I’m sitting at Chicago O’Hare, wending my way back across the US after Ubicomp. The conference goes on for two more days but I have to go to my James Stirling seminar tomorrow, so I’m coming back. Altogether, it was a satisfying conference. It was fruitful, it was fun, it was social.
First, Amanda, Eric, Ken, and Anthony did an outstanding job organizing the Exurban Noir workshop on Sunday and Monday. It was great fun and also fruitful. My position paper proposed an O.C. Fun Palace on dead mall space in Orange County — that was what I brought into the workshop. From a discussion of our various papers, we were then divided into four groups and sent out with an Orange County resident for the afternoon. Several participants are working on religion and megachurches in their research, so they went to the Crystal Cathedral, where it was also the reverend’s birthday. Another group took on religion and spirituality with a couple on a religious quest, but also dealing with cancer. The third group took the bus through Orange County with a fifth-year senior at UC-Irvine. They went to Santa Ana, where her family owns a 99 cent store. It turned out, though, that there was a big Mexican street fiesta and that’s where they spent their time.
Our group went out with a former special agent for money crimes, now running his own private investigation business. This sounded like it would be sexier than it was, but it was still plenty interesting. He pointed out the opulent parts of Newport Beach but drew our attention to what dwelled below the surface: embezzlements, money laundering, drug crimes, tax evasion. The five of us squeezed into a powder blue Mercedes convertible, took the Balboa Ferry, looked at yachts (our guide’s son is a captain, but not in our harbor on that day), zipped down the Pacific Coast Highway getting our hair tangled, having a drink at the Montage with everyone else who hoped to see someone famous. (We did not). We thought about our guide and his values, his life, the underbelly of the pretty, rich towns we went through.
I really liked working with my group. We were Batya Friedman, who runs the Value-Centered Design Lab at the University of Washington, Leif Oppermann, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nottingham in the Mixed Reality Lab (one of the key ubiquitous computing research labs), and Jordan Geiger, an architect and critic from Berkeley who teaches at the California College of Arts. On the second day, we were asked to create our own memory maps of our experiences, then talk through them and talk to the broader workshop about our day. Then, we had a few hours to design something that presented the notion of noir in a product or service. These types of design exercises are always fun but stressful: we four people who think differently about design and pressure had to very quickly norm our working styles and decide how to proceed. Some of our best ideas came at the very end, when we had to express them in a skit, when we had to loosen up and move fast. It was very funny.
Since we were working on the concept of noir, we came up with a criminal idea. We proposed a money laundering service that would take place in a state of exception on the Balboa Ferry. In the 3-5 minute crossing, there were a few things we thought possible: your ticket to get on the boat functions like an ATM machine, and as you ride, your money is effectively atomized into smaller, less traceable amounts. We also thought the ferry could serve as a market of sorts, of people with bad art or plumbing services who would be happy to take your money and reinvest it. The ferry itself could be augmented with a Farraday cage that would not be visible, thus shunting electromagnetic radiation and making the electronic trails more difficult to follow. (Department of Homeland Security: this is of course this is not serious. We don’t know how to launder money and had to look it up on Wikipedia. We’re not criminals.)
There were other ideas, too, not related to the ferry. There was a set of binoculars that would show you what had come before or what might come next: the Balboa ferris wheel, for instance, is about to be bulldozed and developed into something ritzier; the site of the Montage used to be an RV park. And then there was the crass idea of selling very expensive real estate deeds from sites like the Montage that cocaine users could use to snort coke.
Altogether, a great workshop. The organizers deserve major props for making such an enjoyable and interesting field of exploration. Some of the students I’d advised at Ivrea did critical design inspired projects, but this was my first foray into doing it myself. It was fun to consider an interaction, a sense, and an object and design something for the situation. (That’s how the coke snorting apparatus came up: we were talking about senses beyond seeing and hearing, so I thought about smell, and I thought about how things are applied to the nose… and it went from there.)
