Andy: Hello, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, from thoughtful detail, through to organisational transformations, to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine, a design, educator, and writer, currently Group Director of Client Evolution at Fjord. My guest today is Dr. Anne Galloway. She’s an associate professor at Victor University of Wellington, New Zealand.
She brings her background in cultural studies and science, technology, and society studies to the study of design and the practice of design research, and teaches a course in design ethnography and speculative design, and leads the More Than Human Lab. When not at work, Anne is a shepherd to a small flock of Arapawa sheep and rare breed ducks, which inspire her research into farm animal welfare and public controversies. Welcome to Power of Ten, Anne.
Anne: Good morning, thank you very much.
Andy: You’ve got quite an interesting background. I’m going to ask you about in a second. I wanted to start with the quote from Ursula Le Guin that you have on your website. It’s from the Lathe of Heaven. “We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try and stand outside things and run them that way, it just doesn’t work. It goes against life. There is a way, but you have to follow it, the world is, no matter how we think it ought to be, you have to be with it, you have to let it be.
Then on the More Than Human website, you have these three questions. What if we refuse to uncouple nature and culture? What if we deny that human beings are exceptional? What if we stop speaking and listening only to ourselves? The More Than Human lab explores everyday entanglements of humans and non-humans and imagines more sustainable ways of thinking, making, and doing. Anne, let’s get started by first talking about what do you mean by all of that?
Anne: The Ursula Le Guin quote I love mostly because a critical perspective or an activist perspective, anything that says we ought to be changing the world in any way, it always assumes that we need to fix something, that the world is broken and that designers especially are well-suited to be able to solve some of these problems. I like thinking about what it means to respond to injustice by accepting it, not in the sense of believing that it’s okay or right, because clearly, it’s been identify as unjust. I love Le Guin’s attention to the fact that there is a way to be in the world.
As soon as we think that we’re outside of it, any choices or decisions or actions that we take are, well, they sit outside of it as well. I like being embedded in the trouble. I like Donna Haraway’s idea of staying with the trouble. It’s not that we have to accept that things are problematic, but rather that we have to work within the structures that already exist. Not to keep them that way, in fact, many should be dismantled or changed. Rather, to accept that there is a flow to the universe.
Of course, Le Guin was talking about Taoism, but here what I wanted to draw attention to is often our imperative to fix or to solve or to change things comes with a belief that we’re not part of the world that we’re trying to fix and change. It’s that that I want to highlight. That when we start asking difficult questions about the world, we can never remove ourselves from them. We’re complicit, we are on the receiving end of things. We’re never distant from it. I think that subtle but important shift in deciding how we approach our work is really important.
Andy: In your paper that you wrote, or it’s a chapter actually, isn’t it? That speculative design is a research method that you wrote with Catherine Caudwell. You talk quite a lot about this idea that speculative design speaks to itself a lot. As you’re an academic, I’ve been an academic, it is quite academic as well in its nature. With that, goes a certain class and aloofness perhaps that could be levelled, but that’s certainly not always the case with all speculative designers. Before we launch into that, because I think that’s where that idea that design is somehow outside of the world and making a critique of it. Before we go into it, for those of the people who might not know, could you describe or explain what speculative design is and what it aims to do? I know that’s a more difficult question, but what’s your take on that?
Anne: To do it a great disservice, no matter what I say, there are going to be ten speculative designers who stick their hands up and go, “God, that’s not what I do.” Let’s just give it a really simple… I like actually Dunne and Raby’s original conception of critical design being interrogative and challenging the status quo. I think that that’s the most important thing when we talk about it as applied to design. It questions design itself. Then there’s the element of speculative design that questions the world, as well. I think that it’s a questioning or a troubling practice. It’s meant to make things look different or help us see them differently. It’s fictional I think is the important part.
Andy: Right. It extrapolates something that’s going on now into the future and creates normally, it’s most often physical than always, artefacts of that future, as objects to make people think more critically about where the future might be.
Anne: Yes, ask what if questions.
Andy: Yes, okay. I was thinking about this, I was reading, in conjunction, this little Le Guin quote, I was trying to think, it’s unusual in the sense that it’s a discipline or a practice of design that uses its own practice to critique itself. It’s using design to critique design in many respects. A lot of what speculative design is talking about is, look what happens when we put stuff into the world, in some way, without much thought. I was trying to think if there was another discipline that does that. I think probably in the humanities there are, and certainly in sociology I think there probably is, where it uses its own discipline to critique itself. It’s a fairly unusual setup.
Anne: I would think actually it’s quite common in the humanities, perhaps the social sciences, where it’s not common is in the sciences. Any reflexive turn in any of the humanities would have used the discipline. Historiography is that sort of thing. Applied philosophy is that sort of thing. Reflexive anthropology is that sort of thing. I think it’s actually quite common, just not in the sciences, and design often tries to align itself with the sciences instead.
Andy: Yes, there was a great piece in the Aeon the other day, about how science doesn’t have an adequate description or explanation for consciousness. Yet, it’s the only thing it can be certain of. With that, it also doesn’t really seem to come up in the technology industry that much, because it’s so heavily aligned with science. Technology, and you’ve got this background in culture studies and science and technology and society, technology is a really strong vein throughout speculative design. Indeed, your work, right? Counting sheep is about the Internet of Things, and sheep. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that and why I am talking to you from the picture things to the Lord of the Rings, it basically looks like you’re living in part of the Shire in Middle Earth?
Anne: I do live in a place that looks remarkably like the Shire. It’s a bit disconcerting at times. The science and technology question in speculative design I think is first of all a matter of convenience. Science fiction, speculation, they lean historically, habitually towards science and tech. It becomes an easy target for critique. Not that it’s not necessary, but it’s right there, so why not? There’s that element to it. It has an easier ability to be transformed into something fanciful or terrifying, which allows for certain kinds of storytelling through speculation, that I think people, both creators and audiences or readers really enjoy.
Now, the irony of all of this, of course is that arguably one of the greatest concerns that people have would be tied to technological determinism, the idea that we’re going to have these technologies anyway, so what are we going to do about it? Now, when you speculate using these technologies, what you’re doing is actually reinforcing the idea that these technologies are coming, you play right into the same technological determinism that you’re trying to critique. In fact, one of the counting sheep scenarios was designed specifically to avoid the technology. It was the one that got the most positive responses.
Andy: Could you describe the project?
Anne: The project is called Counting Sheep: New Zealand Merino in an Internet of Things. It was funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund. I was given a very generous grant to explore methodological innovation. First of all, my research tends to focus on developing and accessing new methods. Then it was an ethnographic case study. I always work as an ethnographer first. I’m an anthropologist by training and I’d been studying sheep breeding, Merino sheep breeding.
In order to envision what the world of Merino sheep breeding could be in the future, especially in the face of things like climate change and animal welfare concerns. I started imagining different scenarios of how we might interact with sheep. I purposely designed a spectrum, the longest spectrum from very realist to completely fantastic. I placed my scenarios along that spectrum. On the most fantastic end, we have a genetically engineered half-sheepdog, half sheep, that becomes a pet that is networked, and sensor technologies keep the nation informed and allow people to maintain a sense of nationality and connection. That’s utterly fantastic. The most realistic one on the other end of the spectrum was an urban farm, where all of the animals were tagged, just as they actually are with RFID tags and people can track them that way.
That one could be made tomorrow. Whereas, the other one would probably never happen. Then there were two more scenarios, one was growing your own lamb, which was looking at the consumption of meat. Allowing people to either guide a farmer in growing lamb in vivo, like in the real world, versus growing lamb in vitro or in petri dishes, so we played with that a bit. This was well before the Impossible Burger became common news. Then the final scenario is the one that I was just talking about, actually, and it’s called the bone knitter. It was created as an antidote to everything else.
It’s a fictional technology, but it uses Merino wool through a hand-cranked knitting machine. A person with a broken limb puts their limb in the knitting machine and the technician hand-cranks and knits a three-layer cast over the broken bone. It’s an orthopaedic device, but with very low technology, very slow technology. Everything that was the opposite of the kinds of technologies that we’ve been positioning for the other scenarios. It’s been the one that’s had the most positive impact. It’s currently part of the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna collection.
Andy: What did you discover? You said you had the most positive response. I know you got responses from people, so what did you discover?
Anne: Well, I think that one of the major drives for that particular project, like I said, my research is targeting how to assess creative research methods. How do we know they’re actually working or what is it that they actually do? One of the concerns I had about speculative design is that it claimed to create debate or enable social change. Yet, we had absolutely no evidence for this. In fact, nobody had ever even bothered testing it to find out. I don’t mean testing in a scientific sense; I mean even just asking in an exhibition space what people think. What I did was run surveys, online surveys for all of the scenarios, soliciting people’s impressions of them.
Now, the bone-knitter was distinguished because nobody talked about the bone-knitter itself, they talked about what it meant to be injured and ill, what it means to have a technology that can’t be supported within current infrastructures. It opened up an entire new world of conversation. For me, that was the most exciting result that came out of it, because the design itself, it was the least interesting and most interesting. People didn’t talk about it, what it allowed them to do was talk about everything else that concerned them. Whereas, the other designs seemed to compel people to talk about that design itself. I thought that was really interesting.
Andy: It became a design research prompt or prop that people could use for discussion.
Anne: Yes, exactly.
Andy: With all of this, and I may this pop at the beginning, just before we were recording, that there’s a sense of, because of everything going on in the world, that if only designers could run the world, everything would be fine, right, because we can see all of the solutions to everything. What would you want designers to get out of this kind of work or this kind of perspective?
Anne: Humility. That simple. I am one of those people. It’s because of being an ethnographer as well and doing participant observation and interviewing many people and their ideas about design. I’ve run into far more people who think that designers are arrogant than ones who don’t. This has always really interested me. What is it that designers do that seems to rub non-designers the wrong way? Part of it is this sense of, or implication that they know better than the rest of us, or that a designer will come in and say, “Let me fix your problem”, before even asking if there is a problem that the person wants fixed.
I actually gave a guest lecture in a class just the other day, where I suggested that there were people in the world who thought that designers were arrogant. One of the post-graduate students in the class really took umbrage at this and wanted to know why it was that designers were arrogant for offering to fix problems, but a builder wasn’t, or a doctor wasn’t.
Andy: What was your answer?
Anne: Well, my answer was, generally speaking, people go to them first and say, “I have this problem, I need help.” Whereas, designers come up with a problem, go find people that they think have it and then tell them they’d like to solve it. I think just on a social level, that is profoundly anti-social. That is not how people enjoy socially interacting with people.
Andy: I can completely see that and I think that I would say that argument has also levelled, quite rightly, a lot of Silicon Valley, which is the answer to everything is some kind of technology engineering startup to fix all the problems that all the other technology and engineering startups that are no longer startups have created. It’s probably true of quite a lot of areas of business and finance, as well, and politics, for that matter. The counter, I could imagine a designer saying, “Well, that’s not really true”, because one of the things as human-centred designers, the first thing we do, we go out, we do design ethnography, we go and speak to people, we go and observe, we go and do all of that stuff. We really understand their problems. We’re not just telling people what needs to be fixed. We’re going there and understanding things. What’s your response to that?
Anne: Well, my first response is, yes, that’s absolutely true. There are lots of very good designers in the world who do precisely that. Because I work in an academic institution though, I’m training students. What my job involves is getting the to the point where they know the difference between telling somebody something and asking somebody something. what it means to actually understand their client or their user. I prefer to just refer to them as people. What it is that people want or need. One of the things that I offer in all of my classes is, after doing the participant observation, my students always have the opportunity to submit a rationale for no design intervention whatsoever.
That’s not something that is offered to people in a lot of business contexts because there’s a business case that’s being made. Whereas, I want my students to understand that sometimes the research demonstrates that people are actually okay, and that even if they have little problems, they’re still okay with that, that people are quite okay with living with contradictions and that they will accept some issues because it allows for other things to emerge. That if they want, they can provide the evidence for saying, “Actually, the worst thing we could do in this scenario is design anything and I refuse to design.”
Andy: Right, that and the people made trade-offs all the time because of the pain of change is much greater than whatever it is that they’re currently living with.
Anne: It might not even be that. It might just be that they’re content. What’s wrong with being content? Why do we want to force people to be more than content? There are many cultures and religions around the world that don’t believe in happiness, they believe in contentedness. That goes back to that being in the world, instead of thinking that you have to rise above it somehow.
