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, arX​iv​.org, 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.

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.

Audrey, Anyone?

An Audrey in my office

I just dug out my old Audrey, a com­puter appli­ance designed for the home released in 2000 and then canned in 2001. What a shame to think a device with such thought­fully designed soft­ware and hard­ware was so quickly releg­ated to the dust‐pile of e‐history. Any­way, see­ing Audrey reminded me Laurel Swan and I presen­ted a paper on Audrey at 4S in 2005 titled Audrey, Any­one?” The abstract is below. We did man­age to inter­view some of the ori­gin­al design­ers on the team includ­ing Ray Win­ninger. How­ever, things got the bet­ter of us and we nev­er wrote it up in fin­ished form. Here’s the abstract we wrote:

Wiki­pe­dia has an entry, here.
A short chapter we came across in doing back­ground research on Audrey is Leslie Regan Share’s The gen­der­ing of a com­mu­nic­a­tion tech­no­logy: the short life and death of Audrey”, in Out of the Ivory Tower: Fem­in­ist Research for Social Change, edited by: Mar­tinez, Andrea and Stu­art, Meryn. Toronto: Sumach Press.

HCID seminar talk

Six weeks into the new job and I’ve been giv­en a sem­in­ar slot.

Here’s the abstract:

Think we must *

Excerpt, quoting "think we must" from Virginia Woolf's Six Guineas

Vir­gin­ia Woolf (1938) Three Guineas. Hog­ar­th Press.

It’s been a thrill to join HCID and City and to be wel­comed so warmly by many of you. In this talk, I’d like to intro­duce myself in a more delib­er­ate way, spin­ning a thread through my career path that cap­tures what’s import­ant to me and what has helped me find my way.

Start­ing way back with work at Xer­ox, and then my twists and turns into aca­demia and then industry again, at Microsoft, I’ll talk through punc­tu­ated moments in my research — about teen­agers and their mobile phones; fam­il­ies liv­ing amongst their clut­ter; and neigh­bour­hoods cop­ing with com­mun­al life and data aggreg­ates. What I’ll try to con­vey is how it’s been a think­ing that has anim­ated me through­out this work, a think­ing not always with clar­ity and cer­tainly a think­ing with many knots and frayed ends, but nev­er­the­less a think­ing. A point I want to reflect on, then, is how ideas thread into our work, weav­ing togeth­er a lively tapestry. I like the way Carla Hus­tak and Nata­sha Myers use, invol­u­tions here as a “ rolling, curl­ing, turn­ing inwards’ that brings dis­tinct spe­cies togeth­er to invent new ways of life” (2013: 96).

Through my own invol­u­tions, I’ll try to use this talk to work my way to a think­ing that has a gen­er­at­ive mode — a mode with both an open­ness and an ongo­ing­ness to it that invites more, always more. For me, this is a mode of think­ing that affects one­self and that demands a care, because it is not just about study­ing the worlds we inhab­it, it is about mak­ing those worlds and the con­di­tions of pos­sib­il­ity that come with them. I sup­pose, above all else, this is a talk invit­ing a think­ing of this kind that we might do togeth­er — it is to pose an open ques­tion about our think­ing and about what worlds we might make pos­sible.

* My title is inspired by Isa­belle Stengers and Vin­ciane Despret who bor­row the phrase Think we must” from Vir­gin­ia Woolf, and use it to pon­der gen­er­at­ively on their lives in the academy.

Hus­tak, C & Myers N. 2013. Invol­u­tion­ary Momentum: Affect­ive Eco­lo­gies and the Sci­ences of Plant/Insect Encoun­ters.” dif­fer­ences 23(3):74 – 118.
Stengers, I., & Despret, V (2015). Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaith­ful Daugh­ters of Vir­gin­ia Woolf. Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press.

Do data publics work?

I presen­ted at the Data Pub­lics con­fer­ence last week­end, at Lan­caster Uni­ver­sity. Got lots of help­ful feed­back to some early thoughts on pub­lics (think­ing with some of my old favour­ites, Despret, Har­away, Marres, Stengers, etc.).

Pro­voked by Vin­ciane Despret’s W for Work”, in What would anim­als say if we asked the right ques­tions?”, my start­ing point was the ques­tion:

Are we think­ing well
with data pub­lics?


Vin­ciane Despret (2016). W is for Work. In What Would Anim­als Say If We Asked the Right Ques­tions”. Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press: 177 – 184.

Talk at RCA, Design Products

I had a very gen­er­ous slot for present­ing to some in Design Products at the RCA this week.

Slides from RCA Design Products talk Feb 2017

In this talk, I want to sug­gest we have spent too much time work­ing with the lim­its of cap­ab­il­ity — the lim­its of the per­cep­tu­al appar­at­us, the lim­its of cog­nit­ive capa­cit­ies, and the lim­its of how crit­ters (wheth­er human or non­hu­man) inter­act and relate to one anoth­er. Draw­ing on a fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience and using examples from recent field­work, I’ll aim to show that, togeth­er, we make ourselves cap­able. That cap­ab­il­ity isn’t lim­ited to some pre‐given, indi­vidu­al state, but comes into being through (inter)action, through entangled rela­tions between act­ors of all kinds. This, I’ll claim, gives us a very dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about our rela­tions with tech­no­logy and espe­cially the prom­ise of AI and machine learn­ing. Rather than machines aim­ing to rep­lic­ate human cap­ab­il­ity, I want to pro­pose an expans­ive pro­ject that allows us the chance to ima­gine some­thing other‐than’ finite cap­ab­il­it­ies, that sees cap­ab­il­ity as a becoming‐with’, and lays open the pos­sib­il­it­ies for much much more.


I’m hop­ing to fine‐tune and do a little tidy­ing of these ideas for this talk at the Know­ledge Lab (Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion) later this month.


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.

Presenting Data in place”

We’re present­ing a paper at CHI this year on Ten­ison Road.

Alex S. Taylor, Siân Lind­ley, Tim Regan, Dav­id Sweeney, Vasil­is Vlachokyriakos, Lil­lie Grainger, Jessa Lin­gel (2015), Data‐in‐Place: Think­ing through the Rela­tions Between Data and Com­munity, CHI 2015.

Here’s the abstract:

We present find­ings from a year‐long engage­ment with a street and its com­munity. The work explores how the pro­duc­tion and use of data is bound up with place, both in terms of phys­ic­al and social geo­graphy. We detail three strands of the pro­ject. First, we con­sider how res­id­ents have sought to cur­ate exist­ing data about the street in the form of an archive with phys­ic­al and digit­al com­pon­ents. Second, we report endeav­ours to cap­ture data about the street’s envir­on­ment, espe­cially of vehicle traffic. Third, we draw on the pos­sib­il­it­ies afforded by tech­no­lo­gies for polling opin­ion. We reflect on how these engage­ments have: mater­i­al­ised dis­tinct­ive rela­tions between the com­munity and their data; sur­faced flows and con­tours of data, and spa­tial, tem­por­al and social bound­ar­ies; and enacted a mul­ti­pli­city of small worlds’. We con­sider how such a con­cep­tu­al­isa­tion of data‐in‐place is rel­ev­ant to the design of tech­no­logy.