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I was recently sitting in a seminar listening to a student perform an autopsy on a meme. Layer after layer of references were peeled away as I looked on in bewilderment. By the conclusion something like fifteen references to other previous memes, stretching back over months and years, had been pulled from the pixels. An imbricated weave of insider detail unfolded before my eyes. I already knew that memes often worked on playful reference points and endless self-referential citations, but it was the intricacy and volume that caught me out.

That dissected meme represented something. It somehow captured the baffling…


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The comparisons are obvious. In Orwell’s 1984 a machine is used to churn out books for distribution to the masses. Thoughtless, turgid and repetitious, these grey books feed a lifeless culture. It was hard not to think about that image when discovering that artificial intelligence had been used to write an academic book. This automation of writing, we are told, is a rapid and efficient new way to capture large fields of knowledge.

With the exception of the 33 page preface, the book has been ‘automatically compiled by an algorithm’. This algorithm was developed through a collaboration between the publisher…


A year with Georg Simmel

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For several years I’d been trying to write a book on Georg Simmel’s social thought. Simmel is a tricky thinker to work with, he moves between topics, styles and disciplines, plus his writings are dense with ideas theories and speculations. Initially, around early 2014, I did some background work, secured a book contract and did a little bit of writing. I quickly realised that I couldn’t get my original plan to work. I wanted to look at a variety of ways in which Simmel’s theories were relevant today, but it got out of hand. I couldn’t work out how to…


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Capitalism has long been defined by collars. Blue or white: collars have crudely demarcated belonging, status and position. A different collar is now taking on a defining role in contemporary capitalism: the crew neck. Like the collars that went before, this collar symbolises an underlying agenda and logic.

The major players in what has been referred to by Nick Srnicek as ‘platform capitalism’ embody crew-neck capitalism and its values. They eschew the collar and tie combination in favour of crew-neck comfort. This projects a certain image, of a non-hierarchical, non-commercial and carefree status. An apparently anti-elite elite is created that…


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It’s tempting to think of power as something that doesn’t really change, that the world might alter but dominance, exploitation and control remain the same. Yet, as with the unsettling economic torrents of the last decade, recent social, technological and political upheavals are denting many of our established ideas about how the world works.

With a transforming and complex backdrop of tech giants, cybercrime, algorithms, social media, cryptocurrencies and the like, the mutation of power seems likely to be beyond comprehension. It is into such deep water that Carl Miller’s highly readable new book dives.


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Writing around 1915, the sociologist Georg Simmel observed that ‘the vast intensive and extensive growth of our technology…entangles us in a web of means, and means toward means, more and more intermediate stages, causing us to lose sight of our real ultimate ends’. These reflections on the role of technology in what he referred to as the crisis of culture were, of course, a response to very different political times, yet the sentiment of this passage echoes on. Our technological systems have increased in intensity, moving deeper into our lives, whilst spreading outwards into networks. Our media push inwards whilst…


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Locked together in an ever decreasing spiral, data and decisions are closely knitted in the workings of contemporary capitalism. The value ascribed to data nearly always equates directly to what it is that those data are seen to add to decision making processes. Underpinning the value attributed to data is the idea that they can be used to perfect decision making — accelerating choices while making them more accurate, informed and anticipatory. It is this relationship between data and decision making that is central to the way that capitalism now operates and to the way value is generated.

New anlytic…


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A few months ago, one Friday evening in the late summer, I posted this simple Tweet comparing academic writing to music:


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A number of the big questions we face are in some way connected to data and data analytics. Not all, but many. We have seen some of this come to the surface over recent weeks. Little of what we do and few organisational practices go untouched by data. Data analytics now reach right into the structures in which we live. It struck me that in such a data intensive environment increasing power rests in the hands of those in a position to mediate and manipulate the circulations of data. These new types of knowledge need critical scrutiny. …


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The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett. Ebury Press, Penguin. 2018.

Do we ever really know how we arrive at our political views? The pixelated vision of the near future offered in Jamie Bartlett’s new book would suggest that, as we continue to submerge into evermore complex and determinate technological systems, knowing the answer to such questions will become even more difficult. As well as our concepts and theories, our democratic structures were, Bartlett points out, just not built for the types of technological shifts we are experiencing. Algorithms, cryptocurrency, data targeting, techno monopolies and the like, have changed the game. The result, he argues here, is that technology has now…

David Beer

Professor of Sociology at the University of York. The Quirks of Digital Culture is out now in paperback and ebook. davidbeer.net

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