Milo Yiannopoulos tried to speak at the UC–Berkeley campus a few weeks ago and the residents and students stopped him. The Berkeley News reported that, “no major injuries and about a half dozen minor injuries” occurred, a few fires were set, and fireworks were aimed at police. That’s less property damage and violence than a particularly popular World Series game. Still though, many people are not convinced that what happened was productive. In fact, many are questioning whether this is another kind of headfake that will ultimately come back to haunt us. Protest that does anything more than gather people together to chant and hold signs, could add fuel to the growing nazi fire.

The effective-protest-is-not-actually-good-but-in-fact-is-bad line of reasoning is best articulated in Thursday’s Observer article by Ryan Holiday where he writes:

Most brands and personalities try to appeal to a wide swath of the population. Niche players and polarizing personalities are only ever going to be interesting to a small subgroup. While this might seem like a disadvantage, it’s actually a huge opportunity: Because it allows them to leverage the dismissals, anger, mockery, and contempt of the population at large as proof of their credibility. Someone like Milo or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them—they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

Holiday knows what he is talking about. His book Trust Me I’m Lying lays out the tactics that got rape culture media artifacts like Tucker Max’s book and movie into the national spotlight. By taking out highly offensive ads (e.g. rape jokes about blind women) and then participating in the coverage of the ensuing controversy, a “niche player” like Max can not only get loyal fans, they can find every single one of them thanks to all of the media attention. Holiday contends giving away his tricks by publishing Trust Me I’m Lying was necessary because “others might soon use them to sell something more nefarious.”

It is difficult to get past the fact that liberals are earnestly and completely believing (and sharing!) an essay prescribing protest techniques in the Observer, a magazine owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Still though, let’s take this professional media manipulator at his word (for some reason, everyone else is doing it) and look at where it takes us.

Holiday argues that, “The last thing you ever want to do is give an opponent the moral high ground—and attempts to suppress, intimidate and revoke constitutional rights do exactly that.” He goes on:

If you actually want to fight back against these trolls, here’s a strategy to consider: Organize all you want, get as many people as you can to show up at their events, but don’t try to shut them down. In fact, the only thing you should try to shut down are the instigators who try to incite violence. Regain the moral high ground by saying that you absolutely respect their right to free speech.

This is nonsense for three reasons. First, this is precisely what the mainstream left has been doing for 30 years with little-to-no-success. The single largest day of peaceful protest in world history wasn’t enough to prevent the War in Iraq. The “when they go low you go high” tactic of the 2016 campaign doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone of anything either. The so-called moral high ground was no use then, and it is far from useful now. If the secret to political success was polite protest then Democrats would not be the minority in governors’ mansions, Congress, and (soon) the Supreme Court.

Second, Holiday’s formulation misses the content of Milo’s talk and its direct consequences. Milo sought to name undocumented students and call for their expulsion through legal and extralegal means. Such an action seems far more violent than burning trash cans and fireworks aimed at well-armored police. Holiday is trying to compare an (admittedly disgusting) movie and book to Milo’s campaign to incite targeted violence on specific groups of people. He is equating hate speech with advertising a movie.

Which brings me to reason number three: The moral high ground is not simply claimed, it is created. The idea that protestors stopping hate speech through direct action is somehow something to be ashamed of is the exact reason why Democrats are often caricatured as cowards and fair-weather friends. By sharing articles that cast direct action as unseemly, liberals are building a moral high ground for Milo to stand on. The idea that using a booking agent to rent an auditorium to spew hate imbues you with legitimacy while protestors who are protecting vulnerable members of their community are cast as rouge vigilantes, is not an immutable truth. Holiday’s prescription becomes more true the more you share his article. The very sharing of articles like Holiday’s is what creates the kind of moral high ground that Milo can stand on and undocumented UC-Berkeley students cannot.

What dissolves the moral high ground as it is presently conceived is changing the discourse around structural violence, property damage, and free speech. Structural violence must be understood as something that can happen in private, in secret, and just because a black bloc appears more violent on its surface it pales in comparison to the regular deportations in this country that rip families apart. Reactions to property damage must be couched in a history of humans-as-property, that is, property owned by white people should not be afforded the same care and concern as living black and brown bodies.

Finally, there is the matter of free speech. Rather than accept the conservative frame that all speech is equal, we need to adopt a more justice-oriented understanding of speech that acknowledges the fact that the free expression of white supremacist views hampers the free speech of many others and, if left unchecked, leads to the silencing of everyone else.

Then there is the matter of Holiday’s assessment of past activism and what constitutes “effective counterinsurgency.” He suggests we focus on “bargaining, partnering and the reestablishment of norms—not hardlines.” Essentially, you have to offer Milo and his ilk the opportunity to actually have a say in something—“put up or shut up” as he puts it—and watch the whole thing fall apart because the Alt-Right are all bark and no bite.

None of this is even remotely connected to reality. This suggestion might be close to the truth if Milo’s former boss Steve Bannon didn’t have an office in the White House where he is writing executive orders with the same speed and ideological purity of a Breitbart article. The Alt-Right has an immense amount of power and they have bitten hard.

What is particularly frustrating here is that people who are sharing this Observer article are likely to have shared Lindy West’s landmark 2013 Jezebel article, “Don’t Ignore the Trolls. Feed Them Until They Explode.” In this essay she argues that, rather than ignore every troll that threatens you on Twitter or some other kind of semi-anonymous internet forum, you should talk back: “I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it’s fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll’s personal satisfaction.”

West further argues that this is much more than talk and can have very real, material consequences that can keep people safe. If such an argument holds for white liberal feminists it should hold for undocumented immigrants. If this argument holds for high-profile writers on Twitter, it should hold for radicals and undocumented immigrants that are being threatened by a well-financed author with direct personal ties to the President’s senior staff.

Creating a 21st century attention economy helmed by people with more expertise in statistics than theories of attention was a bad idea, and this has made our media deeply susceptible to manipulation. Holiday is certainly right that we have to be careful about how we use the media in the next few years, but this fight cannot be reduced to optics. Holiday is making a clear “don’t feed the trolls” argument which is no different than West’s detractors telling her to just ignore her harassers. To fuss and hand-wring about confronting fascists because you might be giving them the attention they crave is to ignore the deeply violent things they will do to others when you are not paying attention.

David is on Twitter.

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Lots of people have been sharing mashups of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face and, as Natasha Lennard wrote in The Nation, you can thank Black Bloc for the original source content. (My favorite right now is set to “The Boys are Back in Town.” ) Black Bloc is a tactic that has a unique relationship to attention and anonymity. Individuals mask up to remain anonymous but the collective group is meant to draw and direct attention. It is, in this way, not unlike Reddit and so it should be no surprise that black bloc is so compatible with virality. The tactic, however, was invented pre-internet and so it is worth looking at how radicals are weathering (and strategically utilizing) this relationship to digital networks and mass media.

That person who punched a Nazi may be facing up to 10 years in prison on felony riot charges if they were one of the 200 people arrested that day. Even if they escape state prosecution, white supremacists are crowdsourcing a bounty for information on the anonymous Black Bloc participant. More than a funny meme, what happened on inauguration day is a political act that is still playing out. How this event and similar ones are covered in the media has tangible consequences.

One common criticism of the Black Bloc is that white people are overly-represented in the bloc which points toward a dynamic where privileged folks are making an otherwise safe environment, dangerous. Proponents of Black Bloc tactics turn that argument on its head by saying, as Lennard does in her piece:

Not everyone can participate in a black bloc. Those with a vulnerable immigration status, or arrest records, or good reasons to fear police repression because of the color of their skin, often don’t participate in activities where the risk of arrest is high. Friday’s bloc was by no means all white, but it was predominantly white. If bearers of white privilege can do one thing, it is put ourselves on the line and take risks where others can’t.

Black Blocs draw the attention and resources of the police away from other parts of a demonstration and have even been known to “unarrest” people who have been kettled. They also, as the video of Richard Spencer attests, will violently engage people who pose a danger to others.

All of this was true before the internet though, and what has changed is the degree to which particular moments can be captured in media and precision-guided into specific audience demographics. Whereas the Black Bloc tactics deployed in years past were subject only to the framing of mass media gatekeepers, today we have access to a wider range of media producers. It is perhaps only because of individuals’ ability to record and distribute what happened on #J20 that a wider discussion of the Black Bloc can take place at all. How the Black Bloc shows up on our screens may be just as important as what the Black Bloc does in the streets.

New technologies, however, do not automatically change the common sense around political tactics. I won’t draw actual quotes from specific people but a cursory reading of the comments on Lennard’s article and in my own social media feeds indicates that Black Bloc is largely seen as a delegitimizing force. By smashing windows, openly confronting the police, and punching Richard Spencer the media narrative will decenter the message of the protestors and instead “turn violent.” That is, the cameras will seek out anything resembling a riot and largely ignore law-abiding citizens exercising their first amendment rights. When the media produces their piece on what happened that day the protestors in a permitted march get lumped in with the broken Starbucks windows and the word “incivility” gets thrown around.

Protest tactics in one form or another are all about attention and awareness. When protests are violent or destructive it is because another form of violence has been sanctioned or left unseen for a long time. That is why riots, as the Martin Luther King Jr. quote goes, “are the language of the unheard.” The decision by protestors to set a trash can (or limo) on fire is at least partially informed by the desire to direct attention. It is through empathy—the assumption that people would commit these acts because something truly bad is happening—that this tactic works. If media makers and their audiences focus only on property destruction that is a failure of empathy, not tactics. It is ironic that media Twitter loves to describe bad things as a dumpster fire only to fight for the ability to photograph actual trash fires during protests.

To put this in Stuart Hall’s terms, the idea that property destruction is never a legitimate form of protest, or that the police should never be met with resistance is part of our dominant cultural order. Protestors, according to the dominant American culture, are the ones that decide to make protests violent and police simply react when laws (and windows) are broken. This culture has taken years to cultivate but that does not mean it is immutable. Through careful work activists and media makers can popularize an alternative interpretation.

Hall argues that media making and consumption is a process of encoding and decoding. Media are encoded by their producers and decoded by audiences. Interpretations of news events are created by power elites and are broadcast by professional media producers. “When the viewer,” writes Hall in his essay Encoding/Decoding, “decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded, we might say that the viewer is operating inside the dominant code.” Put another way, when you don’t question how the news frames an issue, you are perpetuating the hegemonic discourse that benefits power elites in a systematic way.

Questioning or interpreting media in a way that runs counter to elites’ interests is what Hall calls an oppositional code.  When reading media against the encoders intended message, the decoder must have some “alternative framework of reference.” Hall suggests by way of example that when people hear that some policy is in the “national interest” they should assume that to mean it is in the “class interest” of the elite.

What would be the oppositional code—the alternative framework of reference—for Black Bloc coverage look like? We can start by inverting many of the value connotations within the dominant code. The oppositional code should flip present common sense on its head.

It is the police’s decision, not protestors’, to make arrests. Many news outlets were quick to draw contrasts between the inauguration Day actions and the Women’s March the next day. While 200 people were arrested in the former, there were no arrests in DC, LA, and many other cities during the latter. There are countless examples, from Standing Rock to Ferguson, of peaceful protestors being violently arrested. Or, as Zeba Blay in The Huffington Post put it: “Let’s be real. A large group of mostly white women wearing knit pink hats is simply not going to be policed in same way a large group of people of color would be.” The Black Bloc was far less destructive and violent as past Super Bowl “revelers” but faced far more arrests and harsher charges.

What gets called a riot matters: The double standard of what gets called a riot and who is deserving of police violence is also a function of race and class. One could even go so far as to say that riots have been unfairly maligned. Regardless of whether riots eventually lose their negative connotation that word is used today as a means of dismissing legitimate dissent.

Assuming violent and destructive protestors have no reason to do so is the result of a profound lack of empathy. The present hegemonic discourse assumes that riots and demonstrations are collective tantrums at worst, and tragically wasted energy at best. An oppositional code interprets property destruction and violent acts as a sign of deep injustices having been ignored. This decoding scheme posits that humans do not choose violence lightly and so something profoundly wrong has taken place. Something that must be rectified and, if possible, reconciled.

Categorically denouncing the black block normalizes Trump. If open white supremacists are taking up key leadership positions in the White House, if David Duke feels like his community won a national election, then there is a much larger and more organized form of violence taking place here that must be opposed.

These are just four small steps toward what needs to be a comprehensive, totalizing, worldview that opposes our present dominant discourse. It is not (only) up to those that participate in black bloc tactics to normalize and legitimize their behavior. That is up to the people who cover and write about what happens at political events. Digital networks and media making technologies mean that a far wider range of people and perspectives can frame the discourse.

The very fact that a Nazi getting punched has gone viral is a signal that oppositional media practices are already forming and that more mainstream media outlets will look different juxtaposed to Richard Spencer getting punched to the beat of X Gon’ Give It To Ya. They will look different precisely because that viral video will breed more essays like Lennard’s, and essays like Lennard’s are what will propagate oppositional codes.

David is on Twitter.

Image is a still from this video.

Killer Bee Invasion is a satirical series written by David A Banks and Britney Summit-Gil that explores the way news media outlets cover major events. (Read Part 1)

Poughkeepsie – A rift has opened up approximately 80 miles north of New York City, the Times has learned. According to reports from the Poughkeepsie Journal and eyewitnesses in the area, a disturbance described by some as a “shimmer” formed, followed by a deep black spot in the northern sky. It is from this black spot that the bees, which are estimated to be between 10 to 12 feet long, have emerged.

Previous reports claimed that the bees were “ten to twelve feet in height, including black, shining stingers around two feet long.” New observations by National Guard officers now indicate that the bees are ten to twelve feet in height from head to thorax, with their massive gleaming stingers adding an additional two feet to their overall length.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen P. Grianno of the United States Air Force leads the squadron dispatched to the rift. “As of right now we are working with intelligence agencies and reaching out to exobiologists for help in ascertaining the threat these bee-like creatures pose to Americans,” he said over the phone.

He added, “Right now we are taking a wait and see approach.”

As of 4:00PM Saturday the death toll is estimated to be 200, but local officials suspect more deaths have occurred. One city official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, stated that “many more, perhaps thousands” of people have been killed by the bee creatures.

The city official added, “I mean just look at the things. Who knows if they leave anything behind once they sting you.”

Exobiologists are concerned that humans may be unintentionally taunting the other-worldly visitors by wearing bright colors and standing in what Dr. Emmerson Schafenham calls a, “flower-like stance, with a slight swaying as if you are a delicate pistil growing out of a strong stem.” A pistil is the central structure of the flower that receives pollen.

“These bees may come from a place where flowers are mammal-like creatures that must be caught and injected, unlike the more passive process that terrestrial bees use to pollenate plants.” He alternatively suggested that stingers may be used as a means of communication or greeting in the bees’ native culture. “We know little about their social structure, and these stingers may have a variety of uses beyond killing.” Mr. Schafenham also added, “There’s no playbook for this.”

Other researchers are more confident in their assessment of the creatures, some going so far as to name and classify the creatures. University of Wisconsin biologist Dr. Carol Frasche and her team has already begun a naming convention: “We are suggesting a parallel phylogeny wherein anything that comes through the rift be appended with an alt- prefix to designate what we believe are their alternative universe origins.”

The scientific name for the giant honey bee is apis dorsata and so Ms. Frasche and her team have taken to naming the aliens alt-apis. They stop short, however, of being more specific. “We have not observed honey-producing behavior so we cannot classify them as dorsata which is reserved for honey-producing species of the genus.”

