“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.

Call for papers: Geography of/with A.I

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I very much welcome any submissions to this call for papers for the proposed session for the RGS-IBG annual conference (in London in late-August) outlined below. I also welcome anyone getting in touch to talk about possible papers or ideas for other sorts of interventions – please do get in touch.

Call for papers:

We are variously being invited to believe that (mostly Global North, Western) societies are in the cusp, or early stages, of another industrial revolution led by “Artificial Intelligence” – as many popular books (e.g. Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014) and reports from governments and management consultancies alike will attest (e.g. PWC 2018, UK POST 2016). The goal of this session is to bring together a discussion explicitly focusing on the ways in which geographers already study (with) ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and to, perhaps, outline ways in which we might contribute to wider debates concerning ‘AI’. 

There is widespread, inter-disciplinary analysis of ‘AI’ from a variety of perspective, from embedded systematic bias (Eubanks 2017, Noble 2018) to the kinds of under-examined rationales and work through which such systems emerge (e.g. Adam 1998, Collins 1993) and further to the sorts of ethical-moral frameworks that we should apply to such technologies (Gunkel 2012, Vallor 2016). In similar, if somewhat divergent ways, geographers have variously been interested in the kinds of (apparently) autonomous algorithms or sociotechnical systems are integrated into decision-making processes (e.g. Amoore 2013, Kwan 2016); encounters with apparently autonomous ‘bots’ (e.g. Cockayne et al. 2017); the integration of AI techniques into spatial analysis (e.g. Openshaw & Openshaw 1997); and the processing of ‘big’ data in order to discern things about, or control, people (e.g. Leszczynski 2015). These conversations appear, in conference proceedings and academic outputs, to rarely converge, nevertheless there are many ways in which geographical research does and can continue to contribute to these contemporary concerns.

The invitation of this session is to contribute papers that make explicit the ways in which geographers are (already) contributing to research on and with ‘AI’, to identify research questions that are (perhaps) uniquely geographical in relation to AI, and to thereby advance wider inter-disciplinary debates concerning ‘AI’.

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

  • A.I and governance
  • A.I and intimacy
  • Artificially intelligent mobilities
  • Autonomy, agency and the ethics of A.I
  • Autonomous weapons systems
  • Boosterism and ‘A.I’
  • Feminist and intersectional interventions in/with A.I
  • Gender, race and A.I
  • Labour, work and A.I
  • Machine learning and cognitive work
  • Playful A.I
  • Science fiction, spatial imaginations and A.I
  • Surveillance and A.I

Please send submissions (titles, abstracts (250 words) and author details) to: Sam Kinsley by 31st January 2019.

Bernard Stiegler on the on the notion of information and its limits

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

I have only just seen this via the De Montfort Media and Communications Research Centre Twitter feed. The above video is Bernard Stiegler’s ‘key note’ (can’t have been a big conference?) at the University of Kent Centre for Critical Though conference on the politics of Simondon’s Modes of Existence of Technical Objects

In engaging with Simondon’s theory (or in his terms ‘notion’) of information, Stiegler reiterates some of the key elements of his Technics and Time in relation to exosomatisation and tertiary retention being the principal tendency of an originary technics that, in turn, has the character of a pharmakon, that, in more recent work, Stiegler articulates in relation to the contemporary epoch (the anthoropocene) as the (thermodynamic style) tension between entropy and negentropy. Stiegler’s argument is, I think, that Simondon misses this pharmacological character of information. In arguing this out, Stiegler riffs on some of the more recent elements of his project (the trilogy of ‘As’) – the anthropocene, attention and automation – which characterise the contemporary tendency towards proletarianisation, a loss of knowledge and capacities to remake the world.

It is interesting to see this weaving together of various elements of his project over the last twenty(+) years both: in relation to his engagement with Simondon’s work (a current minor trend in ‘big’ theory), and: in relation to what seems to me to be a moral philosophical character to Stiegler’s project, in terms of his diagnosis of the anthropocene and a call for a ‘neganthropocene’.

Bernard Stiegler’s Age of Disruption – out soon

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

Out next year with Polity, this is one of the earlier of Stiegler’s ‘Anthropocene’ books (in terms of publication in French, see also The Neganthropocene) explicating quite a bit of the themes that come out in the interviews I’ve had a go at translating in the past three years (see: “The time saved through automation must be given to the people”; “How to survive disruption”; “Stop the Uberisation of society!“; and “Only by planning a genuine future can we fight Daesh“). Of further interest, to some, is that it also contains a dialogue with Nancy (another Derrida alumnus). This book is translated by the excellent Daniel Ross.

