Monthly Archives: January 2014

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as productive places to work: Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz have talked about doing ‘archaeology’ on broken toys and out of date electronics, and Jennifer Gabrys has a very sensitive philosophy of trash.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.