XXIV.4 July-August 2017
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Inspiring innovation: On low-tech in high-tech development

Zara Mirmalek

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In June 2016, in the small town of Arco, Idaho, several dozen visitors set down temporary stakes to be near Mars—actually, a version of Mars, located 18 miles southwest of Arco on Route 24 in the Craters of the Moon (COTM) National Monument and Preserve. Named in the 1920s when the moon's visible craters were still thought to be of volcanic origin, COTM's terrain is geologically similar to that of Mars: craters formed by volcanic eruptions; swaths of basaltic rock; no standing surface water. Its physical environment provides an analog for Mars, one of many around the world. The untamed natural environment is exactly the kind of place with which people who build systems for Mars exploration need to grapple. People like Darlene Lim, who leads this team of visitors on a project called BASALT: Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (https://spacescience.arc.nasa.gov/basalt). BASALT is a NASA-funded project that is developing technical and social systems for supporting a future work environment in which humans and robots on Mars conduct scientific exploration while sharing visual, audio, and other instrument data with Mission Support experts on Earth.


COTM is one of the sites where principal investigator Lim and the BASALT team ("BASALTers") are conducting simulations of interplanetary science exploration. While COTM is a stand-in for Mars, the science is real. Their project involves collecting actual field data of scientific interest for analysis and public dissemination (e.g., academic conferences, news media, and publications), but under simulated Mars mission conditions. The BASALT project is already yielding new scientific insight into the volcanic geology and biology of COTM (and will later at another Mars analog in Mauna Ulu at Kilauea, Hawai'i), as well as recommendations for conducting human-robotic science exploration on Mars.

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I joined them in Idaho for BASALT's first two-week simulation. As an ethnographer who studies human-technology relationships, particularly in remote science work and extreme environments, I have conducted ethnographic research among scientists and engineers operating robots on Mars (NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers mission) and among scientists using robots in the deep ocean to collect data. While these domains are fantastical, the work itself is very much of this world. Like in almost any organization, there is a need for developing workflows and technologies that respond to the ways in which work is actually conducted. This means taking into consideration contextual factors that affect how people work in situ. Indeed, this approach is a hallmark of workplace ethnography, a method that has been used effectively across a variety of work domains, from transportation and space exploration to machine technicians and AI scientists [1,2,3,4,5].

BASALT centralizes operations research in conjunction with the goals of bio-, geo-, and space sciences, which is one reason I know the project is of interest to audiences outside the traditional space exploration community. BASALTers are situating the development of their tools, processes, and people in arduous, unwieldy conditions in which a future work system will operate. It is one thing for a tool to function properly in a controlled lab setting and another for it to work under stressful field conditions, where instrument visibility is affected. Also, rock formations are not naturally even-surfaced specimens. Likewise, a plan that looks foolproof on paper easily encounters disruptions when enacted in an environment where the availability of sunlight determines work hours. Their project also includes the temporal challenge of coordinating across workgroups in different time zones. Using software designed by a NASA Ames team to support space-mission operations, BASALT simulations of interplanetary communications between workgroups in Arco and COTM include latency (time lag) of five- and 15-minute delays between sending and receiving information from Mars to Earth.

While some high-tech items have life spans that can be cut short the moment a new, better, more adoptable version comes along, many low-tech items have hung around beyond expectation.

BASALT's work-system research questions are of universal interest, such as: What are the optimal configurations of workloads for teams distributed across planets, and why? How will this workflow adjust in relation to changing planetary conditions, like rotations that affect communication-transmission time? Which kinds of new technologies, or modifications to existing technologies, are needed for scientists on Earth to be able to interact with collaborators on Mars? BASALT's research will offer answers to these questions that benefit not only the space-work domain but also intraplanetary work systems. Their research findings inform audiences of space scientists, engineers, administrators, and the public. And they are informative for any audience interested in distributed work, interdisciplinary workgroups, technology development in simulated environments, and participatory design.

COTM is, like Mars, not a place where BASALTers could set up their entire work site, which includes two stations for housing Mission Operations (one "on Mars," and one on Earth). These stations were set up in a long trailer formerly used by NASA for public events, and parked in a recreational vehicle (RV) park on the edge of town. It was a popular and quiet location. RV residents changed every few days. Some would walk over to ask about the BASALT trailer—the large space-exploration murals on its sides naturally attracted attention. For many BASALTers, the cultural norms of RV parks were new but understood as important features of the project. As for their own temporary homes, the team resided in two of the town's motels, walking or carpooling the short distance to the RV park.

Workdays were long. Each day began at 7 a.m. with an all-hands breakfast meeting in the park restaurant. The day formally ended between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., following a meeting to review the day's operational and scientific accomplishments and challenges. For many, the workday continued with "after-the-meeting meetings," affectionately called "after-parties," for further decisions and to knock out tasks needing completion before the next day's simulations.

The BASALTers' setup included a worksite feature I'd seen only on research ships and, to a lesser degree, at Google: fixed meal times with food and space for the entire team to eat together. It is a longstanding practice often used when the work community is isolated, like on a ship at sea, or too large for local food services to accommodate. BASALT's arrangement with the RV park included three meals a day, prepared by management and sisters Beth and Sherri, who'd traveled to town to help with hosting BASALT. The meal setup (breakfast and dinner in the RV park and bagged lunches carried into the trailer and field) was an important attribute supporting the work of innovation, which rarely follows a traditional work schedule. It contributed stability to a process that must be flexible and tolerant of schedule changes, which can often mean skipping activities that don't immediately appear pertinent to the task at hand. The fixed meal setup, however, provides more than one kind of nourishment. In a switch from workrooms' prescribed seating, the open seating at mealtime allowed for new seatmate configurations, planned and random, and conversations fostering a cross-fertilization of ideas.

BASALT's simulation of remote planetary science uses two locations and three workgroups, two "on Mars" and one on Earth. On Mars, one team is in the field (walking through volcanic terrain) and another team is in a worksite (a space habitat) from which they can communicate with the Mars field team, with no latency, and with the Earth-based Mission Operations worksite, with latency. Between the Mars field team and Mission Operations there is no two-way communication, but the Mission Operations teams can hear the communication between the Mars teams, with latency. On some days they test streaming video with latency from the Mars field team to Mission Operations.

From Arco, the Mars field team drove to COTM and (with permits) hiked out across sharp and shifty old lava flow. They moved through terrain surveying and collecting samples, relying on the other two teams for direction and support. Part of the field team's task set is to provide terrain descriptions using human senses and several spectroscopic field instruments to the Mars station team and Mission Operations scientists (Figure 1). The science team confers over the information, responding with questions and sample-collection requests.

In the RV park, the Mars station workroom and the Mission Operations workroom (Figure 2) were in the same trailer but separated by a small hallway and a commitment to not crossing this imagined planetary divide during simulations. Team members were also working on software support, maintaining the communications infrastructure (which includes people on the field team carrying antennas), science decision-making, activity metrics, and time-schedule monitoring.

In the BASALT workspace, amid discussions about satellite communications, bandwidth, and the transmission of spectral readouts, there were low-tech work-support technologies attracting little to no attention. Items in various states of use included headsets, microphones, tablets, backpacks, antennas, desks, chairs, paper, monitors, refrigerators, batteries, dry-erase boards, binders, markers, Velcro, duct tape, extension cords, Post-it notes, printers, and fans. Some of these technologies are to computers what early computers are to 21st-century robots. While some high-tech items have life spans that can be cut short the moment a new, better, more adoptable version comes along, many low-tech items have hung around beyond expectation. The dream (for some) of the paperless office never actualized; low-tech is not obsolete in high-tech work systems [6,7]. Low-tech often holds steady some of the many moving temporal and spatial features of high-tech work. They may be placeholders for pending developments, manual shortcuts for things that will be replaced by automation, or irreplaceable items for supporting work features that high-tech continues to puzzle over, such as intercultural and multidisciplinary communication.

As high-tech tools are put through the paces of building, testing, dissection, rebuilding, and examination for heterogeneous workplace needs, low-tech provides a stable, familiar mechanism on which to rely. It also captures the transmutation process. Paper lineages develop among notebook pages, Post-it notes, and cocktail napkins, carrying design ideas, workarounds, complaints, and drawings that may never get transferred to shared organizational repositories. Post-it notes hang on screens, walls, windows, and laptops, brightly flagging important information about updates or issues, plus the names of digital archives that are in use but hard to locate in the sea of email threads and image folders. Dry-erase boards visible to every person in the room display up-to-the-minute information on work changes faster than any other media. In some settings, a workgroup's power hierarchy can be indicated by who does and does not have access to the team laser pointer, computer monitors, or printer. Printer access is dissemination power. It allows people to produce mobile versions of their text to be easily shared as handouts in a meeting, taped to walls, or carried into the field for use when the high-tech information sources are interrupted or break down.

In some settings, a workgroup's power hierarchy can be indicated by who does and does not have access to the team laser pointer, computer monitors, or printer.

For all the current and future deserved attention the BASALT project receives for its high-tech innovations and complex systems development, there is one aspect that could be easily overlooked: BASALT gives a compelling example of the importance of low-tech in the development of high-tech innovations. That example is needed, given how easy it is to brush past low-tech items, particularly in work environments, where the cultural value placed on high-tech is absolute. The categories of high-tech and low-tech help us to look at such a work environment and identify opportunities for new tech and better work support. For example, a pattern of reliance on a low-tech item among user groups within the context of an automated system may signal an issue at the infrastructure level (rather than user error or deficit). As with most things, defining what fits in the categories should be considered in context rather than universally prescribed.

In the various high-tech work environments in which I have worked, I've found that the appeal and importance of shiny objects (e.g., robots, new displays, lightweight mobile tech, flying objects) often overshadow the less attention-grabbing but no less important low-tech features that are essential in the development of new social processes and technologies. This is not from intentional disregard (though it occasionally can be). A low-tech object can be so familiar that it blends in with the rest of the taken-for-granted infrastructure. In conversation with some BASALTers on this topic, they raised points about how research funding and public interests can shape which high-tech innovations are more often studied and developed. We even had our own event for discussing this topic, which took place the day before the start of simulations.

BASALT's summer 2016 research in COTM coincided with the National Park Service's (NPS) 100-year anniversary. A NASA Community Day featuring BBQ, BASALT, another NASA project team, FINESSE (Field Investigations to Enable Solar System Science and Exploration), and NPS rangers was held in Bottolfsen Park in Arco and open to all. By the count of stickers handed out by NASA Ames Public Affairs Officer K. Williams, more than 200 people came through, including NPS rangers, journalists, an NPS artist-in-residence, college students (from the nearby college towns of Boise and Pocatello), adults, and kids of all ages. Talking with some of the visitors that day, I learned that many had come to see what NASA was up to and to learn about Mars and COTM.

BASALTers had four stations set up in Bottolfsen. The first, set in the parking lot, was a recurring demonstration of volcanic eruptions using a large plastic barrel, water, liquid nitrogen, and a plastic soda bottle ("Trashcano"). On the park greens, three canopied stations with folding tables were set up, each giving a different look into the work of remote planetary science exploration—communication and latency, geology, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Through the lens of high- and low-tech representations, the displays as a whole also offered an interesting subtext.

A review of four stations' artifacts highlights the use of high- and low-tech to conduct remote planetary science. BASALTers were using these very tools to develop and test a new interplanetary work system. At the geology station, two scientists stood at a table on which a paper map was held in place by rock samples. At the UAV station, set with large flat-screen monitors, visitors could fly a simulated UAV to scout terrain. At the communication and latency station, two scientists called for sets of public volunteers who were then separated on each side of the walled BBQ picnic area so they could not see or hear one another without the use of digital media. They were guided to ask questions back and forth via tablets set to delay receiving communication. A steady stream of visitors came to each station staffed with enthusiastic BASALTers; the most constant lively discussions between the public and scientists was at the geology station.

Shiny, high-tech objects attract more attention, but the basic low-tech technologies that are consistently carrying part of the workload always warrant a close look—not just for descriptive colorful detail, or as a juxtaposition for pointing out age or speed, but as items that may need to be modified or reinvented in relation to work-support needs. Among the research BASALT offers is an opportunity to consider what we can learn from developing work environments for remote planetary science missions that is applicable to work environments that never leave this planet.

back to top  References

1. Star, S.L. The Cultures of Computing. Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, MA, 1995.

2. Orr, J. Talking About Machines. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY, 1990.

3. Forsythe, D. Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence. Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, CA, 2002.

4. Suchman, L. Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1987.

5. Hughes, J., King, V., Rodden, T., and Andersen, H. The role of ethnography in interactive systems design. Interactions 2, 2 (1995), 56–65.

6. Sellen, A.J. and Harper, R.H.R. The Myth of the Paperless Office. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.

7. Nomura, S., Hutchins, E., and Holder, B.E. The uses of paper in commercial airline flight operations. Proc. of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, New York, 2006, 249–258.

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Zara Mirmalek studies work culture, professional identity, and human-machine relationships in work environments where people work with remote presence tools (e.g., robots and digital media). She received a Ph.D. in communication and science studies from the University of California, San Diego. Currently she is a Fellow in the Program for Science, Technology & Society, Harvard University. zara_mirmalek@hks.harvard.edu

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F1Figure 1. Two field team members conducting science exploration simulation "on Mars." The image shows the actual COTM geology.

F2Figure 2. Inside mission control where scientists are working with two teams "on Mars," including a team in the field that can be seen on display in the video feed on the back wall.

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