Photography/technography: a call for help

Aug 06 2014


As some of you already know, as part of my PhD research at the STEPS Centre, I’m going to be heading out to Gujarat (northwest India) later in the year, to start a period of fieldwork on urban water supply infrastructure. At this stage, I’m planning on focusing on the activity of city engineers, plumbers and field technicians, and people making use of water storage and rainwater harvesting apparatus in their own homes and workplaces.

Building on research undertaken at Wageningen University in the Netherland, I’m framing my research as a technography; something that, at its simplest, can be described as ‘the ethnography of technology-in-use’ (Glover, 2011); looking less what people say (in interviews, focus groups, etc.) than what they actually do — their use of tools, technology and various forms of organisation to work (together?) and get things done.

As part of my research, I’m intending to use photography to create a record of the sequence of activities undertaken by the groups that I’m going to be studying, and with this in mind, have signed up for a documentary photography short course at the LCC in early September. This isn’t going to be conventional portrait or landscape photography, but nor is it story-driven photojournalism. It’s going to require a sensitivity towards those I’m working with, a certain agility and responsiveness, and an ability to filter what’s relevant from what isn’t.

As far as I can see, the only way I’m going to be able to develop this particular (and quite specific) set of skills is through first-hand experience, and I’m eager to get a sense of how this might work before I go. With this in mind, I’m looking for people based in the southeast of the UK or in London; whose work (or hobby) involves making, tool-use, or working with others to achieve specific ends; and who wouldn’t mind a slightly awkward researcher with a camera hanging out in their workspace for a day or half day in late August, or September.

If anyone has any leads, however vague, or if you just want to get a bit more information about what I’m up to, send me an email at <justin(dot)pickard(at)gmail(dot)com>.

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The Unrecognised Gas Bladder

Jun 20 2014

The Túnel coach has been further delayed. Ducking into the public bus shelter in the hope of evading the all-permeating liquid mist, you jostle for space with a Swiss pensioner in a dated wearable, two identikit businessmen, a gaggle of furtive students, and a young African woman talking excitedly in heavily-accented Portuguese. Sliding through the headlines, the world sluices in through the periphery of your consciousness — smouldering conifers, rolling brownouts, dead songbirds.

The coach rolls up just as you consider cutting your losses and hailing a car. An exhalation of pressure as it lowers to let the Túnel party faithful on board. The pensioner shoots you a look of unconcealed loathing as you touch your ring to the reader. The light blinks green, and you shuffle to the back of the vehicle. Bags thrown into the overhead rack; arms and legs contorted as you wedge your body into a window seat. A city glimpsed through fogged glass, then a border crossing. The coach grinds to a standstill. Chicken wire mesh fences and floodlights; machine guns; sniffer dogs; berets and Kevlar and heads-up displays. Documents are checked, identities confirmed, and the coach pulls back out into the gloom.

Eventually: ‘TÚNEL.’ The cooperative’s name and logo are the only lights in the fog, the obnoxious, backlit san serif a lighthouse guiding them in to land, each letter the size of a small van stood on its nose. You still aren’t quite clear on what it was that attracted the Mexicans to the former CERN complex in the first place. Perhaps an echo of the aura and prestige of ‘big science’ had lingered, even as the desks, lunch tables, and server racks of yesterday’s scientists and graduate students were consigned to a phalanx of rented skips. Perhaps the company founders were simply suckers for a vintage piece of mega-engineering, or got some perverse kick from filling the pipes and tunnels of what was once a glimmering cathedral of transnational scientific collaboration with a shoal of genefixed Latin American salmon. Allowing for a grim, thin-lipped smile, you lever the bag down from the overhead rack as the coach pulls to a stop, and prepare to disembark.


Bonjour, monsieur. Sorry for keeping you waiting. What seems to be the issue?” Sonja scratches her nose with the iridescent gilt nail of the little finger on her left hand.

“Ah.” The caller looks up. “The house meter isn’t working. The bladder is in the socket, and the seal worked, but your system won’t recognise it.” Cow farts, subvocalized Sonja, mentally consigning the board of Helvetic Biogas to the eighth circle of hell.

