Are social media, social? (Part Four)

Heidi May has produced some important comments on the previous entries of Are Social Media, Social? May suggested a link to Network, A Networked Book about Network Art which is a fascinating example of the extensions that are possible when communities of interest establish a context to work together and collaborate. Heidi May also asks about the Diaspora project. Diaspora will attempt to build an open source version of Facebook. I wish them luck. This is an essential move to broaden the scope and expectations that we have about the role and usage of social networks, about privacy and most importantly about controlling the very code that governs how we relate within virtual spaces.

A good example of some of the challenges that we face within networked environments is what happened to the famous German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas. “In January, one of the world’s leading intellectuals fell prey to an internet hoax. An anonymous prankster set up a fake Twitter feed purporting to be by ­Jürgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. “It irritated me because the sender’s identity was a fake,” ­Habermas told me recently. Like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, ­Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and former US ­secretary of state Condoleezza Rice before him, ­Habermas had been “twitterjacked”.” Stuart Jeffries Financial Times, April 30, 2010.

As it turns out the hoax was removed but not before the individual was found and apologized. Subsequently, Habermas was interviewed and made this comment:

“The internet generates a centrifugal force,” Habemas says. “It releases an ­anarchic wave of highly fragmented circuits of communication that ­infrequently overlap. Of course, the spontaneous and egalitarian nature of unlimited communication can have subversive effects under authoritarian regimes. But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.”

Habermas suggests that power resides with the State even when social networks bring people together to protest and demonstrate. The results of these engagements are contingent and don’t necessarily lead to change or to the enlargement of the public sphere.

The question is how does the public become enlightened? What conditions will allow for and encourage rich interchanges that will drive new perceptions of power and new ideas about power relations?

The general assumption is that social networks facilitate the growth of constructive public debate. Yet, if that were true how can one explain the nature of the debates in the US around health care which were characterized by some of the most vitriolic exchanges in a generation? How do we explain the restrictive and generally anti-immigrant laws introduced by the state of Arizona? The utopian view of social networks tends to gloss over these contradictions. Yes, it is true that Twitter was banned in Iran during the popular uprising last year to prevent protestors from communicating with each other. Yes, social media can be used for good and bad. There is nothing inherent in social networks, nothing latent within their structure that prevents them being used for enhanced exchange and debate. For debates to be public however, there has to be a sense that the debates are visible to a variety of different constituencies. The challenge is that the networks are not visible to each other — mapping them produces interesting lattice-related structures but these say very little about the contents of the interactions.

The overall effect could be described as mythic since we cannot connect to ten thousand people or know what they are saying to each other. At a minimum, the public sphere takes on a visible face through traditional forms of broadcast that can be experienced simultaneously by many different people. Twitter on the other hand, allows us to see trends but that may often not be enough to make a judgment about currency and our capacity to intervene. Is the headline structure of Twitter enough? Should it be?

The computer screen remains the main interface and mediator between the movement of ideas from discourse to action. And, as I have discussed in previous posts, networks are abstracted instances of complex, quantitatively driven relationships. We need more research and perhaps establishing a social network to do this would help, more research on whether social media are actually driving towards increasingly fragmented forms of interaction. A question. How many of your followers have you met? How many people leave comments on your blog and what is the relationship between hits and comments? Beyond the ten or so web sites that everyone visits, how many have settled into a regular routine not unlike bulletin boards of old?

The recent election campaign won by President Obama in which social media played a formidable role suggests that my questions may have no pertinence to his success. Consumer campaigns and boycotts made all the more practical and possible by social networks suggests the opposite of what I am saying. The potential intimacy of dialogues among strangers working together to figure out problems and meet challenges may contradict my intuition that these are variations on existing networks albeit with some dramatic enhancements.

A final thought. We often talk about the speed with which these phenomena develop without referencing their predecessors. For example, if the Web is just an extension of bulletin boards and hypercard systems then we need to understand how that continuity has been built and upon what premises. If Twitter is an extension of daily conversation and is helping to build the public sphere then we need more research on what is being said and actually examine whether Twitters translate into action.

Part Five 

History's Folds

The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.

Design and Healthcare in Britain

Today's designers are helping to transform the way the National Health Service (NHS) works with a range of 'human-centred' techniques that are unique to health-related environments.

The NHS is wising up to the value offered by the design industry: everything from improving the accuracy of surgical instruments, developing usable software that reduces clinical errors, and designing furniture that reduces MRSA, through to improving the patient experience by helping to design the ways in which non-clinical care is provided.

A new breed of designers have realised they can do more than the glossy consumer-brand work that might have otherwise filled their portfolios. They are bolstering their optimism, creativity and visualisation skills with a whole host of human-centred techniques unique to public sector design.

