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The world in itself, without us: Extraction, Infrastructure & Tech

The Planetary Futures Summer School was a gift in terms of material to chew on and write about. I had a post up on Cyborgology about the visit to the Malartic Gold Mine.

“A mine is a complex space of flows” says Dr. Mostafa Benzaazoua.

I’m not expecting a professor of geological engineering to use a phrase from the media studies cannon. I write in my notebook” “maybe media studies before mining science?!!!” Or perhaps that phrase has now entered into everyday scholarly parlance. Over the course of the next few hours, Dr. Benzaazoua gives us a detail-rich lecture on how gold is mined from the earth, and the spaces of flows the mine and its products inhabit. The next day we leave before dawn to visit Canada’s largest open pit gold mine.

When you visit an open pit gold mine, it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the grayscale landscape. More lunar than Luxor, you don’t see anything even remotely golden at a gold mine, except perhaps the cheesy gold hard hats (we) visitors wear. We are watching the open pit of the mine from a viewing gallery many metres away and above it; it is very, very quiet here. You expect to hear something, but we’re too far away to hear the machines drill the earth and bring up rocks, which are loaded into large trucks. Each truck has eight wheels, each wheel costs $42,000 and is about ten feet high. The trucks lumber about like friendly, giant worker-animals. To drive them requires significant skill; we are told that women make better drivers. The trucks take the rocks away to the factory where they are analysed for gold.

Someone says something later about the mine being cyborg: the organic Earth, with its transformative automated elements – the drilling machines, trucks, – and the ‘intra-action’ of the two being the mine itself.

Read more here.

Exit: Moon. A Short Story About Staying With The Trouble

I spent two weeks in August at Planetary Futures, a summer school at Concordia University in Montreal organised by Orit Halpern, Marie-Pier Boucher, and Pierre Louis Patoine, and hosted at Milieux, the centre for art, technology, and culture at Concordia. The course made links between planetary scale catastrophe and the Anthropocene, and histories of infrastructure, colonialism, and investigated design and fiction as vehicles of speculation about the future(s). It brought

“together the disciplines of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences to collectively investigate this question of how we shall inhabit the world in the face of the current ecological crisis and to rethink concepts and practices of environment, ecology, difference, and technology to envision, and create, a more just, sustainable, and diverse planet. The course will include field visits to extraction sites, energy infrastructures, earth science installations, and speculative architecture and design projects.”

Our group of twenty-odd PhD students from North America and Europe made some interesting journeys, from an open pit gold mine, the largest in Canada, to the Mohawk reservation in Kahnawage outside Montreal, and to the idea of inhabiting a Moon Village decades in the future. I documented these journeys on Instagram as we went along. Towards the end of the course found myself wanting to construct a narrative with these images inspired by a central theme in one of the best lectures (IMHO) on the course; Sarah Sharma, director of the Marshall McLuhan Center in Toronto, spoke to us about her work on the notion that there are exits (there aren’t; or not for everyone at least), and on critical temporalities (how do we assign value and measurement to whose time, on what, matters?).

I got an opportunity to put these images together into a story thanks to an invitation from Tel Aviv-based interaction designer and artist, Mushon Zer Aviv. Mushon and I spoke at re:publica’s Thessaloniki event this week, and my part of the talk was the story-made-of-Instagram images. Unfortunately, the livestream broke halfway through our talk and the recordings aren’t up yet. However, here are the text and images from my story and I’ll post the video once the recording is ready.


It always rained now. Neither temperate nor extreme, the weather had been controlled so it stayed at just one ‘setting’. The rising temperature, and simultaneous flooding, hurricanes, and drought, was creating serious disruption in the markets. I think it was the monster tidal wave that destroyed Shanghai and Shenzhen that made them wake up to how bad it was. The re-insurance portfolios couldn’t be re-insured any more. Banks were in a death spiral of virtual lending. They found a way to fix the disaster response system and an ingenious little hack to deal with flooding, but the temperatures still rose. So, there was no more monsoons or droughts, but the price we paid was that it rained all the time. It was the best possible outcome given how bad things were. Everything on earth was in a state of permanent emergency. The apocalypse happened in drips and drabs whittling away at our spirit. No one was Raptured away and the Messiah did not appear. Neither did the robot army, nor aliens.

All this had happened because we simply refused to manage our addictions.

So, many left. Those who could, that is. For the moon.

They had discovered vast repositories of precious minerals deep in the heart of the moon. They found things we had on Earth like malachite, copper, cobalt, uranium, amethyst and gold – and with new elements we had never encountered before. The surface of the moon was barren and harsh but underneath it was a rich tropical forest.

They needed teams to set up extraction facilities that could extract, test, and evaluate how much lay under there, and figure out ways to trade and make money off these minerals. The Chinese had built incredible, vast towers of server farms and data centres, to handle the explosion in Moon minerals trading. We traded these Moon minerals and other Moon products on specialised commodities exchanges on earth.

I worked with teams that isolated and tested the minerals. My role was to build algorithms that could predict values of these minerals based on what was being found, and its quality, and considering the cost of being able to actually extract and use them. It was a computational exercise and I had to work closely with extraction teams, which I liked a lot. I liked going out there with them in the field. Otherwise, my field was just a screen, and a coffee machine. And bad internet. No matter how big and shiny the Chinese server farms were.
Being on the Moon was very freeing for scientists. They were getting to do some exciting work towards exoplanetary exploration. Mars was now that much closer to being accessible. It was a very exciting time for anyone in science and tech. Mars is a place for rugged outdoor types too.

The more Planet Earth crumbled, It seemed like our skill, creativity, and ingenuity as a species grew. We built amazing things. We got very good very fast at building almost-intelligent robots. We had near total Uplink for all humans and non humans to communicate. Still those pesky last mile delivery issues though. Poor people being left behind was still a thing. We just didn’t know how to fix the old hard stuff: culture, bodies, history, politics. So we just ignored it. It was inefficient.

But we ignored it at our own peril. We kept forgetting how to make these things work because we found that we liked applying algorithms to all kinds of complex problems – water shortage, poverty, gender violence. The reality is that algorithms and data work very well in science and engineering – like predicting climate change – but terribly when it comes to things involving humans. But that’s what we did.

I was part of one of the first crews of scientists to leave. Out here things are quite exciting, to be honest. There is a sense of discovery, and of actually being able to start over. It is like Mordor meets the Garden of Eden but without talking snakes, organic apples, or naked and happy people. We had imported some cool solar energy innovations, and architectural and design inventions with radical new sustainable materials we made in labs. We learned from plants. We built things mimicking capillary action in tall trees, and how mushrooms grow. The word for world is forest.

We had all this on earth, all these amazing technologies and ideas but in the end, none of it scaled. We just couldn’t unplug two hundred years of belief and value in rationality and graft on new ways of being. With exponential growth, you need exponential solutions. But we didn’t make it to those exponential solutions. Yet, it is a difficult balance to be here. We have all this cutting edge stuff, very hi-tech, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t sorrowful about the state of things at home. In a way, our guilt at escaping made us feel virtuous – in the best sense of the word; and dedicated to working hard to develop strong solutions. We were the pioneers colonising a new world to support the old one. No one really wants to live on this godforsaken barren little satellite. We want to be back on our messed up, falling-apart little blue planet.

Then, one day, things went wrong. An outdoor survey team that I work with picked up some disturbing electromagnetic signals. A significant planetary disturbance was predicted. Now planets wobble in their orbit all the time, and the bigger the planet, the bigger the wobble and the more dramatic the effects. It was Jupiter. But Jupiter was far away and it would be years before we would feel it, which would give us time to fortify our station. However, Jupiter wobbling was affecting the asteroid belt and sending rocks hurtling out of orbit at very high speeds. The reason we have craters on the moon is because it has been hit by asteroids so many times anyway. So this wasn’t something out of the blue. was always one of the biggest risks with being on the Moon; we knew this could happen. But as usual scientists fought with each other about who had the better data about what was going to really happen. How much should we invest to offset some future disaster that we cannot really know the shape of? “It was unlikely that something seriously negative was going to happen”. Unlikely is a word that policymakers use a lot when they don’t want to commit to doing something.

We are a small and fragile community up here Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Iranian. We have amazing technologies but we still only have each other, eventually. Friendship and taking care of each other. We rely on these things much more, eventually, than we do on data. Data is the new nothing, really. It’s just data. We were faced with hard choices. Hard choices always end up being utilitarian ones. Sacrificing a few for the greater good. This is what the data tells you to do. If you don’t buy this logic, then it is as if you are naive, and don’t know how the real world really works.
Some people had the option of leaving. Those people who don’t have to take care of anyone else, or anything else. Who feel like they can sever their connections and move on to the next thing. Some times this is survival. Some times it is escape, it is exit.

But I am done exiting. There is no exit. It’s time to stay with the trouble.

Thanks to the organisers, Concordia U, and the fellow travelers who made the Planetary Futures Summer School joyful and inspiring.

Machine Research @ Transmediale

The results of the Machine Research workshop from back in October were launched at Transmediale: the zine, and a studio talk.

During the workshop, we explored the use of various writing machines and ways in which research has become machine-like. The workshop questioned how research is bound to the reputation economy and profiteering of publishing companies, who charge large amounts of money to release texts under restrictive conditions. Using Free, Libre, and Open Source collaboration tools, Machine Research participants experimented with collective notetaking, transforming their contributions through machine authoring scripts and a publishing tool developed by Sarah Garcin. (The image accompanying this post is a shot of the PJ, or Publication Jockey, with some text it laid out on a screen in the back). The print publication, or ‘zine, was launched at transmediale is one result of this process. You can read the zine online

The studio talk brought together one half of our research group that talked about’infrastructures’. Listen to it here: (I’m speaking at 44:09)

Four things to hold on to according to Antoinette Rouvroy

A few months ago I was at a workshop in Brussels, on the side of which Antoinette Rouvroy and Seda Gürses were invited to speak. They both said really important things about their work: algorithmic governmentality, and Why Are We Talking About The Cloud Now?, respectively.

I asked Rouvroy about what resistance looks like in the face of narratives of big data that appear totalizing (the narratives about, and big data, both appear totalizing). What are the things that escape digitalisation? She said that there is a tendency of life to be recalcitrant to organisation, and these things:

– Physical things: the fact of bodies and organic life, which are wholly unpredictable;
– Utopias we had/have that don’t find a place in any present
– Dreams of the future.
– If we were really present and complete, we would not talk to each other: we are separated from ourselves through language anyway; trying to find a way back is resistance.

“Algorithmic thinking is tempting because it precludes hesitation, doubt, and failure; failure is a space to hold on to.”

#SpivakConfidential: “I was so trashed in Dubrovnik” and other anecdotes and insights from her Berlin lecture

This week I went to a public lecture by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak titled Who Claims Borderlessness as part of the Berliner Gazette event, Tacit Futures. I wish I could say I knew her work really well but I don’t. I’ve read some bits of her here and there, the famous stuff, but years ago. I had never seen her speak before, so I was charmed by her performance of being Spivak.

Spivak talked about loving being an academic, and those who don’t should stop whining, and leave it. I think she had been cautioned against being too academic in her talk, so she sarcastically signposted every reference to approaching academicspeak: “And so this is what we call – watch out here is an academic term – performative contradiction.” And so on.

She was always conscious of her privilege and who and where she teaches, and as a caste-Hindu. She made frequent reference to her position at Columbia as the only woman of colour, and one of fifteen full University Professors. It’s kind of astounding though that she joined Columbia in the 1990s but was made University Professor only nine years ago. In talking about herself and her family, she was careful and sincere in talking about the generations of caste privilege that enabled her to be where she is.

She talked a lot about her work in rural Bengal,and contrasted life and teaching there, to teaching at Columbia. At some point she wanted to tell a story about her sister and turned and asked “anyone here know Bengali” and for some reason I put up my hand and said I could follow a little Bangla, suddenly wracked by a momentary, yawning-abyss type panic, that she would expect me to converse with her in Bangla. She shielded her eyes and looked out into the audience and said “West or East?” I said “Neither; I can follow it when people, friends, talk”. She turned to the audience and said “see, pah, you all think you’re so global and only one person has Bengali friends.. but then who cares about Bengalis, who knows us..” The anecdote about the sister was swept away and she moved on to the next one.

She and had a lot of anecdotes that were interesting and amusing, but to a mostly European audience probably inaccessible. I really liked how she didn’t footnote any of these anecdotes and left it up to the audience to figure things out.

Also, Spivak just got 91/100 in her Mandarin Oral exam. She chatted in Mandarin with some people in the audience, just like that. That was impressive. She made a wonderful point about the borders around language itself, which are difficult, but sometimes demand respect, but are also porous, cutting through class differences. She referenced being from East Bengal/Bangladesh and how that more Eastern Bangla keeps finding co-locutors in Indian West Bengal where she teaches, thus creating new bonds and connections. About Mandarin, she had a different point, about the border of the script itself, and that identifying something as Mandarin or Japanese is merely an attempt to indicate a fake globality; that the border of the language must be probed and approached to learn how to cross it.

