Intervening in data infrastructure using ontological switches
Christian Nold (University College London)
Paper short abstract:
The paper presents an ethnographic method for intervening in technology practices using 'ontological switches'. This sensitises researchers towards seeing data infrastructures as fluid and allows them to see where they can intervene to allow more actors to participate in world making.
Paper long abstract:
This paper presents an ethnographic method for observing and intervening in technology practices using 'ontological switches'. This extends Winthereik & Verran's (2012) notion of an ethnographic switch that can be used to performatively and disruptively shift between different generalisations. My paper reports on a multi-year study of four participatory sensing devices from design, usage and outputs. In the study, a single technology device would go through radical changes where it came to enact different practices of public health, environmental activism, behavioural experimentation and transhumanism. Using Mol's (1999) notion of ontologies as multiple and enacted in practice, the paper identifies material and organisational choices such as GUI sliders that functioned as a 'switch' between different ontologies, making some possible and foreclosing others. The 'ontological switch' is a way to sensitise researchers and designers towards seeing data infrastructures as fluid and allowing them to see where they can best intervene. Using this approach, the paper shows how targeted interventions at these switch points can be used to multiply realities and allow a broader range of actors to participate in world making. Mol, A. (1999) 'Ontological politics. A word and some questions', in Law, J. and Hassard, J. (eds) Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford, MA: Blackwell Publishers, pp. 74-89. Winthereik, B. R. and Verran, H. (2012) 'Ethnographic Stories as Generalizations that Intervene', Science Studies, 25(1), pp. 37-51.
Data worlds? Public imagination and public experimentation with data infrastructures