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The Contestation Café
Robert Collins - Umeå University
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Editions 2022Neo Craftsmanships

Through my own research into enabling users to negotiate, contest and repair their interactions with algorithmic decision systems, I have endeavoured to bring in aspects and perspectives from my own past-lives as a crafter and fixer of electronic art and things. I have always had an obsession with opening things up and looking inside - acquiring broken things and bringing them back to life. While often getting me into trouble, it has also given me a particular understanding and insight into how things work, and how we, as humans, make and use things. In our state of entanglement with technology, these instincts of curiosity and repair translate well into finding ways to open the black boxes and distributed systems where much of our digital selves exist, and in finding ways to intervene and carve agency therein.

In Steven Jackson’s essay Rethinking Repair, there is a character who resonates strongly with me and bridges my own experiences and the themes of my research - the Fixer. In the essay, Jackson asks:

““...can repair sites and repair actors claim special insight or knowledge, by virtue of their positioning vis-avis the worlds of technology they engage? Can breakdown, maintenance, and repair confer special epistemic advantage in our thinking about technology? Can the fixer know and see different things-indeed, different worlds-than the better-known figures of "designer" or "user"?””
Steven Jackson

This role - between a designer and a user - is where I feel at home, and where I find a useful platform from which to transition from a Repairer of physical things to a Fixer of the more abstracted and algorithmic systems which impinge increasingly on our lives and futures. Tracing the history of (electronics) repair from early valve radios, through the transistor revolution, integrated circuits (the first ‘black boxes’?), and into the constant connectedness of the Internet of Things, we find a place where the act of repairing our physical devices moves into the act of contestation of the decisions that are made in faraway data centres through our devices and on our behalf. Connecting the craft of repair with contestation has allowed me to look at the shared values, instincts, and strategies of the repairer, overlay them on our current state of entanglement, develop a sense of a Right to Contest and to explore the role of the Fixer. The first manifestation of this drive is the Contestation Café - prototyping an agonistic place…

““...for those who feel mistreated by automated decision systems, AIs and algorithms, to bring their broken interactions and their unfair decisions to learn how to contest, push back and reclaim their agency and autonomy.””
Robert Collins

The Contestation Café is moving from the speculative to the real in the very near future and will be looking for the curious and the crafty to find the screws that hold these black boxes together, reclaim agency and ownership over our interactions, and give others the confidence to stand up to the systems.

"This project is part of the DCODE Network and contributes to the DCODE Annual Showcase 2022. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 955990." 

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