“Ethnographies from [a] future” and the co-production of knowledge

Its strange when you come across work that significantly overlaps your own and both the author of that work and you have been doing the work for a while and yet not consciously encountered one another… something about particular disciplinary contexts or discursive regimes going on perhaps (which is quite sad).

Anyway, through the wonders of twitter, I ran across the work of Laura Forlano in the guise of an article on ethnography matters, who is at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and, of course, has done the obligatory visiting scholarship with the Comparative Media Programme at MIT (discursive regimes, see?). Forlano attempts to conduct ethnographic research around future technologies. In many ways Forlano’s work echoes that of ‘futurologists’ like the commercial researchers at Institute for the Future, sniffing out ‘signals’ of potential futures and then working these up into articulations of a possible world. What is interesting about where Forlano goes with this work is that she is looking towards how to engage prospective ethnographic work around emergent practices and technologies with speculative design practice.

At the end of the article in ethnography matters Forlano makes some interesting assertions about the uses of ethnography and political importance of making one’s work relevant to, or the basis of, interventions in the world – its worth quoting at length here:

As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large.

This is not to suggest that every ethnographer should do it all, or that ethnographers are not already traversing the boundaries between analyst, activist and artist. Most likely, our best work will be (and is already being) done in teams where description and analysis can inform design but at the same time, we can innovate within our own skillsets and practices. We can compare across our many field sites and topics and create design fictions that interrogate the issues and themes that come to the fore.

This will require new venues for publication (targeting both scholarly audiences and the broader public) and new criteria for gaining credit for our work. For example, how will an ethnographer’s work of design fiction be presented, peer-reviewed and published? Will it be in the form of a textual narrative, a series of photos or an exhibit of artifacts? As ethnographers from the future, it is our responsibility to find ways to move beyond existing social realities through the probing of alternative socio-technical realities in order to affect positive change in society and this, it seems, is a perfect job for speculative design.

What strikes me about Forlano’s interesting provocation here, beyond the echo of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, is two things:

1) I think this work is definitely already being done, which is in and of itself quite interesting. Design fiction and other speculative work has a good foothold in the academy around the world. For example, Anne Galloway’s recent work concerning speculative design practice for the New Zealand wool industry (see Anne’s own contribution to ethnography matters) and Chris Speed’s formulation of what he calls ‘design informatics‘. Furthermore, work by Lucy Suchman and others (who have worked in both/between academic and industrial research) around ethnomethodologies of prototyping and other speculative design practices offers a fairly rich conceptual basis to explore. Equally, this has fed into (activist) pedagogical innovation like the work of my colleague Ian Cook et al. with “follow the things“.

2) To ‘move beyond existing social realities… in order to affect positive change in society’ does, very much, need alternative means of engaging with the world, the means by which it is delineated and disciplined and this is requires more than dissemination and publishing of research results. To take Forlano’s provocation seriously we need more co-design, more contributive systems of working together, bridging disciplinary and other delineations, to forge action-research and knowledge exchange projects. I would suggest that this is exemplified in the working methods of the Pervasive Media Studio. Rapid, collaborative projects that act as a means of co-producing knowledge and new things in the world blur the kinds of disciplinary and discursive boundaries by which people and activities can be commonly categorised and separated. The co-production of knowledge in this way is more than ‘just’ publishing articles or patents, it is about making that knowledge operational [Both Simon Moreton and Jon Dovey have blogged about this on the Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technologies (REACT) knowledge exchange hub website].

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