Slow computing: A workshop on resistance in the algorithmic age

One-day Workshop, Hamilton Seminar Room (317), Eolas Building, North Campus, Maynooth University, Ireland, December 14th, 2017

 Hosted by the Programmable City project at Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute and the Department of Geography

Places are strictly limited so please register by December 1st Register Now

In line with the parallel concepts of slow food (e.g. Miele & Murdoch 2002) or slow scholarship (Mountz et al 2015), ‘slow computing’ (Fraser 2017) is a provocation to resist. In this case, the idea of ‘slow computing’ prompts users of contemporary technologies to consider ways of refusing the invitation to enroll in data grabbing architectures – constituted in complex overlapping ways by today’s technology services and devices – and by accepting greater levels of inconvenience while also pursuing data security, privacy, and even a degree of isolation from the online worlds of social networks.

The case for slow computing arises from the emerging form and nature of ‘the algorithmic age.’ As is widely noted across the sciences today (e.g. see Boyd & Crawford 2012; Kitchin 2014), the algorithmic age is propelled forward by a wide range of firms and government agencies pursuing the roll-out of data-driven and data-demanding technologies. The effects are varied, differentiated, and heavily debated. However, one obvious effect entails the re-formatting of consumers into data producers who (knowingly or unwittingly) generate millions of data points that technology firms can crunch and manipulate to understand specific markets and society as a whole, not to mention the public and private lives of everyday users. Once these users are dispossessed of the value they help create (Thatcher et al 2016), and then conceivably targeted in nefarious ways by advertisers and political campaigners (e.g. see Winston 2016), the subsequent implications for economic and democratic life are potentially far-reaching.

As such, as we move further into a world of ‘big data’ and the so-called ‘digital economy,’ there is a need to ask how individuals – as well as civil society organizations, small firms, small-scale farmers, and many others – might continue to make appropriate and fruitful use of today’s technologies, but while also trying to avoid becoming another data point in the new data-aggregating market. Does slow computing offer a way to navigate the algorithmic age while taking justice seriously? Can slow computing become a part of diverse strategies or tactics of resistance today? Just what are the possibilities and limitations of slow computing?

This one-day workshop will discuss these and other questions about slow computing.

For further information, please contact


10.00-10.15    Welcome: Rob Kitchin & Alistair Fraser

10.15-11.30    Keynote address:  Stefania Milan, Associate Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and Associate Professor of Media Innovation (II) at the University of Oslo.

Paper session 1: Problematising the algorithmic age

11.30-11.45    Nancy Ettlinger, Algorithmic affordances for resistance

11.45-12.00    Jess Hoare, Slippery people: Technologization and technoratization of cities and bodies

12.00-12.15    Pip Thornton, Language in the age of algorithmic reproduction: a critique of linguistic capitalism and an artistic intervention

12.15-12.30    Chris Pinchen, Dance Like Your Microwave Isn’t Watching: (From CryptoParty to Teen Vogue via Emma Goldman and reverse engineered sex toys)

12.30-13.10    Discussion

13.10-14.00   Lunch

Paper Session 2: Rights and resistance in the algorithmic age

14.00-14.15    Aphra Kerr, Bringing the citizen back into the Algorithmic Age

14.15-14.30    Gabriela Avram, Community networks as a form of resistance

14.30-14.45    Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake, Digital disengagement as a right and a privilege: challenges and socio-political possibilities of refusal in dataised times

14.45-15.00    Marguerite Barry, Kalpana Shankar, Aphra Kerr, Slowcalisation – towards an ethic of care for human-data interactions

15.00-15.40    Discussion

15.40-16.00    Coffee

Paper Session 3: Practising slow computing

16.00-16.15    Paul O’Neill, Practice what we preach: Tactical media art as a form of political resistance

16.15-16.30    Rachel O’Dwyer, Coined Liberty: Cash as Resistance to Transactional Dataveillance

16.30-16.45    Lindsay Ems, Global Resistance through Technology Non-Use: An Amish Case Study

16.45-17.00    Kate Symons, OxChain – Reshaping development donors and recipients

17.00-17.40    Discussion

Video: Right to the Smart City Session 5: Shared City Making

Catch up with the video of previous sessions: Session 1, Session 2, Session 3 and Session 4.



