Category Archives: Propositions

Stimulating and Inspiring Civic Agency

Over the past couple of weeks – at the V&A Digital Design Weekend and the UnBias Showcase at Digital Catapult – I’ve been sharing and demonstrating the UnBias Fairness Toolkit to people from all kinds of walks of life. The response has been enormously enthusiastic as people have immediately imagined using it in the contexts of their own working lives and interests. They have instantly grasped its power to stimulate critical thinking, find and share people’s voices on these issues (bias, trust and fairness in algorithmic systems) and see how this can contribute to a public civic dialogue that involves industry, government, the public sector and civil society too.

What the Toolkit Offers

  • A pragmatic and practical way to raise awareness and stimulate dialogue about bias, trust and fairness in algorithms and digital technologies.
  • It is designed to make complex and often abstract ideas tangible and accessible to young people and to non-experts across society.
  • It supports critical thinking skills that can help people feel empowered to make better informed choices and decisions about how they interact with algorithmic systems.
  • It helps collect evidence of how people feel about the issues and what motivates them to share their concerns by contributing to a public civic dialogue.
  • It provides a communication channel for stakeholders in industry, policy, regulation and civil society to respond to public concerns about these issues.
  • It can also be used by developers of algorithms and digital systems to reflect on ethical issues and as a practical method for implementing Responsible Research and Innovation.

Where Next?

The next stage is slowly becoming clear – what I believe we need is a national programme to train people, especially those working with young people, in using the toolkit, and to inspire people working in industry, regulation and policy to understand how to use it as an applied responsible research and innovation tool. We want to get the toolkit into as many schools, libraries and other places where young people, and others of all ages, can enhance their awareness, their critical thinking skills and understanding of the issues we face for digital literacy and the profound effects on our society and democracy that digital technologies are having.

Over the coming months I will be sounding out potential partners and sponsors/funders to make this possible.

This would be the first step in a more expansive programme on enabling agency, building on this, and much of my and Proboscis’s previous work. Its not something I expect to achieve alone – so I am hoping to bring like-minded collaborators together under the umbrella of this concept of civic agency to grow our capabilities and capacities for engaging people in new forms of critical thinking, autonomous and collective action to address the challenges we face as communities and as a society today and for the future.

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Sensing Climate Change through Empathic Encounters

This is a slightly tweaked version of a presentation I gave recently for a Fellowship application. My proposal was to use the Fellowship to advance the work I have started this year in adapting the processes of data manifestation developed in the Lifestreams project in creating tangible artefacts that communicate the complexly interconnected phenomena of climate research. And to also weave into this narrative approaches inspired by other cultures (especially non-Western “indigenous” peoples) who have developed other ways of recording and sharing knowledge of change over long timespans.

I see art as a way of life, a way of being, rather than the things I make. My practice is founded on bringing the sensibility of being an artist into direct contact with the world through the collaborations I undertake in different contexts and places and with the different communities which I engage with.

As an artist my goal is not to put artworks into galleries, but to weave art into everyday life – not as an exception or decoration, but as a vital and transformative process.

The way I do this is to create the conditions for stories to emerge from the material and interactions of these collaborations, and to help communicate the values expressed by the participants to others: storymaking instead of storytelling.

My interests are transdisciplinary – exploring the intersections of Art, Design and Science and two key strands in my work are Data Manifestation and Public Authoring. These two strands delve into the heart of how artistic practice can assist us in making sense of and defining values about our complex selves and environments: through sensory engagement and knowledge creation, documentation and dissemination.

My proposal focuses on climate change – and specifically on exploring alternative ways to allow people to appreciate and make sense of the complex interdependent interactions between different climate phenomena that are more often isolated and presented independently of one another. Mainstream debates over the past 30 years have tended to treat ‘climate change’ as a series of individual issues – such as the ozone layer, carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, sea ice reduction and glacial melt. In parallel the measures to ‘deal’ with them are often presented as separate strategies too. Whilst we know, in the abstract, that we live within a single global ecosystem, it is passingly rare to see these issues presented in ways that help us understand and relate to their interdependencies.

