‘New geographies of automation?’ at the RGS-IBG conference

All of a sudden the summer is nearly over, apparently, and the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers is fast approaching, this year in Cardiff.

I am convening a double session on the theme of ‘New geographies of automation?’, with two sessions of papers by some fantastic colleagues that promise to be really interesting. I am really pleased to have this opportunity to invite colleagues to collectively bring their work into conversation around a theme that is not only a contemporary topic in academic work but also, significantly, a renewed topic of interest in the wider public.

There are two halves of the session, broadly themed around ‘autonomy’ and ‘spacings’. Please find below the abstracts for the session.

Details: Sessions 92 & 123 (in slots 3 & 4 – 14:40-16:20 & 16:50-18:30) | Bates Building, Lecture Theatre 1.4

This information is also accessible, with all of the details of venue etc., on the RGS-IBG conference website: session 1 ‘autonomy’ and session 2 ‘spacings’.

New Geographies of Automation? (1): Autonomy

1.1 An Automative Imagination

Samuel Kinsley, University of Exeter

This paper sets out to review some of the key ways in which automation gets imagined – the sorts of cultural, economic and social forms of imagination that are drawn upon and generated when discussing how automation works and the kinds of future that may come as a result. The aim here is not to validate/invalidate particular narratives of automation – but instead to think about how they are produced and what they tell us about how we tell stories about what it means to be ‘human’, who/what has agency and what this may mean for how we think politically and spatially. To do this the concept of an ‘automative imagination’ is proposed as a means of articulating these different, sometimes competing – sometimes complementary, orientations towards automation.


1.2 The Future of Work: Feminist Geographical Engagements

Julie MacLeavy (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol)

This paper considers the particular pertinence of feminist geographical scholarship to debates on the ‘future of work’. Drawing inspiration from Linda McDowell’s arguments that economic theories of epochal change rest on the problematic premise that economic and labour market changes are gender-neutral, it highlights the questions that are emerging from feminist economic geography research and commentary on the reorganisation of work, workers’ lives and labour markets. From this, the paper explores how feminist and anti-racist politics connect with the imagination of a ‘post-work’ world in which technological advancement is used to enable more equitable ways of practice (rather than more negative effects such as the intensification of work lifestyles). Political responses to the critical challenges that confront workers in the present moment of transformation are then examined, including calls for Universal Basic Income, which has the potential to reshape the landscape of labour-capital relations.


1.3 Narrating the relationship between automation and the changing geography of digital work

Daniel Cockayne, Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo

Popular narratives about the relationship between automation and work often make a straightforward causal link between technological change and deskilling, job loss, or increased demand for jobs. Technological change – today, most commonly, automation and AI – is often scripted as threatening the integrity of labor, unionization, and traditional working practices or as creating more demand for jobs, in which the assumption is the more jobs the better. These narratives elide a close examination of the politics of work that include considerations of domestic and international racialized and gendered divisions of labor. Whether positive or negative, the supposed inevitability of technological transition positions labor as a passive victim of these changes, while diverting attention away from the workings of international financialized capital. Yet when juxtaposed against empirical data, straightforward cause and effect narratives become more complex. The unemployment rate in North America has been the lowest in 40 years (4.1% in the USA and 5.7% in Canada), which troubles the relationship between automation and job loss. Yet, though often touted by publications like The Economist as a marker of national economic well-being, unemployment rates ignore the kinds of work people are doing, effacing the qualitative changes in work practices over time. I examine these tropes and their relationship to qualitative changes in work practices, to argue that the link between technological change and the increasing precaratization of work is more primary than the diversionary relationship between technological change and job loss and gain or deskilling. 


1.4 Sensing automation

David Bissell, University of Melbourne

Processes of industrial automation are intensifying in many sectors of the economy through the development of AI and robotics. Conventional accounts of industrial automation stress the economic imperatives to increase economic profitability and safety. Yet such coherent snapped-to-grid understandings risk short-circuiting the complexity and richness of the very processes and events that compose automation. ­­­This paper draws from and reflects through a series of encounters with workers engaged in the increasingly automated mining sector in Australia. Rather than thinking these encounters solely through their representational dimensions with an aim to building a coherent image of what automation is, this paper is an attempt at writing how automation becomes differently disclosed through the aesthetic dimensions of encounters. It acknowledges how automation is always caught up in multiple affective and symbolic ecologies which create new depths of association. Developing post-phenomenological thought in cultural geography, this paper articulates some of the political and ethical stakes for admitting ambiguity, incoherence and confusion as qualities of our relations with technological change.


