Category Archives: Propositions

A Poetics of Data

Lifestreams (2012): description of the data expressed in a 3D printed ‘lifecharm’

Personal data is not only the traces of our actions in the world – contributed, sensed, detected and recorded online, but a yoke that is coming to define each one of us in ways that may often be beyond our ability to directly perceive. In the hands of governments and corporations it has become the means by which individuals, groups and even whole populations can be trammelled, their choices shaped or ‘nudged’ into convenient channels and pathways for ‘better’ governance and exploitation. Our world is increasingly managed by systems that collect, collate and analyse such data, to calculate statistical probabilities based on our past actions and behaviours and to infer what opportunities and permissions will or will not be made available to us.

Such systems both reinforce and are the products of the standardisation of difference and diversity into a manageable homogeneity. The logic of their engineering is to drive forwards an ever deeper vision of ‘efficiency’ into the fabric of our everyday lives – straining out that which doesn’t fit, shaving off the awkward edges. Too often it excises difference and diversity by simply refusing to acknowledge that an individual’s specific context and situation are valid parameters that require nuanced judgement in decision-making. In this way the vulnerable and excluded experience further depredations; injustices and inequality are compounded and amplified. Complexities are crudely simplified and the richness, the colourful tapestry of life is elided into a seamless standard grey weave. For some, such order may be comforting, perhaps even ideal. Yet for many, probably most of us, this is a poor bargain. A zero sum game in which we have much, if not everything, to lose.

To what part of our humanity may we look for an escape from such rigidity and reductive standardisation? For me, the answer is to make a poetics of data that can trigger a phase shift in how we might interact with it. A shift away from the familiar and ordered modes through which we are used to experiencing it on screens, via spreadsheets, tables, graphs, counters, dials or the linear waveforms of measuring devices. Poetry and poetics are time-honoured ways in which people have communicated things that are beyond just measurement – emotions, feelings, beliefs. Things which are at the very limit of description. Things which defy rationality and even reason.

I have been exploring this idea of a data poetics through digital materialisation and manifestation in projects such as Lifestreams (2012) and more recently in the Manifest Data Lab. I’ve written before in detail about the ‘tactile poetry‘ created by expressing data about our bodies into talismans that we can develop a tangible relationship with. Talismans that can act as mnemonics or reflective objects that remind us of aspects of our habits and behaviours which affect our health and wellbeing over and through time – not just in the series of fractured, fragmented moments in which we glance at the digital display on a ‘smart’ phone or watch. Like Proust’s madeleine, or the chink of a teaspoon on a saucer, they help us connect out of the mundane discontinuity of daily life into a place of reverie with ourselves.

I have also likened this approach to working with data as a form of ‘Digital Alchemy‘: treating data as a material with which to encounter the numinous and transform the self. A process that does not seek to break apart into individual bits and atoms the delicately intertwined and mutually influential patterns of matter that constitute Life; but that comes to an appreciation of the essence of the subtle forces that bind matter together. To appreciate the powerful bonds of relationships between elements that, through connection itself, provide sense and meaning to being and becoming.

Poetry – whether in the form of words, music, visual arts, performance, dance – is a portal into spaces that are beyond the sum of their parts. It is always more than the words on the page, the notes in a score, the brush strokes of a painting, the material of a sculpture, the light projected by a film, the movements of dancers. It allows us to communicate and experience feelings – innate things which are inexpressible, incalculable in themselves, yet somehow connect us and give us access to the experiences and feelings of others. A kind of dark energy perhaps, not something we can directly measure, but which is nevertheless real and pervasive. A kind of knowing that remains tacit rather than explicit. Often it resorts to ‘apophasis’ – describing what is not to indicate that which is ineffable or indescribable. Revealing presence through absence… the shape of something monstrously huge through the sublime. An incompleteness that allows us to invest its gaps and lacunae with something of ourself; an invitation to become enmeshed within a whole that is never finished, that expands as others share how they engage with it too.

It is often said that great works are the ones which we can return to, and in each encounter, find something new. Perhaps that newness is actually always already within ourselves – it is we who expand and increase in relation to the work, not the other way round. Perhaps this is why perfection is said to be abhorrent and why craftspeople through the ages have often introduced intentional flaws and irregularities into their work. A deliberate incompletion, preserving a space for the ineffable and unknowable.

But, I hear the objection raised, all this is mere metaphor. I beg to differ: it is as intrinsic a feature of conscious deliberation and action in the world, as the data manifestations we created for Lifestreams (and will be creating in our work at the Manifest Data Lab) are expressions of data – not representations of it. These are not metaphors of data, but reifications – they are the data, simply expressed in physical forms that we can experience through additional senses to those we generally use with screen-based representations. It is up to us to devise the grammars of sensory engagement that enable us to ‘read’ and make sense of our encounters with them. Some grammars could be shared, others kept private. Perhaps by learning to appreciate the data we generate through our machines in such a way, we could learn additional techniques to appreciate the way that nature encodes ‘data’ in all its organic and inorganic forms – as a living experience of perception, not only through an analytics of extraction and separation.

To create any form of poetry or art is not easy: it is not the direct or unambiguous product of straightforward rules. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the energy to create “lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed” (One Way Street). That is not to say that great craft does not require constant practice and experiment – that programmatic exercises (think of practising musical scales), rituals and habitual activities are not a fundamental part of the making. Many of these are often used to surrender oneself into a fugue state, from which the actual work may emerge. Too often, such states are elusive, fleeting and all that one is left with is the dross of making. But this dross might also become the material of a re-forged piece, worked over again and again, made and re-made until its creator judges that it has reached a state that is sufficient to share.

What do we gain from a poetics of data in addition to it’s more common articulations? A weaving together of harmony and dissonance, rhythm and inconsistency – a way of encompassing adaptation and irregularity within a transcendent whole. A way to enhance our cognitive abilities by challenging us to flex other senses in meaning-making, to enhance our capacities by widening the frames in which we encounter and engage with data.
A poetics of data is about engaging with its qualities, not just its quantities.

London, October 2019

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)

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 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 to 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

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

Smart Design: Inclusive by Default

Last April I went along to the GLA’s Smart London Camp, an unconference bringing together people from a range of backgrounds to discuss and share knowledge and experiences around what London might do to become a “smart” city. Whilst I’m no fan of ‘smart’ anything, it was a chance to take the temperature of current trends in this field, and to reflect on the decade or so of work and experience (1998-2010) when I was more deeply engaged in these issues. It was satisfying to be able to share many of the insights from Urban Tapestries and from the multiple experiments we did in the Social Tapestries programme – and to find that they were still relevant and pertinent after so long. I was encouraged to contribute to the Smart London consultation and submitted this:

Smart London – Design Standards: Inclusive by Default

The importance of speed in technological development and deployment has become a powerful mantra over the past decade or so : from “Minimum Viable Product” to “move fast and break things”. Whilst this may suit situations and opportunities where being nimble and first to market are all important, it never-the-less poses significant issues when trying to design sustainable, resilient services for infrastructure and civic society.

Such forms of development reach first for the “low hanging fruit”, and only when those are exhausted do they consider what needs to be developed for the next layer… iteratively adding to or jury-rigging their systems as they try to adapt for ‘fruit’ that is harder and higher to reach, more inaccessible. If we apply this metaphor to humans, we can see service provision aimed initially at the easiest group to reach (i.e. most profitable), then progressively trying to adapt to serve people with less ability, less capacity (less profitable, but larger demographic). Such systems often end up excluding the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, reinforcing privilege and amplifying inequalities. In a city as large, dynamic and complex as London such modes of service and system development and design for infrastructure would be questionable, if at all fit for purpose.

Such approaches also extend to the predeliction in the public sector for setting targets to meet agendas over addressing actual needs, creating the appearance of action and delivery over actual provision of services that tackle underlying and root causes.

Systems and services that need to deliver universal access or benefit are not best served by such an ad hoc approach to design. Often they have a statutory duty to ensure that services are available to all sections of society, not matter how hard to reach, or what might need to be done to assist people with access. Such design must be inclusive by default to deliver. It offers challenges for designers that embrace the complexity of the urban built environments as well as a multi-layered society and communities. We should be designing for the most vulnerable, least able, most disadvantaged citizens because, in working out how to satisfy their more challenging needs, we will, within that process, be solving how to meet the needs of more capable, more advantaged citizens along the way.

Inclusive design by default is strategic investment in resilient and sustainable systems and services that will provide long term dividends not only in efficiencies of delivery, but crucially, in human, social and environmental terms.

A classic example of how a design intervention originally intended to benefit a specific, disadvantaged section of the population but which has had universal benefits for the whole population is the “kerb cut”. Pavements were traditionally raised off from the street and pedestrians had to step up and down into the street to cross. After the Second World War campaigns (in the USA, then here in the UK) were started to persuade municipal authorities to create sloping ramps between the street and pavement at crossing points to make it easier for disabled people (especially injured servicemen and women) and people in wheelchairs to cross the street safely. These “kerb cuts” were slowly adopted over the following decades and have been joined by additional features (such as the stippled pavement areas for the vision-impaired). Nowadays, they are such a ubiquitous feature of the built landscape that it seems unimaginable that once they didn’t exist.

