The Conversational Lexicon

I ran across a recent post at Electric Literature that highlights a Norwegian project called The Conversational Lexicon--an encyclopedia that compiles subjective definitions from renowned artists and writers. The varied entries, they note, were to be “freed from the demand for factual accuracy” and instead have the purpose of generating discussion. What a beautiful blending of text and design. More details on the project can be seen here.

One of my favorite entries comes from Jarvis Cocker:
Dawdle: The key to a good word is fine, rounded sounds. Say this word & you can feel very pleasant vibrations in your sinuses. A fine brandy of a word. I dislike abrasive short words like gig, tit & (worst of all) Brit - ugh: they’re like chewing on tin foil. No pleasure whatsoever. You might as well just spit at the person you’re saying them to. Which is rude. Daw­dle means to take a long time to get where you’re going. Which is the way I prefer to travel through the world.

Another, from George Saunders:
Ventriloquist: a person inordinately fond of a puppet. This relation is often dysfunctional and may become abusive. This psychological condition may become so pronounced that the “ventriloquist” will claim to be speaking for the puppet. The puppet will have no means of refuting this charge. – I’m not a puppet, I am an independent being! the puppet will say, and the “ventriloquist” will, at that precise moment, move his mouth, just a little, so that it looks like he is trying and failing not to move his mouth at all, i.e., so that it appears that it is him, the “ventriloquist” speaking, and not the puppet. No matter how much the puppet protests, the wily “ventriloquist” will continue to claim credit. – He’s a liar! the puppet may cry. – It is me speaking, not him, and I do not need him to pull those strings in order to move my arms and legs, as I am right now, this moment, doing! And the crowd will roar with laughter. Only late at night, when the puppet (commonly and pejoratively referred to as “the dummy,” by the “ventriloquist,” as part of his ongoing attempt to maintain hegemony over the puppet via ritual humiliation) has been imprisoned inside his (or her) coffin-like holding apparatus, will the puppet be allowed to speak without the “ventriloquist” claiming credit for it, because the “ventriloquist” is up in the hotel bar, drinking away his shame at the outrage he is nightly committing. – I am me, the puppet may softly say. – I am me, no matter what. But there is no one to hear, except an elderly janitor – only too bad, the janitor is old and nearly deaf, and the puppet is speaking so very softly.

NPR's Book Concierge

One of my favorite interactive designs over the past few years has been NPR's Book Concierge. It has changed a bit over the years, and it's particularly great this year. It's responsive to screen size, and when you choose filters the book covers whisiclaly rearrange themselves.

You can select from a variety of filters including things like "science" "ladies first" "family matters" and so forth. Hovering over a book cover gives you a blurb about it and clicking on a cover brings forth a longer description of the book.

Most online book browsing experiences leave a lot to be desired (ahem, Amazon) and I still find myself more likely to do serious browsing in a good old fashioned book store. This design puts a bit of fun back into online browsing and it leverages movement and the visuals of the covers to engage book lovers.  

Duolingo: Language Learning in Interaction Design

I have been brushing up on my Spanish recently and a friend recommend that I try Duolingo. It has turned out to be a really pleasant (and effective) learning experience. The design of the site is excellent, and varied enough to be challenging and yet repetitious enough to promote memorization. I've noticed that the site has several commonly used frameworks for learning.

Connect an image with a term:   

Verbal repetition:

Verbal translation:

Spanish to English written translation:

Type what you hear:


Each of these designs is extremely effective, simple, and intuitive. I did very little to "learn" how to use this tool. I just started using it and was practicing Spanish quickly and effectively right from the start. There are several key interactions that make this design work so well:

1) The response is always consistent: if you are correct or if you get the answer wrong it appears on the lower left and gives you the correct answer if you missed it. The question also repeats later in the lesson if you missed it.  

2) The use of sound (which I can't display here) is effective. There is a bell that marks a correct answer as well as when you hit "enter" to move to the next prompt. This makes navigation easier because sound is faster than sight. 

3) The top blue line tracks movement though a lesson. Each lesson is divided into 6-10 individual sections, depending on how many topics are included, and this makes it easy to see how far you have gone within each individual lesson. There are concluding marks are the end of each section.

4) Hovering over the Spanish words provides an English translation. This is helpful because the translation is hidden unless you need it. You can try to guess it beforehand, but hover over the word if you need assistance. 

5) The activities are varied. It moves from a verbal task to a written task to a visual task to a verbal task, and so forth. Varied enough that you don't get bored, and repetition is built into the program in less obvious ways because you might verbally respond to a prompt that comes up later in a written version. So by the time you finish the lesson, you have written and spoken the response. 

The overall organization of the site is quite good as well. For example, see above. This illustrates how the lessons are grouped together. In this case, there are 8 lessons about "objects" and each lesson takes about 3-5 minutes, so overall, this would be a 30-40 minute lesson.  As you finish each section, the conclusion screen tells you what you did, for example, what areas of language you have strengthened. 

And finally, the site keeps track of your overall learning by calculating your total proficiency based on which lessons you have completed. I'm not sure how accurate this 19% is in my case, but based on what they assume I have learned, it might be in the ballpark.  

