HCID seminar talk

Six weeks into the new job and I’ve been giv­en a sem­in­ar slot. Here’s the abstract: 

Think we must *

Excerpt, quoting "think we must" from Virginia Woolf's Six Guineas

Vir­gin­ia Woolf (1938) Three Guineas. Hog­ar­th Press.

It’s been a thrill to join HCID and City and to be wel­comed so warmly by many of you. In this talk, I’d like to intro­duce myself in a more delib­er­ate way, spin­ning a thread through my career path that cap­tures what’s import­ant to me and what has helped me find my way.

Start­ing way back with work at Xer­ox, and then my twists and turns into aca­demia and then industry again, at Microsoft, I’ll talk through punc­tu­ated moments in my research — about teen­agers and their mobile phones; fam­il­ies liv­ing amongst their clut­ter; and neigh­bour­hoods cop­ing with com­mun­al life and data aggreg­ates. What I’ll try to con­vey is how it’s been a think­ing that has anim­ated me through­out this work, a think­ing not always with clar­ity and cer­tainly a think­ing with many knots and frayed ends, but nev­er­the­less a think­ing. A point I want to reflect on, then, is how ideas thread into our work, weav­ing togeth­er a lively tapestry. I like the way Carla Hus­tak and Nata­sha Myers use, invol­u­tions here as a “‘rolling, curl­ing, turn­ing inwards’ that brings dis­tinct spe­cies togeth­er to invent new ways of life” (2013: 96).

Through my own invol­u­tions, I’ll try to use this talk to work my way to a think­ing that has a gen­er­at­ive mode — a mode with both an open­ness and an ongo­ing­ness to it that invites more, always more. For me, this is a mode of think­ing that affects one­self and that demands a care, because it is not just about study­ing the worlds we inhab­it, it is about mak­ing those worlds and the con­di­tions of pos­sib­il­ity that come with them. I sup­pose, above all else, this is a talk invit­ing a think­ing of this kind that we might do togeth­er — it is to pose an open ques­tion about our think­ing and about what worlds we might make possible. 

* My title is inspired by Isa­belle Stengers and Vin­ciane Despret who bor­row the phrase Think we must” from Vir­gin­ia Woolf, and use it to pon­der gen­er­at­ively on their lives in the academy.

Hus­tak, C & Myers N. 2013. Invol­u­tion­ary Momentum: Affect­ive Eco­lo­gies and the Sci­ences of Plant/Insect Encoun­ters.” dif­fer­ences 23(3):74 – 118.
Stengers, I., & Despret, V (2015). Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaith­ful Daugh­ters of Vir­gin­ia Woolf. Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press. 

Keeping open”

My Microsoft Smart Card
“... to keep unpack­ing, reveal­ing, open­ing and uncon­ceal­ing, we need also to think dif­fer­ently. Along­side unpack­ing and con­nect­ing we need to argue for dif­fer­ent worlds to those which dom­in­ate us.” 

I’m delighted to be start­ing a new job this Septem­ber at City, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. I’ll be join­ing the lively Centre for HCI Design (HCID). Both Steph and Simone, the centre’s co-directors, have been amaz­ingly gen­er­ous in pre­par­ing me for my new role and dis­cuss­ing the dir­ec­tions we might take things in. I’ve also begun to rough out new lines of research with my soon to be col­leagues and I eagerly anti­cip­ate set­ting things in motion. Nat­ur­ally my chal­lenge will be to keep a lid on my enthu­si­asm, leav­ing the energy to improve my teach­ing and engage a stu­dent cohort in caring about the entan­gle­ments between tech­no­logy and social life — and the thrills and spills that come with such a care.