Yet everyone benefits: parents with prams and young children in buggies; tourists with wheeled luggage; people with shopping trolleys; older citizens who suffer arthritis or who have hip or knee problems who find steps difficult; people using scooters; anyone with a wheeled bag or case. By designing a solution for a group with significant mobility challenges, benefits now flow to all sections of the population as we ourselves age or our circumstances change, such as having a family. Investing in inclusive design in infrastructure thus brings multi-generational strategic gains.

Standards and norms are often calculated for a notional construct of an ‘average person’ – but this provides very little redundancy for those times when people are not average or normal, nor does it adequately account for the spectrum of norms across age ranges. Such as when we suffer an illness or an accident – or just grow older and are less mobile, and have different norms of capability and capacity. Buildings, transport and public spaces have only recently begun to be designed from the basis of people with disabilities having full access. This is clearly sensible and socially just – by making universal access the default, we are including on the same terms all those, our future selves included, who are not an idealised “average person”.

Giles Lane, April 2018

Civic Agency: a vision & plan

Civic Agency is an initiative aimed at encouraging people, at grassroots level, to engage with the social, cultural and political issues at the heart of our increasingly automated and divisive digital world. Social media and hyper-personalisation of digital experiences are becoming ever more prevalent as the interface between us and society. So, as we come to rely ever more on digital systems and technologies to run everyday life, we are coming to realise that society needs new ways to face the issues that these present; and new strategies for people to successfully navigate the implications.

AI, Machine Learning, Personalisation, Algorithm Bias, Automated Decision Making, Big Data
* * *
Ethics, Regulation, Responsible Innovation, Rights, Information/Media/Digital Literacy

Above are some of the headline issues and below, some of the proposed solutions. However we believe that more needs to be done to engage ordinary people in developing their own critical and civic thinking skills: to identify potential harms and to make better informed choices about what they do online, which services they use and how their data is protected from exploitation.

Our aim is to help people feel that they have agency and are empowered to make good decisions and choices, and for them to feel that their voice is being listened to and heeded in the corridors and places of power where laws, rights and regulations are determined. Practical Ethics at grassroots level, meeting in the middle with top down regulation and codes of practice in industry and public institutions.

Enabling Literacy

Awareness and literacy are crucial for people to be able to navigate our increasingly mediated world – Stéphane Goldstein has recently written an excellent argument for why this matters so much now.

“We cannot act wisely without making sense of the world and making sense of the world is in itself a profoundly practical action that informs how we experience reality, how we act, and the relationships we form. Without questioning our worldview and the narrative that has shaped our culture, are we not likely to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?”
Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

In the workshops I ran with young people that informed the creation of the UnBias Fairness Toolkit, it was clear that they had only the vaguest understanding of what their rights as children were (and would soon be as adults), and what laws already existed to protect them. The general sense of disempowerment when using online services (like buying clothes, shoes or other products) went as far as statements to the effect that they were powerless and unprotected whenever they interacted with the big internet companies (GAFA) or even small online retailers. Almost as if all digital services were a gift of the companies involved and could not be challenged even if they were doing wrong or questionable things. The young people had almost no conception of the scale in which they are being tracked online, across multiple sites and services, no matter what devices they use. When we created mappings of what they did online and how their personal data was being distributed across a huge range of platforms and services they were shocked and, to some degree, incensed – that they had been duped in some way, to give up their data so freely, every time they go online. 

On the positive side, at least in one school, the young people felt it was their duty to challenge this and to call for a safer internet. I think this was an early indication that this generation are more empowered to speak up and demand to be listened to, as the recent SchoolStrike4Climate/ FridaysForTheFuture protests have demonstrated even more palpably. It is possible that the seeds already exist for a society which expects ‘responsible’, sustainable innovation and development to be the default for designers and developers, no matter whether they work for a public institution, a non profit organisation or a profit-making corporation. We have seen the consequences of unbridled, irresponsible innovation play out and cause tremendous damage to democracy and to the societies we live in.

Now public dialogue and deliberation needs to be stimulated and to bring ordinary people’s concerns and desires to the same level of consideration as the privileged influence of gatekeepers, corporate lobbyists and policy makers. We are all stakeholders in this society, and we must not let lobbyists capture the agenda and subvert democratic principles. Concepts such as duty of care and the precautionary principle – pro-active and a priori approaches – could be baked in to the culture of innovation and development, not tacked on as after-thoughts or funded through marketing and corporate social responsibility budgets. Digital Safety, not digital security – social justice, not breaking things because they get in your way.

