Tuesday, 12 June 2012


- we construct our technologies, and our technologies construct us and our times. our times make us, we make our machines, our machines make our times. we become the objects we look upon but they become what we make of them - sherry turkle - life on the screen

Tactus Technology have announced a new touchscreen design: a smooth touchscreen (like the iPhone) which can rapidly switch to a raised-buttoned interface for those moments where haptic feedback might be of use (like texting or writing an email). Here's the demo video:


As someone who wields a Blackberry for the deluge of work email (and often texts and emails by touch while walking around campus), but covets the large screen of the iPhone for web surfing, this seems like a huge step forward (and it should be in devices by the second half of 2013 - there's a nice write up over at The Digital Reader). And it might have some important advantages.

On the bus into town yesterday two young children (under 12) were playing with their phones. One had a basic Nokia, the other had an iPhone, and they ended up taking it in turns to play a racing game on that device. They were meeting someone at the other end of their journey, and the mother of the boy with the iPhone asked him to text to say that they were nearly there. He shut his game down with a press of the "home" button (the only physical button the iPhone has on its face) and then tried to send his text. And he really struggled; the dexterity required to tap out a message on the flat screen really wasn't there. His friend ended up sending the text on his Nokia after the boy had made a final significant error (I think he'd accidentally inserted a long auto-correct word and then spotted a few other mistakes in a very short message). The poor guy was really frustrated, and maybe I'm finally getting old, but I did start to wonder what the effects on fine motor control might be if children grow up with their main sources of entertainment and distance communication being various flat, super-smooth pieces of glass.

I think I'm naturally pretty clumsy, 6' 3" and not very aware of how much space I take up, but skateboarding, playing guitar, working out, playing too much Xbox, and building things (miniatures, garden landscaping, DIY) has given me a better sense of my body schema, from fingertip lightness, to reach, strength, and flexibility, to body balance - I've trained myself to be a bit less of a klutz (an interesting word in the context, linked to clot/clod via a German root (as well as the Yiddish klots), being stuck together, lumped, a lump, rather than something free and flexibly linked). Not everyone plays an instrument or builds things for pleasure, but I'd guess most children, at least those in post-industrial economies or otherwise affluent families, play some kind of videogame or use a computer on a fairly regular basis; this means that there's at least some tactile interface during play over increasingly less active formative years. So it got kind of worrying when even those guarantors of dexterous development suddenly became non-existent (in the case of the Wii, the Xbox Kinect, and Playstation Move) or smoothed over, tiny points of meaning on a flat plane easily missed or occluded by an uncertain hand or finger unable even to rely on the hunt-and-peck responsiveness of a QWERTY keyboard. 

So I'd love to see at least some variation of Tactus Technology's design in digital devices aimed at children, including e-readers (which have also begun to shed their buttons with the Nook and the Kindles Fire and Touch), and I know that if the iPhone 6 had something like this built-in then I couldn't resist it for tapping out an email on the move after browsing on a decent flat screen.

And there are probably a lot more possibilities for this technology in the kinds of interface it opens, and reopens to users. I imagine playing games with a hybrid of buttons and touch could be fun, and if the granularity of the technology improves then who knows what kind of surfaces it might be able to imitate? An iPad game for young children where you could feel the scales of the dinosaur, the frog's squidgy eyes, the octopus' tentacle sucker-cups, the keyhole to unlock the treasure, would be pretty cool. And interfaces for the visually impaired (indicator buttons rising and falling as the device's GPRS senses which way you're facing for instance) might offer new ways-in for users currently denied even basic access to smartphones and tablets.

To my mind, technology which remembers we have bodies, and that we learn and have learnt with our bodies over time, they're the ones that are built to last.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Building STEAM

- borders distinguish inside from outside. if they are simple, they make it clear where we are; if they are complex, encompassing distinct pockets of space, they afford choices or the chance to change. since the ancient egyptians built their temples, one of humankind's most potent devices for achieving mystery, distance, and the setting apart of a special place has been to build layers of walls - buildings within buildings, wall around wall like the successive skins of an onion. in architecture, as in thought, simple tight boundaries are most often too confining - donlyn lyndon & charles w. moore - from chambers for a memory palace -

Adam Savage, one of the presenters of Mythbusters gave a nice talk at this year's Maker Faire about the importance of making. The vital thing, he said, was making what you had to, not what you thought you ought to, especially not what you were told to (the wider argument was intended to validate peoples' building of pop-culture artefacts, particularly movie replicas, including his building of two sets of Iron Man armour. Savage is a movie props geek, an avid and expert one, and his talk on building a perfect replica Maltese Falcon is a surprisingly canny and modest discussion of art born of obsession.