These advocate observation over assumption; facilitate collaboration between staff and patients; and prototype ideas so they can be seen, felt and tested in realistic contexts.

 

Implanted Neurons Let the Brain Rewire Itself Again

Experiments in mice show that the brain's ability to adapt might not disappear with age.

Transplanting fetal neurons into the brains of young mice opens a new window on neural plasticity, or flexibility in the brain's neural circuits. The research, published today in the journal Science, suggests that the brain's ability to radically adapt to new situations might not be permanently lost in youth, and helps to pinpoint the factors needed to reintroduce this plasticity.

Read more………

Eric Topol: The wireless future of medicine

Emily Carr University is developing a Health Design Lab in association with the Children's Hospital in Vancouver. The use of wireless technologies both in developed and developing countries will be increasingly important to efficient and economic health care delivery. Eric Topol develops a brilliant argument for the wireless future of medicine in this TED presentation.

As director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, Eric Topol uses the study of genomics to propel game-changing medical research. The Institute combines clinical investigation with scientific theory, training physicians and scientists for research-based careers. He also serves on the board of the West Wireless Health Institute, discovering how wireless technology can change the future of health care.

We feel, therefore we learn by Daniel Siegel

The neuroscience of social emotion.

Presenting at the Mind and its Potential conference, Dr Daniel Siegel MD speaks about Interpersonal Neurobiology, an interdisciplinary view of life experience that draws on over a dozen branches of science to create a framework for understanding of our subjective and interpersonal lives. Daniel Siegel completed his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and his post-graduate medical education at UCLA. He was the recipient of the UCLA psychiatry department's teaching award and several honorary fellowships for his work as director of UCLA's training program in child psychiatry and the Infant and Preschool Service at UCLA.

Research in the Arts and Design (3)

This is the third in an occasional series on research in the arts and design.

Let me begin by suggesting that the term contingency may be a useful way of thinking about research in areas not traditionally thought of as research-based. It is not fair to compare research in the arts and design for example, to the social sciences although they may share more than we realize. We therefore need some new thinking on the meaning of research in the creative areas both as method and as process. This is all the more urgent because artists and designers have had a great deal of difficulty arguing their case with government, the community and with industry. And, as we have seen in Great Britain, research in the creative areas is measured in much the same way as other disciplines and often not to the benefit of creative work. In fact, debate is needed on the policy environment being created in the UK around the Creative Industries because so many of the presuppositions being put in place are being copied elsewhere in the industrial world.

Contingency speaks to activities that begin without a clear sense of their outcome. Artists have always been comfortable with this as have some writers. In the past, some designers oriented their creative process around the expectations of clients and so it appeared as if they were more concrete and less contingent than artists. Now, designers have more fully recognized that they are as involved in the invention of new ideas and processes as artists and so both creative engagements share a similar sense that outcomes are a byproduct of creativity.

A by-product? Yes, if the outcome is largely determined by an ongoing process that may not be linear, then outcomes are by and large as accidental as much as they may be intended. Some artists of course, play with chance and accidents all the time and this was the foundation of the work of John Cage. Others plan their works very carefully and many have those works built by apprentices to specifications they have created. But, for the most part artists and designers to varying degrees learn to combine chance, accident and purpose to produce works that reflect only a small proportion of their intentions.

Traditional research in the social sciences uses a variety of time tested methods from observation to participant observation among many approaches, to try and understand phenomena and in many cases suggest solutions to problems and challenges. The methods range from the quantitative to the qualitative and constitute a vast constellation of strategic choices with the intellectual and practical goal of deepening and enhancing our understanding both of the world we live in and ourselves. I cannot do justice to the range here, its complexity and breadth. Suffice to say, nearly anything and everything can be the object or subject of research.

My point is that the same situation exists in the arts and design. Tim Brown comments on Charles Eames and the manner in which the Eames conducted a series of important design experiments in the early 20th century. (See Brown’s wonderful book, Change by Design published by Harper Collins in 2009.) “From their legendary office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, the Eameses and their associates conducted a series of design experiments that stretched across four decades and covered every imaginable medium: the molded plywood chairs that became synonymous with American modernism; their famous case study house No. 8 in Pacific Palisades; the museum exhibitions they built, and the educational films they produced. Not always visible in the finished projects, however, is the methodological experimentation that lay behind them.” (71)

Crucially, the finished projects of designers and of artists only sometimes reveal their methodological origins and process. Many self-conscious and self-reflexive creators have of course from time to time created works that reveal method in their very materiality. But, for the most part, creative process remains unseen, background chatter as it were, with little seeming connection to method.

