“Curious Rituals”: behind the scenes of a speculative ethnographic project

Cell phone inserted in a helmet

Cell phone usage by a courier in Seoul, Korea.

Curious rituals” is a research project I’ve conducted last summer as a visiting researcher at the Art Center School of Design (Media Design Practice program) in Pasadena, CA. The aim was to (a) investigate the gestures and postures people do when using digital devices,  and (b) speculate about their near future. The project book can be found for free as a PDF and printed as a book on Lulu.
General interest

There’s a quote by Science-Fiction author William Gibson that I like a lot; it reflects what I am interested in.

I’m trying to make the moment accessible. I’m not even trying to explain the moment, I’m just trying to make the moment accessible.” (from a documentary film called No Maps for These Territories“).

The reason I find it fascinating is simply that there’s a great value in producing description and making social situations and people’s behavior intelligible. Although the field studies conducted in ethnographic research can (and do) help craft theoretical constructs or models, the accurate and detailed description of what happens before our eyes is also important. This descriptive dimension is probably of interest to me because I work in the design department of an art school. A descriptive understanding of reality may be sufficient enough to inspire or frame the work of practitioners (while theories may be a bit more difficult to be digested). This is a general starting point in my work, which does not necessarily means that it’s a-theoretical (this choice itself emerges out of my interest in Grounded Theory anyways).

Why this topic?

Over the last five years, I’ve worked on different projects related to digital technologies: gesture-based interface in video-games, remote-control as gaming devices, touch interfaces, the user experience of virtual reality goggles, etc. The investigation addressed various angles but I noticed a common thread in the results: the body language people develop when using digital devices such as cell phones, laptops, robots, game controllers, sensors or any interface that involved ICTs. I started compiling examples, mostly via pictures one can find in my Flickr stream. The intuition was that it would be intriguing to explore that domain, and understand the underlying issues related to such habits. The opportunity to spend two months at the Media Design Practice department at Art Center College of Design in California then came as relevant context to investigate this topic more thoroughly.

With the team (Kathy Myiake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu), we chose to use the term “rituals” without the religious or solemn connotation, referring instead to a series of actions regularly and invariably followed by someone.

Field work and analysis

The “field” component of the project was divided into two parts. The first part consisted in the accumulation of material that I collected in the last five years: pictures, notes, quotes from various projects conducted in Western Europe. The second part was a set of observations and interviews we did in Los Angeles. In order to identify a wide array of “rituals” based on distinct contexts, we selected different types of venues to run these observations: shopping mall, streets, cars, people’s home (room, living room, garden), public transports, schools, beach. In terms of methods, the idea was to articulate observation (based on photography and video) with interviews in order to get informant’s perspective and contrast our understanding with how they made sense of their body language.

After three weeks of data collection, we created clusters of similar gesture/postures/rituals (as seen on the wall represented above). For each of these categories, we selected a certain number of cases that could be considered as typical. The choices we have made can be seen as a subjective focus on specific cases that we found relevant. More specifically, the gestures we selected have been aggregated into seven clusters that can be considered as a snapshot of the issues we encountered: classic gestures, nervous movements, fixing strategies, holding devices, vocabulary set by designers, personal tactics to make use of technologies and new social interactions. Such categories reflects both types of gestures (fixing, holding) and also personal motivations (nervousness, curiosity).

Book outcome

Each gestures, and each category, has cultural, social and design implications. However, as this project was conducted in a design context, we did not want to go for the usual book format with mostly texts. Being used to presenting field results with photographs, I was interested in finding another format. Our brainstorm sessions, as well as examples of other projects in this area led us to find a middle-ground with drawings that could illustrate what we saw.


We found that this solution would be relevant as it allowed to focus on specific details, remove the unnecessary aspects, and explain the whole things with text. Speaking about documenting this, the text was meant to describe the said gestures, offer theoretical references when it made sens (e.g. discussing presentation of self in conjunction with Goffman’s perspective, the repurposing of technical artifacts with De Certeau’s viewpoint) and highlight the design implications.

The book is thus a compendium of such categories gestures, with an insightful introduction by Dan Hill whom I contacted because of his shared interest in this topic. We also chose to put it on a print-on-demand platform (Lulu) with a free PDF version under a creative common license.

Regarding digital technologies more specifically, such an endeavor is important because it helps to show how the use of devices is a joint construction between designers and users. Some of the gestures we described here indeed emerged from people’s everyday practices, either from a naïve perspective (lifting up one’s finger in a cell phone conversation to have better signal) or because they’re simply more practical (watching a movie in bed with the laptop shifted). Even the ones that have been “created” by designers (pinching, taps, swipes, clicks) did not come out from the blue; they have been transferred from existing habits using other objects. The description of these postures, gestures and rituals should be seen as a way to reveal the way users “domesticate” new technologies

Empirical speculations

However, the project has a second part: an exploration of potentially new kinds of gestures and postures in the near future. Based on the behavior we noticed, we were interested in how the type of situations and the motivations we uncovered would appear when using upcoming technologies.

In order to do that, we created two lists: one with gestures/postures/rituals/motivation, one with a list of potentially new technologies (based on patents, reports from futurists, think-tanks and consulting firms). We then listed the intriguing relationships between both lists, which led us to discuss such questions: What will be the nervous tics of users who employ facial recognition systems? Will we still gesticulate when using brain-computer interfaces? How would people skip ads while using their virtual reality glasses? This led us to the big list represented below, presented with my (bad) cursive writing. We tried to find relevant, original and sometimes funny answers to these questions.

From this, we worked on a film script that could encapsulate such ideas via different vignettes… that has been used to create the following design fiction video. The props we used (based on the analysis described above) were pretty simple and we had to think about certain visual/sound tricks to make their use realistic. For instance, all of the props are not functional, they’re just form factors aimed at “suspending the viewer’s disbelief”.

A Digital Tomorrow from Nicolas Nova on Vimeo.

Speculation about emerging gestures is, IMHO, meant to explore the alternative uses of digital devices we only see through glossy and slick videos produced by multinational corporations. Beyond the standard representations of the digital future, often staged in aseptic environments, we wanted to investigate the human situations of the everyday. By showing those moments you never encounter in corporate videos – when augmented reality glasses becomes annoying or whenever sensors lead to awkward social situations – we wanted to adopt a more ironic perspective on those projects sold to us as “inevitable”.

So what?

The main lesson here is that this project exemplifies how ethnographic work can be articulated with a more speculative dimension. Field research was used a an empirical starting point to reflect on alternative near-future worlds. This is a research angle that I now try to apply in workshop with students, as a way to teach them how to deploy such kind of approach.

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