Category Archives: anticipation

“Ethnographies from [a] future” and the co-production of knowledge

Its strange when you come across work that significantly overlaps your own and both the author of that work and you have been doing the work for a while and yet not consciously encountered one another… something about particular disciplinary contexts or discursive regimes going on perhaps (which is quite sad).

Anyway, through the wonders of twitter, I ran across the work of Laura Forlano in the guise of an article on ethnography matters, who is at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and, of course, has done the obligatory visiting scholarship with the Comparative Media Programme at MIT (discursive regimes, see?). Forlano attempts to conduct ethnographic research around future technologies. In many ways Forlano’s work echoes that of ‘futurologists’ like the commercial researchers at Institute for the Future, sniffing out ‘signals’ of potential futures and then working these up into articulations of a possible world. What is interesting about where Forlano goes with this work is that she is looking towards how to engage prospective ethnographic work around emergent practices and technologies with speculative design practice.

At the end of the article in ethnography matters Forlano makes some interesting assertions about the uses of ethnography and political importance of making one’s work relevant to, or the basis of, interventions in the world – its worth quoting at length here:

As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large.

This is not to suggest that every ethnographer should do it all, or that ethnographers are not already traversing the boundaries between analyst, activist and artist. Most likely, our best work will be (and is already being) done in teams where description and analysis can inform design but at the same time, we can innovate within our own skillsets and practices. We can compare across our many field sites and topics and create design fictions that interrogate the issues and themes that come to the fore.

This will require new venues for publication (targeting both scholarly audiences and the broader public) and new criteria for gaining credit for our work. For example, how will an ethnographer’s work of design fiction be presented, peer-reviewed and published? Will it be in the form of a textual narrative, a series of photos or an exhibit of artifacts? As ethnographers from the future, it is our responsibility to find ways to move beyond existing social realities through the probing of alternative socio-technical realities in order to affect positive change in society and this, it seems, is a perfect job for speculative design.

What strikes me about Forlano’s interesting provocation here, beyond the echo of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, is two things:

1) I think this work is definitely already being done, which is in and of itself quite interesting. Design fiction and other speculative work has a good foothold in the academy around the world. For example, Anne Galloway’s recent work concerning speculative design practice for the New Zealand wool industry (see Anne’s own contribution to ethnography matters) and Chris Speed’s formulation of what he calls ‘design informatics‘. Furthermore, work by Lucy Suchman and others (who have worked in both/between academic and industrial research) around ethnomethodologies of prototyping and other speculative design practices offers a fairly rich conceptual basis to explore. Equally, this has fed into (activist) pedagogical innovation like the work of my colleague Ian Cook et al. with “follow the things“.

2) To ‘move beyond existing social realities… in order to affect positive change in society’ does, very much, need alternative means of engaging with the world, the means by which it is delineated and disciplined and this is requires more than dissemination and publishing of research results. To take Forlano’s provocation seriously we need more co-design, more contributive systems of working together, bridging disciplinary and other delineations, to forge action-research and knowledge exchange projects. I would suggest that this is exemplified in the working methods of the Pervasive Media Studio. Rapid, collaborative projects that act as a means of co-producing knowledge and new things in the world blur the kinds of disciplinary and discursive boundaries by which people and activities can be commonly categorised and separated. The co-production of knowledge in this way is more than ‘just’ publishing articles or patents, it is about making that knowledge operational [Both Simon Moreton and Jon Dovey have blogged about this on the Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technologies (REACT) knowledge exchange hub website].

Geospatial technologies in the location-aware future – Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson has blogged that he has an interesting new paper coming out in a special issue of the Journal of Transport Geography. See below:

Thanks to the invitation and editorship of Seraphim Alvanides and Kate Pangbourne, I’m happy to share the preprint of a forthcoming article in a special issue of the Journal of Transport Geography: Geospatial technologies in the location-aware future. The preprint copy is available here.Wilson, Matthew W. forthcoming. “Geospatial technologies in the location-aware future.” Journal of Transport Geography.

Arguably, there have been few shifts in the GISciences so paradigmatic as the emergence of locationally-aware mobile devices. GISc researchers in the US have witnessed these changes in just the last crop of PhD students, with topics on location-based services, the geoweb, volunteered geographic information and neogeography, somewhat eclipsing earlier, trendy topics on web-based GIS and interactive digital cartography. Indeed, there are new important players in GISc, with training in and outside of Geography, with backgrounds as diverse as the engineering/computational sciences and the digital humanities as well as critical human geographies. Mobilities researchers, qualitative GIS scholars, cyberinfrastructural scientists, and social and cultural geographers have configured research programs around the proliferation of locationally-aware devices and the ‘big data’ that have emerged from them. In this viewpoint, I shall outline these diverse developments and sketch what I argue are the foundational issues that comprise a research agenda with and about geospatial technologies in the location-aware future: technological development, the social life of data, and the everyday practices around mobile digital devices.

Smart cities, design fiction

At the RGS-IBG annual conference at the end of August I presented a paper in the session ‘Smart Cities: discourses, policies, and technologies in the making’, convened by Ola Söderström and Francisco Klauser. It was an interesting a energetic session of critical discussion and analysis of the ways in which the idea of the ‘smart city’ is being freighted into marketing, policy, corporate strategy and, of course, into building projects.

