“Can we praise neoliberalism?”

I haven’t previously felt any need to weigh in on the “can we criticize Foucault?” debate on whether he was sympathetic to neoliberalism or not (see here for background) since the answer is empirically evident that not only can we but we do criticize Foucault.

Here’s a very interesting post however by Henry Sebastian who blogs at sanshistory. He writes:

the reverse question must be: “Can we praise neoliberalism?” and it is here, I suggest, that the uproar such as there was found its momentum.

That might be true (ie., about the “uproar” if there was one), but this question of whether we (rather than Foucault) can praise neoliberalism is provocative. You might remember a similar question in Society Must be Defended, when he asks himself why he is “praising racism.”

YOU MIGHT HAVE THOUGHT, last time, that I was trying to both trace the history of racist discourse and praise it. And you would not have been entirely wrong, except in one respect. It was not exactly racist discourse whose history I was tracing and that I was praising: it was the discourse of race war or race struggle (SMD, p. 65)

So this tracing out can seem like praise, but that is not it exactly.

The blog then goes on to address our initial question by highlighting Foucault’s identification of the “radical potential” of neoliberalism by using a piece from Bob Jessop in 2013 (here) over the difficulty of pinning it down and that it is therefore a site of struggle itself, but not understood as such. Neoliberalism is not only the Harvey-like roll-back of the state/roll-out of the market, but a certain way of leveraging the “collective imagination” of human capital to place human social life squarely as a necessary condition of neoliberalism:

Thus, it is not enough to simply demand “serious” economic study to better encapsulate what neoliberalism actively is, so long as our shared understandings of economy see the social sphere as off-limits.

[Perhaps this is what Harvey objected to at AAG, see my previous post regarding his cut at Gibson-Graham.]

Thus and in other words to praise liberalism is to take it seriously as a reality penetrating forms of life.

AAG 2015 Chicago recap and talks I saw


I talked about some of the sights I saw during last week’s AAG conference in Chicago in an earlier post but here I just want to mention some of the fantastic talks I attended. Quality was very high this year, and not without some controversy.

There were plenty of choices–I’ve heard there were 97 concurrent sessions. So 97 people giving papers at any one time! This is clearly ridiculous. The conference is 5 days long, papers start at 8am and go past 7pm every day. There’s also a full day of papers on the last Saturday, which everybody also complains about (it’s the day most people do their sightseeing, so sessions are lightly attended). An obvious solution to that problem is to have the conference M-F instead of T-Sat.

As for the number of sessions this is a result of the AAG policy of accepting every paper. While on the one hand there are justifications for this (geography attendees include people from government and industry who can only get funding to come if their paper is accepted, plus the origins of the AAG as an old boys’ club in the pre-war era when you could only join at the invitation of a current member), quite frankly now the system is breaking down. I would gladly look at 7 or so 250-word abstracts if it meant a less overwhelming conference. (Or, since papers are in organized sessions, do what the IBG/RGS does and give out “tokens” that specialty groups can distribute, up to a certain limit.) There are arguments for both sides of this issue, but 10,000 or so attendees is very challenging.

I began the week at a Symposium organized by Caroline Rendon, Curt Winkle and Rachel Weber of University of Illinois Chicago on urban Big Data called “The Crowd, the Cloud, and Urban Governance.” This was structured as three keynotes by Bronwen Morgan (U New South South Wales, Aus.), Matthew Zook (UKY) and Agnieszka Leszczynski (Birmingham) with responses, including one from Taylor Shelton (Clark). These were all uniformly good with plenty to reflect on.

The AAG proper then got going on Tuesday with a session on Smart Cities, including a good talk by Michael Carter (Queens) who argued that the smart city is basically the surveillant city. Perhaps nothing too new there but he tied it in with neoliberalism for a perspective no doubt not often encountered at smart city promotional events.

Wednesday I had a more mixed experience at the Critical GIS themed sessions. Unfortunately I missed the first session, but Luke Bergman (U Wash.) offered a very challenging talk on formalizing the Goodchild et al., 2007 paper on the geo-atom with some thoughts on what he called a “geo-interpretation.” This was a little over my head but perhaps provides a vocabulary for accounting for individuals as well as representing space. It got me thinking about calculation in GIS again (space is that which is subject to calculability).

That afternoon I was on three panels back-to-back. No doubt the most memorable will be the “Robots” panel organized by Vinny del Casino and Lily House-Peters (Ariz.). All the papers were very good; as well as the ones by Vinny and Lily my colleague Matt Wilson spoke (drawing on Haraway’s cyborg work), and Heidi Nast (DePaul, who gave a version of her work on love dolls and sexbots). If you’ve seen Heidi speak you know it is usually a fascinating tour de force and this was no different, especially some of the material she’d dug up. I was sat right in front of the screen and every time I looked back over my shoulder were pictures of female topless love dolls. I swear in one video clip she showed that the doll was producing sake out of one breast while a man palpated the other!

