experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

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.

Posted: June 4th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

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.

Posted: March 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

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.

Posted: March 2nd, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

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.


January #2013reads

Posted: February 28th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life | No Comments »

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.


Posted: January 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life | No Comments »