Toward an Actual Theory of the City: “Civic Tech” as a Mid-Level, Organic Model of Urban Change
Andrew Schrock (Chapman, USA)

“We don’t simply want to take a predictive analytics view of the world,” Nigel Jacobs told me, “because that means that we will never have an actual theory of the city.” Nigel co-founded the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), the most long-lived innovation team in the country and among the most respected. MONUM took an omnivorous, experimental approach to urban improvement. They tried everything from using iPhones to detect potholes and retrofitting a food truck as a “city hall to go.” The office is relatively autonomous, insulating collaborators from risk while running small-scale experiments to tangibly improve life for residents. Nigel’s grounded, iterative approach with MONUM aligned with my conversations and collaborations over the last several years with other civic technologists who used similar language to describe their goals and practices.
The benefits and drawbacks of “civic tech” are hotly debated. Policy makers see civic tech as a helpful way to balance competing demands in government for external participation and internal efficiency. Critical scholars regard it as Silicon Valley style tech “solutionism,” while political scientists believe it stretches thin a model of the informed citizen. Civic technologists themselves embrace such a variety of practices – participatory design, agile development, and open government – that they struggle to articulate shared convictions characteristic of social movements. As a result, they are often misunderstood as yet another elitist model of technocratic change. In this paper I explore a more nuanced alternative: civic technologists like Nigel Jacobs are engaging in theorizing about how to change notoriously obdurate systems (e.g. Weberian bureaucracy and built urban environment).
My intention in this paper – to situate civic tech as a mid-level, organic model of urban change – is far from armchair theorizing. We need shared models to collaborate, not just platforms and data. In this paper I follow how theories of Tocqueville, Robert E. Park, and Jane Jacobs arose from in situ interventions and reflexive interpretation. Second, I map how an organic model of change in “civic tech” contrasts with a dominant “smart cities” vision. Civic tech is a politically left effort that embraces small, scalable interventions and collaborations that change systems, tangibly improving lives of residents. Civic technologists use technology in tandem with infrastructure, policy, and process change. Behind a veneer of politically neutral liberalism lies a more radical approach that seeks to re-configure the very building blocks of democracy.


Participatory Urban Sensing: a Blueprint for a Community-led Smart City
Catherine D’Ignazio, Eric Gordon & Elizabeth Christoforetti (Emerson, USA)

The ability to gather, store and make meaning from large amounts of sensor data is becoming a technological and financial reality for cities. Many of these initiatives are happening through deals brokered between vendors, developers and cities. They are made manifest in the environment as infrastructure – invisible to citizens and communities. We assert that in order to have community-centered smart cities, we need to transform sensor data collection and usage from invisible infrastructure into visible and legible interface. In this paper, we compare two different urban sensing initiatives and examine the methods used for feedback between sensors and people. We question how value gets produced and communicated to citizens in urban sensing projects and what kind of oversight and ethical considerations are necessary. Finally, we make a case for “seamful” interfaces between communities, sensors and cities that reveal their inner workings for the purposes of civic pedagogy and dialogue. We conclude with five preliminary design principles for a community-centered smart city.


Programming rights to shared technology making
Sung-Yueh Perng (Maynooth)

Shared technology making refers to the practices, spaces and events that bear the hope and belief that collaborative and open ways of designing, making and modifying technology can improve our ways of living. Shared technology making in the context of the smart city, where a majority of such events, initiatives and spaces are organised, reinvigorates explorations of the possibility of free, open and collaborative ways of engineering urban spaces, infrastructures and public life. Open innovation events and civic hacking initiatives often encourage members of local communities, residents or city administrations to participate, so that the problems they face and the knowledge they obtain can be leveraged to develop innovations from the working (and failure) of urban everyday life and (non-)expert knowledges. However, the incorporation of shared technology making into urban contexts and processes engender problems and concerns around the rights to participate in shared technology- and city-making. This paper addresses the issue by suggesting ways to consider both the neoliberal patterning of shared technology making and the patches and gaps that show the future possibility of shared technology- and city-making.

