Automative Imagination

I am in the process of writing a proposal for, and the beginnings of, a book entitled The Automative Imagination. The book concerns the ways in which the apparent contemporary concerns about ‘automation’ have a significant history, bound up in particular stories and forms of imagining, that shapes how we talk about automation today. 

Automation is both a contemporary and enduring concern. Some warn of the ‘rise of the robots’ sweeping away whole sectors of employment while others suggest preparing for ‘fully automated luxury’. The ‘automative imagination’ is a way to articulating these different habits of considering and discussing automation.  I am not using the neologism ‘automative’ to assert any kind of authority (a common trick for academics) but rather as a pragmatic tool. Other words don’t quite fit – to speak of an ‘automated’ or ‘automatic’ imagination does not describe the characteristics of automation but suggests the imagining is itself automated, which is not the argument I am seeking to make. This project explores how automation is imagined as much as it is planned and enacted. There are various kinds of cultural, economic and social forms of imagination that are drawn upon and generated when discussing how automation works and the kinds of future that may come as a result. My aim is not to validate/invalidate particular narratives of automation. Instead, how automation is envisioned and what this reveals about how stories are told about what it means to be ‘human’, who/what has agency and what this may mean for how we think politically and spatially is investigated. Grappling with the precedence of envisioned over actually existing technology, ‘the automative imagination’ articulates the double-bind between fantasies of automation and path dependencies within the ongoing automation of many aspects of life.

This page collects together blog posts and key bits I make public about my ongoing, slowly progressing, research into the subject of how we imagine automation, both today and in recent history. The book itself will most likely be organised around particular themes or figures, these include: the idea of ‘technological progress’, the ‘factory’ and the ‘machine’, the ‘slave’, the ‘idiot’ and the ‘monster’.

  • Pitching the ‘automative imagination’ I’ve got a draft book proposal. I think I know where it’s going. I’ve also had a go at securing funding (yes, I’m not holding my breath) to support writing the book and hopefully produce an associated podcast – more on that another time. It’s perhaps foolhardy or overly optimistic but I want to share the ...
  • “Emett” and “Miss Honeywell” 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 ...
  • Automative Imagination – slides Last week I was fortunate to convene and chair a fantastic double session at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in Cardiff. The session was ‘New Geographies of Automation?‘ and featured some great papers, which I hope to reflect on in a subsequent post. For now, I wanted to ...
  • ‘New geographies of automation?’ at the RGS-IBG conference All of a sudden the summer is nearly over, apparently, and the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers is fast approaching, this year in Cardiff. I am convening a double session on the theme of ‘New geographies of automation?’, with two sessions of papers by some fantastic colleagues that ...
  • “Derek Lumley will come of age in automation”, Ferranti, 1965 Advertisement. Page 3, Daily Mail 25 March 1965. 
  • Automation in the garden – 1956 From the Daily Mail, 7th July 1956.
  • SuperTag ‘scanner will end checkout woes’ – 1994 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 ...
  • ‘Workers fear automation’ I’m doing some archival digging… I guess we’re all historical geographers at some level 🙂 For your consideration: An article from The Guardian website, 6th August 2018. An article from The Times, 8th March 1955.
  • 40 years of automation anxiety in the UK through BBC clips [video] I’ve just done a rough edit of some snippets from BBC programmes that I think shows an interesting pattern to the ways that automation has been discussed by the UK national broadcaster over the last 40 years. In each case, automation is a significant issue – it needs to be urgently addressed, but that hasn’t ...
  • “How will you manage fallout from [robot] displaced labor?” KPMG From KPMG’s Strategic Visions on the Sourcing Market 2016, p. 32. Via Jamie Peck’s excellent Offshore. How will you manage fallout from displaced labor? The automation of human jobs may cause some unrest, so prepare to have honest, open discussions with your organization. Resistance may come not only from the workers in automatable roles but also from directors ...
