"The complex relationship of sub-systems and their larger wholes."

Currently at the Media design seminar here at the Geneva School of Art and Design, we discussed this interesting way to explain the notion of modularity. Called, "the parable of the two watchmakers", It's from Herbert Simon and it nicely explains the relationship of simple and complex systems (organic and social):

"There once were two watchmakers, named Hora and Tempus, who made very fine watches. The phones in their workshops rang frequently and new customers were constantly calling them. However, Hora prospered while Tempus became poorer and poorer. In the end, Tempus lost his shop. What was the reason behind this? The watches consisted of about 1000 parts each. The watches that Tempus made were designed such that, when he had to put down a partly assembled watch, it immediately fell into pieces and had to be reassembled from the basic elements. Hora had designed his watches so that he could put together sub-assemblies of about ten components each, and each sub-assembly could be put down without falling apart. Ten of these subassemblies could be put together to make a larger sub-assembly, and ten of the larger sub-assemblies constituted the whole watch."

Why do I blog this? This looks like a good way to introduce the notion of modularity, using an analogy which is understandable (as opposed to the use of fractals by other authors).

Objects from Japan

Spent last week in Tokyo for a workshop. A good opportunity to wander around and run across objects that I found typically from there. A short list, it's definitely a selection, can't be exhaustive.

japan1

My favorite, it's pervasive and fascinating. A plastic weight with an handle used to stabilize different things here and there in the City.

umbrella

Most of the people I've seen used this model of umbrella. They sometimes leaves it in different places.

hat

Umbrellas a pervasive but hats are important too. This one's in a university office, just in case an earthquake appears.

towelwarmer

Towels need to be warmed, don't they?

ticket

I'm not entirely sure about it but it feels like it's meant to protect the brand new metro ticket you buy at the counter. Lovely design.

vendingmachine

The conspicuous vending machines and their touch/SUICA-enabled interface.

gameinterface

This category deserves a whole blogpost/book/encyclopedia. Ah, game controllers.

frogbin

The frog-like bins are intriguing too.

Why do I blog this? Material culture is fascinating to observe. The design of all these objects is interesting and highlight the way mundane activities are conducted. Such artefacts reflect needs and correspond to expectations or situations... and can act as potential stimuli in workshop/research to show alternative to how things are done/made elsewhere.

"Six approaches to empirically research algorithms"

An interesting read this morning:

Kitchin, R. (2014). Thinking Critically About and Researching Algorithms, The Programmable City Working Paper 5, Available at SSRN.

As indicated by its title, this paper address the ways to investigate algorithms and the difficulties in doing so. Based on an extensive review of the literature, it highlights the issues at stake in the field of software studies that emerged in the last ten years. It's quite pragmatic with a focus on six ways to empirically research algorithms: "examining source code (both deconstructing code and producing genealogies of production); reflexively producing code; reverse engineering; interviewing designers and conducting ethnographies of coding teams; unpacking the wider socio-technical assemblage framing and supporting algorithms; and examining how algorithms do work in the world." In a discussion of these approaches, Kitchin highlights that they should be combined in order to provide more thorough perspectives

Why do I blog this? Both because it's a resource that may be useful for my students working in this domain, and bc I'm currently writing about algorithmic cultures.

Futures? An interview with Sophia Al-Maria

After the interviews of Warren Ellis and Bruce Sterling for my book about the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. here's the discussion with Sophia Al-Maria on Gulf Futurism:

Nicolas Nova: Gulf Futurism, as I understand it, corresponds to a clash between traditions and modernity in the Gulf, related with the pervasive influence of various sorts of technologies (smartphone, camera, networks among others). What makes it unique (considering other places experienced a similar influence)?

Sophia Al-Maria: My original thinking around Gulf Futurism as an umbrella term for a wide array of things happening to the people and the places around me was to do with the quiet tragedy occurring. People were losing freedoms and a grip on reality. They were narritivizing a history that never really happened. I guess I was also reading a lot of Baudrillard at the time and it all made sense, this sort of exodus from reality into something climate controlled and out of touch with ‘nature’ and truth. There was/is  an abdication of control to circumstance. An easy adoption of technology is also key. When I was 16 for a girl to have a mobile was shameful. Now my 12 year old sister has an ipad but barely enough to eat every day from the rations divvied out between 14 people in a on-salary household. The focus is totally upended. Survival = being on the next level. Not sustaining your body.

NN: How do you see the situation evolving in the coming years (because of social/political/technological change)? Do you see this kind of aesthetic evolving?

SAM: I’m wary of aesthetics. They are a distraction. And seem to be everywhere these days. Maybe that’s why I’m not a very good visual artist. Of course there are people forging an ‘aesthetic’ out of the cultural specifics of the region. See the GCC collective.

NN: How does this notion of Gulf Futurism translate into everyday life/culture in the Gulf? (I'm thinking about music, visual arts, everyday products, packaging)

SAM: The mall is the stage for the transitions taking place and so the most important symbol of Gulf Futurism next to the mobile phone.

I think there is a global alienation becoming clear in the sort of hyper-refined and homogenated corporate omni-presence. There was a charming sort of … amateurism – maybe that’s the wrong word but – yeah- something unperfect in local products or at the very least a cultural specificity in imports like Miswak toothpaste from India or dairy from Saudi which is almost gone. Now it’s the mallmentia effect. I can’t tell if I’m in Hong Kong or LA or Dubai half the time I walk into a mall and that happens more and more these days because the mall is the dominant structure of a certain class group of which I am part. I literally find myself in malls whether on holiday or on my way home from work or on a weekend even and I am frequently confused as to how I even got there. It’s a place of weird pilgrimage in an era where to consume is to absolve yourself.

Joyce Nelson compared the mannequins in store fronts to statues of saints and apostles at the entrance of a cathedral and the  changing room to a confession booth in her 1991 essay The Temple of Fashion and I think it’s true. An insidious evangelism has taken place without us knowing.

I observe this in the Gulf but it’s happening globally. Perhaps it’s more visible in the Gulf due to obvious cultural signifiers. And the darkness of things like segregation and the ‘public’ space of a mall becoming changeable.

futNN: Why "Futurism"? What's the future component of these phenomena?

Originally I threw that word out there because of the speed. The acceleration with which money has forced us to change, the speed of the hideous youth-in-car crash which is a daily sight. Bodies in the road. Casualties from our tiny local population lie on the side of the road in my daily commutes, thrown through their windshields, indifferent. There is a really bleak nihilism in youth culture. Also, I was thinking about the sort of basic concepts of ‘futurism’ in the classical sense before I had truly understood how dead the future is. I’ve gone through the process of grieving the ‘future’ as the 20th century imagined it. The Gulf is just a location where it experienced a brief flurry of possibility.

SAM: I'm generally intrigued by how cultural trends influence people's representation of the future. This is why I'm curious about Gulf Futurism. I wonder: how do you think such aesthetic and cultural phenomenon can be important or relevant for Westerners (let's assume there is such thing as "Western people")?

Assuming that, I think whatever aesthetic one might align with an idea of Gulf Futurism is again, a culturally non-specific one. A corporate one. An isolated one. A shiny, glitzy version of the dystopia rising elsewhere. Here you don’t have to experience suffering. It will be regulated, medicated etc. You don’t have to see the grist of the mill, they will be hidden as is the case with labor in the region. That’s not to say there isn’t a cultural stamp of Arabness on this. But I find it to be much more to do with corporate culture and aspirations and very occasionnally what shards are left of the failed utopic dream of pan-Arabism which sometimes rears its head in the Gulf in strange places.

"Computational journalism"

This idiom is new to me but I guess it makes sense these days. It's also an event ("symposium") with a live coverage here. The material in there is impressive and curious, see for yourself:

"Journalists and computer scientists increasingly are working together to develop innovative methods of reporting and telling news stories. Consider:

Why do I blog this? Im polishing a manuscript on algorithms and cultural production, which is strangely orthogonal to this set of examples.

"How you can hack your blood pressure implant to provide fake and healthy data to an insurance company"

Intriguing:

"how biomedical data sent wirelessly from a human body, might be re-appropriated by services other than the remote healthcare. This discussion about data monitoring was developed in Nelly Ben Hayoun’s project Cathy the Hacker. Hayoun designed props and made short films documenting “how you can hack your blood pressure implant” to provide fake, healthy data to an insurance company that is monitoring the fictional Cathy’s lifestyle in order to make decisions on the premium she should pay on her health insurance. Through an interview and follow up conversations with Murphy, Hayoun devised hacks which included attaching a sensor to an energetic pet cat, in order to generate a surrogate data set, while “The closing spin cycle of the washing machine also does a good job”

Find in: Kerridge, T. (2009). Does speculative design contribute to public engagement of science and technology? Proceedings of Swiss Design Network Symposium‘09, Lugano.

Why do I blog this? A good example of a phenomenon that may or may not happen in the near future.