experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

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 »

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel
from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry!
poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the
bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

– Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771)

Or, if you prefer, you can listen to it sung by Miranda Colchester. Thanks to @ashleigh_young for the poem link, and to @marpeck for the video link.

Posted: August 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life, People & Animals | No Comments »

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.

Posted: March 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals | No Comments »

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.

Posted: November 26th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

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>

Posted: August 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life, People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »