“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.

CFP > Memories of the future, London 2019

the character Doc Brown in the film Back to the Future

Via Temporal Belongings.

Memories of the Future

International conference. Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London
Dates: 29-30 March 2019
Confirmed speakers: Stephen Bann (Bristol); Rebecca Coleman (Goldsmiths); Paolo Jedlowski (Calabria); Anna Reading (KCL); Michael Rothberg (UCLA)

Proposals for panels or papers by 31 July 2018 to memories.future@sas.ac.uk.

Call for papers
What does it mean to remember the future? What roles do memory, history, the past play in our consciousness as citizens of the early twenty-first century?

David Lowenthal (2015) reminds us that ‘commands to forget coexist with zeal to commemorate’, which raises the very important yet often overlooked questions of: what to remember and what to forget, who is well positioned to lead on or judge in that process, with whose legacies in mind, and with what consequences for future and past generations. In the 1980s, a significant body of scholarship on cultural memory emerged to protect the past from ‘time’s corrosive energy’, leading to ‘collective future thought’ (J. Assmann, 2011; Szpunar and Szpunar, 2016). Cultural memory acted as a moral imperative, a prerequisite to overcome not merely violent pasts but the violence inherent in linear temporality. As such, cultural memory has been seen as redemptive, enabling a more productive relation between past, present and future.

More recently, ‘thinking forward through the past’ has been central to a number of AHRC-funded projects in the UK examining environmental change, postcolonial disaster, gender and colonialism, heritage futures, ruins and more. Climate change, big data and the crisis of democracy are challenging our future in ways that may suggest a misalignment of temporal scales. One way of responding to this is through what Reinhart Koselleck (2000) called horizons of expectations and spaces of experience, namely, the horizons implicit in our anticipations of the future and the degree to which our experience of these have changed and will change over time. Utopian imaginaries and deploying utopia as a method (Levitas, 2013) invite us to think about hope, empathy, and solidarity, each contributing to create different places from which to imagine a future outside crises, fears and risk.

The past and the future constitute our cultural horizons in ways which are neither neutral nor solely technical, but, as Appadurai (2013) has suggested, ‘shot through with affect and sensation’. One of the key challenges of our time is how to study and create futures we truly care for and which are more social (Adam and Groves 2007; Urry, 2016).

Memories of the Future invites contributions to articulate the future in relation to cultural memory, and interrogate the precise and diverse manners in which the past, the present and the future are intertwined and dialogical, complicating our understanding of temporalities in an age saturated with memory and ‘past futures’.

Suggested themes and areas of inquiry include:

  • The future of memory
  • Temporal multi-directionalities
  • Memories of the future
  • Utopias and dystopias
  • Past, present and future mobilities
  • Smart cities and future/ist metropolises
  • Science-fiction and other subsets of utopia
  • Housing, cohousing and the future of habitation
  • Futurisms, modernisms, afro-futurisms
  • The future in/and the Anthropocene
  • Post-humanism and the non-human
  • Intentions, expectations, anticipations
  • Counterfactuals
  • Trauma, violence and conflict
  • Tangible and intangible heritage

Please submit proposals for panels or papers (max 20 minutes) by 31 July 2018 to memories.future@sas.ac.uk, including a 150-250 words abstract.

The Jetsons – reimagined, to sell aluminium

Like US Steel or Corning Glass, a former part of aluminium giant Alcoa – Arconic has decided to create a vision of a future that might loosely be possible if they were the only industrial technology firm left standing… Even more, they borrow the aesthetic and nostalgia of ‘space age’ cartoon The Jetsons…

Probably an interesting visual cultures case study to unpick and think about through the lenses of ‘design fiction’, digital imaging practices, ‘viral’ marketing, audiencing and so on…

(Not to mention to gender politics… oh dear…)

When design fiction becomes the advert(?) Amazon Go and the refiguring of trust

I think I’ve been late to this. I saw the story about Barclaycard wanting to do “cardless” credit cards but, of course, Amazon want to vertically integrate. See the first video below. Interesting that this is incredibly similar to previous ‘envisionings’ of “the future” of retail/shopping. The first thing I thought was: ‘hang on, this is  Microsoft circa 2004’, see the second video below… and I’m sure there’s been others, not least from the likes of HP Labs… I wonder where patents lie on this stuff, cos that will be a big bargaining chip.

This is interesting though insofar as, when I was writing about the Microsoft Office Labs videos in 2008/9, the ‘future’ they figured was always positioned at some distance, it was certainly not explicitly stated that this is something you should definitely expect to happen, more a kind of ‘mood music’ to capture some sensibilities of a possible future, by representing it and hooking ideas into our general  imagination of technology and society. It certainly plays on the trope of the normalisation of heavy surveillance… what else can such a system be?

The Amazon Go video is an interesting confluence of lots of contemporary trends in attempts to refigure how we imagine digital technology. Implicit in the video is a normalisation of yet-more automation (of payment, of trust). Explicit here, as already mentioned, is that these kinds of places are not ‘private’ in any way – the system “knows” you, will know your habits, manages your money and that’s ok, in fact – it’s apparently preferable (trust, again).

Amazon seem to be fairly aggressively pushing this, taking the smooth apparently effortless aesthetics of many tech design fiction videos and using this as a means to capture the idea that such technology = Amazon. Apparently there is a “beta” shop in Seattle (where else?). No doubt someone will already be writing a journal article about this as code/space and, of course it is (and just as Kitchin & Dodge suggest about airports – I wouldn’t want to be in this shop when the servers go down), but I think the thing I find more interesting is that it seems to me that this is perhaps an overtly political manoeuvre to capture the public story about what ‘currency’ is and how payment works when we take for granted higher levels of automation, through what kinds of institution and who we can trust. This is quite a different story to the blockchain, Amazon seem to be saying “let us handle the trust issue” – a pitch usually made by a bank, or PayPal…  That might be interesting to think about (I’m sure people, like Rachel O’Dwyer, already are), not least in relation to other ways ‘trust’ is being addressed (and attempts are being made to refigure it) by other companies, institutions and groups.

All this means I’ll definitely be re-writing my lecture about money for the next iteration of my “Geographies of Technology” module next term…

Artefacts for generations growing up with robots

I’ve had this open in one of my tabs for ages with the intention of writing something about it here but I’ve sort of run out of time on that, so…

Here’s an interesting student project (I’d be delighted to have students like this!!) It’s a sort of deliberately controversial speculative design/ prototyping exercise to provoke thought and conversation about what it might mean to live with actually existing robots (not sci-fi androids).

The creators are: Stephan Bogner, Phillipp Schmitt and Jonas Voigt.

It’s worth a look…



Artefacts for generations growing up with robots

Why do future visions of robotics incite discomfort in our generation? Could robots truly render us obsolete or is it our fear of losing control? And are these fears conditioned or instinctive?

Raising Robotic Natives explores interactions between children and robots that could raise them as the first generation of robotic natives.

Just like digital natives grow up in the digital world, robotic natives are born into an environment that is adapting to robots. As a result of unbiased, childlike enthusiasm, they are socialized with the technology early on. Through constant robotic interactions and formalized education, robotic natives get to think differently about robots than we do. It will be their responsibility to shape the future of robotics, not ours–besides we’re robotic immigrants, after all.

See the full details of the project here.

Internet of Things, ownership and Ts & Cs

Toothpaste terms of service

Decided to make a spoof image that follows some others’ attempts to satirically reflect on the kinds of business models that seem to be creeping in for ‘Internet of Things’ products and services. My impetus is that I’ve enjoyed some of the recent posts on the @internetofshit satirical twitter stream, which lampoons IoT business ideas. These got me thinking…

Many of the successful posts take to the extreme a model we are already experiencing – which is that we do not necessarily totally control those things we think we own. I am aware that other folk will probably have commented in more depth and with greater nuance, but there we are… this is just a blogpost! (I welcome suggestions for further reading though)

For example – I recently bought a Kindle Paperwhite and to remove the inbuilt advertising I had to pay (in addition to the retail price) a £10 fee to ‘unsubscribe’ from ‘Special Offers‘. So, I had bought the device but to remove the adverts I had to pay more.

This, of course, resonates with the inkjet printer business model – in which the printer manufacturer can almost give away some models because the ink itself is highly lucrative, which led to stories comparing it’s value to that of gold…

In my most recent lecture for my third-year option module (Geographies of Technology) I addressed some of these issues and invited the students to consider the following questions when thinking about an ‘internet of things and places’:

Questions of ownership/responsibility:

  • Whose things?
  • Whose data?
  • Who has access? How? When? Where?

Questions of power:

  • How are decisions made on the basis of the data?
  • How doe these decisions influence our lives?

Questions of value:

  • How can/should we negotiate the value(s) of our data?
  • What are we willing to give(-up) for perceived benefits?
    • When does giving away lots of data become not worth it?

Later the same day, on the train home, I idly tweeted a speculative satirical scenario:

Which led me to create a still image (above). I think there’s a lot of scope of using speculative design techniques in a satirical way to provoke more debate about the kinds of relationship we want to enter into with and through the technologies we bring into our everyday lives. My key inspiration here is Anne Galloway‘s work, especially the beautiful Counting Sheep project.

Reblog> New Book – Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn

Interesting new book highlighted by Colin McFarlane, including contributions by Rob Kitchin (and team) and Jennifer Gabrys…

New Book – Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn

Andrés Luque-Ayala, Simon Marvin and myself have just published a new edited book on the ‘smart city’ debate. The book, Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn? (Routledge), is a critical examination of the claims, drivers, imaginaries and consequences of smart city discourses.

As we all know, there is an incredible amount of hype and noise made about smart cities, much of it by multinational corporations like IBM and Cisco in their effort to sell expensive ‘urban solutions’. In this book, we sought to take this debate on by bringing together a group of critical, international and interdisciplinary researchers.Smart urbanism

The book examines how smart city initiatives are being rolled out, and makes a series of arguments that seeks to advance a critical research agenda. It finds, for example, that the discourse is often in reality a justification for the latest round of neoliberal development and displacement. It finds a common tendency to place far too much faith in technology, with far too little attention to the actual urban context. It also finds that most of the time, and despite high profile cases such as Rio’s control room, the smart city discourse is little more than discourse, bolstered by pervasive imagery that globally circulates and effectively constitutes a powerful form of marketing.

But the book also finds openings in the smart city discourse, including in the actions of social movements, civil society groups, and critical researchers to use or promote digital technologies in more socially and ecologically relevant ways. In these efforts, it is urbanism and social justice that inform whether or not digital technologies are useful, as opposed to the positivist view that technology can be added to cities awaiting ‘enhancement’ through sensors, dashboards and real-time data management. But as the book shows, it would be far too simple to argue that there is an ‘alternative’ smart city discourse that opposes a ‘mainstream’ discourse, partly because the various overlaps between what may initially appear mainstream and alternative, and partly because many critical initiatives with digital technology reject the entire smart city discourse altogether while others seeks to reframe it.

Here’s the list of contributors and chapter titles:

  1. IntroductionAndrés Luque-Ayala, Colin McFarlane and Simon Marvin
  2. Smart cities and the politics of urban dataRob Kitchin, Tracey Lauriault and Gavin McArdle
  3. IBM and the visual formation of smart citiesDonald McNeill
  4. The smart entrepreneurial city: Dholera and a 100 other utopias in IndiaAyona Datta
  5. Getting smart about smart cities in Cape Town: Beyond the rhetoricNancy Odendaal
  6. Programming environments: Environmentality and citizen sensing in the smart cityJennifer Gabrys
  7. Smart-city initiatives and the Foucauldian logics of governing through codeFrancisco Klauser and Ola Söderström
  8. Geographies of smart urban powerGareth Powells, Harriet Bulkeley and Anthony McLean
  9. Test-Bed as urban epistemologyNerea Calvillo, Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier and Wolfgang Pietsch
  10. Beyond the corporate smart city?: Glimpses of other possibilities of smartnessRobert G. Hollands
  11. ConclusionsColin McFarlane Andrés Luque-Ayala and Simon Marvin

Visualising mediated interaction

This video, edited by Tony Zhou, offers a nice articulation of the kinds of imaginative strategies for attempting to represent, on film, the ways we interact through screen-based devices (i.e. computers and phones). Zhou demonstrates how the clunky attempts at verité don’t work – showing the screen while someone types takes ages and so its expensive. Instead, employing abstraction – such as floating text bubbles –advances the narrative without the need to film screens.

A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Of course, because these kinds of sequences are in a linear narrative it necessitates the character reading the message instantly – whereas a lot of our screen-based interactions are asynchronous. Its also a narrative device that has been employed in ‘design fiction‘ films to illustrate the abstract communication that takes place by quasi-autonomous software programmes that (will/would/may) underpin the ‘internet of things’. For how else are we to represent the apparently immaterial and abstract mechanisms that constitute what Kitchin and Dodge have called ‘coded spaces’ (and/or coded objects, infrastructures and so on)? For example…

The Social Web of Things from comsicomsa on Vimeo.

What this does, of course, is to render processes that operate in diverse temporalities (like the not-quite-speed-of-light, the speeds of electro-magnetic radiation) which are frequently cyclical and sporadic (CPU cycles and so on) and organised in ways that are oriented towards different modes of legibility (for speed of processing) in the linear conventions of film/tv. We have nuanced understandings of how these things operate within our daily lives (up to a point – they’re mostly figured around individual sensibilities rather than complex collectives) but I’m not really convinced that we have, yet, have a nuanced means of articulating these things.

To adapt what Derek McCormack suggests, these are attempts to represent the ‘abstraction [that] is a constituent element of the background infrastructures that allow life to show up and register as experience’ [p. 720]. The reason I’m framing it this fairly awkward way is that I think what Zhou’s video points to is that it is increasingly difficult for the ‘lay person’ to appreciate and understand the complex assemblages (or, rather, ‘agencements‘) of electronic systems that intimately affect how we live our lives. They are manifestly abstract, but this abstraction is frequently not treated in an affirmative sense but rather in an obfuscatory way.

Thinking about Zhou’s video and the growing impetus amongst social scientists to study the complexities of contemporary networked technologies, I am drawn to the idea that perhaps the kinds of visual devices used in the kinds of videos I’ve discussed here ought to be further employed to help describe and explain how contemporary processes of mediation function”¦ Probably something the students on courses like ‘Design Informatics‘ are already doing..? Its certainly something that ought to be part of any kind of ‘digital studies‘.

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.