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.
Alex S Taylor, Jasmin Fisher, Byron Cook, Samin Ishtiaq, Nir Piterman (2014) Modelling Biology – working through (in-)stabilities and frictions, Computational Culture 1(3).
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.