Alt-apis may quickly become the preferred nomenclature as behavioral scientists such as Dr. Karl Masctrich of the University of Chicago note that calling these creatures “giant killer bees” may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. “By approaching them as natural-born killers we may be ignoring their ability to communicate and even empathize.”

He went on to add, “We really need to understand alt-apis before we rush to judgement. What has transpired so far may be nothing more than a very bad first impression. We have to understand the hardships these creatures went through and why they felt the need to rip a hole in space-time and invade our planet.”

Lt. Colonel Grianno seems to agree, “I took an oath to protect this nation from enemies foreign and domestic but first we have to be sure they are an enemy. Right now all we can say for certain is that they seem angry.”




If you’ve been keeping up with the latest advancements in technology, you’ve probably heard the news that self-driving or autonomous cars are taking over the roads. While major companies like Uber, Google, Tesla, Nissan and more are jumping head first into developing cars capable of driving themselves, the public remains a bit hesitant.

The uncertainty that many people feel about autonomous vehicles isn’t unwarranted. From fear of losing jobs to safety concerns, many people are wondering if self-driving cars are really the right way to go.

With the invention of the car came the invention of the car accident. Soon after the Model T took over America’s roads, car-related fatalities soared to nearly 20,000 a year and have remained within a few thousand ever since. When drivers are distracted, accidents are bound to happen. Handing over the steering wheel to a computer, according to tech companies, may be a way to finally reduce the five-figure annual death tolls.

Not even those companies selling self-driving vehicles are arguing that driving deaths will be totally eliminated. Mistakes can happen with both humans and computers; it’s fair to wonder how autonomous cars will respond to unexpected scenarios.

The problem here is that when you get in your car and need to avoid an accident, you react to the situation at hand.  If you were in completely self-driving car, the situation requires the car to make a decision.  A decision requires forethought. This leads the ethical dilemma surrounding self-driving cars. Cars could soon choose between hitting a bystander, taking the brunt of the blow (potentially risking the lives of it’s passengers) or sacrificing the few in favor of saving the majority, also known as the Trolley Problem.

Autonomous cars also pose the question of who would be responsible for an accident? Will the owner of the vehicle be to blame if something goes wrong, or does the manufacturer take the fault? The answer to this question will differ, depending on the degree of automation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released a set of standards that each self-driving vehicle must adhere to. These rules and regulations differ depending on where the vehicle falls on the automated driving system scale, with Level 0 being a standard car where a human is entirely in control and Level 5 indicating that the vehicle is completely driverless, even in extreme conditions.

With minimal autonomous features like cruise control or power steering, most of our driving experiences stay around a Level 1 or a Level 2. At these levels, the driver is still in charge of the majority of the vehicle’s functions. However, the new self-driving vehicles being developed are at a Level 3 or a Level 4. Unfortunately, many people operate their Level 1 or 2 car like it is a Level 3 or 4 car. One needs only to turn to YouTube to find proof of people ignoring the road while behind the wheel.

Human drivers aren’t perfect, but neither are human programmers and engineers. Automating something as complex as driving will never be perfect. Thinking through the ethics and accountability scenarios for self-driving cars should keep pace with technological development. Are we really ready to put our safety in the same hands as companies who struggle to create cell phones, apps, and programs that don’t malfunction? With so much hesitation around self-driving vehicles, we may be better off if they don’t get rolled out at all. However, we know that won’t be the case.

Most people though, remain suspicious about the helpfulness of self-driving cars.   “The handoff” from the computer to a human driver can be a dangerous few seconds. If you’re traveling down the highway at 55mph and your car alerts you, how quickly can you take the wheel in an emergency situation?

As you read that last sentence, did you think of a response? In that time you’ve lost precious seconds. If you do that while driving the problem compounds itself. While you may think it’s no big deal, remember it only takes 4.6 seconds at 55 miles an hour to travel the length of a football field. Your reaction would have been immediate in a regular car.  While you think this could lead to the demise of the autonomous car, it will actually create a push for more advanced Level 5 cars.

As most of America warms to the idea of letting algorithms take the wheel, there remains a sizeable portion of Americans who have good reason to resist autonomous vehicles. People who drive for a living — from taxies to semi-trucks — are worried what this could mean for their jobs. With the introduction of self-driving trucks that can eliminate the restrictions surrounding human drivers, truck drivers fear that their jobs may be replaced.

Cab drivers and Uber drivers also worry they will find themselves out of a job if autonomous vehicles really begin taking off. Uber is already expanding their self-driving fleet to other cities. It’s only a matter of time before unemployment becomes the unfortunate reality for taxi and truck drivers.

The fact of the matter is, humans aren’t perfect. The irony is, some people think that an autonomous car, programmed by a human, will perform correctly 100% of the time. There will always be a margin of error. With the ethical dilemmas and job loss surrounding these vehicles, are they really the road to the future we want to travel?

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer. She’s a regular contributor to Datafloq and The Energy Collective. Megan also writes weekly on her personal blog Schooled By Science where she discusses the latest news in science and technology.  Subscribe to her blog for the latest news and follow her on Twitter, @nicholsrmegan, to join the discussion.

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Much of the post-election analysis has focused on strategic fixes–what should have been done. But what can Trump’s win tell us about more fundamental theories of politics? In what way does the failure of an alliance based on labor, environmentalists and civil rights activists give us clues about our basic social power concepts?

Those three categories are fairly clear voting blocks (consider, for example, the very different constituencies that the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and Black Lives Matter represent), but they are also broad theory categories. Marxist theory predicts that working class voters will struggle to find a way to understand and represent their interests; environmentalists interrogate Western views of “dominion over nature”; and race theorists confront the structures of white supremacy. None of these theoretical projects occurred in a vacuum and there has been lots of good intersectional work across all three. But when it comes to praxis, history has lots of examples where these movements were pitted against each other or were incompatible from the start. Think of the 1930s labor strikes when black scabs were brought in to break all-white unions; the 1970s white activists who abandoned civil rights to start “Earth First”; and the 1980s loggers who found themselves pitted against the spotted owl.

We are, admittedly, painting these complicated and old social movements with a very broad brush but there are critical moments today when these basic incompatibilities have resulted in direct and immediate consequences. When Hillary Clinton said she would “put coal miners … out of work” it was not a misstep, it was an honest (if inadvertent) admission of our failure to articulate a fundamental political theory; to paint a coherent vision from the contradictory pallet of blue collar labor, green environmentalists and black and brown rights advocates.

An attempt to create exactly that vision is at the core of Teknokultura’s new special issue on “generative justice”. Generative justice is defined as “the circulation of unalienated value, under control of those who generate it”.  The idea came out of a six year NSF grant that brought together community organizers with humanities, science and engineering scholars in locations ranging from rural west Africa to New York’s inner cities. As we looked over the best outcomes—a DIY condom vending machine, math lessons using fractals in cornrow braiding, solar ink production for local weavers—a common pattern began to emerge. In every case that counted as success—where the underserved communities we worked with were able to access or build something that improved their material conditions—there was a very direct connection between labor and its rewards, or, what Marx would have called “unalienated value.” But our successes (and our many failures) did not center on labor value alone: there was also a lot of value that non-human allies in nature were producing, and a third category that was more about “expression”: unalienated sexuality, free speech, spirituality and the like. Unlike Marx’s ideal in which value was extracted and centralized before redistribution, these forms of value remained in unalienated form and circulated in a commons. It was a kind of justice from the bottom-up: if those who generate value stay in control, they can share the fruits of their physical, ecological, and expressive activities in a kind of gift economy of reciprocity and commons-based production.

Many of these successes were innovations rather than inventions. Condom vending machines have existed for a long time, but with a bit of help from computer-aided design and rapid prototyping, we ended up with a DIY machine that can be made using tools and parts commonly available in West Africa. Rather than requiring mass production in a high tech factory, this would keep the financial value in the community of use, and also help sustain local artisanal groups and traditions. Back in the US we made a similar move using simulations of African American cornrow hairstyles for math and computing education. In contrast to the vending machine’s focus on keeping labor value local, circulating these “heritage algorithms” was about the expressive value of black cultural tradition, which made for less alienating STEM lessons in inner city classrooms. Some of those students have started to create 3D printed versions of their work (image above), and two of the hairstylists have offered to display them in their shops to see if this can bring in more customers, and our engineering students are working on a switch to recycled plastic. AI and robotics is generally about replacing workers and deskilling jobs, but a generative approach to STEM can use these technologies to amplify the abilities of artisanal labor, expand access to cultural expression and improve ecological sustainability.  

How does all that apply to Trump’s election and destructive mismatch between labor, environment and civil rights? One of the Democrats’ greatest errors was promising that lost manufacturing jobs would be replaced by skilled labor in the tech sector or renewable energy in some soon-to-be-realized shiny future. None of the latinos laid off from Texas oil fields, white equipment installers without jobs in Indiana, or black auto workers replaced by the most recent wave of automation could see how this was going to get them a job next week. At best, it’s a promise that their children might get that education, but those sorts of promises have been broken more times than kept.

Generative justice, in contrast, gets at the fundamental issue at stake: unalienated labor means being in charge of the production process and seeing it directly benefit those around you. Building a political campaign with generative justice in mind actually has precedence. There are lots of real-world models for the sorts of value circulation that we call generative justice, but they are rarely gathered together under a coherent social analysis. Take for example the workers’ council movement in Czechoslovakia prior to the Soviet invasion of 1968. There were councils in 120 enterprises, for a total of about 800,000 employees–almost 1/6th of the national workforce who had a say in how labor was paced, managed and even what products were produced. These organizations ran much like a modern capitalist corporations but management and executive positions were democratically selected by and amongst workers. Each enterprise was independent, but interrelated, often inviting workers to sit as external members on hiring committees.

Such an arrangement does not neatly fit into state-controlled communism or capitalism. It derives worker protections, product quality standards, and other social welfare concerns from contracts and agreements between democratic bodies, not from government bureaucracies. Workers’ councils, like all practices that illustrate the generative justice concept —open source software, indigenous gift economies, commons-based land management, and so on— are best understood as lying on an axis which runs orthogonal to the conventional right/left political spectrum of state-protected capitalist or communist politics.

The same holds for the other two categories, unalienated ecological value and unalienated expressive value. Once you catch the fundamental concept of generative justice then any scheme for extraction becomes suspect, whether private enterprise, state bureaucracy, or other institutional domination. Trump’s scheme to help oil companies alienate value from nature runs in parallel to his plans to help homophobic institutions like the American Family Association alienate citizens from their own spiritual, sexual and cultural identities. But the record for protecting labor, the environment and civil rights is no better for socialist bureaucracies than it is for market economies. And “mixed” economies like the People’s Republic of China are no recipe for justice either.

So what does work in driving social structures closer to the ideal of generative justice? One of the common themes that shows up in the Teknokultura special issue is the importance of grassroots organizations that combined a social agenda with activities of “making”. Unlike political movements that aim for changes through policy or legislation, these groups make democratic action a part of mixing labor and raw resources into finished artifacts. To be clear generative justice is not only about making things, but some of its best illustrations are found in cases where unalienated value circulation is a deliberate expression of both politics and physical production.

Take for example open source software, maker spaces and other DIY-oriented sharing collectives. As several articles in the issue note, there are plenty of great generative justice exemplars in that category, ranging from Liberating Ourselves Locally (a “people-of-color-led, gender-diverse, queer and trans inclusive hacker/maker space in East Oakland”) to vast international enterprises like MakerHealth that allows nurses and others to create their own health care innovations. But none of these collectives happened through some kind of Adam Smith style “invisible hand” of self-interested competition. Rather they are all examples of a kind of hybrid between old fashioned grassroots organizing and new technologies of sharing (code, blue prints etc. shared via creative commons, github, instructables and other platforms).

Imagine, then, a political platform based not on asking “how will American workers compete against those in Asia” or “how will we defeat the coal lobby” but rather “how will value be returned to all workers? How will the ecological value created by non-humans be returned to them, sustaining their soil, water, air and biodiversity? And how will the shy, ineluctable aspects of our being–spiritual or atheist, gay or straight, artist or logician–be similarly circulated to nurture communities of our choosing?” We hope readers will take a look at the special issue and join this conversation.

Ron Eglash received his B.S. in Cybernetics, his M.S. in Systems Engineering, and his PhD in History of Consciousness, all from the University of California. His work includes the book African Fractals, and the online Culturally Situated Design Tools suite. He is currently a Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer.


Last week The New Inquiry published an essay I wrote about science journalism podcasts syndicated on NPR. Shows like Radiolab, The TED Radio Hour, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Note to Self, and Freakonomics Radio, I argued, were more about wrapping pre-conceived notions in a veneer of data than changing minds or delivering new insights into long-standing problems. Worse yet, social and political issues that might be met with collective action are turned into wishy-washy “well isn’t that interesting” anecdotes:

Topics that might have once been subject to political debate or rhetorical argument–work demands, exposure to toxins, surveillance, the limits of love, even Marxian alienation–become apolitical subjects for scientific testing. But the results only lead to greater and greater complexity, prompting introspective thought rather than action.

If anyone acts at all on what they hear in NPR podcasts it is either as a means of self-help or, as I wrote in the essay, “in the register of the heroic … by well-resourced individuals who seek to make dramatic moves because most others cannot, supposedly, see the whole picture.” I would like to pick up where I left off and describe two particularly stark examples of self-help and heroics. I think the two, juxtaposed as they are, demonstrate exactly what kind of world liberal infotainment seeks to engender.

I had some good things to say about Freakonomics Radio in the essay. Because the show is mostly about economics (I say mostly because there was one pledge drive episode where, and I am not kidding, they did not talk about economics at all and instead interviewed a neuroscientist that studies fMRI scans of people as they listen to podcasts.) the episodes mostly focus on what happens “in between” individuals and how the aggregate of human behavior cannot always be found in individual cognition. They do, however, make a point of encouraging listeners to apply theories meant for corporations and governments, to their daily lives. People gush about how the application of abstract economic theories on their bathroom routines or training regimens has resulted in huge gains in productivity and happiness. It is the kind of relief that can only come after a steady diet of equivocality suddenly and selectively provides a path forward.

In one such episode (the same one with the fMRI scans of podcast listeners) they talk to a young man who dreamed of being on they Olympic rowing team, only to come up short. On his way home from the training camp, feeling dejected, he looked for a radio show that would take his mind off of thing and, sitting there in the top 10 podcasts on iTunes, was Freakonomics Radio. From the transcript:

It was a very small segment of the podcast. I think it was like five minutes where it talked about Marine, Army Rangers, I believe. And how to get leaders out of them, they didn’t say, “You’re a natural leader,” or something like that. They said, “You’re hard-working and your success is built off hard work and not talent or not how a natural leader you are.”

The host, Stephen Dubner replies: “It sounds like you were a hard worker, but if I’m reading you correctly it sounds like you’re saying even though you worked hard, a) you could work harder and b) you could work more strategically or engage in what we call deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is a  term out of (surprise) psychology that says talent for a given activity comes out of a lot of “maximal effort” that is “generally not enjoyable.” (Quotes from here.)

The mundane point here is that practice makes perfect and that practice is often difficult but ultimately rewarding. Of course our rower probably already knew that, but it is the declarative power of science that makes such advice unavoidable. I had a professor in graduate school that once told my class, “Witch craft and astrophysics might both be equally true but only one is more likely to help you get to the moon.” The point he was making is that different kind of knowledge are good for different things and I think we can apply that to the case above. It is fine and good to hear a coach or someone you trust say, “it just takes more practice” but science has a way of telling you there is a single path to one’s goal. No matter how good you are, you can’t break the laws of nature (as described to you by a scientist) to get what you want. The only people who break the laws of nature are scientists themselves, and then they get rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Now who does feel empowered to act on anything that isn’t themselves after listening to NPR podcasts are the incredibly rich. In an episode of Radiolab produced by the makers of Note to Self (brought to you in part by Goldman Sachs) the listener learns about the development of a high-powered camera technology that can scan entire cities to track cars and monitor people. Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi and her colleague Alex Goldmark interview the inventor of the technology who wants to take his plane mounted camera from the battlefields of Iraq to the United States to fight crime. This technology, the episode promises, can track cars in real time providing detailed evidence for all sorts of major and minor crimes.

