Filtering by Category: Observation

On Cuban repair cultures

Here’s a list of services offered in an AC-intense mobile phone repair shop in Trinidad (Cuba): "desbloqueo decodificatión y liberación de celulares, código de usuario, cambio de idioma, cambio de frecuencia, reparación de software (flasheo), reparación de celulares Chinos, reparaciones generales de hardware (display, flex, táctiles, bocinas, micrófonos, régiment de carga), eliminación de humedad a móviles, instalación de aplicaciones, actualización de sistema Android, actualización de sistema IOS, configuración del coreo nauta, información et asesoria gratuitas."

A rather broad and interesting inventory. Some of the services can generally be fond in this type of shop ((I regularly visit these stores while traveling here and there )); unlocking the SIM card and change components (speaker, microphone ...) in particular. I also understood "eliminación of humedad has móviles" is not related to the climatic constraints of moisture as one might think, but rather to the fact that many people, there as elsewhere, seems to drop the phone in the water 📱💦. The other services are less common : assistance with phone configuration (language, messaging software, update OS) or app installation. The precision concerning the Chinese mobile phone repair is obviously intriguing too.

Basically, this type of store is not very different from those I have just a few meters from my home in Geneva. However, Cuba has many other shop/counters/garage/apartment????) offering repair services for all kinds of other artifacts : for automobiles of course (from 1951 Plymouth to the latest Audi), electro-mechanical watch/clock, garden and kitchen hardware, bikes, etc.

Plastic and metal parts sold on the street in Trinidad.

Plastic and metal parts sold on the street in Trinidad.

Electronic shop in Viñales.

Electronic shop in Viñales.

Given the difficulty to acquire property on the island, this is not hardly a surprise, but it reflects a important“repair culture". However, unlike many titles of articles or reference guide saying that a visit to Cuba is a “frozen in time", it is a lively present. With, one the one hand, a variety of technical objects both old and new, not necrotic at all. And, on the other hand, altered artifacts, with more or less recent parts. The best example being the bicitaxi (bicycle taxi) that are certainly rudimentary at first but whose sound consists bluetooth speakers hanging on the ceiling (cardboard, metal or wood) and controlled by a smartphone (iPhone or Android ). Similarly, American cars are certainly old, but the driver may well have a bluetooth headset for phone calls, and a USB key inserted into car stereos with tons of mp3s collected in in music stores delivering content more or less fresh downloaded from the Internet (and potentially via the Paquete Semanal). The government also contribue to this, as attested by the Soviet-like toll arches on Havana highways ... on which fixed cameras read the registration plates (according to our taxi driver) in a very contemporary robot world-readable fashion. This type of arrangement is also not limited only to hardware tinkering, it is found in fact in the service of such design… with Airbnb being available for in some casa particulares (guest capita ) with a payment made through an intermediary in an agency in Miami.

A repairman in Trinidad.

A repairman in Trinidad.

Another consequence of this culture of DIY also concerns the recycling of objects, materials and spare parts from multiple devices. Some examples encountered : along with the inevitable mention of 1950s US cars, I ran across a lawn mower made up of a screw motor metal rods and a small motorcycle tank, a leaf blower assembled with a vacuum cleaner motor mounted on a leather harness and a North American switch, a Lada VAZ-2101 engine placed in the hood of a 1957 Dodge, etc. This kind of bricolage is also described by the anthropologist Sarah Hill in a fascinating article titled "Recycling History and the Never-Ending Cuban Life of Things" ... who goes into more detail on what I describe here. Without idealizing these practices, it would be intriguing to compare this practices with other recycling and repair cultures including Gambiarra described Felipe Fonseca in Brazil.

Engine from a taxi car in Habana.

Engine from a taxi car in Habana.

Without offering the same conditions (political, social, technological and other) that the Western world, the island is far from being “frozen in the past” as I’ve seen written here and there. And one can also wonder wether this type of lively hybridization cannot be also considered as our future. It seems reasonable to think that a culture of recycling or DIY could become widespread in the Western world due to the scarcity multiple commodities / rare metals.

