Absence makes… blogging harder

I haven’t written here for some time. It is not because I am short of ideas, but rather – I am short of time. I am convening three modules this year at work and had to write one (from scratch) and modify two. Coupled with the strike action, becoming a new ‘Co-Editor-in-Chief‘ and various things going on outside of work – I have been stretched!

I really do want to return to posting here though. I am unsure how often and in what way… I hope to return to the ‘work notes‘ in particular, I find these quite helpful, personally. So, I hope people are still reading things that get posted here, I also hope that, if you like things I have written in the past, you might like to get in touch and talk about them – I would welcome it 🙂

As Adam Greenfield used to regularly say in his own blogposts: be kind to yourselves and those around you.

Automation and Utopia – John Danaher’s new book

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

A fascinating new book from an excellent and rather prolific scholar John Danaher – presenter of a fantastic podcast. Definitely worth a look – I’ll certainly be ordering a copy. You can get a copy here: [Amazon.com] [Amazon.co.uk] [Book Depository] [Harvard UP] [Indiebound] [Google Play]

Here’s an excerpt from John’s blogpost celebrating the publication:

The book tries to present a rigorous case for techno-utopianism and a post-work future. I wrote it partly as a result of my own frustration with techno-futurist non-fiction. I like books that present provocative ideas about the future, but I often feel underwhelmed by the strength of the arguments they use to support these ideas. I don’t know if you are like me, but if you are then you don’t just want to be told what someone thinks about the future; you want to be shown why (and how) they think about the future and be able to critically assess their reasoning. If I got it right, then Automation and Utopia will allow you to do this. You may not agree with what I have to say in the end, but you should at least be able to figure out where I have gone wrong.

The book defends four propositions:

  • Proposition 1 – The automation of work is both possible and desirable: work is bad for most people most of the time, in ways that they don’t always appreciate. We should do what we can to hasten the obsolescence of humans in the arena of work.
  • Proposition 2 – The automation of life more generally poses a threat to human well-being, meaning, and flourishing: automating technologies undermine human achievement, distract us, manipulate us and make the world more opaque. We need to carefully manage our relationship with technology to limit those threats.
  • Proposition 3 – One way to mitigate this threat would be to build a Cyborg Utopia, but it’s not clear how practical or utopian this would really be: integrating ourselves with technology, so that we become cyborgs, might regress the march toward human obsolescence outside of work but will also carry practical and ethical risks that make it less desirable than it first appears.
  • Proposition 4 – Another way to mitigate this threat would be to build a Virtual Utopia: instead of integrating ourselves with machines in an effort to maintain our relevance in the “real” world, we could retreat to “virtual” worlds that are created and sustained by the technological infrastructure that we have built. At first glance, this seems tantamount to giving up, but there are compelling philosophical and practical reasons for favouring this approach.

CFP AAG 2020 – ‘New geographies of automation?’

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I’d welcome submissions, questions or any form of interest for the proposed session I outline below.

My aim with this session is to continue a conversation that has arisen in geography and beyond about as wide a range of tropes about automation as possible. Papers needn’t be empirical per se or about actually existing automation, they could equally be about the rationales, promises or visions for automation. Likewise, automation has been about for a while, so historical geographies of automation, in agriculture for example, or policies for automation that have been tried and failed would be also welcome.

There are all sorts of ways that ‘automation’ has been packaged in other rubrics, such as ‘smart’ things, cities and so on, or perhaps become a ‘fig leaf’ or ‘red herring’ to cover for unscrupulous activities, such as iniquitous labour practices.

I guess what I’m driving at is – I welcome any and all ideas relevant to the broad theme!

CFP: New Geographies of Automation?

Denver, USA, 6-10 April 2020

Organiser: Sam Kinsley (Exeter).

Abstract deadline: 16th October 2019.

This session invites papers that respond to the variously promoted or forewarned explosion of automation and the apparent transformations of culture, economy, labour and workplace we are told will ensue. Papers are sought from any and all branches of geography to investigate what contemporary geographies of automation may or should look like, how we are/could/should be doing them and to perhaps question the grandiose rhetoric of alarmism/boosterism of current debates.

