The Individual Standard is an effort to collect in-progress work on the theme of relationships between individuals and the standardized world, as mediated by digital production technologies. It is an outgrowth of the dissertation work of ginger "all-lower-case" coons, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, affiliated with the Critical Making Lab and the Semaphore Research Cluster on Mobile and Pervasive Computing.

Note: The following is a speculative workshop description. I have not yet held this workshop anywhere.

Behind our backs: Reclaiming anthropometric and biometric data

In the last hundred years, collecting data about human bodies has gone from a minor activity performed largely by doctors to a major industry. With more data points, more detail and more opportunities for collection, the question of access to data about our bodies is a pressing one. This session begins by offering a brief overview of the changing landscape of biometric and anthropometric data collection, before moving on to discussion and brainstorming about ways we can help individuals both protect and empower themselves. How can we take charge of data about our bodies? How can we push back against aggressive data collection and potential misuse?

This topic, for me, grows out of an increasing interest over issues of the governance of human bodies. A major theme in the work I am currently doing in pursuit of my PhD, the subject of anthropometric data is not often addressed, and not often brought up in discussions about mass surveillance. As we concern ourselves with issues like the NSA reading our email, we hand detailed data about our bodies over into equally insecure and suspect systems. That's pretty messed up.

This session will solicit ideas and feelings from participants about biometric and anthropometric data. In so doing, it will encourage participants to first think about the venues in which their biometric and anthropometric data is collected, and then to begin considering the implications of that collection. Participants will hopefully emerge from the session with an increased sense of understanding and also purpose around issues of public and private control of individual and aggregate biometric and anthropometric data.

45 minutes long: 25 minutes of set-up, covering a few key topics and sites of conflict in biometric and anthropometric data collection; 25 minutes of break-out brainstorming, in groups of ~5 (depending on the number of participants at the session); 10 minutes of reporting back, with groups sharing the strategies they've developed.
Three things are responsible for the following idea. I'll go in reverse-chronological order in explaining them. 1. Two days ago, someone commented to me that people seem to be disproportionately interested in 3D printers, compared against all the other technologies of making and hacking we currently have access to. He wondered, aloud, why 3D printers have caught the public imagination so successfully. 2. I've been reading a book recently called The London Hanged (Linebaugh, 1992), which is an account of crime in eighteenth century London, but which sheds light on the transformation that concepts like criminality and property were undergoing at the time. One chapter recounts changes to particular trades, which, in squeezing the margins and financial opportunities of increasingly specialized tradesmen, engendered a poverty and lack of agency that often resulted in theft. 3. A member of my dissertation committee has encouraged me to read more Marx, which is highlighting for me the importance of the concept of alienation. So, here goes.

It occurs to me that the popularity of 3D printing may have something to do with our desire to become whole labourers, making whole objects. In describing the segmentation of labour taking place in the eighteenth century, Linebaugh writes "[t]he creation of the 'detail labourer' who performed 'fractional work' in the workshop meant that the value-producing class became collective since no single worker produced a whole commodity" (1992, 223). With such segmentation comes, in Marxian terms, alienation of labour, both from the object of production and from the act of producing it. What's interesting in the case of 3D printing is the idea that a human being producing a product might want a relationship with the product, something that is largely done away with in the fractionalization of labour. No one worker can claim ownership over a product produced on an assembly line, as so many hands contribute to the final output as to make individual responsibility negligible.

Douglas Adams satirically addresses this anxiety in the fifth and final book in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. When the protagonist, Arthur Dent, finds himself on a planet which is relatively primitive, compared to Earth, he becomes depressed at his inability to help the local people by reproducing any of Earth's technological conveniences. He realizes that, without detailed knowledge of electrical or engineering principles, the only practical skill he has to offer is the ability to make sandwiches. This kind of anxiety about our lack of understanding of the goods we use every day, and of the inability of one person to produce the technologies and goods we take for granted, is endemic of the alienation of labour from production.

3D printing is seductive in this respect, because it offers the opportunity for people who might not normally feel capable of producing an object on their own to suddenly feel able to build something whole, from start to finish, to go from idea to object without the intervention, aid or direction of others. Though we may not be able to sew ourselves a t-shirt, or to fabricate a light bulb, 3D printing presents the appearance of building something for oneself, from scratch. There is a kind of pioneer spirit in it. That spirit assuages a fear, or a guilt, or an anxiety about our alienation from the objects in our lives and the objects of our labour. The bulk of our objects are things we do not know how to produce. Our work is styled after the 'fractional work' described by Linebaugh, only far more advanced.

