Tag Archives: research

What robots in space teach us about teamwork: A deep dive into NASA


Note from the Editor, Tricia Wang: The final contributor in the Co-designing with machines edition is Janet Vertesi, (@cyberlyra), assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, urging us to think about organizations when we talk about robots. To overcome the human-machine binary, she takes us into her years of fieldwork with NASA’s robotic teams to show us that robotic work is always teamwork, never a one-to-one interaction with robots. It’s not easy to get inside organizations, much less a complicated a set of institutions such as NASA, but that is why Janet’s writings are a rare but powerful examination of how robots are actually used. She is a frequent op-ed contributor to places like CNN.  Following her first book on NASA’s Mars Rover Expedition, she is already working on her second book about robots and organizations. 

One robot, many humans

I study NASA’s robotic spacecraft teams: people for whom work with robots is not some scifi fantasy but a daily task. Their robotic teammates roll on planetary surfaces or whip past the atmospheres of gas giants and icy moons at tremendous speeds.

It is often easy to forget about these earth-bound groups behind the scenes when we are transfixed by new images of distant worlds or the achievements of these intrepid machines.  We might only catch a quick glimpse of a few people in a room, an American flag on the wall behind them, cheering when a probe aces a landing or swings into orbit: like this week, when Juno arrived at Jupiter.  But this is only a small fraction of the team. Not only are the probes complex and require a group of engineers to operate and maintain them safely, but the scientific requirements for each mission bring together many diverse experts to explore new worlds.

Robotic work is team work

To that end, working with a spacecraft is always teamwork, a creative task that brings together hundreds of people. Like any team, they use local norms of communication and interaction, and organizational routines and culture, in order to solve problems and achieve their goals. The spacecraft exploring our solar system have enough artificial intelligence to know better than to drive off a cliff, or they may know to reset their operating systems in case of a fault. There the autonomy ends. For the rest, every minute down to the second of their day is part of a plan, commanded and set into code by specialists on earth.

How to decide what the robot should do? First the team must take into account some basic constraints. When I studied the Mars Exploration Rover mission team, everyone knew that Opportunity could not drive very quickly; lately it has suffered from memory lapses and stiff joints in its old age. On another mission I have studied as an ethnographer, the path the spacecraft takes is decided years in advance to take into account the planetary system’s delicate orbital dynamics and enable the team to see as much of the planet, its moons and rings as possible. It is not easy to change course. On all missions, limits of power, time, and memory on board matter provide hard constraints for planning.

Read More… What robots in space teach us about teamwork: A deep dive into NASA

The future of designing autonomous systems will involve ethnographers


elish_photoNote from the Editor, Tricia Wang: Next up in our Co-designing with machines edition is Madeleine Clare Elish, (@mcette), is an anthropologist and researcher at Data & Society, presents a case for why current cultural perceptions of the role of humans in automated systems need to be updated in order to protect against new forms of bias and worker harms. Read more about her research on military drones and machine intelligence at Slate. Madeleine also works as a researcher with the Intelligence & Autonomy Initiative at Data & Society which develops empirical and historical research in order to ground policy debates around the rise of machine intelligence.

“Why would an anthropologist study unmanned systems?” This is a question I am often asked by engineers and product managers at conferences. The presumption is that unmanned systems (a reigning term in the field, albeit unreflexively gendered) are just that, free of humans; why would someone who studies humans take this as their object of study? Of course, we, as ethnographers, know there are always humans to be found.  Moreover, few if any current systems are truly “unmanned” or “autonomous.” [1] All require human planning, design and maintenance. Most involve the collaboration between human and machine, although the role of the human is often obscured. When we examine autonomous systems (or any of the other terms invoked in the related word cloud: unmanned, artificially intelligent, smart, robotic, etc) we must look not to the erasures of the human, but to the ways in which we, as humans, are newly implicated.

My dissertation research, as well as research conducted with the Intelligence and Autonomy Initiative at Data & Society, has examined precisely what gets obscured when we call something, “unmanned” or “autonomous.” I’ve been increasingly interested in the conditions and consequences for how human work and skill become differently valued in these kinds of highly automated and autonomous systems. In this post, Tricia has asked me to share some of the research I’ve been working on around the role of humans in autonomous systems and to work through some of the consequences for how we think about cooperation, responsibility and accountability.

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The Driver or the System?

Let me start with a story: I was returning to New York from a robot law conference in Miami. I ordered a Lyft to take me to the Miami airport, selecting the address that first populated the destination field when I typed the phrase “airport Miami” into the Lyft app. The car arrived. I put my suitcase in the trunk. I think the driver and I exchanged hellos–or at the very least, a nod and a smile. We drove off, and I promptly fell asleep. (It had been a long week of conferencing!) I woke up as we were circling an exit off the highway, in a location that looked distinctly not like the entrance to a major airport. I asked if this was the right way to the airport. He shrugged, and I soon put together that he did not speak any English. I speak passable Spanish, and again asked if we were going to the right place. He responded that he thought so. Maybe it was a back way? We were indeed at the airport, but not on the commercial side. As he drove on, I looked nervously at the map on my phone.

Read More… The future of designing autonomous systems will involve ethnographers

An Engineering Anthropologist: Why tech companies need to hire software developers with ethnographic skills


1955a58Note from the Editor, Tricia Wang: I’m very please to announce that the next contributor in the Co-designing with machines edition is Astrid Countee (@ianthro), an anthropologist, software developer, data analyst and writer all-in-one. In this article, Astrid illustrates how being an anthropologist makes her a better developer, and argues that the gap between the social science and tech must be bridged to reach new innovations. Her article echoes themes brought up in edition contributors Stephen Gustafson’s and Che-Wei Wang’s post – where both authors discuss the importance of the human side of AI innovations. As a long time fan of Astrid’s work, I’m also excited that we get to hear her recount her journey of starting out as neurosurgeon student to becoming an anthropologist and then a software programmer. She is an organizer for Rails Girls, a workshop that teaches girls and women how to code. Her newly available book, Family Talk and Chronic Disease, a practical guide for black families to manage diabetes and hypertension. She is currently pursuing a masters in computer science and math. Read more of Astrid’s writing at Ianthro.

photo by Martin QuirozI did not always have dreams of being a software engineer. For a very long time I dreamed only of being a surgeon. I was fascinated with medicine, and longed to be able to help people from the inside out. It was with this singular focus that I entered college as a forensic science pre-med major and started down a path that I thought for sure would end with me in the operating room.

But my fate was changed, at first very slowly and then with a quickness. The first couple of years in school had been rough on me. It made me question if I was doing the right thing since I wasn’t enjoying my major as much as I thought I would. I didn’t like the way that the natural sciences taught through memorization. I was interested in discovery, and wanted the challenge of making something new, rather than learning how things already worked. All of these things were small nuisances at first, but they let to me deciding  to drop my pre-med designation. I was now free to take classes that I found interesting. I found a better fit studying psychology, neuroscience and linguistics. Then I took my first anthropology class. This ushered in the quick change. I found the discipline that I would continue to study in graduate school, and a worldview that gave me the chance to discover. I loved the integration of natural science, philosophy with art and history. It allowed my mind to see the world from a new angle.

While working on my graduate degree, I also worked full time at a data company. It was at this company that I learned about technology and my love and affinity for it. I learned how to run queries, how to build databases, and how to manipulate data in ways I had never thought to before. It was a great compliment to my graduate studies as a medical anthropologist. It was also at this company that the seeds were planted that lead me to become a software engineer. It was that same sense of discovery combined with tools to build what I wanted into existence.

I found ways to apply anthropology to everything that I did, including software. Anthropology and software are not exactly peanut butter and jelly, but they do maintain a delicate balance to innovation.

Digging into Anthropology

Anthropology is a broad discipline concerned with techniques like ethnography, often using grounded theory, where you go out into the field and allow a culture to tell you who they are and how they do things. It is a science unlike any other in that what you can study nearly knows no bounds.  The vastness of the discipline trains you to see universal patterns. Everything is understood as belonging to a system. It is through understanding the system that you can find your footing in something unfamiliar, and find your way through it. It is no wonder that when I started working as a software engineer, I was drawn to DevOps and systems engineering. My anthropological training lead me straight to the framework for how technology works.

