On Counting

Kat Jung­nick­el kind­ly invit­ed me to a two day meet­ing as part of her con­tin­u­ing series of Trans­mis­sions and Entan­gle­ments events. Amidst oth­ers work­ing through new meth­ods and process­es, here’s what I had to say for myself on count­ing:

What is it to count and to be counted?
One way I have made sense of my work over the last 10 years at Microsoft has been to see it as a way of get­ting to grips with count­ing and in some ways com­ing to terms with being counted.

I could tell a few sto­ries about num­bers and counts, but let me say a bit about just two, that are, in dif­fer­ent ways, impor­tant for me.
The first one is admit­ted­ly a dry exam­ple, but I hope it might at least set us on our way..
About 4 years ago, I found myself part of a small team of sci­en­tists from sys­tems and cell biol­o­gy, and com­put­er sci­ence. The chal­lenge was to take a tool that had been devised to test bio­log­i­cal mod­els for what is known as sta­bil­i­ty and make it some­thing acces­si­ble to a wider com­mu­ni­ty of biol­o­gists, to those who would be deterred from work­ing with bio­log­i­cal mod­els pro­duced through lines of code and numbers.
I won’t go into the details of the com­pu­ta­tion here. I do want to say, though, that some­thing struck me in the work. This was how, through a very sophis­ti­cat­ed way of mak­ing counts and see­ing rela­tions, the par­tic­u­lar tool we were deal­ing with had the the­o­ret­i­cal capac­i­ty to test bio­log­i­cal sys­tems with an infi­nite num­ber of states! By manip­u­lat­ing the way num­bers or counts ref­er­ence one anoth­er, the tool could work through every pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion to deter­mine whether some sta­ble end point was always achieved. Sim­ple mod­els could be test­ed in this way in a mat­ter of min­utes, more com­plex ones in hours.
This is fan­tas­tic by itself, but more inter­est­ing for me was how an intrin­sic fea­ture of biol­o­gy, and espe­cial­ly wet-lab bench work, was dis­rupt­ed by this com­pu­ta­tion­al accom­plish­ment. Some­thing that is so inter­leaved in the work of exper­i­men­tal biol­o­gy, time, and more specif­i­cal­ly bio­log­i­cal time, ceased here to be present, at least in any recog­nis­able way. Instead, a com­pu­ta­tion­al time comes to count in which the mea­sures are pro­duced through the steps tak­en in a sequence of lem­mas (rough­ly trans­lat­ed as con­di­tion­al ‘argu­ments’ in logic).
So we begin to see here how count­ing and being count­ed can entan­gle. Some high­ly spe­cial­ized and com­pu­ta­tion­al­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­niques for trans­lat­ing bio­log­i­cal states into clus­ters of counts means that life, cell life, comes to count dif­fer­ent­ly. The cel­lu­lar mod­els have no way of enu­mer­at­ing the changes occur­ring in a tem­po­ral sequence. Through a dif­fer­ent fig­ur­ing, the cel­lu­lar life being enact­ed by the mod­els is done through a sort of state space where it is the den­si­ty and weight giv­en to the rela­tions that make a dif­fer­ence. So the tech­niques of enu­mer­a­tion and cal­cu­la­tion fun­da­men­tal­ly alter what mat­ters in the cel­lu­lar system.
To put it anoth­er way, the counts, bound up with a for­mal and algo­rith­mic log­ic, are a mat­ter of life and (I need to be care­ful here) death: for this tool is an exper­i­men­tal one tar­get­ed at mod­el­ling, for instance, healthy skin cell devel­op­ment and lean­ing more about those cas­es in which can­cer­ous rather than healthy cells proliferate.
I want to say here, then, that the modes of count­ing and how things come to count appear tight­ly entan­gled. I’ve missed too many of the impor­tant details here, but hope­ful­ly ever so faint­ly we catch a glimpse how count­ing can become a way to see and do lived worlds differently.
