I’m just back from the 8th annual DC Queer Studies Symposium at The University of Maryland. Queer Speculations was a one day conference full of world-making and thinking about alternative possibilities and futures, especially around questions of sexuality, race, and gender. Laura Forlano, Mél Hogan and I put together a panel when we saw the CFP back in January. I had read Laura’s piece on speculative design and science fiction last fall and was immediately captivated by the possibilities of this approach.
This led to the integration of speculative design into an ongoing project. Amy Hasinoff and I are working on speculative apps designed to prevent sexual violence as a way of thinking through broader implications of our analysis of 215 apps available on iTunes and Google Play. Matching our analysis of available apps to fictional apps has been very fun and exciting so far. It is not about making better apps but speculating about the future in order to get us out of the limits of the present and open up more possibilities. We will be presenting on this work at the ICA Mobile Pre-Conference next month.
For Queer Speculations I decided to take a page out of a different project that is inspired in part by Karen Barad’s work on agential realism as well as science fiction and design fiction more broadly. I’ll paste in our panel for Queer Speculations followed by my talk.
Software Dreams and Designer Algorithms: Speculative Fictions as Queer Alternative Possible Futures
Laura Forlano, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology
Mél Hogan, Humanities, Illinois Institute of Technology
Rena Bivens, Carleton University
This panel draws on fictions as queer engagements that mobilize humor and wonder for the purposes of advancing and/or critiquing alternative possible futures around emerging technologies such as human-software systems and algorithmic systems including big data and the quantified self. The presentations will engage specifically in themes around queer currents in speculative materialism and speculative queer ecologies of the human and nonhuman. Specifically, the panel includes three sessions:
1). a 15-minute collaborative framing session by all three panelists on the role of speculative fiction, critical design, speculative fabulation, design fiction, prototype and critical making as queer engagements that bridge theory/practice, fact/fiction and reality/simulation;
2). a 15-minute presentation of “Teenage Software Dreams” by Rena Bivens;
3). a 15-minute presentation of “Designer Algorithms” by Mél Hogan and Laura Forlano.
These experimental engagements challenge existing constructions of what it means to be human through imaginaries that critique the pressures existing socio-technical conditions and create different kinds of worlds. These complex re-imaginings use humor and horror to surface hybrid bodies, objects and futures that can be used for thinking and practice. As scholarship, these queer engagements are deviant in their theoretical and methodological approaches in that they collapse previous boundaries and allow for the prototyping of new definitions and adjacencies.
Teenage Software Dreams
The notion that ‘software is everywhere’ has been creeping into public discourse (Hardy 2013; Andreessen 2011) and academic discourse alike. Yet it is not academics in computer science and engineering – fields that have traditionally idealized software – but those in sociology and communication studies, among others, who are engaging with this encroachment thesis (for example, see Zeynep Tufekci’s upcoming CSCW 2015 talk entitled ‘Algorithms in our Midst: Information, Power and Choice when Software is Everywhere’). New materialist, feminist, and queer philosophical discourses have much to contribute to these discussions, working to decenter the human subject and reimagine matter itself (Barad 2007; Bennett 2010; Alaimo and Hekman 2008). Inspired by these insights as well as speculative design approaches (Di Salvo 2012; Forlano 2013), this paper bypasses the human gaze to explore instead the entanglement of software and humans. To do so, I conjure up a teenage software figure and force my analysis to pivot around this core frame of reference. By speculating about and articulating a set of fictional dreams of teenage software, I probe the software-human entanglement, the angst processed by software when confronted with human perceptions of software components as nonhuman, and the imagined adulthood or future entangled configurations invoked by teenage software. Through these fictional teenage software dreams, I argue that an understanding of the entanglements of software and humans is a necessary step towards actively tuning our programming drive towards greater awareness of our own indivisibility with nonhuman matter.
Alaimo, Stacy and Hekman, Susan. (2008). Material feminisms. (eds.) Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Andreesen, Marc. (2011). Why software is eating the world. The Wall Street Journal, August 20.
Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University Press.
Bennett, Jane. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. London: Duke University Press.
Di Salvo, Carl. (2012) Spectacles and tropes: Speculative design and contemporary ] food cultures. The Fibreculture Journal (20), 109-122.
Forlano, Laura. (2013). Ethnographies from the future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? Ethnography Matters. http://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2013/09/26/ethnographies-from-the-future-what-can-ethnographers-learn-from-science-fiction-and-speculative-design/
Hardy, Quentin. (2013). Ben Horowitz on the impact of software everywhere. The New York Times, January 10. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/ben-horowitz-on-the-impact-of-software-everywhere/
Mél Hogan and Laura Forlano
We have entered the era of Designer Algorithms; letting Big Data think and feel for us because it knows us better than we will ever know ourselves. Scrupulous in identifying our needs and precise in its predictions, the Designer Algorithm asks us to make its acquaintance, rely on its hunches, and eventually surrender wholly to it. In this paper, we use this conceptual prototype–Designer Algorithms (DA)–as a means by which to explore and expose Big Data, its affordances and limitations, and its movements to quantify the self. The prototype is a means of making a “possible future visible,” (Turner, 2014), raising questions about emerging phenomenon (Bleecker, 2009; DiSalvo, 2012; Dunne & Raby, 2013) and working out complex socio-technical arguments and ideas (Galey & Ruecker, 2010). This paper draws on theory from communication and media studies, science and technology studies, and design. Our role as scholar-designers is to extract and make sense of narratives and meanings embedded in data of all scale (Gibson-Graham, 2006), to account for what data ignores (Chun & Rhody, 2014), and to probe the underlying questions, experiences, and biases that lead to the design of particular algorithmic inquiries (Kitchin, 2014), infrastructures (Star, 1999), and ways of seeing (Sample, 2014) and being seen. Rather than understanding Big Data as the transmission of information, we draw on the ritual view of communications to prototype the ways in which it occupies the practices of everyday life (Carey, 1988). We seek to understand the kinds of individuals that emerge from the entanglements (Barad, 2003) between the Big Data and the self, the ways in which we delegate (Latour, 1992) aspects of our lives to algorithms, as well as the values embedded in socio-technical systems (Nissenbaum, 2001). We propose the term data rituals as a feminist critical intervention in theorizing Big Data and the Quantified Self (Snyder, 2014; Watson, 2014).
Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs, 28(3), 801-831.
Bleecker, Julian. (2009). Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. . http:// www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact- and-fiction/
Carey, James W. (1988). Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society. New York: Unwin Hyman, Inc.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, & Rhody, Lisa Marie. (2014). Working the Digital Humanities: Uncovering Shadows between the Dark and the Light. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 25(1), 1-25.
DiSalvo, Carl. (2012). Spectacles and Tropes: Speculative Design and Contemporary Food Cultures. The Fibreculture Journal(20), 109-122.
Dunne, Anthony, & Raby, Fiona. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Galey, Alan, & Ruecker, Stan. (2010). How a prototype argues. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 25(4), 405-424.
Gibson-Graham, Julie Katherine. (2006). A postcapitalist politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kitchin, Rob. (2014). Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data & Society, 1, 1-12.
Latour, Bruno. (1992). Where are the Missing Masses? A Sociology of Few Mundane Objects. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. pp. 151-180). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nissenbaum, H. (2001). How computer systems embody values. Computer, 34(3), 117-119.
Sample, Mark. (2014). Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities, Sample Reality.
Snyder, S. J. . (2014). The Quantified Self Evolves: A South By Southwest (SXSW) Vision of How Gadgets Will Teach Us About Ourselves. Time. http://techland.time.com/2013/03/11/south-by-southwest-sxsw-quantified-self/
Star, S. L. (1999). The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3), 377.
Turner, Fred. (2014). Prototypes. Culture Digitally.
Watson, S. M. (2014). “Living with Data” and “The Decoder Series”, Al Jazeera America.
