“... to keep unpacking, revealing, opening and unconcealing, we need also to think differently. Alongside unpacking and connecting we need to argue for different worlds to those which dominate us.”
I’m delighted to be starting a new job this September at City, University of London. I’ll be joining the lively Centre for HCI Design (HCID). Both Steph and Simone, the centre’s co-directors, have been amazingly generous in preparing me for my new role and discussing the directions we might take things in. I’ve also begun to rough out new lines of research with my soon to be colleagues and I eagerly anticipate setting things in motion. Naturally my challenge will be to keep a lid on my enthusiasm, leaving the energy to improve my teaching and engage a student cohort in caring about the entanglements between technology and social life — and the thrills and spills that come with such a care.
Of course, a decision like this, to leave a workplace I’ve been at for 14 years (almost to the day), comes with a sea of emotions. Many will know that over the years I’ve felt a little uneasy at Microsoft, most especially because of my position in an organisation that stands as one of the successes in a troubled time of capitalism. But why I joined Microsoft Research and why I stayed so long is for another time. Here, it is enough to say that for a time, quite a long time in fact, Microsoft Research felt a vibrant place to be. Surprising to some, perhaps, it kept the door open to ideas and as I would like to think of it other ways worlds might be made.
What I feel I do owe an explanation for is what at this moment leads me to ‘return to’ (as I like to think of it) an academic life. I am fortunate enough to have dear friends and colleagues who would want to know what route I’m hoping to trace in leaving a richly resourced corporate research environment to take on an academic position full with the duties of teaching, funding proposals, excellence frameworks, admin and — where the space can be made — a little research. Many close to me have exclaimed disbelief in even the contemplation of such a move, especially now when academia in the UK is more than ever driven (and riven) by forces tuned to measurement and market-place regimes. And of course, these logics and their accompanying dismay are not just pervasive in the UK, as Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret write from their vantage point in Belgium:
We have the impression of helplessly bearing witness to the end of an epoch, one where we could be delighted in seeing young women (and young men as well) acquire a taste for research and venture out wherever their questions would lead them— that is, to become capable of this freedom which we have both profited from.
So, amidst all this, what draws me into the academy and attracts me to HCID at City? Well, it may sound too full of contradictions, but it is the promise, the charged-potential it holds for an intellectual life, a life in which as Stengers and Despret exclaim, we are obliged to think:
“think we must!”
I’m under no illusion that life as an academic retains much if anything of its monastic traditions, and I am honestly not at all interested in reproducing the elitism that feels inherent in those traditions. The draw for me is the possibility. With an academic life, I want to believe in an aggregate of rhythms and relationships that, no matter how fraught and trouble-prone, have at their core the fostering and nourishing of ideas, and the chance to think and to make a difference for the better. In this vein, there is so much to inspire me in Sarah Ahmed’s recent book, “Living a Feminist Life”; while I’m reluctant to water-down her powerful working through of feminism, I’ve found many things that resonate:
To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.
I am, then, compelled by the possibilities the academy and my new centre afford to open up spaces for thinking, to seed scholarly commitments, and have bodies (of all kinds) become more capable. In my studies, writing, teaching, mentoring, and yes even in those plentiful administrative duties I’ll have to wade through, I want to believe there remains the chance to wilfully “shake the foundations” , to resist a singular version of the world, with its “inescapable truths” ; I want to believe there is still the chance to have different ideas matter, different values matter, different bodies and voices matter, different matters matter. I like the way Bev Skeggs re-channels the anger she feels into an expression of hope and project of difference making, and it’s a similar channeling that I want to work with:
I for one am exceedingly angry about all the cruelty that is imposed on the poor and vulnerable by our current government but anger is not enough. For if we are just trapped in negative affects how do we live and flourish? And I’m not just talking about the ameliorations that enable us to cope on a daily basis, or the dispositions of cynicism and skepticism, but those moments when we can envisage a better world with better people, where we care and pay attention and affection to others.”
From this standpoint, it feels like there might be no better time to put one’s body into academic life. Understandably many are tired of the conditions, but for me it seems possibilities are being enlivened for more chances, more ways, more means to do otherwise.
So, I suppose I find myself embarking on a life in the academy — and what feels like coming home — because I want to put my weight behind the small but growing call to resist, and at the same time — with one-step-at-a-time — work with those building the conditions for reparation. HCID, with its focus on and involvement in design, fits in here because it provides a space for making matter to think with, and for inventing methods that are not just responsive but responsible. To me, HCID feels open, open to thinking imaginatively with technologies and open to making a difference. It’s this “keeping open” that I see as the invitation.
There are so many I want to thank for the time they’ve given me, helping me either knowingly or not to make what has been an immense decision. Friends who have helped me directly include Abi Sellen, Amanda Windle, Cecily Morrison, Daniela Rosner, Kenton O’Hara, Nina Wakeford, Lara Houston, Phoebe Sengers, Richard Harper, Simon Thorogood, and Steve Jackson.
Possibly less aware of their help, but important to me nonetheless have been Abi Durrant, Alison Marlin, Anab Jain, Anja Thieme, Ari Schlesinger, Barry Brown, Byron Cook, Cindy Bennett, Dave Kirk, John Helmes, Kat Jungknickel, Kate Crawford, Kia Höök, Lucian Leahu, Mark Perry, Mary Gray, Nate Kushman, Samin Ishtiaq, Silvia Lindtner, Tarleton Gillespie and Tim Regan.
Finally, I must thank my family, my patient and dedicated partner, Caroline, my two children (who have told me they will sorely miss the Microsoft parties), and my always comforting canine companions.
From Joanna Latimer and Beverley Skeggs article, The politics of imagination: keeping open and critical.
I like the way Anna Tsing talks about living with capitalism, and I suppose this could be one way to tell my story at Microsoft: “We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us — but it might open our imaginations.” 2015: 18.The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.
Not looking for an easy way out, I’ve found another story to tell through feminist scholarship, tracing a line through Marilyn Strathern, Donna Haraway, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, and Michelle Murphy. Together, they remind us there are no innocent positions we can inhabit amongst the ruins: “‘Productive doings that support livable relationalities’ (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011: 93) are not just complexly valued and devalued but are ena- bled through non-innocent historically and spatially layered distributions of belonging and alienation, comfort and unease.”
Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf, by Stengers and Despret, has been a profound book for me and will be something I revisit again and again. I’m especially stuck by the honest, personal and speculative styles Stengers and Despret stay with throughout the text.
Again, from Stengers and Despret’s book Women Who Make a Fuss.
Ahmed presents such an intensely personal account of feminism in
“Living a Feminist Life
”. I’m determined for it to shape both my work and my life. It’s worth keeping track of the blog related to the book, Feminist Killjoys
, as Ahmed is updating it with new work.”
See Stengers and Despret
I make more than an allusion here to the wording that I love in Donna Haraway’s recent book “Staying with the Trouble”: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”
Bev Skeggs work on value, and as an example this piece “Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?”, have been important for me in understanding how we might resist, and what we are seeking to resist.
Like Skeggs, Ahmed, reminds us that the tensions are what compel us to wonder, to ponder, to think: “It is when we are not attuned, when we do not love what we are supposed to love, that things become available to us as things to ponder with, to wonder about.” Another book that is important in this reparative project is The Slow Professor, by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber.