An Account of the Transcultural Data Pact between Ourland and New Bluestead by Mx Sout-Annan, Journalist Observer for the Decentralised Nations
by Anna Souter
I understand that you, unknown reader of this report, might be unfamiliar with the nations of Ourland and New Bluestead. Let me tell you about them, if you can lend a few minutes of your valuable attention to a stranger.
These societies espouse radically different ways of life, but both are deeply reliant on technological devices. They both want to find ways of living in harmony with the natural world. And they both find something is missing from their society. Perhaps you recognise some of these qualities in yourself?
To understand Ourland and New Bluestead, you need to know about their technologies, developed separately since the famous Dread Isolation event several generations ago.
Ourlanders (amongst whom I am glad to be counted) use the Pebble, a hand-held device that allows users to consciously collect and share emotional data. We use it to develop individual emotional awareness and to facilitate collective decision making, logging our emotions via the Pebble’s feeling button. The data is stored only on each citizen’s personal device, and we can each choose how much information to share with others. Of course, personal data sovereignty is strictly enforced.
New Bluestead (the other side in this negotiation) relies on the BLOX, a wearable technology for optimising personal performance and productivity. The BLOX, which citizens must wear at all times, proves legal identity and displays an individual’s performance and social rankings. Data is streamed to and from every individual’s BLOX device to show an augmented reality display ranking the productivity, well-being, and reputation of every member of a group. All data is processed and stored on a central server and absolute data transparency is mandatory.
Despite our differences, each nation has something the other desperately needs. Delegates from Ourland and New Bluestead recently came together to negotiate the Transcultural Data Pact – and I was lucky enough to bag a seat at the table. Keep reading for my report on the proceedings.
It was a bright, clear day in the Diplomatic Zone of the Decentralised Nations. The secretarial team were setting up their screens and preparing their digital documents. One by one, the delegates from the island nation of Ourland and the aqua-preneurial board of New Bluestead were arriving for the for the most important transcultural negotiation in a generation.
The Members of the Board of the Intelligent Dynast were drawn from across New Bluestead, the archipelago of floating cities that blooms from the protected waters of Oceania. The delegates told us their Tier-1 citizens had gathered on the docks to cheer as they took off, accompanied by a pack of jet-ski space formation fliers. They were evidently confident of success.
We learned that the delegates had been instructed by the Intelligent Dynast to find a means of enhancing New Bluesteaders’ emotional intelligence, because of recent incidents of unrest among the service population (the group of second-tier citizens kept in a deplorable state of oppression to serve the Tier-1 citizens’ needs).
They complimented us on our multispecies democratic processes and our aim to achieve food sovereignty for all humans, animals and plants. However, I got the impression that they also secretly despised our slow system of governance and outdated technologies, which have unfortunately led to shortages of food and building materials. I overheard one New Bluesteader whisper to their colleague, What is the point of theorising about food for all when in reality no-one has enough to eat? That was difficult to hear, I admit.
The Ourland delegates, as usual, arrived without fanfare, slipping on their headwraps and scarves in preparation for entering the negotiating chamber and giving thanks to the plants whose leaves had provided materials for the cloth they wore. The Ourlanders made an informed choice to share their emotional data with each other for the duration of the negotiation process, for the sake of making their discussions open and equitable.
According to my research, New Bluestead demonstrate an impressive dedication to sustainable technologies, and they have designated their entire economic zone as a shark sanctuary. But it’s hard to respect their reliance on an algorithm, or the inequity between the ordinary citizens and the vast service population that sustains them. How can you aim to live in harmony with nature while exploiting underrepresented groups of people and ignoring the equal claims of all creatures to sanctuary? It’s like they haven’t even heard of intersectionality.
Meeting in the digital debating chamber, the Ourlanders and New Bluesteaders were surprised by the uncanny resemblance between their physical appearances. But I wasn’t alone in feeling shocked by the differences in our attitudes to negotiation. The New Bluesteaders are straight talkers; open about what they wanted, convinced of the value of their offering. In short, a bit blunt. Over-confident. The Ourlanders are always more cautious; our delegates were anxious about compromising our hard-won way of life.
The first step in any successful negotiation is for each party to show what they have to offer. First, the New Bluestead Members of the Board of the Intelligent Dynast presented their BLOX and its real-time metrics analysing each citizen’s reputation, well-being and productivity. They also showed us samples of their sustainable seaweed farming and sea-crete technologies, which provide them with renewable sources of food and environmentally viable building materials.
