All posts by alex

Not Holding My Breath

Haven’t blogged in a while. At least not here. Which kind of makes it harder.

Obviously, a lot has happened in the meantime. That full-time position discussed in the previous post has come and gone (amicably). My life has taken some interesting turns. And, just recently, these turns have started to lead me to a fitting place.

Which is my reason to blog, today. Been feeling a rather deep sense of calm. As though my life were complete.

Yes, it sounds like hyperbole. But the feeling is real. And it’s not just a fleeting moment of serenity. It’s something deeper. Related, in part, to an object.

Got a new musical instrument and it is, quite literally, a dream come true.

For quite a while, now, been (day/night)dreaming about a very expressive digital wind instrument.

Rather recently, this dreaming became the source of both “pie in the sky” and more practical projects. Part of my dabbling ways with different microcontrollers and microcomputers was oriented towards this dream of this highly expressive digital wind instrument. It almost became an obsession and may have sounded like one to people around me. Things were getting “crazy enough” that the Gear Acquisition Syndrome affecting many digital musickers was beginning to infect me. Wasn’t purchase that much “gear” and remained reasonable in terms of expenses, all things considered. But part of my mind was preoccupied with this notion of my ideal instrument.

Some of it came from my experiences with the Yamaha WX11 wind controller. Purchased that digital wind instrument in the mid-1990s but only appropriated it much more recently, thanks to some simple but key ideas about its affordances. For a sax player like me, a digital wind instrument always felt more appropriate than any kind of keyboard. It even made me think through the reigning pianoentrism of the electronic music sphere.

But the WX11 was limited, in many ways. For one thing, just like the type of acoustic wind instrument it uses as an influence (and, in many ways, tries to emulate: saxophone, clarinet, flute, trumpet, etc.), just about any digital wind instrument on the market is monophonic, playing only one note at a time. There are workarounds, including a very neat one used by Michael Brecker, the best-known practitioner of the type of instrument. But you can’t really use the WX11 to play multiple notes at a time in a very flexible way.

Enters my dream instrument. Not only is it a polyphonic wind instrument (like the harmonica, organ, melodica, accordion, etc.) but it allows one to apply very sensitive and very expressive control to each note. There’s an emerging standard for digital instruments achieving this kind of thing: Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression, based on MIDI (the main protocol for musical communication between digital instruments). Most devices using this emerging standards are very costly and, in some cases, rather cumbersome. To my knowledge, only one series of those instruments can fully integrate the key principles of a wind instrument: the Eigenharps from Eigenlabs.

And this one exceptional instrument is central to my current feeling of calm and completeness. By getting my hands on such an instrument, was able to get something like closure.

Which enables me to get in the next phase through my musicking ways.

Will possibly post about this phase. Don’t really have much music to share from that phase, yet, in part because a new instrument implies a new learning process. Received my Eigenharp Pico on Monday and been spending some quality time with it. It does feel remarkably similar to my first moments with a saxophone, over thirty years ago. But, obviously, the process of learning the instrument is much faster, in part because of my prior proficiency on the saxophone but also because of the way the instrument is designed.

At the beginning of this learning phase, playing a lot of scales and simple patterns. Thankfully, because the instrument can be played with headphones, flubbing my way through scales doesn’t really make me feel selfconscious since nobody else hears me. And while it could be perceived as boring, there’s something rather therapeutic about practicing instrumental technique, something which was really obvious to me during my years of intensive music training. So, part of my serenity may relate to the relaxing aspect of going through scale patterns.

Speaking of scales, something about the Eigenharp which was also part of my dream is support for alternative scales, including alternative tuning systems. Haven’t played that extensively with this but it already feels nice to have access to an instrument which can easily play outside of the (pianocentric) “twelve-tone equal temperament” (12TET/12-EDO) which dominates popular music genres in hyperindustrialized contexts. Given my training in ethnomusicology, there’s something very fitting and quite powerful in there.

All this to say that, on this Summer Solstice 2017, my key feeling is that there’s no need for me to hold my breath, anymore. Can finally breathe more easily. 

Free from Freelance

For my Happiness Anniversary, this year, I got myself a brand new job.

Ok, it was two days late and a job isn’t really a gift. But it’s the thought that counts.

We’ll see how things go, but the position (Learning Technology Advisor) is right in line with things I already enjoy doing. Such as enabling technological appropriation in learning contexts. And holding thoughtful group discussions on interesting issues. And trying out new tools. And discussing learning objects and learning objectives. All things I’d probably do, regardless of my employment status.

So the work itself is likely to be very satisfying.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a fulltime dayjob. Years. Not that I haven’t been employed fulltime during that period. I did cumulate quite a few hours of work, most years. But they were part of different jobs, contracts, contexts. Which means that very significant a part of my “bandwidth” had to do with professional development. It also meant that my status tended to fluctuate. Teaching part-time was a large part of it, but a major distinction between part-time workers and fulltime ones relates to identity, status, recognition. For instance, sharing an office with a few colleagues is quite different from having your own.

I start my new job Tuesday, so I’ll know more by then (such as the office situation). But I’m already getting different interactions with people, such as this one teacher who says that we now have good reasons to be even better friends.

What’s funny is that the onset of my 2008 Happiness Phase coincided with my shift to freelancing. Had been doing several different things before that, mostly revolving around teaching and learning. But, from that point on, I allowed myself to take on contracts as a freelancer. I was no longer a Ph.D. candidate trying to squeeze in some work opportunity in view of an academic job. I was in control of my professional life, despite all the difficulties associated with freelancing.

It was a nice run. Ebbs and flows. Had the opportunity to try out many different things, sometimes within the same period of time. Landed a part-time position at a startup/community organization where the fit wasn’t great. Struggled to find a balance between acting as my own self and looking for new opportunities at every occasion. Had slow periods which made me question things. Coped with health issues in ways which would have been impossible while working fulltime. Invested time and money in all sorts of things to improve my life as a self-employed individual…

Overall, I learnt a lot. Much of it will be useful in fulltime work.

Though the job is fulltime, it’s based on a renewable contract. When, during the job interview, the HR advisor asked me for my thoughts on this situation, my whole freelance experience was behind me. No, it’s not an issue. I’ll manage even if it’s not renewed. But I’m starting a new life.

Something else about this new life connects to 2008. It’s in a Cegep.

Cegeps are Quebec public colleges for both vocational and pre-university education. I care deeply enough about the Cegep system to defend it. More than once. It’s occasionally under attack by politicians who try to stir things up. But it’s a part of post-secondary education in Quebec which makes it unique. Having taught in diverse places, I find that it makes a significant improvement in university life here. It also enables the kinds of training and learning that  people really need, as “adulteens” (very young adults who are also “teen-aged”). In the past week, even before settling down in my new position, I got to see some impressive things happening in Cegeps. I sincerely think that cegeps are an example to follow, not an anomaly. Similar systems exist elsewhere (from “gymnasium” and “international baccalaureate” to “prep schools” and “community colleges”). But Quebec’s Cegep network is its own very specific thing, fully adapted to its own cultural and social context.

Surely, I’ll have a lot more to say about Cegeps as I work in one.

The connection to 2008 is much more personal. At the time, I was going through a difficult transition in my life. Questioning all sorts of things. Growing dissatisfied with the model for university careers (especially tenure-track professorships and what they entail). Thinking of “what I could do with my life”…

…when it suddenly hit me: I could work in a Cegep.

Can still remember the overwhelming feeling of comfort I experienced when that thought hit me. It was so obvious! So fitting! Sure, there’d be some difficulties, but nothing impossible. I was ready, then, to embark in a Cegep career.

It’s not what happened, right away. I came back to Quebec from Texas and applied to a few things in Cegeps. Was getting other contracts, including teaching contracts at Concordia (where I started teaching in 2006). Never abandoned the idea of working in a Cegep but “life had other plans”, at the time.

I did do several things which got me closer to the Cegep system. Including participations in every MoodleDay event at Dawson. And workshops with Cegep institutions. I even participated in a living lab on educational innovation with the very organization which just hired me (lab summary in French). Without really noticing it, I was preparing myself to join the Cegep World.

One obvious possibility was to add Cegep courses to my part-time teaching load or eventually becoming fulltime as a Cegep teacher. Cegep teaching has clear advantages over university teaching. Simply put, Cegep teachers are allowed to care about learning. University professors who care about pedagogical issues bump into lots of hurdles. Since I care a whole lot about teaching (and I can still do actual research without a tenured position), it sounded like the right place for me. Friends and acquaintances who work in Cegeps kept telling me things which made the fit even more obvious. Though grades do matter in Cegeps, the obsession with grades is much less of an issue in Cegeps than in universities. I care enough about this that I co-organized a public conversation on grades, back in November 2013. Of course, the Cegep population is quite different (and often younger) than the university population. Having taught in the US where people enter university or college directly from high school, I didn’t think it’d be an issue.

But teaching Cegep students directly wasn’t the only option. Having accumulated some expertise on post-secondary learning through 15 years of teaching experience, I was starting to think about being a learning advisor of some sort. This is finally happening, officially.

I’ve often acted as an informal advisor for people. Even during my M.Sc., I would discuss a Ph.D. student’s research in pretty much the way an advisor would. Not the advisor who focuses on logistics and rules and citation impact. But the person who challenges you to rethink a research question or brings you to think of your whole project in a completely new way. Since then, I’ve done the same thing numerous times without ever having an official title to go with it. I’d occasionally get a bit of (informal) credit for it, but I wasn’t aiming for that. I just enjoy helping people in this way.

I also became something of a mentor to some people. For instance, in  view of a pilot project at Concordia, I was able to mentor two teaching assistants who were holding classes in parallel with me. The mentoring included tips and tricks about classroom management along with deeper things on the meaning of university learning. It was still a limited scope, but it was in line with things I wanted to do.

What was even more fitting, given my new position, is that I became the “go-to person” for several things having to do with technology in learning and teaching. This all started in 2007 when, through the Spirit of Inquiry conference, I started collaborating with Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services. Created workshops, did screencasts, experimented with some solutions, answered informal questions… Without being employed directly by CTLS, I think it’s fair to say (as several people have been saying) that I was playing a key role in terms of learning technology at Concordia.

There’s a pattern, here. From diverse activities as a freelancer, I now get to merge things to be Learning Technology Advisor at Vitrine technologie-éducation.

Good times!

Assessing Rhetoric

In version 1.0 of her book on The Participatory Museum, Nina K. Simon described the importance of impact assessment:

Evaluation can help you measure the impact of past projects and advocate for future initiatives.

That chapter struck me as having a slightly different aim than other sections of The Participatory Museum. Much of the book is about helping practitioners undertake participatory projects in museums where they work. Without using the business jargon of “best practices”, the thrust of the book relates to following appropriate examples and avoiding pitfalls. That chapter on evaluation, however, sounds like it also aims at providing practitioners with some of the tools they can use to convince diverse people of the value of specific projects aimed at broad participation. In other words, that chapter had something to do with “giving ammunition” for the debates and negotiations leading to culture change.

To be clear, there’s a lot of continuity between that chapter and the rest of the book. That chapter also includes clear guidelines on making projects work and other chapters give neat examples which can help convince third parties. But I still perceived a bit of a shift in tone, between this chapter and the rest of the book, as though it were addressed to a slightly different crowd.

In this post on Museum 2.0, Simon addresses a gap between decision-makers and practitioners, as it relates to assessment. Doing so, Simon may clarify something about her chapter on evaluation.

This post revolves around a study which, as is confirmed by one of its authors, “was written primarily with policymakers, school administrators, and other scholars as the intended audience”. Such a specific audience requires rhetorical devices which relate more to pleading than to constructing knowledge. While the study most likely follows the scientific method, the language used brings it close to judicial proceedings. “Solid evidence” isn’t just about data, and “proving” isn’t the same thing as “providing support for”. Perhaps more importantly, the “skeptical audience” are said to be “influenced by evidence”. So the purpose of such a research project is clear: getting certain decision-makers to change their minds about something we find important.

There’s nothing wrong with such an approach. Much research works like this, in the current context. So do some artistic projects. There’s a clear goal and the process used to achieve this goal sounds appropriate enough. Decision-makers may indeed be swayed by “solid evidence”. They may also be influenced by genuine insight, by people they deem influential, or by unrelated “arguments” (say, in bribery). But it’s fine to focus on them being rational actors who base their decisions on their own evaluation of the evidence presented to them.

There are some things to keep in mind. It’s one of those many situations in which transparency and honesty are quite important. A project which explicitly aims to convince me that museum tours enhance learning carries the burden of proof and lets me think critically about the issue. The type of assessment Simon was proposing had to be transparent and honest. Not only did it come from project participants, but any answer could be useful, including a negative assessment which could serve as feedback in the rest of the process (reminds me of Norbert Wiener…).

There’s also the broader context to keep in mind. Simon comes from the perspective of involving diverse participants, not giving more weight to those people already established as decision-makers. She’s quite clear on the importance of specific people in hierarchical structures (say, museum administrators). But her goal isn’t to help the hierarchy sustain itself. In a participatory context, there’s a lot to be said about “distributed” decision-making (in parallel to “distributed computing”). In a more collaborative structure, many decisions are made by many people, without waiting for approval or “buy-in” from upper instances. A lot of cool things can happen through such collaborative structures and we find many examples in this post-industrial era.

Maybe much of this relates to trust. At least, to the version of trust which underlined Hanifan’s original concept of “social capital”. When members of a community (or other strong social unit) trust one another, some things are easier to do because there’s no requirement to constantly convince others that what is done is ok. There’s considerable overhead in having to constantly justify everything you do. The state of academic research relates to this overhead. Much of it has to do with goal displacement, since research projects are aimed at justifying their own existence.

Applied research and action research may develop outside of such a logic. While any research project can have a “convincing” document as part of its output, action research can accomplish a lot through the project itself. Simon’s book contains several examples of how that might work, including the simple yet effective idea of getting decision-makers to directly observe what is going on “in the field”. A report may be convincing. A video might be more convincing. Direct experience can generate new insight and make for sound decisions.

Internet and Privilege

Part of what was going through my mind, writing that Internet nostalgia post, was the notion that my being granted Internet access in August of ‘93 was a privilege. Quite literally. By backing up my request for an account on the Mistral.ERE.UMontreal.CA machine, Kevin Tuite was granting me access to a whole wide world, mostly undiscovered by other undergraduate students. Knowing how justifiably strict André Earl Paquet (UdeM SysAdmin) was, the fact that I got on ERE at such an early stage is rather significant.

It’s not the only time I was allowed access to restricted areas, “before my time”. Often with teachers. For instance, I’m still moved by a strong musical moment in which I’ve had the privilege to participate as a student in a music daycamp. The camp’s instructors were hanging out at the end of the day and I was waiting for a ride with one of them. I was the only student there and the age difference (I was 13 and they were 19 or 20) should have mattered. The point is, we all lay down on the floor with lights off and we all started… vocal improvisations over the sound of a vending machine. Deep.

Part of my privileged access to teachers might have been related to the fact that my father was a teacher and I perceived his colleagues as normal human beings. In fact, I was only a kid when I witnessed a group of teachers cry. In a tiny-scale version, it’s distantly related to African soldiers fighting alongside colonials and seeing fear in their eyes. I know how far those two situations sound, from one another. But there’s something significant about hierarchy, that it of“bten relies on flimsy masks.

But back to the Internet. I was privileged in my early access. I’m still privileged with better access to the ‘Net than a large part of the population of the planet, though there are hundreds of millions of us with such access. In this sense, I’m on “the better side of the Digital Divide”. I’m also privileged with working knowledge of a number of tools, which I acquired through many ways which are still inaccessible to most people on the planet. Not only was my university education part of this but the fact that I was getting a steady (though relatively low) salary during that Summer of 1993 meant that I could spend that formative time online.

The “classic” (almost textbook) example of privileged access to the Internet is Bill Gates. Though he’s occasionally been portrayed as a “self-made man”. Of course, the concept has a specific meaning in financial circles. But deep privilege is often hidden by the Horatio Alger connotations of that concept. Not to take anything away from Gates’s business acumen and programming chops, but I find it important to point out that, in the 1970s, it would have been extremely unlikely to have a computer mogul emerge out of a rural single-parent low-income family in the US Heartland.

“But”, I hear some sociology students say, “that’s just life! It’s not ‘privilege’! Would you say that Gates was privileged by when he was born?”

Why, yes, I probably would call that “privilege”. That’s a big part of what we mean by privilege, in sociology: arbitrary conditions which imply easier access to key resources. Even such a thing as going to a school which had decent computer labs at a time when most schools didn’t is significant privilege.

“Oh, but, but…”, some of the same students might say, “that means nothing, then. Success is still 90% hard work.”

You’re engineering majors, right?

“What does this have to do with anything?”

Depending on how you think about determinism, that might be accurate. But I’d say it’s misleading. Some people might talk about “luck” instead of privilege, and assign it a 10% influence. But it’s at least an enabling factor in this model and it might be a whole lot more. If “success” doesn’t happen without “luck”, the proportional impact of “luck” is a moot point.

“C’m’on!”, students continue, ”Bill Gates had to work hard! He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth!”

I don’t dispute that. I’d be very surprised if Gates had an actual silver spoon in his mouth at birth and I don’t think it’d have been that useful for him. But I’m saying that privilege is something we do well to put in context.

“Now you’re playing with us!”

Yep. I love to play. But there’s an important idea, here, which may help you understand sociology:

Privilege is often invisible to those who hold it.

Can you do well in a challenging situation without being told what an inspiration you are?


Check out the “Invisible Knapsack”.


It’s an assignment!


Yoga and Community in Contemporary North America

Last night, Matthew Remski’s chapter on yoga “culture” served as the basis for a conversation on yoga and communities. Roseanne Harvey had invited some panelists and like-minded people to join her at Andrew Gordon Middleton’s and Michael O’Brien’s Studio Flow Space in Verdun.

After the conversation, I started reading Remski’s chapter in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, the collected essays that Roseanne has edited with Carol Horton.

Several things transpired from this conversation and, though I’m still a yoga newbie, I thought I’d post a few thoughts.

Most important, to me, is the realization that yoga may be antithetical to community development. Remski’s chapter made some of this painfully clear and I had such a feeling of recognition while reading the first part of this chapter that I almost clapped. (It’d have been weird, since I was in the métro.)

Yoga, like transcendentalism, focuses on individualism. As Margaret Fuller with transcendentalism, I find something unsatisfying in this. While I can understand the value of therapeutic self-centredness, I can only handle it for short periods of time. As an extrovert, I need some level of social interaction, especially if I can help others. Navigating either Nietzsche or Thoreau, I quickly feel trapped in a limited world.

Which brings me to Catholicism. The topic ended up being a significant piece of the backdrop to last night’s conversation. Though I wasn’t baptized (and, therefore, not officially a member of the Catholic community), I was raised in a quickly-secularizing Catholic context (Québécois society during the Quiet Revolution). Culturally, I associate more directly with the Catholic Play Ethic (or with the Sensual Ethic) than with what Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). Sounds like Remski may be in a similar situation. And so were some participants in last night’s conversation. Not that no Catholic subscribes to PWE or that all Protestants are caught in it. But it’s remarkable how “key scenarios” may differ along such lines. I’d rather have a picnic with Manet (or Monet) or a food fight with Gwen Stefani and the band than a success story written by Horatio Alger. Just don’t get me started about the difference between Fellini and Bergman.

What does this have to do with yoga? Precious little. Yoga is about self-improvement and introspection… until it becomes about interdependence, intersubjectivity, and projecting the mind outside the self. Only then does yoga reach a sense of community. But this sense of community isn’t local, social, cultural, spatial. It’s sense of universal community of mind, beyond such pesky little things as families, cities, countries, and social movements. In “loving kindness” meditation, the shift from individuals to the Whole Earth doesn’t sound very gradual. Sure, “the community” can be there as a target for meditation. But the difference in kind between a neighbourhood community and, say, the community of spirit between humans and locusts affords little discussion, in such a context.

Playing the social scientist during yesterday’s convo, I couldn’t help but point out two key features of communities, from a social science perspective: sense of belonging and interdependency. Though they apply to any community, they may be especially useful in the yoga context. I don’t know enough about yoga to be sure about this, but comments made after I mentioned these two dimensions did sound like they resonated with my simple description.

Interdependency is a recent addition to my definition of community. A student in my “Cyberspace Sociology” course added it as a key feature, and it really helps to bring things in focus. One aspect of this dimension is that community isn’t necessarily something we choose. We may choose some of our neighbours but we may be affected by many community members who’d otherwise have “nothing to do with us”. Also, given issues surrounding our natural environment, the ecological principles behind communities are easy to describe: we can “do our part” but the system can still be dysfunctional if some people don’t. As both victims of climate change and perpetrators of pollution which takes part in it, we can perceive the implications of being dependent on one another. Not to mention that interdependence is an important concept in yoga.

The sense of belonging part may afford more unpacking. Sure, hippies have reappropriated “kumbaya” as the mushy version of belonging. That one fits in the “community of spirits” model. In anthropology, we tend to focus on the “community of experience” model (if not on the “community of practise” one). To do so, some of us refer to Victor Turner’s communitas, based on the liminal phase in initiation rituals. Through this concept, we identify a space for intense relationships among equals, typical of people subjected to a difficult experience together. The concept also involves a separation from the rest of the social system.

By extension, we can think about the divisive nature of social identity: if there’s an us, there’s also a them. Quite frequently, this them is a particular group, with which the community entertains a rivalry. Montreal may be Quebec City’s “Other”, even though Montrealers care very little about the “national capital”. Fans of the Maple Leafs may also perceive Montreal as the other, although I’ve heard more anti-Boston sentiment in my youth than anything about Toronto.

Yoga’s communities are peculiar. It sounds like it may be possible to create a sense of belonging through yoga retreats and other occasions for shared experiences. Yet the embedded hierarchy of many yoga instruction models may shift the communitas away from “practice”. Bonding works remarkably well when people have a common foe (an initiator causing harm would be an appropriate figure, here). However authoritative they may be, yoga instructors may not desire this type of antagonism.

Though (as was clear from last night’s discussion) some yoga studios enter in direct competition as businesses, yoga communities may not be ideal places for impassioned rivalries. The “slippery slope” from opposition between groups and outright conflict may make peace-loving yoginis and yogis think twice about this type of chants and cheers.

Which isn’t to say that the yoga world lacks distinction. In fact, yoga sociology has a lot to explore. From the outside, the internal structure of the North American yogasphere is fascinating. But that structure, it sounds like, rarely made explicit. It also sounds like it’s inward-looking, to a fairly large extent. The yogasphere includes all sorts of yoga practitioners, but it’s focused on yoga teachers and other experts, not necessarily on the local embedding of yoga practice. Yoga studios, in this model, are like havens of peace in a fastpaced world. The them group comprises a large number of people who don’t get yoga.

Personally, I’m more interested in how communities can appropriate yoga. Yes, it involves the adaptation of yoga practice, which implies some level of inauthenticity. Thanks to the association between yoga and New Age (a drone under 21st Century Yoga), yoga specialists may shy away from this type of reappropriation. Yet, empowering communities through yoga-inspired practice could be a worthy cause for yogactivists.

Yoga needs space. A key theme during yesterday’s discussion was space: studio rent, overhead, location, sense of place, neighbourhoods as markets… In North American cities, yoga doesn’t own much space, and that’s the crux of the problem.

This is where we can go back to Catholicism, where Remski started his essay on yoga “culture”. It was an underlying theme through the discussion. (Funnily enough, the conversation was structured by a key figure who invited four “evangelists” and we were eight “disciples”.)

The Catholic Church does own space. In fact, a large part of the “business model” for the Catholic clergy relates to real estate. As many of these properties are being sold, there may be opportunities for community ownership of prime space. In fact, I’m a research associate for a community organization involved in a community-based project surrounding the reappropriation of a church. Wasn’t thinking about yoga in that space, but I’m sure some other people have been. Last summer, Yoga en rouge was happening (led by Audrey Béliveau) in Parc Molson, next door to that church. And it’s clearly a grassroots community affair.

I’m not (officially) Catholic and I’m a n00b to yoga. I’m finally grokking the difficulties to develop community membership through yoga. So I’ll continue doing my yoga practice at home, by myself, away from other people’s gaze. Still feels good.

Wearable Hub: Getting the Ball Rolling


After years of hype, wearable devices are happening. What wearable computing lacks is a way to integrate devices into a broader system.


  • For the past two months or so, I’ve been taking notes about this “wearable hub” idea (started around CES’s time, as wearable devices like the Pebble and Google Glass were discussed with more intensity). At this point, I have over 3000 words in notes, which probably means that I’d have enough material for a long essay. This post is just a way to release a few ideas and to “think aloud” about what wearables may mean.
  • Some of these notes have to do with the fact that I started using a few wearable devices to monitor my activities, after a health issue pushed me to start doing some exercise.
  • I’m not a technologist nor do I play one on this blog. I’m primarily an ethnographer, with diverse interests in technology and its implications for human beings. I do research on technological appropriation and some of the course I teach relate to the social dimensions of technology. Some of the approaches to technology that I discuss in those courses relate to constructionism and Actor-Network Theory.
  • I consider myself a “geek ethnographer” in the sense that I take part in geek culture (and have come out as a geek) but I’m also an outsider to geekdom.
  • Contrary to the likes of McLuhan, Carr, and Morozov, my perspective on technology and society is non-deterministic. The way I use them, “implication” and “affordance” aren’t about causal effects or, even, about direct connections. I’m not saying that society is causing technology to appear nor am I proposing a line from tools to social impacts. Technology and society are in a complex system.
  • Further, my approach isn’t predictive. I’m not saying what will happen based on technological advances nor am I saying what technology will appear. I’m thinking about the meaning of technology in an intersubjective way.
  • My personal attitude on tools and gadgets is rather ambivalent. This becomes clear as I go back and forth between techno-enthusiastic contexts (where I can almost appear like a Luddite) and techno-skeptical contexts (where some might label me as a gadget freak). I integrate a number of tools in my life but I can be quite wary about them.
  • I’m not wedded to the ideas I’m putting forth, here. They’re just broad musings of what might be. More than anything, I hope to generate thoughtful discussion. That’s why I start this post with a broad statement (not my usual style).
  • Of course, I know that other people have had similar ideas and I know that a concept of “wearable hub” already exists. It’s obvious enough that it’s one of these things which can be invented independently.

From Wearables to Hubs

Back in the 1990s, “wearable computing” became something of a futuristic buzzword, often having to do with articles of clothing. There have been many experiments and prototypes converging on an idea that we would, one day, be able to wear something resembling a full computer. Meanwhile, “personal digital assistants” became something of a niche product and embedded systems became an important dimension of car manufacturing.

Fast-forward to 2007, when a significant shift in the use of smartphones occurred. Smartphones existed before that time, but their usages, meanings, and positions in the public discourse changed quite radically around the time of the iPhone’s release. Not that the iPhone itself “caused a smartphone revolution” or that smartphone adoption suddenly reached a “tipping point”. I conceive of this shift as a complex interplay between society and tools. Not only more Kuhn than Popper, but more Latour than Kurzweil.

Smartphones, it may be argued, “happened”.

Without being described as “wearable devices”, smartphones started playing some of the functions people might have assigned to wearable devices. The move was subtle enough that Limor Fried recently described it as a realization she’s been having. Some tech enthusiasts may be designing location-aware purses and heads-up displays in the form of glasses. Smartphones are already doing a lot of the things wearables were supposed to do. Many people “wear” smartphones at most times during their waking lives and these Internet-connected devices are full of sensors. With the proliferation of cases, one might even perceive some of them as fashion accessories, like watches and sunglasses.

Where smartphones become more interesting, in terms of wearable computing, is as de facto wearable hubs.

My Wearable Devices

Which brings me to mention the four sensors I’ve been using more extensively during the past two months:

Yes, these all have to do with fitness (and there’s quite a bit of overlap between them). And, yes, I started using them a few days after the New Year. But it’s not about holiday gifts or New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had some of these devices for a while and decided to use them after consulting with a physician about hypertension. Not only have they helped me quite a bit in solving some health issues, but these devices got me to think.

(I carry several other things with me at most times. Some of my favourites include Tenqa REMXD Bluetooth headphones and the LiveScribe echo smartpen.)

One aspect is that they’re all about the so-called “quantified self”. As a qualitative researcher, I tend to be skeptical of quants. In this case, though, the stats I’m collecting about myself fit with my qualitative approach. Along with quantitative data from these devices, I’ve started collecting qualitative data about my life. The next step is to integrate all those data points automatically.

These sensors are also connected to “gamification”, a tendency I find worrisome, preferring playfulness. Though game mechanics are applied to the use of these sensors, I choose to rely on my intrinsic motivation, not paying much attention to scores and badges.

But the part which pushed me to start taking the most notes was that all these sensors connect with my iOS ()and Android) devices. And this is where the “wearable hub” comes into play. None of these devices is autonomous. They’re all part of my personal “arsenal”, the equipment I have on my me on most occasions. Though there are many similarities between them, they still serve different purposes, which are much more limited than those “wearable computers” might have been expected to serve. Without a central device serving as a type of “hub”, these sensors wouldn’t be very useful. This “hub” needs not be a smartphone, despite the fact that, by default, smartphones are taken to be the key piece in this kind of setup.

In my personal scenario, I do use a smartphone as a hub. But I also use tablets. And I could easily use an existing device of another type (say, an iPod touch), or even a new type of device meant to serve as a wearable hub. Smartphones’ “hub” affordances aren’t exclusive.

From Digital Hub to Wearable Hub

Most of the devices which would likely serve as hubs for wearable sensors can be described as “Post-PC”. They’re clearly “personal” and they’re arguably “computers”. Yet they’re significantly different from the “Personal Computers” which have been so important at the end of last century (desktop and laptop computers not used as servers, regardless of the OS they run).

Wearability is a key point, here. But it’s not just a matter of weight or form factor. A wearable hub needs to be wireless in at least two important ways: independent from a power source and connected to other devices through radio waves. The fact that they’re worn at all times also implies a certain degree of integration with other things carried throughout the day (wallets, purses, backpacks, pockets…). These devices may also be more “personal” than PCs because they may be more apparent and more amenable to customization than PCs.

Smartphones fit the bill as wearable hubs. Their form factors and battery life make them wearable enough. Bluetooth (or ANT+, Nike+, etc.) has been used to pair them wirelessly with sensors. Their connectivity to GPS and cellular networking as well as their audio and visual i/o can have interesting uses (mapping a walk, data updates during a commute, voice feedback…). And though they’re far from ubiquitous, smartphones have become quite common in key markets.

Part of the reason I keep thinking about “hubs” has to do with comments made in 2001 by then Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the “digital lifestyle” age in “PC evolution” (video of Jobs’s presentation; as an anthropologist, I’ll refrain from commenting on the evolutionary analogies):

We believe the PC, or more… importantly, the Mac can become the “digital hub” of our emerging digital lifestyle, with the ability to add tremendous value to … other digital devices.

… like camcorders, portable media players, cellphones, digital cameras, handheld organizers, etc. (Though they weren’t mentioned, other peripherals like printers and webcams also connect to PCs.)

The PC was thus going to serve as a hub, “not only adding value to these devices but interconnecting them, as well”.

At the time, key PC affordances which distinguished them from those other digital devices:

  • Big screen affording more complex user interfaces
  • Large, inexpensive hard disk storage
  • Burning DVDs and CDs
  • Internet connectivity, especially broadband
  • Running complex applications (including media processing software like the iLife suite)

Though Jobs pinpointed iLife applications as the basis for this “digital hub” vision, it sounds like FireWire was meant to be an even more important part of this vision. Of course, USB has supplanted FireWire in most use cases. It’s interesting, then, to notice that Apple only recently started shipping Macs with USB 3. In fact, DVD burning is absent from recent Macs. In 2001, the Mac might have been at the forefront of this “digital lifestyle” age. In 2013, the Mac has moved away from its role as “digital hub”.

In the meantime, the iPhone has become one of the best known examples of what I’m calling “wearable hubs”. It has a small screen and small, expensive storage (by today’s standards). It also can’t burn DVDs. But it does have nearly-ubiquitous Internet connectivity and can run fairly complex applications, some of which are adapted from the iLife suite. And though it does have wired connectivity (through Lightning or the “dock connector”), its main hub affordances have to do with Bluetooth.

It’s interesting to note that the same Steve Jobs, who used the “digital hub” concept to explain that the PC wasn’t dead in 2001, is partly responsible for popularizing the concept of “post-PC devices” six years later. One might perceive hypocrisy in this much delayed apparent flip-flop. On the other hand, Steve Jobs’s 2007 comments (video) were somewhat nuanced, as to the role of post-PC devices. What’s more interesting, though, is to think about the implications of the shift between two views of digital devices, regardless of Apple’s position through that shift.

Some post-PC devices (including the iPhone, until quite recently) do require a connection to a PC. In this sense, a smartphone might maintain its position with regards to the PC as digital hub. Yet, some of those devices are used independently of PCs, including by some people who never owned PCs.

Post-Smartphone Hubs

It’s possible to imagine a wearable hub outside of the smartphone (and tablet) paradigm. While smartphones are a convenient way to interconnect wearables, their hub-related affordances still sound limited: they lack large displays and their storage space is quite expensive. Their battery life may also be something to consider in terms of serving as hubs. Their form factors make some sense, when functioning as phones. Yet they have little to do with their use as hubs.

Part of the realization, for me, came from the fact that I’ve been using a tablet as something of an untethered hub. Since I use Bluetooth headphones, I can listen to podcasts and music while my tablet is in my backpack without being entangled in a cable. Sounds trivial but it’s one of these affordances I find quite significant. Delegating music playing functions to my tablet relates in part to battery life and use of storage. The tablet’s display has no importance in this scenario. In fact, given some communication between devices, my smartphone could serve as a display for my tablet. So could a “smartwatch” or “smartglasses”.

The Body Hub

Which led me to think about other devices which would work as wearable hubs. I originally thought about backpackable and pocketable devices.

But a friend had a more striking idea:

Under Armour’s Recharge Energy Suit may be an extreme version of this, one which would fit nicely among things Cathi Bond likes to discuss with Nora Young on The Sniffer. Nora herself has been discussing wearables on her blog as well as on her radio show. Sure, part of this concept is quite futuristic. But a sensor mesh undershirt is a neat idea for several reasons.

  • It’s easy to think of various sensors it may contain.
  • Given its surface area, it could hold enough battery power to supplement other devices.
  • It can be quite comfortable in cold weather and might even help diffuse heat in warmer climates.
  • Though wearable, it needs not be visible.
  • Thieves would probably have a hard time stealing it.
  • Vibration and haptic feedback on the body can open interesting possibilities.

Not that it’s the perfect digital hub and I’m sure there are multiple objections to a connected undershirt (including issues with radio signals). But I find the idea rather fun to think, partly because it’s so far away from the use of phones, glasses, and watches as smart devices.

Another thing I find neat, and it may partly be a coincidence, is the very notion of a “mesh”.

The Wearable Mesh

Mesh networking is a neat concept, which generates more hype than practical uses. As an alternative to WiFi access points and cellular connectivity, it’s unclear that it may “take the world by storm”. But as a way to connect personal devices, it might have some potential. After all, as Bernard Benhamou recently pointed out on France Culture’s Place de la toile, the Internet of Things may not require always-on full-bandwith connectivity. Typically, wearable sensors use fairly little bandwidth or only use it for limited amounts of time. A wearable mesh could connect wearable devices to one another while also exchanging data through the Internet itself.

Or with local devices. Smart cities, near field communication, and digital appliances occupy interesting positions among widely-discussed tendencies in the tech world. They may all have something to do with wearable devices. For instance, data exchanged between transit systems and their users could go through wearable devices. And while mobile payment systems can work through smartphones and other cellphones, wallet functions can also be fulfilled by other wearable devices.

Alternative Futures

Which might provide an appropriate segue into the ambivalence I feel toward the “wearable hub” concept I’m describing. Though I propose these ideas as if I were enthusiastic about them, they all give me pause. As a big fan of critical thinking, I like to think about “what might be” to generate questions and discussions exposing a diversity of viewpoints about the future.

Mass media discussions about these issues tend to focus on such things as privacy, availability, norms, and usefulness. Google Glass has generated quite a bit of buzz about all four. Other wearables may mainly raise issues for one or two of these broad dimensions. But the broad domain of wearable computing raises a lot more issues.

Technology enthusiasts enjoy discussing issues through the dualism between dystopia and utopia. An obvious issue with this dualism is that humans disagree about the two categories. Simply put, one person’s dystopia can be another person’s utopia, not to mention the nuanced views of people who see complex relationships between values and social change.

In such a context, a sociologist’s reflex may be to ask about the implications of these diverse values and opinions. For instance:

  • How do people construct these values?
  • Who decides which values are more important?
  • How might social groups cope with changes in values?

Discussing these issues and more, in a broad frame, might be quite useful. Some of the trickiest issues are raised after some changes in technology have already happened. From writing to cars, any technological context has unexpected implications. An ecological view of these implications could broaden the discussion.

I tend to like the concept of the “drift-off moment”, during which listeners (or readers) start thinking about the possibilities afforded a new tool (or concept). In the context of a sales pitch, the idea is that these possibilities are positive, a potential buyer is thinking about the ways she might use a newfangled device. But I also like the deeper process of thinking about all sorts of implications, regardless of their value.


What might be the implications of a wearable hub?

Bean Counters and Ecologists

[So many things in my drafts, but this one should be quick.]

Recently met someone who started describing their restaurant after calling it a “café”. The “pitch” revolved around ethical practices, using local products, etc. As both a coffee geek and ethnographer, my simple question was: “Which coffee do you use?” Turns out, they’re importing coffee from a multinational corporation. “Oh, but, they’re lending us an expensive espresso machine for free! And they have fair-trade coffee!”

Luckily, we didn’t start talking about “fair trade”. And this person was willing to reflect upon the practices involved, including about the analogy with Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola. We didn’t get further into the deeper consequences of the resto’s actions, but the “seed” has been planted.

Sure, it’s important to focus on your financials and there’s nothing preventing a business from being both socially responsible and profitable. It just requires a shift in mindset. Small, lean, nimble businesses are more likely to do it than big, multinational corporate empires…

…which leads me to Google.

Over the years since its IPO, Google has attracted its share of praise and criticism. Like any big, multinational corporate empire. In any sector.

Within the tech sector, the Goog‘ is often compared with Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. All of these corporate entities have been associated in some people’s minds with some specific issue, from child labour and failure to protect users’ privacy to anticompetitive practices (the tech equivalent of free fridges and espresso machines). The issues are distinct and tech enthusiast spend a large amount of time discussing which one is worse. Meanwhile, we’re forgetting a number of larger issues.

Twitter is an interesting example, here. The service took its value from being at the centre of an ecosystem. As with any ecosystem, numerous interactions among many different members produce unexpected and often remarkable results. As the story goes, elements like hashtags and “@-replies” were invented by users and became an important part of the system. Third-party developers were instrumental in Twitter’s reach outside of its original confines. Though most of the original actors have since left the company, the ecosystem has maintained itself over the years.

When Twitter started changing the rules concerning its API, it shook the ecosystem. Sure, the ecosystem will maintain itself, in the end. But it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will change. For people at Twitter, it must have been obvious that the first changes was a warning shot to scare away those they didn’t want in their ecosystem. But, to this day, there are people who depend on Twitter, one way or another.

Google Reader offers an interesting case. The decision to kill it might have been myopic and its death might have a domino effect.

The warning shot was ambiguous, but the “writing was on the wall”. Among potential consequences of the move, the death of RSS readers was to be expected. One might also expect users of feedreaders to be displeased. In the end, the ecosystem will maintain itself.

Chances are, feedreading will be even more marginalized than it’s been and something else might replace it. Already, many people have been switching from feedreading to using Twitter as a way to gather news items.

What’s not so well-understood is the set of indirect consequences, further down the line. Again, domino effect. Some dominoes are falling in the direction of news outlets which have been slow to adapt to the ways people create and “consume” news items. Though their ad-driven models may sound similar to Google’s, and though feedreading might not be a significant source of direct revenue, the death of feedreaders may give way to the birth of new models for news production and “consumption” which might destabilize them even further. Among the things I tag as #FoJ (“Future of Journalism”) are several pieces of a big puzzle which seems misunderstood by news organizations.

There are other big dominoes which might fall from the death of Google Reader. Partly because RSS itself is part of a whole ecosystem. Dave Winer and Aaron Swartz have been major actors in the technical specifications of RSS. But Chris Lydon and people building on calendar syndication are also part of the ecosystem. In business-speak, you might call them “stakeholders”. But thinking about the ecosystem itself leads to a deeper set of thoughts, beyond the individuals involved. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s premature death, it may be appropriate to point out that the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

As I said on a service owned by another widely-criticized corporate empire:

Many of us keep saying that Google needs to listen to its social scientists. It also needs to understand ecology.