Step Seven of Nine

Step one – write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. Step two – write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. Step three – write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. Step four – open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. Step five – start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. Step six – make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. Step seven – create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it. Step eight – exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. And step nine – find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’

via @bruces Atemporality for the Creative Artist.

Continue reading Step Seven of Nine

Theory, Practice — Art Design — Technology

I did a Pecha Kucha style presentation on some developing thoughts on the relationships between theory and practice, and the role of a hybrid, multiple art-design-technology approach to creating and circulating culture and knowledge. “Making things” can happen in lots of ways. I’ve tried two — engineering and art. And now design. It’s interesting for me to reflect on the different approaches to “making things” each discipline takes, as well as the core principles that guide doing what they do.

How do these practices deal with creating material that engages people? (Related to Nicolas’ recent post on a similar topic — how do different practices talk about people? How are they referred to, and how does that shape the nature of the research? The questions that get asked? And, then, what the outcomes mean, or how they materialized?

I think engineering as one of the preeminent, late-capital means of making things, with an operational and instrumental focus. The closest it gets to involving itself in people-practice is a rather instrumental language about “humans” and their measured abilities and tolerances. (Think, the British originated Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Human Interaction.) Perhaps the worst description of people is as “users.” Referring to people as “users” may likely be the reason that the product of engineering work that is intended to be, well..products for people fail in their interaction design. Users are definitely not people with a large set of expectations, practices and characteristics. Users are singly-focused entities with a set of expected pre-existing knowledge and a very constrained range of possible actions based on the way engineering principles create options (opportunities) for interactions.

Art, best as I can describe in this context, is a practice that materializes dreams and engages social practice at that level ‚ fears, ambitions, aspirations, represented as “art” of some fashion. Recently, there has been some interesting collaborations amongst art and technology practice. It is in these collaborations that you find indications of that hyphen in art-technology — the places where the boundary between the practices becomes clear. Like, when an art-technology piece has you asking “how’s it work” — that’s a clear indication that there’s more techie-fetish than art or design.

Design seems to have a deep comfort and history with talking with and about people and their practices. In recent experience, this kind of helps make a few things clearer, like why there are so many chairs and lamps in the design canon. Thoughtful designed chairs that take into account not only the ergonomics of people, but the practices they engage in through a larger, richer vocabulary of possible activities that have to do with sitting (and standing from sitting) will likely do better than purely functional (engineered) objects.

What are the possibilities for a hybrid “making things” activity that takes into account the best of each of these broad knowledge and practice communities?

Approaches To Practice

Sunday March 29, 13.18.40

Professional Statement

My professional goal as an academic is to create wider, public understanding as to the meaning of, and possibilities for, an invigorated, livable technoculture. For the last several years, through scholarship, writing and art-technology projects, I have been primarily focused on the ways that networked digital cultures operate, exist and create meaning. More recently, I have developed a commitment to revealing a deeper sense of the possibilities for actively shaping what that digitally networked world looks like, how it is co-habited by many different kinds of social beings, and how we may co-exist as social beings within it. My goals, in other words, are to make sense of the “new networked age” episteme in such a way as to create a sense that it is possible to shape our world, to “hack it”, into some place that we can inhabit in a life-affirming, sustainable way.

I believe that the world is at a crucial intersection, as always, but this one really matters. There has long been a recognition that digital networks might likely be enablers for worldly change of the most profound and impactful kind. The arguments that undergird this point of view are familiar. The fluency and literacy that a consequential number of people have with its technical underpinnings matters because fluency and literacy amongst a diversity of social formations can yield “new things.” The capacity of individuals to acquire the material skills to create their own technologies that facilitate these social formations is unprecedented. The networks continue to pervade many touch points within the social lives of a diversity of peoples, and pervade many touch points within the physical, geographic world. Such arguments continue, often based upon access, skill, the economics of digital transmission, and so forth. Succinctly, there are far-reaching implications for digital networked publics. The portents for worldly change are provocative.
While the possibility for change is latent within these enabling conditions, the direction that change takes is not entirely clear: knowledge, literacy, techno-savvy DIY-skills may yield a variety of possible worlds, not all of which, on an ethically normative register, are palatable. On the one hand, it is presently conceivable that the new networked age could provide us with a mechanism to make a world that is more habitable, more sustainable and more accepting of cultural and political difference. On the other hand, it is well within the power of the informed imagination to conceive of a digitally networked world that is precisely the opposite.

In sum, it is my professional goal to turn my creative and intellectual energy toward ways to achieve the more life-affirming social world.

My Approach To Scholarship
I hope I can distinguish my scholarship as an interdisciplinary hybrid that knits together my engineering and social sciences background, training and passions. As an engineer, I am fascinated by technology and actively develop such, but I am less interested in doing traditional engineering, such as creating more efficient data storage software, or making faster computer processors. As a social scientist, I like the idea of revealing the complex, imbricated relationship between technology and culture, but I also like to make culture through my technology projects.