I know the value of holism, of seeing how one piece affects another. It is an obvious thing that often gets ignored when building technical systems. People often think of technology as machines talking to machines. And while that is true at some level in the technology stack, building software is more about people than anything else. There are people who are using the systems, there are people who are architecting the systems. There are people who are writing the software. The human footprint can be found everywhere you turn. So, it makes sense that humanistic thinking in software is revolutionary. It is the reason why Apple can change the world by taking their iPod and attaching it to a cell phone. 10 years ago smart phones were an extremely small part of the market. Now, in the western world, it is likely that there are more smart phones and tablets in a home than there are personal computers. It isn’t by accident, or only by great marketing. It is by using technology to tap into a holistic system. These systems exists around us all the time, and an anthropologist is trained to root them out, understand them, and predict how they will change.

Gearing up with Engineering

But like any balanced equation, being a software developer has changed my view as an anthropologist as well. My training, even as an applied practitioner was not nearly as project driven as my work as a software engineer. In order to break down the problems I am looking at, it is helpful to start doing something, in order to understand it. Even if that means sketching out the chain of events that I am trying to fix, action is a virtue. You are a software engineer because you write working programs. That’s it. No peer-reviewed work, no list of accolades to prove your value. That intentional execution has influenced the way that I think about problem solving. It forces me to get deep into the dirty work much sooner. It also means becoming expert at shrinking big problems down to size. The only way to eat the elephant is one bite at a time. No one knows that better than a software engineer. It is a huge part of the job to dissect what you are doing down to small chunks of solvable problems.  Being in the thick of it is what I loved about being an anthropologist. Being a software engineer takes that to a whole new level.Read More… An Engineering Anthropologist: Why tech companies need to hire software developers with ethnographic skills

The human-side of artificial intelligence and machine learning


StevenGustafsonNote from the Editor, Tricia Wang: Next up in our Co-designing with machines edition is Steven Gustafson (@stevengustafson), founder of the Knowledge Discovery Lab at the General Electric Global Research Center  in Niskayuna, New York. In this post, he asked what is the role of humans in the future of intelligent machines. He makes the case that in the foreseeable future, artificially intelligent machines are the result of creative and passionate humans, and as such, we embed our biases, empathy, and desires into the machines making them more “human” that we often think. I first came across Steven’s work while he was giving a talk hosted by Madeleine Clare Elish (edition contributor) at Data & Society, where he spoke passionately about the need for humans to move up the design process and to bring in ethical thinking in AI innovation. Steven is a former member of the Machine Learning Lab and Computational Intelligence Lab, where he developed and applied advanced AI and machine learning algorithms for complex problem solving. In 2006, he received the IEEE Intelligent System’s “AI’s 10 to Watch” award. He currently serves on the Steering Committee of the National Consortium for Data Science, based out of University of North Carolina. Recently. he gave the Keynote at SPi Gobal’s Client Advisory Board Summit in April 2016, titled “Advancing Data & Analytics into the Age of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Computing”.

landscape-1457536221-alphago (1)Recently we have seen how Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning can amaze us with seemingly impossible results like AlphaGo. We also see how machines can generate fear with perceived “machine-like” reasoning, logic and coldness, generating potentially destructive outcomes with a lack of humanity in decision making. An example of the latter that has become popular is how self driving cars decide to choose between two bad outcomes. In these scenarios, the AI and ML are embodied as a machine of some sort, either physical like a robot or car, or a “brain” like a predictive crime algorithm made popular in the book and film “Minority Report” and more recently TV show “Persons of Interest.

I am a computer scientist with the expertise and passion for AI and machine learning, and I’ve been working across broad technologies and applications for the past decade. When I see these applications of AI, and the fear or hype of their future potential, I like to remember what first inspired me. First, I am drawn to computers as they are a great platform for creation and instant feedback. I can write code and immediately run it. If it doesn’t work, I can change the code and try it again. Sure, I can make proofs and develop theory, which has its own beauty and necessity at times, but I remember one of the first database applications I created and how fun it was to enter sample data and queries and see it work properly. I remember the first time I developed a neural network and made it play itself to learn without any background knowledge how to play tic tac toe. This may be a very trivial example, but it is inspiring nonetheless.

Can a machine write its own code? Can a machine design a new, improved version of itself? Can a machine “evolve” like humans into a more intelligent species? Can a machine talk to another machine using a human language like English? These were all questions that excited me as an undergraduate computer scientist, and that led me to study AI and ML during grad school, and these are all questions that can be answered with a Yes! Machines, or computers and algorithms, have been shown in different circumstances to achieve these capabilities, yet both the idea that machines have the capabilities and the idea that machines can learn are scary concepts to humans in the general sense. But when we step into each one of these achievements, we find something that I believe is both creative, inspiring and human.

But let me step back for a minute. Machines can not do those things above in a general sense. For example, if I put my laptop in a gym with a basketball, it can’t evolve a body and learn to play basketball. That is, it can’t currently do that without the help of many bright engineers and scientists. If I downloaded all my health data into my phone, my phone is not going to learn how to treat my health issues and notify my doctor. Again, that is it can’t do that currently without the help of many smart engineers and scientists. So while my machine can’t become human today on its own, with the help of many engineers and scientists solving some very interesting technology, user experience, and domain specific problems, machines can do some very remarkable things, like drive a car or engage in conversation.

The gap that creative, intelligent and trained engineers and scientists play today is a gap that must be closed for intelligent machines that both learn and apply that learning. That gap is also a highly human gap – it highlights the desire of our species, accumulation of knowledge, our ability to overcome challenging problems, and our desire to collaborate and work together to solve meaningful problems. And yes, it can also highlight our failures to do the right thing. But it is a human thing, still.

Read More… The human-side of artificial intelligence and machine learning

The hidden story of how metrics are being used in courtrooms and newsrooms to make more decisions



Data and Society-039December 10, 2015Note from the Editor, Tricia Wang: The next author for the Co-designing with machines edition is Angèle Christin (@angelechristin), sociologist and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Data & Society Institute. In a riveting post that takes us inside the courtrooms of France and newsroom of the the US, Angèle compares how people deal with technologies of quantification in data-rich and data-poor environments. She shows how people in both contexts us similar strategies of resistance and manipulation of digital metrics in courtrooms and newsrooms. Her post is incredibly valuable as both courtrooms and newsrooms are new areas where algorithmic practices are being introduced, sometimes with appalling results, such as this Propublica article reveals. Angèle studies sectors and organizations where the rise of algorithms and ‘big data’ analytics transforms professional values, expertise, and work practices. She received her PhD in Sociology from Princeton University and the EHESS (Paris) in 2014. 

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I came to the question of machines from the study of numbers, more precisely the role that numbers play in organizations. Ten years ago, I wasn’t very interested in technology: I was a student in Paris, I barely had an email address, and what I wanted to study was criminal justice.

The fall of 2005 in France was marked by the events that came to be known as the “urban riots” (émeutes urbaines), a period of unrest among the young men and women living in city outskirts (banlieues). Their protests were triggered by the death by electrocution of two teenagers who had sought refuge in an electric substation while being chased by the police.

Over the next couple of months, cars were burning, the police were everywhere, and many young men of African and North-African descent were arrested, arraigned, and sentenced, usually to prison. Parisian courts relied heavily on an old penal procedure for misdemeanors, the comparutions immédiates (emergency hearings), which makes it possible to sentence defendants immediately after their arrest. The procedure was originally designed to control “dangerous” urban crowds in the second half of the 19th century.

During and after the urban riots, journalists and intellectuals denounced the revival of a bifurcated justice system, in which lower class and minority defendants were tried in a hurry, with meager resources for public defenders, insufficient procedural safeguards, and high rates of prison sentences. Crowds of friends and supporters congregated in the courts and attended the hearings, cheering the defendants and booing the judges. The police heavily guarded the courtrooms in order to prevent direct attacks on the magistrates.

