CNIUM2006: surface subways, prabsence and the "why" question

The CINUM seminar just ended, so here are some raw thoughts about the whole event (drawn from my impression + discussion with various people there). The idea of these 2 days was to mix expert discussions and group workshops to - in the end - develop foresight scenarios (2026). The audience was very broad and largely made up of local people (south-east of france), some researchers mixed with execs from big french companies (banks or consultancies) and a media crowd. To me, it was interesting to see the different representations that people have from the future (which easily crystalized or clashed during scenario development); and very often, there are people convinced by bright futures ("there will be no poor") and others that expects war and destructions, little in between. In addition the technologies that are mentioned seem to be largely inspired by what the media presents (the coolness of grid computing but less mentions of lower-hyped sensors application). In my field (HCI and games), there are now great expectations towards gaming, very well directed to education and digital entertainment (I'm actually not sure whether those promises can be held).

Something that also struck me in conversation in the recurrent confusion between access to infrastructures (internet access, access to digital libraries or e-shops) and access to knowledge: it's as if information was equal to knowledge (something Daniela Cerqui also noticed in her talk).

Some random thoughts about talks:

  • A pertinent concept coined by Daniel Kaplan (was that you?): "prabsence" = the active management of one's on-line presence/absence.
  • Abdullah Cissé (from Senegal) had a good point in his talk about Africa and technologies. He described how Africa (and its important amount of youth people, especially in the future) will participate in the shaping of technologies. This because of the ever-increasing hyper-connection between people from the South and the african diaspora (circulation of tech, creation of new usage as reported here) and also partly because african tech-culture might be mixed with Magic. The fact that he pointed the importance of magic in technology from an african perspective is interesting with regards to the recurrent discussion about this topic lately (see at ubicomp2006 for instance).
  • Gerorge Amar, the head of the RATP foresight department (public transport in Paris) was nice. He explained how the most important innovation in city transport were... bikes and tramways (not that new but reshaped in European cities of the 21st century with new services like Velo'v). Then he exemplified other innovation using two nice examples: the pedibus and Curitiba's Bus System. The pedibus is basically a walking school bus (very common here in Switzerland). The routes are determined by neighborhood associations and signage is installed along the way to mark out this course. The Curitiba's Bus System is a different example: the city has real bus stops that looks like metro station, creating a sort of "surface subway" (a physical oxymoron. For Georges, these examples shows how innovation can appear in public transport in unexpectected ways. As a foresight manager, he's interesting in looking at this idea and see how it can be translated in real project.

  • Even though I knew their presentations, Regine and Adam gave two important talks that (IMO) were important in framing the boundaries of what we can expect. Regine addressed how artists have relevant contributions to questioning foresight and its technologies. Adam brought back material from his book to discuss how design of new technologies must take the users and their context into account. This had some resonance with my talk about trends in how the Internet reshape our experience of places, things/objects and people.
  • Daniela Cerqui's presentation was also insightful. As an anthropologist, she stated that we all have an opinion towards technologies and that the discussion of the impacts of technologies is a never-ending story. To her, even the word "impact" is strong and relates to how meteorites can crash on Earth. Her stance was that the real question is rather "why we live with technologies?" or "why would we want X or Y tech?". What are the starting points? the ending points? What are the criteria? She mentioned how this is always too "implicit", not discussed and that we all have a responsibility. The talk underline that before thinking about the impacts, we'd better having a responsibility in the construction of tech. And the underlying idea of her research is the definition of the human beings we all have, which also remains implicit and not discussed. Based on her study of Kevin Warwick's implants, she presented different points she wanted to discuss. The first one was that the idea that "we're already cyborgs, we have cochlear implants, glasses..." is flawed because adding those tech at some point we might reach a point of no-return. The second point was that the human body seems to be the last frontier (after the pervasive computing = the environment): the fusion that targets immediate mediation in a society of "maximal efficiency". Finally, Daniela showed how the discourse about therapy and enhancement is very ambiguous: phenomenon that were not considered as handicaps are redefined over time and one thinks that if we can do it, so let's do it... The problem lies indeed in a simple fact: the same technologies allow to repair and to enhance.

Anyway, it was great to be invited here (thanks Daniel Kaplan, Daniel Erasmus and AEC), meet up with relevant people, discover new faces and produce content. Why do I blog this? to keep track of this event and sketch out the main ideas that I bring back in my doggy bag(s).