difficult to actually use.

And now I’m remembering (probably badly) a conversation with Giles Lane, around the same time, about Proboscis‘ ground-breaking Urban Tapestries project — and how the test users didn’t have access to phones like the ones being used, and some were nervous about using such expensive kit, even worrying that it might make them targets for muggings!


Someone recently reminded me that my PhD dissertation was researched and written before the first iPhone was released.

Then, there were PDAs, urban computing and locative media. Now, there are smartphones, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, and location-based services.

New and old actors. Old and new matters of concern.

Everything changes. Nothing changes.

It’s all still expensive. I just have more money.

Remembering Dr Sally Ride (1951-2012)

When I was girl I thought I would grow up to be a scientist — and an astronaut. I built space stations out of cardboard and tinfoil, and made sure that my super awesome science lab was the biggest room.

A is for Astronaut. (A is for Anne!)

I can still remember watching the STS-7 Challenger launch in 1983, and even though I had seen other launches, I remember that one being different — being special — because NASA was sending a woman into space for the first time.

The day after the launch, Gloria Steinem said that “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists.”

I was one of those girls.

Other people told me I could be an astronaut, but Dr Sally Ride showed me. And that made her a real life — real live — hero.

I also remember being a bit jealous of Grundgetta, Oscar’s Grouch girlfriend, when she got to hang out with Sally on Sesame Street in 1984. I figured that she was always smiling because she got to go into space. And true enough, when the shuttle returned to Earth, Dr Ride told reporters, “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.

To be honest, I haven’t thought about Sally Ride in a long time. Maybe even since I gave up my dreams of being an astronaut. But yesterday, when I found out she was dead, I remembered and I cried.

According to the Sally Ride Science website:

“Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.

In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.

Donations can be made to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative.”

As an adult — older now than she was then — I can truly appreciate the kind of calm confidence it must have taken to bear the media attention she received:

“Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?

The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On ‘The Tonight Show,’ Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.

At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: ‘It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along’.”

When reporters dared to bring up her boobs, Ride very coolly responded “There is no sag in zero G.” My response to any of these questions would have likely excluded me from the astronaut ranks, and definitely precluded any future interviews or public appearances.

But Dr Ride was so much more than the first American woman in space. By all accounts, she was an accomplished physicist, an inspiring teacher and writer of children’s books, and ceaseless advocate for the inclusion of girls and young women in STEM education and careers.

She also served on the panel that investigated the Challenger accident and, in addition to providing her professional expertise, demonstrated extraordinary personal grace and compassion:

“One witness was Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had worked for the company that made the shuttle’s rocket boosters and who had been shunned by colleagues for revealing that he had warned his bosses and NASA that the boosters’ seals, called O-rings, could fail in cold weather. The Challenger had taken off on a cold morning.

After his testimony, Dr. Ride, who was known to be reserved and reticent, publicly hugged him. She was the only panelist to offer him support. Mr. Boisjoly, who died in January, said her gesture had helped sustain him during a troubled time.”

And although Dr Ride probably wouldn’t have made much of this either, I think the Huffington Post did right by reminding everyone:

“This is what a lesbian looks like: Sally Ride: physicist; author of seven science books for children; member of the space shuttle Challenger crew; member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; director of the California Science Institute; inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame; recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the NASA Space Flight Medal (twice).”

Sally Kristen Ride was will always be my hero.

But I’ll leave the last words to Denise Grady in the NYTimes:

“Dr. Ride told interviewers that what drove her was not the desire to become famous or to make history as the first woman in space. All she wanted to do was fly, she said, to soar into space, float around weightless inside the shuttle, look out at the heavens and gaze back at Earth. In photographs of her afloat in the spaceship, she was grinning, as if she had at long last reached the place she was meant to be.”

Tiny beautiful things…

In 2011, Rumpus advice columnist Sugar (actually Cheryl Strayed) wrote a wonderful and moving letter to her 20 year old self. With the release of her new book, Tiny Beautiful Things, it’s been making the rounds again. You can read the whole letter to find the quote used in the title, and here are a few of my favourite bits:

Dear Seeking Wisdom,

Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.


There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.


Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.


Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.


When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.


The limits of dispassionate knowledge

“The contemporary habit in academic writing of assembling more or less trite summaries of other people’s work, and disfiguring the prose at the end of every second sentence with a scattering of references, seems to me calculated to turn thought to lead and the eager reader into concrete.”

~ Fred Inglis, Culture (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), vii.

“In academia, the scholarly life is often premised on the suppression of passion. Historians are warned about over-identification with their subject matters; students of literature are taught to radically temper their emotional responses, in case they make an ‘affective fallacy’ (getting all weepy is considered decidedly unprofessional). Those in the social sciences are given countless safeguards to stop the passions encroaching on the business of producing reliable knowledge, while the harder sciences make a value out of every thing the passions are not: testable, logical, rational [...] My argument is not that the values of dispassion are bad, simply that they are disingenuous and obscuring of many of the ways we know the world, including scholarly knowledge.”

~ Ben Highmore, A Passion for Cultural Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 16.

Teaching: Design Anthropology

A question was recently posted to the anthrodesign list about courses in design anthropology/ethnography, and people were quick to point out the growing number of postgraduate programmes including Design Ethnography at University of Dundee, Design Anthropology at University of Aberdeen, Design Anthropology at Swinburne University, and Culture, Materials and Design at University College London. But no one seemed to know of any undergraduate courses.

Since I’ll be teaching my second-year undergraduate course DSDN 283: Design Anthropology for the third time next term, and since it’s finally becoming the course I envisioned, I thought it might be a good time to post about it.

I work in a school with a rather artistic, exploratory and experimental approach to design, and teaching anthropology in this environment requires a different approach than what I was taught as an anthropologist, and from the more business- or industry-oriented approaches to ethnography that I’ve seen elsewhere. At its core, my introductory course uses design to understand social and cultural experience, and takes people’s everyday lives as inspiration for design.

Here are some snippets from the course outline:

Course synopsis

Anthropology can be defined as the study of similarities and differences between peoples of the world, or all the ways we make sense of ourselves, each other and the places in which we live, work and play. As designers work for—and with—a wide range of people around the world, the knowledge and skills of anthropology can be seen as increasingly relevant to a situated and adaptable practice. This course will explore how design shapes, and is shaped by, people’s cultural values and social practices, and help students use anthropological concepts and methods to enhance their design practice and understanding.

Aims of the course

Building on students’ previous studies of discursive, visual and material culture, this course introduces students to major themes from anthropology and their relevance to the understanding and practice of design. The primary aims of this course are to 1) ensure that students can critically and creatively assess the role that design and culture play in everyday life; and 2) enable students to use fieldwork and cross-cultural awareness to improve the quality of their designs.

Course content

This course’s exploration of design and culture will be framed by a number of scales and contexts, including individuals, social groups and cultures from different locations and points in history. Particular emphasis will be placed on what people believe, say, do and make.

Through theoretical concepts, cross-cultural examples, and field-based research methods, students will be introduced to the ways in which symbolic, visual and material culture both shape, and are shaped by, different people in different ways.

The required textbook for this course is Keri Smith‘s How To Be An Explorer of the World.

Course assignments

Project 1: Words

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, conduct library research, and submit a 2000-word essay.

Project 2: Images

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, and submit an original 10-image photo-essay, along with a 500-word curatorial statement.

Project 3: Objects

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, and submit an original design object, along with a 500-word curatorial statement.

Lectures, tutorials and projects are based around discursive, visual and material culture–all things that are familiar to design students but rarely presented in terms of everyday life or lived experience as the social sciences understand them. The choice to use Keri Smith’s workbook reflects my desire to present fieldwork as an integral practice that ethnographers and artists/designers already share–although my primary challenge remains to help students look outwards, to other people, with the same attention and skill they use to look inwards.

Using anthropological concepts to help students make sense of what they experience or find in the field is the distinguishing element of this course–a goal that I placed at the top of my agenda once I realised that my design students were often much better at conducting and documenting fieldwork than my sociology and anthropology students were, but they almost completely lacked the tools to make sense of it and apply it to the tasks they faced.

This approach is only one of many, but I’ve found it very helpful in preparing students for more advanced studies that require a firm knowledge of the cultural contexts of design, and in extending the range of jobs for which they are prepared, and in which they are interested.

It may also just be a personal preference–I did end up in a design school after all–but I often wish I had been exposed to these ways of doing anthropology and ethnography in my undergraduate years. And although I no longer refer to myself as an anthropologist, and highly doubt I will ever consider myself a designer, I certainly feel as though I’ve become a better social and cultural researcher because of my time with artists and designers, and now I get to do cool things like this upcoming workshop on object ethnographies. This course is my space to share with students what these experiences have been like for me.

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