Popular automative imagination (some novels)

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

I’ve had about six months of reading various versions of speculative/science fiction after not having read in that genre for a little while… so here’s a selection of books I’ve read (almost exclusively on an ereader) that have more-or-less been selected following the ‘people who read [a] also read [b]’ lists.

I’m not sure these books necessarily offer any novel insights but they do respond to the current milieu of imagining automation (AI, big data, platform-ing, robots, surveillance capitalism etc etc) and in that sense are a sort of very partial (and weird) guide to that imagination and the sorts of visions being promulgated.

I’d like to write more but I don’t have the time or energy so this is more or less a place-holder for trying to say something more interesting at a later date… I do welcome other suggestions though! Especially less conventionally Western ones.

ADD. Jennie Day kindly shared a recent blogpost by David Murakami Wood in which he makes some recommendations for SF books. Some of these may be of interest if you’re looking for wider recommendations. In particular, I agree with his recommendations of Okorafor’s “Lagoon“, which is a great novel.

Talk – Plymouth, 17 Oct: ‘New geographies of automation?’

Rachael in the film Blade Runner

I am looking forward to visiting Plymouth (tomorrow) the 17th October to give a Geography department research seminar. It’s been nearly twenty years (argh!) since I began my first degree, in digital art, at Plymouth so I’m looking forward to returning. I’ll be talking about a couple of aspects of ‘The Automative Imagination’ under a slightly different title – ‘New geographies of automation?’ The talk will take in archival BBC and newspaper automation anxieties, management consultant magical thinking (and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’), gendered imaginings of domesticity (with the Jetsons amongst others) and some slightly under-cooked (at the moment) thoughts about how ‘agency’ (what kinds of ‘beings’ or ‘things’ can do what kinds of action).

Do come along if you’re free and happen to be in the glorious gateway to the South West that is Plymouth.

Why WIRED’s future never arrives – David Karpf

Promotional image for the 1995 film Hackers

Quite a good piece on the Wired website reflecting upon 25 years of predictions about the future in the pages of that magazine (though I’m not sure the exonerating final paragraph rings true). Worth a read…

Looking back at WIRED’s early visions of the digital future, the mistake that seems most glaring is the magazine’s confidence that technology and the economics of abundance would erase social and economic inequality. Both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 imagined a future that upended traditional economics. We were all going to be millionaires, all going to be creators, all going to be collaborators. But the bright future of abundance has, time and again, been waylaid by the present realities of earnings reports, venture investments, and shareholder capitalism. On its way to the many, the new wealth has consistently been diverted up to the few.

By now, the digital revolution isn’t just the future; it has a history. Digital technology runs our economy. It organizes our daily lives. It mediates how we learn information, tell each other stories, and connect with our neighbors. It’s how we control and harass and encourage one another. It’s a tool of both surveillance and resistance. You can almost never be entirely offline anymore. The internet is setting the agenda for the world around us.

The digital revolution’s track record suggests that its arc doesn’t always bend toward abundance—or in a straight line at all. It flits about, responding to the gravitational forces of hype bubbles and monopoly power, warped by the resilience of old institutions and the fragility of new ones. Today’s WIRED seems to have learned these lessons.

25 years of wired predictions: why the future never arrives – David Karpf

“Emett” and “Miss Honeywell”

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

A couple of short films produced by British Pathé, both documenting what I guess were seen as whimsical takes on computerisation and automation originating from Honeywell. I don’t have much to say about these at the moment beyond the ways in which these videos more-or-less demonstrate the biases and norms of their time (gender and sexism being the most clear here) but also the ways in which they say something about how ‘automation’, robots and forms of novel technology (and so on) have been bound up with ideas about invention (which again is coloured by contemporary assumptions about who does the inventing).

Thanks to Mar Hicks for sharing “Miss Honeywell” on Twitter.

The Computer by Emett (1966) – British Pathé
Miss Honeywell (1968) – British Pathé

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

Industrial factory robot arms

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
andrew.dwyer@cybersecurity.ox.ac.uk

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.

CFP> Intelligent Futures: automation, AI & cognitive ecologies

statue of a man holding his head with his right hand

This looks like an interesting conference. Also – the keynote is Prof. Joanna Zylinska who really is both an excellent researcher and a wonderful speaker.

Call For Papers

Intelligent Futures: Automation, AI and Cognitive Ecologies

A Postgraduate Conference supported by CHASE DTP and Sussex Humanities Lab

1–2 October 2018, University of Sussex (UK)

CALL FOR PAPERS

CHASE DTP and the Sussex Humanities Lab (University of Sussex) seek to engage doctoral and early-career researchers working on philosophical, cultural and literary approaches to Artificial Intelligence. The aim of the event is to bring scholars from the humanities into discussion with their peers from the social sciences, informatics and engineering, psychology and the life sciences. The conference will promote critical and speculative engagements with questions of technical cognition, with special emphasis on sustainability and the emergence of new planetary ecologies of thought.

