Author Archives: Alison

Urgency and Complexity: New Thinking

It’s the new year. The sun shines orange, veiled in vapour, and warmer than seasonal average, of course.


2015 was, for me, the year I came to terms with the real ending of the world. That is to say, the modern world that I was born in and grew up in and which, from my perspective, started unravelling when I learned about global warming at 14 but no one (including me) did anything about it. I greeted the financial collapses of 2008 with a kind of perverse hope that this would be the watershed event that would provoke the end of the world and the beginning of another.

Maybe it did.

But the planes still fly and make their vapour trails, and demand is still projected to increase. The machine rumbles on, into the abyss. The trees of the 70 year old woodlot across from my daughter’s daycare have been felled, the pond has been filled, and the birds have taken to the sky to protest. We haven’t heard from the frogs yet.

The End, but not yet Something New

We all know that it’s over – that capitalism’s promise of continous growth is impossible on a single planet of finite resources. But the next thing has not yet come. I spent much of 2015 being in quiet despair at the impossibility of ethical existence within a system that destroys humans and all other living beings, by its very design. But lately I have been moving into the place past despair, which is not hope but perhaps a fierce joy in existence, brief and complex. I can recognize my blue mood as deep grief, not for a person this time but for the world that I knew – the world that is still with us but which must soon, become something else. Donna Haraway writes that our responsibility at this point is to make the Anthroposcene or whatever it is called (she goes with Cthulucene, in line with the great makers and remakers Gaia, Medusa, Spider Woman) as short as possible, since it is probably best understood as the boundary between epochs.

So the new thinking I’m embarking on is dedicated to trying to make a path through the Dithering, a thread of some type (probably not linear, but maybe red) from the place we are to some other place where we can see ourselves. This is a task for all of those who have never liked disciplines, a good task for a grieving environmentalist (as I’ve always been) but also a good task for someone who wants to think about communicative relationships, humans and nonhumans.

Decentering humans; understanding complexity

In particular I have identified how mediation appears to be a crucial concept in linking two key lines of thinking: one focused on removing humans from their hubristically defined position as superior to other beings on earth, and the other identifies how complex adaptive systems can move past oppositional (or even dialectical) engagement. Since the earth environment is one of these complex adaptive systems, and since it is constantly in the process of changing, this set of thoughts is equally relevant for the project. It’s also at the heart of John Durham Peters’ excellent book The Marvellous Clouds.

In the first line of thinking, Haraway proposes an ethics of kinship that connects the human with many others, especially those who are alien or not alike. This development and sustenance of relationships outside of the known is an extension of her work on cyborg identities, and she, like others working in this area, calls for a renewed sense of connection with the other beings of the world. Simiarly, Robin Wall Kimmerar offers the insight that humans might, in gratitude to the rest of creation, pay attention. She writes, “Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgment of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible.”

However not all thinkers committed to decentering humans from the web of experience think that nature will respond in any way to our attention. Isabelle Stengers proposes in her recent work a Gaia that is powerful and implacable. There is no resource to this nature. It cannot be perceived or engaged with. Stengers writes, “we will have to go on answering for what we are undertaking in the face of an implacable being who is deaf to our justifications” (47). This means that none of the modes of mediation on which we have come to rely (including of course measurement and sensing) could bring humans closer to perceiving the natural world.

I need to spend some more time with Stengers to see whether there might be some new insights on media (although not likely communication) from her implacable Gaia, but I find it interesting that she also entreats us to ‘pay attention.’ Attention is what many media scholars spend time discussing, and media companies trying to measure. Attention, like so many things, has slid into being commodified. So paying attention to things outside ourselves that are also part of ourselves is a radical act indeed. Paying attention mens having to face the terrible realization that as I wrote this I cleaned the bathroom – and that the poisoned water I produced might kill the kin of the birds I watch out the window.  On the other hand, once one is really paying attention, all the analytic and creative energies that one possesses can be directed. And the consequences of that attention might invite creativity and solutions that apply not only to climate or ecological crisis but to all sorts of situations where the notion of progress has come undone, and the dyanic of opposition and dialetic no longer apply.

The second strand of my reading and thinking concerns how to understand the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. This is inspired by rereading Robin Mansell’s Imagining the Internet, where she identifies the multiple hierarchical and heterarchical levels that interrelate within communication systems. Rather than seeking to optimize or rationalize, systems processes tend towards self-maintenance,and can’t always be massaged into producing cause and effect relationships.

Consideration of complex adaptive systems doesn’t seem too difficult to fit with the first set of readings. If anything, it aligns with the notion of relationship that we value through ‘paying attention’. It also opens out the possibility for paradox and unintended (or unknowable) outcomes.

Again, while thinking this way might help to draw a thread towards the urgent and enormous quesitons of our time, it will also help to address any number of smaller (and no less pressing) questions of justice and the ‘good society’ that we need to address on the way.

Next post soon – more on complexity and some on ethics and relationships.

Why I’ve Declined Your Kind Invitation (and why you should try again)

An Open Letter to everyone who’s recently invited me to speak at their event.

I really want to attend your event. It’s probably very close to my current interests – technological citizenship, ‘smart cities’, the Internet of Things, ethics and communication rights.  There are probably really great people also coming to this event, people who share these interests and with whom I’d have amazing discussions and maybe even collaborate with in the future.

I know that if I don’t attend your event all of these opportunities are lost.

And yes – I’m still working on the kinds of things that caused you to invite me. My book proposal on technological citizenships is out for review. I have a paper on open source knowledge and IoT/citizen science projects that’s nearly published. I’m as enthusiastic as ever about meeting and working with cities, communities and activists who are using data and sensing technologies to tell their own stories and change the governance of their cities and communities.

But getting that work done is difficult. At the moment I’m a solo researcher – attending your event might help me meet more collaborators, but it also takes time from reading, writing, interviewing and putting together grant proposals. Not to mention leading a new MSc programme in Data & Society – and organizing my own events as part of this.

I also have full time teaching responsibilities, and a young family with another parent who also works long hours.

Right now, I’m not attending your event because I’m committed to getting the serious work done – researching, writing and thinking carefully so I have something significant to contribute. I know that this has some risks, but I want to take time to understand what’s happening and what’s at stake. I’ve decided not to spend my time running from lecture theatre to airport and back to pack in all of the experiences I can. I hope this makes my work better – and more important for all of us.

So please – don’t assume that since I’ve declined this time, I’m not interested.

Please invite me again. Share your event feedback. Let me know what you are working on. Maybe together we can find a way to advance our research without exhausting ourselves.




Rights, communication and the refugee crisis (or, how the real world made my research project better)

I have started working on a book, and this week I feel guilty about writing it. The book is about the ways that technologies, citizenship and urban life produce one another. I start in the 1990s, in the conceptual space of rights definition and rights claims, including the claims related to communication rights as well as renewed claims for “rights to the city”. In this time, we talked about remaking the city, perhaps virtually, but also about fighting for its public space. This paradigm is fading, though, and in the next part of the book I write about how data and citizenship combine, how large-scale data collection and analysis shapes the ways that people feel that they can and do act, and how activists and advocates try to resist the dominant ways that data is collected and used. Certain kinds of surveillance dynamics are created by this collection and use, but there are also potential ways to resist this (albeit by demanding more individual responsibility) Looking forward, I also analyse how sensing technologies that collect intimate data intensify the ways that these experiences of surveillance and individualization occur, perhaps making us into “very predictable people” as one journalist has suggested. Sensor citizenships are all about risk: predicting it, gathering data to better describe it, reducing it. It’s chilling to consider how normalized and constrained the everyday life of the otherwise free and privileged might become – but also perhaps inspiring to consider the positive ways that embedded sensing technologies might be able to be used – to facilitate collaboration, or spur citizen science.

So while I am writing this careful, rather restrained analysis of citizenship and communication, the Western world is exploding with a crisis of citizenship. Thousands of people are fleeing war and danger and the European state machinery is singularly failing to accommodate them, to the extent that preventable deaths have captured public imagination. And my tiny proscribed musings on the ways that communication and data technologies create different citizenship seem feeble in the face of this overwhelming pain and complexity.

But the events I’m following have given me a bit of a chance to think through some of the ideas I am working on. I have been asked why I’m interested in cities, technology and citizenship, and my answer is that state conceptions of citizenship are under strain, and in cities people simply arrive and have to negotiate their belonging. In the refugee crisis, many of the actions of European states show the fractures in the rights-based state level model of citizenship – including the inadequacy of the Dublin III regulation for refugee registration as well as the hesitation of some states, like the UK, to accept more refugees.

Equally, the situation also shows the ways that networked citizenship can operate, by capturing and shifting the political mood and discourse – talking about people and experiences rather than “swarms of migrants”. This has surely been helped along by the swift, meme and hashtag-driven discussion on social media, and amplified by the mass media (I wrote about how this happens in advocacy movements here). I’m moved by the efforts of people I know who are working hard to get communications access to people stranded at the train station in Budapest.

Less encouragingly, the refugee crisis also demonstrates the fraying of the rights paradigm. Refugees have rights to asylum but states do not wish to grant them. So people move. They create new situations by their presence, by their refusal to be moved. This is a riskier tactic than claiming rights. It is a worrying trend. It also intersects with the kind of individualization that is tied to data production. I have just noticed that one of the key concerns of EU governments is the collection of more data about refugees, with the purpose of tracking them more specifically as they move. This sounds of course like a good idea, but it depends on a strong and trusted power to oversee the collection and tracking. As strong right-wing (even fascist) governments rise to power or exert more influence across Europe, we must ask whether this trust is well placed.

Finally, the refugee crisis has had me thinking a lot about my hope for the book: that I might be able to bring back into the high-tech discussions of future technology some essential human qualities that are often poorly considered or “designed out”. Qualities like empathy. Care. Husbandry and maintenance of the environments around us. These are qualities that I believe to be essential to cultivate, not only in our societies (where they always have been) but also in the technological systems that support the functioning of societies. In this late summer of crisis and pain, empathy is what motivates thousands to call for refugee acceptance or to donate materials and time. It is what we seek to generate when we communicate stories about people fleeing. It is of course what makes us human.

In my small work I hope to demonstrate that this greatest of all human qualities need not be laid aside, not in our institutions nor in our technology systems. After donating to help refugees and praying for all of the desperate people, it’s the least I can do.

Women’s Technology (honouring Betty Pezalla, 1924-2015 and Barbara Powell, 1950-2002)

My grandmother died this week.  Parent to five, grandparent to 14, great-grandparent to 12. After a childhood during the Depression, she went to college to study home economics, but her true passion was fibre arts. She spun, dyed, knitted, felted and wove sweaters, scarves, rugs, baskets, animals, wallhangings, and many and sundry other beautiful things. In middle age she retrained as an art teacher and went back to work – in mid-1960’s midwest USA. She exhibited her work in galleries well into her 80s. Here she is with my daughter, sometime in 2012.


My mother died thirteen years ago this week. Parent to three, senior university administrator, violinist, baker, master fart-joke teller. She achieved a PhD with two children underfoot, then went on to write a book that surfaced women’s histories hidden in archives. She also baked six loaves of sour dough bread every Saturday while listening to the opera, and loved going to garage sales. Here she is, fierce, with her brother at a wedding in the mid-1970s.

mom paul

I cannot tell you the number of things I learned from these women. Confidence in my intelligence. The truth about ambition and responsibility. A love of family. Generosity.

One thing I learned though that I don’t often think about was a passion for new technology and technical thinking. This, along with everything else has shaped me, and I want to write a little more about it.


My grandma’s studio

Both my mom and my grandma knit. They had bags of wool with needles that they toted around with them to fill up moments of time – watching TV or listening to the radio, sitting in on kids’ music lessons, riding in the car. These bags contained magical charts laying out the stitching patterns needed to make a cable, or a rosette, or a cuff. I didn’t know it then but these charts and their notation are a form of programming – a set of abstract schematics to be followed (and interpreted, within boundaries) that create an entire new product.

I learned to knit (under duress) but what really fascinated me was weaving.  My grandma’s looms were enormous and beautiful, with different coloured warp threads controlled by foot pedals. The patterns of these threads, combined with the colours of the other materials woven across them, produced the beauty and complexity of the finished rugs and hangings. I marvelled at how grandma kept the pattern and the process in her head – long before I read about how Jacquard created the first programming punch cards to operate looms, in 1801.


on of my grandma’s looms (unstrung)

Of course baking and cooking also follow programs, that you can modify within certain boundaries. So you can scale up to six loaves of bread, or modify a recipe when you run out of something.

These are women’s technologies (or at least they are now – weaving and knitting were men’s work in the past when there was money to be made from them, and professional cooks are still mostly men), which means we might discount them when thinking about new and shiny ways to ‘learn to code’ or ‘get women into STEM’. But they require complex, abstract, programmatic thinking. To make beautiful and tasty things. Here I am with grandma and daughter, eating some tasty things.

cardomom buns

Keeping this in mind, it’s now less surprising for me to remember my mother’s incredible delight in exploring the early Internet. She’d return from work with amazing tales of information she’d found from far-flung countries. When I was shown the web, I was kind of underwhelmed. It took effort to find information – you needed to type commands, use Boolean logic, and navigate around the databases and usegroups. But now I suspect that the world of tech made much more sense to my mom than I might have expected. After all, her little sister was an educator at the Computer Museum and has developed an art practice that investigates geometry and topgraphy. The more I think of it, the more I can surface the deep roots of my own interest in technology and culture.

I miss my mom and grandma exquisitely. But I know how much they made me who I am. And now I get to think about how to pass on their legacy not just to my own daughter (shown here in a sweater knit by her great-grandma at age 89) but to many women who might not yet have thought about the connection between knitting, cooking, art, and computing.


Sharing and Responsibility

It’s been a long time since I posted. I’ve been working on lots of things: finishing some writing about knowledge cultures, starting some research on data and ethics, cities and ‘smartness’ , and developing some new teaching provision in these areas. Some of what I’ve been working on is up at, and much of it is available at my university’s open access repository.

I’ve also been thinking a lot. Often I’m thinking about the stark contrast between the mundane beauty of the everyday and the almost overwhelming complexity of the reality of the world, with its seemingly insoluable problems of climate change, perpetual war, and rising inequality in the rich world. How is it ethically possible to continue to enjoy the benefits of a highly developed society  in the knowledge of these problems? What responsibilities do we have?

The barrier to taking on this tension lies in the difficulty of connecting the everyday to the systemic, the banal action to its complex consequence. It requires thinking about the extent to which the global connects to the local, and the present to the unknown future.

This is a picture of my street, located in the middle of an enormous city. It is beautiful, I think. It is also full of complexity. There is a school: an institution with power, with connections to the state. There are trees full of birds and squirrels and foxes. There are lots of people who live on the street who come from different countries in the world and who are all trying to get along in this city. There are airplanes flying in the sky hazed with pollution, in the warm November (and remember, there used to not be warm Novembers).


There are millions of streets in the world. Indeed, most people in the world will shortly be living in cities, if they don’t already. Streets and cities are persistent human constructions. Given that we are now living in a new epoch, an ‘Anthropocene‘ characterized by the massive impact on the entire planet of the human species and our particular habits, perhaps we could think more carefully about how we live within these particular environments created and shaped by us.

Even in cities the humans are not the only ones around. Recent research indicates that cities have surprisingly high biodiversity. London supports bee colonies, in part because of lower pesticide use. Foxes are a permanent part of the city environment. On my street there are also snails, slugs, bats, bugs, and rats in abundance too (I am sure there are rats. There are always rats).

So we are somehow managing to live alongside these other creatures, although every time a neighbour replaces their back yard with a big extension I wonder about the consequences. How can we live with others?

This question is valuable in terms of the human world as well. This week I got to go to an event called ‘Design for Sharing’ that launched a report into the practices of collaboration. These are the everyday things that keep neighbourhoods and people together: sharing food, or tools, or trading goods, or time. Although the ‘sharing economy’ of Uber and Air BnB is gaining attention, this is actually a distributed rental economy, and the attention is often focusing us away from understanding how people share and why.

The research that Design for Sharing presented shows that there are many ways to share – starting with one small thing, weaving people and objects and ideas together. But what is significant is how little ICT tools feature in sharing practices. It seems that in the everyday world of communities and objects, trust and relationships are built face to face. We can contrast this with the way that many relationships including the online ‘sharing economy’ examples are mediated by data, information and metrics. How then are the relationships of trust meant to be constructed?  The response, for Uber and Air BnB and many other businesses, is to apply data analytics, and use them to broker the relationship.

This means that sharing relationships can scale up enormously. They are no longer limited by who you know and hence who you trust. There are clearly many possible social gains in this kind of understanding. But what of the losses? What does it mean to cede judgement to an analytic process? In part it means that only information that can be placed in the process can be considered. For the creation of online relationships, this often means quantified data. We are now starting to understand what the cultural consequences of quantification may be: Benjamin Grosser has written a revealing essay “What do Metrics Want” about the shift in culture aligned with a culture of metric. He writes, “Theodore Porter, in his study of quantification titled Trust in Numbers, calls quantification a “technology of distancethat “minimizes the need for initmate knowledge and personal trust.” Enumeration is impersonal, suggests objectivity, and in the case of social quantification, abstracts individuality.”

This abstracting of individuality is part of the influence that the metrics have within the system. This influence is oriented around the idea of ‘more’ – more measurement, more participation, more value for the owners of Facebook. And the quantification of social interaction simultaneously renders the content and meaning of the interaction less valuable.

This is the precise opposite of the kinds of intimate trust relationships that motivate people to solve problems together. It is also a dangerous reduction of the kind of relational complexity that I evoked when I wrote about the many things, beings, and systems that exist and interact on the street where I live. What is important becomes what can be measured, and what is measured becomes what is valuable. But what of the things that are difficult to measure, like the feeling of the leaves, or the friendliness of the neighbours? Or even those things that are transformed through the process of measurement, like a sense of community? What might be lost in the measuring process?

I would like to think of another way being responsible. Everything counts, yes, but what if we thought that everything matters?

Citizen led smart cities

(Inspired by my morning at the SciDevNet event “Making It Count: Big Data, the Open Revolution, and Public Engagment”)

The ‘smart city’ is on the ascendant again. A decade after I first heard people talk about the ‘smartness’ of cities in terms of the access to IT infrastructure, I hear it again. It’s different this time. It’s not about individual access to information. It’s more about the individual, (or, the ‘citizen’) as a creator of data – which in the aggregate becomes valuable to the city, since it then knows all sorts of things about what people are doing, and also theoretically valuable to the ‘citizen’ if its made transparent. But how do cities get this data, and what are the power relationships behind it? Many people have been working on these questions, and some tricky conflicts have emerged.


By Ramon FVelasquez (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ramon FVelasquez (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For example, one way of getting lots of ‘smart city’ data without asking each individual to accept or reject Terms and Conditions of Use (those documents that specify how data is used but which  so few people read) is to  create data brokerage models for smart cities in which the city is the data curator. In other words, a city government or other entity could agree Terms and Conditions on behalf of citizens. What is the relationship between the city government or entity agreeing the T and Cs, and the ‘citizen’ as such? Under what circumstances is the ‘citizen’ (the individual, the resident, the taxpayer?) in conflict with ‘the city’?  Urban geography gives us lots of situations in which we can identify possible conflicts between ‘citizens’ and the city: for example the relationships between people without documentation and the cities in which they live. The people living in illegal dwellings, favelas or new developments just outside of city limits. The people contesting a council tax bill. The guy with the broken door on the Brandon Estate in Southwark who has been unable to get anyone to fix his door in the past three months.

People in cities aren’t automatically citizens, and they are not automatically inclined to enact their relationship to that place in a particular or acceptable way. The power relationships between them and the city could be quite contested. Even if you have the right to withdraw your data from collection by the local authority, are you likely to use that

Rights and Freedoms


By Joadl (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-at (], via Wikimedia Commons

In fact there are various rights that we may wish to consider. Rights to be forgotten, rights to be anonymous, rights to speak and listen. We might also want to consider freedoms, of which some are ‘negative’ and some ‘positive’ (following Isiah Berlin). The freedom to do things that don’t negatively impinge on others is a kind of ‘positive’ liberty, where a negative liberty is the freedom from harassment and harm. Which kinds of freedom are enabled and constrained by ‘smart city’ data?


On my way back to my office at lunch, I passed a man asking for spare change in the street. I passed without giving spare change and felt a twinge of guilt. Then I asked myself what the chain of trust and relationships that linked me to that man might be, and how data might play a role.  I might assume that the man’s basic needs are fulfilled through services supported by my taxes, although given the current policy frames I might not be able to count on the validity of my assumption. So let us take a private sector example: through the donations I to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and crisis support for drug users I might assume that someone will help to keep him alive under the worst circumstances.


Which one of us has responsibilities as a ‘citizen’? Me, because I am a ‘good citizen’ who works at a job and pays taxes? Him, because maybe he is born here or in the EU and therefore has right to be here? Which one of us should be accountable for the data that is collected about us? Which one of us is generating more data and what kind of data is that? I have social media feeds that provide indication of ‘good citizen’ status – meaning, I exist for the companies that are collecting data about me. I have money to spend, and the information about where I might spend it is important enough for businesses to pay for. The man in the street, on the other hand, won’t have such easily monetizable traces. If his presence in the city creates data, it may well come in the form of police reports for loitering, or social work reports. Or perhaps nothing at all. Does that make him less of a participant in the life of the city? No – but it does remind us of which one of us has more control over the data that is generated.

Questions of data are increasingly questions of citizenship and voice. As such they need to consider not just the financial value of data to a city or a ‘citizen’ but the relationships of power and influence that characterize our lives. ‘Big data’ are not oil – they are pieces of information about people, and our politics and policy about smart cities should consider this from the start.


Politics, Technology and Design – My busy January

This January I’ve had the chance to do research work in lots of (more than usually) interesting ways – in art museums, castles, design schools and among colleagues from many disciplines. I’m so impressed at what I was doing:

Disassembling a Toaster in an Art Museum


I started the month on a panel at the V&A Museum’s Design Culture Salon series, talking about ‘transparent design’. I used the opportunity to take apart a toaster while talking about Heidegger, something I have always wanted to do. I focused in my talk on the politics of hacking, asking about the different experiences of a ‘closed’ but functional (what Heidegger calls ‘ready to hand’) toaster, and an ‘open’, ‘hackable’ but non-usable toaster (what Heidegger calls ‘present to hand’).

