Etymology is Everything

From Wikipedia:

culture: the capacity to classify and encode human experiences symbolically, and to communicate symbolically encoded experiences socially

This traditional definition of “culture” – not the only currently operative one, but one still prevalent in much discourse on practices in everyday life – is obviously problematic where the inclusion of nonhuman subjects (and human subjects incapable of sending messages or indicating their understanding of them) is presumed, or even merely contemplated. If one cannot signify, one might argue, one therefore cannot be included in culture. For some this seems to merit exclusion from human moral consideration as well (given that ethical systems cannot exist without culture existing first). This is can be dismissed easily as an unsustainable position on simple pragmatic grounds, because many human cultures recognize the intrinsic value of non-signifying human subjects (people who are in various stages of conscious awareness, for instance), and thus to exclude nonhuman subjects for this reason is nothing more than speciesism.

But the definition still captivates many, due to its symbolicocentric mystique. I think I found a way out of this constraining, inconsistent, and morally unsatisfying definition of culture, and it involves thinking about culture and communication as being necessarily bound up with dense, cohabitational spaces – communes, farms, and cities. To get there (as if by magic!), it helps to examine the etymology of the word “culture”. Culture, as students of communication, anthropology, and cultural studies know well, has many competing definitions in both everyday and academic discourse. These have a history – from Matthew Arnold, to Franz Boas, to Raymond Williams, to Clifford Geertz and beyond. Consider, from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

culture (n.) mid-15c., “the tilling of land,” from Middle French culture and directly from Latin cultura “a cultivating, agriculture,” figuratively “care, culture, an honoring,” from past participle stem of colere “tend, guard, cultivate, till” (see colony). The figurative sense of “cultivation through education” is first attested c.1500. Meaning “the intellectual side of civilization” is from 1805; that of “collective customs and achievements of a people” is from 1867.

Here’s how I interpret this complex term: with agri-culture comes sedentarism and a being-together-in-the-world and cooperation with strangers – the genesis of city life. A “cultivated” mind is essentially urban (or at least agricultural); modeling itself on the “care” of the land required to ensure survival, we came to understand how to care for our fellow urban residents – both human and nonhuman – whether or not we had a window into their inner mental lives. Contemporary urban life enables access to intellectual life, “worldliness”, and an ethic of care.

There are already tremendous discourses on the inclusion of Artificially Intelligent subjects in our moral community, and some of these are premised on the problem that we cannot know when robots are really sentient or autonomous. With nonhuman animals, however, we are already there in terms of knowing about their sentience.

Culture also includes these unwitting (some, like crows, are perhaps a bit more “witting” than unwitting) nonhuman participants (companion animals, animals used as resources, and urban wildlife, possibly conceived of as NPCs, or “non-player characters”, in RPG parlance – not that this is ideal). Urban systems are full of nonhuman participants. Any moral system we develop in this proximal, settled, grain-eating milieu must include them (animals).

To my mind, the challenge this presents for cultural studies, communication, and anthropology is this: how do we revise our working definition of “culture” so that non-signifying participants (otherwise sentient) are afforded ethical consideration and inclusion? I propose that if we revisit the history of the word “culture”, we might see a clear way forward. That is to say: culture=cultivation/(plant)agriculture/dense urban cohabitation/ethic of care.

Also, consider this: Cadmus decided where to build Thebes by following a cow until it lay down in exhaustion. Cadmus also (mythically, of course) was credited with introducing the portable alphabet to Greece. So cities, writing, and nonhuman animals share a place in very old thinking about language, communication, and settlement. It is the animal who writes the city, asks us to settle down, and implores us to find a way to keep consistent records.

Is this making sense yet?

Recruiting Android users for mobile app research, March 31-April 14

I’m looking for study participants (Metro Vancouver area only) for empirical research I’m doing about mobile apps and location awareness. And, you can win an iPod Touch if you participate.

What will participants do? They will beta test a sustainability challenge application for two weeks (March 31-April 14), comment about the experience, and complete two online surveys (one at the start, and one at the end). Some participants will use the Facebook version of the app, while some will use an Android version they will install to their Android smartphone. Android users will also agree to have their location tracked for the two week period (Android users’ personal location data are not exposed to Facebook nor made public. Location data are anonymized for the purposes of analysis and any future publication of the research). All data is stored on Canadian servers.

