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Research Reflections: Critical Wearables Research Lab
The question of wearables strikes to the heart of the Creativeworks London mission. Wearables are already a burgeoning part of the creative economy and yet are strangely lacking in critical research attention. So I picked on wearables to apply the research lab ideas laid out in my previous research reflection piece ‘Collaborative Research and the Hacker Ethic’.
I found a small group of other people prepared to form a collective to work on this, bringing in perspectives from computing, design, sociology and fashion. Our aim was to raise issues that aren’t considered in the usual wearables narrative, looking at both unintended downsides and unconsidered opportunities; to turn the instrumental nature of most wearables innovation inside-out by focusing on the under-examined assemblages of technology, social forms, concepts and feelings.
We wanted to explore these questions through hacking but this immediately brought up the barrier of technical skills. How could we create an event where people could construct without needing to code, where they could have agency without needing to understand APIs? We decided to adapt the Enquiry Machines method developed by one of the collective members, Kat Jungnickel, in to an approach we called ‘junk hacking’. Junk hacking is a way of bringing slippery or difficult things into being with lots of creative people. It’s less about making prototypes and more about making questions. The aim is to materialise ideas, issues and problems into a series of material objects (enquiry machines). It’s like a technology hack day but with string, paper, cardboard boxes, duct tape, rubbish, cable ties and any other stuff that people care to bring.
We also knew from experience that practice-based events are more productive when stimulated by prior exposure to exciting examples and urgent questions. So we invited a group of volunteer firestarters to give three minute presentations before the hacking began. This group was picked to present the widest range of relevant ideas, and consisted of Maneesh Juneja (Digital Health Futurist) Steve Legg (IBM), Richard Tynan (Privacy International), Camille Baker (Media Artist/ Researcher and Curator) and Samantha Clarke (Happiness Consultant). In practice this became a bit like a ‘conference in a box’ and got a lot of positive feedback from the attendees.
The research lab was held on 29th June, hosted by the London College of Fashion, UAL. After the firestarter talks, the participants were invited to self-organise in to groups, acquire some junk from the supply tables and begin their junk hacking. Some groups started making straight away, using their experimental assemblies as a way to develop a shared concept, while others brainstormed first, defining issues of common concern before they dove in to the construction of their question-machines. There was a high level of engagement and energy across the board, and not a little laughter, as people figured out how to express critical questions through the various affordances of the materials to hand. Whatever your preferred theoretical framework, this was clearly a research event that drew on materialist, corporeal and performative epistemologies. An informed flavour of the day itself can be acquired from Storify put together straight afterwards by collective member Mariza Dima.
After the hands on making, each group was invited to present their machine to the rest of the participants, which they did through a mixture of description, acting out and Q&A’s. The machines built on the day were The Long Hug, who considered what the seductive contradiction of a mundane social event, the uncomfortably long hug, could reveal about data privacy; Serious Data Bounce, who used a playful pinball machine to explore the collaborative negotiation of data use; Otherwear, who imagined a start-up offering proxy identity services they called ‘digital doppelgänger’ and ‘the empathy machine’; Collaboration Machine, who considered the questions of network elasticity; and Consent by Design, who’s various weft threads and strips represented the extraction of data by organisations orthogonally to the flow of the individuals’ lives. Fuller descriptions of the machines along with photographic documentation can be found on Kat Jungnickel’s blog. There was also an individual machine called The Datagun, which allows you to get in, to get your data back.
After the success of the research lab, Creativeworks London and the Wearable Futures Collective intend to continue developing critical wearables ideas and practices, with options for events in the autumn including a hackathon (where we try to hack actual devices that draw on the learning from the first lab) or a smaller practical masterclass around wearable technologies. In the meantime a google group has been created to help keep the conversations going, which anyone interested is invited to join.
For someone like me, whose research has a particular focus on algorithmic prediction & pre-emption and the apparatus of algorithmic governance which is making invisible decisions about our lives, it is perhaps too easy to see how darker agendas are becoming entangled with the much-heralded advent of wearables. I hope that this strand of Creativeworks London research activity will help develop a renewed positive vision, one that shifts the focus from individual behaviour change to ask how wearables can tackle social or structural factors that block people’s wellbeing; to ask, in other words, what wearables can do for social solidarity.
But whatever the research questions and practices that emerge, it is important to move them forward with some alacrity. As highlighted by Deleuzian ideas of Noology, how we think is affected by the material and conceptual forms we draw from. In the near future we will be thinking inside a world of wearables; in effect, wearables will be part of the wiring of thought. All the more important for us to think freely about them now.
Members of the collective are:
- Dan McQuillan, Goldsmiths, University of London: @danmcquillan
Author: Dr Dan McQuillan, Goldsmiths, University of London
Date: August 2015
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