experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

In the news: “the softest substrate ever to carry complex, functional electronic circuitry”

Ars Electronica: Temporary tattoos fitted with electronics make flexible, ultrathin sensors

“New research published in Science describes technology that allows electrical measurements (and other measurements, such as temperature and strain) using ultra-thin polymers with embedded circuit elements. These devices connect to skin without adhesives, are practically unnoticeable, and can even be attached via temporary tattoo.


The authors suggest there are a huge number of applications for this technology, including remote medical monitoring, biological/chemical sensing, human-machine interface, and covert communications. There are a couple areas where further development is needed, however: RF communication frequencies change when the circuits are stretched, and dead skin and sweat have to be dealt with during long-term use. These aren’t insurmountable complications, though, so we’ll be interested in following this as further work is done (the unclassified work, at least).”

Nature:’Electronic skin’ could replace bulky electrodes

“The device is thin enough to stick to skin using only the short-range van der Waals forces that hold molecules together, as the forces that threaten to detach it are 10 million times weaker than they would be for a chip a millimetre thick. The circuits are fashioned as a net of narrow S-shaped filaments, so they can stretch and contract without breaking.


One major downside is that the continual shedding of skin cells means that the patch falls off after a few days. The researchers are looking for ways around this, so they can be worn for months at a time. The electronic skin is also expensive to make, but Rogers hopes that the patches could eventually be mass-produced. ‘We’re building on existing technology rather than reinventing it, so I think the technical hurdles to commercial manufacture are lower than you’d ordinarily see’.”

This is interesting and important on so many levels my brain hurts.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, GECKO PHYSICS FTW!

Posted: August 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

Only in NZ: a boy and his sheep

I love this new Kiwi TV advert so much that I’m willing to overlook that it’s a bank advert and just focus on how sweet a story it tells about a boy and his sheep:

The moral of the story: You don’t have to kill your sheep to get a Nintendo DS. (Also, females of all species are fickle.)

Or, as Ben says, “Teach a boy to kill a sheep, he has a DS. Teach a boy to shear a sheep, he has a new game every growing season.”

Posted: August 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

Dialysis Sheep, sacrificial lambs, Black Sheep, and speculative design’s publics

In an era of xenotransplantation and human-sheep chimera, Revital Cohen‘s Life Support project (RCA Design Interactions, 2008) asks “Could animals be transformed into medical devices?” and “Could a transgenic animal function as a whole mechanism and not simply supply the parts? Could humans become parasites and live off another organism’s bodily functions?”

Interesting questions, and I find myself deeply affected by Cohen’s Dialysis Sheep concept:

A patient suffering from kidney failure gives a blood sample to the lab, the scientists cut from the patients’ genome the regions that code for blood production (bone marrow tissues), and immune response (the major histocompatibility complex). They then extract the genome from the nucleus of a somatic cell taken from a sheep and substitute the corresponding regions of the sheep’s genome with the DNA cut from the patients’ genome.

This recombinant DNA is then inserted into the nucleus of a pre-prepared sheep egg cell. Cell division in the egg is initiated and after a few divisions implanted into the receptive ewe.

The surrogate ewe gives birth to the transgenic lamb, which is given to the donor patient.

During the day, the dialysis sheep is free to roam in the patient’s back garden, graze to cleanse its kidneys, and drink water containing salt minerals, calcium and glucose.

At night, the sheep is placed on a special platform at the patient’s bedside. The transgenic sheep’s kidneys are connected via blood lines to the patient’ s fitsula (a surgicaly enlarged vein). During the night, peristaltic pumps remove waste products from the patient’s blood by pumping it out of the body, through the sheep’s kidney (a natural, organic filtering system) and returning it, cleaned, to the patient.

This happens over and over again throughout the night. Each time the “clean” blood is returned to the body, it picks up more waste products from the cells it circulates through, and brings these newly-collected toxins back to the sheep’s kidney to be removed.

The sheep urinates the toxins.