My own contribution was a little divergent from the main thrust of the discussion, still focussing on the discursive regimes of the smart cities agenda(s) but looking at the kinds of spatial imaginary enacted in research and development that attempt to lend some materiality to the not-yet (potentially never) built. The presentation stems from some of my PhD work, which resulted in a paper called ‘Representing things to come‘. On the back of that work and a critical engagement with ideas around ‘design fiction’ I was invited to participate in a project for the ‘Open City’ strand of the European Capital of Culture Guimarães 2012 programme. Working with folks from the Pervasive Media Studio and filmmaker Geoff Taylor, we held a workshop with the citizens of Guimarães to think about ways of imagining alternative future ‘smart cities’. The result was a ‘design fiction’ film based on scenarios imagined during the workshop. You can find the film on the Open City website.

I have put a PDF of the conference paper up here.

Memory programmes, paper delivered at Conditions of Mediation

The Conditions of Mediation conference held at Birkbeck on the 17th of June 2013 was an excellent, if very condensed, occasion for a variety of people interested in media theory, philosophies of/for media and in particular phenomenological understandings of mediation.

There was a series of interesting, and rather diverse, keynotes, including Graham Harman, Sean Moores and Lisa Parks and two slots of parallel paper sessions. I was pleased to be able to give a paper as part of this really interesting event, in the ‘Technics, Interface and Infrastructure’ paper session.

I spoke in the same session as James Ash, who presented a great paper synthesising a reading of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, Jean-Luc Nancy’s vocabulary derived from music, and understandings of optics to interrogate understandings of ‘interface’. I was also hoping to speak alongside my former colleague Patrick Crogan, who spoke on a similar theme to my own paper. Patrick and I both addressed Bernard Stiegler’s reading of Husserl in relation to understandings of the perception of time and the processes of memory. Patrick has posted his excellent paper on the technophilia blog.

For those interested, I have provided a slightly cleaned up, and referenced(!), version of my paper below.

Continue reading Memory programmes, paper delivered at Conditions of Mediation

New article: Futures in the making: practices to anticipate ubiquitous computing

Hot on the heals of the recent theme issue of Culture Machine that I co-edited with my colleague Patrick Crogan, I have a new article coming out in a theme issue of Environment and Planning A stemming from sessions at the 2010 RGS-IBG conference concerning  geographies of the future. This article, entitled ‘Futures in the making’, translates and re-thinks, in a slightly more nuanced way, some of the findings of the fourth chapter of my PhD thesis. Continue reading New article: Futures in the making: practices to anticipate ubiquitous computing

Creating mythologies of innovation – HP’s CoolTown

The stories told about innovation by those in technology development, their managers, and the broad range of commentators can constitute a form of mythology for a company, a sector or an industry. These are complex entities in and of themselves but the states of affairs to which they purported to represent are perhaps more nuanced and, of course, are complicated by such stories. I have been interested in one particular story, and the research project with which it is associated, from HP: ‘CoolTown’. I have conducted interviews with many of those involved in the research team for CoolTown and I have a paper in outline, which I hope to prepare for submission this summer. Continue reading Creating mythologies of innovation – HP’s CoolTown

Examples of Design Fiction

I am aware that I have referred several times to ‘Design Fiction‘ on this blog without really offering any examples of what might be meant by the term. I suppose I ought to confess that I am somewhat sceptical about the definition of such a ‘genre’ or practice too, but it is a useful provocation that enables some productive discussion about how particular forms of future are addressed in design practices. Below, then, and in no particular order are some examples of what might be characterised as ‘design fiction’.

Continue reading Examples of Design Fiction

Designing with fiction, video

In March I gave a public talk in Cardiff as a part of the Design Wales Form event ’10 things I learnt’. The talk concerned the ways in which particular kinds of future are evoked in the design of computing systems and how these forms of anticipatory practice might be more broadly adopted. The talk was videoed and can now be watched online, see below.

10 things I learnt about Anticipating Technology Futures

A graphic record of my talk at 10 things I learnt – Design Wales

Last Friday, 9th March 2012, I gave a talk as part of the ’10 things I learnt’ event convened by Design Wales Forum, held at the Welsh Millennium Centre.  I was talking about ’10 things I have learned about anticipating technology futures’.  I gave some short provocations based on some of my research and drawing on the work of Julian Bleecker (Near Future Laboratory).  I’ll try and provide a write-up soon.

Today I received a tweet from @_auralab who has created some ‘sketch notes’ of the event. Here’s what Laura made of my talk! –

Sketch note of my talk by auralab

Click through to the Flickr stream of Laura Sorvala

This summer/autumn I will be…

I have written anything on this blog for quite a while so I thought I’d redress the deficit (a word for our times!) of content by simply explaining what I’m up to.

I’m hoping to give a talk at the UK lab of a prominent technology company, concerning research conducted with Patrick Crogan on the economy of attention.  Through meetings with key researchers at that company, the visit will also inform my research fieldwork in Silicon Valley in September/October. More of which shortly…

I will attend the Royal Geographical Society’s annual international conference in September. I’m giving two papers and serving as a committee member in the RGS History & Philosophy of Geography Research Group. The first paper, co-authored with Matthew Wilson (U. Kentucky), concerns the material practices of using location based services. The second paper addresses the tension between contemporary understandings of neural plasticity and the commodification of human attention, especially in relation to pervasive media.  Both of these papers will be subsequently submitted to journals to be considered for publication. I’ll put up details on this blog as and when this happens.

During the months of September and October 2011, I will carry out in-depth fieldwork investigating understandings of the future of computing and associated innovation practices within research and development facilities in Silicon Valley (California). The research is funded by a British Academy Small Grant.  This is research that will follow on from my PhD work. The exciting advance with this project is that the data gathered will inform knowledge exchange activities with the Pervasive Media Studio network of artists and small/start-up technology companies. This work will also lead to further conference papers and publications. Stay tuned!