Why aren’t geographers talking more about robots?


Robbie the Robot generates 480 pints of whiskey overnight

Why aren’t geographers talking more about robots? This question struck me, paradoxically, as I sat on a panel on robots at the last AAG (see del Casino Forthcoming). While this might seem the last place to have this thought, it was prompted by two things. First, the smiles of slightly startled amusement from people when I told them I was on a robot panel, and second, my co-panelists, who I thought were missing out some important terrain about robots.

Putting aside the no doubt justifiable bemusement that the AAG had a robot discussion, the other topics discussed that day dwelt on sexbots, love dolls, cyborgs and the more-than-human. These are part of, but not the whole story, as Rosi Braidotti’s recent book on posthumanism documents (also putting aside how/if more-than-human is different from post- or transhumanism).

For me, the latter are cultural or philosophical issues, and no matter how pertinent and interesting, they leave aside the political-economic, which is what I’m interested in here. Vinny’s piece (which has just been released by PiHG online first) does partially offer to take up this issue. He does this in the context of a report on social geographies, perhaps meaning that the economic and political are marginal for his piece, which nevertheless remains required reading.

What I mean is quite simply issues around automation, artificial intelligence, and computerization. For me, these point to one thing: algorithmic life. One big part of this is the effect on jobs and wages, and therefore we need to do a better job of integrating tech with geographies of the economy.

Or what I called on the panel “Geographies of neoliberal robots.” Everyone probably has seen a version of this graph:

Looking at some of the economic changes between blacks and whites.

The productivity-wage gap

A version appears in Harvey’s book on neoliberalism. The point is that since the advent of the neoliberal era (say 1970s and early 80s) productivity has not failed to climb, but the amount returned to workers has stayed about the same, creating a productivity-wage gap, which in turn widens income inequalities.

As I said on the panel:

Two explanations are usually offered: “robots ate all the jobs” (people are put out of work by automation), or a deliberate political project by a revanchist capitalist elite (Harvey).

These explanations are not mutually exclusive. What is interesting is that automation and robots may no longer be occurring in only unskilled and repetitive jobs. Research suggests jobs that are more routine and less “cognitive” are the most susceptible to automation. A well-known 2013 study at Oxford Martin School estimated that nearly half (47 percent) of US jobs are at risk of automation. Geographers are not immune:


Source: NPR/Oxford Martin School, Univ. Oxford

Things we can do

    1. Given that we have this listing of job susceptibility, it would be nice to get at least a baseline map of where jobs are at stake. How about a county-by-county map of potential automation? Take all jobs per county and multiply them by the relevant figures in the study. It wouldn’t be perfect but would give us a baseline map.
    2. The PC was Time magazine’s “machine of the year” in 1982. But a one-for-one replacement of a human job with a computer job need not be the most important development in automation or intelligent machines. Rather, production may undergo wholesale reorganization. (Brynjolfsson and McAfee make this point in their recent book The Second Machine Age.) Geographers can contribute to our understanding of this by analyzing which industries are susceptible, and where they are located.
    3. Turning to computerization and automation, I mentioned above that these evidence algorithmic life. What I mean by this is very simple, if you follow Tarleton Gillespie’s definition of the algorithm:

      they are encoded procedures for transforming input data into desired output, based on specified calculations (Gillespie 2014: 167)

      Notice here three useful points: encoding, desire, calculation. An algorithm is that which enables desire to proceed by making (performing) the world as calculative. So it is a capacity-making. Here there would be plenty to look at in terms of uneven geographical outcomes of the work algorithms do in the world, for example on tracking and geosurveillance.

      In fact, Rob Kitchin and his group have just published a useful listing of the ways this occurs. One example likely to be of interest to geographers is automated facial recognition. I really think we need to think “beyond the smartphone” as the only way we are tracked to include ALPR, gait observance, wearable devices/Fitbits/smart watches, and Minority Report style live biometric tracking (face|iris|gait). I document some of these in my piece “Collect it All” as does Leszczynski in her “Geoprivacy” overview.

    4. Beside being part of algorithmic governance, drones (and I include commercial drones especially here as they are predicted to far surpass military drone spending) could be an object of geographical enquiry, or what I call “the drone assemblage.”
    5. Read Vinny’s piece for a more general overview of many aspects of robots and intelligent machines.

      “Where have you been? It’s alright, we know where you’ve been!”–Welcome to the Machine, Pink Floyd


7 responses to “Why aren’t geographers talking more about robots?

  1. Interesting post. I touched a little on it on a post after the AAG: Population, automation and the death drive of capitalism.

    I think you’re right though that we’re not focusing enough on the politics & economics of robots, including drones and robotic weapons.

    This is an interesting paper that sets out the humans being in-, on- or off-the loop in relation to robots.

    Human Rights Watch (2012) Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard University. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/arms1112_ForUpload.pdf

  2. Thanks Rob. You have done more inspirational work on these important topics than almost anybody I can think of! And thanks must go to Vinny and Lily House-Peters for organizing the panel in the first place.

  3. Interesting post, thanks. I’ve got two reflections…

    I think the graph you offer, and much of the economic discussion of this issue, may perversely point to a significant absence of automation. Rather, what we’ve seen (and Harvey points to this in Enigma of Capital), is a continuation of Post-Fordist mechanisms of off-shoring and casualisation, e.g. http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2013/04/10/1456222/robots-china-and-demographics/
    I tried to argue in my presentation on such things at the RGS-IBG conference this year that I think we’re in danger of affirming the fantasies of technologists (just as we were doing with ‘cyberspace’) by reproducing their form of geographical imagination (I think Lanchester’s LRB review of Brynjolfsson & McAffee is apposite here). In that way your point about revanchism is well-made.

    Likewise, I have a growing worry that the fetishisation of ‘algorithms’ is a barrier to action rather than an enabler, by divorcing the ‘algorithm’ from its authorship, and the infrastructures (both software and hardware) one elides the assemblage of software, data, hardware etc. etc. that enacts the kinds of changes you are signalling. Are not the forms of ‘algorithmic governance’ you highlight also explained as ‘biopolitics’ and/or “knowing capitalism”? That was the point of Thrift’s 2011 paper “Lifeworld Inc.” and, he argues, we (social scientists) are complicit. These are the quantification and modelling of life such that control can be enacted – to the point of granting or taking life (as in your recent work on drones). Ultimately, I worry that prefixing things with ‘algorithmic’ is an unsettlingly familiar discursive politics that is not very helpful… Or perhaps I am overly sensitive 😉

    • Thanks Sam for your comments. On your first point I would say that I’m not prepared to take a hard and fast position as yet (which is why a blog post than an article), partly I think because even among technologists themselves (including the Brynjolfsson & McAffee book) the jury is still out. For every “robots ate all the jobs” are those who see it as an opportunity for reskilling, or as you say globalization (although then what happens in those off-shored jobs; aren’t they too susceptible to automation and even more rapidly?). The trouble with the reskilling argument is that it doesn’t do a “What’s the matter with Kansas” analysis (or better, cruel optimism) of the knock-on ripple effects whereby a hard right-wing party claims to speak for the working class against immigrants who took “our jobs.” Ie Marine le Pen in France recently. Or more locally for me, why Kentuckians voted for a governor promising to remove health care access especially strongly in poor areas that depend on it, because of course he is pro-coal (KY is 90% powered by coal, though I assume not all of that is mined in Kentucky). So the situation is complex…

      On your second point I can be a little clearer. Basically I would agree with everything except your last sentence! That is, I have argued in recent papers that the algorithmic should be understood as assemblage, as for example in my most recent paper here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2693625 on drones and algorithmic life. There I argue that algorithms are a biopolitical “conduct of conduct” but furthermore (and I’m developing this in a forthcoming blogpost) they are expressions of desire as a becoming, or a new state of affairs. The question is what affect(s) do algorithms achieve? At the recent SEDAAG meeting (summary here: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.2565.5121) I outlined that algorithmic conduct of conduct was a form of control but not one without resistance or fragility (eg hacking, encryption) so rather a form of modulation. So you can see that this is weird blend of Foucault and Deleuze!

      Some of this will be discussed at the San Francisco AAG where we have a panel on algorithmic governance and I hope you can make it. Louise Amoore, Kate Crawford, Agnieszka Leszczynski, Ian Shaw, Andrea Miller, and Emily Kaufman are on the panel.

  4. Thank you for your reply Jeremy, you’re certainly productive… sounds like a lot of writing and speaking going on.

    I’d agree with not taking a hard or fast position on the question of labour… I suspect there can’t be one 😉

    I’d like to push you, and others, a little further on the ‘algorithmic —’ though, I think we need to widen the vocabulary. There’s a danger that one might hear the whisper of technological determinism in the usage of the term as it stands.

    The Foucault/Deleuze angle on ‘control’ is interesting and has, of course been, pursued in various angles… not least by Alex Galloway in relation to that logical companion of ‘algorithms’: the ‘protocol’. I’ve played around with it myself, the figure of the ‘dividual’ is compelling but I’ve not really got it to work for as yet. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

    Shan’t be at the AAG for the foreseeable future I’m afraid… just too far and too expensive and too close to the student field trips we run at the end of term 2 for me to seriously consider spending yet another week away from my family.

  5. Hi Jeremy, sorry if the last message seemed a bit off – written too quickly… just wanted to say: I look forward to reading more as and when you post/publish.

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