Data Power Conference 2015

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Panel Session 1d): Genealogies of Cognitive Capitalism (Chair: Susan Molyneux-Hodgson)


Cognitive Scaffolding and the Data Unconscious: On Decision Support Systems

Nathaniel Tkacz, University of Warwick

As both a branch of management theory and a set of real implementations, Decision Support Systems (DSS) first emerge in the 1950s. DSS bring together conceptions of organisational structure, practices of managerial decision-making and computing into relation for the first time. Organisations are conceived as having three levels of operation, each corresponding to its own types of decision-problems, from highly structured at lower levels and unstructured at higher levels. DSS are one of the first systems to use computers to collect data about the performance and overall operation of an organisation or other system. In this respect, all contemporary organisations the routinely collect, visualized and used data to make decisions are indebted to DSS.

Genealogical inquiries into DSS reveals much about the data-driven present. It shows how computational systems deployed within organisations not only foster and encourage specific modes of attention and perception, but how actual implementations are derived from managerial and organisational thought. As semi-automated forms, DSS operationalise and thus make durable a managerial weltanschauung, and fold in conceptions about the user, the limits of automation, what must and can be ‘datafied’ and to what ends. Interrogating this history is urgent as even the most cursory glance of contemporary literature – on business performance dashboards, for example – reveals that the founding concepts and systematic arrangements of this field still inform the present, though in largely unconscious ways.


Regimes of Conversion: Historicizing Design Patterns from Architecture to UX

Michael Dieter, University of Warwick

This paper presents a genealogy of design pattern methodologies in the context of digital labor and the valorization of social data. Design patterns are characteristic of recent transformations in human-computer-interaction (HCI), including the rise of user-experience (UX) paradigms in the production of social media and apps. Quite simply, they are recurring ways of solving commonly encountering problems, and are often collected and shared by professionals in form of ‘pattern libraries.’ The latter might refer to user interface (UI) issues with functional layout or visual hierarchies, but can also relate to engineering efforts, business models and optimization strategies. Within the highly commercial settings of digital, networked and mobile technologies today, patterns are utilized to intensify interactions with software and to increase ‘conversion rates’ for purposes of profit seeking. Despite their influence, however, these methods have not been subject to research in social sciences or humanities, and only receive passing attention in emerging interdisciplinary fields like software studies and interface criticism.

This paper historicizes design patterns through the notion of regimes of conversion. The concept is elaborated by tracing how the notion of a patterns first originates with Christopher Alexander’s architectural theory and practice (et. al. 1977; 1979) as an informational approach to problem solving. Here, the framework arises through the use of computational modeling processes of ‘a common language’ to be implemented by heuristics or ‘rules of thumb.’ I trace the influence of this approach on software development during the 1990s and 2000s with a specific emphasis on digital labor and a new empiricism of real-time feedback, A/B testing and informational events. In doing so, special attention is placed on the elaboration of new categories of judgment and critique – rather than Alexander’s rules of thumb – based on the measurement of performance indicators or conversions. In this way, design patterns can be taken as slowly becoming enveloped into regimes of conversion through the transition from an environmental modeling of common architectural language to an iterative mode of capture brought to bear on the behavior of user populations.


‘Demo or Die’: Architecture Machine Group, Responsive Environments, and the ‘Neuro-Computational’ Complex

Orit Halpern, New School for Social Research, New York

Few discourses have gained greater popularity in our present then the idea of ‘smart’ cities and responsive environments as an answer to contemporary concerns about the future of human populations, security, economy, and ecology. But how did bandwidth, as rates of bits transmitted over a unit time, come to be equated with the sustainability of life itself? How did the environment become activated as a medium for design? Finally, how has the relationship between populations and individuals been reconfigured to facilitate the development of clouds and crowds, as the financial engine for this vision of life? A commodity whose consumers both assimilate and metabolize this information while simultaneously serve as its producers. I am labeling this emerging condition the ‘neuro-computational complex’; a new form of political economy grounded in a reformulation of both perception and intelligence to facilitate the ongoing penetration of computing into everyday life, and that serves as a contemporary infrastructure for both financial and logistical systems.

This rather unintuitive merger of computation as the very support structure for life is linked to a history of cybernetics, design, and the human sciences. This talk will trace the relationship between highly visible contemporary smart city developments, such as Songdo in South Korea, and mid-century initiatives to merge cybernetics, design, and the human sciences. Using a series of case studies from the Architecture Machine Group at MIT, I will discuss how ideals of feedback, data management, modularity, and control created new attitudes to the city as an experimental ‘test-bed’ or ‘demo’, a self-reflexive, and self-monitoring organism which was infinitely enhanceable, improvable, and mobile. This new logic of the computational test-bed or demo has now come to preoccupy our ideas of how to manage life under conditions of real, and imagined, environmental, security, and economic uncertainty.