To turn to my sec­ond exam­ple, I’d like now to think through the data flows of London’s rental bikes and how I’ve used my own count­ing meth­ods to intro­duce, let us say, some trou­ble into the entanglements.
I see there to be two broad ways in which the ‘Boris bike’ data (made ‘freely avail­able by the pub­lic author­i­ty, Trans­port for Lon­don) are being used. One is tar­get­ed at sup­port­ing the users of the sys­tem, pro­vid­ing them with, for exam­ple, live counts of bike avail­abil­i­ty for the rough­ly 700 dock­ing sta­tions across the city. You can down­load apps, for instance, that show the near­est dock­ing sta­tions and the num­ber of bikes avail­able to rent.
The sec­ond com­mon use of the data is to visu­alise the usage, pic­tur­ing the pop­u­lar­i­ty of dock­ing sta­tions and some indi­ca­tion of the fre­quen­cy of jour­neys between them. The result is often a colour­ful map of nodes (dock­ing sta­tions) and lines of vary­ing den­si­ty between them (indi­cat­ing jour­ney frequency).
The first thing I want to say about these geospa­tial counts of bicy­cles will be of lit­tle sur­prise to us. These bikes and their data are bound inti­mate­ly to a pol­i­tics of the city. Yes, the Boris bikes were launched in 2010 by the con­tro­ver­sial con­ser­v­a­tive may­or of Lon­don, Boris John­son (hence their col­lo­qui­al name), and yes, the system’s sta­tus as a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship is often used as an exem­plary case for par­ti­san­ship on both sides of the public/private own­er­ship debates.
Things go deep­er than this though. Inter­weaved with the spa­tial con­fig­u­ra­tion of the city and a spe­cif­ic set of eco­nom­ic, tech­ni­cal and com­pu­ta­tion­al modes, we find a geog­ra­phy emerg­ing from the entan­gle­ments. Most obvi­ous­ly this is man­i­fest in the free 30 minute win­dow users have before they are charged on a per-minute basis for using the sys­tem. With about 95% of all jour­neys falling inside this count down, a car­togram of the city is pro­duced that has some fair­ly well-defined regions and bound­aries. These, more often than not, paint a pic­ture of a patch­worked city with hubs in the finan­cial dis­tricts and dense spokes fun­nelled to the res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hoods that ser­vice them. Large areas to the East and South East are ren­dered invis­i­ble in these cycle-slash-data routes. So the net­work of nodes and con­nec­tions, prob­a­bly unsur­pris­ing­ly, cor­re­spond to where wealth and pros­per­i­ty are accu­mu­lat­ing in the city.
At risk of over­sim­pli­fy­ing things, what I want to say here then is that the mul­ti­ple sys­tems of count­ing and the mate­r­i­al infra­struc­tures through which the counts are pro­duced do polit­i­cal work, but, and crit­i­cal to my point here, is they do a work that mere­ly reminds us of what we all already know; to bor­row Don­na Haraway’s , “Noth­ing”, not even num­bers, “come with­out their worlds”, and these worlds like the ones etched out of the Boris bike’s data maps reca­pit­u­late the kinds of dif­fer­ences we know too well.
Draw­ing heav­i­ly on Kat’s ever-so art­ful ways of treat­ing the empir­i­cal site — of treat­ing it dare I say with the dis­tain it deserves — my urge here has been to inter­vene, to find new entan­gle­ments that might pro­voke oth­er ways in which dif­fer­ence might be done, that might if you will trou­ble the transmissions.
So on one fine autumn day last Octo­ber I took my first ride on a Boris Bike, on bike num­ber 2175.
My jour­ney is between two dock­ing sta­tions that lie at the East­ern edge of the cycle scheme’s car­tog­ra­phy of routes and stops. The route, start­ing at a dock­ing sta­tion on Aber­feldy Street leads me fur­ther East (about 5km beyond the rental bike scheme’s east­ern most dock­ing sta­tion), through a series of neigh­bour­hoods that, despite their prox­im­i­ty to the fini­cal dis­trict, Canary Wharf, still feel a long way from London’s ever increas­ing pros­per­i­ty and cycles of gentrification.
After rid­ing North along the pop­u­lar mar­ket street, Green Street, in Newham I come back on myself, head­ing due West along the Newham borough’s Green­way, an embank­ment of green­ery and con­crete over­lay­ing the 150 year old North­ern Out­fall Sew­er, part of London’s net­work of Vic­to­ri­an sewage systems.
In total, my jour­ney takes 45 min­utes, start­ing at 16:45 and end­ing at 17:30. The aver­age jour­ney time for the 74 rides that began at the same time, across the scheme, was 15 min­utes. In the week pre­ced­ing my jour­ney 18 jour­neys began from Aber­feldy Street against a sev­en day total of 139,793 across the entire scheme.
My jour­ney is then an inten­tion­al move to the edges of London’s bike rental dock­ing sta­tions and the asso­ci­at­ed data trails of bike flows. Start­ing with the modes of count­ing that have suc­cess­ful­ly remind­ed us of what we already know, I’ve sought out some­thing else.
And to mess around with these counts fur­ther, my body is also instru­ment­ed with a range of off-the-shelf biosen­sors or self-mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems, each pur­port to cap­ture in some shape or form indi­vid­ual phys­i­o­log­i­cal or bod­i­ly phe­nom­e­na, steps, heart rates, glob­al posi­tion, a sequen­tial visu­al memory.
Again, my aim here is to infuse some­thing dif­fer­ent into the mix­ture of seem­ing­ly famil­iar counts. Intro­duc­ing pecu­liar jux­ta­po­si­tions and insta­bil­i­ties between counts, it is an attempt to sur­face oth­er kinds of flows and con­nec­tions that might just etch new topogra­phies into the city. What I real­ly want to do here is alter how we see life in the city, to trans­mo­gri­fy what counts, in answer to Nigel Thrifts evoca­tive call:
“We need spaces that graft… We need spaces that don’t line up. We need spaces that breathe dif­fer­ent atmos­pheres. We need new slopes, strips, roads, tracks, ridges, plains, seas… We need room. This is meant as an effort to make room.”
Here, I want to leave as ill defined any ideas for how things could come to count.
What I want to say though is that, what I’m strug­gling with is a sense of count­ing as an appa­ra­tus of trans­mis­sion for how we might open up the pos­si­bil­i­ties for new rela­tions. From my own exper­i­ment, the flux­es of rates, coor­di­nates, ‘steps’ , image sequences, and so on are open ques­tions about how we might sur­face a mix­ture of worlds, ones in which the counts spi­ral off the map lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, ones where we are not sure what might come to count.
Count­ing and being count­ed here then collapse:
Count­ing, becomes a way to inter­vene in the num­bers and to fur­ther entan­gle the panoply of eco­nom­ic, tech­ni­cal, com­pu­ta­tion­al, polit­i­cal, and eth­i­cal modes that make worlds. Count­ing is to shift what it is that counts, and to ask how life whether that be amongst cells or for those of us in liv­ing togeth­er, could be different.

1. See this paper for a longer account of the work on this mod­el­ling tool:
Alex S Tay­lor, Jas­min Fish­er, Byron Cook, Samin Ish­ti­aq, Nir Piter­man (2014) Mod­el­ling Biol­o­gy – work­ing through (in-)stabilities and fric­tions, Com­pu­ta­tion­al Cul­ture 1(3).
See this paper for a longer account of the work on this mod­el­ling tool: Alex S Tay­lor, Jas­min Fish­er, Byron Cook, Samin Ish­ti­aq, Nir Piter­man (2014) Mod­el­ling Biol­o­gy – work­ing through (in-)stabilities and fric­tions, Com­pu­ta­tion­al Cul­ture 1(3).
See Har­away, D., (1997), [email protected]_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM:
Fem­i­nism and Techno­science, New York: Rout­ledge. And also see la Bel­la­casa, de, M. P. (2012) ‘“Noth­ing comes with­out its world”: think­ing with care’, The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review, 60(2), 197–216.

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