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.

Bernard Stielger and the Plaine Commune experiment

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

I’ve been following up some links concerning the experiment that the philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been instrumental in setting up in the Greater Paris borough of Seine-Saint-Denis as part of a sort of ‘special trade/economic’ area that has government funding called Plaine Commune.

I’ve (roughly) translated two pieces, below, which offer a little more detail on how the territoire contributif model might work and the sorts of things going on in Plaine Commune. First is short piece from Le Parisien talking about what the project is and a bit of the ‘how’ and ‘when’. Second is an interview with Bernard Stiegler by a staff writer for The Conversation – France specifically about Plaine Commune.

As I have written elsewhere, Stiegler has proposed Plaine Commune as a ‘territoire contributif‘ – a sort of region of contribution [a territory or zone delineated as an area in which the economy of contribution might take precedence, along the same lines as ‘free trade zones‘ perhaps, but with a very different ethics/politics]. The principle role in this enterprise is the role of the (academic professorial) ‘Chair of economies of contribution’, who is charged with  overseeing the pilot of a kind of basic or citizens’ income (broadly akin to a universal basic income, though see the discussion below) that Stiegler suggest will be implemented through a formal agreement of ‘contribution’ – whereby the income is granted on the premise that the people given it will use it to subside their own personal development, in turn making them greater contributors to society.

Anyone who has been around or studied or even simply read about political projects that are led by well-meaning academics may well be fairly suspicious or cynical about such a scheme. It seems the project has not been without issues either, with (as far as I can tell) some of the governmental funding falling short of expectations and thus cuts to planned activities had to be made (there were PhD studentships planned but these it seems may have been cut).

If we are to be charitable we might applaud Stiegler for attempting to put into place his ideas about contributory – economies, incomes, territories and so on.  I am also sympathetic to the issues of funding and so on that they’re having to wrangle with – doing this kind of work is hard. The project is still in train so it remains to be seen how it plays out. Nevertheless, I have a few questions.

First, the project is positioned as a means of helping local residents of a given area and yet a lot of the funding seems to be directed towards academic work that must be, in part, institutionally based – I wonder how this works out? Where does the ‘Professor of Contribution’ actually sit – where’s their office?

Second, I’m curious about the relationship between the processes and practices labelled as ‘contributory’ and the techniques and technologies from long-standing engaged/ participatory democracy activities, e.g. GovLab, MySociety and others. How is ‘participatory’ employment/economics different?

Third, towards the end of the interview, below, Stiegler claims that the aim is not to build a specific local economy but to ultimately transform the macro-economy, but we don’t really get any detail about how you get from Plaine Commune to the whole of France. It would be good to see more on that.

Finally, the tools that are suggested, and have been created through the Institute for Research and Innovation at the Pompidou Centre are very pedagogical – concerned with shared or collaborative learning, in the vein of educational technology – and so it would be good to understand if that is the sole focus or whether the toolset will broaden and if so how?

Anyway… please find below the two (rough) translations. As usual I have included in square brackets original French, where I’m unsure of the translation, or clarifications. I have also maintained, in the Conversation piece, all of the original francophone hyperlinks unless there is a clear anglophone alternative.

I welcome comments or corrections!


Plaine Commune wants to test a “contributive income”

The borough [territoire] of Plaine Commune* wants to trial a “contributory income”. The project is still in the hands of researchers and, if it takes place, it will not begin in the near future. The concept is supposed to respond to the massive loss of salaried jobs, due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. “According to a study, three million jobs will disappear by 2025,” notes the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who works on the project for the borough [territoire]. This Wednesday, he presented the outline, in Saint-Denis, alongside Patrick Braouezec, president (Front de gauche) of Plaine Commune. The latter was commissioned in May 2015 by the Ministers of Economy and Higher Education to discuss the issue.

The contributory income, unlike a universal income, could be paid to a part of the population, on the condition that they perform, in one way or another, a service to society. Bernard Stiegler distinguishes here (salaried) “employment” from “work” (accomplished outside of any contract). And he cites the example of the ‘intermittents du spectacle’ [see: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/intermittent-support-how-cuts-are-hitting-artists-in-france/] “who continue to work when they are not employed by a director, by improving their abilities”.

Who could be involved in this contributory income, in a territory where poverty affects nearly one in three households? Nothing is stopped but Bernard Stiegler and Patrick Braouezec cite areas such as sport, music, street food, mobile mechanics [mécaniques sauvages] … There needs to be a way “to allow the entire population to feel their work is recognised, while also enabling young people who have skills without qualifications to contribute to society” says Patrick Braouezec.

With the support of the Ministry of Higher Education, last Autumn a Chair of Contributive Research was created at the Maison des sciences de l’homme in Saint-Denis. Orange and Dassault Systems are participating in the research, alongside the Institute of Research and Innovation headed by Bernard Stiegler. A report is delivered to the ministers concerned today. The implementation of the experiment cannot be decided upon before the elections: “In June, we will take up where we left off [reprendrons notre bâton de pèlerin],” insists Patrick Braouezec.

* Plaine Commune is something like a borough within the suburban department (a governmental and legislative geographical authority within France) of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is a part of what gets referred to as “Greater Paris“.


A conversation with Bernard Stiegler: “Making Plaine Commune in Seine-Saint-Denis the first territory for contribution [territoire contributif] in France”

Jennifer Gallé

A [demographically] young and economically dynamic territory facing mass unemployment and the challenges of social and cultural diversity is the location where, at the request of Patrick Braouezec, the president of Plaine Commune, the philosopher Bernard Stiegler is initiating an unprecedented and ambitious experiment: to make this community – which brings together nine cities of Seine-Saint-Denis – a “Contributory Learning Territory”. It will carry out contributory “research-action” projects, including the inhabitants; in the long term, it will be a question of setting up a contributory income to differently distribute wealth at a time when automation makes work precarious. In November 2016, a new Chair of Contributory Research joined the principle researchers, created within the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (MSH-North Paris). The Conversation France met the philosopher [Bernard Stiegler] to learn more about this initiative, where new ways of doing research and reflections upon the nature of the work of tomorrow interact.

What is the purpose of this project?
It is a question of inventing a “French disruption” and to make the Plaine Commune borough, which is not privileged but shows a striking dynamism, into a laboratory, a school, a avant-garde location, including appropriating so-called smart cities [originally in English with “villes intelligentes” appended] – but not to become a smart city as it is defined today, and to us seems unbearable, unacceptable and probably bankrupt. It is about installing a true urban intelligence.

We are launching a process of borough-wide experimentation with a view to generating and supporting real social innovation opening the way to a new macro-economy where industrialists, financiers, universities, artists, governments and local politicians work in concert, and with the inhabitants, in this indispensable political and economic reinvention. The objective is ultimately to set up an economy based on a “contributory income”, which is based in particular on the principle of a gradual extension of the system for intermittents du spectacle into other activities.

When did this project take shape?
In December 2013, following the “The new age of automation” colloquium held at the Pompidou Centre, which focused on the effects of digital technology in the development of the data economy. I had discussions with industrialists and the president of Plaine Commune, Patrick Braouezec: we take very seriously the Oxford and MIT analyses which predict a job collapse because 47% of jobs current in the United States would be automatable, 50% in France, etc. – the Roland Berger corporation anticipate three million jobs will be lost in ten years. Something has to be done.

A minimum wage is not a solution on its own. If the issue of automation and job loss is taken seriously, new production processes and criteria for redistributing wealth must be developed.

[a video about the ‘top 10 roles that may be replaced by robots’ was originally embedded here]

Why is the distinction between work and employment essential?
If automatable work disappears, we can celebrate: this type of job consists of applying prescribed procedures by systems that mechanically control employees. The work is done more and more outside of employment. The pianist practices his scales in the same way that the mathematician practices his maths: outside of employment … Thus, to work is to first increase one’s abilities – and these abilities are what can bring a wealth to the world that is not yet present.

We borrow the concept of capacity to the Indian economist Amartya Sen. He has highlighted something significant that is the basis of our reflection: he showed that in Bangladesh, even during a period of famine, development indicators and life expectancy were higher than those of Harlem. Amartya Sen, who is interested in communities, not just individuals, has shown how these communities maintain what they call “capabilities“.

A capability is knowledge – a life-skill as well as know-how or intellectual knowledge. Many people in Harlem have lost this because they are caught in a process of proletarianization by patterns of production or consumption. In the twentieth century, the know-how of the worker disappears then it is the turn of the life-skills of the consumer, who begins to adopt prefabricated behaviours by marketing firms. Ultimately, Alan Greenspan himself declares before the Congressional Budget Committee that he has “>lost his economic knowledge!

Why Seine-Saint-Denis?
Principally, there is, the president of Plaine Commune, Patrick Braouezec’s keen interest, for over ten years, in the work we are doing as part of the Institute for Research and Innovation and the Ars Industrialis Association which I chair. There is also the extraordinary economic dynamism of this borough, especially in the south of the department with this very strong urban dynamic around the Stade de France, a development begun twenty years ago.

In the northern suburbs are also two universities, Paris 8 and Paris 13, with several excellent groups, the Condorcet campus in whicha number of researchers and graduate schools in the social sciences, such as the EHESS [School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences], will be concentrated, and it is also an urban space where many artists settle. Ultimately it is a territory that must find solutions to deal with mass unemployment. Extrapolating figures from Roland Berger’s study [Roland Berger is a business consultancy firm], unemployment for the under-25s, which was 38% two years ago, is set to increase catastrophically in the next ten years. The consequences for Plaine Commune are likely to be unbearable.

There is therefore an imperative need to open up new perspectives on making an economically viable means of developing that might otherwise become apocalyptic. The nation has the duty to support such a development. We believe that the potential of this transformation must serve as an exemplar, the aim is not to develop a “local” economy here.

A picture of Saint-Denis
The regeneration area in Saint-Denis

How will the research component of the project be organized?
We identified a series of objectives with the elected officials and administrative staff of Plaine Commune. We have started a survey of a number of major stakeholders who validated the process and we are currently launching a Chair of Contributory Research whose first mission will be to produce a dossier to define the experimental scope of the project, in close collaboration with Plaine Commune.

In this context, we launched a call for applications for PhD studentships around a dozen themes, which closed on September 30, 2016. We initially had to select between 10 and 20 PhD students. The budgets allocated to us in 2016 by the Ministry of Research and Higher Education has not ultimately allowed us to hire doctoral students this year. We therefore recruited five researchers – in economics, political science, sociology, philosophy and education studies – into a one-year contract to start the work and put in place the methods of contributory research, which represents a whole series of constraints. Another researcher in psychoanalysis has been retained, who is self-financing.

In the first place, they will have to be able to explain the subject of their work to the inhabitants of Plaine Commune, whether they are fluent in French or not. We will of course help them by mobilizing actors, videographers, artists, media outlets … But they will have to make an effort to explain, even if their subject is theoretical. They will follow two seminars a week: one that I will lead and another that they will lead themselves, by presenting their work to one another and inviting [external] researchers or contributors. They will work together, share their notes and results, first with each other and then with the local residents.

Can you give a concrete example?
In the renovation of social housing, for example, a contribution economy for a building could be set up to create a “negentropic” – as opposed to entropic – environment which is also a site for building the skills of the inhabitants, in the style of the architect Patrick Bouchain [more information on Bouchain]. These are residents who innovate and produce sustainable value for themselves, as much as for the city.

More generally, what place is there for residents in this system [dispositif]?
For this project, which takes ten years to [attempt to] deeply change things, we hope to be able to involve the 400,000 inhabitants of Plaine Commune with this contributory research approach; it will start on a small scale to extend to what could be called a contributory democracy. The program is transdisciplinary, as all fields must be explored, such as sports for example. Here, the Stade de France is crucial and sport has been profoundly transformed by the digital in recent years. If we speak to the young people of Seine-Saint-Denis without being able to say anything about football, we will not get very far – especially as there is the prospect of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Why put digital at the heart of the project?
Because digital technology is changing all knowledge, and because knowledge is the key to the future. In 2008, Vincent Peillon, at the time Minister of Education, asked me to lead a group on the introduction of digital [technology] into school; I had then a little disappointed his cabinet by stating: “The digital is dangerous for schools”. I resigned pretty quickly. I’m working on these issues with Maryanne Wolf, an American neuropsychologist. She conducts accurate analyzes, based on medical imaging, and some of her findings are rather troubling.

I’m not saying that we do not need the digital in school, but I do say that it must be introduced deliberately. I continued to support this point of view, particularly at the National Research Agency where I sat for a few years; I had thus proposed to develop doctoral research in all fields to see what the digital “does” within disciplines. For it is not simply a new way of teaching or transmitting knowledge; it is first of all a means of producing knowledge, scientific objects; take nano-objects, for example, which are today entirely produced by the digital; biology and astrophysics also go through the digital, and in mathematics the conditions of proof are modified.

Digital technology is a scientific revolution on which no one works, because all the credits are put on innovation to develop the software and the interfaces of tomorrow … In 2008, I also told by a consultant of Vincent Peillon that it was necessary to adopt a rational attitude towards the digital world and to study it. He told me that I reasoned like an “intellectual” and that he needed quick results. I suggested that we could move forward through contributory research. That is to say, to bring digital into school by introducing, at the same time, research. I always cite Finland where all teachers in are obliged to do research – and this is clearly not insignificant in the quality of the results of this country. That’s what I call contributive research, it goes beyond the teaching profession and concerns the whole population.

What is the digital doing in research?
Digital technology is transforming all scientific activities, as the instruments of observation have been doing since the sixteenth century, passing through what Bachelard called phenomenotechnics [for further discussion]. Yet unlike previous scientific technologies, digital technology also modifies life-skills and know-how, that is to say, everyday life and social relations as well as linguistic skills, for example: these are the scientific objects that are changed.

We are also in a period where technology is evolving extremely fast; if we follow the normal circuits of scientific deliberation, we always arrive too late. This is “disruption“.

