Category Archives: technology

Reblog > Nigel Thrift and Steven Koonin discuss urban science and big data

Stuart Elden points to an interesting video of a conversation with Nigel Thrift, discussing urban informatics, ‘big data’ and so on. Slight hint of Thrift buying into the rhetoric around ‘big data’ but still an interesting discussion…

Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of University of Warwick, and Steven Koonin, Director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, partners in this endeavour, discussed the emerging field of applied urban science and informatics, the opportunities it presents, and how it is challenging the way we think about information. The discussion was moderated by Sallie Keller, Director, Social Decision and Analytics Laboratory, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech.

Stiegler – We are coming to the end of the Fordist model, we must move to a mode of contribution

In January (2014), a website concerned with proposing and advancing novel and alternative businesses and economic models called Without Model published an interview with Bernard Stiegler concerning his conceptualisation of the economy of contribution. Without Model describes itself as a community of ‘forwarders’, a kind of community of Tardean imitative amplifiers – which is interesting…

In the interview Stiegler reiterates some aspects of his argument for an economy of contribution made elsewhere but also reaffirms the links with an understanding of a libidinal economy. He also,  fairly explicitly highlights the constitution of an economy of contribution is no easy task – it requires some fairly hefty (macro-economic) structural challenges. In other words, Stiegler is not simply outlining an alternative business model for trendy ‘right-on’ companies or co-ops but arguing for something like a structural change to the economy, built from the ground-up. Elsewhere he has argued that this requires a rethinking of education, is contingent upon particular modes of infrastructure such as open data and requires a more holistic understanding of value. Quite an ambition then – but, as outlined in his Disbelief and Discredit series of books, Stiegler sees an immediate and urgent impetus to incite such change.

This is, of course, not without risk — in Stiegler’s terms these new capacities for becoming (or in his terminology – transindividuation) are pharmacological, the particular ways in which they play out in the world can be both a ‘poison’ and a ‘cure’ (following Plato’s argument that writing is a pharmakon). Elsewhere, Stiegler argues that such an economy of ‘pharmaka’ is a therapeutic — it is possible to resolve the poison/cure relation either way — that is not dialectical (i.e. an opposition) but rather a composition of tendencies that emerge in the relations of a milieu.

I suppose the one criticism that might be immediately levelled at this version of Stiegler’s argument is that it sort of implicitly assumes that we must create alternative institutions to invoke such change, which of course needs to be ordered and civil, and so the very basis of change is potentially compromised by the inherent contradiction of needing to create another bureaucracy to get rid of the current, corrupt one.

As usual, I have added queries, clarifications etc. in square brackets and with a couple of footnotes. Also, all of the links within the text have been added by be for clarification of particular terms or concepts. I welcome comments and suggestions.

We are at the end of the Fordist model, we must move to mode of contribution

Bernard Stiegler is a philosopher and theoritician of the evolution of technical systems. He discovered free/open [source] models almost by accident while serving as the Director of the INA.

As the founder and president for the philosophical organisation Ars Industrialis, created in 2005, since April 2006 he has also directed the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou centre.

[interview begins]

Q. Open, contributory and collaborative models are becoming more numerous and these forms of contribution extend into new territories – how do you interpret this evolution?

B.S. Before responding, it is a necessary precondition [of this conversation] to recognise that all of these models are not equivalent. Facebook is contributory, but in certain ways, it is a worse model [of operation] than its not contributory equivalents, I almost prefer the model of TF1. These mechanisms of the capture and distortion of data lead to a strong depersonalisation, a phenomenon that is exacerbated by ‘big data’. This is both exciting, because the data open up new possibilities, and dangerous.

It is for this reason that I discuss the pharmakon. In all technologies or systems, there are two simultaneous and opposing tendencies – one is good, positive and emancipatory, and the other is negative and predatory. We need to analyse the toxicity of these phenomena, for as they become better they also become more toxic. A pharmakon today necessitates a therapeutic: It must be a an organ of care [organe de soin 1] which like any medicine, if it fails, can kill the patient. It is thus necessary to conduct these analyses honestly and sincerely, in the same ways an accountant does with company accounts. The problem is that we do not have the perspective of hindsight, the training or the capacities [savoir-faire] for doing so calmly with contributory models.

Today, we need a typology of contributory models.

I work a lot with communities of hackers: until the ‘Snowdon crisis’ they did not see the pharmacological character of the net. In the last year things have changed, there is a kind of ‘net blues‘.

Q. How can one define the economy of contribution, for example how can one differentiate the market?

B.S. The economy of contribution is based on a re-capacitation: it augments the capacities of people more than it diminishes them. The term ‘recapacitation’ draws on Amartya Sen’s understanding of capabilities — a capability is a form of knowledge, life skills [savoir vivre], know how [savoir faire] or formal knowledge [savoir formel] – shared with other and which constitutes a knowledge community. Sen has shown that consumerism diminishes capabilities.

An economy of contribution is based in the development of the knowledge of individuals, and the sharing of these knowledges is facilitated by a shared ownership which does not prevent its circulation.

I am not against the notion of ownership [propriété], but it does not have to be proprietorial, at the expense of the collective value of knowledge. Rather than capacitation, the consumerist society is based on proletarianisation, even design is proletarianised.

The economy of contribution is an economy based on parity [parité] – peer-to-peer. In this economy, we often speak of emergent initiatives or the bottom-up, but the bottom-up does not exist alone, there is always an aspect of the top-down – which is to say that there is always an organisation that unites and valorises the bottom-up dynamics. Even when we believe that there is only the bottom-up, there is a hidden top-down that regulates emergence. The real peer is one who can explain the top-down to the bottom-up.

Q. Why is it more important today than it was 20 years ago or will be in 20 years time?

B.S. We are entering a new stage of automisation, of a different nature to that which has taken place thusfar. It is the continuation of what began 200 years ago, but automisation has shifted register. In many sectors, manual labour is no longer necessary, or will be superfluous very soon. Amazon has recently announced it is working towards this, the elimination of all of its jobs and their replacement by machines.

Currently, the elements are in place for automisation to move into a new stage, only the cost of robots limit its progress. One could suppose that when actors such as Amazon announce that they are tackling such a problem that the industrial ecosystem would produce economies of scale that make robots less costly than humans. When that happens, the Fordist model is dead. For without jobs, or purchasing power there will be nobody to buy what the robots produce. It will be a major, violent and systemic crisis. If we do not change regulations now we will have great difficulty coping.

Q. It can be noted that these models are being developed and that there are many initiatives but one often has the impression that they are struggling to sustain or develop themselves – what might be the reasons?

B.S. It is true that the precariousness of contributory models and the high failure rate of these initiatives raise questions.

There is an explanation, it lies in the ecosystem, the macro economy. At the level of the micro (individuals and organisations) these initiatives emerge and spread. We can see that without a macro politics they cannot prosper. When I speak of the macro economy I refer to the labour laws, taxation, social security, and territorial infrastructures. All of these elements do not favour an economy of contribution. Unless they [the macro economic elements] can be changed there is no chance of it [an economy of contribution] developing. Or, perhaps, it is a certain kind of contributory model that can succeed, such as Facebook.

This is the economic project and contemporary politics that we must change. The debates about the minimum subsistance income are interesting in this regard. I prefer to speak of a contributory wage. For me, the contributory wage should be based on the minimum subsistance income but it should not stop there. The contributory wage should be designed to promote the involvement of individuals in contributory projects. It should encourage contributions in order to create social enterprises, they can be monetised businesses but they do not have to be.

Q. Beyond the [structural] systems and the macro-economy, what sort of levers are available to develop contributory logics?

B.S. It is necessary to develop a contributory culture and and education, such that individuals engage in one way or another with contributory projects, making it more and more likely for them to do so. In developing such a culture we would develop the capacity of individuals to detect the toxic aspects of the pharmakon that is the economy of contribution.

On another plane, designers have a major role to play. They are called to become the visionaries and forerunners of contributory systems. A fablab cannot function only with the building and the machines, it functions because there is a social architecture of contribution, this is the work of the designer.

Research will also enable progress, if it becomes more contributory. The pace is so fast, the level of complexity is so pronounced that it is necessary to cooperate in order to understand and analyse [anything]. To open research to those beyond its immediate originators today would allow us all to keep abreast of the latest advances.

Q. You often talk about the libidinal economy when you talk about the economy of contribution, how does Freud come into models for contribution?

B.S. I have a Freudian vision of the economy. The libido is a social link, it is the capacity to channel the [base] drives [pulsions] into what Freud describes as a social investment of desire. Drives function positively when we are able to defer their satisfaction. To defer reaction is to make an action. The libidinal economy is the idealisation (in Freud’s sense) and the sublimation of drives. We can say that free and open source software [logiciel libre] is nurtured by this [kind of] sublimation, in other words by this striving beyond ourselves [ce dépassement 2].


