A hybrid space for technical production and humanistic inquiry.

Month: March 2019

WithU: Designing Products for Pets & Their Owners – Alice Liu

More than half of the global population currently lives in cities, with an increasing trend for further urbanization.

Houses are becoming less affordable. According to Zumper’s most recent national rent report, the price of one bedroom in New York City is $2,900, with two bedrooms growing 1.7% to $3,500. Living in cities also mess up people’s mental health. Research shows that people living in cities have a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders. In addition, the incidence of schizophrenia is twice as high in those born and brought up in cities. Moreover, in my personal experience as an international student, I found a lot of my friends experiencing homesickness, loneliness, and a very high level of pressure during their time far away from home. Therefore, I started this research seeking ways to help with city people’s mental disorders.

The idea came from Japanese animal cafes, where customers can play with resident animals while having a cup of coffee. “People today are under a lot of stress,” said Masayuki Takamatsu, board chairman at the Nihon Animal Therapy Association. “It has been proven in neuroscience that humans feel better after spending time with animals they like.” Seeing how popular animal cafes have become in Japan, I decided to focus my research on increasing the impact of animals (pets) on city people’s mental disorders.

Differing from the living situations in Japan, American apartments are a lot bigger in general. So rather than going to animal cafes, more people keep pets in their houses. Among my friends, a lot of them own a cat, a few own a dog, and even fewer own small animals like rabbits or guinea pigs. In order to get more users and testers, I chose to design the first product for cats and cat owners.

I interviewed my friends who own cats and observed them in their home environments, paying particular attention to the interactions between the owners and their cats, the products they use, and the environment itself. I saw that cats were rather clingy creatures. Besides sleeping and playing with cat toys, they love trying to get their owners’ attention. Among the five cats I observed, two of them love stepping and sitting on the laptop when my friends were trying to do work. “I love having Luna around my desk, even if sometimes she disturbs me a little,” said Chun Wang. “Usually she will just go back to sleep after me playing with her for a while. If she gets too excited, I’ll put a little box on the table and she’ll sleep in the box. Few cats can say no to little boxes.”

In Troy, New York (the location of my research & current home), the average size for an apartment is 1,047 square feet – which is enough for a party of two people and a cat – but even so, is still a bit crowded for most parties I interviewed. To optimally design for city people and their cats, I tried my best to minimize space usage while letting the cat keep their owner’s company as much as possible. Having that goal in mind, I sketched a student desk with a sunken area for cats to sleep in.

The shape and depth of the cat’s desk area are still being tested, and, based on user feedback, other functions might be added in the future.

While our users are testing the desk, we are trying to start designing our second product – which might be a hiking bottle for dogs. Keep an eye out if you’re interested! We are also constantly looking for cat owners to help with user testing, so please let me know if you are willing to help! Thank you:)

Jiawen Liu (Alice) is an Electrical Engineering and Design Innovation and Society major – interested in industrial design, theme park design, cultural anthropology, and filmmaking. Hobbies: traveling, road biking, being with animals, daydreaming… Favorite color: sky blue. Favorite food: chicken wings. Favorite animation: Spirited Away. Currently working on the project WithU – which seeks ways to increase the positive impact of animals on human mental illnesses through products.






Paraphrasing Kittler

“There is no comment”

Ezra Teboul – you can point out my mistakes at t e b o u e   a t r p i d o t e d u

Modular synthesizers have been right on time for their latest cyclical comeback thanks to a combination of things:

  • the relative affordability of making someone else assemble surface-mount-components for your hip new sound-making circuits.
  • the convenient and contagious standardization of Doepfer’s eurorack specifications.
  • the ever-increasing amount of “open” relevant resources, material and intellectual, available to those with disposable time and income on the internet, including access to relatively affordable and well documented parts.
  • (glibly) the general realization that, after all, maybe disco was cool.  

However, for all its increased cultural capital, and a general movement in music to implicitly and slowly attempt to come to terms with its deeply embedded exclusionary practices, the vague category of artifacts called “synthesizer” (hereafter, affectionately, synth) has received mostly occasional and fragmented critical attention (Sterne, Rodgers, Pinch, Bijsterveld, Born, Theberge, Taylor, Diduck, Nakai, Kuivila, Collins… if most of these cite each other they are usually operating independently). The situation is that those best situated to appreciate synths’ cultural / economic significance often tend to be ones least likely to also boil down exactly how synths’ dual status as artistic and technical objects may or may not make the required transdisciplinary reading difficult. The electronics themselves, and the practices (electrical engineering, computer science) they imply are challenging to apprehend on their own terms (please feel free to point me to studies of electronic music that deconstruct circuit schematics and code to prove me wrong and make my dissertation easier).

In other words – as Jessica Rylan, a synth designer, maker and user who also used to work for Don Buchla, bluntly pointed out when I interviewed her for my master’s thesis, electronics theory and circuit assembly / troubleshooting are hard and not everyone is particularly interested in dealing with them (although I believe everyone could if they had the resources and time they wanted). The less considered converse phenomena is that circuit designers’ work is rarely documented as making “cultural” references through their technical work. Challenges go both ways: making circuits is hard as well. You have to be a special kind of self-sabotaging to want to spend the time necessary to write down where every circuit idea, inspiration, decision came from, let alone share that information or figure that out for someone else’s work (although, in some ways, there are exceptions).

And in a sense, this intentional cordoning off of some questions makes self-preserving sense. Musicologists, operating in a well codified milieu, gain relatively little from reading into synthesizers (a thoroughly undeveloped scholarly subfield) as they might read into musical scores or ethnographic documentation. Designers don’t need much more than basic comparisons to pre-existing systems to advertise their latest hardware or software work (for behemoths like Ableton or Cycling ’74, they don’t even need to advertise that much). Understanding the cultural implications of technical decisions in electronic music, is, in a pragmatic-economic sense, the “basic research” of the field: it might make your music better and your scholarship more accurate, but for fields as cynical as small scale music hardware entrepreneurship and academia, those were never clear objectives in the first place anyways.

The arbitrary waveform generator is not a solution to these issues as much as it’s an acknowledgement of their existence and an opportunity to try and answer them as best we can (with questions). What does it mean to consider technical decisions as more or less explicit position statements? Is picking 1N400X series diode the same as writing a song with a mixolydian mode in any meaningful way? In turn, how do these decisions compare to writing songs about parents, doing dishes, or a time of your life so grim it is best portrayed as an apocalypse? Questions of scale and agency are at play here. Each of these decisions carries cultural baggage at different levels, with meanings as varied as there are listeners. There is no reason to expect consistent responses at the individual level. But technical work – in synthesizer design and beyond – won’t come to terms with those shapeshifting and scale-sliding meanings if it doesn’t develop the appropriate modes of acknowledgement and expression at all scales.

As discussed in a previous post, some scholarship around and outside music have acknowledged the potential and possibilities here (see the Rodgers or Haring pieces mentioned there). Since then, the waveform group has also read pieces by Alexander Weheliye and Katherine McKittrick or Alejandra Bronfman (unpublished, sorry). These detail how audio electronics eventually acquire cultural and individual meanings which its makers have very little control over home and back again. This is while they also detail the mechanisms taken by such processes in the past, and at various scales. For the tactical humanities lab, we’ve focused on the arbitrary waveform generator because it offered the most meaningful connections to imagined and actual communities.

Because musical electronics serve the vague purpose of helping with art making while being commodities hopelessly reliant on and symptoms of global manufacturing and consumption chains (Taylor , Theberge), they offer an interesting meeting point for ambiguously ambivalent interests which are rarely acknowledged by designers and makers (again, exceptions). The arbitrary waveform generator suggests what this might look like at the aforementioned multiple scales:

  • justifying arbitrary decisions in comments.
  • making references to music we think is relevant by copying the designs of the systems used to make that music in our digital environment and detailing that in more comments.
  • finding out ways to comment circuit schematics in addition to more traditional code or visual coding environments.
  • the open sourcing of our whole process so you can actually read those comments.

Our hope is a combination of small changes in design and documentation practices can help assess the reality of our current setting, if not change it (yet). In other words, if there is no such thing as an ethical electronic device under capitalism, what is our responsibility as designers in this privileged space of the “not-quite-as-essential” devices embodied by “synths?” How do we respond to it? Does it affect the functionalities of the system we are designing? Does it affect the characteristic of music made with that system?

Ezra Teboul is HASS fellow in RPI’s Tactical Humanities Laboratory researching labor and agency in musical electronics.

Domestic Robots, Social Robots?

Let me set a scene: A woman kisses her baby’s head, stands up to give her husband, holding their child, a warm smile and comforting pat on the arm as she leaves the house. Moments later, the ubiquitous Alexa (complete with cheerfully neutral feminine voice) chimes in, “Here’s your reminder: Laura left a teething ring in the freezer.” Then, “Laura made a play date for three pm.” Then, “I’m reminding you: Laura loves you, and you’re doing a great job.” This commercial for Amazon’s home robot, alternately Echo/Alexa dependent upon your penchant for anthropomorphizing, displays the continued relationship between technology and gendered household labor by illustrating the embeddedness and invisibility of female emotional and mental labor involved in making life easier for others through the instrumentalization of technology broadly construed to make life easier for everyone. Despite the presentation of Alexa as an independent house helper, in the practice of this commercial she becomes a disembodied extension of the mother, infantilizing the father.



2019 seems to be the moment of the domestic robot, or robotic technologies which often utilize AI and which are designed to make home life and domestic labor easier for the user. Everywhere you look, advertisements boast the time and labor saving benefits of domestic robots. More and more often, these robots are becoming integrated into every day life: a recipe is pulled up by the user without any touch or effort of finding it themselves; an alarm is requested of the robot by a user; a ding notifies a user during work that their vacuuming for the day has been completed; blueberries are ordered by a rogue child.  Why vacuum or take time to order your goods/set an alarm/add events to your calendar manually, when you can merely ask a robot to do it for you? These technologies advertise their ability to make life much easier for their users. As a function of this ‘ease’ of use, these robots are gathering information on the user throughout the course of every day living.

There are many potential courses of analysis delving into the dynamics of the underlying capitalist and financial motivations of this behavior; however, I am most interested in the social aspects of these robots. How do the robots come to “understand” their users through this attention to and analysis of them? How do users come to understand the function and usability of these devices in ways which create them as static objects in relation to the user’s subjectivity? How do interactions between these domestic robots and their users come to define domestic relationships, user subjectivity, and rules of interaction both inside and outside of the home?

These are many of the questions driving my exploration of domestic robots as social robots. Having access to the “space” of the Tactical Humanities Lab has provided me the opportunity to get down and dirty with some of these devices, in order to “play” and explore boundaries and relationalities of these devices with their users. Treated much like a multi-species participatory observational ethnography, I am hoping to expand my understanding of the ways in which these devices function with users, with each other, and with(in) their environments.

Jamie Steele is a doctoral student in Science and Technology Studies at RPI. Her research interests are the intersections of technoscience studies, feminist/queer inflected critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and popular culture. In addition to her analytic work on the Alien films, she is currently exploring gendered aspects of embodiment and minds in the development of artificial intelligence.