Anna McFarlane reports from the hybrid Futures of Care Symposium that took place in mid-April at the Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds, discussing care tech, robots, and their relationship to our health, and our feelings about them.
For many of us, the “Futures of Care Symposium: Relationality and Responsibility in More Than Human Worlds“ was our first in-person conference since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns in early 2020, so modes of relationality, and the tension between human contact and the opportunities for distanced communication in our more-than-human world was very much at the forefront of our minds. Amelia DeFalco (University of Leeds) organised the event as part of her AHRC-funded Imagining Posthuman Care project, and it was hosted by Leeds’ Thackray Museum of Medicine. The symposium included the opportunity to visit DeFalco’s “Can Robots Care?” exhibition, organised with the help of project intern Lizzie Wright, which runs until 16th October 2022. Attendees had a chance to interact with real care robots, getting a cuddle from the sweet, seal-shaped robot, Paro, whose charger, shaped like a baby’s dummy, plugs into its mouth. Also present was MiRo, the robot dog with rubbery ears and lights glowing dimly in its plastic body, somewhat reminiscent of a robot vacuum cleaner. The exhibition traces the history of the robot from Karl Ĉapek coining the term in the science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), through the science fiction imaginary of the twentieth century where robots have often been used to express anxieties about work, slavery, and human identity. From these complex historical origins, the exhibition asks us to confront how we would feel about robots being used to comfort the lonely (as Paro and MiRo have been designed to do), or even to take a more hands-on role in the care of the sick or elderly in the future as technology improves. Care is a complicated concept, one that has been theorised via a feminist methodology that makes visible work that has often been hidden, and almost always unpaid. It is a kind of labour indelibly associated with femininity and nurturing – work that should be a ‘labour of love’, rather than a paid activity, but one that is becoming increasingly important in ageing societies. Care robots might represent a way of solving the problem of an ageing population, freeing up younger generations to be economically productive.
The symposium navigated this difficult terrain through a broadly critical-posthumanist lens, situating care robots as figures that might represent equal participants in the networks connecting the human and the non-human, or the machine. Bruno LaTour’s actor-network theory was cited a number of times as a way of recognising robots as participants in culture, and possibly in care. However, many presentations recognised the danger of introducing robots into a neoliberal capitalist system seeking profit through the minimisation of human wages. Robot participation in the labour force might represent a welcome opportunity to evacuate human connection from practices of care. The symposium circled around issues of negotiating difference, approaching the other, and fostering connection while valuing disconnection, and the power to disassociate from the cybernetic systems in which we find ourselves enmeshed. The event was opened by keynote speaker, Joanna Latimer (Professor Emerita, University of York), who drew on her rich experiences of nursing and analysing structures of care to situate the terms of the symposium in a paper entitled ‘The politics of healthcare, otherness and more-than-human worldmaking’. Latimer drew on speculative fiction, including Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (a.k.a. Bodies of Glass, 1991), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969) to think about the care that can be provided via non-human others and whether this could ever be a replacement for human care. Latimer pointed out some of the ways in which care and its future are already structured around a transhumanist concept of technology-as-cure, one that tends to overlook the practical fundamentals of care for the human body, and that this trend was driven by a neoliberal incentive to maximize profit. Latimer’s keynote insightfully drew our attention to the possibilities of care as an emergent property of more-than-human worlds, and showed the ways in which caring has already become a place where the question of how to ‘make room for the robotic’ is being asked.
