Author/Interviewee: Andrew Quitmeyer
Author/Interviewer: Cynthia C. S. Liem, Jochen Huber
Could you tell us a bit about your background, and what the road to your current position was?
In general, a lot of my background has been motivated by personal independence and trying to find ways to sustain myself. I was a first-generation grad student (which may explain a lot of my skepticism and confusion about academia in general). I moved out of the house at 15 to go to this cool, free, experimental public boarding high school in Illinois. I went to the University of Illinois because it was the nicest school I could go to for free (despite horrible college counselors telling all the students they should take on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to go to the “school of their dreams”). They didn’t have a film-making program, so I created my own degree for it. Thinking I could actually have a film career seemed risky, and I wanted something that would protect my ability to get a job, so I got an engineering degree too.
I was a bit disappointed in the engineering side though, because I felt we never actually got to build anything on our own. I think a lot of people know me as some kind of “hacker” or “maker”, but I didn’t start doing many physical projects until much later in grad school when I met my friend Hannah Perner-Wilson. She helped pioneer a lot of DIY e-textiles (kobakant.at), and what struck me was how beautifully you could document and play with physical projects. Physical computing seemed an attractive combination of my abilities in documentary filmmaking and engineering.
The other big revelation for me roped in the naturalist side of what I do. I have always loved adventuring in nature, and studying wild creatures, but growing up in the midwest USA, this was never presented as a viable career opportunity. In the same way that it was basically taken for granted in midwestern US culture that studying art was a sort of frivolous hobby for richer kids, a career in biology that didn’t feed into engineering work in some specific industry (agriculture, biotech, etc…) was treated as equally flippant. I tried taking as many science electives as I could in undergrad, but it was because they were fun. Again, it was not until grad school when I had a cool job doing computer vision programming with an ant-lab robot-lab collaboration that I realized the potential error of my ways. Some of the ant biologists invited me to go ant hunting out in the desert after our meeting, and it was so fun and interesting I had a sort of existential meltdown. “Oh no! I screwed up, I could have been a field biologist all this time? Like that’s a job?”
So I worked to sculpt my PhD around this revelations. I wanted to join field biologists in exploring the natural world while using and developing novel technology to help us probe and document these creatures in new ways.
I plowed through my PhD as fast as I could because going to school in the US is expensive. You either have to join a lab to help work on someone else’s (already funded) project or take time away from your research to TA classes. After I got out of there, I did some other projects, and eventually got a job as an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore in the communications and new media department. Unfortunately it seems like I came at a pretty chaotic time (80% of my fellow professors are leaving my division, not to be replaced), and so I will actually be leaving at the end of this semester to figure out a new place to continue doing research and teaching others.
How does multidisciplinary work play a role in your research on “Digital Naturalism”?
The work is basically anti-disciplinary. Instead of a relying on specific field of practice, the work simply sets out towards some basic goals and happily uses any means necessary to get there. Currently this includes a blend of naturalistic experimentation, performance art, film making, interaction design, software and hardware engineering, industrial design, ergonomics, illustration, and storytelling.
The more this work spreads into other disciplines the more robust and interesting I think it will become. For instance, I would love to see more video games developed about interacting with wild animals.
Could you name a grand research challenge in your current field of work?
Let’s talk to animals.
I am a big follower of Janet Murray’s work in Digital Media. She sees the grand challenge of computers as forming this amazing new medium that we all have to collaboratively experiment with to figure out how to truly make use of the new affordances it provides us. For me, the coolest new ability of computers is their behavioral nature. Never before have we had a medium that shares the same unique qualities of living creatures in being able to sense stimuli from the world, process this and be able to create new stimuli in response. Putting together these senses and actions let’s computers give us the first truly “behavioral medium.” Intertwining the behaviors of computers with living creatures opens up a new world of dynamic experimentation.
When most people think of talking to animals, they imagine some kind of sci-fi, dr. doolittle auto-translator. A bird chips a song, and we get a text message that says “I am looking for more bird food.” This is quite specist of us, and upholds that ingrained assumption that all living creatures strive to somehow become more like us.
