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A MECS-ian

I just started a six month part-time fellowship at the MECS – Media Cultures of Computer Simulation – Institute for Advanced Study at my home institution, Leuphana University, in Lüneburg, Germany. Here is what I’m working on there. I’m in great company with some really smart PhDs and Post-Docs and am really happy to be part of this community.

Winter 2018 Writing

Aside from being on a treadmill of writing proposals and applications for money/workshops/summer institutes/fellowships, January and February were good months for staying indoors and writing. I wrote about big data, biometrics and Aadhaar for Cyborgology; this was a short version of the longer piece originally commissioned by Tactical Tech for their new Our Data Our Selves project.

I recently came across the Center for Humane Technology and tried to write something measured (read: stuffed my cynicism into a box) about their philosophy and practice of disconnection from the internet and what is problematic about the individual ‘responsibilization‘ for everything that is wrong with the information economy. And followed that up drawing on Sarah Sharma’s work to think through the CFHT’s construction of ‘time well spent’.

Also, winter was a time for sowing seeds. More to come on all that.

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.”

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

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.