Session 3 reflections: Designing for Responsive Communities

Artist Christian Nold joined us for our third session for a fascinating insight into his practice. Christian began with a chronology of his work since the early 1990s, when the ‘internet found him’. He referred to artists working at the time who inspired him, such as Heath Bunting and Critical Art Ensemble and practices of tactical media that were evolving as a way of intervening into the dominant media. This led to him start researching the policing of group protest, carrying out interviews with riot police, non-lethal weapon designers, activists and sociologists, resulting in his publication, Mobile Vulgas in 2001. Christian talked about his interest in building his own ‘techno-social’ tools (as another form of tactics – based on de Certeau’s reworking of Clausewitz’s writing on strategies and tactics), that might resist or create an alternative to the ones being marketed as interactive technologies at the time. The course he did in interactive design at the RCA, was very much focused on these tecnological fantasies which promised to make life easier, with fewer choices and seamless transition between daily chores (he showed the HP ‘cool town’ advert from 2001 which presented a world where technology is pervasive, persuasive and simply everywhere and mentioned Mark Weiser’s work on calm technology).

Christian took us through a few of his projects in detail, specifically, the bio mapping work he’s been doing and the Bijlmer Euro project. Bio mapping involves wearing a portable lie detector on your fingers which measures your sweat responses, which is connected to a GPS device. As you walk around an area, it creates an emotional reading of your route which is then plotted on a map and the participant can annotate the troughs and peaks with anecdotes about what they experienced on their walk. Christian talked about how the device becomes a piece of performative technology and enabled co-storytelling through technology and a collective look at an area. Having carried out the emotion mapping project with people living in a number of locations (e.g. North Greenwich, Stockport and San Francisco), Christian has decided he wants to shift his focus away from the people he is usually expected to work with – i.e. troublesome teenagers – and to instead wire-up the decision-makers in an area – such as the mayors, politicians and police.

There was discussion on the ethics of this research – how is it used? Who owns the ‘data’? As with the Bijlmer Euro project (a reworking of the Lewes or Brixton pound idea), Christian is interested in creating open data and public visualisations of data that other people can use (what, then, if this data falls into the ‘wrong’ hands?). Currently interested in the ‘citizen science‘ movement, Christian led a discussion on the sustainability of collective, self-organised activities (such as the Cuban food movement), foregrounding the fundamental question of how data is genearted in the first place, who generates it and why?

By Sophie Hope

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Session 2 reflections: Environmental change and digital scholarship

Joe Smith

The second session of the workshop series was led by Dr Joe Smith of the OpenSpace Research Centre at The Open University. Joe is one of those rare scholars working at the intersections of research and public debate, and who has a long record of bringing his interests in environmental change and the politics of consumption to wider audiences, whether that is through podcasts, blogging (e.g. see Joe’s blog and twitter feed), web platforms or more traditional broadcast mediums.

One of Joe’s starting examples was the recent controversy over the hacked climate science emails. Though most rational assessments would argue that these emails ought not have undermined the very significant and robust corpus of climate science research available, their wide publication nevertheless did manage to do some significant damage to the image of climate change science. This suggests, Joe argued, that we scholars are conducting our work in public whether we know it or now, and indeed, whether we like it or not.

But Joe’s message here was a positive one: that scholars seeking to conduct some or much of their work beyond scholarly books and journals can often make highly significant impacts on public debate. He reflected, for example, on David Attenborough’s two-part BBC special Are We Changing Planet Earth (2006) as a landmark in building more nuanced public knowledge about environmental change (contrasted, for example, with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in the same year). As good as such broadcast programmes are, however, Joe suggested that we remind ourselves how ‘narrow a pipe’ this medium can be, in terms of its ability to present the complexity of environmental issues.

Joe then turned to a series of live examples of digital scholarship, such as his Letter to a Climate Sceptic, where he first learned to ask ‘who is the audience?’ while realising the potential of using iTunes U for distribution); or his ATLAS of Interdependence (with Renata Tyszczuk), an example of how one can use the web as a unique ‘publication’ platform (i.e. the web need not always mean dynamic or constantly updated). After taking a look at some other examples of digital scholarship, such as Angela Last’s Mutable Matter and Nigel Warburton’s remarkable Philosophy Bites, we broke into groups for a very productive set of discussions on forms of digital scholarship, from podcasting to blogging to various experiments with digital media.

As the group chatter made clear, the prospects of digital scholarship are both exciting but also challenging. For instance, must a digital scholar adhere to the principle of authorship (and authority), and try to work from defined or semi-contained online spaces like a personal blog; or should one’s content hop across web platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc) like a frog across lily pads? There were also questions about the ethics of online publishing. For example, when scholars change their mind about something, should they amend existing content online? Maybe not – maybe it should be treated like publications, and once out, also (to an extent) out of mind. Or maybe so, and if so, how should amendements be made (e.g. simply change it or indicate the change using a datemarked strikethrough)? And what about ‘safe experimenting’ online? Many expressed a desire to use online media for various forms of experimentation with research work – a process through which one might even provoke some healthy ‘digital goosebumps’ – yet still many thought it important to protect their data, or one’s research subjects/contacts.

