Automation and Utopia – John Danaher’s new book

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

A fascinating new book from an excellent and rather prolific scholar John Danaher – presenter of a fantastic podcast. Definitely worth a look – I’ll certainly be ordering a copy. You can get a copy here: [Amazon.com] [Amazon.co.uk] [Book Depository] [Harvard UP] [Indiebound] [Google Play]

Here’s an excerpt from John’s blogpost celebrating the publication:

The book tries to present a rigorous case for techno-utopianism and a post-work future. I wrote it partly as a result of my own frustration with techno-futurist non-fiction. I like books that present provocative ideas about the future, but I often feel underwhelmed by the strength of the arguments they use to support these ideas. I don’t know if you are like me, but if you are then you don’t just want to be told what someone thinks about the future; you want to be shown why (and how) they think about the future and be able to critically assess their reasoning. If I got it right, then Automation and Utopia will allow you to do this. You may not agree with what I have to say in the end, but you should at least be able to figure out where I have gone wrong.

The book defends four propositions:

  • Proposition 1 – The automation of work is both possible and desirable: work is bad for most people most of the time, in ways that they don’t always appreciate. We should do what we can to hasten the obsolescence of humans in the arena of work.
  • Proposition 2 – The automation of life more generally poses a threat to human well-being, meaning, and flourishing: automating technologies undermine human achievement, distract us, manipulate us and make the world more opaque. We need to carefully manage our relationship with technology to limit those threats.
  • Proposition 3 – One way to mitigate this threat would be to build a Cyborg Utopia, but it’s not clear how practical or utopian this would really be: integrating ourselves with technology, so that we become cyborgs, might regress the march toward human obsolescence outside of work but will also carry practical and ethical risks that make it less desirable than it first appears.
  • Proposition 4 – Another way to mitigate this threat would be to build a Virtual Utopia: instead of integrating ourselves with machines in an effort to maintain our relevance in the “real” world, we could retreat to “virtual” worlds that are created and sustained by the technological infrastructure that we have built. At first glance, this seems tantamount to giving up, but there are compelling philosophical and practical reasons for favouring this approach.

CFP AAG 2020 – ‘New geographies of automation?’

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I’d welcome submissions, questions or any form of interest for the proposed session I outline below.

My aim with this session is to continue a conversation that has arisen in geography and beyond about as wide a range of tropes about automation as possible. Papers needn’t be empirical per se or about actually existing automation, they could equally be about the rationales, promises or visions for automation. Likewise, automation has been about for a while, so historical geographies of automation, in agriculture for example, or policies for automation that have been tried and failed would be also welcome.

There are all sorts of ways that ‘automation’ has been packaged in other rubrics, such as ‘smart’ things, cities and so on, or perhaps become a ‘fig leaf’ or ‘red herring’ to cover for unscrupulous activities, such as iniquitous labour practices.

I guess what I’m driving at is – I welcome any and all ideas relevant to the broad theme!

CFP: New Geographies of Automation?

Denver, USA, 6-10 April 2020

Organiser: Sam Kinsley (Exeter).

Abstract deadline: 16th October 2019.

This session invites papers that respond to the variously promoted or forewarned explosion of automation and the apparent transformations of culture, economy, labour and workplace we are told will ensue. Papers are sought from any and all branches of geography to investigate what contemporary geographies of automation may or should look like, how we are/could/should be doing them and to perhaps question the grandiose rhetoric of alarmism/boosterism of current debates.

