Our bits and atoms in 2019
IS 2019 GOING TO S*#K?
Coming from an engineering background and having spent little time doing qualitative research and considering the socio-political implications of research and design and the past, I was thrown into the deep end when confronted with HCI research in the Digital Civics (DC) context. I was introduced to concepts and paradigms in research of this field that I never thought I would engage with. Within the courses in DC I have been asked to learn about, explore and even define what Digital Civics is, writing a manifesto of my and my colleagues’ design. Each cohort has made their own manifesto in the past and this year was no different. Concerns common to all manifestos were for social justice, equality and participatory and human-centred design. In this blogpost I would like to discuss what I find interesting in Digital Civics research and how I believe it matters for today’s world problems. I will try and recap some of the interesting things I learned such as the history of HCI and how we got here.
The ‘waves’ in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research?
HCI research has been around since the 80s and many researchers have analysed the trends and motor themes in the field, coming up with the ‘waves’ or ‘paradigms’ that have emerged over time. The first wave of HCI research started from the research at Stanford Research Labs and MIT and the GUI experiments in Xerox PARC in the 80s, focusing on computer science and cognitive psychology to decipher the mysteries of interaction . In this time research followed strict guidelines and rigid approaches, focusing on ergonomics and anthropometry with tasks aimed at usability testing and experimental psychology. Regardless of the rigidity of the research and the machine-centred notions surrounding HCI, it was still understood as an inter-discipline from its conception. People realized that not one factor can be at play when biological, creative, fluid-thinking creatures: Humans, interact with a cold, calculating machines: Computers.
Moving forward one decade, to the 90s, computers move to the workspace more and more and research shifts its focus to a context based paradigm. Suchmans’ research and book on situated action (Plans and situated actions, 1987)  offered a provocative critique of the assumptions regarding human – ‘intelligent’ machine communication and the plan based model favoured by researchers at the time. Lucy Suchmans’ proposed a fresh characterisation of human-computer interaction which incorporates insights from the social sciences and called for the re-examination of current models underlying interface design.
This turn from a purely cognitive-engineering approach to a more social one, bringing the human closer to the ‘centre of attention’ and recognizing the social and cultural context within which human-computer interaction happens is characteristic of this second wave of HCI and still informs research to this day. It is in this time that Participatory design starts gaining attention in the field of interaction design and that Mark D. Weisers vision of a world of calm, ubiquitous computing  (a term coined by him in 1988) was slowly becoming a reality.
In the 2000s computers and consumer electronics where everywhere. In homes, workspaces and even public spaces and to this day the trend keeps rising with technology becoming as ubiquitous as ever before. In this third wave, HCI research has matured with the technology it studies. Cultural differences take prominences, thinking outside the box is supported at large and qualitative research is done on non-tangible factors like emotions and experiences. One of the foci of this wave was a ‘turn to the wild’ with researchers supporting situated action in the world , embedding themselves within communities and co-designing with participants, asking questions like ‘how do people appropriate technologies?’ and ‘What are the politics and values at the site of integration?’. These notions are of great importance and impact as they inform HCI research to this day. They become more important as we deal with notions of privacy and agency in a ‘data-driven’ world, one of constant surveillance and ubiquitous information systems. They will help steer our discussion as we will return to these notions as we explore what it means to do Digital Civics research.
Digital Civics, an approach? a wave?
It is in this critical time that digital civics research appears. Superficially, Digital Civics is a term coined by Patrick Olivier, it is an umbrella term for research done in OpenLab that follows a specific agenda. As stated by Peter Wright and Patrick Olivier ‘Digital technologies and citizen-driven design has the potential to transform services and ways of working to meet future local needs of public service delivery and community development. Digital Civics is a RCUK funded research initiative to reimagine digital local government and communities.’
Digital civics is an agenda and a way of approaching and understanding the study of HCI and its role and relation to communities of people. Sitting comfortably at the intersection of various disciplines in conjunction with Computer science, Digital Civics is a new approach to dealing with Human-computer-interaction. It is the agenda of Digital Civics to empower citizens through technology and to impact change with social justice outcomes and exploring the social mechanisms and socio-technical dynamics within communities.
The world in 2018
Today, global socio-political, financial and environmental struggles plague the world. Neoliberal capitalism as a cultural and financial paradigm along with the rise in extremist right wing populism have arguably created or at least aggravated these problems. The financial crisis since 2008 and the resulting austerity measures taken by several countries, the refugee crisis, the non-stop wars and bombing in parts of the world and the increase of wealth inequality to all-time highs are but examples of the suffering and hardships that people face. These examples are happening in the physical, ‘real’ world. On the other side of the same coin neoliberal agendas have leaked and taken over the digital realm as well.
In recent years we have reached Weiser’s ubiquitous computing future. From the technologies of the past expanding to every aspect of our lives to new technologies such as smartphones in the hands of (almost) every human and integrated electronics popping up in the most unexpected places. We now produce and rely on technology more than ever. We rely on the machines we build, the software we write the data we produce and the algorithms that output knowledge based on these data. This is a lucrative market for tech corporations engaged in the neoliberal agenda who thrive on optimizing their products and services through user generated data. It is also a frontier to combat this trend and through the design of technologies to affect change empowering the people, collective efforts, grassroots initiatives and employ an anti-capitalist, anti-fascist and anti-patriarchal agenda in doing so. It is a battle to infrastructure social innovation that promotes horizontal structures and deals with ‘users’ as humans and as equal participants in the design and use of technology.
The case with our bits
In this battle that I mentioned, ‘Big Data’ is a Big player. Data (bits) driven systems underpin most technologies disrupting the world and it has truly changed the way we live, interact with each other, communicate, learn and work. Social Media, retailer databases, financial and health organizations, and Ubiquitous sensing systems, computers and trackers produce enormous amounts of data daily. The rhetoric in the aforementioned is “live by numbers”; to quantify and then optimize areas of one’s life. The ‘numbers’ are truly mind-boggling. There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace according to forbes.com, but that pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Over the last two years alone 90 percent of the data in the world was generated.
In recent years the fields of Big Data, Machine Learning and Data Science have emerged, providing tools and infrastructure (e.g. cloud and parallel computation) to tackle the challenge of leveraging these large datasets to gain insight and use out of them. Finding patterns is the key to unlocking the knowledge in these datasets, yet the tools and algorithms used are situated in their nature. They are not ‘raw’ but rather subjective as they are produced, analyzed and enacted through on-going circulation and relations . This imagined ‘rawness’ and objectivity of data is a major pitfall that we could fall into as more decisions and controversies are settled though analysis of these data.
We are already witnessing examples of a future, dystopian in my opinion, where decision-making is more and more left to machines and algorithms. Where Big Data is not only used in engineering, marketing and industrial control but legal decision-making, sentencing  and social discrimination and classification. These situations raise concerns for new forms of ‘predictive policing’ where a piece of closed proprietary software can decide ones sentence and assess the ‘risk’ of causing future crimes. The Chinese social credit system is another major example of data used and analyzed with authority to enact judgment and reward or punish behaviors based on the calculations of a rigid unhuman system.
Data shouldn’t per se assert things in the world. If data is not seen for the tool it is, to surface, assemble and unravel forms of knowing and ideas then we risk losing free choice and human agency. Biases are intrinsic to the gathering and analysis of data. This is echoed in Taylor’s et al call to a ‘re-conceptualisation’ of data, one that accounts for the ways in which it is contingent on very particular circumstances. We will see how data is seen as having a capacity to draw people together, but also how the perceived ability to deal with multiple viewpoints is bound up with stakeholders that are thought of as neutral.'.
The case with our atoms
Similar to the neoliberal turn within the digital realm, a turn in our relation to the physical (atoms), the making and manufacturing of our world happened an even longer time ago. With the age of the industrial revolution came urbanization and masses of people moved to urban centres and out of the rural areas to be close to work opportunities . This in its turn led to urban planning initiatives that zoned areas into housing areas and moved production and factories out into the ‘industrial areas’. This improved the quality of life citizens but brought with it an, undesired in my opinion, effect; the separation of the knowledge of making things from using things. We know how to consume but we forgot how to make. With globalization this phenomenon has grown to an even larger degree with most of the world’s fabrication taking place in Asian countries on a massive scale supplying the rest of the world with products designed for mass appeal. Shipping these products is also a business by itself, moving products from one side of the globe to the other, producing waste and pollution on its way. And once these products arrive they are usually consumed and then thrown aside producing even more waste and trash. 
It might seem that I am arguing for the re-industrialization of urban cities, but that is not the case. What I am arguing for is the re-imagining of our production paradigm to a decentralized one, leveraging the examples set by makerspaces and FabLabs in recent years of the potential of active, smart citizens in producing innovation on a local scale and sharing the knowledge on a global scale. This is in contrast to the concept of ‘smart cities’ proposed by governments and corporations in recent years; they argue that smarter cities with ubiquitous sensors and computers will lead to social innovation and higher quality of life. In these cities though, citizens are usually absent from the design and decision-making of their city and are but points of data to be input and analysed by the algorithms running the city; they are mere consumers or even products of this smart city idea. I argue for a city with ‘smart citizens’, makers who have the tools and processes to co-create their environment in an open and decentralized manner within local manufacturing centres; makerspaces.
The makerspace movement started in 2006. It didn’t appear out of the blue, it developed out of the Do-it-Yourself culture. First appearing as hackerspaces in Europe, the idea was having a shared physical space for programmers to gather, collaborate, network and share ideas . Maker spaces function as locations for peer-learning and sharing utilizing workshops, seminars and presentations. They also offer social activities such as game-nights and game jams, hackathons, maker fairs and parties. They can be viewed as open community labs incorporating elements of machine-shops, workshops and studios where hackers can come together and share resources and knowledge on how to make things. The spaces themselves and the machinery and electronics are integral as they provide the physical and digital infrastructure that the members need to complete their projects and to unite people in the process of making.
What can we do as digital civics researchers?
This is where I believe Digital Civics research has the potential to affect the most change and impact and the challenge of embracing this movement and contextualizing it within its’ agenda. As researchers in this field we have the ability to tap into this invaluable resource of human ingenuity and the will to make things. Just like makerspaces, our facilities can become a hub where people come together to create, collaborate, make and share, opening the OpenLab and its’ makerspace to the neighbourhood and the city. It is the agenda of Digital Civics to empower citizens through technology and to impact change with social justice outcomes and this is the new frontier. Exploring the social mechanisms and socio-technical dynamics within these spaces is crucial. The question of how Makerspaces are governed is also important because, as these spaces are emerging in cities around the world, attention must be paid to how they are run, and what factors are motivating each space. Research should focus on how the physical, social, and institutional frameworks surrounding these spaces interact to impact the practices of their participants. Bringing back the tools and process of production and fabrication into the city on a personal scale, neighbourhood scale and citywide scale.
As DC researchers we can in some cases affect change in the workplace, shifting the power dynamics, leveraging the experience and knowledge of the workers giving them control over the design of the tools that they use and the ways in which they communicate their wants and needs. We can research, co-create and provide the infrastructure to groups in the grassroots or DYI movements, charities and social and political activist organisations highlighting their bottom up approaches and facilitate the horizontal structures and transparent procedures that support their function. Where closed, opaque and proprietary tools are used in big, well-funded organizations, open source and DIY tools can provide solutions to such initiatives. The current trend in fabrication technologies has led to ‘tools sovereignty’ trivializing what used to be inaccessible to such structures and the democratization of fabrication. In this way I believe that technology offering communication tools, organizational tools and fabrication and creation means can help support initiatives that lack the resources to compete with the big players offering solutions at a great speed and low cost facilitating their work in the field as well as helping promote their work to others.
Design and research might not be able to end wars per se or change human society as a whole but is that such a bad thing? As researchers we can promote our ideals and agendas through those means and hope to affect change in the direction we believe in. In small increments and in small pockets of communities we can change the outlook of people to technology in a meaningful and positive ways. Design has the power to empower individuals as well as communities and publics. It can affect their efficacy and agency over what matters to them and affect their private, social and professional lives. It can also shift the balance of power in political and financial settings and ensure social justice outcomes. Through research we can identify, highlight and often facilitate these changes. We can infrastructure the social innovation in co-design, co-creation and participatory design approaches with communities of people and we can promote cross-cultural collaboration on a global level. It is often the case where scaling up is a goal in and of itself and a measure of success. I believe this shouldn’t be the case for research and design in the space of Digital Civics. If one person can be helped to have their voice heard, if one person or one community can be facilitated to work on their own escaping the ‘clutches’ of austerity and neoliberal competitive markets then that might be enough of a influence. Corporations and states might push to maintain their grip on the direction of the future of technology promoting their profit-margin obsessed agendas and control/centralization heavy paradigms, but we as researchers have the power to direct the field of research in this area that is vital to this end and to inspire and shape people and future researches to seek their agonistic goals.