There is a kind of power in feeling able to do for oneself, certainly, one often compared to the self-sufficiency detailed by the likes of Thoreau. But the idea of becoming a whole labourer seems, to me, slightly different. The idea of total self-sufficiency, though often discussed by both advocates and detractors of 3D printing, is a different beast from the desire to de-fractionalize one's labour. In the self-sufficiency narrative, there is the idea that an individual (or, in some cases, a community) should be able to take care of the sum of their personal needs, through their own actions. The end being sought, in such a narrative, is a kind of guarantee that an individual might take care of themself. In comparison, the idea of 3D printing as an elixer for the alienation of labour is about the product of our labour, rather than our ability to exist as an independent individual. Tracts like Shop Class as Soulcraft and The Craftsman speak to the desire to feel a connection to a whole object, as a whole labourer: the idea that craft represents a whole understanding, a kind of mastery not offered by the routinized, fractionalized actions of the modern shop floor. In short, a whole labourer is one who can produce a whole object, solve a whole problem, act alone rather than rely on a community of production in which each worker represents a different, fragmented skill.

The 3D printer spits out a whole object. Alone with a small collection of tools-your CAD software, your slicing software, your 3D printer-you can produce an object yourself, without the intervention of other specialized labourers. It allows you to feel a mastery that may not be afforded in other areas of life and work. You are offered a feeling of accomplishment and ownership, having produced something yourself, in its entirety. In short, in a society in which the vast majority of our labour has been divided and fragmented to an increasingly fine degree, the 3D printer seems to give you a moment of wholeness. You leave fragmentation behind in the time that you produce that 3D-printed object. You become a whole labourer, with mastery over your tools, and everything you need to produce an object, embodied in your own skills and resources.

DSC01093.JPGIn the prelude to How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles describes two different variations on the Turing test. The most famous one, the one many of us may know, involves a person using some kind of computerized chat interface to talk to either a computer, or a human in another room. It is the task of the test subject to determine, from conversation, whether their interlocutor is human or machine. Passing the Turing test has long been seen as one of the holy grails of artificial intelligence. When computers are able to pass as human, the argument goes, one of the distinctions between humans and computers dissolves.

Hayles also describes another Turing test. This one starts in the same way as the previous, with a human participant talking to someone in another room through a computerized chat interface. But in this one, the discussion partner on the other side is definitely human. The goal of the participant is, instead, to determine whether their conversation partner is male or female. If this second Turing test has similar stakes to the first, Hayles asks, does an ability to fool the participant negate the gender of the human on the other side?

One of the crucial questions raised by the gender Turing test, to my mind, is about the role of rigid, socially defined gender binaries. The test is predicated on an understanding that there are two genders, male and female, and that they each behave in a certain way. If we choose not to take this idea for granted, and instead decide that there is a vast spectrum of behaviour and appearance running from that which completely and stereotypically matches a gender, to that which is entirely opposed, the gendered Turing Test becomes impossible. How do we decide, from a textual discussion, what gender someone is if we do not require all people to adhere to a strict social script about their gender?

That second Turing test does do some valuable work for us: it highlights the importance of the visual in making judgments about gender. Many people feel entitled to understand another person's gender, based on their appearance. We sometimes hear the distressed question, whispered behind hands, "Is that a man or a woman?" In a space where those visual cues are not required, where we can present ourselves textually, or in ambiguous photos, appearance--that popular tool for determining gender--is not available.

There's a huge spectrum of ways that gender is represented, discussed, made an issue, or turned into infrastructure on the internet. Different platforms construct gender as an issue of varying importance. In some software development communities (on mailing lists, in IRC), it's generally considered impolite to ask people for personal details that they're not readily volunteering. A comment raised by this is the idea that many women don't get noticed or counted because they don't mention or make obvious their gender, because the default or un-gendered stated is considered to be male. If someone does not make it explicitly clear that she is a woman, she is assumed to be a man. If someone makes it explicitly clear that they are something other than simply a woman or man, it starts a discussion, which may or may not be welcome to the person who has accidentally instigated it. So on one side of this spectrum, there's communities where disclosing gender is not structurally necessary and speculation is entirely a private activity by individuals; on the other side of the spectrum, there are platforms like Facebook, where including a gender is a required activity in profile building, and where the default is man or woman, unless you choose to start writing in an answer, and then there's an authorized list of possibilities. Gender is built into the bedrock of Facebook. We take for granted that we can find out what gender someone is on Facebook. Moreso, we take for granted that we can find out what gender someone is, in general.

