Introduction to ethnography & field research at the Angewandte

Context: this month I’ve been invited by Anab Jain to give the introductory workshop to the Design Investigations program at the Angewandt (University of Applied Arts Vienna). This is the brief.

Context

Among the means of framing and inspiring design projects, understanding people and their practices is a fundamental aspect of design projects. Product designers, interaction designers, or architects are often informed by “design ethnography”:

  1. concepts from the social sciences (Anthropology, Sociology) that help making sense of the world,

  2. “field research” methods that rely on observation, participant observation and interview techniques in order to understand social and cultural context.

Beyond the purely ergonomic and functional dimensions, such understanding is thus a fundamental component of current design in order to inspire, constrain, adapt and define the design space in an innovative and original way. Moreover, this understanding aims to overcome the stereotypes of a "user-centered design" that is often not sufficiently concerned with the complexity of individuals' uses and practices, as well as the major role of the surrounding context in the people’s motivations.

 Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Studio brief

In this studio, students will learn how to employ design ethnography in the context of a small project focused on the digital infrastructure of urban everyday life.

Surveillance cameras, routers, traffic sensors, mobile phone towers, WiFi antennas, cables such as copper wire or optical fibers, data centers, server farms... All of these correspond to the tangible underpinnings of the so-called “virtual interactions” people have with their computers and smartphones. The urban environment, more than anywhere else, is filled with such devices and the myriads of services they rely on, ranging from repair phone shops fixing broken screens and bloated operating systems, to maintenance teams changing underground cables.

 Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Although these technological components are fundamental, they are often invisible and unbeknown to most of us. Their existence, often dismissed as banal and purely technical, is, however both fundamental as they shape our social and political interactions.

Interestingly, there has been an increasing interest from designers, artists and social scientists towards them (see references). Based on a series of observation, interviews, and possibly research interventions (participant observation, use of non- working prototypes, probes), students will explore the potential of the digital infrastructure of the urban environment in product/service/interaction design. Can they be repurposed for other more inspiring usages? How can we combine these technical elements in order to build more habitable near-futures? Can one take advantage of existing flaws/limits? Can we protect citizens from their overwhelming presence?

Expected output(s)

Based on both the field explorations and the process of analysing the observations, students will have to submit produce two artefacts:

  • Output 1: a document that summarizes the research findings (map? poster? Brief fanzine?)

  • Output2: an object that presents their design concept about how to take advantage of the digital infra/network. This may be done through objects, a short film, a performance, a series of drawings or visualizations; it is up to the students to select the most appropriate resolution for their outcomes.

These two artefacts will be presented orally the last day of the workshop.

Readings and references

General inspiration for field research
Perec, G. (2011). Thoughts of Sorts, Notting Hill Editions.
Perec, G. (2010). An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Wakefield Press. Smith, K. (2008). How to be an explorer of the world : portable art life museum. NYC : Penguin Books.

Field research methods in social sciences
Causey, A. (2016). Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method
, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sanjek, R. (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University press.

Weiss, R.S. (1995). Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. Simon & Schuster.

Field research methods in design/UX
Dourish, P. (2006). Implications for design, in Proceedings of the conference on Human Factors in computing systems (Montréal, Québec),pp. 541–550, ACM.

Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti E. (1999). Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6 (1), 21-29.

Gaver, W. W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., & Walker, B. (2004). Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions, 11 (5), 53-56. Retrieved from http://cms.gold.ac.uk/media/30gaver-etal.probes+uncertainty.interactions04.pdf

Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M. & Moed, A.(2012). Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research (2nd ed.), Morgan Kaufmann.

Nova, N. (2014). Beyond Design Ethnography. Berlin : SHS Publishing. Available at the following URL.

Portigal, Steve (2013). Interviewing Users: how to uncover compelling insights. San Francisco: Rosenfeld Media.

Digital/network infrastructures in social sciences/design/art

Arnall, T. (2014). Exploring 'Immaterials': Mediating Design's Invisible Materials. International Journal of Design, 8 (2).

Augé, M. (1995). Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Burrington, I. (2016). Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. NYC: Melville House; Ill edition.

Gabrys, J. (2016). Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Star, Susan Leigh (1999): "The Ethnography of Infrastructure", American Behavioral Scientist 43, pp. 377‐91.

Sherpard, M. (2011). Sentient Cities: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Varnelis, K. (2009). The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Actar.

Sensor fail

IMG_6016.JPG

September 22, Lausanne (Switzerland). I guess sensor-based soap dispensers have been designed in order to provide a touch-free system that is supposedly more hygienic for its users. However, almost everytime I run across such device, there's a little bit of soap under it. It's the messiness versus elegance that always happen when one think technology would be an easy solution for a simple problem.

Professional repair shop

mbxlyon

September 12, 2017, Lyon, France. An afternoon spent in the repair shops near Place du Pont in Lyon. Although the ones catering laymen are on the main streets, I found this one devoted to professionals. The tinted windows interestingly allude to the opacity of the process and, perhaps, the necessity to avoid showing what happens behind.

Ethnographic experiential futures

exf

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.

On Fadell’s regrets and techno-determinism

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."

Ethology/ethnography documentation

orni1

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."

orni2 orni3 orni4 orni5

Imaginaires synthétiques

 

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.

"Augmented Animals" by James Auger (2001)

"Augmented Animals" by James Auger (2001)

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.

My field research notepad

My field research notepad

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 :

Bibliography

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.