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.

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!

Objects, Animals, Fantasies and Speculations, Oh My!

Darth Stark

With Trimester 1 ending this week and Wellington quickly sinking into winter, I’m looking forward to visiting warmer-than-here Australia…

In a few weeks I’ll be heading to Brisbane to join a great team at the CCI Winter School, which offers some amazing participants “a week-long program of interdisciplinary study, collaboration and social interaction in the broad area of creative industries and innovation research.” While there,  I’ll be co-facilitating the following workshops:

Materiality, Digital Media and the Stuff of Everyday Life (with Heather Horst)

Material culture studies, STS, infrastructures and related approaches to conceptualising human and nonhuman agency have become central to our understanding of the relationships we have with digital media and technology. This workshop will explore the material infrastructures and objects that underpin participants’ areas of study, and ask questions about the active roles they play in constituting our experiences of digital media and culture – ‘the stuff’ of everyday life.

The Internet of Animals and Dead People (with Tama Leaver)

While online profiles, identities, policies and discussions almost always centre on active human subjects, the internet is a vast arena filled with many other entities. This scenario-driven workshop will focus on two under-studied areas which are both meaningful in themselves, and shed important light on the limitations of much current thinking about online culture. Tama will focus on the question of digital death and the transition of active subjects into digital objects and sites of mourning, examining the relationship between identity and ‘being’ data. Anne will explore the increasingly vital roles that animals–and even some vegetables and minerals–are taking as mediators of digital culture, while also questioning the possibilities of nonhuman media production.

The following week, I’ll head to Melbourne to spend some time with the stellar researchers at RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre. While there, I’ll be teaching the following Postgraduate Masterclass:

Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design

Let's PretendEthnographers have long grappled with questions of empiricism, cultural representation and performance, but these debates almost exclusively maintain the assumption that ethnography is, and should remain, a realist endeavour. Even ethnographic fictions are expected to resemble stories that could actually have happened, or might actually have been uncovered through ethnographic research. But what could ethnography become, and do, if it maintained its interest in partial truths but was not bound by realist aesthetics? What could the subjects—and objects—of ethnography become? And by moving beyond the literal writing of culture, what worlds could we make? Using examples from speculative fiction and design, this postgraduate masterclass will explore what making things and making things up can, and cannot, offer the practice of ethnography. In particular, we will look at what fantastic ethnography and speculative design can bring to our understanding of complex cultural issues and the decline of human exceptionalism.

I’m also looking forward to catching up with some colleagues at Swinburne, and if you’re in Melbourne or Brisbane and would like to meet up, please just DM me on Twitter.

5 Things About Ubiquitous Computing That Make Me Nervous

After more than a decade of studying ubiquitous computing I’ve seen some interesting things come and go. (To put this in perspective for my students I tell them that my PhD was done before the first iPhone was released.) But it’s the persistent things that I end up thinking about most, the cultural values and social norms around ubicomp that we never seem to lose despite everything that changes.

I was thinking about some of those things last week when a colleague asked me to give a guest lecture in his undergrad ubiquitous computing media design course, and so I found myself putting together a few slides under the title 5 Things About Ubiquitous Computing That Make Me Nervous. This was my list:

1. Technological determinism & defeatism

Or, the cultural belief that technological development and progress is inevitable, and we have to adapt.

2. Technological solutionism

Or, the cultural belief that technology is the best solution to life’s problems.

3. Quantification imperatives

Or, the cultural belief that everything can and should be measured in numbers, and that everyday life would be better if all our decisions were based on these data.

4. Connection & sharing imperatives

Or, the cultural belief that everyday life would be better if more information was transmissible and accessible to people.

5. Convenience & efficiency imperatives

Or, the cultural belief that people would be better off if there were more technologies to make daily life more convenient, and common tasks more efficient.

I explained that the five points are not mutually exclusive, but that we can look at them individually to get a better sense of how they overlap and reinforce each other. Technological defeatism and solutionism are Evgeny Morozov’s terms, and because our students are surrounded by digital utopianism and not often keen on reading academic texts, I suggested that they check out his interesting and readable new book: To Save Everything, Click Here.

I explained that I found the first two beliefs most problematic because they are so far reaching and have been responsible for some of history’s greatest atrocities, but that the following three points are most problematic in their capacity as imperatives. In other words, I have no problem imagining situations or contexts where they could be appropriate but I’m nervous because designers too often take their necessity for granted–and fail to ask questions about when, where and for whom such designs might be inappropriate, or make the effort to understand why.

Like many students facing a critique of their practice, they struggled to understand how they could proceed. Some still focussed on how to provide the right solutions to the right problems (I asked who should get to decide what is right); others wanted to know how they could predict the likelihood of something bad happening (I pointed back to #3); and a few wanted ethical guidelines (I wondered if this fell under #2, or if I needed to add a #6, Prescriptive imperatives). Taking a more pedagogical perspective, a couple of students recognised that it is difficult to develop a critical perspective whilst in school that includes the possibility of not designing something, simply because we force them to make things.

A few students even accused me of being defeatist and anti-technology in my critique, but I responded that I never said that ubicomp shouldn’t be designed, and neither did I say that we couldn’t create technologies in more critical, or interrogative ways. A serious problem, I think, is that our imaginations are not as strong when we come to the task of redesigning design itself. Design still suffers, for example, from having contradictory interests in sustainability and planned obsolescence, and still responds to the perils of mass production through the design of small-run luxury goods. In these, and other cases, one problem is simply substituted for another–and the solutionist imperative encourages us to respond by designing and producing more and more in turn.

In my class this term we’re using Anne Balsamo’s Designing Culture as a starting point for identifying when, where and how designers make decisions. For all our focus on teaching students to design digital and physical products, I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of getting them to understand their process as a form of social, cultural, political, ethical, etc. agency. There is still, I think, too much emphasis on design process as some sort of mythical, mystical, essentially ineffable, act of creation.

This problem, I think, is further compounded in more critical approaches, where design effectively begins and ends with the creative act. In other words, whether questioning ubicomp or biotech or something else entirely, the objects and ostensibly critical intentions of the designer are treated as givens and little effort has been made to systematically understand how other people interact–or do not interact–with these designs. Imagine discussions about video games that did not include player perspectives, or mass media research that did not take into account the active use of, rather than passive consumption of, information and entertainment. And yet critical design, speculative design, and design fiction are rarely researched by non-designers–see DiSalvo and Michael for notable exceptions–and almost never analysed or evaluated by their actual practitioners. (I’ll never forget being told by a designer that we can’t critique critical design because it had already been done through the design itself!)

By articulating “things that make me nervous” instead of talking about “things that are bad,” I had hoped to help students realise that critique is also not a final act. I wanted them to keep moving, to keep acting–but with greater awareness, responsibility and accountability. Critique shouldn’t stop us from acting or, in my opinion, tell us how to act. Critical awareness should help us situate ourselves, make active decisions to do some things and not others, and accept the consequences of these actions for ourselves and others.

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