"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).

Humans and non-humans

Saw that cover yesterday at Bongo Joe records, a café/record shop in Geneva. It's interesting to see that, for once, the artist AND its instrument are mentioned on the cover. "Mammane Sani et son orgue" is incredible:

"Mammane Sani Abdullaye is a legendary name amongst Niger's avant garde. A pioneer of early West African electronic music, for over 30 years his instrumentals have filled the airwaves. The instrumental background drones of radio broadcasts and instrumental segue ways of TV intermissions borrow heavily from his repertoire. The dreamy organ instrumentals drift by sans comment, yet are known to all. Mammane first found the organ in 1974. "

Why do I blog this? documenting human-machine collaboration in everyday life.

Monster sticky note on cell-phone screen

Last month, when involved in a teaching seminar in France, I ran across this utterly curious scene. It's basically a cell-phone with a piece of paper that shows a drawing, stuck on the device's display. The drawing features a sort of animal quickly scribbled.

This is exactly the sort of artifact that I like to find in my peripheral vision. Quick drawings, paper, duct tape and a technological devices: those are the ingredients that generally leads the observer to spot a bottom-up innovation of sort. De Certeau at its best probably. Seeing this, I thought that the user of this device had a specific use for this: perhaps aesthetical (a kid's present), most likely functional.

Fortunately, the "user" of this phone was close and I had the opportunity to ask her what it meant. She told me it was a reminder. Interestingly, in French, a reminder is called "pense-bête": literally "a reminder for stupid people" but "bête" not only means "stupid", it's also a term employed for "beast". This user thus created a drawing of a small beast on a piece of paper as way to signify it's a reminder.

The thought process is clear here: the stick note is put in a convenient place (the phone display) and for both aesthetic/functional reasons, it takes the form of a piece of paper with a quick drawing. It's also stunning to see how the phone screen is used as surface to put additional information (and subsequently cover up the screen itself!).

Why do I blog this? This is a fascinating example of bottom-up creativity that corresponds to how users create their own personal (and meaningful) personal solutions in everyday life. What is important is that the phone itself supports that very same functionality (reminder/virtual stick note). However, the user preferred the use different material (paper, pen, duct-tape) to do it. This can be seen as a good example of the difference between a feature and its instantiation from the user's POV. It's not because the phone has a reminder system that it's going to be used... simply because the whole system is different and does offer the same level of personalization.

Vending machines and their cultural implications

Yesterday, in a very small village in the French Alps, I ran across this fascinating bread vending machine. It made me think about other encounters with not-so-common machines such as a book delivery system in Seoul:

Or this pr0n vending machine in Torino:

And the camera/umberall combo in Bergen, Norway:

Why do I blog this? Looking at what is sold in vending machine is an interesting cultural indicator that it's always refreshening to observe. It says something about convenience and what is "acceptable" to be served by a non-humans.

In the French "bread" case, an naive observer would say that it's the end of the world and no French people wants its bread to be delivered in such a mechanized way. To these, I would say that: (1) The French are definitely used to this sort of weird machinery: pizza making devices on parking lots started to appear here and there, (2) It's not because it's a machine that the bread is bad. You can't see it in the picture above but the bread pieces are wrapped in typical french paper, and the presence of flour in the machine makes it certainly more baker-like.

In addition, the understanding of such devices is tightly related to contextual issues. You don't find these machines anywhere. The camera/umbrella one in Norway is present in a touristic area (where rain is sadly common), the porn machine is located in a gloomy suburb in Torino (where other forms of newspaper shops are absent or much too difficult to visit with this kind of literature), the bread machine is located in a place where shops are totally absent and it can be used by people form the neighborhood (as a dropping point).

Now, why is this important in a blog about interaction design? Simply because these machines are designed by people... who certainly need to understand human needs, contextual issues, technological constraints and business model problems. They seem blank and not interesting but I actually find them intriguing.