Published in Kairos 19.1


Satellite Lamps

By Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen, and Timo Arnall

The city is changing in ways that can’t be seen. As urban life becomes intertwined with digital technologies, the invisible landscape of the networked city is taking shape—a terrain made up of radio waves, mobile devices, data streams and satellite signals.

Satellite Lamps is a project about using design to investigate and reveal one of the fundamental constructs of the networked city—the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS is made up of a network of satellites that provide real-time location information to the devices in our pockets. As GPS has moved from specialized navigation devices to smartphones over the last 10 years, it has become an essential yet invisible part of everyday urban life.

William J. Mitchell (2004) described the landscape of the networked city as an invisible electromagnetic terrain. In Satellite Lamps we explore and chart this terrain, showing how GPS is shaped by the urban spaces where it is used. GPS, alongside wireless networks, algorithms, and embedded sensors, is among the invisible technological materials that comprise many modern products. Created by a small team of design researchers at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Satellite Lamps is a part of our ongoing research into making technologies visible and communicating and interpreting their presence in daily life. As designers we typically shape how technologies like GPS are being used, but with Satellite Lamps we use our practice to address how they can be understood.

The central output of this project is the film Immaterials: Satellite Lamps, seen below, that visualizes GPS as a material and spatial phenomena. We suggest that readers start by watching the film, before moving on to its background, practice, and reflections. In many ways, the film embodies the processes and design practices that make up our research. It can be seen as a prompt for the key issues and analysis that we present and discuss in this publication.

The practice of creating and the reasoning behind the film are described and analyzed in this webtext by means of a rich collection of reflections and documentation, such as images, films, logbook entries, and drawings. Using this multilayered content we reflect on the design practice and how it works toward understanding and communicating about GPS in a sociocultural frame (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1993)—as material, history, technology, and design. As such, we explore how interaction design practice can take part in gathering insight and creating meaning in the meeting between new technologies and everyday life.

The film is a popular media contribution to the discourses of technologically mediated city life, acting as a boundary object (Star & Greisemer, 1989) toward various communities and contexts. Moreover, in our design research practice, the film also acts as an epistemic artifact (Tweney, 2002) through which knowledge is created in the practice of designing, making, and communicating.

This webtext is also an investigation in itself. Such online scholarship (Ball, 2004) shows explorative interaction design, connecting digital and physical materials with web design.


In Satellite Lamps, practices and languages of design are put to use to explain and situate the phenomena of GPS. We use photography, filmmaking and fieldwork, electronics and product design, as well as design observations on culture and technology to explore some of the ways in which GPS can be communicated and understood.

In this publication—an account of “adventures in GPS”—we present and analyze the diverse design practice, thinking, making, and production that lie behind this film, and how these adventures constitute an approach to practice-based design research (e.g., Sevaldson, 2010). This approach is realized through investigating and creating insights and meaning in intersection between technology and everyday urban life (Martinussen, 2013).

The article takes up how a discursive and reflexive interaction design practice can contribute to new perspectives on networked city life. Discursive design may be defined as an approach to practice-based design research that foregrounds communication, articulation, and materials (Arnall & Martinussen, 2010), rather than traditional problem solving. Reflexive interaction design practice refers to a practice that entails a “reflective conversation with the situation” (Schön, 1983) through design iterations and working with materials. From the discourses around interactive technologies and urbanism we have adopted the term the networked city to “describe the interweaving of networked technologies into urban environments” (Martinussen, 2013, p. 293) and how “nearly every urban practice is becoming mediated by code” (Amin & Thrift, 2002, p. 125). Each of these will be elaborated.