Instead, I think this digital, behavioral medium holds more value and potential into bringing us into their world and modes of communication. You can learn what the ants are saying by building your own robot ant that taps antennae with the workers around her. You might learn more in a birds’ communication by capturing its bodily movements and physical interactions giving context to its thoughts than trying to brute-force decrypt the sounds it makes.
I find anything we can learn about animals and their environments useful, and the behaviors that computers can enact as a key to bringing us into their world. There is a really long road ahead though. To facilitate rich, behavioral interactions with other creatures requires advances, experimentation, and refinement of our ability to sense non-human stimuli and provide realistic stimuli back. Meanwhile though, I can barely create a sensor that can detect just the presence or absence of an ant on a tree in the wild. Thus we need a lot more development and experimentation but, I imagine future digital naturalists using technology to turn themselves into Goat-men like Thomas Thwaites rather than as Star Trek commanders using some kind of universal translator.
You have been starring in a ‘Hacking the Wild’ television series on the Discovery Channel. How did the idea for this series come about? Do you aim to reach out to particular audiences with the show?
Yeah that was an interesting experience! Some producers had seen some of my work I had been documenting and producing from expeditions I led during my PhD, and contacted me about turning it into a show. A problem in the entertainment industry is that nobody seems to understand why you would ever not want to be in entertainment. They treat it as a given that that’s what everyone is striving for in their lives. This seems to give them license to not treat people great and say whatever it takes to get people to do what they want (even if some of these things turn out to be false). So, for instance, I was first told that my show would be about me working with scientists building technology in the jungle, but then it devolved into a survival genre TV show with just me. The plot became non-sensical (which could have been fun!), but pressure from the industry forced us to keep up the grizzled stereotypes of the genre (“if I don’t find food in the next couple hours…I might not make it out”).
It gave me an interesting chance to insert myself and some of my own ideals into this space though. One thing that irks me about the survival genre in general is its rhetoric of “conquering nature.” They kept trying to feed me lines about how I would use this device, or this hack to “defeat nature” which is the exact opposite of what I want to do in my work. So I tried to stand my ground and assert that nature is beautiful and fun, and maybe we can use things we build to understand it even better. Many traditional survival audiences didn’t seem to care for it, but I have gotten lots of fan mail from around the world from people who seem to get the real idea of it a bit more – make things outside and use them to play in nature. I remember one nice email from a young kid who would prototype contraptions in their back yard with what they called “electric sticks,” and that was really nice.
You recently organized the first Digital Naturalism Conference (Dinacon), that was quite unlike the types of conferences we would normally encounter. Could you tell a bit more about Dinacon’s setup,and the reasons why you initiated a conference like this?
Dinacon was half a long-term dream and half a reaction to problems in current academic publishing and conferences.
The basic idea of of the Digital Naturalism Conference was to gather all the neat people in my network spanning many different fields and practices, and get them to hang out together in a beautiful, interesting place. For me, this was a direct continuation of my Digital Naturalism work to re-imagine the sites of scientific exploration. In previous events I had tried to explore combining hackathons with biological field expeditions. These “hiking hacks” looked to design the future of how scientific trips might function in tandem with the design of scientific tools. The conference looked to take this to the next stage and re-imagine what the biological field station of the future might look like.
The more specific design of this conference was built as a reaction to a lot of the problems I see in current academic traditions. The academic conferences I have taken part in generally had these problems:
- Exploitative – Powered by unpaid laborers (organizing, reviewing, formatting, advertising) who then have to pay to attend themselves
- Expensive – only rich folks get to attend (generally with money from their institution)
- Exclusive – generally you have to already be “vetted” with your papers to attend (not knocking Peer review! Just vetted networking)
- Steer Money in not great directions – e.g. lining the pockets of fancy hotels and publishing companies
- Restricted Time – Most conferences leave just enough time to get bored waiting for others unenthusiastic presentations to finish, and maybe grab a drink before heading back to all the duties one has. I think for good work to be done, and proper connections to be made in research, people need time to live and work together in a relaxing, exciting environment.
[I go into more details about all this in the post about our conference’s philosophy: https://www.dinacon.org/2017/11/01/philosophy/ ]
Based on these problems, I wanted to experiment with alternative methods for gathering people, sharing information, and reviewing the information they create. I wanted to show that these problems were illnesses within the current system and traditions we perpetuate, and that many alternatives not only exist, but are feasible even on a severely reduced budget. (We started on an initial budget self-funding the rental of the place with $7000 USD, we then crowdfunded $11,000 additionally after the conference was announced to provide additional amenities and stipends).
