Reading Accounting for Slavery”

Rosenth­al, C. Caitlin. (2018). Account­ing for Slavery: Mas­ters and Man­age­ment. Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, Cam­bridge MA.

I’ve read a num­ber of Caitlin Rosenthal’s aca­dem­ic papers and have been anti­cip­at­ing this book for a while. The book doesn’t dis­ap­point. It cements and builds on her past work, and draws her insight­ful ideas togeth­er. Rosenth­al con­vin­cingly shows how the sys­tems of account­ing used in the (largely) ante­bel­lum South­ern States of the US served to man­age (and mas­ter) slaves, meth­od­ic­ally sus­tain­ing the viol­ence we know too well.

I par­tic­u­larly enjoyed Rosenthal’s care­ful exam­in­a­tion of the paper‐based records, show­ing in detail how forms, tables and cal­cu­la­tions objec­ti­fied people’s bod­ies as machinery in a cap­it­al pro­ject, in effect author­ising the bru­tal­ity. What I’d really like to see in any future work is how this line of inquiry ties into con­tem­por­ary slave stud­ies, with its strong and vital nar­rat­ive forms. This will no doubt present a chal­lenge, but one worth pur­su­ing.

Book cover for Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management - Caitlin Rosenthal
Account­ing for Slavery:
Mas­ters and Man­age­ment
Caitlin Rosenth­al.

HCID Seminar talk

I had the pleas­ure of present­ing as part of our very own HCID Sem­in­ar Series in Novem­ber. I took the oppor­tun­ity of try­ing out some early ideas about tables, a little clum­sily test­ing out ideas of how tables have been used in the record­ing of bod­ies, from the slave trade to the algorithmic modes of bod­ily account­ing so per­vas­ive today.

See the abstract for the talk below.

A return of slaves in the Parish of Jamaica, St Ann”, 28 June 1820. The National Archive.
A return of slaves in the Par­ish of Jamaica, St Ann”, 28 June 1820. The Nation­al Archive.
Convolutional Neural Networks for Sentence Classification. Yoo Kim
Con­vo­lu­tion­al Neur­al Net­works for Sen­tence Clas­si­fic­a­tion. Yoo Kim, arX​iv​.org, 2014.

The act of read­ing across and down, through the coordin­ate grid, to find inform­a­tion is a gen­er­at­ive act. [...]

This is not trivi­al, but essen­tial, to the per­form­at­ive cap­ab­il­it­ies of tables.

Joanna Druck­er

ABSTRACT: Through a num­ber of routes, I’ve found myself think­ing about tables, the kinds of tables with columns and rows. These tables lie behind so much of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of data and com­pu­ta­tion we are wit­ness­ing in con­tem­por­ary life. They are also core to much of the work we do as research­ers and design­ers. Yet too often we neg­lect the lively nature of these order­ing tech­no­lo­gies (Druck­er 2014). In offer­ing a prac­tic­al solu­tion for sort­ing and organ­ising pretty much any­thing (e.g., num­bers, times, dates, names, events, jour­neys, bod­ies, etc,), we over­look how they afford and author­ise very par­tic­u­lar ways of mak­ing mat­ter mat­ter (e.g. Rosenth­al 2018; Wern­i­mont 2018). Take Excel. The tool’s power­ful capa­cit­ies for order­ing items in a seem­ingly infin­ite num­ber of rows and columns — set­ting vari­ous sys­tems of organ­isa­tion against one anoth­er — is in no way inert. The expli­cit or implied hier­arch­ies, the cat­egor­ies and com­par­is­ons, the round­ings up or down, the spa­tial and cal­cu­lat­ive trans­form­a­tions, etc. — alto­geth­er, they are, already, telling a story. They are, if you will, tech­nos­cientif­ic world­ings” (Har­away 2016).

I want to use this talk as a for­cing func­tion to explore this line of thought and the rel­ev­ance it might have to the design of inter­act­ive sys­tems. For now, my view is that much is to be under­stood from the close exam­in­a­tion of tables‐in‐action’. I believe we might dis­cov­er many of the assump­tions and biases we have in inter­pret­ing data and con­duct­ing research by attend­ing to what we do with our tab­u­lat­ing prac­tices — prac­tices that, at first glance, appear so neut­ral. With this as a start­ing point, my hope will be to ima­gine worlds oth­er­wise. To ima­gine inter­ven­ing in the ways we work with tables so that we might extend and mul­tiply the worlds we make pos­sible.

  • Druck­er, Johanna. Graph­es­is: Visu­al forms of know­ledge pro­duc­tion. Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2014.
  • Har­away, Donna J. Stay­ing with the trouble: Mak­ing kin in the Chthu­lu­cene. Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2016.
  • Rosenth­al, Caitlin. Account­ing for Slavery: Mas­ters and Man­age­ment. Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2018.
  • Wern­i­mont, Jac­queline. Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media. MIT Press, 2018.

Cycling on up

I’ve been con­tinu­ing with my exper­i­ment­a­tions and thoughts on cyc­ling, and in par­tic­u­lar extend­ing my reflec­tions on my first Bor­is Bike’ jour­ney recor­ded in 2014 (see this chapter). There’ll hope­fully be more to come in the com­ing months that tie togeth­er the space‐times I tra­versed with oth­er records and dif­fer­ent accounts.


EASST 2018 Presentation

Abi­gail Dur­rant and I gave our paper Mod­el­ling Cells in/with risky comak­ings and devi­ous worlds” at EASST last week, in the fab­ulous Fem­in­ist Fig­ures pan­el.

Mod­el­ling cells in/with risky comak­ings and devi­ous worlds

We use String Fig­ures and Invol­u­tion­ary Momentum to read against the grain” of a con­tem­por­an­eous bio­logy char­ac­ter­ised by reduc­tion. Work­ing through the design of a tool that mod­els cel­lu­lar sta­bil­ity, we spin a yarn of affect­ively charged” rela­tions between research­ers, cells and tech­no­lo­gies.

Draw­ing from her found­a­tion­al stud­ies of bio­logy, Evelyn Fox Keller (2009:301) writes of a com­plex­ity and con­nec­ted­ness that might just char­ac­ter­ise our devi­ous” world(s). She has traced threads through bio­logy for over 40 years, draw­ing atten­tion to — amongst oth­er things — how it has often res­isted the explan­at­ory powers con­ferred upon its coun­ter­parts in oth­er nat­ur­al sci­ences. A prag­mat­ic approach has dom­in­ated, she extols, in which unknowns have been a part of biology’s messy real­ity.

Look­ing ahead, to the deep­en­ing entan­gle­ments between bio­logy and com­pu­ta­tion, we find con­tem­por­an­eous ima­gin­ar­ies sur­round­ing cel­lu­lar life to be test­ing this lin­eage. Cer­tainly — as Keller her­self has reflec­ted — com­pu­ta­tion makes pos­sible very par­tic­u­lar modes of under­stand­ing, ones con­form­ing to the reduct­ive, mech­an­ist­ic, and adapt­a­tion­ist logics” that char­ac­ter­ise a pre­vail­ing neo‐Darwinism (Hus­tak & Myers 2013:77).

In this paper, we wish to cut across what on the face it appears to be biology’s nar­row­ing move. By look­ing askew’, we hope to ask more about bio­logy and wheth­er or not it is being rendered com­pu­ta­tion­al. Examin­ing a pro­ject inves­ted in the com­pu­ta­tion­al chal­lenges of mod­el­ling cel­lu­lar sta­bil­ity, and rely­ing on the risky comak­ings” (Har­away 2016:14) between act­ors, algorithms and com­pu­ta­tion­al tools, we stay com­mit­ted to the troubles enlivened by knot­ted rela­tions. We use two fem­in­ist fig­ures, Haraway’s String Fig­ure, and Hus­tak and Myer’s Invol­u­tion­ary Momentum, to (re-)tell a story of unfold­ing rela­tion­ships between research­ers, cells and tech­no­lo­gies, spin­ning a yarn of affect­ively charged” (Hus­tak & Myers 2013) relays and knot­tings that res­ist sin­gu­lar fig­ur­ings.

Har­away, D.J., 2016. Stay­ing with the trouble: Mak­ing kin in the Chthu­lu­cene. Duke Uni­ver­sity Press.

Hus­tak, C. and Myers, N., 2012. Invol­u­tion­ary momentum: Affect­ive eco­lo­gies and the sci­ences of plant/insect encoun­ters. dif­fer­ences, 23(3), pp.74 – 118.

Keller, E.F., 2009. Mak­ing sense of life: Explain­ing bio­lo­gic­al devel­op­ment with mod­els, meta­phors, and machines. Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press.

Reading Critical Fabulations”

When we really need it — amidst so much dark­ness and gloom — Daniela Ros­ner has woven togeth­er an inter­ven­tion­ist design with a crit­ic­al fem­in­ist view to pro­duce some­thing so full of prom­ise. The gen­er­at­ive the­or­ising set out in the works of Donna Har­away, Anna Tsing, Saidiya Hart­man and so on (all such out­stand­ing fig­ures in con­tem­por­ary fem­in­ist schol­ar­ship) is put into prac­tice through an assort­ment of design inter­ven­tions. The design work is clev­erly presen­ted through a range of dif­fer­ent voices and per­spect­ives, alto­geth­er show­ing Rosner’s impulse to work cre­at­ively. But the book is much much more than this, it is about the stor­ies we are able tell in doing design and because of design. It is about a design prac­tice done dif­fer­ently — redo­ing design so that the absences and altern­at­ive ima­gin­ar­ies come to life.

Rework­ing the Meth­ods and Mar­gins of Design

Photo of 10 copies of Critical Fabulations book

What I really enjoyed in read­ing this book is that it offers a way for those of us in design to think with the kind of hope­ful schol­ar­ship com­ing out of fem­in­ist the­ory. For so many, schol­ars like Har­away are a chal­lenge to read, but not only does Ros­ner make this schol­ar­ship access­ible, she spins some­thing new into the ideas. She takes Haraway’s spec­u­lat­ive fab­u­la­tions’ and provides very tan­gible ways to think with’ stor­ies, and think oth­er’ and more than’ with stor­ies. Her design inter­ven­tions (con­sti­tut­ing a patch­work across the book) provide exem­plary ways of both under­tak­ing design and also think­ing with it. The centrepiece, the work Ros­ner has done with oth­ers on weav­ing the Apollo mission’s core memory’, speaks then to both a design­erly prac­tice for doing tech­no­lo­gic­al innov­a­tion and a way to do design in respons­ible, sens­it­ive and open‐ended ways.


Seminar talk and discussion with Daniela Rosner

I’m really thrilled to have Daniela Ros­ner vis­it­ing us at the Centre for Human‐Computer Inter­ac­tion Design (HCID), and espe­cially excited about her HCID sem­in­ar talk. She’ll be expand­ing on ideas from her book Crit­ic­al Fab­u­la­tions: Rework­ing the Meth­ods and Mar­gins of Design”, and Ann Light will act­ing as dis­cussant. For details see this Event­brite page.

Newcastle APL Talk

Talk­ing to the good people at Newcastle’s School of Archi­tec­ture, Plan­ning & Land­scape (APL), I got the chance yes­ter­day to devel­op and share my slowly evolving thoughts on bike jour­neys, bod­ies and fab­u­la­tions.

