The Future of Traffic

Over at my blog on the Interactive Media site I’ve been recording my assignments for the Experiments in New Media course with Elise Co and Nikita Pashenkov. Here is the latest proposal that I’m doing with Michael Annetta.

This particular design exists for a future world where traffic is a kind of thematic commodity. I enjoyed writing it up, and thought I would cross-post a bit of it here.


(Image by Michael Annetta)

The year 2060.

The humans who survived peak-oil all live in giant honeycomb-like structures that contain self-sustaining mini-ecologies within each geodesic cell. Movement is tightly regulated, but residences are efficiently distributed such that all experiences of landscape are consistent.

There is no open space nor closed space; there is only space. Each individual residence is the same size and the same distance from every other. Experiences of proximity to other human beings are thus normalized, and travel is coordinated by cloud-based supercomputers, so that one never encounters more or less than the same number of people at any given time.

But ironically, years after peak oil, people start to nostalgicize the era of the automobile. Entranced by the tragic romance of our (once-upon-a-time) collective disregard for the future, consumers look at the car as a kind of thematic palette for restaurants, parties, films, etc. In this sense, the era of automobile is experienced the way we think of pirates, the 50s, or the Wild West today.
Continue reading ‘The Future of Traffic’


spectacles, objects, and baby daddies

(If you read the whole thing, this will all tie back into Maury Povich. I promise…)

I last posted about how I’m in the middle of reading Stephen Duncombe’s Dream: Re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy.

Duncombe (like Lakoff) is concerned about progressives’ inability to frame empirical reality within a compelling narrative. He criticizes the way progressives naïvely cling to empirical research and sober deliberation. Instead he advocates a new kind of ethical spectacle.

I find his argument compelling, but I’m thrown by how he seems to want to discard the rituals of deliberation, fact-checking, and empirical research. (Or, put differently, he wants to keep the facts but change the packaging.) Could this be a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water? While progressives (like John Kerry) are sometimes famous for failing to resonate emotionally with their audience. Duncombe’s argument is that these politicians put too much faith in logos and ignore mythos. While I find this point fairly compelling, my quibble is that progressive politicians also need to get more emotional about logos.

When Joe Wilson screamed “You Lie” to Obama he wasn’t just painting an alternative narrative model; he was also expressing his apoplectic frustration over the mismatch between his model of reality and Obama’s. Honestly, that’s the kind of passion I want out of politician. I wanted Obama to yell back! And even if I completely disagreed with Wilson’s stance, I can at least appreciate his passion. It’s the kind of raw emotion that a coach has when he yells at a ref on the sidelines of a sports match. It emerges out of a friction between questions of discursive reality (whose narrative frame will dominate?) and empirical reality (did the player foot really go out of bounds?). And this is why watching an instant replay in football can be incredibly dramatic.

So, besides sports, what are the modern-day rituals that accentuate this friction between objects and human discourse? One of my favorites examples from pop culture is the Maury Povich series called Who’s Your Daddy. Continue reading ‘spectacles, objects, and baby daddies’

ethical spectacle vs. consensus politics

...from the cover of Dreams: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy

After having read a compelling interview of Stephen Duncombe on Henry Jenkins’s blog, I decided to order Duncombe’s book Dreams: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy (for more info see his website). I’ve just started reading the book, but so far I’m finding it a fascinating compliment to the arguments of Lakoff and Westen about the failure of progressive politics to successfully market itself. At the heart of Duncombe’s claims is the argument that progressives need to “transform the techniques of spectacular capitalism into tools for social change.”

As I’m reading, I’m finding myself working through a number of reactions.

First, I’m interested in possible intersections with this piece by Jeremy Young (from last June). Young connects Obama to Philosopher John Rawls in order to criticize the politics of blind consensus formation. Integrating Young and Duncombe’s arguments together, you might say that the drawback of consensus building is that it treats your opponents’ positions and interests as static — in other words, you miss out on the possibilities of transformative (rather than deliberative) politics. And you also open yourself up to sideways attacks of the Overton window variety. This happens when an opponent trades in honest deliberation for extremist theatrics in order to indirectly guide popular discourse towards their own position (i.e. as the new fulcrum of “moderation”). We’ve seen this time and time again with all sorts of issues, from Health Care Reform to the environment.

