Author Archives: gileslane

About gileslane

Artist & Designer. Storymaker. Founder of Proboscis; Maker of Mischief.

Daemons of the Shadow World

It is my firm belief that my role as an artist is to imagine the unthinkable – to perceive beyond the horizon of the probable and to stretch one’s imagination beyond the limits of the normative everyday. By opening up such vistas it becomes possible to anticipate impacts and consequences of actions and decisions – acquiring uncommon insights into potential futures we may come to inhabit.

Daemons of the Shadow World is a proposal for an artwork that recasts privacy and the role of individual or personal data; that rethinks how data subjects are commodified; that explores what it could be like to unbalance how power is expressed and exercised through data analysis and use.

Almost every aspect of modern life is now measured, sensed, datafied, transmitted, analysed and transacted. Those transactions bloom like flower banks to encompass not just each individual’s data profile and traces, but everything and everyone they are connected to. This quantification and measurement of each interaction – the inferences that are drawn, the biases that result and the effects which ensue – is propelling us towards an ever more normative society. A social and cultural entropy. Each individual is becoming ever more tightly defined, less fluid. We are being reduced to a singular concept of identity, one that assumes repetition is truth, and that predictability is a desirable quality.

But, of course, the history of humanity is also that of diversity, divergence and struggle: especially by those upon whom power is exercised by those who wield it. There are many ways of enforcing conformity through such means as religions and ideologies, conventions and traditions. These have the habit of making people behave in a predictable and controllable manner – consumerism and the digital society is merely another manifestation of this. The inducements offered in our consumer society to accept socially normative concepts of identity are like a feedback mechanism that reinforces itself and entrenches asymmetries of power. In the same way, it discriminates against those for whom fluidity of identity is a necessity – people who are often the most vulnerable in society : anyone who diverges from the norm, whether by virtue of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or status – such as refugees.

Data profiling clearly is having normative effects, reinforcing and entrenching privileges for those who are already best served by society and status quo. What about those for whom no singular identity is possible or desirable? Those whose identities are fluid, in construction or even deconstruction. These are the people most at risk of being excluded, segregated and even criminalised. The subtleties, quirks and nuances that allow us to defy definition are all too easily captured, measured and sorted into data points to be exploited.

Any transparency in data traffic goes only one way – those of us who share our data with the big systems are not privy to how those acquiring it use that data to commodify our behaviours ever further, ever deeper – to trade them with whom they choose, and to extract whatever benefits they desire. We are only just beginning to become aware of how egregious such uses have been – from the manipulation of voting intentions in elections via social media, to ‘nudge’ systems adopted by governments and public agencies, to total digital surveillance by the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies. Different cultures have markedly different attitudes to ‘privacy’ – as evinced by China’s state-sponsored social credit system (itself perhaps less different from Western commercial data capture, monetisations and behavioural nudges than we might suppose).

Privacy, as commonly defined in Western industrial societies, is itself a relatively modern concept – most likely emerging in Europe in the context of the reformation and counter-reformation period. Its roots are bound together with the rise of mercantilism and the equally modern concept of the individual. It found early articulation in the shifts in domestic architecture from the 1500s on – the creation of private spaces (such as rooms) in shared households, especially where there was a need to worship in secret as religious conformity began to fracture between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also found articulation in the commonplace books where a newly literate populace began to record their internal, private thoughts, interests and reflections. This individual subjectivity reaches a critical mass in Descartes’ formulation of the self as a discrete entity separate from all else.

It should, however, be no surprise that now, in an age of near total surveillance, privacy is on the verge of a complete reconfiguration. It is, coincidentally, happening alongside the realisation that western industrial capitalism is also facing its own zero-sum game in which not just humanity, but all life teeters on an edge. Unbridled consumption of finite resources, leading to rampant ecocide and mass extinction, presents a distinct trajectory that humans, our cultures, societies and civilisations, cannot sidestep.

To safeguard individuals and their personal data, privacy has for sometime been proposed as a human right that should be inalienable. But what if an alternative, perhaps even complementary, strategy could be to turn the tools of data analysis against those who seek to define us and measure us as singular commodities by synthesising a plurality, a multiplicity of identities – camouflage of a kind? What if privacy is re-thought as a condition not a commodity – a dynamic sequence of states that we flow through rather than a static position to cling on? How do, and have, other cultures navigated the duality of individuals within communities and shared spaces? What might we learn from cultures which do not privilege the sense of individuality as ours does?

MyLoki – a daemon for digital dazzle

This project is a thought experiment exploring how it might be possible to devise ‘autonomous agents’ (daemons) that synthesise and propagate additional data – using neural networks and employing techniques such as ‘generative adversarial networks’ – to mask our data traces and transactions across systems. In effect creating a ‘data dissensus’ in the accuracy of our individual ‘shadow profiles’, undermining their statistical value through massive duplication and generation of duplicitous activities that resemble our actions but, in effect, create multiplicities of possible identities. Overwhelm the algorithms of oppression with too many statistically similar variables that confound their ability to ‘predict’ and shape our behaviours.

Instead of referring to “Artificial Intelligence” and anthropomorphising it with qualities it is far from having, let’s call such software a “Model for Partial Statistical Probability”. How could we devise and use such programs to act as software agents – daemons – for each of us, to dazzle the data harvesters with a blizzard of statistically probable profiles, endlessly generated to camouflage the data traces of our actions and behaviours in the digital world? Whereby each  would become a portal to an infinite number of selves, all bifurcating in myriad ways – perhaps by just a hair’s breadth – each one polluting the value of our data trail by injecting just enough uncertainty to render the value of the data as junk. A Trickster, like the Norse god Loki, working on our behalves to frustrate the will of the corporates, political parties, special interest groups and governments that seek to use personal data to commodify us and profit by our, often unwitting, collusion.

What could the features of such agents be? What limitations might need to be placed on their use? How might we need to re-think our entire digital economy – not to see data as a commodity, but as condition?

I invoke Loki and the figure of the Trickster, precisely because they are ambiguous – causing mayhem but bringing luck and fortune. Sometimes misfortune. Uncertain. Are they not the type of gods we might want to align ourselves with against the patrician, all seeing, all knowing Olympian Algorithmic gods of our datafied society? Or perhaps like a kind of Orphic mystery wherein the exuberance of multiple data selves being propagated into the shadow digital world allows us a moment of escape from being subjectified and commodified ad nauseam?

A Conceptual Projection

Since it is unlikely to built (from a technical standpoint) and could possibly present unknown dangers if released (from an ethical perspective) – this thought experiment requires some kind of conceptual prototype. It might take the form of a set of ‘blueprints’ for the conditions under which a MyLoki daemon might be activated and operate; or a diagram of the actions and possible consequences for what could happen when individual’s data become pluralities; not just duplicitous but multiplicitous.

And this is the next part – with such a set of blueprints, I would need to devise a forum or space in which I can invite a group of people with knowledges and skills from a range of disciplines and sectors to come together and explore the ramifications of such an idea. What theoretical frameworks could emerge from such an unreasonable, improbable and irrational possibility?

By proposing something, that is as lateral and excessive a conceit for resolving the conundrum of privacy and personal data as the Judgement of Solomon was for determining the maternity of a disputed child, I hope to explore things which might indeed be truly unthinkable in our current situation. If we can think beyond the bounds of reason and the horizon of the probable, what uncommon insights mights emerge that we cannot fathom now?

