Sunday, 7 April 2013

Storifying Critical Citizen Science

MadLab Scientists investigating food products. Image (cc) MadLabUK, 2013.
Alice Bell recently drew my attention to a fascinating piece of writing by the Goldsmiths academic, Dan McQuillan. The piece entitled, What is Critical Citizen Science? (A Dialogue), is a meditation on the emerging field of citizen science. It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between 'nomad', the apotheosis of a free-thinking scientist-cum-hacker, and 'royalist', a caricature of an antediluvian traditionalist academic. Through the voices of these archetypes, McQuillan sets out what he refers to as 'critical citizen science', a bottom-up, participative scientific movement.

The piece is published on Storify, the social media service that lets users create stories using elements from other platforms such as Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.  Users build a story from video, images, and quotations from various places, using their own words to formulate a narrative.

Through a combination of well-chosen references, polemics and poetry, a sense of what 'critical citizen science' might be, gradually emerges from McQuillan's text. The dialogic format inevitably calls to mind the conversations between Achilles and the tortoise in Zeno, Carroll, and perhaps most fittingly, Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach. In McQuillan's work too, the medium of dialogue lends itself well to an inquiry into the complex ethics, aesthetics and politics that 'critical citizen science' might be engaged with.

Intriguingly, over the course of the dialogue, McQuillan correlates emerging community science and technology practices, exemplified by crowdmapping initiatives like Harassmap, hackerspaces such as MadLab, and open hardware projects such as Safecast and Water Hack, with an analysis of radical media art practice of the late 20th century, particularly the Electronic Disturbance Theater.

Ricardo Dominguez, Electronic Disturbance Theater
As someone very much engaged with the wider context of tactical media as a cultural strategy in the 1990s, and now equally fascinated by emerging forms of participatory science, I found McQuillan's juxtaposition of these two discrete areas, deeply compelling.

Here's a short extract, where we listen in on nomad and royalist, discussing new sites of scientific learning:

nomad: there is already an emerging set of learning spaces for critical citizen science; hackerspaces, makerspaces and fablabs...
royalist: what nonsense. these aren't labs, they're garages; and it's not science, merely an obsessive meddling with hardware.
nomad: popularly known as hacking. i refer you to early hacktivists the Electronic Disturbance Theater and their 'science of the oppressed" - "...alternative social forms of life and art that fall between the known and unknown, between fiction and the real, between clean science and dirty science - each a part of a long history of an epistemology of social production which privileges the standpoint of the proletariat, the multitude, the open hacks of the DIY moments, and of autonomous investigators who stage test zones of cognitive styles... concrete practices as speculation and speculation as concrete practices - at the speed of dreams."

This is not a manifesto for 'critical citizen science' (or perhaps just as accurately, 'tactical citizen science'?). It's more of a persuasive suggestion.  But one can't help but recall another grass-roots movement which argues for a similarly critically engaged approach to science and technology. In October 2011, Julian Oliver, Gordan Savicic and Danja Vasiliev published the Critical Engineering Manifesto.  It begins by stating:

"The Critical Engineer considers Engineering to be the most transformative language of our time, shaping the way we move, communicate and think. It is the work of the Critical Engineer to study and exploit this language, exposing its influence."

As co-author, Oliver noted in an interview in 2012, "as thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment by the terms in which it's given, opening it up for post-utilitarian conversation, for play and interrogation. If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide."

The manifesto provides an analytical framework for artistic practice which exposes the technological and scientific systems which unpin much of society. By making these infrastructures and systems visible, the 'critical engineer' reveals the political and power structures at play, instigates critical discussion, and questions who has agency within these systems.

Transparency Grenade (2011) by Julian Oliver
Projects such as Oliver's Transparency Grenade (2011) and Oliver and Vasiliev's Newstweek (2011) are designed as both functional tools, which both reveal and disrupt the invisible information and communication networks that surround us, and conversation-starters about our unquestioning reliance on technological systems we often don't understand.  Their intention is to expose the deep reach that science and technology have in our lives, and to try and encourage more active forms of intervention and agency.  As Oliver (2012) has noted, we all "think through tools both before and while we use them and the more we depend upon a tool the more we are changed by it."

McQuillan's speculations on critical citizen science seem to originate from a similar desire to question the power structures and politics of scientific practice. He insinuates an anxiety about popular citizen-science efforts such as Galaxy Zoo and LHC@Home, which harness the labour of users, without deeply engaging them in the scientific process.  To frame that concern, he cites Tiziana Terranova's critique of user-generated content outlined in her text, Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy (2000).