  • “The Rise of the Robot Reserve Army” – interesting working paper Saw this via Twitter somehow… The Rise of the Robot Reserve Army: Automation and the Future of Economic Development, Work, and Wages in Developing Countries – Working Paper 487 Lukas Schlogl and Andy Sumner Employment generation is crucial to spreading the benefits of economic growth broadly and to reducing global poverty. And yet, emerging economies face a contemporary ...
  • Practising speculation and tech futures I’ve had a sort of moment of realisation this morning that a bunch of tabs I’ve had open, saved, reopened (etc etc) for the past few months are all more-or-less about doing speculative work around A.I., automation and suchlike. This is interesting for me cos I wrote a PhD (and I am by no means the only ...
  • Two excellent reflections on ethics in relation to Google’s AI principles Two excellent pieces by Anab Jain and Lucy Suchman that I recommend you read if you’re interested in studying technology (not just AI) that reflect upon Google’s announcement of its ‘AI principles’ and its apparent commitment not to work on the US Government’s “project Maven”. Here’s a couple of quotes that stood out, but you should ...
  • Ocado automated fulfilment centre & automation promo videos Ocado, online groceries delivery service in the UK, some time ago pivoted into providing automation solutions for other retailers. They have a division, or separate company, called Ocado Technology, which offers other retailers systems for fulfilment centre automation: “Ocado Smart Platform” . So, while the above video is interesting, insofar as it demonstrates yet ...
  • Digital work and automation link dump Ok. Whilst I was not blogging I kept finding things through twitter and reading blogs that I find interesting. I kept thinking “oh, I ought to write something about that”… the thing is, I haven’t had the time and I don’t have the time now. So… I’m going to do a sort of annotated link ...
  • Automating inequality – Virginia Eubanks and interlocutors [video] This Data & Society talk by Virginia Eubanks on her book Automating Inequality followed by a discussion with Alondra Nelson and Julia Angwin is excellent. This seems like vital empirical analysis and insights that flesh out what is, perhaps, frequently gestured towards by ‘critical algorithm studies’ folks – ‘auditing algorithms’, analysing what’s in the black box, ...
  • A reminder: CFP > New Geographies of Automation? RGS-IBG 2018, Cardiff A friendly reminder and invitation to submit ideas for the below proposed session for the RGS-IBG annual conference in late August in Cardiff. My aim with this session is to convene a conversation about as wide a range of tropes about automation as possible. Papers needn’t be empirical per se or about actually existing automation, they ...
  • The Guardian of automation I have been looking back over the links to news articles I’ve been collecting together about automation and I’ve been struck in particular by how the UK newspaper The Guardian has been running at least one story a week concerning automation in the last few months (see their “AI” category for examples, or the list ...
  • CFP: RGS-IBG 2018 – New geographies of automation? New Geographies of Automation? Please send submissions (titles, abstracts (250 words) and author details) to me by 31st January 2018. 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 ...
  • UK Government ramping up ‘robotic process automation’ Quite by chance I stumbled across the twitter coverage of a UK Authority event entitled “Return of the Bots” yesterday. There were a range of speakers it seems, from public and private sectors. An interesting element was the snippets about the increasing use of process automation by the UK Government. Here’s some of the tweets I ...
  • Automation as received wisdom For your consideration – a Twitter poll in a sponsored tweet from one of the UK’s largest management consultancies. Why might a management consultancy do this? – To gain superficially interesting yet fatuous data to make quick claims about? Perhaps for the purposes of advertising? Maybe… Perhaps to try to suggest, in a somewhat calculating way, ...
  • Reblog> Should robots be granted the status of legal personhood? From John Danaher’s Philosophical Disquisitions. Danaher offers his incisive analysis of recent additions to the debate on legal personhood re. “robots”. Seems interesting (to me) in relation to two things: agency, and how we imagine automation – since we don’t actually have such ‘robots’ at the moment. It’s quite a long post (so only a snippet ...
  • Reblog> Humans and machines at work Via Phoebe Moore. Looks good >> Humans and machines at work: monitoring, surveillance and automation in contemporary capitalism edited by Phoebe V. Moore, Martin Upchurch and Xanthe Whittaker. This edited collection is now in production/press (Palgrave, Dynamics of Virtual Work series editors Ursula Huws and Rosalind Gill). This is the results of the symposium I organised for ...