The idea of breaking something to understand better how it works, or how it comes to be,  is a central tenet of hacker culture.  A number of theorists have worked on how to think about the broken, the trashy, or the defunct as productive places to work: Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have talked about doing ‘archaeology’ on broken toys and out of date electronics, and Jennifer Gabrys has a very sensitive philosophy of trash. I in my own work have been interested in studying failure, breakdown, reconstruction. But this failure simultaneously removes the utility of an object and attaches the politics of reconstruction to prowess in hacking and cracking. This raises a question about how and for whom we would like design to be transparent.

Building an Imaginary Machine in a Castle

I kept working on this idea of failure as a productive politics at an amazing Daghstul Seminar at a castle in southwestern Germany. It was appropriately remote and gloomy – this photo was taken at 8 am!


These seminars are usually only for computer scientists but the organizers of this one worked hard to bring together an interdisciplinary group to discuss social, theoretical and technical aspects of building autonomous, non-Internet networks. These are the kind of things I have written about here.

A few of us – Jon Crowcroft, Paul Dourish, Kevin Fall, Kat Jungnickel, Irina Shklovski and Christian Becker – worked over several days on the concept of ‘failing networks’, culminating in a critical making exercise to build a ‘failure machine’. Kat and I both use critical making as a technique to materialize research and inquiry processes – and in this case to demonstrate interdisciplinarity.


The ‘machine’ was modelled after a 17th century piece of wearable technology called a chatelaine (what I think of as a Wonder Woman utility belt). It featured a set of intersecting filters and controls that, depending on the perspective of the person wearing it, would create unpredicatable outcomes. Some of the filters included a ‘moral concern unbundler’ to take into account unexpected social outcomes of technology, and an ‘unarchiver’ that alternated between an inappropriate failure to remember and an inappropriate failure to forget.


The best thing about the exercise was how much it resonated with computer scientist colleagues. It turns out that establishing the limiting conditions for networks is actually an important process, and that network scientists DO in fact build ‘failure machines’ to test their networks. But these don’t usually include the kind of contextual, social, temporal and political aspects that we included in ours.

Narrating the Live Hack

Fresh from the excitement of using design methods to bridge disciplines, last week I cycled over (in the sun! !) to the Royal College of Art for a workshop with Kevin Walker’s Information Experience Design MA students.


While Kevin tried (and sometimes failed) to add blinky lights and switches to an Arduino, I talked about the assumptions we make about democratization of technology (Heidegger again..) and introduced some really tricky questions about how our experience of life is mediated by constantly dyanamic software processes – and what this might mean for our sense of identity, our privacy and our relationships.

Designing in Academic Research

Finally, I started to apply what I’ve learned about design as a research process with my LSE Media+Comms colleagues. With Nick Anstead I’ve started investigating how our department might build a research tool to help us bring together sizeable and varied  kinds of data sets and quickly and effectively analyse them. At the same time I wanted to investigate how the design process might help the department express some of our shared (or divergent) perspectives on research. We held a ‘Research Dialogue’ where we debated the use of ‘Big Data” in our practice, and hypothesized what kinds of ‘data analysis machines’ might represent our research priorities. We think we have some insights that can actually help us design a tool, but already the process has given me lots of food for thought about how values, opinions, and unexpected tensions emerge in prototyping processes.

I’ve also relaunched my Digital Media Futures course for the term, where we will be experimenting with similar ideas and practices. And sometime soon I’m looking forward to sitting down and doing some concentrated writing….I hope.

What is it you know about?

I was chatting with a colleague before the holidays, and I glibly said I was ‘interdisciplinary’. She raised an eyebrow and gently suggested that I ought to be precise about my expertise, because, she said, “I don’t know what it is you know about”.

So I thought, given the reflective, new year energy, that I’d try to tell you what it is I know about. I know mostly about how people think about and build communication technologies and systems, and the implications that this has for bigger and more interesting concepts like ‘democracy’ or ‘governance’. This means that I spend a lot of time thinking about what technologies are, how we come to know about them, how we know about things in general, and what all of this might mean for these larger abstract entities. But there are in fact a few things I actually know about, including philosophies of technology and language, and pesky ideas about modernity that actually do have some importance in the everyday struggles we undertake. Here are 4 things.

1. Technologies are not just stuff.

This seems obvious to me, but I am told it’s not. Technologies are not just stuff. They are not ONLY objects that you can employ to solve a problem. They are also practices and ways of thinking about how to be in the world. I like to think about all kinds of ‘technology practices’, including things as ordinary as the toaster I just took apart and left strewn over my office.

However, I’m most interested in communication technologies, but that’s a pretty broad area too. It includes the design of systems, electronics and physical objects, as well as the interactions between these human-built systems and other ones (like policy-making, art-making, community-making).

I’ve been influenced by Heidegger and some of the other phenomenological philosophers of technology, because I think they have some interesting insights into how it feels to come to know things, especially things that are both greater and more abstract than one’s everyday experience. I particularly like Albert Borgmann’s notion of practicing technology as a way of becoming mindful about the relationships between our everday lives and the tools and systems that we employ to engage with them.

2. We don’t live under conditions of modernity

But I have some problems with Heidegger and Borgmann, most of which have to do with how very modern they are, in the philosophical sense. For these dudes the world is systematizable and predicatable. A ‘good life’ is possible because goodness is not a relational value. It can be defined, and hence it can be experienced.  It’s worth noting that Borgmann, in particular, is very keen on personal and private responsibility in the practice of technology: he sees this as absolutely essential. I think this focus means he misses something about how and why we build things together – one of the other things I like to think about is how we do things in community and not always, and only, as individuals.  As you can see, Borgmann and Heidegger have been important in inspiring what I’ve come to know – even though I think they are missing a vital insight about how we live at the moment.

We are not, at the moment, living in modernity. Although our everyday experiences might appear to be predictable, we are in fact subject to enormous and swarming complexity at every turn. Climate change promises that even the weather will be unpredictable. Massive use of social media provides data that suggests that everyone has complex and shifting networks of friends. No one trusts governments, and whistleblowers become unlikely heroes, and simultaneously villains. Every story has at least two sides, and now we know about them both. This is not to say that the modern world, of objectivity and predictability, has disappeared. It is simply to say that this culture is something other than modern.

Which makes me think that, to understand the experience of being along with technology, we might need some philosophical assistance that isn’t limited to thinking about being modern. Latour is helpful in a limited sense, as his actor-network theory positions experience as explicitly relational between humans, machines and other entities. However, as I’m often interested in my work with the little politics of getting along in everyday life with community members, not to mention the big politics of deciding how technologies should be regulated or governed, I can’t quite take on Latour’s heavily deconstructed sense of power. Yes, power is imaginary. We made it. But no, that doesn’t mean it can be left out of the relational systems that we imagine and build. So I leave Latour at a certain point. Haraway is much more useful: she takes as a given the idea that we can’t be objective and that we are not unitary, modern beings with only one way of being. She resists also the idea that we are totally separable from technology or can control it – as early as the 1980s she worked with the provocative metaphor of the cyborg: something not-only-natural, and not-only-technological. In a non-modern world in which technology has indeed fundamentally altered the experience that we have of the natural world, this approach is one that I think it essential for making sense out of our relationship with technology.

3. We make change by making arguments. Some people make arguments by designing technologies.

Technology is not just stuff; it’s practice and being and knowing. We build it in certain ways, make claims about that, and debate the claims much as we do with all other kinds of cultural products.  One of the other things I like to think about is how and why people argue about things with each other. This is what connects my work on the experience of being in the world to my policy-related work. Policy too is a human construct, and it is an observable process of communication that creates policy. I am very interested in the kinds of arguments that people choose to advance rationales for different policies (again, ones related to communication technologies or to the process of communication and the rights attached to it).

So I investigate arguments. Mostly I do this by paying very close attention to how people advance their claims about particular things that they think communication technologies should do, or should represent. These include the metaphors that they choose, the order in which they introduce their ideas, the appeals they make to particular kinds of authority. I’m fortunate in this practice to have spent many years studying literature before I studied design and communication – in literary criticism everything is artifice, but everything is meaning too. That positioning is a strong part of my practice.

Most arguments I study are made of words – but actually building technologies is also a way to create arguments about how things should be. Take the internet for example. If you read interviews with its creators, you can see how the idea of a network where information is broken into packets and then routed as efficiently as possible to be reassembled at its destination is a metaphor for a particular way of thinking of communication: the message is the important thing, not the mechanism of transmission, and indeed the transmission improves as the network expands. It’s extremely elegant.I like to pay attention to the arguments advanced by designing things in particular ways. If I can, I try to understand the technical underpinnings, or else I interview people who build things about how they build them, hoping that they can also tell me why.

4. Ideas Matter.

Finally, and briefly: I know that ideas matter. Philosophy is important because it is how we learn to think about the things that we actually do. I have ideas about how I think the world should be. I believe in justice, fairness, and equality. I believe that society is collectively responsible for itself and its members, which includes the natural world that societies all depend upon. I can’t and won’t apologize for believing these things. These are the ideas that matter to me, and because they matter to me I investigate them in my research, seek them through my philosophy, and write about them in my work. These values and norms are my guiding force, and so as committed as I am to empirical scholarship as a way of respectfully investigating the world inhabited by others, I am inclined towards projects that allow me to investigate values and norms, and especially to ones that help me to develop what I think is important.

These are the things that I know. I know other things too, but these are the ones that come together, link themselves, and place themselves in my mind. Philosophy, design, being in the world, and struggling to have a good life. Happy New Year.

Transparency in Place of Democracy : The future of informational activism

[ This is a slightly modified version of a presentation given at the ‘Invisible Harms’ conference on November 14, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania]


 We have heard that ‘information is power’. But what kind of power has it become, and for what purpose? In the past two years we have experienced how leaked information can change the power dynamics between citizens, elected individuals and governments, from WikiLeaks to the Snowden revelations.  Leaks form one part of a dichotomy that also includes promises of greater government transparency – and all of this is held up through the technical promise of the internet. The WikiLeaks drama, the actions of Anonymous, and the large-scale surveillance of major democratic countries via PRISM and Tempora all point to the development of cultures that value transparency as a key component of democracy – in fact, I’m starting to wonder if transparency – the goal of visibility – is starting to stand in for democracy – the goal of respresentation and accountability.

A short history of information activism

At the root of the current fascination with transparency are a series of mediated dramas involving WikiLeaks, Anonymous and now the governments of major Western democracies engaged in mass surveillance. These 3 cases can be taken together as an illustration of the development of a concept of transparency coming to stand in for a concept of democracy, under situations in which democratic accountability can be obfuscated.  I believe that we have come to a place in which many of the features of democracy – especially the idea of participatory democracy but also representative democracy – have been transmuted into a promise of transparency, of visibility. I believe this has to do with changes in how the power of information has been perceived.

