This statement of my current thinking on the topics of agency, data and quantum computing was originally presented to the Human Centred Computing research group at the University of Oxford on October 1st 2015. The group, with whom I have been developing a dialogue since Spring 2014, is led by Professor Marina Jirotka and has a particular focus on Responsible Research and Innovation. They are involved in embedding RRI into NQIT – the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub based at Oxford. I have made a few changes to the original text inspired by the group’s extremely thoughtful comments and discussion.
At the core of all my work and projects over the past 20 years is the theme of agency. By that I mean our ability as humans to act on our own initiative, to make informed decisions and choices. To be willing actors rather than directed subjects in all areas of life. In my experience open and transparent communications are fundamental to such an aspiration, and many of my projects explore ways and means of enabling people to communicate and interact with other people and systems to achieve this.
Looking back, there is a clear trajectory in my work which emphasises that systems should engage people and empower them, not seek to condition their experiences or shape their lives. From my work on the convergence of mobile phones with wireless internet and GIS mapping technologies in the early 2000s which has been described as a kind of proto-social media (Urban Tapestries), to experiments with sensors and platforms for citizen science style pollution mapping (Feral Robots & Snout), as well as experiments in data manifestation as a critique of the quantified self meme (Lifestreams). In my opinion, too often the technologies that are deployed across society are not intended to benefit all, but are contingent on bringing benefit to a privileged few – those who build them and those who commission and own the systems being built.
I believe that human individualities and different people’s idiosyncracies of learning and understanding are crucial social assets that enrich our collective experiences of life. I want to explore how we can design systems that adapt to these values and incorporate their dynamic into their very fabric. I want to find alternatives to the expanding deployment of systems and technologies that shape and manage behaviour by imposing rigid and inflexible decisions or choices. I believe that we need to question and challenge the mindset that sees the efficiency of algorithms and data-driven inference as the pinnacle of how human societies should be run.
One of the ways I think we can begin to revolutionise our relationship to data is by bridging the biological and digital. If we can design ways to utilise the whole human sensorium (not just vision and hearing) for sense-making and interpretation, then I believe that we can make complex information tangible and appreciable in richer and more nuanced ways. This means departing fundamentally from normative data representations on computer screens. It means embodying them in reciprocally interactive engagements that afford us greater use of our highly developed senses – what I have been calling “data manifestation”. This could allow us to experience data in ways that reveal things we have hitherto not considered possible. It may also reveal contingencies and limitations in what kinds of data are being collected – and may lead us to collect different kinds of data that have perhaps been overlooked.
How might we enliven relations between humans and machines so that they can be mutually influential rather than unbalanced in favour of one side or the other? I suspect that the promise of quantum computing, with its multiple states, may offer something along these lines, but only if we, as researchers and designers, have the courage of our imagination to make such a future possible.
Entangled Engagement & Quantum Computing
I have been thinking recently about the nature of entanglement – as far as I can understand it as a lay person not a scientist – and how the highly metaphoric language itself suggests an unintentional or, at least, ambiguous state. If we think about how we use the word ‘entangled’ in everyday situations it is to describe something, or some things, that have become entangled accidentally – without the deliberate decision to do so.
I have titled this statement “reciprocally entangled” because I think that the promise of quantum computing is one we must have agency with and choose to engage with, rather than unwittingly becoming caught within. That we might deliberately choose to enmesh ourselves with a system that, like humans, can be more than a cascade of rules and simple on/off decisions, would be a significant revolution in how we decide to run our societies.
I think that this idea of ‘unwitting entanglement’ characterises many of the fundamental problems we are experiencing with the so-called Big Data revolution, where we have suddenly begun to find ourselves subject to systems that are ruled by inference and not by balanced judgement. My proposition is that just as we might think that our society and civilisation has become enmeshed in a complex set of interlocking inference systems which define people’s lives in ever more intrusive ways, so might we begin to think of quantum computing – and being reciprocally entangled with such a system – as being closer to the kind of complex and consciousness-driven judgement that previously defined our choices and decisions (since, say, the Enlightenment).
More and more, the effects of decisions made by data-driven inference are coming to pervade aspects of our everyday lives. It is not always clear how such systemic decisions are arrived at, but it is undeniable that people are both shaping and having their choices shaped as an affect of the increasing reliance on so-called Big Data systems. A kind of blind self-governance that could so easily tip over into forms of self-censorship, self-privation and self-denial.
Such choices are most visible to us on an everyday level in the recommendations we see in internet shopping (“you’ve bought this and might like that”) and what social media systems select to populate our profile feeds (both adverts and posts by our connections). Their use in electronic financial services is widely known of, but little known about – obscured behind a veil of exclusivity, secrecy and the disparities of wealth and power. The role of such systems in health is also increasing, driven as much by attitudes towards risk and liability in the health insurance industry as by advances in medicine, wellbeing and disease prevention. These opaque applications remain worrying precisely because they flow against the transparencies of fairness and democracy that our society has been implementing over the past few centuries.
But what if we can rethink how we interact with systems as reciprocal engagements? And what if we were to see them as entangled relationships at the same time?
Perception is more than simply seeing
How humans perceive and create meaning is an associative process that is fundamentally different to inference from data. It is an expression of the difference between consciousness and a structured system; and, furthermore, it is more than what is offered by systems that mimic ‘neural nets’. Aesthetics and how we make meaning from artworks gives us a concrete example of how this operates in practice. Aesthetics cannot be taught, but flows from a dynamic interweaving or perhaps an entanglement of our memories and experiences with our physical senses. At each moment of experiencing something in an encounter with an artwork – writing, painting, sculpture, music or performance – we are existing in an entangled moment blending the now with the summation of our conscious sense of self. We are not inferring meaning (as a structured data-driven system might), but actually making meaning from the experience itself.
So-called neuro-aesthetics has sought to find a physical explanation of this process in the chemical reactions in the brain. But so far it has not been able to,
“ Objects are not triggers for internal events in the nervous system; they are opportunities or affordances for our continuing transactions with them. …
Art is experienced in the setting of argument, criticism, and persuasion. This is all compatible, Kant realized, with the fact that there is no way of adjudicating disputes in this area, that there are no decision procedures, no rules, no way of proving who’s right and wrong.”
Alva Noë, How Art Reveals the Limits of Neuroscience, The Chronicle Review
Beyond Visualisation : Embodied Entanglements
What if we can bridge the digital and biological by utilising the whole human sensorium for sense-making and interpretation – going beyond just vision and hearing? What if we could make complex data tangible and appreciable to a range of human senses? Embodied and felt instead of just seen and heard. In turn the experiences could be fed back in to data systems as a new set of parameters that could adjust the nature of systems that use the data. This was the theme of my Creativeworks residency with the Computer Science department at Birkbeck in Autumn 2014. The workshop I devised to help communicate the potential of multisensory expressions of data has been a crucial step in continuing to develop the ideas begun with the Lifestreams collaboration with Philips Research in 2012.
What I hope to do next is to embark on a journey of collaboration and discovery to demonstrate the potential for social change that could be unleashed by developing multisensory interactions with the digital data that is increasingly measuring, being analysed and governing our daily lives. Humans have extraordinary sensory capabilities which are not currently being used in how we encounter data – principally through screens (sight), occasionally sound and, rarely, through haptics (touch). I believe that this leaves us impoverished. By expressing digital data in new forms we could unlock entirely new modalities for recording, sharing and understanding how we live our lives : from experiences of illness and rehabilitation via biosensors to how we make sense of the Big Data that now shape and govern our society.
I hope to explore this theme along a series of trajectories and to demonstrate – to scientists, technologists, designers and policymakers and to the wider public beyond – how we could create transformational ways for people to engage with and make sense of data. I aim to work collaboratively (with old and new partners) to develop projects and experiments that express digital data in different ways that engage human biological senses other than just sight and hearing – such as touch, smell, taste, balance, temperature, proprioception and time etc. I am particularly keen to engage with researchers in the biological and life sciences (and hybrid fields such as computational biology) to create a bridge between how people interact with and make sense of the biological world around us, and with digital systems.
Documenting Traditional Knowledge in Papua New Guinea
Alongside these concerns I am working with Professor James Leach and a community of indigenous people (from Reite village) living a traditional way of life in the jungle in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. There we are co-developing a simple hybrid digital/physical toolkit for people to self-document local traditional knowledge of plants, customs, design and productions techniques (TK Reite Notebooks). The tools and techniques we are co-designing there are based on my pioneering work since the late 1990s in hybrid digital/physical publishing. It uses the Diffusion eBook format, a unique paper folding method invented in 1999-2000, as well as the bookleteer.com self-publishing platform which was created and launched in 2009. This is another form of what I have called “public authoring” – making it possible for people to communicate things of value in open and shareable ways.
What is clear is that Reite people’s culture doesn’t consider knowledge as a series of static objects – in the Cartesian tradition of Western Knowledge – but as relational. Knowledge is constructed and exists in the relations between humans that hold it, share it and pass it on to future generations. It is always contextual and situational. To me, this establishes a conceptual link with what I have been exploring in my data manifestation work – that how we develop understandings of information and the ways it can be encoded in forms or media is located in the experience of the encounter, and our conscious ability to reweave our experiences in the present with those in our memories of the past.
One of the most striking things about this project is the difference between traditional anthropological ethnography and self-documentation that emerges from its results. What people choose to value and document may not necessarily be intelligible to outsiders, or of any interest. This flows against the mainstream of anthropology and ethnography which seeks to observe, understand and explain a culture to others. I feel that my conception of public authoring is akin to the aims of the originators of Mass Observation, who proposed an “anthropology of ourselves” back in the late 1930s. They thought that it was important for ordinary people to document ordinary life, and developed a framework that encouraged people from all walks of life to record and submit reports on things, customs, events and behaviours which they observed. Mass Observation and public authoring are both creative activities that seek an audience beyond their immediate community, yet at the same time they are the outputs of people attempting to record their own world and values for themselves.
In a similar way, the lifecharms, or data shells, which we created in the Lifestreams project were expressions of data manifested into material form. As such the data itself ceased to be directly readable (as it might be in a graph or chart), but was embodied in the actual form and shape of each shell. No longer intelligible to anyone but the person whose data had been the source of the shell’s growth pattern, the lifecharms signify something without revealing exactly what. As a type of self-documentation this translation of digital data collected from biosensors and life-tracking devices begins to mirror the output of our public authoring notebooks of Reite village : fascinating to outsiders, yet unintelligible if not directly explained by someone within the community that generated them. Open to interpretation, inspirational and allusive, but never didactic. Where knowledge and communication are reciprocally entangled, not inferred.
The trajectory I sketched at the beginning of this statement – linking human agency as the core of many projects I’ve led – now connects all these thoughts on the nature of what kind of future we want to build. Is it to be one where we devise systems to manage our societies that are responsive and dynamically adapt to our interactions with them, or a future where our decisions and choices are increasing defined and shaped by algorithms designed by and for the benefit of an ever more remote elite?