söndag 31 oktober 2010

Cradle to cradle

I'm taking an evening course this term, "States and trends: An innovative course about environmental, technical and developmental issues". It is given by the Department of Industrial Ecology at KTH. I took a similar evening course at the Stockholm Resilience Center two years ago and met some great people there, some of whom are taking this new course together with me. Both of these courses are not so much "courses" as they are seminar series with a very thin red thread tying together a string of great (and sometimes not-so-great) guest lectures.

Examination consists of a couple of different tasks, one of them being a requirement to summarize a seminar in 2-3 pages of text. I listened to a lecture this past week about "cradle to cradle" design and decided that this was the seminar I wanted to summarize and write about.

I found the cradle-to-cradle terms and perspective very intriguing, but haven't yet decided if these ideas actually make sense, or if they are a form of advanced scientific mumbo-jumbo. The ideas are certainly intriguing. The basic premise is too look to nature and biological processes for ideas about how to configure industrial processes. In nature nothing is wasted. In nature the result of one process is the input to the next. In nature, complexity thrives and synergies evolve over time.

The idea is that this is, or should be an ideal also for industrial processes. Waste = food. Nothing should be regarded as waste, but should rather taken care of and become input to the next industrial process. In fact, an alternative to the term "waste" is "food", or, the (hyper-positively charged) term "industrial nutrients".

The term "cradle to cradle" is a play on the more well known "cradle to grave". Cradle-to-grave implies a linear process and linear material flows with a beginning (pristine resources), a middle (manufacture, consumption) and an end (waste). Cradle-to-cradle instead implies a circular process where you end up in the same place that you started.

We got four relatively short articles to read so as to prepare for the lecture. Unfortunately, this is a very hectic time of the year with new courses starting (probably the topic of next week's post) and so I haven't had time to read these texts yet. I am however very intrigued and interested in trying to discern if there is something to these cradle to cradle ideas or if they represent a pipe dream.

When I hear the cradle to cradle lingo, I sort of get the same vibrations as when I hear some of the counter-culture slogans of the 1960's; "under the streets, the beach", "make love, not war", "All power to the people", "Question authority", "Frodo lives". Very positive, life-affirming, imaginative and even utopian ideas/utterances, but looking backwards, also very idealistic, perhaps naive and unrealistic compared to what actually did happen during the following 40 years of unfettered globalization and capitalism triumphantly conquering the world.

söndag 24 oktober 2010

Les Liens Invisible

At the "Culture of ubiquitous information" workshop (see my previous text), Geoff Cox gave a talk about "Democracy 2.0" (pdf file) and presented projects by the hilarious and thought-provoking "imaginary italy-based artist duo "Les Liens Invisible's (the invisible links).

One example of their works is the website/performance "Repetitionr" (30 seconds long video that explains it all). The website looks remarkably much like a professional website that offers the ethically questionable service of generating fake signatures and support for the petition of your choice:

"Leave behind your out-moded street activism, public demonstrations, megaphones. Now activism can be carried out comfortably from your armchair.
Repetitionr offers the most advanced web 2.0 technologies to make participatory democracy a truly user-centered experience.
Embrace the new era of armchair-activism: just choose the campaign you want to promote and how many signatures your re-petition needs to reach its target.
The just sit back and wait: Repetitionr will do the dirty work for you."

The slogans are great ("Just a click and Repetitionr will fill your petitions with millions of self-generated fake signatures indistinguishable from the real ones", and the deeply ironical companion statement "A million people can't be wrong"). You have to admit it's a brilliant spoof of all the hype about the power and the world-changing abilities of social media. Looking at some of the petitions that had been created with Repetitionr, I came upon the truly wonderful petition "End fake petitions now!" The petition statement reads:

"Fake petitions - with unrealistic numbers of signers - are destroying us all. From now on, let's all exercise realism and integrity"

This petition (to end fake petitions) had no less than 100 027 signagures. Heh. On the Repetitionr website, it looks like the real thing. On the artists' homepage, you see it for what it really is, namely one of their "works". Here is a full list of their works, divided into the categories Net Art, Video pieces and Interventions.

You'll find their Flickr parody "Subvertr" (with SubverTags), their Google map parody "Google is not the map" and their Facebook-account virtual suicide site "Seppukoo" ("Impress your friends, disconnect yourself"). Their "A Fake is a Fake" project allows you to appropriate the form of prestigious media institutions like The New York Times, The Financial Times, The White House, Le Figaro, but insert and transmit any message of your choice. Perhaps the praise should not be take too seriously:
  • "The most important revolution of its kind since the likes of Gutenberg" (Repubblica)
  • "We can only guess that fake publishing will mark the dawning of a new information era" (The Financial Times).

Le Liens Invisible's deconstruction and anti-use of social media is really interesting. As an art group, they for sure succeed in provoking and making you think. They remind me of another great art duo, "//////////fur//// art entertainment interfaces" and their (again) hilarious and thought-provoking projects "Painstation" (Wikipedia entry), "////furminator" (their "First Person Pinball" machine) and the "Legshocker" (their "enhanced PlayStation2 controller") that lets you get kicked on your shin when you play a football game on the PlayStation 2 video game console.


The culture of ubiquitous information

I have been to a three-day "seminar" in the NordForsk research network, "The culture of ubiquitous information" in Copenhagen this week. I would call the event a conference, or at least a workshop rather than a seminar. This event was the first of four planned workshops and The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) will host the third workshop in August next year (I'm involved in planning it). The workshop was a small (exclusive?) event with around 30 participants and a single track (everybody was listening to everybody else).

I think the topic and the purpose of this workshop is interesting, but alas, my problem is that quite a few of the speakers did not really engage with the (purported) topic of the workshop. It is way too common for researchers to pay lip service to an established theme only to then "do their thing" when they actually present their stuff. Some speakers probably felt that they gave a talk that connected to the workshop theme and perhaps (in some sense) they did, but I for one could not always make that connection... :-(

This is the inherent problem in gathering a very interdisciplinary crowd, in this case "integrating researchers from cultural studies, science and technology studies, computer science, interaction design, media studies, art history and digital aesthetics". I guess it's possible to have a fruitful conversation together, but with very diverse participants, a more strict form/format is called for. Participants should perhaps (in some way) be forced to engage and analyze a common theme or problem. I think we were supposed to have done that, but I would say that the organizers of this event should probably have worked harder to nudge/make sure/force people to focus on the same thing (but still, fruitfully, drawing on their different backgrounds and perspectives).

I also think that for creating something that is greater than the sum of the parts, and for drawing on such a diverse bunch of people, there should be plenty of time in the program for doing other things than just listening to each others' presentations. Plenty of coffee breaks is a good start to get people to talk and socialize, but the goal should be to go beyond "having a nice time" and actually help/force people engage academically with each other (discussing ideas and developing concepts that are mutually comprehensible, and better yet, innovative and mutually exciting!

I have experienced this at one conference, Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication (CATaC) which I have attended twice (in 1998 and 2004) and I primarily credit Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks who chair each and every of these bi-annual conferences. I don't know what they do or how they do it, but they do a great job and in some way manage to get everyone to get along and appreciate everyone else and their contributions.

There was an attempt at an innovative activity at the workshop, "conceptual speed dating", but this program event was unfortunately treated as "slack" and it was quite drastically shortened after other program events had been allowed to run over their allotted time (including, I guess, my own presentation - which was also interrupted by a ten-minute long fire alarm drill!).

The ide behind conceptual speed dating is interesting, but three minutes was unfortunately not enough for two persons (who might not know each other beforehand) to discuss a concept before breaking up and looking for a new partner to discuss the concept with. (The specific task at hand was to discuss Mark Weiser's concept of "dwelling" in relation to ubiquitous computing).

One participant commented that the speed dating format was used for two different purposes at the same time; concept development and to get to know each other (i.e. a social function). It might have been better to concentrate on one of these two functions, and my suggestion would have been for everyone to discuss a single question (preferably during the first day), namely "what brought you here?".

I gave a presentation and it was generally well received. I, as apart from most other participants, had written a paper that took as its starting point the research network mission and the seminar call. While my talk was well received, I did not get an enormous amount of useful feedback that could help me go further with the paper (but I did get some, see below).

I decided to go to the workshop only a month in advance and the decision hinged on the fact that my colleague and the Stockholm research network node coordinator Leif Dahlberg could not attend the workshop due to a three-week long trip to China. I rushed in an abstract and then wrote the paper in no time at all. At a key point in the (draft) paper, it right now says "This section of the paper awaits data from a yet-unplanned and yet-unfinanced study of computing needs and computing uses among Detroit's poor". Well, a week ago I formulated a suggestion for a master's thesis topic and in the short time since, no less than three students have gotten in touch. If one (or all) will be able to actually go ahead and do the study/collect material partly depends on if we can find money (a scholarship or grant) to cover the extra costs involved (trip, living expenses).

Here are some of my personal highlights that I take with me from the workshop:
  • Geoff Cox referred to a project about data as "the oil of the 21st century". The project was actually not on data, but on "intellectual property as the oil of the 21st century" but I still find the notion intriguing and interesting. Might be worth pondering.
  • Geoff also mentioned the academic field of "software studies" (the book, wikipedia entry) and the related field of "platform studies". Filed away here for future reference.
  • Geoff is also one of the few persons I have met who has read Jay Bolter's excellent book "Turing's men: Western culture in the age of the computer" (1984). I like the fact that such a book give hints about how we acquire our world view (Weltanschauung) and where the ideas that goes into a world view come from. Geoff mentioned that there is a larger body of works in this area and pointed me to Katherine Hayles' "My mother was a computer: Digital subjects and literary texts" (2005), Galloway's "Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture" (2006), "Protocol: How control exists after decentralization" (2006) and Galloway and Thacker's "The exploit: A theory of networks" (2007).
  • Geoff gave a talk about "Democracy 2.0". He introduced me to Les Liens Invisible's website/performance "Repetitionr" (tagline: "Tactical media meet Data Hallucination"). Les Liens Invisible are so interesting that I needed to write a separate (bonus) blog post about their projects.
  • Maria Bäcke gave an interesting talk about role-playing in the virtual world Second Life. More specifically she talked about power structures and power relations in the Second Life Gor sub-community (based on John Norman's 25+ libertarian power fantasy "Chronicles of Gor" novels). Maria is currently writing up her ph.d thesis, "Power games" (advisors Jay Bolter and Mikael Jakobsson), to be finished next year.
  • At the conference dinner, I also got some suggestions for what to do (what areas/journals to aim for) with a revised, beefed-up version my paper. Beyond the field of ubiquitous computing itself, other suggestions were urbanities (& media), cultural studies, science and technology studies (STS), culture, society and technology (or some variation thereof). I also myself though of "soft" computer science venues such as the journal The Information society. My wife suggested I take away the speculative future-oriented (non-empirical-supported) parts and aim at making it into a "manifesto" instead of an academic paper.

fredag 15 oktober 2010

Workshop spin-off; Sunstein vs Benkler smackdown

This is a spin-off of the previous blog post about a workshop I attended but it deserves its own blog post.

At the workshop, I was introduced to the notion that Benkler and Sunstein have had a conversation with each other through their books; Sunstein (Repubic.com, 2002) --> Benkler (The wealth of networks, 2007) --> Sunstein (Republic.com 2.0, 2009).

Sunstein is worried about social media leading to personalization and fragmentation of the public sphere. Benkler sees the emergence of large- and small-scale public networks as an enabler of more flexible ways of consuming information and forming social relationships.

The Sunstein/Benkler disagreement reminds me of an interesting disagreement between anthropologists Redfield (1930) and Lewis (1951), who characterized the same Mexican village (Tepoztlán) as a "happy community/Gemeinschaft" (Redfield) and an "unhappy society/Gesellschaft" (Lewis):

"The impression given by Redfield's study of Tepoztlán is that of a relatively homogenous, isolated, smoothly functioning and well-integrated society made up of a content and well adjusted people. [...] Our findings, on the other hand, would emphasize the underlaying individualism of Tepoztecan institutions and character, the lack of cooperation, the tensions between villages within the municipio, the schisms within the village, and the pervading quality of fear, envy and distrust." (Lewis 1951, pp.429).

Redfield's answer is very interesting. He acknowledges that the object of their studies could not have changed radically in the 17 intervening years between the two studies. He concludes that both descriptions are true at the same time:

There are hidden questions behind the two books that have been written about Tepoztlán. The hidden question behind my book is, ‘What do these people enjoy?’ The hidden question behind Dr. Lewis’ book is, ‘What do these people suffer from?’ “ (Redfield 1955, p.136).

I learned about about the Refield/Lewis "conversation" from Asplund's (1991) short, excellent and to-the-point (Swedish-only) book "Essay about Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft" and I have written about this and other dichotomies and "puzzle pictures" in an unpublished manuscript about community.

The connection is of course that the hidden question behind Sunstein's work is, "in what ways can the Internet be construed as a threat to the public sphere?". The hidden question behind Bennkler's work is, "in what ways can the Internet be construed as a promise to the public sphere?".

Digital media and collective action

This week I went to a two-day workshop at the Dept. of Political Science, Stockholm University, on the topic of "Digital media and collective action: Changing modes of citizenship and participation in national and transnational settings" (.pdf file). The reading list (see link) might also be of interest.

