Why do I blog this? These are some examples of how places (cities, shops, shopping malls) try to take advantage of the Pokémon Go location-based game. Various strategies, various levels of orchestration. Pictures taken in Kelowna, Victoria, Vancouver and Geneva.
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".
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)?
Some of the repair shops I visited in Los Angeles few weeks ago.
And the most intriguing is the e-cig-shop-turned-hoverboard-repair-shop:
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.
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.
A fascinating poster encountered few days ago in the wholesale district of Los Angeles. A very straight-forward way to indicate the evolution of objects/technologies. Let's appreciate the examples chosen by this local tech historian.
Geneva (Switzerland), December 21, 2015.
The power plugs available for the flea/farmers market in Geneva are often used by people to recharge their mobile phones. The rain sometimes prevents them from using the plugs, but some guy obviously found a protection. Interestingly, the owner, who's fifty meters away, do not seem to care much about his device, only observing it from the distance.
Strangely enough, I had to come to the Southwest part of Madeira to discover Crap Future, an insightful new blog "about futures, innovation, politics, technology" by Julian Hanna and James Auger. The premise looks great as can be seen from the About page:
"Crap Futures casts a critical eye on corporate dreams and emerging technologies. It asks questions about where society is heading, who is taking us there, and whether ‘there’ is where we really want to end up."
Perhaps the most fascinating entry so far is the one about their critique of "smartness"... which looks quite close to long-time research interests here.
Why do I blog this? Knowing James' work for a long time, I'm curious about their analyses. Also, like the two authors of Crap Future, I also believe it's preferable to explore near future worlds by investigating islands. As they say:
"escaping from a big city to a distant island also reminds you of how far we’ve been brought down by technology: how inhuman many aspects of our lives have become, how much we’ve lost or traded away in a few quick swipes. From here on the margins of Europe, what we’re promised by advertisements and political manifestos looks even less shiny than it does in the steel-and-glass centre. We know intuitively that the smart home is not our home; for the margins it’s cast-offs, afterthoughts, crap phones. "
Given the news from Las Vegas' CES – with smart fridges among other products that may or may not appear on the now infamous @internetofshit twitter stream – it's definitely wise to adopt a more critical perspective, and I guess Crap Future may be helpful for this.
I've always been fascinated by "rock speakers", i.e. audio speakers hidden in faux-rocks. Quite a weird object category, very ironic actually. There are some available on Amazon (see this one) and it's quite intriguing to read the technical features as well as the reviews by buyers. I can see that as an example of Invisible technology, perhaps in a different way than Mark Weiser's definition of Ubiquitous Computing.
What does it mean? What's the need to hide technology in a crappy plastic stone?
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."
Back in December 2014, I've been contacted by Ludovic Noël, director of Cité du Design (Saint Etienne, France). He basically asked me whether I'd be interested in being a curator for an exhibit on "interfaces". I immediately said yes and realized it would be a great opportunity to explore the mutual relationships between design (in the context of digital technologies) and science-fiction, quite an important topic for us at the Near Future Laboratory. Here's a translation of the short text I wrote apropos the exhibit:
Minority Report, Back To The Future 2, Avatar, 2001, Iron man, Star Trek… Numerous science-fiction films and series depict technological objects. The interfaces – the ways to control or communicate with machines – are perhaps the most notable example of such phenomenon. So much so that some producers and directors collaborate with designers to improve the quality or the plausibility of these accessories. However, these fictional representations also influence the work of designers and engineers involved in interface design. To overcome the keyboard/mouse duo, virtual reality headsets, neworked gloves, mobile phones, gestural interfaces, smartwatches, and interactive surfaces, to name but a few have been reinvented in the last thirty years. Such examples highlight the fertile relationships between design and science fiction culture. They point out possible directions pursued by interface designers. Returning to the main archetypes of past and interfaces under development, Culture Interface addresses the reciprocal influences between Science Fiction and the design of digital interfaces. Alongside this historical return, the exhibition shows how designers overcame the stereotypes to offer unique creations, which, in turn, renew these great fictional models.
The exhibit, called "Culture Interface: interfaces numériques et science-fiction" opened last month, and it's going to last till Mid-August.
From a curatorial perspective, I selected seven "archetypes" which are constantly encountered in science-fiction culture: VR headsets, gestural interfaces, neuro-headsets, augmented reality, vocal interfaces, smartwatches, interactive surfaces. For each, I chose two science-fiction movies (e.g. "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Lawnmower Man" for the VR Headsets), five diagrams coming from patents and a selection of design projects both historical (e.g. the Famicom 3D System and the Virtual Boy) and recent (e.g. Oculus Rift with an intriguing game, Google Cardboard). My guiding principle here would be that these different elements would highlight the dialogue between fiction and design work. Sometimes of course, there are direct connections between fictional work and reality, as represented for example by a short excerpt of Dragonball Z (the infamous "it's over 9000 meme") and Google Glasses (“>9K” is printed on the PCB).
There's also an additional categories that consists in design projects that propose alternative visions to such archetypes: paper-digital hybrids, wood-digital hybrid, networked objects, soft interfaces, etc. Another important decision for me was to mix the different "flavors" of design, ranging from speculative design to projects conducted in big corporations, commercial products versus unique prototypes, projects made by students versus the ones done by agencies or R&D centers, etc. Mixing this with movie excerpts and patent drawings certainly is an intriguing choice but it definitely highlights the proximity between the design decisions at stake in the interfaces shown there.
A tremendous thanks to all the designers, and artists, who accepted to be part of the exhibit, the production and communication team who turned spreadsheets/emails/text files into an exhibit, as well as Ludovic for trusting me on this! Big up to Julian Bleecker, Fabien Girardin and Nic Foster at the Near Future Laboratory for their support and discussions about this.
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.
A crappy picture taken on a rainy day. One of the local mobile phone repair shop here in Geneva is looking for "technicien(s)", i.e. an expert in iOS, android and Windows Phone repair. SIM cards unlockins and OS flashing seem to be the most important skills, as indicated on the sheet. The picture is curious too, it looks the guy's blowing in the USB connector – a common trick that some of you may have used on NES cartridges back in the days.
Why do I blog this? As such shops appear here and there in the city, it's interesting to observe how they work, and what happen in there (it's basically one of the sites I'm interested in, as a field researcher). Who's qualified? How do you become qualified for this? Who will give one's "CV" (résumé)?
New topic, new project line here: the repair and maintenance practices of electronic objects. Nothing fancy so far, I'm just writing a research grant. But, as usual, it's hard not to start the project before getting the grant. Maybe the grant writing is already the beginning of the project, which is a common situation these days when you're on foot in academia and one foot out.
Anyway. I'm collecting material (research reports, papers, articles, et al.) and doing a little bit of field observation. It's funny because it forces me to revisit content I've blogged about here. For instance this paper called "Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance" by Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift (blogged back in 2009) seems to be a seminal reference on the topic of "repair ethnography". This paper is important as it shows how the focus on repair and maintenance can be seen as a way to address a "missing link" in social theory. The authors use these topics in order to "understand of modern societies and, particularly, cities".
Some elements that caught my attention :
"Things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable – they break or stutter and they then become the object of attention. [...] it is in this space between breakdown and restoration of the practical equilibrium – between the visible (that is, ‘broken’) tool and the concealed tool – that repair and maintenance, makes its bid for significance."
As Virilio expressed earlier, and as stated by Graham and Thrift, the accident is part of the thing:
"it becomes increasingly difficult to define what the ‘thing’ is that is being maintained and repaired. Is it the thing itself, or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity? Similarly, it can be argued that the accidents that stem from so many breakdowns are not aberrant but are a part of the thing itself. To invent the train is to invent the train crash, to invent the plane is to invent the plane crash, and so on"
As a consequence, a focus on repair and maintenance is important for various reasons, some are described in this paragraph:
"maintenance and repair also illustrate the importance of human labour and ingenuity. [...] when things break down, new solutions may be invented. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that this kind of piece- by-piece adaptation is a leading cause of innovation, acting as a continu- ous feedback loop of experimentation which, through many small increments in practical knowledge, can produce large changes [...] maintenance and repair can itself be a vital source of variation, improvisation and innovation. Repair and maintenance does not have to mean exact restoration. Think only of the bodged job, which still allows something to continue functioning but probably at a lower level; the upgrade, which allows something to take on new features which keep it contemporary; the cannibalization and recycling of materials, which allows at least one recombined object to carry on, formed from the bones of its fellows; or the complete rebuild, which allows some- thing to continue in near pristine condition. And what starts out as repair may soon become improvement, innovation, even growth. The examples are legion: the constant tinkering of consumers with consumer goods, which can certainly lead to customization and may even lead to redefinition, as in the case of the early automobile"
This leads them to highlight the importance of expertise
"information and communications technologies have largely replaced the system of automobility as both the most central and yet the most likely to break down, not least because of design flaws that are widely acknowledged but seem to be subject to a law of inertia (Norman, 1998). Whole generations are becoming expert at rebooting, defragging and downloading new security patches."
Which leads to the importance of designing products with this in mind:
"Products could be designed so that they are easily maintained, repaired and upgraded, using light materials and structures and various forms of metering (Van Hinte and Beukers, 1998). Technological paradigms oriented towards the fetishistic generation of accelerating waves of quickly disposed of hard products could be reorganized around longer- term and sustainable systems of service delivery designed from the outset to be easily and continually upgraded"
The author give the following examples for that matter:
"Alternatively, repair and maintenance activities could be actively expanded, so that commodity production and waste were both minimized (Verbeek, 2004). Design consultancies like the Eternally Yours Foundation in the Netherlands (Eternally Yours, 2004), have already attempted to design products that would have a new and more knowing relationship to maintenance and repair."
Why do I blog this? The paper offers both a theoretical perspective (on how focusing on repair/maintenance is a shift in social theory), and a series of insights about where to look.
"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.
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).
A wide range of pen possibilities here, found in a French convenience store. The form is the same, the affordance too, but the behavior's different. The dual pen (paper + capacitive screen) sits in the center, more expensive than the others, with a colorful look discreetly showing its edgy character.
"Each video in this series was shot on the New York City subway and captures a passenger’s interaction with his/her phone. The video has been edited frame-by-frame to call attention to the strange hand “choreographies” that our constant use of handheld screens has engendered."
Why do I blog this? An intriguing project that's related to my "Curious Rituals" project. I like the focus on the hands themselves and the way the movement is represented. It allows to highlight specific gestural aptitudes related with digital artifacts such as phones.
It's also intriguing to stumble across this roughly at the same time as Facebook's "Photos of hands holding various phones, to be used in any presentation of your designs." (which are far less inspiring).
Joël Vacheron and I recently published a book about the role of software/bots in cultural production, and the hybridization of cultural forms (music, visual arts, literature) produced by digital technologies.
It’s called “DADABOT An Introduction to Machinic Creolization” and it deals with Twitter bots, generative music, software-based literature, and all those weird art/design experiments with digital hybridization and mash-ups. The book is made up of an essay, experiments with mechanical turks, interviews with Florian Hecker, Holly Herndon, Constant Dullaart, NORM, Silvio Lorusso, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, an essay by Maxime Guyon, as well as a lexicon of the terminology used by these practitioners.
Designed by Raphael Verona, it's published by ID Pure, and it can be ordered directly from their on-line shop. Some spread below: (a) Mahma Kan Althaman, Whatever the Price by Khalid Al Gharaballi and Fatima Al Qadiri (written in arabix, see more in this Frieze article), (b) a lexicon as well as intriguing list of programming languages, (c) an experiment in which I crowdsourced the description of glitched images to "mechanical turks".