experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

New term, creatures, design & cultural critique

I can’t believe it’s autumn already! Where did the summer go?

Anyway, here’s what we’ve been up to and a glimpse of what’s to come:

Mata Freshwater (of Grow Your Own Lamb fame) and I have been working on something very creaturely… and sometime before the end of the month, we’ll be adding this final speculative design ethnography scenario to the Counting Sheep website. If you haven’t taken the survey yet, don’t worry, there’s still time to tell us what you think!

I also had the pleasure of a two-week visit with theologian and associate professor of religion, Trevor Bechtel. I first met Trevor at the Digital Genres Conference at the University of Chicago in 2003, and we still share an intellectual interest in technology and a great love of animals. You can check out the fascinating collaborative creative work he does through the Anabaptist Bestiary Project, and Trevor and I spent a lot of time drinking flat whites and talking about speculative design and objects of grace–so I hope we’ll be able to share more about that in the coming months.

As the winner of a VUW Summer Scholarship, Chris Nimmo joined the team to kick off our new project: The Great NZ Cat Controversy. Chris searched all the interwebs to create an archive of online public engagement with Gareth Morgan’s Cats to Go campaign – including articles like “Morgan calls for cats to be wiped out“, Facebook groups like “Cats against Gareth Morgan,” and memes like the one below by Jackson Wood- and then he did a comprehensive discourse analysis of the content. (Hint: it’s all about pets vs pests.)

Gareth Morgan by Jackson Wood

We’ll be creating a project page and making this archive available online soon, but right now we’re looking for someone to create an awesome actor & issue map from his findings–so if you’re interested in working with us, please get in touch. In another month or so, we’ll also get started on the design ethnography phase of the project – so stay tuned for that too.

Otherwise, I’ve been busy thinking and writing and plotting. You can check out this ethnography + design interview with me at Savage Minds, and I’m now drafting something for my much admired Superflux colleagues. On the academic front, I’ve recently submitted some research funding proposals, a journal article, a conference paper, and a workshop proposal, so will hopefully be able to share more about all that shortly.

But most recently, the bulk of my efforts have gone into teaching prep, and this term I’m teaching a third year course on design and cultural critique. I’ve assigned Dunne and Raby‘s new book, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming as required reading for the course, and am really looking forward to discussing it with students. Course themes include critical theories of everyday life, the critical potential of speculative fiction and design, how to use culture to critique design, and how to use design to critique culture. Students have two major projects to complete: a research essay on what is “critical” about critical design, and a critical design project that embodies their idea of cultural critique. I’m really excited to see what they come up with!

And last, but certainly not least, I’d like to congratulate Catherine Caudwell on submitting her PhD thesis: Into the Furby-verse: The Narrative Production of Electronic Companions. Her examination isn’t until April, but we’re confident that we’ll be calling her Dr Caudwell soon!

Posted: March 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Progress Reports, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

Counting Sheep news

Really pleased to note that our first set of Counting Sheep scenarios won the 2013 IoT Internet of Things Editor’s Choice – Best Design Fiction Award! Many thanks and congratulations to the awesome students who worked on the projects: Dani Clode, Mata Freshwater, Hamish McPhail, Peggy Russell, and Lauren Wickens.

And we’re also pretty chuffed to see one of our favourite magazines/websites – Modern Farmer – publish a nice little piece about our work: Using Sheep To Test the Boundaries of Science (No Sheep Were Harmed)

“Down in New Zealand — a country with seven times more sheep than people* — there’s a team of researchers who are very, very interested in your responses. It’s part of a quirky project called Counting Sheep, mapping out the intersection of agriculture, ethics and the very nature of how people answer questions … “By the time most of us hear about a scientific advance, it’s already happened,” Galloway says. “There’s never a chance to put the brakes on, to decide whether it’s something we wanted in the first place.” Counting Sheep started in December with three fictional sheep scenarios. Each one combines an evocative design with a provocative storyline (see below). Anyone can participate in the study — just look over one of the faux-projects, then take a brief survey. The goal is to provoke an instinctive response. Thus far they’ve heard everything from “This is total bullshit!” to “This is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen!” And how will the results be used? Galloway thinks government and industry could want some insight into the popular psyche, before proceeding with new scientific advances (e.g., do people really want lab lamb?) More importantly, she believes this could upend the way social research is performed.”

Thanks to Jesse Hirsch for writing the article – although my hope is to one day see research like this described as inventive rather than quirky!


Posted: February 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Announcements, Progress Reports | No Comments »

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!

Posted: June 9th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals, Progress Reports | No Comments »

Progress Report #4

The academic year has come to an end, and an exciting summer of research is just around the corner!

Last month we went to Mangaiti Station, the North Island’s only merino stud breeder. It was the end of lambing season and, as you can see below, the weather was still a bit cold and some of the new lambs had been given felted jumpers for added warmth. As the Kiwis say, “Cute as!”

Luckily, we were just in time to help with tagging the stud lambs, which basically involves three simple steps:

1) identify which lambs belong to which RFID-tagged ewes;

2) use a handheld RFID reader to identify the ewes;

and 3) put a temporary visual ID tag in the lamb’s ear, using an applicator not unlike the one that pierced my ears.

Later, each sheep will be given an EID tag as well as a more permanent, and non-reactive, brass ID tag.

Sometimes the electronic ID tags are lost and, occasionally, the tags cause infection and need to be removed. When we were there, the old-fashioned metal shears above were used to cut the pin holding the tag in one ewe’s ear, leaving a circular, tag-shaped hole where the infected flesh had rotted away. The ewe gave no indication she was in pain, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this scenario could be easily avoided with the use of different materials or through better tag design.

One thing that’s been made abundantly clear to us–and especially so during lambing season–is that merino breeders and growers are heavily invested in doing whatever they reasonably can to ensure that their animals don’t only survive, but actually thrive.

I’m currently writing up some of my observations for a paper I’ll be giving at the CSAA conference next month in Sydney, and I’ve found the concept of tinkering (via Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms) to be particularly useful in thinking about what it means to be bound to livestock in unsentimental ways and still genuinely care for them.

Now, what else is happening?

Well, next week Catherine and I are heading down to the South Island to visit Glenaan Station, Mt Hay Station and Beckford Farm, which is home to some gorgeous coloured merino, and we hope to visit a few more stations in Otago before the end of the month as well.

I’m also busy preparing for a seminar on fantastic ethnographies that I’ll be giving at RMIT at the end of the month–inspired, in part, by Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” and based on a paper I’ll be giving at the ASAANZ conference in December.

And as if that’s not enough, we’ve got five incredibly cool design projects happening this summer so be sure to stay tuned for updates on what we’re doing and making!

Update 16 November

I broke my ankle last week and am not going anywhere until the new year. (Boo! Hiss!) On the upside, we’ll still be doing some awesome design work over the summer, so please stay tuned for updates from me and some awesome research assistants!

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: People & Animals, Progress Reports | No Comments »

Progress Report #3

This winter has been very busy for the Counting Sheep project — here are a few highlights of what I’ve been up to and what’s yet to come before the end of the year.

I was interviewed by Chris Speed for the first issue of new journal Ubiquity; I submitted a paper (co-authored with PhD student extraordinaire Catherine Caudwell) for a special issue of Digital Creativity on design fiction; and I submitted a paper for a special issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media on emerging methods. We’re now at the mercy of our reviewers but hope to see all of these out soon. In less academic arenas, the amazing Sumit Paul-Choudhury and I wrote an article for Arc magazine on new and exciting connections between animals and technology.

With spring around the corner, we’re also headed back into the field to make some station visits – including to hundred-year old Mt Hay and Glenaan – interview some of the high country’s merino breeders and growers, and spend time with the sheep and dogs. (Yay!) We’re also looking forward to chatting with folks who are growing coloured merino and visiting Mangaiti, the only North Island merino stud.

I’ve also started working on the ethnographic write-up. I’d like to take the creative non-fiction course at the International Institute for Modern Letters next year, but in the meantime I’ll keep practicing and start looking at publishing options.

And last, but not least, our design work is also proceeding nicely. Stay tuned for Cybernetic Meadows: An Alternative History of NZ Merino Breeding and we’ll be announcing a summer scholarship opportunity next month.

Posted: August 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Progress Reports | No Comments »