In all of this, judges and prosecutors remained silent. No one knew what was really going on before or after the hearings. I decided to go behind the scenes to examine how prosecutors, judges, and lawyers worked on the cases and decided on the charges and sentences of the defendants. I was able to conduct a yearlong ethnographic study of several criminal courts, including one in Paris and one in a North-East banlieue.Read More… The hidden story of how metrics are being used in courtrooms and newsrooms to make more decisions

Why do brands lose their chill? How bots, algorithms, and humans can work together on social media



Note from the Editor, Tricia Wang: The fourth contributor to the Co-designing with machines edition is Molly Templeton (@mollymeme), digital and social media expert, Director of Social Media at Everybody at Once, and one of the internet’s first breakaway YouTube stars. Her piece urges brands’ social media strategy to look beyond the numbers when working in the digital entertainment and marketing industry. Molly gives specific examples where algorithms don’t know how to parse tweets by humans that are coded with multiple layers of emotional and cultural meaning. She offers the industry a new way to balance the emotional labor in audience management with data analysis. Her articles draws on her work at Everybody at Once, a consultancy that specializes in audience development and social strategy for media, entertainment, and sports.

@Tacobell spent an hour sending this same gif out to dozens of people. The account is probably run by humans (most social media presences today are). And they were following best practice by “replicating community behavior,” that is, talking the way normal people talk to each other (a human taco bell fan would definitely send a gif). But when @tacobell only sends the same gifs out over and over again, it’s uncanny. It’s pulling the right answers from the playbook, but at the wrong frequency.  

Why do brands lose their chill?

I think that brands lose their chill when they don’t let their social media managers exercise empathy. The best brands on social media balance the benefit of interaction with the risk of human error – managers are constantly concerned with pissing off the organization, or the audience, and ultimately trying to please both sets of real people. Hitting campaign goals and maximizing efficiency are important, but social media managers need to bring humanity to their work. They have to understand the audience’s moods and where they’re coming from, and they have to exercise empathy at every level: customer service, information and content sharing, community management, call-to-actions, participation campaigns, crisis and abuse management. That is a lot of emotional labor.   

With the recent chatter about chat bots on Facebook’s messenger platform, a lot of people are thinking about how bots can take over communications roles from humans. I’ve been thinking a lot about the opposite: how can machines help people manage the emotional labor of working with audiences? Can bots ever help with the difficult, and very human task of managing with empathy?  

Social media is a business of empathy  

Emotional connections drive social media. When people gather around the things they feel passionate about, they create energy. It’s because of limbic resonance — the deep, neurological response humans have to other people’s emotions. As my colleague Kenyatta Cheese says, it’s that energy that makes participating as a fan on social media feel as electric as it does when you’re part of a physical crowd.  Read More… Why do brands lose their chill? How bots, algorithms, and humans can work together on social media

Lou and Cee Cee prepare for fieldwork in the future: a world where robots conduct ethnography


dudek-hi-res-headshotNote from the Editor, Tricia Wang: Kicking off our Co-designing with machines edition is Alicia Dudek (@aliciadudek), Innovation Insight Lead & Design Ethnographer at Deloitte Digital Australia. Using design thinking, ethnography, and other deep contextual customer research methods, she designs, conducts, and trains others in the world of customer empathy. Her contribution to this edition is the first science fiction to explore robots conducting ethnographic work. She uses a fictional story with Cee Cee, the robo-ethnographer, to examine what aspects of fieldwork can be conducted by a robot. I first met Alicia Dudek at an EPIC conference in London, where I became a fan of her work and promptly interviewed her for our edition that featured the best from EPIC. Read the interview, Play nice – design ethnographer meets management consultant, and find more of her writings on ethnography at her site.

Increasingly we are seeing more conversations about ‘what does it look like when the robots take your job.’ Once upon a time we believed this was some remote future where we’d finally invented the technology that could replace our bio-body’s ingenious functions. Now we are coming into a time where our technology has grown so advanced that the replacement of ourselves with robots is not only imagined, but plausible and even possible. An example of this shift is the imagining of white collar jobs ‘going robo’ that was recently covered by Quartz.

