experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

Three Uncertain Thoughts, Or, Everything I Know I Learned from Ursula Le Guin

This text was prepared as an invocation for an upcoming RMIT Design + Ethnography + Futures workshop on “uncertainty as an intrinsic part of future-making.” (Links added.)

One.

In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin writes, “The unknown, […] the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action . . . [T]he only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”

If the only certainty is death, then to deny uncertainty is to deny life.

My work (creative? social science?) is vital not in the sense of being necessary or essential, but energetic, lively, uncertain. In a short 2006 piece in Theory, Culture & Society, Scott Lash argues that the classical concept of vitalism has re-emerged in the face of global complexity and uncertainty, manifesting itself in cultural theory that acknowledges that “the notion of life has always favoured an idea of becoming over one of being, of movement over stasis, of action over structure, of flow and flux.”

In my research I take seriously the idea that what I am seeing, doing and making is emergent; I cannot know how — when, where, for whom or why — it will all end. I can only live with, and through, it. This means I do not want to convince others that I am right. (Have you ever noticed that Le Guin’s stories unfailingly explore ethics and morality without dealing in absolutes?)

I only — as if this were a small thing! — invite you to accompany me for a while, and see what we can become together. This is just — as if this too were a small thing! — one way of knowing the world.

Two.

In a 2014 interview for Smithsonian Magazine, Le Guin explains that the future is where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native. [It] is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”

My work makes things, and explicitly makes things up, in some near or far future. I practice different worlds.

Fictions and futures give me (you? us?) space to move, and be moved. This is the space of utopia, but not an idealist utopia set against a pessimist dystopia. Fictions and futures are literally no-places: real but not actual, and always vital. I feel as though I thrive in these spaces, both grounded and reaching toward the sky, open to the elements, potential.

But here’s something I’ve learned: I can’t make up anything and expect it to work. The stories need to resonate. And that means they need to be internally coherent and consistent, plausible. So I locate others and myself empirically, ethnographically. I look to the hopes and promises that bind us together, to the threats that rip us apart, and I look to the expectations that constrain and orient us along particular, but not certain, paths.

And then I imagine it (me, you, us) otherwise.

Three.

In her 2007 essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” Le Guin clarifies “although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important.”

My imagination has sought out this vital, “green country of fantasy” by focussing on possible futures for multispecies, more-than-human, agents. But I’ve yet to be successful in my quest to avoid anthropocentrism. (My dragons remain stubbornly human!)

Still: I follow Donna Haraway’s argument, in 2007’s When Species Meet, that “animals enrich our ignorance.” When I look at people and technology and design and everyday life with — and through — animals I am never more uncertain about what they all mean. To take animals (and other nonhumans) seriously forces me to let go of many preconceptions, even when I fail to imagine a plausible alternative.

But perhaps that uncertainty is only appropriate, too.

Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

Interview on our Counting Sheep research

BoneKnitter Sara Hendren has published a thoughtful and kind review on Gizmodo’s Abler website of the BoneKnitter speculative design ethnography project with Dani Clode.

Not only is Sara the kind of generous interviewer who brings out the best in her subjects, but her insightful questions also taught me something about myself and my work–and for that I am incredibly grateful.

Read: “Knitting bones with fact and fiction: A conversation with Design Culture Lab’s Anne Galloway”

“Galloway’s work is aligned with what’s often called speculative design, or design fiction. It is essentially creative cultural research, rooted in designed artifacts. The designs aren’t intended to solve user-based problems or needs; they’re not meant to result in manufactured products. They’re created instead to ask provocative questions, to pose future scenarios that are partly fact and partly fiction, and to form bridges between academic and popular debate around important technological, cultural and socio-political issues. Because these visions are based on people’s lived experiences, and created for public engagement, Galloway refers to what she does as ‘speculative design ethnography’.”

In the interview section, I discuss the rationale behind the BoneKnitter, our design process and Dani’s exceptional craftwork, and the broader research goals that underpin the Counting Sheep project.

Thank you, Sara!

UPDATE: Thanks to Alexis Madrigal for including this interview in The Atlantic: Technology‘s list of 5 Intriguing Things for May 16, 2014.

Posted: May 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Research Methodologies | No Comments »

CFP: Adventures in Speculative Design Ethnography

CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS: IR15 PRE-CONFERENCE WORKSHOP

“Animals, Vegetables & Minerals Online: Adventures in Speculative Design Ethnography”

Full-day workshop @ IR15: Boundaries & Intersections, Bangkok, 22 October, 2014

Organisers: Anne Galloway & Jaz Hee-jeong Choi

MineralThis workshop will introduce participants to the practices of speculative design ethnography, support small groups in exploring its strengths and limitations, and encourage the application of relevant elements to individual research objectives. Drawing from a range of qualitative research traditions, speculative design ethnography comprises a continually evolving set of empirical and creative methods and public engagement strategies. Inspired by artistic provocations rather than corporate or government forecasting activities, “everyday” speculative objects, images, and narratives are created and used to critically examine and challenge common assumptions and expectations about near-future technologies, material, and sociocultural relations—including those related to the Internet. Focussing our attention on animals, vegetables and minerals offers a means to engage with matters of increasing social and cultural concern like future food systems, as well as to critically and creatively explore what happens when humans and nonhumans are put on more equal footing. This focus also allows researchers to explore the online worlds of nonhuman life, and consider the possibilities of nonhuman media production. A creative background is not required to participate, but imagination and interest are a must. We believe that multidisciplinary researchers working on everything from ethnographic methods, big data analysis, and online image-sharing, to internet infrastructure, locative media, and online publics will enjoy the opportunity to think, do, and make some fun and unusual things. Participants will be asked to indicate their interests in these areas, work in small groups to complete exercises, present original design concepts, and discuss everything within the larger group.

