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.


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.

Article in Design Issues

Design Issues, Sum­mer 2017, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 25 – 36

Cover art for Design Issues, 33 (3) 2017

ABSTRACT — In his 2015 Research Through Design pro­voca­tion, Tim Ingold invites his audi­ence to think with string, lines, and mesh­works. In this art­icle I use Ingold’s con­cepts to explore an ori­ent­a­tion to design — one that threads through both Ingold’s ideas and Vin­ciane Despret’s vivid and mov­ing accounts of human‐animal rela­tions. This is a think­ing and doing” through design that seeks to be expans­ive to the capa­cit­ies of humans and non‐humans in rela­tion to one anoth­er.
I’m so pleased to finally have this art­icle pub­lished in Design Issues, and very grate­ful to Abi­gail Dur­rant, John Vines, Jayne Wal­lace, and Joyce Yee for all their help with edit­ing my text and the Spe­cial Issue: Research Through Design: Twenty‐First Cen­tury Makers and Mater­i­al­it­ies.

In my con­tri­bu­tion, I’ve reflec­ted on Tim Ingold’s pro­voca­tion at the Bien­ni­al Research Through Design con­fer­ence, and tried to play around with open­ing up a more gen­er­at­ive kind of design. My exper­i­ment has been to put Ingold’s ideas of lines and mesh­works in con­ver­sa­tion with Vin­ciane Despret’s uplift­ing stor­ies of anim­als and becom­ings. A strange mix, but one that for me at least raises plenty of inter­est­ing ques­tions — and isn’t it more ques­tions we need?!

For an early draft of the art­icle see: What lines, rats and sheep can tell us, Design Issues 2017

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.

On How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name”

Thanks to Richard Banks for point­ing me towards this piece pub­lished on Fast Company’s site by Don Nor­man and Bruce Tognazzini (Tog):

The art­icle is a hard hit­ting cri­tique of Apple’s cur­rent design philo­sophy. More than this, though, the two long time inter­ac­tion design gurus set out a clear pro­ject for design, one that they see Apple hav­ing been instru­ment­al in but now devi­at­ing from. Their gen­er­al argu­ment is, on the face of it, pretty con­vin­cing. Yet dig­ging a little deep­er it’s one that I have prob­lems with. This post is really an effort to sort things out in my own mind. (more…)