I’ve got a draft book proposal. I think I know where it’s going. I’ve also had a go at securing funding (yes, I’m not holding my breath) to support writing the book and hopefully produce an associated podcast – more on that another time.
It’s perhaps foolhardy or overly optimistic but I want to share the gist of the pitch here. I’d really welcome feedback or suggestions and can share a fuller version of the proposal if you happen to be interested – please get in touch via email.
The Automative Imagination
Automation is both a contemporary and enduring concern. The ‘automative imagination’ is a way to articulating different habits of considering and discussing automation. I am not using the neologism ‘automative’ to assert any kind of authority but rather as a pragmatic tool. Other words do not fit – to speak of an ‘automated’ or ‘automatic’ imagination does not describe the characteristics of automation but suggests the imagining is itself automated, which is not the argument I am seeking to make. This book explores how automation is imagined as much as it is planned and enacted.
The ways in which automation is bound up with how everyday life is understood is under-examined. Expectations are fostered, with examples drawing upon popular culture and mythology, without the bases for these expectations being sufficiently scrutinised. This book examines precisely the foundations of the visions of automation we are invited to believe. Through the original conceptual lens of the ‘automative imagination’ I interrogate and thematically categorise the forms of imagination that underpin contemporary discussion and envisioning of automation. The contribution of this book is the identification and analysis of the double-bind between the widespread envisioning of an automated future, always-to-come, and the power of such visions, and those who propose them, over the ongoing projects to automate various aspects of contemporary life.
The book is organised around the theoretical framework, emerging from initial research, consisting of five figures: ‘progress’, the ‘machine’, the ‘master’/‘slave’, the ‘idiot’ and the ‘monster’. Each of these figures forms the spine of the four substantive chapters of the monograph. ‘Progress’ is popularly figured as an economic and socio-cultural force of ‘ages’, ‘revolutions’ and ‘waves’ often tied to particular technologies and plays out in cities, at work and at home. The apparatus of the ‘machine’ is often figured as the driver of change – the near-autonomous mechanisms of factories, governments and institutions are seen as both the engines and regulators of change. Members of society are figured, therefore, as either ‘master’ of or ‘enslaved’ by autonomous technology – both at work and at home. The apparent autonomy of these technologies is said to divorce citizens from knowledge of how to work and live, rendering them ‘idiots’, whilst at the same time the errors of these autonomous systems repeatedly feature in the news as somehow ‘idiotic’. Finally, and perhaps most enduringly, the abstract figure of technology as a ‘monstrous’ other to ‘the human’ occupies a significant place in the collective imagination.
The Automative Imagination demonstrates that automation, and how it functions, is imagined to focus in five interlinked geographical contexts: the city (or region), the home, the factory (or workplace), the institution and ‘in transit’. These interlinked geographies are not chapters themselves but rather form the fundamental context of the five thematic chapters of the monograph and features as central threads that weave together the conceptual narrative of the book. The contemporary ‘automative imagination’ seen through theoretical lens of the five figures and their interlinked geographical contexts is a paradox of fantasy and uniformity. The book concludes by arguing for developing more pluralised and situated imaginings of automation and offering resources for doing so.
The central methodological framework for the completion of this project is a critical reading across genres of key contemporary and archival texts. The Automative Imagination develops novel theoretical perspectives for investigating the formation of the ‘automative imagination’. These novel perspectives, organised through the five figures outlined above, are developed in the intersections of deconstruction as a method of critical thinking, feminist technology studies’ examinations of the social shaping of technology and pragmatist interrogations of the ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’.
This synthesis attends to the normative and situated nature of the ‘automative imagination’, through analyses of particular texts. The texts that form the basis of the analysis span three categories: academic, archival and film. Through preparatory research, a range of discourses of automation have already been identified within economics and the social sciences that provide some of the rationale for contemporary visions of automation. These are critically read together with archival newspaper and trade journal articles, novels and fiction & non-fiction films. The ground work for this analysis is already completed – identifying key sources and gathering archival materials and an initial systematic literature review of consultancy, non-governmental organisation and think tank reports.
The Automative Imagination speaks to a range of contemporary academic and policy agendas, in the UK, the EU and globally, not least the UK government’s and World Economics Forum’s ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ agendas. The contribution of the book is novel in the formulation of theoretical resources for understanding how automation is imagined and what work those imaginings is doing in the world.