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Robot Futures Vision and Touch in Robotics

If you’re in London in early July, I think you should go to the Robot Futures: Vision and Touch in Robotics event just next to the Science Museum, organised by Luci Eldridge and Nina Trivedi.

The blurb:

This symposium brings together engineers, scientists, cultural theorists and artists who work in the field of robotics to explore notions of embodiment, telepresence and virtual and augmented realities.

Humans are embodied in robotic explorers; endowing them with ‘eyes’ and ‘hands’ robots are able to relate perceptions and experiences of places and objects physically unavailable to us. Although such robots might not ‘look’ human, it is the desire to see stereoscopically, and to feel through all the senses that endow robots with anthropomorphic qualities; we see and feel through the robot. In this way robots enable a more embodied experience, which is nonetheless mediated. It is in the development of virtual reality technologies that is increasingly enabling us to see and feel as the robot in order to get us closer to a more immersive experience.


I’m interested in it if only because of all the ongoing current debates about robots and automation generally (and we’ll get to see a demonstration of Robot De Niro). I learnt two interesting things about robots in Singapore last summer, during a talk by (I think) Colin Garvey.  First, he observed that fears about artificial intelligence becoming autonomous and robots taking over (the so-called ‘singularity’) are cyclical.  Something similar happened in the late 1960s and late 1980s – so perhaps this fear somehow gives expression to a wider sense of social and political unease or uncertainty.  And, second, that in the Japanese Shinto tradition, objects are respected in themselves – and that in Japan there is relatively little fear of robots.

But I’m also going because Ian Bogost’s (2012) book Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing is echoing round in my mind.  Although ‘object-oriented ontology’ (OOO) describes a serious philosophical project to rethink ‘things’ and materials for what they are, rather than how we relate to them, I like Bogost’s take on this mainly because it’s good fun. And once you get a broad handle on what he and other ‘speculative realists’ are arguing, you start noticing that objects have moved centre-stage across all sorts of fields of thinking- and in popular culture too.  It’s one of those ‘of course, why didn’t I notice that before?’ moments.

So what’s it like to be a non-human entity/thing/object/unit?  How does a radio relate to the piece of toast that somebody places on top of it?  From the perspective of smoke, what does smoke have to say about being bubbled through water?  How should we conceptualise an electron’s day-to-day business if we take human understanding out of the equation?  Bogost quotes Latour’s (1993 :194) well-known quip: “if you are mixed up with trees, how do you know they are not using you to achieve their dark designs?”  He acknowledges that any attempt on our behalf to answer such questions can only ever be anthropomorphic – and yet we might at times be able to come at least to a sort of metaphorical understanding.  So, we might be able to talk, for example, about “what it’s like to be Foveon digital sensor, even if this isn’t what it is to be one” (Bogost, 2012: 72).

And what’s it like to be a robot?  What’s going on when we are allowed to see and feel through a robot, which is itself made – to some extent – in our image?  Some nice questions in there to think about.

Programme and tickets for Saturday 8 July are here:


London, 3 June 2017



Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Latour, B. (1993). The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


I’ve attended talks in the past where examples of ‘best practices’ in urban sustainability (often from somewhere in Northern Europe or the US) have been presented, along with vague discussions of the difficulties of applying these in the context of developing countries. These difficulties are sometimes explained as rooted in the lack of ‘institutional capacity’ in such places. ‘Institutional capacity’ is an umbrella label, and might be understood in all sorts of ways. As a label, though, I find it problematic. The idea of ‘capacity’ points us towards thinking about quantifiable deficits, in terms of budgets, staffing levels, and technical experience, and so on. Such factors are, of course, important: it’s not hard to find examples of cities which – for whatever reasons – have plenty of resources available for ‘green’ infrastructure, and therefore appear to achieve a lot more than their neighbours. But talk of ‘capacity’ seems to evoke a set of particular criteria, each with a positive and negative pole, constructing in their totality a singular norm of the way that cities should be governed.

Strangely, I never hear much about corruption in such discussions. This is odd, if only because of the increasingly high-profile anti-corruption drives in international development more generally (Harrison, 2006). Presumably, corruption is to be understood as just one possible form of municipal incapacity; one flaw among many in need of correction if a city is to move further along the road to enlightenment. There is an assumption that most urban residents, and their well-intentioned leaders alike, would be pleased to be rid of this scourge, and would relish the chance to act in their own rational collective best interests.

This assumption seems logical enough if we treat the idea of corruption as an economic phenomenon. Susan Rose-Ackerman (1999:1), for example, understands corruption essentially in terms of institutional and market dysfunctionality. In her view, “societies differ in the way they channel self-interest. Endemic corruption suggests a pervasive failure to tap self-interest for productive purposes”. If the goal is one of infrastructural improvement, this would suggest that technological considerations alone do not suffice. While making a city ‘greener’ may be ‘technically straightforward’, we should remember that “reforming government and nurturing a strong private sector are more subtle and difficult tasks that cannot be reduced to an engineering blueprint”.

Fair enough. But what if corruption is not simply readable as a system’s relative position on a continuum, with regretful dysfunctionality at one end and an ideal of collective best interests at the other? What if corruption isn’t straightforwardly analogous to, say, levels of funding? What if some municipal councils are not staffed by individuals who dream that one day an equitable democracy will be installed within their jurisdiction? If, instead, they appear to the ‘western’ eye to function as consciously self-seeking gangster organisations?  Perhaps we accept the idea that corruption can have a “positive function in development because it ‘fills the gap’ left by partial bureaucratization and the incomplete penetration of the state. According to this logic, corruption eases the transition to modernity” (Haller & Shore, 2005:3). Again, though, this would be to interpret corruption in terms of a position along a particular path to becoming a ‘good’ system.

Instead, might we understand ‘corruption’ in more positive terms – not as a lack of civilisation so much as a reflection of deeply embedded cultural tendencies?  Rose-Ackerman (1999:5) nods in this direction by acknowledging that “corruption has difference meanings in different societies. One person’s bribe is another person’s gift”. Despite her interest in the causes and contexts of corruption, however, she still presents it fundamentally as a form of transgression: “culture and history are explanations, not excuses”. We are urged, in other words, to adopt a legal definition of corruption for practical purposes.

The legal codification of corruption, in itself, would appear to be a useful activity. I’ve made no attempt to review the vast literature categorising its different manifestations (see, for example, Heidenheimer and Johnston, 2002) – but Wikipedia at least suggests that the following analytical ‘scales’ are widely accepted:

  • ‘petty bribery’ (“the exchange of small improper gifts or use of personal connections to obtain favours”);
  •  ‘grand bribery’, (“occurring at the highest levels of government in a way that requires significant subversion of the political, legal and economic systems”); and
  • ‘systemic corruption’ (“primarily due to the weaknesses of an organization or process. It can be contrasted with individual officials or agents who act corruptly within the system”).

Each of these describes a deviation from an ideal of a system functioning efficiently in the collective best interest, and characterised by consensual compliance with an equitable regulatory and institutional framework. Thinking about scales of corruption might help us start unpicking statements such as that of Greek Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, who in 2010 justified his government’s austerity measures on the basis that the responsibility for the country’s debt crisis was simply a collective one (in his words: “we all ate it together”).

All the same, such an analytical framework sidesteps the problem that the notion of ‘legality’ itself seems to have a different status in different societies. What if the ‘law’ is sometimes understood as little more than a series of arbitrary potential punishments, only tangentially connected with ‘real’ morality, and not to be obeyed by default?  Clearly, there is no necessary equivalence between the legal and the moral (Bauman, 1989), and defining ‘corruption’ as a legal condition is a relatively recent phenomenon; the term has a longer history of reference to moral decay (Anders & Nuijten, 2008:1). Others, equally, have suggested that the idea of ‘legal corruption’ is not as oxymoronic as it might appear.  Cockcroft (2012:3) comments that “there are also forms of corruption which are technically ‘legal’ but which most of society regards as corrupt” (giving the example of “the risks taken in the banking sector on Wall Street and elsewhere” which “were not, in principle, illegal”). Haller & Shore (2005) remind us of Berlusconi changing the law so as to legitimise his previously illegal book-keeping practices.

Might it also be problematic if definitions of corruption assume a clear-cut distinction between the expected behaviour of individuals in a ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ capacity? Gupta (1995) observes that in North India the boundaries between an official’s professional role and his private life might appear very blurred to the western eye. Ruud (2000:271) finds that in West Bengal, “networking is an everyday coping strategy that does not distinguish between the private and public roles of the individual. Although such distinctions may be well known, practices such as networking and the moral weight of reciprocal obligation ensure that the dividing line is still crossed”.  Harrison (2006:15) refers to other work suggesting that what is interpreted by the outsider as ‘widespread corruption’ in India in fact implies a “widespread acceptance of particular norms and values of bureaucratic practice, rather than their rejection”. Price (1999:315) argues that “in India, at least, some kinds of corruption are a function of complex cultural dynamics involving notions of the ontology of ranks and statuses, or the nature of authority, and of personal evaluation in political competition”; such corruption is better understood as reflecting “systems of belief and practice which have historical antecedents”.

And what of our own systems of belief and practice in the West? In our institutions, and in our dealings with them, can behaviours only be described as rational and just? In imagining our own societies as ‘less corrupt’ than those of the global South, are we potentially demonstrating blindness to structures and behaviours which are structurally inequitable but are ‘normalised’ for us?  Might the ‘global coalition’ against corruption (Anders & Nuijten, 2008:3) have Orientalist overtones in its ubiquitous “juxtaposition of the honest, hardworking and sober North with the image of a decadent, deceptive and savage South” (ibid: 4)?  Perhaps the “commonly held view that corruption is simply the law’s negation, a vice affecting the body politic” is a modern illusion. Insofar as the “image of a thoroughly corrupted South seems to be necessary to uphold the idea of an efficient and transparent North” (ibid: 4), it would seem that “corruption and the law are constitutive of one another” (ibid: 2).

transparency international 2013 indexTransparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2013

At this point, it may seem that corruption loses all coherence as a concept. As Harrison argues: “because corruption is by its nature difficult both to define and to measure, to some extent its meaning will vary according to the perspective and context of the definer” (Harrison, 2006:15). We might be tempted to agree that “from a culturally sensitive point of view, it can be argued that the focus on corruption as a ‘problem’ in the developing world prevents us from understanding that these are practices developed within a fully mature normative system of no less moral validity than any other normative system” (Ruud, 2000:272). On this view, global ‘anti-corruption’ drives amount to little more than cultural imperialism.

But I think such relativism is too fatalistic. It denies the possibility of any constructive evaluative judgment; as well as spending our time splitting hairs over the definition of ‘corruption’, we also need to act in the real world. As Harrison puts it: “There is an uneasy tension between an appreciation of the fact that the meaning of “corruption” may vary and the harsh realities of being unable to get access to electricity, land, or a job, without a bribe” (Harrison, 2006:16).

But nor does this tension justify a retreat into “stipulative definition following Western norms” (Philp, 2002:47). A better way forwards would be the open acknowledgement of the particular norms and agendas which underpin any particular definition of corruption. Once these underpinnings are acknowledged, useful work can still be done to identify corruption – albeit within the terms of the definition and in the service of particular goals. Such work might be done by international organisations like Transparency International, or by individuals – as in the case of the crowdsourcing initiative in Greece. But, even more importantly, the norms themselves should continue to be questioned – especially by those countries who emerge under dominant definitions as ‘less corrupt’ than others. And this is where critical academic analysis has an important role to play, in working to destabilise discursive logics and identify the contours of internal and external power, countering our tendency to forget that these are never inevitable.

Returning to the shortcomings of urban sustainability policy-making, my most basic claim here is that the concept and practices of corruption receive insufficient attention in plans to roll out urban sustainability initiatives worldwide. I would argue that corruption should be understood not only as a practical impediment to smooth ‘progress’, but also as a clue to potentially generative sources of cultural sustainability. This possibility, however, will evade us as long as mainstream urban sustainability thinking remains narrowly focused on technological specifications on the one hand, and economic considerations on the other, and continues to avoid engagement with the abundance of potentially disruptive insights provided by social sciences such as anthropology, development studies, and critical political theory.

29 December 2013, London.


Anders, G. & Nuijten, M. (2008). Corruption and the Secret of Law: An Introduction. In: Anders, G. & Nuijten, M. (eds.) Corruption and the Secret of Law: A Legal Anthropological Perspective. Ashgate: Farnham, pp.1–26.

Bauman, Z. (1989). Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cockcroft, L. (2012). Global Corruption: Money, Power and Ethics in the Modern World. Philadelphia, PA: University of Minnesota Press.

Gupta, A. (1995). Blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics and the imagined state. American Ethnologist. 22: 375–402.

Haller, D. & Shore, C. (2005). Introduction – Sharp Practice: Anthropology and the Study of Corruption. In: Haller, D. & Shore, C. (eds.) Corruption: Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press, 1–28.

Harrison, E. (2006). Unpacking the Anti-corruption Agenda: Dilemmas for Anthropologists. Oxford Development Studies. 34(1): 15–29.

Heidenheimer, A. & Johnston, M. (eds.) (2002). Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts. Third Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Philp, M. (2002). Conceptualising Political Corruption. In: Heidenheimer & M. Johnston, M. (eds.) Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 41–57.

Price, P. (1999). Cosmologies and corruption in (South) India. Forum for Development Studies. 2: 315–327.

Rose-Ackerman, S. (1999). Corruption and Government: Causes, Consequences and Reform. Cambridge: CUP.

Ruud, A. (2000). Corruption as Everyday Practice. The Public—Private Divide in Local Indian Society. Forum for Development Studies. 27(2): 271–294.


‘Smart City’ event by Close and Remote earlier this year

How would you fancy living in a city built by Google or IBM?

I was interested to read a short piece by Paul Doherty (2013) prophesising a change in the construction industry in the near future. He suggests that we will increasingly see large ICT companies acquiring a construction arm – comparing this to a ‘land-grab’ which is waiting to happen. This chimes with a trend identified in our own research (Joss, Cowley and Tomozeiu, 2013): that of the growing involvement of international IT firms in the development of the ‘eco-city’.

How do we feel about this? If we are to shift to less resource hungry and environmentally harmful modes of (urban) living, then we need to make best use of technology. If part of the challenge is to integrate the different complex systems within cities, then computing networks are rather good at collating information to allow us to do so efficiently. And if we are to take part in the new knowledge economy, our IT systems need to be as good as they can be.  To survive, we need to be smart, and our cities need to be smart. So far, so good.

What specifically, then, do plans for ‘Smart Cities’ envision? The first one I ever came across was that of ‘PlanIT Valley’ in Portugal. This has been designed by private developer Living PlanIT as a 4,000 acre high-tech district, based on the concept of a replicable ‘urban operating system’:

PlanIT Valley will enable the enhanced monitoring of the vital signs of urban life, the condition and performance of vehicles and infrastructure. As a result, managers will be able to optimize normal daily operations of the city and provide greater certainty in reacting to extraordinary events through real-time modeling and simulation. With a view to incorporating new developments, urban management control systems will be updated with the latest information and technology as these emerge. (Living PlanIT, undated)

In its narrow focus on infrastructural technology, this is a fairly extreme example of the genre.  But what interests me is that: (a) it is being promoted as a vision of a city rather than simply of a computing system which will contribute to the city’s life; and (b) it boasts “the legislated endorsement of Municipality of Paredes in northern Portugal and the national government” (ibid). In other words, it has official policy status; it is more than a purely speculative commercial venture.

Just to be fair, here is another – apparently more holistic – conception of the Smart City, published by IBM, which looks beyond the physical infrastructural dimensions of urban life:

IBM smart city

It’s easy to find other variations on the theme.  But I am suspicious of conceptual and practical projects of this type. My suspicions, I should declare, do not primarily relate to issues of personal privacy, nor to the commercial ambitions of the key actors involve. Nor are they rooted in technophobia. It’s difficult in any case to talk of cities, or social progress, without referring to technology – the relationship between technology and society has been endlessly discussed (see, for example, Smith and Marx, 1994); technology, “after all, is about the relationship between human aspiration and the natural environment” (Chant, 1999: 42); and the city itself is the greatest technological artefact of them all.

To begin outlining the grounds for my suspicions, I would like to describe an interesting spectacle, from at a recent event on the Smart City phenomenon, organised by Close and Remote in Deptford (South East London).  (The photograph at the top of this post was taken there – you can even see the back of my head.) Instead of a solid wall behind the four speakers, there was a floor-to-ceiling window. This allowed us to observe the random goings-on of the real life of the city behind the speakers’ presentations and representations. Deptford isn’t a wealthy part of town. Crazed individuals stopped to stare through the glass; teenagers shuffled by, pushing each other and joking; a woman with a pram dropped litter; a dishevelled elderly resident of the council flats across the road came out onto his balcony to stare vacantly at the sky for 15 minutes. The discussion was characterised overall by intelligent critique of the Smart City – but the scene still struck me as nicely allegorical, in that the idea of a Smart City is only a metaphor for the city itself.  Like all successful metaphors, it is a beguiling one; we are blinded by its apparent explanatory force; we forget that it is only partial in its description. In this case, we were literally able to see through it. And speaker Christian Nold caught this idea well in his characterisation of the Smart City as an essentially ‘ephemeral’ phenomenon.

This ephemerality has at least two dimensions.  First, as Nold suggested, the possibility that existing cities might be retrofitted to be ‘smart’ in anything other than a superficial way appears to be a tall order. Nold pointed to the sheer physicality of existing infrastructure – even looking at, say, London Underground alone. He took issue with the idea of the Smart City as a “thing of the future… a thing which is always deferred – the literature always talks about it as something that’s almost there, almost there…you just need to push a little bit further”. He suggested that this attitude hampers us from adopting a critical perspective on it as something which is “here right now”.

Second, it is ephemeral in the thinness of its engagement with the social and political dimensions of the city. In one way, this doesn’t matter; the remit of IT (or Engineering) companies is to provide hardware. Equally, it would be absurd to argue that their representatives are naïve technological determinists, ignorant of the need for this technology to be acceptable to the public, or unaware that it might be shaped by societal forces. If evidence were needed for this awareness, I’d say this recent talk by at the Urban Design Group is fairly typical; the speaker (Paul Reynolds, from design & engineering consultancy Atkins) made it clear that his talk was framed by an understanding of technology as subservient to society: “This is quite a fundamental thing…Although we talk about the city as an object, the buildings that make it up, and more and more about the data that underpins it, actually we do need to remember at the end of the day that it’s about the people. The way they interact with their city and their environment may be changing, but they’re still the most fundamental aspect”.

The commercial actors promoting the Smart City are clearly not, then, irresponsible megalomaniacs. What matters to me, though, and to repeat my earlier point, is that such plans are often presented as visions of the city as a whole (rather than as ephemeral layers thereof) – and that this discourse is being adopted by policy makers.  To quote Christian Nold again: “the people who are actually doing the state governance around the Internet of Things and Smart Cities … are taking their ideas from Cisco”. This is worrying if, in IBM’s diagram above, democratic governance extends only as far as ‘administration’, ‘planning’ and ‘management’.  And who are the ‘managers’ in PlanIT’s vision? Do they mysteriously exist prior to the city, hovering above it, disembedded from the social?  It feels like a return to post-WWII comprehensive or systems planning – the results of which were mixed at best.

Some of the basic unanswered questions about governance in this context were recently raised by Evgeny Morozov:

I have a lot of respect for these people as engineers but they are being asked to take on tasks that go far beyond engineering. Tasks that have to do with human and social engineering rather than technical engineering. Those are the kind of tasks I would prefer were taken on by human beings who are more well rounded, who know about philosophy and ethics, and know something about things other than efficiency, because it will not end well.

We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there for ever. Democratic accountability will not be prevalent. You cannot file a public information request about Google. We are abandoning all the checks and balances we have built to keep our public officials in check for these cleaner, neater, more efficient technological solutions. Imperfection might be the price for democracy (Tucker, 2013).

Morozov, of course, has been accused of provocative exaggeration and technophobia; in practice, it seems likely that any future Googlopolis would be developed within existing legislative and democratic frameworks rather than in spite of them. But what of the ‘imperfection’ that Morozov valorises here? Might there be a value in seeing the irrationality of the city in a more positive light?

There are two ways to understand the tensions, conflicts and inequalities of city life – and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. From one perspective, they constitute barriers to be overcome in a quest to move towards a utopian ideal of social flatness; from the other, they are themselves generative of democracy. The first approach – which seems to be dominant in mainstream plans for urban sustainability – is aligned with a ‘top-down’ managerial ethos. These plans may not quite display a simplistic assumption of a “static, ready-made public to be discovered and represented” (Mohr et al., 2013), but plurality is still reduced to a conceptualisation of different ‘stakeholder groups’; consensus is assumed to be achievable through formal processes of public consultation and negotiation. Such deliberative processes are typically to be accompanied by processes of ‘education’ to ensure that the unenlightened and excluded also get the message. PlanIT doesn’t even get this far: the public here is barely visible, replaced by a series of functional abstractions, and syntactically passive. People are envisioned as ‘humans’, extensions of the proposed technology, merely contributing to the aggregative ‘daily operations of the city’. When PlanIT refers to a city’s ability to react to possible ‘extraordinary events’, it is unclear whether these extend to unpredicted social actions.

The second approach to the contestations of urban life, however, tends towards a more dynamic notion of ‘emergent’ publics. I was recently alerted to how this idea was already present in the work of John Dewey (1989) back in 1927.  And Dewey argued that it is precisely in times of innovation and technological change that ‘publics’ are most likely to arise. He refers to Emerson’s idea that we “lie…in the lap of an immense intelligence” (219), but one which institutions of representative democracy appear poorly able to tap into. The ontological and normative conception of the state as ‘out there’, somehow representing the collective will of the public, as expressed through rational, deliberative discussion, seems increasingly outdated (Chandler, forthcoming 2014).

What is my position on Googlopolis then? I’m not against the idea of ‘plans’ or institutional direction, but I want to understand how we can plan for the sustainable city as fundamentally a space of unpredictable, dynamic public life.  Technological solutions and experimentation are inescapably part of the mix – but a truly smart, sustainable city only seems possible if its starting point is a desire to embrace the complexity of unfolding turmoil, rather than an idealisation of the city of the future as merely an efficient ‘system of systems’.

23 June, 2013, London


Chandler, D. (forthcoming 2014). Democracy Unbound? Non-Linear Politics and the Politicisation of Everyday Life. European Journal of Social Theory. 17(1).

Chant, C. (1999). The Near East. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.) Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge: 1-47.

Dewey, J. (1989) [1927]. The Public and its problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press (Ohio University Press).

Doherty, P. (2013). The Impact of Smart Cities on the Construction Industry. Construction Executive eNewsletter. 2(12). Available from: [accessed 21 June 2013].

Joss, S., Cowley, R. & Tomozeiu, D. (2013). Towards the ‘ubiquitous eco-city’: an analysis of the internationalisation of eco-city policy and practice. Urban Research and Practice. 6(1):54-74.

Living PlanIT (2013). PlanIT Valley – the living laboratory and benchmark for future urban communities. Available from: [accessed 17 June 2013].

Mohr, A., Rahman, S. & Gibbs, B. (2013).  Which publics? When? Exploring the Policy Potential of Involving Different Publics in Dialogue Around Science and Technology. Didcot: Sciencewise. Available from: [accessed 21 June 2013].

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. London: Allen Lane.

Smith, M. & Marx, L. (eds.) (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Boston: MIT Press.

Tucker, I. (2013). ‘Evgeny Morozov: ‘We are abandoning all the checks and balances’’. The Guardian. 9 March 2013. Available from: [accessed 9 March 2013].

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