Vienna art, design, and architecture biennale

Anab Jain very kindly asked me to con­trib­ute a short piece to the pro­gramme for the Vienna art, design, and archi­tec­ture bien­nale.

With the motto:
Robots. Work. Our Future”

... the Bien­nale sets the devel­op­ments in robot­ics and AI against the future of work and labour. I’ve used this as an invit­a­tion to con­sider two modes’ of cap­ab­il­ity:

When it comes to judging the capa­cit­ies of humans and non­hu­mans, we are drawn to two modes of exist­ence. In one mode, we are com­pelled to see cap­ab­il­ity as resid­ing with­in an act­or, as an intrins­ic qual­ity of their being. A favour­ite determ­in­ant is the brain-weight to body-weight ratio; anoth­er is genet­ic pre­dis­pos­i­tion. We have devised all man­ner of tests to isol­ate human and non­hu­man capa­cit­ies: IQ tests, rats mazes and Tur­ing tests among them. Nat­ur­ally, humans come out on top using most counts.

In the second mode, we observe act­ors excel in their achieve­ments. We allow ourselves to be sur­prised and delighted by exhib­i­tions of capa­city that exceed our expect­a­tions (and that con­tra­vene the first mode in so many ways). To find evid­ence of this mode, one need only turn to that vast repos­it­ory of record and obser­va­tion, You­Tube, and wit­ness the view­ing num­bers for titles like spe­cies [x] and spe­cies [y] play­ing togeth­er”, spe­cies [x] and spe­cies [y] unlikely friends”, and so on. As these titles sug­gest, cap­ab­il­ity is often recog­nised here as accom­plished with oth­ers — with oth­er objects, oth­er act­ors, oth­er crit­ters.

Spec­u­lat­ing on human capa­cit­ies — on what humans might be cap­able of and how they might work in the future — I find myself ask­ing, as the anim­al stud­ies schol­ar Vin­ciane Despret does, which of these modes is more inter­est­ing’ and which makes more inter­est­ing’. Which of these modes invites us to spec­u­late on new fab­u­la­tions of act­ors of all kinds, of act­ors becoming-with each oth­er, of becom­ing other-than-humanly-capable, of becom­ing more cap­able?

I am taken by the mode that views cap­ab­il­ity as col­lect­ively achieved and that invites those con­di­tions that enlarge capa­cit­ies through on-going inter­ming­lings. The future of work, through this mode, will be dic­tated not by the lim­its of being human, but by how we might best attune ourselves with oth­ers, how we might become more cap­able togeth­er.

The promiscuity of interaction”

This is a brief com­ment on a meet­ing Barry Brown and I hos­ted at Microsoft Research Cam­bridge, titled .

Inter­ac­tion as a a promis­cu­ous concept”: it’s Stu­art Reeves’ phras­ing that nicely cap­tures the sen­ti­ment of our small meeting’s dis­cus­sions. The col­lec­tion of short talks and the emphas­is giv­en to talk­ing (and not just lec­tur­ing), gave rise to a lan­guage of crit­ic­al but pos­it­ive reflec­tion. Rather than delib­er­at­ing on an after’ or post’ inter­ac­tion turn or wave in HCI, inter­ac­tion was seen to still offer a great deal. The con­sensus (led by pos­i­tions from Dav­id Kirk, Abi Dur­rant , Bill Gaver and Stu­art) was it provides us with a device or machinery in com­mon, and, con­cep­tu­ally, there remains much to do with the word that keeps us open to new domains and indeed new (design) pos­sib­il­it­ies. Here, I’m reminded of Isa­belle Stengers use of the phrase a tool for think­ing”. It cer­tainly appears inter­ac­tion (still) provides us with just such a tool.

And yet I felt there was a shared frus­tra­tion (more…)

See this post as one source for the dis­cus­sion.
Kindly atten­ded by, Andy Bouch­er, Barry Brown, Rob Comber, Anna Cox, Abi Dur­rant, Bill Gaver, Elisa Giac­cardi, Kat Jung­nick­el, Dave Kirk, Airi Lamp­inen, Eric Laur­i­er, Lucian Leahu, Chris­ti­an Licoppe, Dave Mar­tin, Mike Michael, Mari­anna Obrist, Stu­art Reeves, Yvonne Rogers, Francesca Sal­vadori, Anja Thieme, Tony Weiser and Alex Wilkie.
Stu­art has pos­ted the notes to his talk here. He has sug­ges­ted this as a com­pli­ment­ary read­ing: Ander­son, B. and Shar­rock, W. (2013). Post­Mod­ern­ism, Social Sci­ence & Tech­no­logy.
Abi ref­er­enced the piece Edge Town” by Hook­er and Kit­chen (2004), in her short talk. She has also sug­ges­ted E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops’ for fur­ther read­ing. As she explains: [t]his is because this novella con­veys the ideas we dis­cussed about making-and-describing the macro and micro fea­tures of a world (of com­plex medi­ated inter­ac­tions) and, dare I say, the loc­al and glob­al’.  (With the 1:1 scale fea­tures of  inter­ac­tion being the stuff that design­ers can really work with. It man­ages to con­vey the com­plex­ity of a socio-technical sys­tem through depict­ing a few moments of rel­at­ively simple inter­ac­tion with the machine’.  The story also presents truly entangled human and non human bod­ies and their polit­ics, eth­ics, depend­en­cies, faith — and deals more spe­cific­ally with implic­a­tions around trans­par­ency with­in those medi­ated inter­ac­tions. This is des­pite being of it’s time and assum­ing cer­tain dif­fer­ences between people and the nat­ur­al world, and man and machine’.
See, Stengers, I. (2013). Intro­duct­ory notes on an eco­logy of prac­tices. Cul­tur­al Stud­ies Review, 11(1), 183 – 196.

Earthwide projects” at Shifting Borderlands, Aarhus 2015

I was delighted to par­ti­cip­ate in last month’s Shift­ing Bor­der­lands” work­shop at the decen­ni­al Aar­hus Con­fer­ence: Crit­ic­al Altern­at­ives . What an inspir­ing and mem­or­able event! My sin­cerest thanks to the organ­isers, Silvia, Mar­isa, Lucian, Hrönn and Carl.

The pos­i­tion papers — from a won­der­ful mix of people — are all online here. My own text was a short but ram­bling piece on some still under­developed ideas. I’ve been try­ing to think a little more crit­ic­ally about my role as a aca­dem­i­cian and a Microsoft research­er. Pre­dict­ably, in com­bin­a­tion, the roles raise all sorts of ques­tions and fric­tions for me. Increas­ingly, I’ve dir­ec­ted my efforts at think­ing about the worlds I’ve helped to enact and ask­ing wheth­er they are kinds of worlds that I would want to live in.

It’s hard to put it bet­ter than Donna Har­away:

My piece, Impact and Count­ing”, is avail­able here.

Har­away, D. (1988). Situ­ated know­ledges: The sci­ence ques­tion in fem­in­ism and the priv­ilege of par­tial per­spect­ive. Fem­in­ist stud­ies, 14(3): 579.

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. (more…)


After a tre­mend­ous about of work with Lara Hou­s­ton, I’m delighted to have finally gone live with our data policy site: data​-policy​.info. It attempts to detail, in vari­ous formats and cuts, the dis­cus­sions at the day of dia­logues on data, policy and civic life, held at Microsoft Research Cam­bridge. More than this though, we want the site to pro­mote fur­ther dis­cus­sion and expand the ways we might think of the rela­tions between data, social/civic life, and policy. For me, the inspir­a­tion here has been the work a few of us have been doing with Ten­ison Road in cam­bridge and a community’s efforts to make sense of and use its data. I’d like to think some­thing small and loc­al could make a dif­fer­ence in these big dis­cus­sions

Dialogues on data, policy and civic life


Next Tues­day a few of us at Microsoft Research are host­ing a day-long dia­logue to dis­cuss the inter­ming­lings of data and social/civic life. We’re bring­ing togeth­er a mix of social the­or­ists, com­ment­at­ors and policy advisers with the hope of draw­ing out pos­sib­il­it­ies for doing policy mak­ing (as well as tech­no­logy design) dif­fer­ently. Our pre­amble for the event fol­lows (a print­able PDF can be down­loaded here): (more…)