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.

Reading Clive Barnett’s The Priority of Injustice

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett

There is now a ‘review forum‘ in Political Geography around Clive’s The Priority of Injustice featuring some excellent reflections by Jack Layton, Juliet Davis, Jane Wills, David Featherstone and Cristina Temenos – with concluding reflections from Clive himself. I hope you may take the time to read these thoughtful reflections and perhaps consider reading Clive’s excellent book.

In my introduction I suggest:

The Priority of Injustice is an articulation of theory-in-practice, not the reified practice of theory as mastery but an ‘ordinary’ practice of scepticism and puzzling out. Barnett articulates the book as a form of “prolegomena for democratic inquiry”, as a means of rigorously laying the groundwork for asking questions about how democracy and politics actually play out. To respond to Barnett’s provocation might provoke another question: is this a clarion for ‘radical’ geographical theory? In The Priority of Injustice Barnett is doing theory, which is (differently) radical – insofar as it has perhaps become common for critical/radical geographers to (very ably) ‘evaluate’, ‘translate’ or ‘use’ of theory, for example by applying theoretical ideas to empirical case studies. The invitation of The Priority of Injustice is to put theory in action as a part of ‘ordinary’ democratic practice. The principle of ‘charitable interpretation’, with the aim of “maximising understanding”, invoked by Barnett throughout the book, should, I think, be a tenet to which we all aspire.

Hope that encourages you to read on. If you do not have access please do get in touch.

Changing Digital Geographies – new book from Jess McLean

Person using both a paper map and a mapping app on a phone

I was delighted to have Dr Jess McLean from Macquarie visit us in Exeter this week. Jess gave a great talk in our department around themes from a new book, about to be published by Palgrave. It promises to be a really interesting contribution to the renewed interest in ‘digital’ in geographyland and especially at the intersections with political ecology and work concerning the anthropocene.

Here’s some details:

Changing Digital Geographies

Technologies, Environments and People

Jessica McLean

This book examines the changing digital geographies of the Anthropocene. It analyses how technologies are providing new opportunities for communication and connection, while simultaneously deepening existing problems associated with isolation, global inequity and environmental harm. By offering a reading of digital technologies as ‘more-than-real’, the author argues that the productive and destructive possibilities of digital geographies are changing important aspects of human and non-human worlds. Like the more-than-human notion and how it emphasises interconnections of humans and non-humans in the world, the more-than-real inverts the diminishing that accompanies use of the terms ‘virtual’ and ‘immaterial’ as applied to digital spaces.
Digital geographies are fluid, amorphous spaces made of contradictory possibilities in this Anthropocene moment. By sharing experiences of people involved in trying to improve digital geographies, this book offers stories of hope and possibility alongside stories of grief and despair. The more-than-real concept can help us understand such work – by feminists, digital rights activists, disability rights activists, environmentalists and more. Drawing on case studies from around the world, this book will appeal to academics, university students, and activists who are keen to learn from other people’s efforts to change digital geographies, and who also seek to remake digital geographies.

Present futures – my new article for Futures of Work

Glitched movie still from the film THX1138 depicting a factory scene

At the end of last month my piece for the excellent Futures of Work went online as part of Issue 8, alongside some other really interesting work – check it out!

My piece applied some of my previous conceptual work around the politics of anticipation to my current interests in the stories that are told about automation. I argue that automation exists as much in the imaginations as in practice. This means that a lot of how automation is articulated is in terms of what is to come, not what is present. Nevertheless, particular imaginaries of possible worlds are lent credibility through particular ways of addressing a future as the future. This, I suggest, is the distinction in address between “present futures” and “future presents” (following Adam and Groves 2007).

“Future presents” are efforts to bring a ‘future’ into ‘the present’ to make it happen. “Present futures” are a way to hold a future at a distance in order to form the idea of a threatening risk or an attractive utopian goal.

I work through a quick example about how the ‘fact’ of a particular future state of affairs becomes concrete, through reiteration and reworking. I trace a story from a Guardian news article back through several layers of sources.

This matters, I argue, because:

The formulation of a future as the future, as argued in the first editorial of Futures of Work, does political work – it enables certain forms of powerful rhetoric, for example around a fourth industrial revolution. Rhetorically constructed as the “present future”, it possesses a discursive power over what is considered ‘common sense’ and elides the persistent contradictions of capitalism. Meanwhile, it allows management consultancies and others to propose the proximity of a “future present” as a problem for which there is a solution to be sold, as Sturdy and Morgan argue.

All too often arguments around automation and futures of work accept narratives of displacement or replacement of jobs as their premise. This renders them common sense, rather than calling them into question. How we construct and receive ‘truths’ about possible futures of work is political and demands political action. We must pay attention to how particular futures become ‘facts’ and how well those ‘facts’ travel and take on a life of their own.

Please do check out the whole article and the other excellent work in the issue.

