It’s been a busy start to the year so I’m only just catching up on some event documentation. Late January I was very pleased to be invited to attend a DiY Networking seminar: An interdisciplinary approach organised by Panayotis Antoniadis (ETH Zürich, CH), Jörg Ott (Aalto University, FI) and Andrea Passarella (CNR – Pisa, IT). The event was hosted at the Leibniz Centre for Informatics at Schloss Dagstuhl.
Usually the preserve of an international community of computer scientists, this event was unique in that the organisers worked hard to bring together a range of academics and practitioners dealing with a similar topic – DiY Networking. As a result, in addition to computer scientists there were researchers with backgrounds in engineering, activism, art, sociology, anthropology and HCI. Due to the shared nature of the topic, the event provided a valued opportunity to catch up with old colleagues as well as meet new ones from many parts of the globe (Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany,Greece, Italy, Sweden, UK and US). In terms of gender, as you can see from the group photo, things were less diverse with 6 women out of 32. But, this was viewed as unusually high and we were made very welcome.
For three and half days we stayed in a castle, yes a castle! – in a remote forest located a 30min cab ride, 2.5 hour train journey and a flight from London. Despite good internet access, there was definitely a collective (and valued) sense of getting away from other work and pressures. The castle was incredibly well equipped for this kind of event with comfortable lodgings, character filled working rooms (some in turrets), games and musical equipment (including piano, cello and violins) and a handy wine cellar. There were bikes to borrow and printed running maps for nearby trails. You could say it was a unique experience.
Although discussions were expansive and interesting for the first day and a half, and the walk-shop around the local village and forest was great, the event became really productive for me when groups shrunk in size and conversations shifted to more specific topics. I joined group of computer and social scientists who focused on failure – Christian Becker, (Universität Mannheim, DE), John Cowcroft (Communication Systems, Cambridge), Paul Dourish (Informatics, UCI), Kevin Fall (Software Engineering, Carnegie Mellon), Alison Powell (Media & Comms, LSE), and Irina Shklovski (ITU, Copenhagen),
Failure is rich topic for discussion as it holds multiple shifting meanings, is culturally shaped and manifest in diverse assemblies of practice. We shared very different experiences from our fieldwork and practice, talking about how failure some contexts was the key to success and the start of innovative journey; failure in the form of disaster sometimes operates as a catalyst for invention (but things need to be available before); success as an exception.
What is failure?
How is it avoided?
Who is allowed to fail? Who isn’t?
How is failure understood, subverted and explored?
How is it represented? How has this changed over time/ in different places?
In what ways/contexts/articulations is failure reviled? Cleaned up? Ignored? Celebrated?
Drawing on previous experiences of building Enquiry Machines I suggested we build these ideas into a ‘Failure Machine’. Enquiry Machines are a series of performed artefacts made in collaboration with others that explore ideas or methods. The point is less about materializing answers or prototyping ideas and more about formulating new critical approaches and literally seeing and touching methods in new ways. EMs are not meant to be finished or polished objects that speak for themselves. In fact, most fail in some way. They remind us that mistakes and tangents are just as important to our insights as the things that ‘work’.
It seemed a good idea in this context as it would help to ground the discussion and unite our wide-ranging discussion into something physical. Also, the delightful thing about working on failure is that anything we made or failed to make would be productive. Plus Enquiry Machines are fun to make.
These are pics from a Sociology Hack Day I ran with Dan Macquillan where computing, sociology and anthro students made machines which generated discussions on privacy, data snooping, location sensing, future selves and citizenship, electronic freedoms and more. As I said….. weird yet productive.
Also, it seemed to fit, albeit with a stretch, the broader aims of the Dagstuhl event:
- To enable the productive interactions in such a diverse community it will take for sure a significant amount of time and effort. We hope that this seminar will set the basis and make three concrete steps toward this direction
- The sharing of objectives, values, methodologies, and challenges those different fields of research and practice face today
- The definition of a research framework that will allow today disconnected disciplines to exchange knowledge and interact toward the design of successful do-it-yourself networking applications; and
- The definition of next steps toward a shared experimentation platform (e.g., code for mobile devices) and the setting up of a venue for sharing artistic, experimental, and research results.
We started by simply talking more, writing down ideas, quotes and drawing things that popped up in conversation. Then we coded these bits of paper according to themes, creating more consolidated taxonomies.
This working session moved into the evening and was accompanied by some nice local wine, in fine company and to the background of acoustic guitar played by John and Kevin. It’d be nice to work like this more often.
Bits of paper, pens and the whiteboard were the tools of choice. Magazines, coloured paper, tape, string and scissors were soon recruited.
During the session I talked a bit about my recent obsession with châtelaine. Châtelaines were practical and decorative devices worn on the belt and hung with a series of short chains at the end of which were objects related to the task at hand. I’ve been thinking a lot about Châtelaines, after being introduced to these fascinating technologies by Genevieve Bell. They were worn by women from the 16th to 19th Centuries, from lower socio-economic workers to aristocracy. Nurses wore châtelaines with clocks, thermometers, bandages and scissors. Seamstresses had bobbins of thread, thimble cases and needles on the end of their châtelaine chains. Society ladies’ châtelaines featured highly decorative perfume bottles, purses, fans and even dance cards.
Genevieve has talked about them in her work as early examples of wearable technology.
Here’s a pic of one I have since found in the British Museum. It is a simple châtelaine made for the purpose of holding an early example of a seconds dial silver and tortoiseshell watch by Charles Gretton, London in 1670. It also features the key for winding the watch.
We decided to make our ‘Machine of Enquiry’ into a digital châtelaine.
We called it ‘The Battery Operated Wind-Up Merchant‘, playing on the ideas about technological lineage, pointing to larger dependent ecologies of use and using humour as a deliberate device to bring to life multiple ideas about failure and also the slightly ridiculous method.
There was a lot of DiY hands-on material adaptation going on. We scoured the castle for string and in its absence made use of tape, scissors, some raffia and a plastic bag.
The châtelaine featured a series of filters or apps hanging from each chain that reflected some of the critical themes and ideas generated in our discussions.
We talked about the apps having both independent and potential interrupting characteristics, so they might overlap, tangle and otherwise interfere with one another causing even more noise in the system/process.
The apps included ‘Dial of serendipity’, ‘Dial of missed opportunities’, ‘Lens of temporality’, ‘Latency creator’, ‘(Un)Archiver’, ‘Moral concern unburdener’ and many more.
The process and presentation of the machine to the larger group was productive and enjoyable. Although making ideas material constituted a different method for some in our group, everyone was buoyed by the experience of collectively approaching the multiplicity and messiness of failure via gendered, historic, cultural and social actors as well as the technical ones. There was even talk of potentially furthering this as an interdisciplinary project and making the Failure Machine again in different, more developed materials.