Last year I was generously invited to deliver a keynote presentation at IndiaHCI 2018. The conference was brilliantly organised and hosted by Naveen Bagalkot and Riyaz Sheikh, colleagues and students, and I was well supported by a stellar group of keynote speakers.
The images below are the same slides I used, except for one (#3) in which I’ve changed the adjective. Everything written below is with hindsight and a self-forgiving imagination. It is not a transcript of my talk.
By way of introduction, I asked to walk beside everyone–neither leading nor following, but committed to walking together. (Wide-path peripatetic scholars unite!) And I shared three personal identities and values that I bring to my research, teaching, and this talk.
In this case at least, I think it’s fair to say that I get my politics from anthropology and feminism, and my ethics from farming. These identities and values also, I hope, conjure Zoe Todd’s still urgent call for love: “[T]he most radical thing we can do is to love. When we’re faced with overwhelming odds, with a sense of futility and loss, we have to find a way to treat ourselves and our peers with generosity and kindness.”
Yes. Yes, we do.
I started with a necessarily over-brief account of some HCI approaches that had caught my attention. To this, I would add Os Keys, Josephine Hoy & Margaret Druhard’s recent CHI paper, “Human-Computer Insurrection: Notes on an Anarchist HCI as a path I’m simpatico with. But still:
I’ve got a bit of a crush on notions of uncivilisation. I, like many others around the world, am a child of the colonies. But I’ve lived as a privileged white woman in English and Spanish colonies for my entire life and I feel no loyalty to England or Spain. I like the quote above because I share their deep suspicion of progress and civilisation. Of course I’m grateful for penicillin and double-glazed windows and more. But let’s not pretend these, and all those other amazing things we love and love to hate, haven’t come at enormous planetary cost. Or that these costs are not highest for the world’s most vulnerable.
This is our shared world.
Yup. But I’m against purity. Partly this means I don’t believe anyone is untouched by the world so there is no way (or need) to rise above it, morally or otherwise. I acknowledge my complicity in the modes of production and consumption shared above, and I think the system is so utterly broken that only a total overhaul will do. Every day I try to do something that takes me a bit closer to that better world, and I try to do it with humility and without losing a sense of compassion for others. Sometimes it doesn’t work but I try again.
I’m also with Dark Mountain on this point: I’m not interested in preserving the ways of life that led us to today’s dominant, Western, rational, extractive, overly-male worldview. I’m interested in using the terrible forces and events surrounding us to think and do and make something different. As I’ve said elsewhere and other times, “our” standard solutions will get “us” nowhere just. As Latin American activists and colleagues have been saying for a long time, we need many more just worlds.
David Abrams’ The Spell the Sensuous and Becoming Animal were some of the first reads that helped me to think and feel differently. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism is also worth a look if only to consider how to avoid cultural appropriation and the erasure of Indigenous colleagues in any promotion of “new” integrated and embodied worlds.
But I don’t think I really understood what it means to take other forms of life seriously–to live with a world, and care for a world–until I kept sheep. I’ve had pets my whole life but they did not prepare me for the challenges the sheep have presented to my worldview, and how together we have reconfigured our worldviews. (But more on that another time.)
This is my home in the Reikorangi Valley, on the lower North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. This is my small flock of rare Arapawa sheep.
This is me and Ned. His mum rejected him so I raised him.
This is Grace (left), my favourite ewe, my friend, and part of the original group I brought home, and Max (right), born three years later. Grace is grazing on the hill as I write. Part of Max might still be in the freezer. (I shared this not to antagonise any vegetarians in the audience, or even to be “provocative,” although others may disagree, but because I wanted to make it clear that I don’t run a farmed animal sanctuary. And I can honestly say that, for the first time, I enjoyed each and every conversation where people told me they would prefer if I didn’t kill the lambs. And maybe it was a little bit of the grace I was offered that is allowing me to let my world re-shape my worldview these days. So thank you all.)
Note: I was horrified to realise after the conference that I misidentified Max as Melvin. Melvin and Mingus were also Mercy’s twin ram lambs, but one year before Max and Murray. Sorry Max, love!
And this is me and Ned again. Sharing just ten weeks of life before he died from illness, I saw many different worlds and he taught me to respect them all. (I really need to try not to talk about the sheep so much!)
My teaching also offers me opportunities to experience and create worlds with others–and I do this in part by trying to decolonise, to uncivilise, my courses in design ethnography and speculative design.
I love to start this discussion by sharing this astonishing quote from Michel Tournier’s re-telling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Friday. The desire to command, control, and consume other materials, other lives, has never been made so clear to me as in this paragraph! I also find it an apt way to describe the solutionism driving much tech design today.
Fortunately, I live somewhere that encourages me to think differently about the Earth. This isn’t to say that New Zealand always takes good care: the rivers are polluted, we rely too much on synthetic fertiliser, we mistreat animals, we consume too many fossil fuels. But there are other ways, here and elsewhere.
It’s not going to be easy to make these transitions, and which ones end up being easier or harder will vary according to who and where we are.
But we have to start somewhere…
Here I take my cue from Ursula K Le Guin’s spirited defence of the fantastic in her Cheek by Jowl essay, “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” Realist storytelling is relatively new to humanity but has profoundly reconfigured our worlds and worldviews. But cross-culturally, and sub-culturally, the fantastic survives–even thrives. Others, out of need and desire, have been imagining different worlds for a long time–and I want to stand in solidarity!
My first sustained attempts at world-building were in 2011-2014, when I led the Counting Sheep project on possible futures for sheep and humans, and imagined relations of production and consumption.
Kotahitanga Farm was envisioned as a living museum where tagged animals shared data with interested publics. You can learn more and read viewer responses to all the scenarios on the Counting Sheep pages.
PermaLamb is the result of a new government department creating new relations between NZ citizens and our nation’s most famous commodity. I wrote about this scenario, and responses to it, for a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Interdisciplinary Research Methods.
Grow Your Own Lamb offers consumers almost total control over meat production, either on the land or in the lab. I wrote a chapter with Catherine Caudwell about this scenario, and responses to it, for Undesign: Critical Practice at the Intersection of Art and Design.
BoneKnitter is a hand-cranked technology for knitting a wool cast over broken bones, and reimagining what it means to care for each other. I wrote a chapter on this scenario, and responses to it, for The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography. BoneKnitter II can be seen at MAK Vienna: Austrian Museum of Applied Arts until 2022.
Since then I’ve gone back to more ethnographic research, and am currently studying for a second doctorate in creative writing.
This, in turn, has shifted my world-building activities, and I am privileged to work with outstanding students.
For example, Madi’s Masters thesis took her to a local free-range pig farm, and led to her re-tell the “story of farming” by focussing on the pigs.
Birgit’s PhD explores how new materialist and more-than-human theories can help designers create new sensor networks for streams and the people who love them.
Selena’s Masters thesis bring Mātauranga Māori to design research by looking at entanglements of gender, plants, and weaving protocols. Some of her thesis is in Te Reo Māori, which I am unable to read but also represents knowledge that first-and-foremost belongs to her and her iwi. It’s been an honour to learn from this relationship and different kinds of knowledge production.
The last teaching example I shared was my then upcoming, now current, second-year Design Ethnography course. The students are producing a Guidebook to Practical Earth Skills, which I’ll make available here at the end of June. In July, I’m teaching a combined undergrad-postgrad course in Multispecies Design Ethnography and students will be working with the otters at Wellington Zoo, so stay tuned for more on that too!
And finally, in some attempt at summary and closure, I tried to point at three things to remember about more-than-human design. (This transition is not as smooth as I remembered. Sorry.)
First, there’s a lot of talk amongst researchers about moving beyond human exceptionalism, but not enough about how hard it is to actually do. I try to think of it as pragmatically as possible: People are not lords of creation. When I speak of responsibility and accountability, I make a special effort to include other animals, plants, materials and forces of the Earth.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this, but vulnerability is not a weakness. It is the ability to open ourselves to being hurt. Or, as poet Mary Oliver so eloquently puts it, “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”
And here again I take my perspective from Le Guin! In The Lathe of Heaven she wrote:
“We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn’t work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be.”
This does not mean that we need to accept injustice. Le Guin was fascinated by anarchism and Taoism, and I think she just wanted us to consider that we are part of the world and that should make a real difference to how we treat the Earth and each other.
Many thanks again to Naveen Bagalkot and Riyaz Sheikh, their colleagues and students, and my fellow presenters and keynote speakers for taking such good care of me in Bengaluru. Aroha nui.