What are you reading? Noopur RavalIssue: XXVII.5 September - October 2020
The question of ethical enactments is central to all knowledge production as well as the academic profession, but it is of particular relevance to the goals of human-computer interaction (HCI) and adjacent disciplines. This question has found some renewed interest with AI and ethics conversations as well. My own dissertation work straddles multiple geographies of study (the overdeveloped and the developing world) as well as my own complex and complicit inhabitations across various worlds (internationalist researcher, activist, citizen, international student). In order to reconcile who I am with what I do and to then arrive at my own set of ethical enactments, I have been reading work across anthropology, area studies, and comparative literature to grasp at the peculiarities of global practice. Simply put, the question of how to act in a global world informs my dissertation research on gig-economy platform workers and their others. It also informs my worldview as a person who lives globally herself. This question and the readings I share here might be especially useful to HCI researchers and designers in our community who lose a lot of sleep over how to solve, intervene, and design ethically. They speak tangentially to the theme of this issue, translations, by offering some productive ways to be an effective translator of the self and the world—the kind that does not obscure or disavow the messiness of translation or the constructedness of the instruments and bodies but, instead, recognizes multiple possibilities of meaning making.
Underneath the problem of acting ethically also lies the relationship between the knowing subject and action (How much do we need to know to act ethically? We cannot know everything and attending to something necessarily means not attending to other things!). I highly recommend reading Maria Puig de la Bellacasa's Matters of Care, Joan Tronto's Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality and Justice, and Queer Phenomenology by Sara Ahmed. Ahmed offers orientating, a now widely used concept to draw attention to the qualitative consequences of paying attention or being interested in something over the other. A closely associated conceptual tool for the embodied researcher is attunement, offered by Kathleen Stewart—also a form of active orientation and a commitment to sense the world (for the political, social, personal). All of these works are fantastic for anyone looking to begin reading up on care ethics, albeit from a more practical than purely philosophical perspective.
From here, of course, multiple new media studies and feminist scholars have built on the idea of worlding that broadly foregrounds multispecies or posthuman agencies as negotiating forces that are constantly shaping not only our material worlds (worlding) but also standpoints from where we experience the world (worlded). For the impatient HCI designer, the notion of worlding resists any static or passive visions of the world and instead emphasizes the transformative nature of enactments. However, while some of these works go so far as to offer speculative fiction and science fiction lexicons to illuminate the relationship between imagination, language, and the production of material worlds, I have had to journey elsewhere to answer the original question we started with: that of ethical enactments in a global world. Briefly, global here does not translate to universal or uniform; it does not simply point to the flows of media, people, and capital but also a global that can attend to the frictions—the border patrol officer who stops and frisks, the goods that have import sanctions, the people who adopt different accents to go with the global flows. For us as HCI researchers, then, to study multi-sited phenomena does not simply involve being participatory or contextual or empathetic. Those are important, but how do we imbibe those forms of being present with a certain intention, alertness, and attunement to the ongoing negotiations within people's bounded (or shared) worlds?
How does one retain attention to difference in one's own cosmologies (value systems, beliefs, understandings) and of those whom one purports to study? Rather than foreclose these tensions by asking for more empathy or more contextual immersion as solutions, perhaps a longer conversation on what it means to study the global or transnational is due. Some of this discussion has started within design pedagogy . But for those looking to read up more, cultural anthropology has for some time tackled the challenges of difference, and not as something we need to (or can?) overcome; rather, it asks how we can better recognize our own fractured positions and simultaneous scalar operations (as local, transnational, and historical actors). Anna Tsing's Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection is one of my favorite guides on these topics. The second book, Constructing the Pluriverse, is an edited volume that does an excellent job at explaining the move toward cosmopolitics but also offers a succinct historical account of the violence of universal theories.
The readings I share here might be especially useful to HCI researchers and designers in our community who lose a lot of sleep over how to solve, intervene, and design ethically.
1. Ansari, A. Decolonizing design through the perspectives of cosmological others: Arguing for an ontological turn in design research and practice. XRDS 26, 2 (Winter 2019), 16–19; https://doi.org/10.1145/3368048
Noopur Raval is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine. Her research covers tech, labor, gender, and Global South topics. [email protected]
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