Here is an example of a creative project that sees itself within the traditional methods of the social sciences.

“I am a lecturer with the Department of Photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, specialising in the fields of photojournalism and social documentary. My recent projects borrow heavily from the practices inherent in visual ethnography and include hospice and palliative care (Lloyd, Passing Time, 2000), documenting a small regional community outside of Brisbane (Something about Us, Logan Art Gallery, 2001) and, currently, working on a project looking into substance misuse in the Mt Isa district.” David Lloyd.

This is a hybrid of course and one of many works that are challenging conventional definitions of art and media. But, it points out that how fluid the boundaries between creative processes are and how careful we have to be in assuming *lack* of method when they may well be one.

Contingency is about methods that are applied to creative challenges without necessarily linking process to outcome. This is also similar to prototyping which is a process of experimental exploration that is as ideational as it is material.

More on this topic over the next few months.

See the following report from the UK, especially chapter 3 for more debate in this area.

Sixth Sense

When I attended the last TED conference in Long Beach in February 2009, Patricia Maes and Pranav Mistry unveiled a touch sensitive device that allows users to project information onto practically any surface, including the human hand. In their own words: "The SixthSense prototype is comprised of a pocket projector, a mirror and a camera. The hardware components are coupled in a pendant like mobile wearable device. Both the projector and the camera are connected to the mobile computing device in the user’s pocket. The projector projects visual information enabling surfaces, walls and physical objects around us to be used as interfaces; while the camera recognizes and tracks user's hand gestures and physical objects using computer-vision based techniques."

The technology is very impressive. Here is a TED video of Patti Maes explaining this important new invention.

The role of research in the Creative Arts (1)

Ceramics is an extraordinary craft-based discipline. It is also an art and a science. The materials that ceramicists use have changed over the last century, but many of the core creative methods remain the same. None of what I have just said would be possible without some research into the history and practices of ceramic artists and the technologies they use. So, for example when I mention to people that ceramic engineering is a crucial part of the digital age, they don’t know what I am talking about. Optical fibers make use of ceramic materials. The tiles which cover the bottom of the Space Shuttle are made of ceramic materials shaped and formed using a variety of heating and manufacturing methods.

Ceramics is increasingly being used in the creation of products (other than the traditional ones) and is linking itself to product and industrial design. There are medical applications and so on.

I mention this to point out that research is fundamental to any creative exploration and that research may take any form — and make use of any number of different materials. A reductive approach will not recognize the rather extensive way in which the practice of creation is deeply involved with everything from theory through to reflection and self-criticism. For too long, universities in particular have maintained distinctions between their professional and non-professional disciplines as a way of differentiating between applied and pure research. The latter is supposed to reflect a disinterested approach to knowledge in the hope that over time the research will produce some results. The former is supposed to direct itself towards results from the outset and to be more directly connected to industry and the community. Engineering schools for example, are cloistered in separate buildings on university campuses and generally develop an applied approach to learning. In neither case, applied or pure can the distinctions I have just mentioned work since by its very nature research is **always** both applied and pure.

Creative practices are generally seen as applied because the focus is on materials even if they are virtual. The standardized and by now clichéd image of creative people driven by intuitions and/or inspiration actually covers up the years of apprenticeship that every artist has to engage in to become good at what they do.

Every creative discipline involves many different levels of research, some of which is directly derived from practices in the social sciences, as well as the sciences. In the next installment of this article, I will examine how creative practices are at the forefront of redefining not only the nature of research but the knowledge base for many disciplines.

Creativity, Research and Funding in Canada

I am puzzled. Highly skilled artisans, artists, creators and designers are perhaps among the most sophisticated researchers our society produces. In order to succeed, they have to not only understand the context of their creative work, but also the impact and possible market for their ideas and objects They have to develop sophisticated models and prototypes to test their ideas and they have to be able to translate their research and practice into something that can be understood by many different people often with quite differing interests. They have to have skills that might best be described as ethnographic so as to understand if not sense both the demands of their communities and also the resistances those communities have to change and new insights. They have to negotiate complex collaborative arrangements to produce outputs that will reflect great technical expertise as well as vision.

Yet, for the most part, their work is neither recognized for its research value, nor substantively funded as research in Canada. (Great Britain and Australia have overcome this problem.) My sense is that conventional research in this country has over time become defined in a rather narrow way to benefit those people, institutions and disciplines that have historically received money from governments, foundations and private benefactors. For example, what is the difference between a researcher in political science and one who studies and researches politics in order to produce a film? Does a list of publications and books mean more than a list of well-made documentaries? Today in Canada it is still unusual for a funding agency to accept the CV of someone who has devoted themselves to media and forms of expression that are not traditional. It would be even more unusual to accept a work of art like an installation as evidence of rigour, forethought, insight and inventive thinking. These are among the criteria that are expected by juries in assessing the value of applications for funding.