Using the analogy of the Turing test, I've devised a workshop which explores how we parse gender and gender representation when others are divorced from our bodies. I am trying to make legible issues around the gender binary and its supporting structures. There are a few concepts to work with in service of that goal: the gender Turing test and the idea of judging gender based on text-based interaction; technical systems which occupy different places on the spectrum of gender disclosure and, as a subset of that, the attitude of those systems to the inclusion of descriptors other than male or female; the ever-present comparison of the gender binary to binary, and the real spectrum of gender alignment as more like analog.

The workshop is structured around a kind of Turing test, in this case called the Strategies game. The Strategies game is a deliberately obfuscatory Turing test. Groups take on the role of either the agent trying to ascertain gender, or the agent trying to hide gender. All groups start by exploring their own cultural assumptions about gender and listing things that they see as essential signifiers. Some groups devote themselves to defining strategies for concealing gender online, others devise strategies for identifying gender. The agents trying to ascertain gender use their list to devise a system of winkling the information out of their opposing agent. The agents trying to hide their gender do similarly, attempting to devise systems which prevent the other side from ascertaining their gender. Strategies are listed on cards, which look like the cards used in card strategy games, or sports trading cards. Each strategy, whether its goal is to be revelatory or obfuscatory, goes on a card. Once the card-development session is done, groups nominate cards to go into a deck which will be used by one of the players in the Turing test.

Once the decks are made, based on educated guesses by the groups and each group contributing an equal number of cards to one of the two decks, everyone in the room closes their eyes. A volunteer is sought to play the role of the identifier. They are taken to a chair in the front of the room, facing a projection screen, and facing away from the rest of the group. With eyes still closed, another volunteer is sought, to be the concealer. They are taken out of the room, to a separated area equipped with a computer. The two players connect to some kind of chat client or collaborative editing platform (so far, I've used etherpad). Taking alternating turns, the two players use strategies listed on their respective decks of cards. Each strategy can only be used once. At the end of the session, when both players are out of cards, the identifier is asked if they believe they can identify the gender of the concealer. 

In asking participants to consider strategies for concealing and identifying gender, and in playing out a modified Turing test, this workshop tackles ideas of gender binaries, cultural gender scripts and requirements, the violence of forced disclosure, and the differing conditions under which we identify ourselves as gendered.

~500 words about disintermediation

I'd like to think about disintermediation for a second. Or not. Why not think about disintermediation? Maybe saying I'm not thinking about disintermediation is wrong. What I really mean is that, rather than just thinking about disintermediation, it's a matter of thinking about who the disintermediation is for. Because it's tricky. I mean, the classic sense of the concept implies that there's a producer and a consumer, and often there's a middleman, but disintermediation takes away the middleman, allowing the producer and the consumer to trade directly.

Let's take two of my cases and apply the classic idea of disintermediation to them. With F/LOSS, I'll grant, if we choose to uphold the producer-consumer dichotomy, then yes, there's often disintermediation. There's every project having its own website/IRC channel/mailing list/whatever. But what's interesting is that there's also a re-intermediation happening. When a project packages its software for a distro, that's re-intermediation. The distro and its package manager are a middleman. And projects do that packaging so that more people have access to their software. Because it's easier to install something when it's packaged for the environment you're running. You avoid things like dependency hell. So that's kind of interesting. In a lot of cases, F/LOSS, which is arguably born disintermediated, is re-intermediated for maybe the vast majority of its consumers. But then it's profoundly disintermediated for some others, as people do things like join mailing lists, install nightly builds, or just download it directly from the project website. But many of these activities imply that people are going beyond mere consumption. They're becoming community members or even taking part in development. So it may actually be that F/LOSS doesn't so much disintermediate as break down the distinction between producer and consumer. Which is a very different thing. Where disintermediation reifies the distinction between producer and consumer, community-based production practices break down that distinction.