There are a lot of subtle interactions that happen in Duolingo, and I would be very curious to know more about their design research practices. How did they come up with these particular lesson plans? What informed the process in terms of the amount of back and forth between verbal and written work?  On a purely aesthetic view, the site is beautifully designed, clean, and optimistically colored. I would also like to know if there are differences in the design in terms of the languages that are offered. So far, I have only worked with Spanish, but I look forward to trying out some new languages. Overall, I have been extremely impressed with this tool, which may be partly due to the fact that so many language learning tools are so poorly designed. It's nice to see a site that gets everything so right. 

Flannery O'Connor's Writing Advice: Good for Designers Too

This summer, I have focused on writing fiction, and have taken a small break from design. Of course, I have found this almost impossible to do. It has turned out to be surprisingly difficult to turn off my design-brain. Once a designer, always a designer, I suppose. That said, I recently read an essay about writing by Flannery O'Connor called "Writing Short Stories," and I couldn't help but notice that much of the advice she offers to writers is also useful for designers. 

Consider, for example, this passage:  "Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. Now this is something that can’t be learned only in the head, it has to be learned in the habits. It has to become a way that you habitually look at things. The fiction writer has to realize that he can`t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought. He has to provide all these things with a body, he has to create a world with weight and extension."

Design, too, operates through the senses and any good UX designer knows that in order for someone to have a unique and memorable interaction experience, the senses must be evoked. Things such as smell and taste are much more difficult in the digital realm, though not impossible, and as interaction design becomes increasingly embodied and embedded into the world around us, the senses become an ever more important touchpoint for designers.

Here's another passage from the essay: "When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully."

We rarely talk about "themes" in design (and I don't mean browser skins here :)) at least not in the sense that there are human tropes built into design. But, there are! Of course, designs, like stories, have various narrative notions built into them. People have to interpret designs. They are actively involved in the creation of meaning when they are interacting with any digital device. This is what makes "talking" about design somewhat difficult. If you have ever found yourself in a design meeting trying to explain how a design works--what it looks like, how it moves, how it sounds, how it flows--you know it can be very difficult to translate these things into language. This is why we draw and prototype and build stuff. Even a quick sketch can get across an idea more accurately than a twenty minute speech. How would you describe the color light blue, or the sound of a text message, or the movement of "swiping left"? Simply presenting a swatch of color or a sound sample is a much easier way to get this information across, and as mentioned above, these things evoke emotion much more readily than a description.  

Lastly, O'Connor writers: "I have a friend who is taking acting classes in New York from a Russian lady who is supposed to be very good at teaching actors. My friend wrote me that the first month they didn’t speak a line, they only learned to see. Now learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts except music. I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they're any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things. Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things, it is a matter of showing things."

"Learning to see" is a wonderful way to describe the process of learning to design. If we want to express anything, we must first be able to see the world around us. As a researcher, this is how I look at not only users, but also at all of the people who are around me all the time. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have a hard time turning my design-brain off. Once you learn to "see" you cannot unlearn it; it always shapes the way you move through the world, and this is a critical skill for designers because it helps us to move beyond initial ideas into more complex design experiences that capture a full set of senses.  

One commonality that I have noticed between writers and designers is that neither party seems to be particularly interested in talking about process. Strangely, there are hundreds of "how-to" books out there--for both writers and designers--but I have noticed that during actual conversations with other writers and designers, when it comes to "how" we are supposed to do all of these things, there is no one way. There is no manual for how to evoke the senses. There is no manual for learning "how to see." To me, these are things that are simply learned over time and through practice and failure. There are certainly a few guidelines that can be helpful when thinking about how to appraoch a project--What kind of research would be helpful? What kind of functionality does the device need? And so forth. But there is a certain bit of mystery to the process, which may be what makes creative work so fulfilling--figuring out that magic is part of the challenge and part of the process. But one thing I would say for certain is that creative practices--across fields--can certainly inform one another. If a designer is stuck, I would recommend reading a novel. If a novelist is stuck, I would suggest going to a museum. Getting out of your usual headspace is a start, and all the time I've spent reading and writing this summer has certainly shaped my design perspective in ways that I never imagined.       

The Lonely City

I recently reviewed Olivia Laing's The Lonely City, and I absolutely enjoyed this book. Read the review in its entirety at: Your Impossible Voice. Here's a bit from the intro:

The Lonely City—part memoir, part art history, part sociological investigation—is a book that is ostensibly about loneliness. However, it often wanders into the vast, complex territory that surrounds the lonely person: authenticity, openness, curiosity, intimacy, vulnerability. Olivia Laing explores these complexities by carefully arranging her own experiences, during a lonely period in New York, with the work of artists, such as Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. “People make things,” she writes, “—make art or things that are akin to art—as a way of expressing their need for contact, or their fear of people; people make objects as a way of coming to terms with shame, with grief. People make objects to strip themselves down, to survey their scars, and people make objects to resist oppression, to create a space in which they can move freely.” Through art, we can understand Laing’s desire to find some kind of resolve, and by positioning loneliness in relation to art, she also captures one of the primary reasons we all turn to art: to construct a sense of self. This is especially true when we lose our identities in the face of isolation. The Lonely City, then, is about what happens when we find the things, the people, and even the spaces that allow us to restore what has been lost.

