Algorithms in politics after Brexit

dystopian city

As Clive recently shared – Kuba Jablonowski, Clive and myself have been very fortunate to successfully apply for a grant in the ESRC’s ‘Governance after Brexit’ scheme. The project, which begins in January ’21, focuses on  ‘Algorithmic politics and administrative justice in the EU Settlement Scheme’ (The EUSS is the UK government scheme designed to determine the post-Brexit UK immigration status of EU citizens and their families who are currently living in the UK under EU free movement law).

The project will run from the start of 2021 through to the end of 2023. Here’s a quick summary from the application: 

“The research aims to analyse the process of administrative reform associated with Brexit, and the intersection of this process with the digitalisation of administration and governance in the UK. It takes the evolution of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) as its empirical entry-point. By investigating how grievances and claims of injustice emerge from the operation of the EUSS and are monitored and challenged in the public sphere, the research will seek to understand how practices of administrative justice are reconfigured by the interaction of automated algorithmic systems with rights-based practices of monitoring, advocacy and litigation.”

I’m sure we’ll post further information as the project gets underway on our websites.

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

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

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

The sessions are: 235 and 268, details below:

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

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

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

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

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

“Merger” by Keiichi Matsuda – automation, work and ‘replacement’

A still from the 360-degree video "Merger" by Keiichi Matsuda
“With automation disrupting centuries-old industries, the professional must reshape and expand their service to add value. Failure is a mindset. It is those who empower themselves with technology who will thrive.
“Merger is a new film about the future of work, from cult director/designer Keiichi Matsuda (HYPER-REALITY). Set against the backdrop of AI-run corporations, a tele-operator finds herself caught between virtual and physical reality, human and machine. As she fights for her economic survival, she finds herself immersed in the cult of productivity, in search of the ultimate interface. This short film documents her last 4 minutes on earth.”

I came across the most recent film by Keichii Matsuda which concerns a possible future of work, with the protagonist embedded in an (aesthetically Microsoft-style) augmented reality of screen-surfaces, and in which the narrative denouement is a sort of trans-human ‘uploading’ moment.

I like Matsuda’s work. i think he skilfully and playfully provokes particular sorts of conversations, mostly about what we used to call ‘immersion’ and the nature of mediation. This has, predictably happened in terms of human vs. AI vs. eschatology (etc etc.) sorts of narratives in various outlets (e.g. the Verge). The first time I encountered his work was at a Passenger Films event at which Rob Kitchin talked about theorisations of mediation in relation to both Matsuda’s work and the (original) Disney film ‘Tron‘.

What is perhaps (briefly) interesting here are two things:

  1. The narrative is a provocative short story that asks us to reflect upon how our world of work and technological development get us from now (the status quo) to an apparent future state of affairs, which carries with it certain kinds of ethical, normative and political contentions. So, this is a story that piggybacks the growing narrative of ‘post-work’ or widespread automation of work by apparently ‘inhuman’ technologies (i.e. A.I) that provokes debate about the roles of ‘technology’ and ‘work’ and what it means to be ‘human’. Interestingly, this (arguably) places “Merger” in the genre of ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘science fiction’ – it is, after all, an eschatological story (I don’t see this final point as a negative). I suppose it could also be seen as a fictional suicide note but I’d rather not dwell on that…
  2. The depiction of the interface and the interaction with the technology-world of the protagonist– and indeed the depiction of these within a 360-degree video –are as important as the story to what the video is signifying. By which I mean – like the videos I called ‘vision videos’ back in 2009/10 (and (in some cases) might be called ‘design fiction’ or ‘diagetic prototypes’) – this video is also trying to show you and perhaps sell you the idea of a technology (Matsuda recently worked for Leap Motion). As I and others have argued – the more familiar audiences are with prospective/speculative technologies the more likely we are (perhaps) to sympathise with their funding/ production/ marketing and ultimately to adopt them.

Call for papers: Geography of/with A.I

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I very much welcome any submissions to this call for papers for the proposed session for the RGS-IBG annual conference (in London in late-August) outlined below. I also welcome anyone getting in touch to talk about possible papers or ideas for other sorts of interventions – please do get in touch.