About borders, boundaries, frontiers, and displacement: she had a lot to say including not-so-gently berating Europeans for creating conditions for a new colonialism in positioning Europe as a place of liberation, thereby Othering. And that the ‘Refugees Welcome’ slogan is effectively an inversion of where the Right is, and thereby centering the role of the German/European state(s) as a saviour and liberator. She was generally dismissive, I felt, of efforts to welcome refugees. No one asked her what we should be doing instead.

Some of her one-liners were hilarious insights into this interesting, difficult, person. I liked the meandering-into anecdotes and how they would come back to populate the points she was making. She was, is, by turn, scolding, charming, full of herself, hitting low (“You know, right, there is no such thing as Aryan”), hitting high, laser-sharp. I can’t say I always agree but I was definitely laughing right through. I think the combination of anecdote, reflection, theory and opinion made for an engaging, entertaining talk.

So, here is #SpivakConfidential:

“I run with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys, I teach at the top.”

“Ramachandra Guha wrote a stupid book”

[To the Germans] “It’s not Shpivak, it’s Spivak”

“I saw Deleuze excoriate a person because they used ‘vous’ and not ‘tu’ with him”

“I was so trashed in Dubrovnik”

“There is no such thing as Aryan. Remember that”

“Do you know [unclear Italian name].. the semiologist? He was the teacher of Umberto Eco. We were involved.. but I wouldn’t marry him because he was too rich.”

[Spivak trashes Madhu Kishwar] “She did nothing”

“Love me, love me, love me, you know I’m a liberal!” [Spivak ends lecture singing sarcastically.]

“I have made up Bengali words for things like ‘ontological difference’. Otherwise how can I teach in the village?!”

“I was on the same flight from Paris as Michael Ryan who had a huge lump of hash in his jacket pocket that the students had given him… he kicked it under the trash, somewhere, before we got to immigration. And they took me away for questioning, strip searched!Fingers in orifices looking for drugs! Hah, Ryan has an American passport, see!”

“If you’re a brown woman who is about to be strip searched for drugs in an American airport, just say you only want someone from your embassy to do it. Then, you’ll be fine. They’ll never send someone from the Indian embassy … [chuckles].”

“You want to stop? No more questions? Come on, give me more. I’m high on adrenaline, I can go on.”

(Image from Dawn and glitched with an online glitcher)

The Problem with Trolleys at re:publica

I gave my first talk about ethics and driverless cars for a non-specialist audience at re:publica 2016. In this I look at the problem with the Trolley Problem, the thought experiment being used to train machine learning algorithms in driverless cars. Here, I focus on the problem that logic-based notions of ethics has transformed into an engineering problem; and suggest that this ethics-as-engineering approach is what will allow for American law and insurance companies to assign blame and responsibility in the inevitable case of accidents. There is also the tension that machines are assumed to be correct, except when they aren’t, and that this sits in a difficult history of ‘praising machines’ and ‘punishing humans’ for accidents and errors. I end by talking about questions of accountability that look beyond algorithms and software themselves to the sites of production of algorithms themselves.

Here’s the full talk.

Works cited in this talk:

1. Judith Jarvis Thompson’s 1985 paper in the Yale Law Journal,The Trolley Problem
2. Patrick Lin’s work on ethics and driverless cars. Also relevant is the work of his doctoral students at UPenn looking at applications of Blaise Pascal’s work to the “Lin Problem”
3. Madeleine Elish and Tim Hwang’s paper ‘Praise the machine! Punish the human!’ as part of the Intelligence & Autonomy group at Data & Society
4. Madeleine Elish’s paper on ‘moral crumple zones’; there’s a good talk and discussion with her on the website of the proceedings of the WeRobot 2016 event at Miami Law School.
5. Langdon Winner’s ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics’
6. Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory.

Character assassination I, II, III

Character Assassination

the act of deliberately attempting to destroy a person’s reputation by defamatory remarks

I could write about the auburn-haired woman who I sit across from at work, the one with the tics and the lazy eye. She is an only child with that peculiar sense of phantom wholeness only children have. People think she is a bureaucrat, and it may be that I am the only one who can sense the evil lurking in her. She doesn’t take risks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the world needs people who can look at things rationally and calmly for a long time before acting. She is someone out of a book written by Lionel Shriver about a family full of broken people. She would be the dark horse – or the roan maybe – quietly spinning lies and deceit in the corner and all the while seeming to be the most gentle. What is it like to get into the head of a character that you dislike and yet feel empathy for? I think I would write this character falling in love with a boy much below her class – these things are very important to the English, did I mention she was English – and did madcap things with him, like walk naked down the high street and almost get arrested for it.


I could write the heartbreaking story of my best friend who fell apart from anger following the tragic death of her roommate from breast cancer. The roommate was one of those unlucky young women – 31 when she was diagnosed – who unknowingly harboured a lump like a dark grudge. She was diagnosed and dead within six months. It was six months of my friend visiting her in the hospital, accompanying her to chemotherapy, comforting the boyfriend and the girl’s family. My friend couldn’t bring herself to attend the funeral or the memorial. She was so wrapped up in her own grief, it seemed at the time, that she couldn’t reach out to the roommate’s husband (the boyfriend married her while she was dying in hospital), sister or family. She mourned for weeks and the decision to stay in their shared apartment took an additional toll on her. Months later, when I couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer,I asked her what she needed to do to get over it and move on from the roommate’s death. A lot of Old Monk later, sprawled across the divan staring at the ceiling fan, a tear rolled out of the corner of her eye and she said that she fucking hated them all, her dead roommate’s family that is. They didn’t really thank her enough for all that she did and she has never forgiven them for it. She was furious that she had been “passed over” without enough praise and thanks. She felt used. She wasn’t going to get over it until they thanked her properly for everything she had done.

There is the woman with the watery grey eyes and a gaze so steady that I believe it gives her the power of endurance, as if she could stand in a light blizzard in her mustard yellow coat and not move for hours. She arrives at her studio-office every morning, which is on the ground floor of my apartment building. She is an illustrator for school text books. Every morning she has müsli and a cafe latte at the Swiss bakery and then goes to her studio after checking for mail, sometimes pausing to look at the junk mail. She makes herself a second cup of coffee, usually black because the milk has gone bad. She sniffs at the milk every morning. She is at her desk by five minutes to 9 o’clock. She spends a few minutes rearranging her papers, checking on her pencils, scanner, computer. She then gets down to work and does not move for three hours. She refills her coffee cup in a sort of daze and then returns to her desk. She is fixed, but fluid, for those three hours, sitting in one place but appearing to be very far away somewhere inside herself, or her work. At twelve o’clock she goes for a walk, and to eat lunch if she hasn’t brought a sandwich with her. She comes back looking alert, bright-eyed, and flushed as if she has been exerting herself by walking up a hill; the approach to our building is flat however. Her afternoon routine is in complete contrast to her morning one in that there is no routine. It’s difficult to know how she will spend her afternoons. Some days she just reads, other days she types furiously at her computers, and some days she browses through what must be clickbait – there’s a sort of glazed look in her eyes as her index finger clicks through at a regular beat. The days she reads she revisits some of the morning’s deep torpor, unmoving, lost in what she is doing. And then there are those days when she lies on the chaise lounge and cries. This is preceded by a lazy pacing of the studio, staring at the floor and then collapsing into the chair with deep sobs that seem to come from very deep within and wrack her narrow frame. She seems to be able to cry for hours on end, sustaining herself through a particular rhythm. Each long, slow wave of tears building up to a crescendo as if the memories or feelings come faster and harder like contractions, they take hold of her and she seems to be as if possessed for she can seem to go on crying for a while at a loud, fevered pace. Then it ebbs and you can see her gasping for breath, realising her own tiredness, eventually stopping with a series of whimpers and falling back till the next fresh wave crashes over her. Hours later, exhausted, she falls into a deep sleep. She leaves the studio every evening at five o’clock.

Soft, soft droning

There is a sound in this city, a soft, constant tattoo of hundreds of thousands of fingertips on keyboards. Ragged bitten grimy short Vietnamese precision manicured false brittle not enough calcium in the diet not enough vitamin D pitted nicotine marked. A global army beating its retreat from some unbearable now. Also, wires, fans, battery heat, dead metal hums that are no language just pure industrial noise and perfect background score for falling in between the cracks. Your etsy-ing, your artisanal gins and lake swimming are cute, but I think the logic of despair entails a long moment of flailing in full view on a super fast connection.