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: [] [] [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.

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

“AI will displace 40 percent of world’s jobs in as soon as 15 years” – Kai-Fu Lee

Industrial factory robot arms

In a widely-trailed CBS ’60 minutes’ interview, the A.I-pioneer-cum-venture-capitalist Kai-Fu Lee makes the sorts of heady predictions about job replacement/displacement that the media like to lap up. The automative imagination of ‘automation as progress’ in full swagger…

We should perhaps see this in the context of, amongst other things, geopolitical machinations (i.e. China-USA) around trade and intellectual property; a recently published book; a wider trend for claims about robotic process automation (especially in relation to ‘offshoring‘); and a large investment fund predicated upon ‘disruption’.

“Merger” by Keiichi Matsuda – automation, work and ‘replacement’

A still from the 360-degree video "Merger" by Keiichi Matsuda
“With automation disrupting centuries-old industries, the professional must reshape and expand their service to add value. Failure is a mindset. It is those who empower themselves with technology who will thrive.
“Merger is a new film about the future of work, from cult director/designer Keiichi Matsuda (HYPER-REALITY). Set against the backdrop of AI-run corporations, a tele-operator finds herself caught between virtual and physical reality, human and machine. As she fights for her economic survival, she finds herself immersed in the cult of productivity, in search of the ultimate interface. This short film documents her last 4 minutes on earth.”

I came across the most recent film by Keichii Matsuda which concerns a possible future of work, with the protagonist embedded in an (aesthetically Microsoft-style) augmented reality of screen-surfaces, and in which the narrative denouement is a sort of trans-human ‘uploading’ moment.

I like Matsuda’s work. i think he skilfully and playfully provokes particular sorts of conversations, mostly about what we used to call ‘immersion’ and the nature of mediation. This has, predictably happened in terms of human vs. AI vs. eschatology (etc etc.) sorts of narratives in various outlets (e.g. the Verge). The first time I encountered his work was at a Passenger Films event at which Rob Kitchin talked about theorisations of mediation in relation to both Matsuda’s work and the (original) Disney film ‘Tron‘.

What is perhaps (briefly) interesting here are two things:

  1. The narrative is a provocative short story that asks us to reflect upon how our world of work and technological development get us from now (the status quo) to an apparent future state of affairs, which carries with it certain kinds of ethical, normative and political contentions. So, this is a story that piggybacks the growing narrative of ‘post-work’ or widespread automation of work by apparently ‘inhuman’ technologies (i.e. A.I) that provokes debate about the roles of ‘technology’ and ‘work’ and what it means to be ‘human’. Interestingly, this (arguably) places “Merger” in the genre of ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘science fiction’ – it is, after all, an eschatological story (I don’t see this final point as a negative). I suppose it could also be seen as a fictional suicide note but I’d rather not dwell on that…
  2. The depiction of the interface and the interaction with the technology-world of the protagonist– and indeed the depiction of these within a 360-degree video –are as important as the story to what the video is signifying. By which I mean – like the videos I called ‘vision videos’ back in 2009/10 (and (in some cases) might be called ‘design fiction’ or ‘diagetic prototypes’) – this video is also trying to show you and perhaps sell you the idea of a technology (Matsuda recently worked for Leap Motion). As I and others have argued – the more familiar audiences are with prospective/speculative technologies the more likely we are (perhaps) to sympathise with their funding/ production/ marketing and ultimately to adopt them.

Sophia – show robots and deception

Hanson Robotics' "Sophia"

…when first we practice to deceive…

Walter Scott

Prof Noel Sharkey has written a thoughtful, informative and entertaining piece for Forbes (so, for a general audience) that does some unpacking of ‘Sophia’ with reference to the history of ‘show robots’ (such as the Westinghouse show robots of the the mid-C20, like Elektro, and of course Honda’s Asimo). It’s worth reading the piece in full but here’s a couple of choice clips:

Sophia is not the first show robot to attain celebrity status. Yet accusations of hype and deception have proliferated about the misrepresentation of AI to public and policymakers alike. In an AI-hungry world where decisions about the application of the technologies will impact significantly on our lives, Sophia’s creators may have crossed a line. What might the negative consequences be? To get answers, we need to place Sophia in the context of earlier show robots.

The tradition extends back to the automata precursors of robots in antiquity. Moving statues were used in the temples of ancient Egypt and Greece to create the illusion of a manifestation of the gods. Hidden puppeteers pulled ropes and spoke with powerful booming voices emitted from hidden tubes. This is not so different from how show robots like Sophia operate today to create the illusion of a manifestation of AI.

For me, the biggest problem with the hype surrounding Sophia is that we have entered a critical moment in the history of AI where informed decisions need to be made. AI is sweeping through the business world and being delegated decisions that impact significantly on peoples lives from mortgage and loan applications to job interviews, to prison sentences and bail guidance, to transport and delivery services to medicine and care.

It is vitally important that our governments and policymakers are strongly grounded in the reality of AI at this time and are not misled by hype, speculation, and fantasy. It is not clear how much the Hanson Robotics team are aware of the dangers that they are creating by appearing on international platforms with government ministers and policymakers in the audience.