Digital frontiers, digital cities and the metaverse

It has been a long time between drinks, my friends. I haven’t blogged for quite some time. However I have finally hit a piece of experimental thinking that needs to be expressed in a fluid free form rather than something targeted to particular audiences. If you like it, then you are my audience. At the very least, I write here to be creative and to write for me, for my thinking.

Of recent times, my research practice and writing has been focusing heavily on Web3 spaces, but also on the digital city. You can see my latest work on digital infrastructures for the city here. For a recent speaker slot at the LawTech Summit, I was invited to speak about Web3 and the Metaverse. In the digital infrastructures report, the discussion of the metaverse and its potentials was led by Kelsie Nabben, whose excellent work on the topic can be found here.

As I researched thought around the topic, I’ve realised that there are so many different visions and angles into what the metaverse is and what we can use it for. I thought a great write up with a slightly different angle to Kelsie’s essay was presented by Hatch Quarter on the topic. This essay is useful because it navigates well through the extended environment discussion and signals that it is not only e-commerce, socialising and the gaming industry that is pushing the metaverse, which was well highlighted by the Grayscale Research report on the concept, but also education and fitness.

I thought about all the different discussions and writing that I’ve had and done over the last 6-8 months while working on the Digital CBD project and also on the NFTs, DAOs, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology (decentralised ledger technology) we cover. I started pondering what a sociologist of technology would speak to in this environment… or more particularly, me, what I would speak to.

My research practice was begun in researching the digital community surrounding reptiles and snakes, aka ‘the Herpers’, that I researched and wrote about for my PhD research, then my book. This is my first book and it profiled a community, who were also early adopters of the internet, and how to research such digital communities. Since this book, I have articulated different aspects of research interest that include the study of the communities surrounding cryptomarkets and cryptocurrencies. These frontier socio-technical spaces are highly experimental.

I’ve also built a collaboration with wonderful scholars surrounding digital pleasures that articulate another type of digital frontier more focused on the human-technology encounters aspect. Thinking of the body as a digital instrument that is played through digital media to achieve altered states has been a wonderful creative space. This centering of the body and pleasure has also hooked into my emerging interest in play and gamification. You’ll need to keep up with me on this because these themes resurface when I begin thinking about what the metaverse is and what it could be for us as a built (build) environment.

The notion of digital cultures of care and care more generally has pervaded my work and provides an intellectual link, in some ways, between the digital pleasures research and the EyeStory project.

A research collaboration that has been going on for quite a while now that focuses on play, is the EyeStory project. This project has involved digital storytelling and an interdisciplinary collaboration that has allowed my research to extend to working with children, app design and collaborating with researchers whose expertise is in animation research, game design and optometry.

These projects have all involved some form of ethnographic practice and I have had the pleasure of winding them together into a book chapter on ethnography and digital society that will come out in 2023 in this Sage Handbook on Digital Society. But how do all of these threads weave together in my most recent work? For the digital city report, I foregrounded the importance of play and creativity for enlivening the vibrancy of a city, alongside the more traditional analysis of work and innovation as drivers of a city’s engine.

I am now starting to feel ready for my second book and I can see it forming along the lines of how we can incorporate insights from my research into digital frontiers into a diverse range of research. My most recent affirmation that my vocabulary and conceptual thinking had value to work beyond internet scholarship was at the very inspirational Creative Cities Symposium at Biella Italy. Aside from being incredibly inspired by the venue, the Cittadellarte, I was deeply engaged by the research into Creative Cities, Creative Industries and their links with urban regeneration and social policy. I went there to present from the Digital CBD survey, a city-wide survey led by Annette Markham and a collaborative program of research drawing together DERC and BIH scholars. The discussions I was able to have that helped urban geographers, social scientists and policy researchers to move their thinking into digital frontiers relevant to the focus of their work were really serendipitous.

This was my first international conference after the long lockdowns. I went for many reasons, but one of them was to pop my head out of the Australian bubble and see how Europe had faired through the pandemic. In many of our discussions, the pandemic impacts loomed large and it was enlightening and of course traumatic to hear how different countries and people had faired. I still have no words for this, but believe deeply that until we have begun moving through the grief and trauma of the pandemic, we will struggle to imagine a different future and to shape the future we have incoming to be conducive for us to thrive in.

This thought and point takes me to my LawTech Metaverse presentation, because here I am actively saying the next wave of our future is incoming and we need to engage and shape it. For me, the metaverse is the next logical step that we will take, or something of its ilk. We are currently operating our social life and digital lives largely through the relational spaces of social media. These platforms shape social connection and eCommerce through what they afford. Digital environments are now deeply embedded in our physical environments and we use a range of technologies to connect across place and virtual space. For example, our smartphones are pocket computers that allow us to overlay digital information onto physical environments, we can locate ourselves through them, visually record space and sound, connect with people and do so many other activities. When we game online, we can also experience immersive environments through VR technologies. So what will this mixed or extended reality space of the metaverse look, feel and behave like?

I don’t think we’re really looking at much new to start with, as most of the technologies, including AI/ML and IoT are in-play and starting to mature as a connected ecosystem. Web3 is adding specific affordances through technical infrastructures such as payment networks, decentralised finance, sovereign goods, decentralised governance and portable identities. The GrayScale Research report I linked to earlier provides some really helpful discussion on this, but also the recent McKinsey report on Value Creation in the Metaverse seems to be getting some good air-time on this topic. These are some of the highlights in the report if you want the TLDR version. I’ve also been inspired by the 20 day Web3 festival being held by the House of Beautiful Business, which has pulled together some great thinkers on the topic and fascinating metaverse companies, such as Journee.

So, what do I have to add to all this fantastic thinking? I thought I’d keep it focused and look at the implications for people, data and what risks were involved. It seems that demystifying this area and the terms used for a Web3 version of the metaverse would also be useful. Now I do not pretend to have technical expertise here, but I have the fantastic opportunity to engage with the latest developments and events in the Web3 space through my work colleagues at BIH. So, I’ve got a bit of a handle on the basics. But I’m not going to do that work for you here. If you’re an industrious active kind of reader, then the trail of links I’ve provided in this text will take you where you need to go.

For the presentation I used Kelsie’s Metaverse essay linked above to produce a word cloud that should get you started on the associations that this term has with digital life and the city. I’ve popped it here so you can have a dig through the grab bag of words that are usually associated with the topic.

My first provocation was to ask what questions we need to ask when thinking about people and the metaverse. I started with the ones that we’re asking right now on the social impacts of social media. For example how we are being conditioned in these digital spaces through social engineering, distraction and dopamine responses. We already know that social norms are evolving through our digital interactions, with my recent media engagement on friendship and social media for international friendship day speaking loudly to this. Not to be a prophet of doom, I like to keep things balanced and ask questions about playful and pleasurable interaction in the metaverse, particularly given that online gaming will be a bit motivator of metaverse adoption. Drawing back to the digital pleasures research, I was inspired by conversations with my collaborator, Naomi Smith, about ASMR and how we are now looking at multichannel experiences of it. When you bring in our work on binaural beats as digital drugs… you can see the amplification of pleasure and play moving into another experiential realm. Place these visceral body experiences in an immersive environment, and up the sensory input, and you are really starting to look at digital pleasure experiences in a very different way.

For me, the next significant area of focus is on the rich/thick data that is produced by both human and non-human actors in this environment. Sentience needs data through which to interpret and learn, as much as interactivity and liveliness produce data. I want to know who owns the data we would produce in such spaces and also, who uses it and what we can learn from it. In my thinking around data, I really enjoyed unpacking the question of how we remember in the metaverse, specifically in terms of archiving. Because if you can’t remember, you don’t learn and you can’t generate wisdom. So the knowledge holding in this space is a public utility that is crucial to our ability to build conducive strategies for thriving into the future and for adapting the space to meet our needs and contain our excesses. The internet has the internet archive, and with its wayback machine. Online communities, particularly those I encountered in the cryptomarkets space, publicly archived their own spaces, but they were also actively archived by researchers and no doubt by law enforcement.

Finally, in the talk, I pondered the risks in a Web3 Metaverse. The risks that I highlighted reflect my research wanderings. I kicked off with the key point working the Web3 space now and a persistent question for the early cryptocurrency communities that I encountered during my research in the dark net/cryptomarket space. This question is around how we deal with the grey zones that arise within policy and regulation around emerging technologies. It also links into the second question as to how we seek accountability but allow for experimentation in business models that plagues Web3 start ups and their reputation. The words scammy and Ponzi scheme are thrown around regularly in the web3 space, so I decided to play a little with the work of one of my favourite scholars in the space, Lana Swartz, on networked scams. She built this understanding of scams in the Web3 space through the Wild West context of ICOs in 2017. From her work, I covered off the two basic scams – the ‘exit scam‘ and ‘pump and dump‘. The exit scam I already new from the crypto market space. What I enjoyed about Swartz’s work up of the networked scam is this sense of a scam as sometimes being overt, and legal, business practice or just more mundane.

