Category Archives: Propositions

Smart Design: Inclusive by Default

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

Smart London – Design Standards: Inclusive by Default

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giles Lane, April 2018

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Civic Agency: a vision & plan

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

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

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

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

Enabling Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

A Plan for Grassroots Engagement

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

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

Expanding the Frame

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

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

How?

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

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

Hiding in Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

My experiences working with James Leach and the villagers of Reite in Papua New Guinea on TKRN (2012-19) have also been of crucial importance in extending my thinking and appreciation not just of the extraordinary range of world views that exist (outside the bubble of Western, industrialised culture), but also of the kinds of knowledge that exist – particularly those that rely on human senses beyond the visual and aural for meaning-making : such as those of touch, smell, taste, proprioception to name a few. An important insight came to me after my first visit to Reite village in 2012, not long after we had generated the initial set of “lifecharms” or data objects for Lifestreams. I wrote about this in two posts in 2013: Tactile Poetry and Digital Alchemy. James’ writing has also been an influence on my thinking, especially his essays Drum and Voice (2002), Leaving the Magic Out (2012) & The Death of a Drum (2015). My experiences in the village have also exposed me to how direct and perceptible climate change is to people who live within nature and the natural world – seasonal weather patterns do not come reliably; plants are not ready to harvest at the usual times; animals, birds and sea creatures are slowly disappearing. All this is increasing year on year, and is the daily reality for people living traditionally in the forest and on the coast.

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

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

Engagement and Occlusion: data-veiling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reciprocity, Care and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiring and Stimulating Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

London, February 2019

Stimulating and Inspiring Civic Agency

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

What the Toolkit Offers

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

Where Next?

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

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

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

Sensing Climate Change through Empathic Encounters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obligation. Responsibility. Culpability

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

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

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

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

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

Weighing opportunity and intent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Rehab Journeys

IMG_4469

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some new Putney Debates

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

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

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

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

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

GilesLane_LincolnMagnaCarta_Proposal

Reciprocally Entangled

This statement of my current thinking on the topics of agency, data and quantum computing was originally presented to the Human Centred Computing research group at the University of Oxford on October 1st 2015. The group, with whom I have been developing a dialogue since Spring 2014, is led by Professor Marina Jirotka and has a particular focus on Responsible Research and Innovation. They are involved in embedding RRI into NQIT – the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub based at Oxford. I have made a few changes to the original text inspired by the group’s extremely thoughtful comments and discussion.

Introduction
At the core of all my work and projects over the past 20 years is the theme of agency. By that I mean our ability as humans to act on our own initiative, to make informed decisions and choices. To be willing actors rather than directed subjects in all areas of life. In my experience open and transparent communications are fundamental to such an aspiration, and many of my projects explore ways and means of enabling people to communicate and interact with other people and systems to achieve this.

Looking back, there is a clear trajectory in my work which emphasises that systems should engage people and empower them, not seek to condition their experiences or shape their lives. From my work on the convergence of mobile phones with wireless internet and GIS mapping technologies in the early 2000s which has been described as a kind of proto-social media (Urban Tapestries), to experiments with sensors and platforms for citizen science style pollution mapping (Feral Robots & Snout), as well as experiments in data manifestation as a critique of the quantified self meme (Lifestreams). In my opinion, too often the technologies that are deployed across society are not intended to benefit all, but are contingent on bringing benefit to a privileged few – those who build them and those who commission and own the systems being built.

I believe that human individualities and different people’s idiosyncracies of learning and understanding are crucial social assets that enrich our collective experiences of life. I want to explore how we can design systems that adapt to these values and incorporate their dynamic into their very fabric. I want to find alternatives to the expanding deployment of systems and technologies that shape and manage behaviour by imposing rigid and inflexible decisions or choices. I believe that we need to question and challenge the mindset that sees the efficiency of algorithms and data-driven inference as the pinnacle of how human societies should be run.

One of the ways I think we can begin to revolutionise our relationship to data is by bridging the biological and digital. If we can design ways to utilise the whole human sensorium (not just vision and hearing) for sense-making and interpretation, then I believe that we can make complex information tangible and appreciable in richer and more nuanced ways. This means departing fundamentally from normative data representations on computer screens. It means embodying them in reciprocally interactive engagements that afford us greater use of our highly developed senses – what I have been calling “data manifestation”. This could allow us to experience data in ways that reveal things we have hitherto not considered possible. It may also reveal contingencies and limitations in what kinds of data are being collected – and may lead us to collect different kinds of data that have perhaps been overlooked.

How might we enliven relations between humans and machines so that they can be mutually influential rather than unbalanced in favour of one side or the other? I suspect that the promise of quantum computing, with its multiple states, may offer something along these lines, but only if we, as researchers and designers, have the courage of our imagination to make such a future possible.

Entangled Engagement & Quantum Computing
I have been thinking recently about the nature of entanglement – as far as I can understand it as a lay person not a scientist – and how the highly metaphoric language itself suggests an unintentional or, at least, ambiguous state. If we think about how we use the word ‘entangled’ in everyday situations it is to describe something, or some things, that have become entangled accidentally – without the deliberate decision to do so.

I have titled this statement “reciprocally entangled” because I think that the promise of quantum computing is one we must have agency with and choose to engage with, rather than unwittingly becoming caught within. That we might deliberately choose to enmesh ourselves with a system that, like humans, can be more than a cascade of rules and simple on/off decisions, would be a significant revolution in how we decide to run our societies.

I think that this idea of ‘unwitting entanglement’ characterises many of the fundamental problems we are experiencing with the so-called Big Data revolution, where we have suddenly begun to find ourselves subject to systems that are ruled by inference and not by balanced judgement. My proposition is that just as we might think that our society and civilisation has become enmeshed in a complex set of interlocking inference systems which define people’s lives in ever more intrusive ways, so might we begin to think of quantum computing – and being reciprocally entangled with such a system – as being closer to the kind of complex and consciousness-driven judgement that previously defined our choices and decisions (since, say, the Enlightenment).

More and more, the effects of decisions made by data-driven inference are coming to pervade aspects of our everyday lives. It is not always clear how such systemic decisions are arrived at, but it is undeniable that people are both shaping and having their choices shaped as an affect of the increasing reliance on so-called Big Data systems. A kind of blind self-governance that could so easily tip over into forms of self-censorship, self-privation and self-denial.

Such choices are most visible to us on an everyday level in the recommendations we see in internet shopping (“you’ve bought this and might like that”) and what social media systems select to populate our profile feeds (both adverts and posts by our connections). Their use in electronic financial services is widely known of, but little known about – obscured behind a veil of exclusivity, secrecy and the disparities of wealth and power. The role of such systems in health is also increasing, driven as much by attitudes towards risk and liability in the health insurance industry as by advances in medicine, wellbeing and disease prevention. These opaque applications remain worrying precisely because they flow against the transparencies of fairness and democracy that our society has been implementing over the past few centuries.

But what if we can rethink how we interact with systems as reciprocal engagements? And what if we were to see them as entangled relationships at the same time?

Perception is more than simply seeing
How humans perceive and create meaning is an associative process that is fundamentally different to inference from data. It is an expression of the difference between consciousness and a structured system; and, furthermore, it is more than what is offered by systems that mimic ‘neural nets’. Aesthetics and how we make meaning from artworks gives us a concrete example of how this operates in practice. Aesthetics cannot be taught, but flows from a dynamic interweaving or perhaps an entanglement of our memories and experiences with our physical senses. At each moment of experiencing something in an encounter with an artwork – writing, painting, sculpture, music or performance – we are existing in an entangled moment blending the now with the summation of our conscious sense of self. We are not inferring meaning (as a structured data-driven system might), but actually making meaning from the experience itself.

So-called neuro-aesthetics has sought to find a physical explanation of this process in the chemical reactions in the brain. But so far it has not been able to,

“ Objects are not triggers for internal events in the nervous system; they are opportunities or affordances for our continuing transactions with them. …
Art is experienced in the setting of argument, criticism, and persuasion. This is all compatible, Kant realized, with the fact that there is no way of adjudicating disputes in this area, that there are no decision procedures, no rules, no way of proving who’s right and wrong.”
Alva Noë, How Art Reveals the Limits of Neuroscience, The Chronicle Review

Beyond Visualisation : Embodied Entanglements
What if we can bridge the digital and biological by utilising the whole human sensorium for sense-making and interpretation – going beyond just vision and hearing? What if we could make complex data tangible and appreciable to a range of human senses? Embodied and felt instead of just seen and heard. In turn the experiences could be fed back in to data systems as a new set of parameters that could adjust the nature of systems that use the data. This was the theme of my Creativeworks residency with the Computer Science department at Birkbeck in Autumn 2014. The workshop I devised to help communicate the potential of multisensory expressions of data has been a crucial step in continuing to develop the ideas begun with the Lifestreams collaboration with Philips Research in 2012.

What I hope to do next is to embark on a journey of collaboration and discovery to demonstrate the potential for social change that could be unleashed by developing multisensory interactions with the digital data that is increasingly measuring, being analysed and governing our daily lives. Humans have extraordinary sensory capabilities which are not currently being used in how we encounter data – principally through screens (sight), occasionally sound and, rarely, through haptics (touch). I believe that this leaves us impoverished. By expressing digital data in new forms we could unlock entirely new modalities for recording, sharing and understanding how we live our lives : from experiences of illness and rehabilitation via biosensors to how we make sense of the Big Data that now shape and govern our society.

I hope to explore this theme along a series of trajectories and to demonstrate – to scientists, technologists, designers and policymakers and to the wider public beyond – how we could create transformational ways for people to engage with and make sense of data. I aim to work collaboratively (with old and new partners) to develop projects and experiments that express digital data in different ways that engage human biological senses other than just sight and hearing – such as touch, smell, taste, balance, temperature, proprioception and time etc. I am particularly keen to engage with researchers in the biological and life sciences (and hybrid fields such as computational biology) to create a bridge between how people interact with and make sense of the biological world around us, and with digital systems.

Documenting Traditional Knowledge in Papua New Guinea
Alongside these concerns I am working with Professor James Leach and a community of indigenous people (from Reite village) living a traditional way of life in the jungle in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. There we are co-developing a simple hybrid digital/physical toolkit for people to self-document local traditional knowledge of plants, customs, design and productions techniques (TK Reite Notebooks). The tools and techniques we are co-designing there are based on my pioneering work since the late 1990s in hybrid digital/physical publishing. It uses the Diffusion eBook format, a unique paper folding method invented in 1999-2000, as well as the bookleteer.com self-publishing platform which was created and launched in 2009. This is another form of what I have called “public authoring” – making it possible for people to communicate things of value in open and shareable ways.

What is clear is that Reite people’s culture doesn’t consider knowledge as a series of static objects – in the Cartesian tradition of Western Knowledge – but as relational. Knowledge is constructed and exists in the relations between humans that hold it, share it and pass it on to future generations. It is always contextual and situational. To me, this establishes a conceptual link with what I have been exploring in my data manifestation work – that how we develop understandings of information and the ways it can be encoded in forms or media is located in the experience of the encounter, and our conscious ability to reweave our experiences in the present with those in our memories of the past.

One of the most striking things about this project is the difference between traditional anthropological ethnography and self-documentation that emerges from its results. What people choose to value and document may not necessarily be intelligible to outsiders, or of any interest. This flows against the mainstream of anthropology and ethnography which seeks to observe, understand and explain a culture to others. I feel that my conception of public authoring is akin to the aims of the originators of Mass Observation, who proposed an “anthropology of ourselves” back in the late 1930s. They thought that it was important for ordinary people to document ordinary life, and developed a framework that encouraged people from all walks of life to record and submit reports on things, customs, events and behaviours which they observed. Mass Observation and public authoring are both creative activities that seek an audience beyond their immediate community, yet at the same time they are the outputs of people attempting to record their own world and values for themselves.

In a similar way, the lifecharms, or data shells, which we created in the Lifestreams project were expressions of data manifested into material form. As such the data itself ceased to be directly readable (as it might be in a graph or chart), but was embodied in the actual form and shape of each shell. No longer intelligible to anyone but the person whose data had been the source of the shell’s growth pattern, the lifecharms signify something without revealing exactly what. As a type of self-documentation this translation of digital data collected from biosensors and life-tracking devices begins to mirror the output of our public authoring notebooks of Reite village : fascinating to outsiders, yet unintelligible if not directly explained by someone within the community that generated them. Open to interpretation, inspirational and allusive, but never didactic. Where knowledge and communication are reciprocally entangled, not inferred.

The trajectory I sketched at the beginning of this statement – linking human agency as the core of many projects I’ve led – now connects all these thoughts on the nature of what kind of future we want to build. Is it to be one where we devise systems to manage our societies that are responsive and dynamically adapt to our interactions with them, or a future where our decisions and choices are increasing defined and shaped by algorithms designed by and for the benefit of an ever more remote elite?