The history of the future of automation – lessons from ed tech

I’ve been re-reading the excellent essay by Audrey Watters: Driverless Ed-Tech: The history of the future of automation in educationI really recommend reading it!

Following on from the vague points I made in my last post about an automative imaginary – one way of getting at this is a sort of classic (political economy) critique, which Watters very adroitly takes in relation to ed-tech and MOOCs (etc), and which she write really clearly – so, here is snippet:

“Put me out of a job.” “Put you out of a job.” “Put us all out of work.” We hear that a lot, with varying levels of glee and callousness and concern. “Robots are coming for your job.”

We hear it all the time. To be fair, of course, we have heard it, with varying frequency and urgency, for about 100 years now. “Robots are coming for your job.” And this time – this time – it’s for real.

I want to suggest – and not just because there are flaws with Uber’s autonomous vehicles (and there was just a crash of a test vehicle in Arizona last Friday) – that this is not entirely a technological proclamation. Robots don’t do anything they’re not programmed to do. They don’t have autonomy or agency or aspirations. Robots don’t just roll into the human resources department on their own accord, ready to outperform others. Robots don’t apply for jobs. Robots don’t “come for jobs.” Rather, business owners opt to automate rather than employ people. In other words, this refrain that “robots are coming for your job” is not so much a reflection of some tremendous breakthrough (or potential breakthrough) in automation, let alone artificial intelligence. Rather, it’s a proclamation about profits and politics. It’s a proclamation about labor and capital.

More specific to education, Watters highlights the logic offer by Udacity, one of the big MOOC start-ups:

“We want to be the Uber of education,” Thrun told The Financial Times, which added that, “Mr Thrun knows what he doesn’t want for his company: professors in tenure, which he claims limits the ability to react to market demands.”

In other words, “disrupt” job protections through a cheap, precarious labor force doing piecemeal work until the algorithms are sophisticated enough to perform those tasks. Universities have already taken plenty of steps towards this end, without the help of algorithms or for-profit software providers. But universities are still bound by accreditation (and by tradition). “Anyone can teach” is not a stance on labor and credentialing that many universities are ready to take.

[read all of Watters’ argument here.]

One of the areas in which what I’ve called the automative imaginary/imagination overlaps with wider stories about digital tech disruption and the widespread creed of that disruption being normatively good, if not admirable, is where automation overlaps with the ‘gig economy’. As we can see, via Thrun, one of the models in play here is not to ‘destroy’ jobs but rather to decouple them from some of the elements that make them valuable and either reallocate or automate those and then offer the remaining tasks as precarious work – which you have to sign up for through a proprietary system as a contractor, rather than an employee.

The ways we are invited to see ‘automation’ by some are over-coded with strong narratives of ‘disruption’ and the breaking down of established employment rights into a two their system in which the ‘taskers’ (as Guy Standing calls them) take the precarious work for relatively meagre earnings and the tech company owners and a few they bring along with them hoover up the profits.

An alternative to such narratives might be ‘accelerationism‘ but I remain skeptical at present (but I’ve not read enough to form an opinion really). It seems to me, we (geographers, social scientists, citizens?! … well, me anyway!) really do need to talk and think about work.

More tales of the automative imaginary

Here’s some links that further sketch out some of what I’ve been thinking about as an ‘automative imaginary’. I’ve offered links with a bit of brief commentary at the bottom…

Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs – in the NYT, pointing to research undertaken by two economists, Acemoglu and Restrepo, published by the (American) National Bureau of Economic ResearchRobots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets (to which I have no access), with a commentary on the Centre for Economic Policy Research‘s Vox site. What is curious for me here is how one can evaluate the method of the researchers and what the assumptions they make say about how we (are invited to) understand automation. There’s some interesting geography in there too! E.g. see the choropleth map of “exogenous exposure to robots” below

How will the rise of automation and AI affect the workforce and economy moving forward? – Francis Fukuyama offers his answer to how automation and AI (interesting easy slip between those as almost a form of equivalence, which is open to significant debate/critique) may or may not “affect” the economy and, in particular, jobs – in the US.

