CFP AAG 2020 – ‘New geographies of automation?’

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I’d welcome submissions, questions or any form of interest for the proposed session I outline below.

My aim with this session is to continue a conversation that has arisen in geography and beyond about as wide a range of tropes about automation as possible. Papers needn’t be empirical per se or about actually existing automation, they could equally be about the rationales, promises or visions for automation. Likewise, automation has been about for a while, so historical geographies of automation, in agriculture for example, or policies for automation that have been tried and failed would be also welcome.

There are all sorts of ways that ‘automation’ has been packaged in other rubrics, such as ‘smart’ things, cities and so on, or perhaps become a ‘fig leaf’ or ‘red herring’ to cover for unscrupulous activities, such as iniquitous labour practices.

I guess what I’m driving at is – I welcome any and all ideas relevant to the broad theme!

CFP: New Geographies of Automation?

Denver, USA, 6-10 April 2020

Organiser: Sam Kinsley (Exeter).

Abstract deadline: 16th October 2019.

This session invites papers that respond to the variously promoted or forewarned explosion of automation and the apparent transformations of culture, economy, labour and workplace we are told will ensue. Papers are sought from any and all branches of geography to investigate what contemporary geographies of automation may or should look like, how we are/could/should be doing them and to perhaps question the grandiose rhetoric of alarmism/boosterism of current debates.

Automation has lately gained a renewed focus of hyperbolic commentary in print and online. We are warned by some of the ‘rise of the robots’ (Ford 2015) sweeping away whole sectors of employment or by others exhorted to strive towards ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (Srnicek & Williams 2015). Beyond the hyperbole it is possible to trace longer lineages of geographies of automation. Studies of the industrialisation of agriculture (Goodman & Watts 1997); Fordist/post-Fordist systems of production (Harvey 1989); shifts to globalisation (Dicken 1986) and (some) post-industrial societies (Clement & Myles 1994) stand testament to the range of work that has addressed the theme of automation in geography. Indeed, in the last decade geographers have begun to draw out specific geographical contributions to debates surrounding ‘digital’ automation. In similar if somewhat divergent ways, geographers have paid a closer attention to: the apparent automation of labour and workplaces (Bissell & Del Casino 2017); encounters with apparently autonomous ‘bots’ (Cockayne et al. 2017); the interrogation of automation in governance and surveillance across a range of scales (Amoore 2013, Kitchin & Dodge 2011); the integration of AI techniques into spatial analysis (Openshaw & Openshaw 1997); and the processing of ‘big’ data in order to discern things about, or control, people (Leszczynski 2015). 

The invitation of this session is to submit papers that consider contemporary discussions, movements and propositions of automation from a geographical perspective (in the broadest sense). 

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

  • AI, machine learning and cognitive work
  • Boosterism and tales of automation
  • Gender, race and A.I
  • Labour and work
  • Autonomy, agency and law-making
  • Robotics and the everyday
  • Automation and workplace governance
  • Techno-bodily relations
  • Mobilities and materialities
  • Governance and surveillance

I intend to organize at least one paper session, depending on quantity and quality of submissions.  If you would like to propose a paper presentation, please email an abstract of 250 words to me by 16th October.

If you would also like to participate in a special issue on this topic I welcome expressions of interest.

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.

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)

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.

Timeline
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

“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.

A genealogy of theorising information technology, through Simondon [video]

Glitched image of a mural of Prometheus giving humans' fire in Freiberg

This post follows from the video of Bernard Stiegler talking about Simondon’s ‘notion’ of information, in relation to his reading of Simondon and others’ theorisation of technogenesis. That paper was a key note in the conference ‘Culture & Technics: The Politics of Du Mode‘, held by the University of Kent’s Centre for Critical Though. It is worth highlighting the whole conference is available on YouTube.

In particular, the panel session with Anne Sauvagnargues and Yuk Hui discussing the genealogy of Simondon’s thought (as articulated in his two perhaps best-known books). For those interested in (more-or-less) French philosophies of technology (largely in the 20th century) this is a fascinating and actually quite accessible discussion.

Sauvagnargues discusses the historical and institutional climate/context of Simondon’s work and Yuk excavates (in a sort of archeological manner) some of the key assumptions and intellectual histories of Simondon’s theorisation of individuation, information and technics.

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’.

AI as organ -on|-ology

Kitt the 'intelligent' car from the TV show Knight Rider

Let’s begin with a postulate: there is either no “AI” – artificial intelligence – or every intelligence is, in fact, in some way artificial (following a recent talk by Bernard Stiegler). In doing so we commence from an observation that intelligence is not peculiar to one body, it is shared. A corollary is that there is no (‘human’) intelligence without artifice, insofar as we need to exteriorise thought (or what Stiegler refers to as ‘exosomatisation’) for that intelligence to function – as language, in writing and through tools – and that this is inherently collective. Further, we might argue that there is no AI. Taking that suggestion forward, we can say that there are, rather, forms of artificial (or functional) stupidity, following Alvesson & Spicer (2012: p. 1199), insofar as it inculcates forms of lack of capacity: “characterised by an unwillingness or inability to mobilize three aspects of cognitive capacity: reflexivity, justification, and substantive reasoning”. Following Alvesson & Spicer [& Stiegler] we might argue that such forms of stupidity are necessary passage points through our sense-making in/of the world, thus are not morally ‘wrong’ or ‘negative’. Instead, the forms of functional stupidity derive from technology/techniques are a form of pharmakon – both enabling and disabling in various registers of life.

Given such a postulate, we might categorise “AI” in particular ways. We might identify ‘AI’ not as ‘other’ to the ‘human’ but rather a part of our extended (exosomatic) capacities of reasoning and sense. This would be to think of AI ‘organologically’ (again following Stiegler) – as part of our widening, collective, ‘organs’ of action in the world. We might also identify ‘AI’ as an organising rationale in and of itself – a kind of ‘organon’ (following Aristotle). In this sense “AI” (the discipline, institutions and the outcome of their work [‘an AI’]) is/are an organisational framework for certain kinds of action, through particular forms of reasoning.

It would be tempting (in geographyland and across particular bits of the social sciences) to frame all of this stemming from, or in terms of, an individual figure: ‘the subject’. In such an account, technology (AI) is a supplement that ‘the human subject’ precedes. ‘The subject’, in such an account, is the entity to which things get done by AI, but also the entity ultimately capable of action. Likewise, such an account might figure ‘the subject’ and it’s ‘other’ (AI) in terms of moral agency/patiency. However, for this postulate such a framing would be unhelpful (I would also add that thinking in terms of ‘affect’, especially through neuro-talk would be just as unhelpful). If we think about AI organologically then we are prompted to think about the relation between what is figured as ‘the human’ and ‘AI’ (and the various other things that might be of concern in such a story) as ‘parasitic’ (in Derrida’s sense) – its a reciprocal (and, in Stiegler’s terms, ‘pharmacological’) relation with no a priori preceding entity. ‘Intelligence’ (and ‘stupidity’ too, of course) in such a formulation proceeds from various capacities for action/inaction.

If we don’t/shouldn’t think about Artificial Intelligence through the lens of the (‘sovereign’) individual ‘subject’ then we might look for other frames of reference. I think there are three recent articles/blogposts that may be instructive.

First, here’s David Runciman in the LRB:

Corporations are another form of artificial thinking machine, in that they are designed to be capable of taking decisions for themselves. Information goes in and decisions come out that cannot be reduced to the input of individual human beings. The corporation speaks and acts for itself. Many of the fears that people now have about the coming age of intelligent robots are the same ones they have had about corporations for hundreds of years.