Andy: That’s quite a subtle point and I imagine there’s also a culture – where are you from, actually? I did mean to ask this before.
Anne: I’m Canadian, but I grew up in South America.
Andy: Right, okay. Arguably, there’s a culture of striving. It’s true in a lot of Europe, but it’s also very prevalent in North America, of contentment isn’t good enough. You should be striving to your dream. Of course, the whole mantra of… I don’t really want to say millennials, but it’s certainly them, that in terms of Instagram, find your passion, and then there’s this whole workaholism that’s going along with it, that everyone should be working until they die. Otherwise, they’re not going to be happy.
Anne: See, I didn’t grow up in a protestant country, the protestant work ethic makes no sense to me. This is not something I was raised with. I don’t understand people’s compulsion to do this. I don’t suffer from workaholism. I don’t. I work to live, not the other way around. I’ve never wondered why I’m supposed to love my job more than not. Studs Trickle has the most amazing book called: Work, in which he interviewed a bazillion people about jobs that they do, whether they like them or not. This idea that you’re supposed to love capitalist labour is beyond my comprehension, because, for me, this system is so flawed that I owe no loyalty to anyone.
Andy: Yes, David Grape’s stuff talks about that quite a lot, as well.
Anne: That’s very much my position and my politics in everyday life. It’s very much not the politics of my students.
Andy: That’s quite a subtle point between contentment and happiness. How do your design students respond to that?
Anne: Well, they respond exactly like you suggested, they’re looking for passion. If there’s no passion, they think there’s a problem. I work really hard to try to get them to understand that if the person is content with what they’ve described, why do they need passion? We try to question what passion is, what happiness is, and what contentment is. I’d say that maybe a quarter of them can wrap their head around the differences, because you’re right, they are very subtle. It tends to be very difficult for people who have been raised within protestant cultures to really distinguish between them.
Andy: It’s amazing, isn’t it? I don’t have to tell you this, but how much when you trace the cultural roots backs, or the cultural pathways back of disciplines and ways of working and mindsets and paradigms, how much it starts to influence what has become normalised inside a discipline. I was hoping you were going to take the bait when I said human-centred design.
Anne: Well, that is part of the bias, of course, is this if we’re obsessed with human happiness, then it automatically costs others. It costs other humans; it costs other forms of life. It is precisely that, this idea that we are the most important creatures living on the planet, that we’re separate from the planet is sort of antithetical to just my worldview. I started my lab precisely because I thought that human-centred design is important, it does good work, I’m glad it exists. I need to look at something beyond that, that reintegrates us with the world and doesn’t make us special at all. That’s humbling and people don’t enjoy being humbled.
Andy: On that, you’ve written a piece called Flock, which talks about your relationship with your sheep really. There’s a piece in it that I thought was really a fascinating observation. I was thinking about it. I was actually just thinking about it with my cat, I wrote my PhD about play and interactivity. Particularly, when my cat was younger, I kid you not, we used to play hide and seek in the garden.
Anne: I believe it.
Andy: I used to hide in a tree, and it used to creep up on me. Of course, people play with their dogs all the time. Play is incredibly species universal and interspecies, that you can play with a cat or a dog in the way that you can’t have a conversation with them.
Andy: You talked about, we assume that domestication only means bringing something into the human world and under human control. In fact, it also goes the other way, that they domesticate you in some respects. I realise that every time I come home, and my cat is meowing its head off. I’m like, okay, I’ve just become this slave to his meowing. I go and feed him. Then it works both ways.
Anne: Of course.
Andy: Tell me a bit about that. How has your relationship with your sheep enhanced your sense of humility?
Anne: I think that honestly, I grew up with dogs, I have a cat. My best friend is my cat. She’s 14 years’ old now, but none of the animals I’ve lived with have humbled me and troubled me as totally as the sheep have. I’ve learned more from sheep in four years than a lifetime with other animals. It surprises me and delights me on a daily basis. Sheep are really funny. Both literally and figuratively. They have good sense of humour. They like to play. Some of them don’t like to play at all and will just come and headbutt you and then bugger off in another direction. The thing that I think is the most interesting and relevant to this is that their individuals. Unlike pets which we tend to always assume are individuals. A farm animal and especially a flock animal tend to be more easily grasped as a mass, as the flock, rather than as individual sheep.
