“Racist soap dispenser” and artifactual politics

'Racist' soap dispenser

Some videos have been widely shared concerning the soap dispensers and taps in various public or restaurant toilets that appear to have been calibrated to work with light skin colour and so subsequently appear to not work with darker skin. See the below for a couple of example videos.

Of course, there are (depressingly) all sorts of examples of technologies being calibrated to favour people who conform to a white racial appearance, from the Kodak’s “Shirley” calibration cards, to Nikon’s “Did someone blink?” filter, to HP’s webcam face tracking software. There are unfortunately more examples, which I won’t list here, but to suffice it to say this demonstrates an important aspect of artefactual and technological politics – things often carry the political assumptions of their designers. Even if this was an ‘innocent’ mistake such as a result of a manufacturing error, skewing the calibration etc., it demonstrates the sense in which there remains a politics to the artefact/technology in question because the agency of the object remains skewed along lines of difference.

There are perhaps two sides to this politics, if we resurrect Langdon Winner’s (1980) well-known argument about artefactual politics and the resulting discussion. First, like the well-known story (cited by Winner, gleaned from Caro) of Robert Moses’ New York bridges“someone wills a specific social state, and then subtly transfers this vision into an artefact” (Joerges 1999: p. 412). What Joerges (1999) calls the design-led version of ‘artefacts-have-politics’, following Winner (I am not condoning Joerges’ rather narrow reading of Winner, just using a useful short-hand).

Second, following Winner, artefacts can have politics by virtue of the kinds of economic, political social (and so on) systems upon which they are predicated. There is the way in which such a deliberate or mistaken development, such as the tap sensor, is facilitated or at the least tolerated by virtue of the kinds of standards that are used to govern the design, manufacture and sale or implementation of a given artefact/technology. So, the fact that a bridge that apparently excludes particular groups on people by virtue of preventing their most likely means of travel, a bus, to pass under it, or a tap only works with lighter skin colour, can pass into circulation, or socialisation perhaps, by virtue of normative and bureaucratic frameworks of governance.

In this sense, and again following Winner, we might think about the ways these outcomes transcend “the simple categories of ‘intended’ and ‘unintended’ altogether”. Rather, they represent “instances in which the very process of technical development is so thoroughly biased in a particular direction that it regularly produces results heralded as wonderful breakthroughs by some social interests and crushing setbacks by others” (Winner 1980: p. 125-6)

So, even when considered the results of error, and especially when the mechanism for regulating such errors is considered to be ‘the market’—with the expectation that if the thing doesn’t work it won’t sell and the manufacturer will be forced to change it—the assumptions behind the rectification of the ‘error’ carry a politics too (perhaps in the sense of Weber’s loaded value judgements).

Third, there is the what Woolgar (1991 – in a critical response to Winner) calls the ‘contingent and contestable versions of the capacity of various technologies’, which might include the ‘manufacturing mistakes’ but would also include the videos produced and their support or contestation through responses in other videos and in media coverage.

This analysis might become further complicated by widening our consideration of the ways in which contingencies render a given artefact/ technology political.

Take, for example, an ‘Internet of Things’ device that might seem innocuous, such as a ‘smart thermostat’ that ‘learns’ when you use the heating and begins to automatically schedule your heating. There are immediate technical issues that might render such a device political, such as in terms of the strength of the security settings, and so whether or not it could be hacked and whether or not you as the ‘owner’ of the device would know and what you may be able to do in response.

Further, there are privacy issues if the ‘smart’ element is actually not embedded in the device but enabled through remote services ‘in the cloud’, do you know where your data is, how it is being used, does it identify you? etc. etc. Further still, the device might appear to be a one-off expense but may actually require a further payment or subscription to work in the way you expected. For example, I bought an Amazon Kindle that had advertising as the ‘screen saver’ and I had to pay an additional £10 to remove it.

Even further, it may be that even if the security, privacy and payment systems are all within the bounds of what one might consider to be politically or ethically acceptable, it may still be that there are political contingencies that exclude or disproportionately effect particular groups of people. The thermostat might only work with particular boilers or may require a ‘smart’ meter, so it may also only work with particular energy subscription plans. Such plans, even if they’re no more expensive might require good credit ratings to access them or other pre-conditions, which are not immediately obvious. Likewise, the thermostat may not work with pre-payment meter-driven systems, which necessarily disadvantages those without a choice – renting for example.

