2021: Limits

Letter from Heads of Lab

By Marisa Cohn & Rachel Douglas-Jones

Happy New Year, ETHOS people. As we look into 2021 with trepidation, we want to spend some time reflecting on 2020 in this New Year’s letter. Our ETHOSLab theme of 2020 was Deep Time. We were interested in relative timescales – primarily in technology development, but also the use and discard of hardwares, softwares and technological histories. We wanted to draw out contrasts between depth and shallowness of methods, and the time taken by different methods in getting to know the world. This is particularly visible in the longer timeframes of ethnographic inquiry. We asked, “can ideas like layering and sedimentation help us think about the infrastructures, platforms, and new systems being added to organizations in the digitizing of everyday life?”

The COVID-19 pandemic, closing the buildings of the Danish Universities on March 13th, 2020, forced a direct confrontation with some of these questions because it was a bizarre year for time itself. ETHOS members collected “pandemic diary” entries throughout the spring, notes, or photographs to document the unfolding experiences of everyday changes. We also collected Twitter data, material with its own collection and analysis temporalities. The layers of sediment appeared all around us, as paper signs commanding distancing became weathered, gloves began appearing in the verges and gutters, and then masks entered the waste cycle. Lab Life continued in new formations. We moved our weekly meetings online, creating new rituals and sustaining old ones. The plants were rescued, several times over, from short-notice lockdowns and the risk of a waterless, empty Lab. Veronika shifted the Python Study Group online in the Spring, and dealt with partial-in-person with limits on numbers in our physical rooms during the Autumn – read about her creativity here.

In the Spring, we celebrated our 5th birthday online. As we wrote last year, 5 years is definitely deep time in institutional time, and our plans for visualizing the layers of ETHOS activity – collaborations, friendships, guests and activities had to be re-imagined for a zoom format. With the enthusiastic work of the entire Lab, we created a drone-enabled “live” presence in the Lab at a distance, a very challenging kahoot, and a space for tributes to Lablife 2015-2020. We also attended conferences virtually from our home offices presenting at Alt.chi on our exploration of deep time, living with the ambivalences of residual unexamined data, reflecting on the “unopened black box,” and pondering on whether if data sits in a university building unexamined when no one is there does it remain GDPR compliant?

The summer was probably our most active yet, as the Lab hosted two iterations of a PhD course designed in response to the crisis: “Research, Interrupted”. At the prompting of ITU PhD students, ETHOS co-director Rachel Douglas.-Jones and Assistant Professor Katrine Kjær Medgaard built a curriculum for ethnographers interrupted by the pandemic. With more than 150 submissions of interest for the 25-place course, Rachel worked with Marie Blønd and Luuk Blum to run a second edition, asynchronous and distributed, supporting more than 100 PhDs around the world. In addition to groupwork and discussion about their projects, from the US and field sites across South America, Andrea Ballestero coordinated with her students Yesmar Oyarzun, Katie Ulrich and Mel Ford to give a joint keynote on interruption across locales. Marianne Clarke joined us from Australia for a talk on how she adjusted and expanded the methods for her own, ongoing research. Anand Pandian chose a segment from his new book, A Possible Anthropology, and fielded questions on the legacies of the discipline tied up in our methods. And Rachel interviewed Laura Watts on turning writing practices to one’s own ends. Thank you to all who took part, especially our keynotes.

In the autumn, we welcomed Benedict Lang from MCTS Munich, where he has been studying Responsibility in Science, Engineering and Technology (RESET), to write his thesis on the perception of technology as solution for societal issues within Hackathons. His reflections on the “how” of interview transcription and on participating in the life of ETHOS are in this first newsletter of 2021. For Ada Lovelace week we also hosted a distributed workshop on Materializing Data with Macrame, developed by ETHOS co-director Marisa Cohn in collaboration with Vasiliki Tsaknaki who led us in a hands-on exploration of feminist approaches to data visualization and the relationship between soft textile craft and the history of computation. Making kits of materials to distribute in advance and working together online through material play brought a softness to the work of visualizing data on gender representation in STEM. Resulting reflections and creations will be exhibited in the Lab, someday to come.

Our thematic emphasis for 2021 is Limits. 2020, while it loomed ahead of us was a year that connoted the very idea of “the future”, of unlimited potential, of possibility. But as we reflected together as a lab on the past year (hindsight, they say, is 20/20), we saw that it was truly a year of recognizing limits. Being suddenly moved into a technological future long-promised, some aspects of its reality were revealed. As #flattenthecurve became everyday parlance, there was a shift towards thinking about the limited capacities of our institutions as material infrastructures and we also learned the limits of how we can think ourselves into new arrangements to limit the spread of a virus. We have confronted limits from without as well as within. The limits of governments, of institutions, but also our own limited capacities – what we can handle or take on and what we cannot. In our jobs and home lives, we encountered serious limits to technology and its capacities, even as it became a continuous presence. We encountered personal limits – in our knowledge of online teaching and pedagogical skills. We struggled and continue to struggle with the intangible losses that COVID has caused and the limits of data in informing or changing action.

Recognizing limits can involve both loss and learning as we grieve losses of life that are hard to fathom as well as loss of ideas and imaginaries of what might have been possible. In this sense, limits speak to letting go of unsustainable ideals of unlimited potential, limitless growth, limitless time. We are confronted with finitude in ways that help us to see that such ideals were only ever possible to sustain by a failure to know the limits, exclusions, and invisibilities of our social order. We start to see differently, to see the hinterlands of our knowledge that exceeds our understanding but upon which we rely.

Limits reveal key vulnerabilities as well as accountabilities. Limits remake us as we reposition ourselves in relation to ourselves and our institutions. Limits prompt the critical question whose limits, and how imposed? Limits might also be a challenge to us: in what ways (as scholars, activists, teachers) do we need to grow to meet the demands of 2021 – whether turning our attention to analysis, imagination, or (outer limits) of fiction.

We will pay attention to working within constraints, to finding methods that enable us to ask critical questions of the world when methods that are familiar require re-tooling. We will remember that research, teaching and learning are embodied, and continue to support local and international communities of. In this spirit, Spring 2021 sees our inaugural “Remote Resident”, Luisa Reis Castro, joining us for the month of February. We look forward to welcoming her in the new modes of digital sociality, to talk about her work and questions of method.

Bonus to limits: limits to growth!!!!!

Limits: personal

Limits: Writerly-outer limits, science fiction, imagination

Limits: to technology and its capacities

Limits: of remote socializing

Limits: of vaccine efficacy

Limits: of prediction and predictability

Limits: of mobility (in seeing friends and getting speakers)

Limits: in track and trace software with good privacy