Finding a thesis title

Half-way through my three years of PhD research project I am still mentally searching for, and experimenting with, titles. Thus far I have had the following titles in chronological order:

  • Practising Tomorrows’ Today – Examining the anticipatory logics and techniques of urban-ubiquitous computing development
  • Practising the technics of disappearance: emergent spatialities and the experimental development of ubiquitous computing
  • Mobilising the Socio-technical: The cultural politics of mobile communications technologies
  • Socio-technical spatial formations: Living with the cyber-hybrid
  • Cybrid Spaces

Of course, I have changed this again recently. I now list my provisional title as: Practising Tomorrows’ Today – Examining the anticipatory logics and techniques of urban-ubiquitous computing development. The progress through these titles interestingly and succinctly illustrates (at least for me) the journey of changes in thinking and learning on which I’ve been. I have learned that, for me, there has been, and probably will continue to be, a vacillation in thinking that focusses your research agenda. Increasingly, we have less time to arrive at a project as doctoral candidates, with funding and career pressures. So, the impetus lies with us (in British Academe) to formulate that specific ‘new contribution to knowledge’ in a relatively short period of time.

Starting with the title that came from my original research application, the ‘cybrid’ theme came from undergraduate investigations of the architectural work on what have been described as ‘mixed realities‘, and specifically Peter Anders’ conceptualisation of cyber-hybrid or ‘cybrid‘ objects and spaces. Post-rationally, I very much associate this thinking with my ‘pre-geographical’ thinking, which for me was the assumption of the Cartesian ‘space-as-a-box’ model of space. In my Masters dissertation I conducted something of a (self) reflexive re-education in theorisations of space and place, the perennial concern of human geography.

The second title in the list illustrates an attempt to reconcile the architectural thinking of space as interconnected or overlapping boxes suggested in the cyber-hybrid research with a Deleuzian (or Deleuze & Guattari) inspired understanding of space not described as one kind of space, nor as having any particular permanence. As Thrift suggests:

Space comes in many guises: points, planes, para-bolas; blots, blurs and blackouts. Some want to have it that the meeting is the thing. Others that it is scaling. Others that it is emergence. Others that it is translation. Truth to tell, all these things exist – and none – as part of the tuning of local variant systems.

The, rather presumptuous, allusion to Thrift’s book ‘Spatial Formations’ points to the desire to reconcile these modes of spatial thought. Ultimately this was, for me, to fail. The cyber-hybrid doesn’t really speak of the biological, the leaky viscerality of embodiment. Neither does it speak of the affectual, the array of pre-cognitive, ‘synesthetic perspectives anchored in ([and] functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them’ (Massumi, p.35)

Cultural politics becomes the issue at hand in the subsequent title. This related to an introduction to Science and Technology Studies and my beginning to think through the criticism that Actor-Network Theory casts an a-political and passive investigative outlook. My current strategy for dealing with these issues, in tune with a Deleuzian ontology, comes from the work of Isabelle Stengers. In particular, this involves thinking about the cosmopolitics of the arrangements of our concerns as:

how we relate in collectives to persons and things beyond our polity, beyond the familiar city: outsiders”¦, people so distant from us that we barely encounter them as fellow subjects, and even nonhuman creatures and entities: ultimately the cosmos itself (Paulson, p.111).

The ‘socio-technical’ here is immediately problematised, as I came to see it, as an array of entangled interconnections, constituted by a variety of entities we rationalise as people and things. Yet, the ‘socio-technical’ is, of itself, a majority categorisation that might mask the variety of arrangements with which we use the word to attempt to describe, and, in a way, the hyphenation affirms a split between what can be thought as ‘social’ or ‘technical’.

Upon upgrading from a first year of reviewing literature and constructing a full research project proposal, I arrived at a more specific understanding of my case study ‘ubiquitous computing‘ and the theoretical frames I wanted to apply. By speaking of practices, I allude to agendas of ‘performativity’ in geography and the humanities, and by referring to ‘technics’ I referenced an understanding of technologies as more than simple mediating devices. Central to this thesis are debates on technologies as fields of technical relations, described as technics – following the work of Adrian Mackenzie and others. The notion of ‘disappearance’ in this context is a specific reference to Mark Weiser’s opening sentence in the, now landmark, article ‘The computer for the 21st century‘:

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

The project described in this arrangement of theoretical enquiry was very ontologically concerned, unpicking the material relations that do/will make-up ‘ubiquitous computing’ systems. My concern, since presenting this form of the project, has become that such a project assumes a coherent project for ubiquitous computing and was perhaps uncritical in approaching the ways in which ubiquitous computing is and has been presented.

In recent months, whilst refining my empirical focus, I have refocussed my project on the practices of anticipation and foresight within the research and development of particular projects that sit within the ubiquitous and urban computing agendas [more on the politics of these agendas soon].

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