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!

Modeling social form through 3D visualization of social intelligence

Slowly but surely I am making moves to build research networks that will support future grant applications. My working idea that I would like build research networks around is as follows: I’m interested in building a social modeling platform for researchers, Govt and industry stakeholders. The purpose is to model social information in order to identify social trends, polarisation and emergent forms of disruption from changing patterns of social organisation. The work focuses on building 3D interactive surfaces with a data visualization model constructed from archival, static and real-time social data streams. I’m using an environmental model of digital formations developing from my phd research to drive the analysis and shape the immersive 3D translations/transformation of social intelligence. Research themes include social cohesion, inclusion and change. This larger vision will need case studies from different perspectives. I am hoping to engage scholars across the social sciences, humanities, media and communication,  computer sciences and architecture who are interested in the possible applications of this idea within their own domains of research. So watch this space and do get in contact if you’re interested in seeing where this goes. I will be using my social media analysis of public discourse surrounding crypto currencies as an initial case study through which to test and build up an approach.

Updates from under my rock

Amazingly, I have a 20 minute window of unstructured time and I thought, is now the time that I pop up my head and reflect on the last period of time in my academic practice? You mean I can breathe for a moment and review what’s going on? Wow… that sounds good.  So here we are.. or at the very least, here I am, at your writerly service.

I’ve been grinding under the rock of academic teaching, which has its joys, but also its challenges. Working in the Masters of Communication program at Deakin for my second year has allowed me to create and shape the units that I work with. This has been a wonderful experience in terms of influencing student’s learning, but also a huge undertaking with much learning about organisational engagement. Still, I’ve written my very first unit on research methods, Alexia styles. That has been fun.

In terms of research, my Cryptocurrency use study has lost momentum and my attention and is sadly languishing. I pine to return to the active practice of ethnographic field work and hope, that there will be a gap in my workload to priorities this project. What is happening in this space and where is the community imaging the next possibilities are coming from now that speculation and investment has created a bubble and drawn out the oxygen for imagining alternative financial practices that are more inclusive.

Under my rock is also the small pebble of future research directions, including the project idea that I’ve had bubbling along for some time about how to model social form and make interactive and reactive social surfaces that can be animated and used to understand and interpret social trends and currents.

Still further, I am taking small steps in learning how to work with social media data, do sentiment analysis and build up a applied toolkit for social media analysis using available software such as NLTK. These bits of learning are just small pieces of the puzzle to the future skill set that I see as necessary to build up interactive and dimensional models of social form.

In terms of writing, well, that suffers also under the grind the teaching practice. When do I have space to dream and breathe and wend words into stories that shape and reshape my world?

It’s sad to see projects that I am invested in and my writing practice languishing whilst I turn my attention to establishing financial security, professional development and gaining professional experience working within a university department. These things matter, but to what cost? This trade off is a balancing act and at some point I will need to give to the other sides of my creative practice. Right now, I am in a holding pattern acquiring skills and preparing for whatever next. What is next? Maybe I need to raise my periscope higher up.

Right, well that’s time up for now and I haven’t shared with you any of the creative writing or ideas that I have started to manifest.  Here’s one of them, my piece for the Agile Opera research project called Mirror Play. It’s something I’m very proud of. Another piece of work that I’m proud of is a small blog piece that I’ve derived from the Silk Road research and have happily joined it to the development of a special issue for a journal with some wonderful crew. This is a reflection on some of the challenges and themes from this research project that haven’t yet had an appropriate channel through which to share them. In this blog I consider Silk Road as a Digital Bermuda Triangle. Enjoy.

Bitcoin use study: A plain language explanation for participants

You are invited to participate in a research project being conducted through RMIT University. The project title is: An ethnographic study of the use of Bitcoin

Investigators:

  • Professor Supriya Singh, Professor, Sociology of Communications, RMIT.
  • Professor Heather Horst, University of Sydney.
  • Dr Greg Adamson, Global Chair, IEEE, Society for Social Implications of Technology, and University of Melbourne.
  • Dr Alexia Maddox, Research Assistant, RMIT  University and Deakin University.