I propose to use data manifestation and public authoring as experimental means to generate opportunities for people to experience empathic encounters that go beyond the instrumentality of two dimensional graphs and visualisations. In particular I hope to explore more spatial and architectural expressions which can trigger a range of human senses in making meaning from data about climate change.

These are what I call “reciprocal entanglements” where people encountering the work perceive themselves in a direct relationship with it and with meaning making, thus transforming their understanding of issues that are at the heart of humanity’s future.

Over the past few years I have been working with indigenous people in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu on adapting, for their situation and purposes, some of the public authoring tools and techniques I’ve developed.

This has been a mutual exchange of cultural practices intended to reinvigorate intergenerational sharing of traditional knowledge. They hope to preserve their traditional and dynamic way of life from being overwhelmed by the changes wrought by money and industrialised resource extraction. In our terms, they seek to retain their culture’s resilience and sustainable relationship to their specific environment and not be subsumed into our Western worldview. This relationship has given me new perspectives on how environmental change is experienced, understood and shared – where knowledge of such things is inherently local. It is deeply and necessarily intertwined with the daily practices that are required for subsistence, as well as with the community memories stretching back many generations.

My aim is to investigate different ways of making the complex data about climate change tangible for people in post-industrialised societies who do not have the kind of direct and proximate connection to land, sea and the natural world that their ancestors had or that those communities have who still live in rural, often pre-industrialised settings.

Recently I have been inspired by reports on comparative studies of Aboriginal stories and traditions in Australia with scientific evidence of environmental change. These studies have exposed remarkable accuracy in the stories (to within one generation of accuracy) over very long timespans when describing phenomena such as sea level changes. I believe these stories and traditions persist in such cultures because they are neither remote nor alienated from context. They remain proximate and directly relational to the people who have lived with and through them.

How then, might it be possible to devise ways to express environmental change across time for urbanised people in the post-industrialised world – like ourselves – who do not experience such proximity on an everyday basis? And whose life choices will increasingly be made within the context of momentous changes in how we live our lives?

I see my engagements with climate scientists, social and cultural geographers and others doing research and other activities as a form of reciprocal entanglement too. Using tools I’ve developed for public authoring, such as the bookleteer formats, I propose to conduct an auto-ethnography of this process. By sharing my practice and experience of artistic fieldwork in an open and collaborative manner, I hope to stimulate discussion and debate, as well as to invite others to participate. I hope to weave together some of my experiences of working with indigenous people and their insights, with the observations and data of climate science to help us understand the effects and impacts of our actions, to to help us think about what our future choices might be.

Obligation. Responsibility. Culpability

A conversation with a friend a few days ago has made me think about another frame in which to consider action and effect. One which acknowledges the complex, entangled nature of our social relationships and the delicate balance of forces that hold that web of relationships together.

Obligation
To whom do I have (mutual or reciprocal) obligations and what are the nature of those obligations? Will my actions demonstrate my enacting those obligations or an avoidance of them?

Responsibility
What are my responsibilities to those with whom I have relationships? How do I balance my needs and any impact my actions may have on them?

Culpability
Am I willing to accept the consequences of my actions? Am I willing to amend my behaviour in future to reflect any detrimental impact of my actions on others?

In these muddled times, full of fear and anxieties, being able to think clearly, to make informed choices and decisions seems ever more urgent and necessary. Understanding that we are all connected in multi-lateral and multi-dimensional ways, and to have the critical means to make assessments that acknowledge this instinctively, is like a ray of sunlight cutting through the gloom.

Weighing opportunity and intent

As our world plunges into an era of uncertainty and reactive measures against plurality, diversity and tolerance I have been trying to formulate a framework or set of conceptual scales to guide my choices in life and work. How can one weigh out the opportunities that appear? How can intention and action be balanced in a way that respects our essential ethos, whilst acknowledging the constraints and compromises that are necessary to survive in our challenging social, political, economic and cultural order?