I cannot go into the history of funding for disciplinary research in Canada, nor examine within this context, the very particular mandates of the funding agencies that have over time developed specific areas of emphasis to the exclusion of many of the creative disciplines. The purpose of this short piece is to raise some issues about the future of research within the conventional boundaries that have been in place in Canada for decades. The secondary purpose is to argue that the models presently in place and in use by the main funding agencies are tired, reductive and repetitive and that the standards used to evaluate research have precipitously narrowed over the last fifteen years.

Qualitative and quantitative research are based on a set of standards and criteria that have evolved over time within the context of disciplines that are for the most part pursued within the university context. Those disciplines range from the hard sciences, medicine and engineering through to the “soft” social sciences and humanities. The fields involved are diverse and often contentious. Some the disciplines are newer than others with the more scientific health-related disciplines receiving the largest amount of money. This is because of their perceived utility to society, the assumption that medical research for example, will have the most immediate impact and the further assumption that innovation occurs in those areas because of their empirical nature.

The common and dominant popular metaphor for research is the science laboratory, an environment of experimentation within which purposes and goals are supposedly clearer than research that might be pursued in a library or through fieldwork. The other metaphor and it is one that also rules the popular imagination, is that research has to have concrete outcomes for it to be valid. In other words, “real” research will produce “cures” in medicine or a better understanding of physical reality or technological innovation. Of course, good research in any discipline will hopefully have productive outcomes. That is a given. But, good research is rarely linear and often (as is the case with AIDS, for example) takes decades to produce results.

In fact, laboratories are notoriously conservative places often using research paradigms that produce little value either for participants or for the public. (See the work of Bruno Latour, but also the work of Thomas Kuhn for analyses of the cultures and working practices of scientific research.) This does not mean that universities should close those labs or shut down those disciplines that show little for the sometimes-massive investment in them. It does mean, however, that policy makers have to look with great care at accepted and conventional assumptions about output, results and their translation into highly specialized journals. In saying this, I am not suggesting that the only model for research is an applied one. In fact, I am arguing the opposite.

Research in all its varieties is fundamental to all forms of learning and the development of new knowledge and is the foundation upon which new, useful and great ideas come into the public sphere. The assumption that there is one method or one way to arrive at results is something that most good researchers would argue against. And yet, that is the reality of the distinctive manner in which research is funded in Canada. It also underlies the assumption that the PhD is the only consistently valid tool of evaluation of researchers who wish to pursue innovative ideas, so that for example, an MFA is seen to be less significant even if it is a terminal degree for some professions.

Part of the challenge, part of the beauty of research is that it trains the minds of learners, researchers and teachers and provides everyone with the intellectual and practical tools they need to pursue their interests and their passions sometimes with important and positive results. Research builds on disciplinary histories and practices, mode of enquiry, crafts and the multi-faceted use of technology.

This potent combination is also at the heart of post-secondary education and learning and is the source of what makes universities and colleges so important to our society. However, value in research can be drawn from many sources and from many different practices. The isolation of research into particular institutions and specialized disciplines slowly leads to practices that are less innovative than they could or should be. This is largely because of the manner in which disciplines develop, their tendency to devolve into silos and most importantly, the departmental and faculty structure within universities, which tends to validate the history and shape of specific disciplines.

In Canada, funding agencies have bought into the argument that excellence can only be found and developed in large universities, which have infrastructures to support their ambitious research goals. Often and ironically, the faculties in those universities are no larger than their smaller sister institutions, but nevertheless garner the majority of the money in any disciplinary competition. Excellence has become a quantitative game. Fund enough research in one place and you will undoubtedly have some winners. Very little research has been done on faculty at the large universities who do not provide research that matches their ambitions, particularly in areas like the social sciences and the humanities.

Public policy in this area has to change. In particular, Canadian funding agencies have to realize that they are not recognizing value, innovation and creativity in most of the institutions across the country. Instead, they are perpetuating a vague notion of excellence based on the capacity of large universities to garner most of the money. All of that would be fine, if the claims about research being made by those large institutions were not based on exclusivity, to the detriment of the quite extraordinary richness of the work going on in many other institutions and as is often the case within the creative disciplines. The latter receive an infinitesimally small amount both compared to the number of people seeking funding and to the growing importance of the creative industries in Canada.

