Save me from the sociologist and their visual models in MS word…

I have long since acknowledged that both information professionals and visual communication design professionals just do it better, communicate complex ideas visually. Upon presenting some of my early diagrams to a group of UX designers, produced in MS Word or Pages, the whole group groaned (some did this aloud). Whilst I was proud of my stick figures (women with triangle bodies and men a straight line and both genders with a circle head), I concede that there are better ways, and platforms, to do this.

Regardless, here I go again. I am currently preparing for an industry-facing talk on the social impacts of driverless vehicles, the sharing economy and the future of work. Naturally, I needed to brush up on the state of many things, including the economic model upon which these articulations are founded. It’s the nerd in me. I need my conceptual model to be able to frame the working parts and use this as a platform to spring off (sometimes it’s a swan dive and other times it’s a belly flop).

Because it’s a back end work up kind of thing, I decided to share it with you. Making my assumptions and frameworks transparent is definitely one way that I learn. In this model, I attempt to work out the basic forces of a market economy (with the emphasis on basic). These are the blue boxes (do note the rounded edges). I consider these elements to be intertwined. In the green boxes, I’ve highlighted the associated mechanisms and agendas that are shaping our current economic contexts. The zigzag of lines traces the dominant relationships, with all elements founded upon a complex system of mess (spontaneous emergence) in which they are all interrelated. The purple boxes drop down from the central forces and illustrate the dynamic nature of these interlocking systems. The word cloud is all of the associated words that spring to mind as I label these boxes and dig back through the waterfall of articles, conference presentations, talks and media that I have voraciously consumed.

An economic model incorporating the sharing economy and big data

 

Mobilities and tomorrow’s technologies: emerging technology and their human impacts

One of the joys of my work is the opportunity to connect the sociological imagination to the wicked problems of industry. In this case, I am pondering what we know about mobilities, emerging technologies and their human impacts. This question strongly positions the role of the social sciences and humanities as thought leaders of our future. How can we build compassionate, kind and sustainable communities where our uses of and practices with technologies and within built environments reflect this mandate? I refer to this as care. What do we care about and how can we care for it?

For me to analytically break these notions down and find working case studies to illustrate the human impacts, I will start with each idea separately. To begin with, what exactly does ‘mobilities’ mean? Are we talking about mobilities of people (ie migration and tourism), mobilities of goods and services (ie transportation and the economy) or mobilities of  intangible products such as data fields and human communication (information and telecommunications)? This is the first question, however the second question is really at the core of this notion of mobilities in my opinion. What are at the foundations of all of these mobilities? What are the infrastructures that support the flows of people, products and information? Here we come down to the tangibilities of energy flows and built environments (from physical place to code). Thus when we start to talk about mobilities, we are also talking about energy to power flows across socio-technical environments. We are also talking about the workforce of the future and in-hand with this, the forms of economy, market and governance that will regulate and enable diverse and sustainable futures.

Life is dynamic and mobile, with movement at its very core; this applies to how it is organised, social practices and our lived experience. Consequently, the great question of our age is two-fold. In all of our moving, consuming and producing, how can we utilise technologies to instantiate sustainable futures? The flip-side of this question is how we can we bring about a new normal where instead of consuming and polluting our planet, and only living ecosystem, we use our capacity to create and innovate to live sustainably? This question seems enormous. Within the Australian context, we have had political tensions as to whether the market will bring this about or whether the people will divest existing governance structures, which they do not trust, and build leadership from within communities.

Within Australia, we have also had unresolved debates as to whether the impacts of our current practices upon the environment are related to climate change. For many, now, this has become a moot point, with the cities swamped in smoke haze and a great deal of finger pointing going on whilst the east coast and many other parts of Australia burn. Within my personal conversations, people see this as a point of hope, in which the fires bring a time of cleansing and a new vision for how we will proceed. Currently, I am just devastated and choose to use the platforms I have available to bring about conversations. I ask, how can we authentically bring about social change and sustainable futures? To do this, we must acknowledge our present and real danger, environmental collapse and a toxic future. We also must build our future, not in fear, but with a strong vision of care through a collective conversation.

So when I ask, what is a smart city, what are the energies of the future, how do mobilities of people, goods and information flow, I am really asking what are the ways of thinking that will break the cycle of consumption and waste. How can we sensitise our practices to be in tune with the balance of nature and abundance that are contained within the unbreakable rules of this delicate yet robust planetary ecosystem we live in.  So this, I believe is the lens through which I will unpack the role of smart cities, driverless cars, AI and automated decision making systems, alternative monetary and market systems, sustainable energy sources questions of ethics and governance.  Stay tuned.

Using 2020 machine vision to reflect on 2019

This year has been full of haze, culminating in the fires affecting many parts of Australia and smogging up Melbourne. I have been in a haze of teaching and trying to keep up with my field. Two significant events in the Australian academic landscape are shaping my vision. The first, research focus on automated decision making (AI and machine learning) and the second, blockchain technologies.

AI and machine learning are tools I am interested in as part of being able to visualize social form in 3D. ‘But how?’ has been the question. From the blockchain technologies strand, I am learning how a decentralised ledger may be the “backbone” of data conversion.

For many reasons, these technologies and their open source or collaborative structures fascinate me. Do they intersect? How? And what can I do with that?

I continue to pursue my research vision of modeling social change by providing case studies of two interrelated communities. Blockchain enthusiasts and networks and cyber libertarians. How do they see our future with these technologies and what structural inequalities do they seek to disrupt? I’m fascinated by the cultures designing and applying these technologies. What I don’t yet know is the social logics that arise from their application. Are there micro, meso and macro intersections of power, place and practices in their generation. I’d like to see this if there are.

At a recent blockchain technologies symposium held by the blockchain innovation hub at RMIT, I came up with a list of questions to unpack. If we are to implement decentralised-ledger technologies that support pop up economies, community exchange systems and cryptocurrencies, for example, then I think they must be asked.

What does a “whole society” vision of emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning and Blockchain mean?

Here I look as a sociologist would. What are the social problems that we can apply them to and what are the ones that arise when we do?

1. What kind of society?

With this question I think we need to look at the ethics and values that are embedded in the technologies and how they intersect with the ever-changing ethics and values of societies over time. I would like to see a focus on sustainability, inclusion and diversity. How can we embed kindness, compassion, care and nurturing in our technologies? How can we embed this in our relationship with them? Our model with non-human animals is flawed and should not be replicated into artificial intelligences and our robots. Our relationship to our planet is not sustainable and should not be replicated. Our relationship to each other is complex and yet we share what it means to live together every day. Sometimes successfully and sometimes not. What does governance mean to us. How can we direct it to a fair, equitable and sustainable future? Emerging technologies are a part of this decision making.

2. What kind of economy?

What does value exchange look like? And how does it work? I have had a deep dive into this in terms of commodities and the pet trade in my doctoral research. I have also, and more recently, learnt so much about money and its flows. I continue to talk to people about their financial practices and uses of cryptocurrencies. But value exchange extends beyond money and game theory. When we look at the gift economy and black markets, money flows into multiple forms and value conversions. For example, in the open source software community, value is converted into reputation (although money would be nice). The prosumer (producer and consumer) is a holding concept for how the digital actor is here. But it is bursting at the seems.

3. What kind of governance?

In this area, I am collaborating with ace colleagues on open government data, and learning so much. Data has value, but it must be converted into this through analysis. Data analytics are the new black. Access and applications of data is power. To power, consent must be gained. Transparency must be valued and traceability of action is imperative to accountability. What you do with my data, our data, needs a framework of consent and accountability. Governance can be distributed. People and our machine instanciations need a shared value field that is kind. Governance must be kind. Social control is not a dirty word, but it can be abused and the vulnerable suffer; therefore, we all do. We need an optics of hope (thank you David Lyon). Surveillance, monitoring and ambient awareness can help those who need it. It can also be used to abuse and take advantage of these same people. This thought path ends with the question of what kinds of institutions we need and whether we need them at all.

5. What kind of built environment?

For me, the built environment incorporates physical place to code. These are the structures that sediment around social interaction and patterns of social organisation. They include buildings, transport and communications infrastructures and the platformed nature of the online environment.

In these environments we express ourselves, meet with others, work, play and move from location to location. Our everyday beings and doings are located in space and time. Our environments both shape and are shaped by us. We also consume these spaces. Our compulsion to terraform our material and digital plains produce wastes that are unconscious and unsustainable. Let’s rethink this.

6. What kind of mobilities?

Within our built environment people, data, knowledge and objects move. They all have agency and patterns of flow. This mobility maps over the economic system of value exchange and flows of capital. Displacement, border control, and suffering go hand in hand with opportunity, serendipity and the accumulation and dispersion of capital. A new life aspiration or a lack of agency determine the fate of people, data and commodities in these flows. This ends in the question of what kind of personal agency we have, particularly when these global flows reinforce structural individualism?

7. What kind of wellbeing?

For the being caught in these flows of consumption, value exchange, governance and waste, what kinds of choices do we have? Our agency is tied to our wellbeing. I am thrilled to be collaborating on a paper drawing from two studies to illustrate what it means to pursue wellbeing and health in a system of power plays between platform surveillance, Big Pharma and drug prohibition. This research direction stems from my collaborative work on drug use communities surrounding cryptomarkets. I’m also fascinated by the turn from intimacies to pleasure. With this shift the body is centered and the viscerality of experience is brought forward. I would suggest this adds to the canon of ‘the self’ who makes decisions based upon emotions and rationality. We also make decisions based upon viscerality and pleasure. This reflects the immediacy of experience. Our health must pass through the valley and mountain tops of dopamine and adrenaline. In some part we seek them, in others we pay for them. We know that not all of our choices are immediately about what is good for us or right. Sometimes we just want to play, have time out or escape. Wellbeing is not a straight line and nor can it be determined by others. Our wellbeing requires both self-determination and a supportive safe space to be achieved. Sometimes with or through embodiment, sometimes with or through technology, and always with or away from each other. This is not a disconnected space from all of the others.

8. What kind of future?

When we put all of these questions and their provocations together, or at least when I do, it seems to come down to three things. Three ingredients that will direct our future. How do we focus our overlapping values (ingredient 1) to generate a sense of belonging (ingredient 2) and build collaborative possibilities (ingredient 3).

What do Digital Drugs and Digital Pirates have in common? (at #AoIR2019)

This past three days have been a whirlwind of nerding out on questions surrounding connected societies, emerging technologies and life online at the annual conference for the Association of Internet Researchers. It’s so fresh, that I am yet to get a real handle on which ideas and experiences will stick in my mind.  For sure, I know that the opening keynote by Bronwyn Carlson on indigenous internet users will be one of these experiences. She used the keynote platform well to make a few key points that resonated across her presentation. The ones that have stuck with me were that indigenous uses of social media platforms must incorporate safe spaces for connecting with kin and culture. Much activity online will occur in closed groups due to the horrific levels of racism and disgusting encounters they will have through public engagement online. The commentary and examples of racist comments was gut wrenching. While I knew of this, being confronted by what this looks like “in the flesh” was just a new level. She underscored this aspect by pointing out that indigenous communities were not likely to have “trust in the system”, and for good reason. Bronwyn also pointed out, that whilst being on the public internet was difficult, it was also an important platform through which to make indigenous concerns and activism visible. The double edged sword of visibility.

I would say that amongst the many amazing presentations, the other idea and research that is sticking with me, is the discussion of machine vision by Nicholas Carah, Daniel Angus and Adam Smith.  Something to chew on there.  I’m not sure how it’s perculating and permutating in my brain, but a tool that analyses large data sets of images from festivals and clusters images with similar signatures has put my creative brain box into an exploratory and wandering space.

However, the key aspect of this conference for me, was the opportunity to be involved in two excellent panels. The first, Digital Pleasures, with Naomi Smith (ASMR) and Jenny Davis (our theoretical hug), PJ Patella-Rey (Sex Camming) and Monica Barratt (Digital Drugs) appeared to hit a point in time. You can see the extended abstract here. It was exciting to be able to bring this suite of work to the conference, which had been cooked up initially in a Melbourne bar after a conference the previous year. Here is the presentation that Monica Barratt presented on Digital Drugs.  

What was so fascinating for me is that for many people who attended the panel this was new knowledge. Monica and I had been sitting on this knowledge that we had gained from a paricipant in our Silk Road research sooooo many years ago (late 2013/early 2014). In preparing for the presentation, I’d done a search for information online and within the scholarly databases, but there wasn’t much to draw on. In 2010 there had clearly been a marketing drive for the app I-Doser, a couple of YouTube “experience” videos and then just lots of examples of binaural beats created with drug names. So, I was like “oh, this old thing”. But I guess this is what happens when you start connecting into interdisciplinary spaces, it’s an opportunity to introduce and conceptualise social phenomena with new audiences. What I enjoyed most about this presentation was collaborating with Monica again, of course. But also the opportunity to develop the concept of the digital-body instrument, centre the body in discussions of digital artefacts and focus on viscerally of experience in the form of pleasure.  These tools were a lot of fun to play with.

Speaking of fun, the second panel I was involved in was cultural cosmologies of the internet. The panel line up was a real highlight with Heather Horst (free culture), Jolynna Sinanan & Gerhard Weisenfeld (Demonic technologies), Michaela Spencer (Digital First T&L for indigenous communities) and Marcus Carter (Killing in online gaming). Here’s the  extended abstract for your viewing pleasure. In this panel, I had the opportunity to present on Digital Pirates

The presentation also drew on the Silk Road research (the study that just keeps giving) and sought to draw on the anthropological approaches to the study of illicit communities, through a theory of piracy. This presentation is based upon a forthcoming paper in a special issue in the new JDSR, an open access journal that I am excited to be in one of the early issues and support this initiative of providing alternative publishing models for scholars. The highlight of working on this paper has been to immerse myself in a whole new body of literature on Pirates.  Yes there was a wiggle and a waggle in my tail while doing that work.  I hope you enjoy the product of that fun time.

Intelligent, responsive systems: a nomenclature rant

I’ve begun digging into the literature surrounding AI and machine learning. To begin with I’m seeking insight into what they are and the domain of applications arising from these technologies.

Long term, I’m interested in the applications of these technologies for immersively modeling social change. But right now, I’m heading down the rabbit hole on the social contexts through which they have arisen and the current state of play with regards to innovations and applications in associated technologies.

To begin with, it appears that artificial intelligence has arisen from cybernetics and that there are a range of definitions on what it is. We are aware that the contemporary relevance of these technologies spans driverless cars, expert knowledge systems, decision making systems, big data analysis, and unmanned warfare.

The key debates appear to stem back to the question on the definition of intelligence within a computational context. One term I’ve seen used is complex responsive systems. This seems to effectively skirt the question of intelligence and whether it should mimic/transcend human intelligence, collective animal intelligence such as swarms, or the affordances of computational architectures.

I’m currently immersed in this book, an anthropology of the development context for medical AI. From the generating cultures it is clear that the positivist approach towards technology generation reigns, creating awkward social oversights that hinder their adoption.

From this article, it is also clear that current recognition and responsive systems deploying AI & machine learning technologies replicate broader social inequalities through their inability to recognise social diversity.

Despite the first AI interface being designed on the narrative premise of empathy, these systems appear to lack EQ.

This gives rise to the ethical and moral domains being consciously or unconsciously embedded in these technologies. Within Australia there are several universities keenly focusing on these questions.

As a way to throw these discussions into relief through a social terrain I’m familiar with, I’m charting a course through AI & the cyber liberation ethos. What does this look like I wonder. Curiosity killed the cat as they say. I’ll see you on the other side of this question.

A reflection on 2018 and prognosis for 2019

It’s that time of year really. You start to think about the shape of the year to come, are somewhat resolved (resigned) with how the previous year has finished, and there has been a precious window for recuperating. I found myself looking at forecasts for 2019 and thought that I would write up what I already know is mine, change. This is not surprising when thinking about how 2018 ended professionally.

Reflecting on last year, I have seen out my second year at Deakin and gained immense experience working within a School and assisting (I hope) in the redevelopment of a masters program. My contract was literally to act as a safe pair of hands during a period of transition. This links to my perception that my job niche is as “the wolf” aka the fixer who comes in, removes the dead bodies and puts things on track. In academia, it shouldn’t be surprising that this movie character is so apt.

I’m very grateful for the two years of accelerated learning, teaching experience and so forth. However as I hit the third and final year, I can already see that I need the time and space to publish, wrap up the research not done & build new collaborations. I know that doing so will bring me my next professional steps.

While I’ve worked hard to do what I do, there has been little sense of being valued or supported for this. The contract I am on is a stripped back version that limits reciprocity from the school I work in in some very real and disadvantageous ways. After having applied for a continuing position in the school during 2018, I already know that I’m not considered a “fit”, and the feeling has become mutual.

