On Fadell's regrets and techno-determinism

The other day I read this piece on Fast Company – not an usual website I peruse though – that reported on a panel that was organized at the Design Museum in London. The conversation, was between Tony Fadell (founder of Nest, and who participated in the iPod/iPhone design ten years ago), historian of science and technology David Edgerton, STS researcher Judy Wajcman and another entrepreneur, Bethany Koby.

Some quotes I find interesting, reported by the journalist address Fadell's concerns about the digital technologies he helped designing:

"I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? (...) Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can–like we see with fake news–blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered? (...) And I know when I take [technology] away from my kids what happens (...) They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them—they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days."

Why do I blog this? Well, I'm less interested here in the actual comments Fadell makes about the consequences of the technologies he helped designing than the fact that he expresses such concerns.

Also, what is strange here is that I'm pretty sure the two social sciences scholars – Edgerton and Wajcman – certainly explained that such vision might be deterministic and that there's more than a sole piece of technology to blame here. As Wajcman discussed in a piece published by Aeon few years ago, the situation is a bit more subtle. She's not exactly talking about self-absorbing cultures but her comment struck me as important to ponder Fadell's claim.

"Smartphones, of course, extend expectations of perpetual availability. But the fact that we feel the need to respond to email quickly is not due to the speed of data transmission, but because of norms that have built up about appropriate response times (...)  If we feel pressed for time today, it is not because of technology, but because of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set. Digital time is no different – ultimately it needs to be understood as a product of the ways in which humans use, interact with and indeed build technology. If we want technology to bring us a better future, we must contest the imperative of speed and democratise engineering. We must bring more imagination to the field of technological innovation."

Peripheral ethnographies

(A follow-up to this blogpost, quick notes without the necessary academic framing, for the sake of putting this on the table)

Recently, in different contexts, I've been asked (both by researchers and students) about "my approach" in field research... which feels slightly weird because I wasn't sure I had a definite one. However, given recent projects with the Laboratory, as well as workshops in design schools and talks here and there, it seems there's a common way of doing things. I called it "peripheral ethnography" (or "ethnographie périphérique" in my language) because of my interest in marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts ("intriguing to whom?" one might say). All of those could be seen as what futures researchers call weak signals, and that designers might cherish in order to give direction to their work.

The term "peripheral" is relevant here because it means both "relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something" and "of secondary or minor importance"... which is close to what French sociologist-turned-writer George Perec described as observing what is often overlooked (in "Species of space" back in 1974), what he referred to as the "infra-ordinary".

By saying that I'm interested in peripheral ethnographies, it means that my focus – on any topics I'm looking into – at these little details that seem avoided, weird or overlooked at first glance... as a complement to the diversity of practices (in a very Mauss-ian way). The hypothesis here being that addressing practices and things which be relatively peripheral (and discussing this aspect with informants), and contrasting this to more standard observations, helps to understand cultures "en devenir" (and eventually craft design fiction work).

(to be continued)

On weird ethnographies

Thinking about my way to approach field research/ethnography, I've re-read today three intriguing excerpts of articles that I find interesting.

The first one is from "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman M. Klein (1997, Verso Books), who I met few years ago when I stayed art Art Center in Pasadena:

"In many ways, the materials I have assembled look like research gathered by a novelist before the novel is written, before the writer turns the contradictions into a character-driven story. Like blending notes with a diary, I plan to leave the chronicle often, to break off into essays on the social history of media, and of Los Angeles. (...) my primary sources are urban planning reports, local interviews, the detritus of neighborhood conversations, urban legends, movie locations, and so on. Primary or otherwise, sources of this type, even when they look more empirical inside scholarly articles, are unstable and fundamentally fictional. Therefore, to be honest, the text I produce must be partly autobiographical. What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents? The documents are a mix of history, fiction and urban anthropology: more a form of historicized ethnography, always cooked, certainly never raw." (p.7-8)

The quote describes Klein's modus operandi for his book about the process of memory erasure in the city of Los Angeles: the accumulation/production of material which is then turned into his "docufables". I'm less intrigued here by the semi-fictional character of the book, and instead, it's the fragmentary nature of the documentation that caught my attention. Also, his selective focus on weird insights is interesting... which leads me to the second article. It's from "Toward a Conception Of 'Gonzo' Ethnography" by E. M. I. Sefcovic (1995):

"Gonzo ethnography rejects the notion of any privileged vantage point for observation, insists on recognition of the participatory dimension of the researcher’s role, and urges experiments with research methods and reporting practices that can liberate and empower general audiences."

Sefcovic's article is mostly focused on a rejection of positivism, the need to involve oneself in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, and to bring a critical stance.. However, I do think there's another aspect of gonzo "approach" that could be relevant too: it's the tendency Hunter Thompson had to pick stories/anecdotes/factoids/stuff which are mostly peripheral to the subject he was supposed to cover as a journalist. I find that aspect important in my work, i.e. the need to consider things out of my perspective. This is close to what Justin Pickard included in his "Gonzo Futurist" manifesto:

"the observation stage of this operational loop looks like some vernacular, ad-hoc ethnography. This kind of observation is shorthand for all kinds of evidence-gathering, so read widely, take photos, and ask questions. Probe. Keep records. If something seems incongruous, it’s probably important. When it comes to observation, your nemesis is the filter bubble — an echo chamber forged by Google and Facebook; a ‘unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Pariser, 2011: 9) It may be comfortable in the bubble, but ‘there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.’ (Ibid.: 15)"

One way to get out of the filter bubble IMO relies (for instance) on finding non-standards informants (such as non-users, extreme users, people involved in intriguing practices) or collecting weird material (documents, fictional elements that can describe the social imaginaire you're interested int, etc.). I call that "peripheral ethnography".

Recurring dream, recurring flops

James, at Crap Futures, blogged last week this intriguing diagram: 


Of course one can always argue about modifications and missing connections, it somehow gives a pretty good outline of "the journey of a technology." When observing it  the other day, I quickly realized it should be less of an arrow, and more of a cycle... considering that it takes many (failed) products to have a technology reaching a sort of maturity (and then obsolescence). But the red "recurring dream" part plays that role in the diagram; I can't help thinking about technological flops that belonged to this category (humanoid robots, smart homes, monorails, VR/AR headsets, etc.) How can we revisit the evolution of <technology> based on this?

Given that the crap futures blog insists on deconstructing smartness, I can imagine that the diagram can be helpful to map the various parameters around which the notion of networked/smart/connected/automated objects are built. Also, this diagram is relevant because it can help to generate (micro-)briefs. Say, you want to work on *teh smart home of teh future*, it would be intriguing to design several versions: the cheap one, the functional one. Alternatively, one can also think about the ingredients to design such technology: what if the smart home of the future was designed sans consideration for science-fiction (you remove that bit from the diagram) and an important emphasis on the sublime/spectacle? What would be the result (beyond an episode of The Simpsons)?

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...
Scully: Mulder! Mulder!
Mulder: No, I'm okay.
Scully: You've got blood on you.
Mulder: I don't think it's mine.

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.