Category Archives: Propositions

The Use-Value of Creations

I was thinking about art today and the use-value of creations – in the light of a visit to some relatives. They had been discussing the Just Stop Oil protestors causing traffic jams this week on the M25 and how they felt it was wrong. I heard their arguments and reflected on some previous protests that targeted famous artworks. I had heard both similar and contrasting opinions regarding those protests too, from people either angered that such ‘sacred’ objects had been defiled, or praising the protesters because they had targeted artworks so well-defended that their interventions were purely cosmetic.

I began thinking about my own work and what I thought its value might actually be… is it important that it survives me? Or that I personally leave a mark in the history books? No, it is not relevant at all.

I thought again of my experiences in Reite village (in Papua New Guinea) and how the villagers’s attitude to teaching and learning was so different to ours in Western industrialised and urban communities. They do not need a canon of knowledge because all knowing is in relationship to others, to place and to need. Porer Nombo (a well respected elder) told me that they do not worry about traditional knowledge being ‘lost’ because, if it was important to know then someone would always rediscover it. They do not worry that they might not know everything their ancestors knew – if it was worth knowing it would be remembered or would be relearned.

So I have been thinking that the value of being creative and bringing creations into the world is to continually remind us that such imagination and perception are possible. That it is not important to fetishise the individual artist or creator, or even the artwork or creation itself… but to remain aware that such creativity is possible. That it is always possible for someone to perceive or imagine reality in a fresh, new way for their time and place. This is, to me, the true value of creations – that they stand as examples, as demonstrations of what else is possible; as provocations to each and any one of us to step up and share our view. To continue to imagine and reimagine the world anew.

Among the countless billions of individual human lives that have existed how much art, poetry, craft and knowing has been ‘lost’ to time, to chance, to strange or tragic fate? Does it diminish our own capacity for creativity? No, it inspires us to imagine otherings – worlds, lives, experiences, understandings, perceptions and relationships. It drives us further to imagine beyond our own experience, context and situation.

I hope that my words, my projects, my artworks, films and publications have indeed offered some measure of that demonstration and provocation to others. But does it matter if anything survives, if my name and biography persist? No, for who in a generation or so would even remember – just as we habitually forget the vast multitude of those who came before us.

I am content to share what knowing I have attained with anyone who wants to learn from me. And if my works primarily act as signposts to me and what knowing I can share, then what does it matter if they also disappear with me? When I am gone then the relationship to knowing that I was a node within will shift around to accommodate my absence and remake itself accordingly. If it was possible for me to have any unique individual insights into the world then someone else is sure to rediscover them for themselves in some other time and place, just as someone else no doubt perceived them before me too, within their own context and situation.

That is not to diminish the value of my (or any other person’s) contribution to human life and existence, but to reiterate that whatever is possible for me is possible for someone else to achieve. Our collective (Western cultural) mistake is to focus on the ‘genius’ or the outputs of the individual and fail to realise that these are only signposts to what extraordinary possibilities await being imagined by others.

People Centric Practice – My Approach

I have just published a booklet outlining my creative practice and some of my methodologies. It is a simple guide for anyone interested in working with me – as a collaborator or consultant, designer or researcher, storymaker or artist. Click on the image below to read online:

This booklet builds upon the principles and ethics I outlined previously in “A Field Guide for People Centric Practices” (2019).

Practising Ethos | Practical Ethics

It’s just over 2 weeks since I launched a practical toolkit for assessing ethics and governance of Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning systems, and automated decision making systems – UnBias AI For Decision Makers (AI4DM). It has initiated a series of discussions with friends, colleagues and strangers as well as feedback from others. This has prompted me to explain a bit more about its genesis and the benefits I believe it offers to people and organisations who use it.

UnBias AI4DM is a critical thinking toolkit for bringing together people from across an organisation or group to anticipate and assess – through a rigorous process of questioning and a whole systems approach – the potential harms and consequences that could arise from developing and deploying automated decision making systems (especially those utilising AI or ML). It can also be used to evaluate existing systems and make sure that they are in alignment with the organisation’s core mission, vision, values and ethics.

It is an engagement tool (rather than software) that fosters participation and communication across diverse disciplines – the cards and prompts provide a framework for discussions; the worksheet provides a structured method for capturing insights, observations and resulting actions; the handbook provides ideas and suggestions for running workshops etc. I am also creating and sharing instructional animations and videos throughout the crowdfunding campaign – raising funds to make a widely affordable production version.

