Counting By Other Means
Location M215
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 16:00
Sessions 2


  • Alex Taylor (Microsoft Research) email
  • Sarah Kember (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

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Discussant Phoebe Sengers (Cornell University)

Short Abstract

The computational count is everywhere. Ubiquitously, its logics of efficiency organise time and figure things in an alluringly singular way. How are we to make sense of this computational regime, and how might we imagine alternate encounters that thrive in a promiscuity of counting and time-telling?

Long Abstract

Beneath us there is a ticking, a computational count that winds its way down to the next interrupt. Working through varied examples of this "regime of computation" (Hayles 2005), many of us in STS have been grappling with how our own human agencies entangle with those that pulse through this ubiquitous count. Although disparate, our mixture of research points to is an alluringly singular, teleological organization of time, a time-telling that configures a peculiar relationship between life and labour; the count collapses life into a 'labour-time', constituting it in terms of quantified metrics, performance and productivity. Provocatively, our accounts also make the space for more careful and caring imaginaries of who and what could count in/through computation. Surfaced are the multiple bodily, political and ethical entanglements and becomings, the temporally bound 'processes of mediation' (Kember and Zylinska 2012) that perform the count. With what we would want to call a "feminist time-telling"—one that thrives not in the singularity but promiscuity of time-telling—we find the possibility for alternate encounters, a counting by other means.

This session seeks to provide a forum where topically diverse works that examine the computational count might mingle, and enliven new interconnections and mutations. Asking who and what else might come to count in this computation, we invite possibilities for frictions, laughter, experimentation, (dis)agreements, and generative refigurings.

Hayles, N. K. (2005). My Mother Was a Computer. London: University of Chicago Press.

Kember, S., & Zylinska, J. (2012). Life After New Media. MIT Press.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


The Slow Times of the Digital

Author: Paul Dourish (UC Irvine)  email

Short Abstract

Unpacking the embedding of old technologies in the new provides space to construct alternative accounts of inevitability and accelerationism in human experience of the digital.

Long Abstract

Two stories dominate our understandings of the drumbeat of technological change: one of its inexorable drive and one of its quickening pace. But we don't have to look too far though to find how the old is embedded in the new. Twitter, whose communication model nods towards the conventions of mobile phone text messaging (standardized in 1987) and whose client-server computational infrastructure is a legacy of 1970's distributed system design. Apple's iPhone, an icon of the contemporary, runs an operating system developed on the 1980's (BSD) branch of an operating system whose development began in the 1960's; and while there are no hard drives spinning in Apple's Watch, its operating system nonetheless treats its memory as if it were a magnetic medium from the 1950's. The programming concepts that lie behind each of these systems are older still. What, we might ask, is the oldest line of code in the Watch's operating system? Could it be older than the average age of Apple employees (reported as 33 in 2012)? This is not only possible but likely.

In this paper, I look for the resources that allow us to see the enfolding of many different human temporalities within the digital and hence to escape the logic and language of both inexorable change and acceleration. Thinking through the ancient, the immovable, the obsolete, and the obstreperously persistent helps us to find spaces for different human experience in the digital.

Digital Accessibility (Ac)counting in Arts and Culture Venues

Author: Amanda Windle (University of the Arts London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores a digital, participatory, co-design project aimed to re-engage older audiences that no longer attended arts and culture venues.

Long Abstract

Past the texting vistas of a mobile horizon, the illuminated graphs on laptops and tablets, the lost telecommunication signals encircling London, Warwickshire and South Lakeland, towards a different place beyond these digital landscapes where dancers sync, singers swing, and actors tread in a local arts venue. Here audiences sigh and guffaw, murmur and laud, heckle and walk. Walk in. Walk out. Touch in. Touch out. But the (ac)counting for audience participation by digital means is still crudely 'bums on seats', even though what and how we sit, is no trivial matter. The best seat counts but how and to whom?

In this paper I will consider numbers as an 'open process of mattering' as an agential possibility in relation to access and engagement (Barad, 2009). The participatory, co-design project aimed to re-engage older audiences that no longer attended arts and culture venues. Within the digital stories collected I follow the numbers. I unravel the economics around digital access from the words of those who participated. This is not just the so-called attenders and non-attenders but from the perspective of arts programmers, box office teams and charitable organisations in order to understand 'digital access' in the UK.