The thermostat may require a particular kind of smart phone to access its functionality, which again may require particular kinds of phone contract and these may require credit ratings and so on. The manufacturer of the thermostat might cease to trade, or get bought out, and the ‘smart’ software ‘in the cloud’ may cease to function – you may therefore find yourself without a thermostat. If the thermostat was installed in a ‘vulnerable’ person’s home in order to enable remote monitoring by concerned family members this might create anxiety and risk.

As apparently individual, or discrete, artefacts/technologies become apparently more entangled in sociotechnical systems of use (as Kline says) with concomitant contingencies the politics of these things has the potential to become more opaque.

So, all artefacts have politics and the examples within this post might be considered useful if troubling contemporary examples for discussion in research projects and in the classroom (as well as, one might hope, the committee rooms of regulators, or parliaments).

P.S. I think this now is a chunk of a lecture rewritten for my “Geographies of Technology” module at Exeter, heh.

Reblog> Angela Walch on the misunderstandings of blockchain technology

Another excellent, recent, episode of John Danaher’s podcast. In a wide-ranging discussion of blockchain technologies with Angela Walch there’s lots of really useful explorations of some of the confusing (to me anyway) aspects of what is meant by ‘blockchain’.

Episode #28 – Walch on the Misunderstandings of Blockchain Technology

In this episode I am joined by Angela Walch. Angela is an Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. Her research focuses on money and the law, blockchain technologies, governance of emerging technologies and financial stability. She is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Blockchain Technologies of University College London. Angela was nominated for “Blockchain Person of the Year” for 2016 by Crypto Coins News for her work on the governance of blockchain technologies. She joins me for a conversation about the misleading terms used to describe blockchain technologies.

You can download the episode here. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.

Show Notes

  • 0:00 – Introduction
  • 2:06 – What is a blockchain?
  • 6:15 – Is the blockchain distributed or shared?
  • 7:57 – What’s the difference between a public and private blockchain?
  • 11:20 – What’s the relationship between blockchains and currencies?
  • 18:43 – What is miner? What’s the difference between a full node and a partial node?
  • 22:25 – Why is there so much confusion associated with blockchains?
  • 29:50 – Should we regulate blockchain technologies?
  • 36:00 – The problems of inconsistency and perverse innovation
  • 41:40 – Why blockchains are not ‘immutable’
  • 58:04 – Why blockchains are not ‘trustless’
  • 1:00:00 – Definitional problems in practice
  • 1:02:37 – What is to be done about the problem?

Relevant Links

Reblog> Shift/work: Roy Ascott’s groundcourse

Roy Ascott's Syncretic Sense

Thanks to dmf for sharing this. Roy Ascott was a formative influence for me, via Mike Phillips & Chris Speed and the CAiiA+STAR (Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts [Wales] and Science, Technology + Arts Research [Plymouth]) crew, some of whom constituted the institute for Digital Art & Technology at Plymouth which ran the Bachelors course I took, the wonderful BSc MediaLab Arts (for a flavour see this characteristically [1990s] low-res video of a student show). I still have a copy of a Reframing Consciousness book on my shelf that I ‘borrowed’ from Mike in about 2001… and I basically became a geographer because of Chris, especially his piece Spacelapse.

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

CFP: Workshop on Trustworthy Algorithmic Decision-Making

Not sure where I found this, but it may be of interest…

Workshop on Trustworthy Algorithmic Decision-Making
Call for Whitepapers

We seek participants for a National Science Foundation sponsored workshop on December 4-5, 2017 to work together to better understand algorithms that are currently being used to make decisions for and about people, and how those algorithms and decisions can be made more trustworthy. We invite interested scholars to submit whitepapers of no more than 2 pages (excluding references); attendees will be invited based on whitepaper submissions. Meals and travel expenses will be provided.

Online algorithms, often based on data-driven machine-learning approaches, are increasingly being used to make decisions for and about people in society. One very prominent example is the Facebook News Feed algorithm that ranks posts and stories for each person, and effectively prioritizes what news and information that person sees. Police are using “predictive policing” algorithms to choose where to patrol, and courts are using algorithms that predict the likelihood of repeat offending in sentencing. Face recognition algorithms are being implemented in airports in lieu of ID checks. Both Uber and Amazon use algorithms to set and adjust prices. Waymo/Google’s self-driving cars are using Google maps not just as a suggestion, but to actually make route choices.

As these algorithms become more integrated into people’s lives, they have the potential to have increasingly large impacts. However, if these algorithms cannot be trusted to perform fairly and without undue influences, then there may be some very bad unintentional effects. For example, some computer vision algorithms have mis-labeled African Americans as “gorillas”, and some likelihood of repeat offending algorithms have been shown to be racially biased. Many organizations employ “search engine optimization” techniques to alter the outcomes of search algorithms, and “social media optimization” to improve the ranking of their content on social media.

Researching and improving the trustworthiness of algorithmic decision-making will require a diverse set of skills and approaches. We look to involve participants from multiple sectors (academia, industry, government, popular scholarship) and from multiple intellectual and methodological approaches (computational, quantitative, qualitative, legal, social, critical, ethical, humanistic).

Whitepapers

To help get the conversation started and to get new ideas into the workshop, we solicit whitepapers of no more than two pages in length that describe an important aspect of trustworthy algorithmic decision-making. These whitepapers can motivate specific questions that need more research; they can describe an approach to part of the problem that is particularly interesting or likely to help make progress; or they can describe a case study of a specific instance in the world of algorithmic decision-making and the issues or challenges that case brings up.

Some questions that these whitepapers can address include (but are not limited to):

  • What does it mean for an algorithm to be trustworthy?
  • What outcomes, goals, or metrics should be applied to algorithms and algorithm-made decisions (beyond classic machine-learning accuracy metrics)?
  • What does it mean for an algorithm to be fair? Are there multiple perspectives on this?
  • What threat models are appropriate for studying algorithms? For algorithm-made decisions?
  • What are ways we can study data-driven algorithms when researchers don’t always have access to the algorithms or to the data, and when the data is constantly changing?
  • Should algorithms that make recommendations be held to different standards than algorithms that make decisions? Should filtering algorithms have different standards than ranking or prioritization algorithms?
  • When systems use algorithms to make decisions, are there ways to institute checks and balances on those decisions? Should we automate those?
  • Does transparency really achieve trustworthiness? What are alternative approaches to trusting algorithms and algorithm-made decisions?

Please submit white papers along with a CV or current webpage by October 9, 2017 via email to trustworthy-algorithms@bitlab.cas.msu.edu. We plan to post whitepapers publicly on the workshop website (with authors’ permission) to facilitate conversation ahead of, at, and after the workshop. More information about the workshop can be found at http://trustworthy-algorithms.org.

We have limited funding for PhD students interested in these topics to attend the workshop. Interested students should also submit a whitepaper with a brief description of their research interests and thoughts on these topics, and indicate in their email that they are PhD students.

CFP: Theorising digital space

glitches image of a 1990s NASA VR experience

In another of a series of what feels dangerously like back-to-the-1990s moments as some geographers attempt to wrangle ‘digital geographies’ as a brand, which I find problematic, I saw the below CFP for the AAG.

I am sorry if it seems like I’m picking on this one CFP, I have no doubt that it was written with the best of intentions and if I were able to attend the conference I would apply to speak and attend it. I hope others will too. In terms of this post it’s simply the latest in a line of conference sessions that I think unfortunately seem to miss, or even elide, long-standing debates in geography about mediation.

Maybe my reaction is in part because I cannot attend (I’m only human, I’d quite like to go to New Orleans!), but it is also in part because I am honestly shocked at the inability for debates within what is after all a fairly small discipline to move forward in terms of thinking about ‘space’ and mediation. This stands out because it follows from ‘digital’ sessions at the AAG last year that made similar sorts of omissions.

In the late 1990s a whole host of people theorised place/space in relation to what we’re now calling ‘the digital’. Quite a few were geographers. There exists a significant and, sometimes, sophisticated literature that lays out these debates, ranging from landmark journal articles to edited books and monographs that all offer different views on how to understand mediation spatially (some of this work features in a bibliography I made ages ago).