Seminar 2 (video): Gillian Rose – Tweeting the Smart City

We are delighted to share the video of our second seminar in our 2017/18 series, entitled Tweeting the Smart City: The Affective Enactments of the Smart City on Social Media given by Professor Gillian Rose from Oxford University on the 26th October 2017 and co-hosted with the Geography Department at Maynooth University.

Digital technologies of various kinds are now the means through which many cities are made visible and their spatialities negotiated. From casual snaps shared on Instagram to elaborate photo-realistic visualisations, digital technologies for making, distributing and viewing cities are more and more pervasive. This talk will explore some of the implications of that digital mediation of urban spaces. What forms of urban life are being made visible in these digitally mediated cities, and how? Through what configurations of temporality, spatiality and embodiment? And how should that picturing be theorised? Drawing on recent work on the visualisation of so-called ‘smart cities’ on social media, the lecture will suggest the scale and pervasiveness of digital imagery now means that notions of ‘representation’ have to be rethought. Cities and their inhabitants are increasingly mediated through a febrile cloud of streaming image files; as well as representing cities, this cloud also operationalises particular, affective ways of being urban. The lecture will explore some of the implications of this shift for both theory and method as well as critique.

Video: Right to the Smart City Session 4: Public Labs, Citizen-centric Living Labs, Citizen Science

Catch up with the video of previous sessions: Session 1, Session 2 and Session 3.



Matters of fact and matters of concern: issues of legitimacy, trust and resistance in citizen science
Tara Whelan (Limerick)

This paper examines the tension between institutional science and citizen science. While ample consideration has been given to questions of the legitimacy of science done with and by citizens (i.e. scientist-led projects involving citizens, and citizen-led projects involving the scientific community, respectively), less attention has been afforded to citizen scientists whose practice operates wholly (and sometimes deliberately) outside the boundaries of the scientific academy. Rather than engaging with questions regarding how to, and who may, produce academically credible knowledge, this critical approach to citizen science is concerned with tackling personal, cosmopolitical, and explicitly value-laden approaches to knowledge production. In its tactical circumvention of the academy, critical citizen science can offer pertinent critiques of how science is done, and to what ends, as well as addressing issues of agency, universality, and the tension (and overlap) between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern”. This paper examines a number of cases of citizen-led science and explores what motivates citizens to take on the role of scientist.


Smart cities by design? Interrogating human-centred design as a tool for civic participation
Gabriele Schliwa (Manchester, UK)

Citizen participation in urban governance has established itself as a paradigm, promising greater democracy, empowerment and more cost-effective public service delivery against the backdrop of increased urban conflicts. The dominant focus on the ‘citizen’ or even ‘smart citizen’ in the context of smart cities and urban innovation is however a relatively recent phenomenon. While the smart urbanism agenda fails to realise added value for cities and citizens alike due to a lack of acceptance and trust, a growing number of initiatives seeks to revamp the smart city as ‘human smart city’. Therein, design thinking and human-centred design have become the buzzwords of choice to describe ‘putting people first’ approaches to develop solutions tailored to citizens’ needs. What was previously known as user-centred design in the context of ICT product and service development, now proliferates the urban through a variety of organisations and initiatives such as innovation labs, living labs or civic hackathons. Just as urban infrastructures often only become visible and disrupt cities when they fail, good design is invisible and might function strategically like a ‘Trojan Horse’.
So what are the implications of using ‘human-centred design’ in the smart city context? And moreover, how does ‘human-centred design’ and ’design thinking’ fit into urban scholarship? This draft paper renders often implicit design processes explicit. It finds that the design industry offers ’design thinking’ as process commodity to facilitate citizen participation in innovation workshops and smart city initiatives. A variety of versions and (re-)appropriations of ‘design thinking’ increasingly link social innovation with military innovation processes, however the political implications of mobilising ‘design thinking’ as mode of governing are yet unknown. While ‘governing through design’ is becoming big business with the support of meta government and philantrocapitalists, existing research is dominated by private sector institutions. Drawing upon ongoing research in Manchester and Amsterdam, this draft paper encourages urban scholarship to critically engage with this emerging trend and to develop a research agenda that further links urban with design research.