Liv­ing Fruit­fully in/with the con­di­tions of (im‐) pos­sib­ilty


In this talk, I want to revis­it a piece I wrote in 2016. The piece, a chapter in Dawn Nafus’ book Quan­ti­fied (2016), was inten­ded as a story of prom­ise, a fab­u­la­tion about London’s bike rent­al scheme and how it might be used to re‐imagine new fig­ur­ings of human‐machine rela­tions. Think­ing across, askew, or athwart” (Hus­tak & Myers 2013), my exper­i­ment­ing with the rela­tion­al capa­cit­ies of bicycles, a city, (bio)sensing and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of data‐everywhere, aimed to res­ist the agen­cies of homo­gen­iz­a­tion” (Scott 1998) to explore the con­di­tions of pos­sib­il­ity for oth­er world­ings (Har­away 2016).

Reflect­ing on this work, I’ve felt a dis­sat­is­fac­tion with my efforts to throw togeth­er mix­tures of data at all scales, with the attempts at thick­en­ing and enliven­ing the rela­tions. It all felt too flat, too lack­ing in vital­ity. So, at the risk of appear­ing self indul­gent, this talk will present some early ideas for a dif­fer­ent story woven in and through the thick­et of rela­tions. Strug­gling to weave myself into London’s leg­acy with slavery and the viol­ent eras­ures of bod­ies and agency (Hart­man 2008), I’ll be try­ing to place myself at a much more fra­gile and tenu­ous junc­ture of space‐time, but at the same time still seek­ing to work fruit­fully in/with the con­di­tions of (im-)possibility.

Experiments in collective counting

Photo of contributions to self-service publication.

I’m really happy to have a short piece by me and Clara Crivel­laro included in the pub­lic­a­tion Self‐Service”, a col­lec­tion of con­tri­bu­tions respond­ing to . Kirsty Hendry and Ilona Sagar pro­duced the pub­lic­a­tion which was exhib­ited along­side their film screen­ing at the Glas­gow Inter­na­tion­al Fest­iv­al.

Photo of Experiments in collective counting, from the self-service publication.
Credits, from Experiments in collective counting.

In Exper­i­ments in col­lect­ive count­ing”, Clara and I write about the (ac)counting prac­tices on an estate in South East Lon­don and our efforts to inter­vene in a res­ol­utely sin­gu­lar logic of com­munity and value.

The Peck­ham Exper­i­ment was a social exper­i­ment tar­get­ing health. The Pion­eer Health Found­a­tion, the leg­acy to the exper­i­ment, describes it as an invest­ig­a­tion into the nature of health.” From 1926 to 1950 it was based in Peck­ham, south Lon­don at the Pion­eer Health Centre. For more inform­a­tion vis­it the Pion­eer Health Found­a­tion web­site.

FoI Request: Amount paid per year to repay Slavery Abolition Act loan

In response to a story repor­ted via a num­ber of news sites and explor­ing a thread in my own research, I sub­mit­ted a Free­dom of Inform­a­tion (FoI) request to Her Majesty’s Treas­ury on the 7th April. In brief, I reques­ted fur­ther details on the amount paid per year to repay the Slavery Abol­i­tion Act loan, a loan taken by the UK gov­ern­ment in 1834 to com­pensate’ slave own­ers for their loss of prop­erty’. Shock­ingly, this loan was being repaid up until 2015 by UK tax­pay­ers.

I made my request using the amaz­ing What­DoThey­Know site. I’ve included the text from my request below for con­text.
Screen shot of written response by HM Treasury to FOI request

To Her Majesty’s Treas­ury,

As widely repor­ted, in 1833 – 35 [1] the UK gov­ern­ment bor­rowed £20m, 40% of its nation­al budget, to recom­pense” slave own­ers for los­ing their prop­erty” [2] — under the Slavery Abol­i­tion Act. On 9 Feb­ru­ary 2018, HM Treas­ury announced (via Twit­ter) that this loan had been paid in full. A related FOI request that HM Treas­ury respon­ded to on 9 Feb­ru­ary 2018 sets the date of the loans con­sol­id­a­tion’ to be the 1 Feb­ru­ary 2015: The 4% Con­sol­id­ated Loan was redeemed on 1 Feb­ru­ary 2015” [3].

Under the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion act, I request fur­ther details of this loan. Spe­cific­ally, I request the annu­al amount paid per year since 1833 – 35.

I also request to total sum paid to repay the loan, includ­ing interest.

Yours faith­fully,
Alex Taylor

1. From the doc­u­ment­a­tion avail­able, it’s unclear wheth­er the loan began in 1833 or 1835.

2. This was covered by a num­ber of news organ­isa­tions. Two examples from the Guard­i­an fol­low:
 — https://​www​.the​guard​i​an​.com/​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​i​sfre...
 — https://​www​.the​guard​i​an​.com/​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​i​sfre...

3. https://​www​.gov​.uk/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​atio...

Hav­ing left their writ­ten response to the last day of the 20 work­ing days usu­ally allot­ted, HM Treas­ury replied with a some­what muddled mes­sage offer­ing some details, but not fully answer­ing my request. Some equi­val­ent to HM Treas­ury does not hold information/records” was used four times in a one‐page response:

HM Treas­ury does not hold inform­a­tion with­in the scope of your request.”

HM Treas­ury does not hold records dat­ing from this peri­od.”

HM Treas­ury does not hold any detailed inform­a­tion on the struc­ture or amounts of repay­ments...”

HM Treas­ury does not hold inform­a­tion on the total interest paid...”

The let­ter from HM Treas­ury is avail­able via What­DoThey­Know here.

I will be con­tinu­ing this research and share any fur­ther inform­a­tion I’m able to obtain.

Papers presented at CHI 18

Delighted to see the two great papers I con­trib­uted to being presen­ted at CHI 2018 in Montreal.

Ari Schle­sing­er, Kenton O’Hara and Alex Taylor (2018) Lets Talk about Race: Iden­tity, Chat­bots, and AI. In Pro­ceed­ings CHI 18. ACM Press.

Anja Thieme, Cyn­thia L. Ben­nett, Cecily Mor­ris­on, Edward Cutrell and Alex Taylor (2018) I can do everything but see!” – How People with Vis­ion Impair­ments Nego­ti­ate their Abil­it­ies in Social Con­texts. In Pro­ceed­ings CHI 18. ACM Press.

Abstract — Why is it so hard for chat­bots to talk about race? This work explores how the biased con­tents of data­bases, the syn­tact­ic focus of nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cessing, and the opaque nature of deep learn­ing algorithms cause chat­bots dif­fi­culty in hand­ling race‐talk. In each of these areas, the ten­sions between race and chat­bots cre­ate new oppor­tun­it­ies for people and machines. By mak­ing the abstract and dis­par­ate qual­it­ies of this prob­lem space tan­gible, we can devel­op chat­bots that are more cap­able of hand­ling race‐talk in its many forms. Our goal is to provide the HCI com­munity with ways to begin address­ing the ques­tion, how can chat­bots handle race‐talk in new and improved ways?
Abstract — This research takes an ori­ent­a­tion to visu­al impair­ment (VI) that does not regard it as fixed or determ­ined alone in or through the body. Instead, we con­sider (dis)ability as pro­duced through inter­ac­tions with the envir­on­ment and con­figured by the people and tech­no­logy with­in it. Spe­cific­ally, we explore how abil­it­ies become nego­ti­ated through video eth­no­graphy with six VI ath­letes and spec­tat­ors dur­ing the Rio 2016 Para­lympics. We use gen­er­ated in‐depth examples to identi­fy how tech­no­logy can be a mean­ing­ful part of abil­ity nego­ti­ations, emphas­iz­ing how these embed into the social inter­ac­tions and lives of people with VI. In con­trast to treat­ing tech­no­logy as a solu­tion to a sens­ory defi­cit’, we under­stand it to sup­port the tri­an­gu­la­tion pro­cess of sense‐making through pro­vi­sion of appro­pri­ate addi­tion­al inform­a­tion. Fur­ther, we sug­gest that tech­no­logy should not try and replace human assist­ance, but instead enable people with VI to bet­ter identi­fy and inter­act with oth­er people in‐situ.