If we look at the prosthetics project instead, we see a process that has never really been intermediated. The person building the prosthetic has always been in direct contact with the person getting the prosthetic. There's nothing that needs to be disintermediated. On the other hand, if used wrong, the digital process could intermediate things. In fact, an intermediation is one of the things we need to consciously avoid. We're trying to avoid turning the Ugandan medical practitioners into an intermediary between a patient and a skilled prosthetist in the West. If we look at some genres of telehealth work, maybe we'll see that kind of intermediation. Someone on the ground who's less skilled at a particular task, and someone more skilled at a distance, with the less skilled person implementing the advice and instructions of the distant expert.

Research question

My research question, as articulated in my recently-defended dissertation proposal:

How does the increasing popularity and viability of digital methods impact the production (and, by necessity, consumption) of physical goods, as well as the interfaces we build between our idiosyncratic selves and our standardized production systems and institutions?

Some thoughts on the physical-digital dichotomy

A little over a week ago, I defended my dissertation proposal. That's a big milestone. My committee asked a lot of valuable questions, and gave some useful provocations. One of the ones I've thought about most since then is something I'd been thinking about for some time before the defense. It's the issue of the physical-digital dichotomy. Something I see as a stubborn habit to view digital artefacts as something completely divorced from the physical world. As if the digital somehow lives in the ether. During the defense, I explicitly stated that I don't believe in a sharp divide between the digital and the physical. I believe they're entangled and intimately related. The challenge posed by one of my committee members was to collapse the two, to not fall back on using the two words, "physical" and "digital," which in a sense create the dichotomy. Here, I present some preliminary thoughts on that divide.

While I do believe that the digital is not at all separate from the physical, at the same time, there are digital artefacts that we do interact with as if they're substantively different from physical objects. Things that are mediated by screens, we treat differently from things that are not. Oftentimes, we treat the screen as the physical substrate for the digital good. There does need to be a concept like "digital" in order to describe the things we program, or view on screens, or whatever the specific case may be. Maybe that concept will eventually cease to exist. Who knows. But we can look at it in some pretty fascinating ways, for the time being. Things that I would currently describe as digital have a set of characteristics like non-rivalry. And that is a difference. Something non-rival has a different set of possibilities, working methods, options for distribution, than something rivalrous. For the time being, it is genuinely a fact that we can share code efficiently by copying it, but can't do the same with a chair. Yes, the code requires computers and wires and electrons in order to exist, but in that existence, it has different traits from the things carrying it. So we can't escape physics, and we can't escape rivalry in the goods we hold in our hands, but we can say that, with the way our existing computing infrastructure works, things like code, things like digital images, can be non-rival. We have designed non-rivalry into our computing systems.

The physical digital dichotomy I don't believe in is the one which says that the physical and the digital are totally separate. They can't be. The digital requires, is built on, exists in and is modified by its physical substrate. But I do crucially believe that there are practical, experiential, qualitative differences between digital goods and physical ones. I do think that we actually need to make that distinction, and not collapse the two in our zealousness to view the digital as physically bounded.

Big bibliography: a little bit about flexible production

Boch, R. (1997). The rise and decline of flexible production: The cutlery industry of Solingen since the eighteenth century. In C.F. Sabel & J. Zeitlin (Eds.), World of possibilities: Flexibility and mass production in Western industrialization (153-187). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

In the cutlery industry in Solingen: "By the mid eighteenth century the formerly independent smiths, grinders and hafters had become mere artisan workers, getting their raw material or semi-finished products from the merchant-capitalists in advance and being paid by the piece" (Boch 1997, 155)

a particular model of work to the place and period: even when centralized in ~100-worker grinding halls, "Each grinder still owned his tools and worked on his own account for different merchant capitalists, only 'paying for steam' power in the halls" (Boch 1997, 156)

My love affair with measurement

I don't remember when I first used a ruler or measuring tape. Chances are good that I used rulers for their straight edges before I ever understood what all those little markings were about. I remember having a little geometry kit in grade school, when we started learning about triangles. I remember how everyone used the protractor to scratch their desks. It may have been the first sharp point we had access to, in those days of safety scissors. I don't remember particularly liking geometry when I was in school. It may have been one of the units I was better at, but I was never really amazing at math. And I certainly didn't love measurement back then.