After Nature and the Future of Interaction Design

I recently read After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, by Jedediah Purdy. It's a fascinating book that explores the history of environmental thought in the United States. Purdy suggests that we have gone though several phases of human-environment relationships, changing the way we construct nature time and time again. The crux of the argument is that we can no longer separate humans and nature because humans are now so deeply involved in the environment, there isn't a place on earth that isn't in some way "touched" by humans. It's a foundational idea in my dissertation, and one that I hope begins to shape the way we think about interaction design and technology use in the future. In the book, Purdy writes, “Whatever innovation brings, people will continue to shape the earth by inhabiting it, changing everything from its atmospheric cycles to its soils and habitats. It is much too late to imagine that any technology could enable humanity to “stop disturbing” the earth. Instead, every technology will become part of the joint human-natural system in which we make and remake the world just by living here.” It's a provocative idea and one that presents new challenges for designers as we learn how to live in a world affected by climate change, urbanization, and other global concerns. I will write more about this in the future as I continue my research in this area. For now, take a look at this great interview with Purdy at the Atlantic. 

Design & The City

If you are looking for something cool to do this April... take a peek at Design and The City. It looks like it'll be a great conference! I've pasted the call for workshops below. See the website for full details. 

The Design & The City conference explores citizen-centered design approaches for the smart city, addressing how social media, big data and other digital technologies may contribute to more sustainable, liveable and sociable urban communities. Specific focus of the conference is on the expanding role of designers towards being also initiators, innovators, campaigners, connectors, organizers, critics and imagineers of alternative urban futures.

We are inviting proposals from designers, activists, researchers, media labs, and others for workshops to be held on April 22, 2016. Workshops are unique opportunities for engaging practitioners, researchers and conference attendees in a productive discussion.

This call is programmatically inclusive and broad: the Design & the City conference welcomes proposals for workshops that connect urban spaces to design, research, education, art, playfulness and activism. Workshops should involve attendees in concrete discussions and hands-on activities, with the objective of experimenting with new concepts, fostering peer-to-peer discussion and learning-by-doing.

Workshops will take place on Friday April 22, 2016, either as a half-day or full-day activities, ideally with a mid-morning break, a lunch break, and a mid-afternoon break. They should bring attendees together around design issues for citizen-centered smart cities, discussing them in a participatory and/or practical way. Possible examples could include co-design sessions, booksprints, roundtables, hackathons, etc. Workshops should have some kind of tangible output, such as a shared wiki, a curated selection of sketches, a collective paper or an artifact.

Critical Design Favorites

I gave a talk about critical design in class last week. It was just a quick introductory overview, but I was reminded how much I love some of these projects, especially Chris Woebkn's work, which got me interested in animal research in the first place! Since the talk, a lot of students have emailed me for more critical design resources, which is really inspiring. Thought I would post a few of the projects here as a reminder of how design can be used as a tool, not only to change perspective, but also to push us beyond our everyday sense of what design is for, and what kinds of things we can do with it. 

Animal Superpowers by Chris Woebken. How the world looks to an ant!

Animal Superpowers by Chris Woebken. How the world looks to an ant!

Collaboration Birdhouse, by Chris Woebken, which requires two birds to work.

Collaboration Birdhouse, by Chris Woebken, which requires two birds to work.

Blendie, by Kelly Dobson - Humans learn to speak the language of the blender.

Blendie, by Kelly Dobson - Humans learn to speak the language of the blender.

Foragers, by Dunne and Raby - Imagining the future of food.

Foragers, by Dunne and Raby - Imagining the future of food.

Personal Space Dress, by Kathleen McDermitt

Personal Space Dress, by Kathleen McDermitt

Sontag on the Essay

This semester I am taking a creative nonfiction writing class. I don't need the credits, but I had some extra time, and I wanted to take a class that was focused on creative writing (rather than academic writing). Something that perpetually surprises me is how bland HCI writing can be. Many papers, particularly those in conferences, follow a formula and I have found it difficult to adapt to this style of writing. Every field has its own idiosyncrasies when it comes to writing style, but lately I have really missed reading personal essays--something that never appears in the field of informatics. The last really great collection of essays I read was Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle. And that was nearly a year ago! Very excited that this class will help me to remedy this! 

I began some of the course reading last night, and ran across Susan Sontag's 1992 introduction to The Best American Essays. She writes, "An essay is not an article, not a meditation, not a book review, not a memoir, not a disquisition, not a diatribe, not a shaggy dog story, not a monologue, not a travel narrative, not a suite of aphorisms, not an elegy, not a piece of reportage-- No, an essay can be any several of the above." This may be what is so exciting about the essay form--it can be anything and everything. It is a form that doesn't feel constrained by form in the way poetry or fiction (and certainly academic) writing can be. 

Sontag also writes, "Ideas about literature--unlike ideas about say love--almost never arise except in response to other people's ideas. They are reactive ideas. I say this because it's my impression that you--or most people, or many people--are saying that. Ideas give permission. And I want to give my permission, by what I write, to a different feeling or evaluation or practice. This is, preeminently, the essayists' stance. I say this when you are saying that not just because writers are professional adversaries; not just to redress the inevitable imbalance or one-sidedness of any activity that has the character of an institution (and writing is an institution); but because the practice--I also mean the nature--of literature is rooted in inherently contradictory aspiration. A truth about literature is one whose opposite is also true."