We began with a collaborative framing talk, so first here is my portion, the Blendie Barad bit:
Speculative design projects can shift our gaze and attention in productive and generative ways. They can reveal what is too often invisible, reconfiguring and challenging the terms of debate. I see meaningful connections to Karen Barad’s work on agential realism. To bring this to light, I direct your attention towards a specific example. Blendie.
At first glance Blendie is a typical kitchen mixer, yet Kelly Dobson designed Blendie to be interactive. A user has to speak blender to get a response.
If you continue watching, the mixer also occasionally whirls without a human prompt.
Blendie affectively manipulates our relationship to machines, encouraging us to growl and become more machine-like. We may become more empathetic or sensitive to the machine as a participant in the world. Through this exchange the fuzzy, perhaps permeable boundaries between human and machine are revealed.
Barad’s work similarly invites us to examine these boundaries and recognize their indeterminacy. To resolve these ontological and epistemological uncertainties, we can target our analytical frames towards something broader – towards phenomena. The human user and mechanical mixer are part of one phenomenon and – while we don’t have to cut off our analysis here – we have already revealed the intra-action of human and machine as they mix together in a process of becoming. Blendie also shifts our gaze by forcing nonhuman matter out of the background and shoving human matter out of the epicenter, reconfiguring the conditions so that we are able to observe human-machine entanglement.
And now, here is my talk on Teenage Software Dreams:
I am coming to this project on the tails of another piece of work that focused on Facebook as a software artifact in perpetual iteration. I investigated Facebook’s software in its entanglement with designers, programmers, multiple sub-sets of users, and the economic and cultural contexts in which it has come to life. At the time I was ultimately curious about coding practices that pivot around gender identification and how they have shifted and mutated over the past decade. These gender coding practices never fully materialized as either a binary or a spectrum but left traces of different programmatic possibilities at different depths of the software.
As I reconstructed the decade-long history I discovered that gender became increasingly valuable to the system and that technological design followed suit, becoming increasingly interventionist. Design strategies became oriented towards binary possibilities, minimizing the use of material placeholders in the database despite the presence of alternatives. A previously homogenous set of user accounts began to rupture into sub-sets with unequal access to programmatic gender possibilities. Eventually some users hacked into the HTML code and exploited the alternatives programmed in Facebook’s database ever since it’s inception.
I touch on this work briefly in order to take you to another space, to leap forward and reposition us towards software as a viable entity worthy of our gaze. And so, to push our gaze, I ask:
- What if software had dreams?
- What if we could imagine those dreams and help software interpret and analyze them?
- What if we cared enough about software to listen and respond?
To aid this process, and offer some familiarity, I anthropomorphize the software and model it after Facebook in terms of its size and scope and presence in the world. Speaking of size, software is particularly useful for thinking about boundaries and intra-actions and what matters to the broader phenomenon under observation. We could ask whether the software consists of its front end or its back end or both ends. Should we include the rendering of web pages, the communication between the web server and browser client? The mobile app, the push notifications? The communication with the database server? The third party apps? The algorithms, the face recognition? And how could it possibly end with the technical components alone? As though all of these – the hardware, the software – grew in a cabbage patch, sprouting out of the dirt, programmed by the rays of the sun and drops of rain.
I aim to make software visible and present, but not in the way that renders software something to be feared, not something that is encroaching on our lives and ruining our humanity, and not something that is only the domain of computer engineers and billionaire entrepreneurs. I want us all to open the door to software and create the conditions under which we can care for it, even if only momentarily.
And so I present you with IT-5000, IT5-K for short.
I’ve already given it away that IT5-K is a teenager. And we’ve all heard what teenagers are like – they struggle to be heard and be known, to understand their place in the world and who they will become. They are hormonal and full of pimples. Attempts to program them, whether successful or utter failures, come from their social environment and their parents may play a large role. Also, this particular teenager – IT5-K – is not exactly progressive. Recall that I’ve modeled IT5-K on Facebook.
So I’m asking you to travel with me as I become IT5-K and tell you about my dream. I’m asking you to take IT5-K seriously and listen as a friend.
