Partial Truths: To Do Something Interdisciplinary

Thursday June 24 10:15

“Interdisciplinary work, so much discussed these days, is not about confronting already constituted disciplines (none of which, in fact, is willing to let itself go). To do something interdisciplinary it’s not enough to choose a “subject” (a theme) and gather around it two or three sciences. Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new object that belongs to no one.”

Roland Barthes, “Jeunes Chercheurs”

A few words on interdisciplinarity that I recently came across from Roland Barthes, who I haven’t read exhaustively, but luckily my friend and writing partner Andrew Baird did. He turned me onto Barthes super short essay “The Reality Effect” in The Rustle of Language which helped me sort out a couple of dangling threads while writing my dissertation — “The Reality Effect of Technoscience”. ((It was, though, my other friend Sarah Jain shoving Latour’s Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies into my book shelf that really let me feel as though I could, after a 10 year hiatus, finish my dissertation.

Why do I blog this? I came across this while recollecting some of Jim Clifford’s work as he has been on mind after seeing him at his retirement jubilee up in Santa Cruz a few weekends ago. This comes from Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography which he edited with Greil Marcus. Some good essays in there, especially for me at the time when I was trying to figure out what the heck anthropology was, anyway.

Continue reading Partial Truths: To Do Something Interdisciplinary

Digital Blur Book Launched

…and apparently available only in the UK presently. John Marshall and I have a manifesto-y essay towards the end of this.

Marshall and Bleecker, in their essay, propose the term “undisciplinary” for the type of work prevalent in this book. That is, creative practice which straddles ground and relationships between art, architecture, design and technology and where different idioms of distinct and disciplinary practices can be brought together. This is clearly evident in the processes and projects of the practitioners’ work here. Marshall and Bleecker view these kinds of projects and experiences as beyond disciplinary practice resulting in a multitude of disciplines “engaging in a pile-up, a knot of jumbled ideas and perspectives.” To Marshall and Bleecker, “undisciplinarity is as much a way of doing work as it is a departure from ways of doing work.” They claim it is a way of working and an approach to creating and circulating culture that can go its own way, without worrying about working outside of what histories-of-disciplines say is “proper” work. In other words, it is “undisciplined”. In this culture of practice, they continue, one cannot be wrong, nor have practice elders tell you how to do what you want to do and this is a good thing because it means new knowledge is created all at once rather than incremental contributions made to a body of existing knowledge. These new ways of working make necessary new practices, new unexpected processes and projects come to be, almost by definition. This is important because we need more playful and habitable worlds that the old forms of knowledge production are ill-equipped to produce. For Marshall and Bleecker, it is an epistemological shift that offers new ways of fixing the problems the old disciplinary and extra-disciplinary practices created in the first place. The creative practitioners contained within the pages of this book clearly meet the “undisciplinary” criteria suggested by Marshall and Bleecker in that they certainly do not need to be told how or what to do; they do not adhere to conventional disciplinary boundaries nor do they pay heed to procedural steps and rules. However, they know what’s good, and what’s bad and they instinctively know what the boundaries are and where the limits of the disciplines lie.

Continue reading Digital Blur Book Launched

Innovation 2.0?

Thursday April 09, 15.19.14

Expectation or anticipation? In Batvik Finland?

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review that I came across recently. It is relevant to a long-standing interest in other strategies for “innovation” particularly in commercial enterprises.

The article is called “Fewer Engineers, More Anthropologists” by Navi Radjou. It argues for, like…more anthropologists and fewer engineers while an enterprise attempts to “effectively identify[ing] and address[ing] the explicit and unmet needs of the broader consumer base in emerging markets.” (Quick translation — selling more stuff that makes sense to local people/cultures/practices in Brazil, India, South America and probably Africa, too.)

Why I find this intriguing is how ancient it sounds. If it the article was dated in 1990 I might understand. But it is quite recent, published only this month. This makes me think that something was forgotten, as is the nature of history. This is fine, except along with what was forgotten goes any lessons or insights learned.
Continue reading Innovation 2.0?

Who Will Make The Bricks?

John-Rhys Newman’s exploration of New Measures of Things in a series of conventional measuring instruments that act as kinds of epistemological wrenches, changing perceptions and confusing the traditions of quantification. Very intriguing objects. I’m curious about the history of measurement and quantification. There’s lots there. I find myself knee deep in the muck of Medieval history. More to come. Want one?