Ironically, perhaps, all of this largely accessible ‘online’, you only need search for relevant key terms, follow citation chains using repositories – much of it is there, many of the authors are accessible ‘digitally’ too. And yet, periodically, we see what is in effect the same call for papers asking similar questions: is there a ‘physical’/’digital’ binary [no], what might it do, how do we research the ‘digital’, ‘virtual’ etc. etc.

We, all kinds of geographers, are not only now beginning to look at digital geographies, it’s been going on for some time and it would be great if that were acknowledged in the way that Prof. Dorothea Kleine did with rare clarity in her introduction to the RGS Digital Geographies Working Group symposium earlier this year (skip to 03:12 in this video).

So, I really hope that some of those authors of books like “Virtual Geographies“, to take just one example (there are loads more – I’m not seeking to be canonical!), might consider re-engaging with these discussions to lend some of perspective that they have helped accrue over the last 20+ years and speak at, or at least attend, sessions like this.

I hope that others will consider speaking in this session, to engage productively and to open out debate, rather than attempt to limit it in a kind of clique-y brand.

Theorizing Place and Space in Digital Geography: The Human Geography of the Digital Realm

In 1994 Doreen Massey released Space, Place and Gender, bringing together in a single volume her thoughts on many of the key discussions in geography in the 1980s and early 1990s. Of note was the chapter, A global sense of place, and the discussion on what constitutes a place. Massey argues that places, just like people, have multiple identities, and that multiple identities can be placed on the same space, creating multiple places inside space. Places can be created by different people and communities, and it is through social practice, particularly social interaction, that place is made. Throughout this book, Massey also argues that places are processional, they are not frozen moments, and that they are not clearly defined through borders. As more and more human exchanges in the ‘physical realm’ move to, or at least involve in some way, the ‘digital realm’, how should we understand the sites of the social that happen to be in the digital? What does a human geography, place orientated understanding of the digital sites of social interaction tell us about geography? Both that in the digital and physical world.

Massey also notes that ‘communities can exist without being in the same place – from networks of friends with like interests, to major religious, ethnic or political communities’. The ever-evolving mobile technologies, the widening infrastructures that support them and the increasing access to smartphones, thanks in part to new smart phone makers in China releasing affordable yet powerful smartphones around the world, has made access to the digital realm, both fixed in place (through computers) and, as well as more often, through mobile technologies a possibility for an increasing number of people worldwide. How do impoverished or excluded groups use smart technologies to (re)produce place or a sense of place in ways that include links to the digital realm? From rural farming communities to refugees fleeing Syria and many more groups, in what ways does the digital realm afford spatial and place making opportunities to those lacking in place or spatial security?

How are we to understand the digital geographies of platforms and the spaces that they give us access to? Do platforms themselves even have geographies? Recently geographers such as Mark Graham have begun a mapping of the dark net, but how should we understand the geographies of other digital spaces, from instant messaging platforms to social media or video streaming websites? What is visible and what is obscured? And what can we learn about traditional topics in social science, such as power and inequality, when we begin to look at digital geographies?

In this paper session for 5 papers we are looking for papers exploring:

  • Theories of place and space in the digital realm, including those that explore the relationship between the digital and physical realms
  • Research on the role of digital realm in (re)producing physical places, spaces and communities, or creating new places, spaces and communities, both in the digital realm and outside of it.
  • Papers considering relationship between physical and digital realms and accounts of co-production within them.
  • The role of digital technologies in providing a sense of space and place, spatial security and secure spaces and places to those lacking in these things.
  • Research exploring the geographies of digital platforms, websites, games or applications, particularly qualitative accounts that examine the physical and digital geographies of platforms, websites, games or applications.
  • Research examining issues of power, inequality, visibility and distance inside of the digital realm.

Event: Digital Frontiers: Exploring the digital-analogue interface, 02/11/17, Kingston

Glitched AT&T 1990s advert

Via Karen Gregory.

