A 2018 list: Four books I read, four books I wish I had

A painting of a boy reading, by Eastman Johnson

People publish lists at this time of year. So, here’s another. I’m not going to pretend I am someone I’m not though… so here’s two lists, really, one is books I enjoyed reading, the other is books I wish I’d read (for want of time) and hope to in 2019.


Automating Inequality – Virginia Eubanks : A superbly detailed, very readable account of the ways in which automated systems carry assumptions from the policy makers and developers within them, even when they consciously try to avoid this, and how to think about studying such things. This really is a wonderful book. If you are interested in ‘algorithms’, AI’ and automation, especially in relation to bias and ethics you really ought to read this book. Likewise, if you are interested in studying welfare provision.

The Problem with Work – Kathi Weeks : A thoughtful, mostly conceptual (in a good way), engagement with what counts as work (or ‘waged labour’) and the ways in which it has become a given and removed it from critique. In concluding the book, Weeks stages a well-argued counter to the ‘work ethic’ (in the vein of Weber) as a ‘post-work politics’ – a mandate to ‘get a life’. This is wonderful piece of scholarship.

Working Bodies – Linda McDowell : I am slightly ashamed that I’d not read this before but McDowell’s book on ‘interactive service work’, ‘body work’ and emotional labour is a forceful, really engaging and superbly argued book about how work continues to be gendered in relation to idea(l)s around ‘care’. This is also a fantastic teaching resource, which I’ve made good use of in teaching a portion of  second year module on geographies of ‘work’.

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett : The subtitle –’Locating democracy in critical theory– captures the ambition of the book, which I think is fulfilled. This is a consummate and substantial theoretical (try to think of that word in a positive way here) investigation of the ways people in geographyland and the wider landscape of social theory conceptualise ‘democracy’ (often in relation to something called ‘justice’, which Clive rethinks). However, above and beyond this, what this book did for me is to further provoke a conscious rethinking of what it can mean to ‘do theory’ and to solidify a shift in my theoretical antennae. (Full disclosure: I work with Clive and I chaired an “author meets…” panel on this book at the 2018 RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff)

To Read

Programmed Inequality – Mar Hicks : A book tracing the crumbling of the British computing industry on the back of disastrous decisions made about the work-force involved, not least the pushing out of highly skilled women – what Hicks calls a ‘gendered technocracy’. I’ve read a few excerpts and related publications by Hicks on this topic, not least the excellent article in the ‘Fail’ issue of Logic, and the work is uniformly excellent. I am really looking forward to reading this.

Artificial Knowing – Alison Adam : Related to the above, this book by Adam looks fascinating – tackling ideas of a ‘knowing subject’ in relation to gender biases in AI work in the 1990s. The research is explicitly situated in relation to Haraway’s and Turkle’s feminist epistemologies. This seems like a really valuable book in getting to grips with some of the contemporary fascinations with AI.

Technology and the Virtues – Shannon Vallor : An examination of how to think about ethics/ morality in relation to technology design, use and regulation with a really substantial and well-argued engagement with virtue ethics. I came to this via John Danaher’s podcast conversation with Vallor – who was fantastic (listen here). This book looks really really interesting.

The New Enclosure – Brett Christophers : An examination of one of the most fundamental aspects of the Thatcherite programme of privatisation – the privatisation of land in the UK. This book looks like essential reading for geographers, especially those of us in the UK. I came to this via an excellent, two-part, podcast interview with Christophers on the brilliant City Road Podcast.

‘Work Notes’ – an occasional academic journal

Pocket Remembrancer 1865

I’ve decided to do something slightly different from the research topic focused blogging I ordinarily do. I have occasionally written posts about ‘the job’, but inspired by reading Les Back’s Academic Diary this summer and with a slightly more keen sense of the passage of time I’ve decided to create a sort of sub-blog called ‘Work Notes’ that focuses on observations about working in academia. This is not an attempt to generalise but rather to reflect upon my own experiences. Likewise, this is not for self-promotion or whatever. You can find the posts on the Work Notes page. They won’t, for the moment, appear in this blog feed – they will remain separate.

Here’s what I wrote about my motivations in the initial post:

I have been reading Les Back’s Academic Diary and it provides an impetus for me to mark this passing of time. This will be my own, more modest, occasional academic journal – (I hope) not for pretentious reasons, for self-promotion and so on. Rather my motivation is because I think writing (for me) is like a muscle and it needs to be exercised. Just as my physical attempts at exercise are poor and I am trying to address that, I also feel the need to create a habit of writing again. I sincerely hope I can both stick to this and get better at doing it. It is a form of learning-by-doing. Ultimately, I want to write this. I want to because I love my job and academia, in spite of it’s (or ‘our’) weirdnesses.

Steal my sunshine – 15th August

Machine Learning ‘like alchemy’, not electricity

Holly from the UK TV programme Red Dwarf

In this Neural Information Processing System conference talk (2017), marking receiving the ‘test of time’ award, Ali Rahimi discusses the status of rigour in the field of machine learning. In response to Andrew Ng’s infamous “Artificial Intelligence is like electricity”, Rahimi retorts “machine learning is like alchemy”. I’ve embedded the talk below, it kicks in at the point Rahimi starts this bit of argument. I confess I don’t understand the maths talk it is embedded within but I think this embodies the best of ‘science’/ academia – cut the bullshit, talk about what we don’t know as much as what we do.

Unpopped – the podcast you should be listening to

Mary & Marina from Bristol in Gogglebox

I’ve been expanding my podcast listening. I still listen to a mix of tech-related stuff and pop culture. I’ve also begun to listen to the very helpful Radio 4 Extra Podcast Radio Hour. I don’t always get on with the contents, sometimes fast-forward but blimey does it give you an intro to a much bigger range of podcasts!

Anyway, one of the podcasts that I turned to from that show was Unpopped (via Geoff Lloyd). It’s a podcast hosted by Hayley Campbell in which she gets a panel together to talk about a particular subject/aspect of pop culture. The most recent (at the time of writing) was an excellent discussion about the roots of Grime and representation. Other episodes I have really enjoyed include one about Paris Hilton and the nature of celebrity. The only other podcast experience I have had that is analogous was a great OUP podcast episode about Rihanna and representations of black women.

I am starting to think, after listening to around five episodes, that you could almost build a module from the podcast. The discussions are (mostly) brilliant – insightful, politically astute and often funny. In many ways this is the cultural studies of Stuart Hall, Paul du Gay and others alive and kicking in a medium they may have studied.

Rather than over-coding the descriptive and analytical detail with “big” theory (in the ways of which social & cultural geographers are, I fear, terribly guilty) —it’s not always reducible to affect, neoliberalism and subjectivity 😉 — most episodes of unpopped offer specific and nuanced discussions of a particular phenomenon/subject/topic.

I recommend listening to it…


People on a rollercoaster

Gillian Rose has written a helpful blogpost on her blog following a talk at Maynooth about developing a career as an academic for the Supporting Women in Geography Ireland group, which I recommend reading. I value the advice Gillian gives (and wish I’d had it earlier in my career), so definitely give it a read.

I don’t wish to draw equivalences of experience (either in the sense of expertise or stuff that you do/happens to you) not least cos that experience/those experiences are clearly different, yet Gillian’s blogpost made me think of a couple of things about academic ‘brand’…

Goodness knows you can put all sorts of pressure on yourself to somehow live up to the ‘superhero‘ (*oh dear*) that seems to be asked for in job adverts (as Rachel Pitt and Inger Bewman have discussed), sooo… in my limited experience, it seems to me that developing what Gillian calls a ‘brand‘ (with those scare quotes, mind) is both necessary and problematic.

It’s a positive thing insofar as other people need to be able to understand what you do so if you have a clear and accessible ‘brand’ then it may well help with applying for jobs, for grants and so on. As Gillian puts it, try to work out:

the kind of geographer/academic that you are or you aspire to be

As Gillian goes on to identify – a mentor can help (and that can be fantastic). If you’ve got a sort of narrative that binds together, however loosely, the things you’ve done, written and taught then other people can easily make sense of who you are as an academic. Likewise, if you respond to thematic funding calls it can give you a way in. It may lead to other people actually inviting you to give talks, collaborate and so on… so that’s all pretty good – it can feel nice to be recognised and (hopefully) respected. Also, if a theme becomes a ‘big thing’ then you can get a head start, for example if you ‘brand’ yourself as someone who does ‘the geopolitics of media’ then you may have an advantage when pitching into thematic calls about the machinations around ‘fake news’ and so on…

I hesitate to say this, again from my limited experience, however – ‘branding’ can also, I think, be problematic when pursued over-zealously. I am not being derisory about ambition, I think/ hope there are positive versions of it. Nevertheless, there are strategies for career advancement that may work but may also come at a cost – sometimes to yourself and sometimes more widely. I’d like to think these are the sorts of issues a mentor can help you identify and hopefully negotiate without negative effects.

Being specific about your ‘brand’ may start out helpful but could become restrictive. For example, you might position yourself as someone who does research on a particular area (like the ‘geopolitics of media’ example above) or on/with a particular theory or theorist – you might write the journal article or book on it – but you may want to have one eye on whether you’re pigeon-holing yourself restrictively… after all, we have careers that can last decades (hopefully).

‘Brand’ carries the possible, unfortunate, connotation of monopoly – trying to become the person who does [x] (I know that’s not what Gillian was suggesting). It may be tempting to try to achieve that status too, but I think I would caution against it personally. If you have tough enough skin I suspect it’s possible to gain that status in some circumstances, I doubt anyone will tell you not to (you may just face more-than-usually unpleasant anonymous peer review comments as you ratchet up the ‘outputs’), but I wonder at what cost..?

One of us might somehow bash out eight articles in a year all on-‘brand’, they might manage a few more in subsequent years, firmly staking a claim to that theme/ set of ideas/ empirical focus. They might organise conference sessions and events, carefully billing themselves as the gatekeeper or key speaker. A group building a ‘brand’ might collectively do these things, spur one another on – they even ‘boost’ each other through citation rings. However, we might also want to think about what such practices and that level of productivity means in terms of expectations we set for ourselves or our employers, perceptions of the quality of our work, or sustainable work load.

We might want to think about the positive and negatives of ‘reputation’ that may come from all this. We might also want to think about whether we’re perpetuating problematic expectations for other colleagues – “Well, if Bloggs can write so many articles in a year why can’t you?” etc etc. It becomes competitive. Personally,  I hope that we can find ways of celebrating one another’s work rather than competing. I’d like to think that academia is a collective and collaborative enterprise…

I worry (too much! heh) that if we were to focus too much on ‘brands’ we open ourselves to the negative sides of competition that so many colleagues have criticised in terms of the negative effects on wellbeing [e.g.]. I think the advice Gillian gives in her blogpost takes us some way towards doing so, and I’m grateful she shared it.

Maybe you disagree with my ramblings? I’d welcome comments below…

In terms of how to manage our own wellbeing I wrote some stuff on here a while ago about ‘the job’ that may or may not be of interest too…
Academic emotional labour
Illness, reflecting on work…

Monday thought – OOOber?

statue of a man holding his head with his right hand

A thought experiment based upon flippant suggestion:

Object Oriented Ontology is to philosophy what Uber is to tech development.

Both ‘disruptive’, Uber and OOO have both expanded beyond their initial context, which is by several measures ‘success’. Both have become like discursive shortcuts for a particular set of ideas – ‘gig economy’ and ‘automation’ for Uber and ‘speculative realism’ and maybe even ‘metaphysics’ for OOO (and there’s possibly other associations for these terms too).

Neither OOO or Uber came up with the ideas they propound first, they ‘innovated’ from others (not necessarily a problem) and then made grand claims based on that (maybe a problem).

Neither of the groups involved in the development of Uber or OOO has acted especially ethically, although Uber is almost certainly significantly worse (this isn’t a like-for-like comparison). This is one of the other ways in which these words have become pregnant with meaning. Uber has been variously documented as having a problem with misogyny in the workplace and has also teetered on the edge of legality through ‘greyball’. Some of the proponents of OOO have been accused of bullying graduate students online and at conferences (I recognise gossip can be pernicious but I’ve heard this from several unrelated sources). It has also been suggested some of these folks are garnering a reputation for being somewhat ‘macho’ in attitude – it probably doesn’t help that the lead figures are all male, that they write lots of earnest manifestos or that they succumb to profiles in newspapers that call them “philosopher prophet“. Of course, neither OOO or Uber are unique in this, similar observations/ accusations have been made of antecedent tech firms and philosophical movements, one need only look to TV programmes like “Silicon Valley” or open up the ‘theory boy‘ can of worms.

Finally, there is also a sense that the success both Uber and OOO are easily co-opted into these (pejorative) narratives. There are grounds for this, well – certainly for Uber, but the visibility that success brings makes it easier to tell these stories. I have no doubt that such alleged behaviour is not limited to those involved in Uber or OOO. Likewise, those categories may be contested and we shouldn’t tar everyone who works for a company or does a particular branch of theory with the same brush. Goodness knows there are plenty of “tech bros” and, for want of a better term, “theory bros” outside of Uber and OOO.

Such a critique, however flippant, can come across as a bit pompous or sly. I cannot stand outside this, I am, to a degree, complicit. For example, the citational practices used by “theory bros”, cartel-like, are easy to slip into – many of us have succumbed. To recognise stupidity, as both Ronell and Stiegler point out, is to recognise my own stupidity – the lesson, perhaps the ‘ethic’, is to pass through it towards knowledge. Not the reproduction of the same knowledge (that’s patriarchy), and not always, I think, difference for it’s own sake (isn’t that what the “tech bros” call “disruption”? and doesn’t that always require being in a privileged position?) but perhaps a thoughtful defiance – not ‘laughing along’. This could mean more “no’s” (following Sara Ahmed). Maybe even something like a NO movement – “No Ontology”, at least the kinds of ontology that get used as authority in the kinds of theory top trumps that get played by some of us in the social sciences and humanities… of course this isn’t a novel suggestion either, it’s somewhat akin to feminist standpoint theory.

Perhaps I’m being unkind to OOO and those who do/use it. Success breeds contempt and all that… but the thought experiment was interesting to run through, in my own ham-fisted way…

Some books

Some books on a table

I have some new books for the first time in a while… I’ve also borrowed some others from my betters but they’re at home… Anyway, I did some reviewing and got the Edward Elgar books in return – I’ll be reviewing the Handbook on Geographies of Tech. soonish for cultural geographies. I stumped up my own tear and sweat-stained cash for Artists Rethinking the Blockchain cos it looked interesting. So far so good 😉 The topmost is a library book (I’m not made of money you know) and is really interesting (well the few pages I’ve read have been).

Will I actually read all of them? We’ll see!