Where I feel that Duncombe is losing me, though, are the places where he seems to want to do away with deliberative rituals entirely. This seems to underestimate the possibility that deliberation itself can become more of a participatory spectacle — especially in ways that benefit a progressive politics.

I’ll get into this more in an upcoming post that contrasts Duncombe’s ethical spectacle with Maury Povich’s Who’s Your Daddy? series. Don’t worry… it will all make sense in the end.

Interdisciplinarity and the Interview: AIS conference and more…

So much has happened since I last posted that I have developed a bit of the writer’s constipation. Instead of a comprehensive update then I’ll just dive right in.

I recently presented the Synaptic Crowd project in one of the HASTAC panels at the recent AIS conference. The video I presented is from a shorter edit of my documentation (originally created for the Visible Evidence Conference here at USC).

I had a great time at AIS and learned a ton! Thanks in particular should go to Julie Klein who was an incredibly thoughtful and engaged panel leader. Since the conference I’ve been thinking a lot about possibilities of interdisciplinarity within new media research, and Julie’s writing has helped me think through some of my own hurdles in trying to integrate scholarship from the humanities and social sciences. (Here is a link to her most recent writing.)

One of the central question I keep butting up against is how (and whether) to frame my work in relation to the social sciences. In particular, it’s the challenge of trying to frame the work I’m doing as relevant to the social sciences that has been more challenging. By contrast, drawing from the social sciences “into” the humanities has been less of a hurdle — maybe because the humanities always considers its purview to be everything (the Katamari Damacy of disciplines!).

Since coming to USC’s iMAP program (a subject which will get a forthcoming post all its own) I’ve had some really amazing conversations with faculty here about these sorts of disciplinary boundaries. I’m trying to think through how new media design can offer alternative methodological tools for social science researchers. But I’m not sure I have an easy answer so far.

A recent conversation with Mimi Ito helped crystallize things for me. She pointed out how the Synaptic Crowd style interviews may be incompatible with the interview methodologies of social scientists (where trust has to be built over a long period of time and interviewees need to feel safe about the scope of their audience). She used the term “genre-clash” and that was a really helpful notion for me to think through. Public art practice has a fairly long tradition of seeking out “clash” as a kind of pleasure, and so I may have overlooked how those sorts of pleasures fail to translate from one discipline to another.

In one particular niche of the social sciences (ethnomethodology), however, clash (or contextual instability) is a desirable object of research. In Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), Garfinkel writes:

Procedurally it is my preference to start with familiar scenes and ask what can be done to make trouble. The operations that one would have to perform in order to multiply the senseless features of perceived environments; to produce and sustain bewilderment, consternation and confusion; to produce the socially structured affects of anxiety, shame, guilt and indignation; and to produce disorganized interaction should tell us something about how the structures of everyday activities are ordinarily and routinely produced and maintained.

In my recent MFA thesis for UC Santa Cruz, I dove whole heartedly into the rabbit hole of ethnomethodology and now feel myself coming up for a bit of air. While this idea of transgressing “the everyday” helps explain why I see correlations between art practice and social science research, it’s important to acknowledge that ethnomethodology is but one niche within the social sciences. For good reason, not every researcher finds it helpful to make their informants uncomfortable (a la Garfinkel).

But there is definitely room for thinking about the resonance that ethnomethodology has with the fields of design (especially mobile media, augmented reality, locational media, alternative reality games, HCI, etc.).

One of the larger questions I’ve been wrestling with is this: if social scientists were also designers what new tools would they design and how might their research methodology change?

This question feels at home in a Science and Technology Studies disciplinary paradigm but feels less familiar when applied to more traditional ethnographic research (for example).

A design-oriented approach to social science would seem to complicate the researcher’s role as mediator and open up questions about the relationship between tools, practices, and regimes of knowledge production… (including, potentially, collaborative knowledge production).

