[iDC] play, open-ended research, post-critical approaches

swilson at sfsu.edu swilson at sfsu.edu
Sun Oct 1 15:51:55 EDT 2006

Hello, Trebor et al

The discussions on the list have been really thought provoking.  Thanks to all.
 I wanted to add a perspective I think has been mostly missing about the
possibilities of play and open ended research.

It is a real service to deconstruct technology trends such as situated
architecture, pervasive computing, internet of things, rfid, etc. These kind of
discussions should be required reading for researchers in the relevant corporate
research labs.  

On the other hand it would be a dishonoring of human curiosity and an
oversimplication of the diffuse nature of the research settings to assume that
every effort to invent new technologies or elaborate new possibilities is doomed
to only serve the military, industrial, governmental complex.  Similarly it
would be reductionist to see it all as a modernist, self-blind dupe.    It would
be dangerous to demand that every attempt to investigate new ideas be
accompanied by a fully fleshed out critical agenda.  It would be hubris to
assume that we can omnisciently anticipate where a line of inquiry leads. 
Researchers often open inquiries because of open ended curiosity and
playfulness. This drive to invent has served humanity well over thousands of
years and we need to leave room for it now.  Art may have a crucial function in
helping to provide zones for independent inquiry. 

Take the Internet for example.  At its origin it was a military DARPAnet project
to make a self-healing communication system that could withstand nuclear attack.
 What if a critical, political filter had been applied to it at its early
stages? It might have been impeded from developing into its diversity of use we
see now.

Certainly it is useful and necessary to ask the critical questions of any
technology.  Who does this technology serve?  What are its underlying
narratives?  How is it being assimilated into business as usual?  How is it
possible to misread it?  But we should be wary of seeing these as the only
questions worth asking. 

The Internet of Things, for example, has many readings besides being a mechanism
for surveillance. I was an artist-in-residence at Xerox PARC when Mark Weisner
and Rich Gold were elaborating the ideas and first systems for ubiquitous
computing. In part the discussions were about how corporations could keep track
of people and things.  The discussions were also much more visionary and open
ended, trying to play out the implications of new kinds of intelligent objects
and spaces.   

Similarly my own research in ubiquitous computing brought up many references
besides those that have been part of this list's discussion.  Many human
cultures have traditions of animism and the imanenence of space. Inanimate
objects have been seen as full of spirit and history and connection to human
activities.  I suspect that this cultural history is also part of the drive to
make an Internet of Things.

Also, there are many fascinating questions about creating these objects and
spaces that need to be answered as the research moves forward.  These questions
can be looked at with the critical filter but also they should be looked at with
more openness about where they might lead.  For example:

-What objects should be activated?
-How should they communicate with humans?
-Should they have a special relationship with their owners?
-What should they remember?  for how long?
-Should the objects communicate with each other? about what?
-What kind of intelligence should they be endowed with?

In the age of critical analysis, it is valuable that artists no longer join the
chorus of over-hype of new technologies so easily.  Artists should be wary,
however, of only joining the chorus of over-critique.  These developments in
technology and culture could benefit from a more complex, layered reading.

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Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual/Information Arts (CIA)
Art Dept, 1600 Holloway,  San Francisco State University,SF,CA 94132
(415) 338-2291     swilson at sfsu.edu      http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~swilson

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