A Plan for Grassroots Engagement

Our proposal is simple: using the UnBias Fairness Toolkit as our building block, we propose to stimulate civic agency through:

  • Access : place copies of the toolkit in every school, in public libraries and make them available to any community that wants to get to grips with these issues for themselves.
  • Literacy : create an organic train-the-trainer programme and additional facilitation tools that lay the foundation for a participatory and grassroots-based approach to de-msytifying the issues – making the abstract tangible and actionable.
  • Engagement : train teachers, youth & community workers and public librarians in using the toolkit to engage people in developing their critical and civic thinking skills;
  • Collaboration : establish an organic network of people who can guide others to learn more and devise their own strategies – to have agency.

Expanding the Frame

Alongside this it is important that the toolkit can be adapted for a variety of different contexts and situations, age groups and experiences. For instance to discuss very specific topics such as security; online banking and finance; medical ethics and patient data. And for the training materials to be templates that people can build on themselves, not just rely on us to define and deliver.

We propose to collaborate with other key participants in these spaces to develop additional materials – Expansion sets – that make the toolkit modular and useful to more people (for example, new Example Cards for specific issues; a much expanded set of Glossary Cards etc). We may create additional worksheets and materials for teams to use as practical ‘responsible innovation’ tools. There may also be other tools and toolkits we can introduce and share.

How?

The tricky part is funding something like this – rather amorphous, profoundly unbusinesslike and with a Return On Investment that will definitely not be financial. I’ve been finding fellow travellers and talking with a variety of public and private organisations whose interests align with some of the above. But what this needs is resources to make it a reality. We have the basic toolkit, we just need funds to roll out the rest of the process, bit by bit.

Get in touch if you can help [giles at proboscis dot org dot uk].

Hiding in Plain Sight

This post draws together some of the many strands that have led to a new project – “Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change” – which I have just begun with Tom Corby at Central Saint Martin’s, University of the Arts London. I want to make links across what may often seem like a wildly divergent practice – from collaborating with people in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, to working on tech ethics and policy interventions, to building experimental communications platforms, to making abstract sculptures from data, to facilitating workshops in languages I don’t speak with people who have experienced trauma I can barely comprehend.

For me there is a clear trajectory and purpose, which centres on inspiring agency in others. I believe that the answers we need to address our problems – as individuals, as communities, as peoples, as a species – are all around us, hiding in plain sight. The greatest asset we have, as human beings, is our imagination – with it we can devise solutions to whatever we encounter that holds us back, or create new problems for ourselves. Everyone is born with it, and its abundance is the true wealth of our societies and cultures. But while we have a terrible penchant for externalising imagination and corralling it in things – principally valued as commodities – yet it is ever at hand when we need it in challenging circumstances or crises.

Right now we face the implications of our species’ failure to act for a generation in the face of mounting evidence that unconstrained climate change is inevitable and will bring unfathomable disruption to all life on earth. It falls to our imaginations to grapple with these issues – to imagine different paths, to free ourselves from the restraints that have privileged some people’s imaginations and abilities as being more worthwhile or valuable than those of others. I hope with this new project not just to inform, but to inspire people to act.

Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change is a major three year research project funded by the AHRC which will build on the legacy of the Lifestreams project which I led back in 2012 (with Stefan Kueppers), my 2014 Creativeworks Entrepreneur-in-Residence award with George Roussos at Birkbeck University of London and the experiments with data manifestation and Parkinson’s Disease which Stefan, George and I did in 2016. It also draws heavily on Tom’s long collaboration with Gavin Baily and the British Antarctic Survey creating artworks with climate data, such as Southern Ocean Studies and Northern Polar Studies. It has been a long haul to get here – I first began exploring ideas with Tom in early 2016 around our shared desire to explore how we could engage people with the complex data being generated by multiple interacting climate phenomena (e.g. sea temperature; sea salinity; polar ice extents; methane and other gas levels; krill population etc). For more than a generation, mainstream media coverage of climate change issues have rarely strayed from focusing on just  a single issue – such as the ozone layer, and then CO2 levels – yet it is now clear that it is the interaction of multiple climate phenomena that are driving the changes we seek to control.

I have also had years of discussions with my friend Juan Francisco Salazar at Western Sydney University about how the Lifestreams process could engage with data about the Antarctic. Juan is a filmmaker and anthropologist who has made several trips to the Chilean Antarctic base, and made a feature-length documentary, Nightfall on Gaia, there in 2015. Our discussions have often revolved around how to make the changes that are directly perceptible in more remote and fragile ecological sites, such as Antarctica, accessible in a tangible and tactile way to people living in the urban industrial world, where experiences of the natural world have been muted by human intervention and our connection to nature is fundamentally disrupted. Juan also leads on the Antarctic Cities project, an inspiring collaboration of Australian, New Zealand and Chilean institutions linking three cities (Hobart, Christchurch and Punta Arenas) with each other and Antartica.

