I saw this on Twitter via Huw Davies last night. Looks like a really interesting call:
Both of these are spoofs taken from news stories on the web yesterday (19th Sept 2016).
[Click the images for links to the original stories.]
Canny commentator and provocateur Prof. Paul Dourish has a relatively recent piece in the journal Big Data & Society concerning the fashion for ‘algorithm studies’, the definitional wrangling that has ensued (i.e. people arguing over what the word means) and some proposals for what he suggests is an alternative approach
“which might put aside the question of what an algorithm is as a topic of conceptual study and instead adopt a strategy of seeking out and under- standing algorithms as objects of professional practice for computer scientists, software engineers, and system developers.” (p. 9)
Dourish proposes a kind of Foucauldian STS-style strategy for sketching out what Doreen Massey might call the ‘geometries of power‘ of specific instances of what gets called algorithms, and what kinds of power the idea of ‘algorithm’ does or doesn’t have in those (for want of a better term) institutional assemblages.
The article is an incisive and authoritative overview of the contemporary interdisciplinary debates around ‘algorithms’ and deftly outlines the frictions and tensions between the current fashion for ‘algorithms’ and the other terms that may or may not be important to the study of the phenomena we mean when we use that word. In this case Dourish offers some discussion of (software) architecture, automation, code, (big) data structures, and programs. This is a really thoughtful exposition of the stakes of the debate and a level-headed attempt at moving on the discussion. Useful interlocutors (to my mind) throughout are Alexander Galloway and Adrian Mackenzie, references to whose work are present at key points in Dourish’s discussion. This is a really clear article and probably should be an essential read for those concerning themselves with ‘algorithms’.
A really important point, which isn’t often considered, that Dourish makes very clearly is that:
One reason that an algorithm can be hard to recover from a program is that there is a lot in a pro- gram that is not ‘‘the algorithm’’ (or ‘‘an algorithm’’). The residue is machinic, for sure; it is procedural, it involves the stepwise execution of one instruction followed by another, and it follows all the rules of layout, control flow, state manipulation, and access rights that shape any piece of code. But much of it is not actually part of the – or any – algorithm.
An algorithm may express the core of what a program is meant to do, but that core is surrounded by a vast penumbra of ancillary operations that are also a program’s respon- sibility and also manifest themselves in the program’s code. In other words, while everything that a program does and that code expresses is algorithmic in the sense that it is specified in advance by formalization, it is not algorithm, in the sense that it goes beyond things that algorithms express, or even what the term ‘‘algorithm’’ signals as a term of professional practice. (p.4)
I suppose the one point of caution I’d suggest is that while excellent, Dourish’s article highlights to me the narrowness of the discussion – the relative closeness (and perhaps closed-ness) of those involved and the ways in which ‘discipline’ (and I suppose, then, ‘authority’) might thereby becoming enacted. Indeed, following Dourish’s strategy it might be (ironically) interesting to chart the forms of ‘professional practice’ through which ‘algorithm studies’ take place. The list of people and institutions Dourish acknowledges at the close of his article offer a possible starting point…
Here’s the blurb:
Even after the 2008 financial crisis, neoliberalism has been able to advance its program of privatization and deregulation. The Uberfication of the University analyzes the emergence of the sharing economy—an economy that has little to do with sharing access to good and services and everything to do with selling this access—and the companies behind it: LinkedIn, Uber, and Airbnb. In this society, we all are encouraged to become microentrepreneurs of the self, acting as if we are our own precarious freelance enterprises at a time when we are being steadily deprived of employment rights, public services, and welfare support. The book considers the contemporary university, itself subject to such entrepreneurial practices, as one polemical site for the affirmative disruption of this model.
Forerunners: Ideas First is a thought-in-process series of breakthrough digital publications. Written between fresh ideas and finished books, Forerunners draws on scholarly work initiated in notable blogs, social media, conference plenaries, journal articles, and the synergy of academic exchange. This is gray literature publishing: where intense thinking, change, and speculation take place in scholarship.
Following on from the proposed AAG annual conference 2017 sessions on ‘robots’, there’s another proposed set of sessions about labour/work and ‘the digital’… all the de rigueur concepts are in there*, yet it strikes me as a
weird curious distinction between ‘digital’ and ‘human’, but there you go…
Tbh, readers of this blog have probably already seen the CFP but – anyway the whole thing is on Prof. Gillian Rose’s blog… Here’s a snippet:
* mais tout va très bien madame la marquise.