Design Research and Rhetorics

From its origins in engineering and problem solving, design research today is typified by approaching complex relations between materials, interactions, services, technology, and systems (Bagnara & Crampton Smith, 2006). In contrast to a frequent focus on the technological, design research has also turned its attentions to the role of the cultural and the construction of the communicative (Balsamo, 2011). Design research on technology does not only aid technological innovation by shaping products, but also involves creating expressions of cultural understandings, including narratives, myths, values, and representations. Importantly, in contribution to the popular technological imagination, design can also forward critical or discursive perspectives (Dunne, 2005; Morrison, Arnall, Knutsen, Martinussen, & Nordby, 2011).

In recognizing the cultural, design research has turned its attention to the role of design in shaping everyday activities (Highmore, 2002). It has also centered on making meaning of complex systems through interfaces and use (Murray, 2012). Also of concern has been ways design can contribute to realization of social interaction. Finally, design has been central, both in research and commercial contexts, in setting directions for technological innovation (Moggridge, 2007). (For more detail on interaction design research and culture, see Arnall & Martinussen, 2010).

Communicating Design Research Online

Online scholarship in interaction, rhetoric, and technology (Ball, 2004; Sullivan & Porter, 1997; Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, & Sirc, 2004)—such as that in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy—has included and experimented with multiple forms (Morrison & Thorsnes, 2010; Vielstemmig, 1999) and tools (Acheson, Cason Barratt, & Balthazor, 2013; Johnson, 2012; Mortensen & Walker, 2002) for communicating pedagogy and research.

This webtext is a rhetorical and communicative experiment that seeks to build on this base of knowledge. Specifically, in contrast to the predominance of expertise in rhetoric and writing studies, we use techniques and strategies from the discipline of interaction design to disseminate research and to convey the processes of interaction-based inquiry.

We present a form for digitally communicating the kind of research that comes out of multilayered design practices. In particular, these practices include programming, graphic design, interface design, electronics, filming, editing, sketching, drawing, storyboarding, and concept development. Taken together, these practices and our research competencies have allowed us to design an instance of online scholarship that is media rich and multimodal. In doing so, we have drawn on contemporary examples and experiments from online journalism (e.g., Macaskill & Dance, 2013) and film on the Web (e.g., Hollowday, 2013). We have placed this work against the backdrop of existing journals in online scholarship, such as Vectors, Kairos, and the Journal for Artistic Research .

We have designed this article to play on the varied sources of media generated by the project; we embed the film, many of our experimental, behind the scenes images, and annotated photographs of our sketchbooks as part of this text. We use web design techniques and interaction design strategies to find ways to make these things readable and explorable as a multi-mediational, heterogeneous, nonlinear text. This sheds light both on our practical and conceptual design work, and on the reflections and discussions that guide this design process.


The webtext has three chapters, each closely designed around different themes and different kinds of content. It can be read linearly or more loosely by browsing, scrolling or skipping through images.

  1. Walking with Satellites. We open with an essay about the cultural history of GPS; this echoes similar culturally oriented views on technology that trace its development and use. Examples of this include Carolyn Marvin (1988) and David E. Nye (1997), which cover how, historically, new technologies emerged into culture through unforeseen routes and by way of popular and scientific channels. This essay takes the form of a selection of anecdotes that look at how we have ended up with a piece of the Space Program in our pockets. Rhetorically, we draw on the work of Charles Bazerman (1999) on understanding the heterogeneous history of culture and invention. The focus here is on the many ways in which science, politics, design, and popular media together have shaped how GPS has come to be used and understood.

  2. Adventures in GPS. Here we give a detailed account, or thick description (Geertz, 1973), of the design practices and explorations behind our visualizations of GPS in the city. Through a mix of media types we show both successful and unsuccessful experiments, recall the challenges that were encountered, and outline the decisions that were made through iteration and reflection. Documenting the design process, this chapter has several sections and is told through journal entries, drawings, film clips, and images.

  3. Perspectives. In the final chapter, we take up selected perspectives on the satellite lamps and discuss issues raised by the project. Here we look at the project as an experiment in research communication, as design research and discursive design, and finally in the context of networked city life.


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