Swartz observes that ‘scams are capitalism out of place: what gets called a scam is used to perform boundary work that delegitimates certain forms of economic activity (and exploitation) and legitimates others.’ I love this definition and feel that it is appropriately slippery and embracing of the smoke and mirrors nature of this space.

As she observes, and I have heard many times, most blockchain projects are vaporware and punters are attracted to cryptocurrencies and DAO projects in part to make money – the get rich quick hustle. I’ve written a little about this culture here. The next point Swartz makes on this outs a piece of crypto argot that I continually re-encounter in everyday discussions with people who trade, invest in or speculate around cryptocurrencies, hodl.

She quotes a common refrain that ‘it’s not a scam if you hodl long enough’—which she interprets as meaning ‘that if enough people hold (or “hodl,” in crypto argot) their investment long enough, if they believe or suspend disbelief long enough, the promised future will rush to meet reality.’ However, the contradiction that these traders and speculators sit in is that, as Swartz points out, ‘no one wants to be the only one holding a worthless asset that has already been dumped; no one wants to be the only one holding out for a future that will never come.’

I would usually paraphrase these quotes but in this case she writes it best. I can assure you this is an authentic sentiment that I hear expressed on many an occasion.

I finished off the presentation with the point that as we move forward and commercially viable use case are generated for the metaverse concept, we can either have more of what we have now, with a Meta version of the metaverse, or we can embrace and shape a more diverse ecosystem with social values that we care about. These being, in my mind, a sustainably and socially, environmentally and economically regenerative future that appropriately harnesses the inclusive affordances of a digital environment whilst managing and mitigating for its risks and unintended consequences.

Now, this was a long essay. So I’ll be very impressed if you stayed with me to the end. Sadly, I don’t know what kind of world we are going to create through these technologies, but I would like to engage you in a call to arms to actively shape it. I am telling you now, it is happening. I want to see you care enough to engage.

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The great de-acceleration

Apparently we are living in times of the great acceleration, with quantum computing and artificial intelligence. But the question is, who are we in these times and what do we value? We view the past as characterised by simplicity and that now we are moving through a time of complexity and polarization of political views and economic circumstances.

I would put forward that we are moving backwards, towards a conservative sense of security and control despite the increased pace and breadth of what we can do with technology and online. We have the optimism and idealism of Silicon Valley conflicting with the adolescent stage adoption that we have in how we use and express ourselves through social media and the digital public domain.

Is change scary and bewildering? Are we afraid of being on the wrong side of history? Can technology solve our problems rather than enabling our expressions of the self within the flawed moment that we are. These are questions that we ask without knowing that we are.

Healthcare, education and how we consume information will be profoundly shaped through artificial intelligence. However we are at the early stages of this. How do we imagine our future in this context?

Over time we will be in much more intelligent systems. Will we be more productive and efficient or will we be on a beach siping cocktails? What is human potential and what do we see as our ‘destiny’, if there was to be one.

Climate change tells us that we are over consuming our welcome and that our relationship to nature is grounded in competition and control rather than flourishing concept of collaboration and living with. Safety and risk is troubled by our depth of interconnection and global mobility.

Nothing is given. We want prosperity and improved quality of life. While we see the benefits, how can technology take us there? What do we need to understand on the spectrum between zero and one to realize this ‘there’? We don’t yet understand how. Simulations versus real world effects remain hypothetical.

Is progress our goal when there is no teleology. The modern agenda is fragile and only a desire.

Does privacy matter for us and is it a human right? How does trust factor in?

If we frame ourselves as stewards, where does responsibly lie? Is getting rich about owning the tools that profile mass populations or about providing mechanisms of privacy in response to the mass fear of the loss of the liberty of the self?

Is there a balance between encryption for privacy, platformised business models, monopoly behavior and forms of governance and global regulation. How does innovation flourish across these tensions?

Knowledge asymmetry has been the underpinning aspect of continued inequalities, particularly in its relationship to power. More so, however is its relationship to capitalism. Economic power is deeply imbricated with social stratifications such as class. For example, systemic reinforcement of capitalist drives towards economic growth makes a laughing stock of the concept of trickle down economics. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Can we ask, what alternative models may be possible?

Does our next generation need to adapt to technology? They have grown up with it, what does this mean?

How do our visions of the future replay our past rather than construct an alternative, adaptive and resilient future?

With this thought stream I have asked questions. In doing so the narrative is not aiming for coherence. Instead, I ask you, is getting faster the way to get to where want we to go? While the literature points to accelerationism, I’d like to point to the regressive forces of division, inequality and greed (or over consumption) that seem to be eating us out from the core. A future world needs scaffolding and care from the present one. Seeking to let us destroy what we have, provides no bridge to the future. I am not a fan of nihilism.

Slow down and let diverse voices and overlapping values have the time to work themselves out. We mature through our technology rather than jump from the past to the future.

There is no way to avoid the uncertain messy present. It is our only line to what the future brings. Let’s not forget it.

EOI – Funded PhD position: Digital Ethnography of Children with Vision Impairment (Update)

Excitingly, I’m involved in the opportunity to provide a funded PhD position for someone to join our interdisciplinary team at Deakin and support a Digital Ethnography of Children with Vision Impairment.

You can find out more about the research through this video and our website where we are piloting a digital storytelling application.

EOIs are due July 30th, 2021.

The opportunity is a funded PhD position for someone to join our interdisciplinary team at Deakin and support a Digital Ethnography of Children with Vision Impairment project. 

  • The deadline for full applications is August 9th, 2021 

The HDR candidate would need to commence in 2021. 

Access to EOI form: Faculty Expression of Interest form 

Candidates please send their initial interest to Rosemary Woodcock and myself so we can arrange a time to talk through the project and your experience.

Instructions on how to apply for HDR candidature here: https://www.deakin.edu.au/research/become-a-research-student/how-to-apply-research-degrees

About the project:

This PhD project involves the development and application of an ethnographic probe to examine the journey children with a vision impairment undertake from first diagnosis through treatment. The project will provide insight into the lived experiences of visually impaired children that will inform educational media for research stakeholders such as Vision Australia. The research will be conducted within the context of an interdisciplinary research team and situated within the disciplines of the Deakin Motion Lab (DML) through its focus on advancing visual methodologies and gamified and playful approaches to engagement. The project will also build upon child-centred methodologies that can engage families remotely and is designed with COVID19 conditions in mind through its use of a digital methodology to allow connectedness. The probe at the heart of the research methodology involves a toybox and an app that are designed to engage young children and provide prompts for journaling and digital story telling.

About the people:

We are an interdisciplinary team from DML (a creative research hub within the School of Communication and Creative Arts), the Social Sciences, Computer Sciences and Optometry.

About the PhD student:

We are looking for someone interested in understanding the relationships between digital data collection, ethnographic practice and an interest in applied research in the area of vision health and engaging children through play.

Activites involved include

  1. involvement in the qualitative data collection for the methodological pilot,
  2. engagement with families and children,
  3. working within interdisciplinary team
  4. Engaging in research outputs such as publication and multimedia education outputs
  5. Codesign workshops.
  6. App development (we have a tech person doing this but the whole team is engaged in how the app works and the user experience.

Please share this opportunity across your networks and if you are interested, email the team our me a.maddox@deakin.edu.au

Social media and community building

This blog is a response to the questions Seriously Sassy podcast host, Earvin Cabalquinto sent me in preparation for discussion about the role of social media channels in mediating communities. Now one of my research stomping grounds is community theory and practice, but I have never had to think about how to translate these insights for students who are making social media. I found out that I had something to say.

The questions kicked off with a bit of a historical rear view, asking what the definition of a community was before the advent of social media channels. I pondered this, as one does, and then just went totally old-school based upon my disciplinary roots in the Chicago school of urban studies.

Originally a community was defined by physical proximity and in person relationships. Think a neighbourhood or local sports organisation. Communities offered a sense of shared identity, a buffer or safety net for its members (social support) and a unique culture which informed who were thought insiders and outsiders.

The boundaries of a community at its very fundamental level are expressed through its coordinates in time and place, as much as by its geographic or social materiality. They also were the first formations of complex sociality, beyond direct kinship ties for example. Anthropologist, Jolynna Sinanan, describes this as ‘the village’.

To help us translate from place-based communities to online communities, Barry Wellman coined the idea that computer networks were social networks, early on. 

Online communities were then first defined by sociability articulated through co-presence on a platform. The platform became the site of co-location and co-presence could be synchronous or asynchronous. The big difference here was that people didn’t need to be in the same geographic location and have known each other through in person contexts prior to being a part of an online community. Community forums were, and still are, a common way to think about communities online.  

Digital communities are a bit more location-gregarious when it comes to online interaction and exchange. Instead of defining them by a specific platform, I draw on work that refers to them as foci of activity groups. Foci of activity groups are where the interlocking relationships and overlapping values of a community begin from a mutual interest in a topic or activity. This interest is what draws people initially into a community, however the complexity of these relationships builds into a critical mass and density of interconnections that holds a sense of continuity over time. This is what makes communities different to social movements online.

When we think of online communities, we think of sticky networks over time that support the development of a group identity, roles and norms (Cohesion & Belonging). In these instances, the people participating may change but the collective persists.

The next question lined up was about whether the advent of social media channels shaped the formation and maintenance of a community. I would suggest that it has shaped the re-formation and maintenance of online communities, given that communities can occur within one platform such as Tumblr or across multiple platforms. Again, I begin with a basic definition to outline how the configuration of social media reforms the basic shape of an online community.

Social media is a relational technology defined by user generated profiles affiliated with social networks of friends and followers. Communities emerge through practices of peer-support and connection that are organised through hashtags or other social media organising principles and collectivising practices such as shared memes and the development of a common language or digital argot. Social media also foregrounds visual cultures and animated content.

Often communities expressed through social media are trans-modal in that they engage with each other across multiple modes of interaction (trans media).

They are also generally self-organising however are usually subject to and shaped by content moderation by platforms. In response to these curating and surveillance practices, social media communities can patch together permissive spaces where their common interests and connection can occur. They are always shifting and responding to environmental constraints and emerging social media spaces.

Now that the basic premise of the role of social media in mediating communities has been covered off (ha ha), we turn to the classic question of why a soul would engage in a community online in the first place. Generally, it starts from a place of seeking.

The benefits of being a part of an online community include acceptance, a sense of belonging and being able to engage with people that you share a common interest with. They get you and you get them. 

It’s also a space for creating your own identity narrative in ways that respond to the culture of the community. If the community is online only, you can safely experiment with new ideas and expressions of yourself in a supportive environment. 

If the community spans place based and online interactions, you can keep in touch and continue the conversation even when you can’t be together. This is about being able to maintain relationships and connection to the community experience.

Communities hold forms of social capital and tend to support social mobility that means you may have greater access to targeted and community vetted information, experience social support and get exposure to people and places you may not have access to within your own local and geographical context. The increase of both strong and weak social ties may mean more opportunities become available for you. This premise was first introduced by Mark Granovetter through the strength of weak ties hypothesis. You may have heard of the six degrees of separation principle? Or the Kevin Bacon index? Same idea. 

Now the inter-connectivity of digital communities is not always an awesome feature and can lead to challenges. Just because an idea, sentiment or act can flow along social networks does not mean it’s a good one.

The challenges occur when a community culture is not inclusive, where practices including hazing of newbies turn toxic. The increasing polarisation of views that we find online mean that collaboration, compromise and understanding the other’s point of view become a rare experience. Filter bubbles are argued to reinforce narrow perspectives into a situation or event or other people’s lives. Consequently, sometimes people think that just because they say it online, it doesn’t matter in “the real world”. Hate speech and ranty combatative behaviour is rife and at times unchecked. It can have devastating consequences.

Engaging within a community takes time and it can swallow up a lot of your available time. FOMO is a killer.

Everything you do in an online community may be a product of the synergy of your creativity with the community culture and people, but the platforms you do this through claim ownership of your content. 

Privacy challenges, platform surveillance, and social surveillance and regulation occurs, while hacks and scams abound, making it difficult to know who or what to trust or what will be done with your personal data.

So what next? If this is it, is this all we’re ever going to have? Earvin asks what the future of communities online is, especially in an era wherein online platforms harvest personal data. Well, the data ownership and personal data awareness rant is strong in me, particularly as I attempt to help my students critically think about what they are doing online. However, I got a bit vague here. No idea why.

It’s difficult to say, I go, but there is a data sovereignty movement which raises awareness and advocates for personal data ownership. In the data justice area, the idea that communities can create platforms that mean they own their own data and can decide collectively what to do with it is an interesting idea.

Government and corporate surveillance is rife on the clear web. I study communities who reject this and move to the anonymous spaces of Dark Web. While the site admin still gets access to all the digital traces of users in their platform and social surveillance occurs, people’s identities and practices are not being on-sold to advertisers and third-party data brokers.

So finally, Earvin goes out on a flourish with the questions and asks whether we can do this thing differently. He asks in what ways we can re-imagine and produce an equitable and progressive online community. Now that one had me momentarily stumped… until I just went back to basics and thought about all that I’ve seen and read. For me, it comes down to the following.

A community can liberate or suffocate a person, and usually does a bit of both. Foundational principles of tolerance and diversity need to be at play in both the way people engage with each other and what the platforms of interaction afford. We must re-imagine online communities from the code up. That way we can embed shared and overlapping values into the digital architectures and social practices. We must ask of the features a platform makes possible, how does this afford, for whom and under what circumstances (Thank you Jenny Davis). We must ask of ourselves, what do we want our communities to be, for whom and under what circumstances. I argue that social inclusion creates richer, more enduring and innovative communities that will lead us out of a self-destructive future. 

The connected vehicle: data ownership and cybersecurity

In the HQ TechTank mobility series, one provocation I respond to is the question of the social impacts of a fully connected self driving car, where the computer and the car are connected to other cars (V2V), the internet and to transportation infrastructures (V2I). What could possibly go wrong? This blog will consider the question of data ownership and cybersecurity questions such as hacking autonomous vehicles.

In terms of car ownership, autonomous vehicles will initially be expensive and only those in the luxury market are likely to own their own vehicle. The greater majority of people are likely to access AVs through fleet access and a sharing economy structure, much like GoGet in Australia.

There are several implications that are raised if drivers do not own the vehicle they are travelling in and are not responsible for what the vehicle does. If the users do not own the autonomous vehicles they travel in the questions raised for me are who is liable for accidents (insurance and legal implications) and who owns the users’ activity data. The following case study will focus on this question of personal data ownership.

Case study: Personal data ownership

Ratnam (2019) accounts that a car can generate about 25 gigabytes of data every hour and as much as 4,000 gigabytes a day, according to some estimates. Drawing on data from consulting business McKinsey, he anticipates that the data trove in the hands of car makers could be worth as much as US$750bil (RM3.11tril) by 2030. 

At the time of writing in 2019, (Ratnam) records that consumer groups, aftermarket repair shops and privacy advocates argued that the data belongs to the car’s owners and the information should be subject to data privacy laws. In line with this, the European Union had already ruled that data generated by cars belonged to their owners and is subject to privacy rules under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations or GDPR.  

In 2019 the Auto Alliance, a trade group representing the world’s largest car makers, was seeking for California to legislate that the companies be allowed to provide only summary information to consumers as opposed to the specific pieces of personal information a business has collected about them. This raises the question as to who owns the data for the user of an autonomous vehicle, particularly if the user does not own the vehicle.

The answer to this question will become more urgent with the deeper levels of data that automated vehicles will collect. Andrejevic (2020) argues that the creation and deployment of autonomous vehicles will transform cars into fully mediated devices, packed with sensors that collect and process a growing range of information. 

To find out more about who will own these autonomous users, we can turn to the Director of Product for Lyft, the ride-sharing platform who spells out how this company anticipates the future with autonomous vehicles (Swisher 2017). Taggart Matthieson detailed the collaborative model proposed in 2017 that Lyft is pursuing through the provision of an open platform with a number of partners who were seeking to produce level 5 vehicles (fully autonomous).  In his description he implies open data flows of user activity between the companies involved.

From the consumer experience point of view, the user of an autonomous vehicle will encounter two brands. The vehicle itself will be branded to the manufacturer, this will include the “brain” of the car, and the interface that the customer engages with and trip experience be curated by Lyft. The integration of the Lyft interface with the vehicle would include gathering intelligence from the car in order to facilitate the passenger validation process; for example gathering sensor data on the weight of the passenger on the car seat, that they have closed the door and connected the seatbelt. It will be an “integrated experience” between the sensors in the vehicle and the trip experience that Lyft provides. Summary taken from Taggart Matthieson, 2017, Recode Decode podcast.

More recently, Lyft and Aptiv launched a robotaxi pilot in January 2018 in Las Vegas. The program, which puts Aptiv vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network, surpassed 100,000 rides this month. Human safety drivers are always behind the wheel and the vehicles do not drive autonomously in parking lots and hotel lobby areas (Korosec 2020).

In her article detailing Lyft’s current AV strategy, Korosec (2020) notes that in 2019, Lyft reported to the Californian DMV that they had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode. The report showed that Lyft is doing more than partnering with autonomous vehicle companies like Aptiv. 

These shifts towards MAAS, Pizzuto et al. (2019) argue, will change the rules of the game across the entire mobility space, as software and data become fundamental differentiators when building and operating cars. They observe that the mobility sector will become ground zero for a convergence of industries that include automotive, transportation, software, hardware, and data services. These trends point to the impending question that whilst private car ownership may decrease, who will own our data?

These two case studies demonstrate some of the perhaps hidden or less obvious social implications of autonomous vehicles that do need to be broadly considered.

Is the cybersecurity sector ready for our cars becoming all connected? 

Driverless cars are seen as one of the key disruptors in the next technology revolution. However, Kaur and Rampersad (2018) argue that the main barrier to adoption is the lack of public trust. Drawing on quantitative evidence, their study found that the ability of the driverless car to meet performance expectations and its reliability were important adoption determinants. Significant concerns included privacy (autonomy, location tracking and surveillance) and security (from hackers). The discussion of user privacy concerns was discussed in one of the initial case studies on personal data ownership. This section will focus on the issue of data security. 

In a report on the state of autonomous vehicles, West (2016) notes that autonomous cars depend on vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communications and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) connections. Similarly, Vassallo and Manaugh (2018) observe that AVs are vulnerable to malicious attacks through many channels such as attackers physically tampering with a vehicle’s hardware, intercepting a vehicle’s communication signals, or hijacking a vehicle’s connection to a centralized server.

Case study: Hacks on AVs

Automated vehicles are equipped with multiple sensors (such as LiDAR, radar and camera) enabling local awareness of their surroundings. Researchers Jonathan Petit and Steven Shladover (2015) outline a number of security threats to connected cars. This includes hacking, jamming, data theft, ghost vehicles, or malicious actions such as using bright lights to blind cameras, radar interference, or sensor manipulation. Any one of these activities could disrupt communications and create false readings for artificial intelligence algorithms. Their study identifies GNSS (global navigation satellite systems) spoofing and injection of fake messages as the most dangerous attacks (i.e., most likely or most severe). Manipulating this type of information puts passengers are risk and potentially can lead to serious accidents. 

Cybersecurity experts already have demonstrated a capacity to remotely hack a Jeep Cherokee. In a report published in Wired magazine (Greenberg 2016), they tampered with the vehicle’s steering, brakes, radio, windshield wipers, and climate controls, and showed that this vehicle was easy to disrupt through its Uconnect software. This example shows that designers need to take vehicle security very seriously in order to avoid unnecessary risks. 

Vassallo and Manaugh (2018) argue that malicious software (malware) is also a hurdle to autonomous vehicle (AV) adoption and a serious threat to AV occupant safety. They observe that by removing the need to pay attention to the road, AVs will allow drivers to conduct Internet browsing activity that increases malware infection risk (like pirating media or viewing pornography) that falls outside the limited browsing options vehicle infotainment systems offer today. They also note that it is also possible that immobile information broadcast points could infect vehicles driving within signal range to these. Interestingly they suggest that it is possible that AVs could avoid malware-prone areas when planning a route or suggesting a destination of interest such as a gas station.

Within a MAAS system the vulnerabilities of centralized platforms coordinating personalized trip planning, pick up and payment (e-commerce) are also likely to be a target for client/server security threats as well as cyber identity thefts (Sharma, Singh & Sharma 2009). 

Case study: Hacks on infrastructure

Identity theft and credit card theft is common in the online environment, with marketplaces for stolen data established in many spaces, including cryptomarkets (Aldridge & Décary-Hétu 2014). E-commerce platforms regularly have their cyber security ‘tested’ by hackers seeking passwords, credit card information, personal identifiers for identity theft or other valuable data points. This has already been the case for Uber, who was reported to have concealed a massive global breach of the personal information of 57 million customers and drivers in October 2016 and paid the attackers $100,000 to delete the data and keep the breach quiet (Wong 2017). Similarly, in 2018, a ride-hail app called Careem based in Dubai reported hackers for stealing data belonging to 14 million riders and drivers, including customer names, email addresses, phone numbers and trip history, but no evidence of password or credit card information (Dickey 2018). E-commerce platforms holding credit card information and personal information are subject to identity and financial theft by malicious actors. 

Not only are the ride-share platforms already demonstrated to be vulnerable and targeted, so too is the public transport system. In 2016, a breach of the Western Australian transport systems initiated the organization shutting down real-time train tracking, amongst other systems, in response (Coyne 2016). Another instance, this time related to payment systems, the San Francisco public transit system was hacked with commuters unable to pay for their journeys and a ransom demaned. Monitors in station agent booths were seen with the message, “You Hacked. ALL data encrypted,” and the culprit allegedly demanded 100 Bitcoin (about $73,000). In response, the public transit service turned off the payment machines and opened the gates as a precaution. 

As Bergal (2018) reports in her article for a public service IT audience discussing instances of hacks of public transportation infrastructures, transportation systems are ripe targets for cyber criminals. From the smart cities perspective, journalist Ian Hardy (2016) draws on cybersecurity experts who say that it’s only a matter of time before hackers become interested in smart city transportation clouds and taking control of parking, traffic lights, signage, street lighting, automated bus stops and many other systems. He provides an existing example from Moscow, which has already experienced its first major transportation hack. Denis Legezo, a researcher with Kaspersky Lab, was able to manipulate traffic sensors and capture data simply by looking up a hardware user manual that was readily available online from the sensor manufacturer. With public infrastructure data likely hosted on an array of cloud servers, some within the jurisdiction and others not, this risk of malicious online activity and inability to apply local jurisdictional controls over the data (Ward & Sipior 2010) is only increased.

From these case studies we can see that there are several implications for an Internet of Vehicles that follow along the same concerns as the Internet of Things (of which they are a part) however hold their own unique implications that must be a part of the consideration of the implementation of these emerging technologies and mobility futures.

How do new generation technologies, like 5G, end up as conspiracies?

The new generation of connected self-driving cars is a convergence of a long list of technologies. This list includes AI, Big data, 5G, Cloud computing, IoT .. and some others. One technology in particular is interesting because it is stirring a lot of controversy (including being blamed for Covid 19 a few months ago), and that is 5G.


This observation that I will be called on to comment about for the upcoming industry focused Mobility panel, held for Hatch Quarter’s “Tech Tank” series, sent me on a rampage through the scholarly literature, from which I emerged with my sanity mostly intact but my hopes for a better future complicated. However, to bring in social change is to understand humanity in both its capacity for beauty and innovation, alongside how our darkness and anxieties that pass amongst us like wild fire shape that potential.

First, I begin with a sanity statement to pin us to the beauty and innovative capacities that we hold and how we develop technologies to realise this. Researchers, Ahmed et al (2020), state that compared to the current 4G networks, 5G wireless communications provide high data rates, have low latency, and increase base station capacity and perceived quality of service. They observe that the popularity of this technology arose because of the burst in smart electronic devices and wireless multimedia demand, which created a burden on existing networks. A key benefit of 5G, they suggest, is that some of the current issues with cellular networks such as poor data rates, capacity, quality of service, and latency will be solved.

Despite these promising innovations of this emerging telecommunications technology, Mansel & Plantin (2020) observe that fifth Generation mobile technology is at the centre of multiple controversies. They note that this controversy has gained momentum in early 2020 when conspiracy theories conflated the global spread of Covid-19 with China and 5G networks. From this point, we take a deep dive into the conspiracy theories and paranoia that are embedded in the cultural logics of our pandemic plagued times.

Ahmed et al (2020) observe that since the beginning of December 2019, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has spread rapidly around the world, which has led to increased discussions across online platforms. These conversations have also included various conspiracies shared by social media users. Amongst them, a popular theory has linked 5G to the spread of COVID-19, leading to misinformation and the burning of 5G towers in the United Kingdom.

In March 2020, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned that the world is not just fighting an epidemic but an infodemic (Ghebreyesus, in United Nations, 2020), with real world implications and actions. These fears have fuelled specific conspiracies connecting 5G with COVID-19, animating protests and acts of vandalism that have occurred during the pandemic (Meese et al 2020).

When considering this tendency towards real world impacts of conspiracy theories, researchers Imhoff & Lamberty (2020) observe from existing research on the topic that a conspiracy-prone worldview does not only reduce trust in official versions and adherence to norms but is also linked to a stronger acceptance of violence. They suggest that conspiracy worldviews also make it more plausible to engage in illegal, nonnormative forms of action to reach one’s goals. Drawing from their own prior research, they argue that people high in conspiracy mentality see it as more defensible to use force and other illegal means to pursue one’s political goals.

