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

nick knouf nknouf at MIT.EDU
Mon Oct 2 15:52:49 EDT 2006

On Oct 2, 2006, at 4:03 AM, Simon Biggs wrote:
> It is politics at this level that we might be more profitably  
> engaging with,
> seeking to understand what makes people tick and how their  
> knowledge and
> technological systems are part of that, both conditioning and being a
> function of that human condition. This deeper understanding in turn  
> can then
> be applied to the interpretation of more current events and  
> developments.

I wanted to chime in with thanks to Steve for bringing up this  
interesting point.  With what Simon is speaking about, and in some of  
the work that I'm beginning to look at, I want to look at the  
personal, individual interaction with these "technological systems".   
For example, I'm interested in how people perceive "agency" in  
computational artifacts: what is the process of concept formation,  
how do people deal with an inanimate object that is now animate,  
etc.  (Perhaps agency is too loaded of a term, but it's the best that  
I have at the moment.)  In some early interviews with people who play  
traditional acoustic musical instruments, I've seen some interesting  
traces of a kind of attribution of agency to the object: harpsichords  
that change their tuning without notice, and the consequent need to  
make sense of that result by conceiving of the instrument as more  
than simply a passive "thing".  I think much of our interaction with  
complex objects can be read in this way, and I'm beginning to think  
that it's going to be a useful way to examine interactions with  
computational objects as well.

I agree that much of this will draw on understandings of animism and  
the immanence of space that Steve originally mentioned--not as a  
demeaning re-appropriation of "tribal" concepts, but rather a  
connection to a tradition of wonder and acknowledgment of the  
unknowable.  Many critiques of ubicomp call for more transparency-- 
transparency in function, in data collection, in mechanism.  Perhaps  
transparency in the end, however, is not the be-all, end-all of our  
critique.  Not that I am suggesting we dispense with encouraging  
people to understand how things work; rather, we acknowledge that  
people _will not_ know all of the inner details of their devices, as  
a practical matter, and an understanding of _how_ they form  
conceptions of these translucent black boxes is a increasingly  
important component of our design and development practice.  With  
their Placebo Project, Dunne and Raby interviewed a family that kept  
a "GPS Table" for a month: the table had an embedded screen that  
displayed the table's GPS coordinates, or "lost" if it couldn't make  
a connection to the satellites.  The responses are fascinating [1],  
attributing feelings to the table and worrying when it read "lost".   
If you read the entirety of the interview in the Design Noir book,  
you can see how the members of the family "know" how GPS works; the  
system is transparent enough for them to understand the mechanism.   
Yet they still respond to the object in an affective manner,  
obviating rationality for a personal response.

My point in bringing this up is to show that we're already seeing  
personal reactions to (in this case, an admittedly contrived) new  
types of objects that doesn't fit in simple categories of "rational"  
or "response to component of military/industrial/corporate/political  
complex".  To me, the reactions to the objects described by Dunne and  
Raby are more interesting than an external critique: people's means  
of dealing with a new situation, and the process of creating their  
own explanations for the object's mechanism and for their own  
behavior (but perhaps that is simply the ANT in me speaking...).  It  
seems necessary then to connect to the tradition of anthropology to  
see in what ways our new reactions reflect or modify older  
understandings, drawing on topics such as animism, ritual practice,  
mythology, etc.

This is, like Steve mentioned in his original post, not a  
condemnation of the deconstructive approach, which is indeed a  
necessary, but not sufficient, _component_.  But it remains merely a  
component of a multi-faced process, a continual process of  
deconstruction and reconstruction, of reaction and proaction.   
Indeed, many of us on this list recognize the need for both types of  
practice (and practices that find themselves in between), yet it also  
seems important to raise the proactive possibilities after an  
extended period of questioning.


[1]  http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/designing/placebo/placebo_bottom.html
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