“Ready Lawnmower Player Man One”, or VR’s persistent future

For the last couple of years I have given a lecture that takes the “Virtual/Real” distinction and deconstructs it using various bits of geographical theory. I also talk about the enduring trope of the sort of eschatological narrative of VR, tying it back to a little bit of history, mainly focusing on how this has been propagated in pop culture. This year, for fun, I have decided to be a little bit more creative than resorting to my usual trick of showing the trailer for Lawnmower Man or Ready Player One – I’ve made a quick mashup of the two, which I think show quite nicely how the underlying narratives of the ‘virtual’ somehow counterposed to the ‘real’ but also in some way ‘crossing over’ is an enduring theme.

The other enduring theme here is that the forms of gameplay drawn upon are characterised as highly masculine (and normatively heterosexual – no queering of the digital here, sadly), which is something I will try to also blog about sometime…

Other film examples might include:

Sing the body electric… robots in music videos

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I recently saw the Chemical Brothers new-ish video for the song “Free Yourself”, featuring androids/robots apparently going feral and raving in a warehouse and it made me consciously think about something I’ve known for some time – there are quite a few music videos with ‘robots’ in them. 

So, here’s a very partial collection:

(More) Gendered imaginings of automata

My Cayla Doll

A few more bits on how automation gets gendered in particular kinds of contexts and settings. In particular, the identification of ‘home’ or certain sorts of intimacy with certain kinds of domestic or caring work that then gets gendered is something that has been increasingly discussed.

Two PhD researchers I am lucky enough to be working with, Paula Crutchlow (Exeter) and Kate Byron (Bristol), have approached some of these issues from different directions. Paula has had to wrangle with this in a number of ways in relation to the Museum of Contemporary Commodities but it was most visible in the shape of Mikayla, the hacked ‘My Friend Cayla Doll’. Kate is doing some deep dives on the sorts of assumptions that are embedded into the doing of AI/machine learning through the practices of designing, programming and so on. They are not, of course, alone. Excellent work by folks like Kate Crawford, Kate Devlin and Gina Neff (below) inform all of our conversations and work.

Here’s a collection of things that may provoke thought… I welcome any further suggestions or comments 🙂

Alexa, does AI have gender?


Alexa is female. Why? As children and adults enthusiastically shout instructions, questions and demands at Alexa, what messages are being reinforced? Professor Neff wonders if this is how we would secretly like to treat women: ‘We are inadvertently reproducing stereotypical behaviour that we wouldn’t want to see,’ she says.

Prof Gina Neff in conversation with Ruth Abrahams, OII.

Predatory Data: Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

it has been reported that female-sounding assistive chatbots regularly receive sexually charged messages. It was recently cited that five percent of all interactions with Robin Labs, whose bot platform helps commercial drivers with routes and logistics, is sexually explicit. The fact that the earliest female chatbots were designed to respond to these suggestions
deferentially or with sass was problematic as it normalised sexual harassment.

Vidisha Mishra and Madhulika Srikumar – Predatory Data: Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

The Gender of Artificial Intelligence

Chart showing that the gender of artificial intelligence (AI) is not neutral
The gendering, or not, of chatbots, digital assistants and AI movie characters – Tyler Schnoebelen

Consistently representing digital assistants as femalehard-codes a connection between a woman’s voice and subservience.

Stop Giving Digital Assistants Female Voices – Jessica Nordell, The New Republic

‘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 The Body Productive

Gilbreth motion studies light painting

Saw this via Twitter. Looks good.

Call for Papers

How are bodies produced under capitalism?

How, in turn, does capitalism make bodies productive?

How is the body (and knowledge of the body) shaped by demands of production, consumption and exchange, and how can these logics be resisted, challenged and overcome?

These are the questions at the heart of François Guéry and Didier Deleule’s Productive Body. First published in French in 1972, The Productive Body asks how the human body and its labour have been expropriated and re-engineered through successive stages of capitalism. The Productive Body challenges us to rethink the relationships between the biological and the social; the body and the mind; power and knowledge; discipline and control. Finally, it invites us to think about the body as a site of resistance and revolutionary potential.

corpsbody

At this one-day, interdisciplinary conference, we invite scholars and activists to assess the contribution of The Productive Body, and to address its relevance as a theoretical tool for understanding and challenging contemporary ideologies of bodily health, efficiency and productivity.

We invite submissions from scholars, activists and artists for 20-minute papers, or 10-minute provocations on the relationships – past and present – between capitalismwork and the body. Collaborative papers are welcome, and proposals for longer workshops and panel discussions will also be considered. Please contact the organisers if you are unsure. Proposals that explore or are inspired by any of the following areas are welcome:

  • Critical responses to Guéry and Deleule – the biological, the social, and the productive
  • Materialist vs. discursive approaches to the history of the body
  • Conceptualising discipline in Marx and Foucault
  • The body as an object of discipline vs. the body as a site of dissent
  • The psychology and corporeality of activism, organising and resistance
  • Hierarchies of gender and race in the division of labour
  • (Re)productive bodies; intimate and emotional labour, sex work, body work
  • How are ideas of health and disability shaped by the demands of wage labour?
  • How do queer bodies disrupt or challenge logics of productivity? How are queer bodies in turn, commodified or appropriated by capital?
  • How do the demands of productivity complicate/interact with the body as a site of intimacy?
  • Biopolitics and neoliberalism
  • Body-machines – technology and automation; robotics, cybernetics and transhumanism; digital surveillance, ‘lifelogging’ and the ‘quantified self’
  • Counterproductive bodies: pre-capitalist, non-capitalist, and post-capitalist bodies

Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words to thebodyproductive@gmail.com by 24th August 2018. Submissions are especially encouraged from graduate students, early-career researchers, and groups typically underrepresented in the academy.