Calculating publics and citizenship distributed sensing
Claudio Coletta & Caspar Menkman (Maynooth)

This paper deals with the secondary effects of the integration of sensing devices into publicly accessible infrastructures. The smart promise that foreground an increase in efficiency and sustainability has now been widely documented. Therefore we shift the attention to how the proliferation of sensors and systems of calculation impact not on those systems themselves but rather how they impact on publics and the modes of differentiated citizenship they generate as a result. We do so by focussing on smart meters and energy infrastructure on the one hand and sensing devices and Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) on the other.
Across both cases we recognize a common shift. That is, through the addition of sensing devices traditional regimes of undifferentiated access to the public are acted upon. Rather it is through the addition of sensing devices that new regimes emerge that emphasise not ‘access to’ as the penultimate goal, but focus on forms of active management and governance of those spaces and infrastructures vis-a-vis their publics. A practical infrastructural inversion is what follows.
The politics of supply and management that comes with this infrastructural transition are acted upon by these sensing networks. Where these systems previously organic and operated according to a demand-following logics, they now follow that of calculation. This is where experimental circumstances like test-beds and living labs emerge not as incidents, but as part of a persistent reality of the public. We argue that in the same way as citizens are instrumented as sensing devices, publics become a prosthesis to those infrastructures initially designed as a service to them. What emerges are more hybrid and flexible relations between infrastructure and their publics as well as new civic rationalities and citizenship contingent on sensed environmental relations. Thus conceived, such infrastructures raise a number of concerns from an STS perspective regarding the relations between centralised and distributed calculation, differentiation of access, as well as the kinds and agency of publics mobilised.

Video: Seminar 1: Sophia Maalsen – Where is the Smart House in the Smart City?

We are happy to share the video of our first seminar entitled Where is the Smart House in the Smart City? given by Dr. Sophia Maalsen, IB Fell Fellow at the University of Sydney’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

Increasing attention is directed to smart cities as their popularity as a ‘fix all’ for the economic, environmental and social challenges facing cities, continues to grow. Contemporaneously, there is a growing amount of literature on the smart home and smart housing, likewise positioned as a smart solution to environmental, economic and social problems. Despite the increased activity in these two ‘smart’ areas, there is little research that addresses smart housing in context of the smart city. Furthermore, in the limited research on smart housing, a comparatively small amount of literature addresses their ‘smart’ nature from a social science perspective. Of the scant literature that addresses both the smart house, even less does so from a social science lens of analysis, with publications predominantly located in the computer sciences and engineering. This is problematic on multiple levels. First, the dominance of computer science and engineering literature on both smart cities and smart houses, privileges technological solutions to city and housing issues and contends that improvement will be an automatic outcome of technology, rather than understanding how people can use the technology for better outcomes. Secondly, the relative absence of housing in smart city discourse makes invisible a key component of the city and its broader web of relations, flows of people, capital, materials and resources. In this seminar, she discusses these gaps in the literature, identifies why this is problematic and suggests areas where the smart city and smart housing intersect.

Video: Right to the Smart City Session 3: Co-creation and City Governance

Catch up with the video of previous sessions: Session 1 and Session 2.


Appropriating ‘big data’: exploring the emancipatory potential of the data strategies of civil society organisations in Cape Town, South Africa
Nancy Odendaal (Cape Town, South Africa):

The smart city strategies of municipalities in South Africa have been grounded in developmentalism, seeking to harness the power of technology to enable improved governance. Cities such as Durban and Cape Town have embraced infrastructure-led approaches that seek to use state-mediated broadband ‘backbone’ development to enable last-mile ICT access to marginalised communities. With the advent of big data, the range of actors in the ICT-local government terrain has broadened to include partnerships with IT-multinationals and management consultants to streamline municipal bureaucratic procedures, enable data processing and contribute to greater efficiency. An important driver is the increasingly urgent need to accelerate the delivery of essential services whilst also encouraging investment and development through greater efficacy, (in processing development applications for example). This is the delicate balancing act that the City of Cape Town is aiming to achieve: broadening its tax base while delivering basic services to a vocal and largely dissatisfied populace. A ‘dashboard urbanism’ is becoming evident as access to a broadened range of data sources fits well with the system of indicators and performance monitoring that is embedded in the managerial South Africa’s local government system. The danger of an overreliance on these quantitative aspects is that it may overshadow the more qualitative aspects of development. Reinforcing a commitment to the ‘numbers game’, rather than paying attention to the finer details of socio-economic development, could perpetuate divides in what is considered to be one of the most unequal cities in the world. Based on exploratory research, this paper explores an emerging trend amongst civil society organisations that seek to collect, generate and process data as a form of empowerment and response to the state’s failure to respond adequately to social development pressures. Strategies range from self-enumeration, to participatory mapping, and online campaigning. This paper concludes on what these qualities of the ‘bottom-up smart city’ are, how it challenges the assumptions of ‘dashboard urbanism’ and such initiatives could potentially contribute to a more rounded appropriation of big data and a deepened and contextualized urban experience.


Smart flows? Commodification, commons and consumption for smarter cities
Anna Davies (TCD)

Defining environmental governance as the sum of the ways we manage our environmental affairs, this paper compares and contrasts efforts to reorient resource consumption in the city onto more sustainable pathways through the utilisation of ICT. Drawing on an experimental transdisciplinary process of collaborative visioning and backcasting conducted in Dublin, Ireland, this paper begins by sketching the ways in which governing actors envisage a smarter system for managing two contrasting resources that are fundamental to cities and their citizens. The first of these, water, remains a public good in Ireland, but it is becoming increasingly commodified. The second, food, is seen as a private good but there are ongoing calls to reconceptualise it as a common good. Both are fundamental requirements for life and considered by the United Nations as human rights, with ‘zero hunger’ and ‘clean water and sanitation’ identified as sustainable development goals in the post-2015 development agenda. The second part of the paper compares and contrasts two of the ways in which ICT is being rolled out in these arenas in Dublin, water metering and surplus food redistribution, and links these developments to the wider governing context that shapes them. The ‘smart’ metering of water in Ireland has been an exercise in top-down, technocratic governance played out with close relations between state and the private sector, resulting in intense reactions and collective actions from an excluded citizenry. Surplus food redistribution in contrast has been led by grassroots action in collaboration with social innovators and the private sector – frequently in the absence of appropriate regulations – in what has been suggested is a hybrid tri-centric governance system shaped by market rules, public regulations and collective actions. Whilst the histories, practices and infrastructures of these two resources are highly differentiated, it is argued that there are possibilities for cross-fertilisation of lessons for both sectors in terms of managing flows and engaging citizens.


Democratic Rationalizations in the Bikeshare Sector
Robert Bradshaw (Maynooth)

With its emphasis on the transformative power of information and communications technologies, discourses on the “smart city” make the promise not only of economic rewards through improved infrastructure management, competitive advantage and job creation but also the empowering of citizens by enabling the co-production of infrastructure, decisions, and policy. Presented in this way the city is framed as a platform which empowers participatory processes. Connecting data, people and knowledge, it is envisioned as a productive hub for the construction of the city by its people. Using a lens derived from Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology, this paper reports on research conducted in Dublin and Hamilton (Canada) which explored these themes though an analysis of the design and implementation strategies mobilized by these cities in the creation their respective smart bikeshare systems. The findings reveal the technologies to be the product of context-dependant, socio-technical assemblages which position citizenship and co-production in distinctive and contrasting ways. While Dublin’s managerialist form of governance produced a technocratic, instrumental design which understands, and perpetuates, citizens as passive consumers of services and information, Hamilton combined institutional expertise and lay experience to create a generative technology which embodies a diverse but complimentary set of goals and ideologies. Understanding the processes by which both these systems we conceived and concretized may help us understand how normative and ethical considerations relating to citizenship can be embedded and preserved in technology production.