I believe this class will be the highlight of my semester, and I hope that I can push creative writing into the field of HCI in a more concrete way. I truly believe that designers should be personally invested in their work, and should be willing to write about their work in a way that is accessible to non-designers and the general public. An ideal way to do this is through the personal essay. From time to time, I see personal essays written by designers and engineers pop up on Medium. I hope that this becomes standard practice in order to promote reflection and ideation, but also to share ideas and make the design process more transparent to those outside the field. I hope, too, that this kind of writing can make its way into the academy, and well beyond the English Department.   

On Interdisciplinarity

I'm halfway through my PhD and one thing that has routinely stymied my work is the intensely disciplinary structure of the university. It's something I think about a lot. Constantly, actually. Because it presents a perpetual roadblock that I haven't yet learned how to navigate. I can't publish the kind of work I want within the context of a discipline, and this is particularly true in a field like technology, which by its very nature, is impossible to situate within a particular discipline. So, why do universities continuously uphold arcane disciplinary boundaries? There are a number of reasons, (including, the tenure system, the peer-review publishing process, and the general bureaucratic nature of the university) but, more to the point, I believe that disciplines hinder innovation and prevent many academic researchers from effectively engaging with the tech industry.

I was pleased to see an interview with James C. Scott in the latest issue of Gastronimca. (Food--another topic that is fundamentally interdisciplinary!--has deep connections across a variety of fields and yet it often gets boxed up in the specific language and contexts of say, nutrition or anthropology.) Scott's work cuts across a variety of disciplines, as he writes about politics, environmentalism, power, history, and so forth. I first encountered his book, Seeing Like a State, (highly recommended!) in a geography class and was pleasantly surprised to see that Paul Dourish has, in several instances, brilliantly connected this work to HCI. When asked about his career, the interviewer asked if Scott considered himself to be "undisciplined." What a wonderful term. And what a wonderful thing to be! Scott's response really captures the way I've been thinking about this issue. He says:

"Definitely! I was trained as a political scientist and the profession bores me, to be frank. I am truly bored by mainstream work in my discipline, which strikes me as a kind of medieval scholasticism of a special kind. People ask me about the intellectual organization of my interdisciplinary work, and I have to say, it's the consequence of boredom and the knowledge that so many other things had been written about peasants that are more interesting than anything political scientists have written about them, that I should go to those places and learn these things and read things outside of the discipline like Balzac and Zola, novels about peasantry and memoirs. If you spend all your time reading mainstream political science, you are going to reproduce mainstream political science. Nothing else can happen from that particular place. It seems to me, anything interesting that happens in political science is probably an import from some exotic place outside political science and I happen to go to different exotic places than other people and once in a while I stumble upon something that helps me understand. The thing that attracted me to anthropology is that it insisted upon a kind of eyes-wide-open fieldwork and total immersion in a peasant community and so I went from political science to a kind of anthropology envy. I can remember the first time I gave a talk in Toronto, and they didn't know what discipline I came from, and they said "Jim Scott, social anthropologist from Yale" and I thought, oh my God, I've finally passed. I felt so proud that they didn't know I was a political scientist; I had succeeded in transcending my background."

This, I think, is an excellent goal for all academics: transcend your background. It's certainly something I wish I could do. I have found myself housed in so many disciplines over the past decade: philosophy, media studies, creative writing, cultural studies, HCI, that I really don't feel any particular allegiance to one field. It's like choosing your favorite child; you love them all the same, even though they are all different. And I need them all. I cannot do the kind of work that I do without drawing from all of these fields. But the problem is, I have constantly been told that in order to succeed in academia you must choose. You must situate your work in a field. You must speak to a particular audience. You must "build your brand." (Is there a worse phrase in contemporary culture?) Perhaps this is why the Scott interview jumped out at me. He's one of very few scholars who have been able to succeed without choosing, without limiting himself to a discipline.

Why are there so few people who do this? In my experience, it is because the vast majority of professors actively discourage the pursuit of interdisciplinary work. I can count on one hand the few people who have enthusiastically supported my work and encouraged me to write from the margins (and don't get me wrong, I am so thankful for these people). But more than individual people, it has been the institutionalized structures that prevent interdisciplinary work. Where should this kind of work be published? What conferences are available? How would you get tenure if your track record shows publications that are not consistent? Let alone tenure, how will you get an academic job at all if a hiring committee doesn't know how to "place" you? I am routinely struck by how conservative research universities can be, how incredibly slowly they advance knowledge, and how unwilling academics are to take risks. It's the exact opposite of start-up culture, where risk-taking and failure are valued, at least to the extent that they advance the development of the product. One of the reasons interdisciplinary thinking promotes innovation is because it's much more effective to consider a problem from multiple perspectives rather than one. This is why multi-disciplinary teams are so important. If you put five designers in a room, you may end up with a solution, but it probably won't be the best one. But, if you put a designer, an engineer, a writer, a scientist, and an artist in a room, you will definitely solve the problem. To the detriment of every field, this kind of cross-pollination rarely occurs in academia, even though it is common practice in the tech industry. I often wonder, what would happen if the poets collaborated with the engineers, if the biologists collaborated with the painters. I have the feeling that wonderfully innovative things would happen, but how can these partnerships thrive in the context of a university. The entire system would have to change.

I was particularly drawn to Scott's comment about being "bored by mainstream work in the discipline." Bored. This is a word, and a terribly depressing state of mind, that has plagued me for a long time, but I suppose it captures my feelings exactly. I have been bored for the past two years. I am actually astounded at how boring PhD research can be. And what I have finally realized is that this has everything to do with disciplinarity and the limitations it creates. In my field, I see a deepening divide between technology research and technology development. The conversations that happen in my department feel very removed from the reality of what is presently happening in the tech industry. This is, of course, a common criticism of academia generally, but I find it particularly surprising in an applied field like HCI. To make matters worse, the most interesting  tech writing isn't being published in peer-reviewed journals. It's being published on Medium or in The Atlantic, and this is because there are no arbitrary limitations on how topics should be framed or what constitutes an appropriate research question. I wish more academics would engage with popular publications because it would allow us to expand our engagement with, what Scott refers to as, exotic places. At any rate, it would allow us to converse with industry folks and to better understand how product development actually works and how theoretical perspectives can be of use in the design process.  

I am absolutely certain that the most interesting work in HCI is the work that draws heavily from other fields, however, I have seen many brilliant papers rejected from major conferences in the field because they draw too much from another field. It shouldn't matter how one arrives at an explanation; it is the idea and the exploration that matters. But, academics seem very unwilling to break the rules. In many ways, I have been frustrated by my PhD experience, but I also believe that, however slowly, the university will eventually promote interdisciplinary work. Disciplines will die and the university will become a better place for it. I am reminded of the's Stanford Project, which reimagines the future of higher ed, and suggests an "axis flip" in which the university is organized around general skills rather than specific subjects. This seems like an ideal way to approach education, and I hope that informatics and computing fields, in particular, find better ways to bridge the gap between theory and practice. We should all strive to be more like Scott; I look forward to the day when all professors refer to themselves as undisciplined

Animals and Urban Design

The Urban Coyote Project captures stories about coyote life in cities. 

The Urban Coyote Project captures stories about coyote life in cities. 

My summer research project is aimed at investigating and understanding the relationship between animals and design in the context of urban space. Non-human actors, including plants and animals, have always played an essential role in human development. From farming and food to clothing and medicine, human lives are deeply intertwined with the animal world. In the context of industrialization, the relationship between humans and non-humans has been largely exploitative, as humans have mined the earth and utilized its inhabitants in various ways with little concern for the resulting environmental catastrophe that we now find ourselves in.

In writing about the Anthropocene, or so-called human age, Diane Ackerman writes, “We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox. When it comes to Earth’s lifeforms, we’ve been especially busy. We and our domestic animals now make up 90 percent of all the mammal biomass on Earth; in the year 1000, we and our animals were only 2 percent. As for wild species, we’ve redistributed plants and animals to different parts of the world, daring them to evolve new habitats, revise their bodies, or go extinct. They’ve done all three. In the process, we’re deciding what species will ultimately share the planet with us.”

Increasingly, over the past several decades since the advent of modern environmentalism, there have been numerous calls—from those in a variety of fields—to consider the environmental and ethical issues associated with human-animal relationships. Donna Haraway, in drawing connections between cyborgs and companion species asks which of these might “more fruitfully inform livable politics and ontologies in current life worlds.” Much of Haraway’s work draws connections between cyborgs and animals and their role in shaping human life. She writes, “Cyborgs and companion species each brings together the human and the non-human, the organic and the technical, carbon and silicon, freedom and structure, history and myth, the rich and the poor, the state and the subject, diversity and depletion, modernity and postmodernity, and nature and culture in unexpected ways.” In this sweeping range of issues, Haraway captures what is at stake here. Human-animal relations are no small part of life, and part of what drew me to thinking about the relationship between design and animals in the first place is the immensity and importance of animal life on this planet and the complexity of human relationships with various animals.   

Within the field of geography, animals have carved out a space for research and study, and the area of animal geography —emerging in the 1950s—has a rich history of acknowledging not only the presence of animals in cities, but also their value. Early animal geography was focused primarily on the study of animals from a scientific perspective, and aimed to develop zoographic explanations of their behavior, including where and how they live, and how they influence the environment. In the zoogeography of the 1950s, humans were largely seen as intruders in animal environments and animals were regarded as being entirely unlike humans. The overarching purpose of the field at this time was to track, map, count, and model animals and their behavior.

A decade later, cultural animal geography emerged with an emphasis on collecting data on human-animal relations. This work focused on the ceremonial uses of animals, the domestication of animals, and the ways in which animals affected human life (e.g. through crop pollination). Most importantly, animals were now seen as key elements of the natural environment, and something that had the ability to shape human activity, such as the kinds of settlements, agriculture practices, and industries that were possible given a geographic location. 