Automation has lately gained a renewed focus of hyperbolic commentary in print and online. We are warned by some of the ‘rise of the robots’ (Ford 2015) sweeping away whole sectors of employment or by others exhorted to strive towards ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (Srnicek & Williams 2015). Beyond the hyperbole it is possible to trace longer lineages of geographies of automation. Studies of the industrialisation of agriculture (Goodman & Watts 1997); Fordist/post-Fordist systems of production (Harvey 1989); shifts to globalisation (Dicken 1986) and (some) post-industrial societies (Clement & Myles 1994) stand testament to the range of work that has addressed the theme of automation in geography. Indeed, in the last decade geographers have begun to draw out specific geographical contributions to debates surrounding ‘digital’ automation. In similar if somewhat divergent ways, geographers have paid a closer attention to: the apparent automation of labour and workplaces (Bissell & Del Casino 2017); encounters with apparently autonomous ‘bots’ (Cockayne et al. 2017); the interrogation of automation in governance and surveillance across a range of scales (Amoore 2013, Kitchin & Dodge 2011); the integration of AI techniques into spatial analysis (Openshaw & Openshaw 1997); and the processing of ‘big’ data in order to discern things about, or control, people (Leszczynski 2015). 

The invitation of this session is to submit papers that consider contemporary discussions, movements and propositions of automation from a geographical perspective (in the broadest sense). 

Examples of topics might include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • AI, machine learning and cognitive work
  • Boosterism and tales of automation
  • Gender, race and A.I
  • Labour and work
  • Autonomy, agency and law-making
  • Robotics and the everyday
  • Automation and workplace governance
  • Techno-bodily relations
  • Mobilities and materialities
  • Governance and surveillance

I intend to organize at least one paper session, depending on quantity and quality of submissions.  If you would like to propose a paper presentation, please email an abstract of 250 words to me by 16th October.

If you would also like to participate in a special issue on this topic I welcome expressions of interest.

Changes. 16th September

“Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop. But the papers are thickening and filling again; things seem to be happening; … Everywhere there are new developments, new indignities; the intelligent people survey the autumn world, and liberal and radical hackles rise, and fresh faces are about, and the sun shines fitfully, and the telephones ring.”

The History Man – Malcolm Bradbury

Just over a year ago I began ‘work notes‘ as a means of reflecting on the rhythm of academic life. The indignities of my year meant that it did not last – exhaustion got the better of me. I hope to resume work notes with some periodic reflections on what ‘work’ might mean for ‘knowledge workers’ like us in academia. As I said last year:

Some perform their indignities, some have them thrust upon them. While many labour under increasing pressures and are forced into indignities, there remains a, privileged, few in the loftier perches of the ivory tower that seem to habitually perform indignation from positions of relative comfort. Just as Bradbury observed through the acerbic whit of his “campus” novels.

Perhaps I have over-egged my performance of indignities. I am perhaps closer to those in the loftier perches now. We are, all of us, working through our issues. Time may change me but I can’t trace time. I confess, as this medium almost dictates, that mine overwhelmed me this summer. However, I was helped and for that I am truly grateful.

A new academic year sometimes feels like a new start. Capturing some of that energy, and the energy of the new and returning students can, sometimes, be helpful. Nevertheless, it can also feel somewhat like Groundhog Day. Except, of course, the students remain young and I get older. I watch the ripples change their size
but never leave the stream
still the days seem the same.

The rhythm begins to shift. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Self-determined schedules give way to institutional timetables – even in advance of official term-time. For me, the big shin-dig of (UK) geographyland, the RGS-IBG conference, marks the end of summer. My attention turns (even more) to teaching.

Like many colleagues, I must surpress a sigh as non-academic friends persist in the misconception that I have had three months off and must be marvellously rested. In the cooling air and faintly lengthening shadows, term awaits with new beginnings for staff and students alike. Turn and face the strange.

Changes – David Bowie.

Reading Clive Barnett’s The Priority of Injustice

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett

There is now a ‘review forum‘ in Political Geography around Clive’s The Priority of Injustice featuring some excellent reflections by Jack Layton, Juliet Davis, Jane Wills, David Featherstone and Cristina Temenos – with concluding reflections from Clive himself. I hope you may take the time to read these thoughtful reflections and perhaps consider reading Clive’s excellent book.

In my introduction I suggest:

The Priority of Injustice is an articulation of theory-in-practice, not the reified practice of theory as mastery but an ‘ordinary’ practice of scepticism and puzzling out. Barnett articulates the book as a form of “prolegomena for democratic inquiry”, as a means of rigorously laying the groundwork for asking questions about how democracy and politics actually play out. To respond to Barnett’s provocation might provoke another question: is this a clarion for ‘radical’ geographical theory? In The Priority of Injustice Barnett is doing theory, which is (differently) radical – insofar as it has perhaps become common for critical/radical geographers to (very ably) ‘evaluate’, ‘translate’ or ‘use’ of theory, for example by applying theoretical ideas to empirical case studies. The invitation of The Priority of Injustice is to put theory in action as a part of ‘ordinary’ democratic practice. The principle of ‘charitable interpretation’, with the aim of “maximising understanding”, invoked by Barnett throughout the book, should, I think, be a tenet to which we all aspire.

Hope that encourages you to read on. If you do not have access please do get in touch.

Changing Digital Geographies – new book from Jess McLean

Person using both a paper map and a mapping app on a phone

I was delighted to have Dr Jess McLean from Macquarie visit us in Exeter this week. Jess gave a great talk in our department around themes from a new book, about to be published by Palgrave. It promises to be a really interesting contribution to the renewed interest in ‘digital’ in geographyland and especially at the intersections with political ecology and work concerning the anthropocene.

Here’s some details:

Changing Digital Geographies

Technologies, Environments and People

Jessica McLean

This book examines the changing digital geographies of the Anthropocene. It analyses how technologies are providing new opportunities for communication and connection, while simultaneously deepening existing problems associated with isolation, global inequity and environmental harm. By offering a reading of digital technologies as ‘more-than-real’, the author argues that the productive and destructive possibilities of digital geographies are changing important aspects of human and non-human worlds. Like the more-than-human notion and how it emphasises interconnections of humans and non-humans in the world, the more-than-real inverts the diminishing that accompanies use of the terms ‘virtual’ and ‘immaterial’ as applied to digital spaces.
Digital geographies are fluid, amorphous spaces made of contradictory possibilities in this Anthropocene moment. By sharing experiences of people involved in trying to improve digital geographies, this book offers stories of hope and possibility alongside stories of grief and despair. The more-than-real concept can help us understand such work – by feminists, digital rights activists, disability rights activists, environmentalists and more. Drawing on case studies from around the world, this book will appeal to academics, university students, and activists who are keen to learn from other people’s efforts to change digital geographies, and who also seek to remake digital geographies.

Geographies of/with AI at the RGS-IBG conference this week

Kitt the 'intelligent' car from the TV show Knight Rider

As we race headlong towards September and another term (in the UK), it is the week of the RGS-IBG annual international conference in geographyland. At this year’s conference I am convening a double session with a really interesting and diverse range of papers concerning the intersections of geography and artificial intelligence. The sessions are on Thursday starting at 14:20 and ending at 18:30 with a 20 minute coffee break.

The sessions are: 235 and 268, details below:

235 Geographies of/with Artificial intelligence (1): Spacings

  1. Automating production of the built urban environment: tracing the role of BIM modelling, VR and automated prefabrication in the UK housing sector – Rachel Macrorie (University of Sheffield, UK)
  2. AI/Machine Learning algorithms in public participation– Yu-Shan Tseng (Durham University, UK)
  3. The algorithmic production of space in the age of machine learning: the case of self-driving vehicles– Fabio Iapaolo (Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy)
  4. Facial Recognition and the Automation of Security/Marketing Assemblages: Geographies of Anxiety and Pleasure in Music Festivals- Harrison Smith (Newcastle University, UK), Jeremy Crampton (Newcastle University, UK), Kara C. Hoover (University of Alaska, Fairbanks, USA), J. Colette Berbesque (Roehampton University, UK)

268 Geographies of/with Artificial intelligence (2): Working

  1. “Hey Alexa, why are you gendered?” Automation in the home and emotional labour – Sam Kinsley (University of Exeter, UK)
  2. Cooked with care or a raw deal?: One geographer’s explorations of AI and machine learning from below in London’s gig-economy – Adam Badger (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
  3. Workplace Surveillance by AI: it’s for your own good? – Philip Garnett (University of York, UK)
  4. Link NYC and the performative geopolitics of ‘automation’ – Nathaniel O’Grady (University of Manchester, UK)

Please do come and check out the sessions on Thursday – we’ll be in the Sheffield Building (Number 20 on this map).

Present futures – my new article for Futures of Work

Glitched movie still from the film THX1138 depicting a factory scene

At the end of last month my piece for the excellent Futures of Work went online as part of Issue 8, alongside some other really interesting work – check it out!

My piece applied some of my previous conceptual work around the politics of anticipation to my current interests in the stories that are told about automation. I argue that automation exists as much in the imaginations as in practice. This means that a lot of how automation is articulated is in terms of what is to come, not what is present. Nevertheless, particular imaginaries of possible worlds are lent credibility through particular ways of addressing a future as the future. This, I suggest, is the distinction in address between “present futures” and “future presents” (following Adam and Groves 2007).

“Future presents” are efforts to bring a ‘future’ into ‘the present’ to make it happen. “Present futures” are a way to hold a future at a distance in order to form the idea of a threatening risk or an attractive utopian goal.

I work through a quick example about how the ‘fact’ of a particular future state of affairs becomes concrete, through reiteration and reworking. I trace a story from a Guardian news article back through several layers of sources.

This matters, I argue, because:

The formulation of a future as the future, as argued in the first editorial of Futures of Work, does political work – it enables certain forms of powerful rhetoric, for example around a fourth industrial revolution. Rhetorically constructed as the “present future”, it possesses a discursive power over what is considered ‘common sense’ and elides the persistent contradictions of capitalism. Meanwhile, it allows management consultancies and others to propose the proximity of a “future present” as a problem for which there is a solution to be sold, as Sturdy and Morgan argue.


All too often arguments around automation and futures of work accept narratives of displacement or replacement of jobs as their premise. This renders them common sense, rather than calling them into question. How we construct and receive ‘truths’ about possible futures of work is political and demands political action. We must pay attention to how particular futures become ‘facts’ and how well those ‘facts’ travel and take on a life of their own.

Please do check out the whole article and the other excellent work in the issue.

CFP> Disrupting technology: contextualising continuity and change in technology

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

Via Kate Hardy

Disrupting technology: contextualising continuity and change in technology, work and employment


16-17th January, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change, University of Leeds


Recent scholarship on the relationship between technology and work has often tended to accentuate new technologies’ supposed transformative effects. Conferences on work and employment often feature streams dedicated solely to new technologies – such as platforms or AI – segregated from other streams where technology is mentioned very little. This both narrows our understandings of what constitutes ‘technology’ and contributes to the renewed growth of technological determinism, both in its utopian or dystopian variants- from Fully Automated Luxury Communism” on one hand to a nightmare of total surveillance on the other. Such debates are often speculative and can serve to obscure how actually existing employment relations are being shaped by new technologies.

The Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) at Leeds University Business School is pleased to announce a call for papers for a two day event in January 2020 relating to these questions.

This workshop calls for more careful, empirically grounded, theorisations of technology, its novelty and its impact on work and employment relations. We ask that contributions recognise the influence of conflicted interests and actions by managers, workers, the state and other social actors on the patterns, processes and outcomes of technological innovation. By devoting more attention to contextualising and historicising the relationship between technology and work, we ask contributors to develop more critical accounts of the extent of transformation and disruption, vis-à-vis entrenchment or continuity of existing social relations and employment relationships. Beyond the technology itself, what is genuinely novel and transformative about automation, AI or ‘platformisation’, which more mundane technologies might we be missing from the analysis?

We welcome contributions of themes including:

  • The state, regulation and new technology
  • Historical research on the introduction of new technologies of work
  • Management, resistance, organization, and technology
  • Occupations, skills, professions, and technology
  • Inequalities (race, gender, (dis)ability) and technology
  • Methods for studying work and technology – towards a research agenda

Submission details

Registration will be £100 for full academic staff and £50 for PhD students, with an optional £25 for the conference meal.
Please submit abstracts to c(dot)r(dot)umney(at)leeds(dot)ac(dot)uk or i(dot)bessa(at)leeds(dot)ac(dot)uk with a deadline of 10th October. Registration links will be available from October.