Giles Lane
London, October 2019

(Originally developed with the support of the Open Data Institute‘s Data as Culture Copy That theme, December 2018)

Paper Revolutions: bookleteer at 10; Diffusion at 19

Bookleteer at the British Library, October 2017

All my life I’ve loved books – collecting and reading them; making and designing them; commissioning and publishing them. My first funded project (which led to founding Proboscis) was to create a publication (COIL journal of the moving image), and my first ‘proper’ job was to create an in-house press for the CRD Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, where I commissioned and published five books in three years.

It was when I was at the RCA in the late 1990s that I first conceived of a ‘downloadable’ book format that people could print off on personal printers at home and make up without needing specialist bookbinding skills or materials: not just print on demand, but publishing on demand. I won a small Arts Council England grant and worked with designer Paul Farrington to devise the Diffusion eBook format, which we launched in September 2000 – 19 years ago. I’ve told that story in more detail previously across several posts, such as its genesis and history here in 2007, and when we celebrated 10 years of Diffusion in 2010.

In late 2002 and 2003 I began to consider how it might be possible to create a web-based app that could generate the complex page imposition required for making the Diffusion eBooks. This had to be done by a professional graphic designer in those days, using expensive proprietary page layout software (QuarkXPress and later Adobe InDesign). I discovered an open source solution, built using python (then a quite new and esoteric programming language), and we created a proof-of-concept working prototype in Summer 2003. Unfunded, it then took a few years to create our first working prototype for what became known as the Diffusion Generator. And then in 2008 I won a small feasibility grant from the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) which led to the development and launch of the bookleteer platform in September 2009.

Hybrid Digital/Physical Publishing

As an artist, I began working with film and filmmaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s – initially making small experimental documentary films of people and places I knew or visited, as well as more formally experimental pieces and then site-specific installations using looped film. During this time I also collaborated on photographic projects with friends studying at the Architectural Association School – including making a glass-leaved book with Marcelyn Gow, and a series of handmade folio publications for Aidan LeRoux.

Playing with form – making tactile, tangible experiences – has been part of my practice ever since. Just as I moved from making ‘single-screen’ projected films to immersive filmic installations, once I began working with digital technologies I wanted to create things that could reach beyond the screen into our physical experiences of the world. The web itself was never a satisfying reading experience for me, so I have set out to explore how digital and physical can be woven together to create hybrids. Many of my projects reflect these concerns – from the way we used physical means to prototype digital interactions for projects like Urban Tapestries, to the feral robots and instrumented Snout carnival costumes of our Social Tapestries citizen science projects, to the tangible souvenirs of digital experiences explored through Sensory Threads. All the way to the data manifestations of biosensor readings of Lifestreams.

Over the past decade bookleteer and the Diffusion formats have been an intrinsic part of my work and life – enabling me to work with people in all kinds of places and to collaborate across a wide range of disciplines. For three years I ran The Periodical – a project sending out curated selections of bookleteer books to subscribers. I’ve run lots of Publishing on Demand workshops in public libraries and elsewhere, showing people how to use bookleteer for their own purposes. I’ve made books with people in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Holland, and Vanuatu, as well as with people across the UK. And a few of my own…

The zenith has been working with Reite people in Papua New Guinea to make hundreds of books about their traditional Knowledge. Only last night, my close collaborator and friend, James Leach, gave the 2019 William Buller Fagg Annual Lecture at the British Museum – discussing the nature of making and doing documentation in Reite culture and society.

James Leach presenting at the British Museum, Sept 2019

The Next Decade

Where next with bookleteer and hybrid publishing? I’ve long harboured a desire to make it even more accessible for others – to be able to install and run their own versions on their own servers; and to have some sort of federated system of sharing books across multiple versions and instances that makes search ability and discovery easier. I also hope to find ways to share the incredible journey of learning and making that the TKRN project has opened up, with other communities in other places around the world.

A Republic of Learning

These are uncomfortable times, full of disconcerting facts, chilling implications and uncertain outcomes.
– How do we respond to problems that are on a planetary scale?
– How do we affect systems and processes that scale way beyond the reach of our own hands?
– How do we step aside from feelings of despair that is commonly engendered by incipient knowledge of the enormity of the changes already afoot?

We do so by coming together, talking and making things – sometimes objects, sometimes decisions. We do so by sharing what we have and know, as well as what we do not know. We do so by engaging our imaginations and making real – bit by bit – another world. We do so by defining resilience within ourselves, our communities, our actions and intentions – by attending to the local as well as the global. In this way we achieve a common wealth of ideas, stories, tools and techniques – of fellow feeling and support against impending tragedies. Each time we wrest other small piece of sovereignty away from those who would subject us to further to unfeeling systems of control and we make our own republics of learning, knowledge and community – in which we are all citizens.

A Republic of Learning is a new monthly meeting space for exploring and discussing the role of art-making, data science and climate change and making things in response. It aims to address the local to global, to challenge experts and non-experts to learn together and share questions about how to make sense of the transformational changes ahead of humans, ecosystems and other lifeforms on the planet. To make responses together, outside of the habitual spaces in which we act.

Our first meeting, last Friday 20th September, coincided with the Global Climate Strike in which millions of young people and others around the world took part – demonstrating for action on climate change. We gathered to make our own contribution to action – starting something we hope will grow over time and become a space for people to come together to share and learn together.

To get things started, Rachel Jacobs brought in some objects from various art works and projects and talked about her practice and how it has engaged with places, environments, communities and ecologies over the past decade and more. The objects provided us with tangible things to discuss among ourselves and think about what our own contributions to positive and purposeful transformation could be, especially as some of us had children participating directly in the marches and actions happening at the same time.

The monthly meetings – held on the 3rd Friday of the month (10.30am to 1pm) – will take place in The Story Garden, a new community space in Somers Town behind the British Library and next to the Francis Crick Institute, made by and for the local people and managed by Global Generation. We are generously hosted by Make @ Story Garden, a public engagement project of Central Saint Martins UAL.

The concept of a republic of learning is borrowed from Fred Garnett, who conceives of The Republic of Learning as a “post-Enlightenment” rethinking of self-determined learning spaces and communities outside of the academies and learned societies that have dominated learning and teaching for centuries. His concept harks back to Erasmus who, in the 1500s, declared himself a “citizen of the Republic of Letters”.

Our Republic of Learning is convened by artists, Rachel Jacobs, Erin Dickson and myself as part of the engagement activities of the Manifest Data Lab – a new transdisciplinary group based at Central Saint Martins who are exploring art, data manifestation and climate change. The format for the meetings will be open and fluid – no formal presentations or workshop structures, but instead a place where conversations can emerge and evolve. We hope to grow a community of people who want to address these issues through the lenses of creativity, in partnership with the insights offered by science and the possibilities of technologies, new and old.

People Centric Practices: a field guide

Back in May this year I published a small booklet – A Field Guide for People Centric Practices.

This contains my personal reflections on what a set of principles for working from a people-centric perspective might be. For me, people centric practice implies not just a human centred approach, but one which encompasses the whole context in which we live and work, and impacts on other creatures and lifeforms that are part of such environments – the more-than-human world. It addresses the whole ecologies of which we are part, on upon which we depend for our very existence. People does not have to mean exclusively human – we might consider other species (trees, birds, mammals etc) as peoples, as some indigenous humans have done, since they constitute their own societies and ways of being in the world. All have as much right to life as each other, it is only human hubris which champions our right to own and exploit everything else as paramount.

