I know that I last promised an update on my examination of the eNotebooks, but I’ve found it necessary to take a bit of a detour before doing this which means reevaluating the kind of frameworks that are required. In the meantime, I’ve been taking stock of some potentially relevant work.
Last April, I read an article by Gary Wolf in the New York Times Magazine about people who are “self-trackers” – that is, people who use new digital tools and services to produce data about themselves or their activities. The article stuck in my mind because it definitely fell into the category of “people who create information in unconventional ways” – a topic that I was (and still am) interested in. But I didn’t think much more of it at the time. Then on Monday morning, I came across this article on Slate by Michael Agger titled Data for a Better Planet where the Wolf articles came-up again. It gave me an opportunity to revisit the other article and the blog where Wolf and others write regularly.
What interests me in this type of research is how people who aren’t necessarily social scientists or other kinds of expert researchers use tools and methods inspired by these disciplines to produce information. What I found particularly frustrating about the Slate article was that it completely overlooked one of the fundamental points that Wolf was trying to make in the NY Times Magazine article. Agger’s interest in self-tracking seems to be limited to how it represents an opportunity for people to “improve society” by “sharing their data”. In other words, collecting this data about yourself and making it available to everyone and anyone is somehow necessarily going to lead to more information and a better state of affairs. But I don’t want to get into lofty critiques of certain versions of information society that assume that more information is necessarily better or about how this certainly leads to problematic issues of surveillance and bio-politics.
Rather, what I find particularly problematic is that Agger is basing his argument on a set of assumptions about how all of this data can be collected and fed into standardised information frameworks. Who decides what data is valuable and what isn’t? What is the benefit of my knowing how others self-tracked their work patterns if I don’t share the same values about what are good work patterns? After rereading the Wolf article, I realised that what had left an impression on me was that he highlighted the eccentricity of the way in which these self-trackers were gathering data. The point of collecting this data and turning into information about their day-to-day activities wasn’t to change the world but to devise situated tactics for a better understanding of their everyday lives. The value of self-tracking for these people wasn’t only the information that was produced but the opportunity to think differently about a particular aspect of their lives. Part of the conclusion that Wolf came to when examining his own self-tracking was that he was putting too much emphasis on a certain kind of metrics for measuring the quality of his work:
“I got nothing from my tracking system until I used it as a source of critical perspective, not on my performance but on my assumptions about what was important to track.”
For Wolf, self-tracking represented a great way to challenge existing standards rather than building new ones. This understanding of data gathering practices as critique is exactly the kind of thing that seems to be a part of the ongoing work at Proboscis with the eBooks. Of course, there are also some significant differences including the fact that the kind of work people are doing with eBooks that I’ve encountered to date is less focused on the ‘self’ and that the “capturing” people have described with the eBooks is quite different from the “tracking” that Wolf described.
Now that I’ve had the chance to examine some of the eBook projects in greater detail, I thought I’d turn to an examination of the Diffusion website. To do this, I could provide you with a summary what is available on the Diffusion website and its history. Instead, I’ve found that the group of Proboscis related websites that include http://proboscis.org.uk , http://diffusion.org.uk , and http://bookleteer.com already have a good deal of information about these things already tucked away in all sorts of different sections of these websites. For example, as I tried to get an idea of Diffusion as both a project and a website, I began searching through the various pages where information about Diffusion was available, here’s what material I found:
James Leach is an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen who has conducted field-work in Papua New Guinea for approximately 17 years. I recently spoke to him by Skype to talk about a project which also involved two of his friends, Porer and Pinbin from the village of Reite, who had travelled to the UK in August 2009. Part of their visit to London included participating in the British Museum’s Melanesia Project. This project was designed to gain insight into the BM’s ‘largely unstudied’ Melanesian collections. Although I won’t get into to too much of the project’s overall aims and process (see both James’ work and the BM link for more details), part of the project involved inviting people from different areas of Melanesia to provide context about the objects in the collection by explaining how these objects are made, are used, and what their significance is. The exchange also represented an opportunity for the BM to build new relationships with the populations from where these objects originated.
Sample project: Melanesia Project
According to James, both Porer and Pinbin knew a lot about materials and the ways in which some of these objects were made which meant that the exchange could lead to some fascinating insights. Having worked with James in the past, they were also familiar with how to work with anthropologists.
