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Thoughts on assistive technology

Original posting on SFPC blog, 7/2014

SFPC team* has been thinking about how to approach the concept of ‘assistive technology’ and ‘new audiences’ as research tracks for 2014/2015 session. The theme came out of our discussion about finding meaningful purpose for poetic computation beyond our own classroom and exhibitions.


Few weeks ago, the co-founders met to discuss about the next step for the school, and one of shared interest was to help our students become better at helping others. In the wide spectrum of assistive, adaptive and socially engaged projects, our interest focus on creating tools and environment where the idea of normalcy is challenged, difficult questions open up fierce discussion, dangerous (in a sense of disrupting one’s preconception) prototypes are built and tested. All of which must lead to ‘taking care’ of one another, possibly one step further out than ‘being aware’ of one another.

Some projects as a point of reference, Zach collaborated on theEyewriter project, Amit has written about designing games toward accessibility. I have organized series of community workshops atMaking Lab. With these experiences and shared interest, we began to think about new way of approaching very sensitive and important issues.

The question we share is how to help students learn about more engaged, inclusive and responsible approaches to social and personal issues. The term ‘assistive technology’ has a strong medical ties to it, often limited to technical devices that help people perform normal bodily functions. We need to ask the definition of ‘Normal’ at the first place. Sara Hendren has wrote extensively about the topic, ’All technology is Assistive technology’. Echoing her research and provocations, we can start to think of assistive technology beyond subject of ‘disabled’, ‘aging’ and other social constructs.


Can we think of poetic computation that can empower people through the learning process and create a work (of art/ design or service) that embodies the collaborative process?  (more notes on art as embodiment on my blog post ‘correct use of art’.)

The trick may be to avoid common mistake to think good design can to solve other people’s problem. The limitation of thinking bodies in terms of normalcy and efficiency is that the solutions are often short lived and domain specific; it’s a temporary fix until the issues needs another more permanent treatment. Projects on short term basis may tire out the parties involved in the process. Thus, the critical question is that of expanding notion of access and acceptance. Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor in conversation in the Examined life video mention “Physical access leads to social access and acceptance.“

One great example is Make!Do! program at Queens Museum of Art lead by Molmol Kuo. The participants, who are mostly Mandarin speaking elderly folks from New York area, are guided to take initiative in creating ideas to help other elderly in daily life. They take D.I.Y approach to the ideas through assignments, drawings and prototypes. The program stands out because it does not only address social issues by design and making, the program opens up a space for the participants to voice their own concerns. Their process is documented on the New New Yorker blog.


Presence in a Digital Age, is a design research project from about 15 years ago in the Netherlands.

“The primary goal of the Presence project was to develop new ways for ordinary people – and especially older people – to interact with computers and communications. For older people, technology is often a means – not an end in itself. It is a means, in particular, to better communications, which can reduce their dependency on welfare services.

An important outcome of the project were new methodologies for the design of information technology products and services for older people, and for social actors with different needs in everyday life.”

It’s worthwhile to quote their mission statement because it’s a novel example of the kind of approach we consider important; a respective and playful, intimate and considerate approach to people’s lives and dreams. And it’s also a reminder that many academics, artists and researchers have built important groundwork which we need to appreciate for future exploration.

Now, how can we re-imagine alternative academic program that is inclusive of social issues, individuals and community? How to create a project that doest not simply address issues, but build groundwork for sustained effort in making things (art, city, whatnot) more accessible? How can we opensource our research, including trial and error to the community of people who can build their own projects from it?


Image: drawing about collaboration ideas with Christine Sun Kim 

*SFPC is run by a small group of faculty who are some combination of artists, technologists and designers. Co-founders take initiative in directing the school’s direction in conversation with other teachers, colleagues and students. This particular meeting was between Zach, Amit, myself and Casey.

– posting by Taeyoon

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