4S conference and LA

Last Wednesday, Jofish commented on my Latour post that he was going to be in California for the 4S conference (Society for the Social Studies of Science) the next day and that I should come down and schmooz for a bit over the weekend. After an entertaining miscommunication where I repeatedly read Pasadena as Palo Alto, I eventually figured out that that would entail heading to LA for the weekend. Initially, I was like, nah, that’s too much trouble, but then I realized I could get no better person than Jofish to go around and introduce me to folks in this field that I keep on talking about, even if I can’t define it. So Friday evening saw me hitting the I-5 and driving down.

I crashed in Jofish’s hotel room that night, and went with him to a bunch of talks on Saturday. They varied in quality, as might be expected, but notable ones included:

  • Laura Watts presented her work in the form of a first-person short story, interacting with a “future archaeologist”. I’m not sure I entirely followed how her ideas were represented in the story, but the presentation was excellent. There’s a Myst-esque web page associated with the project.
  • Fred Turner from Stanford did an interesting talk connecting Buckminster Fuller and techno-determinism with the counterculture of the 60s (it looks like another version of the talk is available online). One of the things I really liked was his description of Buckminster Fuller’s conception of a “Comprehensive Designer”, somebody who would take the technology developed by the global military/industrial complex, and figure out ways to personalize it and localize it to serve the needs of regular people. This is another thread to add to my recent thoughts of how to adapt the global to the local.
  • I thought Tara McPherson’s talk about the Eames’s was okay, but I was intrigued by the journal that she edits called Vectors.
  • David Stark‘s presentation on the use of powerpoint was standing room only. I didn’t get that much out of it, except for when he referred to powerpoint as a transportation system, transporting the listener to the site of evidence, which I thought was an interesting metaphor. A questioner afterwards came after him and pointed out that it wasn’t just the Powerpoint slides that achieved that translation – it was the patter that went with the slides – the slides are often not convincing in and of themselves. Stark made the claim that the narrative voiceover is part of the Powerpoint presentation, and that the slides are merely one of the tools used to construct reality (or set the Lakoff-ian frame).
  • I liked Anne Balsamo‘s talk a lot, entitled “Taking Culture Seriously”. I liked her description of multidisciplinary teams, where team members have to know some thing deeply, but also know it from multiple perspectives. They have to know what they know and be a confident and reliable source of knowledge on that topic, but also be intellectually humble in admitting what they don’t know. I’m biased, because that description ties in well with my theory on what makes a good team. She also pointed to HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, which sounds like an interesting concept, even if it’s too soon to tell what it actually does.
  • Bart Simon‘s work on applying how Goffman’s ideas to the idea of gaming as learning. I was pretty dazed at this point, so I’m not sure I entirely caught everything, but it sounded neat.
  • Janet Vertesi is a friend of Jofish at Cornell, and her talk on the London Underground map was excellent. Using interviews with a variety of London residents, she tracked how people’s perception of London’s geography was heavily (if not solely) influenced by the iconic representation of the Underground map. Her discussion on how various people’s perception of London geography changed when they started walking or biking reminded me of how I originally learned Boston in sections of a couple block radius around Tstops, and only later figured out how to connect those sections above ground.
  • I got to have a fanboy moment when Jofish introduced me to Lucy Suchman, whose book I had enjoyed reading this summer upon Jofish’s recommendation. I couldn’t think of anything interesting or relevant to say in the moment, alas, so I just complimented her on providing me with a new perspective for me to take back to my office.

I’m really glad I went. It was interesting hearing about all this different work and the different perspectives that researchers have. When asked what drew me to the conference, I extemporized a few answers:

  • Understanding better how different contexts leads to different understandings is a topic that comes up regularly in my working life. In particular, the negotiation of software requirements is always contentious because of the non-aligned perspectives that the various stakeholders (client, project manager and engineers) bring to the table. So learning a bit more of the theory behind this process may help me in a purely practical sense. I have in my notes the “iterative feedback loop” of the “cooperative social construction of requirements”. At least I’m learning to be buzzword-compliant.
  • Continuing along the lines of the different world views, I’ve got this idea bouncing around of designing for the collective, which I need to explore more fully. Maybe pick up on the idea of the personal blogosphere.
  • On another tack, I have this evangelistic desire to try to force people to see and really grok multiple perspectives, understanding that there is no “One True Reality” that “anybody” can see. Our experiences invariably control what we see. So thinking about ways to develop “critical learning” methods is another thing I’d be interested in.
  • And on yet another tangent, while I’m relatively in favor of democratizing technology, and putting control directly in the hands of users, there’s also something to be said for expertise. This is an idea I want to develop into a full post at some point, but the basic idea is that, well, most people aren’t good designers. Witness the explosion of neon-colored web pages with blink tags in the early days of the web. So how do we reconcile democratizing technology with the inability of most folks to do, or sometimes even recognize, good design? Is it a matter of creating higher level tools for them? I’m really not sure. This actually ties in with the first point in that I often had the experience where I would give users exactly what they asked for, but then was told that it was not what they wanted. Occasionally I had to give them something completely different, because it solved their true problem, whereas what they asked for was their interpretation of how to solve that problem. And that’s a manifestation of the ability of the designer to see beyond the surface to the true needs of the user.

Lots of interesting stuff to follow up on in my copious free time.

After the conference was done on Saturday night, I went and crashed at my friend Emil’s place. We stayed up way too late talking about some of these issues, him from his perspective as an architect, and me from my perspective of a dilettante. One weird cross connection that I want to record: when we were discussing his wife’s work as a screenwriter, he was describing the role of the producer as being a person who assembles a mass of people, and when the mass got large enough, it developed momentum on its own and became a movie. My brain immediately connected this to the work of Bruno Latour, who describes the assemblies necessary to produce science or engineering. Not a deep connection or anything, but a sign of how much Latour has infiltrated my thinking – it’s a perspective that I am finding more and more uses for.

In the morning, we talked for a few more hours, and then I had to leave so that I could stop by Bungee’s place before making the long drive home. And now it’s time for another week at my day job.

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