What I have realised over the years is that my work has always been about the kinds of human relationships that are forged within it. All my work is collaborative – often crossing disciplines, skills, trades and sectors. What I seek is a quality of experience generated by the energy of a group of people engaged on a collaborative or cooperative enterprise. The outputs (events, tools, artworks, publications, films, media, installations etc) are indeed important – primarily to share the experience with others – but are not the main driver for the work. It is people and the relationships which I develop with them that are my true inspiration and motivation.

In seeking to make judgements about what projects to contribute my energies to, what sorts of opportunities to explore and which kinds of trajectories to pursue, I have begun to identify the essential qualities I want to be present. These are not universal or rigid measures, but rather an attempt to have a simple rule of thumb to gauge whether or not they balance in any given configuration: Passion. Intensity. Intimacy. Pleasure.

Passion
It is important to me to work with people who are passionate and care deeply about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they go about it. It is the lifeblood of a team’s commitment to a project, practice or idea and without it it there is often no bigger vision or aspiration.

Intensity
I find that the most satisfying work is produced at a high level of intensity. Not constant, but following cycles and rhythms within the natural flow of a project’s development and the broader patterns of life that surround us. The ebb and flow of such work cycles naturally generates as well as consumes energy, much as we find in physical exercise.

Intimacy
I judge the richness of my life not in the material things which surround me but in the nourishment I get from close acquaintance and shared bonds with other people. These connections are vital to feeling that I am part of the world and of various communities. It is through other people that I discover new things, new joys and pleasures; and share the things I value and cherish with others. Working together to define a project, identifying problems or issues to be addressed creates extraordinary opportunities for people to open up and create common feeling across social and cultural divides. Without some degree of intimacy with one’s colleagues we are often mired in isolation and loneliness, even in the midst of others.

Pleasure
What kinds of pleasure will flow from this endeavour: the pleasures of association with old or new colleagues; of new skills acquired; of ideas challenged or evolved; of successful reception of outcomes and outputs; of new directions indicated or taken; of abstract thoughts made manifest and shared? Without some sense of pleasure in and from work it soon degenerates into a self-perpetuating drudgery of obligation to a status quo. For the sake of human spirit I think this is neither sustainable nor resilient in the long term.

As individuals in complex societies, our abilities to effect positive change that counter destructive forces often appear insignificant in the face of such huge systems and overwhelming structures. But exercising informed judgements about what we do and why is surely one of the best and most profound ways we can retain a sense of personal agency against the tide of narrow automated, rule-based decisions increasingly foisted upon us from above. Nurturing a plurality of informed judgements made by ordinary people in their daily lives might offer a powerful corrective to the strictures and conformities now being insisted upon by autocracies of all kinds and natures.

Mapping Rehab Journeys

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Back in the summer of 2014 I devised a simple paper-based tool to help brain injury survivors map their rehabilitation journeys through a gentle creative process. It was part of the work I did for the Movement Science Research group at Oxford Brooke’s University – helping them to understand how to create a patient-centric digital rehabilitation monitoring tool. Having tested it successfully with a group of brain injury survivors in a workshop at Headway Oxford, it was frustrating not to be able to find a way to develop my ideas into a simple, low cost and flexible tool that could be used by brain injury survivors to periodically record their experiences of rehabilitation.

Since then I have been mostly engaged on a project co-designing a simple method and tools (based around bookleteer.com) for documenting Traditional Knowledge with villagers living in the jungle in Papua New Guinea, as well as with my work on data manifestation. As the notebooks for documenting knowledge have evolved, I have seen how they enable people to capture things that they value in ways that help them communicate and share that value further. Reflecting on this over the past few months, it made sense to think about adapting the ideas for the rehab journey tool into a booklet – utilising the simplicity, low cost and ease of use of the bookleteer format, something requiring no immediate investment beyond my time.