The first panel of the day featured in-person presentations alongside a contribution from Australia where Raelene Wilding (La Trobe University), Barbara Barbosa Neves (Monash University), and Jenny Waycott (University of Melbourne) had co-authored ‘Sociotechnical care and connection: a critical engagement’. Wilding presented the research which investigated how the introduction of technology might impact the care of elderly people. The results showed that technology was considered to be helpful by aged people and care home staff alike, though alongside human care that would enable aged people to explore the technology and integrate it into existing care routines. Alison Searle presented a paper on ‘Decolonising Care’, co-authored with Jo Sadgrove (University of Leeds) who appeared via Teams to participate in the Q&A. Their paper showed the influence of the imperialistic origins of the missionary association the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on the charity’s contemporary healthcare work (now under the name of United Society Partners in the Gospel). Searle and Sadgrove’s talk clearly showed the importance of a historical analysis for recognising the legacy of colonisation in a Lesotho healthcare project, and their analysis showed the promise of much wider applicability. These online and hybrid presentations worked really well (partly thanks to the IT expertise of Sam Robinson, University of Southampton), and perhaps pointed to a possible way to maintain the hybrid models that have improved inclusivity and participation in academic events during the pandemic. The panel continued with Jack Slater’s (University of Exeter) analysis of theologies of withdrawal, one that chimed with Latimer’s insistence on the importance of disconnection, as well as connection, for relationships between self and other. Slater made reference to Franklin Ginn’s account of the ‘sticky lives’ in British gardens, particularly that of the slug, as a figure that argues for distance as a form of connection in more-than-human worlds. Finally, Amy Chambers (Manchester Metropolitan University) finished the morning’s session with her paper on the Swedish film Aniara (2018), reading a spaceship’s sentient virtual reality AI (comparable to Star Trek’s holodeck) as an example of a caring robot, one unable to overcome the bridge between the humans and their unbearable reality as they realise that they will never reach another planet within their lifetimes.
The second panel opened with a screening of Anna Walker’s ‘Breathe Into Me’ (University of Plymouth, 2019), a haunting film about the power of breath that returned to the image of the sea as evocative of drowning, and, at the same time, an image of the rhythm of breathing that (Walker’s film argues) connects all humans as their first autonomous gesture and one at the foundation of life. Eline Tabak (University of Bristol) followed, arguing from the perspective of critical extinction studies that efforts towards environmental conservation are disproportionately focused on charismatic mega-fauna and particularly the image of the European honey bee, an industrial species that is not in danger of extinction and, indeed, represents the colonisation of other ecosystems by this common insect. Alice Hill-Woods (Glasgow School of Art) finished the panel with a reading of care as a process of rewilding, connecting Derek Jarman’s efforts at gardening, recorded in his nature writing, with his status as HIV positive and struggling with AIDS-related illnesses. Illustrated with powerful photographs of Jarman’s Prospect Cottage taken by Hill-Woods herself, this was quite a beautiful and evocative presentation.
The final panel focused on ‘Care tech futures’ and began with another online presentation, this time from Nicole Dalmer of Canada’s McMaster University who argued for the importance of recognising ‘information work’ – the wrangling, recording and processing of healthcare-related data and information – as a part of the work done by carers. Scott Midson (University of Manchester) followed by analysing ‘religious’ robots, like the nightmarish robot priest in ‘BlessU-2’ who offers blessings to congregants and occupy a strange space between priest-figures and devotional objects. Chris Gilleard finished the panel with a paper co-authored with Paul Higgs (UCL) on the promise of robotic care. Gilleard explained some of the issues with developing the kind of ‘soft robotics’ needed to offer care robots who can offer the comfort of a soft, warm, humanoid hug, and intriguingly argued that robots might offer ‘better care by caring less’. He speculated that the uncaring nature of the robot might allow patients to willingly accept help without shame, and that this might take healthcare professionals out of the line of fire of violence from angry or shameful patients.
While maintaining a hybrid structure, DeFalco had organised the day carefully to allow for a comfortable pace with plenty of coffee breaks and chances for colleagues to reconnect. The return to the format of the academic conference (or, for some, their first experience of an academic event) played out that tension between connection and disconnection, care and distance, that ran through the themes of the day. Taking the conversations forward, the Imagining Posthuman Care project can still be found on Twitter, @Posthumancare, and there were plenty of avenues for future research to be explored. The event brought to the fore the tension between the act of caring and the critical posthumanist demand to think about caring beyond the figure of the human. Posthumanism and the (human) act of caring sound at odds with one another, but actually the open, networked understanding of relationality promoted by a posthumanist approach allowed us to think of care as something that emerges from networks, and from the complexity of healthcare systems. Thinking about these issues in greater detail may allow new ways to imagine the future of care, one that does not reduce the relationship of care to one that happens between an individual patient and a doctor, but one that encompasses all kinds of social and environmental relationships.
About the Author
Dr Anna McFarlane (@mariettarosetta) is a Lecturer in Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds and author of the monograph Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (2021). She is the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture and Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture (both with Graham J Murphy and Lars Schmeink).