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.

The Internet of Animals. Game on!

I’ve spent almost every day for three or four years thinking about, talking about, writing about, and working towards something I’ve come to call an internet of animals.

This week, two things happened that expanded what the internet of animals could become.

1) Some scientists used the internet to link the brains of rats and get them to do stuff together

Guardian: Brain-to-brain interface lets rats share information via internet

“Even though the animals were on different continents, with the resulting noisy transmission and signal delays, they could still communicate. This tells us that we could create a workable network of animal brains distributed in many different locations.”

Nature: Intercontinental mind-meld unites two rats

“Nicolelis’ … team is already working to link the brains of four mice. The researchers are also set to start similar experiments with monkeys, in which paired individuals control virtual avatars and combine their brain activity to play a game together.”

Daily Mail: Telepathy is real! Scientists develop mind-reading implant that links the brains of rats in the US and Brazil

“British expert Professor Christopher James, from the University of Warwick, who has conducted similar research, said: ‘We are far from a scenario of well-networked rats around the world uniting to take us over, the stimulation is crude and specific. As for the ethics, I struggle to think of any applications that would not have ethical issues’.”

2) Some other famous scientists and a famous musician proposed an “interspecies internet”

TED 2013 Interspecies Internet

TED Blog: The interspecies internet: Diana Reiss, Peter Gabriel, Neil Gershenfeld and Vint Cerf at TED2013

Gabriel:”What would happen if we could somehow find new interfaces – visual, audio — to allow us to communicate with the remarkable beings we share the planet with.”

Gershenfeld: “I was struck by the history of the internet, because it started as the internet of middle-aged white men … I realized that we humans had missed something — the rest of the planet … We’re starting to think about how you integrate the rest of the biomass of the planet into the internet.”

Cerf: “What’s important about what these people are doing: They’re beginning to learn how to communicate with species that are not us, but share a sensory environment. [They're figuring out] what it means to communicate with something that’s not a person. I can’t wait to see these experiments unfold.”

Mashable: Peter Gabriel, Vint Cerf Launch ‘Internet for Animals’

Cerf: “We should not restrict the Internet to one species. Other species should be allowed to participate.”

Facebook: The Interspecies Internet

“We hope to link up the captive species who already have demonstrated a cognitive and linguistic understanding of interspecies communication from facility to facility (especially the families that have been separated), and additionally to their species in their native lands. Schoolchildren in the native regions where these animals are in danger, would be able to communicate with the animals via tablet and learn that these animals are intelligent and friendly.

Yup. Things are about to get weird.

February #2013reads

Another good month, in no particular order:

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
A story about the costs of wishes coming true. Quite beautiful.

The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman
A story about the consequences of love. And loneliness.

Castle Waiting (Vol 1) by Linda Medley
A very fun fairy tale about misfits and belonging.

Earlier:

January #2013reads

January #2013reads

I’ve decided to keep track of the novels I read this year.

January was a good month, and in no particular order, this is what I read:

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
A story of unfathomable loss, love, hope and beauty. It shattered me.

Big Ray by Michael Kimball
A story about being glad that someone is dead, and missing them at the same time. Written in small bits, like memories work.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
A story about all the things you find when you’re looking for something else. Heartening.

 

“Under the sun, everyday is a good day. Another good day, Fukumaru.”

Misao and Fukumaru by Miyoko Ihara

“‘We’ll never be apart!,’ says Misao to Fukumaru. Both of them live in a tiny world, with dignity, with mutual love. Still today, under the blue sky, Misao and Fukumaru work in the fields and in these natural surroundings, where they shine like the stars.”

Misao & Fukumaru

Misao & Fukumaru

Misao & Fukumaru

Beautiful.

My body’s plant and animal companion species

“Multispecies ethnographers are studying the host of organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds. A project allied with Eduardo Kohn’s ‘anthropology of life‘—’an anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our entanglements with other kinds of living selves’—multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces.” (Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, 2010)

My research has always focussed on human-nonhuman relations, but as the Counting Sheep project progresses I find myself less interested in technology per se, and more interested in how technologies mediate our relationships with other living creatures.

Since my research tends to focus on large-scale, public issues in this area, I thought it might be interesting to look at what’s going on at more small-scale or personal levels, and maybe even explore what a multispecies autoethnography might involve.