The data manifestation trajectory goes back way further too – to a concept of “tangible souvenirs from digital experiences” which I first formulated during the Urban Tapestries project in 2003. At the time I realised that engaging with people from a diverse set of social, educational, cultural and economic circumstances would need the creation of hybrid forms of communication and expression (both digital and physical) which would allow people to engage and participate in ways they are comfortable with. This concept further evolved over the years into experiments with sound and tactile interfaces (e.g. the “Rumbler” and “Sensographs” of  Sensory Threads) as well as paper-based outputs (e.g. automatically generating StoryCubes or DIFFUSION eBooks from digital assets with the bookleteer API).

My experiences working with James Leach and the villagers of Reite in Papua New Guinea on our traditional knowledge documentation project, TKRN (2012-20), have also been of crucial importance in extending my thinking and appreciation not just of the extraordinary range of world views that exist (outside the bubble of Western, industrialised culture), but also of the kinds of knowledge that exist. Particularly those that rely on human senses beyond the visual and aural for meaning-making : such as those of touch, smell, taste, proprioception to name a few. An important insight came to me after my first visit to Reite village in 2012, not long after we had generated the initial set of “lifecharms” or data objects for Lifestreams. I wrote about this in two posts in 2013: Tactile Poetry and Digital Alchemy. James’ writing has also been an influence on my thinking, especially his essays Drum and Voice (2002), Leaving the Magic Out (2012) & The Death of a Drum (2015). My experiences in the village have also exposed me to how direct and perceptible climate change is to people who live within nature and the natural world – seasonal weather patterns do not come reliably; plants are not ready to harvest at the usual times; animals, birds and sea creatures are slowly disappearing. All this is increasing year on year, and is the daily reality for people living traditionally in the forest and on the coast.

Back in September 2017 I wrote up many of my ideas and aspirations for melding these different strands of my work in a post  – Sensing Climate Change Through Empathic Encounters. Almost a year and a half has passed and it seems a good moment to revisit them in the light of my other activities – including developing the UnBias Fairness Toolkit – at the start of this new juncture. All these projects share my key aim of stimulating agency, trust and reciprocity, themes which I have also written about before (Reciprocities of Trust & Reciprocally Entangled) in different contexts, such as my collaborations with Lizzie Coles-Kemp’s Collective Securities group at Royal Holloway University of London and Marina Jirotka’s Human Centred Computing group at the University of Oxford. And lastly, but certainly not least, my long collaboration with Canadian artist and curator Andrew Hunter (since 2007 through his Render and DodoLab projects) and the creative discussions that have sustained both of us through periods of intensive work and fallow, hard times.

The following sections bring together various threads of my work. This essay is a mélange of ideas in development, weaving together the very new and those which have been delicately spun over a number of years. Something which links across all of them is ‘hiding in plain sight’ – the suggestion that what we seek is often already in front of our eyes, but occluded or hidden from our perception. Sometimes because ‘we cannot see the wood for the trees’, sometimes because an obsession with novelty and innovation blinds us to what already works well. For years I have kept a saying of Charles Eames close to my heart – “Innovate as a last resort” – and a copy of the 1953 Eames India Report close to hand. I recommend watching the wonderful film, Goods, in which Charles Eames gives a talk on the manifest joy to be found in the practical simplicity of everyday things – often overlooked but always within reach of our perception.

Engagement and Occlusion: data-veiling

Three years ago, in March 2016, I was invited to present a provocation at a workshop on ethics and responsible innovation in data science hosted by the Alan Turing Institute. It was an opportunity to demonstrate the ideas behind data manifestation to a large (50+) audience of researchers from a variety of disciplines all concerned with ethics in digital innovation. My Lifestreams colleague, Stefan Kueppers, was by then beginning his PhD with George Roussos at Birkbeck and working as a research assistant on the CloudUDPRS project, devising a mobile app to enable Parkinsons patients to self-monitor their motor tests. As part of the trial, we 3D printed a series of lifecharm shells generated from 4 different patients’ data to demonstrate qualitative differences in the individual experiences of Parkinsons that were masked by scoring similarly on the Unified Parkinsons Disease Rating Scale – which is used to determine care & therapy packages. These were given out to the participants as tangible souvenirs.

My talk provoked a number of interesting conversations about the applicability of data manifestation as a means of communicating information on different levels. There were a number of privacy and cybersecurity experts present with whom I began to speculate on the potential for data manifestation (i.e. expressing data in physical forms) as a novel mode of cybersecurity – especially in the field of medical ethics and patient data. I proposed that encoding patient data in physical forms might be a useful means of allowing data to be transported and ‘shared’ with different people – such as a patient discussing their conditions with a physician. In such a situation both parties can interpret the data object and use it to have an informed conversation because they already understand the context in which the patient’s data was collected and from which the data object has been created. However, and crucially, a third party intercepting the data object would simply be unable to access the source data from which the object was generated (e.g. via reverse engineering) or be able to ascertain its context from the object itself. I refer to this approach as “data veiling” – or hiding in plain sight.

My own experience of helping family members and friends through chronic illness necessitating treatment at different hospitals and clinics, illustrated how often – and insecurely – patient data needs to be shared between multiple parties. Often this means patients having to carry paper records of their data with them to every meeting; sending paper copies by post or emailing unencrypted attachments across the internet. The opportunities for private and extremely personal data to leak out into the wider world are rife, constant and a clear threat to individuals given the intense interest in acquiring private medical data now being shown by the companies at the heart of digital technology and AI/machine learning.

Data-Veiling in this way could be an alternative means to achieve cybersecurity – allowing people to carry a physical expression of their data in a way that prevents the source data being directly accessible – the form itself would be enough for meaning to be discussed. It could allow us to discuss with others what the data implies or means by virtue of establishing tactile grammars that help us interpret the shapes and forms. It would remain secure because is unlikely that the source data could be reverse engineered from the physical form, because the (Lifestreams) method of generating the data object is not parametric but a series of structured mutations. The method flows different data streams together in the generation process which cause variations in the growth shape as they interact with each other. This is also notwithstanding additional variations introduced in the 3D printing process itself, such as surface smoothing and slight reductions in resolution depending on the type of material used to fabricate the object – such as metals, plastic, ceramic etc.

Data-veiling also has echoes with work I’ve been doing in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with indigenous people to document traditional knowledge. In such communities what Westerners think of as knowledge is understood and practiced in very different ways; knowledge is often acquired through complex rituals that make manifest personal status within the community and situate a person within a network of relationships. Having and using knowledge is a demonstration of power and ability. In the West, information generally becomes knowledge through its alienation from context into books and other forms of transactable documentation (such as films, digital files etc) that facilitate universal replicability. This is very different to cultures for whom knowledge seems to reside in how relationships are performed between people, place and things. For instance, there may be specific practices (such as magic or sorcery) which cannot be freely shared or discussed openly. Thus documentation (or expression in some kind of object through design) might serve – sufficiently – as a signpost for those who do have the knowledge; it could indicate the lineage that their knowledge has been acquired through and, how transmission to others might occur (through some form of ritual exchange).

In the village I visit in PNG (when referring to practices and phenomena which Westerners would call magic) people slip from speaking in Tok Pisin (the common national language) into their own local language (Nekgini – spoken by less than a thousand locals) and into ‘hap-tok’ (“half speech”) – a kind of allusive mode of speaking around a subject without discussing it directly. The ability to participate in and understand the meaning behind such discussions would demonstrate either knowledge itself, and the ability to understand how to ‘read’ the signposts being referred to, or to the constraints under which such knowledge could be acquired from those who have it. Porer Nombo, one of the village elders who James has worked with for over two decades, suggested something along these lines when giving a presentation about the ethno-botanical book he co-wrote with James, Reite Plants (as reported in James’ essay, Leaving the Magic Out). To me, this is another kind of hiding in plain sight – documenting part of a story and including clues for the willing to discover how further layers might be accessed. Revealing just enough, sufficient for others to make use of what is spoken.

By encoding sensitive data into physical abstractions it might be possible to conduct informed discussions about the real world meaning of datasets within specific contexts – without having to access or share the data itself all the time. Data veiling could offer a form of signposting or symbolically representing sufficient data without having to reveal its full detail. Shifting our focus from data to the patterns and meanings we can interpret from it.

Reciprocity, Care and Safety

Over the past two and a half years my attention has been largely taken up with my role in the UnBias project, and in particular, devising practical and pragmatic ways to foster both an awareness of bias, trust and fairness in algorithmic systems, and how to “do ethics”. ‘AI Ethics’ went mainstream in 2018 and there is now huge interest in how those companies which build digital technologies and services (especially those involved in AI and machine learning) can deliver responsible innovation through ethical design and development processes.