Thus, when creating this conference, we sought to attack each of these challenges. First we made it free to attend and provided free or subsidized housing. We also made it open to absolutely anyone from any discipline or background. Then we tried to direct what money we did have to spend towards community improvements. For instance, we rented out the Diva Andaman for the duration of the conference. This was a tourism ship that was interested in also helping the biology community by serving as a mobile marine science lab. In return for letting us use the facilities and rooms on the ship, we helped develop ideas and tools for its new laboratories. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we worked to provide time for the participants. They were allowed to stay for 3 days to 3 weeks and encouraged to take time to explore, adjust to the place, interact with each other.
We tried to also streamline the responsibilities of the participants too by having just 3 official “rules”:
- You must complete something. Aim big, aim small, just figure out a task for yourself that you can commit yourself to that you can accomplish during your time at the conference. It can be any format you want: sculpture, a movie, a poem, a fingerpainting, a journal article – you just have to finish it!
- Document and Share it. Everything will be made open-source and publicly accessible!
- Provide feedback on two (2) other people’s projects.
The goal of these rules would be that, just like at a traditional conference, everyone would leave with a completed work that’s been reviewed by their peers. Also like the reality of any conference, not all of these rules were 100% met. Everyone created something, most documented it, and gave plenty of feedback to each other, but there wasn’t yet as much of an infrastructure in place for them to give this feedback and documentation a bit more formally. These rules functioned with great success, however, as goal posts leading people towards working on interesting things while also collaborating and sharing their work.
Do you feel Dinacon was successful in promoting inclusivity? What further actions can the community undertake towards this as a whole?
I do, and was quite happy with the results, but am excited to build on this aspect even more. We worked hard at reaching out to many communities around the world, especially within groups or demographics that may be overlooked otherwise. This was a big factor in where we decided to locate the conference as well. Thailand was great because many folks from around southeast asia could easily come, while people from generally richer nations in the west could also make it. I think this is a super important feature for any international conference: make it easier for the less privileged and more difficult for the more privileged.
I genuinely do not understand why giant expensive conferences just keep being held where the rich people already live. Anytime I am at some expensive conference hotel in Singapore, Japan, or the USA, I think about how all that money could go so much further and have a bigger impact on a community elsewhere. For instance, there has NEVER been a CHI conference held anywhere in Africa, South America, or Southeast Asia. These places do also have large hotels that you can hook up computers and show a PowerPoint as well, so it’s not like they are missing the key infrastructure of these types of conferences.
One of the biggest hurdles is money and logistics. We had folks accepted from every continent except Antarctica, but our friends from Ghana couldn’t make it due to the arduous visa process. We had a couple small micro-travel grants (300-600 bucks of my own money) to help get people over who might not have been able to otherwise, but I wished we could have made our conference entirely free and could cover transportation (instead of just free registration, free food, and free camping housing).
That’s a limitation of a self-funded project, you just try to help as much as you can until you are tapped out. The benefits of it, though, are proving that really many people with a middle class job can actually do this too. Before I got my job, I pledged to put 10% of my earnings towards creating fun, interesting experiences for others. It’s funny that when people spend this amount of money on more established things like cars or religious tithing, people accept it, but when I tell people I am spending $7000USD of my own money putting on a free conference about my research they balk and act like I am nuts. I couldn’t think of anything better to spend 10% of your money on than something that brings you and others joy.
Next year’s conference will likely have a sliding scale registration though to help promote greater inclusivity overall than what we could provide out of our own pockets. Having people who can afford to pay a couple hundred for registration help subsidize those who would have been prevented from coming seems like an equitable solution.
How and in what form do you feel we as academics can be most impactful?
Fighting competitiveness. I think the greatest threat put onto academics is the idea that we are competing with each other. Unfortunately, many institutional policies actually codify this competition into truth. As an academic your loyalty should be first and foremost into unlocking new ideas about our world that you can share with others. This quality is rarely directly rewarded by any large organization, though. This means that standing up for academic integrity will almost undoubtedly come at a cost. It may cost you your bonus, your grant application, or even your job. In terms of your life and your career, however, I think these will only be short term expenses, and in fact be investments into deeper, more impactful research and experiences.