Automation has lately gained a renewed focus of hyperbolic commentary in print and online. We are warned by some of the ‘rise of the robots’ (Ford 2015) sweeping away whole sectors of employment or by others exhorted to strive towards ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (Srnicek & Williams 2015). Beyond the hyperbole it is possible to trace longer lineages of geographies of automation. Studies of the industrialisation of agriculture (Goodman & Watts 1997); Fordist/post-Fordist systems of production (Harvey 1989); shifts to globalisation (Dicken 1986) and (some) post-industrial societies (Clement & Myles 1994) stand testament to the range of work that has addressed the theme of automation in geography. Indeed, in the last decade geographers have begun to draw out specific geographical contributions to debates surrounding ‘digital’ automation. In similar if somewhat divergent ways, geographers have paid a closer attention to: the apparent automation of labour and workplaces (Bissell & Del Casino 2017); encounters with apparently autonomous ‘bots’ (Cockayne et al. 2017); the interrogation of automation in governance and surveillance across a range of scales (Amoore 2013, Kitchin & Dodge 2011); the integration of AI techniques into spatial analysis (Openshaw & Openshaw 1997); and the processing of ‘big’ data in order to discern things about, or control, people (Leszczynski 2015). 

The invitation of this session is to submit papers that consider contemporary discussions, movements and propositions of automation from a geographical perspective (in the broadest sense). 

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

  • AI, machine learning and cognitive work
  • Boosterism and tales of automation
  • Gender, race and A.I
  • Labour and work
  • Autonomy, agency and law-making
  • Robotics and the everyday
  • Automation and workplace governance
  • Techno-bodily relations
  • Mobilities and materialities
  • Governance and surveillance

I intend to organize at least one paper session, depending on quantity and quality of submissions.  If you would like to propose a paper presentation, please email an abstract of 250 words to me by 16th October.

If you would also like to participate in a special issue on this topic I welcome expressions of interest.

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

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

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

The sessions are: 235 and 268, details below:

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

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

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

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

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

Ballet Robotique – popular representations of automation

Warehouse robots moving packages

In between doing other things I am trying to maintain a little progress with work on The Automative Imagination. Recently I’ve been looking at (largely Anglophone and/or global North/West) representations of robots or automatons in cinema. There’s some funny examples (I posted a few music video representations some time ago) and it is interesting how humour, and I suppose forms of satire, and artistic representations are an enduring way of getting to grips with whatever we think ‘robots’ might be.

So, for your consideration – I have posted below two interesting pieces I have found recently (to me). I’ll try to write more on this in the near future.

The Automatic Motorist (1911)

Ballet Robotique (1982)

‘Post-work’ and shifting from “the” future of work to futures of work

Warehouse robots moving packages

As part of my project on automation I’ve begun to engage with the wealth of literature about ‘the future of work’ and in particular the sorts of imaginings of a ‘post-work’ society that have emerged in popular discourse, not least in relation to idea(l)s of using automation to liberate workers. Many will be familiar with the sorts of arguments presented in books like “Fully automated luxury communism“, “Inventing the Future” and “PostCapitalism“, often receiving coverage in the left(ish)-leaning press (e.g.). These are often fairly muscular, advocations of using the machinery of capitalism itself to bring about its own demise through the liberation of the workforce.

One of the most interesting and helpful resources I have encountered in making sense of these sorts of arguments and where there may be opportunities to engage is the Futures of Work blog/journal led by Katie Bales, Harry Pitts and Huw Thomas and published by University of Bristol Press. I highly recommend browsing through but in particular the video and the articles linked below I think are really interesting and helpful ways of engaging with these ideas without getting lost (or, in my case, overly cross!)

Automated lettuce

A robot arm holding a lettuce plant

Following on from the earlier post about recurring stories, here’s two headlines more-or-less reporting the same story. The first is a story from the Daily Mail newspaper in 1965. As appears to often be the case for that paper, the innovation is framed in terms of some kind of national threat. The second is a story from tech news website engadget from 2018.

"Warning! Automated lettuce" - a headline from the Daily Mail, 1965

They are essentially the same story. Different technologies are invoked, perhaps different orders of sophistication are implied (or achieved), but more-or-less the same outcome is inferred – people do less work in preparing lettuces for sale.

I don’t really have time to add anything to the analysis I’ve already offered on this sort of story but I wanted to post this while I was still thinking about it.

Robots that are repeatedly coming, still

Industrial factory robot arms

On Tim Harford’s second series of Fifty things that made the modern economy there is an interesting trend of highlighting how some of the ‘things’ tell wider stories about automation in some regard. There are two things I’d pull out here.

First, there’s the issue of job or task displacement. Harford argues that, for example, spreadsheets automate certain elements of accountancy but make accountancy that much more efficient that more accountancy takes place. Quite a nice concise story about automation. This is indicative of a wider argument that often gets made about automation, perhaps in contradistinction to the ‘robots are stealing jobs’ hysteria — that automation may involve technology replacing people in certain tasks but that it often results in new tasks, or new forms of work (e.g. in the WEF ‘Future of Jobs Report 2018‘).

Second, there’s the issue of us being told by those with particular interests in automation and robotics that robots are about to replace a particular kind of work. This is a story that get’s trotted out rather a lot. ‘The robots are coming’ is a phrase often repeated in newspaper and web headlines. There are host of ‘packages’ for modern, and not-so-modern, news programmes about a ‘new’ machine that is going to replace a particular kind of worker. Harford gives a great example right at the end of the programme about bricks. We get through a lot of bricks and laying them as walls and building those into buildings are labour-intensive. There is a ‘new’ robot to displace that work: Construction Robotics‘ Semi Automated Mason (SAM – great name eh?) works alongside builders to speed up building walls (video below).

The thing is – this is not actually new. As Harford points out in the ‘bricks‘ programme, this is a story that has been told before. In the 1960s Pathé news reported on a remarkably similar mechanical system: the ‘motor mason’ (video below).

We can see then that in Harford’s popular economics podcast, 50 things, automation is a common theme – just as it is in wider discussions about social and political-economic ‘progress’. Yet it also nicely demonstrates some recurring tropes. First, there are now fairly established narratives about automation in relation to ‘jobs’ that are told in different ways, depending upon your political or theoretical persuasion – job ‘replacement’ and/or ‘creation’. Second, there is a common subsequent narrative when the ‘replacement’ story is playing out – that of the clever machine that is going to do a particular worker, such as a brick layer, out of their job. Here we also see how that narrative can keep being repeated, the robot is always coming but, perhaps sometimes, not quite arriving.

"The robots are coming" headline from the Guardian in 1986
"The robots are coming" headline from the Guardian in 2019

Bernard Stiegler on disruption & stupidity in education & politics – podcast

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

Via Museu d’Art Conptemporani de Barcelona.

On the Ràdio Web Macba website there is a podcast interview with philosopher Bernard Stiegler as part of a series to ‘Reimagine Europe’. It covers many of the major themes that have preoccupied Stiegler for the last ten years (if not longer). You can download the pod as an mp3 for free. Please find the blurb below and a link.

In his books and lectures, Stiegler presents a broad philosophical approach in which technology becomes the starting point for thinking about living together and individual fulfilment. All technology has the power to increase entropy in the world, and also to reduce it: it is potentially a poison or cure, depending on our ability to distil beneficial, non-toxic effects through its use. Based on this premise, Stiegler proposes a new model of knowledge and a large-scale contributive economy to coordinate an alliance between social agents such as academia, politics, business, and banks. The goal, he says, is to create a collective intelligence capable of reversing the planet’s self-destructive course, and to develop a plan – within an urgent ten-year time-frame – with solutions to the challenges of the Anthropocene, robotics, and the increasing quantification of life.

In this podcast Bernard Stiegler talks about education and smartphones, translations and linguists, about economic war, climate change, and political stupidity. We also chat about pharmacology and organology, about the erosion of biodiversity, the vital importance of error, and the Neganthropocene as a desirable goal to work towards, ready to be constructed.