I was also inspired to do this having seen the excellent Patient booklet co-created by Grace Tillyard as part of her Breast Cancer Awareness project in Haiti. I have been providing a small bit of advice to Grace over the past year and half as she developed her programme, and we had talked about using the bookleteer booklet format as a simple way for people to record their experience of cancer treatment and recovery, as well as providing them with information about the process and possible outcomes. Her use of bookleteer to create a powerful tool that can be used effectively in the complex socio-economic environment of a developing country is truly inspiring.

Having discussed my idea with my friend and colleague David Sinden, who co-facilitated one of the workshops in Oxford with me for the TBI project (and who has himself survived a brain injury), I have now created a draft notebook format to help people record their experiences of the rehabilitation journey. It develops on from the original worksheets, encouraging survivors to use both words and drawing to document how they feel about their journey of rehabilitation in the present moment. The prompts ask for feelings related to time, progress, fluctuation and speed of rehab, as well as an overall mapping of the journey itself.

As with the notebooks for documenting Traditional Knowledge, I felt that it was important for people to be able to personalise their notebooks by putting a photo on the front cover. This might also serve as a visual reminder of how someone was feeling at the time, as well as how they look (or, for instance, include the face of someone who might be helping them fill out the book, such as a carer or friend). This can be easily done using the same sort of low cost kit we use when in the jungle of PNG – a basic cameraphone and Zink photo printer (e.g. the Polaroid Zip printer or Snap camera/printer).

What might the benefit be?
When I ran the rehab journey mapping workshop with five brain injury survivors at Oxford Headway in August 2014, they all became very invested in the process and were vocal in expressing their enjoyment of the task. It was highly social, with a lot of mutual support (especially in remembering things for each other) and free-flowing conversation which in turn provoked considerable self-reflection. I acted as the scribe for one of the survivors, assisting with writing and drawing for her. At the end of the workshop she thanked me and said that this exercise had been the first time anyone had sat down with her and listened to her describe her experiences since she had suffered a stroke about 12 years before. I asked the group if they thought it would be worth doing the exercise again, perhaps on a fairly regular basis (such as two or three time a year). They all agreed that it would be worthwhile, not least because it would give them a sense of how their feelings about their rehab journey change over time and this would give them a way to recall how they have felt at different times.

It is this aspect of self-observation that seems to hold a great deal of value in the process – not just for personal reflection, but also when discussing an ongoing rehab journey with the clinicians, physicians and other professionals and carers who are supporting survivors. Building up a collection of these observations over time could help reveal patterns that often evade us as we live in the moment. They are a form of data that could be useful for longitudinal analyses of the changes and adaptations experienced by people over prolonged periods of rehabilitation.  They offer the potential to collect and collate rich, qualitative information about how rehab is experienced by the survivor themself which could enhance other quantitative data already being collected as part of ongoing care and health management.

The draft notebook is available for anyone to try out in two sizes: Small (A6) and Large (A5). This is just a first step and is in need of feedback to both be improved, and built upon – as there are undoubtedly other ways and tools which could add to this. David and I will be collaborating on testing and extending the format as well as devising a practical process or methodology for both health professionals and peer groups of people experiencing rehabilitation to use it. We hope to have more news about this in the Autumn.

For some new Putney Debates

Earlier this year I was shortlisted for a residency in Lincoln as part of a project celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. My proposal (“Lincoln Debates“) was to work with young people in the city to re-evaluate the state of our society and to bring their voices concretely in to discussions of where we go next. I proposed to engage people in gathering and sharing their voices – through collaborative public authoring and the making of material artefacts, much as I do in my work with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea and my work with data manifestation. Embedding their concerns and aspirations for civic empowerment within the fabric of the city through events and with physical, digital and other media I hoped to devise a project that could resonate for future generations and inspire in them a continual engagement with power, rights, obligations and responsibilities.