However it is not just those active on social media the spread 5G related conspiracy theories. Prior to the pandemic relationship, conspiracies related to 5G pointed to Huawei, as a Chinese 5G equipment manufacturer, as being implicated in international trade wars, leading to suspicions of foreign interventions in domestic affairs in the UK (Mansel & Plantin 2020). This conspiracist mentality was pervasive in the British press coverage of the topic in 2017. Researchers Mansel and Plantin highlight the role of British news media coverage of 5G as containing forms of bias that make it difficult for citizens to assess the benefits and risks in an informed way. They found that whilst references to 5G in relation to urban life generally present an optimistic view, reporting on UK government policy in relation to 5G was frequently is linked to applications such as “Surveillance”, “Military Uses” or to the discussion of “Security”, “Data Control”, “Mobile Coverage”, “Personalised Services” and “Virtualisation”.

Building on this finding of the key role of news media in the spread of conspiracy theories, alongside the previous observation of the role of social media in dissemination networks, Australian researchers Bruns et al ( 2020) worked across media formats to trace the dissemination dynamics of rumours that the pandemic outbreak was somehow related to the rollout of 5G mobile telephony technology in Wuhan and around the world. Initially they observed that the rumour built upon a series of related narratives regarding the possible health and environmental impacts of 5G technology, that likely flourished in large part due to pre-existing networks and misinformation surrounding it.

In their analysis, Bruns and co-authors traced the rumour on Facebook from its obscure origins in pre-existing conspiracist groups through greater uptake in more diverse communities to substantial amplification by celebrities, sports stars and media outlets. This finding suggests that pointing the finger at social media, is a diversion from the role of more mainstream and traditional players in the amplification of information.

Past research shows that the increase in conspiracy theories during a pandemic is not a new phenomenon. DeCook (2020) argues that conspiracies surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic are also not unique or “new” in how they mobilize and rally against government institutions, science, and both “democrats” and “liberals.”

In a survey of the scholarly literature it appears that conspiracy thinking increases substantially during times of uncertainty, especially in times of crises and thrive in environments of low confidence and low trust. Conspiracy worldviews have also been connected to refusal to trust science, the biomedical model of disease, and legal means of political engagement and are reflective of the ever-evolving fears of technology and of bodily invasion.

Providing explanations is psychologically advantageous for several reasons, with one sticking out in the previous literature: granting an illusion of control. Considering this reasoning, it is not surprising that a lack of control has been identified as one of the key drivers of conspiracy beliefs. When people are not able to gain control in the real world, they compensate for this lack by perceiving patterns, even if they are an illusion.

The current coronavirus crisis is an almost ideal breeding ground for conspiracy thinking, as there is no easily comprehensible mechanistic explanation of the disease, it is an event of massive scale, it affects people’s life globally and leaves them with lots of uncertainty. Additionally, Mansel & Plantin (2020) identify that new infrastructure projects are always accompanied by conflicting visions or imaginaries and political and economic interests.

5G is also linked to long-standing concerns about potential health hazards of electromagnetic frequencies. Meese et al (2020) detail long-standing concerns around mobile technologies and infrastructures and how they translate to specific worries about 5G technology. They argue that a productive way to understand what is happening with 5G is to look beyond conspiracy theories to a larger set of concerns. DeCook 2020 observes that conspiracy theories often reveal something about the underlying anxieties and fears of the sociohistorical period they are created in as well as the personal anxieties of the adherents themselves

In the current situation, disinformation and conspiracy theories are being pushed from people all along the political spectrum, although DeCook 2020 argues this is more so in far-right information networks. She also observes that all over the world, and particularly in the United States, the anti-science, anti-intellectualist, and anti-establishment ideologies which fuel these movements have been long ongoing.

However, of our current moment, Evans (2020) observes a strange convergence of extremist politics between the new age movements and the far right. From this, perhaps we can say that in times of chaos, everybody regardless of political beliefs is grasping for a nugget of truth to make sense of the situation.

Aupers (2012) has argued that conspiracy theories and paranoia are embedded in the cultural logic of modernity – and that conspiracy culture is not a fringe phenomenon but rather has been absorbed into the mainstream. From this position, DeCook observes that from their pervasive influence, through wide ranging spread due to digital technologies and continual evolution, conspiracy theories as adaptive epistemologies have real and dangerous consequences on societies around the world.

Sources and further reading

Ahmed, W., Vidal-Alaball, J., Downing, J., & López Seguí, F. (2020). COVID-19 and the 5G Conspiracy Theory: Social Network Analysis of Twitter Data. J Med Internet Res, 22(5), e19458. doi:10.2196/19458
Aupers, S. (2012). ‘Trust no one’: Modernization, paranoia and conspiracy culture. European Journal of Communication, 27(1), 22-34. doi:10.1177/0267323111433566
Bruns, A., Harrington, S., & Hurcombe, E. (2020). ‘Corona? 5G? or both?’: the dynamics of COVID-19/5G conspiracy theories on Facebook. Media International Australia, 1329878X20946113. doi:10.1177/1329878X20946113
DeCook, J. R. (2020). The culture of conspiracy and the radical right imaginary. The American Ethnologist. Retrieved from https://americanethnologist.org/features/pandemic-diaries/making-sense-of-things/the-culture-of-conspiracy-and-the-radical-right-imaginary
Evans (2020) Nazi Hippies: When the New Age and Far Right Overlap: Both the New Age and the far right are drawn to conspiracy theories. https://gen.medium.com/nazi-hippies-when-the-new-age-and-far-right-overlap-d1a6ddcd7be4
Imhoff, R. and Lamberty, P. (2020). A bioweapon or a hoax? the link be- tween distinct conspiracy beliefs about the coronavirus disease (covid-19) out- break and pandemic behavior. Social Psychology and Personality Science, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620934692.
Mansell, R., & Plantin, J.-C. (2020). Urban futures with 5G: British press reporting. London School of Economics and Political Science, June. eprints.lse.ac.uk/105801/ ISBN 978-1-909890-65-7
Meese, J., Frith, J., & Wilken, R. (2020). COVID-19, 5G conspiracies and infrastructural futures. Media International Australia, 1329878X20952165. doi:10.1177/1329878X20952165

Working from home during COVID-19: a response…

Off-load alert.  This piece is a short reflection on the question as to whether not being able to go on university campus (my workplace) during the COVID-19 shutdown has affected my productivity.  In writing this I acknowledge many privileges. Firstly, that I currently still have a job… this may change. Secondly, that I have an existing practice that maps well to working entirely online and I can generally work from anywhere. Finally, my personal circumstances are stable and I have a good home office and a safe home space. For all of these, I am very grateful.

That said, we have just been “COVID-19 surveyed” about the working from home experience. The survey was very controlled and excluded some of the actual challenges of working from home that I have experienced over the last few months.  This is what I call survey bias to my students when I am teaching them about question design.  A survey controls the response options available and also the questions that are asked.  Whilst it is powerful in producing the prevalence of practices, attitudes and aspects of experience, it is neither a consultative nor two-way data collection tool.

Because there was limited space for me to offer a true reflection of the benefits and challenges of working from home during lock down, I just need to get this off my chest here. The futility of these reflections in the face of the very real need for change in its many forms is disempowering. I admire my colleagues and peers who are firing up at this time and creating a space to engage and contribute to the ways we will change and what the future could look like.

I consider myself many things, however a writer is one of them. This is the tool most visible in these times and the one that I am skilled and practiced at. More than this, it is a vital form of expression and reflection for me. I take up my pen to provide visibility to my own voice and experience. In doing so, change will come, as from the word, form comes. But it will not be in a way that I can control or anticipate. The pen is mightier than the sword, but the outcome is less predictable!

For me, working entirely off-campus (or from home) has affected a couple of areas of my professional practice.  Overall, my professional practice is largely online (including much of my research) with place based practices relating to delivering on-campus teaching, attending meetings, presenting at conferences and catching up with peers to discuss our research ideas and so forth.

For the lockdown period and for much of my practice going forward over the next year, at the very least, teaching, meetings, seminars, networking, research practices, conferences and engaging with distributed networks will be all online both inside and beyond the university.

The challenges I experienced whilst working from home during lockdown (which we are now in our second wave of) relate to three areas, student engagement, internet reliability and job security.

The question of a sense of connection to the organisation and other staff that was evaluated in the survey is a bit of a red herring, whilst making apparent sense to measure. For example, asking the questions “how strongly do you agree with x statement”… or “do you feel less connected to your manager, other staff and the executive” because you are working from home seems logical but is false and leading. This is because there is no baseline to go from.

Deakin is a dispersed campus and the base-line for engaging with colleagues is already low due to busy schedules, teaching timetables and different geographic locations. The Burwood campus is a commuter campus and the hallways where staff offices are do not support “water cooler” conversations.  For me, going into the office does not generally increase contact with other colleagues. This is because many of them are not there. Due to space restrictions, the office space I am allotted is in what I refer to as “the stables” where there are around 10 desks (stalls) that is not conducive to do academic and scholarly work at. I’d prefer to work in my office space at home or go to a venue for student consultations and meetings on campus that is not afflicted with the flickering blue light of fluorescent lighting.

