söndag 24 oktober 2010

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.

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