ICS Seminar Series - Declan Kuch

Date: Thursday, 16 July 2020
Time: 11.30am–1pm
Venue: The seminar will be hosted online via Zoom. Please RSVP to e.blight@westernsydney.edu.au by 15 July, 5:00pm, to receive the Zoom details.

The Magic of Automation

Presenter: Dr Declan Kuch

Discussant: Dr Liam Magee


'There is so much magic about automation’, remarks the editors of the Springer Handbook on [Industrial Engineering] Automation. ‘It is a wonderful and essential part of human civilisation.’ (Nof et al, 2009 xix). This paper reflects on both the techno-optimism and claims to universality underpinning this quip. What does it mean to take seriously the idea that automation is magic? I take my point of departure in the promises of contemporary technosciences to fix its own problems, especially to provide boundless supplies of energy and deliver cures, to revive some key strands of the sociology, anthropology and history of magic. I develop three key lines of argument: Firstly, via Michael Taussig, that modernity does not simply leave behind magic with the rise of modern science, but produces its own forms of magic through dynamics of publicity and secrecy. Taussig’s analysis is underpinned through a dialectical relation between magic and modernity. Attempts by activists and governing bodies to impose regimes of ‘transparency’, especially through speculative modes of economization such as cost-benefit analysis, are key to this dialectic. Secondly, that magic, sick bodies (human and animal) and magicians are only stable concepts in relation to one another. Magicians are situated performers who constitute social relations through their rites. Finally, I reflect on the division of scientific and engineering labour at key sites in efforts to transition to renewable energies and cure cancer. Far from simply displacing labour at these sites, I argue that automation is a productive site for understanding how labour produces new forms of life anchored in institutions which are themselves a vital site for public deliberation.


Dr Declan Kuch isa Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow. Declan is a sociologist of science and technology, whose research spans climate change, energy policy and the life sciences including the ethical, legal and social dimensions. His current research focuses on the social dimensions of automation, especially as it relates to demand-side management of electricity grids. He is the Co-operating Agent (with Dr Sophie Adams) of the International Energy Agency's USERS TCP Annex 'Social License to Automate'.

He is currently completing a manuscript (with Matthew Kearnes) on the social, ethical and political dimensions of targeted therapies and precision medicine, arising from research collaborations with the Children's Cancer Institute, UNSW Chemistry, UQ Centre for Advanced Imaging and other members of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology. He has published widely on topics related to climate change policy and energy, including ‘The Rise and Fall of Carbon Emissions Trading’ (2015, Palgrave McMillan’s Energy and Environment Series edited by David Elliot). He has also consulted to the Australian Council of Learned Academies on public engagement with science and technology.