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).