Academics like to complain about the destructiveness of policies based on pointless metrics and academic cliques, but nothing will change unless you simply stand up against it. Not everyone can afford to stand up against the authorities. Maybe you cannot quit your job because you need the health care, but there are ways for all of us to call out exploitation that we see in institutional or community structures. You need to assess the privileges you do have, and do what you can to help share knowledge and lift up those around you.
For instance, in my reflection after going to a more traditional conference (during my own conference), I pledged to
- no longer help recruit “reviewers” for papers if they are not compensated in some way.
- avoid reviewing papers for exploitative systems
- transfer my reviewing time to help conferences and journals with open policies.
(more info here: https://www.dinacon.org/2018/06/19/natural-reflection-andy-quitmeyer/). For now, this pledge excludes me from some of the major conferences in my field, which in turn makes me publish my work in other venues, which many institutions look down on, and this inhibits my hire-ability. I think it’s worth it though to help stop perpetuating these problems onto future generations.
In your opinion, what would make an academic community a healthy community?
I think a healthy academic community would be one where the people are happy, help each other, and help make space for people outside their community to join and share. The only metric I think I would want to judge quality of an institution on would be about how happy they feel their community is. I don’t care what their output is, especially in baseless numbers of publications or grant money, developing healthy communities is the only way to lead to any kind of long-term sustainable research. You need humans of different abilities and generations watching out for each other, helping each other learn new things, and protecting each other.
Some people try to push the idea that competition is necessary to make people work hard and be productive, or else they will be lazy and greedy. In fact, it’s this competition that creates these side affects. When cared for, they are curious, constructive, and helpful.
So keep your eyes open for ways in which your peers or students are being exploited and stand up against it. Reach out to find out challenges people around you face, and work on developing opportunities outside the scope of the traditions in your field. I think doing this will help build healthy and productive communities.
Dr. Andrew Quitmeyer is a hacker / adventurer studying intersections between wild animals and computational devices. His academic research in “Digital Naturalism” at the National University of Singapore blends biological fieldwork and DIY digital crafting. This work has taken him through international wildernesses where he’s run workshops with diverse groups of scientists, artists, designers, and engineers. He runs “Hiking Hacks” around the world where participants build technology entirely in the wild for interacting with nature. His research also inspired a ridiculous spin-off television series he hosted for Discovery Networks called “Hacking the Wild.” He is currently working to establish his own art-science field station fab lab.
Dr. Cynthia C. S. Liem is an Assistant Professor in the Multimedia Computing Group of Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and pianist of the Magma Duo. She initiated and co-coordinated the European research project PHENICX (2013-2016), focusing on technological enrichment of symphonic concert recordings with partners such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Her research interests consider music and multimedia search and recommendation, and increasingly shift towards making people discover new interests and content which would not trivially be retrieved. Beyond her academic activities, Cynthia gained industrial experience at Bell Labs Netherlands, Philips Research and Google. She was a recipient of the Lucent Global Science and Google Anita Borg Europe Memorial scholarships, the Google European Doctoral Fellowship 2010 in Multimedia, and a finalist of the New Scientist Science Talent Award 2016 for young scientists committed to public outreach.
Dr. Jochen Huber is a Senior User Experience Researcher at Synaptics. Previously, he was an SUTD-MIT postdoctoral fellow in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT Media Lab and the Augmented Human Lab at Singapore University of Technology and Design. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and degrees in both Mathematics (Dipl.-Math.) and Computer Science (Dipl.-Inform.), all from Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany. Jochen’s work is situated at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction and Human Augmentation. He designs, implements and studies novel input technology in the areas of mobile, tangible & non-visual interaction, automotive UX and assistive augmentation. He has co-authored over 60 academic publications and regularly serves as program committee member in premier HCI and multimedia conferences. He was program co-chair of ACM TVX 2016 and Augmented Human 2015 and chaired tracks of ACM Multimedia, ACM Creativity and Cognition and ACM International Conference on Interface Surfaces and Spaces, as well as numerous workshops at ACM CHI and IUI. Further information can be found on his personal homepage: http://jochenhuber.com