Let’s take my body as an example. Six weeks ago I broke my left ankle in three places, and got titanium implants that will hold my tibia and fibula together for the rest of my life. Last week I got a bacterial infection in the surgical wounds, and yesterday my GP identified a fungal infection on my foot (both superficial and temporary conditions). Whether you find this fascinating, disgusting, both or neither, my point is that these events make it impossible for me to believe in human exceptionalism or ignore that my body is simultaneously animal, vegetable and mineral.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman famously wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes”–something that is metaphorically and literally true. Microbiologist David Relman compares humans to coral, and finds it “humbling” that each of us is “an assemblage of life-forms living together.” The Human Microbiome Project informs us that “within the body of a healthy adult, microbial cells are estimated to outnumber human cells ten to one,” and we know that “100 trillion good bacteria…live in or on the human body.”

Bringing this back to the personal scale, in addition to my ‘normal’ microbiome I currently have at least two invasive species or pest organisms breaching the surface of my body.

ANIMAL
Kingdom Bacteria (left: staphylococcus; right: streptococcus)

Staphylococcus   Streptococcus

PLANT
Kingdom Fungi (left and right: tinea)

Tinea  Tinea pedis

And in order to kill the bacteria, I’m being treated with perhaps the most famous fungus of all: penicillin.

PLANT
Kingdom Fungi (P. chrysogenum)

Penicillium notatum  P. chrysogenum

The use of antibiotics impacts other organisms as well. For example, each day that I take them my ‘healthy’ microbiome is reconfigured in unpredictable ways.

And we’re not done yet! My (injured) body is also directly and indirectly bound to two other animals: pigs and rats.

After surgery I developed a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis in my calf. The initial treatment for DVT is the anti-coagulant drug heparin, and for the past six weeks I’ve been giving myself daily injections of enoxaparin sodium, derived from the intestinal mucosa of pigs. In this case, one animal (the pig) dies, in part, to produce a drug that allows the human animal (me) to live.

ANIMAL

Kingdom Animalia (left: pig intestines; right: intestinal mucosa)

Pig intestines  Intestinal mucosa

Yesterday, the heparin was replaced by warfarin, an anti-coagulant most famously used as rat poison, which I’ll take in tablet form for another three months:

Warfarin rat bait  Marevan

In this case, the same drug used to kill a pest animal (the rat) is being used to keep a human animal (me) alive.

Now all I’ve really done here is trace the species that have recently become my companions. In order to make this a ‘proper’ multispecies ethnographic account, I would need to take a much closer look at the political, economic, and cultural forces that create and maintain this human-nonhuman assemblage I call my body. And that, I’m afraid, will have to be a task for another day. It turns out that my new companions wear me out rather quickly and I’m tired now.

FARM animals

Farm: The second meeting of British Animal Studies Network in Glasgow, took place on Friday 16 November and Saturday 17 November 2012 at the University of Strathclyde. They’ve generously posted audio of all the talks:

Welcome

Erica Fudge (University of Strathclyde) [to listen to the welcome click here]

Plenary 1

Henry Buller (Exeter University), ‘The One and the Many: Interkingdoms, (un)Natural Participations and the Farm’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 1: Agriculture and Animal Health.

Chair: Erica Fudge (University of Strathclyde)

Richard Thomas (Leicester University), ‘“How you ought to keep your beasts….”: livestock healthcare and welfare in archaeological perspective’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Abigail Woods (Imperial College London), ‘Dairy farming, veterinary science and the bovine mastitis problem in Britain, 1930-2010’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Angela Cassidy (Imperial College London), ‘Representations and risks of humans and other animals in the One Health movement(s)’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Plenary 2

Rhoda Wilkie (Aberdeen University), ‘Working with Food Animals: Ambiguous Encounters and Neglected Labour at the Byre-Face’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 2: Reconsidering the Farm Animal.

Chair: Clare Palmer (Texas A&M University)

Emma Roe (University of Southampton) ‘The farm animal as a visceral “object”’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Roxanna Lynch (Swansea University), ‘Caring for Farm Animals?’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 3: Critical Perspectives on Human-Animal-Technology Relations.

Chair: Chris Bear (Cardiff University)

Lewis Holloway (Hull University), Chris Bear (Cardiff University) and Katy Wilkinson (University of Warwick), ‘Robotic milking technologies and the renegotiation of situated ethical relationships on UK dairy farms’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Richard Twine (Lancaster University), ‘Animals on Drugs – Understanding the role of pharmaceutical companies in the animal-industrial complex’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Panel 4 Re-conceptualising Farming.

Chair: Robert McKay (Sheffield University)

John Miller (Sheffield University), ‘In Vitro Meat and Environmental Aesthetics’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Kim Baker ‘Picturing Pigs, Depicting Pigmen: how pig industry advertising strategies reveal the unseen idioms of farm animal production’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Plenary 3

Mara Miele (Cardiff University) ‘A Version of Emotions: The Brave Sheep’ [to listen to the paper click here]

Past BASN meetings include Wild, which also looks great.

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