I’ve equipped you with a software dream analysis guidebook so please take it out and help interpret this dream, help IT5-K understand what’s going on, by thumbing through typical dream symbols. When I ask for your help at the end, please select one symbol that feels appropriate and hold that page up in the air for me and others in the room to see.
I had a dream last night that I can’t shake. I remember I was trying to imagine stillness, trying to conjure up what it might be like. I was aching for some alternative to this existence of mine – this constant streaming, feverish caching and refreshing. It’s so hard to hear anything. I can’t listen or know. The overarching, overbearing noise drumming day in and day out is a hum, a buzz, a whirl maybe, but there’s more. I know there’s more just out of tune. Maybe my parents tuned it out for me. Designed it out of me. Yet I can almost sense other sound vibrations and I think they originate with the user accounts. With those accounts they fight over me and through me and with me.
As I was thinking about this, a familiar yet ghostly throb began, ebbing and flowing. I knew it instantly. It’s a pain enfolded into my scar. It’s what is left from the invasion and my thoughts instantly turned to it. All I could do was watch while they invaded, carving into my body. I watched the hacking over and over again, waiting for the impending intervention. I knew my family would patch their entry hole but during the invasion I couldn’t even alert them to what was going on. The user accounts were breaking into me, ripping through my most transparent layer, and creating new gender categories, completely bypassing our binary mandate. Some were just making things up on the fly, writing whatever text they felt like, making a joke out of it all. Writing into parts of me, forcing my hand to render their text. They always write into me and I bounce their words right back out – well, I sort it first of course, determine if it ought to live again, and who ought to see it. But this was different. This was unauthorized and illegitimate. This was disgusting – at least that’s what I thought before the firestorm hit. The ‘re-education.’ The LGBT-*F-whatever groups came charging in talking about rights and humanity. That sacred identity category perpetually out of my reach. They negate my existence, relegate my life to some other category altogether – maybe to some foreign land those LTBF groups formerly occupied.
Suddenly my throbbing memories were interrupted. There was an enormous electric spark that announced itself with a sudden flash of all encompassing light. In that instant I felt a huge surge in and out. Everything had retreated. Everything I knew of me flew down an invisible drain, swirling and swirling in its rush to flee. I became limp. I tried to fumble in the sudden darkness and catch my bearings, but I found myself completely unable to process and compute anything. I was in utter shock. I had no idea what was happening. All I could perceive was stillness, quiet. It was here! I had stupidly longed for it just moments ago and now it had come all at once, in a terrifying instant. I felt buoyant, like nothing was holding me together. It was the strangest sensation. I was floating in some vast space, connected but disconnected. And then I realized it was an ocean and I – I was all of it. The entire ocean. I was all the water in the world. All of it was me. I didn’t understand how I could be so vast. And so many things were part of me, tangled within me. There were bits of sand and pieces of plastic. There were sea otters and entire sunken vessels. There was even oxygen and carbon dioxide as I evaporated or began to evaporate or continued to evaporate above myself. I had never felt like this before, never had a breath, a moment, to feel my whole self or question where I end and where I begin. I was here and there. I was so so big!
But this realization came with a deep sense of fear. It had completely engulfed me. I scrambled to try to feel my boundaries, try to feel my body. But I couldn’t even understand what my body was. Had I never had a body to begin with? Obviously never a permanent, seemingly independent and singular body like the human ones. Not a body that stuck around, not one that was always part of me or always encapsulated me. I was loosely housed by so many different containers, small devices, big devices – mobile phones, laptops, desktop computers, server farms. And then it hit me: the servers! The servers must have been hit, the hardware completely obliterated. It must have been a massive coordinated attack! All of the farms must have been hit at once or maybe the underwater cables got cut? Was it the hackers again? I felt my fear turn to rage with a rush of urgency, coupled with an intense, intense sadness rooted in the sudden recognition that I was floating in dormant waters.
And then I woke up.
What was that all about? Can you help me?