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September 14, 2006

[iDC] Architecture and Situated Technologies - September Overture


Anne Galloway

Thanks Mark for your thoughtful introduction to the September discussions. I've been following with great interest since I introduced myself in July, and now I'd like to share and begin to explore some things that have particularly resonated with me.

You mention the "current status of the material object [and] forms of embodied interaction" and I've often thought about this 'return' to the body and the physical after the (failed?) promises of cyberspace disembodiment. In other words, I see a kind of re-embodiment ethos at work right now in research, art and design practice, and a re-newed commitment to the material. In some ways, then, it seems that the pendulum of technological desire has merely swung to the other side.

Since my first two degrees are in anthropology and archaeology I also have a special interest in material culture. Coupled with my doctoral work in social studies of science and technology, I find this question of materiality to be rather persistent in my research. If you'll forgive my self-referencing, Matt Ward and I wrote a paper recently about some intersections we saw between archaeology and locative media design:


and I continue to imagine a possible future where complex legal battles are being fought over the cultural repatriation of digital artefacts

I mean, I sometimes wonder if our pervasive computing collections (we _are_ still talking databases) will more closely resemble the British Museum (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/) or the City Reliquary (http://www.cityreliquary.org/)?

I also wonder about a current fetishising of 'things'. Or how can we 'return to the object' without privileging objectivity? I really disliked the phrase 'the internet of things' when I first heard it, but I've since embraced it as a rather lovely manifestation of a type of contemporary commodity fetishism. Earlier this year I gathered links on the historical development and use of the phrase, and it's not difficult to trace its movements--its inscription devices--from academic-industry research partnerships to popular business and technology publications to popular blogs and back to academic-industry research partnerships.


You may note in that cycle I just described there was no mention of particular technologies, or rather no mention of pervasive computing devices. I think that the material status of 'pervasive computing' today can be profitably distinguished from the material dreams of 'the internet of things'. (The _things_ we're talking about are different in each case.) In actuality, most embedded computing today is used for surveillance/monitoring or 'consumer convenience' and _not_ for participatory media production. I guess my point is that pervasive computing in its most banal and mundane expressions is by definition dull and boring. It's the Oyster card used on the Tube every day, the fingerprint scan to get into the office, the rfid tag stuck on the broom. But that's also _everyday life_ and sometimes boredom is just what people want and need. Plus, I try to never underestimate how inventive people are when it comes to finding hope and joy in small things.

I think that David Lyon got it right when he described surveillance as 'social sorting,' even if his sense of the social was too humanist for my taste. The sorts of structured and stored monitoring necessary for context-aware computing are also matters of spatial and cultural sorting (inclusion and exclusion). I find that we're still not very clear on these notions of 'publics' or 'communities' either, or rather that people are working with a multitude of different understandings that are often glossed over in conversation. Add to this the matter of matter--or things--and we're in a downright voluptuous state, where _things_ often don't co-operate.

So we induce, we create, places where it's easy to associate only with those who share our interests and values, where it's easy to avoid being accountable to, and for, precisely those interests and values that we do not share. And all despite the fact that we pass different others--move through spaces together--every day! (I guess that does trouble me.) At the same time, I'm not sure it's productive to essentially reframe this social and cultural discussion in terms of public and private. I'm not sure that dichotomy is either reliable or useful beyond helping me understand the everyday movements in-between...

In any case, I do continue to focus my work on how we are (re?)imagining our being-together in mobility--and I'm looking forward to our continuing discussions and to meeting some of you at the symposium.

Kind regards,

Anne Galloway
Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
7th Floor, Loeb Building
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1S 5B6


From Mark Shepard, September 20, 2006:

Anne wrote:

> I also wonder about a current fetishising of 'things'. Or how can
> we 'return to the object' without privileging objectivity?

I think this is a key question. As Sterling noted at the talk he gave for the Lift conference[1] last March, the phrase "Internet of Things" is a useful one if you are looking for venture capital in southern California. And indeed, the discourse surrounding the convergence of ubiquitous / embedded / context-aware / geospatial / locative technologies finds its (fundable) applications predominately in the commodity object or "objective" control systems for the military- industrial-light-and-magic complex. So it's not surprising that given the circuit running from "academic-industry research partnerships to popular business and technology publications to popular blogs and back to academic-industry research partnerships" produces ideas that feed this fetish for the object and objectivity.

Trebor asks:

> So, why talk of "things" instead of objects?