We are looking for papers addressing a wide range of approaches to AI. These could include, but need not be limited to, the following:

  • Natural and technical cognition
  • Automation
  • Planetary computing
  • Artificial Lives and Digital Selves
  • Narrative, Meaning and Images of the Future
  • Materiality of Memory
  • Sustainability and Technology

Please send a short abstract (250 words) for a 20 minutes paper to intelligentfutures@sussex.ac.ukby 15 August 2018.

Conference Organising Committee:

Programme Chairs: M. Beatrice Fazi (Sussex) and Michael Jonik (Sussex)

CHASE Chair: Rob Witts (Sussex)

Administrative Assistance and Website: Gabriel Chin (Sussex)

Conference Website:

http://intelligentfutures.org/

SuperTag ‘scanner will end checkout woes’ – 1994

Still image taken from the Microsoft Future Vision of Retail, circa 2010

In this front page article from 6th January 1994, The Guardian Technology Editor reports that the “SuperTag” scanner, from “newly privatised British Technology Group” will “read the entire contents of a supermarket trolley at a glance” … “The day cannot be too far off when the weekly shop ordered from home will be collected later already in the trolley”.

Except of course we just get the supermarket to deliver to our door instead… anyway, a nice piece of the ‘automative imagination‘ in play… (also, good to compare to this).

Designing for millennia – why danger signs cannot last forever

The jolly roger, or death's head, symbol on a building

Biohazard symbols

A short watch, the video above that speaks in some ways to my recent posting of the CFP for the Memories of the Future event. The podcast 99-percent Invisible have created this ~ 7-min. video on the development of standardised warning signs like these (image on the left).

It also briefly discusses how those charged with securing nuclear waste facilities in the USA have considered how we might leave legible warnings to people thousands of years in the future.

CFP > Memories of the future, London 2019

the character Doc Brown in the film Back to the Future

Via Temporal Belongings.

Memories of the Future

International conference. Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London
Dates: 29-30 March 2019
Confirmed speakers: Stephen Bann (Bristol); Rebecca Coleman (Goldsmiths); Paolo Jedlowski (Calabria); Anna Reading (KCL); Michael Rothberg (UCLA)

Proposals for panels or papers by 31 July 2018 to memories.future@sas.ac.uk.

Call for papers
What does it mean to remember the future? What roles do memory, history, the past play in our consciousness as citizens of the early twenty-first century?

David Lowenthal (2015) reminds us that ‘commands to forget coexist with zeal to commemorate’, which raises the very important yet often overlooked questions of: what to remember and what to forget, who is well positioned to lead on or judge in that process, with whose legacies in mind, and with what consequences for future and past generations. In the 1980s, a significant body of scholarship on cultural memory emerged to protect the past from ‘time’s corrosive energy’, leading to ‘collective future thought’ (J. Assmann, 2011; Szpunar and Szpunar, 2016). Cultural memory acted as a moral imperative, a prerequisite to overcome not merely violent pasts but the violence inherent in linear temporality. As such, cultural memory has been seen as redemptive, enabling a more productive relation between past, present and future.

More recently, ‘thinking forward through the past’ has been central to a number of AHRC-funded projects in the UK examining environmental change, postcolonial disaster, gender and colonialism, heritage futures, ruins and more. Climate change, big data and the crisis of democracy are challenging our future in ways that may suggest a misalignment of temporal scales. One way of responding to this is through what Reinhart Koselleck (2000) called horizons of expectations and spaces of experience, namely, the horizons implicit in our anticipations of the future and the degree to which our experience of these have changed and will change over time. Utopian imaginaries and deploying utopia as a method (Levitas, 2013) invite us to think about hope, empathy, and solidarity, each contributing to create different places from which to imagine a future outside crises, fears and risk.

The past and the future constitute our cultural horizons in ways which are neither neutral nor solely technical, but, as Appadurai (2013) has suggested, ‘shot through with affect and sensation’. One of the key challenges of our time is how to study and create futures we truly care for and which are more social (Adam and Groves 2007; Urry, 2016).

Memories of the Future invites contributions to articulate the future in relation to cultural memory, and interrogate the precise and diverse manners in which the past, the present and the future are intertwined and dialogical, complicating our understanding of temporalities in an age saturated with memory and ‘past futures’.

Suggested themes and areas of inquiry include:

  • The future of memory
  • Temporal multi-directionalities
  • Memories of the future
  • Utopias and dystopias
  • Past, present and future mobilities
  • Smart cities and future/ist metropolises
  • Science-fiction and other subsets of utopia
  • Housing, cohousing and the future of habitation
  • Futurisms, modernisms, afro-futurisms
  • The future in/and the Anthropocene
  • Post-humanism and the non-human
  • Intentions, expectations, anticipations
  • Counterfactuals
  • Trauma, violence and conflict
  • Tangible and intangible heritage

Please submit proposals for panels or papers (max 20 minutes) by 31 July 2018 to memories.future@sas.ac.uk, including a 150-250 words abstract.

