“Staying with the trouble” – Donna Haraway quote leads to productive ‘trouble’

‘Staying with the Trouble’ insists on working, playing and thinking in multispecies cosmopolitics in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’

Donna Haraway

I am the teaching assistant on a VERY interesting course for third year geography students about ‘Wildlife in the Age of Humans’.  It’s been a blast reading challenging and well-chosen readings, attending v. good lectures and then trying to make seminars interesting/engaging/challenging-in-the-right-way.

I make brief prompting powerpoints for the seminars.  One trick has been to get people reading out quotes (from the article they (are supposed to) have read and get a conversation going that way.

This week the first quote was the one above.  They’d been exposed to Haraway before in week 1, on the subject of gorilla dioramas and the creation of ‘nature’.

So, with this the reading out of the quote was easy (it’s a sentence!) but the “unpacking” took 10 or 15 minutes, and was super-useful and engaging (‘lightbulb moments’ for a couple of the students, I think.)

And here is the unpacking that we all came up with

‘Staying with the Trouble’ – means not giving up when the subject matter or object (a scorpion, sewers, ‘bad’ behaviour) makes you squeamish or angry. It means trying to stay in a place of ambiguity when cherished notions and beliefs are being attacked or undermined.  It’s at these points – of uncertainty, of fear, when your defences might go up – that, if you are brave and lucky, you might make a ‘breakthrough’.  You might not be a happier or ‘better’ person afterwards, but then again, you might.

-insists on working, playing and thinking.  This mostly came from me – Haraway wants to point out that there are more ways of gaining knowledge and/or wisdom than the standard(ised) whitelabcoandclipboarddoubleblindrandomised way that is held up.  How do humans learn to do anything – via productive play, mentored and corrected etc. How do we learn to be creative? By mashing stuff up, “failing” recombinating etc.

in multispecies cosmopolitics.  The point of the course, this multispecies thing. Think of humans not as the centre of the universe (the way the Earth used to be though of) but as one species among others.  Cosmopolitics – students weren’t familiar, but recognised the word cosmopolitan – a mixed bunch of people rubbing along, co-habitating or even being convivial.  i.e. the normative/intellectual essence of the course.

in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth.  The destruction of ecosystems and species, the sixth great extinction, the mcdonaldisation of society as one student put it.  Celebrity culture, Hollywood, standardisation, the death of languages, other cultures. The insistence on ‘one global culture’ and the work that that does to render other questions unaskable or, if askable, only answerable in one way (‘the market is natural/will provide’)

that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’  They struggled more here, and were intrigued by the word ‘cunningly’.  Got them thinking about how the insistence on ‘now’ means that our attention is diverted from the past and the future (especially the consequences for future generations – human and “non-human”), and ‘here’ means an increasingly standardised architecture and culture work. Cunningly because the use of ‘here’ and ‘now’ foreclose those awkward questions, leaving less defensive institutional work to be done…




Justice or Just us?  “Data Justice” and the big questions #Manchester

The newspapers and webfeeds are full of stories of the (un)intended consequences of the increased “datafication” of society, and the ways in which people are sorted, silenced and discriminated against by ‘algorithms.’ It is rich terrain for academics and activists (the two beasts need not be totally distinct), and today at the University of Manchester around 30 people got to hear from two people who are working on the field of ‘data justice’.

The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research and the Environmental Sustainability Team hosted a lunchtime (but without lunch L ) seminar on these thorny questions.
First up was Prof Richard Heeks from the Centre for Development Informatics.  He explained that the work he conducts had got a start with an AHRC funded project which asked the key question “Whose Right to the Smart City?”

With the increased amount of information being collected and collated (the so-called three Vs – velocity, volume and variety) means that cities are coming to have ‘data twins’ – where a digital simulacrum is used for planning and – increasingly  experience (think Bluetooth proximity sensors beaming you time and location sensitive info and adverts).

All this raise the questions of who is, in the “twin”, absent, marginalised.  This is a problem everywhere, but perhaps especially in the ‘Global South’.

Heeks pointed to two recent papers which are top of my post-thesis reading pile

Heeks then laid out the conceptualisation of what data justice actually means in practice.  Here’s one of the intriguing conceptual maps.  They’re reminiscent of Giddens’ mid-80s modernity diagram thingies (yes, I know, I should get out more).


(I’ve lifted this from Heeks 2017, page 11)

As well as structural questions, there are also the so-called ‘three freedoms’ around visibility (which is a double-edged sword: sometimes you’d want to be invisible from the state!), engagement (who gets to be involved not just in the generation but also the analysis and distribution and re-use of data) and non-discrimination.

Heeks then briefly outlined four pro-data-justice initiatives – Kota Kita, Map Kibera, Our Pune, Our Budget and Transparent Chennai.

Interestingly (well, there was a lot of very interesting things) there’s no evidence of a ‘small data’ cycle – where data is recycled locally to improve local decision-making and lives.  Looks like big data has a big head-start…

There were several questions.  One was ncredibly perceptive and well-made (Cough.  Cough). How will those who are currently benefittng from data injustice (governments, large corporations making a killing, other actors) respond to the calls for data justice?  Will they set up confusing/astroturfy groups? Will they smear justice proponents?  What else? It’s worth investigating (gizza post-doc)

Heeks said it was an important thing to study, and pointed out that digital has already been disruptive, with unexpected consequences “we’re hearing voices we didn’t hear before.”

The second speaker was Julian Tait, CEO of Open Data Manchester (supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond), which was founded in 2010.  He mentioned a fascinating event coming up on Satuday May 19 – “Joy Diversion

Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.

Joy Diversion

Saturday, May 19, 2018, 12:00 PM

The Federation
Federation Street, Federation House M4 2AH , GB

19 Members Attending

Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.Often viewed as a functional place of work, retail and leisure, our city centre bounded by Trinity W…

Check out this Meetup →

He explained what Open Data Manchester does, and among other things, pointed to disturbing trends in surveillance. For example, in Utrecht, the technology is allowing “pre-emptive policing”  (and the movie Minority Report did get a mention in the Q and A!).

See recent Grauniad article –
‘Living laboratories’: the Dutch cities amassing data on oblivious residents

More prosaically, but equally sinister is the potential of a lift that can read your mobile devices ID being able to tell your weight and your propensity for taking the stairs or not. Insurance companies, diet companies, etc would love that info…

All in all, a useful event exposing us to new trends in 21st living which will probably overlap and imbricate with climate change until the final civilizational collapse and general Mad Max warlordism thing…

Mental note to self – try to get an academic article published with the title “Last night a DJ saved my life….” Where DJ stands for Data Justice…

#TomLehrer in #Australia (also, happy 90th…)

Tom Lehrer celebrated his 90th birthday today – he’s definitely old and grey.

Born in New York, Lehrer began studying classical piano aged seven. However, popular music caught his eye, and he began writing show tunes . A prodigy, he started at Harvard aged 15. There he began to write comic songs, including a spoof football fight song –  “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” – which has been performed ever since.

By 1953 he had enough songs to release a 12 song album ‘Songs by Tom Lehrer’, which included classics like “The Old Dope Peddler” (“he gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well, that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele”, a song telling boy scouts to “Be Prepared” (culminating – spoiler alert – in the invocation to always carry condoms) and other songs from the silly to the downright macabre.

Since US radio stations wouldn’t play songs about murder, racism, plagiarism and worse, the album was a ‘sleeper hit’ – spreading by word of mouth. Lehrer later recalled “lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”

Lehrer spent the next few years working as a researcher at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and was drafted into the Army from 1955 to 1957. He continued to play nighclubs in Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco, His musical “career” then received a huge boost from…. Princess Margaret. The oration accompanying her honorary doctorate in music from the University of London mentioned her liking for Lehrer’s work.

(Lehrer ended up performed in front of the royal family, and afterwards Prince Philip shook his hand and said he’d always enjoyed listening to “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Lehrer asked if the Queen liked it too. “Oh, she thinks it’s horrid. She leaves the room if we put it on”.)

The BBC was less shy than American radio stations about playing his songs, and Lehrer became well known in the UK, having sold 370,000 records by the end of the 1950s.

And then, in 1960, taking the opportunity that his new-found fame allowed him, he visited the Australia of Robert Menzies….

On tour in Australia

Lehrer’s music was already on the Australian radar. The previous year a Labor MP had asked the Prime Minister if he knew any of Lehrer’s work, which had been withdrawn by the record company EMI from sale for fear of offence (and possibly banned).

Menzies denied knowledge – “Do I gather that these songs are romantic or what?”

During his tour Lehrer made mock efforts to set the record straight.

When he performed in Brisbane, the chief of police tried to prevent Lehrer singing Be Prepared (aside its condom advice it had also advised “don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice, unless you get a good percentage of her price”).

While audiences in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney got the full benefit of Lehrer’s decidely cynical and bleak worldview (surely influenced by Yiddish sensibilities), Adelaide was not so lucky. Ruled with an iron fist by Thomas Playford, South Australia was not ready for Lehrer.

A young ALP MP called Don Dunstan asked questions of Playford about censorship, but to no avail. During his two nights of performing at Adelaide Town Hall, there were five songs which were off-limits. His audience knew those songs, and at one point he teasingly began to play one of them. Lehrer apparently quipped that South Australia had the “finest 18th century government in the world”.

Lehrer took it all in his stride, saying that having been “banned, censored, mentioned in several houses of parliament and threatened with arrest” was “the highlight of his life”.

tom lehrer discovers australiaThe tour resulted in an album of live recordings “Tom Lehrer discovers Australia (and vice versa)” (the cover shows him in a staring contest with a kangaroo). Lehrer also debuted a song that couldn’t be banned- “The Masochism Tango” (“I ache for the touch of your lips dear, but much more for the touch of your whips dear…”)


After Australia Lehrer briefly taught political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and presumably got confused with Noam Chomsky, who is exactly the same age.)

He then produced a flurry of brilliant topical songs for a short-lived satirical TV show called ‘That was the week that was’. The album (That Was the Year that Was’ covers smut, the teaching of ‘new math’ and – infamously – a song about the German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun (‘once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department says Werhner von Braun’.)

And then – tired of touring, tired of singing the same songs, and with real life becoming ever less funny, Lehrer basically retired from performing. His last gig, in 1972, was a fundraiser for the doomed Presidential candidate George McGovern.

He then spent 40 years teaching math and American popular music at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In 1999 the British historian Martin Gilbert named Lehrer as one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years. “Lehrer was able to express and to expose, in humorous verse and lilting music, some of the most powerful dangers of the second half of the century … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind,”

Indeed, for a man who hasn’t really performed since 1972, Lehrer’s fan-base remains enormous (full disclosure: my one appearance on the UK ‘Mastermind’ hinged on my specialist round -the songs of Tom Lehrer.)  In 2012, when the rapper 2 Chainz, a rapper, asked to sample “The Old Dope Peddler” in one of his tracks, Mr Lehrer was keen to help. “I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this,” he supposedly answered. “Please give my regards to Mr Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

So, to celebrate this man, have a trawl through his (remarkably small number of) songs.

I guarantee there will be something to delight, horrify and amuse, as you slide down the razor blade of life…