DATA STORIES: EXPLORING THE FUNCTION OF FICTION IN PARSING THE WORLDS OF NETWORKED DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

A GOVERNMENT OF IRELAND POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH PROJECT, FUNDED BY THE IRISH RESEARCH COUNCIL (2018-21)

Sonnet, written by a contributor to the second Engineering Fictions session with the Building City Dashboards team at MUSSI, February 2019.

This project explores how engaging with processes of fiction can help to parse imaginaries, lived realities and power relations of networked digital worlds. The primary method of inquiry here is a research-creation writing workshop called Engineering Fictions.

The research is based at Maynooth University and engages with the Building City Dashboards (BCD) team under the guidance of Prof. Rob Kitchin. Other research participants and collaborators include members of the Orthogonal Methods Group (OMG) at CONNECT, and other interested individuals from the public.

As well as two Engineering Fictions sessions, the project has so far hosted a series of four research-creation workshops called Orienteering Fictions (June 2019) in collaboration with the Russel Library at Maynooth University, the BCD team and OMG CONNECT.

From Sept-Nov 2020, I’ll also be running a series of Engineering Fictions workshops in collaboration with the team from Policing Digital Futures in Scotland. This engagement will involve two writing workshops and the online publication of a chapbook, exploring themes of online state surveillance and policing against the backdrop of the Coronavirus Pandemic. I’ll use my engagement with these workshops to reflect on how I devise and host Engineering Fictions sessions.

I’m currently writing a book on the technique and philosophy of Engineering Fictions. It will contextualise my research-creation practice as a form critical pedagogy, informed by intersectional feminism, that facilitates radical conversation and poetry behind the scenes of data technology research and application. The book will outline why this kind of process based and creative research practice is so urgent today, particularly in relation to ‘online’ life and data technologies.

After Automation? Apophenia! and the Technology of Fiction

I wrote a short responsive piece to accompany the online screening of Fiona Marron’s film After Automation. You can stream the film from the aemi website until October 6th 2020.

After Automation? Critical Apophenia!

After Automation is a thirty-four minute escape into a process of critical apophenia[1]. The film places its audience in the office of Leo Melamed, former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the world’s largest financial derivatives exchange. Here, we are compelled to listen to two autobiographical narratives.The first is Melamed’s story of how he changed the world of financial futures trading from a more embodied tradition of ‘open outcry’ to one of electronic signalling. The second narrative is the story of how Leo Melamed came to write his science-fiction novel The Tenth Planet, which indirectly catalysed the possibility of the first.

Releasing us momentarily from our patient listening in the office, artist Fiona Marron’s montage creates cuts between the  worlds of imagination and engineering: we see what seems to be an alien entity probing and scanning the pages of Melamed’s sci-fi novel; we take up an over-the-shoulder point of view of a man’s hands repairing the filaments of an undersea cable, the very veins of the internet (and current life-blood of a global lockdown). All the while, Melamed’s personal narrative reverberates through these cuts. As detours to other worlds, imagined or actual, they are not explained. These by-worlds indicate Marron’s questioning of the relationship between fiction and technology, and how this relationship can both create and destroy a universe (in this case, the embodied and tactile traditions of financial futures markets). As sub-narratives to Melamed’s, they declare Marron’s commitment to manifest the material politics of communications infrastructures through her work.

What comes to my mind while watching After Automation is an apophenia of ideas: The idea that people inhabit their fears; The idea that people are always living through the aftermath of some technological process; The idea that fiction and technology can both constitute and ruin worlds; The idea that understanding and justly applying the technology of fiction is imperative in a telecommunications dependent world…Strangely, these ideas emerged looped through moments of questioning and/or anxiety recalled from my childhood self, triggered by Melamed’s use of the phrase ‘bad aliens’- I remember soundscapes from bad alien movies. Too afraid of their reality to watch them, I’d sit chatting nervously to ambivalent adults in the kitchen, or the clock on the wall, or the cat in the corner, or anything at all, just to ignore the stomach lurching crunches and drones and blood-chilling screams rippling out from the sitting room. Aliens. How my family loved bad aliens. How they terrified me and yet how I believedin them. And wished for a way to communicate with them, in case I was ever met by one late one night, perhaps while turning off the gas cylinder in the shed, or while going to collect turf at the far end of the garden; all those uncanny places so close to home and yet so far out of earshot they might as well have been the outskirts of Jupiter.

As a girl I made sci-fi movie-games on a borrowed VHS camera with my sister and our Star Trek-obsessed childhood friend. In these games I volunteered to inhabit the role of bad alien, finding it less scary to be a bad alien than actually be confronted by one. To inhabit means to follow the strange charge of the unknown, of possibility. It is a part of a human need for fiction as ways to process our experiences and perceptions of the world and to engage with the mystery of change. Inhabiting unknowns and engaging with fiction means to listen both inwardly and outwardly; to become sensitive in the art of recognition. Here is a skill that can have powerful implications for the way we live with the world, the way we engage with the world, the way we make and respond to changes in the world.

These loops of memory prompted by After Automation have urgently reminded me to question personal and political tendencies to inhabit fears and live by them, to appreciate our mundane struggles for more meaningful communication, and to attend to the purpose in my own practice. As I return to my work post-maternity leave and mid-pandemic, I aim now to get to grips with the technology of fiction for the purpose of making critical pedagogy and poetry. This idea came to mind while reflecting on the systematic power of changing one’s mind and acting upon that change (what Leo Melamed refers to as “that change in my head”). After Automation throws light on the prevalent yet cloaked workings of the technology of fiction between the fields of finance, engineering and art and, through a critical apophenic montage, urges us to take heed. I found myself freshly encouraged to reclaim fiction and technology from zero-sum logics and deterministic narratives of winners and losers, the kinds evidenced by Leo Melamed when he outlines his general perception of technology: “I intuitively knew what the world recognises, that you can’t fight technology. It’s gonna win. No matter what you do, technology keeps moving on. You innovate, you adapt to the innovation, or you die.” Watching Marron’s film underscores how the making and appreciation of art, particularly now and in online contexts such as aemi provides, is a crucial means by which we can learn to get out of our own way through the technology of fiction.

  • [1]  While apophenia refers to a tendency to perceive connections and make meaning between unrelated things, I propose critical apophenia as a form of pattern recognition and meaning-making that retains the possibility of perceptual error.