Faced with disruption, the social systems and the people who constitute them must also grasp technological development to become prescribers and practitioners, and not only consumers – and sometimes victims. The social system is being short-circuited, and so destroyed, by the technical system. To this end, we must do “concurrent engineering” [l’ingéniérie simultanée]; Thirty years ago, Renault and Volvo introduced such methods to accelerate the transfer of technology by working in parallel and not sequentially; it has become today what we call “agile development”. I have been practicing this for a long time, especially with engineers. For Plaine Commune, the idea is to elaborate – simultaneously with all the different stakeholders in the territory, including the industrialists – a debate, theoretical hypotheses, a required scientific oversight, and using action research methods.

What do you mean by action research?
This is a method developed in the United States in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin who used it in psychosociology; for him, when working with “subjects”, to use the vocabulary of psychologists, it is necessary that people themselves become researchers, because they are precisely subjects and not objects.

This method was then used in management, it is also why it is much criticized by the left and Marxists who see a method of integration and ultimately manipulation. Norway, in particular, has been advanced in transforming its industrial production tools. Action research has also been used in the field of psychiatry, such as at the Tavistock Institute in London.

We must mention here the works of François Tosquelles [this paper provides some context about Tosquelles], a refugee from the Spanish war who transformed a neglected psychiatric hospital in Lozère into a place that became experimental, somewhat by accident. Totally abandoned by the Vichy government in the 1940s, this hospital, like many others, had to face an extreme situation with patients dying of hunger. Tosquelles then completely reversed the situation by urging his patients to take hold of the state of affairs to make the hospital the object of care. The institution became the sick person to be cared for. This was the beginning of a revolution, which included Georges Canguilhem. At the Borde clinic Félix Guattari pursued this direction with Jean Oury.

[A francophone video about Francois Tosquelles was embedded here in the original]

Is there a place for industrialists in Plaine Commune?
Orange and Dassault Systèmes actively support us. Orange is seeking to develop local platforms and related local services, and together with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) we argue that we need to bring forward a new kind of web that cannot be transformed into a data economy. A contributory tool for people, not people serving the platform!

From Dassault Systèmes, whose engineering communities are already working on the contributory mode, there is a very strong interest for the research and experimentation that we carry out around the sharing of notes. They are also very sensitive to the problems of the contributory economy.

What will these new contributory tools consist of?
Tools [see the IRI website] for note-taking, for example, there is a system capable of making a contributory recommendations – allowing, through the algorithmic analysis of annotations, to recommend the work of other researchers, on various criteria, in order to emphasize convergences and divergences and thus activate the kinds of critical dynamics that make science. It is a kind of computer-assisted Socratic dialogue. When you have 24 students, it’s the teacher who does that; but it’s impossible with thousands of people.

The goal is also to develop new types of social networks that are built around a controversy or a common goal. This would connect not individuals but groups, restoring the social link. Today, social networks are antisocial; But this is not inevitable.

Mostly, then, it is about recreating links …
There is currently a big debate in California on big data and correlationist mathematics, the advances in which lead some to say that we will soon be able to do without theory: some, including Chris Anderson, claim that thanks to correlations theoretical elaboration becomes incidental. I am fiercely opposed to this delusional discourse, which is part of the basis of the data economy, and I criticise this in The Automatic Society.

Digital contributory technologies must be used not to bypass the decision of individuals and groups but to debate and consolidate decisions. The first time I thought about what could be a “truly smart city” , it was in the very small town of Loos-en-Gohelle with its mayor, Jean-François Caron, who ten years ago set up a system of sensors – for recording circulation, temperature, consumption – which does not trigger automated regulations managed by algorithms … rather they convene meetings of residents and associations.

How do you differentiate between contributory and collaborative?
[There is] a big difference. Collaborative is what enables working for free; it is the logic of the Uber, Amazon or Airbnb -type platforms where, progressively, under the pretext of sharing data, we create short circuits, we perform disintermediation, we completely deregulate and we become predatory because we have captured all of everyone’s data and we control all this in an occult way. It is a negative contribution; these platforms which redistribute nothing – neither money nor symbols [symbole] – proletarianise and de-symbolise [désymbolisent]. This is also a criticism that can be addressed to Google. I am thinking here of Frédéric Kaplan’s work which showed that the algorithmic exploitation of language by Google leads tendentially to a standardization of language, producing entropy.

A negative contributory economy is an economy that further aggravates the entropy of consumerism. Many people who work in the collaborative field and the sharing economy are doing very nice things but the collaborative economy is not yet qualified at the macro-economic level: it is only thought at the level of the firm, the small enterprise, and the problem is that it does not take all account for the issue of positive and negative externalities. As a result, it leads to the contrary of how it has been imagined.

It is to bring these issues to the macro-economic level that we have the ambition, in Plaine Commune, to contribute to the invention of a new national accounting plan [nouveau plan comptable national], obviously with other territories. The goal is not to remake the local economy, but an economy that is localized, externalisable and deterritorializable. In short, it is not a question of creating boundaries – but, rather, of creating limits: limits to the Entropocene that is the Anthropocene, and for a negentropic economy with a view to a Neganthropocene.

