It's an understatement to say that it's been a very busy year! In January I joined the Cassini Mission to Saturn as a social scientist observer. Cassini is an orbital mission that has been exploring the Saturn System since 2004, and I am working with them as part of my research into the sociotechnical organization of spacecraft teams: the project I call, The Social Life of Spacecraft. This has been an immersive ethnographic process, involving travel to visit most of the twelve instrument teams' meetings, observing the observation planning processes, attending team meetings and planetary science conferences all over the world, and managing interviews and archival work on the mission as well. This work has taken me from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to the Aricebo Observatoryin Puerto Rico... Following these scientists and engineers around like a dutiful Geekologist, I think at this point I've racked up enough airmiles to make it to Saturn -- and back!
I've recently started to synthesize some primary findings from my ongoing ethnography in a number of settings. Along with colleagues at JPL, Ames, and elsewhere, I produced a White Paper for the Planetary Society Decadal Survey called Sociological Considerations for the Success of Unmanned Missions. In May I gave a talk to the Departmental Seminar at UC Irvine Informatics on the beginnings of the Social Life of Spacecraft Project. By October, I presented a paper on The Social Life of Spacecraft: Organization, Instrumentation and Negotiation on the Cassini and Mars Rover Missions at the Hybrid Design Practices and co-presented a paper on the Dynamics of Power in Location-Based Systems, co-authored with Irina Shklovski and Paul Dourish. Already gearing up for CSCW and CHI 2010, with papers in the works on death and computing, and post-colonial computing (ICT for Developing Countries) ... stay tuned!
I defended my dissertation in December of 2008 and have moved to a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Informatics and Computer Science at the University of California Irvine. I chose to work at Irvine because of its outstanding scholars in human-computer interaction, such as my NSF grant PI Paul Dourish, whose work in critical studies of computing and distributed teams will prove essential to my next project.
The next project is a comparative study of another spacecraft team: Cassini, a mission to Saturn. Although also a robotic spacecraft, the Cassini mission is almost as different from the Mars Rovers as possible, with its complex organizational structure, flagship funding, orbital and celestial mechanics instead of alien atmospheres and ground to grapple with, and an international team (a NASA-ESA-ASI collaboration). Studying Cassini should illuminate many of the organizational issues that animate these complex, distant machines and clarify many of the questions about the Social Life of Spacecraft that arose from my dissertation project.
Thanks to the Fellowship in the History of Space Sciences, jointly awarded by the NASA History Office and History of Science Society, I am in residence this fall as a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, joining my friends and colleagues in the Intelligent Systems Division. I also have a concurrent appointment as a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Science, Technology and Society program. Here, I am embarking on a project extended from my dissertation research: what is the relationship between the social organization of spacecraft teams and the operation and management of spacecraft resources?
This question arises from my dissertation work on the visual technologies on the Mars Rover Mission, which operates by consensus using a very flat hierarchy. But apparently this wasn't always the case, so I am digging into the rich history of NASA's unmanned space exploration program, including such missions as the Vikings, Mariner, Voyager and Galileo, to get a better sense of the historical context of the Mars Rover mission as I've observed it for the last three years. As Ames was also involved in an ethnography of the Rover mission in the early phases of its development and operation, I am also using the opportunity to learn all I can about how this well-honed structure of operations came about. Digging through the boxes of archival paperwork on Viking or leafing through 1960's NASA managerial and HCI handbooks, the historian of science in me is excited to be back in the archives again!
I am also delighted to announce that my NSF grant under the Virtual Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems program has been approved; so early next year I will start working as a postdoctoral scholar under Paul Dourish at the University of California, Irvine. Here I will continue the same research trajectory into the relationship between the social and technical organization of spacecraft systems and robotic space science -- what Charlotte Lee et al. have called "the human infrastructure of cyberinfrastructure" -- but with increasing focus on contemporary or developing missions.
As I am also currently finishing up my dissertation in addition to getting knee deep in a new research project, I am keeping travel this semester to an all-time low. Following field work with the next generation Rovers, the Mars Science Laboratory, at the team's landing site meetings in September, I am also participating at workshop on Designing Cyberinfrastructure to Support Science at the ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, in San Diego this November. And then of course, it's back to Ithaca this winter to defend the dissertation ...
At Cornell snow is in the air, the Society for the Humanities is back into full swing -- and speaking of swing, in addition to my usual jazz combo I will be playing with the CU Jazz Ensemble I in a (re)production of Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain in April! More details as they come...
Speaking engagements this semester include a visit to MIT's Space Science Policy group and STS program; I will be presenting some of my work on the Mars Exploration Rover mission, with an emphasis on the visualizations and embodied interactions that team members use to depict Martian terrain "like a Rover". Following that talk, I have also been invited to speak at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science at the workshop, The Educated Eye. Here I will present the scientists' side of working with Rover images, focusing on how details are teased out of the Martian landscape with digital editing software.
Also, my paper on the effects of the iconic tube map on navigating and representing the city of London is now published as "Mind the Gap: The London Underground Map and Users' Representations of Urban Space" in the journal, Social Studies of Science, 38.1: 7-33. Check it out!
Thanks to a Doctoral Dissertation Grant from the National Science Foundation, this summer's research travel took me across the United States, from California to DC with stops in Arizona, Missouri and Ohio, to visit Rover scientists in their workplaces and watch them work with digital images from Mars to do their science. A thousand digital photos, hundreds of recorded interviews and ten full research notebooks later, I am fortunate to have the intellectual and physical space at the Society for the Humanities to turn this great material into a dissertation over the course of this academic year.
Although writing is my focus this fall, I will be speaking on my dissertation work periodically: first at the Society for the Social Studies of Science conference in Montreal in October, then at the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference in Portland, Maine in November, and finally at my department's Science Studies Research Group series. I am also an invited speaker at the upcoming "Educated Eye" workshop at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin in February. To achieve some kind of balance, I continue to play with the Cornell Jazz Ensembles with a wonderfully talented group of students -- catch our upcoming performance on November 17 at the Carriage House Cafe! -- and serve on the Graduate Community Initiative working group based on the report authored last spring.
An update on some recent awards and honours... Our paper, "How HCI Interprets the Probes" was Best Paper Nominee at CHI 2007! :) Phoebe Sengers, Kirsten Boehner and I delivered the paper today in San Jose and it inspired some great comments and discussion -- including a question from one of our co-authors! Also, last week I received the Cornell Student Activities Office's Distinguished Student Leadership Award for my work with the GPSA and on the Graduate Community Initiative in particular. I'm happy to report that the Initiative is already in effect, and a working group is already underway. In addition, the GPSA Grad Ball that I founded three years ago was also honoured with an Organization Showcase Award! Did I mention that the Ball this year sold out with 500 tickets in advance? Something to celebrate indeed! :)