Eric Paulos reflects on a wealth of experience of interdisciplinary and participatory research, particularly in relation to the maker movement. Eric offers some great reflections on Mark Weiser’s interdisciplinarity and the importance of creative practice.
Simon Lincelles, apparently on behalf of the ‘indexation and editorialisation’ group at the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI, founded at the Pompidou Centre by Bernard Stiegler), has posted some really interesting videos featuring edited excerpts from a seminar run at IRI cut together with relevant additional materials. There are English subtitles for the spoken French.
In particular, these videos offer an interesting and valuable introduction to how Stiegler conceptualises the idea of ‘categorisation’ in relation to processes of retention/protention (broadly – memory and anticipation) and how this is important to processes of becoming (co- and trans-individuation). This speaks more broadly to an understanding of how we share experiences within/of the world and how we might think about contributing to that sharing using various forms of technique/technology, which has become a significant concern for IRI and their focus on a ‘digital studies‘. Definitely worth a watch!
In this video from Edinburgh, STS scholar Prof. Trevor Pinch wrinkles his nose at multi-species ethnography and then goes on to identify what he sees as some of the problematic ways in which materiality has been discussed in STS. In particular he problematises the use of the term ‘affordance’, thinking through the various forms of intentionality that asks us to assume about both the ‘object’ to which the affordance is said to belong and the human ‘subject’ for which, Pinch suggests, that affordance is intended. Don’t think I would agree necessarily but I think this is an interesting voice to add to the broader material turn conversation…
Found via ANTHEM.
Postscapes have an annual ‘Internet of Things‘ awards, with projects nominated under various categories for which the viewing public (with net access) are invited to vote. This is the third year of the awards and the second in which I have been aware of a ‘design fiction‘ category.
Postscapes identify/define design fiction in the following way:
Grounded as much in imagination as reality, design fiction is about bending the rules. It’s about asking “What if?”, and using the remains to probe the edges of our changing world.
The results may only be props or prototypes — but the best ones, as recognized by the Design Fiction award, end up helping us navigate our near futures and the stories they share.
Last year (in the awards for 2012), the ‘design fiction’ category was ‘won’ by the slightly creepy and maybe a little bit flawed ‘ear hacking’:
In which we are asked to believe that there is a direct correlation between basic features of audio playback and our activity – in particular as runners. Anyway, it serves to demonstrate that humour works well in fostering and audience for design fiction. Notably, this ‘beat’ Google’s now infamous ‘project glass‘ video which, of course, was the forerunner for ‘glass‘.
In the running for the 2013 design fiction awards are a few interesting projects, you can see the whole list on the posts capes website but here are a couple that I think are in some way provocative…
Anne Galloway’s Design Culture Lab investigations of the Merino wool industry (see ‘counting sheep‘), with the lovely ‘bone knitter‘ that produces custom knitted casts for knitting back together broken limbs, and the rather unsettling ‘PermaLamb‘, vision of custom GM lamb production. Check out the ‘counting sheep‘ website for more, its worth exploring.
James Bridle’s ‘surveillance spaulder’, a pithy and playful imagining of a device that viscerally reminds the wearer of their being surveilled:
Spike Jonze’s soon-to-be released film ‘Her’, in the tradition of various imaginings of AI (e.g. Brian Aldiss):
[NB. posting them here doesn't necessarily mean approval...]
Professor Rob Kitchin is currently engaged in a large five year EU-funded project: The Programmable City, concerned with the role of software on the ongoing production, performance and imagination of cities. Over on the blog for the project they have announced that Prof. Kitchin’s most recent book ‘The Data Revolution’ is now with the publishers, Sage, with a view to publication later this year. I’m looking forward to it…
Here’s the book outline blogpost from the Programmable City website:
Jussi Parikka has written an interesting post on his blog offering a glimpse at his new writing project, with the tentative title ‘A Geology of Media’. He suggests that this is the third in his series of books theorising media ecology, with the other two being Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010).
Here’s an excerpt:
This book on the geophysics and the non-organic ground of media complements the earlier takes by offering a media materialism from the point of view of geological resources, electronic waste and media arts. Through engaging with several contemporary art and technology projects it provides a media theoretical argument: to think of materiality of media beyond the focus on machines and technologies by focusing on what they consist of: the chemistry and geological materials of media, from metals to dust.
In short, I am interested to see if what pejoratively sometimes is called “hardware fetishism” is not hard enough, and even media and cultural theorists need to focus on the rocks and crust that make technical media possible. Earth history of deep times mixes with media history, which becomes a matter of not only thousands, but millions of years of non-linear history (to modify Manuel Delanda’s original idea). This way media materialism becomes a way to entangle media technologies, environmental issues and themes of global labour. Perhaps instead of the Anthropocene, we should just refer to the Anthropobscene.
Shawn Sobers linked to a funny comment piece by Stewart Heritage on the Grauniad riffing on the idea of the ‘Internet of Things‘, with the main schtick being that there is such a lack of imagination behind the implementation of such ‘things’ that if we extrapolate then surely the interlinked ‘things’ will do us a mischief… Now, this is humorous, of course, but humour is also a good way to get us to think about why on earth we’re letting ourselves in for a vision of such ‘things’. I am not ‘anti-’ technological innovation, I am merely arguing that we need to be critically reflective of the motivation behind the development of some of these systems and devices. The same kind of critical reflection we have seen in relation to the ‘MOOC revolution‘…
Here’s one of the funny bits from the article, extrapolating from actually existing technologies into the more ridiculous:
The Internet of Things has already produced some cool-sounding devices. There is the tennis racket kitted out with motion sensors to help you improve your game. There’s the parking sensor that directs your satnav to an empty spot. The basketball that, when bounced on the floor, automatically tells your home entertainment setup to start playing basketball-related content. The bridge that tells people when it’s about to collapse. The smoke alarm that switches itself off and works in conjunction with your electrical outlets to burn you to death in your sleep because it has become jealous of your capacity for love. The remote cave that fills itself with bears and poisonous snakes whenever it detects that someone has started sleeping in it because they’ve convinced themselves that their entire house has grown sentient and suddenly turned against them. All sorts, really. It’ll be fun.
Amongst the books to look out for this year are three translations of books by Bernard Stiegler.
The first to come out, in February, is an interesting collaborative critique of consumer capitalism by members of the Ars Industrialis association, fronted by Stiegler. In The Re-Enchantment of the World: The Value of Spirit Against Industrial Populism, and following the Ars Industrialis manifesto, Stiegler (et al.) argues against the proletarianization of the subject into an unthinking and passive consumer and for the renewal of life skills (savour-vivre) through an ‘industrial populism’.
The second, coming out in April, will be the final volume of the Disbelief and Discredit series, which offers a critique of the effects of the development of industrial technologies on our capacities for rest, considered reflection, leisure, the development of skills and, importantly, care for one another and for society. In the final volume, The Lost Spirit of Capitalism, Stiegler advances his argument for a new ‘industrial spirit’ by fostering a ecology that not only looks after the planet but also renews the exploited energies of human desire. This is another excellent translation by Dan Ross for Polity.
The third, coming out in August, is the first volume of the important series: Symbolic Misery. The Hyperindustrial Epoque will be the first appearance of Stiegler’s work concerning aesthetics in an extended format and contains some of his critical work concerning cinema. In particular, Stiegler advances his critical articulation of cinema as the industrial temporal object in order to argue that it is the aesthetic experience that can combat the creeping conditioning of experience on its own territory. Again, Dan Ross brings his detailed knowledge of Stiegler’s oeuvre to provide a valuable and timely translation.
Following on from the translation I made of Bernard Stiegler’s reflections on how digital (media) technologies can perform a valuable pedagogical role, I wanted to highlight that Martin Weller has given a very cogent and pointed critique of the fairly common narrative of ‘disruptive technology’ in relation to MOOCs.
This brings together two aspects of my own research: the ways in which those involved in computing R&D look to the future and anticipate the kinds of technologies they may want to produce (and the kinds of politics that produces); and what can be seen as the progressive commoditisation of our capacities to think and feel by certain applications of digital media.
Firstly, as Martin identifies in his blogpost, there is a widespread discourse of the necessity of breakthrough, disruption and revolution in the mythology of the aspirational technology sector located in Silicon Valley. This has some obvious foundations in the need to continually destroy and re-create new markets in a finite global system of capital (as David Harvey cogently diagnoses). It also has an interesting basis in alternative discourses of progress on the counterculture movements in that same region of the US, with Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Network) a significant exponent of libertarian thought in the growing ICT industry that translated into the creation of WIRED magazine as the purveyor of this techno-economic orthodoxy (for more on this see Fred Turner’s brilliant book).
Martin offers the insight that the rather clunky, and somewhat messianic, narrative of the need for an external agent to intervene in a slow, inefficient, outmoded (and so on) sector, central to the disruptive technology spiel, allows sharp and charismatic entrepreneurs to step in as the pseudo-saviour, i.e. Sebastian Thrun of Udacity and others of his ilk. Criticism of the West Coast (capitalist) mythology is not new, of course, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron offered a critique of the ‘Californian Ideology‘ in the 1990s, and Stiegler has criticised the ‘American model’ of laissez faire ‘cultural capitalism’ led by the ‘programming industries’ of new media (“functionally dedicated to marketing and publicity” [p. 5]) in his The Decadence of Industrial Democracies. Indeed, we can look back to Adorno and Horkheimer’s stinging critique of the Culture Industry as a formidable progenitor. What we can perhaps take from that line of argument is that arguing for a supposed ‘greater’ choice is actually a deception, the ‘choice’ is merely to consume more.
Others, who set themselves up as more thoughtful commentators have also weighed in on the side of the need for a disruption/revolution. Martin highlights that Clay Shirky has also parroted the, now well-worn, technological deterministic ark of argument. As with others, Shirky suggests that ‘education is broken‘ and must therefore be fixed by shiny new technology, in the form of MOOCs . Some proponents of this line of argument suggest that this would bring wider access to university level learning. There are a few (also well-worn but compelling) critiques of this line.