Seminar> Charis Thompson: On the Posthuman in the Age of Automation and Augmentation

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

If you happen to be in Exeter on Friday 11th May then I urge you to attend this really interesting talk by Prof. Charis Thompson (UC Berkeley), organised by Sociology & Philosophy at Exeter. Here’s the info:

Guest speaker – Professor Charis Thompson: On the Posthuman in the Age of Automation and Augmentation

A Department of Sociology & Philosophy lecture
Date 11 May 2018
Time 14:00 to 15:15
Place IAIS Building/LT1

Charis Thompson is Chancellor’s Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies and the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society, UC Berkeley, and Professor, Department of Sociology, London School of Economics. She is the author of Making Parents; The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies (MIT Press 2007), which won the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society of the Social Studies of Science, and of Good Science: The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Research (MIT Press 2013). Her book in progress, Getting Ahead, revisits classic questions on the relation between science and democracy in an age of populism and inequality, focusing particularly on genome editing and AI.

She served on the Nuffield Council Working Group on Genome Editing, and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Council on Technology, Values and Policy. Thompson is a recipient of UC Berkeley’s Social Science Distinguished Teaching Award.  In 2017, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the National Science and Technology University of Norway for work on science and society.

SPA PGR Conference Committee
Maria Dede
Aimee Middlemiss
Celia Plender
Elena Sharratt

Reblog> Humans and machines at work

A warehouse worker and robot

Via Phoebe Moore. Looks good >>

Humans and Machines coverHumans and machines at work: monitoring, surveillance and automation in contemporary capitalism edited by Phoebe V. Moore, Martin Upchurch and Xanthe Whittaker.
This edited collection is now in production/press (Palgrave, Dynamics of Virtual Work series editors Ursula Huws and Rosalind Gill). This is the results of the symposium I organised for last year’s International Labour Process Conference (ILPC). We are so fortunate to have 9 women and 3 men authors from all over the world including Chinese University Hong Kong, Harvard, WA University St Louis, Milan, Sheffield, Lancaster, King’s College, Greenwich, and Middlesex researchers, two trade unionists from UNI Global Union and Institute for Employment Rights, early career and more advanced contributors.

In the era of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, we increasingly work with machines in both cognitive and manual workplaces. This collection provides a series of accounts of workers’ local experiences that reflect the ubiquity of work’s digitalisation. Precarious gig economy workers ride bikes and drive taxis in China and Britain; domestic workers’ timekeeping and movements are documented; call centre workers in India experience invasive tracking but creative forms of worker subversion are evident; warehouse workers discover that hidden data has been used for layoffs; academic researchers see their labour obscured by a ‘data foam’ that does not benefit us; and journalists suffer the algorithmic curse. These cases are couched in historical accounts of identity and selfhood experiments seen in the Hawthorne experiments and the lineage of automation. This collection will appeal to scholars in the sociology of work and digital labour studies and anyone interested in learning about monitoring and surveillance, automation, the gig economy and quantified self in workplaces.

Table of contents:

Chapter 1: Introduction. Phoebe V. Moore, Martin Upchurch, Xanthe Whittaker

Chapter 2: Digitalisation of work and resistance. Phoebe V. Moore, Pav Akhtar, Martin Upchurch

Chapter 3: Deep automation and the world of work. Martin Upchurch, Phoebe V. Moore

Chapter 4: There is only one thing in life worse than being watched, and that is not being watched: Digital data analytics and the reorganisation of newspaper production. Xanthe Whittaker

Chapter 5: The electronic monitoring of care work – the redefinition of paid working time. Sian Moore and L. J. B. Hayes

Chapter 6: Social recruiting: control and surveillance in a digitised job market. Alessandro Gandini and Ivana Pais

Chapter 7: Close watch of a distant manager:  Multisurveillance by transnational clients in Indian call centres. Winifred R. Poster

Chapter 8: Hawthorne’s renewal: Quantified total self. Rebecca Lemov

Chapter 9: ‘Putting it together, that’s what counts’: Data foam, a Snowball and researcher evaluation. Penny C. S. Andrews

Chapter 10: Technologies of control, communication, and calculation: Taxi drivers’ labour in the platform economy. Julie Yujie Chen

Kathi Weeks interview – Feminism & the refusal of work

Glitched Rosie the Riveter poster

Interesting interview with Kathi Weeks, whose book The Problem with Work is really good. Follow the link to the whole interview, but please find a snippet below:

Marxist feminists went a long way towards demystifying the so-called “private” practices, relations, and institutions.