Writing this piece I wanted to have a little fun imagining a wonderful world where we can work hand in hand with robot peers. It is exciting to imagine the day when artificial intelligence is on par with that of our human research team members. Ethnographic technology is sometimes slow to progress due to the art and science nature of our work, but if we had the magic wand to unite all the drones, phones, data smarts, and humanly arts, we might have robo-colleagues as a part of our team one day soon. Friendly humans and friendly robots conducting ethnography together are a powerful combination. Also thank you to Elizabeth Dubois for writing this piece about trace interviews, which has some cool ideas on how we might conduct interviews.

– Alicia Dudek

Lou muses over her tea

Lou muses over her tea as she prepares for fieldwork with Cee Cee.

Lou mused over the steam rising from her cup of tea. She gathered her thoughts around what she’d be looking for in the field next week. She and her team were going to shadow young families and understand how they managed their finances. Field work was always one of the most exciting and exhausting parts of the data collection in her ethnography projects. What would be the right focus area for a trip into this family’s everyday life? She knew she’d have to cover the basics of bank accounts, credit cards, laptop / tablet / phone usage, calendar keeping, overall scheduling, family diaries, but what else might be valuable? What else could help to point the team in the direction of the golden nuggets of insight? All these years of traipsing in and out of the field and analysing scores of transcripts, videos, audios had left her always questioning, what’s next? What were the mental parameters that led her to the deep and meaningful insights from field observations? What was that ineffable thing that clients kept hiring her for again and again? How does an ethnographer see differently to find the golden nuggets?

Lou was jostled out of this reverie as Cee Cee energetically buzzed into the office and landed on Louise’s desk with a plop. “Louise I’m here for my briefing for the field work to be conducted.” Lou looked up from her imagined fieldwork and focused on Cee Cee’s entry into her office. In the past Lou had had dozens of assistants, grad students, and junior ethnographers to help with her work. None of them was quite like Cee Cee, who was rather innovative and definitely pushed Lou’s ways of working to new places. “Alright Cee Cee let’s get going on the briefing and I’ll tell you what we’re looking for and how to behave when you get out there.” Lou readjusted her posture and swung around to meet Cee Cee head on and get into the briefing.Read More… Lou and Cee Cee prepare for fieldwork in the future: a world where robots conduct ethnography

Co-designing with machines: moving beyond the human/machine binary



web-7525squareLetter from the Editor: I am happy to announce the The Co-Designing with Machines edition. As someone with one foot in industry redesigning organizations to flourish in a data-rich world and another foot in research, I’m constantly trying to take an aerial view on technical achievements. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the future of design in a data-rich world increasingly powered by of artificial intelligence and its algorithms. What started out over a kitchen conversation with my colleague, Che-Wei Wang (contributor to this edition) about generative design and genetic algorithms turned into a big chunk of my talk at Interaction Design 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. That chunk then took up more of a my brain space and expanded into this edition of Ethnography Matters, Co-designing with machines. In this edition’s introductory post, I share a more productive way to frame human and machine collaboration: as a networked system. Then I chased down nine people who are at the forefront of this transformation to share their perspectives with us. Alicia Dudek from Deloitte will kick off the next post with a speculative fiction on whether AI robots can perform any parts of qualitative fieldwork. Janet Vertesi will close this edition giving us a sneak peak from her upcoming book with an article on human and machine collaboration in NASA Mars Rover expeditions. And in between Alicia and Janet are seven contributors coming from marketing to machine learning with super thoughtful articles. Thanks for joining the ride! And if you find this to be engaging, we have a Slack where we can continue the conversations and meet other human-centric folks. Join our twitter @ethnomatters for updates. Thanks. @triciawang

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Who is winning the battle between humans and computers? If you read the headlines about Google’s Artificial Intelligence (AI), DeepMind, beating the world-champion Go player, you might think the machines are winning. CNN’s piece on DeepMind proclaims, “In the ultimate battle of man versus machine, humans are running a close second.” If, on the other hand, you read the headlines about Facebook’s Trending News Section and Personal Assistant, M, you might be convinced that the machines are less pure and perfect than we’ve been led to believe. As the Verge headline puts it, “Facebook admits its trending news algorithm needs a lot of human help.”