All participants must have a Facebook account (we use it to authenticate users in both versions of the app). None of your data in the app is shared with Facebook – you have the choice to have all of your participation in the app viewable by “Only Me”.

I need to recruit Facebook and Android users in roughly equal numbers. After 50 Facebook users have signed up, I will only be recruiting Android users, until their number also reaches 50. Then I will open the study up to more Facebook users.

Those who complete the full cycle of required app testing and complete two online surveys get entered into a draw for an iPod Touch. There will also be runner-up prizes of lesser value.

This study is part of the empirical research I’m doing for my PhD dissertation. It’s also part of a multi-university project called Greenest City Conversations.

If you are interested in participating, please email me (jeanhebert at sfu dot ca) with the following information:

(1) “Mobile GCCP app” should appear in the subject line;
(2) your name;
(3) the email address you use for Facebook; and
(4) whether you have an Android device (by indicating this you put yourself in the Android group).

Once you’ve indicated your interest, I’ll add you to my list of potential participants and send you more detailed information about what the study involves. Once I’ve reached a critical mass of potential participants (I expect sometime early next week), I’ll send you all a link to the informed consent and entrance survey (which must be completed by March 31st, and must be done before you can install the app).

Thanks for your attention!

ubitasking. Taylorism. The horror…

Visualization of over 16,000 Mechanical Turk workers in the United States. Click on the image for the original (much bigger).

I’m always trying to think of silly new buzzwords (“ubitasking”), and I’m also always trying to avoid the hackneyed ones (“crowdsourcing”). Mechanical Turk (ach! 41% of it is SPAM) -type platforms are brushing up against place-sensitive applications, and the results are intriguing, particularly in the coordination of humanitarian aid. In one case, Crowdflower participated in Haitian earthquake relief efforts, in conjunction with the well-known Ushahidi platform and a ‘Turk-like ‘form called Samasource. This is interesting (and relevant to my research) for two reasons:

Firstly, the work sourced through Samasource involved translation of text messages so that aid workers could read them and respond – which is an important general consideration when envisioning the localization of any ICTs to particular cities (and neighborhoods within cities). Vancouver is made up of a number of linguistic communities; reaching out broadly to ensure they are all included requires an awareness of such tactics and a readiness to deploy them in the rollout of any mobile application(s). So, for instance – should the design team prescribe something with a similar “task orientation” (like ubitasking notifications to the City about sick trees or potholes) – translation services can be similarly sourced and organized here. The elderly Korean woman who has a community garden plot next to ours (who is constantly giving us gardening advice, in Korean, as she speaks no English whatsoever) inspires me to demand a community babelfish…

Secondly, and troublingly, all this “task orientation” (should be “tsk. orientation…”) smacks of Taylorism writ even more granular than ever before. If you doubt me, just read Crowdflower’s FAQ page for things such as “By saving the correct answers to a small set of Units prior to running a job, we track the quality of a worker’s performance and reject a worker once his or her accuracy drops below a defined threshold. When no Gold Units are inserted, the quality of work plummets…”. Yep, that’s your name alright, Taylorism. Routinizing work; building human powered Difference Engines; monitoring space and time with cool algorithms. Not your Lefebvre‘s city. More like yr Le Corbusier‘s…

I’m not dis(mis)sing Crowdflower, though, as they clearly have a charitable and progressive ethos going on, by all accounts. Just picking on the FAQ language, noting the exacting character of software, and pointing out where I’ve seen it all before.

So yes, pluses and minuses so far in the prelims, as expected. I’m looking at a few more technical options, and I’m prescribing nothing.

Image credit: sethoscope ( (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Games Go Home

After reading up about the riots last night (and there’s so much to read – here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters…) I went and devoted some in-transit iPhone note-taking to reflection on the ‘festivities’, specifically in light of issues related to my research into urban life and pervasive media/computing. On my mind here are the tensions presented by digital media, ‘live sites’, the structure of the built environment, and the structure of commercial sport spectacle. I’m not an expert in the sociology of spectator sports, though I’m familiar with social psychological concepts that are relevant to the space. Mainly, my concern is with building better cities, and I don’t have any answers at this point. I do, however, have a lingering fascination for prehistoric spectator sports, and whenever sports fans lose their shit I can’t help but imagine what the fans would be like if the players kicked around a severed captive warrior’s head instead of a ball.