1647 Putney Debates
My project title alluded specifically to the debates held in October 1647 at St Mary’s Church, Putney between the representatives (“Agitators/New Agents”) of the rank and file of the New Model Army, and the Army Grandees (Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton etc). The debates were part of a proposed settlement towards the end of the English Civil Wars to determine a new future for England (and by implication Scotland, Wales and Ireland). The men of the army had developed their own manifesto, which would later become a manifesto for a proto-socially democratic constitution for England – An Agreement of the Free People of England. Their demands were essentially communitarian and advocated for much of what we would now recognise as the basis of a functioning democracy, but where there would be no inherited privilege (thus ‘levelling’ each person’s status). The Debates were ultimately unsuccessful, but the discussions that took place and the manifestos that resulted became the inspiration for future milestones in our own and other country’s path to freedom and democracy.

Modern Putney Debates
As we lurch forwards into a new time of uncertainty and division in this country, it seems to me that we could do with more such debates and proposals – not merely as an exercise in creative agency, but vitally as a positive beacon for the future of our country, or countries, our identity and our aspirations to do good in the world.

What would it take to organise some events that draw inspiration from the Levellers of 1647 and strive to propose a new social contract founded on equity, compassion, responsibility, empathy and agency?

Last year I published a series of books that brought together key texts that derive from Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest – spanning 900 years they represent a stunning legacy of hope against oppression, subjugation and exploitation. Now is the time to start adding to that legacy with something new.

GilesLane_LincolnMagnaCarta_Proposal

Reciprocally Entangled

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.

Introduction
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?

Reciprocities of Trust

From Informed Consent to Reciprocal Exchange

At the heart of working with communities, indeed anyone, is the issue of trust. In this piece I am setting down some of my thoughts about how collaborative practice can be built upon reciprocities of trust and why that is different to some of the established models I have encountered in research and practice stemming from the ethics of informed consent and how they are often applied.

At the root of how someone behaves is their ethos – not a checklist of ‘ethical guidelines’ to be adhered to, but the fundamental characteristics of who they are as well as why, and how, they do what they do. A person’s ethos is not merely a set of changeable beliefs but the core that directs their actions on both conscious and subconscious levels. If a person’s own ethos is not in alignment with the ‘ethical’ guidelines they are required to follow for a project, then it seems to me that their adherence to an ethical framework and use of informed consent is unlikely to be more than an instrumental procedure that does not necessarily guarantee the reciprocity of trust that is implied.

In my experience, the mechanisms by which trusted relationships can be established between participants in a project have to be tailored for each specific instance. Sometimes it is possible to use well-honed mechanisms and processes whereby each party can validate the others to establish a basis of trust on which to proceed. In other situations individuals have to build up trust through demonstrations and actions that directly establish their trustworthiness to each other. How we create these kinds of reciprocal relationships is critical to our ability to realise cooperative and collaborative creations of value between people.

Below are some notes on formulations that trace my own path from informed consent to reciprocal exchange. My reason for writing this is not to suggest that all uses of informed consent are wrong or badly applied, but to articulate and explore my own approaches to formulating something analogous to the rigour of well-applied informed consent that works within the particular contexts of independent engagement practices.

Informed Consent

Since first entering the world of academic research in the late 1990s I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the mechanisms and procedures of how I have often encountered ‘informed consent’ being applied. My feeling has always been that the language of ‘informed consent’ tends to pre-suppose a top-down hierarchy, where research ‘subjects’ are studied, acted upon or have information or knowledge extracted from their situation without always the concomitant return. The principle of engaging people in research on an informed and consensual basis is clearly fundamental to any practice that strives to work on an equitable basis. However, often the processes and application of ‘ethics’ appear instrumental and unsound – focused more on limiting institutional liability than truly safeguarding those whose consent has been sought. To me this smacks of an acceptance, even comfortableness, with unbalanced power relations that extract value in one direction only.

As an artist working independently of (although often in partnership with) institutions I have rarely been subject to the requirement of seeking approval for my work from an ethics committee or having to justify my methods and approach in this way. These structures simply do not exist. In their absence artists and arts organisations have to develop their own idiosyncratic ways of working that reflect ‘ethical’ positions and best practices. As such these are often hard to evaluate because they are not so codified or even designed to be measured in the ways that institutions are obliged to provide evidence of to comply with policies, law and other conventions. Both approaches have much to offer – standards can be agreed upon and evaluated against, whilst the dynamism of more individual and idiosyncratic ethos-driven processes can be more fluid and adaptable to specific situations and contexts.

