X-Files S10E3: the mobile phone scene

Pasha: What is up with your phone?
Mulder: I don't know, it's this new app, I don't know if it's working right.
Pasha: Are you taking picture or video?
Mulder: I don't know.
Pasha:  Go to Settings.
Mulder: Where?
Pasha: Go to the settings...
(screaming)
Scully: Mulder! Mulder!
(groans)
Mulder: No, I'm okay.
Scully: You've got blood on you.
Mulder: I don't think it's mine.
(groans)

Star Wars: "the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges"

Quite enjoyed this excerpt from J.G. Ballard's critique of Star Wars episode IV:

"The visual ideas in Star Wars are ingenious and entertaining.Ironically it's only now that the technology of the cinema is sufficiently advanced to represent an advanced technology in decline. I liked the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges, the pirate starship like an old tramp steamer, the dented robots with IQs higher than Einstein's which resembled beat-up De Sotos in Athens or Havana with half a million miles on the clock. I liked the way large sections of the action were seen through computerized head-up displays which provided information about closing speeds and impact velocities that makes everyone in the audience feel like a Phantom Pilot on a Hanoi bombing run."

Repair and “broken world thinking”

Another stimulating paper about repair is "Rethinking repair" by Steven J. Jackson. In this book chapter, the author advocates for a shift in social sciences, a shift from a modernist perspective to address what he calls “broken world thinking” which “asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design… are the key themes and problems facing new media and technology scholarship today." In other words, "broken world thinking" implies acknowledging the importance of fixing/reconfiguration/recombinations. Practically speaking, this kind of statement means that "repair" is relevant to address:

"The fulcrum of these two worlds is repair: the subtle acts of care by which order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished. Repair in this connotation has a literal and material dimension, filled with immediate questions: Who fixes the devices and systems we “seamlessly” use? Who maintains the infrastructures within and against which our lives unfold? But it also speaks directly to “the social,” if we still choose to cut the world in this way: how are human orders broken and restored (and again, who does this work)?"

For Jackson, addressing repair is pertinent wrt to innovation and innovative practices:

"At first glance, nothing could seem farther apart than the apparently separate questions of innovation and repair. Innovation, in the dominant coding, comes first: at the start of the technology chain, in moments of quasi-mythical origination, a creature of garage-turned-corporate engineers, operating with or without the benefits of market research and user experi- ence operations. Repair comes later, when screens and buttons fail, firmware is corrupted, and the iPhone gets shipped back to wherever iPhones come from. (We generally prefer to think not at all of what happens after such moments, in the piles of e-junk accumulated in attics and landfills or shipped overseas to Africa or Asia.) In scientific computation and collaboration, the language of innovation is generally reserved for new and computationally intensive “bright and shiny tools,” while repair tends to disappear altogether, or at best is relegated to the mostly neglected story of people (researchers, information managers, beleaguered field technicians) working to fit such artifacts to the sticky realities of field-level practices and needs. In both cases, dominant productivist imaginings of technology locate innovation, with its unassailable standing, cultural cachet, and valo- rized economic value, at the top of some change or process, while repair lies somewhere else: lower, later, or after innovation in process and worth. But this is a false and partial representation of how worlds of technology actually work, when they work."

Hence the following question/role for the social sciences (and probably design + engineering): "How might we begin to reverse this dominant view, and reimagine or better recognize the forms of innovation, difference, and creativity embedded in repair?" ... which leads him to define a sort of research program "with special attention to the existence, dynamics, and tensions of innovation beyond moments of ideation, design, and up-front adoption." In the context of repair, there a variety of questions to be addressed:

"can repair sites and repair actors claim special insight or knowledge, by virtue of their positioning vis-à- vis the worlds of technology they engage? Can breakdown, maintenance, and repair confer special epistemic advantage in our thinking about technology? Can the fixer know and see different things—indeed, different worlds—than the better-known figures of “designer” or “user”? Following on the claims of Hegelian, Marxian, and feminist theorists, can we identify anything like a standpoint epistemology of repair?"

Why do I blog this? The excerpts listed here show a set of general questions and problems to be addressed. Ethnography – and design research – can certainly help here, and I'm wondering about how to address these in conjunction with electronic objects such as smartphones, tablets or game consoles. Such issues also echo a lot with current field research in mobile phone repair shop.

Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864

"Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864 R.I.S.C. power-TPs w/ or w/o console, Pink2, post-Primestar D.S.S. dissemination, menus and icons, pixel-free Internet Fax, tri- and quad-modems w/ adjustable baud, Dissemination-Grids, screens so high-def you might as well be there, cost-effective videophonic conferencing, internal Froxx CD-ROM, electronic couture, all-in-one consoles, Yushityu nanoprocessors, laser chromotography, Virtual-capable media-cards, fiber-optic pulse, digital encoding, killer apps; carpal neuralagia, phosphenic migraine, gluteal hyperadiposity, lumbar stressae."

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 1996, p.60

Why do I blog this? because it's a lovely type of poetry.

Weekly digital lexicon #3

Maskenfreiheit (seen here) : German term that indicates the liberty that comes from wearing a mask... and metaphorically to stay anonymous, or to partly hide one's identity in public sphere.

1701 : an adjective sometimes employed to express the "futuristic" character of an object/situation; comes from the name of Star Trek's vessel The Enterprise (NCC-1701).

Auto erect : an expression which refers to the sexual connotation implied by texts/SMS/messages transformed by the auto-correct feature.

Brouteurs : an idiom used in Côte d'Ivoire to designate people committing internet frauds (seen in a text by N’Guessan Julien Atchoua found in "Quand l’Afrique réinvente la téléphonie mobile")

MTurk Research : scientific research projects that employ crowdsourcing platforms such as Mechanical Turk, Rapidworkers, etc. (seen in this article).

From conversational agents to robots

Mark Meadows wrote an interesting piece at Robohub. Basically, on virtual assistants such as Apple's SIRI, Microsoft's Cortana or Facebook's M are "the testbeds for tomorrow’s personal robots":

"Our mobile devices are becoming natural language interface hubs for life management and, as a result, having a gravitational pull on an increasingly complex buzz of connected services and APIs. This means that things like search will change: we will no longer have to speak Googlese; paper and page metaphors will be supplanted by the more dynamic (and cognitively more addictive) character metaphor. And if trends in virtual assistants and intelligent helpers – software robots – continue, then knowledge-bases (such as Wolfram Alpha or IBM Watson) will continue to come peppered with a patina of natural language, allowing us to move through data faster, with less training, and in a more human manner.

[...] We can also foretell the future by looking at less advanced natural language systems. Bots – essentially natural language oriented scripts – are a good indicator of where the robotics industry is at because bots are pervasive, useful, and simple to author. TwitterBots and FacebookBots crawl through these systems like bees in a hive, industriously providing retweets, reposts, summaries, aggregations, starting fights and flocking to followers. They can be bought, auctioned, sold, and deleted; you can buy 30,000 Twitter followers on eBay for as little as for $20, provided they’re all bots."

Why do I blog this? Although I'm not sure whether these agents need a proper physical instantiation (bigger than a phone), Mark's argument is relevant; especially if you consider how talking to objects (interacting with voice, or chatting/tweeting to bots) becomes slightly more present (= less weird).

Weekly digital lexicon #2

Zykluserkennungssoftware, die: German word "drive cycle recognition" software, a term used in a comment seen on Spiegel Online... that refers to software used to pass pollution tests (🚗💨)… modified by VW (so that they work only during tests).

AI trainer : a new job profile that consists in supervising/train computer programs: "A team of 'AI trainers' works with the program, and if there’s a request that M doesn’t understand the trainers take over. M then learns from what the human trainer does, and can use that technique with later requests." (seen here, thanks Fabien Girardin)

Plogging : the transposition of the (we)blogging logic to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter (which may allow longer posts), seen in this article (merci Virginie Bejot)

开挂 (abbreviation of 开外挂 "kai1 gua4") : a Chinese term used to express disbelief or that something has been enhance/forged (e.g. a Photoshopped image), and which originally refers to "the act of running an illegal plug-in on a game, either for practical usability purposes (translating an interface into Chinese) or to cheat (faking in-game presence to accumulate more virtual currency, or even packet modification to make a character move faster in an online game)" (Source: BoingBoing)

Design fiction, "anticipatory ethnography" and "ethnographies of the possible"

My interest in design fiction has always been related to my ethnographic practice (see for instance this piece about it) which is why I find it interesting to run into these two notions :

"Ethnographies of the possible", coined by Joachim Halse (2013):

"are a way of materializing ideas, concerns and speculations through committed ethnographic attention to the people potentially affected by them. It is about crafting accounts that link the imagination to its material forms. And it is about creating artifacts that allow participants to revitalize their pasts, reflect upon the present, and extrapolate into possible futures. These ambitions lie at the borderland between design and anthropology. For designers involved in this type of process, it is a new challenge to craft not beautiful and convincing artifacts, but evocative and open-ended materials for further experimentation in collaboration with non-designers. For anthropologists, it is a new challenge to creatively set the scene for a distorted here and now with a particular direction as a first, but important step toward exploring particular imaginative horizons in concrete ways."

Halse, J. (2013). "Ethnographies of the possible", in Gunn, W., Otto, T. & Smith, R.C. (eds). Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, pp. 180-196.

"Anticipatory ethnography", proposed by Lindley and Sharma:

"Anticipatory ethnography suggests that the properties of the traditional inputs to design ethnography (situated observations) are analogous with the ‘value adding’ element of design fictions (diegetic prototypes). [...] Assuming that these suppositions are correct, then we can infer that combining the exploratory and temporally independent techniques of design fiction, may allow design ethnography to glimpse the future. Conversely, design ethnography’s established tools for sense making and analysis can be applied to explorations in design fiction. Can anticipatory ethnography lend speculative, the gravitas of hindsight?"

Lindley, J. & Sharma, D. (2014). An Ethnography of the Future. Paper presented at ‘Strangers in Strange Lands’ – An anthropology and science fiction symposium hosted by the University of Kent, Canterbury.

Why do I blog this? These definitions echo with my own research interests. More specifically, a project like Curious Rituals is based on a dual movement : a field research phase that aimed at designing a fictional representation of everyday gestures with digital technologies. To some extent, it is close to the two concepts defined above... and I see design fiction as a sort of "downstream user research" approach to test scenarios about the future... for instance by running focus groups with users and project stakeholders, generating a debate about pieces of technologies by taking concrete instances/scenarios (videos, catalogues, user manuals, etc.).

These definition also reminded me of Laura Forlano's text on Ethnography Matters. Called "Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?", it dealt with similar issues and ended up with this insightful remark:

"As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large."