…let me offer a crude but I think useful distinction between two periods of Marxist feminist work, one past and one present.
First the past. In the 1970s, Anglo-American Marxist feminists focused on mapping the relationship bewteen two systems of domination: capitalism and patriarchy.  One could characterize this phase as the attempt to bring a Marxist critique of work into the field of domestic labor and the familial relations of production. By examining domestic based caring work, housework, consumption work, and community-creation work as forms of reproductive labor upon which productive labor more narrowly conceived depends, and by viewing the household as a workplace and the family as a regime that organizes, distributes and manages that labor, Marxist feminists went a long way towards demystifying these so-called “private” practices, relations, and institutions.  On the one hand, they were concerned with the theoretical question of how to understand the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy: were they best conceived as two related systems or as one fully intertwined system?  On the the other hand, they were also focused on the closely related practical question of alliances: should feminist groups be autonomous from or integrated with other anticapitalist (and often antifeminist) movements?

Today we find ourselves in a different situation that holds new possibilities for the relationship between Marxism and feminism. Whereas 1970s feminists struggled to bring a Marxist analytic tailored to the study of waged labor to a very different kind of unwaged laboring practice that had not been considered part of capitalist production, today I think that in order to grasp new forms of waged work we need to draw on the older feminist analyses of waged and unwaged “women’s work.”

Some describe the present moment in terms of the “feminization of labor.”  It’s not my favorite term, but what I understand by it is a way to describe how in neoliberal post-Fordist economies more and more of waged jobs come to resemble traditional forms of feminized domestic work. This is particularly evident in the rise of precarious forms of low-wage, part-time, informal, and insecure forms of employment, and in the growth of service sector jobs that draw on workers’ emotional, caring, and communicative capacities that are undervalued and difficult to measure.

Feminist theory is no longer only optional for Marxist critique.

To confront this changing landscape of work, instead of using an unreconstructed Marxist analytic to study unwaged forms of domestic work, we need today to draw on Marxist feminist analyses of gendered forms of both waged and unwaged work for their insights into how these forms are exploited and how they are experienced. The practical implication of this is that, if we want to both understand and resist  contemporary forms of exploitation, Marxists can no longer remain ignorant of or separated from feminist theories and practices. As I see it, feminist theory is no longer optional for Marxist critique.

Read the whole interview on Political Critique

A tendency to spill…

Talented and creative friends I used to knock about with in the studio have made a lovely thing for the International Literature Showcase that you should definitely check out. Please see A Tendency to Spill, an interactive story created by the superlative duo Hazel Grian and Constance Fleuriot.

A Tendency To Spill is an interactive Science Fiction story that involves a chat bot (instant chat using artificial intelligence.)

Romy is a human child brought up in world of robots. She is about to be taken from her home and expelled to the human world across The Wall. She doesn’t have much time, maybe 10 or 20 minutes. She asks you now for a crash course in what’s really at the heart of human society.

This story is recommended for anyone aged 13 and upwards and is equivalent to Young Adult Fiction. With that in mind, appropriate behaviour and language are expected from you as well as from Romy.

We’d love you to take part in our research, please help us by filling in the form when prompted. It doesn’t mean we’re watching you while you chat but interactions are archived and, if you agree, we may share them in future whilst you remain entirely anonymous.

Thank you and enjoy the short story.

Click here to meet Romy.

Bernard Stiegler: “The time saved through automation must be granted to the people” [translation]

The interview with Bernard Stiegler translated below comes from the l’Humanité.fr website. This follows nicely from the other interview about ‘how to survive disruption’ I recently translated. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, but I think principally because he offers a little more detail on how one might go about creating an ‘economy of contribution’ by discussing the experiments with Plaine Commune and what he means by “contributory income” and how that differs from a ‘universal basic income”. For those interested in Stiegler’s work, beyond the philosophical texts, this is quite an enlightening read (I think).

As usual, clarifications and original French are in square brackets. In this case, all of the footnotes are by me. I hope some others find this of interest… I did.

Bernard Stiegler: “The time saved through automation must be granted to the people”

In the face of the upheavals created by digital data, the philosopher [Bernard Stiegler], developing his research in concert with the think tank Ars Industrialis and the Institute of Research and Innovation [of the Pompidou Centre], invites us to comprehensively [de fond en comble] rethink work. He advocates the establishment of an economy of contribution based on a new type of value production and social justice.

We are entering the era of big data. Does the quantitative explosion of digital data signal a new industrial revolution?