The booklet brings together, in a simple way, a set of principles and guides for working based on empathy, common sense, trust and agency. It is centred on establishing and following an ethos – through listening and responding, trusting and being trusted; anticipating consequences and reflecting on what you do. It adds into the mix principles for building trust borrowed from Baroness Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lectures, as well as the Precautionary Principle, Duty of Care and the Nolan Principles of Public Life. It also includes my own personal values: passion, intensity, intimacy, pleasure, obligation, responsibility, culpability.

The booklet is free to download on bookleteer, or read the online version.

A little more personal archaeology

Recently I’ve re-connected with a couple of former colleagues from my time in the Royal College of Art’s Computer Related Design Research Studio, now 20 years ago. Jonathan Mackenzie and Gavin Baily have joined our Manifest Data Lab team at CSM to help deliver the Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change project. Back then they were part of Richard Brown‘s team working on the Biotica and Mimetic Starfish artificial life art projects. Looking back over the Biotica book I published its held up well, as have the others from that time.

My role then (1998-2001) was the CRD Research Studio’s “Writer, Editor & Curator” – setting up a new publishing imprint, commissioning books and other print materials from my colleagues, editing and publishing them as well as developing external partnerships and relations for exhibitions and installations. In the three years I was a member of the studio I commissioned, edited and published five books, as well as co-curating an exhibition with Claire Catterall celebrating 10 years of the studio’s work. All the books are now out of print (except Tony Dunne’s Hertzian Tales, which the MIT Press re-issued in 2005), but they can occasionally be found second hand.

  • Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (1999) by Anthony Dunne (re-printed by MIT Press in 2005) – ISBN: 9781874175276
  • Technological Landscapes (1999) by Richard Rogers –  ISBN: 9781874175284
  • Project #26765: FLIRT by Fiona Raby (2000) & Ben Hooker –  ISBN: 9781874175292
  • Biotica : Art, Emergence and Artificial Life (2001) by Richard Brown with Igor Aleksander, Jonathan Mackenzie and Joe Faith – ISBN: 9781874175330
  • The Presence Project (2001) by William Gaver & Ben Hooker –  ISBN: 9781874175322

The Studio was founded in 1990 and led by Gillian Crampton Smith, who had an extraordinary eye for talent and hired a brilliantly diverse team including: Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Bill Gaver, Giles Rollestone, Richard Brown, Shona Kitchen, Ben Hooker, Ian Morris, Heather Martin & Brendan Walker. The teaching staff also included people such as Rory Hamilton, Nina Pope, Nick Durrant & Durrell Bishop. I was assisted by Paul Farrington who designed most of the print materials, except for the FLIRT book by Graphic Thought Facility. It was an amazing place to find myself, and to be given the opportunity to develop my ideas and strategies for “guerrilla” publishing and cross-disciplinary collaboration early on in my career.

A Calculation is Not a Judgement

When human judgement is drained from a system and reductionist rules are applied to complex situations, the results can lead to terrible injustices and harms. If we privilege the procedural outcomes of artificial systems over the importance of humanity, life and experience and the more-than-human world, we will likely face a self-reinforcing feedback loop of such effects, not unlike the existential threat of runaway climate change.

I wish to advance a proposition… a distinction. Namely, that there is a significant gulf between the mathematical operation by which a calculation can be arrived at, and the emergent process of evaluation by which a judgement is made. I think this is an important distinction for our times, because it describes the difference between a procedure of abstraction and a process of conscious deliberation. A calculation can be determined by a non-sentient entity following a series of steps to accomplish an end (such as an algorithm). Humans have created machines that can do this at scales and speeds far beyond our own individual capabilities. A judgement, however, requires a sentient being, imbued with consciousness and the capacity to exercise discernment and perception, to arrive at an authoritative opinion.
And time.
It takes time to absorb and reflect, to ruminate and pass judgement. What I hope to argue here is that consciousness itself is an irreducible constant fundamental to fair and trustworthy judgement.

I am, perhaps, re-treading old ground: the argument between quantitative and qualitative methods has rolled on for at least two centuries – rooted in the slow rise to dominance of a kind of scientism as the prevailing order of knowledge and worldview. Both methods have merits, and their integration or synthesis can lead to remarkable achievements. Both are rooted in very human beliefs and traditions of how knowledge comes about. Wielded together, they stimulate extraordinary benefits but, when asymmetrical in influence and power, the drawbacks are considerable.

We now live in a world where the quantitative has achieved ascendancy in almost all areas of life, where computations and automated decision-making affect the everyday lives of billions of people. Tremendous advantages in speed, efficiency and technical capabilities across the panoply of human activity have resulted. But they also amplify injustices and inequalities, or compound environmental and ecological over-exploitation and destruction. In doing so their scale and speed disempower and degrade the intrinsic agency of human beings in favour of inflexible and unfeeling systems. It is crucial to see that it is a deliberate choice to quantify and sort the world in this way, not an impartial effect of some immutable logic that cannot be challenged.

As Oscar Wilde might have framed the distinction, the difference is one of knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing” (from The Picture of Dorian Gray). It is trivial to calculate the price of something according to a formula of tangible inputs and costs – yet far more elusive to judge its value. That demands a broader spectrum of parameters, such as context, emotion, culture and other intangibles. Our human fallibilities lead us to both extremes. Judgements, too, can be unsound. Intention and ethos determine how and why we adopt a particular trajectory – as much as our adherence to one method or another, one disciplinary process or another.

The predicaments outlined above are, I believe, at the very root of the proliferating existential dilemmas which humans, indeed all life, now face. The stabilities of our ways of living are being challenged everywhere by changes in natural forces we have clearly, recklessly, contributed to – possibly beyond our capability to re-balance, notwithstanding an irrevocable and devastating loss of biodiversity. I believe that the over-exploitation of the natural world, of other creatures and lifeforms has been facilitated by precisely the unfeeling calculation of systems based on abstracting life into discrete parts that can be separated from a complex whole and used indiscriminately without repercussion. It is a brutal and destructive alienation that does not factor in to its calculation of profit and loss the consequences and costs of its atomistic unravelling of mutual interdependence. We see the results across the planet in the systematic extraction of specific resources causing catastrophic loss of entire environments and ecologies surrounding them. There is no doubt that this can only persist for so long.

We also see it in the human sphere when bureaucratic systems over-emphasise adherence to rules above consideration of individual, or even collective, circumstances. One of the most appalling examples in recent years has been the terrible injustices and harms inflicted on the Windrush Generation by Theresa May and the UK Home Office’s “Hostile environment” policy. And these are just the most visible examples of intentional applications of the technology of bureaucracy, and its component methods and tools, to harm the vulnerable. They are almost certainly intended more as a distraction, or sleight of hand, whilst other yet more egregious activities are kept in the shadows. It seems to me that much of this is being done as a climactic frenzy of industrial capitalism – to squeeze every last drop of advantage from a system that is so weighty with its own entropy that it cannot possibly endure indefinitely. Banking the last pennies to hedge against an uncertain future where, it is assumed, the wealthiest will command the most safety, luxury and authority.

But, I doubt it will go the way anyone currently anticipates – the speed of environmental and ecological transformation will most likely confound our best models and projections, since none can reliably forecast the full range of interdependent, interwoven forces and factors we have interrupted.

I doubt the wisdom of focusing our civilisation’s faith too closely on systems that use automated, statistical calculation of probabilities to make future-facing decisions on our behalf, let alone in the here-and-now. It would itself be a further profound disconnection from our very humanity to hope that such technologies will ‘save’ us from the profound disconnection of the human from the more-than-human natural world. This has been gathering pace for hundreds of years, since at least the European discovery of the Americas and the growth of modern industry and global capitalism. Our technologies are reflections of our cultures and societies, not simply neutral, inevitable outcomes of rational enquiry and engineering. They arise out of our cultures, beliefs, behaviours – they are value-driven… the products of choices, intentional or unconscious.

Evidence is growing (as documented by ProPublica among others) that demonstrates how algorithmic decision-making has a tendency to amplify existing biases leading to exacerbated injustices and inequalities, as well as other pernicious effects. Instead of the promise of impartiality that has justified an increasingly reliance on both bureaucracy and algorithmic systems, we have come to realise that they have all of our human fallibilities coded in, but with the additional twin enhancements of speed and scale – rippling the effects out further and faster. Now would be an apposite time to check the headlong rush to automate how we manage our societies and everyday lives, especially as we must shift our economies and industries from extractive and destructive activities to ones which preserve and maintain life and ecologies. The two are inextricably linked.

… some are already engaged in experiments that try to make the possibility of a future that isn’t barbaric, now. Those who have chosen to desert, to flee this “dirty” economic. war, but who, in “fleeing, seek a weapon,” as Deleuze said. And seeking, here, means, in the first place, creating, creating a life “after economic growth,” a life that explores connections with new powers of acting, feeling, imagining, and thinking.”
Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times (2015)

Knowledge, Skill Acquisition & Competence

Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus’ model of skill acquisition is a useful guide in discerning the distinction between a calculation and a judgement, through tracing the path from novice via advanced beginner, competent, proficient through to expert. It describes how, in the early stages, the novice must learn the rules and understand how to use them. As their experience grows (and presumably confidence in their ability to apply the ‘right’ skills), they rely less on formal analytical application of the rules and more on their intuitive knowledge of what will work best in the given situation.

“Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ essential point is to assert that analytical thinking and intuition are not two mutually conflicting ways of understanding or of making judgements. Rather they are seen to be complementary factors which work together but with growing importance centred on intuition when the skilled performer becomes more experienced. Highly experienced people seem to be able to recognise whole scenarios without decomposing the into elements or separate features.”
Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology (1980)

This model complements the four stages of competence (often attribution to Abraham Maslow), which describes the path from Unconscious incompetence via Conscious incompetence, then Conscious competence to Unconscious competence. Again, from a baseline of lack of ability, and even a lack of awareness of inability, there is a trajectory towards competency becoming innate. It becomes embodied not just in the mind, but absorbed into a whole sense of self such that the delivery of expertise is often described as the expert having an intuitive feeling for the right thing to do.

Experience then becomes the key to transcending the application of rigid rules-based approaches and developing craft, skills and expertise. It is also the domain of art and creative practices. What this amounts to, is another order of knowledge that Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge”. It is not the procedural, codifiable, step by step, “explicit knowledge” approach that calculation and computation are so excellent at, but something transmitted through experience itself so that the learner eventually acquires the ability to judge what is right to do. Not simply a linear problem-solving trajectory, but a holistic awareness of the whole problem or task. It is committed and informed, acquired by desire and often with passion and with care – a praxis established through dialogue and reciprocal exchange. Being relational, it is a foundation for cooperation and collaboration.

“While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.”
Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being (1969)

Irrational Logics

The Judgement of Solomon (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament 1 Kings 3: 16-28) offers a classic example of wisdom in a judgement that realises justice not through a direct procedure, but through what could be described as an irrational logical path. The story tells of King Solomon called to make a ruling between two women, both claiming a baby as their own, as to who is the actual mother and should keep the infant. With no other way to tell which woman was the true mother, his perverse solution was to propose cutting the baby in half, dividing it equally between them. His wisdom is reflected in the story when one woman gives up her claim to save the life of the child, thus revealing her as the (most likely) true mother.

The story is of a classic type that has parallels in the literatures and storytelling traditions of other cultures. Such stories illustrate how, sometimes, there is no rational path to truth or a just decision but, instead, an irrational, counter-intuitive approach can reveal it in unexpected ways. It is imaginative and transgressive, employing techniques familiar in creative, artistic practices – excessive, surreal and disturbing. These are not quantities but qualities of imagination. It may be perfectly possible to compose a fiction or a piece of music or an artwork to order, by following rules and formulae (for instance the ‘police procedural’ novel or many a three minute pop song). Yet something else is needed for it to become art or literature that transcends the skeleton of its construction and rises above hackneyed cliché and routine prosaicness. Our entire mode of existence and civilisation now hinges on dilemmas as, or even more, knotty and seemingly irreconcilable as the problem faced by Solomon. We are going to need the wisdom of irrational logics and unfettered imaginations to devise visionary, engaging and realistic ways to resolve them.

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Freedom” in Words Are My Matter (2016)

Beyond Measurement: the incalculable heart of humanity

Fairness and trust are both qualities or conditions of human experience rather than fixed rules that can be applied indiscriminately. Neither are particularly amenable to formulaic measurement, indeed they are often critiqued precisely because they are almost impossible to quantify. In the context of automated algorithmic decision-making systems (e.g. in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning) this lack of fixity and highly subjective nature is frequently alluded to. The lack of stable frames of reference for what is at any one time fair, is a feature of its contingent nature. Likewise with trust – what constitutes the nature of trust in any given situation is highly contingent and almost impossible to codify into a stable matrix of elements and factors.

Yet we instinctively know what feels fair or unfair, and what trust feels like, as equally, when it switches to distrust. Thus it appears that consciousness is also a necessary factor in experiencing fairness and trust, just as I reckon it is for arriving at a judgement. And, since feeling is such an important aspect of both fairness and trust, it could be that these two conditions, like our human intelligence, are bound up not only in the mind and thinking, but are co-located and co-created in our embodied experience of knowing. Perhaps neither are at all suitable for programmatic calculation.

What then, drives some persist in trying to automate trust and fairness in an effort to remove the human from the loop in deciding what is fair or trustworthy? It seems perverse to me to be using such technologies to replace the human, instead of defining alternatives that could enhance our understanding and judgement by doing what computers and systems do best – classify, sort and order huge quantities of information to reveal patterns that are not immediately obvious. The analysis and calculation of data could then inform human-derived judgements that encompass broader contexts and situations including mitigating factors and contradictory states not suited to binary classifications. Better together, one might say.

The upshot of the successes of Deep Blue against Gary Kasparov in 1997 and AlphaGo against Lee Seedol in 2016 has been to invigorate both chess and go with new approaches and strategies, enhancing the potential and pleasure of the process of playing. The successes of these systems have not diminished either game, but suggested new possibilities. And here there may be a lesson in determining the difference between a sentient player with consciousness for whom the playing itself may be the point, and a procedural system wholly focused on achieving a finite goal: winning. By focussing on the objective of an end as the goal, those seeking to train “artificial intelligences” might be missing the fundamental point – and value – of playing; that is, the sensations it provides a sentient being of being alive and of existing in relation to something other than themself. A continuity of consciousness.

A deeper question to be addressed is cui bono? Who ultimately benefits from the increasing automation of aspects of our society? Just as the Industrial Revolution and factory production reduced the independence and skills of many craftspeople, so too the automation of everyday life is removing ordinary people from participating in decision-making. It places the definition of how parameters are set higher and higher within a social hierarchy increasingly isolated and removed from the experience of living among ordinary people. Such a rarefied extraction of authority without direct connection to context and situation also shrugs responsibility, and provides an effective insulation against culpability. Witness the degeneration of our politicians and political system – how lies, deceit and incompetence have become normalised, even venerated, without meaningful consequence.

I perceive there to be a parallel between the political imposition of strict rules and the mechanistic fallacy of atomising everything into discrete parts without perceiving the crucial balance of relations between them. They both ignore the basic truth of life that, while everything is indeed made up of the same elementary particles, their unique composition into the infinite variety of matter and life is absolutely particular. Local specificity is a feature of life’s mutability – how everything is in constant flux and adaptation in relation to its local context and environment. Scale seems to be a crucial issue here – universal laws function well at the atomic level and at the cosmic, but clearly not so unambiguously at the scales we inhabit as lived reality. There, diversity and locality are contingent on achieving any effective equilibrium.

Complex living systems just don’t seem to obey laws and rules that are based on reductionist concepts. Perhaps at the extremes it is possible for static rules to operate seamlessly, but in the elastic middle we need flow and dynamism. As atoms themselves are held together by the forces, or relations, between electrons, protons and neutrons, so all of matter and reality are bound by the multifarious forces and relations that govern the natures of different entities. To overlook the reality of our relational existence and to reduce everything down to inert and unconnected bits is, inevitably, to be missing a key part of a whole equation – a series of calculations that will never completely add up. Connection, interdependence, reciprocities are the fundamental forces that bind and make whole the matter of life.

We will need all of humanity’s diverse knowledges and skills, from poetry, art and music together with mathematics, physics and many others, to find the necessary paths to a fair future for all life on the planet. We shall need the ability to calculate and build machines that can help us sort and make sense of vast amounts of data, whilst simultaneously we must retain our independent, fluent, human capability to judge – soundly – what decisions are most appropriate for each circumstance we encounter and must respond to.

The Uses of Not
Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not,
is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
Lao Tzu, from Tao Te Ching: a book about the way and the power of the way
(a new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1997)

London, July 2019

A Little Personal Archaeology

Recently I’ve re-read and scanned some of my early writings published in the 1990s and up to 2000. This was quite a specific phase of my work, when my writing was aiming to be both poetic and critical without following more formal structures. The essays were published (often under a pseudonym, Gilles Lazare, and once as Lily de Rais) in mostly obscure small-press creative publications, such as Brandon Labelle’s Errant Bodies series, Inventory: Losing, Finding, Collecting, as well as my own COIL journal of the moving image, and once in Parallax, a more conventional peer-reviewed academic journal.

Looking back almost 25 years, there are clear strands that run through this body of work, and which resonate through subsequent projects and my more recent writing too: the inequities of power, privilege and agency and how art and creativity provide powerful counterpoints and opportunities to change those narratives. Below are some short summaries of each piece:

An Endless Insurrection: Bataille, Matta-Clark, Athey 
COIL journal of the moving image
issue 9/10, 2000
A weaving together of the work and thinking of writer Georges Bataille with the work of artist/anarchitect Gordon Matta-Clark and performance artist Ron Athey.

 

The Masque of Self-Death
Parallax vol 5 issue 4, October-December 1999
Commissioned to write on the theme of ‘honour’ by Johnny Golding, this piece reflects on the role of suicide as sacrifice, inspired by the death of Walter Benjamin.

Against the Grain – Steve Farrer’s Cinema of Machines
Commissioned by Locus Plus, 1998
Exploring the work of artist/inventor/filmmaker Steve Farrer.

Evanescence
Inventory volume 3 issue 2, 1997
A poetic text exploring the dissolution of identity in a sea of being.

 

 

Jacob’s Ladder: Tarkovsky, Benjamin, Jennings 
COIL journal of the moving image
issue 5 1997
Cinema, dreams, poetry and gestures: drawing parallels between the films of Tarkovsky, the writing of Walter Benjamin and Humphrey Jenning’s Pandaemonium.

 

The Mutilated Body and the UnBroken Shadow: Jayne Parker/Mona Hatoum
COIL journal of the moving image issue 4, 1996
A study of sacrifice and ritual explored through Jayne Parker’s K and Mona Hatoum’s Corps Etranger.

 

Speculations on a Garden of Forking Paths: Andrew Marvell’s poetic ipse in the void of being 
Errant Bodies Flowers
Los Angeles, 1996/7
My take on Andrew Marvell’s extraordinary poem (from the mid 17th century), seen through the lens of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and a hint of  Jorge Luis Borges.

 

Thief in the Studio: Genet & Giacometti
Inventory volume 2 issue 3, 1996
An exploration of the relationship between writer Jean Genet and artist Alberto Giacometti drawn from Genet’s 1957 essay, ‘The Studio of Alberto Giacometti’.

 

Jeux des Anges / Bovisa: an inventory of confluence & representation (Borowczyk/Hedjuk)
COIL journal of the moving image issue 1, 1995
Exploring overlaps between Polish/French filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk’s 1964 animation, Jeux does Anges, and the project, Bovisa, by Czech/American architect, John Hedjuk.

Marpungae Singsing video

In May 2018, as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project, I was back in Madang Province in Papua New Guinea. There, James Leach and I ran a 3 day workshop with members of the Reite community at the Bismark Ramu Group compound just outside Madang Town, followed by a week’s stay in Reite village on the Rai Coast. We were invited to be part of several important ceremonies, the biggest of which was a 3 day event to mark the re-founding of Marpungae village. This had, until a couple of generations ago, been an independent village next to Reite, but whose population had subsequently dwindled down to just a handful of people. They had been invited to merge with Reite and intermarried, growing into a thriving hamlet. Now they had decided to re-establish their independent status with a big ceremony, including performances in the bush of the Tamburan (sacred instruments/voices of the ancestors); a large food distribution to all their relatives, and culminating in an all-night singsing.

I’ve edited together a video of sections from the start (in the dark, late at night) to the end (after dawn the next morning) which conveys some of the intense, passionate energy of the dancing, singing and music – slowly revealing the elaborate costumes and decorations made especially for this event as day breaks:

The following is an extract from my field diary :

