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E-governance and the Center for Technology in Government

In my NSF grant prep research activities, I have come across a group doing cool work from an E-government perspective. University of Albany has a Center for Technology in Government.

It has been around since 1993 and according to its summary:

  • conducted 25 partnership projects, which produced outcomes that have helped state, local, and federal government agencies improve services and operations;
  • partnered with 57 government agencies, 42 corporate organizations, and 14 academic institutions and research organizations;
  • issued more than 60 publications designed to support the work of government professionals and contribute to the field of research on IT innovation in government organizations;
  • developed 12 prototype systems that have answered critical policy, management, organizational, and technology questions;
  • received 16 research grants and fee-for-service contracts for over $5.5 million;
  • been honored with 8 state and national awards such as the Ford Foundation's Innovations in American Government award; and provided data and support to more than 20 doctoral dissertations and masters projects.

Dr. G Brian Burke is the Senior Program Associate.

They just won an NSF grant (which has a sub-section on Digital Government Research) to establish four international working groups on the topics of (1) International Research on Global Collaboration, (2) Urban Livability, (3) Citizen Participation, and (4) Public Health and Safety.

The citizen participation project focuses on "... creating an International Working Group (IWG on Online Consultation and Public Policy Making. The overarching questions motivating its research will be (a) how to evaluate the policy and other social impacts of online citizen consultation initiatives aimed at influencing actual
government decision making, and (b) how the optimal design of such initiatives is affected by cultural, social, legal and institutional context."

Art and Design Critique Week at UIC

The past week (Tuesday to Friday), I attended the art and design critiques held at UIC. Tuesday was the first of four days of Studio Arts MFA critiques. Wednesday was for Electronic Visualization MFA and senior graphic design thesis in the afternoon. Thursday and Friday were graphic design MFA critiques.

One of the advantages of my meta-disciplinary role is that I am encouraged to gain a wide view of what the School of Art and Design is doing for its students and its reputation. To see the similarities and differences in perspectives as such an enlightening experience. The key concepts that hold the week together are (1) the various relationships to "indeterminacy" in art and design, (2) the communication of the specific and/or the universalistic in creative intentionality and decision-making, and (3) the contextualizing discourse of the critique.

Indeterminacy, the state of not being clearly ascertained, described, or calculated

I was surprised in the critiques by the way in which the students handled or did not handle indeterminacy. In the art critiques, the students embraced indeterminacy like a safety blanket. When pressure to provide a reason for either their work or curatorial decisions, they would say, "I want to leave that up to the audience." This was not accepted by me or the other critics, who again emphasized that art needs to communicate, even if it is communicating no particular message.

In the EV critiques, the technical learning curve made them be more calculated in their intentions from a tool perspective, yet their subject matter for their technical concepts were indeterminable. Meaning, there was nothing specific about whether they used 3D stereoscope for a black and white graveyard scene or a fly over the New Mexico desert. Leaving me and others, the feeling that they tried things (motion sensors to activate films, Cubist cinematic effects, robot-like shrimp) because they seemed technically cool to do as opposed to pushing some conceptual statement about the world.

Graphic design students on the other hand struggled with the two classes that afforded them lots of indeterminacy. My class in research methods and, my colleague, Jorg Becker's graphic design conceptualization course. It is my belief that graphic design positions itself as a problem-solving field and less as a problem framing or generating field. Both courses required lots of research to frame and/or generate the problem. My course's research was by nature more systematic and rigorous while Jorg's was more impressionistic and inspirational, but the intent was to force the students to define a problem before seeking to solve it through their formal design skills. In the student presentations, they talked poignantly about their frustration and confusion with designing from positions not their own and coming up with an actionable problem statement(s) by which to derive a conceptual solution. 

Thus the challenge of an art and design education is managing indeterminacy so that their is enough mystery to find the approach and solution compelling, yet enough description or calculation to enable a clarity of intention to the audience.

the Challenge of Communication, the successful conveying of feelings and ideas

The ability for a painting, sculpture, interactive piece, film, poster, or narrative to communicate successfully is the evaluative criteria of all critiques. It is the delicate dance between creative author's intentionality and audience's interpretation of the work (which can be completely separate from the author's intentions).  For me, the goal of the creative author is to have enough awareness of the interpretive possibilities so to be able to guide the audience to interpretations that have the highest spiritual, emotional, and intellectual payoffs, in others words, that create a moment of communion with the world. The challenge is dialing up or down the specificity or universality of the ideas until they research a gestalt moment of specific universality or universal specificity. This challenge was present in all of the art and design critiques, but it hit home with me in the art critiques.

