speculative devices: the bots of Ashley Madison

welcome page for ashley madison

Speculation has been engaged in a number of ways in research and practice, particularly in a methodological context. Whilst there is much research on the effects of speculation in markets of various kinds, this is not quite the kind of actor I am working on. Instead, I am finding it more helpful to turn to how speculation is engaged in terms of design and method.

Speculative design is concerned with deploying artefacts, probes and prototypes that have oblique and ambiguous functions in order to allow designers and users to open up what is at stake in particular events. This approach has been positioned as a way to engage with design to generate alternative visions of being, inspire, and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. The assumption here is that humans are free agents and that speculative approaches can increase the the probability of a more desirable future whilst limiting those that are undesirable.

Speculative method refers to forms of research method that have the capacity to act themselves as well as be enacted by a researcher. Such approaches refer to discussions of mess and the liveness of method and can be linked with a broader agenda of digital methods research . Kane Race for example introduces speculative pragmatism, defining it as “concerned not only with what happens, but also what might happen, the possible – that is, what might come into being” . Further, in the work of Wilkie, Michael et al. (2015), bots inscribed with particular characters (idiot, parasite and diplomat) are deployed with Twitter as a method of generating of discussion with and amongst humans about climate change.

Building upon this work, I am seeking to extend the possibilities for speculative design and method via the attendance to a particular version of speculative devices. From design I am borrowing the principle of things such as artefacts, probes and prototypes that have oblique and ambiguous functions as holding the potential to shape and interact with human agency to produce sets of associations. However, in contrast to speculative design, I do not necessarily associate their deployment with positive or well meaning outcomes. From speculative methods, I am using the idea of devices as part of methods resulting in unexpected and unknowable outcomes. By device, I mean a thing for affecting a purpose, recognizing that objects contribute to the processes of making events that constitute society. In the case of digital networks, these may include algorithms, bots, fake profiles or GPS for example. Speculative devices are those things that are set in place based on a conjecture of an outcome. The extent and quality of data and information upon which the conjecture inscribed into speculative devices is variable.

Through a case study of the dating app, Ashley Madison, I am interrogating the operation of speculative devices, in this case bots, as a contemporary consideration in a digitally networked context.

An open access write up of this work can be found here: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6426