Details on the Polity website. Here’s the blurb:

Half a century ago Horkheimer and Adorno argued, with great prescience, that our increasingly rationalised and Westernised world was witnessing the emergence of a new kind of barbarism, thanks in part to the stultifying effects of the culture industries. What they could not foresee was that, with the digital revolution and the pervasive automation associated with it, the developments they had discerned would be greatly accentuated and strengthened, giving rise to the loss of reason and to the loss of the reason for living. Individuals are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of digital information and the speed of digital flows, and profiling and social media satisfy needs before they have even been expressed, all in the service of the data economy. This digital reticulation has led to the disintegration of social relations, replaced by a kind of technological Wild West, in which individuals and groups find themselves increasingly powerless, driven by their lack of agency to the point of madness.
How can we find a way out of this situation? In this book, Bernard Stiegler argues that we must first acknowledge our era as one of fundamental disruption and detachment. We are living in an absence of epokh? in the philosophical sense, by which Stiegler means that we have lost our noetic method, our path of thinking and being. Weaving in powerful accounts from his own life story, including struggles with depression and time spent in prison, Stiegler calls for a new epokh? based on public power. We must forge new circuits of meaning outside of the established algorithmic routes. For only then will forms of thinking and life be able to arise that restore meaning and aspiration to the individual.
Concluding with a substantial dialogue between Stiegler and Jean-Luc Nancy in which they reflect on techniques of selfhood, this book will be of great interest to students and scholars in social and cultural theory, media and cultural studies, philosophy and the humanities generally.

Talk – Plymouth, 17 Oct: ‘New geographies of automation?’

Rachael in the film Blade Runner

I am looking forward to visiting Plymouth (tomorrow) the 17th October to give a Geography department research seminar. It’s been nearly twenty years (argh!) since I began my first degree, in digital art, at Plymouth so I’m looking forward to returning. I’ll be talking about a couple of aspects of ‘The Automative Imagination’ under a slightly different title – ‘New geographies of automation?’ The talk will take in archival BBC and newspaper automation anxieties, management consultant magical thinking (and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’), gendered imaginings of domesticity (with the Jetsons amongst others) and some slightly under-cooked (at the moment) thoughts about how ‘agency’ (what kinds of ‘beings’ or ‘things’ can do what kinds of action).

Do come along if you’re free and happen to be in the glorious gateway to the South West that is Plymouth.

(More) Gendered imaginings of automata

My Cayla Doll

A few more bits on how automation gets gendered in particular kinds of contexts and settings. In particular, the identification of ‘home’ or certain sorts of intimacy with certain kinds of domestic or caring work that then gets gendered is something that has been increasingly discussed.

Two PhD researchers I am lucky enough to be working with, Paula Crutchlow (Exeter) and Kate Byron (Bristol), have approached some of these issues from different directions. Paula has had to wrangle with this in a number of ways in relation to the Museum of Contemporary Commodities but it was most visible in the shape of Mikayla, the hacked ‘My Friend Cayla Doll’. Kate is doing some deep dives on the sorts of assumptions that are embedded into the doing of AI/machine learning through the practices of designing, programming and so on. They are not, of course, alone. Excellent work by folks like Kate Crawford, Kate Devlin and Gina Neff (below) inform all of our conversations and work.

Here’s a collection of things that may provoke thought… I welcome any further suggestions or comments 🙂

Alexa, does AI have gender?

Alexa is female. Why? As children and adults enthusiastically shout instructions, questions and demands at Alexa, what messages are being reinforced? Professor Neff wonders if this is how we would secretly like to treat women: ‘We are inadvertently reproducing stereotypical behaviour that we wouldn’t want to see,’ she says.

Prof Gina Neff in conversation with Ruth Abrahams, OII.

Predatory Data: Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

it has been reported that female-sounding assistive chatbots regularly receive sexually charged messages. It was recently cited that five percent of all interactions with Robin Labs, whose bot platform helps commercial drivers with routes and logistics, is sexually explicit. The fact that the earliest female chatbots were designed to respond to these suggestions
deferentially or with sass was problematic as it normalised sexual harassment.

Vidisha Mishra and Madhulika Srikumar – Predatory Data: Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence

The Gender of Artificial Intelligence

Chart showing that the gender of artificial intelligence (AI) is not neutral
The gendering, or not, of chatbots, digital assistants and AI movie characters – Tyler Schnoebelen

Consistently representing digital assistants as femalehard-codes a connection between a woman’s voice and subservience.

Stop Giving Digital Assistants Female Voices – Jessica Nordell, The New Republic

“The good robot”

Anki Vector personal robot

A fascinating and very evocative example of the ‘automative imagination’ in action in the form of an advertisement for the “Vector” robot from a company called Anki.

How to narrate or analyse such a robot? Well, there are lots of the almost-archetypical figures of ‘robot’ or automation. The cutesy and non-threatening pseudo-pet that the Vector invites us to assume it is, marks the first. This owes a lot to Wall-E (also, the robots in Batteries Not Included and countless other examples) and the doe-eyed characterisation of the faithful assistant/companion/servant. The second is the all-seeing surveillant machine uploading all your data to “the cloud”. The third is the two examples of quasi-military monsters with shades of “The Terminator”, with a little bit of helpless baby jeopardy for good measure. Finally, the brief nod to HAL 9000, and the flip of the master/slave that it represents, completes a whistle-stop tour of pop culture understandings of ‘robots’, stitched together in order to sell you something.

I assume that the Vector actually still does the kinds of surveillance it is sending up in the advert, but I have no evidence – there is no publicly accessible copy of the terms & conditions for the operation of the robot in your home. However, in a advertorial on ‘Robotics Business Review‘, there is a quote that sort of pushes one to suspect that Vector is yet another device that on the face of it is an ‘assistant’ but is also likely to be hoovering up everything it can about you and your family’s habits in order to sell that data on:

“We don’t want a person to ever turn this robot off,” Palatucci said. “So if the lights go off and it’s on your nightstand and he starts snoring, it’s not going to work. He really needs to use his sensors, his vision system, and his microphone to understand the context of what’s going on, so he knows when you want to interact, and more importantly, when you don’t.”

If we were to be cynical we might ask – why else would it need to be able to do all of this? –>

Anki Vector “Alive and aware”

Regardless, the advert is a useful example of how the bleed from fictional representations of ‘robots’ into contemporary commercial products we can take home – and perhaps even what we might think of as camouflage for the increasingly prevalent ‘extractive‘ business model of in-home surveillance.

New journal article> A very public cull: the anatomy of an online issue public


I am pleased to share that a paper that Rebecca Sandover, Steve Hinchliffe and I have had under review for some time has been accepted for publication. The paper comes from our project “Contagion”, which amongst other things examined the ways issue publics form and spread around public controversies – in this case the English badger cull of 2013/14. The research this article presents comes from mixed methods social media research, focused on Twitter. The methods and conversation have, of course, moved on a little in the last two years but I think the paper makes a contribution to how geographers in particular might think about doing social media-based research. I guess this, as a result, also fits into the recent (re)growth of ‘digital geographies’ too.

The article is titled “A very public cull: the anatomy of an online issue public” and will be published in Geoforum in the not-too-distant future. Feel free to get in touch for a pre-print version.


Geographers and other social scientists have for some time been interested in how scientific and environmental controversies emerge and become public or collective issues. Social media are now key platforms through which these issues are publicly raised and through which groups or publics can organise themselves. As media that generate data and traces of networking activity, these platforms also provide an opportunity for scholars to study the character and constitution of those groupings. In this paper we lay out a method for studying these ‘issue publics’: emergent groupings involved in publicising an issue. We focus on the controversy surrounding the state-sanctioned cull of wild badgers in England as a contested means of disease management in cattle. We analyse two overlapping groupings to demonstrate how online issue publics function in a variety of ways – from the ‘echo chambers’ of online sharing of information, to the marshalling of agreements on strategies for action, to more dialogic patterns of debate. We demonstrate the ways in which digital media platforms are themselves performative in the formation of issue publics and that, while this creates issues, we should not retreat into debates around the ‘proper object’ of research but rather engage with the productive complications of mapping social media data into knowledge (Whatmore 2009). In turn, we argue that online issue publics are not homogeneous and that the lines of heterogeneity are neither simple, or to be expected, and merit study as a means to understand the suite of processes and novel contexts involved in the emergence of a public.