The challenge for me in doing interdisciplinary work is that I embody interdisciplinarity. I want to make technology and culture at the same time. I want to do such so as to understand how culture and technology are actually two sides of the same coin, something that social theory reveals fairly well through science and technology studies, and cultural anthropology, and other disciplines as well. While also doing this kind of social theory, I want to make — design, code, build, test, release — the kinds of manifest contributions to new networked worlds that technology, absent social theory, is able to do through traditional engineering practice.

This approach to scholarship is perhaps best encapsulated in what Tara McPherson describes as a “theory object” — an instantiated “thing” that is able to “do” theory in its design, construction and use. Theory objects are embodiments of social theory and social practice, where the “social” is part of the design and construction of the “thing.” In my case, the “theory objects” I would like to construct are instantiations of the research questions my scholarship addresses.

This approach reveals social theory through the creation of technical instrumentalities, or framing theory through the creation of technological systems, or answering questions as to how meaning and social interactions can become embodied within or made possible by a device, software program or engineering practices. For instance, a component of my current book project is an investigation of more serene environments for networked digital social communication. Email, for example, and instant messaging, are seen in some contexts to be persistently nagging utilities that can be disruptive and distracting. Here, the question is around finding livable usage scenarios for IM or email. I am developing a software application that attempts to answer this question, by recasting the way in which we engage our email or interact with our IM buddies. As a “theory object”, this software may succeed or may fail or, more likely it will both succeed and fail, as all technologies and all social theories do. But, through the construction of this software object, it is my intention to both address this research question — what are less disruptive ways to engage digital communications practices. At the same time, by showing the step-by-step design and construction of the object, I can reveal the way that practice gets built into software.

Theory Objects, Pedagodgy and Practice-based Design

I’m liking this Theory Object business more and more.

Why? Because it’s helping me think through design practices – it’s becoming a way to frame what I think many design and change agents do already, or how many design/change agents think already. It helps me realize that what I do is always imbricated in a knitted pattern or flow of practice-based “conversations” around a set of shared goals, hopes and desires about making things for near-future worlds.

Hopefully, it will also become a pedagogical trope that unlocks the general reticence some have of participating in these conversations, firstly, and then recognizing that making things can achieve the shared goals/hopes/desires by making things public.

Making things public is the counterpoint to the problem the poor, poor camel suffers under by being the brunt of the old design/architect joke about a camel being the result of designing a horse by committee. Oooh. There are so many problems with that joke nowadays. It’s not about a committee collectively designing one horse, it’s about a networked public collectively designing more habitable and sustainable worlds. One group may have an idea for a horse – so they go do that. Another group may say that they need something more camel-like to take care of the micro-local environmental concerns over in this part of the world. Yet another group may scratch their head and say, we have a surfeit of these darn can we enroll a gaggle of them in helping us better understand the micro-local context? (Pierre, yeah, sure, we could go talk to Boeing about getting a few truck loads of quarter sized sensors to sprinkle from the sky to gather micro-local contextual sensor readings, but..those Boeing Arphid things are made of icky plastic, gum up some important waterways, cause a problem when they blow over the highways, and don’t fly themselves back home so clean up is a real hassle, excepting pigeon poo, which we have to deal with _anyway_. That’s one of the reasons that the pigeons that blog theory object “works” – it explicates the really annoying assumption that the highly instrumentalized technical object makes sense.)

Making things public as a kind of approach to design practice is effective because the conversations that are of consequence circulate and raise design challenges of concern. Design challenges of concern are those that will yield more habitable worlds, worlds subject to the desires of social practices rather than business practices, worlds that have some hint of sustainability, worlds in which it is less likely that operational efficiencies that help one “make the quarterly numbers” drive research and development, etc. Networked publics such as those just now drooling out of the primordial ooze called the Internet are able to bring about worldly change by virtue of linking up their common concerns, sharing their ideas, their How To’s, their design documents, code nuggets, FAQs, calls for participation, sketches, prototypes, and next iterations. When I see that others in the public network are asking, answering, reframing and contesting the same questions, and designing for similar shared goals, I see hope for making things happen because I can see things happen.

I can understand, or empathize, with the design to not engage in the Theory Object business because it means that you have to engage in making things, and making those things public. It could be potentially embarassing. You may become deflated because you find out that someone else somewhere did the exact same thing you did and, for most of us humans, that’s a terrible ego blow. (“What? But my mom always said I was unique individual! If someone else is making ‘my’ thing, I must be a robotic clone..”)

Why do I blog this? It’s time to accept ourselves into the collective of networked public “making of things.” (Ew. That’s a horrid formulation. I’ll have to work on that.)

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