It’s interesting how much of what we are offered in terms of a rationale for automation is a fairly simplistic robots replace workers sort of story. In this regard, it’s worth remembering what the MacDonalds CEO Ed Rensi flippantly observed as a canonical example (documented in this post on Fusion):

former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi made news by going on Fox Business and declaring that ongoing protests in the campaign for a $15 minimum wage were encouraging the automation of fast food jobs. The segment goes on for seven minutes, but here’s the meat of it:

I was at the National Restaurant Show yesterday and if you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry — it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries — it’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe

Nevertheless, other economists will tell you that processes of automation have, historically, created new kinds of jobs as they apparently ‘destroy’ others. For example, Deloitte, in their report “Technology and People: The great job creating machine“, suggest that while manual labour and routine jobs have been significantly automated since 1992, there has been an even larger growth in ‘care’ (and service) and ‘cognitive’ work in the UK labour market. So you see fewer people in manufacturing but more analysts, baristas and carers.

Of course, to see it as whole “jobs” that are being automated is somewhat misleading – another aspect of the automative imaginary that owes more to the depiction of automation in 1950/60s cartoons than in the actually existing forms of automation. As many commentators point out, it’s parts of jobs or tasks that become automated, which results in a need to reorganise that work. As the management consultants McKinsey point out in a report in 2016:

currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today

What we tend to focus on is the automation full stop, not that it isn’t all of a job and may not result in an easy equivalence of “robot in = worker out”. We imagine the robots doing it all, when, in many cases, the use of robots (when they’re actually economically viable – they have a huge initial set-up cost) require a reorganisation of systems such that the work looks different.

Another illustration of this comes from the excellent Containers podcast by Alexis Madrigal. In the final episode, Madrigal talks to Karen Levy of Cornell  about the forms automation could take in relation to truck driving (upon which Uber clearly has its sights set). Of course, again, it’s not as simple as: automate the lorries, do-away with jobs. It’s more like the process of containerisation that Madrigal is exploring – automation is as much about reorganising systems of work / labour as it is about ‘replacing’ labour. So, in the example of picking in warehouses – you might get a Kiva or Fetch/Freight robot to do the donkey work of warehousing, with the worker performing the more sophisticated movements. This is not a future of people-less spaces but rather robots following people around or being tasked in order to support the worker, the argument being this leads to greater productivity. In fact, in the eighth episode of Containers, the CEO of Fetch Robotics justifies her company’s tech by saying that, in the US, there are over 600k jobs going unfilled in warehousing and manufacturing because people don’t want to do them, with a turnover rate of those who do sign-up for such work at around 25% (I don’t know the basis or veracity of those numbers – would like to though!). Again, if true, such figures are another aspect of the expectations of what work involves and how it may be performed.

So, it seems to me we need to talk about work not simply elide it by (somewhat hysterically) referring to ‘automation’ and ‘robots’. This is something I hope to research and write more about, if I ever get the time…

A few cultural geographies of tech

As it’s/they’re now a sort of trend, here’s a few recently published papers that offer some  cultural geographies of tech…

Being in a mediated world: self-tracking and the mind–body–environment

Sarah PinkVaike Fors

Self-tracking is an increasingly ubiquitous everyday activity and therefore is becoming implicated in the ways that everyday environments are experienced and configured. In this article, we examine theoretically and ethnographically how the digital materiality of these technologies mediates and participates in the constitution of people’s tacit ways of being in the world. We argue that accounting for the presence of such technologies as part of everyday environments in this way offers new insights for non-representational accounts of everyday life as developed in geography and anthropology and advances existing understandings of these technologies as it has emerged in sociology and media studies.

The GoPro gaze

Phillip Vannini, Lindsay M Stewart

During 2014–2015, we produced a short video documentary, titled The Art of Wild, which focused on the audiovisual practices of outdoor adventurers. This short written report reflects on an idea inspired by the video: the GoPro gaze. Enacted by increasingly sophisticated, portable and affordable recording audiovisual technologies such as the GoPro Hero camera, the ‘GoPro gaze’ entails not just the pursuit of pleasures derived from adventure and nature-based travel, but also the production and distribution of professional-quality independent videos for Internet audiences. Based on a series of ‘go-along’ interviews with adventure travelers/athletes/artists, this article and the accompanying video prompt us to reflect on how the affective pleasures and technological affordances of the ‘GoPro gaze’ trouble the established idea of the ‘tourist gaze’.

