CHI Workshop

Very hap­py to have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the CHI ’19 con­fer­ence workshop:
Explor­ing the Inter­sec­tion of Phi­los­o­phy and HCI

Ann Light and I wrote a short piece for the workshop: 

Figure from paper: Figure 1: Multispecies, multiscalar relations.

ABSTRACT: This short piece, far too short for the space it demands, spins togeth­er a live­ly and unwieldy sto­ry about methods—the prac­tices we in design and design research fol­low to both know about the world and to have an affect on it. We spec­u­late on a mode of doing design inflect­ed with ques­tions about what we are doing when we study and inter­vene in the world. This is a project full with the hope of renewed design­er­ly meth­ods that make more of/in the world; that pro­mote a flour­ish­ing of dif­fer­ence; and that might just lead to mod­est but bet­ter ways of liv­ing and dying togeth­er. Our phi­los­o­phy (if that is not too grand a word for it) comes less from a ”stand­ing on the shoul­ders” of any one per­son, and more a think­ing through and with fem­i­nist ways of know­ing, doing, and being. Weav­ing into a mesh of ideas from the likes of Barad, Der­ri­da, Dewey, Durkheim, Hack­ing, Har­away, Law, Stengers, and so on, we find there to be trou­bles between the ways we come to know the world (doings, meth­ods or prac­tices), and what we know (know­ings or the­o­ries). The prob­lem­at­ic dis­tinc­tion between such doings and know­ings, and the murky worlds between them, open up a space for think­ing-doing a world oth­er­wise. When we come to accept that what we do and what we know are always already togeth­er, and that this ’togeth­er­ness’ is all the world can be, then we, in design, are left with a begin­ning: “What worlds do we want to do-know?

Down­load PDF

Are you Research Excellent?

The UK’s nation­al Research Excel­lence Frame­work (REF) assess­ment is loom­ing. The for­mal dead­line is in 2021, but many will be already feel­ing the pres­sures in their insti­tu­tions and depart­ments to be mak­ing sense of their work in terms of REF’s met­rics and procedures.
I’ve found myself entan­gled in this world of REF recent­ly and want­i­ng to be able to make com­par­isons between insti­tu­tions and their “Units of Assess­ment” (REFs clas­si­fi­ca­tion of research dis­ci­plines and fields).
Using this pub­licly avail­able data, I’ve built a lit­tle tool to see how an insti­tu­tion’s unit of assess­ment did in the last assess­ment (cir­ca 2014) and view this against oth­er UoA results. 

screen grab of REF comparison tool

For now, I’m just visu­al­is­ing data from two units of assess­ment, Soci­ol­o­gy and Com­put­er Sci­ences and Infor­mat­ics.
You can com­pare your own insti­tu­tion’s Soci­ol­o­gy or Com­put­er Sci­ence scores against oth­ers’ in terms of Out­puts, Impact and Envi­ron­ment (the REF assess­ment profiles). 
I post this sen­si­tive to the trou­bles and com­pli­ca­tions that come with enact­ing aca­d­e­m­ic life using these sys­tems of account­ing. I’m grate­ful to Effie Le Moignan for remind­ing me of the troubles.

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,, 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.

A video cap­tured using the now defunct Auto­g­ra­ph­er. It cap­tures me pur­pose­ly cycling beyond the usu­al routes mapped by the rental bikes. from the Aber­feldy Street dock­ing sta­tion out through Newham to Green Street, along The Greenway/Northern Out­fall Sew­er, and then back to Bow.


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:……

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.