Timeline
00:00 Contributory economy: work vs proletarianization
05:21 Our main organs are outside of our body
07:45 Reading and writing compose the republic
12:49 Refounding Knowledge 
15:03 Digital pharmakon 
18:28 Contributory research. Neganthropy, biodiversity and diversification
24:02 The need of an economic peace
27:24 The limits of micropolitics
29:32 Macroeconomics and Neganthropic bifurcation
36:55 Libido is fidelity
42:33 A pharmacological critique of acceleration
46:35 Degrowth is the wrong question

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”? [translated]

A young man standing in a cloud of yellow smoke

I recently came across an edited interview with Bernard Stiegler published on the website of Philosophie Magazine (17/12/18) [a] in which Stiegler ties together a very brief reading of the ‘yellow vests’ phenomena with the experiments he has been leading in the creation of an ‘economy of contribution’ – a more-or-less as a ethico-political-economic response to the ‘Anthropocene’. It is important to note here that for Stiegler not only means the current global cultural/environmental/social crisis embodied in a new ‘epoch’ but also significantly means the apparently rapid changes in employment/work largely due to technology. I have translated conversations with Stiegler about this topic before and these might be helpful in fleshing out the argument translated below, especially:

Here, in a similar vein to the discussion of previous periods of civil unrest in France (see in particular the books: The Decadence of Industrial Democracy, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals and The Lost Spirit of Capitalism) Stiegler diagnoses a form of immiseration that comes from a loss of capacities that needs to be addressed through a form of therapeutic response. The ‘yellow vests’ movements are a symptom of a broader cultural-environmental-social ‘entropy’ that is ‘The Anthropocene’ needs to be addressed through a re-imagined industrial policy – to engage in what he terms a form of ‘negentropy’. having said all of this, what is important perhaps about this brief interview is that it locates pragmatic action by talking through what Stiegler and colleagues are doing in the Plaine Commune experiments (for more information follow the links above).

As I have previously observed, I still find it curious that underlying the apparent radicalism of re-thinking industrial strategy, acting together towards (political) therapeutic ends, is a strange sort of unflinching (dare-I-say even conservative) faith in the state and institutions. In particular, the model for the central strategy of ‘contributory income’ is the intermittent entertainment policy of the French government for subsidising freelance and somewhat precarious forms of work in the ‘creative industries’. I’m not criticising this, I think it merits greater discussion – not least because it is being trialed in Seine-Saint-Denis – but there’s something curious about this rather measured scheme being central to the strategy, given the almost apocalyptic and incredibly urgent tone of books like The Neganthropocene and Age of Disruption.

ADD. 24/01/19. I think I probably missed a final step to the thought expressed in the paragraph above: while the scheme for a ‘contributory income’ (based upon the intermittent scheme) currently underway in Plaine Commune is perhaps limited, and while the idea of such an income is, in-itself not especially ‘revolutionary’, perhaps I/we should see this as the beginning of a reorientation – the instigation of a different/new therapeutic ‘tendency’, in Steigler’s terminology – away from a competitive individualised economic rationale towards a collective means of flourishing together, whilst also acknowledging that we need to take some form of collective responsibility. In that vein, as others have pointed out, Stiegler’s ‘activist’ thought/activities take on a particular ethical/moral stance (in this way I have some sympathy with Alexander Galloway calling Stiegler a ‘moral philosopher’).

As usual I have included in square brackets original French, where I’m unsure of the translation, or clarifications. I have also maintained, in the Conversation piece, all of the original francophone hyperlinks unless there is a clear anglophone alternative.

I welcome comments or corrections!

Notes

a. The interview appears in a section entitled Gilets Jaune, et maintenant– something like ‘Yellow vests, now what?’

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”

For this thinker of technics, the “yellow vests” movement highlights the desperate need for a new policy that would value work rather than employment. Among his proposals is the widening of the government scheme for irregular workers in the creative sector to everyone.

I was struck by the rapid evolution of the “yellow vests” movement, by the way it was presented and in which it was perceived. In the beginning, occupations of roundabouts [and crossroads] were reminiscent of the Tea Party phenomenon in the United States, which paved the way for Donald Trump’s election, and of Sarah Palin’s astonishing statement: “I like the smell of exhaust emissions!”However, despite the presence of the “ultra-right” which is of course very dangerous, the rise of this movement has evolved positively – and very unexpectedly. Compared with the “protest” scene, well-known in France for decades, the “yellow vests” are obviously a very singular and very interesting event, beyond its extreme ambiguities. Amongst the demands made by these leaderless demonstrators, the proposal to create a deliberative assembly for ecological transition is particularly illustrative of what fundamentally new emerging from this movement. This is confirmed by the encouraging sign, which must be interpreted without being under any illusions: the protest and climate march at a junction, in Bordeaux, on the 8th of December.

When we listen to the “yellow vests”, we hear the voices of people who are a bit lost, often living in unbearable conditions but with the virtue of expressing and highlighting our contemporary society’s limits and immense contradictions. In the face of this, the Macron government seems unable to take the measure of the problems being raised. I fear that the measures announced by the President on the 11th of December resolve nothing and fix in place the movement for the longer term, precisely because it expresses – at least symptomatically – the collective awareness of the contemporary crisis. The political horizon throughout Europe is not at all pleasant: the extreme right will probably draw the electoral benefits of this anger, while failing to answer the questions legitimately posed by “yellow vests” movement. This highlights the lack of a sense of history by President Macron and his ministers, and equally underlines the vanity of those who pretend to embody the left, who are just as incapable of making even the simplest statement at the height of what is the first great social crisis characterised by the Anthropocene. 

For me, a “man of the left”, the important question is what would be a leftist comprehensive industrial policy to take up the challenges of the Anthropocene and automation – which is to say, also addressing “Artificial Intelligence”. To confront this question is to attempt to overcome what is not thought in Marxian criticism, namely: entropy. All of the complex systems, both biologically and socially, are doomed to differential loss – of energy, biodiversity, interpretation of information – that leads to entropic chaos. The concept of negentropy, taken from the works of Erwin Schrödinger, refers to the ability of the living to postpone the loss of energy by differentiating organically, creating islands and niches locally installing a “différance” (as Derrida said) through which the future [l’avenir] is a bifurcation in an entropic becoming [devenir entropique] in which everything is indifferent. 

The fundamental point here is that, while entropy is observed at the macroscopic level, negentropy only occurs locally through energy conversion in all its forms – including libidinal energy. Freud was, with Bergson, the first to understand this radical change in point of view required by entropy. The “nationalist retreat” is a symptomatic expression of the entropic explosion provoked by the globalization [that is the] Anthropocene. This needs to be addressed by a new economic and industrial policy that systematically values negentropy. 

It is in response to such issues that the Institute of Research and Innovation and Ars Industrialis with Patrick Braouezec (President of the Plaine Commune public territorial establishment) are leading an experiment in Seine-Saint-Denis. In this district of 430,000 we are experimenting with putting in place a local economy of contribution, based upon a new macro-economy at the national level. Above all, this scheme values work rather than employment and aims to generalize the system of intermittent entertainment [added emphasis] [1]: The idea is to be able to guarantee people 70% of their most recent salary in the periods when they do not work, provided that within ten months they begin another freelance [intermittent] job. In the case of freelance [intermittent] performers, they must work for 507 hours, after which they have “replenished their right” to a contributory income. We are currently constructing workshops in the areas of child care, quality urban food, construction and urban trades, the conversion of combustion vehicles into clean vehicles, and so on. This experiment is supported by the Fondation de France, Orange, Dassault Systèmes, Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, Societe Generale, Afnic Foundation and Emmanuel Faber, General Manager of Danone. Every one of which are stakeholders in the search for a new conception of industrial economy fully mobilized in the fight against the Anthropocene and for the restoration of very-long-term economic solvency, based on investment, not speculation. It is by taking bold initiatives of this kind that we will truly respond to the “yellow vests”.

Notes

1. There is no direct translation for ‘intermittent entertainment’/ ‘intermittents du spectacle’ – this refers to state-subsidised freelance workers in the entertainments industry, an arrangement backed by long-standing legislation in France to support their native creative sectors.