The lit world: living with everyday urban automation

Sarah Pink & Shanti Sumartojo

In this article, we develop and advance the concept of the lit world by bringing together literatures about everyday lighting, automation in everyday life and human perception, along with our ethnographic research into people’s experience of automated lighting in Melbourne, Australia. In doing so we formulate and argue for an approach to automation that situates it as part of everyday mundane worlds and acknowledges its entanglement with the emergent and experiential qualities of everyday environments as they unfold. We demonstrate this through the example of automated lighting, understood as a situated technology that has contingent effects and participates in the making of particular ways of seeing and feeling the world. We thereby argue for an account of automation that reaches beyond its potential for the management of human (and other) behaviour, to ask how the qualities and affordances of automated technologies might seep out of their intended domains, and create new perceptual and experiential opportunities. In a context where automation is increasingly prevalent in everyday life, such attention to the experience and use of automated technologies which already exist on a large scale is needed. Urban lighting is an example par excellence of automation in the world because it has a long history beyond the recent association of automated technologies with code and digital infrastructures. As scholars debate how automated technologies will become part of our future digital lives, understanding how people live in a lit world offers a starting point for considering how we might live with other anticipated algorithmic forms of automation.

Critical reflections on a ‘gig’ or ‘sharing’ economy – some links

I keep meaning to write a blogpost where I gather my thoughts and offer something in addition to a number of interesting things I’ve read – maybe in relation to attention, definitely in relation to ‘rent’, but I simply haven’t managed it. So, I’m going to post a few things I’ve found particularly interesting here…

Guy Standing on rentier capitalism and what he calls ‘taskers’… a good intro to Standing’s keen critical reflections on ‘the sharing economy’ and what he terms the ‘precariat’

The Taking Economy: Uber, Information, and Power – an interesting article in the Columbia Law Review by Ryan Calo and Alex Rosenblat on Uber and possible legal interventions into what the authors (and many other) see as Uber’s coercive and exploitative model.

The Myth of the Sharing Economy and Its Implications for Regulating Innovation – a sharp article for Emory Law Journal by Abbey Stemler which is reminiscent of Tom Slee’s excellent critique of the sharing economy by exploding the myth that any ‘sharing’ is actually taking place.

Meet The Food Delivery Workers In The Decentralised Dickensian Online Gig Economy – an incisive piece by Asher Wolf on Medium about the experiences of precarious workers (riders for online food-delivery start-ups).

Karen Gregory’s digital labour reading list for the CUNY Digital Labour Working Group.

An ancient twin? Facial pattern matching with ancient statues


The Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec have a exhibition about ancient ‘doubles’ or ‘twins’, as part of which you can submit your photo and a program will match your face with images of statues in the collection.

It’s been in the press and, of course, is ‘just a bit of fun’, but its also sort of interesting to submit images and try and work out how the pattern matching is working – it’s not all that obvious! There’s probably something smart to say about ‘algorithms’ here, but I’ve not had enough sleep… check it out for yourself: Mon Sosie À 2000 Ans.

Here’s me and Battataï:

Songs “written by AI” from SonyCSL

Songs written by Sony CSL’s “AI”…

From the Sony CSL “flow machines” website:

Flow Machines is a research project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and coordinated by François Pachet (Sony CSL Paris – UMPC).

The goal of Flow Machines is to research and develop Artificial Intelligence systems able to generate music autonomously or in collaboration with human artists.
We do so by turning music style into a computational object. Musical style can come from individual composers, for example Bach or The Beatles, or a set of different artists, or, of course, the style of the musician who is using the system.

Their “Deep Bach” thing was doing the rounds at the end of last year, so I presume there will be more to come.

A Universe Explodes. A Blockchain book/novel

Thanks to Max Dovey for the tip on this…

This seems interesting as a sort of provocation about what Blockchain says/asks about ownership perhaps, although I’m not overly convinced by the gimmick of changing words such that the readers unravel, or “explode” the book… I wonder whether The Raw Shark Texts  or These Pages Fall Like Ash might be a deeper or maybe I mean more nuanced take on such things… however, I haven’t explored this enough yet and it’s good to see Google doing something like this (I think?!)

Here’s a snip from googler tea uglow’s medium post about this…

It’s a book. On your phone. Well, on the internet. Anyone can read it. It’s 20 pages long. Each page has 128 words, and there are 100 of the ‘books’ that can be ‘owned’ . And no way to see a book that isn’t one of those 100. Each book is unique, with personal dedications, and an accumulation of owners, (not to mention a decreasing number of words) as it is passed on. So it is both a book and an cumulative expression of the erosion of the self and of being rewritten and misunderstood. That is echoed in the narrative: the story is fluid, the transition confusing, the purpose unclear. The book gradually falls apart in more ways than one. It is also kinda geeky.