Joe ended the workshop with an overview of his remarkable Creative Climate, a ten-year multimedia participative and research project that will provide a longitudinal account of societal responses to global environmental change. Interestingly, though the project is set out in the nice, round number of ten years, Joe indicated the possibility that, if successful, there would be no reason not to continue the project for a longer period of time – certainly that could be called some digital or networked logic. I think it is fair to say that we all hope the project succeeds!

By Scott Rodgers

Session 1 reflections: What is research amongst technologies?

Jake Strickland

What counts as ‘technologies’? This might sound like an unbelievably broad or overly foundational question to ask. Yet it is where Jake Strickland and I (Scott Rodgers) felt that we ought to begin if we were going to ask the almost-equally broad question of this workshop series’ first session: What is research amongst technologies? Our participants’ response to the question of what counts as technologies was interesting. Sure, we had some very interesting technological criteria debated, around such things as clothes washers and rice cookers. But the wild and crazy were also forwarded as potential technologies: clothes, alcohol, even sex. For both the more typical and the more wild, however, some common themes emerged. Few were interested in committing to a definition of technologies as necessarily electronic, machinic, or even material in a narrow sense. It seemed that, in these group discussions, the common criteria was less these things than technologies as referring, simultaneously, to things which have some sort of agency upon humans, yet which nearly always become recognisable, as one technology or another, through human agency (i.e. use).

Now, Jake and I had partly contrived things to head in this direction, as we wanted to move from this central question of what technology is, on to the specificity of the digital, and finally on to how we might interweave these general matters into thinking about research practice. So, we were interested to discuss – and did discuss – such things as technogenesis, the idea that the evolution of Homo sapiens is not simply a result of a transmuting human body or mental capacity, but stems from our co-evolution alongside ‘technics’ (i.e. tools, artefacts, etc). The point of such a concept is that technologies can be thought of, on the one hand, as agents, both in small ways (such as the playful door closer example of Bruno Latour) but also in grandly historical ways, such as Marshall McLuhan’s controversial claims about the transformative power of new mediums (e.g. print, television). On the other hand, it also reminds us of critiques of technological determinism (such as Raymond Williams of McLuhan), which question abstract assertions that there is a cause-and-effect relation between or technology and society. As such critiques would argue, not only do we need to think about the design and distribution of technologies, but also their uses and users.

We tried to introduce the idea of specifically digital technology with these points in mind: yes, the rise of digital technologies has fundamental social and cultural implications; but the potentials and limits of such technologies ultimately comes down how we use them, and the conditions in which we do so. So, we first acknowledged a very basic feature about the ‘digital’: information, texts, still/moving images, sounds, etc can all be rendered into the same basic binary data format – ultimately 1’s and 0’s. Digitalisation is a fundamental shift because all information can now be subjected to various procedures of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication – a point well described by cultural theorists like Lev Manovich, and others in software studies. When one considers the exponential increase in computing capacity (e.g. see Moore’s law), the implications for research are potentially huge (see for example, the recent visualisation projects by Manovich, not to mention Dell Zhang’s forthcoming workshop within this series).

However, there is another implication of digitalisation. While previously one might have used many different technological mediums in pursuing different tasks, different mediums are today increasingly converging. “Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface” (as Friedrich Kittler remarked in opening his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter). In other words, we increasingly conduct many tasks in front of some sort of digital screen. This was an apt opening point for Jake to outline perhaps the most important overall message of the workshop: more important than the technological capacities of the computers is digital ergonomics. In other words, the real revolution is not in computing capacity but in new developments in how we interface with digital technologies.

What does this have to do with issues of research design, collection, storage, sharing and dissemination? It suggests that researchers don’t start with technologies as such, but instead think first and foremost about what their research interests/objectives really are, how these will be pursued or performed, and then plan and design carefully. For example, to think about the nitty-gritty logistical opportunities and constraints ‘in the field’. This means not only asking what sort of technological solutions might help in that highly situated context, and what are the drawbacks of introducing the same technologies into that milieu. It also meanings asking questions about one’s audiences: not just who the audience is, but quite literally what will be the ergonomics of their accessing your research in whatever form it is presented.

The above only provides a glimpse of the wide ranging discussions. For instance, participants also became quite engaged around how one might use technologies to attend to elusive or implicit (unspoken) phenomena (a problem suggested by one participant’s research in particular, and highly reminiscent of John Law’s After Method). It was, we think, a rather good start to the workshop series.

By Scott Rodgers

Look out for our event at…

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A workshop series is born…

This web space has been designed to run alongside and provide information about Doing research amongst technologies, a workshop series hosted by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice at Birkbeck, University of London, and funded through Birkbeck’s 2010/11 allocation of Roberts Funding from Research Councils UK (RCUK). Please visit our about page to read more about this workshop series and its aims.

In addition to providing information about registration, workshop dates, and contacts, you will also find occasional blog posts (such as this one) on this website which provide summaries or reflections on some of the workshops, often pointing to related online resources.