Bernard Stiegler Yes and it is already upon us. A study for the board of Roland Berger [a global strategy consultancy] suggests that three million jobs will be destroyed in the next ten years. But, other studies predict that 47% of jobs in the US, 50% in Belgium and France, will be automated in the course of the next twenty years. We are entering the third historical wave of automation. In the 19th century machine tools enabled capitalism to achieve enormous gains in productivity, while distributing the resulting profits only amongst the bourgeoisie. The second wave was created through Taylorism and the assembly line, which in part benefited the working classes because the workers consumed the goods they played a part in producing, creating mass markets. The third wave is not solely constituted by robots but also by the data we all generate, notably with our smart phones. All of these data that we deliver to platforms, such as Google, banks or shopping websites, are processed in every country and in an immediate manner by algorithms. Their exploitation allows, for example, a company like Amazon to predict what it may sell and to encourage us to buy in an extremely efficient manner, all with the minimum staff. Further, automation is allowing the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, to design very simple robots, capable of placing and retrieving stock incredibly quickly, without human interaction, controlled by software.

Does this means that in the near term a company like Amazon will be able to do without employees to pick, pack and send out packages?

Bernard Stiegler Warehouse workers will be replaced by robots. The “robolution” [1] is becoming increasingly possible for a large number of companies. The humanoids that are reaching market now are much less expensive and more advanced than the large automata already in use. Even SMEs can invest in them.

In the medium term then, such automation concerns everyone?

Bernard Stiegler Driverless lorries are already on the roads of Nevada and soon will be in Germany. Artificial intelligence will be able to replace lawyers who put their legal studies on file. All analytical jobs will be effected. Even medics. A high performance robot is able to conduct prostate surgery… In his Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy [the Grundrisse], Karl Marx formulated the hypothesis: what if everything  is automated? If nothing changes, in particular regions, 80 to 90 percent of the under 25s will soon have no other perspective. The markets will collapse, because there will be no more purchasing power, and with them will go the social security system that relies on workers’ contributions. A new society is being formed and it is not very compatible with that of today. We urgently need to rethink everything, to develop trade based on a new type of value production and social justice. I strongly believe in experimentation, which is why we have launched a project related to Plaine Commune [2] in the urban community of Seine-Saint-Denis. Beginning with a 10-year pilot programme, the aim is to create a district of learning [territoire apprenant] whose inhabitants are not only consumers of but also providers [prescripteurs] of digital services.

We imagine that this area was not chosen at random. Plaine Commune is both rich in diversity, it’s network of associations but also home to a disadvantaged population, facing mass unemployment… 

Bernard Stiegler When I started talking about this project with Patrick Braouezec, president of Plaine Commune, 38% of young people under 25 were unemployed in Seine-Saint-Denis. That figure is now 50% and if we follow the projections, the rate could reach between 80 and 90% in ten years. This endemic problem of unemployment will affect all developed countries unless they invent something new: that’s what we want to do in Plaine Commune. The idea is to develop an economy of contribution in a completely different model to Uber. The time gained through automation must be made available to people, otherwise the economy will collapse. The Indian economist Amartya Sen has shown, through a study comparing the residents of Bangladesh and Harlem [New York], that life expectancy is better and we live in a better society when the sharing of expertise strengthens social ties. He discusses a Human Development Index. Plaine Commune is a bit like Bangladesh: the people there are exercising a remarkable energy. [Various] actors, businesses and residents are aware of the urgent need to invent something radically new, which is to use the mechanisms of contribution to develop a commons in a project that promotes the development, exchange, and transmission of practical knowledge [savoir-faire], life skills [savoir-vivre] and theoretical knowledge [savoir théoretiques] among the younger generations, associations, businesses, public services of the area, and doctoral students from around the world. Researchers will have the mission to facilitate and work alongside these changes.

So this project proposes to put people at the centre of an increasingly automated society [une société de plus en plus robotisée]?

Bernard Stiegler Standardisation, the elimination of diversity, and the destruction of knowledge produce high-dose entropy, characterised by the state of “disorder” of a system. Here was must engage in a little theory. In the nineteenth century, physicists established that, in the theory of a universe in expansion since a big bang, energy irreversibly dissipates. The law of becoming is entropy [La loi du devenir est l’entropie]. Erwin Schrödinger, a great theorist of quantum mechanics (which is the theoretical basis of nanotechnology), however, showed that life is characterised by its ability to produce negative entropy, which is also called negentropy. This delays disorder, that is to say death, which is a decomposition of living matter. Social organisations have a similar function. Automation, which is a hyper-standardisation, produces entropy. Google’s algorithms, which can translate the languages of the world through English, which acts a pivot language, causes an immense linguistic entropy. The impoverishment of vocabulary and dysorthography regresses individual and collective intelligence through a submission to the law of averages. Conversely, life produces, through exceptions, mutations that are impossible to anticipate but which are the very conditions of evolution. Poets and writers have shaped languages through their exceptional use of language. Algorithms erase all exceptions: they only work by calculating probabilities based upon averages. Crude automation produces a generalised (mental as well as environmental) disorder, which ruins the economy. In the economy of tomorrow, automation can instead be placed at the service of the production of negative entropy. It must allow for the valorisation of exceptions by developing the collective empowerment of everyone to make the commons [la valorisation des exceptions en développant la capacitation collective de chacun pour en faire du commun].