You can find the interview in the original French on the Without Model website here.

1. I have translated organe de soin rather literally because it speaks to Stiegler’s conceptualisation of organs in the mode of technics and the ‘organon’ (in Greek – tool, instrument, prosthesis, organ) – a supplement to the body, through which it (the organ) and the individual are co-constituted. In his philosophical project, Stiegler has proposed a ‘general organology’ that articulates bodily organs (the viscera), artificial organs (instruments, tools and so on), and social organs (groupings ~ organisations).

2. There isn’t really a direct translation of what is written in the final sentence – dépassement means ‘overtaking’, which I have taken as a metaphor for a moving forward beyond ourselves and our present by channeling desires through positive processes of sublimation.

Thomas Lemke on the ‘new materialism’, bio-capital and biopolitics

A talk by Thomas Lemke bringing together his own, substantial, work on biopolitics (through Foucault) and what has been characterised as the ‘new materialism’, or the acknowledgement of ‘vibrant matter(s)’ in Jane Bennett’s words, as well as the growing study of the relations between ‘neoliberal capitalism and changing understandings of what constitutes life in the emerging biotechnical industries’. For Lemke these extend Foucault’s project by opening up new directions for the analysis of biopolitics in the guise of the modes of politics and the matters of life.

The talk was given at the Central European University and I came across it through the ANTHEM blog.

Placing computation: the informatics of anticipation

I wrote an outline for a paper/chapter for a proposed book and related conference edited/convened by F. Xavier Olleros and Majlinda Zhegu at Université de Québec à Montréal which they have kindly accepted. So, I will be fleshing out the following over the summer. Obviously, I owe an intellectual debt to Rob Kitchin here but I’d like to think that I am substantively developing some of the themes of his code/space work (with Martin Dodge) through my own reading of Bernard Stiegler’s philosophical project. In particular, I am developing some of my ideas about the politics of anticipation (from my PhD work) through Stiegler’s theorisation of the ‘industrialisation of memory‘ and the ‘eventisation‘ capacities of increasingly data-driven commercial industries.

This paper addresses the transformative sense in which computation has become an infrastructure upon which has been founded mechanisms to both support and intervene in how we live our everyday lives. The past two decades have witnessed a steady movement of the capacity of digital computation away from spaces dedicated to housing the apparatus of computing—such as the computer centre and the home office—towards a diffusion of that capacity into a variety of everyday places (in the global North). A number of authors have both predicted and described the ways in which computation has moved from dedicated places for bulky apparatus into a capacity available through interconnected devices and systems in an increasing number of contexts (Greenfield, 2006; Kitchin, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Mitchell, 1995, 2000, 2003; Shepard, 2011; Rheingold, 2002; Weiser, 1991). Large-scale computing apparatus have not been eliminated, in fact they have increased in number in the guise of data centres, server farms and so on, but the capacity for the interconnection of those resources through international telecommunications infrastructures to large numbers of portable and embedded devices has transformed the scope and reach of computation (Graham and Marvin, 2001; Graham, 2004, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to interrogate the ways in which this widespread infrastructure of computation is being used not only to both support and surveil increasing amounts of everyday activities, through the collection and retention of vast quantities of data, but also to anticipate and intervene into how we perform the everyday.

Increasing amounts of information about ourselves and others is harvested and stored using electronic devices and we volunteer even more information to email providers, search engines and social networking systems. Many aspects of our everyday lives are now gathered in a range of contexts and recorded (via CCTV, cellphone networks and so on) and retained in databases (Agre, 1994; Graham, 2002; Haggerty and Ericson, 2000; Murakami Wood, 2008), as a growing system of memory of life otherwise forgotten or unthought. These systems are increasingly involved in the ways in which we convene and perform a sense of place. If places are spatial contexts that we convene and give meaning through particular kinds of activities or arrangements of various people and things, then the ways in which we perform that sense of place can be understood to be increasingly mediated by digital technologies. We use mobile devices to search commercial systems for information about and navigate to locations, relying upon travel instructions and databases of past experiences of those places. We allow those systems to use data about ourselves to recommend the ways in which we might act in those locations, where we might eat, shop or socialise. Furthermore, especially in urban environments, we are subject to the regulation of particular locations through real-time analytics based upon infrastructures that gather data for city governments. Infrastructures of software and hardware thus have a growing agency in how we collectively communicate, remember and conduct ourselves socially.