In the 1990s, “new” cultural animal geography allowed for connections across fields such as human geography, anthropology, political economy, cultural studies, and feminist studies, resulting in key theory developed by geographers Chris Philo and Jennifer Wolch called “Transspecies Urban Theory.” Transspecies Urban Theory aims to “explore the complex nexus of spatial relations between people and animals. The goal is to tease out the myriad economic, political, social, and cultural pressures shaping these relations with reference to both particular groupings of people and particular species of animals.” A crucial component of this theory is that while spatial relations within cities are made more complex by the study of animals, it is because animals themselves posses agency in this context, which disrupts commonly understood power relationships between humans and animals.

In her study of chickens in a large city in Botswana, geographer Alice Hovorka further develops the notion of transspecies urban theory. She writes, “Cities are inextricably wrapped up in human-animal relations. Animals are influential actors, and interspecies mingling encourages one to acknowledge that animals are shaped by, and are themselves central actors in the constitution of urban form, function, and dynamics.” Similarly, in her study of Grizzly bears in Alaska, Jessica Dempsey captures what is meant by animal agency in a political context. She writes, “The bear does not have some internal agency to change policy but rather its power comes into being through connections, in this case between charisma, science, scientist, environmentalists, foundations, capital, and First Nations. With these connections or networks in place, the bear becomes a player, and has a better chance of claiming its rights and entitlements to life/home. The bear is not an inert, passive thing that environmentalists use as a pawn in their games, or as just a symbol (although it is a symbol too at times), but a nonhuman whose presence in the space, influences the ‘state of affairs’, changing the face of a political economy.”

3-D printed nest aim to bring birds back into cities. Source: PrintedNest

3-D printed nest aim to bring birds back into cities. Source: PrintedNest

I want to echo Dempsey’s notion that the bear is not simply a “pawn” that environmentalists use in their games. Designers cannot simply use animals for their own ends or to promote a better life for humans at the expense of animal well-being. Animals are already treated as such in numerous contexts, particularly the food and clothing industries. However, designers have the ability to imagine a more mutually beneficial relationship between humans and animals, and one that considers animals as actors in their own right, as well as creatures that possess special skills that humans do not have.

Designers play a key role in the development of sustainable and ethical practices that concern the well-being of animals, and this has been a largely neglected area—though not absent—within HCI. Ultimately, I hope that my research helps humans perceive the world as a place in which animals are always present and in which we are not necessarily the only creatures at the center of experience. We have the ability to shape our relationship with animals to be more peaceful, equal, and sustainable. Design isn’t just plastic and buttons and wires and glass and code—it can also include living elements; we can and should think about animals and the design implications of their existence in our everyday lives.

*I'll post updates on this project throughout the summer. And if you come across any interesting animal designs, feel free to send them my way! 

In Pieces: 30 Endangered Species

In Pieces is an interactive exhibit designed by Bryan James, and it is absolutely gorgeous. It's designed with CSS polygons, which gives it a graceful and angular sense of movement as you scroll through each animal. In explaining what the project is about, James writes, "Each species has a common struggle and is represented by one of 30 pieces which come together to form one another. The collection is a celebration of genetic diversity and an attempting reminder of the beauty we are on the verge of losing as every moment passes. These 30 animals have been chosen for their differences, so that we can learn about species we didn't know about previously as well as the struggles they have surviving. Many of them evolved in a particular way which makes them evolutionarily distinct." 

I've been doing a lot of research lately on animals, and their connections to humans via various technologies. Although my work is focused on animal-human relationships in cities, I was really drawn to this project as a way to hep humans think about animals in a new way. This project strikes me as a really great way to use design to raise awareness about endangered species, but it's also just a beautiful and unique use of CSS. I spent quite a bit of time with this project this afternoon, and it's just a really peaceful design experience. Check it out

Poursteady and the Ritual of Making Coffee

When I lived in San Francisco, pour-over coffee took over a few years ago. I really like this coffee, inasmuch as I think it tastes better than auto-drip coffee. But, I also find making pour-over coffee to be an intriguing ritual. I'm not especially good at it, but I know a few folks who swear by it every morning. The thing I admire about pour-over coffee is that it seems to be a very human product, and one that promotes a specific set of movements and knowledge practices that are learned over time and through trial and error. It's the kind of learning I wish I could encourage my students to do more: hands-on making and re-making.

Poursteady has essentially automated this process, and although I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with automating human processes--after all most technology, in one way or another, does this--but what is interesting about the rhetoric that surrounds Poursteady is this notion that it "frees up baristas to focus on more important things." This certainly isn't a new notion. It's one that appears time and time again, especially in the context of domestic technologies. But as many people, feminist scholars in particular, have pointed out, much kitchen technology doesn't free people from the burden of cooking; it simply makes more work for humans (usually women) who work in the kitchen. And yet, this is a persistent theme in product development: let's make life easier and faster. Let's free ourselves from having to "do" anything so that we can "do" all those other more important things that need to be done. 