Different mediating technologies appear to promise different ways of organizing social relationships and meanings. The press, for example, promised a platform for speaking in one voice to an audience of many. But the internet promised an even greater democratization of information, with everyone in theory equally able to post information or to comment on it. The idea was horizontality, equality, and a ‘generative’ type of openness that was based on the ability to build or rebuild the technical platform of communication; in the old network science understanding, to ‘route around damage’. As theorist José van Dijk writes, “Connectivity has become the material and metaphorical wiring of our culture, a culture in which technologies shape and are shaped not only by economic and legal frames, but also by users and content.” (p. 141).

As an example, take this speech that David Cameron made in 2006: “You have begun the process of democratising the world’s information . . . by making more information available to more people, you are giving them more power.”  A typical statement, and one that resonated with a party developing a “transparency agenda”, plans for ‘open government’ and accessible government data. We will return to Cameron’s speech in a moment.

WikiLeaks: ‘transparency uber alles.’

bostonglobe (image from the Boston Globe)

WikiLeaks enforced transparency by mobilizing technical capacities of the internet’s networked mode of communication, but also by creating communicational paradigms that link mass media forms of communication and interpersonal forms through a globalization of communication and a greater interactivity (as theorist Cardoso notes). In this context, the WikiLeaks phenomenon includes two elements: First, the disruption of news production that resulted from the partnerships between WikiLeaks and mass media organizations; and second, the technical and legal measures taken to shut down WikiLeaks (mostly by US commercial and state actors) and the reactions mounted against these measures by individuals associating themselves with Anonymous.

Wikileaks presented an apparent challenge to the mediating and gatekeeping power of the mass media, but through its partnerships and connections with mass media, beginning with the Guardian and secondarily a set of other leading broadsheet newspapers, first in Europe and then around the world.

The leaks that were released up until the diplomatic cables in 2010 were discussed by those who read them, but were not generally part of a broader discussion about state secrets. The partnerships with news organizations became important in advancing  Julian Assange’s purpose, but also created new ways of ‘doing’ journalism, as Leigh and Harding (2010) report in their book on the Wikileaks partnership with the Guardian. These new ways of ‘doing’ journalism included working with Assange and other WikiLeaks members to select relevant cables, doing fact-checking, and constructing narrative from the deluge of data that the cables represented.

The cyberlocker technology that allowed WikiLeaks to gather information that would never have previously been published disrupted the control of information that previously characterized both the regimes of the state and the mass media. The ongoing circulation of diplomatic gossip and low-level critique taking place around the world wherever WikiLeaks cables are published by a partner newspaper is evidence of this disruption.

After the drama subsided, the long-term consequence of WikiLeaks was in part a stated commitment to transparency by governments. At the same time however, it also produced a counter-movement towards less networked, more ‘invisible’ forms of communication.

Anonymous(ly) Enforcing transparency


This brings us to the long and interesting story of Anonymous, and here I tip my hat to Gabriella Coleman whose recent work rigorously researches these so-called  ‘shock troops of the internet’ and arguably their tactics draw both strongly on the networked structure of the internet and on the power of transparency : they often publish personal information as a way of embarrassing powerful figures into action. For example, in 2011 Anons launched Operation Darknet targeting websites hosting child pornography. Most notably, the group hacked a child pornography site called “Lolita City”, releasing 1,589 usernames from the site. Actions like this do the same thing as WikiLeaks – using the capacities of the internet to enforce transparency on wrongdoers – in this case ‘naming and shaming’ people who are engaged in online activities that are both illegal and immoral.

Ironically,  Anonymous depends for its effectiveness on a lack of transparency about its membership. The group’s few rules include not disclosing one’s identity, not talking about the group, and not attacking the media. This last is important because media coverage of Anonymous actions is one of the ways that the ‘freedom fighting’ that the group engages in becomes effective – as you can see in this image of Anons advocating for the release of Edward Snowden.


Transparency is enforced by Anonymous on the targets it chooses while resisted itself. But by resisting transparency and (once again) taking on the particular qualities of the internet as a networked communication platform. Interestingly Anonymous is now calling for government transparency (second image is of FEMA hack day in support of Snowden), which brings me to …

The ethics of mass surveillance


My third example are the large-scale surveillance operations mounted by the US and the UK. As I discuss in this interview with security expert Ian Brown, these operations included collection of raw internet traffic flowing through the UK (in the case of Tempora). All communications data were kept for three days, with metadata being retained for thirty days. This ongoing surveillance submits millions of people to constant monitoring.

Once again, transparency is enforced upon one group by another group who gain power from their obscurity. In this case it is government security agencies who, without the knowledge of the public, effectively render all communication data transparent to some extent. If you think about it for a moment or two, this scale of surveillance effectively renders every individual’s daily life transparent to government spies, without subjecting the rationale for that spying to democratic debate.

Ironies of transparency

The irony of government transparency (and indeed of massive government spying) is that it shifts power relations such that the least powerful in society become those who have nothing to ‘show’. They are the people who cannot demonstrate a ‘paper trail’ and by not having anything to prove themselves, they have more to fear than those who are outwardly transparent. The extremely paradoxical thing about this is that those who have the most power are those who can engage in steganography – hiding in plain sight by being very transparent. We can see this kind of strategy emerging with corporate social responsibility strategies where companies confess to poor practices, hoping that the admission gains them some points. In a way this is a perversion of democracy, and what I think of as a new, invisible Iron Curtain (here, for reference, is the old one, in Budapest).



The future of information activism – hiding in plain sight?

I have discussed how Anonymous inverts the power differential between the surveyor and the surveyed in order to make their activism more effective: they also use the internet in a way that inverts the usual straightforward relationship between transparency and democracy: they can enact activism that is participatory and hence ‘democratic’ precisely because they can be anonymous while inflicting transparency on others. This reverses the situation of pervasive surveillance and expanding governmentality that results from the extensive collection of individual personal information by governments.

I expect advocacy efforts in future to employ not just this inversion of transparency but also, in another turning upside down of existing power relations, to engage much more in steganography – hiding in plain sight. Already activist organizations have begun using internet-based tools to suggest ways to do this: in a previous post I discussed the implications of this move into the “dark web”.



The speech I quoted at the beginning of this talk has, according to the Guardian newspaper, been deleted from the internet. The UK Tory party is committed to government transparency and has been supporting open government initiatives, yet this week it has been deleting the archives of its speeches from 2000 to 2010, some hope in the hopes that it will distract from criticisms that it has changed its policies.



The Five Questions We Need to Ask for a Better Future

I just watched The Great Gatsby. It’s a film for our times, in some ways. The embarrassing, pointless excess. The stark contrast between the fabulously wealthy and the poor, the environmentally pristine and the polluted. But it’s also a film about nostalgia, and how reaching for the past can become a pathology – closing with the famous lines from Fitzgerald’s book: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The panicked nostalgia of Gatsby is paralleled by our own incoherent economic nostalgia. I heard a lecture last night from Stephen King, the chief economist at HSBC, where he laid out the fact that the exponential living standard increases of the past can’t be repeated in the future. What this has done, in practice, is to increase inequality and, apparently, squeeze the middle class to the point of disappearance. But is it possible that nostalgia for the middle class is just as vain as any other nostalgia? I spend most of my time thinking about how we imagine different kinds of futures through technology. I think there’s good evidence that the ‘middle class’ as it’s been conceived in the past is dissolving, but I also think that the same pressures that make us worried and nostalgic could also inspire us to think about the parameters for a ‘good society’.

The End of the Middle Class

Without a doubt, increasing property prices, food and fuel costs and stagnant wages mean that fewer people make enough to have a traditionally ‘comfortable’ lifestyle, and certainly it is no longer possible for large numbers of people in Western countries to assume that they will automatically enjoy living standards better than their parents’. At the same time, advances in technology along with consolidation of capital and wealth creation among a very small number of people mean that a global elite is developing. This global elite benefit from the fact investments and capital can now be held in various jurisdictions – London’s property prices remain high on average in part because of the ongoing demand for second homes and investment properties, which aren’t even lived in.

Technological development also contributes to the reduction of a middle class. Algorithmic trading among other financial innovations allows for more efficient trading among the financial elite, while sophisticated software development is making it increasingly possible to restructure middle class jobs – in some cases replacing human workers and in others breaking down complex jobs through software into smaller tasks that can be automated or outsourced. Key to both of these processes is the application of ‘machine learning’ or ‘algorithmic processing’ in which computers recognize patterns and perform dynamic calculations. Such algorithmic processes have even recently been used to write newspaper articles.

Undoubtedly there are forces (social, financial and technological) that are gnawing away at the middle class as it has traditionally been imagined, and perhaps giving middle class people common cause with others who have been more obviously oppressed.

A More Just Future?

Perhaps instead of focusing on the gap between the fabulously and unbelievably wealthy and the relatively poor, we could start focusing on the aspects of a ‘good society’ that actually matter to people. These include basic but also subjective measures. I think there are at least five that are truly important, and that as a society we should think about how to employ the structural dynamics of this moment in history (especially including technology) not to mourn the loss of a past society but to build a fairer and more just future one. I’d like to provocatively ask five questions that sociologists will recognize as similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but which I personally think owe more to American pragmatist philosophers and educational and theological pioneers.




Speak/Listen/be Heard

Believe in Something

Be together

In other words, how can we use a world of limited physical resources to keep the maximum number of people not just fed and sheltered (maybe by insisting those London houses stay occupied?), but also how can we (in a world without growth, remember) create accountable social structures. How can we allow people to speak their minds and listen to them (democratic processes?). What can we believe in that will transcend the everyday and allow us to express who we are? (Art? Religion? Creativity? Innovation?) And finally how can we find ways to work and be together collectively, not just as individuals (Co-working? Solidarity? Neighbourliness?).

I realize these are vague principles. But I think that the vagueness might help to provide some expansive thinking. Technological practices like algorithmic calculation of large amounts of data can certainly help with meeting basic needs (think of smart energy meters, for example), but it’s also up to us to consider how to employ it for the other things that are important to us.


Alternatives to the middle class are possible. We can learn to cook and can at home, return to growing gardens, and maybe do less paid work. Perhaps that would be a better life. We can also use our present technologies and institutional structures to support our  government data and collaborative technologies have been leveraged to help people find get access to local places to grow food (Allotment Data Project), better routes to travel by bicycle (Cyclestreets), and ways to share tools and expertise locally (Streetbank. New technology, in the form of air quality and noise sensor has also meant that communities have been able to take local authorities to task if they don’t act on problems such as very noisy industrial yards or air pollution (Mapping for Change). A good life doesn’t just mean staying at home baking or gardening – it means being able to find meaning in a project that you work on with others.

(this is the gardening club at Archbishop’s Park near my house)

To make a better society, we need to reduce income inequality – even Stephen King agrees. But we also need to be able to think about how to make a good and just society that is centered around fundamental values. Can we find enough to eat? Can we be guaranteed warm, safe places to live? Can we achieve this in ways that give people responsibility and autonomy so that their concerns are heard and listened to? What can people believe in and how can they work together (in large and small ways) to achieve things that are meaningful.
Keeping these abstract, but very basic ideas in mind is a concrete means of focusing on the positive possibilities for the future, rather than “beating against the current” towards a past that can’t return.