The gathering and recording of data and volunteered information through the expanding computational infrastructure facilitates the ordering of time both as forms of history, and thus the sharing of knowledge and culture, and as the means of anticipating, planning for, and perhaps preventing, futures. The logic of retained knowledge is thus ‘programmatic’ and has arguably become more so with the advent of software programmes, which have augmented our capacities to remember, process and act upon information. Furthermore, these infrastructures increasingly anticipate, in real-time, the ways in which we will behave in order to inform how commercial and governmental organisations intervene in and regulate how a variety of urban environments function. The production and performance of cities, then, increasingly ‘takes place’ in concert with a host of quasi-autonomous computational agents, regardless of whether or not we are aware of it.

To investigate the transformative nature of the anticipatory capacities of a growing number of computational infrastructures embedded within our everyday lives this paper proceeds in three parts. In the following, second, section several technology case studies are explored as means of capturing & retaining and anticipating & operating upon our everyday activities in ‘industrial’ scale systems. Particular attention is paid to the quasi-autonomous agency of these systems, that appear to operate at a scale and speed that exceeds a human capacity of oversight. In the third section the mnemonic and prognostic capabilities of networked infrastructures are brought into focus to be examined, through the work of the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (1998, 2009, 2010b, 2010a), as ‘mnemotechnologies’, technologies and technical supports that both support and reterritorialise what we collectively understand about our everyday lives. The conclusion of this article addresses the ways in which the informatics of an ‘industrialisation of memory’ that operates at a scale and speed that bleeds into apparatuses of anticipatory intervention both challenges and transforms the ways in which we negotiate what are private and public activities and spaces.

Reblog > Hybrid assemblages, environments and happenings – Eric Paulos

Eric Paulos reflects on a wealth of experience of interdisciplinary and participatory research, particularly in relation to the maker movement. Eric offers some great reflections on Mark Weiser’s interdisciplinarity and the importance of creative practice.

Hybrid Assemblages, Environments & Happenings -Eric Paulos

Abstract: This talk will present and critique a body of work evolving across several years of research at the intersection of computer science and design research. It will present an augment for hybrid materials, methods, and artifacts as strategic tools for insight and innovation within computing culture. It will explore and demonstrate the value of urban computing, citizen science, and maker culture as opportunistic landscapes for intervention, micro-volunteerism, and a new expert amateur. Finally, it will present and question emerging materials and strategies from the perspective of engineering, design, and new media.

VIDEOS > Categorisation and processes of individuation – Stiegler

Simon Lincelles, apparently on behalf of the ‘indexation and editorialisation’ group at the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI, founded at the Pompidou Centre by Bernard Stiegler), has posted some really interesting videos featuring edited excerpts from a seminar run at IRI cut together with relevant additional materials. There are English subtitles for the spoken French.

In particular, these videos offer an interesting and valuable introduction to how Stiegler conceptualises the idea of ‘categorisation’ in relation to processes of retention/protention (broadly – memory and anticipation) and how this is important to processes of becoming (co- and trans-individuation). This speaks more broadly to an understanding of how we share experiences within/of the world and how we might think about contributing to that sharing using various forms of technique/technology, which has become a significant concern for IRI and their focus on a ‘digital studies‘. Definitely worth a watch!

II 1 Categorization and transindividuation from Simon Lincelles on Vimeo.

II 2 Psychic Individuation and categorisation from Simon Lincelles on Vimeo.

II 3 Remarques sur l’expérience. from Simon Lincelles on Vimeo.

VIDEO > Trevor Pinch discusses the ‘material turn’ in STS

In this video from Edinburgh, STS scholar Prof. Trevor Pinch wrinkles his nose at multi-species ethnography and then goes on to identify what he sees as some of the problematic ways in which materiality has been discussed in STS. In particular he problematises the use of the term ‘affordance’, thinking through the various forms of intentionality that asks us to assume about both the ‘object’ to which the affordance is said to belong and the human ‘subject’ for which, Pinch suggests, that affordance is intended. Don’t think I would agree necessarily but I think this is an interesting voice to add to the broader material turn conversation…

Found via ANTHEM.

2013 Design Fictions – postscapes awards

Postscapes have an annual ‘Internet of Things‘ awards, with projects nominated under various categories for which the viewing public (with net access) are invited to vote. This is the third year of the awards and the second in which I have been aware of a ‘design fiction‘ category.

Postscapes identify/define design fiction in the following way:

Grounded as much in imagination as reality, design fiction is about bending the rules. It’s about asking “What if?”, and using the remains to probe the edges of our changing world.