  • Our friends electric Another wonderful video from superflux exploring how to think about the kinds of relationships we may or may not have with our ‘smart’ stuff… Our Friends Electric from Superflux on Vimeo. Our Friends Electric is a short film by Superflux about voice-enabled AI assistants who ask too many questions, swear & recite Marxist texts. The film was commissioned ...
  • Gilbreth’s motion studies films Via Motion Pictures in the Human Sciences. Parts of the lineage of some aspects of automation can be traced through this work: “The Original Films of Frank Gilbreth” The “industrial efficiency” expert Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) conducted his motion studies, both in the United States and abroad, in factories, offices, hospitals and other workplaces between about 1910 and 1924. ...
  • ‘Robotism’ and the agency of ‘automated’ workers Following on from my post about the ways we might think about and research ideas of agency in relation to ‘automation’, it so happens that an accessible and interesting comment piece in the Grauniad by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger was published last week (not being on Twitter means I miss more of these sorts ...
  • Our vascilating accounts of the agency of automated things “There’s no hiding behind algorithms anymore. The problems cannot be minimized. The machines have shown they are not up to the task of dealing with rare, breaking news events, and it is unlikely that they will be in the near future. More humans must be added to the decision-making process, and the sooner the better.” Alexis ...
  • Working with robots at Amazon Here’s an interesting interactive 360Ëš video from the New York Times, which shows something of work in a contemporary Amazon warehouse:
  • 19 ‘AI’-related links 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. Should we be afraid of AI? True AI is both logically possible and utterly ...
  • ‘Automated’ sweated labour This piece by Sonia Sodha (Worry less about robots and more about sweatshops) in the Grauniad, which accompanies an episode of the Radio 4 programme Analysis (Who Speaks for the Workers?), is well worth checking out. It makes a case that seems to be increasing in consensus – that ‘automation’ in particular parts of industry will ...
  • The “Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund” commits $7.6M to research “AI for the public interest” A press release from the Knight Foundation and another from Omidyar Network highlight their joint effort with several other funders to commit $7.6M to be distributed across several international institutions to research “AI for the public interest”. This seems like an ambitious and interesting research programme, albeit located in the elite institutions one might unfortunately ...
  • Do robots replace (human) jobs? – a further update on imaginings of automation In November I reviewed some literature concerning the narratives of ‘robots’ ‘destroying’ jobs, replacing workers and maybe driving down wages. I showed in that blogpost how different articles contradicted one another about the destruction or creation of jobs/work through automation and argued we probably need to think about this as a discourse, heavy with technological ...
  • 65% of future non-existent jobs (which doesn’t exist) 70% of jobs automated (just not yet) The future of work is the work of imagination. We are, repeatedly, and have been for a while, bombarded with (pseudo-)facts about what the future of work will bring. These are, of course, part of well-known, long-standing, narratives about ‘innovation’, ‘growth’, technological advance and, of course, ‘automation’. Martin shared a good post by Benjamin Doxtdator, on his site Long ...
  • Visualising the jobs lost to automation This is more or less a note to self to investigate this:
  • Responsibility gaps and autonomy – AI, autonomous weapons and cars Over on the excellent Algocracy blog/podcast John Danaher interviews Hin-Yan Liu, a law scholar in Copenhagen who’s done some work on responsibility and autonomy in relation to autonomous weapons systems and driverless cars. The discussion is really interesting, thinking through various ways on understanding responsibility in relation to autonomy, expanding out ideas about what an ‘autonomous ...
  • More tales of the automative imaginary Here’s some links that further sketch out some of what I’ve been thinking about as an ‘automative imaginary’. I’ve offered links with a bit of brief commentary at the bottom… Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs – in the NYT, pointing to research undertaken by two economists, Acemoglu and Restrepo, published by ...
  • Reblog> Accident tourist – driverless cars and ethics An interesting and well-written piece over on Cyborgology by Maya from Tactical Tech Collective (amongst many other things!) I particularly like these bits copied below, but please read the whole post. Accident Tourist: Driverless car crashes, ethics, machine learning …I imagine what it may be like to arrive on the scene of  a driverless car crash, and the kinds of ...
  • Automation and logistics Stumbled across Cargoland from KCRW after subscribing to the Containers podcast and this episode about the ways the idea and the processes of automation take on cultural, political-economic and personal agency/power within a given area – in this case the port of Los Angeles. It’s an interesting story…
  • Brave new-old world – gig economy as scientific management They’re gonna be disrupted, yeah! Because your lives are being disrupted, yeah! This is the money you need to live! An interesting article in the FT: “When your boss is an algorithm“, in which (if you ignore the sort of anthropomorphism of “the algorithm” and its apparently supreme agency) the author,  Sarah O’Connor, draws out the similarity ...
  • Automation in financial services and the ongoing re-imagination of work From Technology outsmarts the human investor – FT “It just gets harder and harder and harder,” reflected one money manager this week. His is the predicament of other professionals – anything done by a person that follows a pattern and can be coded into a form that a computer understands will soon get squeezed. Technology also ...
  • Echoborg Former colleagues of mine at UWE are developing an interesting project, which you may have seen/heard about through the BBC’s Click programme, called Echoborg. An echoborg is a hybrid agent composed of the body of a real person and the “mind” (or, rather, the words) of a conversational agent; the words the echoborg speaks are determined by the ...
  • When design fiction becomes the advert(?) Amazon Go and the refiguring of trust I think I’ve been late to this. I saw the story about Barclaycard wanting to do “cardless” credit cards but, of course, Amazon want to vertically integrate. See the first video below. Interesting that this is incredibly similar to previous ‘envisionings’ of “the future” of retail/shopping. The first thing I thought was: ‘hang on, this ...
  • Do ‘robots’ replace (‘human’) jobs? ‘Robots’ (or automated systems for manufacturing and distribution) seem to be on-trend amongst social scientists and tech evangelists), so here’s a deceptively simple question: Do ‘robots’ (i.e. automation) replace/destroy jobs? Lots of coverage across various media will give you an answer that is ...
  • Video> Imagining automation – public talk I gave a talk for the SW Futurists meet up group this week and they’ve recorded the talks. There are two speakers: Lucas Godfrey (Edinburgh) talked about the challenges of creating models of phenomena in the world so that you can automate things. I talked about the politics of the kinds of stories we tell about ...
  • Talk: ‘imagining automation’, part of ‘Human centred design in the age of automation’ I’m doing a talk on 25th October for the ‘SW Futurists’ meet-up. The event is called “Human centred design in the age of automation” and I’ll be talking about how ‘automation’ gets imagined and what kinds of power or agency those imaginings might have. There are two speakers, the other is Lucas Godfrey a design researcher ...
  • Behaviourism, productivity & the ‘quantified self’ Steven Poole, in the New Statesman, on “How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism“: Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right ...
  • Bernard Stiegler: “The time saved through automation must be granted to the people” [translation] The interview with Bernard Stiegler translated below comes from the l’Humanité.fr website. This follows nicely from the other interview about ‘how to survive disruption’ I recently translated. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, but I think principally because he offers a little more detail on how one might go about creating an ‘economy of ...
  • Artefacts for generations growing up with robots I’ve had this open in one of my tabs for ages with the intention of writing something about it here but I’ve sort of run out of time on that, so… Here’s an interesting student project (I’d be delighted to have students like this!!) It’s a sort of deliberately controversial speculative design/ prototyping exercise to provoke thought and conversation about ...
  • Stiegler: Stop the uberisation of society! Posted below is a translation of a piece co-authored by Bernard Stiegler with Ariel Kyrou (journo),  Yann Moulier-Boutang (writer) and Bruno Teboul (Director of innovation at Keyrus) and published in Libération on the 10th April. I suppose it doesn’t really propose anything especially novel, if you’re familiar with others involved in debates around “postcapitalism”, automation, worklessness ...