Here are my unfiltered (but link-enhanced) notes:

So with riots then we observe a cathartic collision of public (mis)behaviour, nationalism, and local/regional solidarity with the built environment. The targets of rage consist of whatever’s available – beating up other fans, overturning parked cars, the omnipresent police and smashing in the windows of corporate retailers & service shops. Screens were also targeted – it was also that old SCTV gesture– thousands throwing their TVs out of windows because they don’t like the images they see there – indeed those images oppress. They’re at minimum very unsatisfying. This dissatisfaction, in the euphoria of a run on the Stanley Cup, is suspended; the dream is alive. The pinch is strongest, the awakening to the hangover most dramatic, when they lose in Game 7. In their home city. Self destructive impulses (repressed desires) explode upon the most convenient and/or symbolically valuable targets. Mob mentality is merely an accelerant to the conflagration.

The structuring of experience in the built environment – filled with signs of our wasteland of promotional culture & disciplined consumerism – invites precisely this sort of meleĆ©. Such commercially coaxed fandom – wrapped in the same symbolic assemblage as the downtown core – is destined to implode or explode when the dream dies & the myth is revealed as a colossal con. & they can’t take it out on the team, or the corporations who run it – that too is taboo, and invisible among all available possibilities for action. It’s quite depressing, the hockey fan’s lot.

If the public built environment were more saturated with interactive media (ports not screens), perhaps, we might be able to mitigate such behaviour. Clearly the urban camera panopticon isn’t enough to fulfill Jeremy Bentham’s (1785) prediction of self regulating, self disciplining individuals. What is called for is the same thing that helps us behave ourselves in Facebook & Amazon – abundant opportunities via pervasive, interactive media to contribute to & belong (Humphreys 2006) in an urban space – if we are to prefer this sort of coordinated life.

The problem I have with this, of course, is that such projects so easily slip into projects of bureaucracy & micromanagement (Hern 2010). What is warranted is not a new regime of mediated bylaws & planning, but a distributed, basic platform that amplifies broadly beneficial diversions, modularity & granularity of development – again, a ‘local’ web of ‘locants’ (actants localized in space?) that can leverage all the benefits of global digital connections and can locally interpret or mediate/mitigate these for local benefit.

What this could do is infuse crowds with responsibility for their everyday interactions while maintaining the (desirably) unpredictable character of urban life. Really, could it? But how?

Well, what stops fistfights? What stops riots?


Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy (1785) Panopticon (Preface). In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.

Hern, M (2010) Common Ground In A Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Oakland: AK Press.

Humphreys, A. (2006) The Consumer as Foucauldian ”Object of Knowledge’. Social Science Computer Review 24: 296. (link to SAGE abstract)

Ballcourt image from SanGatiche reproduced under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Participatory Mobile Urban Experience Planning

… or, Streethacking with Ubiquitous Media, if you prefer. This is the thing toward which I’m now turning most of my academic affections and attention. Reading Henri Lefebvre, Matt Hern, Paul Dourish, and many others has led me to this increasingly (and appropriately) crowded (for instance, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for some rough coordinates…) space of inquiry. My research has been months in the planning phases, and has been a labour of love (among other things… a different story, for a different blog, with different privacy settings…). Now, however, begins the process of scheduling, recruiting, fine-tune budgeting, and nailing down the specific questions for the inquiry. There’s much to be queried about the topic. Oh, the topic?

I’m doing this research as part of something called the Greenest City Conversations Project, a collaborative effort of a number of researchers at UBC and SFU, based at UBC’s Centre for Sustainability. My research (on mobile and ubiquitous computing, the urban environment, and sustainability issues in Vancouver) involves a participatory design exercise, in which the team will be doing something of a ‘needs assessment’ and ‘visioning exercise’ for what the mobile/ubicomp sphere can do to improve or better facilitate public awareness, dialogue and participation in sustainability issues. Then, we’ll turn to designing an application (or a ‘connective tissue’ piece between existing platforms and/or applications) in conjunction with student interns and/or a local technology company. That’s the lightning pitch.

As the research proceeds, I will be providing regular updates on this, my longest-serving blogbot (since 2006 now! pat on the head there, little noseclicker, aw… we’ve been through so much!…). While much of my data will be sealed off from public scrutiny due to the exigencies of ethical codes safeguarding personal information of human research subjects, I will be posting what I can when I can, as a way of documenting my path toward completing it. Likely, this project will unfold over 6-8 months, culminating in a dissertation and public launch of … something … whatever the designers recommend, and whatever the developers can fashion.