My Microsoft smart card front

Of course, a decision like this, to leave a work­place I’ve been at for 14 years (almost to the day), comes with a sea of emo­tions. Many will know that over the years I’ve felt a little uneasy at Microsoft, most espe­cially because of my pos­i­tion in an organ­isa­tion that stands as one of the suc­cesses in a troubled time of cap­it­al­ism. But why I joined Microsoft Research and why I stayed so long is for anoth­er time. Here, it is enough to say that for a time, quite a long time in fact, Microsoft Research felt a vibrant place to be. Sur­pris­ing to some, per­haps, it kept the door open to ideas and as I would like to think of it oth­er ways worlds might be made.

What I feel I do owe an explan­a­tion for is what at this moment leads me to return to’ (as I like to think of it) an aca­dem­ic life. I am for­tu­nate enough to have dear friends and col­leagues who would want to know what route I’m hop­ing to trace in leav­ing a richly resourced cor­por­ate research envir­on­ment to take on an aca­dem­ic pos­i­tion full with the duties of teach­ing, fund­ing pro­pos­als, excel­lence frame­works, admin and — where the space can be made — a little research. Many close to me have exclaimed dis­be­lief in even the con­tem­pla­tion of such a move, espe­cially now when aca­demia in the UK is more than ever driv­en (and riv­en) by forces tuned to meas­ure­ment and market-place regimes. And of course, these logics and their accom­pa­ny­ing dis­may are not just per­vas­ive in the UK, as Isa­belle Stengers and Vin­ciane Despret write from their vant­age point in Belgium:

We have the impres­sion of help­lessly bear­ing wit­ness to the end of an epoch, one where we could be delighted in see­ing young women (and young men as well) acquire a taste for research and ven­ture out wherever their ques­tions would lead them— that is, to become cap­able of this free­dom which we have both profited from.

So, amidst all this, what draws me into the academy and attracts me to HCID at City? Well, it may sound too full of con­tra­dic­tions, but it is the prom­ise, the charged-potential it holds for an intel­lec­tu­al life, a life in which as Stengers and Despret exclaim, we are obliged to think: 

think we must!” 

I’m under no illu­sion that life as an aca­dem­ic retains much if any­thing of its mon­ast­ic tra­di­tions, and I am hon­estly not at all inter­ested in repro­du­cing the elit­ism that feels inher­ent in those tra­di­tions. The draw for me is the pos­sib­il­ity. With an aca­dem­ic life, I want to believe in an aggreg­ate of rhythms and rela­tion­ships that, no mat­ter how fraught and trouble-prone, have at their core the fos­ter­ing and nour­ish­ing of ideas, and the chance to think and to make a dif­fer­ence for the bet­ter. In this vein, there is so much to inspire me in Sarah Ahmed’s recent book, Liv­ing a Fem­in­ist Life”; while I’m reluct­ant to water-down her power­ful work­ing through of fem­in­ism, I’ve found many things that resonate:

To live a fem­in­ist life is to make everything into some­thing that is ques­tion­able. The ques­tion of how to live a fem­in­ist life is alive as a ques­tion as well as being a life question.

I am, then, com­pelled by the pos­sib­il­it­ies the academy and my new centre afford to open up spaces for think­ing, to seed schol­arly com­mit­ments, and have bod­ies (of all kinds) become more cap­able. In my stud­ies, writ­ing, teach­ing, ment­or­ing, and yes even in those plen­ti­ful admin­is­trat­ive duties I’ll have to wade through, I want to believe there remains the chance to wil­fully shake the found­a­tions” , to res­ist a sin­gu­lar ver­sion of the world, with its ines­cap­able truths” ; I want to believe there is still the chance to have dif­fer­ent ideas mat­ter, dif­fer­ent val­ues mat­ter, dif­fer­ent bod­ies and voices mat­ter, dif­fer­ent mat­ters mat­ter. I like the way Bev Skeggs re-channels the anger she feels into an expres­sion of hope and pro­ject of dif­fer­ence mak­ing, and it’s a sim­il­ar chan­nel­ing that I want to work with:

I for one am exceed­ingly angry about all the cruelty that is imposed on the poor and vul­ner­able by our cur­rent gov­ern­ment but anger is not enough. For if we are just trapped in neg­at­ive affects how do we live and flour­ish? And I’m not just talk­ing about the ameli­or­a­tions that enable us to cope on a daily basis, or the dis­pos­i­tions of cyn­icism and skep­ti­cism, but those moments when we can envis­age a bet­ter world with bet­ter people, where we care and pay atten­tion and affec­tion to others.”

