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)

“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.

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.

Why WIRED’s future never arrives – David Karpf

Promotional image for the 1995 film Hackers

Quite a good piece on the Wired website reflecting upon 25 years of predictions about the future in the pages of that magazine (though I’m not sure the exonerating final paragraph rings true). Worth a read…

Looking back at WIRED’s early visions of the digital future, the mistake that seems most glaring is the magazine’s confidence that technology and the economics of abundance would erase social and economic inequality. Both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 imagined a future that upended traditional economics. We were all going to be millionaires, all going to be creators, all going to be collaborators. But the bright future of abundance has, time and again, been waylaid by the present realities of earnings reports, venture investments, and shareholder capitalism. On its way to the many, the new wealth has consistently been diverted up to the few.

By now, the digital revolution isn’t just the future; it has a history. Digital technology runs our economy. It organizes our daily lives. It mediates how we learn information, tell each other stories, and connect with our neighbors. It’s how we control and harass and encourage one another. It’s a tool of both surveillance and resistance. You can almost never be entirely offline anymore. The internet is setting the agenda for the world around us.

The digital revolution’s track record suggests that its arc doesn’t always bend toward abundance—or in a straight line at all. It flits about, responding to the gravitational forces of hype bubbles and monopoly power, warped by the resilience of old institutions and the fragility of new ones. Today’s WIRED seems to have learned these lessons.

25 years of wired predictions: why the future never arrives – David Karpf

“Emett” and “Miss Honeywell”

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

A couple of short films produced by British Pathé, both documenting what I guess were seen as whimsical takes on computerisation and automation originating from Honeywell. I don’t have much to say about these at the moment beyond the ways in which these videos more-or-less demonstrate the biases and norms of their time (gender and sexism being the most clear here) but also the ways in which they say something about how ‘automation’, robots and forms of novel technology (and so on) have been bound up with ideas about invention (which again is coloured by contemporary assumptions about who does the inventing).

Thanks to Mar Hicks for sharing “Miss Honeywell” on Twitter.

The Computer by Emett (1966) – British Pathé
Miss Honeywell (1968) – British Pathé

SuperTag ‘scanner will end checkout woes’ – 1994

Still image taken from the Microsoft Future Vision of Retail, circa 2010

In this front page article from 6th January 1994, The Guardian Technology Editor reports that the “SuperTag” scanner, from “newly privatised British Technology Group” will “read the entire contents of a supermarket trolley at a glance” … “The day cannot be too far off when the weekly shop ordered from home will be collected later already in the trolley”.

Except of course we just get the supermarket to deliver to our door instead… anyway, a nice piece of the ‘automative imagination‘ in play… (also, good to compare to this).

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

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, including a 150-250 words abstract.


glitches image of a 1990s NASA VR experience

A bit of nostalgia… ‘practising tomorrows‘ and all that.

Lots of things to crit with the benefit of hindsight, which I’m sure some folks did – I mean, the peculiar sort of aesthetic policing implied is funny and the fact that none of the folk used as talking heads can imagine a collaborative form of authorship is quite interesting. This programme came out in 1990, around the same time Berners Lee is pioneering the web – a rather different, perhaps more “interactive” vision of ‘multimedia’ – insofar as with the web we can all contribute to the creation as well as consumption of media [he writes in the dialog box of the “Add New Post” page of the WordPress interface]…

A slightly geeky thing I appreciate though is the very clear visual reference to the 1987 Apple Computer ‘video prototype’ called ‘Knowledge Navigator‘ (<–follow the link, third video down, see also), which I’m certain is deliberate.

19 ‘AI’-related links

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

Here’s some links from various sources on what “AI” may or may not mean and what sorts of questions that prompts… If I was productive, not sleep-deprived (if… if… etc. etc.) I’d write something about this, but instead I’m just posting links.

Responsive media

personal media

It’s interesting to compare competing interpretations of the same ‘vision’ for our near-future everyday media experience. They more or less circle around a series of themes that have been a staple of science fiction for some time: media are in the everyday environment and they respond to us, to varying degrees personally.

On the one-hand some tech enthusiasts/developers present ideas such as “responsive media“, a vision put forward by a former head of ubiquitous computing at Xerox PARC, Bo Begole. On the other hand, sceptics have, for quite some time, presented us with dystopian and/or ‘critical’ reflections on the kinds of ethical and political(economic) ills such ideas might mete out upon us (more often than not from a broadly Marxian perspective), recently expressed in Adam Greenfield’s op-ed for the Graun (publicising his new book “Radical Technologies”).

It’s not like there aren’t plenty of start-ups, and bigger companies (Begole now works for Huawei), trying to more-or-less make the things that science fiction books and films (often derived in some way from Phillip K Dick’s oeuvre) present as insidious and nightmarish. Here I can unfairly pick upon two quick examples: the Channel 4 “world’s first personalised advert” (see the video above) and OfferMoments:

While it may be true that many new inventors are subconsciously inspired by the science fiction of their childhoods, this form of inspiration is hardly seen in the world of outdoor media. Not so for OfferMoments – a company offering facial recognition-powered, programmatically-sold billboard tech directly inspired by the 2002 thriller, Minority Report.

I’ve discussed this in probably too-prosaic terms as a ‘politics of anticipation’, but this, by Audrey Watters (originally about EdTech), seems pretty incisive to me:

if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized. (Not factual. Not true. But “truthy,” to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.”) So you repeat the fantasy in order to direct and to control the future. Because this is key: the fantasy then becomes the basis for decision-making.

I have come to think this has produced a kind of orientation towards particular ideas and ideals around automation, which I’ve variously been discussing (in the brief moments in which I manage to do research) as an ‘algorithmic’ and more recently an ‘automativeimagination (in the manner in which we, geographers, talk about a ‘geographical imagination’).