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.
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
latency, geology, and unmanned aerial
vehicles (UAV). Through the lens of
high- and low-tech representations,
the displays as a whole also offered an
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
DOI: 10.1145/3085562 COP YRIGHT HELD BY AUTHOR. PUBLICATION RIGH TS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00
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
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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.
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