From this stand­point, it feels like there might be no bet­ter time to put one’s body into aca­dem­ic life. Under­stand­ably many are tired of the con­di­tions, but for me it seems pos­sib­il­it­ies are being enlivened for more chances, more ways, more means to do otherwise.

So, I sup­pose I find myself embark­ing on a life in the academy — and what feels like com­ing home — because I want to put my weight behind the small but grow­ing call to res­ist, and at the same time — with one-step-at-a-time — work with those build­ing the con­di­tions for repar­a­tion. HCID, with its focus on and involve­ment in design, fits in here because it provides a space for mak­ing mat­ter to think with, and for invent­ing meth­ods that are not just respons­ive but respons­ible. To me, HCID feels open, open to think­ing ima­gin­at­ively with tech­no­lo­gies and open to mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. It’s this keep­ing open” that I see as the invitation. 

There are so many I want to thank for the time they’ve giv­en me, help­ing me either know­ingly or not to make what has been an immense decision. Friends who have helped me dir­ectly include Abi Sel­len, Aman­da Windle, Cecily Mor­ris­on, Daniela Ros­ner, Kenton O’Hara, Nina Wake­ford, Lara Hou­s­ton, Phoebe Sen­gers, Richard Harp­er, Simon Tho­ro­good, and Steve Jackson.
Pos­sibly less aware of their help, but import­ant to me non­ethe­less have been Abi Dur­rant, Alis­on Marlin, Anab Jain, Anja Thieme, Ari Schle­sing­er, Barry Brown, Byron Cook, Cindy Ben­nett, Dave Kirk, John Helmes, Kat Jun­gknick­el, Kate Craw­ford, Kia Höök, Lucian Leahu, Mark Perry, Mary Gray, Nate Kush­man, Sam­in Ish­tiaq, Silvia Lindtner, Tar­leton Gillespie and Tim Regan.
Finally, I must thank my fam­ily, my patient and ded­ic­ated part­ner, Car­oline, my two chil­dren (who have told me they will sorely miss the Microsoft parties), and my always com­fort­ing can­ine companions.


