On Simone’s ‘people as infrastructure’

People as Infrastructure
A few of us work­ing at the inter­sec­tion of data, civic­me­dia and cit­i­zen­ship are tak­ing a look at this arti­cle by AbdouMaliq Simone. Some ram­bling com­ments follow:
First, just a short point about style: I’m delight­ed to see Simone’s unapolo­getic use of rich descrip­tions of Jo’berg’s streets. They are in strik­ing con­trast to what I see to be the stan­dard ethno­graph­ic account in HCI papers. What I find tedious is the usu­al pre­am­ble in HCI works—explaining method—and then the use of par­tic­i­pants’ quotes as a kind of ‘proof’ of par­tic­u­lar points. Also, both point to a curi­ous idea of what it means to demon­strate evi­dence or proof. Simone both­ers with none of this. He gets straight to the sto­ries, to the rich descrip­tions of inner city Jo’berg and its under­bel­ly. (more…)

Talk at “Austerity Futures?”

Abstract for upcom­ing talk at Aus­ter­i­ty Futures? sem­i­nar 4.
houses long B&W [Big] data futures, from the street.
Sto­ries about big data are every­where. We’re being told how sig­nif­i­cant the impact of big data will be on our lives by all kinds of peo­ple in the know. And yet I’ve been grap­pling with what (big) data might real­ly mean to peo­ple who aren’t ful­ly signed up mem­bers of the digerati, those shapers, mak­ers and mod­ers of tech­no­log­i­cal futures. I’ve pon­dered, in short, on two sim­ple ques­tions: how does data mat­ter to ‘peo­ple on the street’, and how might they want it to mat­ter. In this talk, I’ll reflect on a project we’ve been build­ing up at Microsoft Research to begin work­ing through these ques­tions. I want to dis­cuss our efforts to ground a tech­no­log­i­cal imag­i­nary in ordi­nary life or, to put it anoth­er way, to enable a pro­duc­tive re-imag­in­ing of ‘big data futures’—to coin a phrase—from ‘the street’. I’ll describe how we’ve tak­en this chal­lenge quite lit­er­al­ly. Just over three weeks ago we began work­ing with one street in Cam­bridge, Teni­son Road. For at least a year, we plan to think through what data means for the Teni­son Road com­mu­ni­ty and in some cas­es to enable ways for the com­mu­ni­ty to inter­vene in the future imag­i­nar­ies. Although this won’t be a talk or for that mat­ter a project about aus­ter­i­ty, I cer­tain­ly think it is one in which aus­ter­i­ty and its reper­cus­sions will come to mat­ter. My aim, then, will be to reflect on how this is a project con­cerned with futures, futures that are heav­i­ly con­cen­trat­ed in the minds of the tech­no­log­i­cal elite, but also some that are more pedes­tri­an that might just offer alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties for what (big) data could mean and what we might do with it.
web: tenisonroad.com | email: [email protected] | twit­ter: @tenisonroad

Talk at INCITE-ing Transformation in Social Research

On Sat­ur­day (12 Oct) I pre­sent­ed a short paper reflect­ing on INCITE’s achieve­ments over the last 10 or so years at “INCITE-ing Trans­for­ma­tion in Social Research
Ref­er­enc­ing her New Media’s Inter­me­di­aries arti­cle, I want to glimpse back to reflect on how Nina Wake­ford posi­tioned INCITE and made sense of it against a back drop of cul­tur­al the­o­ry, sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies, CSCW and sociology
.. And, in doing this, I also want to peer for­ward, to con­sid­er what trou­bles there might be ahead, and what pro­duc­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties we might imag­ine for our­selves. (more…)

Short note on Solove’s ‘Nothing to Hide’

Some ear­ly thoughts on data and pri­va­cy, think­ing with Solove’s Noth­ing to Hide:
Ear­ly on in his 2011 book, Noth­ing to Hide, Daniel Solove makes a provoca­tive claim. He writes:
“Legal and pol­i­cy solu­tions focus too much on the prob­lems under the Orwellian metaphor—those of surveillance—and aren’t ade­quate­ly address­ing the Kafkaesque problems—those of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing” p.26
Solove’s point here is that much of the legal wran­glings and pol­i­cy mak­ing sur­round­ing pri­va­cy are based on the premise that peo­ple have some­thing to hide. Thus the aims have, by and large, been tied to secur­ing pro­tec­tions against surveillance—operating with­in the rubric of an “Orwellian metaphor”.
The broad­er argu­ment Solove makes is that this treat­ment of pri­va­cy is miss­ing the prover­bial trick.  As a con­cept, pri­va­cy doesn’t sim­ply entail peo­ple want­i­ng to hide things. For starters, accord­ing to Solove, “[m]any peo­ple don’t care about con­ceal­ing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of bev­er­ages they drink.” p.25 “[M]uch of the data gath­ered in com­put­er data­bas­es isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive, such as one’s race, birth date, gen­der, address, or mar­i­tal sta­tus.” P.25
It isn’t so much the gath­er­ing of infor­ma­tion that mat­ters, Solove con­tends. It’s what agen­cies like gov­ern­ments are doing with it—the “infor­ma­tion processing”—that counts. The allu­sion is to a Kafkaesque world in which the rela­tions between agen­cies and indi­vid­u­als are man­aged and con­trolled through the analy­sis of infor­ma­tion or data. The pow­er, so to speak, is held by those who can both access the data and sub­ject it to sophis­ti­cat­ed analy­sis. I take this use of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing to be anal­o­gous to big data ana­lyt­ics and cer­tain­ly most of the exam­ples Solve refers to sup­port this.
I don’t know what Solove’s sources are for sug­gest­ing “most peo­ple” don’t care about the con­tent of the infor­ma­tion being gath­ered about them (this recent Guardian arti­cle appears to con­firm this). I do get his broad­er point though. Cer­tain­ly, it’s lim­it­ing to see pri­va­cy as exclu­sive­ly based on the premise that peo­ple have some­thing to hide. More­over, the pos­si­bil­i­ties big data ana­lyt­ics open up for dis­cov­er­ing some pret­ty per­son­al things about peo­ple do seem daunt­ing, if per­haps over-hyped.
Yet, with­out want­i­ng to dis­count Solove’s argu­ment, I want to pro­pose a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about this issue of infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing. Seen from the ground up, we might also start to ask what peo­ple them­selves want to say through their data and using ana­lyt­ics. When Solove writes about “most peo­ple” I think we need to begin think­ing about what this actu­al means and if there are ways of mak­ing claims like this action­able. So, a counter to the “noth­ing to hide argu­ment” could be that most people—given the knowl­edge and tools—have “some­thing to say”. That is they may want to have some say over how their infor­ma­tion is dis­trib­uted, aggre­gat­ed, analysed and inter­pret­ed and, ulti­mate­ly, how it is pro­duc­tive­ly put to work. This cer­tain­ly won’t solve the mul­ti­ple prob­lems sur­round­ing pri­va­cy, but it may at least redis­trib­ute the pow­er and, in the process, give peo­ple some new ways of express­ing themselves.
Oh, and as it hap­pens, this ques­tion of how to enable peo­ple to have some sort of say and con­trol over what gets done with their infor­ma­tion is one of the moti­va­tions for the new project we’re ramp­ing up in my group at Microsoft Research.
* A thank you to Jes­sa Lin­gel for point­ing me to the first quote above from Solove.

Announcing Tenison Road launch

Final­ly post­ed some fly­ers to announce the launch of the big data project we’ll run for a year. We hope to work with the res­i­dents and pro­pri­etors on Teni­son Road in Cam­bridge to bet­ter under­stand how big data mat­ters and what peo­ple on the street want it to be. This is a project that is aim­ing to get at the inter­min­glings of data and local­i­ty, and to inter­vene in the entan­gle­ments in pro­duc­tive ways. That’s the hope! … Fin­gers crossed.

Changes to FoI Act

Some sig­nif­i­cant changes to the UK’s Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act were enact­ed yes­ter­day that give peo­ple to right to request and, crit­i­cal­ly, reuse data. It’s prob­a­bly easy to over­look the impli­ca­tions of this. The way I see it, every­one (includ­ing com­mer­cial bod­ies) now have the right to access FoI reg­u­lat­ed data and (re-)use it for analy­sis, ana­lyt­ics, build­ing apps, etc. Whether that’s good or bad, it seems pret­ty pro­found to me. See a sum­ma­ry of the changes here on the Infor­ma­tion Com­mis­sion­er’s Office blog.

Short note on ‘Objects, Infrastructure and Vocation’

Infra­struc­ture and Voca­tion: Field, Call­ing and Com­pu­ta­tion in Ecology
A bril­liant CHI paper by Steven Jack­son and Sarah Bar­brow. How many papers pre­sent­ed at CHI cite St. Augus­tine of Hip­po and, to boot, suc­ceed in draw­ing out rel­e­vant reflec­tions on sci­en­tif­ic mod­el­ling tools in ecol­o­gy. See­ing ecol­o­gy through the lens of both infra­struc­ture and the ‘voca­tion­al call­ing’ pro­vides a pro­duc­tive view onto what ecol­o­gists do and how their prac­tices are chang­ing. Jack­son and Bar­brow illus­trate this nice­ly by writ­ing of the chang­ing notion of ‘the field’ for ecol­o­gists. I see a strong par­al­lel here between ecol­o­gy and biol­o­gy. Biol­o­gy is a field very much in tran­si­tion and the changes have much to do with the mate­r­i­al encoun­ters in bio­log­i­cal work — with for exam­ple the chang­ing nature of biol­o­gists’ work at ‘the bench’ and with exper­i­men­tal appa­ra­tus. The turn to machines, com­pu­ta­tion and algo­rithms is not only reshap­ing the prac­tices but also refig­ur­ing what biol­o­gists know and how they see their phe­nom­e­na (some­thing we also tried to get across in At the inter­face of biol­o­gy and com­pu­ta­tion at CHI). A sim­i­lar con­clu­sion is being drawn out in this papers as it cap­tures the entan­gled rela­tions between the tools, prac­tices and ways of know­ing in ecology.

On always already

The phrase “always already” is, in the main, attrib­uted to the post­struc­tural­ist philoso­pher Jaques Der­ri­da. It has, how­ev­er, come to be a trope for the new mate­ri­al­ists and it is in this usage that I mod­est­ly take it on. Specif­i­cal­ly, my guid­ing sources are from the fem­i­nist techno­science schol­ars Don­na Har­away and Karen Barad, both of whom make heavy use of the phrase to trou­ble the bina­ries abound in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy (sub­ject-object, mind-mat­ter, inside-out­side, past-present, etc.).
For some back ground read­ing see The New Mate­ri­al­ist “Always Already”: On an A‑Human Human­i­ties.