Being other than myself through the (data)matrix

Franck Cochoy on “On Curiosity Devices: from scalography to depthography”

by Timothy Webmoor, Research Fellow in Science and Technology Studies

Franck Cochoy

Franck Cochoy

Franck Cochoy (University of Toulouse II) gave an intriguing talk for the STS Issues in Scale seminar series. Part innovation and product design, part high-tech hype, and part wine marketing, I nearly felt as if I had sat in on a MacWorld release party held in Napa Valley. Franck was not, however, wholly configured as a user of an emergent ‘everyware’ application for iPhones. He introduced us to a case of serendipitous innovation, where a device developed for guaranteeing the authenticity of (highly priced) wines converged with strategies of “self-marketing.” Geowine (website) was developed by a 3rd party for a consortium of wineries in the Midi-Pyrenees Region. The goal is to attach foolproof fingerprints to wines for geo-traceability. Linking wine with terroir through this device benefits wine makers in several ways, but is particularly beneficial in terms of tracking the origin of the grapes in blends, and in reducing forgeries (which represent 8-10% of international commerce).

Sample datamatrix

A sample 'datamatrix'

While this little label – actually a ‘bubble tag’ produced by the random introduction of air into polymer processor boards – in itself enfolds a multitude of actors on a range of scales, Cochoy discussed the spin-off project he is involved with that uses datamatrices to “de-marketise” wine. Now, if you are like me, you’ve begun to notice these frenzied scatter-plot-looking labels showing up not just on parcels and letters, but increasingly on products at the market. Yet you’ve never pulled out your iPhone to perform self-marketing. That is, to opt for companies to out-source to you the work of marketing products through your eagerness for information. Like the idea of Geowine, the project Cochoy is involved with is a prototype for linking each bottle of wine on the shop shelves with Internet sites hosting information about the wine. For example, consumers can obtain the locale where the wine originated, the type of terroir and information about the winemaker: a virtual label without information boundaries – or at least not limited to the dimensions of the bottle’s label.

Developers of the datamatrix for wine are banking on what other proponents of a point-and-click world are leveraging: the 21st century savvy consumer’s hunger for information. Or, as Cochoy termed it, our participation in the “economies of attention.” Again, if you’re like me, I was trying to tease apart my mixed reaction of enthusiasm and skepticism to the wine datamatrix and the underlying premise of self-marketing. Having more information made available to me via ubiquitous computing sounds appealing. Yet self-marketing web-enabled wine depends, at least in this beta form, upon how the companies filter and select information. Just as I found myself slipping down into Mackenzie’s “certainty trough,” I pulled myself up with the thought of accessing not only company-endorsed information but also crowd-sourced reviews, comments, criticisms and backstories.

Despite the possibility that self-marketing may backfire, at least with skeptical consumers or those with an STS sensibility, Cochoy amassed the responses to a questionnaire about the wine datamatrix from 502 respondents who generally confirmed the success of self-marketing. Technophiles were more interested in the smartphones than the wine. Yet in the market for wine, we would expect technophiles to purchase the gadget-enabled bottles. Conversely, wine connoisseurs were initially uninterested, until their attention was excited by the richness of available information. Notwithstanding these overall positive reactions, Cochoy highlighted the stigma of consumerism attached to branding wine with barcodes.

In addition to the wine datamatrix, Cochoy suggested that other curiosity devices which deliver information through the web problematise scale as a unit of investigation because they “slide from scale to depth.” That is, maps of the local wineries, traits of a region’s wine terroir, or the authenticity of a bottle on the international market are all accessed through the Internet. Scale and its performance suffuse the Internet. To examine issues of scale one would have to artificially reduce it out from user engagement. With interactive and personalisable engagement through the filtering and selecting functions of web-based platforms, scale is increasingly being subsumed by economies of attention. As Cochoy urged at the beginning, STS might more usefully study how such devices enact certain dispositions, certain subjectivities which are configured by self-marketing.

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