Algorithms in politics after Brexit

dystopian city

As Clive recently shared – Kuba Jablonowski, Clive and myself have been very fortunate to successfully apply for a grant in the ESRC’s ‘Governance after Brexit’ scheme. The project, which begins in January ’21, focuses on  ‘Algorithmic politics and administrative justice in the EU Settlement Scheme’ (The EUSS is the UK government scheme designed to determine the post-Brexit UK immigration status of EU citizens and their families who are currently living in the UK under EU free movement law).

The project will run from the start of 2021 through to the end of 2023. Here’s a quick summary from the application: 

“The research aims to analyse the process of administrative reform associated with Brexit, and the intersection of this process with the digitalisation of administration and governance in the UK. It takes the evolution of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) as its empirical entry-point. By investigating how grievances and claims of injustice emerge from the operation of the EUSS and are monitored and challenged in the public sphere, the research will seek to understand how practices of administrative justice are reconfigured by the interaction of automated algorithmic systems with rights-based practices of monitoring, advocacy and litigation.”

I’m sure we’ll post further information as the project gets underway on our websites.

Funded PhD: British Telegraphic work and spaces

A glitched image of a telegraph worker up a telegraph pole

My colleague Richard Noakes, Anne Archer and James Elder at BT Archives and I have a funded PhD position that will commence in September. Please see all of the relevant information below. Please also circulate widely and feel free to get in touch.

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/pg-research/money/award/?id=3894

The duration of this studentship is 45 months (or part time equivalent) plus additional 3 months for professional development opportunities

Closing Date for applications is Monday 1st June 2020.

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship on British telegraphic work and spaces, 1846-1950 at the University of Exeter in partnership with BT Archives (London).  The studentship is awarded by the Science Museums and Archives Consortium under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.  The project will commence in September 2020 and will be supervised by Prof Richard Noakes and Dr Sam Kinsley at Exeter and Ms Anne Archer and Mr James Elder at BT Archives, with further support from the Science Museum.

This project is a revisionist study of the largely forgotten operators of Britain’s inland telegraph network from the foundation of the first private telegraph companies in 1846, through nationalisation of the service in 1870, to 1950 when the service was in sharp decline owing to competition from telephony.  It plugs a considerable gap in the historiography of British telecommunications – the need for a systematic and detailed understanding of telegraphic work and the spaces within which it was pursued. The project will yield new insights into such key developments as the entry of women into telegraphy and the foundation of telegraphic workers’ unions.  The project involves the study of a wealth of largely unexplored primary source material, the bulk of which is held in BT Archives.  The systematic study of these materials will enable the CDA student to make a highly original contribution to historical scholarship and to help BT Archives in several important ways, including significantly enhancing the detail in its catalogue, producing website content and curating physical exhibitions.  The CDA’s research will also help enhance the Science Museum’s catalogue of telegraphic instruments.

A preliminary survey of BT Archives catalogue reveals an immense amount of material that can support this research.  It holds complete runs of periodicals dedicated to telegraphy and a wealth of unpublished documents relating to such issues as station organisation, employee recruitment, training, health and working conditions, and the experiences of female and male telegraphists. It is possible that the project will also uncover materials revealing the experiences of BAME and other under-represented telegraphists. The richness of the archival material that the student will be exploring means that there is much flexibility within the project for them to build on their own intellectual strengths and follow their own interests.

In addition to the 36 months spent on research, the CDA student will also spend a minimum of 3-6 months on professional development opportunities at BT Archives. How and when this time is used will depend on the student’s interests and goals and this will be agreed with them early in the project.  The time will be used to develop the student’s professional archiving and cataloguing skills.

Further information about the funding scheme and the institutions involved in this project can be found at the following links:

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme
https://www.ahrc-cdp.org/

BT Archives
https://www.btplc.com/thegroup/btshistory/btgrouparchives/

Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter
https://www.exeter.ac.uk/pg-research/

Science Museum Group Collaborative Doctoral Awards
https://www.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/our-work/research-public-history/collaborative-doctoral-awards/

UKRI research training
https:/www.ukri.org/skills/funding-for-research-training

For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisor, Professor Richard Noakesr.j.noakes@exeter.ac.uk

UK/EU tuition fees and an annual maintenance allowance at current Research Council rate of £15,285 per year.  Award holders will also receive a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership maintenance of £600 per year and a partial London weighting of £1000 per year.  The partner institution, BT Archvies, will also provide the award holder with up to £1000 per year to support travel and other research expenses.

AI Now’s Data Genesis programme – job opportunity

Facial tracking system, showing gaze direction, emotion scores and demographic profiling

The excellent AI Now institute have announced a fantastic new project titled ‘Data Genesis’ – I’ve copied some details below. Importantly – there are jobs, so – if you think you might fit the bill then apply!

 AI Now Institute has been developing new approaches to study and understand the role of training data in the machine learning field. Key research questions include: What type of information is used as training data? Who generates and collects it and for what purpose? What segments of society does it reflect? Who and what does it exclude? And how does that affect the functioning of AI systems themselves?

The Data Genesis program’s goal is to answer and demystify these questions through three core components:

  • Archiving and analyzing the origin and construction of key datasets that serves as foundations for today’s AI systems;
  • Producing visualizations, maps, and other designs to help crystallize and contextualize what this data is and what it means to communities, practitioners, companies, and policymakers; and
  • Convening experts from across disciplines to help build a field around this topic.