She leaves it slightly too long, and the next line of the script flashes up on the prompter. REQUEST TAG CHECK.

“And the tag?” A rustle of papers and fabric, as the caller steps away from their screen. After a brief silence, she leans in: “It should be at the bottom.”

“The light is green. It’s on and broadcasting, and everything.”

“Right. Well, have you tried—”

“I’ve done everything the agent suggested.” He sounds as tired as she feels.

With an audible sigh, Sonja pulls up a map of the neighbourhood; enters some numbers into a cell in a spreadsheet; tucks an errant strand of hair back behind her ear as the route-planning algorithms do their thing. “Right. One of our field technicians is already in the area, monsieur. I’ve added you to her roster; she should be with you within the hour.”

Disconnecting the call, Sonja removes her earbuds, and, with a flick of her wrist, puts the camera to sleep. She glances down at the agency dashboard, a thin strip of translucent white across the bottom of her screen. She’s banked enough calls from earlier in the week to extend her mid-morning break by a good half-hour. Should be long enough to nip down to Denner and get some of the sundries Jay and their neighbours have added to the shared list.

‘Biofortified milk, dried cricket protein, sanitary towels, toilet paper, piracetam.’

Grabbing a coat, backpack, and umbrella, she takes the tiny, rickety lift down to the building lobby. Fliers for ayurvedic medicine, child-minders, distance learning tutors. A handwritten ad for firewood. Putting her bag down beside the letterboxes, she unzips it, reaches in, and pulls out a small shrink-wrapped parcel blazoned with translucent Chinese characters. Ripping through the thin plastic, she removes a protective face mask and pulls it over her head. It’s slightly too small, and the elastic cuts into her ears. Pulling on her rucksack, she eyes the main door. ‘This handle,’ it reads, ‘is disinfected four times a day.’ Sonja isn’t convinced. Pushing the main door open with her elbow, she steps out into the biodiesel-tinged drizzle of Geneva in the spring.

In the skies to the west, against a slate grey backdrop of snowless mountain peaks, a mid-altitude platform cycles through ads for bacterial detergent, solar installation loans, and Catalan electric bikes. To the south-east, far beyond the swings and rusted roundabout of the neighbourhood park, cows in bulging backpacks shift and shuffle awkwardly on a far hillside. If she cranes her neck just right, Sonja can hear the distant hum of surveillance drones, circling overhead. Gritting her teeth beneath the mask, she pulls up the collar on her fleece, and flags down a passing car.


Written by Justin Pickard for Superflux, as scene-setting for their week-long HEAD MEDIA DESIGN workshop ‘FAILED STATES: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures.’

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2013: The Year in Review

Dec 30 2013

2013 was a chain of islands in a rough and inky sea.

A gathering together of network-enabled weirdos: in a listed former town hall, an empty office block in Manchester, a Brighton coffee shop, a Dutch art gallery, on an East German fishing boat, at a synthetic biology conference at a London university.

A four-thousand word essay on the open hardware efforts of a Polish-American physics graduate. Twenty-thousand words of MSc thesis, written at speed. A preliminary PhD research proposal. A fast-talking, gin-fuelled podcast on science, technology and innovation. A blog post for The Guardian. A series of slightly-too-long talks on 3D printing, design futures, and philanthropy & appropriate technology.

A day lost in Harvard’s Arnold arboretum. A compendium of surreal Japanese ghost stories, translated by a Greek-Irish journalist a hundred year prior, read from the Kindle in an American burger restaurant as the Snowden saga unwound, in real-time, on satellite TV. A feather from a dead turkey found while walking in the New Hampshire woods.

Sensible questions asked of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. A day spent pretending to be an African subsistence farmer. A day spent trying to convince people I wasn’t a Cylon.

A Sunday morning in Eno River State Park with a university friend, his wife, their dog, and my hangover. Terrible country music, North Carolina barbecue, and Bomberman on the Wii.

A lidar elephant. The bar-tailed godwit. Drones and solar panels and shipping containers and ramps and data-sniffing bins and Google Glass.

2×2 matrices, sketched out with masking tape on an auditorium wall. A tower of smartphones, stacked face-down. Golden rice.

Coffee with a sound artist, with an urbanist, with any number of self-consciously grumpy PhD students. Beer with my brother, my father, former lecturers, and friends. Wine on the roof of a seafront apartment block, after an academic conference, shared with friends on a train. Honest conversations about the future, about family, responsibility, and adulthood in an absence of ready-made scripts.

Private security on campus, and friends on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Skype lag, power outages, and the weight of national borders.

A desk of my own.

The eldritch peaks and troughs of a theremin in the old police cells beneath Brighton town hall, and again, later, layered over field recordings of Arctic wind in the museum’s ice age gallery. A moment of clarity in the middle of an otherwise utterly overwhelming homecoming gig. Mallorcan bagpipes at an ethnomusicology conference. The thrumming of a flatmate’s electric guitar.

Digital photos of Google Maps, postal addresses, and Twitter DMs. Brunch in a diner in Dalston, then a walk along Regent’s canal. A live reading of Jose Luis Borges in a library conference room for Día de Muertos. Birdwatching at Birling Gap.

A stuffed bluejay and a squirrel with an ear trumpetA fictional court case. The drawing of a fly in the men’s urinals at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport, both in itself, as something real, and again, later, as an illustration of ‘nudge’ theory.

 The effervescent froth of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, watched, with colleagues, in a North Carolina movie theatre. One hundred episodes of The Good Wife. The second season of Enlightened; the fourth season of Arrested Development. The second episode of the second series of Black Mirror. Borrowed graphic novels. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight BehaviourWelcome to Night Vale. YouTube videos of someone else playing The Last Of Us. Bruce Sterling’s Distraction, read in a half-hearted attempt to ignore the turbulence on a night flight from North Carolina to London Heathrow, as the flight crew talked about David Bowie and danced in the aisle.

The reedy voice of David Willetts, UK Minister for Science and Universities. An incorrect bet on the outcome of the German elections. The ever-present ghost of climate change.

A crowdfunded adventure game about a non-existent Kentucky highway.

Misgivings, judgements, anxiety, stress and exhaustion. Grumpy emails sent and received. Procrastination. Insomnia. Failure to leave the house. Friends, new and old, who caught me as I fell.

28 American teenagers wandering, baffled, through a $1.2 million smart home. An Indian tourist visa. Christmas carols, e-cigarettes, and the internet-of-things. The sketchbook of a friendly Angeleno graffiti artist encountered at RDU.

Bitcoin sent to the wrong address, a dead mobile phone, and love for a standard issue Zimbabwe bush pump. An improvised Chinese hornet-killing flame thrower. The invisible, propositional contours of an anarchist innovation studies.

A photoshopped image of the author as Winston Churchill, pasted by an unknown student into a collaborative, live-authored spreadsheet. A pulvarised jet engine, spread upon the floor.

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The dangers of ‘technology’ (Leo Marx)

Apr 07 2013

‘In contemporary discourse, private and public, technologies are habitually represented by “things”—by their most conspicuous artifactual embodiments: transportation technology by automobiles, airplanes, and railroads; nuclear technology by reactors, power plants, and bombs; information technology by computers, mobile telephones, and television; and so on. By consigning technologies to the realm of things, this well-established iconography distracts attention from the human—socioeconomic and political—relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes. Because most technologies in our corporate capitalist system have the legal status of private property, vital decisions about their use are made by the individual businessmen who own them or by the corporate managers and government officials who exercise the virtual rights of ownership. The complexity and obscurity of the legal relations governing the use of our technologies, abetted by the reification that assigns them to the realm of things—all of these help to create the aura of “phantom objectivity” that envelops them.’

 Leo Marx, ‘Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept’ (2010)

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Viewer discretion cannot be advised (Jay Springett)

Mar 30 2013

This has been rattling around my head for a good couple of weeks now. Significant.

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Futures & representational materiality (Michael, 2000)

Mar 19 2013

Great Innovation

‘My treatment of these representations of the future has been just that – a consideration of representations: stories, characters, discourses, motifs, metaphors and so on and so forth. However, … these representations are grounded in the material. The performativity of these representations does not take place in some abstracted a-material domain. It is conducted in material settings, where bodies and texts, for example, come into contact or close proximity…’

— M. Michael, ‘Futures of the Present’, in Contested Futures (2000)

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Attention games

Mar 10 2013

Tower of phones

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Cyborg practices?

Mar 10 2013

‘More abstractly, actor-network theory has inspired politically and philosophically intriguing debates about the relation between humans and the non-humans with whom they are their lives, but has ironically done so in ways that divert attention away from more ordinary questions about what these cyborg/hybrid entities are actually doing.’

— Elizabeth Shove et al., The Dynamics of Social Practice (2012), p. 10.


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#Lift13: the after-action report

Feb 11 2013

I was in Geneva last week for Lift13, the eighth iteration of an annual conference exploring ‘the business and social implications of technological innovation’. I’d tunnelled into last year’s conference with a press pass, and helped Nicolas Nova run a workshop exploring some possible futures at the intersection of nomadic work, mobility and big data, which went something like this …


This year, I gave a talk about 3D printing and design. My first talk to an audience of this size, it was slightly too long and – in retrospect – wildly overambitious, but seemed to go down well. A great learning opportunity and a broad success, particularly you take into account I’d spent most of the preceding fortnight substituting coffee for sleep. I’ll probably get around to putting up the slides at some point, but, in the meantime, you can watch it here.

Much more importantly, I fell into a series of incredible 1-on-1 conversations with gnarly, multi-faceted individuals, and was lucky to be able to bask in the reflected glory of the other speakers. IMO, those talks that worked best tended to approach the question of technology and innovation from an oblique angle, and I want to spotlight a few of my favourites. I’m going to pass on offering any notes or commentary (for now, at least), as I think they speak for themselves.

Venkatesh Rao:

Christopher Kirkley:

Sebastian Dieguez:

And with that out of the way, I can brute force the phantom conference syndrome and reverse culture shock, start processing some of the many new inputs, and get on with the rest of my life.

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Speculative techno-geographies: Hussites & Heliographs

Feb 02 2013

(Excerpt from a piece published in The State, the UAE’s premier themed critical-spec-lit-cultural journal-thing. There may be another to follow, and this one might turn up again sometime in the future as an RPG campaign book, or the setting for some short fiction. Be warned.)

Hory Kutné, Commonwealth of God, 1519

Kuneticka Hora

(image by Marek Prokop, CC-A-NC)

Messianic Christianity, mine-ready steam pumps, and an early modern internet-of-lighthouses.

In 1270, a Bohemian merchant travelling in the Mongol Ilkhanate secures access to a collection of works by Al-Razi, a 10th-century Persian physician. Alongside treatises on medical ethics, pharmacy, and metaphysics, the documents include a method for creating mirrored surfaces by coating glass with a thin layer of molten silver. Upon the trader’s return home to Prague, copies of Al-Razi’s writings are appropriated by the ruling Premsylid dynasty. While the texts’ anatomical insights are studied by court healers and apothecaries, decorative mirrors are embraced by a fashion-hungry ruling class, who see the reflective baubles as a means of flaunting wealth and status.

Silver deposits are discovered in the monastery town of Hory Kutné in 1298. With the recent outbreak of ‘mirror madness’ still fresh in the minds of its rulers, the King of Bohemia takes control of the mine; silver is declared a royal monopoly. This will prove to be one of the richest silver operations in Europe. It produces—at its peak—as much as twenty tonnes of silver a year, pulling in labour from across central Europe, and stoking the fires of the Bohemian economy. As the combination of commodity and silvering technology spreads through the various strata of society, it reaches the newly-established Charles University in Prague.

Within the university’s gates, Al-Razi’s work is adopted—and adapted—by the Knights of Judith Bridge, a secretive group of scholars and natural philosophers. Over the next few years, they dedicate their energies to perfecting the technology, juggling an ever-shifting assemblage of candles, shutters and silvered lenses. Riddled with flaws, the cast-offs and aborted failures nonetheless colonise the walls and towers of the university. They provide a sprawling communication infrastructure: a localised network of signalling lanterns, embraced by students and professors alike.

These mighty strides in the science of optics coincide with a period of significant religious turmoil. Elsewhere in Europe, as many as three competing popes lay claim to the religious authority of the Western church; the Bohemian king continues to espouse a policy of strict neutrality. However, Jan Hus—a reformist priest and rector of Prague’s university—finds the space to condemn the strict structural hierarchies and temporal excess of the church. Hus and his confederates issue a manifesto calling for the provision of worship in the local vernacular, rather than Latin, and an end to clerical authority. While attracting accusations of heresy from the religious elite, these calls prove popular among the independent-minded Bohemian peasantry, who have come to bristle at the barefaced corruption of Rome.

With Bohemia’s ruling dynasty keen to find a conclusion to the spiritual strife, in 1415 Hus finally accedes to his lords’ request to help negotiate peace and church reform. He feels secure in their guarantee of his liberty. Upon his arrival in the imperial city of Konstanz, however, he is promptly accused of heresy and imprisoned. Refusing to recant his complaints, a conclave of attendees condemn Hus to execution by burning.

News of this betrayal sparks a popular insurrection against an already ill-regarded church authority, along with the Bohemian monarchy and the imperialism of the Holy Roman Empire. Priests are driven from their parishes, towns and villages are put to the torch, and in Prague, the burgomaster and governing council are thrown from the windows of the town hall by a crowd of self-declared ‘Hussites.’ With the support of sympathetic students and professors expelled from Charles University, Hussite forces erect and fortify a series of mirrored signalling towers. Hussite-controlled towns and cities across Bohemia—and later, Poland and Hungary—are brought into constant contact.

The combination of swift communication, highly-mobile fortifications and widespread popular support proves decisive. Agile and networked, Hussites forces rout two, then three crusades launched by the anti-Christ in Rome. At the same time, they are able to successfully suppress domestic resistance from papists and royalists, outbreaks of disease, and the malign influence of smugglers and war profiteers. In 1432, Hussite knights execute the remaining members of the Bohemian royal family during their flight across the Alps; in 1447, the flag of the red chalice is raised over Prague. This symbol signals the formal declaration of a Commonwealth of God. It will be a decentralised empire bound by messianic and mystical Christianity, an elective monarchy, and an increasingly sophisticated trunk network.

By 1519, Inner Bohemia has become the economic heartland of an empire which covers a third of Europe: it stretches from the wind-battered Baltic port of Králove to the rocky shores of the Adriatic. Hory Kutné, the Silver City, is among its most important settlements. As a centre of mines and markets, production and consumption unfold cheek-by-jowl. The city is rife with catacombs and exhausted mine shafts. Subsidence and landslides become accepted as an inevitable cost of doing business, with neither the means nor the political will to ensure the safety of workers and inhabitants.

Once every few years, at the discretion of a good-tempered pit-boss, there may be a large enough gap for a technological quick-fix. Born of a need to keep the silver mines free from flooding by groundwater, Hory Kutné becomes the birthplace of the first functional steam pumps. As a key element in the race to exploit ever-less-accessible silver deposits, these pumps kick start a secondary market for coal. By 1519, the coal-burning revolution is at a dizzying peak of overinflated expectations, with mine bosses using the new pumps to support complexes of ever-greater capacity. The full impact of coal smoke on the health and livelihood of the city’s inhabitants will not be felt for a decade yet. By the time the environmental crisis hits the cities, some of the worst smogs will require those venturing out to wear scarves soaked in vinegar across the face, while cities keep their signal towers lit as landmarks for wayward travellers.

Hory Kutné is also home to the Commonwealth ossuaries, a vast necropolis of churches, crypts and catacombs given over to the bones—primarily, the skulls—of the those martyred to the Hussite cause. At the interface of these ghoulish remains and the flashing gleams of the signalling towers, a singular bureaucracy has arisen; a teetering machinery of cowled clerks and officials spend their days chasing genealogical memoranda, heraldic records, and chits governing the movement of bodies—living and dead.

*dramatic chord*

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