“Banak [Gamui] and I set off back to Sikarani to relax before going on to Marpungae for the singsing. When we arrived, the household was in full throe making bilas (ceremonial decorations) for the singsing. [Our host] Katak’s family were to be a leading part of the second singsing group (the Marpungae family being the first group).
The previous night Katak had been replacing the skin of a drum with a whole monitor lizard’s skin, leaving it to dry overnight. Pina [Sisau] and some others had also been adjusting other drums with little cones of a wild beeswax substance placed on the skins. Banak assisted as Katak removed the excess skin and adjusted the drum to get the right tone. Meanwhile the children prepared other things (they had been dying grass skirts and making bilas for days).
James [Leach] returned and we ate a little supper before heading down to the new Marpungae village site where we arrived about 9pm. Then there was a bit of waiting around as people got themselves ready – I watched Kerrep finish making a headdress, then sat with Katak as he made his own bilas (and mine) – all from leaves, plants and other local flora. They use a lot of porpor and gorgor (coriander and ginger) and the smell was both beautiful and strong. In my clumsy Tok Pisin I chatted with Katak about Scottish ceilidhs, although I’m not sure it made much sense to him! When the men all disappeared into the bush to get ready (covering themselves in red coconut oil paint, putting on their bilas and loincloths)  I sat with James at Tariak’s house (and was fed, again, with taro cooked in a mushroom sauce – really delicious!). After a bit more waiting around, at about 11pm we began to hear the Tamburan (sacred instruments/voices of the ancestors) being played down in the Haus Tamburan by the village’s main clearing – so we hurried down to get good seats! It was pitch dark and very hard to see anything at all, except for the incredible sound of the Tamburan droning and the singing and drumming.
The men and women have very different styles – the men drumming and chanting, with the women overlaying a higher pitched chant. It seems that there are many different songs, but I can barely tell them apart, especially as they are all, of course, sung in Tok Ples. The first half hour or so was held in complete darkness before they lit a coconut torch and danced it around the group, lighting up everyone to see. The first sight was thus extraordinary! I hadn’t realised that they were so close and the visual effect was both astounding and unexpected. As people then began using torches to illuminate the group, and with the occasional flash from a camera, I could see the stunning costumes and decorations – many wearing heavy structures that held up poles carved with intricate stories (this was, I believe, what Takarok [Yamui] had been working on for days, which is why he hadn’t been around much). The poles were probably 10 feet tall and extraordinary. There were lots of children in both male and female groups, including some very little girls (from maybe 3 year old and. up).
The first group (from Marpungae) performed on their own for perhaps an hour, then all went dark again as the second group (the Reite relatives) approached, singing their own songs. Eventually the two groups merged and another torch was lit to illuminate them all, and at last we could see the whole large number of people dancing: in a circle, men in the middle, women circling them. The Tamburan continued to sound (I assume from inside Haus Tamburan) and to drone beneath the singing and drumming in an intensely mesmeric way. Across the night I found myself, at various points, falling into the rhythm and losing sense of time, then being brought round again by a lull or a change of song or beat. This combination of almost total darkness and music had such a profound effect, continuing right through the night until dawn, and then after.
Banak had joined in with the second singsing group. Sangumae had made his bilas,: head gear, loincloths, grass skirt and armbands, plus pig tusks etc, and he was there with the others covered in full red pigment and coconut oil paint. We finally got to see him in all his fine as he stepped out briefly for buai. Orengi (Katak’s wife) also dropped in and out of the group as her knee injury is still not fully recovered. The event was really social – lots of chatting and laughter, joking and fun, as well as serious – a real community festival!
As light began to emerge (about 5am) the Tamburan finished and “went away” – to be returned to the secret places in the bush. James also told me that the carved bilas poles would be used once only for this singsing before being taken to sacred places in the bush to rot away.
The singsing continued well into the dawn as we could finally see everyone and everything. Some of the children were still dancing and performing – 6 or 7 hours later (including Pina’s sion Sebastian and Katak’s youngest son). Many of the audience, from Asang, Yasing, Sarangama and Serieng had already left so it was mostly close Reite and Marpungae people left for the last hour or two. Both Catherine [Sparks] and I were pulled into the dancing for the last hour (respectively for the women’s and men’s groups) – being decorated with bilas and headdresses. Urufaf [Anip] put a pair of his pig tusks around my neck to wear – a big gift – and Katak gripped my hand all the way through the dancing and singing. There were all so excited that we had joined in, they started up with some special songs: first “Catherine Singsing”, then “Giles Singsing”, and then “James Sunup”. At the bitter end of the long night’s celebrations, Uru’s elder brother Peter led the remaining group up to where Tariak’s [Uru & Peter’s mother] and Uru’s new houses are. There we danced the last songs before breakfast was cooked for everyone. It was probably about 7am by now – many of the people had danced continuously for 7 or 8 hours straight so there was immense adrenalin in the air. After breakfast  we headed slowly back to Katak & Orengi’s house for a refreshing waswas (wash in the river) before a long sleep.”

The Data Sublime

The Observable Universe

In February 2014 Marina Jirotka and I met as participants at Blast Theory’s annual two day seminar, Act Otherwise. That year’s theme was “The Invisible Hand: On Profiling and Personalisation”, exploring many issues around the generation and use of “Big Data” in artworks and by artists as well as more generally in culture and society. We found ourselves sharing a healthy skepticism about the way “Big Data”, number-crunching and data visualisation are often presented as a ‘final’ and over-arching narrative to understanding modern life; as an “end to theory”. We both found this triumphalist narrative – that data-driven computation can comprehensively explain everything – to be troubling and misguided, especially as it seemed to be spreading across many other disciplines and fields of practice. The implication that both research and culture could thus be transformed into quantifiable commodities to be analysed and neatly compartmentalised purely by computational means was another major concern.

At the seminar I presented the Lifestreams data manifestation project (2012) which demonstrated how we could use our senses of touch and proportion to engage people with otherwise abstract and ephemeral information being collected about their life patterns and behaviours. The project also offered an alternative vision to the emerging “Quantified Self” and Internet of Things narratives in which complex human behaviours are often reduced to a set of data-driven variables that can be processed from sensor data. This also seemed to be an Orwellian vision that promised all kinds of benefits on the basis of a worryingly narrow perspective.

After the seminar, Marina invited me to Oxford to speak to her research group in Human Centred Computing about the Lifestreams project and my work in general. From there we began a conversation and collaboration that has continued over the past five years; most recently resulting in the UnBias Fairness Toolkit – my contribution to the two year UnBias research project (of which Marina was a Co-Investigator). We also developed two proposals that were not realised, but which coalesced some key ideas and thinking which have never-the-less flowed into other projects and activities. Both proposals revolved around ideas I was beginning at the time to crystallise – reciprocal entanglement and the data sublime. An early proposal in 2014 addressed Big Data and the Quantified Self via the data sublime, whilst the other (in 2017) focused on issues at the heart of developing Quantum Technologies. Marina’s research group is a part of the NQIT Hub, conducting studies into Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in the quantum field. Whilst I have since written about reciprocal entanglement in relation to quantum technologies, the ideas behind the data sublime remained unpublished in proposal documents. The purpose here is to bring them out into the light as they have a renewed relevance to the new project I am embarking on (Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change).

The Data Sublime

The category of the sublime in literary theory and aesthetics refers to encounters with phenomena that are excessive – too much to handle – and which inspire awe or dread in the subject. What renders the experience sublime is our ability to, nevertheless, address this vastness or dreadfulness and to incorporate it into a perceptual register for meaning or sense-making. It has been a hugely important and influential category of perception in the Humanities for almost three centuries – as well as having roots in Roman-era Greek philosophy (Longinus’ On the Sublime, 1st century AD). Edmund Burke was one of the earliest English philosophers to write about it (in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756), followed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764), then Arthur SchopenhauerGeorg Hegel, Rudolf Otto and others since (notably Jean-François Lyotard).

What the sublime offers us is a conceptual mechanism by which we can recuperate an almost overwhelming encounter with things which are too massive or complex to calculate, measure or fully comprehend. It allows us to make sense, to make meaning of an encounter with the ungraspable. It describes an ontological encounter that transforms something from being numinous (or unknowable) into something phenomenological – which we can incorporate into a narrative experience and a type of knowledge. Joseph Addison’s description in 1704, “The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror” (from Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703), captures the internal ambiguities of the sublime – that horror can be at all agreeable – which make it such a powerful perceptual register of recuperating the excessive. Such a rupture and intertwining of perceptual and critical abilities within a person’s consciousness could, perhaps, be figured as a form of entanglement between oppositional states and phenomena – the sublime being the moment of awareness of the entanglement itself. It is, of course, always relational between the person and the thing they are encountering.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data, Algorithmic Decision-Making are the latest issues du jour, about which we are so often told that the data is too big to understand, the algorithms too complex to represent and the decision-making processes too opaque to be grasped by mere humans. Might it be possible for us to make sense and meaning of such vast quantities of data and computational processes in ways that affect our social and cultural aspirations for society beyond the purely instrumental? We could consider the speed and quantity of the data being generated, both individually and societally, as a monumental encounter. Such an encounter could then be approached as moment of the ‘data sublime’; an encounter where artistic practice may offer us alternative opportunities to assimilate and make meaning from it.

What do Arts & Humanities offer?

Art and aesthetics offer different ways to conceive of what happens in complex encounters than those utilised by the sciences. When you encounter a work of art, it is the experience itself which determines your aesthetic reaction to the piece. It could be one of awe, delight, revulsion or indifference – whatever it is, it is driven by similar complex factors. Each person’s own aesthetic experience is affected by the use of materials, colour, scale, lighting, sense of space and proportion as well as by their own memory, critical thought and emotion. There can be no right or wrong aesthetic experience: each person experiences a work of art in relation to the summation of their own existence.

The methodologies and critical analyses from the arts and humanities, such as aesthetics and categories like the sublime, offer alternative ways to develop new ways of realising knowledge from data and computational systems through encounters that work on multiple senses, not just via sight and sound as most contemporary technologies currently deliver it. We don’t just have to simplify and summarise data in linear ways to make it easier to represent visually on a screen (e.g. in a chart or diagram), we can also use our other senses – touch, sense of scale and balance, taste, smell, hearing, time and temperature. The data sublime in artistic encounters allows for multiple sensorial engagements, where we are reciprocally entangled in the possibility for meaning making with the work itself, through our own consciousness. It is a route away from the reductive reasoning of standardisation, quantification and calculation that lead to probabilistic and statistical interpretations. Instead it is a route to knowledge that reinserts key human qualities of judgement and imagination that can encompass the kinds of ambiguity, diversity and the unknowable that would be routinely excised from analytical systems based on quantification alone.

Evolving technologies such as Quantum computing and AI – topics of extraordinary complexity and subtlety – run counter to mundane understandings of the phenomenal world and stretch the limits of human perception. The intangible, counter-intuitive nature or sheer vastness of the science makes it hard for people to grasp, and yet so exciting in its implications for the future. The complexity and interdependence of planetary life and natural systems (such as climate) is another sphere that often seems overwhelming in terms of the scales involved. Modelling climate systems alone require some of the most complex computational methods and powerful resources. How people can make sense of such data, often geographically and experientially remote, is one of the key challenges of our age.

The MDECC project will be attempting to explore ways in which artistic expressions of data into physical manifestations (sculptures, installations and inhabitable spaces) might offer new ways for people to make sense of such remote phenomena and connect it to their own lived experiences. In this way we will be exploring the affordances of a data sublime to make climate science accessible in ways it has not been before.

Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives

“the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternate reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “A War without End”, in The Wave in the Mind (2004)

It has been the great privilege of my life to have been invited to visit and to share my skills and knowledge with the people of Reite village in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. I’ve charted the arc of this journey in a series of posts since it got going back in 2009 with a request from my friend, James Leach, to help document the visit to London and the British Museum’s Ethnographic Department by two Reite Villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau. (Frédérik Lesage interviewed James in 2010 and wrote this up as a bookleteer case study.)

This journey has had the most profound effects on me, influencing life decisions and challenging all kinds of certainties I had acquired. Doubt, questioning and uncertainty have become even more powerful allies in the way I choose to live and, in the work I do. As an artist they have always been present, part of my critical and creative toolkit and way of life; but it is rare to have such an opportunity to experience ways of living that are diametrically different to our own. When an understanding of the true difference that exists becomes tangible within one’s own lived experience, it triggers a shift in both the centre and the orbits of one’s life. That re-orientation affects everything going forward – the sense of value and values, as well as rootedness in one’s own culture, purpose and activity. It has inspired my thinking with new revelations : providing me with a kind of double vision that offsets the familiar ever so slightly to suggest alternative perspectives and different priorities.

Elsewhere I have described this as helping me define a practice based on reciprocal entanglement: to create artworks which enable people to have empathic encounters. In the future, once the TKRN project reaches its conclusion (possibly in 2020), I hope to write up a more in depth reflection on what I have learned – for now it remains a fluid process that continues to draw me along, as currents around me shift and I do my best to be an agent for positive, transformational change whilst treading as lightly on the earth as needs must.

Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives

Since 2016 I have also been trying to develop a parallel project here in the UK (“Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives” or TKLA) that would be complementary to the TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) project I’ve been working on in Papua New Guinea. It’s been a challenge that I’ve not yet cracked (in terms of funding or support), but I think the idea is too good to let go of and perhaps there are other ways it could find some sort of life. So I’m going to share it and see if it strikes any chords…

Outline

The tacit knowledges of how to make, shape, grow and harvest things and how to work with materials, tools, machines and other life-forms are acquired over time, with patience and perseverance. But in an age which increasingly values speed, automation and highly specific concepts of “efficiency” over human skill and judgement, what is our society in danger of losing, abandoning or simply disregarding?

  • What values and valuables of human skill and knowledge are disappearing?
  • What kinds of experiential knowledge are at risk?
  • How can the values of such knowledges be self-documented as a digital/physical resource for the future?

Tacit and experiential knowledges are known to be at risk of loss in the face of automation, digital communications and data-driven decision making:

  • Why do people value these kinds of knowledges?
  • In what ways are they being, or can they be, transmitted to future generations?
  • Who are the inheritors of older traditions of experiential knowledge? and,
  • Who is currently adapting and evolving new experiential practices?

I believe that the processes and methods we have co-devised for the TKRN project could be equally adopted and adapted in our own communities in the UK – functioning as the kind of tools for conviviality described by Ivan Illich in his eponymous book: “People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them.”

This conviviality – the making and sharing together of value through stories, descriptions and other forms of practising knowledge – has been a key feature of how we have seen the TKRN tools become woven into Reite village life. It is not so much their status as artefacts which has made them valuable or that has given them meaning, as the social processes of making and sharing – enacting knowledge within and among each other. The books act as waymarkers to the people, or Living Archives, within whom and through their relations with others, the knowledge actually resides.

Tacit Knowledge

In his 1980 book, Architect or Bee?, Mike Cooley defines tacit knowledge as informal knowledge “acquired through doing, to ‘attending to’ things”. He goes on to say, “Knowledge frequently applied in a domain may become wisdom, and wisdom is the basis for positive action.” He also includes a diagram suggesting how he sees it operating on the axis of signal/noise and the path from data to action:

Consumer society is becoming ever more mediated in the relations people have with everyday skills and practices, for instance, through the easy purchase of ready-made things (‘reified knowledge’) that remove any need for learning skills or to take time to acquire tacit knowledge. It is visible in so many aspects of life, the vital to the trivial. From how computers can simulate the effects of what were previously distinct skills and expertise and make them manipulable by others; to the sophistication of ready meals at the supermarket, providing varieties of quick-cook cuisine that approximate culinary skills formerly acquired through time, trial and error – hard-won knowledge of materials, their interactions, chemistries and behaviours.

“It is easier to set in motion a galley or factory in which human beings are used to a minor part of their full capacity only, rather than create a world in which these human beings may fully develop. Those striving for power believe that a mechanised concept of human beings constitutes a simple way of realising their aspirations to power.”
Norbert Weiner, quoted in Architect or Bee? (Mike Cooley)

Automation has for centuries been used to exert power by one group of people over another. This has often taken the form of de-skilling artisans and skilled workers by capturing aspects of their craft and tacit knowledge and encoding it into machines – to replicate the work at scale and more cheaply. This was, of course, the prime struggle of the Industrial Revolution, resisted in its early period by the Luddites who sought to challenge their deliberate impoverishment and the removal of their independent craft practice. This is rather different to the way they have been typically and perjoratively portrayed as anti-science and technology. The parallel is also clear between the forcible movement by the ruling classes of poorer human beings into factory towns (and squalor, disease, exploitation etc) and their use of Acts of Parliament to enclose common land and sequester it for their own benefit – also leading to the physical eviction of local people from their ancestral homes. The 1217 Charter of the Forest had been one of the great legal impediments to enclosure in England, and a model for stewardship, but increasingly it was circumvented by individual Acts that removed common land from common ownership into the hands of the wealthy, by their agents (often relatives or dependents) in Parliament. In Scotland, the Clearances of the 19th Century followed a more direct suppression of the Highland clans’ way of life following the Battle of Culloden and the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Such deliberate erasures of culture and creative or craft practices are now seen as tragedies, yet still counted as acceptable by those for whom the logic of ‘progress’ defaults to economic and monetary value over any other. A key aspect of resistance has been folk-culture and memory – losses memorialised in poetry and song, in banners and murals, stories and books, music and films. A counter-heritage that is intertwined with other pragmatic and political efforts, such as unionisation, cooperativism, mutualism and the social contract of the post-War Welfare State.

“The great thing about people is that they are sometimes disobedient. Most human development, technical, cultural and political, has depended on those movements which questioned, challenged and, where necessary, disobeyed the established order.”
Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee?

Automation is once again at the heart of the fears stoked by modern day fantasies of “Artificial Intelligence” automating away the ‘white-collar’ jobs of the middle class, who were protected from the job losses suffered by manual labourers and factory workers in the earlier stages of the machinic age and robotisation of manufacturing. ‘AI’, we are told by the frothy press and media, threatens to supplant all kinds of office jobs that were previously considered uniquely human and automation-proof. Conversely, a resurgence of interests in craft skills and practices over the past decade could be seen as a significant counterpoint to the growth of digital systems and simplicities and simulations of expertise that they offer. How can the benefits and drawbacks be balanced – to make sure that the benefits are more equitably distributed and not sequestered by the already powerful and wealthy? How can agency, good governance and equity be supported and promoted?

I believe that one way is to celebrate and share the tacit knowledges that people acquire over time and practice – valuing them and their skills, finding new articulations of value that are outside of mere quantification and accounting standards. In the 1930s and 1940s the visionary Mass Observation movement encouraged ordinary people to document and record their own lives and world – to create an “anthropology of ourselves”. In my own way, through the concept of Public Authoring that I have evolved through a variety of projects, places and technologies (e.g. Urban Tapestries, various Social Tapestries projects, and especially bookleteer) I hope I have made some contribution to the kinds of tools for conviviality that Illich speaks of, and which could contribute to a positive transformation in what we do, why and how we do it.

“People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.”
Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)

Living Archives

Through my decade-long collaboration with James Leach I have been introduced to a trove of ideas, observations and learning from the world of anthropology. One of the most signal has been my exposure to the work and thought of Tim Ingold (one of James’ teachers at Manchester and, later, a colleague at Aberdeen). Ingold writes of the ‘practice of knowing’ as opposed to the ‘property of knowledge’, and this has been like a pole star around which I have navigated my attention from the outputs we make using bookleteer (and other artefacts) to the processes that emerge around the making. As the TKRN project evolved, the discussions James and I had reflecting on the project became less concerned with understanding the individual value of the specific books that were being made by people in Reite, and more focused on how the books function as signposts, within wider social and cultural activity, to where knowledge might exist within persons and the relationships that connect them (to others, places etc). Our conversations have continued to examine how it is in the co-creative acts of reciprocal exchange – the relationships – that any ‘knowledge’ is constantly made, re-made and made meaningful. A co-discovery made in each act of teaching and learning, a dynamic act of reciprocity rather than the simple transmission of a static state of knowing something or how to do something.

“To tell is not to represent the world but to trace a path through it that others can follow.

It is in the art of storytelling, not in the power of classification, that the key to human knowledgeability – and therefore to culture – ultimately resides.”
Tim Ingold, “Stories Against Classification” in Kinship and Beyond (2009)

In a previous post I described how I came to appreciate differences between Western and non-Western worldviews and conceptions of ‘knowledge’ – how for some cultures knowledge is always relational, not something which can be alienated from context.

“Stories do not, as a rule, come with their meanings already attached, nor do they mean the same for different people. What they mean is rather something that listeners have to discover for themselves, by placing them in the context of their own life histories.”
Tim Ingold, “Stories Against Classification”

I describe my practice as storymaking, not storytelling because my role is not to be the storyteller, but the one who helps make the space for the story to be told. I see the potential for a cultural movement of enacting tacit knowledges through co-creative acts of making and sharing, as being a critical moment for us to reflect and re-assess what we value and why. At this turning point in human civilisation, when the speed of resource extraction, exploitation and consumption is poised to overwhelm nature and the ecologies that sustain our very existence, now is the moment to re-consider what matters to us.

There is an emerging field of studies that compare indigenous stories and traditions in different places and cultures with scientific evidence of environmental change (c.f. this example). Some studies have demonstrated a remarkable accuracy in the stories, for instance to within one generation of accuracy over a very long timespan (thousands of years) when describing phenomena such as sea level changes. Such studies underline the importance of storymaking and telling –  as persistent modes of communicating knowledges that remain neither remote nor alienated from context – but instead proximate and directly relational to the people who live with and through them.

Possible Activities

For TKLA to become a reality it would be necessary to form a network of people who have such knowledges and are willing and able to communicate what it means to them to have acquired them, why they think they are valuable and to whom they are or would be willing to pass on their knowledge. Methods would need to be devised for them to describe and share what they value about these skills rather than the skills themselves. Not to slavishly document skills in books that will gather dust on shelves, but to signpost these knowledge holders as “Living Archives” whom others can consult and learn from.

The format of the hybrid digital/physical books generated by bookleteer is highly adaptable to varying literacies (both linguistic and visual), allowing people to communicate in ways that are natural to them – whether in terms of words, drawings or pictures. They can also incorporate visual links to online sound or video files that can be played back on other devices. The books also underscore the importance of human relationships to knowledge – as distinct from treating it as an object that can be separated from context and meaning. The emphasis would be on documenting the value of each person’s knowledge, rather than trying to isolate and extract the knowledge as separate from the person.

These are some of the kinds of activities that I believe would be an important part of developing  TKLA as a project:

  • Networking: researching and developing a network of knowledge holders covering a wide array of practices around the UK. Visiting people and places e.g.: craftspeople and artisans; artists; people who work with the land, sea, environment and animals; and to understand the context in which they practise their activities;
  • Co-creativity: collaborative production of hybrid digital/physical book templates with participants to document and share what they value about the knowledge they have acquired; linking to other digital media resources (audio/video etc).
  • Building a Library: developing an online library/resource of completed books for wider access and sharing of knowledge, values and skills;
  • Exhibition: designing and producing a physical touring format for the library so that people can encounter them in multiple sites.

The true measure here would be to work at depth, not scale.

I have no specific agenda, plan or framework to make this happen – it is simply something I feel is right for our times. I’m open to suggestions.

Giles & Katak after the Marpungae Singsing, May 2018