Contact Alexia by email to find out more about the study: a dot maddox [at] deakin dot edu dot au

Who is involved in this research project? Why is it being conducted?

We are researchers primarily based at RMIT and are conducting an ethnographic study of Bitcoin use to understand how its social adoption reveals changing perspectives towards money and the associated conditions of trust, security and privacy within economic exchange in a cross-cultural context.

This research is being conducted because there is currently limited understanding of the role of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies more generally, as an alternative form of digital cash and its social adoption across diverse socio-cultural contexts.

The project has been approved by the RMIT Human Research Ethics Committee, Ethics number. BCHEAN 19717

Who would we like to talk with? (eligibility for the study)

By inviting you to participate, we anticipate that you have used Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies to conduct online purchases or engaged in the technology through mining bitcoins. You may also have been actively engaged with the community surrounding the development and use of Bitcoins and are likely to support the agenda to promote the social adoption of Bitcoin and/or its associated technologies.

What is the project about? What are the questions being addressed?

This study is about gaining insight into the user experience and social practices surrounding Bitcoin in diverse social and cultural contexts. We also seek to understand the role of Bitcoin alongside people’s use of other currency forms, both digital and non-digital.

We will not be addressing questions about the illegal use of Bitcoin

For this study, we anticipate interviewing up to 50 people directly on their experiences of using Bitcoin and conducting participant observation over the course of 2017 at events and online forums where Bitcoin use is the primary focus. (the primary time period where we will be active is May 2017 to the end of July 2017

If I agree to participate, what will I be required to do?

The interview may take up to 30 minutes or longer depending on your availability and on what you have to say. It will be audio-recorded if you consent.

We will not be asking you about illegal uses of Bitcoin. We recommend that you do not share information about illegal activities with the researcher.

During the interview you will be asked about your experiences of using Bitcoin, starting with the question of what you use it for and why. We are also interested in your use of Bitcoin in relation to other types of money, both digital and non-digital. Throughout the discussion we’ll focus on your perspectives about the use of Bitcoin and where you see its advantages and limitations with regards to trust, privacy and security.

What are the possible risks or disadvantages?

We will be interviewing in a manner that will ensure there are no risks or disadvantages. We will only be asking about the use of Bitcoin for legal activities. You will not have to reveal discomforting facts or answer questions that you feel are uncomfortable.

What are the benefits associated with participation?

Your experience will contribute to the development of public awareness and knowledge surrounding the uses and applications of Bitcoin specifically, and cryptocurrencies more generally.

To symbolically acknowledge your contribution, we will transfer $2(AUD) worth of Bitcoin to your wallet upon completion of the interview.

What will happen to the information I provide?

The information you provide will remain confidential. We will use a pseudonym to refer to you. Identifying details will be masked. Any potentially identifying information that you provide, such as place or event names, will not be reported in these publications.

The information you provide will be kept in a secure environment for five years after publication before being destroyed. The privacy of the information you provide will be safeguarded through encryption practices and researcher confidentiality.

Any information that you provide can be disclosed only if (1) it is to protect you or others from harm, (2) if specifically required or allowed by law, or (3) you provide the researchers with written permission.

The results of the research will be collated and analysed in reports, journal articles and conference presentations, with a public archive of these becoming available through RMIT. We can also provide it to you at your request.

What are my rights as a participant?

  • The right to withdraw from participation at any time
  • The right to request that any recording cease
  • The right to have any unprocessed data withdrawn and destroyed, provided it can be reliably identified, and provided that so doing does not increase the risk for the participant.
  • The right to be de-identified in any photographs intended for public publication, before the point of publication
  • The right to have any questions answered at any time.

Whom should I contact if I have any questions?

