Placing computation: the informatics of anticipation

I wrote an outline for a paper/chapter for a proposed book and related conference edited/convened by F. Xavier Olleros and Majlinda Zhegu at Université de Québec à Montréal which they have kindly accepted. So, I will be fleshing out the following over the summer. Obviously, I owe an intellectual debt to Rob Kitchin here but I’d like to think that I am substantively developing some of the themes of his code/space work (with Martin Dodge) through my own reading of Bernard Stiegler’s philosophical project. In particular, I am developing some of my ideas about the politics of anticipation (from my PhD work) through Stiegler’s theorisation of the ‘industrialisation of memory‘ and the ‘eventisation‘ capacities of increasingly data-driven commercial industries.

This paper addresses the transformative sense in which computation has become an infrastructure upon which has been founded mechanisms to both support and intervene in how we live our everyday lives. The past two decades have witnessed a steady movement of the capacity of digital computation away from spaces dedicated to housing the apparatus of computing—such as the computer centre and the home office—towards a diffusion of that capacity into a variety of everyday places (in the global North). A number of authors have both predicted and described the ways in which computation has moved from dedicated places for bulky apparatus into a capacity available through interconnected devices and systems in an increasing number of contexts (Greenfield, 2006; Kitchin, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Mitchell, 1995, 2000, 2003; Shepard, 2011; Rheingold, 2002; Weiser, 1991). Large-scale computing apparatus have not been eliminated, in fact they have increased in number in the guise of data centres, server farms and so on, but the capacity for the interconnection of those resources through international telecommunications infrastructures to large numbers of portable and embedded devices has transformed the scope and reach of computation (Graham and Marvin, 2001; Graham, 2004, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to interrogate the ways in which this widespread infrastructure of computation is being used not only to both support and surveil increasing amounts of everyday activities, through the collection and retention of vast quantities of data, but also to anticipate and intervene into how we perform the everyday.

Increasing amounts of information about ourselves and others is harvested and stored using electronic devices and we volunteer even more information to email providers, search engines and social networking systems. Many aspects of our everyday lives are now gathered in a range of contexts and recorded (via CCTV, cellphone networks and so on) and retained in databases (Agre, 1994; Graham, 2002; Haggerty and Ericson, 2000; Murakami Wood, 2008), as a growing system of memory of life otherwise forgotten or unthought. These systems are increasingly involved in the ways in which we convene and perform a sense of place. If places are spatial contexts that we convene and give meaning through particular kinds of activities or arrangements of various people and things, then the ways in which we perform that sense of place can be understood to be increasingly mediated by digital technologies. We use mobile devices to search commercial systems for information about and navigate to locations, relying upon travel instructions and databases of past experiences of those places. We allow those systems to use data about ourselves to recommend the ways in which we might act in those locations, where we might eat, shop or socialise. Furthermore, especially in urban environments, we are subject to the regulation of particular locations through real-time analytics based upon infrastructures that gather data for city governments. Infrastructures of software and hardware thus have a growing agency in how we collectively communicate, remember and conduct ourselves socially.

The gathering and recording of data and volunteered information through the expanding computational infrastructure facilitates the ordering of time both as forms of history, and thus the sharing of knowledge and culture, and as the means of anticipating, planning for, and perhaps preventing, futures. The logic of retained knowledge is thus ‘programmatic’ and has arguably become more so with the advent of software programmes, which have augmented our capacities to remember, process and act upon information. Furthermore, these infrastructures increasingly anticipate, in real-time, the ways in which we will behave in order to inform how commercial and governmental organisations intervene in and regulate how a variety of urban environments function. The production and performance of cities, then, increasingly ‘takes place’ in concert with a host of quasi-autonomous computational agents, regardless of whether or not we are aware of it.

To investigate the transformative nature of the anticipatory capacities of a growing number of computational infrastructures embedded within our everyday lives this paper proceeds in three parts. In the following, second, section several technology case studies are explored as means of capturing & retaining and anticipating & operating upon our everyday activities in ‘industrial’ scale systems. Particular attention is paid to the quasi-autonomous agency of these systems, that appear to operate at a scale and speed that exceeds a human capacity of oversight. In the third section the mnemonic and prognostic capabilities of networked infrastructures are brought into focus to be examined, through the work of the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (1998, 2009, 2010b, 2010a), as ‘mnemotechnologies’, technologies and technical supports that both support and reterritorialise what we collectively understand about our everyday lives. The conclusion of this article addresses the ways in which the informatics of an ‘industrialisation of memory’ that operates at a scale and speed that bleeds into apparatuses of anticipatory intervention both challenges and transforms the ways in which we negotiate what are private and public activities and spaces.

One thought on “Placing computation: the informatics of anticipation”

  1. This paper will speak to central concerns of Stiegler in recent times, in particular his interest in the accelerating expansion of ‘automatisation’ through digital, pharmaceutical, robotic, nano-technological etc means. Looking forward to it in anticipaion ;-) On this theme I have also been very preoccupied for some time — I develop the notion of preemption in ‘game time’ in Gameplay Mode….

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