The Near Future Laboratory’s Overseas Bureau of Avuncular Insights and Apropos Turns of Phrase found this clattering off the network’s teletypes — a wonderful short dispatch from Bruce Sterling referring in high-style to the challenges confronting our forward-facing resources for imagining new, near future worlds. Science-fiction has a history; hasn’t always been around. It participates in imagining the future — the title of the essay is this conflation of Design and Fiction, suggestive of this point that fiction can participate in design. But, ultimately, the science-fiction-design trio results in imaginary things. Things that are never hewn beyond the words and the story and the imagination. They are, therefore, fantastic “crap.” Design fiction sits somewhere in between science-fiction and the materialization of the imagination. It is tied more closely to the stuff that appears in the world. You can tell because it resonates closely with either things now, things about to happen, or things that are discussed and activated. Or, the design fiction becomes a reference point — a way of describing something that, oh — some geeks are tooling in the laboratory.

What truly interests me here is the limits of the imaginable.

Design fictions of the best sort are like design & style manuals for making things. They lead to conversations like this — “Yeah, it’s kinda like that thing? The reputation servers in that book, um…Distraction? Oh, you didn’t read it? Well, you should. It’ll help us talk about what we’re trying to do. It’s got some cool things in it.”

What are the constraints to imagining new kinds of future worlds? Writing is constrained by language, which may have been the literati’s excuse for not creating a future imaginary worthy of our time, money and attention to materialize.

Design, by contrast, is less verbal. Design is busily inventing new ways to blow itself apart. Design is taking more risks with itself than literature. That is why contemporary design feels almost up to date, while literature feels archaic and besieged.

Design and literature don’t talk together much, but design has more to offer literature at the moment than literature can offer to design. Design seeks out ways to jump over its own conceptual walls-scenarios, user observation, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, critical design, speculative design. There is even “experience design,” which is surely the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented.

Now, talking again? With a more common landscape brought to us via digital networks, digital data, digital communications and sharing? Could that be the effective culture of the Internet? To bring together language and material? Expressive of both in a way. Not just stories, but their material, lived in the world?

Perhaps apropos of the recent Milan Design Week chatter, the way I read this nice compact essay is that the vector cross-product of a failed capitalism with an inability of (design/engineering/science/technoculture-writ-large) to imagine a future-forward equals variously trouble or opportunity. The opportunity being — new kinds of “bricks.” New units of assemblage to create more habitable (broadly — sustainable, creative, articulate, mindful, generous, etc.) future worlds. We need new measures of meaning. New systems of quantification that do not ultimately, in the end, result in an unbalanced equation.

Read the whole thing here. I’ve excerpted my favorite part below. (Well, it’s short enough of an essay that the whole thing can be a favorite part, but this is what this morning’s coffee-sit-down favored.)

We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead of being armored in technique, or sheltered within subculture, design and science fiction have become like two silk balloons, two frail, polymorphic pockets of hot air, floating in a generally tainted cultural atmosphere.

These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and action do seem blinkered somehow-not unimaginative, but unable to imagine effectively. A bigger picture, the new century’s grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be because they were both born with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in 80 years ago?

There is much thoughtful talk of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and the transdisciplinary. These are buzzwords, language that does not last.

What we are really experiencing now is a massive cybernetic hemorrhage in ways of knowing the world.

Even money, the almighty bottom line, the ultimate reality check for American society, has tripped over its own infrastructural blinders, and lost its ability to map value. The visionaries no longer know what to think-and, by no coincidence, the financiers can no longer place their bets.

I scarcely know what to do about this. As Charles Eames said, design is a method of action. Literature is a method of meaning and feeling. Hearteningly, I do know how I feel about this situation. I even have some inkling of what it means.

Rather than thinking outside the box-which was almost always a money box, quite frankly-we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.

The winds of the Net are full of straws. Who will make the bricks?

Continue reading Who Will Make The Bricks?

Undisciplinary Design / People-Practice

Crossing into a new practice idiom, especially if it offers the chance to feel the process of learning, is a crucial path toward undisciplinarity. The chance to become part of a practice — with all of its history, ideology, languages, norms and values, personalities, conferences — is an invigorating process. Embodying multiple practices simultaneously is the scaffolding of creativity and innovating, in my mind. It is what allows one to think beyond the confines of strict disciplinary approaches to creating new forms of culture — whether objects, ideas or ways of seeing the world.

I’ve been an engineer, working on the Motorola 88000 RISC processor at Data General back in the day. I studied how to think about the “human factor” as an engineering problem while I was working at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington where I got my MSEng. The human factor has a less instrumental side, I discovered — it’s not just median heights and inter-ocular distances. So, I went to study culture theory and history of ideas at UC Santa Cruz where I got my Ph.D. I wanted to understand how people make meaning of the (technology-infused) world around them. Shortly after that, and quite accidentally, I entered the art-technology world when I recognized that I could do a form of “research” that was simultaneously technical and cultural. Four years in academia on the other side of the lectern provided a useful opportunity to try a different way of circulating knowledge, and a different set of constraints on what can and cannot be done in the area of practice-as-theory.

These disparate practices actually have a satisfying arc, in my opinion. It’s a combination of instrumental and practical skill, together with a sense of the meaning-making, theory and aesthetic possibilities of mostly technical and engineered objects.

Objects, I have learned, are expressive bits of culture. They make meaning, help us understand and make sense of the world. They are knowledge-making, epistemological functionaries. They frame conversations and are also expressions of possibility and aspiration. In many ways, they are some of the weightiest and expressive forms of culture we have. Being able to make objects and understand them as expressive, as able to tell or start or frame larger conversations and stories about the world is very satisfying.

Objects express the cultural, aesthetic, practical knowledge of their making — in their “design”, and in their crafting as “art”, or also in their “engineering.”

This is not a revelation for most of you, of course. For me, though, it has been a revelation to understand this kind of statement from the perspectives of multiple practices or disciplines.

Objects and culture are reciprocally embodied, certainly. But what object? And what culture? Certainly not one solidified, rock-solid meaningful object. If I take a phone (there are lots around me nowadays) and try to understand it, it matters from what “culture” (or discipline, or community-of-practice) I study it. At the same time, making an object, and how it is made, and what it will mean, and when I will know it is finished — all of these things depend on what culture or practice or body of knowledge you choose to look at it from.
Put an engineer, a model-maker, an industrial designer, a marketing guy all around a table, staring at a phone. What will they see? Where will they agree on what they see and where will they look blankly and wonder — what is that guy talking about? How much time is spent — minutes? months? — negotiating what is seen?

What practices fit in the middle? Is that inter-disciplines? And what practices run across many? Is that multi-discplines? Do trans-disciplines work above and beyond? What about undisciplinary? What way of seeing that object will make it into something new and unheard of? What way of seeing will materialize new objects, innovative ideas and conversations that create new playful, more habitable near future worlds? (And not just smart refrigerators and clothes hangers that automatically dry clean your shirts, or whatever.)

What do I call myself?



What I’m coming to understand is the relationship between art, technology and design as one in which the different idioms of very distinct and displinary practices can be brought together..or not. My insights are not as thorough as yours and more driven by intuition and insight through process and projects. My own descriptions of these experiences are that “interdisciplinary” means multiple disciplines engaged in a pile-up, a knot of jumbled ideas and perspectives. Lots of different languages and vocabularies and principles, and especially ways of “completing things” — processes — that feels quite a bit like a bunch of different driving habits converging on a busy freeway.

I prefer the term “undisciplinary” because it wants nothing to do with playing the usual games, according to the usual logics (doing things to serve a specific mode of capital accumulation and capital production — whether knowledge-as-property, culture-as-commodity, objects or other materializations that can be sold for profit.) It’s not “interdisciplinary” — which I bought into once. Neither is it transdisciplinary, which I admittedly don’t know that much about, but suspect it’s a bit of an over-theorized alternative to “interdisciplinary”

“Undisciplinarity” is as much a way of doing work as it is a departure from ways of doing work, even what “counts” as work. It is a work habit and approach to creating and circulating culture that can go its own way, without worrying about working outside of what histories-of-disciplines say is “proper” work. It’s “undisciplined” and not willing or even able to operate within the realm of consumer capitalism and capital accumulation. You can’t be wrong — or have old-timers tell you how to do what you want to do. This is a good thing, it means new knowledge is created rather than incremental contributions to a body of existing knowledge. It means new ways of working, new practices, new unexpected processes and projects come to be, almost by definition. It’s not for everyone. Many if not most people need to be told how to do what they do. They need discipline and boundaries and steps and rules. They need to know what’s good, and what’s bad. They need to know what the boundaries are and where the limits of the discipline lie. And this makes sure that the creation of specific, sensible knowledge is created.

Why is this important? Why “undisciplinarity”? Because we need more playful and habitable worlds that the old forms of knowledge production are ill-equipped to produce. It’s an epistemological shift, not (only) new ways of fixing the problems the old disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices created in the first place. If these old practices are lap dogs to consumer capitalism how quickly can they learn the desperately needed new tricks to fix the crisis-level challenges the world faces?
Continue reading Undisciplinarity.