If you are concerned about your responses to any of the interview questions or if you find participation in the project distressing, you should contact Professor Supriya Singh as soon as convenient. Supriya will discuss your concerns with you confidentially and suggest appropriate follow-up, if necessary.

You can download this plain language statement and the consent forms here [pls-and-consent_bitcoin-study]

Thank you for your interest!

 

Centralised versus decentralised structures

Fact is always stranger than fiction. In this meta escapade of seeking funding from the crowd for research into a decentralised digital cash, I am learning that the centralised structures of research institutions and banks are at odds with agility, responsiveness and action. 

I feel the need to record my most recent learnings about doing crowdfunding and conducting this through a university, only I’m gobsmacked by the inertia and red tape. 

The cryptocurrency use research has gone through research ethics (an eye opening adventure in itself). The idea is to do in person work alongside engaging and monitoring trends in the online environment. With a digital community, doing both these activities is a no brainer. However methodologically, this brings two apparently uncomfortable bedfellows into one bed. It involves face-to-face and online observation and interaction. Doing both appears to throw ethics committees into conniptions. The learning here is don’t take quotes from public forums without consent. It will mean that every researcher who comes after you will suffer at multiple ethics amendments as the committee remembers the massive shitstorm this created and makes every researcher who comes after you jump through a thousand hoops.  

So. That hurdle passed and there’s no more funding to do the data collection. 

Multiple months later and I’ve cleared the decks to start the project. Now, I’m attempting my first crowdfunding campaign. 

www.experiment.com/cryptocurrency

Donate now and help me make a cool and cutting edge project happen. It makes me excited, and that’s saying something. My research antenna is twanging like ships ropes singing in a storm. 

It appears that not only do I need to learn how to video edit, but I also need to work out how to reach the right people and work out the research product to sell the project. All very grown up stuff. 

So thanks to a lovely fairy, I now have something to say on that front. 50Usd gets you a research report and a handwritten cover note. I apologise in advance that my handwriting is barely legible. There’s also likely to be a cheeky little sketch because that’s just how I roll.  From there we get more sophisticated. 250usd is a tailored report and follow up. 500usd is a consult and report where we get to talk. The lucky donar gets to place the spotlight on a particular area and I get to share what we’ve learnt about the topic. For 1000usd it’s even more fun. 1/2 day workshop responding to the donar’s case study, drawing on the research findings. 

If the crowdfunding campaign doesn’t get off the ground for a variety of real and contributing factors (such as time of year, finding sponsors or the failure of the university to support the campaign), then these ideas alone will see the project happen. 

In all of this, I stand observing. I see chaos, opportunity and the brittle nature of centralised structures. I take note of  the entrepreneurial spirit of digital frontiers where the future recombines itself in the inner fringes. 

In this spirit I repeat my mantra: Always walk towards the doors that open. Don’t waste your time with what you don’t want and pursue what you do want however you can. 

Serendipity, crowdfunding and cryptocurrencies

It’s always uncanny when disparate activities align, both through the loose tendrils of online presence and the digital traces of research activity. I’m currently running a crowdfunding campaign for an ethnography of bitcoin use. Which you can find here:

https://experiment.com/cryptocurrency

How this campaign and opportunity came about is the interesting bit. As with all good ideas, one thing lead to another…

Prior to this study, I collaborated on a study of the impacts of cyryptomarkets upon drug use trajectories (through NDRI, Curtin University) (2013-2015). During that study, I presented preliminary findings and conducted a member check (a methodological approach to verifying social findings) with the Bitcoin community.  You can still find the YouTube recording of this, which we made so that the cryptomarket community also had access to these early activities online.

Cryptomarket drug sales were facilitated by Bitcoin and this was my first exposure to the cryptocurrency and the community ethos surrounding this innovation. The Bitcoin community was a homologous (legal) community that I could check my early understandings and observations with. However, they themselves proved to be fascinating in how they were using technological innovations to disrupt the financial sector and I have stayed connected in the hope that I would be able to work with them in the future.

