December 2007 Archives

A Picture Share!
This blog is primarily for me to talk about my thoughts about ubiquitous computing technology, design and the relationship between such technology and people. However, it's still a blog, so--as a change of pace--here's a list of my favorite music from 2007 (and an Amazon link orgy--sorry about that, but it's the easiest way to contextualize all this I get a kickback ;-).

  • Talib Kweli, Eardrum. Kwali's music is smart, literate and an always thought-provoking commentary of the New York black experience. He writes about how food is important to learning ("Eat to Live"), how family links the black urban and rural experiences ("Country Cousins"), and how religions oversimplify the problems and solution ("Give 'em Hell").
  • Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare. Tight, clever and with the terrific ability to write a hook, these guys channel the Kinks, Romeo Void, and Gang of Four while being totally original power pop that's emotionally ambiguous and sensitive.
  • Clinic, Visitations. I want someone to make a film version of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels of swinging London lunacy just so that Clinic can score it. They channel the spirit and tone of psychedelia without descending into parody and create an intricate world of 3-minute snippets of creepy, focused fuzz.
  • Low, Drums and Guns The most aptly-named band in the world makes one hell of a downer album about war. There is rarely light in Low's world, and there's none this time around. They are angry and they have written an album-length requiem for America, but it's a lush, immersive requiem of tympani, swirling guitars and pleading vocals.
  • El-P, I'll sleep when you're dead/Aesop Rock, None Shall Pass Paranoia and dense urban life are the center of Def Jux's universe, but they're in top form this year. These two records channel that feeling of being in an overcrowded, screeching subway car where the words get lost in the sound of the voices, the machines, the heat and the smell, and it all feels a bit out of control. El-P gets special points for one of the most brilliantly brutal videos of the year.
  • Digitalism, Idealism Dance music seems to be alive and well in France, where Digitalism, Justice and Daft Punk keep on producing. Of the three Digitalism's record is the best. Complex, textured and still head-bopping (since, well, I listen to this most often on headphones, rather than on the dance floor). It makes me happy that people still party enough in France to sustain a creative dance music industry.
  • Grinderman, Grinderman I've long been a Nick Cave fan, but the last couple of years of his output drifted between samey and uninspired. Here, Cave is still essentially reworking "A Threepenny Opera" as written by pirates, but it's the best reworking of the last five years, at least, looser, meaner and more fun. One of my favorite songs from the initial sessions, Vortex never made it to the final record, but it was nearly our wedding song (that was Magnetic Fields' Book of Love, picked by Liz).
  • MIA, Kala Holy cow, what a surprise. Most novelty artists, and that's what MIA pretty much was with the last record, rarely manage a second record of note. MIA blew past that hurdle and it looks like she's well on her way to a career like Bjork's: creative, brave, weird and never dull. Great beats back fascinating, occasionally chilling stories of Southeast Asia. It takes a lot of courage to make a track about your rise to fame using polyrhythmic drumming and call it "Bird Flu." Timbaland's rap on "Come Around" nearly ruins that song, but that's about the only low point in a great record.
  • Angels of Light, We Are Him Angels of Light (and SWANS, the predecessor band) exist in roughly the same grimy, sad universe as Nick Cave (and maybe Low), but in a noisier corner. For the last 10 years, M. Gira--the core of the band, who I've been following since his SWANS days--has been kind of dragging, but this record really picked up. Things are still nasty, brutal and not-particularly-short, but the music is much more varied and interesting. It's good to see people pull out of slumps and, as much it goes against the esthetic, it makes me happy.
  • Black Francis, Bluefinger It's a Gen X heresy to admit this, but I've always liked the first couple Frank Black records more than any of the Pixies records. Unfortunately, he seems to have gotten lost for about 10 years. The work was good, but it didn't have that clever, intricate craziness that the first two Frank Black records had. This new record, though not quite as good as those, is certainly getting much closer. Yeah, sure it's a concept album, but really, it rocks weird with a sly grin in a way that I missed. Thank you, Black Francis.
  • Jay-Z, American Gangster As is clear from the notes above, I enjoy watching artists mature in interesting ways, with their work as documentation of their personal changes. This is a classic example of that. It's ostensibly a concept album based on the film, but it's really Jay-Z wrestling with the internal contradictions of being successful while remaining credible to the outsider position that brought him success. He redefines "gangster" to mean "anyone who does business," saying that he had no choice but to be a business gangster, that success brings little happiness and that he's now a little embarrassed by it. It's one man's neurosis, played out in the self-contradictory, confused words of someone wrestling with their feelings.

Notable songs (I'm a big fan of all of these records, but--you know--I have to stop somewhere ;-) :

Happy New Year!

After several months heads-down on several projects (more news about that soon), I decided to go back and see what I had missed by skipping Ubicomp 2007. So far, the most interesting paper, from my perspective is Sung, Guo, Grinter and Christiansen's My Roomba is Rambo (1MB PDF). It is a small empirical study that validates that people's relationships to their Roombas is often anthropomorphic and positive (in fact, it's almost a love letter to the brand, though I don't think the researchers were biased).

I'm not surprised, since Roombas are one of the most prevalent forms of artificial life around and their unpredictable, unexpected behavior triggers is pretty "animal-like" to many people. This unpredictable, animal-like nature is what probably drove at least one Roomba competitor to show how their robot cleaner makes nice overlapping, distinctly mechanical sweeps when cleaning. Despite the fact that people have been naming their technology for thousands of years (ships, for example), there's still a tension between the rational response (of course it's a machine!) and the emotional one (...but it kinda acts like an animal) and it's good to see folks exploring and examining that tension.

Their conclusions are in line with other work that's shown that people respond to computers as if they were people (specifically Nass and Reeves' work), but their careful work enumerated the actual effects of these reactions.

First, we learned about participants’ happiness with Roomba because it helped them be cleaner and tidier. Second, people used anthropomorphic and zoomorphic qualities to engage with Roomba. Third, people demonstrated their Roomba to others, and went great lengths to change the home to accommodate it better.

Their section titles list how people's animist attitudes toward their Roombas manifests itself:

  • Feeling Happiness Towards Roomba
  • Lifelike Associations and Engagement with Roombas
  • Valuing Roomba: Promoting and Protecting It

The details are predictable if you map "Roomba" to "dog": people named theirs, they were willing to spend extra time caring for them, they felt attached to specific ones, they ascribed intention and gender, etc.

They then analyze what this means for technology design. One thing I'm very happy to see is a discussion of the situations in which technology should not disappear. I've ranted about how technology should not be invisible, and it's satisfying to see that they reached the same conclusions: "high visibility of Roomba brought comfort to our
householders, which led to easier adoption of the robot."

Other interesting observations:

  • "Instead of counting the hours of housework, people talked to us about the complexities of naming their vacuum cleaner. Further, we would argue that this suggests an adoption process that is not only different from that associated with conventional technologies (even potentially computational ones) but also perhaps more enjoyable and rewarding."
  • "An interesting possibility that we raise here is that while accounts of vacuuming suggest that it is an activity that belongs to someone [in the household], the arrival of Roomba creates opportunities for a reallocation of responsibility. More generally, many of our participants articulated a sense of value that the robot created for them in their cleaning routines."
  • "Our study showed that while Roomba users hoped that their robot would be reliable, they did not expect it to work flawlessly. Further, they took on extra work to increase Roomba’s odds of working well."

They conclude with some recommendations for design, but I think the greatest contribution of the paper is how it shows how technology design is deeply tied into the emotional and social relationships of the technology's users. Designing technology is not emotionally neutral territory. It's highly loaded. Moreover, I think that's only going to increase as we come to grow more socially comfortable with objects that have unpredictable behaviors.

I also think that Generation X and beyond are particularly comfortable with these ideas. Gen X is the generation that had Cabbage Patch Kids and Teddy Ruxpin. They are familiar at a deep level with high degrees of intimate object anthpomorphization. They may be even more familiar than previous generation because of the simultaneous mass-produced and personalized nature of these toys--possibly for the first time in history that combination existed.

I am very happy to see the implications of these effects explored and sad that I missed the presentation of the paper. Also, they reference Tod's caroling Roomba video, for which I give 'em props. Now on to more Ubicomp papers.




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This page is an archive of entries from December 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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