Optimization: Towards a Critical Concept
Guest Editors: Fenwick McKelvey and Joshua Neves
Optimization has emerged as a quiet “buzzword.” It is seemingly everywhere and yet elusive. Our bodies, tools, and institutions are now understood as resilient and perpetually updatable. New diets and fitness apps promise to optimize our caloric intake just as an optimal information diet promises to make many informed citizens. So informed that what to watch next or who to vote for becomes one of many effortless choices made possible by the recommendations of algorithms, smartphones, and other optimizing systems. But what does optimization mean anyway? Or more crucially, what does it do? Who or what is optimized? What relationships or platforms are generated? And who or what or where falls away—is dis-optimized?
Optimization intervenes in the growing formulation of algorithmic governance, regulation or algocracy, drawing on theories of communication and control. Optimization refers to specific technical architectures (e.g., centralized, decentralized or distributed) as well as applications of mathematical theory to social life—including Pareto optimalities, linear programming and stochastic theory. Taken together, optimization provides a way to understand the iterative projects of algorithmic governance as iterations of operations research, systems-cybernetic theory, or computational management.
But optimization is also deeply cultural and situated—even if its claims are often general or biopolitical. As such, its technical logics and architectures should be considered alongside real social practices, geopolitical networks, and the forms of organization (and violence) shored up by the desire for optimum performance.
This themed issue calls for the interdisciplinary scrutiny of optimization as a critical concept and a form of management crucial to the rhythm of networks. We invite historical and theoretical interventions around optimization and seek a wide range of approaches and analyses of the sociotechnical assemblages made possible by autonomous software and ubiquitous hardware. The goal is to provide a clear, multi-faceted introduction; help situate contemporary concerns around platforms and social engineering within the development of management, cybernetics, social and political theory; and turn attention to global specificities beyond North Atlantic examples, as well as the many forms of difference elided by optimization itself.
How do these systems intervene in economic, social, and political life? And how do they transform or diminish the political imagination—now tied to industrial research and development and the calculations of a control society?
Some topics this issue hopes to consider include, but are not limited to:
- Considerations of how optimization systems intervene in economic, social, and political life. How do they transform or diminish the political imagination—now tied to industrial research and development and the calculations of a control society?
- Case studies of optimization of the human/body (e.g., health, self-harm, mindfulness, biohacking) or systemic optimization (e.g., smart cities, ecosystems, platforms, networks)
- Genealogies of optimization techniques with particular attention to operations research, Pareto optimalities, linear programming, game theory, chaos theory, and multi-agent emergent systems
- Metaphors and practices of optimization in popular or political cultures (e.g., self-tracking, speculative fiction, acceleration, activism)
- Optimization from or in relation to the margins (e.g., questions of scale, geopolitics, and frameworks beyond the biopolitical or cybernetic) or attention to problems of difference (e.g., race, ethnicity, indigeneity, religion, disability, sexuality, gender)
- Regulatory consequences of myths or discourses of optimization in social, media, or technology policy
- Speculations around the possibility of dark optimizations or radical futures through optimization (e.g., fully automated luxury communism, post scarcity, posthuman, post-Earth, dis-optimization)
Submission Deadline and Guidelines
December 1, 2019 Submit a 500-word abstract for Guest Editors’ review
Spring 2020 Submit full manuscript for Guest Editors’ review
July 1, 2020 Submit full manuscript for peer review
Manuscripts must be submitted electronically through the ScholarOne Manuscripts site for Review of Communication: https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/rroc
Manuscripts should be prepared in Microsoft Word using a 12-point common font, double-spaced, and between 6,000 to 8,000 words (including endnotes).
Please refer to and follow the journal’s manuscript preparations instruction for authors.
Authors should identify which themed call their paper is responding to by selecting the relevant drop-down option in ScholarOne.
In keeping with the journal’s current practice, submissions will undergo rigorous peer review, including screening by the guest editors and review by at least two anonymous referees.
Please direct inquiries about the Optimization: Towards a Critical Concept themed issue to:
Fenwick McKelvey, PhD
Department of Communication Studies
Joshua Neves, PhD
Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema