Project

The 'Automative Imagination' – agency, autonomy and automation

Goal: The aim of this work is to think about and write about the ways in which automation gets imagined – the sorts 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. The aim here is not to validate/invalidate particular narratives of automation – but instead to think about how they are produced and what they tell us about how we tell stories about what it means to be 'human', who/what has agency and what this may mean for how we think poltically.

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Samuel Kinsley
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This paper sets out to review some of the key ways in which automation gets imagined – the sorts 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. The aim here is not to validate/invalidate particular narratives of automation – but instead to think about how they are produced and what they tell us about how we tell stories about what it means to be ‘human’, who/what has agency and what this may mean for how we think politically and spatially. To do this the concept of an ‘automative imagination’ is proposed as a means of articulating these different, sometimes competing – sometimes complementary, orientations towards automation.
Samuel Kinsley
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I am convening a double session of papers at the RGS-IBG annual international conference in Cardiff in August 2018. There is more information about the papers involved here:
 
Samuel Kinsley
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We are being confronted in some quarters by the claim of a death of theory, brought about by the computational largesse of 'big data'. A supposition that it is possible to 'capture' data about the world in sufficient breadth, depth and speed such that 'correlation is enough'. One might hazard from such arguments that, whereas the 'cultural turn' in geography pushed out of favour a predilection for positivism it is alive and kicking in other contexts of knowledge generation. Yet, the many 'worldings' that emerge from the 'algorithms' that perform 'big data' research fall foul of what fellow geographer Rob Kitchin calls fallacies of empiricism. 'Big data' are supposedly theoretically neutral and apparently exhaustive in their reach. Yet as we know: any data set is framed by what you are able to capture and what you want to see. Likewise, the idea that 'big data' are somehow outside of theory is naïve realism. All forms of research are framed in agendas and carry epistemological or ontological assumptions. 'Big data' itself is, after all, a concept. There is a discursive politics to 'big data' around what can be named 'truth' and who can name it. However, it is not sufficient to speak only about the 'data', however politically necessary. This would somewhat excuse what is an epistemological miss-step in how we discuss 'algorithms'. To be clear, I am not only speaking of how we study software and its uses but also how we study with software-how it gets used as an integral part of research. The concept of an 'algorithm' has taken on a peculiar and powerful agency in how we understand studies of and with software and computation, and it is that power that I want to interrogate today as concretised in what I've come to call an 'algorithmic imaginary'.
The stories we tell about algorithms in relation to labour are, frequently, binary: we are either the networked proletariat, blindly staggering into algorithmic servitude (i.e. the microwork of the crowd-sourced taxi system 'Uber' or Amazon's Mechanical Turk); or, we are the heirs of a new 'wealth of networks' (following Yochai Benkler), set to be relieved of monotonous work and freed to exercise creativity. These are, of course, familiar stories, which were told of the automation of mass production. At the heart of both stories is the attribution of a mythical autonomous agency to the unseen machine. As Lucy Suchman (2006) has argued, this is the enchantment of technologies through the obfuscation of the labour of production. However, neither the algorithm or the worker are autonomous. Rather, they are bound into a quasi-autonomous system (what Rob Kitchin calls a 'coded assemblage') that distributes work tasks to a labour force and vice versa. The rules of such systems may be opaque but they have authors (programmers, managers, service designers) and they are maintained, which both involve labour. Not only, then, are the outcomes of algorithmic labour practices distributed, but so are their creation and maintenance. This is perhaps a muddying of 'immaterial labour', but is nevertheless a powerful illustration of the new kinds of proletarianisation identified by the philsopher Bernard Stiegler. To understand this algorithmic 'agencement' this paper argues that what is required is a rethinking of agency, not in terms of automation but what Bonnie Nardi has called 'heteromation': technical systems that push critical tasks to end users as indispensable mediators. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to interrogate this distributed performance of knowledge and skill, the cost of which is arguably a loss of individual autonomy and skill, as the rise of the new 'proletariat' (following Stiegler) of technocultural 'composite workers'.
This talk examined the disciplined definitions of attention in relation to economic value and problematised the oft-used critique of an attention economy in relation to a labour theory of value. Rather, it is is suggested that a theory of monopoly rent may be of more use. The corollary to this is the argument that the technologies do not determine the state of affairs, but rather that, as the latest stage of 'grammatisation' following Bernard Stiegler, we should understand attentive media as a pharmakon.
Samuel Kinsley
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The aim of this work is to think about and write about the ways in which automation gets imagined – the sorts 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. The aim here is not to validate/invalidate particular narratives of automation – but instead to think about how they are produced and what they tell us about how we tell stories about what it means to be 'human', who/what has agency and what this may mean for how we think poltically.