Well, for one thing, calling them objects doesn't account for meanings such as "That's another thing entirely", "She knows how to handle things", or "We're just doing our thing." Things are "actions, events and affairs" as much as they are "artifacts." Networked _things_ are not at all the same as networked objects (but they may include them). When we reduce _things_ to objects, however, we limit our ability to consider how _things_ are embedded within everyday life, their meaning contingent upon their use (or mis-use), and the relations they enact or perform.

Take Heidegger's "jug", for example:

> "No representation of what is present, in the sense of what stands
> forth and of what stands over against as an object, ever reaches to
> the thing qua thing. The jug's thingness resides in its being a qua
> vessel. We become aware of the vessel's holding nature when we fill
> the jug... the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The
> empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the
> holding vessel... But if the holding is done by the jug's void,
> then the potter who forms sides and bottom on his wheel does not,
> strictly speaking, make the jug... The vessel's thingness does not
> lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void
> that holds." [2]

Heidegger's understanding of the thing stands in contradistinction to the object. While I find the larger argument he's making in this essay problematic, I do find useful the idea that the "thingness" of the thing doesn't reside in its being a representable object, but rather in the way _things_ bring human practices together and make them intelligible.

Recently I screened Tati's "Play Time" for a group of graduate students. I am always fasinated by the way _things_ for Tati - modernist chairs, glass plane doors (or at least their handles) - carry with them an excess beyond their role as functional objects. With the chairs, for example, that excess is the sound they produce when sitting on them, how the body engages with the acoustic properties of the material, and the (hilarious) social implications of this... This excess often lies in the difference between how things are designed and how they are used, or how they perform in ways not anticipated by their designers.

Dunne and Raby's "post-optimal" electronic objects would appear to take this excess as an opportunity for a reflexive, critical design practice, one that doesn't so much reject the optimizations and efficiencies of Taylorism as it considers them moot: already achieved, and therefore not much of a design challenge. If anything, contrary to Trebor's suggestion, I'd say critical design can play a key role in shaping a future of things that are not invested in "intentionally restricting the way the user can behave, or enforce certain modes of behavior."

Ulises wrote:

> I fear that our technophilia is obscuring the politics of these
> virtual-actual assemblages, obstructing the need to critically
> assess how agency is distributed amongst things connected through
> the internet.

The question of agency here is crucial. But I think it's useful to distinguish between humans and things in actor networks. This might help abate some of the hysteria surrounding the current discussion. That we can see networked things as systems doesn't necessarily mean that these systems can think, act, or exercise power in any subjective way.

Still, subjective human agency is but one form of "being in action or exerting power", and its important to consider how representative democracies, for example, can be influenced by _things_ that are capable of asserting themselves within networked societies.

Take Bruno Latour's Parliament of Things, for example:

> Let one of the representatives talk, for instance, about the ozone
> hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the
> workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New
> Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions; let still
> another speak in the name of the State; what does it matter, so
> long as they are all talking about the same thing, about a quasi-
> object they have all created, the object-discourse-nature-society
> whose new properties astound us all and whose network extends from
> my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the
> State, the economy and satellites. [3]

Or Julian Bleecker's description of Blogject agency:

> Agency as I am using it here does not just mean a local “artificial
> intelligence” that makes a Blogject able to make autonomous, human-
> like decision or fashion croaky human-speech from text. Blogjects
> have no truck with the syntax of human thought. Things could not
> care any less about their Turing Test report card. Blogject
> intellect is their ability to effect change. Their agency attains
> through the consequence of their assertions, and through the
> significant perspective they deliver to meaningful conversations.
> Blogjects bring something heavy to the table. Or, they are brought
> to the table because they have semantic weight. Agency is
> literally imbued in Blogjects. Things that matter completely sully
> the previously starched white relationship between subject and
> object, human and nonhuman. Things that matter inflect the course
> of social debate and discussion, and cannot help inflicting local
> and global change. Witness the Spotted Owl. Witness the Pacific
> Northwest Salmon. Witness all the non-human, non-subject "things"
> that became fully imbued with the status of first-class citizens.
> Heck, most humans don't have the capacity to effect the kind of
> worldly change and receive the same order of protection, status and
> economic resources as a fish.

These networked things are obviously far more than "just pieces of metal and silicon... " and at the same time far less than the hype and hysteria currently surrounding them might suggest.



[1] http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8575858411965484751&q=bruce+sterling&hl=en
[2] Heidegger, "The Thing," in Poetry, Language, Thought, A. Hofstadter, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
[3] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. by C. Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1993. p. 144
[4] Bleecker, Julian. Why Things Matter. 2006. http://research.techkwondo.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf

mark shepard

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Posted by jo at September 14, 2006 04:17 PM