Researchers in political science are (naturally) primarily interested in the dog (collective action, citizenship) wagging the tail (digital/social media), while I'm primary interested in the dog (digital/social media) wagging the tail (collective action, citizenship) - so there were excellent possibilities of a useful exchange of ideas and perspectives.

The workshop was led by Lance Bennett (Olof Palme Professorial Chair 2010, installation lecture October 29 (.pdf inviation here) and his sidekick Alexandra Segerberg. Five more occasions are planned for the autumn and it now seems I will have the opportunity to attend two of those, with one of these being a seminar about "Twitter revolutions". Some points and leads (pruned selection) from the workshop that I want to remember/keep track of are:
  • Legofesto. "Human rights abuses and real events in the world are recreated in lego".
  • Richard Rogers at the University of Amsterdam has created cool software for mapping and visualizing networks, "Issue crawler". I haven't looked into it yet, but it might be possible to map my own networks around blogs I run (such as this one) as a warming-up excercise? Richard has also written some academic texts about the software that I might check out. Later I have also been directed to another tool that looks interesting, Gephi.
  • Some John Kelly guy (I didn't get the whole context) at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet & Society (publications here) has also mapped blogospheres and is apparently a goto-guy also for "datasets of the Swedish blogosphere". Kelly has co-authored reports about the Iranian/Persian blogosphere (April 2008) and the Arabic blogosphere (June 2009).
  • The Retrov project, about "the virality of information" on the Internet.
  • We talked some about The long tail (Wired article, book) in relation to the public sphere too. Today it is possible for some yahoo in the middle of nowhere to act outside of institutions, get picked up by more centrally placed actors/go viral and get a message through and have an impact on the general public. This was not possible in the age of monolithic mass media.
  • I was reminded of my interest in the professionalization of the amateur and the amateurization of the professional. Ex. The top ten bloggers in any category are candidates for getting picked up for [something], and, many journalists have their own blogs nowadays. Writing a successful enough blog can thus be a career move. Perhaps a topic for a master's thesis is hiding somewhere here?
  • Mobilization vs sustained effort. Social media-enhanced social movements can today take the shape of flexible and fluid "networks", quickly channeling spontaneous engagement in certain directions (turning up at a demonstrations for example). This might (or might not - we don't know enough yet) encourage sustained participation of individuals in a particular issue or bouquet of (in some way) related issues. Does it matter if the same persons do not show up again and again? Or is it enough that (many) people (unspecified exactly who, and could differ substantially between events) turn up at the next event and the one after that too? Alexandra stated that turning up at an event and becoming involved tended to make you come back again and again (this is of course not surpising and would have something to do with (transformations of) identity ("I'm the kind of person who..."), "legitimate peripheral participation" (Lave and Wenger 1991), communities of practice (Wenger 1999) and so on).
  • I have a long-time interest in communities. They might (or might not) be flexible, but they are for sure not fluid. The whole point of a community is that there are barriers to entry and exit, so in certain respects they are the exact opposite of these fluid networks. I.e., a network is not community and a community is not a network. But a network can contain communities, and, a community can contain networks (clusters of people).
  • Last but not least, Alexandra suggested some readings in the areas of "self organization theories" and "social movements theory". Here is a rough draft that I probably will extend and link-up at a later point (comments and additions are welcome):
Self-organization theory:
  • Elinor Ostrom has done the most and the best on this.
  • Douglas Kellner (& Kahn?)
  • John Arquilla & David Ronfeldt (2000). "Swarming and the future of conflict". RAND corporation. (about "swarms", two versions of paper/report that both might be of interest)
  • John Arquilla & David Ronfeldt (2002). "Networks and netwars: The future of terror, crime and militancy". RAND corporation
Social movements theory (American perspective):
  • Charles Tilly (2009). "Social movements, 1768-2004" (2nd edition), Boulder, CO: Paradigm
  • Sidney Tarrow (2011). "Power in movement: Social movements and contentious politics" (3rd edition), New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Doug McAdam (1988). "Micromobilisation contexts and the recruitment to activism". pp. 125-154 in "International social movements: From structure to action: Comparing social movement research across cultures" (edited by B. Klandermans, H. Kriesi and S. Tarrow). Greenwich: JAI Press.
  • Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (2001). "Dynamics of contention", Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Robert Benford & David Snow (1998). "Framing process and social movements". Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26: 611-639. (social movement framing theory)
  • Francesca Polletta (2008?)
Social movements theory (European perspective):
  • Donatella Della Porta (2009). "Searching the net". Information, Communication & Society Vol.12, No.6, pp.771-792. (Della Porta has the most, has resources and is very productive)
  • Dontalla Della Porta & Mario Diani (2006). "Social movements: An introduction". Wiley & Blackwell.
  • Mario Diani (1995). "Green networks: A structural analysis of the Italian environmental movement". Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Mario Diani (2001). "Social movement networks: Virtual and real". In "Culture and politics in the information age" (edited by F. Webster), pp.117-128. New York: Routledge.
  • Mario Diani and Doug McAdam (editors) (2003). "Social movements and networks: Relational approaches to collective action". Oxford University Press.
  • Touraine
  • Melucci (identity)

