[iDC] Some things about things
omarkhan at ap.buffalo.edu
Wed Sep 20 13:48:13 EDT 2006
I thought I might introduce a paradigm, that of "performance", into the
discussion of situated technologies. This could provide a way to talk
about people and things in networked milieus without fetishizing the
object or exceptionalizing the human.
"Sociality between networked objects and humans is a core question. Who
is served by such mythologizing rhetoric with terms like
"co-inhabiting"? These, ___ (fill in the blank) are just pieces of metal
and silicon... They are around and they make some things easier and they
(will) join our conversations by contributing data."
And Anne also points out:
"I also wonder about a current fetishising of 'things'. Or how can we
'return to the object' without privileging objectivity? I really
disliked the phrase 'the internet of things' when I first heard it, but
I've since embraced it as a rather lovely manifestation of a type of
contemporary commodity fetishism."
Firstly, as a designer I can't help but like things. Sometimes they are
buildings but mostly they are just things. I don't design them in and
for themselves but to be used by a variety of actors: people (gender age
and race a clear consideration) but also for institutions (and here I
use it in Agre's terminology:
http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/hci.html) like festivals and cities.
Although I agree with Anne's warning of fetishizing, I don't think it
will be of the object. Their will be nostalgia for the material object,
but it will be difficult in light of networked technologies,
virtual/real hybrids to essentialise and fetishize the object in the
same way again. What I do think will be become fetishized if it hasn't
already is "performance".
Jon McKenzie in his book _Perform or Else: From Discipline to
Performance_ attempts to formulate a general theory of performance by
drawing on three strands of concurrent but fundamentally independent
researches: "Performance Studies", "Management Performance" and
"Techno-Performance". All three are products of the post-war:
Performance Studies taking its germination from theater studies and
anthropology, Management Performance developing in opposition to
Taylor's Scientific Management and Techno-Performance Research tied to
computer science and engineering. What McKenzie tries to do is
demonstrate the "normativity" of performance. Performance has become a
mode of measuring, evaluating and ultimately reifying forms of knowledge
and power. The nature of these measures/values differs from one activity
to another and McKenzie distills three to coincide with his three
research areas: "efficacy" for cultural performances, "efficiency" for
organizational performance and "effectiveness" for technological
performance. These valuations are instrumental in maintaining "high
standards" (normative) while also issuing a challenge (operational) to
all those that wish to participate. It is in the relationship between
challenging and performance that McKenzie finds "the power of
"At the crack of millennia, performativity guides innumerable processes
ranging from the intricacies of class, race, ethnic, gender, and sexual
identification to the large-scale installations of technologies,
organizations and cultures."Perform- or else" is a challenge made in the
USA and now restoring itself worldwide through innumerable circuits...
Challenging is the fundamental tonality of this transformation without
foundation; it is the affective dimension of the performance stratum,
the shifting element of its "perform_ or else." Accordingly, the age of
global performance is not only populated by high performers, peak
performers, star performers, performers who challenge forth themselves
and others, but also by the performatively challenged, those who cannot
perform up to spec: the mentally challenged, the physically challenged,
the economically challenged, the digitally challenged, the stylistically
challenged and even the liminally challenged. Perform- or else: there is
no performance without challenge, without claims and contestations,
demands and accusations, field tests and identity checks, as well as the
occasional untimely dare (p.188)"
In light of the performance paradigm Sterling's spimes are interesting.
They rise to the challenge of techo-effectiveness as they as incredibly
sophisticated compositions of cutting edge technologies: rfid, gps, the
internet, CAD, rapid prototyping and recycling. They rise culturally to
the environmental challenge because as they transform materially and
informationally over their lifetime they develop a history with their
environment (people and other things). And when their use is up they
forfeit their material existence for the benefit of other spimes and the
planet. Organizationally they would be an efficient version of my
verizon mobile phone service or my fav software, both organizations of
"convenience", quick fixes, and upgrades every n years. Also spimes
carry lifetime warranties, which tie me to a contract that probably
carries heavy penalties, social and financial, if I want to opt out. The
spime program appeals to designers and why shouldn't it? It has great
technical challenges tied to social responsibility. This is innovation
with conscience. In conflict resolution parlance it is a win-win.
"The most striking aspect of performative power is that it actually
encourages transformation, innovation, even transgression and
perversion. No longer objects of discipline, we now perform, multitask,
do our own thing. This last aspect of performance is especially
troubling, for it reveals the libidinal infrastructure of contemporary
domination. Deleuze, reading Foucault, writes that strata coalesce
around relatively rare perfomative statements or "order-words." The
order word of the performance stratum? Perform- or else."
This is the paradox of performance, it is "normative" but also
"mutational". The disaffection that I sense from Trebor and Anne's posts
seem to be directed at performance's normative tendencies:
techno-effectiveness with its concerns for "optimizing" and
organizational-efficiency with its needs on "streamlining". Perhaps it
is easy for us on this list to rally around cultural performances,
theater, dance, performance art, aesthetic practices, political
demonstrations and "free cooperation", whose aims are social efficacy.
But I am suspicious that it won't be so easy to decouple one type of
performance from another. As McKenzie also points out "the paradigms are
coming into contact more and more, and as their citational networks
become hyperlinked, their respective performatives and performances
break apart and recombine in a highly charged, highly pressurized
This brings me to Architecture and Situated Technologies. I think
architecture in architecture in particular is a good example of the
"perform-or else" challenge. It requires efficient organizational
management to handle the considerable capital that it uses, it provides
lots of work making it one of the engines of the global economy, its
practitioners are concerned with the aesthetic, social and environmental
effects of their project (mostly) and technical innovation is a hallmark
of its quality. The role of situated technologies in this mix can be
twofold. They can contribute to achieving the prime directive
("perform-or else") or they can open the performance of architecture up
to unscripted performances which would allow for other socialities:
alterity, participation, learning, cooperation. It all depends on
"which" situated technologies we are talking about and not "what"
In my last post I evoked the specter of Gordon Pask, "mister
cybernetics" to suggest some antecedents for this symposium. In addition
to his contributions to the subject of cybernetics and human-machine
interaction he was a performer and "dramaturg"
http://www.pangaro.com/published/Pask-as-Dramaturg.html. In July, 1968
Gregory Bateson organized a conference in Burg Wartenstein, Austria
entitled "Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation." Its
proceedings were published in the form of a personal account by Mary
Catherine Bateson entitled "Our own Metaphor." The conference has
extended conversations on cybernetics with the metaphor of the machine
being a contentious point. Here is Pask laying out an argument for
"'You have all talked as though there was a fixed heritage of machines
that dated from the Industrial Revolution or somewhat earlier,' Gordon
said. "It seems to me that the notion of machine that was current in the
course of the Industrial Revolution- and which we might have inherited-
is a notion, essentially, of a machine without goal, it had no goal
"of", it had a goal "for". And this gradually developed into the notion
of machines with goals "of", like thermostats, which I might begin to
object to because they might compete with me. Now we've got the notion
of a machine with an underspecified goal, the system that evolves. This
is a new notion, nothing like the notion of machines that was current in
the Industrial Revolution, absolutely nothing like it. It is, if you
like, a much more biological notion, maybe I'm wrong to call such a
thing a machine; I gave that label to it because I like to realize
things as artifacts, but you might not call the system a machine, you
might call it something else.'"
Pask's "biological" observation is performative not ontological. These
"things" will perform biologically, evolutionarily, iteratively. The
agency that he gives them should not be confused with the idea of human
agency which is tied to intentionality and hence consciousness. I think
material things with underspecified goals can have agency in the way
Pask describes them, where "intentionality" doesn't exist a priori but
is an emergent quality apprehended only recursively.
If we are to understand the "internet of things", "networked things" or
"situated technologies" from the position of performance then I think we
may be able to interrogate them critically and constructively. We have
to be careful of terms like "co-habitation" because to inhabit or dwell
may suggest too much human intentionality. "Co-perform" may be better?
To do this we would ask which situations? and what technologies? so as
not to objectify the "thing' but elaborate on its performativity.
Below is an excerpt from Pask's The Architectural Relevance of
Cybernetics, Architectural Design 1969
A simple cybernetic design paradigm
In the context of a reactive and adaptive environment, architectural
design takes place in several interdependent stages:
i) Specification of the purpose or goal of the system(with respect
to human inhabitants). It should be emphasized that the goal may be and
nearly always will be underspecified, ie. The architect will no more
know the purpose of the system than he really knows the pupose of a
conventional house. His aim is to provide a set of constraints that
allow for certain, presumably desirable, modes of evolution.
ii) Choice of the basic environmental materials.
iii) Selection of the invariants which are to be programmed into the
system. Partly at this stage and partly at ii above, the architect
determines what properties will be relevant in the man environment
iv) Specification of what the environment will learn about and how
it will adapt
v) Choice of plan for adaptation and development. In case the goal
of the system is underspecified (as in i) the plan will chiefly consist
in a number of evolutionary principles.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net [mailto:idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net] On
> Behalf Of Mark Shepard
> Sent: Wednesday, September 20, 2006 12:30 AM
> To: IDC list
> Subject: [iDC] Some things about things
> Anne wrote:
> > I also wonder about a current fetishising of 'things'. Or how can
> > we 'return to the object' without privileging objectivity?
> I think this is a key question. As Sterling noted at the talk he gave
> for the Lift conference last March, the phrase "Internet of
> Things" is a useful one if you are looking for venture capital in
> southern California. And indeed, the discourse surrounding the
> convergence of ubiquitous/embedded/context-aware/geospatial/locative
> technologies finds its (fundable) applications predominately in the
> commodity object or "objective" control systems for the military-
> industrial-light-and-magic complex. So it's not surprising that given
> the circuit running from "academic-industry research partnerships to
> popular business and technology publications to popular blogs and
> back to academic-industry research partnerships" produces ideas that
> feed this fetish for the object and objectivity.
> Trebor asks:
> > So, why talk of "things" instead of objects?
> Well, for one thing, calling them objects doesn't account for
> meanings such as "That's another thing entirely", "She knows how to
> handle things", or "We're just doing our thing." Things are "actions,
> events and affairs" as much as they are "artifacts." Networked
> _things_ are not at all the same as networked objects (but they may
> include them). When we reduce _things_ to objects, however, we limit
> our ability to consider how _things_ are embedded within everyday
> life, their meaning contingent upon their use (or mis-use), and the
> relations they enact or perform.
> Take Heidegger's "jug", for example:
> > "No representation of what is present, in the sense of what stands
> > forth and of what stands over against as an object, ever reaches to
> > the thing qua thing. The jug's thingness resides in its being a qua
> > vessel. We become aware of the vessel's holding nature when we fill
> > the jug... the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The
> > empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the
> > holding vessel... But if the holding is done by the jug's void,
> > then the potter who forms sides and bottom on his wheel does not,
> > strictly speaking, make the jug... The vessel's thingness does not
> > lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void
> > that holds." 
> Heidegger's understanding of the thing stands in contradistinction to
> the object. While I find the larger argument he's making in this
> essay problematic, I do find useful the idea that the "thingness" of
> the thing doesn't reside in its being a representable object, but
> rather in the way _things_ bring human practices together and make
> them intelligible.
> Recently I screened Tati's "Play Time" for a group of graduate
> students. I am always fasinated by the way _things_ for Tati -
> modernist chairs, glass plane doors (or at least their handles) -
> carry with them an excess beyond their role as functional objects.
> With the chairs, for example, that excess is the sound they produce
> when sitting on them, how the body engages with the acoustic
> properties of the material, and the (hilarious) social implications
> of this... This excess often lies in the difference between how
> things are designed and how they are used, or how they perform in
> ways not anticipated by their designers.
> Dunne and Raby's "post-optimal" electronic objects would appear to
> take this excess as an opportunity for a reflexive, critical design
> practice, one that doesn't so much reject the optimizations and
> efficiencies of Taylorism as it considers them moot: already
> achieved, and therefore not much of a design challenge. If anything,
> contrary to Trebor's suggestion, I'd say critical design can play a
> key role in shaping a future of things that are not invested in
> "intentionally restricting the way the user can behave, or enforce
> certain modes of behavior."
> Ulises wrote:
> > I fear that our technophilia is obscuring the politics of these
> > virtual-actual assemblages, obstructing the need to critically
> > assess how agency is distributed amongst things connected through
> > the internet.
> The question of agency here is crucial. But I think it's useful to
> distinguish between humans and things in actor networks. This might
> help abate some of the hysteria surrounding the current discussion .
> That we can see networked things as systems doesn't necessarily mean
> that these systems can think, act, or exercise power in any
> subjective way.
> Still, subjective human agency is but one form of "being in action or
> exerting power", and its important to consider how representative
> democracies, for example, can be influenced by _things_ that are
> capable of asserting themselves within networked societies.
> Take Bruno Latour's Parliament of Things, for example:
> > Let one of the representatives talk, for instance, about the ozone
> > hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the
> > workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New
> > Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions; let still
> > another speak in the name of the State; what does it matter, so
> > long as they are all talking about the same thing, about a quasi-
> > object they have all created, the object-discourse-nature-society
> > whose new properties astound us all and whose network extends from
> > my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the
> > State, the economy and satellites. 
> Or Julian Bleecker's description of Blogject agency:
> > Agency as I am using it here does not just mean a local "artificial
> > intelligence" that makes a Blogject able to make autonomous, human-
> > like decision or fashion croaky human-speech from text. Blogjects
> > have no truck with the syntax of human thought. Things could not
> > care any less about their Turing Test report card. Blogject
> > intellect is their ability to effect change. Their agency attains
> > through the consequence of their assertions, and through the
> > significant perspective they deliver to meaningful conversations.
> > Blogjects bring something heavy to the table. Or, they are brought
> > to the table because they have semantic weight. Agency is
> > literally imbued in Blogjects. Things that matter completely sully
> > the previously starched white relationship between subject and
> > object, human and nonhuman. Things that matter inflect the course
> > of social debate and discussion, and cannot help inflicting local
> > and global change. Witness the Spotted Owl. Witness the Pacific
> > Northwest Salmon. Witness all the non-human, non-subject "things"
> > that became fully imbued with the status of first-class citizens.
> > Heck, most humans don't have the capacity to effect the kind of
> > worldly change and receive the same order of protection, status and
> > economic resources as a fish.
> These networked things are obviously far more than "just pieces of
> metal and silicon... " and at the same time far less than the hype
> and hysteria currently surrounding them might suggest.
>  http://video.google.com/videoplay?
>  Heidegger, "The Thing," in Poetry, Language, Thought, A.
> Hofstadter, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
>  Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. by C. Porter.
> Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1993. p. 144
>  Bleecker, Julian. Why Things Matter. 2006. http://
> mark shepard
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