Counting the Future; the designed artefacts of prediction

Author: David Benque (Royal College of Art)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines a series of historical artefacts used to predict the future from numbers. It looks at them as designed objects—products of a specific time, place and set of intentions—as well as steps in the trajectory leading up to the present forms of computational predictions.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the history of statistical prediction through the lens of designed artefacts; the tables, graphs, tools and models which have enabled and communicated predictions since the rise of statistical thinking. It aims to put the current promises and fears around data-science into perspective by retracing the trajectory that led to today's systems of computational prediction.

Looking back into recent history reveals that contemporary hypes surrounding the increasing role of computational statistics in society are not solely caused or enabled by new technologies. They are new instances of systems created around similar motivations and politics. Contemporary concerns about black box algorithms for example, find a strong echo in 1902's USA and the Medical Information Bureau; a secretive system which standardised and codified medical impairments in a booming life insurance industry.

Coming in from design, particular attention will be given to the aesthetics of statistical forecasts to visually decrypt the narratives surrounding prediction systems. We will look at how the documents, formulas or devices used in these systems have embodied an aesthetic of accuracy which, after two centuries of evolutions and refinements, is ubiquitous in today's technological and scientific landscape. We will examine the role these aesthetics have played in shifting the tensions between mystical notions of predicting the future on the one hand and verifiable, quantified modes of prediction on the other. These tensions are still very present in today's computational prediction systems, for example in the perceived powers of 'code'.

Making inventions count: the gender politics of design patents

Author: Kat Jungnickel (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the gender politics of historic design patenting as a form of counting and of being counted.

Long Abstract

"It is one of those numerous generalisations about feminine capacity which are accepted without much consideration - that women are not inventors" (The Queen: the Lady's Newspaper, 18 Jan, 1896, p104). Women have always had ideas worthy of being patented. Their ideas were counted but often by others; their husbands, brothers and fathers. This paper explores the gender politics of patenting as a form of counting and of being counted. It focuses on a shift that occurred in the late nineteenth century when women began to be socially and politically encouraged to leverage the patenting system to claim ideas and along with them, their rights to citizenship in an industrial age. In the 1870s the US Patent Act enabled anyone, male or female, to legally register inventions and in 1883 new British legislation with lower fees and reduction in red tape saw a significant increase in patents by women, predominantly for improvements to clothing related to cycling. This emerging design culture represented a feminist desire for a more engaged public life and cycling became viewed not only as a means of physically getting somewhere but of forging new paths into economic and political worlds. As such female patentees and their inventive new forms of mobility dress provide an insightful lens into the metrics of what and who counts at different times.

Writerly (ac)counts of finite flourishings and possibly better ways of being together

Authors: Alex Taylor (Microsoft Research)  email
Sarah Kember (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

Through two cases we examine the pervasive presence of ‘the count’ and the corresponding compulsion to (re)produce singular figurings of collective and communal life. Using a feminist (ac)counting, we consider the possibilities of a different kind of critter—new more generative worlds of multiples.

Long Abstract

This paper reviews two cases that have community at their heart. The first revolves around the value of counting in and for the academic community. In 2015, the UK conducted an independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment and management. It introduced the concept of responsible metrics within a framework of responsible open-access. These terms have, if anything, drawn out the inherent frictions between qualitative and quantitative measures, numbers and narrative. Relatedly, they point to a misalignment between individual metrics and peer review, and counting structures that narrowly define the academic community around select groups while marginalising others—namely early career researchers and women. The second is concerned with how a prevailing count is precipitating deep structural changes to collective and communal life in the UK. Shaping UK housing policy, we'll discuss how measures of credit/wealth, labour and time offer not just an alluring machinery for prediction, but also a self-referential logic for controlling how and where people prosper.

Although very different, these two examples will be used to invite different ways of (ac)counting, ones that might resist all too singular ideas of community. In the first, we'll consider current moves beyond the fallacy of responsible metrics, such as the evaluation of feminist impact and the possibilities that open-access and metrics afford for a global feminist commons. In the second, we'll discuss women's encounters with the infrastructures of data production/distribution on a London housing estate, and collective attempts to intervene in how communities might come to count.

Capital numbers and the obscure numericality of code

Author: Adrian Mackenzie (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reports on an attempt to re-count a large number: the approximately 29 million code repositories on the social media platform Github. Science studies might develop ways of re-counting large numbers as capital numbers.