The upheaval that you describe considerably changes the concept of work. Are we facing the erasure of the organisation of employment around the notion of salaried work?

Bernard Stiegler In employment [l’emploi] today, the worker [travailleur] is deprived of their expertise [savoir-faire]. They must follow a process and rely upon software – until one day, the task has become automated and the employee [l’employé] is dismissed. Work [Le travail], by contrast, is an activity during which the worker enriches the task by exercising their knowledge [savoir] through its differentiation [en le différenciant], and continually bringing something new to society. This kind of work produces negentropy, that is to say, also, value, and it cannot be automated because it consists, on the contrary, in de-automating [désautomatiser] routines. Ongoing automation must redistribute some of the productivity gains in order to fund some time for everyone to build capacities [un temps de capacitation de tout un chacun] within an economy of contribution that enables everyone to enhance their knowledge. This is why we advocate the adoption of a contributory income, which is not the same as a universal income.

Precisely, the idea has even more trouble finding its way because it overlaps very different definitions … 

Bernard Stiegler Such an income, also called “basic” [income], is a safety net. A contributory income is at the intersection of the models of temporary work in the performing arts [intermittents du spectacle] and the practices of [creating] free software. It covers various levels of compensation that depend upon the periods of employment and the level of salary. The work of tomorrow will be discontinuous [intermittent]. Periods of employment will alternate with periods of acquiring, developing and sharing knowledge. The right to the contributory income will be “rechargeable”, based upon the number of hours of employment. In case of problems, the system will be accompanied by a minimum living wage [revenu minimum d’existence] – as a social protection system accompanying the scheme. The trial we have led with Plaine Commune includes testing a contributory income to benefit those who are younger, for whom the amounts could increase with age and where the contribution allowance [allocation contributif] outside of the employed period would represent a percentage akin to the model of paying unemployment benefit to those working in the performing arts [les intermittents]. The beneficiaries would be invited to “invest in themselves” [«s’encapaciter»], that is to say, to increase their knowledge through studies as well as professional experience. They would be invited to share their knowledge [savoirs] with their neighbouring community [communauté territoriale]. All of this calls for a new collective intelligence, capable of mobilising formal and advanced theoretical knowledge, which is why, with doctoral students, the aim is to develop a contributory research involving the young and local residents. The aim is to develop an economy of contribution founded on the production of negentropy. [3]

So, periods of paid employment remain in your system – what is the difference between contributory work [travail contributif] and precarious part-time job [petit job précaire]?

Bernard Stiegler The switchboard operator job at TF1 paid in the vein of someone working in the performing arts [comme intermittents du spectacle] is only made precarious [précarisée] at the expense of Assedic [4]. Contributory work must be defined by precise criteria. However, such a question cannot be answered a priori, except through the formal principal I have already stated, which is the production of negentropy, that is to say: practical know-how [savoir-faire], life skills [savoir-vivre] and formal knowledge [savoirs formels]. The PhD theses of our doctoral students are intended to inform these issues in close collaboration with the work carried out in Villetaneuse by Benjamin Corriat’s team on the economy of the commons. We will build on the experience of the architect Patrick Bouchain, who has shown how to put urban renewal projects in the service of a political economy of collaboration – where the residents, who are directly involved in the renovation, may be paid in shares of the development [l’habitat]. There are possibilities for developing the economy of contribution through associations, cooperatives, the social economy and solidarity, public services, as well as through industry, where new production methods will create new professions, which will be intermittent.

Have you any idea of how to fund this radical transformation to systems of production?

Bernard Stiegler A share of the gains in productivity must be redistributed. Taxes raised on trillions of euros passing through purely speculative markets might actually be invested in profitable, just and sustainable projects, without forgetting the fight against tax evasion. Vocational training credits [Les crédits de la formation professionnelle] – 38 billion Euros per year – should be involved in funding the economy of contribution, as should many of the exemptions from social charges or tax that could be diverted for this purpose. They represent 80 billion Euros. There really is enough there for this to be funded.

Notes [by me]

1. “Robolution” is a literal translation of the neologism used by Stiegler, i.e. a portmanteau of robot & revolution.

2. The project with Plaine Commune is specified in outline [in French] on the France Strategie 2017-2027 website, and is supported by the Fondation de France.

3.As in previous written work and interviews, Stiegler uses the idea of the “intermittents” or “intermittents du spectacle” to signify the idea of work that is subsidised through some form of state administered allowance, such as unemployment benefit. In France people working in the performing arts are entitled to claim for social security benefits designed for people without regular employment [as per the definition provided by Larousse online.]

4. Assédic or ASSEDIC is the partial acronym of “Association pour l’emploi dans l’industrie et le commerce” (Association for Employment in Industry and Trade).