(Re)Cognition, computation, and war

I haven’t blogged for a long time, especially with doing the last edits to my thesis that I will hopefully submit in the next few weeks. So, this is a bit of break for me to think about what I have been partially doing as my time as a visiting fellow for the past five months at the SFB ‘Dynamics of Security’ between Marburg and Gießen, Germany.

Primarily, I have been continuing with my DPhil thesis, where the time as a visiting fellow in Gießen has given me the time to relax and think. This has delayed the submission but has, I hope, improved the quality of my thought and its application. However, I have not been solely focussed on this (and perhaps my supervisors would not be so happy about this). I have been developing my knowledge and reading on such things as ‘autonomous weapons systems,’ drones, and other computational media to think about some of the core insights from my (auto)ethnographic work with malware in 2017. I have also been part of a reading group here on ‘postcolonial securities’ which will hopefully lead to a conference in spring 2020, and been exploring more deeply the relationships between software transparency, Huawei, and ‘5G’ telecommunications infrastructures. This is where I see some of the work heading, with perhaps the Huawei paper being more of an end in itself, but this could morph as many projects do.

I guess for people (if any) have been keeping up with my work – they know I have been busy doing an (auto)ethnography of a malware analyst lab, I’m interested in the relationship between anomalies and abnormalities, and also how pathology and ecology can be thought of with regards to malware. Yet, a rather unexpected turn came after I had been really struggling with issues I have with some ‘vitalist’ material and approaches (see Ian Klinke’s paper on ‘Vitalist Temptations‘ and Ingrid Medby’s paper ‘Political geography and language‘ that are both attempting to do some of this critique). Pip Thornton zipped me away down the motorway to Winchester, where we went to see a talk by N. Katherine Hayles’ at the Winchester School of Art in May 2018. Before this, I had read little of her work (and indeed, I am still working my way through some of her lesser-read works), but what caught me was this particular rendition of computational ‘layers’ (see image below). It really engaged me in dealing with the ‘logics’ of computation, but also agency, that I think has been relatively underworked in new materialist literature in particular.

N. Katherine Hayles’ talk – ‘Cybersemiosis’ – at the Winchester School of Art, May 2018. Link to event: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt/news/events/2018/05/katherine-hayles-guest-talk-on-cybersemiosis.page

As Hayles’ detailed, signs can be translated over these computational layers. I found this exceptionally provocative and I use this as a foundation to my interpret of ‘malware’ and ‘computational’ politics, and she will have a forthcoming paper on this, so I do not wish to elaborate or steal away from the insights that this will provide. However, I have been using this to really think about the role of agency, intent, and how malware relates to both in computational ecologies. From the reading I make of Hayles’ work – such as in her book Unthought (2017) – along with a reading of Yuk Hui’s Recursivity and Contingency, is that computational infrastructures make choices that exceed the explicit intervention of humans (also Louise Amoore’s work contributing to her forthcoming book Cloud Ethics has been essential in all of this development from day 1).

So, if computation can exceed human intent, is this something specific to machine learning, or ‘artificial intelligence’? I don’t think so, and I am developing a paper on this now on what I see as a more foundational principle to computation, and which has real implications for security studies and what is (re)cognised as war – which is drawing on talks I did in Gießen this week and what I am doing in a couple of weeks at the SGRI conference in Trento. The latter looks like an absolutely fantastic panel in which to experiment with some of these thoughts. I am trying to rethink what agency is, perhaps this may prove to be too egregious, but I think it is necessary – and I hope that by doing these talks, I’ll find some inevitable blindspots in my knowledge and reading. You can find below my abstract for that particular conference.

I guess this is where my work is heading, as an extension of my insights from my DPhil thesis – Malware Ecologies: A Politics of Cybersecurity – that I hope will act as a bridge and be supplementary rather than singularly transforming this into papers (as I do think there is value in this as a stand-alone piece of work). I would put more here if I was not more worried about recent incidents in academia of work being taken without due credit. Of course, if you’re interested please contact me via the details on Oxford’s geography website, but I won’t be making these public until I have submitted and got a good idea that a paper will be published, unfortunately. Right, so back to thesis-writing!

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