We Are Strange Telemetry

So why this? And why now?

The start of any essay is always a nightmare to write, and it would be easy to begin with ‘technology is here and everywhere and transformative, now more than ever, so here we are.’ While this certainly feels true from the inside, can we really make the claim that the technological developments of the past 20 years are having any greater an impact than the internal combustion engine, penicillin, or double-entry bookkeeping?

What we can say is that there seems to be a greater presence of technology in the structures and rhythms of our everyday lives. Motherboards and algorithms are quietly inserted into the spaces in which people live, work, and sleep. Enormous information infrastructures thread the globe – submarine cables hugging the ocean floor, satellites orbiting overhead – whilst, at the local level, we can see the massively uneven implementation and use of a range of technologies, from the moped to the mobile phone.

So let’s try that again: technology is complex, personal, and political. Understanding and articulating where technologies come from and how they operate requires understanding of how they bump up against society’s own infrastructures and substructures – that is, how they function as socio-technical systems.

One example: certain physical characteristics are coded into (increasingly pervasive) facial recognition technologies as ‘normal’, rendering certain minority groups ‘abnormal’. Another example: the most recent outbreak of the Ebola virus is much larger than previous ones due, in part, to an existing healthcare infrastructure weakened by under-investment and civil war. Another: notions of ‘culture fit’ in Silicon Valley influence not only the working culture of the US tech sector, but also the allocation of funding resources, and, as such, the types of technologies that get built. We could go on (we would like to go on).

Not only, but also

Getting to grips with these kinds of issues requires an understanding of technology beyond technical literacy, as a system comprising people and things.

Many existing discussions of technology miss the messier materials that shape the technological landscape: those economic, social, anthropological, political and cultural dimensions that exert an unseen influence. There is a massive body of existing work out there – tools, research, and modes of thinking capable not just of grappling with these issues, but of firmly pinning them to the map.

This is our home terrain; a swamp of design, sociology, economics, policy, strategy, anthropology, innovation studies, international development, and cultural theory. Ranging across fields and disciplines, each of the three of us have been circling the notion of technology: what technologies are, who designs them and why, how they get made and used, and what goes into their governance and control. We believe these approaches are critical and necessary for understanding and engaging with how technologies operate.

What we do

Our primary mission at Strange Telemetry is to build literacy and engagement around the workings of socio-technical systems. We’re aiming for a pincer movement between thinking about the social, economic, and cultural ways in which these systems operate, and how different types of designed objects and media can be used to push debate around politics, power and culture. We are relatively platform agnostic, bringing in whichever tools work for each project: a detailed 90-page report stuffed with rigorous data will work perfectly in one context; a short film in another (though these need not be mutually exclusive).

In the run-up to releasing the company from its dry-dock and sending it out into the world, designer and technologist Phil Gyford published a blogpost imagining the shape and contours of a tech conference able to embody a more ‘socialist / social democratic’ viewpoint. This resonated strongly with us, as many of the topics Phil mentioned are things that we’ve either worked on ourselves, or would like to in the future. These include:

  • The role of governments and governance in shaping technology
  • New models of organization and coordination
  • Alternative innovation systems – open hardware, appropriate technology, commons-based production, etc.
  • Responsible innovation
  • Rural technologies
  • Technology and culture outside of the Global North
  • Utilities and infrastructure
  • Science and technology in film, fiction, and pop culture
  • Technology and engineering ethics

Strange Telemetry is a binding spell for the three of us to work together and learn from each other; to explore what we can collectively do as a company that we can’t do alone; and to see how far we can reach. We are set up as a workers' co-operative, which means that we are owned and managed by our members; a ship steered by those who work in it. For now, that’s Georgina, Justin, and Tobias, but as and when more people join us, they’ll also have a say in how the company is run.

(And why ‘Strange Telemetry’? Telemetry is about the collection and transmission of data from remote or inaccessible locations. We’re interested in the relationship between the strange and the normal, with a keen eye for those edge cases and emerging phenomena that subvert our expectations. ‘Strangeness’ is also a property of sub-atomic particles. Taken as a whole, the name reflects our work: collecting and analysing strange, complex, and surprising behaviour.)