Subversion, Conversion and so forth:

I’m on the train home after an intense conference on using anthropological and design tools to thwart planned obsolescence.

Another view of the conference used ThoughtMesh to build a picture based on the abstracts, and yet another was Daria Loi’s beautifully designed response, but neither of those is online yet. There were a number of good sessions and a few extraordinary papers and discussions. Precisely because it was a strongly interdisciplinary conference there were places where I lost the thread (and David Turnbull wants me to think about threads very carefully). I hope other views of the conference emerge that help make sense of it.

One of the simplest rewards for me was seeing projects that succeeded. I worked with lots of people and collectivities through the 80s and 90s to wrest control of ICT from defence and financial networks and give it to those people whom it usually served to disenfranchise. Jerome Lewis gave an understated presentation (here’s the paper) on icon-based PDAs for non-literate Congo Basin hunter-gathers that enabled them to negotiate with multinational logging interests and even to record illegal logging. The image of three young Mbengele gathered around a elderly man, all working together as they use the tool to protect the forest: perhaps not revolutionary, but it gives hope.

Some of these successes were also theoretically subtle. Jim Enote talked about the work that A:shiwi and the Cambridge Museum are doing together began with Jim talking about how much of the inventory being catalogued was set aside, not for public viewing. When he came to talk about the A:shiwi mapping project in Zuni, one of the initial decisions was which places and names not to put on the map. Marilyn Strathern, in her opening remarks, contrasted ICT networks to kinship networks. This useful tool was reused several times during the conference.

  • Resistance to neo-liberal flattening commodifying ‘openness’ that treats all records as equal and all nodes as the same
  • Attending to locality
  • Kinship-like networks rather than ethernet-like networks
  • Noncoherence (a useful notion introduced by Helen Verran : not incoherence, which is simply a species of coherence, but purposeful recognition of incommensurability, diversity, and resistance to global systematicization. See this article by John Law.)

…these topics resurfaced and were reworked and tossed back into the pot.

The thing/use or material/social divide resurfaced over and over again, and when overtly noticed it was refused. So too, the model of ICT as a (neutral) technology providing (free) access to (passive, external) information (whether that access is being mobilized by producers, consumers or prosumers (!)) was made visible and criticized. The best criticisms of the social/material or access-to-content models were not the discursive ones (like mine); people who really attended to the problem used the mode or style of their presentation to expose and interrogate the problem.

Thus the opening of the conference was a water ritual of connectedness, offered by gkisedtanamoogk, was offered through iChat from John Ippolito and Joline Blais’ home in Maine. He chose water as a ritual block in order to attend to the distance and its connectedness. Drinking water at the end of his ritual he remarked that even though we could not actually drink the water with him, it would eventually come to us. In the background of the iChat window people moved around, noises emerged and people in our room wondered if the sounds were here, there, intentional, accidental in the best Cageian tradition. That accidentality took the apparently controlled iChat sociotechnical frame and tore it open. Participants at both ends of the pipe did not know whether they were participants, did not know where noises were coming from, in exactly the same way that a shared space is defined by shared environmental uncertainties.

Laura Watts performed her presentation—well, all presentations are performances, aren’t they—but she read a poem in four parts against the slides moving by themselves. Given the locality and intimacy of the Orkney places and communities she was describing it worked very well. As she pointed out later, there’s an active poetry writing community in Orkney.

It’s also true, though, that we all listened. Various members of the conference, especially when talking as or about First Peoples, had emphasized the importance of respect. The organizers regretted that gkisedtanamoogk had not been able to come and actually begin the conference as a talking circle; but perhaps because there was heaps of good will, or because James and Lee took a huge risk in opening the conference with gkisedtanamoogk’s ritual, or perhaps because many of us had learned enough to know when respect is appropriate, we listened to Laura’s performed piece with the same care as we did the more traditionally delivered presentations.

When gkisedtanamoogk closed the conference with a ritual—a travelling song, he said—that really was the end of the conference. There was no felt need for an additional frame closure, a ‘ok now we’re turning the computer off and thank you’. We all thanked each other, including gkisedtanamoogk and that was the end. In the same way people stood up from their seats and fuffled their papers, the iChat link was turned off and Joline and gkisedtanamoogk left the conference through the dimming screen.


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