[iDC] how long is a piece of string?

Katharine Willis katharine.willis at archit.uni-weimar.de
Fri Oct 19 15:15:58 UTC 2007

Dear all,

I would like to follow up on some of the topics raised in the discussion a while
ago centred around the Situated Technologies symposium, so my thanks to Trebor
for the invitation to contribute to the list.

My interests lie in how we can understand and act in the spatial world when we
experience it through mobile and wireless technologies. From my viewpoint it
seems that the way in which we occupy space is becoming more and more defined in
a global sense. Local, ambiguous ideas of place are categorised into specific,
homogenous and non-negotiable knowledge (e.g. a location on a GPS device,
proximity of an RFID tag, traces of our movements on mobile phone records). We
are becoming used to being overloaded with abstract information about the space
around us, and this means it is increasingly challenging for us to find ways of
slipping through the boundaries in order to trace our own meanings and memories
on the spatial world.

One of the reasons for thinking about this is a workshop entitled 'Shared
Encounters'I co-organised back in April this year at CHI. We looked at how
social interaction in public space is shaped both by the physical setting, but
more importantly by the way people interact with others in the space.
Interestingly one of the questions that came out of the workshop was pretty
basic - what makes a shared encounter? At what point can we say we have
interacted with someone else and how can we quantify this experience, especially
if it is mediated through technology? More importantly does the other person
need to occupy the same space and time for an encounter to be valid?

By way to introduce to the discussion please find below a copy of an interview
with David Turnbull (author of 'Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers among
others) where he highlights the importance of integrating a more relational
quality into the way we approach digital technologies. But perhaps one of the
key points that he doesn't explicitly mention is how storytelling is an
inherently shared experience - it involves the teller and the listener, and the
story comes into being in the space in-between.

Richard Aedy: David, when did we invent string?

David Turnbull: Well the precise point in time of course is impossible to
identify but the most secure dates for the earliest evidence of it is 26,000BC
in impressions on baked balls of clay found in central Europe roughly where
Czcchoslovakia is now.

Richard Aedy: It seems like a very kind of mundane idea string but it actually
turned out to be quite important didn’t it?

David Turnbull: I think it was more than quite important and apart from mundane
I think it was revolutionary. A woman called Elizabeth Barber, wrote a book five
years ago called Women’s Work in which she had a throw away line, the string
revolution. From my perspective, humble though string may be, it actually
provided the possibility of everything that now constitutes the basis of
civilisation. It’s humble in the sense that it’s merely fibre but it’s
revolutionary in two senses. In the sense that it overthrows the orthodox
understanding of the history of technology which is based on the 5% of the
remains we’ve found to date, all of which are made of stone, hence the usoe the
term lithic as in Neolithic, Paleolithic and so on.

We organise our understanding of the history of technology in terms of how big a
stone, how cleverly shaped and formed they were. Whereas no stone was all that
useful unless you had the capacity to join things together. And this is what
string does for you, string makes baskets, it makes nets, it makes cordage, it
enables you to haft things, join things, weave things, make things and in fact
95% of all our original technology was made either of plant fibre or wood.
Nearly all of which has entirely evaporated, just gone to dust in the record.

Richard Aedy: So string was the first joining technology basically and from that
profound implications?

David Turnbull: From that we were able to make cloth, textiles, from that we
were able to make nets, from that we were able to make baskets. And the
fundamental characteristic of such technologies is that enables you to move, it
enables you to feed yourself, enables you to trap small birds. And the whole
history of the origins of technology now needs to be rewritten in the light of
what you might call ‘soft technology’ as opposed to what we’re stuck with at the
moment which is basically ‘hard technology’ which has also shaped our
understandings of how technology works today.

Richard Aedy: And story telling is the thing that provides the information or
did in the past, is that what you’re saying?

David Turnbull: Story telling is how a particular piece of technology becomes
seamlessly integrated into our cultural practices.

Richard Aedy: So if we tell stories about a piece of technology then we
understand it, and we’re comfortable with it, and we can use it?

David Turnbull: That’s right?

Richard Aedy: And if we don’t tell stories about that piece of technology it’s
going to bewilder us.

David Turnbull: And it’s also the case it’s how be bring technologies into
existence we, as it were, dream them into existence, we tell ourselves stories
about how things could be, should be. Much of modern high tech is a form of
narrating into existence in a sense – tell a story to see who catches it.

Richard Aedy: So you think this is still happening now David?

David Turnbull: Oh absolutely.

Richard Aedy: We didn’t abandon this along the way?

David Turnbull: No, no, it’s an essential component of all human culture
throughout time.

Richard Aedy: Storytelling.

David Turnbull: Storytelling.

Richard Aedy: And a big part of it was because of technology.

David Turnbull: Storytelling and technology go together I think.

interview from The Buzz Monday 27 May 2002

So, my question to others would be: how can we create the sense of shared
narrative that stories offer through situated technologies?


Katharine S. Willis
Bauhaus University of Weimar



More information about the iDC mailing list