Selected publications below – click the titles for PDFs! Please see the CV for the full list.
(In Review) Prediction as Extraction of Discretion
See presentation version HERE – ACM FAccT (Fairness, Accountability & Transparency) 2022, 21-24 June, Seoul
I argue that data-driven predictions work primarily as instruments for systematic extraction of discretionary power – the practical capacity to make everyday decisions and define one’s situation. This extractive relation reprises a long historical pattern, in which new methods of producing knowledge generate a redistribution of epistemic power: who declares what kind of truth about me, to count for what kinds of decisions? I argue that prediction as extraction of discretion is normal and fundamental to the technology, rather than isolated cases of bias or error. Synthesising critical observations across anthropology, history of technology and critical data studies, the paper demonstrates this dynamic in two contemporary domains:
- crime and policing demonstrates how predictive systems are extractive by design. Rather than neutral models led astray by garbage data, pre-existing interests thoroughly shape how prediction conceives of its object, its measures, and most importantly, what it does not measure and in doing so devalues.
- I then examine the prediction of productivity in the long tradition of extracting discretion as a means to extract labour power. Making human behaviour more predictable for the client of prediction (the manager, the corporation, the police officer) often means making life and work more unpredictable for the target of prediction (the employee, the applicant, the citizen).
(In Review) Fact Signaling and Fact Nostalgia in the Data-Driven Society
Post-truth tells the story of a public descending into unreason, aided and abetted by platforms and other data-driven systems. But this apparent collapse of epistemic consensus is, I argue, also dominated by loud and aggressive commitment to the idea of facts and Reason – a site where an imagined modern past is being pillaged for vestigial legitimacy. On one hand, would-be disruptors like Youtube micro-celebrities mark their opposition to mainstream media through affectively charged performances of research and analysis (‘fact signaling’). On the other hand, the defence of the informational status quo, such as fact-checking advocacy, also falls back on an imagined and idealised modernity when facts were facts (‘fact nostalgia’). Both tendencies are underwritten by a myth of connection: the still enduring narrative that maximising the circulation of information regardless of provenance or meaning will eventually yield a more rational public – even as data-driven systems tend to undermine the very conditions for such a public. This paper analyses how both fact signaling and nostalgia constitute a transgressive dynamic, in which a value is defined only through its violation and loss, animating an indefinite project for its restoration. I argue that this continued reliance on the vestigial authority of the modern past is a pernicious obstacle in normative debates around data-driven publics, keeping us stuck on the same dead-end scripts of heroically suspicious individuals and ignorant, irrational masses.
(2022) Predictions without Futures
History & Theory, vol. 61(3): 371-390. (Open Access)
Modernity held sacred the aspirational formula of the open future: a promise of human determination that doubles as an injunction to control. Today, the banner of this plannable future is borne by technology. Allegedly impersonal, neutral, and exempt from disillusionment with ideology, belief in technological change saturates the present horizon of historical futures. Yet I argue that this is exactly how today’s technofutures enact a hegemony of closure and sameness. In particular, the growing emphasis on prediction as AI’s skeleton key to all social problems constitutes what religious studies calls cosmograms: universalising models that govern how facts and values relate to each other, providing a common and normative point of reference. In a predictive paradigm, social problems are made conceivable only as objects of calculative control – control which can never be fulfilled, but persists as an eternally deferred and recycled horizon. I show how this technofuture is maintained not so much by producing literally accurate predictions of future events, but ritualised demonstrations of predictive time.
The detox is now an established stage in the ouroboros of technology consumption. First, we subsume ourselves in a data surround, in which the sheer overproduction of data becomes normalized as the rhythmic backdrop to everyday life. Technoculture then offers a new range of data analytics that we might further consume to make our (always temporary) escape. We detox from our machines only in order to return to them as more efficient and productive subjects. These contradictions reflect a broader tension, in which the advent of smart technologies―made in the name of human intimacy, a means to connect with “our true selves” ―is also a project for our involuntary vulnerability to machinic measurement, and to the quantifiable standards of health and wellness, productivity and efficiency that they entail.
(2021) Technofutures in Stasis: Smart machines, ubiquitous computing, and the future that keeps coming back
International Journal of Communication, vol. 15, 1940-1960.
Partly based on the Data Then and Now Seminar (video), University of Washington, 26 Feb 2020
This paper interrogates the strategic role of imagined futures in the social life of digital technologies. It argues that the prevalence of repeated, deferred futures acts as a vehicle for stagnation and conservatism in the human values facilitated by those technologies. As a case study, the paper examines the contemporary popularisation of ‘smart’ machines (c.2012-) through the lens of earlier enthusiasm for ubiquitous computing, or ‘ubicomp’ (1991-1999). Widely attributed to Mark Weiser and colleagues at Xerox PARC, ubicomp promised a near future in which computers would ‘disappear’ into the background of life. Today’s smart technology reprises ubicomp’s ideas, language, and even signature products like the Internet-connected fridge. Here, past futures are strategically recycled for legitimacy. Yet this very repetition hints at an elastic temporality made up of failed startups and unbuilt prototypes, where technological novelties resuscitate highly static imaginaries of office work or gendered domestic labour. The stubborn emphasis on user convenience and efficiency provides justificatory cover for the advance of surveillance capitalism, in which the ‘disappearance’ of smart computers is calibrated primary for data extraction over and above meaningful extension of human freedoms.
This chapter examines emerging trends in fact signaling: the strategic and performative invocation of epistemic and moral authority which may then be weaponized against the “enemy.” This is not an assessment of the substantive factual claims made in the process; such an approach risks emphasizing their pretention to logical coherence and objective validity. Rather, I argue that such signaling is primarily aimed at a cultivation of affective attachment to the idea of Facts and Reason (and, in turn, the charismatic influencers that position themselves as a proxy for those values). Specifically, the chapter focuses on the public presentation of conservative influencer Ben Shapiro, who has consciously crafted a personal niche around the feeling of caring about the facts.
(2019) The futures of anticipatory reason: Contingency and speculation in the sting operation
With Piotr Szpunar. Security Dialogue, vol. 50 (4): 314-330.
This article examines invocations of the future in contemporary security discourse and practice. This future constitutes not a temporal zone of events to come, nor a horizon of concrete visions for tomorrow, but an
indefinite source of contingency and speculation. Predictive, preemptive and otherwise anticipatory security practices strategically utilize the future to circulate the kinds of truths, beliefs, claims, that might otherwise be difficult to legitimize. The article synthesizes critical security studies with broader humanistic thought on the future, with a focus on the sting operations in recent US counter-terrorism practice. It argues that the future today functions as an ‘epistemic black market’, a zone of tolerated unorthodoxy where boundaries defining proper truth-claims become porous and flexible. Importantly, this epistemic flexibility is often leveraged towards a certain conservatism, where familiar relations of state control are reconfirmed and expanded upon. This conceptualization of the future has important implications for standards of truth and justice, as well as public imaginations of security practices, at a time of increasingly preemptive and anticipatory securitization.
(2018) Surveillance, Sensors, and Knowledge through the Machine
In: Digital Existence: Ontology, Ethics and Transcendence in Digital Culture, ed. Amanda Lagerkvist, Routledge
This chapter examines the ways in which the generalised condition of
data proliferation is rewiring the relation of knowing at a phenomenological level. The question here is not whether we know ‘more’ or ‘less,’ but how knowing as human subjects’ mode of relating to the world out there is being reconfigured through new digital technologies as both the problem (of proliferation) and the solution (of data-driven predictivity). Two related scenes illustrate this pairing of proliferation/uncertainty and predictivity/ knowledge, and the ways in which human subjects are enjoined to know through new technologies. The first – the controversial exposure of NSA surveillance in the ‘Snowden Affair,’ 2013 onwards – demonstrates a recessive relation: how technological knowing reassures the overwhelmed subject by withdrawing into the phenomenological background. The second – the empowering fantasies of better self-knowledge in the ‘Quantified Self’ community and self-surveillance technologies – then turns to a protrusion of objects, numbers, stimuli: how technological knowing appears into our most ‘private’ and domestic spaces of life, and seeks to pre-empt sense experience as a mode of self-knowledge.
(2017) Criticising Surveillance and Surveillance Critique
Surveillance & Society, vol. 15 (2)
The current debate on surveillance, both academic and public, is constantly tempted towards a ‘negative’ criticism of present surveillance systems. In contrast, a ‘positive’ critique would be one which seeks to present alternative ways of thinking, evaluating, and even undertaking surveillance. Surveillance discourse today propagates a host of normative claims about what is admissible as ‘true’, ‘probable’, ‘efficient’ – based upon which it cannot fail to justify itself. A positive critique questions and subverts this epistemological foundation. It believes that surveillance must be held accountable by terms other than those of its own making. The objective is an open debate not only about ‘surveillance or not’, but the possibility of ‘another surveillance’.
To demonstrate the necessity of this shift, I first examine two existing frames of criticism. Privacy and humanism (appeal to human rights, freedoms and decency) are necessary but insufficient tools for positive critique. They implicitly accept surveillance’s bargain of trade-offs: the benefit of security ‘measured’ against the cost of rights. To demonstrate paths towards positive critique, I analyse risk and security: two ‘load-bearing’ concepts that ground existing rationalisations of surveillance – and thus are ‘openings’ for reforming those evaluative paradigms and rigged bargains on offer today.
(2016) Data’s Intimacy: Machinic Sensibility and the Quantified Self
communication +1, vol. 5 (1)
Today, machines observe, record, sense the world – not just for us, but sometimes instead of us (in our stead), and even indifferently to us humans. And yet, we remain human. Correlationism may not be up to a comprehensive ontology, but the ways in which we encounter, and struggle to make some kind of sense of, machinic sensibility matters. The nature of that encounter is not instrumentality, or even McLuhanian extension, but a full-blown ‘relationship’ where the terms by which machines ‘experience’ the world, and communicate with each other, parametrises the conditions for our own experience. This essay will play out one such relationship currently in the making: the boom in self-tracking technologies, and the attendant promise of data’s intimacy.
This essay proceeds in three sections, all of which draw on a larger research project into self-tracking and contemporary data epistemologies. It thus leverages observations from close reading of self-tracking’s publicisation in the mass media between 2007 and 2016; analysis of over fifty self-tracking products, some of it through self-experimentation; and interviews and ethnographic observation, primarily of the ‘Quantified Self’ connoisseur community. The first section examines the dominant public presentations of self-tracking in early twenty-first century discourse. This discourse embraces a vision of automated and intimate self-surveillance, which is then promised to deliver superior control and objective knowledge over the self. Next, I link these promises to the recent theoretical turns towards the agency of objects and the autonomous sensory capacities of new media to consider the implications of such theories – and the technological shifts they address – for the phenomenology of the new media subject. Finally, I return to self-tracking discourse to consider its own idealisation of such a subject – what I call ‘data-sense’. I conclude by calling for a more explicit public and intellectual debate around the relationships we forge with new technologies, and the consequences they have for who – and what – is given which kinds of authority to speak the truth of the ‘self’.
(2016) Governing Governments: Discourse-tactics in the digital transparency apparatus
With Francois Allard-Huver. In: Studies of Discourse and Governmentality. New perspectives and methods. Eds. Paul McIlvenny et al. 2016. John Benjamins.
In a world of controversy and suspicion, transparency promises a ‘virtuous chain’ of informed citizens, rational deliberation and democratic participation. In contrast, this essay conceptualises transparency as a Foucauldian dispositif: a network of discourse, tactics, institutional processes and local subjectivities which articulates what kinds of actions and statements are admissible and tactically profitable. Notably, transparency discourse mobilises individual citizens to audit the state – to govern governments. This becomes the basis upon which the state and other institutions may legitimise and delegitimise one another through strategic uses of transparency discourse. We illustrate these processes through an examination of the ‘Seralini Affair’: a prominent controversy over GMO, scientific expertise and transparency in France. We analyse transparency discourse invoked by major stakeholders in the Affair, drawing tools from critical discourse analysis and French discourse analysis.
(2015) Subjunctive and interpassive “knowing” in the surveillance society
Media and Communication, vol. 3 (2)
The Snowden affair marked not a switch from ignorance to informed enlightenment, but a problematisation of knowing as a condition. What does it mean to know of a surveillance apparatus that recedes from your sensory experience at every turn? How do we mobilise that knowledge for opinion and action when its benefits and harms are only articulable in terms of future-forwarded “as if”s? If the extent, legality and efficacy of surveillance is allegedly proven in secrecy, what kind of knowledge can we be said to “possess”? This essay characterises such knowing as “world-building”. We cobble together facts, claims, hypotheticals into a set of often speculative and deferred foundations for thought, opinion, feeling, action. Surveillance technology’s recession from everyday life accentuates this process. Based on close analysis of the public mediated discourse on the Snowden affair, I offer two common patterns of such world-building or knowing. They are (1) subjunctivity, the conceit of “I cannot know, but I must act as if it is true”; (2) interpassivity, which says “I don’t believe it/I am not affected, but someone else is (in my stead)”.
(2015) “Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society”
First Monday, vol. 20 (10)
This essay argues that the ways in which we come to feel connectivity and intimacy are often inconsistent with and irreducible to traditional markers like physical proximity, the human face or the synchronicity of message transmission. It identifies this non-objective and affective property as presence: conventionalised ways of intuiting sociability and publicness. The new media society is a specific situation where such habits of being affected are socially and historically parametrised. The essay provides two case studies. First: how do we derive a diffuse, indirect, intuitive sense of communicative participation — and yet also manage to convince ourselves of anonymity online? The second describes surveillance and data-mining as a kind of alienation: I am told my personal data is being exploited, but I do not quite ‘feel’ it. Surveillance practices increasingly withdraw from everyday experience, yet this withdrawal actually contributes to its strong presence.
(2015) When Life Mattered: the politics of the real in digital games’ reappropriation of history, myth and ritual
Games & Culture, vol. 10 (1): 35-56
Games borrow ceaselessly from the past to constitute themselves. This locates the medium at the heart of our contemporary obsession with how to engage the past and the “real.” In tethering digital hyperreality to the horizon of history, myth, and ritual, games generate a disavowed and subjunctive engagement with a sense of “real enough.” They thus resemble Victor Turner’s liminoids: autotelic, bounded experiences of leisure that cultivate accepting yet playful attitudes against the “real enough” on offer. This commercialized bricolage is not dismissible as inauthentic simulacrum. Rather, such games demonstrate the ways in which new media are recalibrating our modes of engagement with the real. This article analyzes three key aspects of liminoid games: (1) techniques of reappropriation during production, (2) rules and expectations of engagement with the past and the “real” that games offer, and (3) emergent ways in which player communities, discourses, and productions recalibrate those politics of engagement.
(2015) Affecting in Discourse: Communicating Uncertainty and Communicating Uncertainly
Subjectivity, vol. 8, 201-223
We communicate uncertainly, and we communicate uncertainty. This essay examines the ambiguous and indeterminate aspects of everyday talk, and argues that they are crucial to our felt sense of communication. To make this claim, I bring together an affect- and phenomenology-influenced orientation with close analysis of conversational discourse. Hence, this essay also offers one way in which affect theory can be entangled with language and discourse.
Analysis of conversational episodes from fieldwork with teenage music listeners yields three key processes: (1) Patronage describes the ‘distance’ between the ‘I’ and my own utterance or gesture, reflecting the intersubjective and improvised nature of conversation. (2) Zones of indistinction are moments of ambiguity, which provide a sense of safety as I navigate these uncertain waters of conversation. (3) These affective and reactive journeys through everyday conversation constitute the work of position-taking, through which emerges my style of being in the world, my subjectivity.
(2014) The Other-Publics: mediated othering and the public sphere in the Dreyfus Affair
European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 17 (6): 665-681.
This article analyses mediated invocations of ‘the people’ or ‘the public’ in the Dreyfus Affair, and orients this historical analysis towards contemporary debates on public spheres and digital media. If the ideal Habermasian public sphere never historically existed, how did the ‘imperfect’ public spheres of the past nevertheless contribute to democratic political participation? The late 19th century is a particularly salient point of comparison, being a time of transition from one set of media technologies and notions of publics to another. Focusing on newspapers, posters and other print-based communicative practices, I identify two general and consistent modes by which the ‘other-public’ is produced: (1) the ‘other’ audience as the target of persuasion, influence and commentary, and (2) the speaker as a distinct ‘other’ from the crowd. This othering was not a pathological barrier to ‘full participation’, but a constitutive part of publicity in an age of nascent mass media.
For older publications, please see the CV.