As part of the exchange, James invited Giles Lane to drop by and demonstrate how to use the eBooks to record the event. Giles showed them all how to put the eBooks together and also brought a small portable Polaroid printer that could quickly and easily print digital pictures in a small format that could then be glued onto the eBook pages.
This was certainly a case of using the eBooks to capture information (see here for previous post where I introduce what I mean in by this) – in this case James described using the eBooks asa way to produce a realtime record that involved “capturing the moment of what we were doing and what we were seeing”. Representatives of the BM were also recording the exchange but using the eBooks served as a complimentary archive of what had happened. While the exchange was taking place, James would write down some of what Porer and Pinbin were saying in both English and Tok Pisin next to the images glued down in the eBooks. The addition of the eBooks to the process was partly challenging for James because it involved an additional set of tasks in an already hectic and brief exchange. Nevertheless, James felt that it proved to be a positive addition to the session because it provided a better record of the process of the exchange itself. He felt that although other methods for collecting and presenting information were better suited to the documentation of the knowledge being imparted of the objects by his two friends, the way in which the eBooks were used provided a simple, quick and accessible way of sharing what had taken place during the meeting.
Later on, the eBooks were re-scanned and subsequently reprinted into the professionally printed and bound version of the eBooks. James then distributed copies of the new books in Reite as well as at the local University in Papua New Guinea, and other regional institutions who were interested in what they had been doing. The eBooks were useful for giving people a feel for what had taken place, particularly for people who were unfamiliar with anthropology as a discipline.
Challenges, recommendations and suggestions
James used a wonderful way of describing his work as an anthropologist as being comprised of “moments”. He felt that the eBooks were used at the right moment in the process of conducting this type of research. Although he was unsure as to how this type of practice could fit in other parts of his work, he could see how this process would be helpful in situations requiring the documentation of how people “respond to images or information for themselves”.
He also suggested that as objects in themselves, the professionally bound versions of the eBooks were useful as a way to disseminate general information about the exchange:
“[…] As something to give people, they’re an extremely nice thing. People are very keen. I also took some to an anthropology conference before I went [to Papua New Guinea] and would show them to people and they’d immediately say “Oh, is that for me?” People kind of like them. They’re nice little objects.”
However, since many people of Papua New Guinea don’t have access to Internet, resources like Bookleteer or the Diffusion website proved to be significantly less of an advantage for distributing this information (they obviously can’t download a copy of the eBook).
I want to come back to the way James used the idea of “moments” to describe his work and apply it to the way in which the eBook was designed and used. We could say that each project I have described to date was composed of a series of moments and that nested within these projects was the eBook component which in itself was composed of its own series of moments. In reference to my previous post on the distinction between capturing and publishing, the trajectory of how eBooks were designed and used in some of these projects was composed of both capturing and publishing moments. For example, the way in which the eBook was used on the Melanesia Project included both a capturing moment as part of the exchange with the British Museum and a publishing moment in which Giles and James printed-out scanned copies of the original eBooks and made them available online or passed hardcopies out to people who were interested in learning more about the project (or, in some cases, who just wanted to get their hands on a free neat little object).
These series of moments were significant because they each involved different challenges and successes. In James’ case, it seemed both the capturing and publishing moments proved valuable – in the case of the former as a way to capture “the moment of what we were doing and what we were seeing” during the exchange, in the case of the latter as a way to distribute printed copies of the eBooks. But both capturing and publishing in this particular case also faced challenges that suggested there were some additional key moments that made-up an eBook’s trajectory as part of a project. Here are two moments that I want to add to describe an eBook’s trajectory:
Appropriation: James had only a cursory knowledge of how the eBooks worked before the exchange took place. In other cases, (for example see Ruth Sapsed’s work with Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination) we saw how people had attended “Pitch-up and Publish” events as a way to test the eBooks and decide whether or not they could fit into the way these people executed their projects. For the Melanesia Project, James took the risk of adding the eBooks as an extra element to the project in part because he trusted Giles’ work and his abilities to adapt the eBooks to these particular circumstances. In this case, therefore, moments of appropriation and capturing took place at the same time. I will therefore use appropriation to describe how people decide the way in which eBooks relate to their pre-existing practices for capturing and publishing information.
