July 30, 2017, Geneva (Switzerland). "People always ask us for this, we just can keep up with that."
Stuart Candy recently blogged about this design framework he and his colleagues use:
"ethnographic futures is more descriptive; looking for what's present but often hidden in people's heads. Experiential futures is more creative; rendering these notional possibilities visible, tangible, immersive and interactive, externalising and concretising representations of them for closer inspection and deeper discussion."
Why do I blog this? Currently looking back at our research process at the Laboratory. This one's kind of close to our interests and approaches.
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."
Although the focus on this book I a bit remote from my research interest, "Ornithology" (by Anne Geene & Arjan De Nooy) is one of the most fascinating kind of printed document that arrived on my desk (my kitchen table actually):
"Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy combine visual tools from the science of birds with the specific characteristics of photography, thereby imparting a fresh look at both. Through their pseudoscientific approach, Geene and De Nooy explore the boundaries between the two disciplines, adding a layer that is usually absent in the representation and science of birds: humour. Their classifications form comical results through creative and associative thinking, and yet they use the scientific method to also create an artistic microcosm that seems far removed from its strictly ornithological counterpart. Together, Geene and De Nooy depart from the “classic” aesthetic of bird representation."
This blogpost is an entry about a new project I'm working on, in the context of the "NONCOMPLIANT FUTURES" exhibit curated by Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska (disnovation.org) at Musée du Jeu de Paume (Paris).
Intriguing animal-machine collaborations and their design have always been relevant to me. Looking back at old entries on this blog, I realize it's been more than 10 years that I started compiling cases of design/art work such as the "pigeon blog" (Beatriz da Costa), or James Auger's "Augmented Animals". In addition, my interest in design fiction/speculative design/new media art has also led me to observe with great curiosity recent projects about synthetic biology, genetically-engineered creatures.
Over the years, my fascination towards such cases of interactions between machine and "living beings" have slowly changed. What was at first an interest towards the objectification of non-humans led me to a more thorough questioning of the classic nature/culture divide, and the current ecological crisis.
Perhaps it's my old interest in biology (having a bachelor’s degree in Life Science certainly played a role), perhaps it's Donna Haraway's latest book about the Anthropocene that got me back to such matter. Using da Costa's example – among other cases – she discusses the need for “Science art worlding for living on a damaged planet”. I understand this mysterious phrase as a call for investigating and crafting, through art and art/science collaboration, stories to "stay with the trouble" of living in an environment of global warming, pollution, and species extinction. Why stories? She basically describes the following reasons:
"Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. Each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that at first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex worlding is the name of the game of living and dying well together on terra, in Terrapolis." (Haraway, 2016, p.29)
"Ursula Le Guin taught me the carrier bag theory of storytelling and of natural-cultural history. Her theories, her stories, are capacious bags for collecting, carrying, and telling the stuff of living. (...) Nonetheless, no adventurer should leave home without a sack." (Haraway, 2016, p. 41-42)
"As Jim Clifford taught me, we need stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections." (Haraway, 2016, p.101)
The different projects she discusses in the third chapter of her book can be seen as stories that try to achieve such goals. They reveal how artists, designers and scientists explore (a) the fact that the big divide between nature and culture (or technology) is problematic... (b) that their work – and their ways of doing things – can overcome such opposition, and (c) eventually reveal new imaginaries of a future in the making. New visions of the future that maybe offer a sort of counter-narrative to the discours around "progress" and "innovation" that we always hear about these days.
Reading about the projects presented by Haraway in her book, one also realizes that they can be both gloomy and hopeful, reconfiguring despair and hope in a strange way. In some sense, they reminded me of Timothy Morton's notion of "Dark Ecology":
"What is dark ecology? It is ecological awareness, dark-depressing. Yet ecological awareness is also dark-uncanny. And strangely it is dark-sweet. Nihilism is always number one in the charts these days. We usually don’t get past the first darkness, and that’s if we even care. What thinks dark ecology? Ecognosis, a riddle. Ecognosis is like knowing, but more like letting-be-known. It is something like coexisting. It is like becoming accustomed to something strange, yet it is also becoming accustomed to strangeness that doesn’t become less strange through acclimation." (Morton, 2016, p. 5)
With this theoretical background in mind, I started to revisit my lists and notes about similar projects... and decided it would be relevant to find a way to map such territories.
The very fact that it's all about animals, and sometimes plants, fungi and geological elements mixed with technological/synthetic matter reminded me of bestiaries of the Middle Ages. Those descriptive treatise on various kinds of animals have always been interesting to me because of their sort of pre-naturalistic character. The "beasts" were described with lots of anecdotes (often presented with a moralizing tone) and a wide-range of material (drawings, notes, dimensions, weird remarks). Comparing the material I compiled (spreadsheets and textfiles full of links and notes... the kind of things one collect of a computer in the 21st Century) and old bestiaries, I found it would be a relevant metaphor to present the material. Besides that, I may also been influenced by Borges' book of imaginary beings and Claude Maillard-Chary's book about the Surrealists' menagerie.
Another interesting aspect of bestiaries lays in the fact that they are never complete and exhaustive. The very idea of a bestiary corresponds to the fact that it should be updated over time... with the help of others.
So? I'm currently building this bestiary of hybrid creatures of the Anthropocene. So far, as I said, it's mostly computer files and handwritten notes in my sketchpad. It's quite diverse at this point, with quite different entries: geological material, new media art projects, speculative design cases, or engineering prototypes. It's an ongoing occupation and it would be great to get some suggestion. The fact that Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska asked me to participate in their "Futurs non-conformes #3" (NONCOMPLIANT FUTURES) exhibit at Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris certainly helped me to frame the project and I have to thank them for that.
What kind of creatures one will find in there? Well, there's plenty beyond Eduardo Kac's rabbit, but here are some examples to be shown in my talk at Jeu de Paume :
- Acoustic Botany by David Benqué (plants)
- Algaculture by Michael Burton & Michiko Nitta (algae)
- Augmented Animals by James Auger (rats, pigeons, dogs)
- Biophilia by Veronica Ranner (silk worm)
- Danger, Squirel Nutkin! by Ian Ingram (squirel)
- Fungi Mutarium by Livin Studio (fungus)
- Growth Assembly by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohflepp (plant)
- Keep Alive by Aram Bartholl (rock)
- Muskaria by Vanesa Lorenzo and Hackhuarium (moss)
- Pigeon blog by Beatriz da Costa (pigeon)
- Pigeon d'Or by Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen (pigeon)
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press.
Morton, T. (2016). Dark Ecology, For a Logic of Future Coexistence. NYC: Columbia University Press.
(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)
As I explained few months ago, I'm working on a follow-up to the "Curious Rituals" project. The project focuses on an anthropological perspective on smartphone usage. It's basically a visual ethnography approach and I recently collaborated with Constance Delamadeleine (from Geneva-base design studio Future Neue) to publish this Print-On-demand booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. It can be seen as an intermediary steps between the field research and the writing/crafting of a much more text-based documents... which I'm working on currently.
The book can be found at the following URL.
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.