I made a point when I got sheep to meet them add individuals. What this meant was that I was forced to acknowledge that I liked some more than others, just like I do with people. That some like me more than others, just like with people. That we negotiate ways of being together. That I can’t do anything with the sheep without their cooperation. I suppose I could, but it would require brute force and violence, which would annihilate any relationship. You might have to kill or hurt them at least. That’s counterproductive on many levels. In order to get to the point where they can be shorn, they can be given vaccination, they can have their huffs trimmed.
Like, general maintenance that requires handling that they don’t enjoy, we have to have a relationship of trust the rest of the time. The sense though, my sheep know things better than me in all sorts of ways. They smell differently, they see differently, they live at a completely different time scale. They live very slowly and in short increments. It’s the most profoundly different way of being in the world than I’ve experienced as a human. I look at my cat and she’s a little predator. It tickles the competitive part of me.
Whereas, when I sit in the middle of the flock of sheep, I am at one with the world. I know that sounds funny, but it was the first time in my life I actually felt that feeing. I finally started to understand what though Taoists had been talking about all this time. I was like, oh, my god, this is what they mean. Where you just be. It’s a funny psychological state too because if a flock of sheep or a flock of any prey animal is calm, you can rest assured that you are safe. To sit in the middle of a bunch of sheep that are calm is the safest I have ever felt in my entire existence.
Andy: It’s interesting as humans. I feel like at the moment, everyone is just on high alarm the whole time, so no one feels safe at all. It’s that ripple effect.
Anne: Yes, exactly, so I would rather be with my sheep.
Andy: Yes, I can sympathise with that. How many do you have, by the way?
Anne: Just nine.
Andy: Okay. How many do you have to have to have a flock? You have a pair and then it becomes a flock or is there a rule about that?
Anne: A flock – actually, the first level of categorisation is, it goes individual and then mob, then flock. Within any flock, whether it’s…
Anne: Yes. Isn’t that lovely? A mob of sheep are the little gangs of sheep that form within the flock, so those are friends, those are peer groups. A flock can be content with each other, but there will be mobs within the flock that are very clearly happier with each other. They’re the ones who play together. They’re the ones who sleep touching each other. That sort of thing. A slightly more intimate relationship. You need at least four animals, five animals to make a flock, but a flock, I’ve seen flocks of ten thousand. I don’t know how you compare five animals to ten thousand, but it’s possible.
Andy: I don’t know if you’d still feel safe in the middle of them.
Anne: I have. As long as the animal is calm.
Andy: Are they chipped? They’re all RFIDed?
Anne: No, none of them are.
Andy: None of yours.
Andy: Commercial flocks are?
Anne: Breeding flocks are, like if somebody is a stud breeder, sheep are exempt from the national tagging system. I think that when they introduced it, I think it was five/six years ago, they introduced it into cattle and deer first because those are smaller flocks. New Zealand’s national sheep flock is still pretty massive. There are still seven sheep per person in the country. I think that when they rolled out the RFID tracing program, they just didn’t know. There’s a problem with, what is the appropriate measure of sheep, is it the individual, is it the mob, or is it the flock?
Andy: It’s fascinating about that role of technology, Genevieve Bell on Mark Pesce’s Next Billion Seconds podcast was talking to me about the research into cows as they started being able to go into automated milking sheds. That, of course, they had this moment of initially going at sunrise and sundown because that’s when the farmer used to milk them. Then after a while they realised, hang on a second, I can do this whenever I want. The rhythm can completely change. They also realised that as they were tracking them, cows have friendship circles and they have cows they hang out with and other cows they don’t hang out with so much. This tech that is there to automate and to make human’s lives easier in terms of tracking and automating animal husbandry actually reveals a whole load of invisible societies that we’ve not seen before.
Anne: Well, I think the interesting part about that is who that “we” is. I have never met a farmer who doesn’t know which cows’ friends are with other cows. Farmers know these things because they watch their animals. No technology was needed there. The technology enables other people to see those connections, but the shepherd or the stock person, they didn’t need that technology to be told that. The interesting thing about tech, like automatic milking, so robotic milking for cows is that it allows, like you said, the cattle to have a significant amount of agency that they would have been denied before. Yet, one of the repercussions of the introduction of these systems is that cows that don’t adapt to the technology are being culled from the herd.
