The Data Sublime

The Observable Universe

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

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

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

The Data Sublime

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

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

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

What do Arts & Humanities offer?

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

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

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

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

Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives

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

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

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

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

Tacit Knowledges, Living Archives

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

Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tacit Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giles & Katak after the Marpungae Singsing, May 2018

Smart Design: Inclusive by Default

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

Smart London – Design Standards: Inclusive by Default

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giles Lane, April 2018

Civic Agency: a vision & plan

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

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

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

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

Enabling Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

A Plan for Grassroots Engagement

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

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

Expanding the Frame

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

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

How?

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

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

Hiding in Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engagement and Occlusion: data-veiling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reciprocity, Care and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiring and Stimulating Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

London, February 2019

Creativity & Technology in a New Renaissance

Commissioned in April 2018 by the Institute of Art & Ideas as an introduction for a research report on the “New Renaissance” in creativity in European cities for Huawei.

What is distinctive about humanity? Is it our capacity to turn abstract thoughts and feelings into concrete expressions and artefacts? Or our capacity to empathise, to imagine ourselves in the situation of others, to perceive and share things from their perspective? These are among the everyday feats of imagination and creativity that should never stop astounding us, never stop inspiring us to keep refashioning our environments and communities for the better. Communicating such experiences is a feature common to societies across time and geography. The history of humanity is also one of technology – our ability to externalise concepts, experiences and skills into pragmatic tools that help us achieve what we desire. From writing to engineering, astronomy to medicine, we continue to devise new technologies to enhance our capabilities and increase our enjoyment of what it is to be alive.

At the heart of contemporary civilisation are our technologies of communication. What we choose to share and how we share it, with whom and when. Technology is, of course, one of the prime outputs of human creativity: it is the practical result of the blending of a range of different knowledge domains, skills and expertise: from scientific theory and discovery, to engineering application combined with social, cultural and economic purpose. Any technological product is thus the child of many different disciplinary parents, all shaping aspects of its evolution from idea to product or service in the hands of its users. Along the way, it is not just the scientists and engineers who invent technologies, it is also the creative visionaries who deal in ideas, dreams and artistic expressions who help define technologies’ purposes, uses and values in the wider arena of society and culture.

The development of digital and networked technologies since the 1940s has been among the most evident demonstration of this creative collaboration between scientists, technologists, thinkers and creative practitioners. Artists have been among the most early and enthusiastic adopters of emerging technologies – often adapting them for purposes far beyond the practical and pragmatic uses which might have triggered their production. In particular, there is a rich history of artists not only adopting new technologies, but being at the heart of their development – helping shape them as they evolve both in research laboratories and in other, less formal, settings. Such collaborations have fuelled and driven not only the technologies themselves but also the public consciousness of the potential of the technologies to enable everyone to be creative and share their creativity. Technology companies have often invited artists to experiment and test their new products as part of this process; meanwhile an artistic ‘underground’ has consistently been at the forefront of developing alternative technologies to the mainstream. Technologies are never neutral, but always the products of the cultures that nurture them.

In this ‘New Renaissance’, our understandings of what it means to be creative and visionary are also changing. For centuries it was people with power and wealth who defined through their patronage who could be creative, and the channels through which their creativity could reach other people. Now distributed networks and communications technologies are opening up the near universal possibility for expression and sharing of creativity. As society engages with the practical implications of Joseph Beuys’ contention that “everyone is an artist”, people are having to question traditional assumptions and to re-define notions of value in creativity. What does it now mean to be ‘creative’, to be an artist, when everyone can express and share their creativity? What is different and valuable to society about those people who choose to make their creativity the core of their life and work? What are the perceptual tools required to cope with and appreciate the abundance of creativity enriching our lives?

Professional artists too are having to re-think and re-define their practices in a dynamically creative society. Such changes encompass social, cultural, economic and political shifts as well as the technological. Being ‘creative’ is no longer seen as an exclusive preserve of privileged individuals, instead it is a challenge to everyone to realise as much of our individual potential as we can. Yet some of the traditional roles that artists play in society nonetheless persist : as visionaries, educators, inspirations, pioneers, provocateurs, critics, storytellers, speakers of truth to power, transformers of the mundane into the extraordinary.

In my own work over the past two decades, I have worked at the intersection of art, emerging technologies and social change, devising projects and collaborations that have sought to peer ahead, to envision new possibilities for people to share what they value about the world we live in. Distributed, networked communication technologies have been crucial to this endeavour – enabling people to achieve personal agency in expressing their individual creativity in ways which, just a generation ago, would have seemed improbable if not unattainable. Whilst it is relatively simple to make predictions of the kind of technological changes that might take place in the near future, what is much more challenging is to make sense of the unfolding social and cultural changes that are happening as a result of an exponential liberation of the means of communicating among ourselves. Where once ideas took generations to circulate and where control of the means of production was almost exclusively from the centre to the margins, now we have the means for each person to amplify and resonate not only within their own local community, but globally. The implications of this profound transformation, both positive and negative, are already being felt in almost every country and community around the world. Where they lead us is in no way clear as the disruptive forces they have unleashed bring complications and uncertainties into areas of life considered stable and unchanging, or at least resilient to fashion and slow to adapt.

However, such transformations are the fuel of artistic exploration and experiment – they provoke and inspire new visions and possibilities to be created and shared. And the ways in which artists are able to share their ideas is much more participatory and engaged than before, precisely because of the kinds of communication technologies which have become virtually ubiquitous. The landscape of where creative encounters take place has thus broadened dramatically, as have the modes in which people can take an active part in culture. They are civic technologies in that they enable so much more for people to contribute creatively as citizens than just as consumers. What shapes that civic societies will take in different places, will reflect the great diversity of cultures and creativity that make us human.

London, April 2018

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.

Beyond Engagement

Last month I ran a workshop at the univerCities one-day conference on urban innovation and entrepreneurship organised by MA/MSc students from the urban design, sustainable cities and planning courses at Kings College London, LSE and UCL’s The Bartlett School. The event was billed as “a unique inter-university and cross-disciplinary conference on the topic of solving today’s urban challenges”, and featured panels  of speakers from a range of different backgrounds to address questions of equality and inclusivity in housing development; humanising the city though urban design; and trends and challenges in urban futures: citizen engagement, digital participation and tech innovation.

I was asked to devise a workshop for the afternoon session to bring focus on engagement and the future in urban design and planning. I decided to adapt the methods I used in a previous urban futures workshop I ran back in 2015 (Peeking over the Horizon) – which aim to push people further in their thinking than just talking about whatever innovations which already exist are at the forefront of their minds. The workshop was titled, Beyond Engagement, to address a signature problem in fields such as planning and urban design – namely that citizens are often subject to engagement and consultation processes and exercises which rarely report back to them or offer any real agency in the process. So many consultations and engagements are simply hollow, ‘box-ticking’ attempts to provide a veneer of transparency and democratic involvement, often to mask decisions already taken. This workshop aimed both to build upon the themes and talks from the earlier panels and to inspire the participants to think beyond just engaging or consulting citizens, and to try to anticipate the impacts and outcomes of innovative practices in their fields, and their intersectional effects on society more widely. Thinking about the future not just to describe trends on the horizon, but to anticipate what ‘next practices’ and effects might be.

The workshop had two exercises – “Vectoring the Future” and a StoryCubes experiment to finish. “Vectoring the Future” uses large worksheets with 6 ‘vectors’. Participants chose which vectors they wanted to think about (themes such as, Public Benefit, Private Profit, Infrastructure, Health & Wellbeing, Work & Leisure, Housing, Equality, Inclusivity, Privatisation Public Realm, Private Space, Sustainability, Resilience, Planning, Regulation, innovation, Enterprise) and worked from the outside of the sheet inwards. The outer section providing a space for describing the state of the art or cutting edge innovations in each vector. The next section providing space to reflect on what potential impact or consequences they might have, with the next section for imagining what the next directions such effects would suggest. In the centre is a space for anticipating the ’emergent’ qualities and effects that might arise from the intersection of innovations, effects and next directions across the various vectors chosen by the participants.

At the event, we had 6 tables, each with 5 or 6 participants who each completed one of the worksheets. Once each group had completed the process, they reported back, giving a summary of what vectors they had chosen and how the conversation had flowed towards the space of emergence. Interestingly, each group found a unique perspective even when they shared similar initial vectors and the quality and range of the discussion across topics of technology and innovation in particular was significant.

After a short break, we returned for the final StoryCubes exercise – a simple and fun way to bring things together and open up the discussion even further. Each participant was given a StoryCube and asked to write 6 things on it that they thought were most interesting or important to them from the whole day. Then I asked a first participant to put their cube on a table in the middle and describe one or two things they had written down. From there, then next person came up, placed their cube next or on top of another and linked it to one of the themes on someone else’s cube. Eventually building up a structure of connections between issues and ideas people felt had inspired or motivated them, as well as revealing gaps and other issues that were still to be explored.

I was really impressed  by the energy and focus of the event and its participants, as much as by the ambition of the organisers : a brilliant initiative by students from different universities to come together to learn from each other and value their different disciplinary perspectives on shared problems and issues.

Civic Thinking for Civic Dialogue

Over the past six months or so I have been focused on my work for the UnBias project which is looking at the issues of algorithmic bias, online fairness and trust to provide policy recommendations, ethical guidelines and a ‘fairness toolkit’ co-produced with young people and other stakeholders. My role has been to lead the participatory design process on the Fairness Toolkit, which has involved devising and facilitating a series of workshops with young people in schools and a community group, as well as with stakeholders in the ICT industry, policy, civil society and research fields. My colleagues in the Human Centred Computing group at the University of Oxford and the Horizon Digital Economy Institute at the University of Nottingham, as well as Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, have been wonderful collaborators – providing a rich intellectual and pragmatic context for developing the tools.

The co-design workshops with two schools (in Harpenden and in Islington) and with a young women’s group in Oxfordshire explored what their levels of awareness of the issues were, how relevant to their own lives they perceived them to be, and what they thought should be done. In each workshop, and with each group, we consistently encountered quite different perceptions and experiences – often unexpected and surprising – whilst also observing certain commonalities, which were echoed in the findings of the Youth Juries which our colleagues at Nottingham have been running for UnBias since late 2016. Many of the young people expressed a certain fatalism and lack of agency regarding how they use technology which seems to foster a sense of isolation and inability to effect change. This was coupled with a very limited sense of their rights and how the law protects them in their interactions with service providers, institutions and big companies. Unsurprisingly, they often feel that their voice is not listened to, even when they are the targets of some of the most aggressive marketing techniques.

The tools have thus been informed and shaped by young people’s perceptions and their burgeoning understanding of the scale and depth of algorithmic processes affecting modern everyday life. The tools have also been designed to address the atomising effect that personalised technologies are increasingly understood to have – whereby the increasing personalisation of platforms and services isolates our experiences of media and the mediated world from each other. Where broadcast technologies used to be understood to have a homogenising effect on societies, networked technologies, and the highly personalised software services running on them, are creating a sense of isolation from other people’s cultural and social experiences as they serve each of us something more bespoke to our own tastes and preferences. Recent controversies over the use of targeted advertising in US and UK elections has exposed the iniquitous consequences of such hyper-specific campaigning, and offered a new set of insights into the wider, and deeper social and cultural impacts happening around us.

I have tried to design a toolkit that could build awareness of these issues, offer a means to articulate how we feel about them, and provide a mechanism for ‘stakeholders’ (in the ICT industry, policymakers, regulators, public sector and civil society) to respond to them. What has emerged is something I call a ‘civic thinking tool‘ for people to participate in a public civic dialogue. By this I mean a mode of critical engagement with the issues that goes beyond just a  personal dimension (“how does this affect me?”) and embraces a civic one (“how does this affect me in relation to everyone else?”). And then, when we participate in a public dialogue about these issues, it is not simply conducted in public, but it embraces the co-construction of our society and acknowledges everyone as having a stake and a voice within it. It is about trying to find co-constructive and non-confrontational means to engage people in critical reflection about what kind of world we want to have (and the roles algorithmic systems in particular should play in it).

On Monday we held a workshop to preview the first draft of the toolkit and seek feedback from a variety of stakeholders. Take a look at the presentation below to find out more:

The response has been very encouraging – highlighting the strengths and revealing weaknesses and areas that need additional development. The next stage is to start a testing phase with young people and with stakeholders to refine and polish the toolkit.

We are also developing relationships with “trusted intermediaries” – organisations and individuals who are wiling to adopt and use the toolkit with their own communities. As the UnBias project concludes in August, our aim is to have the toolkit ready for deployment by whoever wants to use it this Autumn.

The Charter of the Forest & The New Enclosures

November 6th 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of The Forest – a landmark document in English law which guaranteed common people access to royal lands to forage, graze their animals, gather wood for fuel and building and to conduct small scale farming. Coming two years after the Magna Carta whose benefits were limited to a small number of barons, the Charter of the Forest set out a “a system of governance for the common stewardship of shared resources”, an early understanding of the importance of mutuality and reciprocity between people and living natural systems. Since England was covered by roughly two thirds forest – much of which was “royal” land, this was the equivalent of guaranteeing that the poorest people would be able to subsist off the land without fear of the harsh punishments that had been imposed in the late 1080s by King William II (“Rufus”) and later by King Henry II.

The Charter of the Forest, like Magna Carta, was incorporated into English Statute Law in 1297 and has the distinction of remaining law until revoked in 1971 (its key provisions having been incorporated into subsequent Acts of Parliament over the centuries and finally into the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971). One of its effects was to constrain monarchs and landowners from enclosing ‘common’ land by default, although in later periods this was circumvented by the passing of individual Acts of Parliament – most notably in the 18th Century when huge areas were sequestered by the nobility and the wealthy for their own personal gain at the expense of local communities.

“The Charter of the Forest guaranteed access to the land for common people to forage, graze their animals, farm and gather wood for fuel, building and industry. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, it guaranteed rights to herbage (gathering berries and herbs), pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (wood to build homes, make tools and for firewood), agistment (grazing), turbary (cutting of turf for fuel), and the collecting of honey.”
Julie Timbrell

The charter also granted smallholders rights to farm: “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.” In this respect, the charter’s guarantees may have provided inspiration for critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine, whose books Common Sense, Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice set out key concepts of liberty, governance and equitable access to the commonwealth (such as a universal basic income).

 

The Charter of the Forest is included in the set of books I published in 2015 celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – read it online, download and make up your own copy, or purchase one of the last remaining sets (bound with red silk).

The New Enclosures

The digital revolution and the growth of network communications has led to an extraordinary profusion of new types of ‘commons’ whilst, at the same time, seeing a breathtakingly rapid enclosure of these ‘commons’ by a handful of global corporations. Their rise to pre-eminence over the initially fragmented and anarchic world wide web has been swift yet is by no means certain or secure. The growing scandal of electoral interference via social media advertising in the 2016 US election and Brexit Referendum (as well as reported hacking in the 2017 French presidential election) has exposed just how vulnerable to (if not complicit in) uncivil, anti-democratic action these platforms are. Coupled with the Snowden revelations of blanket surveillance by US & UK government agencies (no doubt mirrored to some degree by other governments elsewhere) we can see that these technologies are fundamentally imbalanced in favour of large, opaque institutions and corporations.

Its clear that the digital realm will need more than just bland promises to act well from those who seek to profit from it most. It is as intrinsically a network of sites and places where humans come together to interact as any other traditional places where rules, laws and social conventions define the ways in which we behave in our own interests without harming others. Those who have power in these spaces are, from time to time, held accountable and required to act with responsibility. Such conventions differ across cultures, societies and jurisdictions and there have been (and remain) many notable exceptions, severe imbalances and asymmetries. In our uncertain times, it is to models of stewardship of the commons like the Charter of the Forest that we could look for precedents in developing compacts – about the kind of world we want to live in – between ordinary people and those who have power.

2018 will see the adoption across the European Union of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – what is probably the most important shift in how we will come to use digital technologies in recent memory. The GDPR creates some new rights for individuals and strengthens certain existing rights: to be informed; of access; to rectification; to erasure; to restrict processing; to data portability; to object; and, in relation to automated decision making and profiling. It also regulates data  ‘controllers’ and ‘processors’ to be accountable in demonstrable ways and to maintain comprehensive records of all data control and processing. There are, however, significant loopholes (via the derogations) that may well be exploitable by governments, public agencies and corporations in spite of the GDPR’s provisions.

Others have also sought to find complementary ways to negotiate the boundaries between platforms and users: one noteworthy attempt (which I made a small contribution to) is the Social Charter for Smart Platforms, created as part of the EU’s Smart Society research project. Such charters are, I believe, fundamentally different from some of the more exotic technological attempts to ‘automate’ trust by devolving conscious responsibilities and observation of mutual obligations to background processes – such as the ‘blockchain‘. These simply replace one set of powerful people at the centre of key social processes (bankers, politicians, lawyers etc) for another set (engineers & programmers) who understand and can manipulate the fiendish complexities of its computational processes. If anything, I believe we need to rely less on automated systems that replace human consciousness, and focus more on engaging people to feel their own agency in participating in the relationships that drive our societies and cultures. 

What I think the Charter of the Forest offers us is a model for how we can come to describe things that are beyond private ownership – things that belong to a commonwealth we can all share in, nurture and harvest from. How our current generations steward these resources, be they tangible systems of living nature, physical resources or intangible ideas and knowledge is what is at stake. After the horrors of the Second World War and the upheavals of the mid-Twentieth Century, it seemed as though there was a chance that a fairer world was slowly emerging. But relentless greed and the modern day enclosures of wealth and resources principally via privatisation of national assets, the sequestration and obscuring of wealth in tax havens away from its fair contribution to taxation, these factors have dire historical precedents and echoes. Increasing inequality, reducing fairness and commonality have only ever resulted in catastrophic civilisational upsets or collapse. Coupled with impending climate change the pressure for radical change in how we share our world and govern our polities can only build up so much before something ruptures.

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity…

…What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”
Frantz FanonThe Wretched of the Earth