The egregious harms to democracy, as well as to individuals, which have been exposed in the past few years (Snowden, Cambridge Analytica etc) give this a tremendous urgency. More and more systems and decisions seem to be being automated, with all the damaging effects long-predicted becoming day-to-day reality. Whilst human consciousness is able to deal with contradictory states and can make informed judgements that reflect the complexity of contexts and situations, we are yet to devise machines that can handle such complexity themselves. Perhaps this is an inherent weakness of the binary mathematics they are built on? Increasingly the evidence emerges not only of systemic bias being found in automated systems (mostly trained on inherently biased datasets), but also of how such systems are amplifying pre-existing biases and prejudicial outcomes which have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable in society. I fear that the kinds of automation offered by AI/Machine learning, based essentially on inferences drawn from incomplete and prejudicial datasets, might only ever be a zero-sum game that inevitably leads to a “statistical… regression to the mean” (quoted from Alan Blackwell, below).

The danger is not the creation of systems that become maliciously intelligent, but of systems that are designed to be inhumane through neglect of the individual, social and political consequences of technical decisions.
Alan Blackwell, Interacting with an Inferred World: The Challenge of Machine Learning for Humane Computer Interaction

The mainstream narrative for increasing automation has for a long time revolved around “efficiency” – that machines are more efficient than people, they cost less, are somehow ‘neutral’ etc etc. We need to closely interrogate such narratives and expose their fallacy for what it is: a mask to cover the reality of where that vast bulk of the benefits flowing from such automation go. This is hardly a new situation – for hundreds of years people whose ways of life and agency have been undermined and eroded by capital and automation have tried to resist what is essentially a subjugation. Their descendants created unions, cooperatives and formed mutual societies to win back some of their lost agency and initiative, but history shows us it is a recurring theme, for which almost each generation has to find new answers and approaches.

We are also beginning to see the end of another narrative that has specifically woven itself around digital technologies – that innovation should be unfettered by regulation, and that the digital tech industries are creating change faster than laws and regulations can keep up with them. We live in a time where a corporatist agenda seems to have gained a triumphal ascendancy, and where mantras like “information wants to be free” are posed against a picture of a heavy-handed state endlessly creating red-tape to frustrate the innovators and entrepreneurs who are cast as the only ones who create new value in society. Such narratives are as hollow and self-serving as those which reduce all values to the purely monetary and refuse to account for key human values such as kindness, love, generosity, happiness, play, pleasure and joy.

Returning the the theme of hiding in plain sight, I have drawn great inspiration from the work of William Perrin and Lorna Woods on the concept of duty of care in social media regulation for the Carnegie UK Trust. They look back to the groundbreaking UK Health And Safety legislation of 1974 which harmonised protections for workers across all industries and workplaces under a general duty of care, and extended those duties to pro-active harm anticipation and reduction through due diligence to the rest of society. Their suggestion is to build a new regulatory framework which draws upon the well-established principles of Health and Safety legislation to create a proactive duty of care on providers of digital services and platforms for harm reduction. This would shift the emphasis from the current post hoc situation where liability is assessed and punished only after harm has been experienced, to an a priori approach based on taking care as a first principle. A fundamentally diametric approach to the infamous Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things”. Digital Safety rather than Digital Security – proactive efforts that care for rather than seek redress for harms already done.

What I like so much about this approach is that it builds trust based on reciprocity – when we know that people are exercising a duty of care on all our behalfs, we trust that they will do their best to not harm others. Trust is both formed through, and builds on, relationships and the performance of the values that underpin them, not simply through transactions. For this reason I remain highly skeptical of the utopian claims for ‘smart contracts‘ that have surrounded the blockchain hype in recent years. Whilst they may offer some benefits in terms of automating certain types of exchange, I see specific dangers in attempting to reduce all kinds of complex relationships and exchanges to contractual standards based on transactions. What of trust? What of reciprocal obligations and fundamental rights? There is always a tension between human rights and contract law – an asymmetry where the weaker party is often induced to sign away their rights for incommensurate benefits to the advantage of the stronger party. Unless we have robust institutions and frameworks for the protection of the vulnerable, and people have access to education and information about their rights and values, we will forever be at the mercy of those who corral power and wealth for themselves, and seek to buy their way out of obligations to others through unbalanced contracts and negotiating power.

Who gains from a world where we are increasingly encompassed by contracts that privilege transactional relationships? In which social domain are such contracts disputed and settled? Traditionally lawyers and those who can afford to be litigious have been the gatekeepers and prime movers in contractual situations. Smart contracts may seek to subvert this nexus, but will they really democratise these processes or simply alter the landscape of who holds the upper hand in favour of the programmers – and their employers – who are able to understand and manipulate the arcane new languages that evolve with them?

It seems to me that human rights and concepts like duty of care and the precautionary principle are a critical baseline that are collective in nature – i.e they support everyone in society regardless of status or situation. In contrast to this are contracts and transactional systems which inevitably privilege negotiations for those already invested with power and resources. If we truly want a fair and just society, supported by tools and technologies that we trust, then it seems to me that we must reinvigorate constitutional democracy with transparent rights and laws, as well as accessible education and information about what they mean and how they affect people. That way we can take care of each other.

Inspiring and Stimulating Others

Despite the focus of my new project on climate change, I’ve barely touched on it here and it is, to my mind, the most critical issue we face as a species living in a fragile ecology. My preoccupation with agency is, though, at the very heart of how I think we can inspire and stimulate the kinds of societal change necessary to preserve as much of life on earth as we can. I am neither an ecologist nor a climate activist, but I believe that each person must find within their own skillset and area of work and life the means to contribute positively to such change. Not just in terms of our personal habits of consumption, but in the effect that our work can have on others and the processes we live within. As an artist and designer, I feel it is my duty to achieve this the best way I can – by inspiring others and, ideally, stimulating them to be hopeful and to take agency for themselves.

I have also been inspired by coming across a remarkable initiative that took place in the UK in the 1970s – the Lucas Plan. Faced with the threat of massive redundancies the shop stewards of several unions representing workers at Lucas Aerospace formed a ‘Combine’ to develop an alternative business and industrial plan for the company. This was based on producing ‘socially useful products’ (at the time 50% of Lucas’ products were parts for military hardware) and around 150 such products were proposed by the workers, based on existing skills, tooling and capabilities. Ultimately they were dismissed by the management board. Never-the-less, the initiative inspired many other outcomes and initiatives – some of which continue to this day. (Incidentally, many of the then experimental products are now mainstream). Watch a trailer for Steve Sprung’s forthcoming documentary, The Plan, or an original 1978 documentary by the Open University/BBC. To me this is an example of what happens when people begin to take agency for themselves and reimagine some of the basic premises about what it means to be responsible for their actions – for the things they produce as a worker in a firm or institution, for the impact this has on society and the environment. With this sort of thinking and action we might yet reconfigure our society and industry towards a trajectory that minimises the impact on the ecosystem and life in general, and mitigates some of the worst excesses of the past for a sustainable future.

One of the key figures in the Combine was Mike Cooley, whose 1980 book, Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology, sets out a clear vision for human-centred, socially useful design and production. His thoughts on ‘augmented and symbiotic systems’ in favour of automation or classical AI systems are particularly brilliant. He proposes that such technologies be created to enhance human capabilities, not replace them. He describes the path to expertise as being one which increasingly expands on the basic rules acquired along the learning journey adding intuition, insight and imagination as one’s experience grows. The goal he suggests is for technologies to enable and augment everyone’s capacities, not to de-skill people merely to increase the profit share for managers and owners. He calls for humane technologies that not only increase our abilities to make things, but to appreciate life, freedom and choice as well. In one example, Cooley writes of designing expert medical systems in the 1980s which,
provide an interaction between the ‘facts of the domain’ and the fuzzy reasoning, tacit knowledge, imagination and heuristics of the expert, and no attempt is made to reduce all these aspects to a rule-based system – the system is seen as something that aids rather than replaces the expert.

Although not long, the scope of this book is vast and is full of insights into the operation of power in society, politics, business and industry as well as offering practical suggestions for how to address it creatively and with intelligence. It is a vision for empowering people to act for mutual benefit, in sympathy with the ecosystem which sustains us. As we grapple with the choices ahead of us for democracy and ecological sustainability, we could do worse than take a few leaves from this book:
The choices are essentially political and ideological rather than technological. As we design technological systems, we are in fact designing a set of social relationships, and as we question those social relationships and attempt to design systems differently, we are then beginning to challenge, in a fundamental way, power structures in society.

My hope for the Materialising Data project is that we can find new ways to create empathic encounters with the urgent, complex reality of climate change for people to whom it is not yet as directly appreciable as it is for those living closer to nature. In challenging the dominant modes and forms of how we make meaning from data, I hope that we too can begin to challenge some of the power structures in society that have remained inert in the face of growing emergency for almost my whole lifetime. We have a duty of care for future generations, and for all the other forms of life we share this planet with. The answers remain before us, hiding in plain sight – we just have to be brave enough to adopt them.

Despair is not an option:
Anticipate the worst;
Hope for the best;
Cope with what comes;
Tread lightly on the earth.

London, February 2019

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.