Doing Speculative Research: Knives, Nature and an Ecology of Futures

My notes on a Centre for Research in Digital Education seminar on doing speculative research by Professor Mike Michael. The seminar abstract states:

In this paper, I discuss aspects of the rationale behind speculative research, and list a number of possible techniques for its doing. By way of illustration, I focus especially on mundane technology as a medium through which to think about how space and time are sociomaterially performed, but also as a means for exploring the relation to the possible futures that we face (what might be called an ‘ecology of speculative futures’). More specifically I draw out some characteristics of a variety of ‘pocket knives’ (Swiss Army Knife, the mushroom knife, the hunting knife) in order to trace how each of these implicates a distinctive version of the ‘natural environment’ (which, of course, is anything but ‘natural’). I then go on to ask how are we to think about the role of mundane technology in the future of our environment, not least in circumstances of extreme uncertainty. Bracketing the more pessimistic futures such as the Anthropocene, I consider Donna Haraway’s more overtly hopeful and speculative but also more troubling future – the Chthulucene. In a related speculative vein, I suggest how the pocket knife might need to be re-designed to deal with the exigencies of the Chthulucene. Put otherwise, what might a prospective pocket knife for a prospective future afford us?


The seminar starts with Jen Ross  is introducing Mike. Mike is a sociologist of society and technology and as just published a book on Actor Network Theory. Mike’s work on speculative research and technologies has been really influential on Jen’s work and the work of many other scholars.

In this seminar, Mike is sharing his latest thinking on doing speculative research, speculative design and especially idiocy – which he claims to have tried to monopolise as a concept! He specifies that this is his own take on speculative research in what is an increasing popular area of academic research and practice. In this talk, the concept of the ecology of the future will play a minor part to give room for examining the idea of designing with and for Donna Haraway’s Cthulucene. The talk will explore three forms of idiocy: idiocy in action; idiocy in waiting; and proactive idiocy to then look at examples of knives in relation to space and time. The talk concludes with a discussion on how we might design a knife in the speculative fabulation of  Haraway’ s Cthulucene.

Idiocy is seen as constitiuted by heterogeneous micro-components to ‘congress’ (or gather or assemble?)  in moments of idiocy. Idiocy involves a co-becoming that can be viewed as a constant unfolding towards the ‘not as yet’. So idiocy involves a constant state emergence of flux. As such, this notion of idiocy problematise the notion of research as a moment or the idea of a research event. If all is in a state of emergence as components are constantly shifting then what is that ‘event’?  So a research event has an indeterminate unfolding the same as any other event. The researcher, therefore, also co-becomes in that event (so rejecting the “God trick” of more traditional social research – see Law, 2015). There is a need to nurture a sensibility to the churning nature of events in social research such that research should focus on ‘inventive problem-making’ rather than seeking of solutions to the ‘problems’ identified in research questions.

Mike cites Stenger’s argument on the need for a more speculative relation to empirical material that: ”affirms the possible, that actively resists the plausible and the probable target by approaches that claim to be neutral” – to think about the possible within and emerging from research events.

Stenger’s idiot is a conceptual character that doesn’t make sense and resists assumptions of a research event. Something goes awry, that doesn’t fit with what we think is going on. This lack of sense  that the idiot is making available to us requires us to slow down and rethink the research event. Events may mean something other than what we know it means.

Idiocy in action: for example: Landscape of Expectation (2007) by Dalsgaard & Horst that examined stem cell research and the associated political and ethical issues but included the possibility of exploring models of political decision-making; an exhibit on climate change in a shopping centre that become an object of play for some teenage shoppers with them messing about against the assumptions of the exhibit. The teenagers were acting as idiots, subverting the exhibit as science communication – not informing nor entering in to dialogue but an alternative communication that is emergent.

Another example of idiocy-in-action is the genre of YouTube clips about destroying iPhones. This genre has the status of idiocy in relation to citizen science – how citizens’ engage with knowledge production. The genre has similarities to citizen science but is amateurish, involving informal measurement and recording, with cycles of credibility based on hits and monetisation rather than validated knowledge. This genre gets us speculating about seriousness as science should be serious with serious methods and citizens should be involved in that seriousness. But the idiocy of the genre produces non-serious knowledge or feral (non-domesticated) science; as a mediated fan community; antithetical to  the science citizen as it work with science without the citizenry. So this genre asks questions about what it means to do science.

