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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.


The algorithms of ethics. (And puppycats)

I’m trying to remember when I first heard the phrase ‘the ethics of algorithms’ (TEoA) and why it bothers me. It sounded like something from a branding exercise triumph.TEoA has dogged me; it has been the intellectual equivalent of an adorable little puppy that snaps at your ankles in encouragement to play, and then opens its eyes wide to melt you with love and fake neediness, saying take me home please, Mommy. (Maybe I’m referring to a cat and not a dog; perhaps only cats and toddlers are capable of such machinations? A puppy-cat!). The ‘ethics of algorithms’ rolls off the tongue nicely, sounds important and meaningful, and captures the degrees of concern and outrage we feel about the powerful role that computer algorithms have in society, and will continue to.

I recently started a DPhil (a kind of PhD) in big data and ethics (longer version here), so I’m somewhat invested in the phrase TEoA because that is what I’m often asked if my work is about. It isn’t. However there are people working on the ethics of algorithms and the good people at CIHR recently published a paper on it which I think you should read right after you finish reading my post, because the paper is a good description of the way algorithms work in our quantified society. I’m not referring to any of these things in my work however. What I’m working on is the algorithms of ethics. By this I mean that I’m going to think about the ethics first and understand how they work, where they come from, and what that ethics [can] mean in the context of big data.

The reason why I think TEoA is a cute but needy puppycat as described above: too atomising, deterministic even, and an outcome rather than a starting point. Why would you start with the algorithm, which is the outcome of long chains of technical, scientific, legal, economic events, and not with a point earlier on in the process of its development? I think the focus on the outcome, the algorithm, is also indicative of how we think of ethics as outcomes, rather than a series of processes, negotiations. Or the fact that we think about ethics as outcomes has led to a focus on algorithms. Both, possibly.

I don’t think algorithms have ethics; people have ethics. Algorithms govern perhaps, they make decisions, but I don’t think they have or make ethics. Of course saying ‘the ethics of algorithms’ isn’t to be taken literally; it’s the assertion that algorithms that make decisions have been programmed (to learn) how to do so because of humans (who have the capacity for ethical reasoning). However the phrase is misleading because it seems like algorithms are in fact making ethical decisions. At the same time, algorithms cannot function without making some kind of judgment (not moral judgments; though algorithms can do things that can have moral implications), it wouldn’t be able to proceed to the next step if not. But does this amount to ethics? I suppose it depends on what ethics you’re subscribing to, but I’d say no

‘Ethics of algorithms’ could also refer to the ethical features or properties of algorithms, not the ethics that algorithms are assumed to produce. Kraemer, van Overveld and Peterson have a paper on it here which is based on medical imaging analysis. This work suggests that algorithms have value judgments baked into them, their functioning but concludes the ethics is the domain of systems design(ers) and that users should have more control in the outcomes of algorithmic functioning.

My work begins with the hypothesis that principles based on classical ethics (like the oft-quoted Trolley Problem in the context of autonomous vehicles, something that I believe was developed so that journalists could write their stories) are not really appropriate to big data environments (I refer to this as a crisis of ethics), and to come up with alternate approaches to thinking about ethics. Along the way I hope to develop methods to study ethics in quantified environments, not just come up with “the answer”. (Thankfully, this is a humanities PhD so there is no “right answer”). I’m also pretty sure I will have many new puppycats snapping at my ankles excited to play.

Post script.
I have also discovered that there is a strange hybrid creature called PuppyCat Here is a weird animated video with puppycats

(image from

Love, law, war. [Writing]

It took a long time to write this.

It took an even longer time to live it. I remember that some day in that time of living it, I went out and bought three pairs of shoes in South Extension II market: there was a maroon pair, with vertigo-inducing high, block-y, heels that I wore, most likely, twice. I regretted buying the other two almost immediately after  did.  Since then I’ve learned, pleasantly, that I’m best in flat, hard-coloured shoes with just one distinctive detail.  The idea that I bought three pairs of shoes in a lunch break induced a weird head-rush. That this is how I would deal with eye-popping anger. It was either that or three cigarettes on a barsati in South Extension II.