AI, tech work, data lives & worlds, Fleabag

This is my second full newsletter. Thanks for subscribing. I'm hoping that I'll be able to email one out every week or two, but the ebb and flow of academic work might limit or slow things at times. I'll see how it goes and what pattern things settle into. If you have any questions or if there is something you'd like me to cover or comment on then feel free to use the comment box or contact me by email or twitter (@davidgbeer). I'm thinking about how I might vary the format as it evolves - typically I'll focus on including a range of different things, sometimes I might try focusing on a particular topic. I think it might be more interesting to mix things up a bit in terms of content. One thing I might try to do is include a little note on something from pop culture at the end of each letter (again, I'll see how it goes), last week I ended with Alan Partridge this time it's Fleabag.

First thing…

I posted an extra newsletter last week on the sad news of the death of the wonderful Couze Venn. There is now a short piece on the Theory, Culture & Society website by Mike Featherstone. As a tribute, The Feminist Review have also posted a review of Couze's final book After Capital.

Some more AI…

I think I might end up having a section of new stuff on Artificial Intelligence in most newsletters. This time I wanted to point at a review of an important book on AI and misunderstanding. Clearly, a key question in AI is about the limits of cognition and understanding. The brilliant LSE Review of Books have published Nikita Aggarwal’s review of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World by Meredith Broussar. The review raises a range of points about the potential problems of understanding and misunderstanding associated with AI.

Whilst on AI, Wendy Liu has written some really interesting and revealing pieces on the tech industry. She is currently experimenting with writing a blog piece every day of 2019. This writing experiment includes a recent post on an AI firm’s billboard advert. Wendy's post focuses on the billboard and the stark form the advert takes, and then looks at what the billboard suggests about the way tech companies present themselves and how they operate.

The tech industry and trade unions…

Speaking of which…there is an interesting piece by Hettie O'Brien that explores the emergence of trade unions in tech companies - fuelled by a realisation that the conditions are not quite as the workers imagined they would be.

Also on this topic, here is a piece by a former Amazon employee Cameron Brady-Turner on what it is like to work in an Amazon ‘Fulfilment Centre'. Below is a bit of the description from this article on how Amazon use metrics to regulate performance:

‘Data is absolutely central to this efficiency. Amazon gathers information on virtually everything its workers do — from their pack rate to downtime — then pits workers against each other on the basis of these metrics. The company is always looking for ways to gather more information — Amazon recently acquired a patent for employee-tracking wristbands that could monitor workers’ movements and vibrate to nudge them when it thinks they’re slacking off’

Data in our personal lives…

Deborah Lupton is always producing interesting work at the forefront of the analysis of the transformations brought about by new forms of data. Deborah has a new (open access) piece in Big Data & Society titled ‘How do data come to matter? Living and becoming with personal data’. Developing the analysis of how people live with and experience data, this article picks up on Deborah's earlier arguments about what she refered to as ‘lively data’ (see her book The Quantified Self). The article thinks about how data are integrated and activated in our lives. These seem really important issues for understanding the transformations data bring on the ground and as they become part of everyday life in different ways.

On the topic of data, the LSE Review of Books recently published a review of my book The Data Gaze.

A new section at Open Democracy…

Open Democracy have launched a new OurEconomy section. I'll keep an eye out for posts in the section for future newsletters. The editor Laurie Macfarlane has published an editorial explaining the direction and rationale of the new section, which can be found here. It looks like it will focus on the economy but will also bring in other social and environmental issues (which, again, reminded me of the connections Couze Venn made in his book After Capital).

To pick out one relevant piece they have published so far, Laurie Laybourn-Langton & Mathew Lawrence continue to develop their ideas around creating a new type of commons. Building on some earlier articles and a report, the new piece ‘Building a digital commonwealth’ extends and clarifies their position on different fronts and offers some suggestions about what might be done. Their argument here is that a radical rethink on the ownership and governance of data is needed. This is a really important debate about the future regulation and control of data infrastructures. The more power is exercised through data, the more important the issues of ownership and use become. These are difficult issue to resolve, avoiding making the situation worse is going to take a lot of imagination. Hopefully OurEconomy will continue to give space to these debates in future.

Why culture matters…

The Sociological Review have published a video featuring two lectures on why Cultural Studies Matters. These brilliant talks by Ben Carrington and Anamik Saha are from last year but I only stumbled upon them recently. Both talks explore the power of representation and the problems with a limited account of culture, they also reflect on why we need to understand culture in order to get to grips with power and social divisions.

Thinking about worlds…

In December I completed work on a new book which will be out in May. It’s quite different to the other things I’ve written over recent years. Georg Simmel's Concluding Thoughts: Worlds, Lives, Fragments explores the late writings of Georg Simmel and reflects on the ongoing relevance of these often overlooked later works. Those late works tend to be bracketed out as being purely philosophical (or metaphilosophical), which means they are relatively overlooked. In the book I explore how those texts might be of use across disciplines and how they might continue to provide insights into the relations between worlds, lives and fragments some 100 years after Simmel's death. One of the things I focus on in the book is how people assemble the fragments of everyday life to suit the concept of the world that they hold. Simmel points out that as life takes on a more fragmentary character the possibilities for assembling the bits to suit different concepts of the world increases. And what could be more fragmentary an experience than social media? Simmel's late works offer lots of possibilities beyond this, especially with regard to the limits and boundaries that individuals experience. I also explore in the book how Simmel turned to art for inspiration in developing his ideas on how to think about life.

I’ve written a piece about the writing of the book and about working with old ideas in general, which is on Medium. The book is quite expensive, so perhaps one for library orders and reading lists in the first instance. Alongside this book I’ve been developing a short book about what happens when culture moves onto platforms, I’ll hopefully be able to post a bit more news about that in the future.

And Fleabag…

In a recent interview Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer and star of Fleabag, described the show as a drama wrapped in a comedy. It certainly has that sort of feel. The first series started in comedy mode but opened up into something much darker and fraught. The second series - I've just watched the second episode - picks up on the character after a little time has passed. It's a brilliant bit of creative TV. It's the frequent looks to camera that make it. Those facial expressions are like a visual narrator highlighting the torments the charter experiences. Fleabag is an enigma to those around her, but not to her audience. She bypasses the characters she encounters to communicate directly with the viewer. It’s not the first time that comedy or drama has broken the fourth-wall, but there's a real dexterity to those quick glances. This is the comedy of self-awareness. Hobbled by reflexivity and an unease with her position, Fleabag is wriggling with unease at social convention. Those looks-to-camera are like punctuated question marks. This is comedy for uncertain and precarious times. In moments of turmoil and alienation it would be nice to glance knowingly at an audience that can appreciate our predicament. The current moment and the cultural landscape are calling for a raised eyebrow and a flickering gaze into the lens. Fleabag expresses it on the viewers behalf.

Loading more posts…