Ironically whilst there is very little sense of connectivity and collegiality in my workplace, this situation may have been slightly improved during campus shutdown. Many more meetings are made inclusive by being online. There was a shared fear and sense of job insecurity as the Major Workplace Change plan was rolled out for staff to “consult” on that signalled 300 redundancies and 100 vacant positions being removed. Fixed-term staff, like myself, were just let go of when their contract ended. You can listen to the sad case of this for frontline staff who were teaching English to international students here. More on this later. I’ve written this out of order and those critiquing my writing structure, as I do for my students, may be shaking their head.

In terms of the second area of concern, internet reliability, there is not much that can be done about this. Given that we are reliant on the quality and speed of internet connection available in the suburb we live, or mobile hotspot coverage, there is nothing much more that I can do to improve the speed and quality of my internet connection. Moving my teaching and meeting all online, means that I am subject to the occasional variable internet bandwidth that characterises my connection in general.  This is made more obvious when the teaching software or Zoom session indicates poor connection.  Sometimes words of wisdom or struggle from my colleagues or students sounds like it has a Darth Vader filter overlaid… I can’t even imagine what I must sound like at times.  “Silent” is probably the best description…

The greatest positive impact that shifting teaching and meetings online however has been that I have experienced is reduced commute times to work.  Granted, I’ve got a 5 minute tech set up, but this is nothing given that the Deakin Burwood campus can be difficult to reach by public transport, has serious traffic congestion at peak times around it and has constrained available parking. The number of times I have circled around the carparks like a hungry vulture, tailing walking human subjects in the hope of a car space opening up is innumerable. Not having to deal with this, and the cost of parking, is a major win.

In the first area of practice that is COVID-19 lockdown affected that I mentioned is in the area of student engagement.  This point, as you will see, weaves into my very real concerns relating to job security. Within my work over last trimester with student engagement and teaching, a key challenge has been the higher levels of emotional labour  I have put in supporting students who had to quickly deal with learning solely online whilst facing challenging personal hardships exacerbated by to the pandemic. This work improved student retention and supported greater adjustments for struggling students. But you know that this was not measured in the staff survey of impacts of working from home and performance indicator. This is the invisible labour that we do as a duty of care process that does not have hours allocated to it in our workloads.

As this additional labour occurred alongside the Major Workplace Change process at Deakin and tightening financial measures across the university sector, I experienced very little sense of security or value/acknowledgement of this work from the university. I also do not expected it, sadly.  There is very little humanity in the sector at the moment. Everyone is focused on their own little patch and just trying to survive the changes and challenges. Emails fall into our inboxes like a snowdrift, the whole sector undergoes a seismic shift and there are so many opportunistic research probes asking us how our lives have changed during lockdown and the pandemic. I am at capacity in general and  do feel that these constant taps to “share my experience” is rude, and smacks of opportunism that benefits someone else’s career.

There is very little occurring in the sector at the moment that feels mutually beneficial or consultative. It just feels like it is imploding. Consequently, I have very little faith that anything that will directly support my challenges will be offered. In the balance hangs my job security alongside the continued requirement of providing duty-of-care emotional labour with students and operating through an NBN that was totally gutted through the political process.

Remains of the day: a reflection on the classroom during the “COVID-19” trimester

This trimester of teaching has been one of the most challenging that I have yet experienced. From the second week of teaching, most units moved teaching delivery online and our campus students had to scramble to adapt to the changed learning environments whilst they were losing their casual jobs.

Moving into the online learning space at Deakin was fairly smooth for me as most of my practice has been designed to be online first. However the student cohort who had intended to study on campus and those who were already studying online faced several challenges. It was this composition of students, international, domestic and distance learners, that put the unit at the frontline of the COVID-19 crumble.

The student cohort that I commonly work with consists largely of international students who attend their studies on campus. Reflecting current government statistics, these students are mainly from China, India and other SEA countries. Alongside this cohort there are some campus-based domestic students and those returning to study online during the course of their professional lives.

Student Hardship

During this period, many international students lost their jobs and had deep concerns about their families back in their home country. Others were put directly into financial precarity. For example, in India banks were shut down for a period and families were not able to send money to keep their children going. Family income in the home country also suffered. After the Australian government told students to “go home”, many of these students were stranded without support and struggled to feed themselves. Let alone focus on their studies.

The contribution these students make to a socio-cultural and economic life in Australia and within the Higher Education sector makes these circumstances that they faced even more shameful. Localised responses were put in place by universities to somewhat address this issue, however this is unlikely to have been enough.

In face of these hardships and also in context to the broader uncertainties and shut down of mobility, many students were in general anxious, bored and stressed during the trimester. This was not offset by peer support, as many of these students did not sufficiently build the peer networks that is normal for on campus students in their first weeks of the trimester. Some students felt isolated while others were not best equipped or enabled to deal with mental and other health issues.

Across the course of this pandemic on-set study period some students struggled to focus on their studies as the world fell down around them and their families went through tragic circumstances. This was particularly intense for international students separated from their families and unable to help as their parents’ businesses collapsed in their home countries.

Some students, like many of us, experienced boredom and some minor inconveniences, not understanding the scale of the tragedy for others. Others were so deep in their own stressors and experience, they were barely able to focus on their studies. For most students, continuing their studies represented a hope for a different future and kept them going during difficult circumstances as something positive to focus on.

Studying from home

In the context of COVID-19 pandemic, homespace stability, being able to work from home, and having a decent internet connection was crucial. However, many campus students were scrambling to set up a place to study from in their home.

Adding to this turbulence, students also had to move homes, with landlords asking them to leave due to financial reasons or fears that the student would bring COVID-19 into the household. This was a wider issue for the international student population, with many losing their casual jobs, not being able to pay their rent and as private renters, not being clear of their rights in these circumstances.

Students who were expecting to study on campus did not always have a sufficient home office set up or quiet environment that they could work at home from. They did not always have reliable internet access from home either.

The students who did attend the seminars joined me in the online classroom (usually around 8-10). No students had their video connected, with only some students doing this occasionally. Some students were only able to attend by text due to internet bandwidth issues and at least one or two students dropped in an out of the seminar space due to poor internet connectivity every class.

Specific impacts for online learners

Students who chose to study online are generally more mature, returning to study, have workplace experience and are set up for home study. This is a smaller domestic cohort than the international student cohort in the units I teach into currently. Domestic students also experienced upheaval in terms of job loss, changing family circumstances and intermittent wifi. The anticipated work-study balance, with life not getting a look in, that they had planned for went entirely out of the window.

Mature-aged students’ concerns and stressors tend to be more complex than those faced by most campus students, who are on the whole younger. Reflecting society at large, students who elected to study online also include those who are single parenting, working and dealing with sick children, struggling with custody issues and home teaching during this period when their children were not able to go to school. Operating within this personal context tended to result in observable fatigue, challenges in balancing priorities and difficulty setting aside uninterrupted time to do their study.

Students who were affected by the Travel ban, and conducting their study from their home country, experienced further challenges. Internet access to resources was a particular issue experienced by Chinese students studying from China due to the internet firewall. Whilst there were significant efforts to assist us in making sure content was accessible from China, there remained issues. While the content was theoretically able to be accessed from China, in reality, a student needed to establish a viable VPN connection that was stable and high speed to effectively engage with the content. This appeared to be challenging and is likely affected by the government regulations and approach to VPN access.

Other students who took the message from our “leaders” and fled the country back to their home country left their belongings, including essential study items such as laptops, in Melbourne. Students who returned to India had to deal with variable internet access. For these students, dealing with financial issues such as paying high rents and doing their studies online with a lack of technological inputs became very challenging.

Who is affected?

Within my direct experience, no student was untouched by these circumstances. In discussion with faculty and peers at other universities, these stories and experiences are illustrative and resonant with their own practice. In discussion with colleagues in other sectors, such as rental advocates, services are experiencing a surge in supporting international students, for example in dealing with tenancy issues.

Whilst universities are putting in place a strategy for dealing with the higher than anticipated number of fail grades for this trimester, I am concerned about how I am going to address these ongoing issues raised in my classroom as we prepare for the next trimester.

You can watch this space as I work through the possibilities of compiling and developing more support and guidance for online study practices during these difficult times. Excitingly, these insights will evolve through my work in developing interactive modules for a classic academic skills book, Making the Grade (which I highly recommend).

Within Deakin the three trimester system grinds on and we have only a few weeks to go before we re-enter the classroom. I have been teaching for three trimesters a year, for four years and this has been too much. However my contractual conditions under a fixed-term contract have been underwhelming and it has taken substantial negotiations to even get some breathing room. These small wins are with limited protection as the sector closes down on casual staff, rescinds contracts and shifts the teaching burden on to continuing staff, often through the reduction of their research allocations.

While I am gasping for air and peddling forward under a heavy blanket of marking, the sector continues to undergo seismic shocks. At Deakin, we are currently facing 400 redundancies, and the government is now announcing a price-point oriented strategy for getting new students to enrol in courses they think will produce graduates where there are jobs. This strategy sees the fees for arts, humanities and social sciences degrees to go up more than 100% and funding to be generally reduced across the board and in the targeted areas identified as priorities for the future workforce by the government. It also puts into question what the purpose of a university education is and how they fund and prioritise research.

Will there even be a classroom and students for me to be concerned about next year?  Who knows. But my fixed-term contract will finish and the job market in higher ed will be in deep freeze when I am spat out the other side. As much as I am concerned for my current and future students, I don’t see clear opportunities for me and my expertise in the higher ed sector. In light of this, my approach is to focus on creative, responsive and agile strategies and plan to turn my talents towards growth sectors that will inevitably emerge.

NB: This blog has been edited to ensure student anonymity.

What is the value of a university education in a post COVID-19 world?: bringing critical thinking into focus

In this blog, I am publishing a piece of back-end work that is intended to contribute to a thought leadership piece for Oxford University Press. As these ideas are unlikely to become visible through my own voice, I thought I’d share them here. They are organised by the three questions asked in relation to how complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity can contribute to professional success for students. I chose to focus on critical thinking, as this is the area that I have to work hardest to support my students to develop.

Why is critical thinking important for future careers?

Critical thinking enables students to understand the key issues relating to a topic or task and to identify the context of these issues through engaging with credible and authoritative sources. It also enables them to focus their thinking and engage with the the problem set in a way that matters, is meaningful and rigourous. This skill set is valuable for future careers as it enables an employee to make valuable contributions to projects and tasks in a way that is targeted, efficient, informed and insightful.

In a time and motion study of ideas to practice, using critical thinking is the most efficient route to a meaningful and high-performing outcome. This may come through lateral thinking (connecting ideas in a novel way) or the strategic focusing of attention (knowing what to focus on, when and why). These attributes within the professional workplace are valuable for an organisation and tend to lead to higher paying work. Generally higher paying work links applied practice to organisational vision, goals and strategic outcomes.

Do you think the importance of this skill will increase in the aftermath of COVID-19?

 

The implications of COVID-19 for business include that organisations will need to innovate rapidly and pivot their business models and practices to respond to the potential of economic recession, the greater focusing upon a delivery of online services and a distributed remote workforce. For an employee, being able to recognise opportunities and respond to the risks brought about by these changing circumstances is essential. Given that critical thinking involves making lateral connections, this opens up the pathways for new ideas and innovations in practice to emerge from how an individual does their work to how teams can pivot and respond to new circumstances. Critical thinking also involves knowing where and how to find credible information and evidence. It can then be used to rapidly make sense of this information and evidence and transform it into meaningful insights that can be applied to challenging questions and problems. This supports the resilience of the employee to operate under rapidly changing circumstances.

In your view, how does teaching need to shift to address this skill and improve student confidence?

Teaching and learning within the higher education system is built upon a foundation of supporting students ability to conceptualise phenomena and apply knowledge. To do this, we develop students’ abilities to access, evaluate, synthesise and interpret credible and authoritative information and evidence. From this point, we mentor students on how to generate new insights, think creatively and apply their knowledge to discipline- specific questions and contexts. When students enter higher education, they commonly lack both the confidence and awareness of how to engage with phenomena in a conceptual or abstract way. They also require development in how they communicate their insights. Understanding and communication are the fundamental building blocks that we work with. Across disciplines, we take a scaffolded approach to develop both academic and professional skills that can be applied in the world beyond the university. The key issue however is to build both students’ and employers’ awareness that a university education does more than support the development of sector-specific skills. We need to communicate more effectively to our students that the greatest value universities offer to their professional prospects, other than credentialing, is an extension of their networks and the life-long skill of being able to think critically about the world and engage with professional and public life in an informed and open manner. What we are seeing in our public discourse is an increased polarisation of views and a limited ability to engage with diverse experiences and bring them into dialogue. This goes back to a fundamental need to support the development of understanding and communication, which, as I have suggested, is at the core of the higher education agenda. Consequently, where teaching needs to shift is in more clearly articulating this process for students and helping them to see the value of these skills and networks they are gaining within their professional context. Confidence comes from the ability to communicate ideas clearly and persuasively in a way that is meaningful and yields results. When students see that this is what they come out with from their education and understand its value to their professional careers, they will have a greater sense of their own worth and ability to contribute constructively in their professional life. Learning how to think critically is a key step in this process.

Higher Education and its role in a pandemic: the social implications of policy initiatives

Higher Education, automation, retraining Australians and micro-credentialing.

The higher education sector in Australia has received government attention in response to the health, social and financial crisis that is unfolding in response to the current pandemic. A recent announcement indicated that the government was focused on funding universities to offer short courses (micro-credentialing) to domestic students who have experienced job loss (Duffy 2020). Federal Education Minister, Mr Tehan, was reported to have said that these reforms were intended to promote the closer alignment of universities with domestic industry and student demands through “innovative micro-credentials delivered flexibly online”.

In reading this, I had a moment of déjà vu. In preparation for being a panel member for an industry focused discussion of mobility, I researched current knowledge focused on the social implications of driverless vehicles and AI. To direct the discussion for the panel, the organisers provided a series of question prompts, one of which related to the question of job loss for drivers with the implementation of driverless vehicles into commercial transportation and delivery services. For this, I reviewed the research on the types of job loss automation will provoke and looked at the case study of the UK coalminers in relation to retraining. I believe, that this research has utility to our understanding how we can retrain those people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Particularly when it is not automation that has created job loss, but the immediate need for people to stay at home and do what they can online. Australia is in Stage 3 restrictions currently and the impact of these on the economy and the job market has been intense and drastic.

I will also include my response to another question that related to how the higher education sector would service this retraining need. My research took me to micro-credentials and I think the threads of insight I found are also relevant to the focus of the government reforms to the education sector. In the following discussion, I will keep the original focus of the essay on the social impacts of automation, however I will indicate where the parallels of this semi-hypothetical discussion with the issues that we face right now of the movement of work online and wide scale job loss, particularly across the entertainment and cultural sectors.

How can job loss arising from automation be tackled?

This section will look at the figures and types of work that will be affected by automation. The parallel here with our current situation, where these trends are also at play, is the displacement of work practices into the online environment, as in online teaching in the higher education sector, and job loss across industry sectors that involve tasks reliant on in person practices and co-located services.

MGI research on the automation potential of the global economy included 46 countries representing about 80 percent of the global workforce. The report examined more than 2,000 work activities and quantified the technical feasibility of automating each of them. Manyika (2017) highlights from this research that the proportion of occupations that can be fully automated using currently demonstrated technology is actually small—less than 5 percent.

An additional important finding is that even if whole occupations are not automated, partial automation (where only some activities that make up an occupation are automated) will affect almost all occupations to a greater or lesser degree. The impact will be felt not just by factory workers and clerks but also by landscape gardeners and dental lab technicians, fashion designers, insurance sales representatives, and even CEOs. They find that about 60 percent of all occupations have at least 30 percent of activities that are technically automatable, based on currently demonstrated technologies. This means that most occupations will change, and more people will have to work with technology.

Highly skilled workers working with technology will benefit. While low-skilled workers working with technology will be able to achieve more in terms of output and productivity, these workers may experience wage pressure, given the potentially larger supply of similarly low-skilled workers, unless demand for the occupation grows more than the expansion in labour supply.

Jin et al. (2018) forecast two major trends in relation to ridesharing technologies that may significantly change urban transportation configuration:

  • the further integration of ridesourcing and public transit and the adoption of automated vehicles by TNCs.
  • Autonomous driving technology is a key competition area for TNCs as “robots can work tirelessly, do not demand a salary, and don’t care for employment status or benefits” (Dudash, 2017).

They argue that having fleets of driverless cars on the street will not only affect congestion and transportation accessibility and safety, but also have a strong impact on the livelihoods of ridesourcing drivers, and even drivers working for the traditional transportation and logistics industry.

Similarly Spencer (2017) argues that digital technologies threaten to eliminate many of the jobs currently held by workers. Advances in robotics mean that machines can replace jobs that have thus far survived automation. He highlights that manual, routine jobs remain most vulnerable to automation. The task of driving a car, for example, has proved difficult for machines to master. With the advent of driverless cars, however, the human tasks of taxi driver and trucker may be under threat.

West (2018) observes that truck driving has long been a well-paying job for high school graduates. In the US, where the analysis is drawn from, this occupation does not require a college degree and is an attractive entry level position for those not seeking higher education. Drawing on the work of Alice Rivlin, an economist, in 2016 the rough estimate would be that driverless deliveries would put at least 2.5 million US drivers out of work.

How could this be tackled? Can we draw on case studies of other industries that have gone through seismic employment shifts to learn ways through?