An obvious initial critique, as Martin argues in his blogpost, is that the ‘education is broken and so it requires a technological fix’ argument has gained so much traction because it is neat and easy to digest by journalists. A simple story with a clear solution is always going to trump the slightly messy, perhaps convoluted, and multiple stories that approximate the truth, for which there are unclear and troubling political solutions that require quite a lot of explanation and working through.
Furthermore, the existing evidence of engagement with MOOCs also somewhat contradicts the rosy picture painted by their evangelists. Completion rates for MOOCs tell a mixed story (as Martin has pointed out in other blogposts) and this perhaps speaks to the negotiation (by both students and course designers/leaders) of legitimacy and value for these courses – this is a sector still very much in flux. Those who are passionate about providing equal and wider access to university level education are torn by the desire to offer courses that open up (frequently excellent) materials for anyone to access but this is, of course, only a fraction of what we as university lecturers and students do when running and participating in courses.
We’re all, of course, increasingly proficient at consuming content online and MOOCs leverage that behaviour. What such systems are not so good at is providing something analogous to tutorials. The stand in for this is peer discussion/ support, which, of course, come with their own social and cultural issues around facilitation and particular participants becoming overbearing etc. So, these (socio-)technological fixes are not necessarily a like-for-like stand-in for all of those significant but hard to define benefits of university study within the physical context of an institution. Which is not to say that whatever MOOCs turn into cannot be of value, its just that its neither a direct alternative nor a replacement but rather a new/emerging form of pedagogical practice.
We can also look to the somewhat obvious Marxian critique of the constant clarion for technological revolution that, far from bringing in egalitarian and widespread access to a better form of living, education and so on, it ushers in the creation of a new proletarianised class of knowledge worker, trained, in this case, by machines (the machine learning version of xMOOCs is the example here) and held even further away from access to critical debate and the means of production.
After all, in a ‘mature’ market for technology, devices (and sometimes services) become cheap through mass production and availability. This slashes profit margins and consumer-users become savvy at backwards engineering and ‘modding’. Customers taking power into their own hands is rather undesirable for the corporate technology producer, unless they can co-opt those developments into the next iteration of the product. Thus, constant ‘innovation’ brings with it the maintenance of a premium for the ‘latest’, ‘must-have’ etc. device/service and necessarily excludes those who cannot pay.
One can easily imagine, then, how a stratification of the market would rapidly take hold. Cheaper, gigantic and formulaic courses (with automated marking of assessments) would be seen as lesser ‘products’ than more exclusive courses (with human tutor support). Those with power and money, in this case, would most-likely still send their children to (very expensive) physical universities with small classes, lots of attention from staff and all of the accoutrements of elite institutions.
Leaving that rather depressing argument aside, the framing of this form of consumer market for higher education is very Anglo-American, where degrees have already become a form of currency – for which there isn’t really an alternative. I cannot help wondering what other forms of education are being ignored (and therefore probably saved). The system of apprenticeship in Germany, for example, where more than half of school-leavers enter apprenticeships, which are really valued in society – with a majority of apprentices staying on with their host companies, is very successful and neither needs or could support a Silicon Valley style ‘disruption’.
Where does this leave us with regard to Stiegler’s argument that it is precisely the forms of collaboration that are opened up by digital media that can and should be used to transform higher education? Well, the innovative media supports being created in the guise of MOOCs and so on are neither the envisioned radical break(through) claimed in the silicon valley rhetoric or a pedagogical nosedive. As with all forms of technicity, MOOCs are pharmacological – they have the capacity to be both ‘poison’ and ‘cure’. If we take seriously Stiegler’s challenge that we need ‘to drive a dynamic for the rethinking of the relationship between knowledge and its media [supports] (of which MOOCs are a possible dimension) with the universities and academic institutions’ then we also need to take (very) seriously Martin’s arguments that designing open education courses/experiences is hard. I’m certainly not going to attempt to offer ‘easy’ or glib answers to such a problem here…
If we want the kind of collaborative learners that Stiegler gestures towards do we simply hope that they are self-selecting? Almost like postgraduate education is, with motivated students seeking out the opportunities to learn and contribute to the production of knowledge. That, of course, is a relatively small minority of the student population. Equally,we might consider the example of the proactive producers of peer-to-peer knowledge using platforms like Wikipedia, who are self-selecting and a minority relative to the number of ‘passive’ users of the platform. If the degree remains the only currency for employability within certain sectors and for particular kinds of roles then we retain the significant tension between the ideals of the pursuit and production of knowledge, traditionally at the heart of higher education, and the purchasing of a passport for employment (often in an unrelated field, probably in the financial sector) which the university degree has become in the UK.
It seems to me that it is not the university side of higher education that is broken in the UK (although it is always worthwhile striving for the ideals that underpin it), instead it is the preparation of skilled employment that was once provided by a valued system of apprenticeships and polytechnic institutions that has been not only broken but decimated. The renewal of these complimentary forms of further and higher education, with the new media supports we are using throughout all areas of life, seems to be an immediate and pressing concern.