Tag Archives: speculation

An interview about ‘Unpleasant Design’

Unpleasant Design

The Unpleasant Design, Picture by the editors.

Unpleasant Design” is a stunning book by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic (@unpleasanting). It’s a collection of different research approaches to the pervasive presence of “defensible space”, i.e. physical features that prevent people from doing certain activities. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey the book is made of various case studies, photographs and essays about these “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities.

Given the relevance of this theme to the “Infra/Extraordinary” column of Ethnography Matters, I took this opportunity to ask the two editors a couple of questions.

EM: I have always been fascinated by the type of anti-design features you describe in the book, collecting examples myself in my travels. Both because it says something about our society and because of the design process behind them. On your side, what made you focus on this?

Unpleasant or anti-design is present all around the globe. We could observe a particularly widespread use of them in Europe. At the time we started this research, we were living between Rotterdam and The Hague and we still think that the Netherlands are at the forefront of applying Unpleasant Design. Unpleasant Design is of course not something that is practised on a national level, but it is very typical of Dutch cities to have strong control over public space and to regulate what can or cannot be done within it. This might have something to do with the weather not permitting a vibrant life on the street, but it also has something to do with the distribution of shared common goods (reflected in the lack of common staircases in buildings, each apartment havin their own street number). So we decided to give it a try, to start collecting and categorising unpleasant applications; hoping that we will arrive at a theory of Unpleasant Design – how is it made, by whom, against what and what does it bring to public space.

Anti-skateboard devices, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

EM:If you had to summarize your typology of anti-design features, how would you express it in terms of design as well as purposes?

On our blog, http://unpleasant.pravi.me we collected some typical unpleasant applications which we divided up into devices and objects. Within the devices group, we have light, sound and surveillance devices, while in the objects group we observe static things, such as benches, obstacles, surfaces and tactile objects. Typically, objects from the device group are addressing our basic human senses. This is by no means a final typology. It is a way to orient oneself within a wide variety of Unpleasant Design applications. It is also a way to distinguish Unpleasant Design from unsuccessful or failed design. What is really important in our research is that Unpleasant Design is foremost intentional. It is not a chair gone wrong. It is a chair which should make you get up after 15-20 minutes (in fast-food chains, this was reinforced by the design of uncomfortable seats, to keep up the fluctuation of customers and faster turnovers.)

The second very important thing about Unpleasant Design is that it always has a target audience, a group of people or a behaviour that it aims to discourage. In our research, we discovered it is usually one or all of these: homeless, youngsters, drug addicts (hello target group!). There is a funny metaphor for this in our case study of repellent systems against pigeons, which represent a paradigm for homeless, someone dirty and unwanted in your proximity. It is quite normal not to want to run into drug addicts injecting themselves in a public toilet, but there is something intrinsically mean about installing a blue light to discourage this behaviour. It is also a question of limits – today these three groups are the ones organised targeted by Unpleasant Design. Tomorrow it can be women on high heels, or men wearing a tie or a pair of glasses. Or it can be you.

EM:The resistance strategies you address in the book are also very informative. My best example for this is a pillow used on a very nasty fence in Lima so that people can go from one house to another. In your research, did you encounter this type of reaction? What do you think of them?

This is a great challenge for anyone with a critical mind and affinity for speculative design. So as soon as we identified the unpleasant agenda in urban spaces, we started thinking about ways to subvert it. In many cases, the resistance strategies highlight the very gist of the problem.

No one can sit under the Cross in Peru, Picture by Nicolas Nova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Travelling to different cities, we encountered some humorous interventions and adaptations to unfriendly surfaces and objects. We also organised a competition for Unpleasant Designs, asking for both pleasant and unpleasant submissions. Some very good ideas came out of this. There are also artworks that offer fun ways to overcome Unpleasantness which are featured in our book. From strategies addressing people’s basic needs and conditions (like the BAUM Lav’s SI8DO ‘pleasant’ urban furniture for immigrants or Michael Rakowitz’s ParaSITE housing units for homeless) to the more technology oriented interventions (like the CV Dazzle surveillance camouflage by Adam Harvey) they all uncover subtle attempts at conditioning or designing our behaviour in public space.

EM:Who benefit from these? Is there a class of citizen/institution that benefit from these anti-design features?

In the beginning we assumed all unpleasant installations are orchestrated by the city authorities, to secure order and raise the image of the city. For example, one of the most basic and most pervasive cases of Unpleasant Design is a park bench with armrests. When parks and metro stops are redesigned these days, they are equipped with such benches to ensure no one is going to use them as a bed.
After some research, we found that there is a whole other world of applications that are designed for private persons and companies to address unwanted users of space or unwanted behaviour. For example, shopping malls use unpleasant objects and devices to prevent young people from loitering. In some cases, we could argue that their video surveillance systems also begin to discriminate people who are potentially “no-consumers”. Systems equipped with computer vision software can target persons wearing hoodies or look for faces from a database of known criminals. A very popular device used by property owners – both private and commercial – was the infamous “Mosquito”, a buzzing teen deterrent that emits high frequency noise to ensue youngsters under 25 won’t spend too much time in their vicinity. All these examples are described in the essay “Technology Enabled Discrimination” in our book.
Unpleasant Design could also influence property value as an relational parameter on rental prices in the city, for example.
As we can see, both city policy makers, private property owners and citizens benefit to some extent from Unpleasant Design. But the application of these systems is not subject to any global standard for public spaces or human rights legislation. Subsequently, private interest groups start using unpleasant applications to influence the demographics of a place, and they can just do it on their own. What is the human scale of those installations? As a side-effect, by looking for Unpleasant Design we found out that public space is very often semi-privatized.

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)

Jan-H. Passoth

Jan-H. Passoth

Nicholas J. Rowland

Nicholas J. Rowland

Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.


Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better if you try that second time or a third time, and at any point after that. The writing of a genius wordsmith and the report of a serious scholar; how could they be comparable in any meaningful way? But because this series of blog-posts is exactly about fiction and ethnography, we will try to answer our own question, nevertheless, and, if we are lucky, harvest a few insights from creative writing to improve our academic writing. Not being literary experts, but scholars – and free time readers of David Foster Wallace´s works – we are neither willing nor able to deliver an exegesis on Wallace’s work or hazard any reconstruction of his style, inter-textual analysis, and surely we won’t – we cannot – document all the pop-cultural linkages Wallace employed in his work. But there is something that we can offer; when we read his dense, immersive prose, we cannot help but thinking that it sounds like ethnography … really, really good ethnography.

Post-Irony and Reportage

Easting Lobsters

“Lobsters” by Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The germ of an approach to writing-up qualitative results, which lives-on in Wallace’s works, is actually quite funny … and Wallace was dead-serious about that … about being funny. Take the plain and bold reportage of  Consider the Lobster: When Wallace adds footnote 6 – the one he is sure will not survive magazine-editing – to the disgusting description of the main eating tent and admits that: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience“, we are given an example of what a post-ironic reportage could be. This is not funny, it is not clever and not highbrow ironic. Despite the talk of late date modernity, ontology and a Lacan-like desire, this is dead serious. It is filled with details and disgust, detailed coverage blended with a firm attitude. Some folks are calling Wallace’s tone-turned-technique for writing a ‘post-ironic’ writing style. The term post-ironic is not new, it is not without its critiques, and, from what we can tell, lives mainly in film and literature (and explicitly not the social sciences). For example, in The Comedy, comedian and anti-humorist Tim Heidecker, both in form and content, portrays an individual living a post-ironic life,

… a man with unlimited options. An aging hipster in Brooklyn, he spends his days in aimless recreation with like-minded friends … in games of comic irreverence and mock sincerity. As Swanson grows restless of the safety a sheltered life offers him, he tests the limits of acceptable behavior, pushing the envelope in every way he can. (movieweb.com)

Serious humor can also be found Werner Herzog’s film Bad Lieutenant or nearly anything from Wes Anderson. Wallace is something of a poster boy for post-ironic prose, because his stories are hilarious, but, at the same time and with the same words, dead serious. Or, in the case of The Pale King, the unfinished and posthumously published last big work, the other way round: incredibly dry and serious, but awfully touching and even funny in a playfully, Kafka-esque fashion.


Again, any comparison between Wallace and qualitative research reports seems so unfair. David Foster Wallace was maybe the only author ever who was able to make the world of taxes fascinating; sorry record-keeping buffs, even Garfinkel, no matter how hard he wrote about the workplace during the 1940s and 1950s, simply cannot hold a candle to The Pale King. So, despite the unfairness of the comparison, there is still something to learn from Wallace about what our ethnographic accounts could be like. And our answer “What would Wallace write?”, of course, cannot be about mimicking Wallace’s writing style; that would be a dead-end for everyone but Wallace, and, after all, even Garfinkel, the master of ethnomethods, probably couldn’t match Wallace verb-for-verb, so we’re toast. It also cannot be about – and on this we are insistent – the ability to reach a wider audience; our reports in this endeavor called qualitative social science research cannot hinge on opening-up our audience or transforming how we target our work … if only because who knows what it would mean for tenure committees deciding on our fates in the academy. Of course, and above all, our research reports cannot be altered by delving into the fine art of crossing the boundary between fiction and serious scholarship; to wit, fictional ethnography would not constitute scholarship in the social sciences, would it? It worked for Daniel Defoe, but Robinson Crusoe was pretend; the reason to read ethnography, in contrast, is precisely because Mitch Duneier’s characters in Sidewalk were for sure real people. Instead of any of those sterile distractions, the only route forward involves considering – deeply – a concept at the heart of ethnography, qualitative methods, and “being” human, and that is reflexivity.


“IRS” by Alyson Hurt on flickr (CC-BY-NC)

Although most of David Foster Wallace texts are plainly reflexive endeavors, the one that stands out most is The Pale King – the unfinished piece about ways into and experiences working for the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Wallace wrote it, some say, for more than a decade. The piece stands as a good example of how much research must be done to produce such a text, which, we imagine, is quite similar to the sort of research necessary to produce a dense ethnographic report. From what is know about his work process, the book took years to mature. In the process, Wallace dug deep into the dry prose of IRS reports, the broader U.S. tax system, novels on the IRS, and, from what we hear, he even took accounting classes. For information rich reports to contain even a shred of serious humor or post-ironic wit, we need to understand how reflexivity figures into what ethnomeths-mogrels call ‘an accountable state of affairs’ – and reflexivity is a tool that David Foster Wallace was a true master of … an uncrowned king. Conceptualizing our ethnographic projects as preparatory work to produce a novel instead of a research report is tempting … quite tempting. But writing a novel, while it might seem more freeing and a more direct route to a different kind of truth, is not a practical solution for many of us in academia hired to work in social science departments. And, writing a novel seems likely awfully hard work. But we don’t have to. Wallace’s novel – and not just because of the so called “Author´s foreword” about 70 pages after the first word opened a fascinating, hidden-in-plain-sight world of taxes – is an incredible example of how to engage in reflexivity after all the lame turmoil of post-modern, meta-reflexive, self-positioning and the uber-lame deadlocks they have provided us with along the way. Wallace’s reflexivity, as we shall see, worked because it was self-exemplary.



“footnotes” produced by Nicholas J. Rowland and Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The upshot for us? We must recognize that reflexivity is a beloved and feared cornerstone of our ethnographic writing, as well as all other genres of producing reports based on qualitative methods, and, in a very special way, the only way to producing research on research. This is especially valuable for us because we need reflexivity to conduct research about research in Science & Technology Studies. But now, after years of trying to make our reports more and more reflexive – after Writing Culture and Ashmore´s wonderful, but ridiculous dissertation – we have the feeling that while we cannot stop being reflexive, because all accounts are automatically reflexive or they could not be communicated in the first place, there is no way to be more or less reflexive. Reflexivity, to cite Mike Lynch, is not an “academic virtue and a source of privileged knowledge” (Lynch 2000), but a practical and intransigent part of each and every human practice. Let’s return to Wallace for instruction on this matter; he writes: “Author here. […] David Wallace, age 40, SS No. 947-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deducible home office […] to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true” … and he means it. His comment is not a clever, ironic move toward self-positioning in the text and he is also not simply playing with fiction-truth in a fiction about truth. Wallace’s excerpt above is an exercise in what Latour (1988) called “infra-reflexivity”. As Latour long-ago instructed, Wallace found a way to let the book show marks of its own production; he offered the lived world and wrote it. Whether or not each detail in the story is true, in a scientific sense, simply does not matter. Whether or not the David Wallace in that passage is the David Foster Wallace that wrote The Pale King, simply does not matter. What does matter is that Wallace found a way to communicate to us how it is possible that anyone is able to provide such a clear and detailed account on the dullness and boredom that he experienced and which subsequently tries to capture for the reader. Though it is fiction, some of it must be true. No doubt, the account in the book is pretend – of that there can be no debate – however, there must have been years of research that went into the book, and, in principle, not all of can be made up – of that we are certain – it is totally implausible, if not impossible, that this fiction is fiction. We remember the secret pleasure we felt when not only browsing, but seriously digging through the masses and masses of footnoted footnotes that already made “Infinite Jest” so remarkable. We remember the James O. Incandenza filmography in footnote 24 and how it created the same kind of joy: the joy of reading not a good piece or fiction, but great piece of (ok, made up) research. We learn so many different things, we are even forced to remember so many details about sponsored years, tennis, special effects and films, spies and substance abuse. And what strikes us most is the fact that we enjoy it. We are not threatened away by rich descriptions, lists, cross-references and footnotes. We embrace them.

What Wallace offers us is an exceptionally rare and, thus, profoundly valuable example of infra-reflexivity. To appreciate infra-reflexivity, one must acknowledge the ‘sterile distraction’ (Booth 2000, 1) and ‘suicidal’ move (Adkins 2002, 337; Latour 1988, 169) that is meta-reflexivity, which is best defined as:

[a]n exercise in introspection [which] is usually concerned with improving the adequacy of the connection between analysis … and the objects [under analysis] … Far from raising any fundamental problem, this kind of reflexivity sustains and enhances the Scientific axiom of the research effort (Woolgar 1988, 22).

Self-referential looping and claims for methodological superiority, these forms of lame meta-reflexivity are not what Wallace has to teach us. In contrast, if, as Latour (1988, 170) writes:

meta-reflexivity is marked by an inflation of methods, infra-reflexivity is characterized by their deflation. Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

In this context, reflexivity refers to “any text that takes into account its own production,” but it is utterly unremarkable to be reflexive, and, on this point, Latour (1988, 168) and Lynch (2000, 34) appear to find common ground. What we don’t need is more self-referential looping in our texts; instead, we need texts that self-exemplifying. Thus, in true infra-reflexive form, we have learned that no number of additions, subtractions, self-referential looping, or any other reflexive gymnastics will make a paper more, less, definitively, or woefully reflexive. However, we did detect a wrinkle in Latour’s insistence that accounts be self-exemplary. As we read Wallace, the reflexivity comes through his prose without being the target of his prose or an explicit part of his narrative strategy; he is reflexive without telling us that he was being reflexive. He doesn’t wink. He being clever but does not insist on being clever. The openness of his reflexivity, which we consider self-exemplifying, is up to the reader. And we think Wallace might very well agree with Latour on this final point. Latour (1988, 171) writes, “my own text is in your hands and lives or dies through what you will do with it,” a comment he makes, without irony, in his writing about his writing. So, what might Wallace teach us that Garfinkel didn’t (or couldn’t)? We guess Wallace wouldn’t teach us anything; he’s shown us, and he did. He showed us what Latour (1988, 170) dared we should aspire to:

Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

The only difference between Latour and Wallace is that Wallace did it, and so should we when writing-up our qualitative results.

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Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design


Anne Galloway

Editor’s Note: Anne Galloway (@annegalloway) is Senior Lecturer at the School of Design (Victoria University of Wellington,) and Principal Investigator at Design Culture Lab. Coming from a background in anthropology and STS, Anne’s work focusses on relations between humans and nonhumans, and the development of creative research methods for understanding issues and controversies around science, technology and animals. In this first post of this month’s edition about Ethnography and Fiction, she gives her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction. More specifically, she describes various authors who inspired her work as well the relationship between ethnography and design.


For the past five years I’ve worked as a design ethnographer. I haven’t always called myself that—I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, a Master’s degree in Archaeology, and a PhD in Sociology—but I’ve always studied what people make in, and of, the world. And although I don’t feel much disciplinary allegiance, it would be disingenuous to say my disciplinary background, and their methods in particular, haven’t been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Perhaps because of my multidisciplinary education, I tend to have a rather idiosyncratic view of what design ethnography means. First, I do not use ethnography as a means to privilege people, and my approach to design ethnography is different from that which underpins much human- or user-centred design. My ethnographic practice is strongly informed by science and technology studies, most notably in their recognition of nonhumans as agents in everyday life, and by “multispecies ethnography“, which explicitly involves doing research with nonhuman animals. More generally, I see both ethnography and design as practices that re-assemble the complex assemblages to which we are already attached. And although I also see the need for ethnographic studies that directly inform design practices and products, and respect the people who do this valuable work, I don’t enjoy playing a support role to ‘real’ designers. I much prefer to find new ways of doing both ethnography and design.

So how do I teach ethnography to design students? First, I tell them that if they’ve ever wondered why people do things, or how things got to be the way they are, then they’re already part ethnographer. I say that my job is to help them get better at asking and answering social and cultural questions, because understanding and building entire worlds is a huge challenge that no single discipline can accomplish on its own. And I tell them that I believe the best designers are those who understand that what they’re doing is cultural innovation, which requires them to move beyond both personal impression and expression, as well as any self-righteous desire to ‘fix’ the world. My approach to design ethnography binds us to others, and I place a lot of emphasis on the need to develop a social ethics, rather than relying solely on personal interests and beliefs.

Over the years I’ve observed that design students often have much better observation and documentation skills than sociology and anthropology students do, but they appear to struggle greatly with how to interpret the information and represent this knowledge to other people. On the other hand, anthropology and sociology students often have superior analytical skills but are terribly limited in their desire or ability to communicate in anything other than the written word—even when their topic is visual or material culture. Consequently, I’ve come to think that ethnography makes design better as much as design makes ethnography better, and in that sense I believe we can serve each other equally.

Read More… Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design

September 2013: Ethnography, Speculative Fiction and Design

This month’s theme is about the relationships between ethnography and fiction. It is not necessarily something that we explored a lot here at Ethnography Matters, which is why it seemed an interesting topic for this September edition. Another reason to address this now is because of recent experimental ways of “doing ethnography” (e.g. the work by Ellis & Bochner or Denzin), as well as curious interdisciplinary work at the cross-roads of design, science-fiction and ethnography (e.g. design fiction).

Of course, in Anthropology, the border between ethnography and fiction has always been very thin. Consider how ethnographers have written fictional novels or made speculative films, more or less based on field research. Also think about “docufictions” by Jean Rouch, a blend of documentary and fictional film in the area of visual anthropology. There are lots of reasons for using fictional methods, but there’s a general interest in going beyond scientific format/language by making ethnographic accounts more “engaging, palatable, and effective“.

For that matter, Tobias Hecht gives a rather good definition of what we will address in this month’s edition:

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

What’s interesting here is that “storytelling” can take many narrative forms. Of course, a great deal of ethnographic fiction corresponds to short stories, novels, films and documentary. However, there are plenty of other possibilities. People interested in fantasy role-playing games are used to thick bestiaries of fictional creatures. In such documents, animals or monsters are described with drawings, a fictional background, statistics (frequency, magic resistance, armor class…) and a profusion of material concerning their habitat, their rituals and their behavior. The level of details provided by the authors is generally tremendous. Another interesting example here is the “Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual” by Franz Joseph. This book, presented as a collection of factual documents, presents the spacecraft of Start Trek, with uniforms, weapons, devices and military protocols. To some extent, it describes the author’s take on this fictional universe, and it’s sometimes inaccurate according to Trekkies. However, for an ethnographer like me, this manual is incredibly intriguing as it shows a peculiar way to present fieldwork, and makes me wonder about the most convincing and engaging formats.

Star Trek

Artifacts from Star Trek, Picture by Julian Bleecker CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both role-playing game bestiaries and SciFi tech manuals are interesting because they have a certain format and use particular conventions: technical diagrams and schematics, zoological-like classification, etc. By making things appear factual they attempt to suspend the reader’s disbelief. However, they are still textual, which leads us to wonder whether other artifacts might have the same power of attraction. Obviously, there are plenty of good examples of designed objects that can count as “fictional ethnographies”: maps of fictional universes (e.g. Lord of the Rings), and museum exhibits presenting props from science fiction films can be seen as similar vehicles.

In design circles, the current interest in “design fiction” is geared towards exploring how prototyping and storytelling can benefit from each other. Design fiction use standard objects and media conventions as a way to express ideas about the future: a fake product catalogue, a map of a fictional area, a journal, a short video showing a day in the life of a person, etc. One can see design fiction as similar to science fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, as well as speculating about the course of events… which is obviously close to what a certain kind of ethnography is interested in. This ability to flesh out the details of alternative futures can be seen as an intriguing form of speculative ethnography with a specific focus on original format.

In this edition, we’ll address ethnography and fiction with the following contributors:

  • Anne Galloway, an ethnographer interested in material, visual and discursive aspects of technology, will give her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction.
  • Laura Forlano, from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, will address what ethnographers can learn from science fiction and speculative design. Based on examples from design and popular culture, she will explore the generative and analytic potential of “design fiction”.
  • Jan-Hendrik Passoth, sociologist at TU Berlin and Nicholas Rowland, Associate Professor at PSU, will address post-ironic ethnography, reportage style and David Foster Wallace.

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