LIFT and left high

A few notes on LIFT, partial in every sense of the word:

– Anybody who knows how I feel about both robots and dogs will be surprised – stunned – by how much I enjoyed France Cadet‘s work on recombinant traits in, uh, robot dogs. Only superficially cute, I found that Cadet’s digital hounds pose uncomfortable questions about the course of artificial evolution, in both its biotech and a-life senses.

– There was a fascinating tension between Nathan Eagle’s work on “reality mining” – that is, attempting to infer a useful understanding of rich social behavior from time, location, proximity, and other mobile-phone-derived metrics – and Jan Chipchase’s must-see presentation.

I don’t quibble with the reality mining thesis in its general outlines. I have no trouble with the idea that, if you gather large enough amounts of data about personal location over time, you can infer some pretty useful things – this is one of the points of infovisualization, after all. I’m less sanguine, though, about specific aspects of the work Eagle presented: first, the practical drawback that Eagle himself alluded to, which is that in order for any meaningful inference to be possible, both the amount and type of data collected appear to be well in excess of anything that people seem to be comfortable making available anywhere outside the contours of a well-buffered academic study.

But who knows? Younger people these days tend not to be so [“properly concerned”/”uptight”] about issues of digital privacy; it may well be the case that in the fullness of time, most people will give this data up as a matter of course, without batting an eyelash. My second reservation, though, is a little deeper.

This is a simplification, inevitably, but Eagle’s work, like much research in machine inference, is devoted to the idea that the latent semantics of a human situation are ultimately unconsciously betrayed by patterns of explicit behavior; that this behavior is something that is transparent to remote capture; and that all (“all”) you have to do is throw enough processing power at the analysis of these patterns to divine the truth of them. Whereas the point of Jan’s fieldwork is that you actually have to be there, pay attention, and ask the right questions to learn anything meaningful about a situation.

The difference between the pictures of the world produced by each of these approaches is profound and striking, and it runs deeper than the simple distinction between quantitative and qualitative inquiry – at least, I think it does.

Here it is in a nutshell: Eagle’s work left me feeling depressed (even if it did act to confirm my argument in Everyware that enough people will find the world-picture produced by machine inference credible enough to act upon it, in a peculiarly literal enunciation of power/knowledge). It felt like each of the lives represented by the dots up on his screen had been lost, departicularized – and also that if you got invested emotionally in the worldview implied to any degree at all, you’d pretty soon get to a place where very little human behavior would ever again surprise you.

For me, by contrast, Jan Chipchase’s work is all about surprise. Every time I visit his site I feel that anew, tripped up and humbled by humanity, in all its ingenuity, adaptablity and ungovernable particularity. I usually come away from Future Perfect with a sense of delight and rich equanimity a million light years from my usual well-defended High Modernist ya-ya. And this was also the feeling I was left with by his LIFT presentation, ostensibly about mobile devices and literacy.

Literacy is obviously a critical acceptance factor for devices as heavily dependent on textual mediation as mobile phones. And here a subtle motif of this block of presentations re-emerged: almost as if he was picking up on my resistance to machine inference, one of Jan’s questions was all about the risks involved in acting on indirect knowledge of the world (as one is compelled to do many times a day when one cannot read).

He showed a slide of – what was to all appearances, self-evidently – the entrance to a men’s public toilet in India, and asked, well, what makes this self-evident? How do we know that this dark and not particularly welcoming doorway leads to (is?) a place where men can relieve themselves? If the semiotics of the two mustachioed heads pictured nearby remained unclear, the word “toilet” in two or three languages probably did the trick, sure. But what if you didn’t read any of those languages, or any at all?

Jan’s question: how willing would you be to act on the assumption that this place was a toilet if the price of being wrong was, in turn, (a) minor personal humiliation, (b) the loss of a month’s salary, (c) total ruin for your entire extended family, forever? (The context made it clear to me that this was not a hypothetical.)

Anyone interested in designing products, services and systems closely coupled to risk, especially those involving a very large and diverse user base, will surely find this a resonant and important question, and one that transcends the context of literacy. It’s also one bearing on my single big regret at LIFT, which was…

– …that I missed Fabien Girardin‘s talk on embracing the messiness of the world as it is. Tom Hume’s detailed and enthusiastic notes only reinforce that regret. Fabien’s is a very timely message, one that, quite frankly, developers need to hear, and one for which I certainly feel a great deal of sympathy.

– Briefly: European conference crowds still strike me as being enamored of blogging per se. Me, I couldn’t care less about blogging per se, and I have even less time for anyone still peddling the line that it’s a solution for much of anything.

My early hopes for it went the same way my hopes for e-mail, Usenet and the Web in general did – which was good, in that it cured me of my last traces of techno-utopianism. Most of the wonderful and without question all of the revolting, heart-crushing things about being human soon enough get instantiated in a medium with low barriers to entry, and that’s really about all I have to say on the topic.

– Re: Swiss International Air Lines: Kind of meh, and a let-down after the buildup of my hopes. Certainly not the experience set up and suggested by the fastidious and thorough-going winkreative identity system. Lufthansa still sets the standard transatlantic.

– The graphic design of the conference – posters, t-shirts, motion graphics, stickers, collateral, the whole kit – was of the highest order. It managed to convey both cutting-edge contemporaneity and warmth, and did so with genuine personality. My congratulations to the designers.

– Finally, the title’s not just a cheap pun. I had at least one genuine peak experience during these last few days, for which I thank Laurent Haug, the entire LIFT team, and, well, the city of Geneva. Ben Cerveny must be praised for enduring my crankiness. Frangino, Sasha, Tom, Jan-Christoph: it was great to meet you. RĂ©gine, Jan, Arabella, Fabio, and of course the irrepressible M. Nova are the best sort of conference buddies – you make it all worthwhile.

And now back to 20-degree NYC, already in progress.

7 responses to “LIFT and left high”

  1. Dannie says :

    Enjoyed your talk. Thanks. Missed Jan’s but was at Fabien’s most likely only because he hijacked my mac and put his presentation on it before I knew it… a good thing!

    I do not see Europeans so enamoured with blogging as you do, not within the Lift crowd.

    I hope that next time I get a chance to talk with you a bit.

  2. speedbird says :

    You are always welcome – more than welcome – to come say hi.

  3. Laurent says :

    Hey Adam,
    thanks for coming to Geneva to see us, I’m happy to know you enjoyed the conf. My personal high involves sitting with you guys on Friday afternoon, finally able to take a few moments to rest and chat with all those who flew hours to come. See you at LIFT Asia, probably in a country you know very well if it happens :-)

  4. speedbird says :

    That *was* a nice moment, wasn’t it? I felt it too.

    Let me know more about LIFT Asia. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, Nurri and I would be happy to help plan it.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Preoccupations - 24 February 2007
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