The rapid proliferation of AI into various social and political contexts demands a thorough understanding of the data that these systems are trained on, including the biases and flaws this data may encode. Our Data Genesis program will investigate the complex foundation on which AI is built and will call into question the perception of AI as a magical force that is superior to human judgement.

Check out the jobs associated with the project here.

Absence makes… blogging harder

I haven’t written here for some time. It is not because I am short of ideas, but rather – I am short of time. I am convening three modules this year at work and had to write one (from scratch) and modify two. Coupled with the strike action, becoming a new ‘Co-Editor-in-Chief‘ and various things going on outside of work – I have been stretched!

I really do want to return to posting here though. I am unsure how often and in what way… I hope to return to the ‘work notes‘ in particular, I find these quite helpful, personally. So, I hope people are still reading things that get posted here, I also hope that, if you like things I have written in the past, you might like to get in touch and talk about them – I would welcome it 🙂

As Adam Greenfield used to regularly say in his own blogposts: be kind to yourselves and those around you.

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: [Amazon.com] [Amazon.co.uk] [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.

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.

Geographies of/with AI at the RGS-IBG conference this week

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

As we race headlong towards September and another term (in the UK), it is the week of the RGS-IBG annual international conference in geographyland. At this year’s conference I am convening a double session with a really interesting and diverse range of papers concerning the intersections of geography and artificial intelligence. The sessions are on Thursday starting at 14:20 and ending at 18:30 with a 20 minute coffee break.

The sessions are: 235 and 268, details below:

235 Geographies of/with Artificial intelligence (1): Spacings

  1. Automating production of the built urban environment: tracing the role of BIM modelling, VR and automated prefabrication in the UK housing sector – Rachel Macrorie (University of Sheffield, UK)
  2. AI/Machine Learning algorithms in public participation– Yu-Shan Tseng (Durham University, UK)
  3. The algorithmic production of space in the age of machine learning: the case of self-driving vehicles– Fabio Iapaolo (Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy)
  4. Facial Recognition and the Automation of Security/Marketing Assemblages: Geographies of Anxiety and Pleasure in Music Festivals- Harrison Smith (Newcastle University, UK), Jeremy Crampton (Newcastle University, UK), Kara C. Hoover (University of Alaska, Fairbanks, USA), J. Colette Berbesque (Roehampton University, UK)

268 Geographies of/with Artificial intelligence (2): Working

  1. “Hey Alexa, why are you gendered?” Automation in the home and emotional labour – Sam Kinsley (University of Exeter, UK)
  2. Cooked with care or a raw deal?: One geographer’s explorations of AI and machine learning from below in London’s gig-economy – Adam Badger (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
  3. Workplace Surveillance by AI: it’s for your own good? – Philip Garnett (University of York, UK)
  4. Link NYC and the performative geopolitics of ‘automation’ – Nathaniel O’Grady (University of Manchester, UK)

Please do come and check out the sessions on Thursday – we’ll be in the Sheffield Building (Number 20 on this map).

CFP> Disrupting technology: contextualising continuity and change in technology

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

Via Kate Hardy

Disrupting technology: contextualising continuity and change in technology, work and employment


16-17th January, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change, University of Leeds


Recent scholarship on the relationship between technology and work has often tended to accentuate new technologies’ supposed transformative effects. Conferences on work and employment often feature streams dedicated solely to new technologies – such as platforms or AI – segregated from other streams where technology is mentioned very little. This both narrows our understandings of what constitutes ‘technology’ and contributes to the renewed growth of technological determinism, both in its utopian or dystopian variants- from Fully Automated Luxury Communism” on one hand to a nightmare of total surveillance on the other. Such debates are often speculative and can serve to obscure how actually existing employment relations are being shaped by new technologies.

The Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) at Leeds University Business School is pleased to announce a call for papers for a two day event in January 2020 relating to these questions.

This workshop calls for more careful, empirically grounded, theorisations of technology, its novelty and its impact on work and employment relations. We ask that contributions recognise the influence of conflicted interests and actions by managers, workers, the state and other social actors on the patterns, processes and outcomes of technological innovation. By devoting more attention to contextualising and historicising the relationship between technology and work, we ask contributors to develop more critical accounts of the extent of transformation and disruption, vis-à-vis entrenchment or continuity of existing social relations and employment relationships. Beyond the technology itself, what is genuinely novel and transformative about automation, AI or ‘platformisation’, which more mundane technologies might we be missing from the analysis?

We welcome contributions of themes including:

  • The state, regulation and new technology
  • Historical research on the introduction of new technologies of work
  • Management, resistance, organization, and technology
  • Occupations, skills, professions, and technology
  • Inequalities (race, gender, (dis)ability) and technology
  • Methods for studying work and technology – towards a research agenda

Submission details

Registration will be £100 for full academic staff and £50 for PhD students, with an optional £25 for the conference meal.
Please submit abstracts to c(dot)r(dot)umney(at)leeds(dot)ac(dot)uk or i(dot)bessa(at)leeds(dot)ac(dot)uk with a deadline of 10th October. Registration links will be available from October.