lördag 9 oktober 2010

Ubiquitous information in a world of limitations

I've written my quickest paper ever this past week. I was incredibly productive and I'm really happy about the result! Half a day the week before and then Wednesday to Friday this week (interrupted by other pesky work-related tasks at times). I was inspired and wrote a good 20 pages, and it is quite a polished draft paper that I managed to write if I may say so.

The paper is called "Ubiquitous information in a world of limitations" and I will present it at a workshop in the end of the month (I'll get back with more info afterwards). The abstract can be found here and here is the introduction:

"Note: This paper in its current form is not an academic paper, but rather a think-piece. The initial ideas behind the paper were formulated after a local meeting in the Stockholm Culture of Ubiquitous Information NordForsk research network node. The meeting had a very brainstormy character to it, and the output was sharply divided between two types of suggestions regarding the future; ubiquitous information would create a better future with a blooming of creative output and individual freedom, or, it would create a society that would have to deal with negative implications of ubiquitous information in terms of technostress, surveillance, etc. What struck me though, was the fact that these two contradictory futures both took for granted that we absolutely certainly would live in a culture of, and society with, ubiquitous information. Taking into account recent developments, I here choose to question, or, actually to redefine what the notion of "ubiquitous information" might mean in a world of limitations.

This paper consists of three parts. In the first part I shortly outline reasons for why it may be the case that we will move towards a world of limitations during the coming decades. In the second part I explain why the slow but inexorable decline of cities such as Detroit, with its movement from glory (1950) to decline (2010), could serve as inspiration for a background against which scenarios about the future of ubiquitous information could be sketched out. The third part of the paper develops ideas and suggestions of what ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous information could mean in a world of limitations."

Post-script: I will use this blog post as a repository for ideas and leads about what to do with this paper on the way from draft status to finished (preferably journal) publication. Some such ideas are already developed in this (later) blog post. Here are some more:
- My friend Jörgen Skågeby suggested Universal Access in the Information Society (Springer) as a possible venue for publication.

torsdag 7 oktober 2010

Ovidiu Sandor's Ph.D. defense

Ovidiu Sandor presented defended his Ph.D. thesis, "Social awareness support for cooperation: Design experience and theoretical model" (pdf here) on October 5. My wife was one of three persons in the committee that passed the thesis, and we both went to the nice dinner that evening.

I met Ovidiu when he took a Ph.D. course I gave in 2003, "Cultures of programming: Hackers, crackers and open source". He wrote an excellent course paper, "Hacker behind the Iron Curtain" about his formative computer experiences in Romania during the second half of the 1980's. The paper is unpublished and it could be polished (it points in many different directions), but I'm now thinking about some way to go forward with it.

What's good about these things is that a paper like that is more or less timeless. It doesn't really matter that it was written 7 years ago, and it wouldn't matter much if it was published 7 years from now... But it would be nice to do something with it before 2017...

I have decided to formulate a master's thesis topic around questions raised in that paper and based on my own long-standing interest in these matters and then see if any students show up. Perhaps something about "International hacker cultures..."? The best lead I have about teasing interesting things out of his paper (and other Swedish studies of hackers, including my own ph.d. thesis), is to study similarities and differences between American hackers (90% of the literature) and "other" hacker cultures. Here is one of the best quotes from Ovidiu's course paper (the quote just begs for being published):

"Much later, around 1992 I was more than shocked when, during my first visit here in Sweden, while I was copying a book, a colleague kindly pointed out to me that doing so was not so nice and that buying a legal copy would be the proper thing to do [...] I had never in my life considered copying a book to be wrong or criminal. I could almost not believe that there could exist a law that would restrict such a thing, or at least not in a "free democratic society". After all, I thought that "copyright" meant that you had the right to copy."

Post-script. One of many things Ovidiu touches upon in his text is the system of informal favors, blat, that were crucial to getting things done. I stumbled upon a reference that might come in handy in developing that side of the paper; Lebedeva's "Russias economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange" (1988) and