READ FULL WORKSHOP DESCRIPTION

Posted: May 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

Mobilities and Design Workshop

I’m really pleased to be participating (via video & Skype) in the Mobilities and Design Workshop at Lancaster University, 29-30 April, 2014.

The event is being live-streamed so you’ll be able to follow along, and this is what I’ll be talking about:

Why Count Sheep, and Other Tricky Questions About Speculative Design Ethnography

Governments around the world require livestock farmers to tag their animals and track their movements from birth to death. Mandated for the purposes of local biosecurity and global market access, electronic identification is also used to keep track of breeding information and health treatments. Combined with location technologies like GPS, and sensor technologies that can monitor individual animal health and external environmental conditions, livestock are now capable of generating and transmitting enormous amounts of data.

At the same time, farmers in the developed world respond to increased public concerns about animal welfare and environmental sustainability by developing new online forms of agricultural advocacy, or what they call “agvocacy”. The US-based AgChat Foundation, and its equivalents in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, use social media to promote greater public awareness of agricultural practices and connect producers and consumers through weekly online chats. A “farm to fork” traceability ethos underpins agvocacy efforts, and aligns well with technosocial imperatives related to the “Internet of Things” – or the ability to connect data-rich objects (including animals) to the Internet.

For the past three years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sheep, talking about sheep, and hanging out with sheep or other people who care about sheep. I’ve done this because I’m interested in what the emergent technologies and politics I describe above might mean for our longest domesticated livestock animal, and for the people who continue to produce and consume them. In most ways, this has been standard STS-based ethnographic research: participant observation, interviews, etc. But the systems that I describe aren’t fully formed–and may not ever fully form as imagined–so I needed to come up with complementary research methods that could help me apprehend the future, or more correctly possible futures, and for that I turned to design.

This presentation will first outline the speculative design ethnography (SDE) methods developed, and outputs created, for the “Counting Sheep: NZ Merino in an Internet of Things” research project. (I encourage people to check out the design scenarios for themselves.) Then I will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of this kind of hybrid research practice, paying particular attention to how future visions act in the present to construct multiple publics and co-produce knowledge. Finally, using preliminary responses to our work, I will consider the potential of SDE as a public engagement strategy, and the role of disinterested or disagreeable publics.

Related reading

Galloway, A. 2013. “Emergent Media Technologies, Speculation, Expectation and Human/Nonhuman Relations.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 57(1): 53-65.

Galloway, A. 2013. “Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design.” Ethnography Matters, 17 September, 2013.

Posted: April 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

New term, creatures, design & cultural critique

I can’t believe it’s autumn already! Where did the summer go?

Anyway, here’s what we’ve been up to and a glimpse of what’s to come:

Mata Freshwater (of Grow Your Own Lamb fame) and I have been working on something very creaturely… and sometime before the end of the month, we’ll be adding this final speculative design ethnography scenario to the Counting Sheep website. If you haven’t taken the survey yet, don’t worry, there’s still time to tell us what you think!

I also had the pleasure of a two-week visit with theologian and associate professor of religion, Trevor Bechtel. I first met Trevor at the Digital Genres Conference at the University of Chicago in 2003, and we still share an intellectual interest in technology and a great love of animals. You can check out the fascinating collaborative creative work he does through the Anabaptist Bestiary Project, and Trevor and I spent a lot of time drinking flat whites and talking about speculative design and objects of grace–so I hope we’ll be able to share more about that in the coming months.

As the winner of a VUW Summer Scholarship, Chris Nimmo joined the team to kick off our new project: The Great NZ Cat Controversy. Chris searched all the interwebs to create an archive of online public engagement with Gareth Morgan’s Cats to Go campaign – including articles like “Morgan calls for cats to be wiped out“, Facebook groups like “Cats against Gareth Morgan,” and memes like the one below by Jackson Wood- and then he did a comprehensive discourse analysis of the content. (Hint: it’s all about pets vs pests.)

Gareth Morgan by Jackson Wood

We’ll be creating a project page and making this archive available online soon, but right now we’re looking for someone to create an awesome actor & issue map from his findings–so if you’re interested in working with us, please get in touch. In another month or so, we’ll also get started on the design ethnography phase of the project – so stay tuned for that too.

Otherwise, I’ve been busy thinking and writing and plotting. You can check out this ethnography + design interview with me at Savage Minds, and I’m now drafting something for my much admired Superflux colleagues. On the academic front, I’ve recently submitted some research funding proposals, a journal article, a conference paper, and a workshop proposal, so will hopefully be able to share more about all that shortly.

But most recently, the bulk of my efforts have gone into teaching prep, and this term I’m teaching a third year course on design and cultural critique. I’ve assigned Dunne and Raby‘s new book, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming as required reading for the course, and am really looking forward to discussing it with students. Course themes include critical theories of everyday life, the critical potential of speculative fiction and design, how to use culture to critique design, and how to use design to critique culture. Students have two major projects to complete: a research essay on what is “critical” about critical design, and a critical design project that embodies their idea of cultural critique. I’m really excited to see what they come up with!

And last, but certainly not least, I’d like to congratulate Catherine Caudwell on submitting her PhD thesis: Into the Furby-verse: The Narrative Production of Electronic Companions. Her examination isn’t until April, but we’re confident that we’ll be calling her Dr Caudwell soon!

Posted: March 7th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Progress Reports, Research Methodologies | No Comments »