Sarah Pink

Corina Enache, co-host of The Human Show, our media partner, interviewed Professor Sarah Pink. You can listen to the podcast here. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

Update (1 July): Sarah, who was a keynote, is now unable to attend as she’s had to cut short her trip to Europe in October due to family commitments in her home city of Melbourne, and therefore will not be joining us this year.

Tell us about yourself

I’m originally an anthropologist. My Masters degree was in Visual Anthropology at Manchester University where I learned ethnographic film-making. The programme has completely shaped my career, as an applied anthropologist, as a design anthropologist because video and ethnographic documentary remains at the core of a lot of my practice as a researcher. After that I did a PhD in Anthropology. My research was on women and bullfighting in Southern Spain. It was a fantastic project and very valuable for me in terms of the experiences it gave me in learning how to be an anthropologist but also learning how to be an interdisciplinary anthropologist because at that stage I had already started to do a lot of research using photography, I was already trained in ethnographic film-making, and at that point my work really started to cross over with sociology a lot more as well.

In my whole career I have never worked as an anthropologist in an anthropology department.

On the Emerging Technologies Research Lab

I am currently the Director of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University in Australia. I am based 50% in Information Technology and 50% in Design. For me that’s a very privileged position to be in and my lab also is across those two facilities so half of the people who work in the Lab are based in IT and half of the people are based in Design.

We are developing a lab that focuses on emerging technologies in relation to the latest developments that are being explored in IT and technology design but also working in relation to design and design practice and through that to also be connected to arts practice and architecture.

We work in a truly interdisciplinary environment, which, as far as I’m concerned, is fundamental if we are to have impact as anthropologists.

My colleagues in the Lab are a sociologist, a geographer, a design anthropologist, and another anthropologist so we work in a truly interdisciplinary environment. As far as I’m concerned that is fundamental if we are to have impact as anthropologists working in a context where our work goes across academic scholarship.

We believe in the highest quality academic scholarship and applied practice as well so our work is interventional, industry-focussed, public and community focussed (we work with all kinds of different organisations). But, as far as I’m concerned, if we want to do really good work, the impacts in organisations and in the wider society and the wider context, we need to work on that as theoretical social scientists as well. That complex theoretical methodological, analytical work that actually enables us to contribute insights that anthropologists who work only in industry don’t have the time and the capacity to actually work on in the same way.

On futures anthropology

Design anthropology is not new at all, it’s been happening for quite a long time. There’s a particularly interesting and exciting design anthropology, which I associate with Danish design anthropology tradition, which has been led by people like Rachel Charlotte Smith, Ton Otto, and Wendy Gunn [see their edited collection, Design Anthropology], and I love the work of all of those scholars, and I’ve collaborated with some of them as well.

It’s about a way of doing anthropology differently. What’s central to that, which I am particularly passionate about, is the futures anthropology dimension which is very aligned with design anthropology. In 2014 myself and Juan Salazar, who I have worked with at Monash, formed the Future Anthropologies Network (FAN) at the EASA, with a group of others.

For me the Future Anthropologies Network has been really been a fundamental influence on my thinking, on my practice, the idea that we have a committed group of anthropologists who are determined to create a new anthropology that doesn’t just reflect on what’s happening in the present and what has happened in the past but that tries to think about how we do ethnographic and anthropological research and analysis in that space of the future. And the future in the sense of understanding future as uncertain, as unknown, as things that we can’t predict and there are many fascinating ways of thinking about the future along those lines.

If we’re going to be able to challenge…the dominant narrative that new and emerging technologies will impact society…we’re going to have to be active in the zones in which the other disciplines guide that narrative.

There’s a reason for that which, for me, is also fundamental: if we are going to have any impact as anthropologists, if we’re going to be able to challenge, particularly in the area of technology, design, and development, the dominant narrative that new and emerging technologies will impact on society, they will influence cultures and change society. Of course we know, as anthropologists, that technology will not change society, that people change society, and society changes through peoples’ involvement. So if we are ever going to change any of those narratives, we’re going to have to be active, in the temporalities of research where the other disciplines are active, who actually guide those narratives so economists, governance and policy, technology design: they are all working in zones where they consider the idea that they can predict futures or talk about what’s going to happen in the future very unproblematically.

As anthropologists, we do need to find ways to work as researchers in which we don’t just criticise what other disciplines do but we actually engage with them and the spaces in which they working. That’s a fundamental next step which not only anthropology but all of the social sciences need to take, and that means we need to develop new methods, new approaches, new theories of understanding futures, researching futures and analysing futures. And to use those to contest and critique – but in a much more practical way – the way that other disciplines are working and developing assumptions about futures, the very ideas and concepts about futures that they are working with, things that we need to contest with understandings of futures as uncertain and unknown and unpredictable.

On futures research in autonomous driving vehicles

In the work that I’ve been developing with my colleagues in Sweden, for example, we’ve been working on the question of autonomous driving vehicles. There I collaborate with Halmstad University and Volvo cars.

We’ve been working with experimental methods, which…has enabled us to do research with people who have experienced possible future technologies that don’t already exist.

One of our projects, called Human Expectations and Experiences of Autonomous Driving Vehicles, where we’ve been working with experimental methods, which are already used in the automotive industry, simulations, has enabled us to do research with people who have experienced possible future technologies that don’t already exist.

If we work with organisations that do technological prototyping and experimental methods, we can research in that zone of futures that haven’t really happened, won’t really happen, but that could happen, in such a way that we’re able to understand something of experiences that aren’t really possible. It’s a really exciting zone to work in as an anthropologist but a very unconventional zone for anthropologists to engage with.

We need to find ways in which we can ethically and responsibly write into the future and to acknowledge that uncertainty, that context of writing about things that we can’t be sure about at all, we can’t claim that we can only know about things that we have observed. How can we know about things that cannot be known? How can we comment on them in ethical ways? That’s an ongoing project. Many futures research projects and experiments are going to take place in which anthropologists will explore that question and those ideas, those practices, and, I hope, collectively work on those questions through which ultimately develop frameworks, guidelines, and paradigms through which we can work in those very, very different zones for anthropology as we move on into the future.

On the ‘A human approach to mobility as a service’ project

What I’ll be talking about at the conference will depend on what research I’ve been doing up to the moment when I give the talk. There are a couple of really exciting research projects that I am involved in at the moment but which we haven’t yet started to publish or talk about in public very much. With my colleagues at Halmstad University in Sweden and at Aarhus University in Denmark and also Volvo cars and our city partners in Sweden, we have a project, AHA, which stands for ‘A Human Approach to Mobility as a Service’. We are looking at how we can bring together different stakeholders to develop new ways of imagining future intelligent mobility systems, transport systems in cities.

In that project my colleagues have been developing the workshops that have designed really new innovative ways of bringing together multiple stakeholders in those processes to imagine these new intelligent future systems and transport mobility systems.

The other important thing we’ve been doing in that work is bringing ethnographic insights from other projects into our workshops to enable the human perspective, the human approach, which is drawn from our analysis and from the very materials that come from those ethnographic projects to become parts of those processes through which people from industry and cities start to imagine human futures of transport mobility systems. That’s one of the projects that I hope to be talking about at the conference.

On the Digital Energies Futures project

I am also about to start on another project here at Monash University with my colleague, Yolande Strengers. She works with me in the Emerging Technologies Lab and she is a sociologist of technologies.

We’re going to be doing qualitative research about future energy demands but specifically around the kinds of technologies that people in their everyday lives will be using and engaging with in the future.

The project is called Digital Energies Futures which is funded by the Australian Research Council. We are collaborating with two energy companies and the Energy Users Association of Australia. We’re going to be doing some very exciting new futures research because we’re going to be doing qualitative research about future energy demands but specifically around the kinds of technologies that people in their everyday lives will be using and engaging with in the future.

We’re going to be thinking about, for example, self-driving cars or future ways of doing the laundry: how will people need to use technologies that consume energy in their future lives in their homes and in other aspects of their everyday lives. We will use ethnographic methodologies, especially video ethnographic methodologies but we will also use ethnographic futures methodologies. So we will be trying to do – what has been called in design anthropology – ethnographies of the possible, possible situations and contexts. How can we go about understanding those working with our research participants in everyday lives to get a sense of what their possible futures scenarios will be like and what the implications of those scenarios will be for energy demand from a very qualitative perspective.

