We held a junk hacking machine making workshop at Makerversity on Friday 17th July as part of our project -The Dewey Organ – in the larger AHRC Protopublics programme. It was an intensive half day event involving the research team – Duncan, Alex and myself – and 16 researchers and practitioners including designers, event organisers, sociologists, architects, sew-ers, coders and more. The aim was two-fold: to discuss social issues that the project might draw upon and to materially think through what kinds of machines might be possible.
We talked about how we are interested in social problems and publics and more specifically, about the problem of problems and publics.
How do problems come into being?
Who makes/defines them?
How do they emerge? What do they do?
So often we are told what is considered a problem in our area? We are then told about policies that are designed to solve these problems. But we don’t always know who had these problems in the first place? Who said they were problems? Did they arise from a series of issues? Whose? And whose problems didn’t make the cut? Which ones weren’t considered problematic enough?
We are interested in asking these kinds of questions about problems. We are querying not only where problems come from but also the mechanisms of how they are made. Also, so often problems look neat and smooth – as if we are all in total agreement, when the reality and actual experience is usually a lot messier, conflicted and controversial. We are interested in the systems through which things are turned into problems because they are rarely transparent or easily trace-able processes
We are curious in what kinds of analytics are already built into problem-making methods. What this means is that we are interested in thinking differently about problems – moving away from more accepted conventional top-down authoritative methods of problem-making and consider instead more messy, mundane, boring, smaller, less triumphal issues that emerge in everyday life from the ground up
So we are asking – what might happen when we collect issues together and visualize them in new ways.
Might we make new problems?
Might we craft new ways of thinking about problems?
Might we produce different forms of evidence?
Might these in turn lead to new solutions?
Might they produce or reveal different kinds of publics?
And then, what might be possible to do with these new problems and publics?
Fundamentally, we are interested in how problems and publics ‘might be different’.
Why make a machine?
- Problems require work
Problems don’t just emerge – they come from issues, they often require physical or social labour, often both. We want to render visible the interactivity of problem making – the labour involved
- Problems are inherently social, embodied/participatory – you can’t do it alone.
We are interested in what kinds of groups and publics arise from different kinds of problems or how they themselves produce problems?
- Problems can feel abstract and distant to everyday life
In materialising them, inviting people into a closer engagement with them, we think it might open up new ways of thinking about, interacting with and talking about problems and the infrastructures behind them
Some examples of projects that render issues visible in unique, experimental and interactive ways:
Jean Tinguely, a swiss sculptor and artist, is renown for his large scale kinetic machines.
Many of them critiqued industrialised society and some self destructed in their over production of productivity.
Natalie Jerimijenko’s Feral robot dog is an open source robotics project that enables anyone to ‘upgrade’ off the shelf toys, giving them chemical sensing equipment to collect environmental data and co-ordinated with other units. The upgraded dogs sniff out environmental toxins which opens up discussion around contaminants in local environments and the value of citizen science.
Lucy Kimbell’s Physical Bar Charts consist of coloured badges with everyday political statements about everyday civic action or inaction – I got by, I voted, I broke the law, I helped someone. Viewers choose badges that represent their recent actions. The plastic tube dispensers adjust according to popularity of certain statements and result in producing 3D bar charts of what the local community sees as important, and how they engage and participate in local matters.
‘The Dewey Organ’
The machine we intend to build is called “The Dewey Organ”.
The term comes from John Dewey’s (1927) ‘The Public and its Problems’ which critically examines civic participation and the relationships between citizens and experts. He was interested in the mechanisms of public problem making and problem solving. He argues that publics develop when people come together around an issue. And that they can make wise decisions about serious issues provided they have access to unbiased information as well as knowledge infrastructures. He says the creative potential of a democratic public comes from its ability to revise and contest its own institutional structures. It shouldn’t be reduced to primary systems such as voting but rather be about richer, more engaged and collaborative processes.
The ‘organ’ is a term with multiple meanings:
- The ‘Organ’ is a device for making sound, harmony, chords and disharmonies. Musical devices also bring people together
- It also speaks of the material body politic, an anatomy of publics
The first part of the workshop was structured around issues. Participants were asked to talk about issues that were important to them. We were surprised and inspired by the intimacy and diversity of issues raised.
Just some of the rich and varied responses:
– ethics and personal responsibility of consumption – at what point when you learn about environmental/ social/ political impacts of ‘fashionable’ ‘superfoods’ do you change your practices – ie. when to stop eating quinoa/ soya products /eggs / coconut?
– reconfiguring public space – gardening spaces not car space
– online abuse and trolling – technology is changing the polis – who do you turn to when infrastructural powers are also flummoxed?
– econometric measuring of the value of our lives
– neo-liberalist exploitation of passionate work
– London property economics – buyers not a renters market
– who to get angry with when the increasingly fragmented health service means your foot hurts for months. A small-ish issue but not being treated starts to impact larger parts of life/well-being. Front line services doing their best in a bad system
– counselling services under strain – reduced funding
– how to live a simple, low-impact life and yet operate a new business which produces things that you need people to want to buy
– helping family members in other countries with money
– ageing parents
– student graduation – many international students cannot attend their own graduations due to immigration restrictions
Where/what are the thresholds for agency? At what point do we change our behaviour/s? How does something get our attention/ gain enough traction in a community to catalyse action? Agency is simultaneously enabling and disabling.
Opacity of systems – blackboxing of infrastructures. How do we get inside to see, or change things? How do we trace their process through the system?
Scalability – How do we critique the scalability of issues? Are bigger issues always more important than smaller ones? Why? How might this be unsettled?
Evidence – What counts as evidence and what doesn’t?
Voice – being invited to voice issues is therapeutic, the confessional aspect of it is compelling. We’ll explore the potential for the Organ to ‘give voice’ to small or lesser known personal issues
The afternoon session was about making. We asked participants to materially think about what a problem making machine might look or sound like/ do / make . Everyone brought stuff they were happy to donate so there was an eclectic range of things to work with
Presenting/ performing machines
Some people focused on modular components of the machine – such as how issues would be ‘inputted’ into the device. Here, Nikki performs a variation on the tincan-telephone concept, but on a larger scale.
She envisioned how people could come together on a similar issue via this analogue comms device
Duncan performed a device for seeing issues with an attached input device in the form of a long rubber tube, almost like a diving mask. Discussion in the group generated the idea of the machine providing the means of equipping users to dive deeper into issues
The machine also featured a series of dials to adjust the volume of issues. What may for instance seem like a small issue could be adjusted using these dials. We talked about how musical organs have a range of buttons and knobs that adjust not only the sound but the tone and mood and introduce the potential for interference which has interesting resonances with the project which we will explore in detail.
For eg. following is more on the concept of ‘tonewheel leakage’ from wikipedia:
Tonewheel leakage occurs in the Hammond organ and in similar situations, where the large number of tonewheels causes pickups to overhear tonewheels other than their own. This causes the organ to add chromatics to played notes. In some kinds of music this is undesirable, but in others it has become an important part of the Hammond sound. On some digital simulations of Hammond organs tonewheel leakage is a user-set parameter.
EDIT: since the event I’ve been thinking about gearing. Gears on a bike or in a car operate to produce a mechanical advantage and also alter the cadence of an action. This might be useful in thinking about how issues take shape or are mobilised in different contexts and conditions
A possible outcome or output of this device could be a ‘Personal problem alarm’. This might alert the initial user to the presence of others who share similar issues/concerns
– Group 2
The second group approached the machine through a specific issue – that of invasions into data privacy and online identity. This involved a game-like design through which balls of data moved through a system of complex infrastructures which were not completely controllable (or desirable) by the user. There were a number of really interesting features of this machine: Firstly, it had sound. The balls dropped into bowls and around the unit. They indicated when things were going according to plan and also when they were not. The sonic qualities sparked the attention of the group watching. Secondly, the machine rendered the process visible. It opened up the blackbox of the internet.
– Group 3
The final group took another approach to the machine – they materialised the process of how issues turn into problems. Again it had a modular design that was deliberately precariously balanced and dynamic. Things were layered – media was wrapped around an issue, fed with education and ideologies. Tin-can telephones appeared as input and as output devices. A core feature was the idea of loops – information, ideas, interferences looped around the device. It was not a neat, linear system but rather brought to life a messy, carefully balanced (or unbalanced) system that required constant negotiation, feeding and work.
Overall, we were really pleased with the event. It generated lots of interesting findings, insights and questions. I am especially interested in how productive the morning session on rendering visible of social issues worked. Key ideas in this session and the pre-lunch discussion included – agency, voice, thresholds, interference, opacity, transparency, volume, tone/mood, gearing. The hacking session also brought to life very different perspectives on the machines – modular, infrastructural and process oriented systems.
Many thanks to Makerversity for letting us hold the event in one of their maker spaces – it worked really well and was much appreciated. Thanks to Cassie Robinson for helping to set the event up. And of course huge thanks to everyone who attended for their energy, creativity and personal stories.
The next step is to build it on a larger scale…….