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.