Anne: It allows a certain type of cow to live a much more independent life. The cows that don’t adapt are gone. Now, we’re breeding animals not just to meet our system, but our technological system. It’s a double-edged sword there. It’s not just about freeing the cows.
Andy: I was thinking, as we’re coming up to time, I was thinking as you were talking about this and as you were talking about the relationship between designers and human-centred design and the potential arrogance that comes with that. That I wonder if designers would do better to view their humans as animals actually. Rather, I don’t mean that particularly from an outsider way, I mean more about in the sense of you being in the centre of your sheep. I had a strange moment the other day, when I was in Frankfurt airport and I was going up in an elevator and it’s an elevator that’s all glass. There’s an entrance.
You use one of those elevators, you go in one side and you go out the other side. As it got to the top and the side that people had gone into, because they’re glass doors, was just faced with a blocked wall, because they were facing the wrong way. There was this moment in this guy’s eyes, that he just looked like a panicked monkey. I had this real moment of seeing everyone in the elevator as a bunch of hairless monkeys. Then thinking, with their suitcases and everything. It was actually quite empathetic in the process of seeing that in that way. Suddenly, that boundary between us and the rest of the world went away. I don’t know, do you think that’s a useful speculative design approach?
Anne: I do, actually. I read a book about sheep in which the author started the book, the very first paragraph is, the author meeting a sheep for the first time and commenting how he couldn’t see or recognise or bond at all with the sheep because of how weird sheep’s eyes are. My immediate reaction was, this person has no idea what a sheep is, because sheep don’t communicate with their eyes. Sheep communicate with their ears, their body posture, a little bit of movement. The ability to communicate with a sheep is to not use any of our assumed modes of communication. Communication with sheep is successful only when you both are animals.
Andy: There are so many lessons there for designers and design researchers in particular to take on.
Anne: That’s the most important thing I’ve learned from my sheep, it’s that I can’t meet them as me, common animality.
Andy: That’s very good. Look, I’m going to end with one thing, which is the Power of Ten is really this idea, it’s based on the Powers of Ten.
Anne: Which is beautiful.
Andy: You get these repeated patterns at different levels of zoom, different powers of ten. It’s also about this idea that small things can have an outsized effect, a ripple effect. My last question to you is, what one small thing in the world do you think either has an amazing outsized effect and it goes unrecognised or one small thing that you think should be redesigned to have that effect?
Anne: I’m one of these people who dreams of glass slaughterhouses.
Andy: Oh my god!
Anne: I am trying to be slightly provocative, but I’m also being serious. If I could do anything in the world, I would make slaughter utterly visible.
Andy: Okay, that’s not a small thing, but that’s a pretty major thing. I can imagine that would have an incredible effect. There’d be a lot more vegetarians.
Anne: I don’t know what that effect would be. I assumed I would become a vegetarian after killing lambs that I had named. I didn’t.
Andy: Maybe it would make people more respectful of the meat they’re eating.
Anne: Yes, I have no idea what it would do, but I would love to see.
Andy: That’s been the most amazing answer to that question so far.
Anne: Well, glad to have been of service.
Andy: Thank you very much for being my guest on Power of Ten.
Anne: Well, thank you for having me. You asked great questions.
Andy: Thank you. I shall put links to the More Than Human Lab and anything else. Where can people find you online?
Anne: Well, More Than Human Lab, there’s my university webpage that lists my academic life. Then I’m on Twitter as Anne Galloway, as well.
Andy: Brilliant. Well, I’ll put all of the links in the show notes. Thank you very much indeed.
Anne: Thank you.
Andy: Thanks for listening to Power of Ten. If you want to learn more about other shows on the This is HCD Network, visit: Thisishcd.com, where you’ll find Prod Pod with Adrian Tan, Ethno Pod with Dr. John Curran, and Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion. You’ll also find the transcripts and links mentioned in the show and where you can also sign up to our newsletter, join our Slack channel to connect with other designers all around the world.
My name is Andy Polaine, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.
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