Case Study: UK coalmine closure

Thursfield and Henderson (2004) explore the impacts of the Selby Coalfield closure where 2071 employees were estimated to lose their jobs. Many of those to be evacuated from the industry had little or no experience of work outside coal mining and their skills were highly industry-specific. The average age of these men is 40, and many have no formal educational or vocational qualifications.

Issues they identified as emerging from the retraining programme, that was implemented to ease the transition from mining to alternative forms of employment, were:

  • Historically (white) working class men are the most difficult to attract to education and training and result in non-participation (McGiveny 1999)
  • In the context of the Selby closure the survey evidence indicated a preference for retraining by the men, however little attempt was made to offer information that would facilitate meaningful choice.
  • The distinction between lifelong learning and retraining is crucial. Selby represents a missed opportunity to promote the benefits of lifelong learning to a section of the UK workforce traditionally excluded from education. Rather, the emphasis was on retraining in narrow job-related competencies.
  • Not only must there be a commitment to retraining as part of any retrenchment programme, but that the retraining has to be appropriate to both the trainee and the potential employer.
  • The desire for a short course leading to some form of employment is not surprising given the need to sustain a certain income level once the mine closed.

Frey and Osborne (2015) explore trends in automation and points to sluggish job creation caused partly by increasing automation. They argue that secular stagnation in the digital age can only be avoided by a shift towards inclusive growth. The authors highlight the need for long term thinking to mitigate the negative effects of an ever more automated and digital economy.

From this series of case studies, we can see that there are several points that must be considered in retraining people into other occupations. Firstly, if the occupation has not previous required more than secondary education, then there needs to be the development of educational capital and learning skills required to complete a micro-credential course in a new area. Secondly, those who are undergoing retraining, need to have a financial safety net in places that supports them during this time where they are not earning an income.

Is the education system in Australia ready to handle this retraining program?

In their discussion of retrenchment and retraining in the Coalmining sector Thursfield and Henderson (2004) foreground a set of principles that consider the conditions of human emancipation, and prioritise the transformation of society to a more just and egalitarian one through human agency, which they argue is the proper aim of lifelong learning.

At one level, lifelong learning is narrowly defined in terms of employment and the economy (Edwards et al, 1998). Thursfield and Henderson (2004) note that the emphasis of UK policy documents of the time was on the assumed link between economic success and learning. Alternative and more expansive conceptualisations focus on the personal development of the learner. From this perspective, Fryer (1999) states that learning can take many forms, both formal and informal. It can include developing a variety of skills, abilities, competences, and problem-solving capacities. It includes acquiring new information and knowledge, as well as the pursuit of credits and qualifications through programmes of study more conventionally recognised as ‘learning’.

Frey and Osborne (2015) argue that in the context of rising automation, while the concern over technological unemployment has so far proven to be exaggerated, the reason why human labour has prevailed relates to its ability to acquire new skills. At a time when technological change is happening even faster, they predict that a main hurdle for workers to adapt is the surging costs of education (p. 89).

Within the Higher education sector, I would suggest that the focus of the university and academics is on the following:

  • Building Industry partnerships, specifically with those industries that may offer job growth in areas where skill-translation is possible.
  • Preparation of our graduates for new industry trends within the course of study.
  • The provision of online and accessible courses.
  • Affordable education for those experiencing technological unemployment and easily accessible and quick turnaround credentialing to support employment pathways.
  • Effective placement of our graduates and interns with companies that are effectively integrating automation with work practices.
  • Engagement with public dialogue and policy on the topic of technological unemployment.
  • The unlocking of academic knowledge outside of paywalls so that it is accessible to a broader public.

The following case study explores the possible application of micro-credentialing and the use of blockchain technology.

Case study: Blockchain based micro-credentialing

Credentials are a type of institutional technology that are produced by the education sector, professional and trade associations, and by government. These certifications benefit consumers by facilitating trust in professional and trade services, and employers by facilitating trusted information about skills and capabilities. The credentials market is expanding with the rise of micro-credentials (mini qualifications that demonstrate skills, knowledge and experience in a given subject area or capability). Industry, employers and students are demanding short courses to quickly address skills gaps, including for rapidly developing technologies such as blockchain.

The Australian government has provided a National Blockchain Roadmap. One of the areas of focus is micro-credentialing within the education sector. This report identifies that Universities have responded to calls to ensure student data is portable in an increasingly digital, globalised environment by establishing a centralised higher education repository. My eQuals, launched in 2017, provides secure access to certified official transcripts and degree documents for 47 universities across Australia and New Zealand and are expanding to non-university higher education providers and TAFEs.

The report frames Blockchain technology as a technological infrastructure on which credentials can be managed and shared. It argues that the ability to record or reference credentials on a blockchain provides benefits to students, education providers, employers and other service providers (including recruitment agencies) in the employment value chain.

Since late 2018, RMIT has offered blockchain-enabled credentials to students and RMIT Online learners through a pilot program with their credentials platform partner, Credly. Students who complete the nominated micro-credentials and online short course from the RMIT Creds and Future Skills portfolio, are given the opportunity to ‘publish’ their earned digital credential to the blockchain, providing meaningful data about their earned skills and capabilities. The digital credentials selected for this program—Collaborating Online; Global Leader Experience; Application Package; and; Developing Blockchain Strategy—had enrolments from individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Through this pilot they found that many participants did not fully understand the potential benefits of having a blockchain record—of having a streamlined, immediate and verifiable record of one’s skills, competencies or academic credential. They concluded that all agents and players within the ecosystem—students, staff, education providers, employers, government—must be convinced of the benefits, including verification, increased efficiencies and speed of transactions.

The report lists several opportunities for the stakeholders involved: advantages for the student include real time credentialing; advantages for learning providers include efficiency gains in issuing of certificates, transcripts and other credentialing resources; and advantages for employers include trusted verification of soft skills and micro-credentials in jobseekers.

Challenges or areas for further consideration and planning identified for blockchain verified micro-credentialing by the report include:

  • Maintaining the security and privacy of user data
  • Editing or altering an existing blockchain.
  • Credentialing outside of an official learning institution will remain a difficult endeavour, unless the blockchain technology can be adequately taken up by workplaces themselves.

The report concludes that Blockchain technology may play a role in the future of the credentials sector by offering a more effective, scalable and secure alternative platform for the production and use of credentials. In doing so, it has the potential to improve the functioning of Australia’s labour markets, increasing the quality of job matching and lowering the cost of HR functions.

When considering the mining case study and other sources, it appears that a clear pathway between the course of study, micro-credentialing and employment opportunities within industry needs to be made for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to provide them with a pragmatic motivation to re-train. Another successful element of the strategy appears to be that these students are financially supported during the re-certification and skills development process so that they can actually afford to do it.

Whilst the education sector can respond to the opportunity for providing targeted and industry-connected lifelong learning opportunities and perhaps greater affordability and relevance through micro-credentialing, they are only a part of the solution. Peters (2017) argues that in this general environment it seems increasingly unlikely that education by itself will be sufficient to solve problems of technological unemployment. He suggests that technological unemployment, associated with automation, will create greater inequalities and an increasing gap between the returns to labour and the returns to capital.

This is a concern that we also face currently in which unemployment is exacerbated by the degree of an individual’s access to technologies of co-presence for online work. For those who’s profession does not translate into paid online services or who do not have the technology and internet connectivity to continue their work from home, retraining alone will not solve everything.

Currently, the Australian government is focusing on retraining within sectors that either present a frontline response to the pandemic, such as nursing and other health services, technical and medical responses through IT and science, and support the retraining initiative, teaching. Whilst I fall into the teaching response category, I am also a social scientist and researcher. I believe this skill set should be considered as aligned with national priorities. I am able to provide insights that provide context and social intelligence that must accompany the implementation of these initiatives to ensure that they are successful.

References

Frey, CB & Osborne, M 2015, Technology at work: The future of innovation and employment, Citi GPS.

Jin, ST, Kong, H, Wu, R & Sui, DZ 2018, ‘Ridesourcing, the sharing economy, and the future of cities’, Cities, vol. 76, pp. 96-104.

Manyika, J 2017, Technology, jobs and the future of work, McKinsey Global Institute.

Peters, MA 2017, ‘Technological unemployment: Educating for the fourth industrial revolution’, Journal of Self-Governance and Management Economics, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017/01//, p. 25+.

Spencer, D 2017, ‘Work in and beyond the Second Machine Age: the politics of production and digital technologies’, Work, Employment and Society, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 142-52.

Thursfield, D & Henderson, R 2004, ‘Participation in lifelong learning: Reality or myth? Issues arising from a United Kingdom coalfield closure’, Journal of Vocational Education and Training, vol. 56, no. 1, pp. 117-36.

West, DM 2018, The future of work: robots, AI, and automation, Brookings Institution Press.