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Mobilities and Design Workshop

I’m really pleased to be participating (via video & Skype) in the Mobilities and Design Workshop at Lancaster University, 29-30 April, 2014.

The event is being live-streamed so you’ll be able to follow along, and this is what I’ll be talking about:

Why Count Sheep, and Other Tricky Questions About Speculative Design Ethnography

Governments around the world require livestock farmers to tag their animals and track their movements from birth to death. Mandated for the purposes of local biosecurity and global market access, electronic identification is also used to keep track of breeding information and health treatments. Combined with location technologies like GPS, and sensor technologies that can monitor individual animal health and external environmental conditions, livestock are now capable of generating and transmitting enormous amounts of data.

At the same time, farmers in the developed world respond to increased public concerns about animal welfare and environmental sustainability by developing new online forms of agricultural advocacy, or what they call “agvocacy”. The US-based AgChat Foundation, and its equivalents in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, use social media to promote greater public awareness of agricultural practices and connect producers and consumers through weekly online chats. A “farm to fork” traceability ethos underpins agvocacy efforts, and aligns well with technosocial imperatives related to the “Internet of Things” – or the ability to connect data-rich objects (including animals) to the Internet.

For the past three years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sheep, talking about sheep, and hanging out with sheep or other people who care about sheep. I’ve done this because I’m interested in what the emergent technologies and politics I describe above might mean for our longest domesticated livestock animal, and for the people who continue to produce and consume them. In most ways, this has been standard STS-based ethnographic research: participant observation, interviews, etc. But the systems that I describe aren’t fully formed–and may not ever fully form as imagined–so I needed to come up with complementary research methods that could help me apprehend the future, or more correctly possible futures, and for that I turned to design.

This presentation will first outline the speculative design ethnography (SDE) methods developed, and outputs created, for the “Counting Sheep: NZ Merino in an Internet of Things” research project. (I encourage people to check out the design scenarios for themselves.) Then I will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of this kind of hybrid research practice, paying particular attention to how future visions act in the present to construct multiple publics and co-produce knowledge. Finally, using preliminary responses to our work, I will consider the potential of SDE as a public engagement strategy, and the role of disinterested or disagreeable publics.

Related reading

Galloway, A. 2013. “Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation and Human/Nonhuman Relations.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 57(1): 53-65.

Galloway, A. 2013. “Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design.” Ethnography Matters, 17 September, 2013.

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!

November is Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo)

I’m allergic to joining clubs or movements, and loathe academic productivity imperatives, but I’ve just finished the year’s teaching and have this problem:

A Million Thoughts by Marc Johns

So I’ve decided to find my own way of participating in Academic Writing Month 2013.

First of all, I’ve got some fieldwork to do in November, and since that will continue until teaching starts again in March, I’d really like to establish a sustainable writing routine for the summer. I’ve got some creative writing that needs to be finished in the next couple of weeks, and some journal writing that needs to be sent to peer review by February. I’ve also got a research proposal to draft.

Obviously I can’t get all the journal and proposal writing done in November, but I can definitely get it started. In #AcWriMo-speak that leads me to:

Goal 1: Establish summer writing routine

Goal 2: Edit two short stories

Goal 3: Write one short story

Goal 4: Prepare full draft of one academic article

Goal 5: Draft research project aims, objectives & outcomes

I figure that the first goal is actually the hardest – and most important – for me. I want to block off three hours each weekday morning for writing, making exceptions only when unavoidable. (I also figure this will still allow me to get in at least one hour of academic reading each day!) This schedule could never happen during teaching, so I’ve got fingers (and toes!) crossed I can make it work now. Of course I’m a bit nervous that I’m out of practice and this will feel like going to the gym after holidays: a special kind of torture. So to help me out, I’ll also be participating in weekly Shut Up and Write sessions that my lovely colleagues have organised.

The second and third goals involve creative writing, which I find requires a substantially different mind-set than academic writing even though it’s part of my research. I’ve decided to focus on this first because it has a hard deadline and is mostly done already, and because getting it done should make room in my brain for more traditional academic writing.

The fourth goal is going to test Inger Mewburn’s strategy for How To Write A Journal Article in Seven Days. (I’m actually pretty excited about this task!) And the fifth goal mostly involves getting some thoughts out of my head and onto paper in some sort of structure that is intelligible to others. I’ll need their feedback before I write up the full proposal, and this seems a useful way to start.

With all my goals sorted, I’m left with the “accountability problem.” I can’t bring myself to officially sign up for the month – audit culture saddens me – but I think I can manage weekly #AcWriMo reports on Twitter. And who knows? I might write something here at some point too.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t care if I succeed in all these goals. I know I won’t miss my creative writing deadlines, and the rest will work itself out eventually. Using the month to find a new work rhythm is all I really want, and if this helps in any way I’ll be happy.

Let's Go by Marc Johns


Golden fleece and other fantastic things

As part of Ethnography MattersEthnography, Speculative Fiction and Design month, I’ve just published “Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design“–a personal reflection on what I’ve been doing (mostly design ethnography) and what’s been inspiring me (mostly Ursula Le Guin).

Right after I wrote it, I read the following passage in the latest installment of my favourite urban fantasy series:

“Did you really kill a ram with gold wool?”

“Gods, no. It’s synthetic,” he said.


“We took a ram pelt, coated it in magic to keep it from burning, and dipped it in gold. The real trick was getting the proportion of gold and silver right. I wanted to keep the flexibility of gold, but it’s so heavy the individual hairs kept breaking, and too much silver made it stiff. In the end we went with a gold-copper alloy.”

“Why go through all this trouble?”

“Because kingdoms are built on legends,” Hugh said. “When the hunters are old and gray, they will still talk about how they went to Colchis and hunted for the Golden Fleece.”

How perfect is that?

And then I saw these two things:

Mid-century Australian Petrol Station

Australian Golden Fleece Petrol Station advert, 1950s-60s (via)

Sheep Station

Sheep Station exhibition featuring the work of François-Xavier Lalanne, 2013 (via)


Practicing science and poetry

Last week I went to a seminar on poetry and science by Bryan Walpert and Helen Heath. Both spoke of the capacity of writing to manifest other ways of knowing the world beyond the totalising, univocal perspectives of both “objective” science and “subjective” poetics–a topic that kept me rapt for several hours and is still rattling around my brain.

Chinese kite frame

Chinese Kite Frame (Smithsonian Institution)

Mostly I find myself returning to Walpert’s suggestion that by bringing different kinds of language together, by using language to put pressure on different kinds of knowledge, discursive poetry could “trick the truth into its starry net.”

Computer Map of the Early Universe by Maura Stanton

We’re made of stars. The scientific team
Flashes a blue and green computer chart
Of the universe across my TV screen
To prove its theory with a work of art:
Temperature shifts translated into waves
Of color, numbers hidden in smooth lines.
“At last we have a map of ancient Time”
One scientist says, lost in a rapt gaze.
I look at the bright model they’ve designed,
The Big Bang’s fury frozen into laws,
Pleased to see it resembles a sonnet,
A little frame of images and rhyme
That tries to glitter brighter than its flaws
And trick the truth into its starry net.

I recalled Henry James’ essay “The Art of Fiction” which describes, I think, a skill set shared by both poets and scientists: “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

But this gets us closer to netting what the scientist and poet always already have in common: practice or craft. And this is where I find the most hope in my own work because I genuinely believe that if we all learned to communicate our practice–our everyday doing and making of things–then we could always find enough common ground to start productively discussing our differences.

Heath discussed her PhD work on how poets use science and technology in their writing, and I very much enjoyed her reading of Jo Shapcott’s beautiful poem “In the Bath” (from Phrase Book). But I wondered how we might get beyond embodied experience as well, and back into the extraordinary mundanity of everyday practice.

Chinese kite frame

Chinese Kite Frame (Smithsonian Institution)

When I got home, I looked up “Love in the Lab” (from Electroplating the Baby) and I think I may have found what I was looking for:

Love in the Lab by Jo Shapcott

One day
the technicians
touched souls

as they exchanged
everyday noises
above the pipette.

Then they knew
that the state of molecules
was not humdrum.

The inscriptions
on the specimen jars
which lined the room in racks
took fire in their minds:

what were yesterday
mere hieroglyphs
from the periodic table

became today urgent proof
that even here -
laboratory life -
writing is mystical.

The jars glinted under their labels:
it had taken fifteen years
to collect and collate them.

Now the pair were of one mind.
Quietly, methodically
they removed the labels
from each of the thousands
of jars. It took all night.

At dawn, rows of bare glass
winked at their exhausted coupling
against the fume cupboard.

Using their white coats
as a disguise
they took their places at the bench
and waited for the morning shift.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that practice or poeisis should sit beside representation as a way of both being and knowing the world. Inherently social, practice moves beyond individual experience to describe the world in terms of people, space and culture. I would think that poetry–or the crafting of a poem–similarly requires a writer and a reader to push and pull each other in new directions, and into new shapes.

“Love in the Lab” may be a poem, but I think it’s also very powerful (and indeed truthful) sociology of science. Since I’m not a poet or a literary scholar, I can only say that I really like the combination of precision and ambiguity. Shapcott brings practices of science and poetry out of hiding and, without completely lifting the veil, shows how entire worlds get made, unmade, remade. It truly resonates with what I have witnessed as an ethnographer in labs and other places.

Chinese kit frame

Chinese Kite Frame (Smithsonian Institution)

As Dinty W Moore explains:

“There are two ways imagination comes into play with creative nonfiction. The first is simply that the writer can imagine all she wants in an essay, as long as the border between observed truth and imagined truth is acknowledged . . . The second and more significant way that imagination comes into play is that a creative nonfiction writer must create the form, shape, language, metaphor, and rhythm of the essay.”

And now, after all this thinking-out-loud, I think the most valuable thing that I’ve gleaned is that it’s there, in the narrative rather than the plot, that practice belongs. (But I’ll have to come back to that another time.)

UPDATE 02/09/13: Roberto Greco pointed out that the objects in the images above look a lot like Polynesian stick charts. I had the same thought but decided to use the information provided by the Smithsonian instead; I mean, who am I to argue with them? On second look, however, I noticed that “Marshall Islands” is one of the tags, so maybe they’ve just been mis-labelled? In any case, besides being attracted to the objects themselves, I chose those particular images because I love cyanotypes. And see? It’s all still about science and poetry.

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