The interesting thing about that project is that we are going to be developing new energy forecasting methodologies in collaboration with people who already do statistical quantitative energy forecasting research. We are the first group of researchers in the world who bring together qualitative and quantitative techniques to think about futures in new ways to try to crack some of those fundamental questions that the energy industry has about what might be going to happen in the future and how they can best prepare for that.

On collaboration and interdisciplinary work

Collaboration is the basis of all our research. In every project the collaborative processes through which we work will emerge differently and I think we, like all other researchers who do interdisciplinary work, are still learning about collaboration. We learn about that through all of the projects that we participate in because there are no existing templates that really tell us how, as anthropologists, to work with designers, and engineers, and people from other disciplines, many of whom will never have worked with a social scientist before.

So those are really interesting learning process there where I think that we build on our experiences from all of our previous projects to design methods and processes through which we might learn about how each other works and bring our work together with others. That’s a very exciting part of the process because, of course, we have to recognise, understand, and acknowledge each other’s expertise. We have to respect each other’s theoretical approaches even if they might be different and they might not be completely coherent with ours.

We need to be able to understand that things work. The fact that they work means that they deserve respect rather than being critical anthropologists who assume if a theory isn’t coherent with ours then it must be something that we must critique. And while we obviously retain our critical perspectives, we need to find ways in which we can work with people from other disciplines and share concepts in ways that might contest each other’s approaches, and theories and thinkings. But share concepts in such a way that we can together build concepts that might have that multiplicity of ideas invested in them and can supportively enable us to bring together our understandings in such ways that we can work towards new – I don’t want to say solutions – but interventions, ways of creating different ways forward.

On the concept of trust

In the many of the projects I’ve been working on the concept of trust has been absolutely fundamental and that’s one of my core research interests at the moment, in terms of how we can bring design anthropological theories of trust into dialogue with the kind of theories of trust that are used in human-computer interaction and other research fields that tend to think of trust as being transactional and interactional whereas a design anthropological theory of trust, which I have developed with my colleagues and through our various research articles and projects, sees trust as very much being circumstantial and contingent on the particular configurations of things and processes that might come together in the context of a particular persons and a particular moment in time.

How we can bring design anthropological theories of trust into dialogue with the kind of theories of trust that are used in human-computer interaction and other research fields.

I research trust in a very different way that it is researched in other disciplines. I would love anthropologists to work together to create a whole series of concepts that could be used in that way as points of dialogue and difference but creative modes of developing new ways of understanding what’s happening and what could possibly happen with other disciplines.

Advice for people who haven’t worked with anthropologists

Be honest about the challenges and opportunities that they see themselves confronting as they move on, and to present to the anthropologists the questions that they feel that they would like to resolve.

Very often you find that people think they are facing one particular challenge and the answer might not be where the question originally lies.

They need to be open to the fact that the anthropologists will probably turn the question around for them. Very often you find that people think they are facing one particular challenge and the answer might not be where the question originally lies. Very often when we do anthropology, we take routes which involves us forgoing the hunches that emerge during the research process and we go on something of a research story as we move through the different aspects of any research project and the different field sites and the different groups of people with whom we collaborate and who participate in our research.

The questions that lead us to ask are the ones that eventually take us to the deep insights that we can then use to inform the way that we understand the findings of our research and also the insights that we can provide to industry and other partners.

To be prepared for delightful and very useful and productive surprises. But also to know that yes, we always answer the questions that we set out to answer as well.

On why people should come to the conference

I think that if anybody has curiosity about how they might push their research or their workers in an industry or technology context. So if you’re a researcher, a designer, if you work in any level in an organisation that is interested in pushing research and development to a different level, to harnessing new modes of innovation, to understanding people and to realising that people are so fundamental to business but also how we understand what happens to technology as they are designed because people design technology but people also use technology, then of course you should come to the conference because I think it will inspire new ways of thinking.

I hope that what happens at this conference will enable us to start thinking differently, collectively, about technology design and development…it will inspire new ways of thinking.

And I hope that what happens at this conference will enable us to start thinking differently, collectively, about technology design and development and the way that industry and policy-makers and governments think about our human futures and the way we think about the responsibilities that we have for creating human futures that technologies will participate in.