There is one art student who had done a series of painting of gem-like mountains and then a drawing of Snow White with the words "Puta" and "Run" on it. The key painting was this large canvas with layered white paint, but a grey box that looked like a screen or mirror with a pink gem-like mountain reflected in it. In his statement, the artist made it clear that it was tied to his heritage (without stating what it was, for I had to ask him 4 times what is your background).  His heritage was Cuban, thus his antagonism to Disney images of childhood, and the meaning of the mountains being those of Cuba. This was not at all accessible in the work itself, so the discussion became about how accessible should his narrative be, whether that is what he really wants to convey (because it seems most of his statements is about being known for his aesthetics), and how much does the work have to speak for itself. In other words, his work was unclear in terms of the message being one about the sadness of leaving behind one's history (very universal) or one about the specific relationship between Cuba and the US as it relates to his childhood memories (very specific).

Separate note: There is an interesting narrative about the art and design work of people of color in terms of an anxiety about reveling of one's ethnicity in the work versus being about aesthetics (i.e. formal principles of art and design). The Caucasian students' whiteness is never brought up as being contrary to aesthetics, so again the normativeness of art and design "whiteness" is marked in the absence of discussion about white ethnicities impact on the work.

Discourses of art and design critique

Doug Ishar paid me the highest compliment (for an anthropologist) at the school holiday party. That my comments in the art critique were like that of another art colleague not as someone from another discipline. This is high praise for an anthropologist because we are evaluated by our skills in culturally passing for a native. Although problematic at many levels, the idea is to learn the language, behaviors, assumptions, and beliefs of the group you are studying to such a degree of detail that you can mimic or "pass" as a native. So I attended the critiques to specifically learn the discourses (in the Foucault's sense of practices, institutions, as well as language) of art and design. There seems to me to be three intentions embedded in the critique:

  1. To provide a variety of interpretive possibilities to help the student clarify their meanings and sharpen their decision making. Every phrase begins with a version of  "I think it means..." Students are able to refute this interpretations, but often they restate their positions "I was trying to do..." or cop out with an "I leave it up to the audience..." But this exercise in providing interpretive possibilities is again key to sharpening the student's skills.
  2. To contextualize the students work within the larger art and design "literature" and institutions. Critics offer a lot of references to other artists and designers work with whom the student's work resonates. This is more so on the art side than in the design side, which I think has to do with a more established critical body of knowledge in art as opposed to design. But this is the one area that opens the possibility of interdisciplinary dialog. What if a designer in an art critic offers up a designer's work that the art student should visit? What if I suggest for them to read anthropological or social theory texts relevant to their work (actually I do that)? At UIC, we need more of those interdisciplinary conversations.
  3. To investigate the curatorial decisions of artist and design students, so that they understand that the move from "intuitive" creation to strategic presentation requires precise editing and decision-making. Many students focus so much on making the work that they forget that the work will have to live in a context (perhaps ephemeral like much of graphic design but sometimes more permanent like an outdoor sculpture).  In many cases the critique would consist of a 1/3 focus on the technical form of the work, 1/3 on the content and message, and 1/3 on the presentation and set up. If there were problems in one area or another, more time was devoted to the problem area, but if everything was pretty much okay, that was the relative split.

I really enjoyed the learning I gained through the week. It helped me contextualize my presence in a school of art and design and what role in need to play as the anthropological participant observer.

AD418 Final: anthropological reseach and designers/artists

Friday, my AD418 Research Methods for Art and Design students gave their final presentations. The students did an excellent job showcasing the work they did for the class, the variety of their topics, and how it relates to themselves as creative people in the world.  They seem geninuely happy with the results of our experiment in anthrodesign education. Here are some of the themes that came out of the experiment:

Design education focuses too much on "practice" and not enough on "research."

What  I mean by that controversal statement is that is that design education does not engage students with open-ended processes where there is no clear problem let alone answer. The core text in the class was H. Russell Bernards, Research Methods for Anthropology, Altamira Press 2005. He distinguishes between research and practice in terms of  their intentions, outcomes, and expectations.  See table in photo.

View this photo

From my students responses to the class, most of their education is spent solving problems using type, image, materials, form, etc. Even when they were given the opportunity to define their own problem, they initially struggled with the indeterminancy of anthropological research where there are so many ways to approach things. This lack of practice in "indeterminancy" erodes the confidence of designers in terms of being able to say something about the world beyond it should or should not use "dummy quotes."

Skillful and systematic attention to creative conceptualization (through research) produces more innovative creative thinking, because it exposes gaps in people's assumptions.

The narrative arc of many of the students' presentations is how they assumed the problem/issue was X, but the understanding of people showed them that it was really Y.  Some examples of X, Y,  are:

Sara Bassick's project: X= form and content of personal letters and Y= community building among mail art participants.

Chris Kalis's project: X=typography and childen's reading speed and accuracy and Y=textbook layout and design and children's reading comprehension.

I am really excited about where the students will take the research in terms of crafting solutions to some of these issues.

A deep grounding in anthropological research methods extends beyond ethnography.

The class explored interviewing, observation, and self-documentation techniques, which of course are not particular to anthropology. But the course was specifically framed by anthropological questions regarding art/designs relationship to human attitudes, behaviors, and actions and anthropological assumptions regarding the ethics of presenting human experience from the perspective of the people studied (i.e. ethnography as a philosophical orientation).  Yet, the research projects that students explored covered issues of usability (of public transit by elderly, blind, and low vision by student Leilah Rampa, of the website by student Elizabeth Salvi, and aforementioned work by Chris Kalis) and participatory design and art (one student, Mary Carideo, had various non-artists paint Cubist paintings) as well ethnographic  perspectives, which was exciting to see in terms of common disciplinary research platforms.

These kinds of courses, Research Methods, should be a core element of design education at especially the graduate level.

The feedback that the students' gave in terms of (1) being able to use these methods in their work as they go forward and (2) feeling more confident as they approach their thesis is what I hoped to gain from teaching the class. The fact that they got it and got it well  makes me lament the fact that so many other students did not benefit from the class. I do hope that my enrollment is higher next year as it expands to include, hopefully, anthropology students as well as those in Art and Design.

Pronoia: the blessing of student's not getting it

One of my favorite books is Pronoia, by Rob Brezney from Free Will Astrology fame. I love it because whenever I get grumpy and start generating negativity, it reminds me that "the universe is showering me with blessings." These blessings range from bittersweet self rebirthing pains, like leaving Design for Democracy so that I can develop more freely the Design and Governmentality concept to cosmic jokes like losing a favorite mitten so that I can get a new pair that are more suited for me than the pair I "loved" before.

So now I'm trying to define the blessing in the fact that few students have signed up for my AD502 course "Design and Governmentality" next semester. The cosmic joke is that last year I had to cancel my AD502 on "the Sacred and Profane in Art, Design, and Culture" because of lack of enrollment. Many of the students then came up to me saying that they wished they had signed up for my class instead.

This time I have invited special guests from government and policy. I have held out promises for publishing opportunities and yet no traction, yet. So the blessing may be that it will be small enough for us to take a trip to Washington DC to meet with people over spring break. That would be a blessing.

The other blessing will be that I can better engage with the students because I will have more time. The ones who take the class will truly be special.

Yet, there is this nagging feeling of wanting to share more. My husband, Mohammed, and my mentor, Roberta, all tell me that I am too ahead of my time and that it will take a while for people to catch up and catch on with what I am trying to create. While I agree with that assessment, I often feel frustrated as I wait for others to do so. What am I supposed to do while others catch up? Perhaps I need more meditation. Anyway, this sacred advertisment from Rob Brezney cheered me up:

The iconoclastic physicist Jack Sarfatti proposes that all "creative thought by artists, craftsmen, and scientists involves the subconscious reception of ideas from the future, which literally create themselves." Beauty and Truth Laboratory researcher Vimala Blavatsky puts a different spin on it. "Our future selves are constantly transmitting great ideas to us back through time," she says, "but most of us don't believe that's possible and consequently are not alert for it."

What do you think is the most pressing communiqué your future self is currently beaming your way?
The preceding oracle comes from my book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.

Maybe I'm not ahead of my time at all, its just that I'm alert to my future selves quite clearly. Often when I appear in my own dreams, I feel as if it is a future communique. Recently, I got my student evaluations for the AD418 Research methods class and they were wonderful. The students were very very positive about the class and the journey through the class. I (and they) feel that the course helped them get in touch with their future selves by showing them how to develop greater sensitivity to themselves and others (not just through the visual, but with the spirit). I am amazed by the kinds of designers they will become. That is a great blessing as well as finally getting premier status for United  airlines. Yippee!

The Power Triad and Leadership

In a collection of the Journal of Metapsychology articles, Frank A. Gerbode, M.D. has one entitled Affinity, Desire, and Intention. I found it while Google-ing about affection and other forms of human attachment. He provides the most interesting and useful conceptualization of power that I have encountered to date:

I will speak of the combination of drive, understanding, and control as "power", since "power"
connotes not only ability but also a certain drive for a result. There are many people who are able to do great things but fail to do so because of lack of drive or ambition -- in other words, lack of the capacity to desire things. We do not regard such people as powerful. Others have very strong desires but little ability, and these, too, we do not regard as powerful. Only the combination of ability and drive adds up to power, in the common usage of the term.

This power triad helps me think about new "expressions" of power based on empathy (experiential understanding of another's specific modalities), farsightedness (drive or the impulse/desire to have or to continue to have an entity), and extention, in the Taoist sense, in which by joining/communing with the world harmoniously, one gains control through it, as opposed to over it.

More and more, I find this to be the model of leadership that I seek to self cultivate. But who are the models? It seems to be only attributed to or found in spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama. Who are the model's for business or government or education? Mahatma Gandhi? And if one cannot find models, how do you actualize it in practice outside of spirituality? This is not to say that the domain of spirituality is separate from the domains of business and government, but rather we tend to downplay the spiritual, as distinct from religious, aspects of those practices.

In the end of the article, Dr. Gerbode  defines power as a means not an end:

I do not mean, here, to glorify power for its own sake. In my view, the entire purpose for being in a world, with all the entities that it contains, is to use them as a means toward the fulfillment of one's most deeply-seated intention. And that is the intention to attain an ever-increasing degree of communion with one's fellow beings.

It would be interesting if "the ability to increase communion" was a design criteria in business or that a "communion index" was part of government. Perhaps, we would have more models based on a "power triad" form of leadership.

Yin Yang of Design and Anthropology

Wednesday, I gave a presentation at Wayne State in Detroit on the Yin Yang of Design and Anthropology. It is one of the three key "projects" on which I am working:

  1. Design and Governmentality
  2. Anthroplogy and Design as Yin Yang energies
  3. Rebranding Anthropology

I was very happy with the presentation, but more importantly the discussion afterwords. Wanye State is exploring the possibility of a design anthropology concentration in their business design program. I am on their advisory board to help them develop it. So we had a variety of discussion around the structure and the content of a design anthropology program. And the tying in Yin Yang philosophical concepts in my presentation elevated the discussion so that it was as much about spirituality and culture as about the intellectual intersections of design and anthropology. I hope to refine it so that it will be a major conference piece that I do next year.

So specifically, the talk addressed:

  • How the anthropology/design nexus is in a liminal position, which can lead to new social developments. Citing Victor Turner's idea of liminality.
  • The misperceptions about design and anthropology by the general public, allied professionals that work with designers/anthropologists, and non-formally trained designers and anthropologists. This part is sure to be controversal.
  • The negative impact of those misconceptions for the 2 fields' roles in society, government, and business.
  • How anthropology represents Yin energy (internal contemplative) and design Yang energy (external active)
  • Through using the eight trigrams of  3 levels of Yin Yang energies (Heaven=intentions, Man=approaches, and Earth=anthrodesign techniques), how the combination of anthropology and design can positively impact society, business, and government with specific examples.

I've attached the presentation for review. Commentary would be more welcome, since I really am just in the middle of fleshing this out. Download YinYang_anthdesign_tunstall06.pdf (5 MB in PDF format).