Media Theory Journal

Here: http://mediatheoryjournal.org/about/

Media Theory is an online, open access journal of peer-reviewed, theoretical interventions into all aspects of media and communications. Resolutely international and interdisciplinary in scope, the editors encourage submissions that critically engage with the theoretical frameworks and concepts that tend to be taken for granted in national or disciplinary perspectives.Although the journal privileges an emphasis on theory, the editors are not only concerned with theory for theory’s sake. Rather, we are interested in how theoretically-informed and -engaged interventions can contribute to the interpretation of empirical research and critique, as well as to the deprovincialization of theoretical debate – helping us understand, rather than dismiss or describe, objects of critique, and making us reconsider the validity, efficacy and legitimacy of our own particular methodological approaches.

With that in mind, we are keen to stretch the definition of ‘media’, and to receive articles that critically debate the necessity of an emphasis on ‘theory’, or which prefer to emphasise ‘theories’ or ‘philosophy’ instead. As an open access journal, we would also like to provide a forum for debates on open access, peer-review and the future of academic publishing.

The journal is online only and open access. No fees are charged to either readers or authors. All articles are published under a Creative Commons (CC-BY) licence.

Picking at the “alternative media ecosystem”

Two things on how various intersecting discourses are coming at “fake news’…  I find it interesting to see and hear how different folks are attempting to make sense of an apparent phenomenon, it’s a little like watching Foucault’s ‘discursive formation’ in action…

First, via Adrian J Ivakhiv:

Parsing the “alternative media ecosystem”

An interesting forthcoming article by University of Washington researcher Kate Starbird examines the “alternative media ecosystem” by focusing on the production of the kinds of narratives that are fairly exclusive to the “alternative,” as opposed to mainstream, “media ecosystem.” Specifically, the piece analyzes conspiratorial narratives, found on Twitter and connected web sites, that follow terrorist incidents (including the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17) and several mass shooting events.

“For each event,” Starbird writes, “rumors claimed the event had been perpetrated by someone other than the official suspects—that it was instead either a staged event performed by “crisis actors” or a “false flag” orchestrated by someone else.” (For more, see the Seattle Times and Starbird’s own summaries of the research.)

From Starbird’s scholarly article:

“After several rounds of iterative analysis to identify commonalities and distinctions across clusters of accounts, we identified three prominent political agendas: U.S. Alt Right, U.S. Alt-Left, and International Anti-Globalist.”

Second, via the ‘Team Human’ podcast, hosted by Douglas Rushkoff, Caroline Jack on ‘propaganda’:

What’s Propaganda Got To Do With It?

If “propaganda” is a useful as a media epithet because it expresses concerns about media persuasion and power, then we must allow that a variety of actors, not just states or would-be states, can influence the television networks, newspapers of record, and leading online news sources.

Our understanding of media power (and of what it means to call something propaganda) must make room for a variety of potential collective and individual influences. This includes corporations, interest groups, activist groups, and other traditional collectives; it should also include the new forms of individual and collective presence that digital communications facilitate. This includes state-sponsored online actors and ad-hoc user collectives.

“Control, Resistance, and the ‘Data University’: Towards a Third Wave Critique”

A group of academics at Newcastle, collectivised under the moniker “the Analogue University” offer an Alex Galloway-like critique of “The Data University” over on the Antipode blog. An interesting read…

In this short intervention, we want to explore the possibilities for a third wave of critique related to the changing nature of academia. More specifically, we argue that we are now witnessing the emergence of the “Data University” where the initial emphasis on the primacy of data collection for auditing and measuring academic work has shifted to data coding itself as the new exchange value at work and productive of new subjectivities and freedoms. This third wave critique requires drawing a schematic line that now takes us beyond the intensification of neo-liberalisation, the internalisation of market values and associated affective structures of feeling to understanding our new digital and big data world. Influenced by Deleuze’s (1992) work on new societies of control, we argue that the genesis of the “Data University” lies in our active desire for data and its potential to mediate human relations and modulate our freedoms. This is absolutely central to our schematic for a third wave of critique: compared to older disciplinary societies like the school or prison institution (see below), today individuals both desire and are controlled through the active generation of proliferating data streams.

Read the full article.