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.

A 2018 list: Four books I read, four books I wish I had

A painting of a boy reading, by Eastman Johnson

People publish lists at this time of year. So, here’s another. I’m not going to pretend I am someone I’m not though… so here’s two lists, really, one is books I enjoyed reading, the other is books I wish I’d read (for want of time) and hope to in 2019.


Automating Inequality – Virginia Eubanks : A superbly detailed, very readable account of the ways in which automated systems carry assumptions from the policy makers and developers within them, even when they consciously try to avoid this, and how to think about studying such things. This really is a wonderful book. If you are interested in ‘algorithms’, AI’ and automation, especially in relation to bias and ethics you really ought to read this book. Likewise, if you are interested in studying welfare provision.

The Problem with Work – Kathi Weeks : A thoughtful, mostly conceptual (in a good way), engagement with what counts as work (or ‘waged labour’) and the ways in which it has become a given and removed it from critique. In concluding the book, Weeks stages a well-argued counter to the ‘work ethic’ (in the vein of Weber) as a ‘post-work politics’ – a mandate to ‘get a life’. This is wonderful piece of scholarship.

Working Bodies – Linda McDowell : I am slightly ashamed that I’d not read this before but McDowell’s book on ‘interactive service work’, ‘body work’ and emotional labour is a forceful, really engaging and superbly argued book about how work continues to be gendered in relation to idea(l)s around ‘care’. This is also a fantastic teaching resource, which I’ve made good use of in teaching a portion of  second year module on geographies of ‘work’.

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett : The subtitle –’Locating democracy in critical theory– captures the ambition of the book, which I think is fulfilled. This is a consummate and substantial theoretical (try to think of that word in a positive way here) investigation of the ways people in geographyland and the wider landscape of social theory conceptualise ‘democracy’ (often in relation to something called ‘justice’, which Clive rethinks). However, above and beyond this, what this book did for me is to further provoke a conscious rethinking of what it can mean to ‘do theory’ and to solidify a shift in my theoretical antennae. (Full disclosure: I work with Clive and I chaired an “author meets…” panel on this book at the 2018 RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff)

To Read

Programmed Inequality – Mar Hicks : A book tracing the crumbling of the British computing industry on the back of disastrous decisions made about the work-force involved, not least the pushing out of highly skilled women – what Hicks calls a ‘gendered technocracy’. I’ve read a few excerpts and related publications by Hicks on this topic, not least the excellent article in the ‘Fail’ issue of Logic, and the work is uniformly excellent. I am really looking forward to reading this.

Artificial Knowing – Alison Adam : Related to the above, this book by Adam looks fascinating – tackling ideas of a ‘knowing subject’ in relation to gender biases in AI work in the 1990s. The research is explicitly situated in relation to Haraway’s and Turkle’s feminist epistemologies. This seems like a really valuable book in getting to grips with some of the contemporary fascinations with AI.

Technology and the Virtues – Shannon Vallor : An examination of how to think about ethics/ morality in relation to technology design, use and regulation with a really substantial and well-argued engagement with virtue ethics. I came to this via John Danaher’s podcast conversation with Vallor – who was fantastic (listen here). This book looks really really interesting.

The New Enclosure – Brett Christophers : An examination of one of the most fundamental aspects of the Thatcherite programme of privatisation – the privatisation of land in the UK. This book looks like essential reading for geographers, especially those of us in the UK. I came to this via an excellent, two-part, podcast interview with Christophers on the brilliant City Road Podcast.

Reblog > The Priority of Injustice

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett

My colleague Prof. Clive Barnett’s excellent new book is out. He introduces it in a recent blogpost:

The Priority of Injustice

So, finally, the book that I have been writing, on and off, for the last four years, The Priority of Injustice, has been published – or at least, it’s real, since the formal publication date is next month (so I reserve the right to blog further about it as and when). It arrived earlier this week – a rather hectic week, which has oddly meant I have been too busy to experience the strange sense of anti-climax that often accompanies the arrival of the finished form of something that you have been making for so long.

This is, in one sense, my Exeter book – the first thing I did in my very first week here, four years ago, was write the proposal and send it off to prospective publishers, It’s also, though, my Swindon book, a book which attempts to articulate an approach to theorising in an ordinary spirit which has been published just a few weeks after moving away from that very ordinary town where I have lived while writing it.

It’s a beautiful object, with a great cover image, by Helen Burgess (I bought one of her pictures once, in one of those open-house art trail events that you get in places like Bishopston in Bristol, so that’s why I knew of her work; it turns out she is part of a geography-friendly network of artists). And I am honoured and humbled to have the book published in University Georgia Press’s very excellent Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.

I’m now faced with the challenge of promoting the book. I’m quite fond of the Coetzee-esque principle that books should have to make their own way in the world without the help of the author; on the other hand, I have some sense of responsibility towards the argument made in the book, a responsibility to help project it into the world. I’ve already realised that it’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an easy press release – ‘THEORY COULD BE THEORISED DIFFERENTLY’, SAYS THEORY-BOY doesn’t really work as a headline, does it?.

Read the full blogpost.

Some books

Some books on a table

I have some new books for the first time in a while… I’ve also borrowed some others from my betters but they’re at home… Anyway, I did some reviewing and got the Edward Elgar books in return – I’ll be reviewing the Handbook on Geographies of Tech. soonish for cultural geographies. I stumped up my own tear and sweat-stained cash for Artists Rethinking the Blockchain cos it looked interesting. So far so good 😉 The topmost is a library book (I’m not made of money you know) and is really interesting (well the few pages I’ve read have been).

Will I actually read all of them? We’ll see!