PIT seminars: May

While in Aarhus I had the pleasure of attending two of the monthly PIT (Participatory Information Technology) Seminars.

The First was held on “Information Technology as Instrument, Material and Experiment” – the day’s sessions revolved around the theorization of IT:

“IT is embedded and ubiquitous through smart materials, sensors and increasingly smaller mobile devices and interfaces, and IT is addressed as material, hybrids, objects and instruments through theory and analysis. In these and in many other ways, we are moving away from concepts such as the virtual, the immaterial or what has been called the ‘medial ideology’. This seminar is an opportunity to discuss this ‘material turn’, whether it influences our research across the department, and how it challenges our research agendas between humans and IT. Which new possibilities and challenges do IT present to humanistic research and how can we understand and design IT’s material turn?”

The notion of a material turn was a bit alien to me, and like with many of the topics that are currently quite vogue at PIT, I felt like I was many moons behind in terms of literature and thoughts. I guess the same theoretic quandaries that plague the academic community in a “first-world” country like Denmark, just aren’t very pressing in a South African context. Nonetheless, the talks were tremendously interesting. As I understand it, the “material turn” in IT moves away from conceptualising media technologies as immaterial, it not only position them as material/tool/media – but also focuses on the agency of the material itself. How do the conditions and properties of these materials play into our use and understanding of them. And how can we use this “material turn” to better understand technology research.

Morten Riis kicked off the day with his talk “Instruments of Knowledge: The practice of humans and non-humans”. He had created an amazing machine, which used light and a circular track to produce outerworldly noises, for an “Object Oriented Ontology” of knowledge production. Essentially, as I understand it, he uses this device to question how objects can be used as epistemological tools. How do these devices, in the age of media technology, constitute reality? It was a pretty far out talk, and I took some notes on “[alien] phenomenology of things” – which most probably, devastatingly, never make it into my own design research bibliography. But do check out his website (linked above) to see his wonderful machines.

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Skipping to an…erm…quite pragmatic view of research Peter Dalsgård gave a great overview of his “Instruments of inquiry” in design research. Using Dewey’s Pragmatism as a backbone, he mapped out the use of instruments in design and design research – arguing that these instruments “scaffold design creativity and exploration”.  Peter gave a five point framework to define his “IoI” (Instruments of Inquiry) to position them as valuable in the creative design process: namely “perception, conception, externalisation, knowing-through-action, and mediation.” He then traced these through real life examples of design research – showing how custom “instruments” can facilitate new ways of looking and describing. His talk was so compelling that I spent the next week devouring Dewey’s “Art as Experience” while in the German countryside (there wasn’t that much else to do!).

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To finish off this round of sessions Lars Anderson presented under a provocative title “What is it?”

What Lars was prodding at was the definitions of empowerment and participation that are so often thrown around in the research that we do. So how do we come to the point where we “improve” the situation of others, and what complications does this relationship foreground. And secondly, how do we “include” others – so what is true participation from a research vantage point? or from any other vantage point?

He spoke around ensembles of people and objects a la Actor Network Theory. But the talk went somewhat over my head, with too many unfamiliar concepts and case studies which were known to department members, but not to me. Nonetheless, there were some interesting points. i particularly liked this quote: “Participation unfolds throughout the design project. It is never fully realized, nor completely absent”.

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To end off the day, we were divided into groups, and Søren Pold gave us a number of concepts to discuss around the material turn. We also had the opportunity to make a print of any three dimensional object. I foolishly chose a ice cream eraser which Adone gave me before I left for Denmark. Firstly, it ruined the eraser, and secondly, my print was a weird little blotch. I guess there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. As for the discussion points, so much of the kind of technology and experiments that these people are thinking around are just not a very pressing to the lived reality in South Africa right now, and so I (classically) kept ‘problematizing’ some of the broader statements. Such as the allegedly indisputable fact that all materials will soon be embedded with intelligent technologies. Maybe in Scandinavia, yes. Nonetheless, we had some interesting pow-wows in the group.

Finally, we had dinner and wine to finish the day. Where I was exposed to a strange Danish custom – the Danish birthday song! So apparently it works like this, when it’s someone’s birthday they need to nominate a few instruments, and then their friends sings this little song, and then repeat the melody in the “sound” of the instrument nominated by the birthday person. Klaus decided on a didgerydoo and Morten’s noise machine. As you can see, the results were absolutely hysterical. Stay weird, Denmark.

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