1.5 Technological Sovereignty, Post-Human Subjectivity, and the Production of the Digital-Urban Commons

Casey Lynch (School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona)

 As cities become increasingly monitored, planned, and controlled by the proliferation of digital technologies, urban geographers have sought to understand the role of software, big data, and connected infrastructures in producing urban space (French and Thrift 2002; Dodge, Kitchin, and Zook, 2009). Reflections on the “automatic production of space” have raised questions about the role and limitations of “human” agency in urban space (Rose 2017) and the possibilities for urban democracy. Yet, this literature largely considers the proliferation of digital infrastructures within the dominant capitalist, smart-city model, with few discussions of the possibilities for more radically democratic techno-urban projects. Engaging these debates, this paper considers alternative models of the techno-social production of urban space based around the collective production and management of a common digital-urban infrastructure. The paper reflects on the notion of “technological sovereignty” and the case of Guifinet, the world’s largest “community wireless network” covering much of Catalonia.  The paper highlights the way its decentralized, DIY mode of producing and maintaining digital urban infrastructure points to the possibilities for more radically democratic models of co-production in which urban space, technological infrastructures, and subjectivities are continually reshaped in relation. Through this, the paper seeks to contribute to broader discussions about the digitalization of urban space and the possibilities for a radical techno-politics.  

New Geographies of Automation? (2): Spacings

2.1 The urbanisation of robotics and automated systems – a research agenda
Andy Lockhart* (a.m.lockhart@sheffield.ac.uk), Aidan While* (a.h.while@sheffield.ac.uk), Simon Marvin (s.marvin@sheffield.ac.uk), Mateja Kovacic (m.kovacic@sheffield.ac.uk), Desiree Fields (d.fields@sheffield.ac.uk) and Rachel Macrorie (r.m.macrorie@sheffield.ac.uk) (Urban Institute, University of Sheffield)
*Attending authors
Pronouncements of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ or ‘second machine age’ have stimulated significant public and academic interest in the implications of accelerating automation. The potential consequences for work and employment have dominated many debates, yet advances in robotics and automated systems (RAS) will have profound and geographically uneven ramifications far beyond the realm of labour. We argue that the urban is already being configured as a key site of application and experimentation with RAS technologies. This is unfolding across a range of domains, from the development of autonomous vehicles and robotic delivery systems, to the growing use of drone surveillance and predictive policing, to the rollout of novel assistive healthcare technologies and infrastructures. These processes and the logics underpinning them will significantly shape urban restructuring and new geographies of automation in the coming years. However, while there is growing research interest in particular domains, there remains little work to date which takes a more systemic view. In this paper we do three things, which look to address this gap and constitute the contours of a new urban research agenda. First, we sketch a synoptic view of the urbanisation of RAS, identifying what is new, what is being enabled as a result and what should concern critical scholars, policymakers and the wider public in debates about automation. Second, we map out the multiple and sometimes conflicting rationalities at play in the urbanisation of RAS, which have the potential to generate radically different urban futures, and may address or exacerbate existing socio-spatial inequalities and injustices. Third, and relatedly, we pose a series of questions for urban scholars and geographers, which constitute the basis for an urgent new programme of research and intervention.


2.2 Translating the signals: Utopia as a method for interrogating developments in autonomous mobility

Thomas Klinger1, 2
Brendan Doody2
Debbie Hopkins2
Tim Schwanen2
1. Institute of Human Geography, Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main
2. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are often presented as technological ‘solutions’ to problems of road safety, congestion, fuel economy and the cost of transporting people, goods and services. In these dominant techno-economic narratives ‘non-technical’ factors such as public acceptance, legal and regulatory frameworks, cost and investment in testing, research and supporting infrastructure are the main ‘barriers’ to the otherwise steady roll-out of CAVs. Drawing on an empirical case study of traffic signalling, we trace the implications that advances in vehicle autonomy may have for such mundane and taken-for-granted infrastructure. We employ the three modes of analysis associated with Levitas’ (2013) ‘utopia as a method’. Starting with the architectural mode we identify the components, actors and visions underpinning ‘autonomobility’. The archaeological mode is then used to unpack the assumptions, contradictions and possible unintended effects that CAVs may have for societies. In the ontological mode we speculate upon the types of human and non-human subjectivities and agencies implied by alleged futures of autonomous mobility. Through this process we demonstrate that techno-economic accounts overemphasise the likely scale, benefits and impacts these advances may have for societies. In particular, they overlook how existing automobile-dependent mobility systems are the outcome of complex assemblages of social and technical elements (e.g., cars, car-drivers, roads, petroleum supplies, novel technologies and symbolic meanings) which have become interlinked in systemic and path-dependent ways over time. We conclude that utopia as method may provide one approach by which geographers can interrogate and opening up alarmist/boosterish visions of autonomobility and automation.


