In this talk I turn attention to the 'data practice' of predictive analytics, to explore how predictive climate models work to demarcate futures and with what effects. A crucial aspect of the allure of contemporary data is its capacity to create a picture of the future – whether of the economy, consumption behaviour or the climate. But the future that modelled predictions generate are not straightforward. Located in computational networks, such futures are not simply the plans, imaginaries or indeed practices of ideologues or engineers but the effects of an autopoetic unfolding from contingent material inputs that render traces of the present into plausible stories of what might happen. These futures are neither fictions nor realities, but sit somewhere between the two, describing what is to come whilst also undoing themselves in their injunction to change the present with a view to altering the trajectories that they imagine.
While anthropologists have developed a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about the past (tradition, genealogy, inheritance, myth, totem) and the present (culture, relationality, kinship, exchange), we have a less developed set of conceptual resources for understanding the futures of predictive analytics, or participating in the reimagination of their form. Our current methods (oral history, archival research, ethnography, practice-focused research) are arguably ill-equipped to address the implications of futurities produced by computational models. How then might we gain a better handle on the futures that predictive analytics are generating? And how might this help us, as critical scholars, to participate more effectively in redirecting the now often apocalyptic trajectories revealed by data science?
Hannah Knox is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University College London and her work focuses on the relationship between technical infrastructures and social life through ethnographic studies of projects of technical transformation. Her recent work includes research on the social imaginaries and effects of road construction in Latin America, and the governmental challenges of climate change in the UK and Europe. Knox is editor of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and her recent books include: Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (with Penny Harvey); Ethnography for a Data Saturated World With Dawn Nafus and Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change.