Civic Agency

Civic Agency is an initiative for engaging people at all levels of society with the social, cultural, economic and political issues at the heart our our increasingly automated and divisive world:

  • How are decisions made and justified that affect us in ways we are often unaware of?
  • Who designs these systems and what are the choices they make?
  • Why are they necessary? and,
  • In what ways can they become transparent as to purpose, intention and consequence?

We must find new strategies for everyone to be able to navigate the implications for our futures as we become ever more reliant on digital systems and technologies to run everyday life. As we spend more and more time interacting online and generating data about ourselves and our behaviours to be harvested by corporations and governments, so we need alternative spaces to challenge and speak truth to power and control.

Proboscis’ work for over two decades has focused on introducing creative tools and artistic methods into unusual places and situations – where they may help produce alternative ways for people to acquire agency for themselves and to feel empowered to share their voices, and their values. Since 2001 we have done this under over-arching research themes. From 2020 Civic Agency will be our theme, inter-weaving through our projects and activities and building upon all our previous work and ideas.

The theme originates in an idea that emerged from our participation in the UnBias research project on algorithmic bias (2016-18), for which we created a Fairness Toolkit aimed at helping young people and other non-technology-experts (i.e. ordinary folk) build their awareness and understanding of what bias in algorithms is and how it affects them and their communities. In 2019 Giles Lane outlined a vision for how we might build upon that concept and expand it into a national programme. In 2020, Proboscis was commissioned to develop a companion toolkit that would help organisations developing and deploying AI and algorithmic systems implement practical and pragmatic ethics assessments using a whole systems approach.

Over the next few years we plan to develop the partnerships and collaborations necessary to turn the vision of civic agency into a practical (and trans-national) programme that engages all kinds of people in all kinds of places with ways in which they can interrogate the systems of power that authorise the use of automated decision making in our societies. A programme that stimulates critical and civic thinking; that offers trajectories for resistance to authoritarianism and, that can be a platform for stimulating new forms of transparency and intervention.

Artists of all kinds often serve as society’s visionaries – thinking the unthinkable, exploring the impossible and making our own paths rather than following the established tracks. We are pioneers and explorers – seeking out new vistas and experiences and relaying them to others through the media of our creations. The discoveries we make and bring back become the tangible forms that others can be inspired by and act upon themselves. Creativity and artistic expression are powerful ways for people to take agency for themselves and to feel empowered to have and share their voices. We see this as a vital counter-balance to the increasingly pervasive systems of automated decision making in everyday life.