From Joanna Latimer and Bever­ley Skeggs art­icle, The polit­ics of ima­gin­a­tion: keep­ing open and crit­ic­al.
I like the way Anna Tsing talks about liv­ing with cap­it­al­ism, and I sup­pose this could be one way to tell my story at Microsoft: We are stuck with the prob­lem of liv­ing des­pite eco­nom­ic and eco­lo­gic­al ruin­a­tion. Neither tales of pro­gress nor of ruin tell us how to think about col­lab­or­at­ive sur­viv­al. It is time to pay atten­tion to mush­room pick­ing. Not that this will save us — but it might open our ima­gin­a­tions.” 2015: 18.The Mush­room at the End of the World: On the Pos­sib­il­ity of Life in Cap­it­al­ist Ruins. Prin­ceton Uni­ver­sity Press.
Not look­ing for an easy way out, I’ve found anoth­er story to tell through fem­in­ist schol­ar­ship, tra­cing a line through Mar­ilyn Strathern, Donna Har­away, Maria Puig de la Bel­lacasa, and Michelle Murphy. Togeth­er, they remind us there are no inno­cent pos­i­tions we can inhab­it amongst the ruins: “‘Pro­duct­ive doings that sup­port liv­able rela­tion­al­it­ies’ (Puig de la Bel­lacasa, 2011: 93) are not just com­plexly val­ued and deval­ued but are ena- bled through non-innocent his­tor­ic­ally and spa­tially layered dis­tri­bu­tions of belong­ing and ali­en­a­tion, com­fort and unease.”
Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaith­ful Daugh­ters of Vir­gin­ia Woolf, by Stengers and Despret, has been a pro­found book for me and will be some­thing I revis­it again and again. I’m espe­cially stuck by the hon­est, per­son­al and spec­u­lat­ive styles Stengers and Despret stay with through­out the text.
Again, from Stengers and Despret’s book Women Who Make a Fuss.
Ahmed presents such an intensely per­son­al account of fem­in­ism in Liv­ing a Fem­in­ist Life”. I’m determ­ined for it to shape both my work and my life. It’s worth keep­ing track of the blog related to the book, Fem­in­ist Kill­joys, as Ahmed is updat­ing it with new work.”
See Ahmed
See Stengers and Despret
I make more than an allu­sion here to the word­ing that I love in Donna Haraway’s recent book Stay­ing with the Trouble”: It mat­ters what mat­ters we use to think oth­er mat­ters with; it mat­ters what stor­ies we tell to tell oth­er stor­ies with; it mat­ters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descrip­tions describe descrip­tions, what ties tie ties. It mat­ters what stor­ies make worlds, what worlds make stories.”
Bev Skeggs work on value, and as an example this piece Val­ues bey­ond value? Is any­thing bey­ond the logic of cap­it­al?”, have been import­ant for me in under­stand­ing how we might res­ist, and what we are seek­ing to resist.
Like Skeggs, Ahmed, reminds us that the ten­sions are what com­pel us to won­der, to pon­der, to think: It is when we are not attuned, when we do not love what we are sup­posed to love, that things become avail­able to us as things to pon­der with, to won­der about.” Anoth­er book that is import­ant in this repar­at­ive pro­ject is The Slow Pro­fess­or, by Mag­gie Berg and Bar­bara Seeber.

William Kentridge — A drawing lesson”

“... can we be bet­ter than who we are, can we be oth­er than who we are?”
I’ve been try­ing to think about cap­ab­il­ity for a little while and try­ing to make sense of how we become able. What I’ve wanted to get away from is an idea of abil­ity that we feel defined or lim­ited by — the pre­sumed lim­its of abil­ity dic­tated, sup­posedly, by our bod­ily and men­tal capacities.

Today I came across this lovely video of and by the artist Wil­li­am Kentridge. He expresses so much of what has engaged me in this sub­ject mat­ter, but with such elo­quence and so vividly.

Article in Design Issues

Design Issues, Sum­mer 2017, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 25 – 36

Cover art for Design Issues, 33 (3) 2017

ABSTRACT — In his 2015 Research Through Design pro­voca­tion, Tim Ingold invites his audi­ence to think with string, lines, and mesh­works. In this art­icle I use Ingold’s con­cepts to explore an ori­ent­a­tion to design — one that threads through both Ingold’s ideas and Vin­ciane Despret’s vivid and mov­ing accounts of human-animal rela­tions. This is a think­ing and doing” through design that seeks to be expans­ive to the capa­cit­ies of humans and non-humans in rela­tion to one another.
I’m so pleased to finally have this art­icle pub­lished in Design Issues, and very grate­ful to Abi­gail Dur­rant, John Vines, Jayne Wal­lace, and Joyce Yee for all their help with edit­ing my text and the Spe­cial Issue: Research Through Design: Twenty-First Cen­tury Makers and Mater­i­al­it­ies.

In my con­tri­bu­tion, I’ve reflec­ted on Tim Ingold’s pro­voca­tion at the Bien­ni­al Research Through Design con­fer­ence, and tried to play around with open­ing up a more gen­er­at­ive kind of design. My exper­i­ment has been to put Ingold’s ideas of lines and mesh­works in con­ver­sa­tion with Vin­ciane Despret’s uplift­ing stor­ies of anim­als and becom­ings. A strange mix, but one that for me at least raises plenty of inter­est­ing ques­tions — and isn’t it more ques­tions we need?!

For an early draft of the art­icle see:  What lines, rats and sheep can tell us, Design Issues 2017

Vienna art, design, and architecture biennale

Anab Jain very kindly asked me to con­trib­ute a short piece to the pro­gramme for the Vienna art, design, and archi­tec­ture bien­nale.

With the motto:
Robots. Work. Our Future”

... the Bien­nale sets the devel­op­ments in robot­ics and AI against the future of work and labour. I’ve used this as an invit­a­tion to con­sider two modes’ of capability:

When it comes to judging the capa­cit­ies of humans and non­hu­mans, we are drawn to two modes of exist­ence. In one mode, we are com­pelled to see cap­ab­il­ity as resid­ing with­in an act­or, as an intrins­ic qual­ity of their being. A favour­ite determ­in­ant is the brain-weight to body-weight ratio; anoth­er is genet­ic pre­dis­pos­i­tion. We have devised all man­ner of tests to isol­ate human and non­hu­man capa­cit­ies: IQ tests, rats mazes and Tur­ing tests among them. Nat­ur­ally, humans come out on top using most counts.

In the second mode, we observe act­ors excel in their achieve­ments. We allow ourselves to be sur­prised and delighted by exhib­i­tions of capa­city that exceed our expect­a­tions (and that con­tra­vene the first mode in so many ways). To find evid­ence of this mode, one need only turn to that vast repos­it­ory of record and obser­va­tion, You­Tube, and wit­ness the view­ing num­bers for titles like spe­cies [x] and spe­cies [y] play­ing togeth­er”, spe­cies [x] and spe­cies [y] unlikely friends”, and so on. As these titles sug­gest, cap­ab­il­ity is often recog­nised here as accom­plished with oth­ers — with oth­er objects, oth­er act­ors, oth­er critters.

Spec­u­lat­ing on human capa­cit­ies — on what humans might be cap­able of and how they might work in the future — I find myself ask­ing, as the anim­al stud­ies schol­ar Vin­ciane Despret does, which of these modes is more inter­est­ing’ and which makes more inter­est­ing’. Which of these modes invites us to spec­u­late on new fab­u­la­tions of act­ors of all kinds, of act­ors becoming-with each oth­er, of becom­ing other-than-humanly-capable, of becom­ing more capable?

I am taken by the mode that views cap­ab­il­ity as col­lect­ively achieved and that invites those con­di­tions that enlarge capa­cit­ies through on-going inter­ming­lings. The future of work, through this mode, will be dic­tated not by the lim­its of being human, but by how we might best attune ourselves with oth­ers, how we might become more cap­able together.

Platypus blog post

The Com­mit­tee for the Anthro­po­logy of Sci­ence, Tech­no­logy & Com­put­ing (CASTAC) and Rebekah Cul­pit kindly gave me the oppor­tun­ity to write a piece for Platy­pus (the CASTAC blog).

Titled Becom­ing More Cap­able”, the blog post sketches out some of the early ideas I’ve been think­ing with in con­nec­tion to dis/ability. Spe­cific­ally, it takes up a gen­er­at­ive (fem­in­ist inspired) pos­i­tion, that under­stands cap­ab­il­ity as col­lect­ively achieved, as a becoming-with’. The Platy­pus post is here, or see a longer un-edited ver­sion below.

We need to exer­cise the ima­gin­a­tion in order to elbow away at the con­di­tions of im/possibility.

Ingunn Moser & John Law (1999: 174)

What is it to be cap­able? How might we elbow away the con­di­tions that lim­it abil­ity, to become more cap­able? (more…)

Paper at 4S 2017

I’m thrilled to have our paper sub­mis­sion accep­ted to the . Cyn­thia Ben­nett and I will be busily pre­par­ing our paper for the always amaz­ing event, this year in August/September in Boston.

A care for being
more (cap-)able

Cyn­thia Ben­nett and Alex Taylor

In this paper, we begin with Ingunn Moser’s and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s gen­er­at­ive notions of care and use them to expand how we under­stand cap­ab­il­ity. Draw­ing on field­work with blind and vis­ion impaired people, we turn our atten­tion to a mater­i­ally enacted, unfold­ing sense-ability’. This is a sens­ing that puts (cap)ability and care togeth­er, that under­stands seeing-in-the-world’ as a prac­tic­al affair that is, at once, know­ing, effect­ing and affect­ing with oth­ers (humans or oth­er­wise). Thus, we show not only that care can con­test an instru­ment­al­ism’ in forms of know­ing and doing — by re-affecting objec­ti­fied worlds’ (Puig de la Bel­lacasa, 2011: 98) — but also give a great­er clar­ity to how care can be, in prac­tice, entangled in prac­tice. This sense-ability seeks to be act­ive, enliven­ing how we become cap­able; it is figured to be worked with, not finite and dic­tated by assumed bod­ily lim­its, but open to becoming-with and becoming-more. Bor­row­ing from Vin­ciane Despret, this sense-ability is to gain a body that does more things, that feels oth­er events, and that is more and more able…” (2004: 120).

Despret, V. (2004). The Body We Care For: Fig­ures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis. Body & Soci­ety, 10(2 – 3), 111 – 134.

Moser, I. (2011). Demen­tia and the Lim­its to Life. ST&HV, 36(5), 704 – 722.

Puig de la Bel­lacasa, M. (2011). Mat­ters of Care in Tech­nos­cience. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(1), 85 – 106.

4S is the Soci­ety for the Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence. The annu­al meet­ing details are here.

Do data publics work?

I presen­ted at the Data Pub­lics con­fer­ence last week­end, at Lan­caster Uni­ver­sity. Got lots of help­ful feed­back to some early thoughts on pub­lics (think­ing with some of my old favour­ites, Despret, Har­away, Marres, Stengers, etc.).

Pro­voked by Vin­ciane Despret’s W for Work”, in What would anim­als say if we asked the right ques­tions?”, my start­ing point was the question:

Are we think­ing well
with data publics?


Vin­ciane Despret (2016). W is for Work. In What Would Anim­als Say If We Asked the Right Ques­tions”. Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press: 177 – 184.

Talk at RCA, Design Products

I had a very gen­er­ous slot for present­ing to some in Design Products at the RCA this week.

Slides from RCA Design Products talk Feb 2017

In this talk, I want to sug­gest we have spent too much time work­ing with the lim­its of cap­ab­il­ity — the lim­its of the per­cep­tu­al appar­at­us, the lim­its of cog­nit­ive capa­cit­ies, and the lim­its of how crit­ters (wheth­er human or non­hu­man) inter­act and relate to one anoth­er. Draw­ing on a fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience and using examples from recent field­work, I’ll aim to show that, togeth­er, we make ourselves cap­able. That cap­ab­il­ity isn’t lim­ited to some pre-given, indi­vidu­al state, but comes into being through (inter)action, through entangled rela­tions between act­ors of all kinds. This, I’ll claim, gives us a very dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about our rela­tions with tech­no­logy and espe­cially the prom­ise of AI and machine learn­ing. Rather than machines aim­ing to rep­lic­ate human cap­ab­il­ity, I want to pro­pose an expans­ive pro­ject that allows us the chance to ima­gine some­thing other-than’ finite cap­ab­il­it­ies, that sees cap­ab­il­ity as a becoming-with’, and lays open the pos­sib­il­it­ies for much much more.


I’m hop­ing to fine-tune and do a little tidy­ing of these ideas for this talk at the Know­ledge Lab (Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion) later this month.