Digital Frontiers: Exploring the digital-analogue interface

A free event on 2nd November at Kingston University

Travel bursaries are available for PhD students

This one day event aims to bring together those interested in or currently conducting empirical research on the ways in which the digital spaces such as social media, connectivity-enabled smartphone applications, and internet-based platforms are being used to sustain or transform individuals’ subjectivities and material circumstances. The interface of the analogue and the digital is receiving keen interest through such concepts as the collaborative, sharing and gig economies, but we hope to bring together those who are interested in exploring new avenues for theorising novelty and transformation, sustenance and reproduction in the ways that organising occurs. In this endeavour, we conceptualise the development of online spaces as the production of a contested territory; a frontier of opportunity for the reinvention of the world. A territory that is nonetheless made fraught in its encounter with the power relations of the world that already exist, and the limitations of its construction. The digital represents, for us, a territory to which individuals and groups seek meaning, value, and community for not only acceptance of their selves and ideas but for economic prosperity and survival. In so seeking, we see digital landowners emerge, insistence on changing rentier requirements, and a need for the constant (re)production of value.

The event will be structured around three symposia on the themes of: Digital Platforms, Novelty, and Knowledge. Pairs of discussants (to be announced) will speak on their given topic as a provocation to discussion with the participants of the event. There will also be further opportunities for informal discussion and networking. Lunch and refreshments will be provided and the event should last from 10:00 until 16:00.

We call for those interested in engaging with this notion of the digital frontier and offer a space in which to have conversations about how this, and other ways of conceptualising the interface of the digital and analogue, might develop. This workshop will foster interests in areas such as innovation, materiality and the digital, new areas of labour regulation, the reproduction of power relations and the development of new career pathways. Although big data has been an area of much excitement in the arena of social research, recent reflections in the media have highlighted the limitations of this type of analysis, namely, the correlation of activities and trends, suggesting instead a turn towards richer forms of analysis that theorise motivations or forces. We invite to this workshop those who are collecting empirical data through methods such as digital ethnography, interviews with individuals about their digitally mediated activities or qualitative textual and content analysis on activities and lifestyles that traverse the digital and analog spheres; or who can offer theoretical tools to develop new understandings of such data. We are particularly keen to enable and to encourage interdisciplinary participation and collaborations.

The event has two goals:

  1. to foster connections between scholars and ideas with a view to developing collaborations for writing or research projects. It will be structured around a set of ‘dialogues’ where pairs of invited speakers will present and provoke around a given theme, and workshop activities where we’ll have a chance to meet and discuss our interests with the other attendees;
  2. to work towards an output in the form of a special issue or edited book – for which we have received interest from publishers – through highlighting common themes in our research.

We have 30 spaces available for this event and there are a limited number of travel bursaries available for PhD students to attend – please email d.brewis@kingston.ac.uk with your request. These will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis. If you find yourself no longer available to attend please contact the organisers so we can open your space to another participant.

We hope to welcome you to Kingston on the 2nd November. Please find further details on practicalities such as transportation below.

Dr Deborah N Brewis, Kingston University
Dr Laura Mitchell, Keele University

Theme issue: Sharing Economies? Theories, practices and impacts

Deliveroo cyclists

Interesting theme issue from July in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy & Society” entitled “Sharing Economies? Theories, practices and impacts”.

See the full Table of Contents.

Here’s a snippet from the editorial statement about the issue:

The ten articles that comprise this issue collectively open up significant elements of sharing economies to greater academic reflection and critique. Substantively, they draw on a range of theories, territories and mechanisms to explore sharing economies from across different disciplinary perspectives. Davies, Donald, Gray and Hayes-Knox argue that five key issues emerge: (i) The etymology of sharing and sharing economies; (ii) The differentiated geographies to which sharing economies contribute; (iii) What it means to labour, work and be employed in sharing economies; (iv) The role of the state and others in governing, regulating and shaping the organisation and practice of sharing economies; and (v) the impacts of sharing economies.

Talking with Mikayla

Talking with Mikayla, the Museum of Contemporary Commodities GuideImage credit: Mike Duggan.

At the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017, co-originator of the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC) Paula Crutchlow and I staged a conversation with Mikayla the MoCC guide, a hacked ‘My Cayla Doll’. This was part of two sessions that capped off the presence of MoCC at the RGS-IBG and was performed alongside a range of other provocations on the theme(s) of ‘data-place-trade-value’. The doll was only mildly disobedient and it was fun to be able to show the subversion of an object of commercial surveillance in a playful way. Below is the visuals that displayed during the conversation, with additional sound…

For more, please do go and read Paula’s excellent blogpost about Mikayla on the MoCC website.