Design and printing: It may seem that “design and printing” and “publishing” should be categorised as part of the same moment. The reason for making the distinction is that I want to highlight how the physical process of composing the eBook’s pages and physically making the eBook, whether it be printing it out or cutting and folding its pages into a notebook, are distinct from the publishing category I defined earlier. Both capturing and publishing necessarily involve designing and printing an eBook. But the way in which they are designed and printed and the way in which such a design will be evaluated as part of the project will likely be very different.
Of course, in making-up these four distinct analytical categories, I may be over-emphasising distinctions between moments that are in fact all bundled-up and confused in time and space. But the reason for making these distinctions is so that I can begin to develop a typology of how eBooks are part of all of these very different kinds of projects.
Next time, I’ll examine the Diffusion website in greater detail.
As with every previous case study I’ve posted up to now, this week’s case is an example of a very distinctive context for the design and use for the eBooks. Today’s post is the first of two cases that involve the British Museum which means we’re dealing with a far larger institution than in previous cases. Nevertheless, as I hope you will see, this case has quite a few similarities with other approaches we’ve explored to date.
I had the chance to pay a visit to Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper for Ancient Sudan and Egyptian Nubia at the BM on the 14 September to talk about her work with the eBooks. Julie is the project leader for what is known as the Berber-Abidiya archaeological project in Sudan. She and her collaborator Dr Salah eldin Mohamed Ahmed in Sudan have been working with Proboscis to develop a version of the eBook as part of this project. This was my chance to find out a bit more about the project.
Sample project: Excavations in the Temple Precinct of Dangeil
In our interview, Niharika told me that she first used the eBooks on part of the Perception Peterborough project. She and Alice used the eBooks to document a cab ride around Peterborough using illustrations as a way to explore the different kinds of communities and systems that were embedded in the city. For Niharika, this early way of using the eBooks functioned more as a support for personal reflection. Although she would show the results to others, the eBooks she created felt more personal:
“It is shareable, but that is not the intent in which I created it. It was more like a personal log.”
Although she continues to be interested in this kind of approach, she has also used the eBooks as part of a more extensive project which I want to examine in greater detail:
Sample project: Articulating Futures
A recurring concern that has come up in the three interviews to date is the question of feedback. In all three cases I’ve presented to date, respondents told me that it was difficult to collect feedback on how the eBooks were used once they were out of their hands and into the hands of the people for whom the eBooks were designed. So lets get into this idea of feedback in a bit more detail.
I’m going to propose a first set of categories to distinguish how the eBooks are designed and used: eBooks are designed in some cases to capture knowledge and in other cases to publish information.
Publishing information with eBooks seems to involve organising bits of information – texts such as interview transcripts and project reports as well as images including pictures and logos – using one of the eBook templates. This newly designed eBook is subsequently made available to people who might be interested in the information it contains. A good example is how Gillian’s Greenhill projects involve using the eBooks as part of an “end point” to summarise her research.
The term “capturing” is used repeatedly by Proboscis and by some of the people who use the eBooks. It seems to be most often used to describe instances in which an eBook is used to codify some kind of event, experience or other tacit form of knowledge. I will therefore use “capture” to describe the cases where the eBook is designed and used as part of a process of generating information about something. A good example is when Ruth Sapsed describes how CCI uses the eBooks as part of workshops with teachers and other groups of people to see what they think about their own creative process. (Please note that some of the details of this work are not specifically detailed in the blog post presented.)
Now someone might argue that publishing is the same thing as capturing. After-all, isn’t Michelle Kasprzak codifying a captured event when she publishes her interview with a curator as an eBook? The distinction I want to make with these two categories is that capturing involves creating information whereas publishing involves recreating information. Michelle’s interview had already been codified: for example, she may have already recorded the interview with some kind of recording device before she then transcribed the interview into a written document. By the time that she produced the eBook, the information contained within it had already been produced in at least one other iteration.
Publishing in the eBook format was a way to supplement the information it contained. In most cases, it was used to make that information more distinctive or special. It could also make that information more easily accessible as a printed document. Currently, the Bookleteer website does not seem to make a clear distinction between these two categories.