Second, here’s Jonnie Penn riffing on Runciman in The Economist:

To reckon with this legacy of violence, the politics of corporate and computational agency must contend with profound questions arising from scholarship on race, gender, sexuality and colonialism, among other areas of identity.
A central promise of AI is that it enables large-scale automated categorisation. Machine learning, for instance, can be used to tell a cancerous mole from a benign one. This “promise” becomes a menace when directed at the complexities of everyday life. Careless labels can oppress and do harm when they assert false authority. 

Finally, here’s (the outstanding) Lucy Suchman discussing the ways in which figuring complex systems of ‘AI’-based categorisations as somehow exceeding our understanding does particular forms of political work that need questioning and resisting:

The invocation of Project Maven in this context is symptomatic of a wider problem, in other words. Raising alarm over the advent of machine superintelligence serves the self-serving purpose of reasserting AI’s promise, while redirecting the debate away from closer examination of more immediate and mundane problems in automation and algorithmic decision systems. The spectacle of the superintelligentsia at war with each other distracts us from the increasing entrenchment of digital infrastructures built out of unaccountable practices of classification, categorization, and profiling. The greatest danger (albeit one differentially distributed across populations) is that of injurious prejudice, intensified by ongoing processes of automation. Not worrying about superintelligence, in other words, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing about which we need to worry.
As critiques of the reliance on data analytics in military operations are joined by revelations of data bias in domestic systems, it is clear that present dangers call for immediate intervention in the governance of current technologies, rather than further debate over speculative futures. The admission by AI developers that so-called machine learning algorithms evade human understanding is taken to suggest the advent of forms of intelligence superior to the human. But an alternative explanation is that these are elaborations of pattern analysis based not on significance in the human sense, but on computationally-detectable correlations that, however meaningless, eventually produce results that are again legible to humans. From training data to the assessment of results, it is humans who inform the input and evaluate the output of the black box’s operations. And it is humans who must take the responsibility for the cultural assumptions, and political and economic interests, on which those operations are based and for the life-and-death consequences that already follow.

All of these quotes more-or-less exhibit my version of what an ‘organological’ take on AI might look like. Likewise, they illustrate the ways in which we might bring to bear a form of analysis that seeks to understand ‘intelligence’ as having ‘supidity’as a necessary component (it’s a pharmkon, see?), which in turn can be functional (following Alvesson & Spicer). In this sense, the framing of ‘the corporation’ from Runciman and Penn is instructive – AI qua corporation (as a thing, as a collective endeavour [a ‘discipline’]) has ‘parasitical’ organising principles through which play out the pharmacological tendencies of intelligence-stupidity.

I suspect this would also resonate strongly with Feminist Technology Studies approaches (following Judy Wajcman in particular) to thinking about contemporary technologies. An organological approach situates the knowledges that go towards and result from such an understanding of intelligence-stupidity. Likewise, to resist figuring ‘intelligence’ foremost in terms of the sovereign and universal ‘subject’ also resists the elision of difference. An organological approach as put forward here can (perhaps should[?]) also be intersectional.

That’s as far as I’ve got in my thinking-aloud, I welcome any responses/suggestions and may return to this again.

If you’d like to read more on how this sort of argument might play out in terms of ‘agency’ I blogged a little while ago.

ADD. If this sounds a little like the ‘extended mind‘ (of Clark & Chalmers) or various forms of ‘extended self’ theory then it sort of is. What’s different is the starting assumptions: here, we’re not assuming a given (a priori) ‘mind’ or ‘self’. In Stiegler’s formulation the ‘internal’ isn’t realised til the external is apprehended: mental interior is only recognised as such with the advent of the technical exterior. This is the aporia of origin of ‘the human’ that Stiegler and Derrida diagnose, and that gives rise to the theory of ‘originary technics’. The interior and exterior, and with them the contemporary understanding of the experience of being ‘human’ and what we understand to be technology, are mutually co-constituted – and continue to be so [more here]. I choose to render this in a more-or-less epistemological, rather than ontological manner – I am not so much interested in the categorisation of ‘what there is’, rather in ‘how we know’.