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On dogs and design ethnography

My colleague Sarah Baker and I are heading up the School of Design‘s new postgraduate Design Ethnography research stream, and we gave a brief presentation this week to new students.

When I was searching for less obvious examples of this kind of work, I came across a lovely project by Malavika Reddy and Taylor Lowe. The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng: A Tale of Unspeakability and Thai Politics is all about Khun Tongdaeng, the royal canine companion of King Bhumipol Adulyadej of Thailand. But, of course, this dog is much more than just a dog:

“Enter Khun Tongdaeng. Her mobilization through a variety of media is ripe with the unsayable. The Tongdaeng images and paraphernalia that flooded Bangkok in the early part of the decade “spoke” to, but also around the anxieties of the monarchy in a way that no amount of paternal speechifying could ever do. At the same time, the manifestation of Tongdaeng in a variety of objects makes connections between His Majesty and significant political economic developments of the day, including copyright regimes, branding, and the ongoing project to make Thais more ‘modern.’ Tongdaeng became a device that was seen to impart the King’s luster to these bureaucratic and business endeavors, ostensibly legitimating them. What follows then is a look at the politics of Thailand in the early 2000s, and the unspeakability at its heart, via the King’s favorite dog.”

Choosing a non-traditional social subject like a dog offers, I think, a unique and rich opportunity for both cultural and design research. This particular dog, as manifested through a published biography, commemorative statues and t-shirts, and the King’s annual greeting cards, exemplifies the material, visual and discursive elements found in all human-nonhuman assemblages–and presents a fascinating subject of, and for, design ethnography.

I highly recommend checking out the project for yourself, but what I wanted to highlight to the students, and draw attention to again now, is the use of visuals to re/present research.

For example, I love this updated version of a traditional ethnographic kinship chart:

Tongdaeng's Kinship Chart

And this collage does a good job of showing what a story of A Story can look like:

The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng

I particularly like the balance of written academic analysis and visual materials, and the design’s pop culture aesthetics are consistent with the cultural research, so I think it all comes together quite nicely. As Reddy and Lowe note: “Despite being spoken for by an excess of words and actors, there persists around Tongdaeng a critical silence,” and I think their project offers interesting visual possibilities for both engaging with, and responding to, this silence.

Counting Sheep speculative design ethnography research

We’re very excited to launch the website for our Counting Sheep design scenario research, starting with three speculative design ethnography projects, and more on the way:

BoneKnitterBoneKnitter (Anne Galloway & Dani Clode)
The BoneKnitter is a dream for slow technology that honours New Zealand’s natural environment and pays tribute to generations of Māori and Pākehā merino growers, shearers and wool handlers. We envision a future where orthopaedic casts are crafted from all natural materials and slowly knitted over broken bones. We see individual casts crafted from the range of natural merino wool colours, both plainly styled and patterned after the topographic contours of the land where the sheep were raised, or the genetic sequence of the sheep that produced the wool. Each cast comes with data histories for each animal, and we are given personal collections of photos and stories to take home.

Grow Your Own LambGrow Your Own Lamb (Anne Galloway & Mata Freshwater)
A revolutionary new service that puts New Zealand consumers in charge of how their meat is produced! Select whether you want your 100% Pure NZ Merino Lamb raised in the paddock (in vivo) or raised in the lab (in vitro), and download the GYoL app so that you can check in on the growing process anywhere, anytime. Then select the actions you want your growers or technicians to take to ensure your meat is just the way you like it. When your lamb is ready, select how you want it slaughtered or harvested, and get the best cuts of meat delivered right to your door. Finally, enjoy your 100% Pure NZ Merino Lamb knowing that it was produced exactly the way you want it.

PermaLambPermaLamb (Anne Galloway & Lauren Wicken)
On 7 June 2019, in an unprecedented show of national cooperation, all of the country’s political parties unanimously voted in favour of creating the NZ Ministry of Science and Heritage. Using well-established transgenics research and recombinant DNA techniques, scientists cross-bred an animal that embodied the behavioural traits of a dog and took on the physical appearance of a lamb for its entire life. Each PermaLamb was also implanted with a full suite of networked identification, location and sensor technologies, enabling it to generate and collect petabytes of data over its lifetime. The National PermaLamb Programme was born.

Please take a look around and share what you find with friends and family.

We also invite you to take part in a short online survey to help us better understand what kinds of science and technology people want – and don’t want – in the future.

If you have any questions about our research, please just email us.

On being attached, caring for animals and humble technologies

The longer I study relations amongst people, animals and technologies, the more I return to notions and practices of caring. Interests are staked in quantities and qualities of caring, and many social and ethical issues arise as matters of caring too much or too little. In Latour’s recent book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, he argues that we are our attachments. More important than essence or identity are those people, places, objects and ideas to which we attach ourselves, or put a bit differently, all the things we care for.


[Photo by Matt Cottam, and part of his wonderful Dogs I Meet series]

Technology, as part of the material world, is often portrayed as cold or uncaring. Critics maintain this association in their claims that technology threatens our very humanity; proponents maintain it in their claims that technology is activated through use. Both positions require that we maintain a certain distance from the material world, using it to serve our interests rather than acknowledging how our interests are never separate from our attachments to the world — or all those things we will not or cannot let go, as well as all that will not or cannot release us.

But I’m thinking about this right now because I recently met with Phil Tanner, CTO of Heyrex, a local company that makes wireless dog monitors. Obviously, I’ve been paying attention to animal tracking and sensing devices for quite some time but it’s been awhile since I sat down and talked with someone who actually makes them. Phil told me all about how the device works, and kindly lent me a (non-functional) sample device to take a closer look at on my own time. Now I want to share some of my thoughts about Heyrex, but I also want to be clear that this is not a product review. I’ve never actually used the device and, to be perfectly honest, I’m more interested in the idea of such a device than in this device in particular.

In response to the question of why make a dog monitoring device, the online marketing states: “At Heyrex we understand how much it means to have the close companionship of a pet … The Heyrex team of pet lovers came together to create a revolutionary new range of products that would benefit both pets and the people who care for them the most.”

Monitoring technology for meaning, closeness, love and care. When you open the Heyrex box, the end panel simply states: ”Unconditional love.”

Dog by Matt Cottam

[Photo by Matt Cottam]

These are good things, and this is the good life. If they made one for cats I’d want it.

“Of course, as we all know, there are big brothers – and Big Brothers. I realise that the latter upper-case phrase immediately evokes images of corrupt tyranny rather than caring tutelage. Fair enough. But there are Bad Big Brothers and benevolent big brothers. It’s oppressive when ‘Big Brother is watching you’. But we could also imagine how the final line in Nineteen Eighty Four – if lifted from the novel and let stand alone – could refer to a benevolent big brother. ‘He loved big brother’ – ‘loved’ because of the gifts given…”

- John Rodden, The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell, p. 180

So Heyrex was made because we are caring big sisters and brothers, but also because it’s difficult to communicate some information across species. We watch our pets so closely not just because we care, but because we find it hard to read them. And so perhaps some of this careful monitoring can be delegated to machines, and the gift of “unconditional love” our pets give us can be returned.

The Heyrex device does not use GPS; it doesn’t know where your dog is. It doesn’t use RFID; it doesn’t know who your dog is either. It has motion, temperature and light sensors: it knows (something) about what your dog does.

“Heyrex monitors key health signs identified from activity levels, mobility, scratching, resting patterns and sleep disturbances. These monitored activities help Heyrex identify the basic signs of many dog health issues.”

But Heyrex is not a medical diagnostic device either. It doesn’t take blood samples from Peaches or monitor Butch’s heartbeat, and it doesn’t tell you if Max has stopped breathing. Its hardware collects data and, over time, its software identifies patterns of behaviour. And if these patterns change, it can notify you so that you and your vet can start figuring out if something is wrong.


[Photo by Matt Cottam]

In fact, Heyrex is a rather humble device. It doesn’t try to collect every kind of data. (Little Data is the new Big Data!) Or auto-magically solve all your pet-related problems. (No you can’t use it as a brute force shock collar!) It seems to recognise that caring is essentially a tinkering process with many interdependent parts. It dwells in the time of the everyday, and the space of the habitual. A small shift here allows us to make a careful change there.

And — quite mercifully as far as I’m concerned — Heyrex doesn’t gamify caring either. You can’t use it to motivate yourself to care more by showing off your dog’s activities to others and publicly performing your caring behaviour for some token reward.

So what do people actually get out of using Heyrex? According to customer testimonials, it’s mostly a sense of connection they wouldn’t otherwise have, and information that allows them to “better” know and care for their dog.

“Last week Fred went for a couple days holiday at my girlfriends parents farm in Ashburton, it showed up on the graph that he was scratching, turns out he was laden with fleas, I noticed the graph change as soon as the scratching started. When he came home we doused him and he’s sweet as now.”

“We weren’t sure if anyone had taken [Sam] for a run on Sunday so we checked the graph to see, he had been twice. Too funny!”

“It is also interesting to know that some nights [Moose] is waking up and moving around when we think he is sound asleep – no wonder he crashes out some days!”

“[Brooklyn] attends doggie day care so I can monitor her daily activity which is great while I’m at work and then I know what extra exercise is needed once we get her home from the graphs I read.”

“I love checking on Charlie while she is at doggie daycare.  I had no idea how active and happy she was while there. Maybe that is why she sleeps so soundly at night.”