Antipod: A Radical Geography Podcast and Sound Collective – 1st episode online

cartoon of an old fashioned microphone

Perhaps worth checking out…

Episode 1: Clyde Woods, Dispossession, and Resistance in New Orleans

In this first full episode of Antipod we turn our attention to Black Geographies, the theme of our first season. Hosts Brian Williams and Akira Drake Rodriguez walk listeners through a series of clips from a panel on Clyde Woods’s posthomously published work Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations of Post-Katrina New Orleans, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Laura Pulido (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Brian and Akira comment on the use of Woods’s “blues epistemology” framework to contextualize the ongoing making and re-making of Black geographies in New Orleans.  Covering themes from dispossession to displacement to the fallacy of “natural” disasters, this episode challenges traditional notions of urban planning and privileges what Woods’s calls “the visions of the dispossessed.” Clips from this episode are from an “Author Meets Critics” panel at the Community Book Center in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward, a space of continuity for pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans residents.  The participants in the discussion were: former Woods student and activist-poet Sunni Patterson; Khalil Shahyd, Senior Policy Advocate at the National Resource Defense Council; Anna Brand, Asst. Prof at the University of California at Berkeley; Shana Griffin from Jane’s Place, New Orleans’ first community land trust; Sue Mobley, who, at the time of the panel, was the Public Programs Manager for the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design at Tulane University; and Jordan T. Camp (editor) who at the time of the panel was at Barnard College, and is now the Director of Research at the People’s Forum in New York.  

Reblog > Research Associate on ‘Just Public Algorithms’

Helen Pallett has blogged about an interesting opportunity:

We have a 6 month 0.5FTE research associate post available in the 3S research group at the University of East Anglia, UK, on the Just Public Algorithms project. The successful candidate will work with me and Professor Jason Chilvers of the 3S research group, as well as the participation NGO Involve UK. The project is funded as part of the EPSRC Not Equal network+.

Read the full post here.

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)

Imagine all the people deepfaked

A person removing a mask

Via Kottke.

This ‘deepfake’ video of lots of current and former world leaders and other famous people is interesting and provokes all sorts of questions. Some suggest legislation against them, which is what the US seems to be pursuing, but that of course asks further questions about how to ‘police’ them and who has agency. There are, perhaps, some interesting resonances with the increasing use of performance holograms to re-animate dead performers – but there, of course, the legal issues are different. Nevertheless, all sorts of ideas, aesthetic, ethical and otherwise, about ‘authenticity’ crop up (e.g. this from New Scientist, or this on trust in ‘evidence’ re ‘deepfakes’), which we will increasingly be provoked into discussing.

It is interesting, I think, that while those of us in what we call ‘critical’ social sciences or humanities have been developing fairly nuanced articulations of identity and subjectivity, arguing they are not necessarily essential and acknowledging how they are performed (for example), contemporary digital/ social media, and our uses of them, have forged new norms of ‘authenticity’ in relation to identity. Facebook wants ‘true’ names, for instance. “Finsta” (‘f’ denoting ‘fake’), the phenomenon of setting up hidden, often pseudonymous, Instagram accounts – only for selected friends (as opposed to your curated “rinsta” account (‘r’ denoting ‘real’)) shows how these two understandings of the performative nature of identity and the construction of a normative insistence on ‘authenticity’ collide. We might reasonably ask, for instance, why the ‘finsta’/’rinsta’ labels don’t actually mean the reverse if the more public of the two accounts is heavily curated and the ‘secret’ one is in some senses then more ‘authentic’.

‘Deepfakes’ are, amongst other things, a sensory ‘trick’, an attempt to somehow fool the conscious and sub-conscious habitual discernment of what feels whatever it is we mean by ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’ or ‘real’. In some senses, ‘deepfakes’ reveal back to us the extent to which digital media may have shifted how we pay attention and how we feel (about ourselves, others and the world around us) with and through them. Digital media cultivate attention in different ways, many of them perhaps oriented towards a capitalist imperative, also, perhaps, with them we cultivate forms of paying attention. If this is the case then, as was argued in terms of the potency of TV advertising, we may begin to ‘see through’ the ‘tricks’ precisely because we are bombarded with them (for example, the Putin bits in the video above are not very convincing to my eye). Or, to be pessimistic, we may simply begin to assume nothing can be trusted, that all media is created in bad faith, which of course prompts discussions of a crisis of democracy because how can a population make informed decisions without ‘trustworthy’ sources.

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.

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

“Ready Lawnmower Player Man One”, or VR’s persistent future

For the last couple of years I have given a lecture that takes the “Virtual/Real” distinction and deconstructs it using various bits of geographical theory. I also talk about the enduring trope of the sort of eschatological narrative of VR, tying it back to a little bit of history, mainly focusing on how this has been propagated in pop culture. This year, for fun, I have decided to be a little bit more creative than resorting to my usual trick of showing the trailer for Lawnmower Man or Ready Player One – I’ve made a quick mashup of the two, which I think show quite nicely how the underlying narratives of the ‘virtual’ somehow counterposed to the ‘real’ but also in some way ‘crossing over’ is an enduring theme.

The other enduring theme here is that the forms of gameplay drawn upon are characterised as highly masculine (and normatively heterosexual – no queering of the digital here, sadly), which is something I will try to also blog about sometime…

Other film examples might include: