9 things I learned striking…

9 Things I learned Striking…


1. The importance of the strike itself—as a tactic, a tool, a space, for challenging conditions of precarity. As someone that’s relatively early career (I’ve been a lecturer for 5 years), a strike was something I’d read about but didn’t think I’d ever perform. In doing so, I confronted myself as a worker amongst workers. And realized the long-held power of withheld labour.

Even amongst the most privileged of us, it was important to strike. To actively disavow the strike, in the name of complacency, comfort, or embarrassment, only undermines the potency—and visibility—of striking from the toolkit of progressive politics.

2. The importance of the picket line. Lots of you will have felt joy, anger, sadness, happiness, and the biting arctic cold, at the picket line. But this space was the frontline of the strike, what Hannah Arendt might call a space of appearance. I didn’t appreciated, ahead of time, how important it was to have bodies on the street. But it did. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. Abilities and ages. Bodies whose very presence articulated—and signified—a demand. A call. The picket line was a lively, affective space of difference and demand—where our appearance itself was both a signifier and a corporeal power. Where bodies affected and impressed themselves in and against the flesh of the world.

For many of us the picket was a transformative space.

3. We found each other. We found students and colleagues that existed but did not appear to us. It’s easy to become alienated in our offices—lost at our keyboards, lost in conferences, lost in bureaucracy. But on the street, we found each other. We found new friends. We forged new assemblies that cut across hierarchies, disciplines, and entrenched daily routines. Bubbles were burst.

4. The strike expanded beyond a pension dispute. It lifted the lid on an ugly can of worms. Obscene VC pay. Authoritarian mangers. Deadening and overwhelming work routines. Gender disparities. Mental health crises. It became a lightning rod against the marketization of everything: pensions, universities, students, futures, bodies, minds.

5. Social media solidarity. Twitter was vital in sending messages of support and solidarity, coordinating action, and synchronizing student occupations. And I learned so much about the pension dispute through this medium—and with the release of USSBriefs it became a vital beacon for educating ourselves.

6. Education beyond the syllabus. Teach-ins and teach-outs were inspiring and beautiful. We learnt that education is, was, and always will be, bigger than university.

7. The importance of connecting to people beyond the university. This one is particularly important to me. Glasgow members gave blood at a local NHS donation centre. And many of us strikers went to volunteer at local foodbanks (and subsequently signed up afterwards). The strike reaffirmed how our little lives are always folded into a larger life. The life of the world.

8. Student-staff solidarity. The support from our students was the lifeblood of the strike and enabled us to keep going for 4 weeks. Student occupations affirmed who the university was for, and whose futures depending on it. Not managers. Not VCs. Not overpaid security staff. But students. It’s their house. And we are lucky to be a part of shaping their future.

9. Legacy: social spaces. There’s an opportunity to build upon our momentum to create a union that is a progressive, creative, anti-marketization space for student-worker solidarity. One suggestion is a UCU social space that meets regularly in campuses across the UK—to break bread, laugh, joke, and hold an always fragile assembly together. At Glasgow, we’ve started just that—with weekly lunchtime meetings.

I want to finish by reading out a statement from two Glasgow undergraduate students–David Hanson and Agnes Berner. They wanted me to read it out, on behalf of Glasgow University Strike Solidarity

We came together from a wide range of backgrounds: marxists, anarchists, feminists, faith organisations, activists involved with tenants’ rights, human rights, environmental and LGBT+ issues; some had been politically involved for years, and some had zero experience. One word tied us together: Solidarity. We recognised that although this was not about our pensions, the strike was a part of our struggle. As the strike progressed, the picket lines became not only a physical space, but an intellectual space rarely seen at the university. The strike was an opportunity to develop relationships with our lecturers outside the confines of the classroom. At heart, students and staff want the same thing: an open, democratic, and fair university that puts people ahead of profits.

It also made us look to our fellow students across the UK. We inspired, taught and encouraged each other. Social media made our actions visible and connected us despite being hundreds of miles apart. As more universities were occupied, the more it strengthened our resolve. The last week of the strike had seen an unacceptable proposal by UUK. As students, we knew our presence and outreach had been appreciated by the strikers, but senior management continued to avoid their responsibilities to students and staff. We had to make a show of force to demonstrate that the end of the strike was not the end of our fight: so we decided to occupy.

Occupations were orchestrated by very few people at some 20 universities. But by acting simultaneously and in unity, we had strong visible impact on fellow students, staff, and management, ultimately creating enough disruption to reach the media. As politicians started to reach out and respond, we realised the efficacy of our actions and how we could push for changes beyond the scope of the pensions dispute.

The fight against the marketisation of higher education and the neoliberal agenda that are eroding our universities begins now.


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Education is Liberation

Education is Liberation

I am 33 years old. I am 17. I am retired.
I am a Pakistani girl that refused to be scared.
I am students occupying a university.
I am a library volunteer.

Value me or I am forgotten.
Cherish me or I become fake news.
Love me or I turn into a product.
Challenge me or I calcify to dogma.

I scare you.
I dare you.
I whispered into your ears that you could be better.
I painted you a picture of a world different.

I am the astrophysicist smiling in the stars.
I am the nurse holding your hand.
I am the teacher that saw past your anger.
And instead wiped your tears.
I am the mother who worked 3 jobs,
So you would not have to.

Read me in books.
Hear me in songs.
Breathe me as you fly.
Whisper of me to your children.

I founded your cities.
I laid your roads.
I ploughed your fields.
I fixed your bones

Why did you hate me?
Why did you forget?
Why did you let others pollute me?
Why did you say nothing?

Blood is still spilled in my name.
Many fear my power.
For I am the world creator and the world destroyer.
Gold into ash, ash into magic.

Who am I?

I am revolution.
I am the voice inside your head. Pushing you. Always pushing you.
I am liberation.
I am education.

By Ian Shaw, 2018




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The Politics of Austerity: Fighting for the World

Public Lecture at the Main Gate of the University of Glasgow, 27 February 2018, 11:00am

Written in a couple of hours! So, apologies for any typos, missing citations, errors

Ian Shaw @ianshawz


A decade has eclipsed since the global financial crisis—the worst of its kind since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The damage inflicted by a cabal of bankers still festers in the world. Many individuals, families, and communities, simply never recovered. Part of the reason for this is the UK government’s policy of austerity.

The term austerity crested in popularity after the financial crises of 2007-2008. Public monies were used to buy private banking debt, leading to soaring national deficits. Soon after, this form of disaster capitalism (Klein 2007[1]) was translated into political currency for a Conservative party keen to slash and burn the welfare state.

Yet the case for austerity was always ideological. Even Paul Krugman, a Nobel-winning economist, argued that “Harsh austerity in depressed economies isn’t necessary, and does major damage when it is imposed” (Krugman 2015[2]). Austerity in the Eurozone between 2008 and 2012 typically had a negative effect on economic growth.

The reality that we were sold was different. The problem was not bankers and fat cats. It was the poor and the precarious. And so began the great robbery of the twenty-first century.

Like neoliberalism, austerity was thus a class project (Harvey 2005[3]). Selling public assets, slashing benefits, and shrinking the state, not only redistributed capital to elites— it also accumulated their political power. Lest we forget, austerity was nearly always accompanied by corporate and capital tax reductions.

So-called “quantitative easing” transferred wealth upwards while pushing downwards the burdens of austerity—leading to asset inflation and wage deflation. Austerity was a case of regressive redistribution.

And young people feel this most acutely. EU youth unemployment (below 25) is 18 %. In Greece it’s 40.8 %, Spain 36.8 %, and Italy 32.2 % (Eurostat 2018[4]).

Moreover, in 2017, “vulnerable employment,” represented 42 percent of all work in the world—or 1.4 billion people (International Labour Organization, 2017[5]). Those are jobs marked by precarity with no guarantees of your next paycheck.

The class war is very real. And most of us are losing.

Financialization plays a key role in this class war. The real wealth in this world is difficult to see. It’s not always located in fat-cat salaries. No no. It’s in stocks and shares, offshore accounts, and empty houses. But its effects are easy to see. Unemployment. Homelessness. Social unrest. Riot. And death.

The net result: obscene wealth accumulation and poverty now sit together. Globally, eight billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population (Oxfam 2017[6]). The richest 10% of UK households hold 45% of all wealth (The Equality Trust 2018[7]). The poorest 50%, by contrast, just 8.7%.  One in three British children now live in poverty (Butler 2017[8]).

In 2017, one study claimed that 30,000 excess deaths in the UK during 2015 were a result of austerity-driven cuts to the NHS and social care (Siddique 2017a[9]). Put simply: the age of austerity has shortened people’s lives and their life chances.

Too many of us are falling into a category that should have been left in the Victorian Era: surplus populations. People whose lives are made redundant.

Austerity is structural violence. It is felt in our bodies and also our minds.

The World Health Organization anticipates that depression will be the largest global health problem by 2030. One in four people are affected by a mental illness, according to the NHS. (Siddique 2017b[10])

Austerity makes us sick. It alienates us from our world and our brothers and sisters.

In 1972, here at the University of Glasgow, Jimmy Reid, a trade unionist from Govan, became Rector. In his address, he talked about alienation:

“Alienation is [a] major social problem in Britain today.. Let me define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of [people] who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control… The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies…

As he continues,

“…anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else”

“It is my earnest desire that this great University of Glasgow should be in the vanguard: initiating changes and setting the example for others to follow”

Clearly the bite of austerity is raw. More surplus populations. More mental health problems. More inequality. More frustration. You don’t have to travel long here in Glasgow to see social apartheid written on the streets.

So how do we change a system of structural violence that seems everywhere and nowhere?


Here’s the big problem: despite these wretched conditions, worlds beyond austerity are struggling to breathe.

More dangerously: galvanized white supremacists, and fascists, are exploiting the toxic collision of austerity, nationalism, and racism. Some sit in the White House.

But as more of us find ourselves surplus to the economy, there is an opportunity to reimagine what constitutes a “good life.”

For the obstacle we face is big. Our streets, jobs, bodies, and minds are so colonized by what Mark Fisher (2009[11]) terms “capitalist realism” that its suffocating power can be difficult to see. For even in the direst of circumstances we still cling to the world we have, rather than the world we want.

The psychologist Wilhelm Reich put it as follows:

“what has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike.”

I think our task as intellectuals, and as students of the world, is to research, teach, and support practices that re-enchant our imaginations with alternative worlds.

This requires decolonizing our minds of the entrenched common-sense of what is meaningful work, and its connection to happiness, identity, and self-worth. It asks: what the hell are we doing?

Education is liberation. Liberation of our minds from a system of structural violence that lets thousands die, millions suffer, and keeps us trapped in cycles of precarious work and unemployment.

Emancipatory politics must address the imagination. It is love, dreams, passion, and the desire for alternative-worlds that opposes the bitterness of austerity. This struggle must expand beyond the exploitative, alienating, and oppressive conception that work can only be waged labor.

More than ever, in age of austerity, cutbacks, and the slow march of the coming robots, we must think through practical supplements, and alternatives, to wage-labor: to bold worlds with decommodified economic exchanges, social configurations, ecologies, and subjects.

For example, a universal basic income (UBI) is generating renewed interest. The premise of UBI is that the state should provide a certain amount of financial support to each citizen, regardless of employment.

But what about political autonomy? Even existential autonomy?

Many strands of the autonomous Marxist tradition (see Henri Lefebvre on autogestion), anarchism (see the work of Simon Springer), and diverse economies literature (e.g. the work of Gibson-Graham) detail important political alternatives. Temporary and permanent autonomous zones, worker’s councils, cooperatives, community gardens, free schools, pirate radio stations, squats, collectives, communes (see especially Invisible Committee 2009[12]), LETs, diverse economies, and other parallel institutions are vital spaces of refuge. Consider the pioneering success of the Black Panthers’ successful survival programs in the 1960s.

What I want to a stress, and perhaps this is unsurprising as I am a geographer, is the importance of working for the world. Not working-for-a boss, or just ourselves, but working-for-the world. Working for a good life, a dignified world. Most of us sell our labor to survive. I know I do. But work spans beyond this capitalist definition to encompass a care for the space that surround us (on this see Hannah Arendt).

This kind of work spirals outwards: from the individual, to the street, to the neighbourhood, extending to new social formations. Local communities become spaces for budding new worlds: spaces that “protect individuals from becoming isolated, lonely and withdrawn (Gorz 1989: 159[13]).

Working for better housing, better parks, better infrastructure, better transport, better oceans, better rivers, better cities. We must see in the world the very fabric of our own existence. We are not separate from the world: physically, mentally, or emotionally. We are one.

There is so much sadness, loneliness, and anger that swells from having so little invested in the world. Austerity poisons our minds and our landscapes. Ruining social housing. Taking away life opportunities. And slashing our healthcare.

But we can undermine austerity by building new worlds. And the first step is education—an emancipatory practice that is always under threat. It is not separate from the class war. It is just another battleground.  It’s why we are assembled on this picket.

So, to finish: wherever we find ourselves, our task is to unite and work for a different world.

These worlds are always bubbling into being. They are here in Glasgow. They are community centres. They are acts of kindness. And these blueprints for alternative worlds require us—whether students, academics, activists, artists, or teachers—to build them with our minds, bodies, and spirit.

Thank you.

[1] Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2] Krugman, P. (2015). The austerity delusion. https://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion

[3] Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Eurostat (2018). http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Unemployment_statisticsv

[5] ILO (2017). World Employment Social Outlook. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_541211.pdf

[6] Oxfam (2017). https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world

[7] Equality Trust (2018). https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk

[8] Butler, P. (2018). https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/15/levels-of-child-hunger-and-deprivation-in-uk-among-highest-of-rich-nations

[9] Siddique, H. (2017a). https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/17/health-cuts-most-likely-cause-major-rise-mortality-study-claims

[10] Siddique, H. (2017b).  https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/26/thriving-work-report-uk-mental-health-problems-forcing-thousands-out

[11] Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: O Books.

[12] The Invisible Committee. (2009). The Invisible Committee: The Coming Insurrection. Milton Keynes: Lightning Source.

[13] Gorz, A. (1989). Critique of Economic Reason. (G. Handyside & C. Turner, Trans.). London: Verso.

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Readings on Urbicide

Readings on Urbicide

Abujidi, N. (2014). Urbicide in Palestine: Spaces of Oppression and Resilience. Oxon: Routledge.

Adams, N. (1993). Architecture as the target. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 52(4): 389-390.

Berman, M. (1987). Among the ruins. new internationalist, available at https://newint.org/features/1987/12/05/among

Berman, M. (1996). Falling towers: city life after urbicide. In: Crow, D. (ed.) Geography and Identity: Exploring and Living Geopolitics of Identity. Washington: Maisonneuve, pp. 172–192.

Bevan, R. (2005). The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaktion Books.

Bogdanovic, B. (1993) ‘Murder of the City.’ The New York Review of Books, 40:10. Available: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1993/05/27/murder-of-the-city/

Campbell, D., Graham, S. and Monk, D. B. (2007). Introduction to urbicide: the killing of cities? Theory and Event 10(2), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/218080

Coward, M. (2006). Against anthropocentrism: the destruction of the built environment as a distinct form of political violence. Review of International Studies 32: 419-437

Coward, M. (2007). Urbicide reconsidered. Theory and Event, 10(2), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/218081

Coward, M. (2008). Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction. Oxon: Routledge

Dudley, M. (2007). Revisiting cold war ideology in the secure city: towards a political economy of urbicide. Theory & Event, 10(2), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/218084

Fregonese, S. (2009). The urbicide of Beirut? Geopolitics and the built environment in the Lebanese civil war (1975–1976). Political Geography 28(5): 309–318.

Graham, S. (2002). Bulldozers and bombs: the latest Palestinian-Israeli conflict as asymmetric urbicide. Antipode, 34(4): 642-649.

Graham, S. (2003). Lessons in urbicide. New Left Review, 19, https://newleftreview.org/II/19/stephen-graham-lessons-in-urbicide

Goonewardena, K. and Kipfer, S. (2006). Postcolonial urbicide: new imperialism, global cities and the damned of the earth. New Formations, 59(23-33).

Hanafi, S., 2013. Explaining spacio-cide in the Palestinian territory: Colonization, separation, and state of exception. Current Sociology, 61(2), pp.190–205.

Herscher, A. (2006). American urbicide. Journal of Architectural Education, 60(1): 18-20

Herscher, A., 2007. Urbicide, Urbanism, and Urban Destruction in Kosovo. Theory & Event, 10(2).

Hewitt, K. (1983). Place annihilation: area bombing and the fate of urban places. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 73: 257-284

Hewitt, K., 2009. Proving grounds of urbicide: Civil and urban perspectives on the bombing of capital cities. Acme, 8(2), pp.340–375.

Huxtable, A. L. (1968). Lessons in urbicide. New York Times, December 22.

Huxtable, A. (1970). Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? A Primer on Urbicide. New York: Collier Books.

Kipfer, S. and Goonewardena, K. (2007). Colonization and the new imperialism: on the meaning of urbicide today. Theory & Event, 10(2), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/218089

Mostar Architects Association. (1993). Mostar ’92 – Urbicide. Spazio e Societa/Space and Society, 16(62), 8–25.

Ramadan, A. (2009). Destroying Nahr el-Bared: sovereignty and urbicide in the space of exception. Political Geography, 28 (3): 153–163.

Safier, M. (2001). Confronting ‘urbicide’: crimes against humanity, civility and diversity, and the case for a civic cosmopolitan response to the attack on New York. City, 5(2):416-429.

Sharp, D., 2016. Urbicide and the Arrangement of Violence in Syria. In D. Sharp & C. Panetta, eds. Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings. Terreform, pp. 118–141.

Shaw, M. (2004). New wars of the city: relationships of ‘‘urbicide’’ and ‘‘genocide’’.

In S. Graham (Ed.), Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics (pp.

141–153). Oxford: Blackwell.

Simmons, C. (2001). Urbicide and the Myth of Sarajevo. Partisan Review, 68(4), pp.624–630.

al-Sabouni, M. (2016). The Battle for Home: Memoir of a Syrian Architect. Thames & Hudson.

Stanley, B., (2017). The City-Logic of Resistance: Subverting Urbicide in the Middle East City. Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, 12(3): 10–24.

Tyner, J.A, Henkin, S., Sirik, S., Kimsroy, S. (2014). Phnom Penh during the Cambodian genocide: A case of selective urbicide. Environment and Planning A, 46(8): 1873–1891.

Watson, I. (2013) (Re)constructing a world city: urbicide in global Korea.

Globalizations, 10(2): 309-325.

Zaprianov, D. (2012). Is the destruction of urban structures a form of violence? E-International Relations, http://www.e-ir.info/2012/06/15/is-the-destruction-of-urban-structures-a-form-of-violence/

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Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age

My latest open-access paper has just come online over at Security Dialogue.


How will the robot age transform warfare? What geopolitical futures are being imagined by the US military? This article constructs a robotic futurology to examine these crucial questions. Its central concern is how robots – driven by leaps in artificial intelligence and swarming – are rewiring the spaces and logics of US empire, warfare, and geopolitics. The article begins by building a more-than-human geopolitics to de-center the role of humans in conflict and foreground a worldly understanding of robots. The article then analyzes the idea of US empire, before speculating upon how and why robots are materializing new forms of proxy war. A three-part examination of the shifting spaces of US empire then follows: (1) Swarm Wars explores the implications of miniaturized drone swarming; (2) Roboworld investigates how robots are changing US military basing strategy and producing new topological spaces of violence; and (3) The Autogenic Battle-Site reveals how autonomous robots will produce emergent, technologically event-ful sites of security and violence – revolutionizing the battlespace. The conclusion reflects on the rise of a robotic US empire and its consequences for democracy.

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Read this rest of the paper here.

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Remote: a Documentary about Drones and Humans

This is a 33-minute documentary I produced about drone warfare. It covers a lot of ground–from the history of air power, to signature strikes, miniaturized swarming, the future of policing, the role of autonomous AI, and what it all means for us – humanity.

My ambition for this video was always to situate drones within a deeper (philosophical) consideration about the human condition. For this reason, the title of the documentary–Remote–plays on the the ideas of remote violence but also a remote society.

The documentary draws from my 2016 book, Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance, published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The documentary is entirely for educational, non-commercial purposes, and no copyright infringement intended. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the ESRC, the Urban Studies Foundation, and the University of Glasgow. The content of the video represents my views, and not necessarily any of these organizations.

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Policing the Future City: Robotic Being-in-the-World

Below is my contribution for the recent collection published in Antipode on Algorithmic Governance.

Policing the Future City: Robotic Being-in-the-World

Sensor Prison

Ripe was the time for a revolution in police surveillance. The Vietnam War served as a laboratory for cybernetic experiments in the management of state power and violence. During the 1960s, the US Department of Defense began to automate warfare with the aid of computer algorithms. What became known as the “electronic battlefield” was a networked system of acoustic and seismic sensors, airplanes, and IBM super-computers that detected enemy movements in the forest and automated the US military’s kill chain (Dickson 2012). This vaulted apparatus of Technowar (Gibson 2000) revolutionized how the US military conducted the age-old art of killing. By the end of the conflict, the electronic battlefield was the object of fervid speculation, excitement, and anxiety. In a 1975 article, The New York Times prophesized: “Wars fought by planes without pilots. . . Guns that select their own targets. Missiles that read maps. Self-operated torpedoes on the ocean floor. Laser cannons capable of knocking airplanes out of the sky. Satellite battles on the other side of the moon” (Stanford 1975).


Figure 1: A U.S. computational surveillance centre in Thailand monitored ground sensor information during the Vietnam War. Photo credit: Project CHECO Report, Igloo White, January 1970- September 1971, U.S. Air Force.

Decades later, wars are now fought by planes without (onboard) pilots, although lunar conflicts have yet to materialize. But the real revolution of the Vietnam War was always more insidious: during the 1970s, the electronic battlefield snaked back to the homeland. Sensor technology was used by domestic law enforcement for policing, prisons, and border control. Under Operation Intercept—the anti-narcotics search and seizure operations that fueled President Nixon’s war on drugs—the US-Mexico border was converted into a testing ground for the domestication of the electronic battlefield. Buried seismic sensors were deployed by Border Patrol in the summer of 1970. Only the imagination limited how the electronic battlefield could be used for policing.

In 1971, Joseph Meyer, a US engineer who worked for the Air Force and National Security Agency (NSA), published his vision for a Crime Deterrent Transponder System. This futuristic blueprint detailed a new method for policing crime in the city: attaching millions of American parolees, recidivists, and bailees with small radio transponders. These would continually broadcast the location of tagged individuals to police sensors, creating an immersive public surveillance network. “As a consequence, the system of confining criminals in prisons and jails, to punish them or prevent them from committing further crimes, can be replaced by an electronic surveillance and command-control system to make crime pointless” (Meyer 1971: 2). Replacing carceral enclosures, the city itself would be reengineered into a boundless radio prison.

Meyer’s city of sensors would envelop “the criminal with a kind of externalized conscience—an electronic substitute for the social conditioning, group pressures, and inner motivation which most of the society lives with” (Meyer 1971: 17). Decades later, reality has caught up with Meyer’s design: police regularly use GPS devices on convicted criminals, sealing them inside an externalized conscience. More generally, the electronic battlefield, born in the mud and blood of Vietnam, has seeped into the bedrock of the modern smart city—which now seeks to sense and track our intimate mobilities. Algorithmic forms of governance have revolutionized who watches us and how we are watched.

Deterritorializing Algorithmic Policing 

The algorithm, defined broadly “as both technical process and synecdoche for ever more complex and opaque socio-technical assemblages” (Amoore and Raley 2017: 3), has shifted the conditions of possibility for mass surveillance in our dense technical environments, enchanting the anonymous surfaces of the city and the intimate interfaces of habit. To extend Meyer’s turn of phrase, the algorithm not only produces an externalized conscience, but also, an externalized consciousness. The algorithm performs something of an electro-neurological continuum—a univocity of being in which calculation and thinking, consciousness and conscience, cause and effect, the biological and digital, and proximity and distance collapse into uncertain circuits.

Inwards, ever inwards, trickles the flow of who we are into distant clouds (Amoore 2016). The mass centralization of (big) data performed by the algorithm is inseparable from the technological prostheses that cocoon and extend human subjectivity: cell phones, automatic license plate readers, credit cards, facial recognition technologies, computers, and good old-fashioned CCTV. These background apparatuses perform an ambient, territorial intelligence: sending data onwards, altering (non)human mobilities, opening and closing, archiving and cross-referencing, enabling and constricting. The footprints of our lives echo in anonymous government buildings and shiny corporate hives.

For most of its early history, the algorithm was entombed in static shells, a ghost in the machine, patiently watching. Now, no longer: escaping from remote clouds, the algorithm has discovered new robotic bodies to enchant and awaken. Released from the background, liberated from inertia, algorithms are emancipating technics in new lines of flight. In an era of deep learning and swarm intelligence, the algorithm is enabling the deterritorialization of multiple vectors of algorithmic governance. And pivotal to this process is the robot, which fuses sensors, algorithms, and motors together. Algorithms are translating state power into not only more intelligent technics (which has always been their function) but perhaps more significantly, mobile technics.

Rather than enabling, restricting, and conditioning other (non)human bodies, algorithms now find themselves inside of robots capable of conditioning the world directly themselves. The question then becomes: what is at stake when self-learning algorithms propel robots that can move, sense, think, act, and react in the social spaces of human coexistence? Does the autonomous robot, big or small, materialize new modes of algorithmic being-in-the-world?

Robotic Being-in-the-World

Robots have long produced disruptive geographies. Yet autonomous robotics—as opposed to automatic robots complicate the who, the what, and the how of these spatialities and temporalities. Whether a swarm of micro drones flying with advanced sense-and-avoid algorithms, or Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, an advanced four-legged ground robot that mimics the gait of a dog, these kinds of robots pose interesting problematics. By being actors very much in the midst of the world— alongside us in physical co-presence, our alien coexistents—such robots will be productive of space-times that extend and rework current understanding of algorithmic governance. Indeed, consider the Pentagon-financed Atlas. The future uses for this humanoid robot range from aiding humanity in natural disasters to caring for the elderly. The New York Times described Atlas as “a striking example of how computers are beginning to grow legs and move around in the physical world.”


Figure 2: First-generation Atlas, a humanoid robot created by DARPA and Boston Dynamics. Image credit: DARPA (2013), available at Wikimedia Commons.

Algorithms, of course, are always-already worldly. They are embodied (Wilcox 2017), performative, world-making forces, existing across the interfaces of human and nonhuman. As Amoore and Raley (2017:5) write, “it is not merely that algorithms are applied as technological solutions to security problems, but that they filter, expand, flatten, reduce, dissipate and amplify what can be rendered of a world to be secured.” Accordingly, rather than ask the “how” of the algorithm, we must also ask: “what kinds of perceptions and calculations of the world, what kinds of geographies, become possible” (Amoore 2016:9). Understanding the worldliness of algorithms is to view them as forces embedded in the flesh, texture, steel, stone, and undulating atmospheres of our more-than-human co-existence.

The military applications for robotics are already vast. Drone warfare has installed remote power topologies that collapse human pilots with targets thousands of miles away (Shaw 2016). Future autonomous drones (such as the Anglo-French Unmanned Combat Air System) will collapse these targets in entirely robotic topologies, materializing an electronic battlefield in which humans are on the loop, but not necessarily in the loop. This has already contributed to growing anxiety surrounding the rise of so-called killer robots.


Figure 3: BigDog quadruped robot, developed by Boston Dynamics with funding from DARPA. Image credit: DARPA (2012), available at Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the battlefield, the potential uses of autonomous robots for policing—and predictive policing—is similarly wide-ranging. Law enforcement in the US and UK already use algorithmic systems to direct police officers to geolocated crime “hotspots.” These programs model vast sums of data to seize the future. And advances in AI are priming—but not determining—the conditions for robots themselves to occupy algorithmically generated hotspots. Whether in the form of flying swarms or humanoid robots, this artificial being-in-the-world complicates the consciousness and conscience of police power.

Closing Thoughts

Decades after the electronic battlefield introduced ground sensors and computer algorithms into the orbits of state violence, advanced robots now collapse sensors, algorithms, and motors inside a single animate shell. The robotic condition, as uncertain as it remains, will surely require us to consider the impact of these deterritorialized technics upon the conduct of state power. While the spaces of algorithmic authority are currently located in cloud-based data banks that “defy conventional territorial jurisdictions” (Amoore and Raley 2016: 4), how might autonomous robots—as “walking computers”—disclose new algorithmic sites, subjects, and being-in-the-world?


I would like to thank Jeremy Crampton and Andrea Miller for organizing the 2016 AAG panel (Algorithmic Governance) that this paper is based on. I’d also like to thank the ESRC.


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