The results may only be props or prototypes — but the best ones, as recognized by the Design Fiction award, end up helping us navigate our near futures and the stories they share.

(I’ve discussed how we might go about defining this sort of thing elsewhere on this blog and collected examples of similar kinds of fictions.)

Last year (in the awards for 2012), the ‘design fiction’ category was ‘won’ by the slightly creepy and maybe a little bit flawed ‘ear hacking':

Ear Hacking from David Chatting on Vimeo.

In which we are asked to believe that there is a direct correlation between basic features of audio playback and our activity – in particular as runners. Anyway, it serves to demonstrate that humour works well in fostering and audience for design fiction. Notably, this ‘beat’ Google’s now infamous ‘project glass‘ video which, of course, was the forerunner for ‘glass‘.

In the running for the 2013 design fiction awards are a few interesting projects, you can see the whole list on the posts capes website but here are a couple that I think are in some way provocative…

Anne Galloway’s Design Culture Lab investigations of the Merino wool industry (see ‘counting sheep‘), with the lovely ‘bone knitter‘ that produces custom knitted casts for knitting back together broken limbs, and the rather unsettling ‘PermaLamb‘, vision of custom GM lamb production. Check out the ‘counting sheep‘ website for more, its worth exploring.

BoneKnitter during the knitting process.

James Bridle’s ‘surveillance spaulder’, a pithy and playful imagining of a device that viscerally reminds the wearer of their being surveilled:

Spike Jonze’s soon-to-be released film ‘Her’in the tradition of various imaginings of AI (e.g. Brian Aldiss):

[NB. posting them here doesn’t necessarily mean approval…]


Friction – an interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistance

Over on the Virality blog, Tony Sampson highlights this recent and rurally interesting call for papers for a conference concerning technology and resistance. I have reproduced the CFP below but see the original blog for Tony’s take…

Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistanceUniversity of Nottingham
Thursday 8th May & Friday 9th May, 2014Keynote talk by Pollyanna Ruiz (LSE)

With workshops led by: Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey; University of Leicester Technology Group; Jen Birks and John Downey; and Rachel Jacobs (Active Ingredient).

Current workshop themes include: evil media; data, digital leaks and political activism; hacklabs and artistic uses of data.

More TBC

Workshop and talk abstracts, and information about speakers will be appearing on our blog in the forthcoming weeks:

[mass noun]
The resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another:
· the action of one surface or object rubbing against another
· conflict or animosity caused by a clash of wills, temperaments, or opinions

Oxford English Dictionary, 2013

We are now living in a frictionless economy in which money, jobs and products can move around the world in the blink of an eye. And yet we have not moved to a frictionless society. Rather, many of the technologies that support the frictionless economy create various forms of friction in society. Taking a lead from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Critical Theory’s Technology and Resistance research strand, we are interested in proposals for papers and workshops that explore the concept/metaphor of ‘friction’ as a starting point for exploring the relationship between everyday technologies and resistance; with resistance understood in both a politically empowering and an inhibitory sense. On the one hand, we’re interested in modes of organised resistance: of activist movements making use of, or reacting against, technological developments. However we’re concerned with resistance in a second sense: of technologies resisting their intended function, breaking down, being exploited by hackers or triggering unexpected socio-economic complications.

We invite people to use the concept of ‘friction’ as a route into exploring these themes, with potential topics for discussion including (but not limited to):

· Data and ethics
· Cultural shifts relating to the capture of data
· The vulnerability of software to hacking and surveillance
· Resistance to surveillance and data harvesting
· Activist uses of data, particularly the circulation of leaked material
· The politics of hacking
· The exploitation of ambiguity in software design by hackers
· Activist and everyday contestations of technological developments
· The sociological and cultural factors required for technologies to ‘work’
· Everyday and/or activist reappropriations of technology
· Tensions between new technologies and existing infrastructures

We are an interdisciplinary group of researchers, including academics from Geography, Business, Critical Theory, Cultural Studies and Media & Communications: so we welcome a diverse range of perspectives and approaches to this theme.

We encourage interactive presentation formats, and will allocate longer time-slots to workshops to accommodate these, but also have space for shorter 20 minute position papers.

Extended deadline for proposals: 1st March 2014

If you are interested in participating please submit a 250 word proposal for a workshop or paper, along with your name and current email address, to

Please also feel free to contact us with more general enquiries, follow the Centre for Critical Theory’s Twitter account @criticaltheory