In the nineteenth century, English textile workers responded to the introduction of new technologies on the factory floor by smashing them to bits. For years the Luddites roamed the English countryside, practicing drills and manoeuvres that they would later deploy on unsuspecting machines. The movement has been derided by scholars as a backwards-looking and ultimately ineffectual effort to stem the march of history. For Gavin Mueller, the movement gets at the heart of the antagonistic relationship between all workers, including us today, and the so-called progressive gains secured by new technologies. The luddites weren’t primitive and they are still a force, however unconsciously, in the workplaces of the twenty-first century world.
This talk is based on material from the book Breaking Things at Work, published by Verso in 2021. Breaking Things at Work is an innovative rethinking of labour and machines, leaping from textile mills to algorithms, from existentially threatened knife cutters of rural Germany to surveillance-evading truckers driving across the continental United States. Mueller argues that the future stability and empowerment of working-class movements will depend on subverting these technologies and preventing their spread wherever possible. The task is intimidating, but the seeds of this resistance are already present in the neo-Luddite efforts of hackers, pirates, and dark web users who are challenging surveillance and control, often through older systems of communication technology.
Gavin Mueller is an Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Media Piracy in the Cultural Economy: Intellectual Property and Labor under Neoliberal Restructuring (published by Routledge in 2019). He is a Contributing Editor at Jacobin, and a member of the Viewpoint Magazine editorial collective.
We often think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a thing of the immediate future. We are constantly bombarded by slogans of AI coming to change our life, whether we like it or not. We are reassured it will be a better life. A better capitalism. A better environment. From smart devices, to home voice assistants, image recognition and translation, AI is offered as the solution to the greatest challenges of this age. This portrayal of AI as a benevolent deity has a crucial effect: it obfuscates the materiality of the infrastructures and devices that are central to its functioning. In her new book Is AI good for the planet? (Polity, 2021). Benedetta Brevini asks us to think about AI in a different, and more material way than most of us have in the past.
In all its variety of forms, AI relies on large swathes of land and sea, vast arrays of technology, and greenhouse gas emitting machines and infrastructures that deplete scarce resources in their production, consumption and disposal. AI also relies on data centres that demand excessive amounts of energy, water and finite resources to compute, analyse and categorize. Firmly situated in the critical tradition of political economy of communication, Brevini’s work forces us to reconsider the way we look at AI. For the first time, Is AI good for the planet? brings the climate crisis to the centre of debates around AI developments.
Clearly, there are other important concerns about AI: from moral and ethical appeals for caution concerning use of AI in military operations, to loss of human expertise in safeguarding human rights (public health and the judiciary), from algorithmic racial and gender biases to fears that AI will make human labour redundant. However, Brevini argues, if we lose our environment, we lose our planet. So, we must understand and debate the environmental costs of AI.
Benedetta Brevini is a journalist, media activist and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Sydney. Before joining the academy she worked as journalist in Milan, New York and London for CNBC and RAI. She writes on The Guardian’s Comment is Free and contributes to a number of print and web publications including Index of Censorship, OpenDemocracy and the Conversation. She is the author of Public Service Broadcasting Online (2013) and editor of Beyond Wikileaks (2013). Her latest volumes are Carbon Capitalism and Communication: Confronting Climate Crisis (PalgraveMacmillan, 2017), Climate Change and the Media (Peter Lang, 2018), and Amazon: Understanding a Global Communication Giant (Routledge, 2020). Is AI good for the planet? (Polity,2021) is her newest work.
Facebook has fundamentally changed how the world connects. No other company has played a greater role in the history of social networking online. Yet Facebook is no longer simply a social networking site or social media platform. Facebook is Facebook.
Taina Bucher shows how Facebook has become an idea of its own: something that cannot be fully described using broader categories. Facebook has become so commonplace that most people have a conception of what it is, yet it increasingly defies categorization. If we want to understand Facebook’s power in contemporary society and culture, Bucher argues, we need to start by challenging our widespread conception of what Facebook is. Tracing the development and evolution of Facebook as a social networking site, platform, infrastructure and advertising company, she invites readers to consider Facebook anew. Contrary to the belief that nobody uses Facebook anymore, Facebook has never been more powerful.
Taina Bucher is an Associate Professor in screen cultures in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo. She studies the relationships and entanglements between algorithms, social and political concerns – examining how users experience and make sense of algorithmic power and politics. She is also the author of the book IF … THEN: Algorithmic Power and Politics (published in 2018 by Oxford University Press). Taina teaches and supervises digital media-related topics. From 2013-2019, Taina worked as an Associate Professor in Communication and IT, University of Copenhagen.
Much has been written about the more deleterious dimensions of social media websites, platforms, and apps, from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to Instagram and Snapchat, dating apps like Tinder, and more recent apps like TikTok. We are all more than familiar with critiques of social media corporate and government surveillance, the commodification, expropriation and exploitation of user-provided data, the tailoring and curation of content, and of course recent dilemmas focused on fake news tying our use of social media to international cyberwarfare. Given all of these potential problems, why don’t we just give up and abandon our attachment to social media? How might we grapple with the exploitative and anti-democratic aspects of social media set against the kinds of enjoyment that it procures?Despite some of these problems, Matthew Flisfeder argues that social media helps us to grasp the co-ordinates, not merely of our trouble with machines and new media, but with the larger totality of twenty-first century capitalism. Conceiving social media as a central metaphor for our historical present, Flisfeder proposes extending the concept to its fullest potentials. Instead of abandoning the concept, Flisfeder argues that the term social media helps us to render what is problematic about contemporary neoliberal capitalism, proposing that it is only by pursuing and failing to achieve a truly authentic social media as our goal that we are best positioned to understand the real contradictions of our time, as well as dominant forms of subjectivity, consciousness, and enjoyment.
Matthew Flisfeder is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Communications at The University of Winnipeg (Canada). He is the author of Algorithmic Desire: Toward a New Structuralist Theory of Social Media (Northwestern UP 2021), Postmodern Theory and Blade Runner (Bloomsbury 2017), The Symbolic, The Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), and co-editor of Žižek and Media Studies: A Reader (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).