What are you reading?

What are you reading? Dag Svanaes

Issue: XXVI.4 July-August 2019
Page: 12
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Authors:
Dag Svanæs

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I cannot remember not reading. At a time before nerd became a category separate from weirdo, books were my childhood escape from small-town reality. In the safe universe between their covers, I was not the odd boy building gadgets that blinked and beeped, but rather hero, explorer, and scientist. Without my books, I would probably have been lost.

I now have less time for dreaming. Adulthood brings other joys, though, like reading an inspiring new book written by a friend or colleague.

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Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design (2018) by Kristina Höök, who is former head of the MobileLife research center in Stockholm and currently at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), is a book at the core of my research interests these days [1]. Her topic is the role of the designer’s body in interaction design. Through numerous design examples, she illustrates the value of a first-person embodied approach to design, taking seriously the corporeal and affective aspects of the user experience. My personal favorite is the Soma Mat project, where the design team explored the subtleties of heat as a design material when designing for mindfulness. The book resulted from an extensive collaboration with the American philosopher Richard Shusterman, the founder of somaesthetics. Höök explains the core elements of Shusterman’s philosophy of the body in a down-to-earth language that makes it highly applicable to design. She further reflects on ethics in designing, a timely issue, as many of us are having our private Oppenheimer moments, contemplating the unintended impacts of technology.


Through numerous design examples, Höök illustrates the value of a first-person embodied approach to design.


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Stretched Skin—Obsolete, Uncertain and Indifferent Body (2018), by the Australian artist Stelarc, documents his flesh-hook suspension performances over the past four decades. Most of the images are in black and white, amplifying the raw aesthetics of the suspended bodies floating in space. The book was released during an art festival in Trondheim, Norway, that I had the privilege of attending last year. Stelarc, who himself did not perform on this occasion, supervised a team of five Norwegian suspension artists. During the performance, they included the audience in their art practice by allowing us to walk freely among their naked, suspended bodies. Microphones picked up their heartbeats and mixed them with background music to create a surprisingly calm atmosphere of magic and awe.

I find it fascinating that in conversation, Stelarc consistently refers to his body in the third person as “the body conveniently known as Stelarc.” This is strikingly different from how Shusterman talks about the body in the first person, as an instrument that can be trained to experience itself and the world in new ways.

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In A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006), Rebecca Solnit reflects on ideas such as uncertainty, memory, and place, and of course the value of getting lost, not primarily in a physical sense, but rather as a metaphor and a state of mind. The book is a pleasure to read, inviting the reader on a personal intellectual journey circling in on her main topic. It sparks reflections on how modern society structures our lives in ways that leave little room for wandering off the planned route, thus depriving us of opportunities for the wonderful and horrifying things that happen only when you allow yourself to get lost.

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1. Svanæs, D. Designing with the body: Interview with Kristina Höök on somaesthetics and design. Journal of Somaesthetics 4, 2 (Mar. 2019), 79–95; https://somaesthetics.aau.dk/index.php/JOS/article/view/2880

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Dag Svanæs is professor in human-computer interaction at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. He heads the NTNU UX Lab and holds a position at the IT-University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He did his Ph.D. on the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and its relevance to a theory of interactivity. dag.svanes@ntnu.no

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