The title of this post comes from A Quiet Place, a civilisational collapse horror thriller currently winning critical acclaim for its deployment of silence to produce a film which is genuinely terrifying in a way few others are. It tells the story of a family struggling to survive, amidst the social collapse which has ensued from the arrival of murderous creatures prior to the start of the film. Blind and deadly, the creatures stalk the ruins of America, using their acute hearing to detect their pray before dispatching them with terrifying alacrity. The film takes place almost entirely without dialogue, as the family use sign language to communicate while they carve out a continued existence in spite of the desolation surrounding them.

It was starkly reminiscent of It Comes At Night, exhibiting the same preoccupation with domesticity after civilisation has collapsed. In this case, the eponymous creatures stalk the woods at night, transformed by an infection which has ravaged the world. Both films adopt a rural frame for their dramas, telling stories about sustaining existence on a remote farm or in the woods. Self-restraint takes on a ritualistic dimension in each. Through careful discipline, control and quarantine it becomes possible to ward off the dangers lurking beyond the confines of the house. Or rather that is what is hoped. Failures of restraint, or the inability of even the best laid plans to prepare oneself for contingencies, serve as crucial dramatic devices in both cases.

Both families are patriarchal, even if more warmly so in A Quiet Place. As well as the shared labour of family life, this father seeks to instruct his son in survival skills so he can protect his mother and sister. Away from the family, he tinkers with devices to better equip his children while systematically working through radio frequencies in the hope of finding some authority remaining somewhere who can help make things right. Befitting the near-millennial status of lead actor and director John Krasinski, the farm is wired with Home Alone-esque devices ingeniously crafted to facilitate the possibility of escape. If only we plan ahead, we can cope with what is to come. So we have been raised to believe.

The director and screenwriter of It Comes At Night, Trey Edward Shults, undoubtedly a millennial at 29, leaves me inclined to frame these films in generational terms. What can we find in the psyche of a generation which entered the adult world amidst the devastation of the financial crisis? By far the biggest threat in the films comes from the social order. Even the best prepared family can be undermined by the unpredictability of other people, interrupting domestic routines or neutralising careful preparation through their unexpected actions. Family life shrinks in both films, encompassing the nuclear family and their daily routines. Everything external to this enters in as threat and loss. A Quiet Place takes this to a disturbing extreme, with even life within the family presented as a threat to itself. A child playing with a toy, the everyday noise of a family and the birth of a child all become occasions to fear for one’s life. Still they soldier on, in a performance of stoicism tinged with an undercurrent of despair. They persist with surviving, investing their daily lives with the security of ritual and coping with the intrusions of dangers as effectively as they can.

These are bleak films and I’m fascinated by their bleakness. They reflect a retreat from the world, collective horizons giving way to the all encompassing embrace of family life. Beyond which lurk terrors which defy our comprehension and capacities. If we do what we should do, working hard to protect our families, we might find our way through the storm. A possibility which A Quiet Place tantalisingly and ambiguously hints at towards the end, adopting a change of key which I read as an ironic play on the audience’s expectations of resolution. The spectre of safety lingers on while misery, decay and death mount up within the once safe confines of the home. Yet we continue onwards, putting one foot in front of the other, working hard and putting our faith in the power of self-discipline and careful planning. This is the only way we have been taught to keep the terrors at bay. Yet we can no longer relying on it working. But who are we if we can’t protect them?

In the last month, I’ve seen two scenes of automated retail which I wish I could have taken a photograph of. In the first scene, people were queuing up for the automated checkouts at Marks & Spencer in Euston station while multiple cashiers were left redundant at their station. It’s a shop I use a lot and I remember when the automated checkouts were first installed, often being left unused while people opted to queue as per routine. In the second scene, each of the ten automated checkouts at my local supermarket were occupied by ten people, standing passively as an error message flashed on the screen. Eventually, as I began to contemplate whether I could legitimately take a photo (or even go to a non-automated checkout and stop treating a trip to the supermarket as a sociological expedition) a guy came along and slowly began clearing the error messages one-by-one.

I was struck by a sense of sequencing between these two scenes, immediately recalling the image from Marks & Spencer in Euston which I had long since forgotten. People quickly adapt to the automation of retail, perhaps motivated by a sense that it is quicker and more efficient, even though it is frequently anything but. In reality, I suspect the truth of the motivation is more complex, perhaps reflecting what Ian Craib described as the discomfort with disappointment that leads us to escape the ‘mess of life’. Bit by bit, we become less inclined to tolerate the fleeting awkwardness of everyday life, the falterings that can unpredictably afflict mundane interactions and the loss of emotional energy, however minute, it takes to get through them. For instance, I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy in his 60s who was struggling to buy a newspaper on an automated checkout had opted to so, let alone continued with it in the face of mounting of obstacles. This is all speculative but a psychoanalytics of everyday automation remains an important endeavour. Can we assume that people will happily shunt over to automated retail en masse, carefully nudged along by retailers? If so, why would retailers preserve staff other than to ensure a baseline degree of functionality in human-computer interaction? The shadow work of coaxing desirable outcomes out of recalcitrant machines seems liable to become an even more central part of our lives than it is at present.

An interesting thread I’m following up from Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. This is Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev on ‘guard labour‘:

Another dubious first for America: We now employ as many private security guards as high school teachers — over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980.

And that’s just a small fraction of what we call “guard labor.” In addition to private security guards, that means police officers, members of the armed forces, prison and court officials, civilian employees of the military, and those producing weapons: a total of 5.2 million workers in 2011. That is a far larger number than we have of teachers at all levels.

What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today.

How widespread could this become in the event of mass technologically-induced unemployment? One of my favourite dystopian fictions, Lazarus, imagines a world in which great status accrues to a warrior-class of guards amongst a population of citizens, living besides a vast population of non-persons:


I find this interesting because it suggests Guard Labour could (does?) serve a socio-cultural function, as well as a structural one. It inculcates a mentality of guarding ‘us’ against ‘them’, offering opportunities to achieve status within the social order to those who might otherwise struggle to do so. But how would this intersect with the practical reality of actually guarding the wealthy elites? After all, military robotics is advancing at a remarkable pace:

From Strangers In Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild, loc 2587-2603:

Not claiming to be a victim, accommodating the downside of loose regulations out of a loyalty to free enterprise—this was a tacit form of heroism, hidden to incurious liberals. Sometimes you had to endure bad news, Janice felt, for a higher good, such as jobs in oil. I was discovering three distinct expressions of this endurance self in different people around Lake Charles—the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy, as I came to see them. Each kind of person expresses the value of endurance and expresses a capacity for it. Each attaches an aspect of self to this heroism. The Team Loyalist accomplishes a team goal, supporting the Republican Party. The Worshipper sacrifices a strong wish. The Cowboy affirms a fearless self. Janice was a Team Loyalist.

From Strangers In Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild, loc 2422:

“Crazy redneck.” “White trash.” “Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.” You realize that’s you they’re talking about. You hear these terms on the radio, on television, read them on blogs. The gall. You’re offended. You’re angry. And you really hate the endless parade of complainers encouraged by a 1960s culture that seems to have settled over the land. 

On top of that, Hollywood films and popular television either ignore people like you or feature them—as in Buckwild—in unflattering ways. “Two missing front teeth, all raggedy, that’s how they show us,” one man complained. The stock image of the early twentieth century, the “Negro” minstrel, a rural simpleton, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich notes, has now been upgraded, whitened, and continued in such television programs as Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. “Working class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street smart . . . and rich.”

An absolutely fascinating article from Arlie Hochschild, whose new book on the American right sounds like a must read:

Traditional Tea Party supporters wanted to cut both the practice of cutting in line, and government rewards for doing so. Followers of Donald Trump, on the other hand, wanted to keep government benefits and remove shame from the act of receiving them – but restrict those benefits, implicitly, to native-born Americans, preferably white.

Bleak but plausible predictions from Nick Srniceck and Alex Williams in their Inventing the Future. From loc 2020-2035:

1. The precarity of the developed economies’ working class will intensify due to the surplus global labour supply (resulting from both globalisation and automation). 

2. Jobless recoveries will continue to deepen and lengthen, predominantly affecting those whose jobs can be automated at the time. 

3. Slum populations will continue to grow due to the automation of low-skilled service work, and will be exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation. 

4. Urban marginality in the developed economies will grow in size as low-skilled, low-wage jobs are automated. 

5. The transformation of higher education into job training will be hastened in a desperate attempt to increase the supply of high-skilled workers. 

6. Growth will remain slow and make the expansion of replacement jobs unlikely. 

7. The changes to workfare, immigration controls and mass incarceration will deepen as those without jobs are increasingly subjected to coercive controls and survival economies.

This leaves us with a profound contradiction of “a future in which the global economy is increasingly unable to produce enough jobs (let alone good jobs), yet where we remain dependent upon jobs for our living.”

There’s an interesting extract in this Guardian article about the growing civil war in the Republican party, concerning the adoption of Trump’s tactics by aspirant politicians within the party:

Trump’s refusal to support McCain and Ryan comes exactly one week before Ryan faces a primary challenge from the businessman Paul Nehlen, a candidate who has sought to emulate Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Nehlen has branded Ryan “a soulless globalist” and attacked him as the candidate of open borders.""

On Tuesday, Trump praised Nehlen for running “a very good campaign”.

McCain is also facing a primary challenge at the end of August from Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator who has accused the 2008 Republican nominee of being “directly responsible for Isis”. If the five-term senator manages to fend off the primary challenge, he still faces a competitive general election against the Democratic representative Ann Kirkpatrick, in what McCain has described as “the race of my life”.

Although Arizona was once solidly Republican, the heavily Latino state is now considered an electoral toss-up because of Trump’s unpredictable effect on candidates whose names follow his own on the ballot. For over a year, McCain has also called on Trump to apologize for saying he prefers “people who weren’t captured” to prisoners of war, like the senator was himself in Vietnam. Trump has not apologized.

Given (a) Trump’s likely sponsorship of them (b) the relative and growing weakness of the party’s elites (c) a general tendency towards the ‘acceleration of bullshit‘, in which awareness of opportunities for advancement circulate more rapidly than was previously the case, I wonder if we’re liable to see a growing army of American demagogues. Perhaps Trump was just the beginning.

In the last few months I’ve become very interested in the status accorded to coding as a labour market strategy. It’s held up as both individually rational and a viable strategy for governments seeking to grow the human capital of their citizens. However, as Douglas Rushkoff observes in his Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, we’re likely to see growing numbers of coding jobs outsourced to lower cost countries through computational clearing houses. Furthermore, from Loc 866:

Besides, learning code is hard, particularly for adults who don’t remember their algebra and haven’t been raised thinking algorithmically. Learning code well enough to be a competent programmer is even harder. Although I certainly believe that any member of our highly digital society should be familiar with how these platforms work, universal code literacy won’t solve our employment crisis any more than the universal ability to read and write would result in a full-employment economy of book publishing.

Whatever demand for skills currently exists is likely to diminish with time, while available opportunities risk being swamped by aspirants given a wider context of occupational insecurity in which areas seen as focal points for growth are seized upon in an ever quicker fashion.

There’s an amusing account of 3 scenarios of learning to code here:

Scenario 1

Person 1: “I tried to learn to code once. I had a hard time. Life got in the way, and I am no longer trying to learn to code.”

Marketer: “Coding is easy!”

Person 1: “What? Oh. Maybe coding is easy after all. Maybe I’m just dumb.”

Scenario 2

Person 2: “I want to learn to code, but it sounds hard.”

Marketer: “Coding is easy!”

Person 2: “Really?”

Marketer: “Yes. Buy my course/program/e-book and you’ll be an elite coder in less than a month.”

Person 2

Shut up and take my money!

Person 2, one month later: “I thought coding was supposed to be easy. Maybe I’m just dumb.”

Scenario 3

Person 3: I have no interest in ever learning to code. I’m a successful manager. If I ever need something coded, I’ll just pay someone to code it for me.

Marketer: Coding is easy!

Person 3: Oh, OK. Figures. In that case, I guess I won’t pay those code monkeys very much, or hold their work in very high regard.

An important reminder by Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. From loc 198-212:

For many of us, the current system, however convoluted, is better than nothing, and changing to one in which we must create real value is frightening. Most people are not cultural creatives capable of launching a business on Etsy, programming a new iPhone app, or growing artisanal organic yams. We work in cubicles managing spreadsheets, calculating sales targets, and budgeting ad spends—or in retail stores, on factory floors, and in warehouses—doing jobs that may have no application or value outside that single corporate setting. We are simply fighting to stay employed, pay our mortgages, save for our kids’ college, and make sure we have something left for retirement. And in spite of the digital boom—or maybe because of it—it’s getting harder to do any of those things.

If we accept the likely impact of automation, even within the professions, it raises an obvious question: what will people do for a living? I had someone senior within a company at the forefront of automation argue to me that it will force some professionals to raise their game, others can become independent crafts people and the remaining ones who cannot adapt will simply be a societal burden. How widespread is this view? My hunch is that it might prosper as a convenient rationale for ‘disruption’ constituting a form of cultural evolution. It needs to be challenged.

In Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, he writes of how interns voluntarily subjugate themselves in order to ‘be noticed’, even if they have little expectation that their internship will lead to a permanent job. From loc 1997:

There is rarely much reason to believe that internships in the public sector or at nonprofits will convert directly to permanent employment—they seldom do—so the best one can hope for is to make an impression, be noticed, position yourself for something down the road.

This coheres nicely with arguments Bauman has made recently about social media. The imperative to be noticed, the extroverted mirror image of the spectre of uselessness, thrives in an environment when occupational opportunities contract. People find themselves locked in an upward spiral of competitive escalation in their desperation to claim what are correctly felt to be a diminishing number of possibilities to claim the life long security and stability which post war capitalism was able to offer most of their parent’s and grandparent’s generations.

What I mean by ‘contracting opportunities’ is best conveyed by a U.S. treasury official (and former intern) the author quotes on loc 2063: “There’s so much demand for this kind of career path and such a limited supply, so we’re able to dictate how to get into the process.” Internships can be an escape strategy, a desperate attempt to break out of a cycle of precarious work – with the number of job shifts by young people continuing to increase – into the receding upper echelons of secure and rewarding employment. But internships themselves reflect this precarious work, as hopeful interns are increasingly forced to undertaken chains of unpaid or barely paid internships in the hope of breaking into full time work.

Part of the problem with internships is they further intensify this problem, making ensuing jobs more glamorous and exciting by allowing the transfer of administrative functions to the interns, as well as contracting the supply of entry level positions as organisations replace permanent staff with interns. Plus, as he succinctly observes on loc 3035, the internship system as a whole allows privileged children access to opportunities denied to others:

For well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds.

A comparable strategy to internships and social media self-promotion is discussed on loc 2519:

Staking everything on a career-launching internship, as sociologist Mark Granovetter points out, is not unlike working unpaid for shares in a Silicon Valley start-up: “There are a surprising number of people willing to work just for 50 or 60 thousand shares of a company that may never see the light of day … Unless they think that what the company is doing is the best thing since sliced bread, then they probably have no better alternative.” Interns at start-ups, such as “Nora,” often work for the possibility of getting an equity share in a company.

This is an idea put forward by James Bryce, a British observer of the United States, in 1889:

This tendency to acquiescence and submission, this sense of the insignificance of individual effort, this belief that the affairs of men are swayed by large forces whose movement may be studied but cannot be turned, I have ventured to call the fatalism of the multitude. It is often confounded with the tyranny of the majority, but is at bottom different, though, of course, its existence makes abuses of power by the majority easier, because less apt to be resented. But the fatalistic attitude I have been seeking to describe does not imply any compulsion exerted by the majority. It may rather seem to soften and make less odious such an exercise of their power, may even dispense with that exercise, because it disposes a minority to submit without[999] the need of a command, to renounce spontaneously its own view and fall in with the view which the majority has expressed. In the fatalism of the multitude there is neither legal nor moral compulsion; there is merely a loss of resisting power, a diminished sense of personal responsibility and of the duty to battle for one’s own opinions, such as has been bred in some peoples by the belief in an overmastering fate. It is true that the force to which the citizen of the vast democracy submits is a moral force, not that of an unapproachable Allah, nor of the unchangeable laws of matter. But it is a moral force acting on so vast a scale, and from causes often so obscure, that its effect on the mind of the individual may well be compared with that which religious or scientific fatalism engenders.

Are we seeing a generational resurgence of this in Europe? If so, what are the consequences for politics and social life? Understanding these dispositions are crucial to the cultural politics of automationwe can’t just assume that mass automation would lead inexorably to a certain social response because those responses are always mediated by a culture which is transforming through the same processes driving mass automation.

FT_15.02.06_europeanMillSuccess FT_15.02.06_europeanMillWork

There’s an interesting observation made by David Schultz in his American Politics In An Age of Ignorance concerning the stock character of ‘the welfare queen’ which I think applies to other such abject characters. From loc 975:

This image of the welfare queen as a shrewd, calculating, yet lazy individual seemed odd. She was smart enough to follow welfare laws across the country and migrate to the place with the best benefits. Yet she was also unskilled and not motivated enough to look for real work. The welfare queen was a composite of the best and worst in human nature.

If this is an ontological dimension to abjection, can we also see an epistemological one? Listen to any call in show for long enough and you’ll find examples of such figures being recognisable from the slightest cues (e.g. their curtains are still drawn by 9am) or on the basis of placeless testimony (e.g. I heard they got a new flat screen TV).

This is possibly the most depressing blog post I’ve ever read. It’s the earnestness with which the author conveys the message that “influencers are rarely the people who move the needle in our life”, as if this was a genuine personal revelation that he now feels the need to convey in as gentle as tone a possible:

After scrolling for several hours, I came to a conclusion.

Some people–including me that night–spend too much time following top influencers.

If only I can get their attention, we think, then I’ll make it big.

As I scrolled, I thought about how hopeless some people may feel when they can’t catch the attention of that one influencer. I imagined how nervous that person might have felt as they crafted their Instagram pitch to Cuban, Vaynerchuk, or John.

Not everyone feels this way about connecting with influencers, of course.

But many do.

At the end of the day, influencers are rarely the people who move the needle in our life. Our success hardly depends on their attention.

Our success ultimately depends on the attention we give to our work, not the amount of attention our work gets for us.

By definition there can only be a handful of celebrities. As Goffman describes it on pg 68 of Stigma, by ‘fame’ we “refer to the possibility that the circle of people who know about a given individual, especially in connection with a rare desirable achievement or possession, can become very wide, and at the same time much wider than the circle of those who know him personally”.

Digital celebrity detaches fame from achievement and instead renders it a function of network position. To hope that one can “make it big” by “getting their attention” isn’t a career strategy. It’s not even an unrealistic hope. It’s magical thinking and I’m scared by the neo-aristocratic politics I could imagine it one day supporting.

I’ve become ever more critical of Zygmunt Bauman in recent years. However I continue to see some value in his work and this passage, from his Wasted Lives pg 11-12, illustrates what I shall always like about his writing: 

How different is the idea of ‘redundancy’ that has shot into prominence during the lifetime of Generation X! Where the prefix ‘un’ in ‘unemployment’ used to suggest a departure from the norm –as in ‘unhealthy’ or ‘unwell’ –there is no such suggestion in the notion of ‘redundancy’. No inkling of abnormality, anomaly, spell of ill-health or a momentary slip. ‘Redundancy’ whispers permanence and hints at the ordinariness of the condition. It names a condition without offering a ready-to-use antonym. It suggests a new shape of current normality and the shape of things that are imminent and bound to stay as they are. 

To be ‘redundant’ means to be supernumerary, unneeded, of no use –whatever the needs and uses are that set the standard of usefulness and indispensability. The others do not need you; they can do as well, and better, without you. There is no self-evident reason for your being around and no obvious justification for your claim to the right to stay around. To be declared redundant means to have been disposed of because of being disposable –just like the empty and non-refundable plastic bottle or once-used syringe, an unattractive commodity with no buyers, or a substandard or stained product without use thrown off the assembly line by the quality inspectors. ‘Redundancy’ shares its semantic space with ‘rejects’, ‘wastrels’, ‘garbage’, ‘refuse’ –with waste. The destination of the unemployed, of the ‘reserve army of labour’, was to be called back into active service. The destination of waste is the waste-yard, the rubbish heap.

I gave a lecture earlier this week about the cultural politics of automation and how this might shape the emergence of mass automation as a primarily structural reality.  I wish I’d seen this Pew poll when I was preparing the lecture:


This sense of the inexorability of mass automation is deeply worrying. It’s possible that people might begin to see the issue differently when face-to-face with the prospect of their own technologically induced redundancy. But it’s also possible that the mechanisms I outlined in the lecture – anticipatory acceleration in the face of contracting opportunities within an occupational field, coupled with an increasing fetishisation of ‘talent’ and corresponding denigration of ‘failures’ – might work to preclude any kind of collective resistance to mass automation or agitation for policy designed to mitigate the damage to people’s lives.


The rise of the robots is a recurrent theme of popular culture. Robots are often seen as a threat, heralding the prospect of human beings being replaced by their creations, perhaps to the extent of being deemed useless by them and attacked. Underlying this fear is the reality of automation: technology being more adept at particular tasks and so replacing human beings for this purpose. But automation isn’t new. All manner of what we now consider mundane automated tasks were once undertaken by hand, representing whole categories of employment which have now wholly or largely vanished. For instance our phone system no longer relies on switchboard operators and withdrawal of money no longer necessitates interaction with a bank clerk. But technological change has often produced new jobs to replace those that have been lost. Human beings are adaptable. As a 1965 NASA report put it, “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour”. More often than not, technology has been used alongside human beings to improve their productivity, sometimes as a skilled tool and sometimes as a tool for deskilling, taking a skilled task and breaking it into component elements. In fact, some might argue that the history of scientific management, analysing and dictating workflows to improve economic efficiency, somewhat resembles an attempt to turn human beings into machines: replacing their skilled and situational responses with a pattern imposed by outside experts.

But many are arguing that we are on the cusp of a turning point in automation. This is not a matter of hyper-intelligent robots replicating human capacities but rather of quite specific technological advances facilitating entirely new kinds of automation: what Jerry Kaplan describes as synthetic intellects and forged labourers. The first relies on advances in machine learning and cloud computing to process unprecedented quantities of data at speed, facilitating the rapid development of accumulated expertise in a particular sphere without strictly speaking ‘understanding’ it: the machine can learn from a much greater amount of data than was previously the case and the computational challenge involved in doing so can be distributed through the cloud. The second relies on developments in sensor technology to facilitate much more sophisticated engagements with the environment than has ever previously been possible, moving beyond highly specified tasks under strictly defined circumstances, allowing for entirely new work place designs built around the needs of the robot rather than the humans working alongside it. Rather than organising warehouses in a manner comprehensible to human packers, Amazon warehouses can now order their stock in a manner that seems chaotic to workers because items are located on the basis of imperceptible connections between them (e.g. sales data for this region shows that A and B are frequently shipped together) but allow the robot packers to work ever more efficiently:

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One of the most radical developments in the near future is likely to be self-driving cars, such as those currently under development at Google. As Kaplan notes, vehicle accidents cause 4 million injuries and cost over $870 billion annually in the United States alone. Seen in this light, the total switch to self-driving cars looks like common sense. But it will also destroy whole categories of existing jobs upon which millions of people depend, including those such as taxi driver which have traditionally been a reliable open route into the work force for new immigrants in many countries. However this has still up till recently be seen as a matter of automating routine jobs. What has seemingly provoked much of the controversy in recent years is the newfound recognition that what are seen to be skilled jobs will themselves be under threat. The most interesting example of this is Narrative Science’s innovative tools to automatically generate stories from structured datasets. Starting with formulaic business stories, they have since moved into sports stories and make a disturbingly convincing case that with enough sophistication about underlying narrative structures, this process can work for any appropriately structured dataset.


This might not lead to all journalists losing their jobs but it certainly does suggest the possibility that much of the routine work of journalism might be automated. On the one hand, this could be seen as unproblematic given the financial challenges newspapers and magazines face at present: if it can be done cheaper, couldn’t this help secure journalism’s future? On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the journalistic environment won’t suffer if routine entry level jobs are eliminated. Where will the stars of the future, those with sufficient individual expertise to resist automation, get their start? How will they become known? These are questions which have been raised across range of fields even prior to automation, as competitive pressures advantage those with sufficient financial resources and willingness to work for free. But the prospect of automation is likely to intensify this, ratcheting up the already endemic sense of uncertainty under which much of the workforce already labours.

How are people responding to the uncertainty facing occupational futures? Though the basis for his claims is somewhat unclear, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of this intuitively plausible. He suggests that the spectre of exclusion, the possibility that we won’t make the cut and we will be cast out without hope or prospects, animates a profound need for recognition. We ‘recast ourselves as commodities’ in order to cope under these circumstances, desperately seeking visibility in order to better sell ourselves against a backdrop in which, as the economist Tyler Cowen puts it, average is over. Economic polarisation is becoming the defining feature of the contemporary economy. As Cowen puts it, writing about the United States, “Demand is rising for low-pay, low-skill jobs, and it is rising for high-pay, high-skill jobs, including tech and managerial jobs, but pay is not rising for the jobs in between” (pg 40).

What Bauman is offering constitutes a speculative social psychology of how people respond to this condition of profound polarisation. If we’re aware that opportunities are contracting and that our future security is uncertain then these fears find FT_15.02.06_europeanMillSuccessexpression in a competitive scramble to ensure we are recognised and valued: as commodities, if not necessarily as persons. He suggests that much social media behaviour can be seen as an expression of this impulse (though many, including myself, would object to generalisations about how people in general behave across social media in general). But I nonetheless think it identifies something interesting about the fame-seeking cultures that can be found across many platforms, even if there’s a tendency to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion” in a way that serves the self-interest of platforms. The growing tendency toFT_15.02.06_europeanMillWork be fascinated with wealthy Vloggers, in virtue of the fact they are wealthy through vlogging, embodies something of this. Does the fact some people have seemingly secured their own future through social media visibility help propagate the sense that this is a viable strategy for many others? By definition there can only be a handful of celebrities on any platform. What we do know is how many young people see their future as determined by forces outside of their control, insusceptible to change through the avenues of work and education that older generations claim is a pathway to success.

Could fame culture thrive alongside this fatalism? People pray that they will ‘be discovered’ while also despairing about a future that seems beyond their control? What Furlong and Cartmel call the ‘epistemological fallacy of late modernity’ is a recipe for anxiety: the precise way in which opportunities constrain individuals has become more obscure than ever in a culture of competitive individualism which increasingly lacks the cultural resources to make sense of classed experience, while individuals are made to feel responsible for their biographical outcomes as pure expressions of their own talent and exertion.

Talent becomes fetishised under these circumstances. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. We can see it in the way that Donald Trump repeatedly proclaims that “I’m, like, a really smart person”, while condemning his rivals as not smart, without explaining what this really means or how it qualifies him for office. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Or to put it more mundanely: “there are plenty of good jobs out there for those who want them, it’s just that people don’t try”. The idea that differential outcomes can be explained away in terms of the moral failings of individuals means we take the existing state of society and the economy for granted: there aren’t questions to be asked about social structures, just more failings to be condemned in individuals. This is something

These are trends we can already see in contemporary society. My depressing question: how might they intensify under circumstances of widespread structural redundancy? What if the low-wage, low-skill jobs into economic polarisation is forcing much of the workforce rapidly begin to vanish? What will happen if 47% of jobs are eventually automated? It’s possible many new categories of job might open up but, as suggested earlier, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the scale and speed of this replacement. Will those who can’t find work be seen as unfortunate victims of unavoidable change or as moral failures placing a burden on the ‘wealth creators’? Will they mobilise themselves to collectively struggle for the transformation of a social order incapable of providing them access to the good life or will they be mobilised by others through potentially surreptitious means to serve the ends of those who are already wealthy and powerful? Popular culture provides us with many dystopian representations of what this might look like. The graphic novel Lazarus paints a bleak picture of a world in which nation states have been superseded by corporations and a small number of families dominate the planet. There are those who serve the families and those who are surplus to their needs, with the former group being composed of those who have been ‘elevated’ from the latter category. The possibility of freedom from insecurity and struggle represents a powerful tool to keep the population in line, coupled with private militaries to enforce this order through violence:


There are many other dystopian representations of a possible future in which there is little work or security for the majority of the population. However there are also popular representations of worlds in which scarcity has been conquered and everyone’s needs are met: ones in which some people still strive for work and adventure because of the intrinsic rewards that these provide. These are only representations but they are the resources we inevitably draw upon, deliberately or otherwise, when imagining the PRluddites1possibilities ahead of us for how these trends will unfold. Both of these categories however tie utopian or dystopian outcomes to the technology itself: seeing it as either liberating us or rendering us redundant. How does this suppress the role of politics – i.e. the tension and conflict between groups with different interests – in determining the outcome of these processes? Does it also preclude the possibility that our future might see a turn against technology, as something deemed to be responsible for systematic disenfranchisement? Would a neo-luddite movement be possible? Or are people too wedded to their devices? Would powerful interests allow such a movement, given the centrality of technology firms to the contemporary economy and the new possibilities for surveillance and control which the internet opens up? These are all open questions but they’re ones which sociology can help us think through in a systematic way, even if not necessarily answer.

Dear list members,

Kevin Smets (postdoc, University of Antwerp, Belgium) and Koen Leurs (assistant professor Gender & Postcolonial Studies, Utrecht University, the Netherlands) are sending out this email to see whether there are people on the list interested in submitting a panel / roundtable proposal on ‘Forced migration & digital connectivity in Europe’ for the October 16 AoIR conference taking place in Berlin.

Daily, Europeans witness Syrian asylum seekers arriving on the beaches of Greek and Southern-Italian islands. TV news footage shows how freshly arrived migrants use smartphones to take selfies or use Skype to happily announce their safe arrival on European soil to loved ones elsewhere. In response, prejudicial discourses about migrants have centered on smartphones; for example, anti-immigrant politicians and various social media memes frame refugees who own ‘luxury’ smartphones as less deserving of asylum. Forced migrants, who are digitally connected, embody Europe’s Janus-faced character in an age when advanced technologies are celebrated for increasing communication speed and economic prosperity.

As a result of different conflicts worldwide, forced migration has become a major challenge for Europe. The enormous death toll of migrants at Europe’s borders, the reintroduction of border controls within the Schengen Area, and the violence and hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in several European countries published across various social media platforms all attest to the way in which the current influx of forced migrants is overturning European society and political structures. At the same time mainstream media have devoted significant attention to the situation of refugees along their migration routes in(to) Europe. Interestingly, these instances often included digital technologies as central anchoring points in the lives of refugees. Detailed reports were made of refugees using smartphones, keeping in touch with their relatives, or documenting their journey through social media. Other accounts, albeit less frequently, focused on the ways in which governments seek to deal with forced migration via digital technologies, for instance by making use of GPS tracking in smartphones, or by setting up online deterrence campaigns to discourage refugees to migrant to specific countries.

Topical urgency:
While it is clear that forced migration and digital connectivity are increasingly intertwined, there is still a lack of in-depth, critical research into this topic especially in the context of Europe. With this roundtable/panel we seek to bring together cutting-edge research on forced migration in(to) Europe and the way in which digital technologies and digital connectivity and in particular social media play a role in the lives of forced migrants. The roundtable/panel aims not only to present empirical evidence for discussions about forced migration and digital connectivity, but also to offer new theoretical perspectives on the issue. Approaching forced migration as a complex societal, political and cultural phenomenon, we seek to consider different aspects of digital connectivity, such as the affective use of social media by migrants themselves as well as activists and trolls, political economy, as well questions related to gender, media literacy, policy, legislation and human rights.

In dialogue with possible participants we will decide on submitting a pre-constituted panel or roundtable.

We envision contributions may for example address the following issues:
*connected migrants in Europe
*social media use in refugee camps and asylum seeker centres
*migration and digital communication rights
*forced migration and selfie citizenship
*transnational communication and affectivity
*encapsulation & cosmopolitanization
*differences and similarities different migrant groups (class, gender, age, generation)
*digital migrant identities
*alternative migrant cartographies
*migrant recruitment and radicalization online
*governmental surveillance systems
*digital deportability and algorithmic sorting
*migrant networked learning
*migrant acculturation online
*affective digital connectivity practices
*trolling, extremism and anti-migration protest online
*political economy of migrant digital connectivity
*communication rights

Kindly register your interest in joining a panel / roundtable on the topic with Koen Leurs and Kevin Smets by emailing a 250-300 word abstract and short biographical statement to both<> and<> by 15 February 2016. This gives us 2 weeks to decide upon the format (either a panel or roundtable).

*This proposed panel/roundtable seeks to build momentum for the colloquium on ‘Connected migrants: cosmopolitanization & encapsulation’ organized by Koen Leurs with Sandra Ponzanesi from 14-16 December 2016 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This colloquium is funded by the Royal Netherlands Organization for Arts and Science, and will bring together 50 scholars working on the topic, see (

*The organizers are also co-editing a special issue on the topic for a forthcoming issue of Social Media + Society ( A CFP for this special issue and the colloquium will be circulated shortly.

Useful account of the role of ‘lead generators’ in generating ‘distinct digital-advertising landscapes’ with significant socio-economic ramifications. The filter bubble isn’t just a matter of cultural constraint:

As the big piles of data online continue to grow, these issues will become more pronounced. Information filters that control what version of the Internet a person sees are calibrated based on how much money various algorithms think you have. Which means distinct digital-advertising landscapes are increasingly drawn on socioeconomic lines.

The effect may be a more pleasant online experience for someone who is perceived to have more income. In the same way that startups have put a premium on cutting out human interaction for those who can afford it, adlessness can be a luxury for those who choose to buy ad blockers so their webpages load faster. But distinct ad landscapes aren’t just about seeing more elegant corporate messages, or encountering fewer pop-up ads—or even none at all. Companies and individuals are working together to target consumers on a personal level, to use their most vulnerable Google searches against them.