In 2008 a four year national programme, Beacons for Public Engagement, involving over twenty UK universities started which sought to address historic imbalances between research culture and the public (and often those being studied) in order to “change the culture in universities, assisting staff and students to engage with the public”. The programme defined engagement as “a two-way process, involving interaction and listening between all parties, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.” Changing attitudes and behaviours within well established systems can only be achieved over long timeframes, therefore it will be interesting to see whether any sustained evaluation of this programme is undertaken, for instance at five or ten year intervals, that may demonstrate not only the value to universities of engaging with the public in mutually beneficial ways, but also to what extent communities have been able to identify and articulate value from such engagement too.

The emergence of the Free, Prior & Informed Consent (FPIC) model of working with indigenous peoples (and enshrined in 2007’s UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is also a hugely significant development along these lines, applicable in the development of trusted relations between any parties where there is a discernible imbalance of power.

Informed Disclosure

This concept emerged during the early stages of a collaboration with Dr Lizzie Coles-Kemp on what became the Pallion Ideas Exchange. This project was sited within a deprived ward of the city of Sunderland where, in the face of massive benefits change and the erosion of the welfare infrastructure on which this largely deindustrialised area depends, an intergenerational group of locals had expressed a desire to create their own online ‘knowledge network’ to address the growing lack offered by the State. As we explored with the group what they meant by this, it became apparent that we were looking less at a database of fixed information points and much more at a process of documenting and sharing what people knew and had experiences of that could be shared with others who needed help with specific problems.

Growing out of the VOME research project led by Lizzie, it was obvious that this process would need to engage with the use of social media as well as the web and mobile technologies at various levels. Among the general issues relating to privacy that affect any use of social media and the internet, there are ofttimes specific reasons where the identification of individuals within localities and communities presents proximate dangers. In Pallion this was an issue that required the close attention of all participants as, either through forgetfulness, ignorance of the potential consequences or a kind of carelessness, there was clearly potential for individuals to experience harm (such as benefits sanctions as well as other issues) as a result of participating or sharing what they knew. Lizzie and I attempted to address this in the project through reiterating a rubric of ‘informed disclosure’ at each workshop and meeting, and building prompts and reminders into the tools we co-designed and created with the group to consider potential consequences before sharing. As part of a generic toolkit which was developed out of this project we also created a visual guide to choosing online services that works as a perception axis between private/public and open/restricted. This was a practical attempt to help someone think through the consequences of choosing and using different online services and social media before adopting them, embedding the concept of informed disclosure at the starting off point as well as along their online journey.

For me, the principle of informed disclosure went much further than this pragmatic example; it encompassed how my colleagues at Proboscis and I collaborated with Lizzie and her co-researchers as well as the community in Pallion. It meant being open about what we each hoped to achieve from the project, what we were each getting from it as well as what we were each putting into it. It meant being open about our roles as paid professionals engaging with unpaid volunteers in a community that has experienced multiple deprivations since the UK Government agreed to the closure of the key industry in North East England back in the early 1980s – shipbuilding – and the consequent disappearance of the subsidiary industries that relied on it resulting in cross-generational long-term unemployment, loss of skills, hope and aspiration for the future. This kind of openness was crucial to establishing trust and maintaining it not only during the project but long afterwards too.

Engaged Consent

Whilst in Reite village in Papua New Guinea with James Leach during November 2012,  James and I wanted to push the concept of informed consent further as we co-designed some initial TEK Notebooks with several community members. This was an initial experiment intended as a proof-of-concept for the discussions we had had with James’ longterm Reite collaborator, Porer Nombo, both before and following our participation in the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge at the University of Goroka in PNG the previous month. A number of the delegates had discussed their approaches to informed consent and working with indigenous people in PNG in their presentations, some of which were really admirable.

Once in Reite village itself, we felt that it was important to establish what was actually meant by consent in this context – and this then informed how the whole experiment was shaped. The notion of engaging the consent of the participants who filled in the TEK Notebooks was relevant not just to demonstrate our ‘ethical’ approach to outsiders (such as academic and NGO colleagues), but was woven into the nature of the prompts used in the notebooks themselves. The participants were asked not just to give their consent to their notebooks being digitised and shared online, but also to indicate what rights they had to share the knowledge they were including, essentially linking back to the community and heritages of which they are part. This seemed a crucial way to ensure that what was being done was relevant and respectful to the internal relationships of the communities of Reite and Sarangama (a nearby village some of whom also took part). It provided declarations that the kinds of knowledge being shared were not secret or privileged, were given freely and with a description of the author’s right to do so. The prompts themselves emerged out of discussions with a number of community members (in which I was mainly an observer) which provided a strong sense that what we were doing was truly co-created, emerging from a process of open collaboration.

As a time-limited experiment, our formulation of engaged consent was necessarily only partly developed but points, I think, to how we can do research with people, not just upon them.

Reciprocal Exchange

Since completing both the Pallion Ideas Exchange project and following on from my first Indigenous Public Authoring field trip to Reite I have found myself moving more and more towards articulating my personal aim of ‘reciprocal exchange’ with the people and communities with whom I work. My goal in entering into collaborations is to learn from others, experience things I cannot (or would not) make happen on my own – to stretch myself in a continuous process of becoming. It would be a selfish or at least self-centred process without the sense of obligation to reciprocate with others, to offer whatever knowledge, skills and experiences I have in a way that enables others to adopt and adapt them for themselves.

Perhaps this is why I have often felt uncomfortable with the use of ‘ethics’ and ‘informed consent’ as I have seen and encountered it applied in some research contexts. My research work is not based on creating objective studies so much as engaged directly in working with people to effect social and cultural transformation. For this I believe that more is needed than just consent – it requires active participation, mutual trust and reciprocal exchange.

This value of reciprocal exchange also underpins the work I have been doing with Oxford Brookes University on developing a process of engaged participatory design for a new kind of rehabilitation measurement tool which survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) will be asked to use to share their rehab experiences. Previous methods and tools have primarily focused on what clinicians and researchers needed to know. However we have started from the point of also trying to understand what benefits may derive from the activity for the TBI survivors themselves – as they see it – and how the process of contributing information to help clinicians better understand their experiences can be part of their own rehabilitation. This is a challenging step in developing tools within a medical context – embedding the patient’s perspective at the heart of designing a process intending to learn from their information and data is not as common as many may think.

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James and I are now gearing up for the next stage of our Indigenous Public Authoring collaboration : a field trip in early 2015 (and another in 2016) back to Reite to work further with community members and explore methods and tools appropriate to their situation and context – ultimately aiming to put together a kind of simple, adaptable toolkit and process for recording and sharing traditional environmental, cultural and ecological knowledge that has been co-designed and co-created in situ with the community.

At the heart of this project, for me, is this question of reciprocal exchange – what is each participant in the process bringing and taking away? How does it bind us into relationships of exchange and obligation to each other? The disparities of our ways of life and the worlds we inhabit mean that establishing an equitable relationship is unlikely to be based purely on material exchange – as it might be in the industrialised world of goods and money – although undoubtedly this will be involved. More likely, it seems to me, an equitable relationship will emerge out of shared acceptance of obligations to each other, and the articulation of these obligations through processes of collaboration and making things.

And the only material that these relationships can be forged with is trust.

On Public Agency

For some time now I have been engaged in a process of transforming my way of life and ways of working. In doing so I have continued to muse on the problem of communicating to others what it is that I do. I have never felt entirely comfortable describing myself as an artist, nor as a designer, nor as a researcher nor any other one thing (they never quite seem enough). And it is such a mouthful to always have to say that I am an “Artist, Designer and Researcher” (my long time favourite personal soubriquet, “maker of mischief”, is also not always suitable for attracting potential sponsors, funders and clients when trying to earn a living). I have been pondering on the nature of who and what I am as much as what it is that I do, and in doing so I’ve begun to think of a description that encapsulates my aspirations as much as the way I work across a variety of fields and disciplines.

What drives me is my fiercely independent desire to enact and enable conditions for change : to co-create and co-design processes that help other people to feel empowered to assume agency for themselves. As a counterpoint to the many kinds of agent who are empowered by the state (and increasingly by private interests and corporations) to act on their behalf, I feel that our society also needs people to act as self-determined public agents for the public good. Citizenship could well be conceived as how far we are actually able to be autonomous beings, empowered and acting with agency not just acted upon by those we continually devolve power and agency to (politicians, agents of the state as well as the often faceless machinations of bureaucracies and big business).

Such a role would combine the capacity for visionary thinking with the ability to observe, analyse and interpret the conditions we inhabit and with the ability to design tools, processes and solutions for action. It would be animated by a conscious ethos clearly set out and shared, not straitjacketed by moralistic codes of conduct. It would have to be fluid, flowing around obstacles and changing with the landscape without altering its essential nature.

I’m not enough of a writer or speaker to consider myself a public intellectual and I have never been an activist nor attracted to activism per se, so I don’t see this role as being quite the same as those, despite being founded on a clear ethos of working for the public good and sharing many commonalities. I’m more of a pioneer than an entrepreneur and, whilst I’ve always been attracted to analysing problems and devising solutions, I’m not enough of a scientist or a detective to be a consulting …, well, what exactly?

In my practice over the past two decades I have often framed the bigger picture, devising the overarching strategies that bring together all the elements (people, resources, organisations etc), whilst leaving some of the tactical decisions to those better able to make them at the point of need. I’ve blended this with designing and making tools and techniques; creating ways to express and share ideas, insights, observations and discoveries; creating spaces and facilitating collaborations between unusual or unlikely partners; and creating opportunities for others. In the role of transdisciplinary and disruptive innovator I have sought to introduce artistic practice into unfamiliar and unorthodox situations as a means to achieve uncommon insights. This kind of delicate interplay between people coming from all kinds of backgrounds leads me to think think that the role of the public agent might be contrapuntal to those sanctioned for itself by the state (or other institutions) – neither in opposition nor antagonistic, but interwoven as a separate melody within the whole musical structure of state, private interests and the public.

Some aims a public agent may have could include,

  • to seek intelligence on the forces that act upon the public and make transparent that which is obscured;
  • to analyse and interpret the conditions of society and culture to enable reflection and realisation;
  • to act for change that empowers people to assume agency for themselves by helping to design tools, processes and situations that enable this;
  • to act consistently within the frame of a stated ethos, but not to be above employing subversion and subterfuge in achieving their goals;
  • to remain fiercely independent whilst constantly collaborating with others… alert to attempts at co-option and resilient enough to engage constructively with people and entities that may not be working for the public good themselves;
  • to never be afraid to change yourself, or to go into unfamiliar or uncomfortable places and situations, or to simply be when action is not needed or possible.

This concept of the public agent is very much a work in progress, indicative of my current thinking rather than a definitive statement of intent. In fact the modest contribution I have made to the public good is probably not enough to have earn’t me the right to style myself as a public agent but it remains what I aspire to achieve. There are, indeed, many other people who have a far better claim to being a public agent than myself, people whose examples shine through as beacons of inspiration and hope.

Over the past few days I’ve had an opportunity to discuss some of these ideas with other participants at Blast Theory’s Act Otherwise seminar which has reinforced my sense that artists and artistic practice have a special place in our society for working in this way. It is not so much an obligation or responsibility as a really exciting challenge to live up to. That so many others, in their own ways, share that excitement and commitment to making positive change makes all the difference, reinforcing the feeling that it is an effect of community not just individuality.