2.3 Automating the laboratory? Folding securities of malware
Andrew Dwyer, University of Oxford

Folding, weaving, and stitching is crucial to contemporary analyses of malicious software; generated and maintained through the spaces of the malware analysis laboratory. Technologies entangle (past) human analysis, action, and decision into ‘static’ and ‘contextual’ detections that we depend on today. A large growth in suspect software to draw decisions on maliciousness have driven a movement into (seemingly omnipresent) machine learning. Yet this is not the first intermingling of human and technology in malware analysis. It draws on a history of automation, enabling interactions to ‘read’ code in stasis; build knowledges in more-than-human collectives; allow ‘play’ through a monitoring of behaviours in ‘sandboxed’ environments; and draw on big data to develop senses of heuristic reputation scoring.

Though we can draw on past automation to explore how security is folded, made known, rendered as something knowable: contemporary machine learning performs something different. Drawing on Louise Amoore’s recent work on the ethics of the algorithm, this paper queries how points of decision are now more-than-human. Automation has always extended the human, led to loops, and driven alternative ways of living. Yet the contours, the multiple dimensions of the neural net, produce the malware ‘unknown’ that have become the narrative of the endpoint industry. This paper offers a history of the automation of malware analysis from static and contextual detection, to ask how automation is changing how cyberspace becomes secured and made governable; and how automation is not something to be feared, but tempered with the opportunities and challenges of our current epoch.


2.4 Robots and resistance: more-than-human geographies of automation on UK dairy farms

Chris Bear (Cardiff University; bearck@cardiff.ac.uk)
Lewis Holloway (University of Hull; l.holloway@hull.ac.uk)

This paper examines the automation of milking on UK dairy farms to explore how resistance develops in emerging human-animal-technology relations. Agricultural mechanisation has long been celebrated for its potential to increase the efficiency of production. Automation is often characterised as continuing this trajectory; proponents point to the potential for greater accuracy, the removal of less appealing work, the reduction of risks posed by unreliable labour, and the removal of labour costs. However, agricultural mechanisation has never been received wholly uncritically; studies refer to practices of resistance that have developed due to fears around (for instance) impacts on rural employment, landscapes, ecologies and traditional knowledge practices. Drawing on interviews with farmers, observational work on farms and analysis of promotional material, this paper examines resistant relations that emerge around the introduction of Automated Milking Systems (AMS) on UK dairy farms. While much previous work on resistance to agricultural technologies has pitted humans against machines, we follow Foucault in arguing that resistance can be heterogeneous and directionally ambiguous, emerging through ‘the capillary processes of counter-conduct’ (Holloway and Morris 2012). These capillary processes can have complex geographies and emerge through more-than-human relations. Where similar conceptualisations have been developed previously, technologies continue to appear rather inert – they are often the tools by which humans attempt to exert influence, rather than things which can themselves ‘object’ (Latour 2000), or which are co-produced by other nonhumans rather than simply imposed or applied by humans. We begin, therefore, to develop a more holistic approach to the geographies of more-than-human resistance in the context of automation.


2.5 Fly-by-Wire: The Ironies of Automation and the Space-Times of Decision-Making

Sam Hind (University of Siegen; hind@locatingmedia.uni-siegen.de)

This paper presents a ‘prehistory’ (Hu 2015) of automobile automation, by focusing on ‘fly-by-wire’ control systems in aircraft. Fly-by-wire systems, commonly referred to as ‘autopilots’ work by translating human control gestures into component movements, via digital soft/hardware. These differ historically from mechanical systems in which pilots have direct steering control through a ‘yoke’ to the physical components of an aircraft (ailerons etc.), via metal rods or wires. Since the launch of the first commercial aircraft with fly-by-wire in 1988, questions regarding the ‘ironies’ or ‘paradoxes’ of automation (Bainbridge 1983) have continued to be posed. I look at the occurrence of ‘mode confusion’ in cockpits to tease out one of these paradoxes; using automation in the aviation industry as a heuristic lens to analyze automation of the automobile. I then proceed by detailing a scoping study undertaken at the Geneva Motor Show in March this year, in which Nissan showcased an autonomous vehicle system. Unlike other manufacturers, Nissan is pitching the need for remote human support when vehicles encounter unexpected situations; further complicating and re-distributing navigational labour in, and throughout, the driving-machine. I will argue that whilst such developments plan to radically alter the ‘space-times of decision-making’ (McCormack and Schwanen 2011) in the future autonomous vehicle, they also exhibit clear ironies or paradoxes found similarly, and still fiercely discussed, in the aviation industry and with regards to fly-by-wire systems. It is wise, therefore, to consider how these debates have played out – and with what consequences.

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