At Maker Faire, he argued that building things, and artistically building things, building with a desire as well as an interest, is an inherently good thing, bringing you closer to the world, helping you to understand how things work. Another message in the background of his talk was that building with your hands was good; he never explicitly said it, maybe didn't intend it, but it seemed like he was moving towards saying that building helped you understand your hands better, understand yourself and how you worked in relation to the materials you've chosen and the project as a whole. This discussion of how building helps you, how it forces you to learn unexpected things obviously resonates with Rushkoff's "code or be coded" mantra and the trend in the Digital Humanities toward "less yack more hack." They sit on a continuum: for both, building is good, building helps, building teaches, building takes you outside of yourself, gives something to others, and turns that knowledge inward when you need it for the next project.

Savage is an ambassador for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics teaching in the US, the STEM subjects which are often talked up at the expense of the Humanities in UK higher education budgetary concerns. Savage may be an ambassador for STEM, but he feels that something's missing. In the talk I've been discussing he says that STEM is a terrible and empty word, but STEAM, STEAM is a great word, and that "A" is where art goes. And I really liked this idea, particularly as it applies to understanding and practicing creativity, I think it has some weight.

For a start I've always liked that STEM separated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Not confusing and conflating these areas is a rare nuance in policy at any level. STEAM keeps this and suggests a reasonably balanced view, I would argue, of human creative endeavour. No artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, or inventor manages to avoid the other letters of the acronym (consciously or not); STEAM is the life of the 4e (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted) creating mind. Painting is born of chemistry, production, art, ratios, perspectives; engineering understands the beauty of clean lines and the beauty of elegant solutions to problems, the way loads and strengths function; etc.

My background is in English Studies, and I work in an English department, but I want to be more of a STEAM academic: I don't think that only a 1/5 interest in Art is a bad thing in understanding the creation and impact of cultural products. I want to know more about mathematics, and why no one told me that it might be worth learning about because it could be beautiful. I want to build more things, physical and digital, and encourage others to build too. And I want to teach my students about technology, about how books are technologies, and why understanding how scientists talk about the world can be a part of their studies just as interesting and worthwhile as how a play discusses the same.

A lot of my students don't need to be told this it seems; I've spent the last month marking exams and dissertations which deal with all sorts of scientific debates, and they've known their stuff. I wonder if there's something about this time of interconnectedness, of wiki access and youtube reports, of discussion forums and ebay spare parts, that calls out to a new generation of STEAM-aware students? Maybe an English department should make space to teach steAm, whilst a chemistry department teaches Steam, and the engineers discuss stEam (or stEAm, or stEAM, or...)? I don't think disciplinarity is a bad thing, but I think that not fostering a little curiosity about the overlap in the different ways we think about creation and creating might start to increasingly count against us.

But how do we teach STEAM, or our version of STEAM without sacrificing depth? Would a first year of undergrad which discussed a number of disciplinary ways of looking at things go some way toward training more savvy graduates? Could we stand the reshuffle as students, more aware of disciplinary perspectives, realised that maybe they were future scientists, or architects, or mathematicians all along?

In a time of economic uncertainty, fast-moving technological and scientific research, and increasing interdisciplinarity, all at least in part born of the ways available to us to communicate and interact, these seem the kinds of questions that need to be addressed if we place value in educating for both uncertain employment and personal development.

EDIT: A caveat - There are subjects which don't fit, or problematically fit STEAM: where do we include sports, spirituality, philosophy, law, and medicine for instance? Arguably taught sports and medicine appeal to science, technology, mathematics, even art (and maybe human "engineering"?), but spirituality and philosophy are meant to be troubling. I don't think this ruins an embrace of STEAM as a model of categories of thought which deal with our predominant modes of creativity however; as a guiding principal it's intended only as a nice reminder, not the last word.