My contribution is entitled: Vulgar geographies? Popular cultural geographies and technology.
There is a fantastic and diverse range of papers in the issue and I heartily recommend exploring it. Not least the editorial by Nadia Bartolini, Parvati Raghuram & George Revill. I would like to thank them, again, for inviting me to be part of such a rich conversation.
Of course, all of these provocations follow in the wake of the departure of one of, if not, the most provocative and vital influencers of geographical thought – Doreen Massey, for whom the annual event these papers stem from is named. I am confident that all of the author’s in this theme issue took inspiration from Doreen’s work. fitting then that in the same issue is Rob Kitchin’s excellent obituary.
A few articles from the theme issue that stand out for me are:
Isla Forsyth’s More-than-human warfare
Saw this on Jeremy Crampton’s blog and thought it might be of interest to the few people who follow this blog.
I confess I have some reservations about the sheer amount of ‘key’ terms that seem to be becoming interchangeable (algorithm, cloud, code, digital, virtual etc.) as the trend for geographical research into computation and mediation forges on but these wide ranging sessions look like a genuine and interesting attempt to convene a conversation (if you can afford to attend the conference!)
I am curious at the break with the fashion for ‘As’ though… not ‘automation’ but ‘robots’, hah…
I do hope that these sessions attract a diverse range of papers and an audience beyond those already invested in this kind of work. It seems to me that there’s plenty of room for some interesting and potentially valuable conversations. Sadly, I suspect I cannot go… so probably won’t be able to attend to find out.
Please see below or here (pdf) for a call for papers on “robotic futures” at the 2017 American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference. Along with Vinny Del Casino I’m organizing one of the sessions on “algorithmic subjectivities.”
Call For Papers
AAG 2017 Boston (April 5-8, 2017)
This Call for Papers seeks to organize four independent but related sessions on the examination of robotic futures across the discipline of geography. Each session has an organizer to which contributors are encouraged to send prospective papers.
Please send paper titles and abstracts (200 words) to the appropriate corresponding session organizer(s) by September 15, 2016 (see below for details):
• Robotic Futures I: Nature/Environment & Technology: Lily House-Peters (Lily.HousePeters(at)csulb.edu)
• Robotic Futures II: Algorithmic Subjectivities: Vincent Del Casino (vdelcasino(at)email.arizona.edu) & Jeremy Crampton (jcrampton(at)uky.edu)
• Robotic Futures III: Urban Life & Technological Sovereignties: Casey Lynch (caseylynch(at)email.arizona.edu)
• Robotic Futures IV: The Politics of Security: Ian Shaw (Ian.Shaw.2(at)glasgow.ac.uk)
Robotic Futures Sessions Summary
Recently, geographers have taken up the question of robots and robotic technologies within the confines of a broadly engaged human and environmental geography. From the rise of robotic warfare to the development of smart cities and borders to the reliance on code, big data analytics, and autonomous sensing systems in environmental management, geographers are interrogating what robots and robotic technologies mean not only for discipline, surveillance, and security, but for making and remaking everyday life and the socio-natural environment.
This call seeks papers organized around a series of four sessions focused on a number of key empirical nodal points through which geographers might further investigate the central proposition:
What does the growing integration of robots and robotic technologies into everyday life do and/or mean for the theorization of sociospatial relations?
The four themed sessions will conclude with a fifth session consisting of a panel discussion of the session organizers to examine the broader questions and overlapping concerns related to reorganizations in social, political, and environmental relations and the interventions that robots and robotic technologies are playing today.
1. Robotic Futures I: Nature/Environment & Technology (Organizer: Lily House-Peters)
Advances in technology and robotic system design are targeting the environment producing new encounters with and understandings of nature. For example, environmental monitoring is increasingly carried out via UAVs/drones, autonomous sensor networks, and mobile robotic platforms. The ability of these systems to collect and wirelessly transmit data at continuous time scales, reach remote locations, and carry out panoramic measurements is shifting the temporal and spatial dimensions of environmental perception. Analysis of big data sets and ever-growing emphasis on models and algorithms transform not only how we know nature, but also the types of discursive formations that emerge and the kinds of interventions that become possible. Yet, attention in the geographical literature to these processes remains extremely limited. The focus of this session is to examine and attempt to theorize how the rise of robots (ie. drones, sensor networks, autonomous monitoring platforms) and robotic technologies (ie. computer code, algorithms, big data, models) are reorganizing ways of knowing, seeing, and talking about nature and the environment. This session seeks papers that engage with the following broad questions: How does the virtual world of autonomous sensor readings, computer code, algorithms, and models make and remake the material dimensions of nature? And vice versa, how do the material dimensions of nature serve to challenge robot(ic) logics? How are robotic technologies reorganizing the spatial and temporal dimensions of our perceptions of nature and the environment? What are the discursive shifts taking place as a result of the increased reliance on robots and robotics in environmental monitoring and how are these affecting decision-making, interventions, and the production of nature?
2. Robotic Futures II: Algorithmic Subjectivities (Organizers: Vincent Del Casino & Jeremy Crampton)
Robots are often imagined as material objects with bodies and form. Robots are also invoked in software, code, and algorithms. This is not to suggest an either/or ontology of robots but a both/and whereby geographers think about the theoretical and political implications of the hardware/software matrix and what it means for human and more-than-human bodies and relations. Picking up on the themes of assemblage theory and other theories of power and performance, this session seeks papers that empirically and theoretically interrogate robotic futures, human cyborg relations, and other robotic possibilities. Key questions to be addressed in this session include: How are more decisions being taken by algorithmic objects in fields across education, insurance, policing, and health? What are the attendant anxieties around algorithms and their failures, gaps or uncertainties? Can we identify algorithmic spaces that expand our notion of robotic capabilities? What sorts of human and nonhuman subjectivities are made possible and/or closed off by the emergence of new robots and robotic technologies? How might we theorize robots in the context of our historically anthropocentric human geographies? And, what role might robots play in our understanding of the spatialities of key concepts in human geography, including labor and labor politics, health and health care, or geospatial technologies and relations of power, to name a few?
3. Robotic Futures III: Urban Life & Technological Sovereignties(Organizer: Casey Lynch)
Innovations in robotic and information and communication technology (ICT) are increasingly impacting practices of urban planning, management, and politics. “Smart city” programs and the “internet of things” have allowed for the proliferation of a variety of sensors and other miniaturized computing technologies throughout the urban form, producing massive amounts of urban data to be stored, processed and exploited by municipal governments, private corporations, and other entities. In some cities, these developments are increasingly giving rise to oppositional movements interested in rearticulating the role of emerging technologies in urban life. For instance, competing discourses within a fledgling “technological sovereignty” movement in Europe seek to challenge “technological fetishism.” Borrowing from theorizations of “food sovereignty,” the idea of technological sovereignty calls for a critical analysis and radical restructuring of the existing political economic models through which technology is developed, produced, and controlled. This session seeks papers that: employ critical approaches to the role of emerging robotic technology and ICT in urban life; examine the work of urban actors or collectives that critically reconceptualize the potential role of technology in creating alternative urban economies or political framework; offer new ways of methodologically approaching or theorizing the role of technical objects in complex urban assemblage; critically explore the notion of “technological sovereignty” as a theoretical concept and/or political project; and/or consider questions of privacy, surveillance, or data security within the urban context.
4. Robotics Futures IV: The Politics of Security (Organizer: Ian Shaw)
This session seeks to explore how robots are transforming the spaces, politics, and subjects of security. Robotics are already emerging as vital actors in our security-worlds. From biometric borders, automated gun turrets, to mobile sea mines, a new class of robotic apparatuses are being developed, each of which embodies (and mobilizes) a future geography. The rise of U.S. drone warfare has received a great deal of media and academic discussion. Yet, paradoxically, this has tended to mask the wider robotic revolution in security: the banal and everyday deployment of robots by state and non-state actors. Accordingly, this session aims to consider a number of broad theoretical and empirical questions on the politics of security: How will robots transform the spaces of war and conflict? In what ways will robots transform the spaces and architectures of policing? How will robots transform the established logics of state sovereignty and governance? What potentials are there for resistance and subversion?
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.
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”  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  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. 
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 . 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]
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).
via Scott Rodgers –