The sustainable technologies are impressive, but us Ourlanders were very doubtful about the BLOX’s data usage. When we asked how it monitors reputation, the unsmiling New Bluesteaders responded with surprising passion. It measures how often an individual is met and avoided, how long people look at them, they explained. It’s automated through the BLOX, it’s like magic. It’s like the air we breathe. They explained that if an individual’s reputation goes down, they are treated accordingly. It pushes the person to work harder to regain their reputation, they said. It’s an incentive. And they really believe it. It’s like magic for them.
I was horrified by this life of rankings and metrics, but the other Ourland delegates didn’t say anything. They merely exchanged uneasy glances. I suppose they didn’t want to start a fight before the negotiations had even started.
The New Bluesteaders then invited the Ourlanders to present the Pebble. The delegates spoke powerfully about the personal natureof the Pebble and how it allows us to keep in touch with our emotions. One of the delegates put it particularly well: It is not just for ourselves but for all the nonhumans we live in interdependence with. It helps us to understand not just today but the long term, so that we can thrive in our entanglement, which is only possible when we feel compassion.
I got the impression that the New Bluesteaders were frustrated by what they saw as riddles and opaque pronouncements. They asked instead how we approach productivity, suggesting that automation would allow us to dedicate more time to our emotions. They asked, Wouldn’t your society be improved if you were more productive? But, of course, we had a response ready: Productivity to what end? Our slowness gives us time to engage with our feelings and to maintain our equilibrium with all living things.
The New Bluesteaders were scathing – often to the point of rudeness. One boldly stated: If you’ve got food shortages and you lack building materials, then we’d say you’ve got a productivity problem. How are you free if you lack basic necessities? Our BLOX technology optimises productivity for maximum efficiency.
The Ourlanders said: But aren’t you unhappy? Isn’t there unrest in your provinces?
The New Bluesteaders said: But aren’t you unhappy? How can you rest if you’re hungry?
THE OFFERS AND OUTCOME
The Ourlanders and New Bluesteaders convened separately to discuss the showcase and to construct their requests. The Ourlanders wanted samples of the edible seaweed grown by the New Bluesteaders, and instruction in how to use the sea-crete housing technology. But we were afraid of the impact the BLOX might have on our contemplative polyspecies society. The New Bluesteaders have a baffling desire to monitor each other and are apparently unconcerned about the centralised control exerted by the Intelligent Dynast data server. The delegates were nervous about mentioning this, though, as the New Bluesteaders seem to thrive on affirmation and don’t respond well to criticism.
Back in the negotiating room, the New Bluesteaders heard our request with pride. However, they also admitted that they saw the benefits of increased emotional awareness, which is nurtured by Ourland technology. They further offered us the wellbeing module from their BLOX, suggesting it would help us to monitor the impact of our improvements. Our delegates refused (politely, of course).
Eventually, the New Bluesteaders agreed to exchange their sustainable technologies for incorporating elements of the Pebble into the BLOX device. Everyone also concurred that ongoing collaboration would be to the benefit of both nations. As a result, New Bluestead will assist with the implementation of the new food and housing technologies, and the Ourlanders will teach our contemplation and dance practices to the citizens of New Bluestead.
I think you’ll agree that this was an important step forward. But it’s undeniable that some elements were left unresolved.
The delegates all discovered that it’s easy to put aside our differences over some issues. Food, housing, emotional awareness; it’s easy to agree that these things are good and should be accessible for all.
But what about those radical differences in data practices? Those divergent approaches to how citizens are monitored and how they express themselves?
As you’ve probably realised, the Ourlanders and New Bluesteaders only reached an agreement by hiding their disdain for the other’s data technology structures. They found ours imprecise. We found theirs authoritarian.
It’s still us and them.
But perhaps we can hope that, in their new spirit of cooperation, we’ll learn from each other, eventually. Perhaps we’ll find a system that works for everyone.
This is a parafictional account of the Transcultural Data Pact, a game using roleplay to explore how personal and collective data practices and devices might shape the attitudes and fortunes of a society. Transcultural Data Pact was a Qualified Selves research event created by Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield/DECAL) with Dr Kruakae Pothong, Billy Dixon, Dr Evan Morgan and Prof. Chris Speed from Edinburgh University, in collaboration with Kate Genevieve. Findings contribute to a research paper Human-Computer Interaction (CHI).
ANNA SOUTER is a writer, researcher and curator based in London, with an interest in the intersections between contemporary art and ecology. Her non-fiction writing has been featured by publications including The Architectural Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Burlington Contemporary, The Ecologist and Hyperallergic. Anna’s fiction has been commissioned by Open Space Contemporary and GRAIN Projects, and she is currently writer-in-residence for the project Thinking Through Extinction, created by Corridor8 in partnership with University of Leeds and Manchester Museum.