The Practice of Interdisciplinarity in Design and New Media (1)

This short piece examines the history of a multi-disciplinary centre for Design and New Media in Vancouver, Canada. I explore the challenges of developing research models that make it possible for a variety of investigators and practitioners in the areas of Design and New Media to link their work to that of engineers and computer scientists. This is a crucial area for collaborative projects that involve designers and new media creators.

In 2000, the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMic) was started in Vancouver, Canada under the aegis and with the support of five post-secondary academic institutions, industry and the federal and provincial governments. Approximately, nineteen million dollars was invested at the outset mostly from industry and government. I was one of the leaders in the planning and development of NewMic, in large measure because I have a long history of involvement teaching and researching, as well as producing New Media. (The industry members included, Electronic Arts, IBM, Nortel Networks, Sierra Wireless, Telus and Xerox Parc.)

One of the foundational goals of NewMic was to bring engineers, computer scientists, social scientists, artists, designers and industry together, in order to create an interdisciplinary mix of expertise from a variety of areas. The premise was that this group would engage in innovative research to produce inclusive and new media designs of a variety of products, network tools and multimedia applications. The secondary premise was that the research would produce outcomes that could be implemented and commercialized in order to produce added value for all of the partners.

I spent a year at NewMic as a designer/artist in residence in 2002 and was also on its Board of Governors from 2000-2003 until it was closed down late in 2003. There are a number of important features to the history of this short-lived institution that are important markers of the challenges and obstacles facing any interdisciplinary dialogue that includes artists and designers working with engineers and computer scientists. Among the challenges are:

* The tendency among engineers, designers and computer scientists to have an unproblematic relationship to knowledge and knowledge production;

* Lack of clarity as to the meaning, impact and social role of inclusive and new media design products;

* Profound misunderstanding of the relationship between inclusivity, user needs and technological innovation;

* Conflicting cultures and discourses;

* An uninformed and generally superficial understanding of the differences between the cognitive sciences and ethnographic explorations of human-computer interaction;

* Focus on a false distinction between pure and applied research.

Underlying some of these challenges was an apprehension that without interdisciplinarity, it would be impossible to be innovative. The artists and designers from Emily Carr Institute who participated in NewMic and whose concerns were centred on community, creativity, outreach, inclusivity and the ethical implications and effects of new technologies, found themselves in a difficult and demanding position. In my next entry I will examine the benefits and successes as well as some of the problems and failures that were encountered in trying to make NewMic into a world-class environment for new media and design research.

Part Two…

Some recent comments on Research and Wikipedia

From Chris on Research in the Arts

Here in the UK, arts research culture might be a bit more accepted, but it is still nascent. I agree that the terms 'practice-based' and 'theory-based' set up a problematic dichotomy for research culture. In acknowledging the distinction, one runs the risk of mirroring the historical bias towards empiricism. This bias has supported a hierarchy of epistemologies that, descending from quantitative research to qualitative research and from theory-based to practice-based research, denies the creative arts a platform for expression as knowledge.

The ways in which the creative arts shape our understanding of the world are difficult to measure, but no less significant than other models of knowledge. If most 'pure science' researchers would accept that some form of rudimentary research occurs prior to art making, can we take it even further? Can we suggest that an artwork - in itself - is a form of research?

I believe we can. Especially when it involves the active questioning of existing frameworks for understanding, with the inclusion of an 'experiment' designed to fill in the gaps that are opened up by these questions. This occurs most frequently in the new media arts now, an area informed by cognitive models of the human condition, based on active experimentation with new technologies that pose questions about how we perceive.

The conclusions from these arts experiments may not be concrete, indeed they may be difficult to outline and impossible to apply in any economy. But insofar as they function as part of a process of semiosis - the generation of signs and thus meaning... well... they're rather important, and deserve to be encouraged.

From Mary on the idea of an Art School as Wikipedia

If Wikipedia were an art school, it would look like WalMart. Nah. It would look like an academic department that has been around for too long - a congerie of pseudo-experts. Nothing worse than that. Consolidated mediocrity. When I first saw Wikipedia I thought - WOW - post-structuralism meets pedagogy in the form of an ever-evolving set of artifacts. Nope. Take a deeper look at the rules governing the construction of knowledge in Wikipedia -- no controversy blah blah -- but the most interesting thing to me -- no original knowledge -- wow -- and just go look at how this absolutely implausible limit condition is defined and policed. Fascinating. Then go look at the Rosa Parks entry, and carefully go through the history of the page. Look at the contest over "getting it right" and "getting the controversy out of the story". Art school. Wow. I hope not. Wikipedia is modernism run amok. A moebius strip of epistemic spam.

EmilyCarrHalloween.jpg

From a Recent Event at Emily Carr Institute