In these ways, Heyrex is a lot like any other benevolent monitoring device and probably most like a baby monitor. No technology marketer wants to hear that their product may be new but it isn’t really “revolutionary”–but I think its banality and humility is actually what makes Heyrex so lovely.

As I wonder if my students would want to give it a bunch of new technological capabilities, or design games and social media to accompany it — assuming it would make for a “richer customer experience” — I can’t help but hope not.  While Heyrex enables interesting new relationships between people and animals, its relative simplicity might be the very thing that makes it extraordinary. And I’ll take extraordinary care over Revolutionary Care any day.

Dog by Matt Cottam

[Photo by Matt Cottam]

<RESEARCH NOTE>Curious about how these things work, I think it’s worth mentioning that no matter how many shared interests we may have as individuals (Phil and I have many, including a shared background in archaeology!), academics and companies have different interests in their products. For example, Phil personally believes in the company’s product and, by virtue of his position in the company, is obligated to protect it. That makes sense and I respect it. I also like the Heyrex product, but I don’t have any obligations beyond everyday professionalism and interpersonal kindness. So why do I mention this? Because I want to be able to write what I think about the product, but I don’t want to do them any harm or to blindly advertise for them. And also because I’d love to see my students imagine how the device could be redesigned but I don’t think it’s ethical to ask them to provide free labour or to allow any company to profit from their ideas without compensation. This means that we actually have to negotiate with each other before I publish anything or we do anything together. Many designers are used to working and teaching under non-disclosure agreements, but I’m not and I don’t think I want to get used to it either. So, in a gesture of good faith, I told Phil that I’d send him this blog post before I published it and that I wouldn’t publish anything he didn’t want me to. This was much more than he asked for, but it would let me know where our relationship can go from here. And since this is online now, clearly all went well.</RESEARCH NOTE>

Sneak preview: speculative design for animal-human relations

When I get back from Australia we’ll be launching four speculative designs from the Counting Sheep project. Here’s a sneak preview:

Grow Your Own Lamb: Would you like your NZ merino meat pasture-raised or lab-raised?

BoneKnitter: What if orthopaedic casts were made of all natural, traceable native materials?

Sadie & Rye: Could you love artificial NZ huntaway and heading dogs?

PermaLamb: What if every Kiwi had their own transgenic pet lamb?

Stay tuned for more!

The Internet of Animals. Game on!

I’ve spent almost every day for three or four years thinking about, talking about, writing about, and working towards something I’ve come to call an internet of animals.

This week, two things happened that expanded what the internet of animals could become.

1) Some scientists used the internet to link the brains of rats and get them to do stuff together

Guardian: Brain-to-brain interface lets rats share information via internet

“Even though the animals were on different continents, with the resulting noisy transmission and signal delays, they could still communicate. This tells us that we could create a workable network of animal brains distributed in many different locations.”

Nature: Intercontinental mind-meld unites two rats

“Nicolelis’ … team is already working to link the brains of four mice. The researchers are also set to start similar experiments with monkeys, in which paired individuals control virtual avatars and combine their brain activity to play a game together.”

Daily Mail: Telepathy is real! Scientists develop mind-reading implant that links the brains of rats in the US and Brazil

“British expert Professor Christopher James, from the University of Warwick, who has conducted similar research, said: ‘We are far from a scenario of well-networked rats around the world uniting to take us over, the stimulation is crude and specific. As for the ethics, I struggle to think of any applications that would not have ethical issues’.”

2) Some other famous scientists and a famous musician proposed an “interspecies internet”

TED 2013 Interspecies Internet

TED Blog: The interspecies internet: Diana Reiss, Peter Gabriel, Neil Gershenfeld and Vint Cerf at TED2013

Gabriel:”What would happen if we could somehow find new interfaces – visual, audio — to allow us to communicate with the remarkable beings we share the planet with.”

Gershenfeld: “I was struck by the history of the internet, because it started as the internet of middle-aged white men … I realized that we humans had missed something — the rest of the planet … We’re starting to think about how you integrate the rest of the biomass of the planet into the internet.”

Cerf: “What’s important about what these people are doing: They’re beginning to learn how to communicate with species that are not us, but share a sensory environment. [They're figuring out] what it means to communicate with something that’s not a person. I can’t wait to see these experiments unfold.”

Mashable: Peter Gabriel, Vint Cerf Launch ‘Internet for Animals’

Cerf: “We should not restrict the Internet to one species. Other species should be allowed to participate.”

Facebook: The Interspecies Internet

“We hope to link up the captive species who already have demonstrated a cognitive and linguistic understanding of interspecies communication from facility to facility (especially the families that have been separated), and additionally to their species in their native lands. Schoolchildren in the native regions where these animals are in danger, would be able to communicate with the animals via tablet and learn that these animals are intelligent and friendly.

Yup. Things are about to get weird.

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