“The Rise of the Robot Reserve Army” – interesting working paper

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

Saw this via Twitter somehow…

The Rise of the Robot Reserve Army: Automation and the Future of Economic Development, Work, and Wages in Developing Countries – Working Paper 487

Lukas Schlogl and Andy Sumner

Employment generation is crucial to spreading the benefits of economic growth broadly and to reducing global poverty. And yet, emerging economies face a contemporary challenge to traditional pathways to employment generation: automation, digitalization, and labor-saving technologies. 1.8 billion jobs—or two-thirds of the current labor force of developing countries—are estimated to be susceptible to automation from today’s technological standpoint. Cumulative advances in industrial automation and labor-saving technologies could further exacerbate this trend. Or will they? In this paper we: (i) discuss the literature on automation; and in doing so (ii) discuss definitions and determinants of automation in the context of theories of economic development; (iii) assess the empirical estimates of employment-related impacts of automation; (iv) characterize the potential public policy responses to automation; and (v) highlight areas for further exploration in terms of employment and economic development strategies in developing countries. In an adaption of the Lewis model of economic development, the paper uses a simple framework in which the potential for automation creates “unlimited supplies of artificial labor” particularly in the agricultural and industrial sectors due to technological feasibility. This is likely to create a push force for labor to move into the service sector, leading to a bloating of service-sector employment and wage stagnation but not to mass unemployment, at least in the short-to-medium term.

CFP > Critically Queer – 20/21 Sept. Bristol.

Queer Activists in South Africa

Saw this CFP via twitter. Looks like an interesting conference… may be of interest, see tweet below. More information about the working group organising the conference is on their website.

Reblog> Lecture by Stelarc and discussion in DesignLab, U. Twente

Peter Paul Verbeek blogged this, looks good! >>

Lecture by Stelarc and discussion in DesignLab

Thursday 24th of May from 4-7 pm

Location: DesignLab Universiteit Twente

The Australian performance artist Stelarc has visually probed and acoustically amplified his body and is well known for his pioneering work and ideas about extending the capabilities of the human body with technology. From 17th of May until 19th of August, Tetem is presenting the exhibition StickMan by Stelarc. During his stay in Enschede, Stelarc will give an extensive lecture in DesignLab about his pioneering performances and installations – for which he uses prosthetics, robotics, medical instruments, suspension, VR, biotechnology and internet to investigate the psychological and physical limitations of the body.

The event will be introduced by Frank Kresin (managing director of DesignLab). After Stelarc’s lecture, there will be a discussion with Stelarc, Herman van der Kooij (professor in Biomechatronics and Rehabilitation Technology and director of Wearable Robotics Lab) and Peter-Paul Verbeek (professor of Philosophy of Technology and co-director of DesignLab). During the discussion, led by moderator Wilja Jurg (director Tetem), we will explore the scientific, social and ethical implications of wearable robotics.

This event is organized in collaboration with DesignLab as part of StickMan exhibition in Tetem. DesignLab is a creative and cross-disciplinary ecosystem at the University of Twente, connecting science and society through design: https://www.utwente.nl/en/designlab/.

Short description about StickMan:

The StickMan is a minimal but full-body exoskeleton, that algorithmically actuates the artist with six degrees-of-freedom. 64 possible combinations of gestures are generated. Sensors on StickMan generate sounds that augment the pneumatic noise and register the limb movements. A ring of speakers circulates the sounds, immersing the audience in an acoustic landscape as an extension of StickMan’s body.

The StickMan is an anthropomorphized, programmable motion and sound machine which functions with not only the body connected, but also as an installation by itself. A smaller replica of StickMan enables visitors to record and play their choreography by bending the limbs into a sequence of positions, which also inadvertently composes the sounds generated.

StickMan is shown for the first time in Europe. The smaller replica of StickMan was made especially for the exhibition in Tetem.

For more information and events visit:

http://www.tetem.nl/portfolio/stickman/

How and why is children’s digital data being harvested?

A large number of CCTV cameras

Nice post by Huw Davies, which is worth a quick read (its fairly short)…

We need to ask what would data capture and management look like if it is guided by a children’s framework such as this one developed here by Sonia Livingstone and endorsed by the Children’s Commissioner here. Perhaps only companies that complied with strong security and anonymisation procedures would be licenced to trade in UK? Given the financial drivers at work, an ideal solution would possibly make better regulation a commerical incentive. We will be exploring these and other similar questions that emerge over the coming months.