Idiocy in waiting which can be understood in respect to functionality. This is where material has a function that often doesn’t work without ongoing repair, for example, velcro. Velcro is designed to be used by anyone and is placed in a narrative of bonding that runs in to nano-technologies or to social bonds.

But in real life velcro doesn’t always work: it causes chaffing for babies when used in nappies; gets caught in other things; or gets wet and loosens. In failing, velcro creates micro-behaviours to ensure it works and so different social relations and actions are generated with and through the technology of velcro.

Similarly rolling luggage – while often portrayed as the ultimate in convenient and easy of use – but the reality of using that luggage involves interacting with other people so redistributing our attention and capacities to get the luggage to work; to avoid others with rolling luggage. Controlling the luggage requires altering behaviour around the technology and this is very different from the adverts/ the promises of the luggage.

These failings of technology generates inventive choreographies of affective repair as a form of technosociality – a sense of community around mutual repairing rolling luggage.

Proactive idiocy refers to research to create idiots through speculative design of situations that don’t make sense in particular environments – for example, the energy babble project based on a machine that creates nonsense talk based on texts from policy and news feeds on energy but nothing makes sense. get people to speculate on the nature of information and how to synthesise form a cacophony of information on energy.

These three forms of idiocy act as ways of conducting speculative research.

The talk then moved on to knives in terms of design and technology and as techno-cultures. Research on techno-culture is extensive but tends to avoid mundane technologies such as knives. Knives also enable a investigation of techno-culture interacting with nature and as a means to explore  Haraways Cthulucene.

Looking at three knives: the Swiss Army knife; the Opinel mushroom knife; and the idea of the hunting knife.

The Swiss Army knife and the different functions denoting different tasks to be undertaken and attached to different ‘outdoors’ roles. Each version of the knife enacts a different nature culture and space as a series of tasks as defined by the designer. Functions change as design or version of the knife changes and the user works with the tools. The knife emphasises nature as instrumental – nature as made up as a series of tasks.

The Opinel mushroom knife includes a brush for cleaning mushroom so is focused on a single function or task. Yet this single task enacts a romanticised version of nature as traditional, seasonal but also is about leisure and pleasure – mushrooming for pleasure!

A hunting knife – which is hard to disentangle from the combat knife. There are a huge variety of hunting knife designs with a function that is pliable in that it can be used for many tasks that positions the knives as a form of self-expression. Nature is enacted as a domain of self-expression and the temporality is one of expressions and growth and learning through nature. Hunting knives are also identified with characters from films or celebrities as well as can be individualised through engraving. Thus the knives are performance of the self.

In terms of speculative design, a question to pose is how might we design the knife for the Cthulucene as generative and fabulative. That is as a knife generating possible futures co-constituted in a swarm of heterogeneous entities and as a precarious and emergent process. This decentres the human subject to refocus considerations of the future on the micro and local where we can intervene (or have visible effects?) and away form the macro and doom-laden mega narratives of the future. Such considerations speculates about a future that is open and unfolding to be explored and tested as different elements gather together – ‘joining forces to constitute a new form of world’.

This speculative approach overlaps with design practices in relation to the future in two ways: 1. design for an explicit and pre-defined future state; and  2. design that is more speculative in engaging with the future as it co-emerges with the processes of design. Designing with/ for the Cthulucene is speculative and emergent towards this notion of generative futures. How to design with the Cthulucene in mind: as open and invitational in function with a range of different actors and as an ecology of different practices; is mutually produced in nature-culture; perspectivized in different perspectives of different actors –  could a knife detect the movement of intra-red or ultrasonic sounds to give a sense of how we are perceived by other species and generating a nexus of perspectives. A knife that makes visible the stories that are associated with a space – mixing of eco-histories and eco-futures?


So what? 

My main takeaway from this seminar was the emphasis on research with the generative multiple realities and problem-making as well as solution-seeking – as Mike said, speculative research compliments rather than replaces more ‘traditional’ research . This reflects my own research where participants in Twitter chat events were seeking to identify and to enact possible future trajectories of their professional domain. So research can engage with amplifying possible trajectories of alternative futures and seek out emergent and optimistic futures. 

Image by Albert Robida – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.13553. Public Domain,

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