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.


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.





Alexia’s hot tips for online interviewing

In my school, many research students and journalism students are having to move their in person interviews to the online space. As a research methods nerd, I thought I would provide my hot tips for how to do a general purpose online interview for research and communications students. You are welcome to adapt this to your own needs.

What is an online interview?

An online interview is a structured conversation, consisting of the question set, an interviewer, an interviewee and the technology used to conduct and record the interview.

What makes them different to an in-person interview is:

  • The role of the technology in facilitating real-time co-presence and interactivity
  • The approach the interviewer takes to build rapport and curate the conversation.

Online interviews have been substantially explored in the research methods literature and the conversation surrounding them has been a long one.  For example, Hinchcliffe and Gavin (2009) discuss early uses of instant messenger for interviews and Irvine (2011) provides a comparative analysis of in-person interviews to telephone interviews.

An online interview can be done by your mobile phone or through your laptop using audio-visual interfaces such as Skype (Janghorban et al 2014) or by text chat for example through IRC (Barratt & Maddox 2016). This means that they can be conducted with audio-visual interactivity and textual synchronicity.

Asynchronous interviewing, by email for example, is also possible and may be more convenient for some but lacks that live interplay and depends on the participant actually taking the time to write out their responses. For some, this is too much labour. Useful methods articles discussing this technique include Bampton et al (2013) and Burns (2010) and an example of it’s application can be found in this original study conducted by Van Hout and Bingham (2014).

What are they good for?

  • Live interviews allow for the interviewer to seek clarification and follow threads of the conversation.
  • They also allow for the ability of the interviewer to check that they understand the meaning of what the participant has said.
  • Online interviews mean that you can conduct a real time interview, with another person, in a conversational format, but be in different spatial locations and contexts.
  • It is possible to conduct anonymous interviews using IRC text chat and some other website interfaces.
  • Online interviews are commonly used in the context of netnography (Kozinets 2020) or digital ethnography (Maddox 2020).

How do I design my questions?

Design your interview questions to start from an easy soft opening question that a) draws on the expert knowledge or life experience of your interview participant and b) is relevant to scope of the interview. Work up to more complex questions and go out with a meaningful yet “feel good” question that allows your participant to say what they think.

Be sure to ask the key questions that you want insights into that focus on the participants opinion and experience.

Make sure your questions are simple, clear, relevant and to the point.

How do I set up an online interview?


Setting up an interview online takes planning. It helps to plan how you will approach the interview, how you will coordinate your interview times with your participants and how you integrate technology into your interview process. Write your interview question set before you do the interview, and even test it out on a willing friend.


To coordinate interviews across timezones, you can use this handy website to determine the time overlap between you and your interviewee https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html

Some people use meeting calendar software where they show what timeslots they are available and people check the slot they want. This can act in lieu of using email to coordinate a shared time to conduct the interview. Here are a few options: https://zapier.com/blog/best-meeting-scheduler-apps/


You need to test your interview tech and make sure it works to support an effective interview. Check your mic, that your software is working, and that you can get a clear recording or effective notes from your interview.

Doing the interview

Set and Setting

Find a quiet place to do the interview. This helps so that you can focus on what the person is saying and will help you to capture the conversation.

Capturing what is said

You can either record the interview through the software you are using to conduct the interview or on your smartphone or smart device such as an iPad. Check with your participant about what they are most comfortable with of these options.

Make sure you have a pen and notepad as a simple back up that will work. In it, you can have your questions and also take notes. It always helps to take notes while you are doing the interview to keep track of the questions you want to ask that arise from the conversation you are having.

Interview length

Most busy professionals would appreciate an interview that is 20 minutes at the most. Make sure you clarify on their time availability and ask all your key questions within that time.


You should start the interview by using a short summary statement to state what the interview is about and ask them if they are comfortable to proceed with it. Prior to the interview, you should have sent them an email with this basic information and confirming interview length, style of questions and location.

During the interview

Ask your first question and listen to what they have to say. This interview is about their opinion rather than your own, so listening is key. Ask for clarification of anything that they have said that you don’t understand or would like to know more about.

If the interviewee goes off track, politely bring them back to the question at hand and keep the time in mind.

Summarise the ideas they have shared with you to indicate that you have understood what they have said.

Closing the interview

When you’ve asked your last question, ask them if there is anything more they would like to add. When you have both finished the conversation, thank them for their time and let them know what you will do with this knowledge they have provided you. (i.e. use it for your assessment task and also consider how you can shape your learning and career practices using this knowledge.

Getting consent

Obtain permission from your interviewee to use the content of the interview in your assessment piece and include this permission as an appendix in your assessment submission. You can get this at the time by providing a short, 1 pager summarising the interview and containing a line of it with the interviewee’s name and something that says ” I consent to the information I have provided in this interview being used for assessment purposes” and a place for their signature and date.


Bampton, Roberta, Cowton, Christopher J. and Downs, Yvonne (2013) The e­interview in qualitative research. In: Advancing social and business research methods with new media technology. IGI Global, Hershey, PA, USA, pp. 329­343. ISBN 9781466639188

Barratt, M. J., & Maddox, A. (2016). Active engagement with stigmatised communities through digital ethnography. Qualitative Research, 16(6), 701–719. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794116648766

Burns, E. (2010). Developing Email Interview Practices in Qualitative Research. Sociological Research Online, 15(4), 24–35. https://doi.org/10.5153/sro.2232

Hinchcliffe, Vanessa, and Helen Gavin (2009) “Social and virtual networks: evaluating synchronous online interviewing using instant messenger.” The Qualitative Report, vol. 14, no. 2, p. 318

Irvine, A. (2011). Duration, Dominance and Depth in Telephone and Face-to-Face Interviews: A Comparative Exploration. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 202–220. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940691101000302

Janghorban, R., Latifnejad Roudsari, R., & Taghipour, A. (2014). Skype interviewing: the new generation of online synchronous interview in qualitative research. International Journal Of Qualitative Studies On Health And Well-Being, 9, 24152. https://doi-org.ezproxy-b.deakin.edu.au/10.3402/qhw.v9.24152

Kozinets, RV 2020, Netnography: The essential guide to Qualitative Social Media Research, Third Edition edn, SAGE Publications Ltd.

Maddox, A. (2020). Disrupting the ethnographic imaginarium. Journal of Digital Social Research, 2(1), 20-38. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.33621/jdsr.v2i1.23

Van Hout, M. C., & Bingham, T. (2014). Responsible vendors, intelligent consumers: Silk Road, the online revolution in drug trading. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(2), 183-189. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2013.10.009

Autonomous vehicles as agents of social control

I am currently researching and writing about autonomous vehicles for an industry panel. After going through the panel questions and putting together the current state of research on the topic, I started to wonder what a classical sociological question would be. At some point, I’ll post up the questions and my responses, however while in the shower, it finally came to me. The question of social control. So here is my rant.

The question of who can use AVs, where they can go and the experience they can have on the way comes down to the relationship between personalized user experiences, and data, and what this affords in terms of surveillance and activity regulation. When data is produced and monitored at the level of the individual, their digital traces provide substantial information about what they do, where they do it and who they do it with. This becomes more the case for people using autonomous vehicles and MAAS systems and will likely result in forms of social sorting that reinforce existing social inequalities.

When one considers how people who have offended through drunk driving have breathalysers installed in their vehicles, an ignition interlock, that affects whether the car will start or not, we can start to understand how autonomous vehicles may be used as a form of social control.

In addition to this, as a users’ location is tracked through the mapping functions of the vehicle and platform associated with the transit arc, the location of people in relation to a crime or protest may be determined through the time and location of the vehicles or transit arcs of people present in the area. This will provide an even more identifiable map of mobile people than is currently possible. Police have used equivalents in terms of mapping social media content production related to social protests as a way to identify people and initiate crowd control practices. In this way, both criminal activity and social activism may be mapped in a more granular and geo-located way.

The activities associated with the travel arc destinations of users, in-vehicle behaviours and or custom purpose of the AVs utilized for the travel arc will also provide substantial information and constraint possibilities at an individual level. For example, where someone has a restraining order taken out on them, it would be possible for the system intelligence that AVs draw on to indicate travel limits associated with that individual and enforce them in the routes available to these individuals. These limits may become mobile as the person who filed the restraining order moves through a MAAS system.

There are both positive, socially enabling implications for this kind of deeply tracked mobility, as much as there are negative implications. People at the scene of or travelling towards a natural disaster, such as the recent fires in Australia, or crazed gunman may be diverted around or away from the location. Ambulance vehicles could more naturally and efficiently move through a city at times of medical crisis without relying on drivers to give way.

In a very contemporary example, people who have been ordered to self-isolate due to a virus outbreak, which they have been identified as carrying, could have their mobility heavily regulated for public health safety. This puts the interests of public health before the concerns of the individual, who may be lonely, afraid and seeking alternative or non sanctioned forms of health care and social support.

This kind of social control over mobility may also affect those who can afford it the least. For example, those who have defaulted on their payments within a MAAS system, or who were incorrectly identified as holding a debt, will lose all capacity for mobility across all forms of transportation. The “social credit score” of the user may be more than just a dating rating, but become a cross referenced record of past behaviours and practices that will, without doubt, shape their future eligibility for all kinds of services. This data record is indelible and will result in forms of social sorting that privilege some and disadvantage others.

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!