The Ubicomp conference was also quite good, what I got to attend. Last night, I had a conversation with Paul Dourish, the organizer, about it. He said that while it wasn’t perfect, the conference was very different from previous years because of explicit changes they made in its organization. The conference committee was about 50/50 men and women, as opposed to the previous year when only one woman was on it. Some papers weren’t perfect but at least introduced perspectives that hadn’t been there previously, like designing mobile applications for older (70-90 year old) women, or looking to history for lessons in designing for ubicomp.
Still, it’s a tech conference and the building and geeking are a huge part of it. There were split cultures at the conference. I seemed to be in the anthro-oriented camp, where ethnography and understanding users is a big part of what everyone does (myself included)–these people might just be anthropologists but were also human computer interaction people or interaction designers. Then, there were the technologically oriented folks, typically coming from computer science backgrounds. When the demos and posters were announced, the majority seemed to be done by groups Japanese students, building various gizmos and introducing technologies into rooms and cities. They were spiffy but I wondered what need they addressed. They were a splinter of the tech audience.
There were so few people from architectural backgrounds–I knew of four people dealing with the built environment from an architectural perspective. There were some affiliated others, like Intel’s group that deals with the domestic environment, or Susan Wyche, who presented her masters work at Cornell on housework. What I’d love to see next year at Ubicomp is a session or set of panels on people approaching this not from a technology-first perspective, but from architecture. I find it shocking that many people working on ubiquitous computing seem to ignore the entire disciplines that create the built environment. It’s hip to be an urbanist these days, but ubicomp needs to look at its precedents for ubiquitous technology. It needs to delve into what cities do and how they work, what buildings do, what their possibilities are. There’s a lot of possibility here: what would happen if a materials scientist and architect started working together with both anthropologists and people who knew how to elegantly deploy sensors… and then do something with the feedback? What if the materials responded in some new way? At the same time, architecture tends not to explore the possibilities of ubiquitous computing, instead focusing on fabrication and visualization. When this goes awry, architects resort to data fetishization. It’s poor architecture, poor design. These need to be bridged in a variety of ways, and I’ll work to do this before the next conference, if they’ll have me.
It also strikes me that we need some new reading lists. We all know Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs. And why is it that in architecture (especially on the East Coast), Christopher Alexander has fallen out of favor, but informatics and computer science professors know A Pattern Language backwards and forwards? But how can it be that nobody seems to have read Reyner Banham’s “The Great Gizmo?” Or that nobody even knows who he is? Post your suggestions for must-read works, not just new ones but the ones that undergird what we do. I’d like to provide technologists with some writings on cities and buildings and architects, and I’d like to provide architects with some Ur works on technology.
Socially, it was great. I loved hanging out again with Erica and Amanda, both of whom are beyond fabulous. My hotel roommate Janna was so generous and fun. I had great conversations with Oscar and Jeff. Jordan and I kept ending up in the same places. Maia and I were delighted to bump into each other on the patio. Johanna, Arianna and Karen had great work on the London Underground and manage to keep up this collaboration without being in the same country. Wow. Jay from Steelcase gave me ideas about I-space and we-space (words he used so quickly, I had to back him up for more explanation). Paul Dourish is charming and wonderful and his work stands up beyond many other people’s. Susan is bright and it’s nice to keep running into her. Nicolas Nova is serious and fun at the same time. Tod kept cracking me up. I got to spend time with Mike again–it’d been almost a year– and can’t wait to see Liz next week (Mike is my old boyfriend, as anyone reading this page for a while probably knows: we’re still close friends). I appreciated my conversations with everyone who had advice about Ph.D. programs. Mary at Microsoft Research was interesting and I had an outstanding, long conversation with Marc Davis at Yahoo Research. In fact, all of the researchers I met I found impressive. I’m sure I left someone or something out but I didn’t mean to. I’m tired. It was good.