Call for papers:

We are variously being invited to believe that (mostly Global North, Western) societies are in the cusp, or early stages, of another industrial revolution led by “Artificial Intelligence” – as many popular books (e.g. Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014) and reports from governments and management consultancies alike will attest (e.g. PWC 2018, UK POST 2016). The goal of this session is to bring together a discussion explicitly focusing on the ways in which geographers already study (with) ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and to, perhaps, outline ways in which we might contribute to wider debates concerning ‘AI’. 

There is widespread, inter-disciplinary analysis of ‘AI’ from a variety of perspective, from embedded systematic bias (Eubanks 2017, Noble 2018) to the kinds of under-examined rationales and work through which such systems emerge (e.g. Adam 1998, Collins 1993) and further to the sorts of ethical-moral frameworks that we should apply to such technologies (Gunkel 2012, Vallor 2016). In similar, if somewhat divergent ways, geographers have variously been interested in the kinds of (apparently) autonomous algorithms or sociotechnical systems are integrated into decision-making processes (e.g. Amoore 2013, Kwan 2016); encounters with apparently autonomous ‘bots’ (e.g. Cockayne et al. 2017); the integration of AI techniques into spatial analysis (e.g. Openshaw & Openshaw 1997); and the processing of ‘big’ data in order to discern things about, or control, people (e.g. Leszczynski 2015). These conversations appear, in conference proceedings and academic outputs, to rarely converge, nevertheless there are many ways in which geographical research does and can continue to contribute to these contemporary concerns.

The invitation of this session is to contribute papers that make explicit the ways in which geographers are (already) contributing to research on and with ‘AI’, to identify research questions that are (perhaps) uniquely geographical in relation to AI, and to thereby advance wider inter-disciplinary debates concerning ‘AI’.

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

  • A.I and governance
  • A.I and intimacy
  • Artificially intelligent mobilities
  • Autonomy, agency and the ethics of A.I
  • Autonomous weapons systems
  • Boosterism and ‘A.I’
  • Feminist and intersectional interventions in/with A.I
  • Gender, race and A.I
  • Labour, work and A.I
  • Machine learning and cognitive work
  • Playful A.I
  • Science fiction, spatial imaginations and A.I
  • Surveillance and A.I

Please send submissions (titles, abstracts (250 words) and author details) to: Sam Kinsley by 31st January 2019.

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.

(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.

Unfathomable Scale – moderating social media platforms

Facebook logo reflected in a human eye

There’s a really nice piece by Tarleton Gillespie in Issue 04 of Logic themed on “scale” that concerns the scale of social media platforms and how we might understand the qualitative as well as quantitative shifts that happen when things change in scale.

The Scale is just unfathomble

But the question of scale is more than just the sheer number of users. Social media platforms are not just big; at this scale, they become fundamentally different than they once were. They are qualitatively more complex. While these platforms may speak of their online “community,” singular, at a billion active users there can be no such thing. Platforms must manage multiple and shifting communities, across multiple nations and cultures and religions, each participating for different reasons, often with incommensurable values and aims. And communities do not independently coexist on a platform. Rather, they overlap and intermingle—by proximity, and by design.

The huge scale of the platforms has robbed anyone who is at all acquainted with the torrent of reports coming in of the illusion that there was any such thing as a unique case… On any sufficiently large social network everything you could possibly imagine happens every week, right? So there are no hypothetical situations, and there are no cases that are different or really edgy. There’s no such thing as a true edge case. There’s just more and less frequent cases, all of which happen all the time.

No matter how they handle content moderation, what their politics and premises are, or what tactics they choose, platforms must work at an impersonal scale: the scale of data. Platforms must treat users as data points, subpopulations, and statistics, and their interventions must be semi-automated so as to keep up with the relentless pace of both violations and complaints. This is not customer service or community management but logistics—where concerns must be addressed not individually, but procedurally.

However, the user experiences moderation very differently. Even if a user knows, intellectually, that moderation is an industrial-sized effort, it feels like it happens on an intimate scale. “This is happening to me; I am under attack; I feel unsafe. Why won’t someone do something about this?” Or, “That’s my post you deleted; my account you suspended. What did I do that was so wrong?”