That episode aired in June 2015 and concluded with the technology getting stymied by elected officials and citizens who had serious privacy concerns. After describing the technology in heroic terms (the inventor is said to have a “super power”) and giving examples of how it brought killers to justice, Goldmark complains, “The advantages are so concrete and the dangers are nebulous.” They fret and lament that such a powerful technology for good is held up by reactionaries with “nebulous” concerns about big brother. They end on a sad note, saying this technology is being used for traffic monitoring and analysis.

Over a year later, in September 2016 they do a follow-up episode where they feign confusion at how their coverage convinced an ex Enron executive-turned-“philanthropist” John Arnold (along with his wife, Laura through their foundation) to singlehandedly bankroll a pilot study in Baltimore. Because the Arnolds are willing to bankroll the system there is no need for a public hearing or vote. Instead, the police chief signs a contract and the system is up and running. In addition to the city-wide photographs there are also the pre-existing CCTV cameras that can sync up with the aerial photography. The episode ends without a single self-reflective moment where Krulwich, Abumrad, Goldmark, or Zomorodi consider perhaps how they portrayed that technology would have attracted the interest of law and order-loving aristocrats.

I hope these further examples outline the stakes that we’re working with here. More than just bad traffic jam entertainment, these shows are widely listened to and inspire people to change their lives and the lives of others. Most importantly, NPR podcasts are a symptom of a much larger failure of political imagination. The fact that these shows are so popular indicates that they are maintaining hegemonic ideas rather than creating new ones, but if we are to truly face the issues current events demand, we are going to need a fundamental shift in how we approach problems of politics and science.

David is on Twitter.

Image source.


In a widely-shared article on The Intercept, Sam Biddle made the point that, “Trump’s anti-civil liberty agenda, half-baked and vague as it is, would largely be an engineering project, one that would almost certainly rely on some help from the private sector.” The center of his article, that of the six major tech companies he requested comments from only Twitter gave him an unequivocal statement that they would not help build a Muslim database, was chilling even though most of the companies just never responded. The role of engineers and designers in carrying out political ends often relegated to business’s policies. That is, engineers themselves are seen as completely beholden to whatever their bosses decide their job should be. I want to look at this from a different angle: why are engineers so willing to defer responsibility for their actions and why are they so often in positions to do so?

Simply put, border security doesn’t happen without engineers willing to build the walls or design the drones that make up that border. If, as the oft repeated Bruno Latour quote goes, technology is society made durable, we should be paying attention to (and putting a lot more pressure on) who is choosing which parts of social life persist without direct, constant human intervention. Making sure that companies behave ethically is one strategy but we should also look at how engineers themselves are trained to deal with morally dubious projects. Many of the academics who study engineering pedagogy and the accreditation bodies that oversee engineering programs have come to the conclusion that not only are engineers not given the necessary skills to navigate social and political conundrums, they are primed to follow orders regardless of their moral outcome.

Consider first, the disturbing fact that engineers are vastly overrepresented in extremist groups of all stripes: from neo-nazis to jihadists, engineering is the most common educational background of right-wing extremists. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, the authors of a book on the subject found that relative to their prevalence in any given nation, engineers are vastly over-represented in violent right-wing extremist groups. Left-wing extremist groups that advocate or support violent means, on the other hand, have no engineers amongst their ranks and are instead made up of people with backgrounds in the social sciences and humanities.

Gambetta and Hertog’s reasoning for this phenomenon is based in political psychology: both engineers and right-wing extremists put considerable emphasis on hierarchy, order, clear boundaries between categories, and unchanging conditions. The personalities that choose right-wing extremism and engineering overlap considerably. Of course, every engineer is not a nazi, but we should never lose site of the numerical fact that engineers were over-represented in nearly every right-wing revolution of the past century: from 1970s Iran to 1920s Germany. It is unclear from their book whether their discovery is due to self-selection into engineering and fundamentalist groups or if engineering pedagogy primes people to accept right-wing extremism. In other words, the jury is still out as to whether this is a matter of correlation or causation, but there is some evidence to support the latter.

Embedded not just in our existing gadgetry but in the very methods and processes that design and build new ones, are very specific ideological valences. This goes as far back as Newton’s Principia where the very foundations of calculus were laid out in such a way to be directly beneficial to engineers building warships. Engineering, as social scientists Dean Nieusma and Ethan Blue like to say, has always been a war-built discipline. From the sorts of organizations engineers are trained to work in (very hierarchical ones) to their professional ethics (the customer/employer/contractor is always right), they are taught unquestioning deference to authority and unremitting neutrality towards issues of political consequence.

Some who study engineering pedagogy and professional development make strong arguments for including peace and justice in college curriculums. Some have gone so far as to build an alternative “shadow code” for engineering departments willing to build social justice into their lessons. Education scholar Michael Lachney and I, in our contribution to this shadow code, have suggested that engineers become fluent in the differences between violence and property destruction.

Imagine if medical doctors, instead of taking the Hippocratic Oath that says, in part, “do no harm”, instead took an oath to never knowingly expose their employer to malpractice suits? No one, patients included, wants to be involved in malpractice but the change in allegiance should be clear: we want doctors to be first and foremost concerned with their patients’ well-being and their hosting institutions should be directed toward supporting that concern. Why should engineers be any different? Why are there no oaths to build things that cause harm to fellow humans? Why are there no licenses to be revoked if an engineer knowingly and consistently builds things that do great harm? These seem like common sense requests until you look at the major employers of engineering graduates: military contractors, resource extraction companies, and the governments that own those militaries and resources.

A new society needs a new kind of engineer. One who would recognize that designing a prison is not unlike designing a building with no foundation. Both are a kind of malpractice: building something that has been shown time and time again to produce bad outcomes. Engineers must understand their impact on society as well as they know Java or the tensile strength of concrete. That way, when they are told to build that wall or compile that database, they at least have a professional set of standards they can hold up as antithetical to their assigned project.

David is on Twitter.

Image source.

Le Corbusier's La Ville Radieuse
Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse

The motor has killed the great city. The motor must save the great city.”

-Le Corbusier, 1924.


In the fast and shallow anxiety around driverless cars, there isn’t a lot of attention being paid to what driving in cities itself will become, and not just for drivers (of any kind of car) but also for pedestrians, governments, regulators and the law. This post is about the ‘relative geographies’ being produced by driverless cars, drones and big data technologies. Another way to think about this may be: what is the city when it is made for autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence?

The question of planning cities in response to automobiles is not a new one. It was addressed through a number of architectural and urban planning visions in the 1920s-50s. Two of the most significant are Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse (‘The Radiant City’), and the Plan Voisin/ Ville Contemporaine (Voisin was the car company that bankrolled this plan) for Paris. The former was never achieved, and the latter was more developed but also left incomplete. Corbusier’s Plan Voisin was founded on the belief that the centre of Paris was congested, dirty, and unable to support the deluge of motor cars of the early twentieth century. Plan Voisin/Ville Contemporaine would have involved uprooting and razing most of central Paris from Gare de l’est to Rue de Rivoli, and from Place de la Republique to Rue du Louvre. Le Corbusier’s solution, Ted Shelton writes here, “was to eliminate the infrastructure of the Parisian street and replace it with spaces designed around the car. In the Plan Voisin the traditional city must yield to the infrastructure of the automobile wherever the two were in conflict.” (in Automobile Utopias and Traditional Urban Infrastructure: Visions of the Coming Conflict, 1925–1940).

Other models for cities imagined around technology, particularly cars, are The Metropolis of Tomorrow (Hugh Ferris, 1929), Broadacre City (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1932), and Futurama (Norman Bel Geddes, 1939–40). Each of these proposals attempted to reconcile the “the ever-increasing speed and large-scale geometries of the automobile and the much finer grain and slower speeds of the traditional city street.” (Shelton, above, again). In detailing vertical and horizontal planes of movement of people and traffic, the spread of buildings, the fates of city centres, and travel between airports and cities, automobile technology sets the direction for optimistic, Utopian, urban planning and architecture.

Le Corbusier's sketch for the evolution of the city, 1935. From
Le Corbusier’s sketch for the evolution of the city, 1935. From

Like the twentieth century automobile, the driverless car will re-order relationships to urban space and produce new kinds of places and urban cultures. The parking lot, rendered as cold, dangerous and creepy in cinema, is one such place. Commercial and personal use drones will need their own parking spaces, perhaps like the new Norman Foster droneport in Rwanda. The first pizza delivery by drone in New Zealand raises all kinds of practical questions about how exactly you’d get your pizza if you lived in an apartment building. Would the drone hover outside your window (what if you don’t have a balcony?) or leave it in a drone delivery depot? The devil is in the detail.

Liam Young’s forthcoming film, In the Robot Skies: A Drone Love Story, is a film shot by pre-programmed autonomous drones and tells the near-future story of two young lovers in a London Council Estate sequestered in their homes under ‘anti social behaviour orders’ who communicate by hijacking local CCTV camera drones that surveil their estate. Young says that just as the New York subway car of the 1980s birthed “a youth culture of wild style graffiti and hip hop”, the drone will create particular networks and cultures of surveillance activists and drone hackers. Not only is this a drone’s eye view of the city, but drones will be able to create film locations that weren’t accessible before.

Trailer for Liam Young’s In the Robot Skies

But while droneports and Council Estate drones may produce new flows of people and urban subcultures, big data technologies also continue to play a role in shaping and re-instating pre-existing physical geographies. Nowhere is this more poignant and difficult than at borders. Josh Begley’s new film Best of Luck With the Wall, is 200,000 satellite images of the US Mexico border on Google Maps. In making the film, Begley says he wants to focus on the physical geography and the inhabitants of it: “The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.” He does, but in doing so is also pointing upwards to the very satellites that made the film possible, the vast human, legal and machine apparatus that produces and maintains the US-Mexico border. So this border, and any border at this point, is both a physical geography, as well as something produced by technologies of border surveillance that deliver certain kinds of knowledge about what is valid, legal and legitimate in terms of movement across it; and what is not.

The surveillance apparatus of the US Mexico border is also comprised of people who work to make sense of data collected by machines. Joana Moll’s and Cedric Parizot’s The Virtual Watchers is a project that reveals another side of crowdsourced, open source intelligence. Moll says that Virtual Watchers is based on a project that was launched in 2008, and consists of an online platform called RedServants, a network of 200 cameras and sensors. The 203.633 volunteers on Red Servant watched camera feeds of the US Mexico border and identified “illegal” border crossings and other “illegal” events.

Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama was where cars would create the “grain” against which the city would be built; now, with the gradual accretion of sensors, radar, lidar, optical recognition, fingerprint scanners, biometric turnstiles, key-card only access zones, license plate scanners, cameras, recorders, databases, dashboards, and maps, it is as if big data is the grain against which place itself is imagined. Smart city visions are based on visions of second-order cybernetic actualization. Orit Halpern’s work analyses the evolutionary arc of urban design imaginaries in smart cities like Songdo in South Korea, Masdar in Abu Dhabi, and Singapore. In these cities architecture and urban planning become armatures, or interfaces, for control through a kind of higher-order knowledge assumed to be embedded in data.

In Crapularity Hermeneutics, Florian Cramer speculates on the tension between car and city in a way that might have thrilled Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright. He suggests that “all cars and highways could be redesigned and rebuilt in such a way as to make them failure-proof for computer vision and autopilots …. For example, by painting all cars in the same specific colors, and with computer-readable barcode identifiers on all four sides, designing their bodies within tightly predefined shape parameters to eliminate the risk of confusion with other objects, by redesigning all road signs with QR codes and OCR-readable characters, by including built-in redundancies to eliminate misreading risks for computer vision systems, by straightening motorways to make them perfectly linear and moving cities to fit them.” The design company BIG made a video for Audi, (Driver)Less is More, which seems to capture what Cramer talks about. In the BIG view, the driverless car inhabits a city made for itself (notice the absence of humans):


But before we arrive at that point where everything is re-adjusted for the driverless car, there is going to be considerable struggle for political rights and freedoms against the blindness of algorithms based on already-biased databases. For example, as Seda Gurses recently said, would we rediscover racial discrimination in apps like the way-finding app, Waze, or Redzone, that “help” stay out of “high crime neighbourhoods”? What kind of new places will be created, and discriminations perpetuated, by autonomous driving that identify people and neighbourhoods as criminal or threatening? As unacceptable as this is, it is these moments of the messy glory of human difference that must be fashioned into speedbumps, in-computable objects, on the road to Utopia.

Maya Indira Ganesh is a reader, writer, researcher and activist  living in Berlin, Germany. She is working towards a PhD about ethics and technology at Leuphana University, and is Director of Research at Tactical Technology Collective. She has worked with feminist movements in India, and continues to at an international level through her work on Tactical Tech’s Gender & Tech project. She’s on Twitter as @mayameme; find more at Body of Work.

Lede image source.


A couple of years ago I wrote about Friendsgiving, that very special holiday where cash-strapped millennials gather around a dietary-restriction-labeled potluck table and make social space for their politics and life experiences under late capitalism. All still very relevant, though I suspect this is the year where we should come up with a name for whatever happens after late capitalism. Some of you, of course, will be sharing a table with people not of your own choosing and so you might be forced into reckoning with people who make excuses for Nazis and disagree that trans people exist.

What follows are a couple of useful tactics that will help you hold your own and get through arguments that we shouldn’t have to keep having but here we are. These probably will not help you in a completely hostile room. These are better if you’re in a mixed crowd and you want to make sure that at the end of the political argument people don’t leave saying nothing more than “politics is so divisive!” People only criticize divisiveness when they aren’t sufficiently convinced by one side.

Above all, remember that political arguments are not about decisions based on different information, they are rooted deeply-held beliefs about how the world works that we are slowly socialized into. No single conversation will undo a social world. Campaigns (including these last two) know that most of their voters are “low information” voters who are not fluent in, or even persuaded by, long and involved explanations of policy. The mistake here is to assume that this is because most people are stupid and if you’re not basing your political positions on exhaustive research you don’t deserve to have tightly-held beliefs. This is a deeply condescending and unproductive position. Instead of delivering correctives like a walking, talking article, try to get to the bottom of what your debate opponents’ politics represent. If it is a general sense of declining American prosperity, agree with them! But then redirect the conversation away from race-baiting and lament any candidate’s ability to put forward a plan that would work for most people. Sometimes it helps to encourage someone to spin out their argument until it reaches an internally illogical conclusion like I did here. Depending on the situation, ask questions, challenge basic assumptions, or offer an alternative framing for the topic at hand. Which reminds me…

Understand Framing. No idea stands alone. Rather, concepts and ideas are interconnected and cannot be utilized without some unexpected or unwanted baggage. Framing is not just how ideas are presented, but what parts of an argument automatically feed into other arguments that the speaker is not intending to make. If you fall into an argument about how to make the country safer, for example, you are not talking about how most crimes tallied by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics are at historic lows. (Same story with immigration.) Also, be sure to notice when you’ve started using someone else’s conceptual metaphor. If you talk about “trade wars” you have entered a conversation where trade is war. This means you’re trapped into talking about trade in terms of winners and losers who are determined through cut-throat violence. Try to reframe the conversation by talking about trade in a less combative way. Check out this handy list of conceptual metaphors to help you get familiar with conceptual metaphors.

Resist well-meaning people who want a reason “to hope that he succeeds in making the country great.” There is some sophisticated framing going on when someone parrots this line like a CNN talking head. The office doesn’t “make the man” and there are no checks and balances in place to make sure Trump is tempered by more level-headed people. The executive branch has never been more powerful and we have both parties to thank for that. Trump, for all his outsider status, has never made claims to devolving the power of the President. Don’t even argue about the Republican-held Congress and the soon-to-be 5-4 conservative Supreme Court. Instead, talk about all the ways Obama has strengthened the executive branch by embracing the Bush administration’s love of signing statements. Talk about how powerful the president has gotten in the last two decades and even if you like Trump he’s (hopefully?) not going to be president forever and someone will inherit the more-powerful position he’s helped create. There is nothing normal about this president and there are no counter-vailing forces within government powerful enough to correct the ship.

Reasonableness is so, so delicious. Everyone wants to be the reasonable one. Notice when the conversation turns toward what is reasonable, actionable, or realistic. This is a sign that someone is trying to do an end run around the very basis of your argument. They don’t want to engage in the substance of what you are saying and are more concerned with how reasonable and calm they appear to others. Britney Summit-Gil has more:

And if everyone at every interaction in their life is performing a self with the purpose of affecting another person, this holds true for left, right, and center. But for moderates, for white people, for the “reasonables,” there is little cost. Of all of the people I’ve seen calling for us to be reasonable, they are those least likely to be affected by a Trump administration. I have yet to see an immigrant, a person of color, a gay or trans person make this kind of call, though I am sure there are exceptions. But based on what I have seen, disenfranchised and targeted populations are calling for resistance, not unity.

Put the onus on Trump supporters to explain why we should ignore Nazi’s loud support for him, and “just give the guy a chance.” This is probably where the most aggressive confrontation must take place. Keep Trumpists on the defense by explaining why they think Nazi’s would be excited about this administration and what the administration plans to do to materially curb the power and prominence of these organizations (not just distance themselves from their most vocal avatars). Most likely you’ll be met with an argument about how these organizations are being given excess attention by the media and this is not representative of the Trump administration. Here you could agree that this isn’t totally unprecedented given that Reagan enjoyed endorsements from white supremacists, and a healthy handful of Republican primary candidates were supported by and shared a stage with a pastor that openly called for the execution of gay people. You could even bring up the fact that many white supremacist organizations celebrated Obama’s victory, albeit for very different reasons. After making that point, criticize Trump as not doing enough to overcome the problem that he’s nonetheless faced with. Above anything though, keep the focus on what Trump must do to deal with the seeming threat of Nazis regardless of whether that thread is manufactured by the media or not.

Stay away from talking about Trump in ableist terms. You might even surprise a few people by briefly, seemingly defending Trump. Stop anyone who is (still!) talking about Trump’s hand size or how “totally crazy” he is and instead keep focus on what he has said, done, and apparently believes. This is all that matters.

David is on Twitter.

Image source is this site that explains the significance of animals in your dreams.


Two very different kinds of thoughts were running through my mind on the way to Leipzig to the BMW factory and on the way back. On the way there, I was thinking about how and why factories are relevant to the study of artificial intelligence in autonomous vehicles, the subject of my PhD; and on the way back I was thinking about the work of Harun Farocki, the German artist and documentary filmmaker who left behind an astonishing body of work, including many films about work and labour. These two very different thought-streams are the subjects of this post about the visit to the factory. They don’t meet at neat intersections, but I think (hope) one helps “locate” the other.

BMW is a German car company that is working on ‘highly automated driving‘ (although the Leipzig factory we visited isn’t making those cars at present). I’m doing a PhD that will – someday – suggest how to think about what ethics means in artificial intelligence contexts, and will do so by following the emergence of the driverless car in Europe and North America. One part of what I’m doing considers a dominant frame that has emerged around ethics in the driverless car context: ethics-as-accountability. In the search for the accountable algorithm in driverless cars of the future, I went to the BMW factory to see where the car of the future will come from. Who, or what, must be added to the chain of accountability when the driverless car makes a bad decision? Who, or what, comes before and around the software engineer who programs the faulty algorithm?

I discovered something else more vividly and strangely digital than the car – the automation of the factory itself. In fact, the autonomous, intelligent car receded into the background and what emerged was a demonstration of scaled up, cybernetic thinking resulting in a factory that is shaped by logistics, which as Zehle and Rossiter put it is the ‘organisational paradigm’ of cybernetics:

The primary task of the global logistics industry is to manage the movement of bodies and brains, finance and things in the interests of communication, transport and economic efficiencies. There is an important prehistory to the so-called logistics revolution to be found in cybernetics and the Fordist era following World War II. Logistics is an extension of the ‘organizational paradigm’ of cybernetics […] Common to neoliberal economics, cybernetics and logistics is the calculation of risk. And in order to manage the domain of risk, a system capable of reflexive analysis and governance is required. This is the task of logistics.

Hand-drawn sketch of the description of the BMW Leipzig plant’s assembly line. Maya Ganesh, June 24, 2016.

The factory has become an infrastructural node, rather than the primary theatre of action; as part of a multi-nodal software program that determines the movements of people and things, rather than a point in a linear assembly line. To mix metaphors, logistics is the brainchild of cybernetics, serving as a kind of mental model to with which to think about the processes of production in the face of rising costs, rising demands and complex risk paradigms. So, conversations about “smart factories” are not about robots taking away jobs, which is a limiting approach to the topic; it perhaps more that people’s jobs in the smart factory become integrated into and are determined by software programs that determine where people, money, raw materials, ships, and eventually power itself, are to go. In what may sound a little dramatic, things like cars have (to) become software in order to be produced.

The ‘logistical turn’ has gained prominence as computer programs have come to be their the main design environment and control mechanism in manufacturing. Ned Rossiter, explains why logistical technologies are important: that “logistical technologies that measure productivity and calculate value” intersect with financial capital and supply chains, to result in a governance regime of standardization.

The factory features prominently in the origin story of the theories we love, cite, and lean on. The machine of Capital, the industrial machine, commodity fetishism, the culture industries: these are ideas that come to us, primarily, from observations of workers and conditions in factories. Factories and making convey significant symbolic power. As Merkel famously retorted to the then-Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, on what Germany’s secret sauce is: “Mr. Blair, we still make things.” But what does it mean to make things in conditions enabled by the internet, particularly unwaged work and new forms of labour wrapped up as ‘play’ and leisure? Trebor Scholz,edits Digital Labour: The Internet as Playground and Factory which offers a deep read into the many dimensions of what digital labour means. He says in the introduction: “there are new forms of labour but old forms of exploitation.” In an earlier time, it was perhaps less complicated to isolate where the exploitation comes from; in a time of ubiquitous computing, you have to pick away more carefully to reveal where it is.

In 1895, the Lumiére brothers made one of the world’s first films, Workers Leaving The Factory, in which workers are shown exiting the brothers’ photographic products factory in Lyon, France The film is a jumpy 45 seconds long on a 17m long film reel, a reminder of a time when it was apparent that people were technology, the first movie-making machines being hand-cranked projectors.

YouTube Preview Image

One hundred years later, German filmmaker Harun Farocki, asked: where were the workers going? “To a meeting? To the barricades? Or simply home?” and made a documentary researching the history of that film. Twenty years on and still intrigued by this film, Farocki and his co-curator, Antje Ehmann, presented Labour in a Single Shot, an exhibition of more than 200 single-shot 1-2 minute films about labour created through workshops in 15 cities around the world. The films are charming, whimsical, and are about varied and diverse kinds of labour: dog grooming, child care, industrial manufacturing, leather curing, surgery, taco delivery, water delivery, teaching, building inspection, security, tailoring, piano tuning, shoemaking, data centre management, and so on.

Labour is as much about capturing different kinds of labour as it is about filmmaking. All cameras are fixed giving a single perspective, the kind of thing we’re more likely to equate with CCTV visuality. In one film from Rio de Janeiro, we see a woman minding a little girl in a pink dress playing in a sandpit in a park in a garden. The child goes down a slide and obviously falls because we hear her wailing and the nanny runs out of the frame. We hear the child’s loud cries, and the nanny attempting to soothe her, all the while, the camera remains fixed. A few seconds later we see a child in her nappy, now muddy with sand, storming back into the frame and crying, the nanny scurrying behind her with the pink dress. What happened off camera?

Labour is a series about work that goes unrecognised as work, work that is both material and immaterial, mobile and fixed, routine and irregular, and the various contexts of sociality, camaraderie and the self in work. We see what it means to pay people for doing mundane and boring things like stacking clothes in a factory, or difficult things like scaling buildings, or moving the carcass of a dead cow, or things that are difficult to value, like teaching music. The mind seeks to draw equivalence between these activities and it is sobering and challenging to see where and how ideas of equivalence between different kinds of work break down. Always deeply politically invested, Farocki and Ehmann, want the viewer to be charmed and discomfited in equal measure, it would seem.

Back in Leipzig, a senior manager tells us, “Industry 4.0 is about smart logistics.” This isn’t just a piece of business jargon however; the manager said he did not like the idea of “smartness” and “4.0” but seemed to suggest it was baked into the design and operations of the factory; smartness was a sort of inevitability, it seemed. We heard many managers, at different times, talking about “the future” saying they were “ready” and “prepared to face it”. I wondered if this had something to do with the realities of autonomous vehicles that would come in “the future”? They just smiled in response.

The factory’s former chief engineer, and now- BMW board member, Peter Clausen says “communication was the implicit assumption underlying the design of this building…”; and eventually, “there is a central nervous system thinking in the flow of the building….” He hired the late Zaha Hadid to build a factory re-imagined as a place that would respond, seamlessly, to distant nodes of control and regulation. Thus, the words “flow”, “future”, “distribution” are mentioned often in talking about the architecture of the plant in relation to the production of cars. These and other ecology metaphors familiar to cybernetic thinking kept cropping up.

While we were walking around the shop floor, a manager told a story about BMW’s electric car, the i3, as we milled around its engine proudly on display. He said that in building the electric car they didn’t just replace the traditional combustion engine with an electric one; they actually invented a whole new car around an electric battery. They made “working from the outside-in” sound more intuitive than the oft-heard reverse, “from the inside out”. What this anecdote suggests, I believe, is that they wanted to, or had to, change how they saw production itself, to move away from the idea and practice of production as something linear. In a snarky comment to distinguish themselves from Google, someone said referring to the software company, “they’re a software company – they think about communication and then build a car around it.”

Here it seems that communication is embedded far deeper. The factory was designed in response to people’s communication flows. They measured the number of steps taken for one team to reach another, and the ways in which teams talk to each other through the production life cycle, and the different workflows of who talks to who, and when they need to talk to each other. One of the senior-most managers at BMW delighted in revealing that he receives less email than the visiting academics; he said he gets up and walks over to people to talk to them, thus reducing his email footprint: “email is asynchronous communication; talking to people is synchronous.”

Flow extends to how the shop floor merges with office space. Cars assembled in one part of the factory called the Body Shop travel along raised gantries right through the factory on their way to being painted and fitted out in the Paint Shop. You can be checking email, or talking to a coworker at the water-cooler, and have an unpainted shell of a i3 glide past overhead. The sides of the transfer gantries are lit in purple; we snickered about this as a tribute to the recently departed Prince. You could be forgiven for feeling like you’re on the filmset for a bad sci-fi film set from the 1930s. Or a music video from the 1980s.

People flow; there is an attempt to adjust traditional hierarchies into something nominally flatter in certain respects, and possibly shaped by mainstream notions of equality in German society (there are some deeply troubling notions of who a German is, however)The plant is built with one entry and one exit, so everyone -managers and workers and all levels of staff – enters and leaves through the same door. Everyone eats at the same cafeteria. Human Resources and Corporate Communications departments sit on the ground floor, by the cafeteria and the entry, and everyone has to walk past them.

The jewel in the factory’s crown is Clausen’s “finger concept”.. Traditional ideas of the assembly line are, well, linear. Imagine, instead, a single line bending to form a triangle before what was the ends of the line become the middle and the middle breaks apart to form the new ends of the line. This is, almost literally, what this factory does; what it means is that production can integrate new elements or processes without getting disrupted. For example, automation in cars means that new automating machines need to be introduced into the line. How do you enlarge the backbone of production without moving anything up or down the line? There is no way you can shut down a plant like this for more than ten days to change production processes. The answer: the factory has to expand and contract on demand. Thus the “finger” is an architectural design feature in which the physical layout of the plant can keep being extended by building new sections to integrate new machines, storage areas, supply chain entry points, and so on. Organic metaphors of ‘growth’, ‘marriage’, ‘body’, and ‘evolution’ are key to the description of such responsive architectural design.

But this is not about the triumph of welding social science into industrial design, nor about spatial design theory in corporate brochure copy. It is about the relentlessness of cybernetic thinking that promises comfortable, soft orderliness almost as a sort of counter-point to the very disruption it stimulates, with its flows, nodes, and self-organising, feeding-back loops, constantly seeking order in systems that may be complex, glitch-ridden, or creaky. The disruption and innovation, seen in light of rising costs and demands, are oddly, about standardization itself; the old factory again. Decision-making is not inspired, but faster. Algorithmic regulation resulting in the financialisation of labour, and the demands on physical infrastructure, and its people, to become like components of that system, smooth and flowing, to become data.

In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin wall, Farocki made How To Live In the FRG, a series of mock ‘training seminars’ for workers, from strippers to nurses, to adjust to a new life in a neoliberal world of a “relentless scripting” of interaction where human and commodity are “machined” to assume “maximum dependability”. For example, in the scenes with the stripper, you are shown a woman’s midriff and hips against a dimly red light-lit stage, very typically ‘stripper’; and a male voice off-camera. This un-embodied voice instructs the abbreviated woman on how to move her hips suggestively, how to slip out of her panties, and how to look more seductive. It is pedantic, funny, and awkward.

There is something that happens in the smart factory, that isn’t quite different from the not-smart factory: the worker is known through her relations to the finished product, and things in between get obscured. Erich Hörl reflects on how ubiquitous computing results in the “becoming-ecological” of media and creates displacement of workers, saying that work then was a “privileged action that focused on results and finality and obscured relations, mediations, and objects. Without direct dialogue, humans and the world or nature were placed in relation to the object, but only indirectly via the hierarchical structures of the community”. I read the smart factory as a continuation of the old one, in this sense. In the smart factory, the loops and flows of information supersede everything else, making the fact of mediation, the design, objects, and the people disappear; the flow is the thing.

The Farocki films I was thinking about on the train back from Leipzig keep digging at those obscured relations, mediations and objects, urging power out into view, quietly, sometimes grimly comical, and always with purpose. The scene with the stripper, like others in FRG, is rich in the minutiae of what work entails. In an issue of the journal e-flux dedicated to Farocki after his passing, the editors say:

With Harun’s precise scrutiny, an intimate world of techno-social micro-machinations comes to life. When an automated gate closes and latches, Harun is there. When looking into the LCD screens replacing rear view mirrors in cars, he is there. He is there when we address a colleague at work with a certain title.

Maya Indira Ganesh is a reader, writer, researcher and activist  living in Berlin, Germany. She is working towards a PhD about ethics and technology at Leuphana University, and is Director of Research at Tactical Technology Collective. She has worked with feminist movements in India, and continues to at an international level through her work on Tactical Tech’s Gender & Tech project. She’s on Twitter as @mayameme; find more at Body of Work.

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