AI4DM builds on a previous toolkit I created – UnBias Fairness Toolkit – released in 2018 that is aimed at building awareness (in young people and non-experts) of bias, unfairness & untrustworthy effects in algorithmic systems. Used together, the two toolkits enable such systems to be explored from both the perspectives of those creating them, and those on the receiving end of their outcomes. It is available in both a free downloadable DIY print-at-home version and a soon-to-be-manufactured physical production set.

Benefits of Using AI4DM

The toolkit has two key strands of benefits for groups and organisations who adopt and use it:

Addressing Issues:

  • a structured process for identifying problems and devising solutions
  • emphasises collective obligations and responsibilities
  • a means of addressing complex challenges
  • a way to anticipate future impacts (e.g. new legislation & regulations or shifts in public opinion)

Staff Development:

  • develops communications skills across different disciplines fields and sectors
  • supports team building and cohesion
  • develops understanding of roles in teams and group work
  • evolves a culture of shared practices across different disciplines and fields within an organisation

AI4DM as a Teaching Aid

I have also been having discussions with academic colleagues who teach in various disciplines at a number of universities about using the toolkit in teaching and lecturing. As with the UnBias Fairness Toolkit, AI4DM provides a structured framework for looking at a wide range of issues from multiple perspectives and exploring how they align or misalign with an organisation’s core ethos and values. It can be used practically to look at a real world example or as a conceptual exercise to explore the potential for harmful consequences to emerge from a development process that doesn’t integrate ethical analysis alongside other key considerations, such as legal or health and safety regulations.
I’ll be adding a short animation to demonstrate using the toolkit in teaching settings soon on our Youtube Playlist.

Using the Toolkit Online

The pandemic has forced everyone to rapidly shift from in-person meetings, workshops, classes and lectures to distributed engagement via online platforms. So I have been experimenting with ways to use the toolkit in such spaces – from making a test interactive version using the MURAL online whiteboard collaboration tool, to tests using Zoom and a hybrid combination of physical cards and online annotation of the Worksheet. I’ll be adding a short animation soon to the Playlist to demonstrate using the toolkit online.

In summary, I believe that the best way to use the toolkit online is in a hybrid fashion:

  • Make sure ALL the participants have their own physical set of cards (either a production set or DIY print-at-home version). In the long gaps between speaking and direct participation (a familiar feature of online situations) this gives the participants something tangible that they can contemplate and play with that is contextually relevant – given the many distractions of working/studying from home that are usually absent (or less intrusive) in traditional meeting or teaching spaces. I remain convinced that there is a positive cognitive impact of combining manual activities with critical thinking – it grounds ideas in ways that seem to promote associative connections; and may be similar to the effect identified in recent studies on the differences in learning outcomes when writing notes versus typing during lectures;
  • Assign specific roles or topics to participants so that they can focus on their contribution to the session whilst listening to others;
  • Have a Facilitator or Moderator ‘host’ the session and manage who is participating or speaking at any one time;
  • The Issue Holder (who is first among equals) should keep the key issue or problem being addressed at the forefront of the conversation and make connections to the contributions of other participants;
  • The Scribe should annotate the Worksheet on a Shared Screen (perhaps using an online collaboration tool such as Miro or MURAL, or simply annotating the PDF) with observations and notes, and post photos of the evolving matrix of cards as they are added.
  • Use the Chat area to encourage participants to add their own annotations, ideas, links and other relevant observations to the session, assisting the Scribe in capturing as much of the richness of the conversation and discussions as possible.


The UnBias Fairness Toolkit was an output of the UnBias project led by the Horizon Institute at the University of Nottingham with the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh and Proboscis (and funded by the EPSRC). It was designed to accommodate future extensions and iterations so that it could be made relevant to specific groups of people (such as age groups or communities of interest) or targeted around particular issues and contexts (banking and finance; health data; education; transportation and tracking etc).

At the techUK Digital Ethics Summit in December 2019 I ran into Ansgar Koene, one of my former UnBias project colleagues who is a Senior Research Fellow at Horizon and also Global AI & Regulatory Leader at EY Global Services. Ansgar proposed developing an extension to the UnBias Fairness Toolkit aimed at helping people inside corporations and public organisations get to grips with AI ethics and governance issues in a practical and tangible way. Over the next few months this became a formal commission from EY to devise a prototype, which then evolved over the summer of 2020 into the full companion toolkit, UnBias AI For Decision Makers.

Support Our Crowdfunding Campaign

You can back our Indiegogo campaign to create a widely affordable production run of the toolkit – perks include the AI4DM toolkit itself at £25 (+ p&p) reduced from its retail price of £40, as well as the original UnBias Fairness Toolkit at £40 (+ p&p) reduced from its retail price of £60. Perks also include a Combo Pack of both toolkits at £60 (+ p&p) as well as multiples of each (with big savings). And I am also offering a perk with 50% off a dedicated one-to-one Facilitator Training Package with myself (2 x 1.5 hour video meetings + toolkits + personalised facilitator guide) at £360 instead of £720.

The campaign ends on 15th October 2020 – back it now to ensure you get your set!

For an Erotics of Data

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

… the erotic is not a question of only what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)

In our contemporary technological societies we are swamped by data. Almost our every action and behaviour is now measured, collated, processed and inscribed as data somewhere by something for someone. Data leaks from us much as our skin sheds dead cells: a digital dust that accumulates all over the online world – often in places we are barely aware of. Such places are frequently private repositories, networks and systems the scope of which we have little perception, let alone access to. This leakage then becomes mixed with other types and forms of data to become something like a viscous film that subsequently pervades and coats the diverse environments we inhabit and, indeed, even fills the very air we breathe through the waves of its electro-magnetic transmissions. As our lives progress it begins to cloy our options and choices, accreting invisibly to whatever options we are offered by automated decision-making systems. It affects our lives in ways we struggle to discern, always with the nagging sense that some traces of what we have done previously have somehow become determinants in how our personal world is being progressively shaped by these external forces.

How can we empower ourselves through a relationship with and to data? Not just to be its subjects, carried along by unfeeling, reductive logics? To be empowered would require us to assume agency, to directly engage in the processes of making meaning from data, not simply accept the outputs of machine determined processes and systems. It would be an opportunity for us to re-define our relationship to data not just on purely functional bases, but in an embodied way, encompassing all that it is to be a sentient, sensual being.

Eroticism is one of humanity’s key modes for experiencing pleasure and satisfaction – not just in terms of sexual gratification – but in terms of the quality of our engagements and experiences with ourselves, each other and the worlds we inhabit. The erotic is a model in which completion and quantity are held in tension with partial revelation, incompleteness and fragments. Rather than a whole panorama of behaviour, the erotic is effected through glimpses, shards of a spectrum. It is a space of creativity and exchange that is playful and transcendent of intention and mere function. It is always a site of negotiation, but not necessarily one of direct transaction between participants – singular or multiple. Humans imbue things with an eroticism through the power of our imaginations. It is fundamentally individual, but can be shared. Participation, though, is only through directly experiencing something as truly erotic, otherwise it is false, a sham.

We are entering an era of climate impacts, pandemics and their consequences, and there is a sense of urgency that we should seek new ways to define ourselves as actors – not simply as subjects or victims. It seems to me that an erotics of data presents us with a powerful means to embrace and become empowered by the revelations that working with data can bring us. Why should we not be stimulated and aroused by data as we are by other forms of recording and communicating things of value? If we can be pleased by the shape and form of things, then why not by the shapes and forms of data? Can they be crafted in ways that allow such potential? Can we embed something irreducibly human at the very heart of how we interact with our systems of computation and analysis? Something that must be felt not just thought about?

How might we clothe ourselves in data, yet also be able to change and put it off much as we change our clothes according to mood, to sense of occasion or just whimsy? Clothes never truly change the reality of who we are, yet they do help us adopt different behaviours, or alter the way in which we might be seen by others. Clothes can be, and have been more formally in earlier historical times, part of how we construct our personal identity, or identities, and how we project those identities to the world around. Yet in our contemporary world, they are not considered to be part of our essential being. Clothes play a powerful role in our concepts of erotics and our erotic behaviours towards each other – signifiers of many states and fluidities, from the protective and safe to zones of connection and invitation. How might we dress ourselves as nimbly, as flexibly in data? For it to be an active material of identity that we choose to enfold us, rather than a filmy detritus that coats us unbidden and which we are barely able to scrub off? How can we make use of the properties of personal data without it necessarily becoming a piece of property, an asset that accumulates and sticks to us, weighs us down and limits our abilities or opportunities?

What certainly exists in the present moment is a veritable deluge of data, both captured, synthesised and modelled. And there are whole sectors of human society who are in the midst of an orgiastic frenzy of analysis and meta-analyses of not just the data itself, but of all the potential inferences that the systems and deployments of “artificial intelligence” can possibly be attuned to generate. It is becoming both a mainstay of our industrial, globalised transactional economy, and part of the infrastructure of how we exist and our identities are constructed and validated.

Could it be possible for us to take pleasure in being metaphorically washed over by this deluge of data, just as we might stand purposefully in a rainstorm, our senses alive to the energy of the elements and the forces of nature? How so? What kind of different relations might need to come into play for such a thing to be possible?

To be empowered is feel yourself able to make demands of others you may have been afraid or unwilling to before. It is to give yourself permission to ask to be treated with equality and equitably. It is to see yourself as an agent of choice, not just one who is acted upon and channelled by the choices of others. It is to define your own measures of value and quality, not simply to accept those of others foist upon us by hierarchies, customs and conventions. In this, the erotic is a powerful expression of how we choose to take pleasure, to measure joy and fulfilment in our lives. It is an intensely personal, individual yardstick by which we can measure the honesty of our own claims to personal agency. For something can only feel erotic to us if we truly experience it. We all know when we are faking.

For these reasons, when confronted by the authoritarian potential of mass data surveillance, by how trammelled our lives and choices could easily become as the data collected and processed about us grows ever more detailed and fine-grained, I suggest that developing an erotics of data could be a fantastically subversive, even undermining, strategy for empowerment and autonomy. Against the backdrop of vast quantities of data being greedily hoovered up by governments and corporations as yet another vector of social control, it offers a glimmer of hope for some freedom. Just as humour punctures and deflates authority, the erotic is outside the pale of polite convention. It is hard to control, hard to police – the more it is repressed, the more pressure builds up and it eventually erupts in unexpected ways and places. Even in submission, there can be an erotics which subverts domination.

Rather than as an asset class, or an object of capital and profit, could we re-cast our concept and perception of data as elements of flow, like molecules of water? Something which makes up our world, is an important element of ourselves to which we contribute and from which we can draw, but which is never entirely personal? What does it take for us to step aside from our habitual practices and deferences to demand a different path? As our societies experience a pause in their frenetic everyday momentum can we reflect on what kind of world we want to re-emerge into? What kinds of relationships to each other, to systems and polities, to states and exceptions do we want? What can and should we demand?

Cooperation is the foundation of human societies, it flourishes on diversity and differences – our desires and appetites whetted by the dynamic between the familiar and the novel, what we are capable of ourselves and what we need others to provide for or to complement us. Power is, ultimately, only wielded through the consent of the governed – however quiet or seemingly unconscious it may be. History is full of eruptions when that consent is withdrawn or simply evaporates.

To demand a new social contract for our data is a threshold we can only pass through by active, intentional choice. A contract that also gives us, the people, a fair say in how our data is generated, collected, stored, processed and used – one in which there could be the potential for an erotics of data to emerge. It is to imagine a very different world to the one we currently inhabit, which has been imagined and crafted to privilege a select few beneficiaries, with the costs distributed across the rest of us and the heaviest burden placed squarely on the living planet and its future. If we choose instead to cooperate with our own desires and imaginations we might engender a radically different future altogether.

“Recognising the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)

London, April 2020

Listen to Audre Lorde speaking on “Uses of the Erotic” (YouTube)

Book and Bilum

“I would go as far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1986) 

Ursula Le Guin’s essay has been whispering behind my ear for some time now, as I have striven to make sense of what it really is I have been doing with the villagers of Reite on Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast in Madang Province. Since 2012 I have been making books (using bookleteer and our Diffusion eBook format) with them about their ‘Traditional Knowledge’ and slowly becoming a part of something quite different from my everyday life in London.

This all began back in Summer 2009 when James Leach first asked me to help document the visit by two villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, to the British Museum’s Ethnographic Store. There they were asked, by Lissant Bolton and Liz Bonshek, to look at and discuss hundreds of objects originating from their part of Papua New Guinea that are in the BM’s ethnographic collection. We made some books of this encounter and of their stay in the UK. Then, in 2012, I got the chance to visit PNG and Reite village myself, when James and I took part in the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Knowledge at the University of Goroka, in Eastern Highlands Province, and followed this with a week’s stay in Reite. Since then I have made three further trips to PNG and to Reite, as well as two trips to Vanuatu – an island nation in Melanesia not far from PNG – all as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project.

I have been trying to find my own ways to arrive at an understanding of, and to acknowledge, the particular relationships to ‘knowledge’ (or knowing) that Reite people have, and what making books of their knowledge actually might mean to them, and to me. It has been abundantly clear to us that they have made no attempt to either create a systematic Western-style encyclopaedia of everything they ‘know’ about where and how they live, what they grow and care for in the forest and in their gardens. Nor do they seem to use the books in anyway similar to how people in our own culture might – as canonical references or teaching aids to pass knowledge on in a linear way from one generation to the next. Nor yet do they use them to share practices and techniques with neighbouring communities or trading partners, although the practice of making the books is now definitely woven in at some level in how they conduct their relations with other villages and communities – as a new skill or activity to share.

Something entirely else is going on – but what is it that they are doing, and why? How is it so different from the purposes of making that people in my own culture and community engage in? Over the years James and I have burnt much midnight oil (and quaffed some considerable quantities of wine, including some from his own vines) in discussing these knotty issues. James’ long and deep connection with the people of Reite gives him an extraordinary anthropological insight into their ways, evolving over more than 25 years engagement with them. Such attunement to their difference from our ‘home’ culture means it is possible for him to see past the usual tropes of our own cultural assumptions and values. Added to this I bring my own experience as an artist and my own experiences of working closely with a variety of communities at different levels of society on co-creative and participatory projects. Often these have involved direct making, inscribing and transmission of things (public authoring) which are outside of mainstream economic valuation, but which are intrinsic to identity and community (public goods).

“It is the story that makes the difference.” (UKLG)

Something is conveyed by these processes of making and sharing, it is carried across from person to person, from generation to generation, across time and distance, but always of place and within a continuity of culture. The forms may be different and unique to particular communities, but there are echoes and hints of valence that enable a connection, the possibility of an understanding. I often think of Le Guin’s writings when I am in the village or in similar places elsewhere in Melanesia – the feeling that I am in the midst of somewhere and something that is unmistakably human and familiar, yet so palpably alien at the same time. Just as science fiction can be used as a lens to interrogate our present, so the dislocation of journeying to a culture and society that is structured in such a radically different way to everything I had ever known is itself an opportunity to evaluate and scrutinise myself and everything I believe and trust in.

“Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story.” (UKLG)

What is it that I have learnt? What have I understood about them and about myself?
That the discontinuity of being upon which individuality is predicated, upon which our belief that we can isolate and alienate things from context and interdependence to understand them, is just one way of being. It reveals some of what we might consider to be truth, yet it masks so much else in its exclusive gaze, avoiding the tendrils of subtle forces – the relationships – that bind every thing to something else.

It is in how these relationships are constantly practiced, demonstrated, made and re-made through the vital life of the community that I have found a thread that helps me make sense of what we have been doing together. And by locating it alongside another process of making that somehow seems to me to reflect something of the interwoven relationship between people, what they ‘know’ and how it is relational rather than fixed. What we might think of as a piece of ‘knowledge’ or a fact is or, rather, holds a relational connection that flows as long as those within its net continue to foster and nourish the relationship. It can change shape, expand or contract, be added to or refined as those in the relationship determine. Just as Le Guin conceives of a novel as being like a bag or a sack that holds things in relation to one another, so I have begun to consider that the books that we have been making with Reite people share some of the significance of the bilums – traditional string bags – they use to hold and carry things.

What is a Bilum?

Bilums are the ubiquitous hand-woven bags that almost everyone, women and men, in Papua New Guinea use to carry things in: from store and market cargo, to the daily harvest of vegetables and fruits grown in their gardens, to everyday items and treasures: buai (betel nuts), pepper and lime powder, lighter, pen, torch, pieces of newspaper, twists of tobacco leaf, money, mobile phone – and babies.

A bilum is both a functional thing, but it also conveys meaning – the decorative weave as well as the materials with which it is woven themselves convey information. This is not the same as branding or logos on bags in the industrialised world, but it does form a part of a complex visual language of signification that runs deep in the fabric of life in PNG. Bilums across PNG vary according to the materials they are made of, with wool being typical of bilums made in the Highlands, and string made from natural fibres being common on the coast. Other types of bilum include those made from woven grasses and reeds as well as man-made plastic strings and reconditioned plastic sacking.

Traditional bilums are intricately woven or netted, taking considerable time to make – which also depends on the size. The knowledge of how to make them is an important craft skill – and they are respected as both objects in themselves and for their significance as part of traditional dress in kastom and rituals like singsings. They are important items when given as part of bride gifts, or in other kinds of ceremony. The meaning conveyed by the design may have an additional significance to the gift of a bilum, beyond that of the skill, time and effort that had gone into making it. Using a bilum you have been given is always taken well, sealing a bond – a reciprocity between giver and recipient.

Book as Bilum: a metaphor

Le Guin refers to Elizabeth Fisher’s “Carrier Bag Theory” of human evolution (in Woman’s Creation, MacGraw-Hill 1979) and weaves an entire essay around the concept that,

“The first cultural device was probably a recipient… Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural inventions must have been a container to hold gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier”
Elizabeth Fisher as quoted by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin contrasts this with the scene in Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey where an ape first uses a bone as an instrument, a weapon, to murder another ape – implicitly crossing some sort of cognitive threshold. This bone then becomes a figure for man‘s future conquest of space:

“…that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie, a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all” (UKLG)

She is, of course, making a powerful argument in the essay for re-thinking and re-positioning what we recognise as being of value in our culture – bringing back into view those things which patriarchal societies tend to ignore or de-value. The kind of consistent, persistent, necessary everyday activities of caring, cleaning, cooking, rearing so often unsung, or referred to, belittlingly, as “women’s work”. I also think that she is deliberately making an equivalence between language itself and with receptacles such as bags and nets. Language as a mode in which the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a conscious entity are carried across – held by words – to others. It is a literary demonstration of metaphor in itself. Language is a carrier, a matrix too – in which ideas, thoughts, observations and feelings are given shape and brought into the world.

In this regard, I am reminded not only of the physical performance required to make a Diffusion eBook (see below), but also of the collaborative and collective nature of gathering the ‘knowledge’ that it is used to fill – the stories, drawings, photos, recipes, instructions and guides. These elements are all harvested from social engagements between or for the different generations of the community. They are purposeful in that they are often intended to reflect or mark out specific relationships between people – for instance between a parent and a child or grandchild; or as a way of creating or facilitating a connection between specific a person and others who have come into the cosmos of the village’s inter-connected relationships, but who are not directly associated with kin groups. People such as James and, latterly, to a small degree, myself.

I re-read an essay James co-wrote with Lee Wilson in 2010 on creativity and innovation in the art, humanities and social sciences in universities. It reported on their findings from three workshops (in one of which I took part as a presenter) at CRASSH in Cambridge. It is full of brilliant insights into the nature of creativity and innovation, and the role of universities in fostering spaces and places that support it, as a responsive, civic process that is integral to the “project of citizenship”. One section on evaluation has the following sentences which, it seems to me, could easily refer to the creation and purpose of the books in Reite:

“The value of the knowledge created is not in objects, but is realised over and again in relationships, in processes of investigation, argumentation and understanding. Value is then elicited in actual relations. Change occurs in and through relationships. The facilitation of these relations is vital.”
James Leach & Lee Wilson, “Enabling innovation: creative investments in arts and humanities research“, report for AHRC/Nesta 2010

Just as the bilums used in everyday life are intricately woven from locally-available materials and and their designs convey information that can locate them to kin-groups or places, so I think something similar is happening with the books they are making. The bilums are practical devices for carrying tangible stuff, but are still made with an attention to detail that marks them out as more-than neutral receptacles. The books carry something less tangible but which also convey relationships to people and place. That they are hand-made items is, I think, a key factor in why they have come to be used. They are as much tangible demonstrations of relationships as they are receptacles for whatever maybe written or drawn within them. It is not so much that the books contain knowledge of any particular sort, but they are a manifestation of those relations. The knowing that they are a part of, is not just what is written or drawn within them, but is carried across in the processes of making them. A book is like a trace or a vestige – Ariadne’s thread – weaving a path between those for whom it has been made and those by whom it was made. It ceases to be media in the sense that we use it in the West, as a neutral carrier for the ‘true content’ – the knowledge’ or information it ‘contains’ – and instead it expresses the relationship itself, or an aspect of it. Like so much of life in Reite, it is direct and unmediated – it becomes and is the thing it describes.

These images below are of a book by Pinbin Sisau which describe a series of designs for drums and plates – men’s work in Reite – which give a flavour of the extraordinary visual and stylistic range of just a single lineage in a single village. Like the bilums pictured above there is great artistry in the designs, and clearly far more meaning to them than he has indicated in the book. What are we to make of this compendium of designs that we do not have a key to interpret the meaning of? Why did he make it and for whom? What relations is this book carrying within its matrix of paper sheets woven together in a bound form? Do we need to know such detail, or perhaps simply be appreciative that such a richness in their culture has been signalled to others in this way?

Tim Ingold‘s analogy of the pencil stub as a material artefact is also pertinent here. How would an archaeologist of the future interpret such a find, never having previously seen a new pencil?

“I would not myself throw away a newly bought pencil in mint condition. As I use it, however, it has periodically to be re-sharpened, and with every sharpening some of the pencil is shaved and its length is reduced, until eventually it is too short to hold. Only then do I throw it away. An archaeologist of the future who, having analysed the contents of early twenty-first century waste bins, came to the conclusion that things conventionally called ‘pencils’ could not actually have been made for drawing because they were too short (and perhaps had some ritual or symbolic function instead), would be committing what Davidson and Noble call the finished artefact fallacy.”
Tim Ingold, Making (2013)

What I love about his insight here is that the focus is not on what we think we know about something we might encounter outside of its original context (such as a pencil stub), but on the uncertainty that we have to accommodate into any assertion of knowledge that we might make. That the relational aspect of any device to its use must be contingent on how we imagine it – and that our imaginations are themselves bounded by our own experience, not those of the people whose artefacts we are trying to understand or interpret the use of. The very ordinary, humble and utilitarian pencil – an object which has been critical in writing and drawing, in the creation and flow of ideas, images and the expression of what it is to be human – could so easily be overlooked in its final, worn-down state. Its stub seems devoid of the power of creativity that its use enabled. A lowly thing, it seems as artless as a string bag might appear to a treasure seeker, as a hand-made book by a subsistence gardener living in a tropical rainforest might seem, especially if, like so many others of its kind, it told a similar story of taro, yam, sago, vines or the small freshwater shrimp from the local streams. By focusing on the object as the thing of value, we can be blissfully unaware of the relationships that it implies, and where the value may lie for its creator.

When we – westerners from the industrial world – encounter a thing like a Reite book, is it like coming across a mint condition pencil or is it more like unearthing a pencil stub? How are we to know whether or not we are merely projecting our own preconceptions of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ or value onto artefacts produced by a different culture? How are we so sure that we have the capabilities to ascertain what value might mean to someone who does not share our outlook, our experiences, our upbringing and acculturation?

And this brings me to consider the relational aspect of what might constitute knowledge in a place and community like Reite. Knowledge seems to be something that must always be sustained through intergenerational engagement and activity – a mutually reinforced knowing – rather than reified into a commodity that can be transacted, hoarded and controlled. It is the ongoing observation of and participation in the life and rituals of the community – attending to belonging – that lead to the acquisition of knowledge. Ritual payments to significant kin and elders of things which must be grown and harvested or collected and made from the local environment. Things which take time, effort and negotiation – that are in themselves, demonstrations of relationships. Constantly woven and re-woven. Being human, nested within an intricate matrix of connections.

I wonder if the “finished artefact fallacy” might be at the root of why the foundations of wealthy, cultured Westerners are so obsessed with “saving” things – like traditional knowledges – which they consider to be endangered. Significant sums of money are spent on documenting them and putting them into books, archives and museums, but not into sustaining the complex webs of relationships between people, places and things that are the actual fabric of what the ‘knowledge’ conveys. If the ways of life of peoples who live differently to us and the specific ecologies in which this is lived are not sustained, protected and supported, then what is the point of conserving their ‘knowledge’? What purpose will it have if these peoples, their environments and ecologies disappear into the voracious maw of extractive capitalism and its hunger for natural resources at any cost? What, then, is this urge to preserve, other than the collection of objects, artefacts of curiosity to be archived or put on display in such a way as to convey the impression of the deep culture and humanity of its owner or benefactor?

A few years ago at an informal dinner in Oxford, a distinguished scientist asked me to tell him the “three most important” pieces of Reite traditional knowledge that our project had “saved” for posterity. It was hard to counter the blithe assumption that their knowledge could be so easily alienated from the context of where and how they live. As someone who deals in scientific facts, in the certainties of binary logic, he struggled to make sense of my attempt to explain that our friends in Reite seemed to have no interest in cataloguing and transmitting what they know in such a way. Perhaps he disbelieved me, or thought that our work had failed in some empirical sense. In describing it, I suggested that what people in Reite appear to be interested in is the making of the books, and that many of these books appear– as we might see it – to repeat or share the same or very similar information. However, the articulation of the content in the books, as well as who was involved in making them, suggests whole other layers of meaning and signification which may be unintelligible, and perhaps of no value in any case, to anyone outside of the village and its tapestry of relationships.

So perhaps what James and I have been doing by making these books with our friends in Reite is to learn how to weave a different kind of bilum that holds and make tangible its own kind of relationships – and that conveys yet other meanings within it. Books which are not documents of knowledge or media containing information, but artefacts describing the relationships that make knowledge or knowing possible in particular places, between specific people. I used to wonder if our project was somehow contributing to a revivification of a local culture that was in danger of being lost to the swell of consumerism and rampant exploitation of natural resources that are the contemporary forms of colonialism. Now I am more of the opinion that it is being incorporated into a kind of local cultural dynamism that remakes itself as it works with the materials at hand, that articulates new relationships by evolving different kinds of ritual and exchange. What might readily appear as loss to us, so fond of our cultural heritage, provenance and history, might instead be resilience and adaptation without sentimentality.

“Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.”
U.K. Le Guin

London, March 2020

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

*** a newer & expanded version is available on bookleteer ***

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 for 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 – for instance, 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 in deconstruction. Those who are economically disadvantaged and whose choices are forever circumscribed by poverty and denied access to credit. These are the people most at risk of being excluded, segregated and even criminalised by the impacts of data profiling. The subtleties, quirks and nuances that allow us to defy definition are all too easily captured, measured and sorted into data points which can then be exploited against our own benefit.

Any transparency in data traffic goes only one way. we do not see how the data we share with the big systems (such as search engines, social media platforms or online shopping portals) is used by those who acquire it. Neither how the ‘nudge’ systems – increasingly adopted by governments and public agencies – use our data to influence our choices and life options. Nor do we have any real understanding of how the scope and scale of the total digital surveillance by the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies is used, despite the hints and indications revealed by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden.

Indeed, different societies and cultures across the world 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). To assume that either privacy or identity are stable concepts in all contexts and situations seem to me to be part of the problem, a reflection of our own hegemonistic cultural values in the West.

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 bedrooms) 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 to? 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’, to undermine their statistical value through massive duplication. Invoking the generation of duplicitous activities that resemble our actions but, in effect, create multiplicities of possible identities. To 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 for the profilers, marketeers and manipulators. To détourne the techniques of oppression against the oppressors, reverse the flow of digital ‘spam’ from the individual back towards those who seek to manipulate us.

Each daemon would be a personal Trickster, like the Norse god Loki, working on our behalves to frustrate the will of the corporates, the political parties, the special interest groups, agencies and governments that seek to use personal data to commodify us and profit by our, often unwitting, collusion in their narrative.

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?

To acquire the opportunity, once again, to lose ourselves in the anonymity of the press of numbers. A pinch of freedom from the everyday atomisation we experience through constant personalisation, behaviour tracking and the inferences that drive our ‘choices’, already determined through pre-set automated decision-making algorithms.

A Conceptual Projection

The project described above is patently an absurd idea. What I am proposing is unlikely to built (from a technical standpoint) and could possibly present unknown dangers if released online (from an ethical perspective).

Therefore this thought experiment requires a kind of performative conceptual prototype to demonstrate the paradox at its heart. This might take the form of a set of ‘blueprints’ for the conditions under which a MyLoki daemon might be activated and operate; or a flow chart diagram of the actions and possible consequences for what could happen when individual’s data become pluralities; not just duplicitous but multiplicitous.

Such a set of blueprints or diagrams could then form the focal point of a deliberative forum assembled from people with diverse knowledges and skills across a range of disciplines and sectors. This group would be charged with exploring the ramifications of – and speculating on just what theoretical frameworks could emerge from – such an unreasonable, improbable and irrational set of possibilities?

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 could 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 research theme, Copy That? 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

*** a newer and updated version is available on ***

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. It ignores the fundamental connectedness that unites all matter in the universe, the forces which bind all things together.

We see the results of this alienation 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, and that this timeframe is rapidly collapsing in on itself.

We also see this alienation 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. Or the shocking percentages of automated administrative decisions in the benefits system being overturned on appeal. Or anecdotally from friends and family, in the number of long-established EU citizens resident in the UK seemingly routinely denied “settled status” on their first attempt using the government’s automated system.

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 – which we are now experiencing as increasingly extreme climate impacts – is already confounding the most accurate models and projections that have been achieved so far, since none can reliably forecast the full range of interdependent, interwoven forces and factors we have interrupted with our industry and massive emissions of carbon into the atmosphere over the past few centuries.

I sincerely 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 attributed 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. It 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 rule which of two women is the true mother of a baby, each claiming it as their own. No witnesses can say who the true mother is. With no other way to tell between them, Solomon’s perverse solution is to propose cutting the baby in half, dividing it equally between them. The story presents his wisdom as the insight that when one woman gives up her claim to save the life of the child, she is revealed as the true mother – concerned more for the child’s welfare than her own rights or sense of property.

The story is of a classic type that has parallels in the literatures and storytelling traditions of other cultures, like the tradition of Sufi teaching stories. 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 we know 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 (micro) level and at the cosmic (macro), but clearly not so unambiguously at the meso 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 micro and macro 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 to 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.