From an anthropologist of techno-science’s point of view

Lucy Suchman is professor of anthropology of science and technology, and co-director of Lancaster’s Centre for Science Studies. Before this she spent twenty years as a researcher at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

How would you describe Medea’s way of working with and within design through our Living Labs?

In spite of the widespread discussion on user-centric design and engagement, it’s still very rare to find a design group like yours that has an on-going long-term relationship with participants outside of the university, with participants that are actually located in the local area around the university. In the case of the Malmö Living Lab, these are people who are outside the worlds of research and design, but who have all sorts of relationships with technologies. The projects that you have done with the street journalists and the women’s organization really are trying to understand the forms of innovation that are inherent in the activities and aspirations of those groups of people. I think that Medea is quite unique in that commitment, in that long-term engagement.

How is this different from other design groups around the world?

The idea of critical engagement with relevant problems and with people outside of the university – or outside of the worlds of arts and design – still remains kind-of a concept more than a practice. In a way, it can even be the case that the worlds of arts and design become the source of a problem, a problem that designers then look for creative solutions to. Things don’t flow or get circulated in a more deeply reciprocal way. The design products then become part of museum installations, thus only circulating in the worlds of arts and design. It’s much harder to get those things to circulate, in meaningful ways, within the communities that are their research focus.

In 2011, Lucy Suchman gave a Medea Talk entitled Restoring Information’s Body: Remediations at the human-machine interface. View it embedded below.

Tell us about yourself and the research questions you are exploring.

I’ve been involved in particular parts of the research and design community for a very long time, in ways that my life trajectory has taken me. I also feel that I have shifted more into communities/networks in Science and Technology Studies and Anthropology.

At the moment I’m looking at the creation of immersive virtual environments in the US military which are being created for training, but now also for treatment of post-traumatic stress. You are trained before you go and you are treated when you come back. I’ve got a very rich archive of materials from a project called Flat Worlds, which is the idea of digital flats that comes out of the Institute for Creative Technologies which is at the University of Southern California. The thing that I’m really interested in there is what the military calls the “problem of situation awareness”, which is basically how you know what’s going on around you; the kind of identification that is required to discriminate between friends and enemies, which has become so deeply problematic in contemporary war fighting.

In relation to the simulations, I’m really interested in, on the one hand, the premise of realism: what does realism mean in that context? What informs the storylines, the settings of place, and the figurations of relevant others, actors and situations? What kinds of proximities, distances and relationships are being reproduced in those simulations? That’s what I have gotten very interested in. It’s an entanglement of questions of design, politics and of embodied experience.

What questions do you think you will be exploring in five years?

I’ve just begun this research on military technologies and I suspect I’ll continue with that for quite some time, even though it takes me quite far from the worlds of participatory design. However, there are really interesting questions of who does participate in the creation of those systems, which is something I have just begun to investigate. The line of continuity there is very much around the question of who is represented, both in the sense of whose knowledge and experience informs the design and who is figured through the design and in what ways and with what kinds of effects and consequences. Those two questions are absolutely central.

You know, I come from the United States, and I feel a very strong sense of responsibility in relation to US foreign policy. There are still quite imperial forms of power and American exceptionalism, which I had always thought of as a critique, that people in the United States think they are different from everyone else. But American exceptionalism is at the moment being embraced in the current presidential campaign as a kind of badge-of-honour by the Republican party: “Yes, America IS exceptional”. All of those things are about questions of representation, they are all about the relationship between the specific location of situated knowledge and your imaginary perception of who you are.

All of the struggles that have gone on around professional design practice that are reflected in the living labs and places like Medea are so much about that question of location, of recognising the extent and limits of your own knowledge practices and trying to understand how you can organize events, relations and working practices to transform those boundaries.

Today you have been participating in a seminar at Medea, what has been the most poignant topic?

At this point, we have largely been collecting topics, but certainly one of the topics that’s emerged, and that I’ve been tracking, has to do with questions of representation. There’s a lovely phrase that came up on one of the discussion cards that just said “who?”, and that got expanded to ”co-who?”, haha. I thought that was really nice. But there’s also a set of topics around relations of the physical and the digital, and the real and the virtual.

It sounds like business-as-usual in this setting?

Yeah, exactly. At this point, these are familiar themes.

Related publications
Design Things and Design Thinking: Contemporary Participatory Design Challenges

Image credit: Flickr user U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District CC:BY