Digital Futures talk with Alex Taylor, 21 January 2016

'Counting by numbers and other means'

ABSTRACT
In this world of data, of ‘data-everywhere’, what is it to count and to be counted? In what way might we figure the two meanings here — that seem only just related — so that there is some deeper resonance between them?

One way I have made sense of my work over the last 10 years at Microsoft has been to see it as a way of getting to grips with counting and in some ways coming to terms with being counted. In this talk, I want to tell two stories with numbers at the heart of things to illustrate my ever-evolving sense of the intermingling of numbers and normativities, counts and being counted. The first recounts the incredible capacities machines have to model infinitely complex biological systems. Talking through a software tool that has been built to model cellular organisms, I consider how a particular kind of numeracy interweaves with what counts in analysing cells and, in doing so, transgresses a fundamental quality of biological life, time. By extending my ideas through a further example about the data flows of London’s rental bikes and my own counting methods, I will try to show that counting can be a productive process for opening up very different ways of being in the world and indeed of world making. My broad suggestion here is that through our entanglements with bundles of numbers and their plentiful relations, and our travels with them, come the possibilities for ‘how it could be different’, for who and what else might just count.

Alex is a sociologist (of the qualitative persuasion) working at Microsoft Research Cambridge. He has undertaken investigations into a range of routine and often mundane aspects of everyday life. For instance, he's developed what some might see as an unhealthy preoccupation with hoarding, dirt, clutter and similar seemingly banal subject matter. Most recently, he’s begun obsessing over computation and wondering what the compulsion for seeing-data-everywhere might mean for the future of humans and machines.

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