Traversing Digital Boundaries: Rethinking the Vox Pop Interview

vox-pop-carnivalOn April 19th I’ll be presenting a version of my project, Synaptic Crowd: Vox Pop Experiments, for the HASTAC III conference, Traversing Digital Boundaries, at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

I’m interested in understanding how identity performance adapts to the contextual uncertainty of online media where audiences are distributed unpredictably across space and time. The Synaptic Crowd: Vox Pop Experiments project represents a series of performative explorations in which I attempt to mediate remotely distributed audiences as collaborative agents in the here-and-now of a public interview space. In my current design model, remote participants collaboratively nominate and vote on questions which get relayed via mobile phone during a vox pop (“on the street”) interview.

I’ve always been fascinated by the vox pop interview as a kind of oddly evocative performance space. There is something bizarre about walking up to a stranger with a camera in hand. For me, the experience is an odd combination of artifice and exhilaration — a tension that seems to emerge out of the dance of solicitation, as the camera-operator tries to persuade a potential interviewee to offer up the gift of testimonial. In this state of provocation, the interviewee will sometimes demand more context by asking the interviewer “what is this for?”

The question not only points to the here-and-now of the interview context, but also points to a there-and-then of future addressees — a mysterious audience which is both present and not-present at the same time. Continue reading ‘Traversing Digital Boundaries: Rethinking the Vox Pop Interview’

Macher’s vs. Schmoozers continued… what it means to “head down to Wilmington”

In the previous post I talked about how Palin uses folksiness to signal a particular kind of community engagement—one that often doesn’t make sense to those on the left. I borrowed from Robert Putnam’s writing about the decline of community engagement in America in order to point out a fundamental difference between what he calls “machers” and “schmoozers.” The last half a century has seen a sharp rise in “schmoozing” (i.e. fluid social relationships) and a decline in “maching” (i.e. enduring relationships). Palin, appealing to those who bemoan the loss of more stable community life, tries to portray herself as a “macher,” steeped in the enduring communities of small town life (the PTA, the church, the network of hockey moms). Likewise, as a political outsider, Palin wants to paint Washington as a haven for precisely the kind of opportunistic insider-ism that Putnam associates with schmoozers. In this way, Palin tries to paint Biden’s verbal acuity as indicative of an opportunistic Washington deal-maker, while her own verbal clumsiness is supposed to underscore an unfamiliarity with the world of the schmoozers. In this way, lack of knowledge signals hometown trustworthiness.

For the rest of us, more comfortable in the dynamic world of “schmoozing,” the folksiness that Palin channels comes across as naivete. Or worse, as a calculated performance.

And yet, this longing for a bygone era of more stable communities is clearly not an exclusive narrative of the right. Think about how Biden’s references to his father having to move down to Wilmington when money was tight:
Continue reading ‘Macher’s vs. Schmoozers continued… what it means to “head down to Wilmington”’

Machers vs. Schmoozers… how Palin uses “folksiness” to send coded messages about community and trust

Yesterday, Elon James White’s This Week in Blackness released a hilarious new video in which he dissects the recent vice presidential debate and questions the mysterious power of “folksiness.” (The full version can be found here.)

I found myself particularly drawn to the excerpt above where Elon asks the question: “Why do people like this folksy nonsense?” Do people really want to select a president based on whom they’d most like to “have a beer with”?

For me, the questions he raises here point to a significant divide between different modes of friendship and trust formation—a difference that most likely splits along party lines.

Robert Putnam’s distinction between “machers” and “schmoozers” seems particularly apropos here. In trying to understand why, over the past 50 yrs, Americans have been dropping out of organized community life, Putnam argues (in Bowling Alone) that there are two distinct modes of sociality that can be located in the history of our country. He deploys the Yiddish distinction between “machers” and “schmoozers” to illustrate this point.

In Putnam’s passage below, think about which group (“machers” or “schmoozers”) best describe the persona that Sarah Palin tries to project:

Continue reading ‘Machers vs. Schmoozers… how Palin uses “folksiness” to send coded messages about community and trust’