The first time measurement really became an issue was when I learned how to draft. I took a design technology class in my last year of high school, which wasn't an unmitigated success. I was in my very truculent phase, because I hadn't yet learned how to be strategically pleasant. My teacher and I didn't have a particularly good relationship. But there were scale rulers. Scale rulers are fascinating, because they don't have a 1:1 relationship to the world. Those strange, triangular rulers, with two different scales on each side, are six different representations of miniature worlds. I can't remember what the ones in high school were like, whether they were metric or imperial, what scales they had. The one I bought when I started design school, though, was metric. It had 1:20, 1:25, 1:50, 1:75, 1:100, and 1:125. At some point, I used the 1:125 side to mark a line with a black marker. There's still a long scuff between the 2 metre mark and the 18 metre mark. Which is what's fascinating about scale rulers. The ruler itself is the length of my forearm and half of my hand. But the markings tell a different story. That 1:125 side goes up to 37.5 metres. On the smallest side, the 1:20, it goes up to 6 metres. A scale ruler tells a story about a tiny world, drawn on paper. It's hard not to start noticing measurement when your ruler suddenly shows you something other than the immediate world you live in.

In design school, I finally understood the value of cartesian space. In math class, back in grade school and high school, it took mnemonics to remember which axis was X and which was Y. All I ever used those for at the time was making graphs. Having a convention for length and height was no use to me until I started designing objects.

It took me a master's degree to develop a love of standards, which was the precursor to a love of measurement. Developing an understanding of the global infrastructure required to bring a cup of tea or a piece of toast to the kitchen table was a revelation. Metrology, the science of measurement, is one of the extremes of standardization. Just think: in order to buy a cheap plastic ruler today, eighteenth century scientists had to make expeditions around the world, determining the circumference of the Earth by measuring the lengths of degrees at different locales; international fights had to be fought over whose system of measurement would be adopted by scientific institutions; physical representations of standard measurements had to be distributed to regional governments and standards bodies; entire populations of people needed to learn to think in decimals. The way we see the world had to be changed in order for the ruler we now take for granted to both be developed and to become understandable. It's one of the triumphs of early modern rationalism. It's completely audacious. And we take it so much for granted.

That history, and the systems supporting our current standards, is embedded in every interaction we have with measurement. That ruler, which may seem so obvious, because all it does is tell us how long something is, is a spectacular attempt to make sense of our world. To hold a ruler up against an object and say "this is 20 cm long" is entirely commonplace now, but is a spectacular achievement, and a spectacular arrogance.

The banality of artefact standards

Describing a legal volt: "Without the certificate specifying the true value of the battery and attesting to the time and circumstances of its calibration, the box would hold nothing but four rather ordinary, albeit weak, batteries that are of no use to anyone. With the certificate, the box still holds four batteries, but it also holds something else of far greater importance: it also holds the legal volt." (O'Connell, 1993, p. 148)

O'Connell, J. (January 01, 1993). Metrology: The Creation of Universality by the Circulation of Particulars. Social Studies of Science, 23, 1, 129.

Body scanning and the standard human

The idea of constantly increasing specificity resonates well with the increased collection of anthropometric data.

Let's say that we can trace the standard human, as a construct, back to the mid/late-19th century, as Lengwiler (2009) suggests. The assumption is that before statistics (which Lengwiler ties to the development of the standard human), we didn't have the concept of a standard human. So what did we have if not standard humans? Presumably, individual ones. The bulk of Lengwiler's chapter, though, makes an argument for a gradation of standards. With his insurance coverage example, we move from non-standard (coverage determined by the discretion of a doctor) to a binary standard (either you're fit for insurance or you're not) to a gradated standard (different clients get treated differently, based on a set of factors). That's an example of a historic trajectory for a standard: increasing specificity.

If the trajectory of a standard tends to be from nothing to monolithic to binary to granular, then we can quite conveniently frame body scanning as an enactment of granular standard formation. When people scan our bodies for us, they do it for purposes of data collection and standardization (as in the example of SizeUSA), national security (like the TSA), consumer satisfaction (Levi's scanning you to make your perfect jeans)...

What purposes might we have to scan ourselves for our own good? How does scanning ourselves contribute to the trajectory of standardization? What happens if we keep our data to ourselves and don't share it into the aggregate? If we become capable of collecting and storing precise data about our own bodies, is there an onus on us to make productive use of it ourselves, without sharing it? Is it exploitative of others if we compare against existing data but don't share back?