Long Abstract

This paper reports on an attempt to re-count a large number, in this case, the approximately 29 million code repositories on the social media platform Github. Science studies and related fields have a decades-long interest in numbers and counting, both in understanding the power-politics of numbering and the diversity of numbering practices. Debates have recently centred on the accountability of numberings and stand against a background of sociological debates about challenges to empirical methods posed by increasingly abundant digital data. Drawing on these accounts of number, the paper will suggest that science studies might develop ways of re-counting large numbers as capital numbers. A capital number combines a sense of importance, the potential to be turned to profit and to name something. In the Github case, the genesis of capital numbers, such as '29 million' or '300 million,' can be re-counted in two different ways. We can analyse the sense-making processes that practically invest in and supplement those numbers with measurements, diagrams and statements. We can also re-count some of the acts of imitation, copying, cloning and duplication comprising mundane Github practice, and show how they give rise to capital numbers. The re-counting of capital numbers directly contests the value-laden measures associated with certain large numbers, showing that capital numbers hide other numericalities. It suggests instead that any ontological or epistemic transformation associated with large numbers -- for instance, in claims about the epistemic potentials of data -- pivots on fragile, weak and diffuse collectives.

Reimagining Work: Heart Labor, Heart Time

Author: Lucian Leahu (ITU Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper, I present a speculative design project focusing on the shifting relations between labor, affect, workers’ bodies, and technologies.

Long Abstract

The nature and experience of work has shifted over the last decades in tandem with technological developments. For workers, such developments have made possible one the one hand flexible hours and working remotely, as well as working longer hours and being always connected, and the other hand. For companies technologies offer the possibility to micromanage by monitoring productivity in terms of individual output and tracking worker performance at increasingly finer levels, e.g., monitoring average response time to emails or the quality of driving for Uber drivers. At the same time, work related stress and exhaustion have skyrocketed.

In this paper, I present a design project, which was an exercise in thinking speculatively about the future, focusing specifically on the shifting relations between labor, affect, workers' bodies, and technologies. The project's starting point is a future when labor-time is measured in heartbeats and employment contracts are written in terms of worker heartbeats.

Drawing on a diverse body of STS scholarship the project explores how bodies are figured and work is assessed through devices monitoring the body; it imagines different enactments of time, labor and affect; and, it suggests alternate entanglements made possible by the promiscuity of counting.

Secretaries, Counting Time and AI

Authors: Jessa Lingel (University of Pennsylvania)  email
Kate Crawford (MIT / MSR)  email

Short Abstract

Using the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) technology integrated into smartphones (e.g. Siri and Cortana), this talk considers practices of counting and computation through an analysis of affect, gender and labor.

Long Abstract

Over the last five years, we have seen the rise of a new generation of 'soft AI' digital assistants like Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Amazon's Alexa, all designed with feminized personas. In this paper, we connect these AI assistants to the long history of the secretary, beginning with the earliest instantiations of the women as the first 'computers.' How have the practices of gendered computation and assistance been reinvoked in AI agents? How do AI secretaries present new relationships to counting, computation and the increasing entanglements of bodies and data? Siri and her sisters perform a kind of 'taking count', as their predecessors once did, but with deep and transversal insights into the digital activities of their 'boss.' Where once the human secretary could try to imagine their boss's needs in advance, the AI assistant can predict behavior through a constant surveillance of email, calendars, texts and online interactions. Agency becomes increasingly murky in an always-on relationship to intimate surveillance. Within the context of constant proximity to one's secretary comes constant counting, monitoring, anticipation and response. An AI secretary plays many roles, of affect, of reliability, of being enmeshed in the many facets of one's connected movements and activities. But the types of insight available to an AI assistant are limited to the tools that also convey and drive work practices: rather than being the employee within an office setting, they bridge the home-work divide in ways that have implications for both concepts of time and labor politics.

Repair as Transition: Temporalities of Breakdown, Maintenance and Recuperation

Author: Steven Jackson (Cornell University)  email

Short Abstract

Attending to maintenance and repair reveals temporalities obscured under the singular and teleological histories that dominate understanding of the relationship between media, technology and time.

Long Abstract

This talk explores temporalities of maintenance and repair as developed across a range of empirical sites and projects. It contrasts these with the singular and teleological accounts that dominate academic and popular understandings of the relationship between media, technology, and time, and shares results from a series of ethnographic and interactive installation projects designed to reflect and provoke different temporal possibilities already present at the intersection of technology and social life.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.