Of Imaginaries and Uncertainty  


March 28, 2022

Our workshop asked participants to outline a definition of AI. There are multiple ways to do this, defining what AI does, what it’s made of, and how we experience it. Also, what we see, how AI appears to us in tangible and intangible forms, what AI can help us with, and how AI scares us. Participants also grappled with another question, how will AI change the way I live, far into the future. 

Researchers have long argued against deterministic thinking around technologies, instead understanding technological possibility with a sense of “agency and contingency” (Jasanoff and Kim, 2015, pg. 3). There is a process of meaning making that happens as individuals, and societies, interact with new technologies. But before we interact, we are also told, and shown, things about the potential of technology.

IMAGINARIES ARE EVERYWHERE

In 2019, the Barbican in London held a massive exhibit entitled AI: More than Human. A festivalstyle exhibit around the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential to “revolutionise our lives” (Barbican, n.d.), the exhibit starts off with a timeline, much like the one illustrated by workshop participants, that draws the inception of AI all the way back in time. While our participants imagined AI in relation to (imagined) historical moments like the creation of man, and the creation of tools by man, the exhibit pinpoints the year 1843, when Ada Lovelace develops what some consider to be the first example of an algorithm. 

Elsewhere in the exhibit visitors were invited to play with a robotic dog that responded to touch, to build a smart city using Lego and to enjoy a drink mixed by a robot bartender Makrshakr. Each large, dimly lit room showcased one carefully selected use of AI under a bright spotlight. Moving along the dimly lit rooms, touching, seeing, and hearing about our lives with AI, we’re invited to imagine (and experience) a vision of the world. What Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim term, a sociotechnical imaginary:

‘Collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology’                                  

In our workshop, participants worked collaboratively to discuss, contest, challenge, and ultimately cobble together a world with AI, presented here in this zine. In the museum, robot prototype, lights, and video created a futuristic experience that draws visitors into a place that is filled with AI. In both cases, the multimedia affordances of Miroboard, to museum spaces, allow us to express futurity through AI in visual ways. 

This can be exciting and worrying, and we can express all sorts of hopes and fears in the imaginaries we produce. But harder to include is uncertainty and chance. Visualising uncertainty in data visualisations and infographics is its own field of study. There are many reasons why uncertainty is not visualised. A study conducted by Hullman (2019) highlights concerns about visualisations becoming too complex or undermining the credibility of the research. Yet there are important reasons to visualise uncertainty. Data visualisations have often been understood by audiences as an objective representation of neutral data (D’Ignazio and Bhargava, 2020). This is not the case. And as STS scholars have described, this isn’t the case with technology either.  

 - Nancy Salem