Practising speculation and tech futures

Glitched AT&T 1990s advert

I’ve had a sort of moment of realisation this morning that a bunch of tabs I’ve had open, saved, reopened (etc etc) for the past few months are all more-or-less about doing speculative work around A.I., automation and suchlike.

This is interesting for me cos I wrote a PhD (and I am by no means the only one) about rationales for and forms of speculative practice in computing R&D (my fieldwork for this was, soberingly, now approximately ten years ago). It’s also interesting cos I have, in the last eight or so years, pitched for funding to do this sort of work and miserably failed three times.

I think what interests me most is the ways in which story telling is more-or-less the method. I’m not sure how good we are at this, as academics. There’s some good work that analyses speculative things, such as architects visualisations, but I’m not sure I’ve seen much work doing speculation that is not design-oriented. I am not seeking to criticise speculative design practices, I really admire that work, I just wonder if there is a way of de-centring the ‘design’ bit to engage in broader forms of ‘speculation’. I’m also not sure how one can tread the line between evoking particular kinds of scenario/ story (or dare I say imaginative geography) and affirming them. Likewise, I don’t think it is sufficient to simply refer to Black Mirror – it’s fun but it’s not the only way of doing speculation about technology (as afrofuturism demonstrates). I don’t think we want to merely replicate the sorts of ‘visioning’ practices of the likes of Microsoft, Samsung or Beko, not because they’re not interesting but because I’d like to think academics doing this kind of thing want to critically reflect on, not simply propose (or impose!), possibilities.  Playful examples that I think are successful include Superflux’s excellent “Uninvited Guests” – though again, this is perhaps more design-oriented: it’s more about the function in relation to the individual rather than the kinds of world that are necessary for those functions to work.

I do not claim any special insight here – I’m curious about speculative methods – they seem to have some analytical/ explanatory/ critical power but also that also seems to be rather hard to negotiate. In practice, I think you may have to be in the right context, and I’m not convinced academic geography is (without quite a bit of work, given particular kinds of disciplinary assumptions and proclivities – happy to be proven wrong!), and you may have to work with non-academic partners in a way I am not skilled in doing. Good examples, I think, are work like Anne’s Counting Sheep project, which is a canonical example of interesting and provocative speculative design. As I’ve said – I’m not so sure about where non-design-oriented work sits and how this is, or can be, done well. I’m interested in some of the attempts anyway, and here’s some examples, listed below.

UPDATE: Sam Hind shared this piece from Warwick concerning issue mapping techniques that allowed for speculative reflection on driverless cars:

Surfacing Social Aspects of Driverless Cars with Creative Methods, Noortje Marres, Rebecca Cain, Ana Gross, Lucy Kimbell and Arun Ulahannan – “The Warwick workshop explored the potential of creative social research methods – such as design research and debate mapping – to surface still hidden social dynamics around the operation of intelligent technologies in everyday environments, and to complement more established approaches to societal testing of these technologies.”

This made me also think of the speculative policy making practices that arose from “Open Policy” work at the British Cabinet Office’s PolicyLab, which I think involved folks from Strange Telemetry and Superflux.


Crafting stories of technology and progress: five  considerations, Cian O’Donavan & Johan Schot – From Technology Stories the website of the Society for the History of Technology comes this brief post that refers to the longer report from the International Panel on Social Progress concerning the fairly classic Science and Technology Studies issue of how to tell stories about “progress” without necessarily resorting to (unreflexive) forms of determinism. There are four ‘stories’ by several researchers linked from this article that address a number of issues:

Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies – I’m not really sure why the “science” is in the title but there we go… From the blurb: “Rooted in the sense that our current economic reality is no longer credible or viable, this collection treats our economy as a series of fictions and science fiction as a means of anticipating different economic futures.”

Designing the future, Justin Reynolds – reviews the above book on the New Socialist site, with some interesting commentary.

Future Perfect conference/event, coordinated by Data & Society – characterised as “speculative fiction in the public interest” this event was first run in 2017 as an invitation-only thing but had an open call in 2018. From the 2018 event blurb: “Future Perfect is an annual workshop and conference dedicated to different approaches to understanding, living in, and challenging dominant narratives of speculative fiction in a time where powerful actors in technology and politics treat the future like a foregone conclusion.”

Robot Futures, Illah Reza Nourbakhsh – “Future robots will have superhuman abilities in both the physical and digital realms. They will be embedded in our physical spaces, with the ability to go where we cannot, and will have minds of their own, thanks to artificial intelligence. In Robot Futures, the roboticist Illah Reza Nourbakhsh considers how we will share our world with these creatures, and how our society could change as it incorporates a race of stronger, smarter beings.”