At the end of 2018, when burnt out and exhausted, the terms of my job scope were changed without consultation. I am now in a teaching intensive position, that I did not apply for or sign on the dotted line for. This opportunity serves very little advantage for me. Yes, a salary is awesome, but there will be limited time for me to publish and progress my research.

Whilst money in the short term is attractive, I know that doing this work without seeking alternatives will limit me at a pivotal time when I am ready to expand. So, change, destabilisation and risk/opportunity it is for 2019. I’ve done it before and that has gotten me this far. So it can’t be all bad. Amidst a disheartening throng of academic “quit lit.”, and “belt tightening” discourse within the university sector, I wonder what my options for 2019 will be.

And so I turn once again to the consultancy concept. Being a digital social thinker, I’ll need to be entrepreneurial in how to position myself. The one thing I know is that the phenomena I study are very relevant across many sectors. Being a professional writer and creative thinker is also an asset. I’ve got this far on my professional journey and know I’ll work things out. But what to call my consultancy?!

So many unanswered questions that move between the high points and low points of 2018. Heading to several conferences and connecting with my fantastic peers has truly been inspirational. Working with my students and seeing them integrate and translate knowledge into their own practices has been very rewarding. Writing and building collaborations around my area of research into the digital frontier has been fascinating and encouraging. Grinding through challenging aspects of my profession has been”character-building”. On that front, I’m glad and lucky that academia has not been my only career and that I have many resources, people and skill sets to draw on to keep the wheels from falling off. Stress management, life skills and good friendships have been very important for me in 2018. In 2019 I hope to see all that personal support good people in my life have shown me move from holding practices to something more constructive and celebratory.

A whirlwind tour

Well, here I am, on the other side of the world, recovering from jet lag and getting ready to present on my research into visualizing social form at Utah University. Thanks to Robert Gehl for hosting me and providing this opportunity. I’m excited to be presenting on this work and believe that I’m making progress on the ideas and bringing them to a viable and focused project that can be done. Here’s the slide deck on my talk. In this presentation I’ll unpack the conceptual model informing my approach on how to transform social intelligence into 3D data. From this point, I then launch into discussing the focus of data visualization upon searching for signatures of social disruption. As I note, these signatures can indicate ambivalent, malicious or resistance/refusal practices that speak to tipping points of social change. The two case studies I discuss are my research into the community surrounding cryptocurrencies and then my second case study into cyber libertarians which is informed by previous research into the community surrounding the Silk Road cryptomarket. It’s nice to have the headspace and opportunity to do a retrospective look at my previous work leading to this point and then consider where to from here. Under the teaching grind of this year, time and space to do this has been difficult to come by. After this talk, I head to AoIR for more digital fun and games. This will be a highlight and great food for my intellectual and creative spirit. On my way, I will present a more focused discussion of the cryptocurrency community research and my work with social media analysis of cryptocurrency related discussion. If you stumble across this blog and are in Montreal, do come to this presentation! Here’s the blurb discussing the focus of this talk. Thanks to Fenwick McKelvey at Concordia for hosting me!

At AoIR I’ll be participating in a round table discussion on research agendas for the dark net, entitled the Association of Darknet Researchers. While this is going to be great, the whole program at the conference is looking awesome. It is wonderful to finally get to attend this conference and be a part of it. I am anticipating moving my thinking to the next level after all the wonderful stimulating research and people I will be amongst. Putting faces, personalities and whole people to the work I’ve been engaging with for years now is truly a good thing. There’s nothing like being in the same place and connecting through practice (and beer) to cement insights and get a real sense of where a person is coming from. New ideas to come into the fray. Never having been to SLC and Montreal before is also an incentive. Place also brings context.

On the down side, this is my first extended trip away from my new pup. He’s well cared for but, well, a piece of me stays with him and I know this is his first real separation experience. For my older dog, well he is resilient and is living it large at his grandma’s and ruling the roost. So while I miss him, I KNOW that he’s all good and rocking this thing called life. For me, well it’s 11 sleeps to go.

The time out and soul food of travel and creative enrichment is good for me, so I deal and know I’ll appreciate my life on the everyday level so much more for getting some distance from it. As one does. And so on with trix it is. Next stop, NYC and a whole lot of non academic shenanigans for a weekend. That’s good too!