What I always wonder about technology like this: what about the folks that enjoy the ritual? What about people who actually like spending ten minutes making coffee? Making the coffee itself could be considered part of the act of drinking coffee. Sure, there are times when I just want to pop into my local coffee shop and get my coffee to go. But there are other times when I want to make my own coffee, and sit and quietly enjoy it for some time. The folks behind Poursteady suggest that this device will free up baristas to tell stories and talk to their customers, but don't they already do that? Every time I've ever ordered a pour-over I've had a nice conversation with the barista. Are talking and making coffee mutually exclusive?     

Poursteady is a beautiful object, there's no doubt. The design is captivating and in a commercial setting it certainly seems more aesthetically interesting than most commercial coffee brewers. But, there is something so fundamentally simple about the process of pour-over. It's not really a complex problem that needs to be simplified. But it does require a certain set of learned skills that take some time. Maybe there will be a set of new things to be learned through the use of Poursteady, but I get the feeling that it's taking away all the ritual, and leaving us with nothing more than a good cup of coffee.      

If Interstellar Were a Book...

*Please note: there will be many SPOILERS in this post...

There has been much written about Interstellar over the past few days, and there is little I can add by way of review. My own opinion of the film is largely captured by David Thomas at The New Republic. Although, I actually liked the film a lot more than he did. Which is to say, despite its unbelievability, parts of it were entertaining. I saw the movie yesterday afternoon with a few friends, and as we left the theatre everyone had their own opinion about the various ways in which it sucked: script problems, plot problems, subpar cinematography, inexplicable character motivations, etc. And yes, there is an incredibly wide range of problems with this film. See Vulture for a complete listing of everything that doesn't make sense about it, not to mention science issues. And yet, there were some parts of Interstellar that I found immensely compelling, so I couldn't quite put my finger on why the film missed the mark so much.

I woke up this morning, and it hit me: Interstellar would work if it were a book.

The primary problem with Interstellar is that it was trying to say too much, and ended up saying nothing at all. 90% of the scenes that take place in space are utterly pointless (and except for the ice planet, aren't all that visually captivating). However, they take up at least half the film. Meanwhile, by far the most interesting aspect of the movie is what is happening on Earth. The eerie, dust-filled, mono-cropped landscape has clear implications for a future that is dictated by climate change and current agricultural practices. But, we don't really get a clear sense of what is happening all over the world. I guess Kansas (or whatever Midwest state they are in) is representative of the entire world? A book would allow for a much deeper and broader sense of world-building. This would go a long way to explaining many of the basic plot contradictions in the movie. But, more importantly, lush written descriptions would give a more detailed and layered account of how the Earth came to be in such a state. 

While Coop is trying to find a new place for people to live, Murph (and everyone else on Earth) actually solves this climate disaster (or so it would seem when Coop returns and everything seems more or less ok) but we never get to see how this happened. Murph is the most interesting, and arguably most complex, character in the movie, but we don't get to see any of her development. She has apparently spent her entire life saving the world, but we have no idea what she (or any of the scientists) actually did. If Interstellar were a book, there would be room to give Murph an entire trajectory of her own. If this plot line ran in tandem with Coop's save-the-earth-mission, both of these characters and their motivations would become deeply connected and nuanced.     

Similarly, Dr. Brand is entirely underdeveloped. We're supposed to somehow sympathize with a half-baked love story between her and another doctor who we have never seen and who has never been talked about? If we make decisions based on love, as Interstellar seems to profoundly claim, then how can we understand Dr. Brand if we don't have any of her backstory? This is another character who, given the space and depth of a book, could be explored on a much deeper level. Within Dr. Brand's storyline, we could also come to understand the fate of NASA (which is maybe the most bizarre and inexplicable aspect of the overall plot), the role of her father, and the underlying motivations behind Plan A and Plan B.    

A lot of the plot is dramatically advanced with dialogue, which leads to at least a dozen classic examples of why we "show, don't tell." Although, this does come in handy when Coop asks a direct question about relativity and only a physicist can answer. Even though though it feels totally contrived, it's nice to have science clearly explained so us non-scientists could easily follow! The problem is that many of these explanations are cursory. But the larger issue is that film, as a medium, doesn't really allow for tangential explorations of theoretical plot points. Were Nolan to actually go down some of these scientific roads, the movie would be like twelve hours long. Not so with a book! In fact, many science fiction books delve deeply into theory and challenge readers to really think about both current scientific theories and unknown futuristic possibilities. Every part of the plot and character development would be further deepened if science was truly integrated into the story, which would seamlessly happen in a book.

Additionally, visualizing time as a physical dimension seems to be beyond the capabilities of film. One aspect of the film that I struggled with the most was the scene of Coop behind the bookshelf. If the fifth dimension were visualized, there is no reason to assume that it would reflect reality. Why would space-time fabric look like what we see on Earth? One of the limitations with film is that it doesn't allow for us to imagine what things look and feel like. The screen does the imagining for us. This isn't to say film doesn't promote does! But not in the more literal sense of imagining a thing or a place. Like the ability to elaborate on scientific theory, books also promote a deep sense of imagination. Through the lens of words, I believe our imaginations could capture a bizarre and unlimited sense the fifth dimension.      

All of this is to say, in some ways Interstellar felt like a failed adaptation of a very complex book. But Interstellar wasn't an adaptation. It was written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, both of whom have extensive experience writing for the screen. (And who have written many previous films that worked perfectly with the medium!) I would be very curious to know how this script moved from the idea phase to the final phase and what kinds of editing happened along the way. It seems to be a case of having a very good idea that then plays out in so many directions that it never coheres to a set of logical constraints. But, despite all of these flaws, I semi-enjoyed the movie. It would make a fantastic book, though.       

Food + HCI

I am devoting a large part of my research this semester to investigating the world of Food + HCI. I don't know exactly where this will take me, but I do know there are a lot of interesting things happening in the food tech industry, which has major implications for the way we make, distribute, eat, and think about food.

One of the reasons I am so interested in exploring food is that it's suddenly become a "problem" that Silicon Valley feels compelled to "solve." But so far, much of the technology related to food is aimed at making cooking easier or shopping more convenient, and (unsurprisingly) it's mostly aimed at those who can afford to pay more to simplify shopping and cooking. But, what I find most troubling about so much food technology is an underlying desire to make perfect food. Take a look at Drop's copy to see what I mean: "Making sure everything comes out fantastic, and outrageously delicious, means you need to get a lot right. From finding a great recipe in the first place, to not blowing the measurements, substitutions, timing and calculations along the way. As your trusty digital baking assistant, Drop is there by your side to make sure everything goes smoothly, precisely and according to plan."

Drop may very well be a useful tool. As a baker myself, I am intrigued by the possibilities of what this scale might do for me, and yet I wonder if this device actually takes the learned knowledge and skill out of baking. I learned, over time (and through many failed attempts) how to bake, but everything about Drop seems to be about ensuring that you don't fail. And it does so by limiting what you can do. This scale has no concept of a "pinch" of salt or a "dash" of cinnamon. Those are "measurements" that a scale can't understand, and which can only be learned through practice. Baking is a skill that requires a lot of sensory knowledge, such as knowing how bread dough feels different from cupcake batter. Getting that perfect shade of golden brown on a batch of cookies doesn't just take 12 minutes; it takes a baker's intuitive sense that the cookies are done. There is value in learning through doing, even if that means not following a recipe, and even if it means failure.  

Just the other day a friend of mine referred to this phenomenon of perfect food as the "Martha-Stewarting of DIY." Indeed, DIY and maker movements have become increasingly prettified over the years. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; after all not everyone who wants to make stuff wants to get dirty. And I gotta say, I get a tremendous amount of joy out of creating the perfect lemon square. A yet this trend of perfection works against some of the basic qualities of food. A lot of food (say, sourdough starter or yogurt) is pretty gross looking. Gardening is a sweaty, messy ordeal. Yet, most of what we eat is beautiful, and beautifully packaged. There is something interesting in this tension, and something I hope to explore more this semester.

But this mentality of making things that are perfect, things that don't fail, is driving a lot of new food tech. Here's an example of something I find particularly intriguing: Niwa, an indoor growing system that connects to an app on your phone. 

I am extremely sympathetic to the underlying problem that Niwa is trying to address (how does one garden in urban spaces with no yard?) and I for one would love to be able to have a garden in my apartment. But, is this a garden? There's no dirt. No need for the sun or a watering can. This technology removes the sensory experience of being out in the garden. In other words, Niwa takes the gardening out of gardening. What fun is growing your own food, when you aren't actually doing any of the growing? But perhaps more importantly, how can we get a sense of where food comes from (the ground!) if this is how we experience growing food? As a culture, we are quite removed from our food and its processing and distribution, and Niwa is inadvertently perpetuating this problem. Although, I do applaud the effort to get organic produce directly in one's home. Think of all the environmental damage that occurs simply from moving produce from the farm to the store to the table. And yet, I have a deep sense that there has to be a better way to connect people to homegrown food. 

There are so many food issues that designers could (and definitely should!) tackle. From food production and distribution to cooking methods and tools to taste, flavor, and eating experiences, it's a terribly exciting time to be at the intersection of food and tech! And so I am especially excited about this semester's research. Here are a few things that I find particularly inspiring:  

Hack // MeatA Food + Tech Connect event that brings together engineers, designers, nonprofits, and an assortment of techies. Take a look at some of the winning hacks.  

Hack // Dining: From the same folks as above, a hackathon devoted to the future of food, which claims to be "about creating real solutions, not just nifty apps." Let's hope so.

Momofuko Culinary LabA research facility that is dedicated to exploring the origins of flavor and brings together scientists and chefs from a variety of traditions.

Science + Food at UCLA: A group of scientists and engineers at the UCLA Division of Life Sciences and Department of Integrative Biology & Physiology.

Eat, Cook, Grow: Mixing Human-Computer Interaction with Food-Human Interactions: The first book on my reading list :)

Food is the source and solution to many of the world's problems. I truly believe in the power of food to heal and hurt, perhaps more than almost anything else on earth. But it's also a deeply cultural phenomenon. The way we think about food and interact with it is a profoundly important part of our experience. Technology and design have always played a large role in our food lives, from agricultural practices to domestic technologies, we are surrounded by devices that influence our relationship to food. I'm only two weeks into the semester, and I've already got a million ideas bouncing around in my head. Like I said, it's an exciting time for us foodie tech folks.