His text also conveys an unease with the exponential hype surrounding 'big data' and 'open data':

royalist: [...]  The networks you rely on for your delocalised tinkering have already given birth to a new science; and it's name is Data Science; and its Data shall be Big.
nomad: [...] As our data is always ambiguous, we shall Glitch; becoming the discontinuities and unexpected artefacts in the big data you crave.

Later, McQuillan points to the value of critical citizen scientists in bearing witness to events which governments and bureaucracies would prefer citizens not to see, let alone intervene into:

nomad: [....] Why not look to the example of white coated citizens weapons inspectors for responsible empiricism. In a horsemeat crisis, the critical citizen scientist packs their DIY bio and flashmobs the nearest Lidl. This isn't an idle fantasy; only recently, Madlab testers set up shop as the Deptford Market DNA FoodLab.

Elsewhere the piece, McQuillan muses whether 'critical citizen science' could be the site at which the Internet of Things becomes the "Parliament of Things" as described by Bruno Latour in his 1991 book, We Have Never Been Modern. By this, Latour was referring to a kind of symmetry between people and what he calls "non-human entities" (or "things"). He argues that our society is comprised of people assembled around "things". Latour dismantles the barrier between culture and nature, between subject and object, proposing more subtle relations between humans and "things", in which the latter are granted the same amount of agency as we are. McQuillan spiritedly picks this up, in the voice of nomad, contending:

"Through citizen science, the Parliament of Things will become the Occupy of Objects."

Whilst I was originally drawn to the subject of the piece - its evocation of radical tactical art media practices, entwined with new community science efforts, and echoing (perhaps inadvertently) the philosophy of the critical engineering movement - the methodology of the story construction is also worthy of note.  When I first read the piece and started thinking about it, I opined to the science policy researcher, Justin Pickard, that such evocative material deserved to be written up in a more formal manner.  He responded by saying:

"This *is* it written up properly. Storify-native STS. Look how reliant it is on the video clips, images, and hyperlinks."

So, tools like Storify enable writers and makers to build layered, interwoven narratives around science and technology research and ideas. These tools provide us with a different vector to be able to express heterogeneous, emerging and often conflicting ideas.  As such, they have the potential to develop into an intriguing and valuable alternative platforms for science communication, and the analysis of scientific research.


1 comment:

  1. I think there are some very basic questions that would merit addressing in this debate.

    Firstly, I would contest the necessarily speculative view that earlier sapiens cultures somehow did not make a meaningful distinction overall between 'nature' and 'human' [not that these are treated even in scientific epistemology as distinct categories anyway}.

    It seems likely that for many early societies it made sense to attribute supernatural powers to natural phenomena, in the absence of modern rationalist explanations. However, the adoption of totems and formation of clans with an associated 'animal' identity, was a means of recognising the distinct nature and attributes of non-human ['natural'] animals rather than failing to recognise them as different.

    Shamanism is particularly instructive here, in that the practitioner charged with the duty to enact cures etc, which are now the province of rationalist discourse par excellence (Western bio-medicine] derived their specific 'skills sets' from, inter alia, human/animal shape-shifting, and patrolling the recognised boundaries between the uncontrollable world of nature 'out there' and the ordered structures of human social organisation.

    We should also be wary of positing technology as a 'thing' [re/s] pure and simple. It is clearly vital to challenge the tyrannical uses to which technology is put BY OTHER HUMANS, but we must remain mindful of the fact that it is the product of human interaction with 'nature' [matter], a dialectical rather than universally oppressive process, which contributes to the development of human cognition etc.

    What makes cybernetic technology of particular importance is the capacity which we ascribe to it, to apparently operate, in part, as an autonomous form of consciousness. While this aspect is most commonly addressed in sci-fi under the AI rubric, it poses genuine challenges to our received definition of what constitutes a 'human'. If we are biologically essentialist, we fall back into the trap of reifying computer technology, while simultaneously defining its 'otherness' as the inadvertent product of human programming. If we follow the Bladerunner line, then the fact of machine production is, in a sense, an irrelevance [together with all the fun we can have in reproducing the species].

    It would seem that, come what may, we need to engage in serious debate on the wider implications of cybernetics, ie, not simply as a discrete school of scientific discipline, or even a collection of them. We must, therefore, re-acquaint ourselves with Gordon Pask's other major contribution, namely conversation theory, as the ground on which we engage with what we have created, a process where each party [ie, (i) human and (ii) machine as 'processed' human labour]to create a discourse that presents a view, is challenged by an alternate view, and both participants benefit according to the Hegelian principle of dialectics, that is to say, overcoming differences through synthesis of these views, but on a higher plane of 'transcendence' and learning.