Repair and “broken world thinking”

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.

Mobile phone repair expert needed


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)? 

On repair

Two guys repairing a computer on an electronic market in Seoul, Korea.

Two guys repairing a computer on an electronic market in Seoul, Korea.

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.


Back to the Future day


So here we are: October 21st 2015. Today marks the arrival date of Marty, Jennifer and Doc in the flying DeLorean. It’s been a long time coming, and there have been a number of hoaxes, but it’s finally here.

Back to the Future Part 2 is a very special movie for me, one of those seemingly incidental but retrospectively pivotal moments in my life. It was 1989 and I was 13, a child of Thatcher’s Britain. Like many children of the 80’s I grew up on a diet of American culture: Knight Rider, the A-Team, rap and graffiti became regular features. I remember the first McDonald’s opening in my hometown (and the queue outside). We played American football in the playground. I skateboarded. I bought a surfboard (despite living 200 miles from the sea).

In parallel with this cultural influx, I was also becoming interested in design, how things worked and how they went together. I would spend entire weekends dismantling old radios and VCR’s, performing autopsies on them. A diet of MacGyver, James Bond and The Goonies had me re-jigging the parts I liberated into homegrown gadgets. Then along came Back to the Future Part 2, filled with American pop culture, nike sneakers, skateboards, robot arms, video games, flying cars and a killer soundtrack. I couldn’t have avoided it if I tried.

Fast forward to today. I live in California. My job is designing the future. I surf occasionally. I have a large skateboard collection. I listen to rap and hip hop… and I still love that movie. Whilst it’s surface charms remain, I now look at it slightly differently. Much of what interests me today, (and much of what we do at the Near Future Laboratory), is concerned with the ways in which we portray the future. I recently spoke at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, and made reference to the movie, and it’s skillful representation of pace layers and accretive spaces, but co-creator Bob Gale sums up their approach nicely in this short interview with Bobby Kim below.

“Our attitude about the future was: the future should be great but the McFly family should still be screwed up. We wanted people to see our future and say ‘cool, I want to live in that future’. You see a lot of these movies that take place in the future and it looks like they tore everything down, everything is gone…you can’t connect with it because it doesn’t look like anything looks like today”

I won’t write too much more here, as there have been countless pieces written about BTTF2, and when we over-analyze we risk destroying the joy in something, but I’ll leave you with this: BTTF2 has a fun story, but more important is the way in which that story is told. As designers, we need to understand that the thing we are designing will exist as part of a system. The more of that system we can render, the better our audience will handle new ideas. In order to believe in the hoverboard, it’s helpful to see the evolution of Pepsi, Nike, Black and Decker and Texaco. In order to relate to the future of video-conferencing it should be shown a little bit broken. In order to believe in the people of the future they should be regular, flawed folks. BTTF2 does all these things very well and should be celebrated.

Happy Back to the Future day

Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864

"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.

Weekly digital lexicon #3

Maskenfreiheit (seen here) : German term that indicates the liberty to wear 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).

The whole range of pen options


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.

Strange hand “choreographies” + mobile phones

Screen Portraits by Anna Pinkas:

"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).

New book: DADABOT


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".

dadabot2 dadabot2 dadabot3

From conversational agents to robots

Mark Meadows wrote an interesting piece at Robohub. Basically, on virtual assistants such as Apple's SIRI, Microsoft's Cortana or Facebook's M are "the testbeds for tomorrow’s personal robots":

"Our mobile devices are becoming natural language interface hubs for life management and, as a result, having a gravitational pull on an increasingly complex buzz of connected services and APIs. This means that things like search will change: we will no longer have to speak Googlese; paper and page metaphors will be supplanted by the more dynamic (and cognitively more addictive) character metaphor. And if trends in virtual assistants and intelligent helpers – software robots – continue, then knowledge-bases (such as Wolfram Alpha or IBM Watson) will continue to come peppered with a patina of natural language, allowing us to move through data faster, with less training, and in a more human manner.

[...] We can also foretell the future by looking at less advanced natural language systems. Bots – essentially natural language oriented scripts – are a good indicator of where the robotics industry is at because bots are pervasive, useful, and simple to author. TwitterBots and FacebookBots crawl through these systems like bees in a hive, industriously providing retweets, reposts, summaries, aggregations, starting fights and flocking to followers. They can be bought, auctioned, sold, and deleted; you can buy 30,000 Twitter followers on eBay for as little as for $20, provided they’re all bots."

Why do I blog this? Although I'm not sure whether these agents need a proper physical instantiation (bigger than a phone), Mark's argument is relevant; especially if you consider how talking to objects (interacting with voice, or chatting/tweeting to bots) becomes slightly more present (= less weird).