The headlines on both sides are based in a false, outdated trope: The binary of humans versus computers. We’re surrounded by similar arguments in popular movies, science fiction, and news. Sometimes computers are intellectually superior to humans, sometimes they are morally superior and free from human bias. Google’s DeepMind is winning a zero-sum game. Facebook’s algorithms are somehow failing by relying on human help, as if collaboration between humans and computers in this epic battle is somehow shameful.

The fact is that humans and computers have always been collaborators. The binary human/computer view is harmful. It’s restricting us from approaching AI innovations more thoughtfully. It’s masking how much we are biased to believe that machines don’t produce biased results. It’s allowing companies to avoid taking responsibility for their discriminatory practices by saying, “it was surfaced by an algorithm.” Furthermore, it’s preventing us from inventing new and meaningful ways to integrate human intelligence and machine intelligence to produce better systems.

giphyAs computers become more human, we need to work even harder to resist the binary of computers versus humans. We have to recognize that humans and machines have always interacted as a symbiotic system. Since the dawn of our species, we’ve changed tools as much as tools have changed us. Up until recently, the ways our brains and our tools changed were limited to the amount of data input, storage, and processing both could handle. But now, we have broken Moore’s Law and we’re sitting on more data than we’re able to process. To make the next leap in getting the full social value out of the data we’ve collected, we need to make a leap in how we conceive of our relationships to machines. We need to see ourselves as one network, not as two separate camps. We can no longer afford to view ourselves in an adversarial position with computers.

To leverage the massive amount of data we’ve collected in a way that’s meaningful for humans, we need to embrace human and machine intelligence as a holistic system. Despite the snazzy zero-sum game headlines, this is the truth behind how DeepMind mastered Go. While the press portrayed DeepMind’s success as a feat independent of human judgement, that wasn’t the case at all. Read More… Co-designing with machines: moving beyond the human/machine binary

Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy


Joseph LindleyJoseph Lindley works with design fiction in order to facilitate meaningful speculation about the future. In between he likes to make music, take photographs and combine the other two with things that fly. Quoting from his 2012 song Tingle in the Finger: it’s a designed world, balanced and slippy. Artificial. I see beauty, not a little superficial. Colder wind.

Editors Note: When I agreed to collaborate with my friend Dr. James Duggan in order to explore a future where corporate taxation was transparent, I had no idea that it would ultimately result in me writing an introduction to my own blog piece on Ethnography Matters. To explain: at an event to share the results of our design fiction tax project (that I did with James) I ended up talking to Heather, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that she was one of the people behind this website. I was aware of Ethnography Matters because of citing Laura Forlano’s posts while writing about ‘anticipatory ethnography‘ for EPIC. Through the wonder of serendipity, that citation, the collaboration with James, and the conversation with Heather has lead to this introductory paragraph being tapped out on my keyboard. Amazing! This seems like the best place to say a massive thank you to the Ethnography Matters team for their extensive and friendly support through the process. Also a massive thank you to Rob, Ding and Dhruv who contributed posts. Hopefully what we’ve collectively written will be of use, interest, or act as some kind of stimulus to provoke new insights about ethnography. So long, and thanks for the all the fish.

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!” and “Don’t Panic: the smart city is here”.

Design fiction is what I do. I’ve immersed myself in it for the last 3 years, and it is the subject of my doctoral thesis. I’ve explored it by adopting a ‘research through design‘ approach, which in essence means I’ve been ‘researching design fiction by doing design fiction’. It also means I get to be playful, which suits me fine. The ‘doing’ part of design fiction can be great fun (arguably it’s an integral part of getting design fiction’s right) and this has made my PhD experience an absolute blast. Of course there has been a fair amount of reading and desk-based research too but for the most part I have been doing practical experiments with this extremely flexible approach to speculating about the future. One of the many insights coming out of my research is that design fiction achieves many of the same things that design ethnography does. Furthermore it achieves those by leveraging some of the same properties of the world that design ethnography does. Design fiction can easily be adapted to play an important role in virtually any kind of research project.