Coming back to my initial discussion of feedback using the distinction between publishing and capturing, it seems that feedback is lacking in the cases of publishing: the publishers are wondering what happens after they’ve been downloaded or printed. The capturing process is, in most cases, a process of getting feedback from respondents.
This week’s eBook case study involves the work of researcher and community education worker Gillian Cowell. Gillian first encountered the eBooks online while doing research for her masters degree. She was interested in finding online tools help her to “capture data in a more interesting way for local people.” She was also hoping to turn the results of her research into something more unique than a regular research report. Although she had initially been attracted to the StoryCubes on the Proboscis website, she eventually received a version of the eBook after ordering a few things from Proboscis.
Sample project: Greenhill Digital Storytelling Guide
Last week, I posted the first case study as part of my research on how Proboscis’ design for eBooks is being used. For me, CCI was a great example of how the eBooks are appropriated and used as part of a cultural organisation’s activities. Although Trail of Imagination and Curiosity was only one example of the kind of projects CCI is engaged in, these kinds of workshops represented a key aspect of the work that CCI did and it seemed that the eBooks were becoming a key tool in the CCI toolbox for collecting and disseminating information.
The next case I want to present is considerably different in that the eBooks were not designed and used by members of an organisation, but by an independent curator and author: Michelle Kasprzak.
My first encounter as part of this research was with Ruth Sapsed in early July in Cambridge to chat about her work with the eBooks. Ruth is the director of Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination (CCI). She was trained as a psychologist and researcher. According to the CCI website, their approach is to “place the people we work with at the centre, in the role of researchers and experimenters. Artists and creative practitioners work alongside participants as facilitators – allowing them freedom in the form of materials, spaces and time.”
CCI uses the eBook in all sorts of ways with all sorts of people. You can find a number of examples of their designs as part of their Recent Publications on their website. The following is a brief outline of some of the work she is currently doing with the eBook.
Proboscis have commissioned me to do some research into the eBooks and how they have been used in the past by all sorts of different people and organisations. As part of the research, I created an eBook of my own – the eBook Observer – to help me conduct the interviews. I’ve already had the chance to interview a few people and will be posting profiles of cases in the coming weeks.
I’ll also be posting some of my ideas about my ongoing research on eBooks and the other resources available on Bookleteer. My personal interest on the subject of the eBooks began to take shape while conducting some research on a previous Proboscis project called Snout (read Measure Once, Cut Twice here) . It got me wondering about how people who work in cultural organisations create and disseminate information about their work. This is a particularly interesting challenge because, for the most part, the production, distribution and dissemination of information by and about arts organisations has taken-on negative connotations.
For example, there is a growing (and entirely credible) perception that publicly funded arts and creative organisations in the UK and elsewhere are facing pressure from government stakeholders and other funding bodies to “instrumentalise” and “deliver value for money” rather than focus on the work of making art. In an article entitled Auditing Culture (2004) Eleonora Belfiore claims that arts organisations “have found themselves forced to turn to the “rationalised rituals of inspection”” as the result of a “legitimacy void caused by the the erosion of cultural authority that followed the diffusion of theories of cultural relativism” (Belfirore 2004: 195). In other words, arts organisations have had to get better at generating reams of information that articulate and justify organisational aims and objectives that are consistent with the aims and objectives of stakeholders while also delivering on their promises to “be more inclusive” or “encourage audience participation”.
But the problem with this view is that this information is only generated for the benefit of funding bodies and without any meaningful ties to the actual work being done within these arts organisations. I would prefer to think about this kind of work as information practices rather than as “measuring impact” or as “providing evidence”. Once we move past framing this work within the intentions articulated by policy or funding bodies, it is possible to understand the creation and circulation of information as a practice; what Leah Lievrouw calls informing-as-praxis. That is: examining how the work of producing, distributing and interpreting information as practices in themselves are embedded within particular social, political and cultural environments and developed as part of these artists’ creative work rather than simply as an obligation to funding sources or a board of directors. I’m not arguing that the pressures that Belfiore and others have identified don’t exist, rather that these pressures are part of a more complex picture of cultural and creative practices.
The eBooks and how they are designed and used by Proboscis and their collaborators represent an interesting opportunity to take a closer look at how informing-as-praxis takes place between cultural and creative organisations. I’d be interested to hear anyone’s reactions to this approach and would love to any recommendations of authors you think might be relevant.