Another panel was one I’d co-organized with Agnieszka called “Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation” which featured presentations by Elvin Wyly (UBC, who’d also been at the UIC workshop on Monday), Rob Kitchin (Maynooth), Agnieszka, and Julie Cupples (Edinburgh). All of these were excellent, and I’ve placed an audio recording of it online here:

Where’s the Value (link to audio).

The last session was the paper I’ve been working on with Sue Roberts (UKY) on “Drone Economies.” I feel this paper is finally getting into the shape of what we want to say now. Here are the slides:

The other paper I really enjoyed in that session was by Caren Kaplan (UC Davis) who spoke on air power at home–a very good history of air power as policing.

Thursday was a bit of a mix (and a mix-up). Turns out that as well as two sessions on Big Data I’d co-organized with the ever-patient Agnieszka, I was simultaneously booked as a discussant for Joe Bryan and Denis Wood’s new book Weaponizing Maps. I was sorry to miss this and heard that Denis was in fine form, so here is a pic of him from a session Annette Kim’s new book, Sidewalk City.


I was very pleased with our two sessions, despite being at 8am the morning after the night before (aka the Wildcats party). Session I and Session II links are here. We’re hoping to get some written versions of these soon so I’ll post separately on that. Thanks to the participants in these sessions! And thanks too to the conference gods who gave us a room with big bright windows on a sunny day so that we could look out over the city.

Thursday was also the day of the reception at the Newberry Library for the latest volume of the History of Cartography, Volume 6 The Twentieth Century (edited by Mark Monmonier). It was amazing to see Roz Woodward again:


And Mark Monmonier:


And this nice pic of Roz and series editor Jude Leimer:


After this was the Penn State party on the top floor of the Swissôtel (43rd) where I had a good chat with Rob Roth, Lucky Yapa, Cindy Brewer and others.

Somewhere in there was a very full session on David Harvey’s new book, the latest in his Marx Project as he called it, Seventeen Contradictions. A lot of people noted that this was largely done by his good friends and colleagues, but this is to ignore the very trenchant comments by my colleague Sue Roberts, who called him out on his dismissal of Gibson-Graham’s work on feminist critiques of capital, to which he admitted with a surprisingly childish retort (basically “they started it” meaning they didn’t cite his work, which several people have told me is just incorrect…you may follow this link and judge for yourself).

As I understand it Gibson-Graham critiqued the “capital centric” understandings of capitalism as being too exclusionary of other non-capitalist approaches within the global economy, and since Harvey’s book is deliberatively about contradictions of capital per se (rather than capitalism) he had to dismiss them, though not, as Sue pointed out, by name. So that all seemed a bit shabby of Harvey, but I guess he doesn’t have to care at this point.

The last session I attended was on Friday featuring Lauren Berlant on “Sensing the Commons” forthcoming in Society & Space. This was quite a different style of talk–she totally captivated the large audience–and well outside my area of expertise, or even ways of thinking. I think many people are familiar with her work but it was new to me and I’m very glad I went.

So that’s about it in terms of formal sessions, but there were many other chance encounters and chats in bars and hotel lobbies especially with bright grad students. I also got to interview Stuart Elden about our 2007 book Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography (Ashgate) which should soon be posted on the publisher’s website. I’ve listened to the 14 minutes or so of the discussion and I think many people will enjoy hearing about the origins of the book and some of Stuart’s more recent work on Foucault. Good to see Stuart again.

Apologies to all those I missed and I wish I could have seen more. AAG has become a larger than life event and by day 4 I usually need some quiet time! It was great to see friends old and new as well as colleagues whose work I’ve been reading but hadn’t met before (the benefits of organizing sessions!). Next year will be another big one–it’s in San Francisco.

AAG 2015


Just back from this year’s annual geography conference in Chicago. It was only my second time to Chicago and I got to see more of the city this time. Although the conference was held right downtown at the Hyatt this was an easy walk to the area around N. Michigan Avenue (Magnificent Mile) and amazing places like Eaterly with its two floors of quality food. I tried the coffee (shown above) and some excellent gelato. Also their olive oil selection:


But I started the week off at the UIC Jane Addams Hull House at a workshop on Big Data, and so saw a slightly different neighborhood. There were also must-do trips to the Art Institute and Millennium Park:


Chagall Windows at the Art Institute.


Nice venue they gave me for my paper but sparsely attended! (Actually the Millennium Park Pritzker Pavilion).

I’ll be posting about the more academic side of the conference in another post, but just to say here that there were some very good presentations and talks. There are so many exciting scholars in geography these days!

Hull on Foucault and Heidegger

Gordon Hull on Foucault, Heidegger and the uses of philosophy.

Parrhesia (Part 4): Friends Don’t Let Friends Study the History of Being

Our algorithmic society: robots!

I’ve been thinking a lot about robots lately. The most immediate reason is that I’m on a panel at a forthcoming conference (the AAG in Chicago). No doubt a somewhat odd topic, at first glance. (I was mentioning this panel to a colleague and he remarked that geography certainly seemed to be a discipline of many interests!).

Anyhow, this isn’t the only reason, because robots are linked with any number of interesting developments and questions, so you can’t or shouldn’t just consider them by themselves. “Robots” can be a synecdoche for automation, computation, wider issues of the changing economy, and so on. Recently Sue Halpern suggested that algorithms are virtual robots.

I’m not sure what direction my fellow panelists will take; perhaps they’ll consider the social implications of interacting with robots, or the role robots can play in our personal everyday lives; for example, how they might substitute for human contact (fembots and love dolls) and if that’s tied to eg falling fertility rates, as my colleague Heidi Nast has suggested. Some of this harkens back to the origins of the term, which you may know about. This was the 1921 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. His brother Josef suggested the word robot, meaning “serf labor” or corvee. There is a long tradition of robots taking over, from Terminator, to (perhaps?) Frankenstein’s monster and the golem. For the pedantic, yes some of these are androids or artificial lifeforms rather than robots, but I don’t think that changes the point.

I think that’s all very interesting but not quite where I want to go. I keep coming back to that thought linking algorithms and robots by Sue Halpern. It’s true of course that algorithms do automated and repetitive labor. It’s true also that algorithms can learn. I have one device like that in my bedroom. Her name is Alexa, and you can buy her from Amazon (I wrote about it here). Alexa learns your voice and improves her response accuracy and relevance. Amazon’s own website uses this all the time. Think of the “if you liked this, then you’ll love this!” recommendations there–some of them leveraging human social input captured through likes, dislikes and “I found this comment useful” clicks.

The issue of interest at the moment is if robots are reshaping society–particularly economic relations. To be clear, whether robots (and if linked or even synonymous with algorithms, then also Big Data and the Internet of Things) will benefit us–and benefit equally.

There’s a well-known graph that describes the increasing divergence between productivity and wages. Here’s the version given in David Harvey’s book a Brief History of Neoliberalism (pdf here):

Fig. 1.6, p. 25 of Harvey

This wage-productivity gap that has opened up since say 1980 or so gets explained through two related but not identical arguments. The first is that robots did it (robots here being technological increases in automation and productivity). There’s lots of evidence that technology has increased productivity, and of course put people out of jobs; which can be measured by labor’s (as opposed to say capital owners’) share of GDP.

For a long time (the argument goes) it was accepted that a rising tide raises all boats, and the rising tide of increased productivity increased overall human well being. But now that technology is becoming more complex, the benefits of robots so to speak are going to those who are “technology-biased” in terms of social capital (well educated, can code, are in jobs that resist automation, etc).

Beyond this, there is an additional development; the benefits are going to a very small group and not just the capital owners. This is often described as winner-takes-all (or most). It’s no longer sufficient to have a good education, be in a white collar job, etc. You need more than this; for example bargaining power as a CEO. But even that might not be enough if capital costs are driven down by robotization.

This is the argument put forward by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book The Second Machine Age. They observe that the share of income going to labor has declined, while profits are up, but that there’s a further gap between “superstars in a field and everyone else” (p. 146). They label this gap “talent-biased technical change.” They note that between 2002 and 2007 the top 1 percent got as much s two-thirds of the profits from the growth in the economy. Looking around, in many industries–including publishing, not usually known for creating extreme wealth–there are superstars pulling away from everyone. This is often due to digital technologies.

Or take the ratio of CEO pay to the average worker, which has increased from 70 in 1990 to more than 300 hundred in 2005–again, according to them, because of information technology. Specifically, such technology allows for more direct, widespread knowledge and control over decision-making. CEOs are more in touch–and more responsible–with the workplace rather than working through chains of assistants. (To be clear, these are not new arguments and Brynjolfsson and McAfee do not present them as such, pointing to work on this from the early 1980s onwards, especially the work of Sherwin Rosen. Inequality per se has been studied for decades, eg Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez’s influential 2003 paper used tax data to look at income inequality [Harvey cites it, among others].) Robert Reich calls this “share-the-scraps” economy rather than the sharing economy. Without redistribution of wealth, there’ll be no one able to afford to buy the “iEverything.”

But Brynjolfsson and McAfee do try to relate all this to technology, robots and automation. Although they are largely technological optimists, believing that benefits take take to come through with innovation, they do deal with “spread” of wealth being unequal. So it’s not that “robots are going to eat all the jobs” to use the common descriptor. Marc Andreesen (inventor of the Mosaic web browser) makes the case clearly against this by arguing that this technology puts the means of production in everyone’s hands:

What that means is that everyone gets access to unlimited information, communication, and education. At the same time, everyone has access to markets, and everyone has the tools to participate in the global market economy.

What the consequences of that will be is less clear, as is the question of whether “everyone” gets equal access to this information tech (presumably Andreesen is wildly in favor of net neutrality [ans: he is and he isn’t!]). But even if they do, if wages are so low you can’t be a consumer, or if the Internet does not unleash vast creativity but rather vast numbers of lolcats and people eating chips on their couch if they don’t have to work… Of course the producer-consumer is intriguing all the same and explains a lot of our work in New Maps for example, but it is not unproblematic.

All of this is very interesting. But what’s the other side if robots aren’t going to eat all the jobs? Well, we’ve already met it in the work of David Harvey and authors such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, who argued in their book Winner Takes All Politics that it was politics that ate all the jobs. Or, for them, US politics. Or for Harvey, neoliberalism as a deliberate political project. Hacker and Pierson go through some of the same inequalities but hardly mention technology, except to dismiss it as the cause. What they refer to as skill-biased technological change (SBTC) supposedly has led to wealth concentrations among those who are well educated and technologically adapted. Except, they argue, it hasn’t. The people at the very top are no better educated than those they’re (rapidly) pulling away from.

Second, they argue that if SBTC occurred in America it should occur elsewhere too, especially where places are more connected to the Internet or have tech transitions. But they argue, against some of the people cited above, that it hasn’t happened elsewhere:

there is more inequality among workers with the same level of skills (measured by age, education, and literacy) in the United States than there is among all workers in some of the more equal rich nations

They provide the following graph to illustrate how different is the US case:

Instead of robots then, Hacker and Pierson place the blame on American politics.

For Harvey, as you probably know, neoliberalism is an explicit political project aimed at restoring and ensuring the wealth of the few at the expense of the many. He makes some remarks about technology in Brief History, but devotes rather more to it in his book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (which will be an author meets the critics session at AAG with my colleague Sue Roberts). Harvey’s “contradiction” regarding technology has already been mentioned, namely that technology gives capital controls over labor. “Robots do not (except in science fiction accounts) complain, answer back, sue, get sick, go slow…” Yet the replacement of social labor with robots “makes no sense, either politically or economically” (p. 104). This is his contradiction.

This is a contradiction for the same reason Reich points to: there’ll be nobody to buy all these new products which result from the productivity. It will have “catastrophic effects” says Harvey. And robots won’t only eat entry-level jobs but also high-paying skilled jobs (he cites university professors).

Finally, let me say a few words about drones or unmanned aerial systems since I suspect that might be why I’m on the panel. Sue and I are putting the finishing touches to a long-ish paper on commercial and civil drones, and one of the points we touch on is that drones may represent the kind of technology that is usually seen as especially impactful/disruptive since it is general and applicable in many different sectors. Harvey discusses this. The estimates for the market size are truly staggering: one market research firm, the Teal Group, has estimated it to be worth some $90B in the next ten years, globally. This will eclipse the amount spent on military drones. But drones are not being deployed in the US early and often: Sue uses the term the “post-permissive” age to describe how the skies are no longer easy to fly in as they were over Iraq and Afghanistan, but are contested spaces. In the commercial sector too we are seeing a contested and struggled over environment, what with regulation, competition, and the need to create a market for UASs where one does not exist (what are they for? How can I make money?). On top of that is public distrust, the surveillant capabilities that are being resisted, and so on.

Drones may therefore be a fairly unusual kind of robot due to this general application nature. We’ll definitely have to see where they develop and under what conditions (and with what geo technologies) but as they get smaller and more autonomous they may be pretty significant.

DJI to become first billion dollar commercial drone company

Reblogged from the Verge:

DJI reported around $500 million in revenue for 2014, roughly four times what it did in 2013, and is on pace to do about $1 billion in sales this year. The potential valuation of the company would be a healthy multiple of that, several billion dollars

See whole story here and follow the link to the economic data behind the fgure above here.

Reflections on teaching the history of geography

I have a short piece in a forum on teaching the history of geography, organized by Innes Keighren for Progress in Human Geography. There are also contributions by Franklin Ginn, Scott Kirsch, Audrey Kobayashi, Simon Naylor and Jörn Seemann.

Here’s the abstract:

Drawing upon the personal reflections of geographical educators in Brazil, Canada, the UK, and the US, this Forum provides a state-of-the-discipline review of teaching in the history of geography; identifies the practical and pedagogical challenges associated with that teaching; and offers suggestions and provocations as to future innovation. The Forum shows how teaching in the history of geography is valued – as a tool of identity making, as a device for cohort building and professionalization, and as a means of interrogating the disciplinary present – but also how it is challenged by neoliberal educational policies, competing priorities in curriculum design, and sub-disciplinary divisions.