More recently, I had been looking into crowdfunding as a research funding activity over 2016. As an early career researcher, I needed to build a funding track record but was in the precarious position of short-term contract affiliations with universities and couldn’t apply for funding. So like the focus of the study, there is an issue of financial inclusion here for me.  After a hiatus working for Deakin Library to establish some financial stability and continuity, I made the call to return to part-time research and my personal passion for studying the formation of digital community in frontier spaces. Simultaneously, I was approached by a crowdfunding platform, https://experiment.com, to join a network security challenge based upon my research publication from the Silk Road research. At the time, we had taken the Bitcoin study from a research proposal through to ethics approval, but it was languishing as an unfunded project.

The invitation to develop a crowdfunding campaign came at the same time that I had decided to relaunch the project based upon my personal passion for this topic. The combination of these two events with the opportunities they presented to get the Bitcoin study off the ground was a moment of serendipitous alignment. Because the Bitcoin use study is about a decentralised peer-to-peer payment system, I felt that this worked with the logic of a crowdfunding campaign and could engage the community to support the project as an additional angle.

In my opinion the biggest challenges to launching the crowdfunding campaign include the amount that it is viable to set for a crowdfunding campaign, the level of interest and engagement that you research topic may have for the public and the skill and attention that the active researcher needs to bring to promoting the campaign so that it reaches the audiences who would like to engage with it.
From research into successful crowdfunding campaigns, a viable amount of money to seek is around 4-5K. This is the rule of thumb amount that a campaign is likely to gain from first and second networks (people the researcher knows and the people they know). This cap of likely success means that the research needs to have a small component that is fundable as a seed to get the project up and running.  In our case, this is the data collection. This topic, the study of Bitcoin use, is also timely as we all are affected by and aware of economic instability and political backlash occurring in the UK, USA and India for example.  These global events affect the flows and value of money, particularly where governments are no longer trusted to keep value in the currency and people turn to alternative monetary forms not only for trade, but as a store of value and investment return.

In addition to this, engaging the different stakeholders and audiences through social media and news media outreach requires time, attention, presence and social media knowledge. These can be challenges for many researchers who are not adept in the environment and may require skill development. Whilst the success percentages are higher for crowdfunding campaigns (despite their all or nothing criteria), the effort required to run them can be the same or more as it takes to apply for central block funding that may support larger sums of money. With a project such as the Bitcoin study, which is in its early days, however, the logic and opportunity provided by crowdfunding to reach and engage the relevant communities is worth the effort as it will spill over into increasing our opportunities to connect with and do ethnography amongst the cryptocurrency community.

The skills that I have needed to develop for this project have included producing and editing a short video that will translate well and widely in the social media environment. This video is available on the crowdfunding page and appears to be a crucial element in the success of a campaign. The other learning curve has been the inclusion of the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, as a donation option. This has been an interesting experience, one that I considered necessary considering that I would like to engage the cryptocurrency community in supporting and participating in this research. One of the key points for the campaign is that it is an all or nothing funding strategy, so all pledged donations need to be returnable if the campaign does not reach its funding goal. The crew at the experiment has worked with me to make this possible for bitcoin, which is a payment system where the payment is designed not to be reversed (!!!). Ironic that.

If you’re interested in participating in or learning more about the scope and approach of the research, you can download the plain language statement (and consent forms) here:  pls-and-consent_bitcoin-study. Essentially, we’re interested in: people’s uses for bitcoin alongside other digital and “non-digital” currencies (aka fiat currencies), business uses and applications for cryptocurrencies, the possibilities of cryptocurrencies within trade finance and international remittances and the role(s) that cryptocurrencies may play during large scale political and economic instability (such as in India where demonetisation is happening, during Brexit and in response to the presidential election in the US).