Okay, first things first. When I say I’m “deeply affected” by this design, I mean that despite being struck by the beauty of some of the images, I am utterly horrified and disgusted by the concept. (How could someone think it’s acceptable to use an animal like this when we have machines that can do the same thing?!) But I’m also intellectually fascinated by it, and can’t stop thinking about it.

In principle, I share the desire to (re)vitalise what can be utterly dehumanising medical processes. For example, Elio Caccavale‘s Utility Pets (2003) project asked “What if we shared our homes with pigs bred to provide replacement human organs?” and part of the intention was to imagine a close relationship and emotional exchange between patient and organ donor. I like this idea and no more harm comes to the pig before it is killed/sacrificed than to a typical meat animal.

But using an animal as a blood filtering machine is different, and using a sheep to do this invokes an additional set of cultural connotations that are conspicuously (purposefully?) absent from Cohen’s project description.

Most notably, it is impossible for me to overlook the fact that sacrificial lambs play an important role in Judeo-Christian religion. Furthermore, John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God, whose sacrificial death washed away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Such imagery can be seen in one of the most famous pieces of European religious art: Jan van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, or Ghent Altarpiece (1432), which depicts the sacrificial lamb surrounded by fourteen angels, and groups of male clergy, female martyrs, Jews and pagans.

More generally, lambs bound for sacrifice also appear in many Renaissance religious paintings and sculptures, such as Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán (1635-1640).

To conjure a lamb or sheep, then, as a cleansing machine is doubly powerful. Cohen’s images above show the sheep effectively bound by medical tubing instead of rope, but also bathed by soft light and lying in straw like so many lambs in nativity scenes. It may not be killed by the act of serving as a dialysis machine, but arguably its (quality of) life is still sacrificed; and while the lamb itself is not resurrected, another being effectively is.

Now maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I’m interested in how critical design can move people, or how it affects who we are and who we can become. Although this is more a matter of potential rather than actual engagement with design, I think it is related to the matter of audience, or whose potential we’re talking about. As Emily Dawson put it in her EASST 2010 paper, “Speculative design and the issue of public participation” (abstract, pdf):

“While some speculative design projects seek out alternatives platforms for engaging with diverse publics, for example workshops in community centres or with patient groups, there is a persistent tendency towards the exhibition as the central engagement format, often coupled with an online element. It is clear from decades of research in museums and galleries that exhibitions, both physical and online, are a fantastic way of preaching to the choir, and little else. Speculative design projects in this vein may not reach beyond an already interested audience of designers and scientists.”

As part of this already interested, and educated, audience I realise that my engagement with Cohen’s Dialysis Sheep is most likely atypical. Visiting an RCA Design Interactions degree show, or keeping up on art and design blogs, betrays my interests and education. In other words, as a researcher, I am part of a very narrow kind of public and I have no idea what other members of other publics would think of Cohen’s concept. For example, did the designer consider showing it to dialysis patients and their families? And what could be gained from such interactions?

Looking at the issues from another perspective, what can a movie like 2006’s Black Sheep do for public understanding and debate that Dialysis Sheep can’t?

One of the most fascinating things that has emerged from the first few months of Counting Sheep research is that designers and non-designers are responding to our designs quite differently. These differences in audience response have led me to seriously question my intention to hold an exhibition next year, and I find myself increasingly turning to diverse publics and means of interaction with our work. After all, if I’m seeking public engagement with the technosocial issues at hand then I need to be clearer on what kind of public(s) I’m talking about–and other researchers and designers simply aren’t it.

For example, the first set of videos we made on NZ merino wool turned out to be rather didactic exercises in digital storytelling that tend to fall flat with designers and researchers, but utterly captivate other people. It was this response that led me to make our Story of NZ Merino Wool content available for Mix & Mash: The Great NZ Remix and Mashup Competition and share it with public educators and NZ merino industry stakeholders, instead of just exhibiting it or writing about it in journal articles. In short, I wanted people other than the usual suspects to see our work, and I wanted it to be possible for other people to do something with it. There is nothing particularly critical about these videos, but they are helping us see what we can do with other people and allowing for the possibility that critique doesn’t only originate from research and design practice. Our Kotahitanga Urban Merino Farm is a clearer example of speculative design, and will hopefully offer further opportunities along these lines. For example, I’ll be taking the project to the 50th annual Merino Shearing and Wool Handling Championships next month to discuss with participants and attendees, and it’ll be interesting to see where that leads.

For now, I’m just trying to figure out who critical and speculative design is actually for. What do you think?

Posted: August 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals, Research Methodologies, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

Merino husbandry issues and public concerns

“A community focus on animal welfare shows that many people are suspicious that some animal farming practices may be cruel…”

Charles Massy, NSW merino sheep breeder and author

When it comes to sheep, no animal welfare issue has received greater public attention than mulesing. The RSPCA Australia defines the practice as follows:

“Mulesing was developed in 1927 and, for 80 odd years, it has been a routine husbandry procedure for the majority of merino sheep in Australia. Merinos have woolly wrinkles and folds in their skin, which, around the tail and breech area, become moist with urine and contaminated with faeces. Particularly in hot and humid conditions, blowflies are attracted to this moist area where they lay eggs. Eventually the eggs hatch and maggots eat away at the flesh of the live animal — this is flystrike. Mulesing involves cutting flaps of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail to create an area of bare, stretched skin. Because the scarred skin has no folds or wrinkles to hold moisture and faeces, it is less attractive to blowflies. This makes mulesed merinos less susceptible to flystrike. Research shows the pain of mulesing is similar to that of castration, but it lasts longer (up to 48 hours).”

Mulesing, then, actually comprises three issues: sheep breeding practices, flystrike and its attempted prevention. Historically, merinos have been bred with folds in their skin in order to produce more wool. Flystrike is a condition brought on when the breed lives in warm, humid conditions that encourage blowflies to lay eggs in the folds. In order to prevent flystrike, farmers developed the practice of mulesing.

Although flystrike is a horrible condition that could have been publically taken up as an issue, as well as connected to other livestock husbandry issues, animal rights activism turned the practice of mulesing into a public concern. In 2004, PETA’s “Australia’s Secret Shame” and “Nothing Like Australia’s Cruelty” campaigns led to international public protests, fashion industry boycotts and news stories like the following:

Celebrity support of PETA’s campaign was common, although Australian actor Toni Collette ended her association with them in 2005 after she fully understood “the complexity of the situation,” i.e. the matter of limited alternatives to mulesing. Seven years later, flystrike remains an issue but Wool Producers Australia‘s policy still focusses on public concerns around mulesing:

“In response to pressure from international retailers in 2004, the Australian wool industry unconditionally committed to end the practice of mulesing by 2010. It was a decision not taken lightly at the time, but was one that was essential to retain the support of international customers … This commitment was made by a collective group of every major grower organisation in the country. This was a unanimous decision and there was no dissent.”

Nonetheless, seeking alternatives to mulesing shifts focus back to flystrike prevention and breeding activities. According to Australian Wool Innovation Ltd., “the prevention of flystrike continues to be AWI’s number one research priority with over $25 million spent on finding flystrike prevention alternatives in the last five years,” including these promising research areas. However, although the issues continue to significantly inform research agendas in both Australia and New Zealand, neither flystrike prevention nor sheep breeding have become public concerns like mulesing did.

Interestingly, the situation is a bit different in New Zealand, where merino mulesing is comparatively rare because merinos are raised in drier, cooler high country areas where flystrike is not such a problem. Nonetheless, and presumably to ensure its place in a global market not familiar with differences between Australian and NZ merino, Icebreaker emphasises that their wool growers do not practice mulesing.

To back up a bit, in New Zealand all sheep are protected under the 1999 NZ Animal Welfare Act and the 2005 Animal Welfare (Painful Husbandry Procedures) Code of Welfare (pdf) prohibited chemical mulesing but allowed “surgical mulesing on Merino or Merino-dominant animals farmed in extensive situations where there [was] high risk of flystrike and where there [were] no other effective flystrike preventative measures.” Furthermore, “the procedure [had to] be carried out by competent operators using clean sharp shears and removing no more skin than is necessary.” However, following the Australians, the NZ merino industry also agreed to ban mulesing by the end of 2010, independent of alternative and regulated methods of flystrike prevention being made available by that time.

Nonetheless, NZ government regulations arguably continue to place the issue of flystrike above public concerns surrounding mulesing. The 2010 Animal Welfare (Sheep and Beef Cattle) Code of Welfare (pdf) states that “All reasonable steps must be taken to prevent, or identify and manage the risk of flystrike in sheep,” and although not explicitly prohibited, mulesing is not listed as one of the suggested measures for preventing and managing flystrike.

Social researchers, and other interested readers, will have noticed by now that I haven’t explained the difference between an “issue” and a “public concern,” so I’ll try to clarify what I mean. First, I understand that issues are always already concerns, but a public concern raises issues to the level of public (including media) controversy and necessarily involves opposing interests. A more recent example of a public concern related to agriculture is Australia’s ban on live animal exports, and subsequent reinstatement due to industry concerns. (New Zealand has had a moratorium on live animal exports since 2003, and in June of this year, Agriculture Minister David Carter said the Government will not lift the ban.) Both mulesing and live export involve a variety of complex issues, but when people with different values and interests began to support and challenge these issues (objects?) in public domains, then I referred to them as public concerns.

But these distinctions are not particularly important to me. For example, I can just as easily connect what I am describing to Bruno Latour’s hybrid micropolitical fora that gather around “matters of concern” rather than “matters of fact”–although he also refers to “issues-based” politics and publics. Another way of looking at a public concern is through Nortje Marres’ (following Dewey) concept of “issue networks,” which is, I think, especially productive in articulating the processes of translation that assemble a variety of interests into one issue or concern. For example, public concern around mulesing is probably more accurately explained as an issue network involving sheep, livestock genetics, blowflies, animal husbandry, industry, government, media, activists, consumers, etc. Another agricultural issue network or public concern has formed around animal traceability and electronic identification, and we can follow any number of national and international actors in order to understand the object of controversy and how its politics are being practiced.

In terms of my own research, I’m interested in how mulesing did not result in the same kind of public concern in NZ as it did in Australia, but it has nonetheless remained an issue that merino wool producers address in their international marketing efforts. I am also interested in the issues surrounding livestock traceability in NZ, and how the issue network might stretch to include merino sheep in the future. And all of this here is me starting to sort that all out. Any thoughts?

Posted: August 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

Technology is running the show…

Noma Bar for IBM‘s Smarter Planet/Smarter Food

Food for thought:

“Technology is running the show. Because it’s possible for owners to operate equipment by playing tunes via mobile phones, that’s what we’ll do. Because it’s possible for machines to monitor the electricity grid and determine when to run, that’s what we’ll do. Where is the humanity at the heart of all of this? Where is the user whose life is immeasurably improved by the application of smart technology? Do we need to unleash a whole new set of instructions and rules on unsuspecting consumers who now have to remember to plug in details of their purchases into the fridge door? Let’s add insult to injury by assuming they’re too dumb to know that the milk has gone of by reading the date on the bottle or, you know, opening it and realizing it’s off?

I must be wrong. Maybe there’s a whole market of people who really are breathlessly awaiting the time when their fridge can finally, at last, tell them not to eat the food they bought a while back that’s no longer fresh. I can see the “Saved! By my fridge!” headlines now. Technology is a wonderful, amazing thing and it will lead to developments none of us can even begin to fathom today. But my suspicion is that while those applying it assume human beings to be entirely stupid, the development of a smart grid is the least of our worries.”

The Missing Human Heart of Innovation


Posted: August 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »