Designing like an Acupuncturist

Having done both ethnography and design, I’m well acquainted with the (sometimes-productive) tensions between ethnographic accounting and design requirements.

The ethnographer deals with nuance, particularities, with rich and textured accounts. She aims to communicate experience in a way that defamiliarizes the familiar and refamiliarizes the strange. A good ethnography holds a distorted mirror up to our own ways of life. If the ethnographer is asked to distill their living interconnected account into the regimented format of design requirements (at worst, something that looks like a bullet-pointed list), that conversion does violence to the ethnography. For a more thorough discussion of this, read Paul Dourish’s Implications for Design.

From the designer’s point of view the account presented by an ethnographer looks too shifty and complex to get a handle on. It’s overwhelming, because to design is to act; it requires the confidence to intervene in a situation. The clarity and solidity of requirements help us feel brave enough to act without doubting ourselves too much. This may be an illusion but it’s better than being paralyzed by self-doubt.

One of my ethnographic engagements focused on the question of what slum mobility looks like. Let’s look at just a small and abbreviated, but sufficiently complex, bit of the ethnographic account: slum fires.

Most people in this neighborhood are squatters, which means they don’t own the land — though some families have been around for three or four generations. The infrastructure is spotty, since they’re not officially supposed to be there. Electricity, then, is often expensive because it’s jury-rigged, re-sold and marked up. If you’re behind on the bills your landlord will probably cut off your electricity first, but you can fall back on candles for lighting. Cooking usually happens in hot woks. So: you get cooking fires, and you get candles burning, and sometimes someone falls asleep without putting it out.

Building materials here are very flammable. A slum fire spreads fast. It burns birth certificates that prove citizenship, without which a child cannot attend public school in the country where I did this study. It’s an opportunity for the city to evict people, by simply denying them permission to rebuild. An opportunistic eviction escalates a disaster into a tragedy, because poor slum dwellers muddle along using support from a network of mutual exchange with family, friends and neighbors. This is not easily rebuilt when people are forcibly scattered.

As a designer, how do I make this better without accidentally making something worse? How can I achieve the clarity I need to design effectively without losing sight of the entire context in which I’m acting?

The humbling answer is that I can’t tackle that whole mess. Slum mobility, in its tangle of interconnected, undesigned moving parts, is as baffling and as alive as a human body. But the ethnographic account can help you see how the parts fit together. It can tease out where some of the important practices are — the places where a small change can radiate outward.

The metaphor I’ve started using to describe this is design-as-acupuncture. If you can intelligently select one small spot to focus on, you can design something awesome.

led candle sketchThe design proposal that comes out of this story is simple: cheap, compact, off-the-grid lighting. LEDs are brighter than candles and non-flammable. Discarded scraps of solar cells can be gotten for cheap (see Gilad Lotan’s excellent instructable for more specifics). Shake-to-power flashlights also suggest a possibility for renewable power. The hardest part is probably figuring out how to make it affordable (ideally, a dollar or less). On the whole, this is a relatively simple thing to design and build, and can eliminate one of the common causes of slum fires. It’s simple enough to be produced locally. If it makes a difference, it would be because of its intelligent positioning in an interlocking net of practices, spaces, and vulnerabilities. Like acupuncture, it’s not about how pretty the needle is, it’s about where you stick it.

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One Response to Designing like an Acupuncturist

  1. Paul says:

    My background is Science- and Technology Studies (STS). That means that for me, etinpgraohhc research is always related to the issue of how to follow and document “the action.” The action, in the perspective of authors like Annemarie Mol and Bruno Latour is explicitly not only the social action that occurs around the fact making or art making that defines a practice. STS ethnography always means following not only what people say or do about what they are doing, but also somehow the material, tacit, implicit thing they are doing “itself.” There is a lot you can say about that aim, but I don’t want to focus on those debates here. Instead I want to tell something about my fieldwork experience. I took this STS aim to my fieldwork of the sound artist Edwin van der Heide’s re-installation Pneumatic Sound Field at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen courtyard in Rotterdam.When the installation was about finished, Pneumatic Sound Field sounded for the first time. To evoke this moment, this is what I wrote in a chapter I wrote using my fieldwork:I suddenly heard a sound: it made me jump. I was surprised that it didn’t sound like wind at all! I heard… It was hard to describe and I searched for the right words: an electrical sound, twittering, rain or hailstones and movements, waves running through the installation. It was a loud and aggressive sound, quick and at times so rhythmic one might dance. Sometimes full and everywhere, and then suddenly very much somewhere. Sometimes I heard a buzzing sound, and just then a kind of flickering, sweeping sounds, gusts of hard rain, an over flying plane. And now much fuller, like roaring of engines. Hysterical! Like a swarm of wild bees. There was an enormous variety of sounds and it was a little scary and fascinating. (9 April: 215-216+226+230) The loud, rising, roaring sounds made me feel as if I didn’t have to listen. The sound forced itself upon me, washed over me, pushed itself into my ears. (9 April: 217) It was as if I didn’t have to go to it, it came to me (222). It was also an abrasive, intrusive (assistant 9 April) sound and when it stopped, the silence was deafening, beautiful–almost palpable, a real thing, with suddenly very real birds singing nearby (9 April: 221+ 227).This text was based on my fieldwork notes jotted down in Rotterdam, the audio-recording I had made of this first sounding and my memory of the event. I remember finding this difficult and exciting to write as well as a little scary. Much of STS ethnography is written in a kind of empiricist style focusing on what is observed, rather than on the process of observing. Usually it evokes the world one visits, not so much the visiting or visitor. What was also daunting was the attempt to evoke sound. How to do that in words? Particularly since the object of observation – sound art – is itself crucially involved with questions about what sound is, how we listen, what distinguishes sound from music. Moreover, sound artists, as well as other participants in that practice, have their own vocabulary to talk about sound: how should mine relate to theirs?

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