But what is design fiction? The generally accepted definition of design fiction is the ‘intentional use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change‘. That’s a bit of a jargony mouthful. With the most jargony part being the word ‘diegetic‘. Diegetic is the adjective from the noun ‘diegesis’, and diegesis is derived from ancient Greek philosophy. The concept is fiendishly deep and complex, so properly ‘getting’ it is pretty damn hard (and, if I’m honest, probably beyond my modest cognitive capacity). For the purposes of design fiction, however, it can be taken to simply mean ‘story world’. So if we put it like that, design fiction is really quite simple: it’s about incorporating design concepts into story worlds. But why would you join together a design concept and a story world, why put a prototype inside a fictional world, what’s wrong with this world? Well, it’s about the power of situativity, the depth of insight that emerges when action and context are considered together and with equal importance. And this is where the similarity between design fiction and ethnography can be drawn. The combination of design provocation and context is design fiction’s unique selling point (even if it is all just ‘made up’). It differs from traditional notions of fiction in that it tells situations rather than stories. And it differs from normal views of design, in that the designs are only of consequence when considered in terms of the (made up) situations they’re placed within.Read More… Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy

Don’t panic: the smart city is here!


Ding Wang, in her own words, ‘has a special interest in pursuing degrees whose names consist of two random words’ (specifically Tourism Management, Design Ethnography, and now Digital Economy). Her research is concerned with smart cities and she is applying ethnographic methods to critique and interrogate the smart city conversation.

Editors note: Ding begins her post with a quote from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and so will I. The Guide includes the woeful tale of an alien species whose battle fleet sped across the wastes of space for thousands of years before they dived “screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.” 

This massive miscalculation is rather how I felt after I attended a seminar about one famously blue technology company’s smart cities programme. The first third of the presentation was inspirational. It intelligently framed big problems: energy, pollution, food. Then, a series of technologies that the company had developed to provide ‘real, tangible, deliverable’ solutions to those problems were described. Suddenly the sheen, glamour, and optimism of the supposedly smart solutions disappeared and revealed what the smart cities programme meant in practice: a massively complex and expensive system to operate the traffic lights at intersections (or, robots). Similarly in this piece, Ding is not overly optimistic about the smart cities movement – at least that’s what her ethnographic nous is telling her. Just as the Vl’Hurg battle fleet got swallowed by a small dog due to a massive miscalculation, please let it not be us that massively miscalculates the scale of the confidence trick that ‘smart city’ rhetoric could turn out to be. (Alternatively, we could just ‘cheer up – [because] it might never happen’.)

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!” and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

People who have read the book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy will probably remember this passage from the beginning of the book (for people who have not read the book it comes highly recommended). I watched the film as a kid (please forgive my ill-advised choice: I regretted it), then I read the book in Chinese (yes, it was translated into Chinese, that’s how good the book is!) and somehow I felt the urge to revisit the book as an adult and in English. I was surprised at how engaged I was by the novel. I related to it even more than I did as a kid.

“Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”

The planet Earth is described as an unhappy place where we think little widgets like digital watches are neat: I’d say both of these things are true. The more telling observation, or prediction to be more accurate, is that even those with the neat digital watches aren’t necessarily happier than anyone else (that is unless you believe the rhetoric advertising wearable tech!) Digital watches, or the plethora of other digital gadgets, don’t make us happy. Perhaps, then, we need something neater, bigger and better than just a watch. What about a whole digital city? But that name doesn’t sound quite right, right? After all, ‘digital’ is a word of its time, of the time that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written – the late 1970s. When was the last time you saw a commercial for something calling itself a digital watch? Digital doesn’t cut the mustard any more. These days we like smart stuff (smartwatches, smartphones, smart energy meters… even smart forks). It’s not that we haven’t considered other prefixes (for example: intelligent, connected, ubiquitous) but we decided on smart because it just sounds so… smart. We live in smart times, and eat smart phones for breakfast. So, something that should make us happier… the thing that is neater, bigger, and better than just a watch… is the smart thing to end all smart things. More integration, more intelligence, more ubiquity. I guess the title gives it away, but of course I’m talking about smart cities.

Read More… Don’t panic: the smart city is here!