This was an exciting day for Digital Sociology, as an esteemed group of speakers gathered in the august surroundings of the Churchill Room in the Treasury to discuss sociology’s contribution to understanding and defining our digital future. As BSA President Susan Halford explained in her introduction, the event is intended to pool the expertise of (digital) sociologists and bring this into dialogue with officials. It’s important to have these conversations because digitalisation is a much more open process than conversations about it tend to assume. Halford put this very powerfully, reminding us “there is nothing inevitable about digital society and there is nothing inevitable about digital futures” because “technologies on their own do nothing”. The event was co-chaired by Phil Howard from the Oxford Internet Institute and David De Roure from the Turing Institute who each explained their sense of sociology’s importance. Howard described sociology as among the most agile disciplines, well suited to working with new domains of data which didn’t exist only a decade ago. He described sociology as being at the leading edge of crafting new forms of data and well suited to producing action-orientated research. He reflected on the rewards and risks of sending out research without peer-review, filtered through internal review but with the advantage of getting findings out to policy makers and others at speed. De Roure stressed how computer science is insufficient for building contemporary systems, involving a combination of computers and people as they do. These ‘social machines’ require an understanding of the social if we are to grasp their operations. Three panels over the course of the afternoon went a long way to illustrating what that understanding looks like and how it can be applied.

Panel 1: Youth Futures

The first speaker was Sonia Livingstone from the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Reflecting Phil Howard’s claim that sociology is bridging the quantitative/qualitative divide, Livingstone’s work draws on qualitative and quantitative data to elucidate what digital technology means for parents and childhoods. Parents seek to equip their children for what they imagine will be a digital future, often framed in terms of exaggerated risks which digital technology is assumed to carry for children. Media and policy debates make extreme claims with weak groundings in research, exasperating the problems found in families over issues such as how much screen time is suitable for children each week. Underlying these challenges is the question of who is meant to guide parents in negotiating the challenges and opportunities of digital parenting? Livingstone explained how parents don’t know how to offer positive messages to their children about technology and the major finding of her research has been that parents are effectively on their own when it comes to the potential of digital technology to enrich their futures. This gap has created a huge market for tools and services which aim to help parents, but it’s extremely difficult for them to assess these offers and know which might be beneficial to their children.

The second speaker was Huw Davies from the Oxford Internet Institute who is also co-convenor of the BSA’s Digital Sociology group. He identified two reasons why it’s important to study how children and young people use social media. Firstly, researching young people can help us anticipate the future of media consumption. Secondly, teens often use media in ways which subvert attempts to control and regulate user, in the process offering strategies from which all of us can learn. His research into how young people understand the internet has found that many inhabit a profoundly appified web, with little sense of how the internet works beyond the particular apps they use. However there is also evidence of a remarkable literacy amongst at least some of this cohort, with a well developed capacity to use the functionality which tends to be subsumed into the unhelpful category of the ‘dark web’. Nonetheless, teens are often not as savvy as they assume they are and their capacity to enter these semi-legal online spaces can leave them vulnerable to some of the ill-motivated actors which can be found within them.

The third speaker was Josie Frasier from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. She began by talking about the digital charter and the importance of supporting people to participate in digital spaces. There are huge benefits to digital participation but as the speakers thus far have stressed, it can also exacerbate social inequalities in ways which are immensely important to recognise. Her talk covered a range of initiatives currently underway within government which seek to recognise this duality, informed by a growing awareness that ‘online’ problems inevitably have ‘offline’ manifestations. For this and other reasons, the problems posed by digitalisation are interconnected. As Frasier put in response to a question, “These are not internet problems, these are social problems which are acted out in the space fo the internet”. Frasier stressed how DCMS is building on the work of digital humanities and is looking to the sociological community for further conversations. The upcoming white paper offers an immediate means through which we can do this.

Panel 2: Work Futures

The next session began with Phil Brown from Cardiff University talking about the reality underlying the rhetoric of automation. Claims about the impending reality of mass unemployment driven by automation circulate widely, with a significant risk of exaggeration. Nonetheless, the general direction of travel is clear and there will be a declining demand for labour, posing problems of how we divide up the fruits of that labour in terms of productivity and wealth. The real problem we have today is not skill scarcity, explains Brown. It is a jobs mismatch rather than a skills mismatch which will create social problems as automation proceeds. The decisions made (or not) today already shape the future and there is a real risk they will concentrate diminishing rewards from labour in the hands of the few. Rather than the digital economy being a bounded phenomenon, it represents a transformation in the whole policy process. The only way we can address this is by being clear about what our institutions are for and what they stand for. If we can’t address these fundamental questions then we will inevitably address these problems in a piecemeal way. He ends with a fascinating argument about the potential of digital analytics for an active industrial policy, no longer reliant on asking employers what they want. It is a powerful idea with some exciting consequences.

The second speaker was Jacqueline O’Reilly from the University of Sussex Business School. She recently completed a major work, Work in the Digital Age, offering a comparative outlook of digital development across Europe. O’Reilly went on to do discuss the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) ranking that “summarises relevant indicators on Europe’s digital performance and tracks the evolution of EU member states in digital competitiveness”. On this measure, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands have the most advanced digital economies in Europe. Looking to these and other measures through a comparative framework helps open up a range of crucial policy questions, cutting through the clutter which usually gets in the way of our conversations  about about practical responses. For instance the UK does well on digital skills but evidence suggests that employers are not taking up these skills, inviting analysis of why this is the case. O’Reilly ended with a discussion of how to produce something akin to a DESI ranking that extended beyond Europe and what this would mean for our capacity to address the global challenges which digitalisation is producing.

The final speaker was Xander Mahoney who is a Policy Advisor at the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport talking about the longer term challenge of automation. He argued that it is unlikely that we are seeing the ‘end of work’ and we need to be realistic about how advanced technology is going to become. Nonetheless, the rate of development of technology is ever-increasing and this means we are going to be left with different jobs but the same workers. What support should be offered to the workers who have been made technologically redundant in the workforce? They will need training and welfare, directed towards opportunities which are difficult to predict in advance.

Panel 3: Data Futures

The final session kicked off with Ben Williamson from the University of Edinburgh talking about how digital data is transforming the university. These institutions are increasingly imagined as ‘smart’ organisations built around data infrastructure, with a whole range of innovations being pushed by a diverse array of actors. This has included the Department for Education commissioning developers to produce apps to provide students with data-driven ways to navigate the application process. The problem from a sociological perspective is that the data involved is being treated as an objective window onto the reality of higher education. Data is produced through a range of activities and expresses prior interests, obscured by platforms and services which present it in naive way e.g. data visualisations distance our attention from the organisational process which produce them. This means a narrow quantitative representation of a university comes to replace the messy organisational reality, leading to profound limitations for policy and practice. Williamson discusses how we can respond to this through developing new methodologies which better represent the complexity of the university, while replicating some of the advantages which the aforementioned data-driven methods are seen to have.

The second speaker was Helen Kennedy from the University of Sheffield, reflecting on why understanding people’s perceptions and experience of data matters for data futures. While it’s true that we won’t get data policy and practice right unless we listen to expert views on them, unfortunately there’s not a lot of evidence about how data practices are perceived by non-experts. We see increasing evidence from sociological research about the capacity of digital systems to reinforce and entrench existing inequalities. Kennedy describes her current research about public perceptions of the BBC’s uses of personal data, undertaken with the BBC itself. This research has found that trust in an organisation’s data practices has little to do with its data practice and in fact reflects the broader perception of the organisation’s values and activity. Nonetheless, there is not a clear relationship between them, as high levels of trust in an organisation doesn’t necessarily lead to high levels of trust in the organisation’s data usage, a state of affairs described by Kennedy in terms of ‘complex ecologies of trust’. For these reasons, we need to do data literacy differently, involving people’s emotional relationship to data rather than relying on narrow cognitive models.

The final speaker was Farah Ahmed, Head of Data Ethics at DCMS, who began with the important question of whether we overestimate the novelty of these questions. They described the experience of working on the government’s open data strategy, one of its kind at that point in time, reflecting on the challenges that they faced at the time. Similar issues can be found now in the Centre for Data Ethics recently setup and already having undertaken a range of projects. It was an engaging way to end the day, bringing us back to the realities of the policy process and the role which research can play if it can cross the academic/government interface in an effective way. It left me feeling extremely optimistic about the future influence of sociology, as the policy officials were consistently responsive to the work presented and were keen to expand the conversation beyond the day itself.

This weekend I saw Iain Sinclair in conversation with Richard Sennett at the Cambridge Literary Festival. The highlight was Sinclair’s response to a question from the audience about his view of Cambridge. Vividly describing the antipathy he felt for a place in which one perpetually encounters “doors within doors” and “secrets within secrets“, Sinclair ended with a line that’s going to stick in my mind for a long time:

It’s a chocked, clogged place which is much more important in principle than it is in practice. Move to London.

 

What is awkwardness? It’s something we recognise. It’s something which is everywhere. Yet when we do think about it, it’s often seen as something trivial and mundane, representing an interruption of decorum or a warp in the texture of micro-social interaction. It’s something that can be intensely felt but is soon forgotten and, where it is not, we see this inability to forget as something pathological. In this sense awkwardness tends to be relegated to the periphery of social life when in fact it is something constitutive of it. There could be no social interaction without awkwardness because its possibility is inherent in the coming together of individuals in social situations. As Erving Goffman describes this:

Whatever his other concerns, then, whatever his merely-situated interests, the individual is obliged to ‘come into play’ upon entering the situation and to stay ‘in play’ while in the situation, sustaining this diffuse orientation at least until he can officially take himself beyond range of the situation. (Goffman 1963: 25)

The potential for awkwardness is inherent in ‘coming into play’ and sustaining an expected orientation while ‘in play’ before exiting in a manner equally congruent with the expectations within a situation. What’s important to grasp though is that awkwardness is not just a subjective response to an objective situation. As Adam Kotsko argues,

First there is what I will call everyday awkwardness, which seems to originate with particular individuals. It combines aspects of my gracelessness and the singer’s uncomfortable performance. It’s difficult to deny that there are people for whom awkwardness is a kind of perverse skill, who bring it with them wherever they go. We are only able to identify someone as awkward, however, because the person does something that is inappropriate for a given context. Most often, these violations do not involve an official written law — instead, the grace that’s in question is the skillful navigation of the mostly unspoken norms of a community … Even when personal deficits make certain individuals seem extremely awkward by nature, however, awkwardness remains a social phenomenon, and therefore the analysis of awkwardness should focus not on awkward individuals but on the entire social situation in which awkwardness makes itself felt. (Kotsko 2010: 7)

His point is that awkwardness emerges relationally. It arises situationally in relation to norms concerning ‘coming into play’ and ‘staying in play’ which are endorsed and enforced by others within the situation. However what I really like about Kotsko’s analysis is his attentiveness to the way in which “awkwardness moves through social network, it spreads” because “you can’t observe an awkward situation without being drawn in: you are made to feel awkward as well, even if it is probably to a lesser degree than the people directly involved” (Kotsko 2010: 8). One claim he makes on the basis of this is that comedy relies on this ‘drawing on’. Another more counter-intuitive claim is that awkwardness “actually creates a weird kind of social bond” through “in the moment of awkwardness” being “forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness” (Kotsko 2010: 9). He seeks to place this intrinsically social character of awkwardness in historical perspective:

Following the pattern, one could say that the tension of awkwardness indicates that no social order is self-evident and no social order accounts for every possibility. Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to ‘get by,’ with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness is what prompts us to set up social norms in the first place — and what prompts us to transform them. (Kotsko 2010: 16)

This seems an implausibly strong claim but it’s one rooted in a interesting Heideggerian analysis of awkwardness. He suggests it as a counterpart to Heidegger’s understanding of anxiety and boredom. But unlike these experiences which isolate the individual, awkwardness unites them, albeit through the creation of a peculiar and perverse sort of social bond. His claim is that awkwardness drives the structuring of sociality through its perpetual tendency to emerge, as well as to spread, in the absence of such structure. Awkwardness (stemming from the provisionality of social normativity) in interaction is analogous to anxiety (stemming from the finitude of existence) in individuals. But Kotsko argues that we live in an inherently awkward age:

Everyday awkwardness happens in a context where the social order seems more or less adequate and comfortable, but the provisional nature of every social order indicates that it’s not an all-or-nothing question of either having a social order or none, as in the opposition between everyday and radical awkwardness, between awkwardness in violation of a social norm and awkwardness in the absence of a social norm. I propose that there is a particularly awkward kind of awkwardness in between the two, which I will cultural awkwardness. It arises when there seems to be a set of norms in force, but it feels somehow impossible to follow them or even fully know them. Just as it is easier to criticize than to create something, a social order in decline maintain its ability to tell you what you’re doing wrong even as it is losing its ability to provide a convincing account of what it would look like to do things right … Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a convincing positive alternative. (Kotsko 2010: 16-17).

He makes a convincing case that the role of awkwardness in comedy is not simply a matter of playing upon the familiarity of everyday awkwardness. Instead there is an elaboration within some recognisable genres of the broader cultural malaise and its attendant anxieties. He takes Judd Apatow films as representative of a sense that “the order of adulthood somehow doesn’t work, that it needs the awkward supplement of the male bonding it supposedly overcomes”. In the absence of new traditions, which is the only cultural condition in which the phrase ‘new traditions’ could be coherent, we are left with a “pervasive sense that despite the fact that we can never fully embrace the traditional norms, we are somehow hardwired to head in that direction and will do so immediately once our attempts to do something else fail” (Kotsko 2010: 65). These films not only represent friendships which are ‘structurally awkward’, in that they are grounded in opposition to cultural conventions, but they are ones which are eventually cast off in an unreflexive embrace of a circumscribed normativity. In contrast to this resist and then do it anyway approach to negotiating cultural awkwardness, Kotsko finds inspiration in the writings of St. Paul’s on the possibility of cultural assimilation, imagining communities where,

Awkwardness is no longer a way of escaping social norms, and social norms are no longer a way of escaping awkwardness: instead, people simply meet each other, without the mediation of a defined cultural order, and figure out how to live together on a case by case basis. (Kotsko 2010: 80).

From this perspective the problem of cultural awkwardness becomes one of our response to it. Rather than “trying to come up with some permanent way of overcoming awkwardness, one should go with it” (Kotsko 2010: 79). In this way he inverts the notion of awkwardness, leading us “beyond the common sense notion of awkwardness as a disturbance in the social fabric and toward something like utopia” (Kotsko 2010: 86). Far from being something to be overcome, awkwardness in fact represents an opening towards a more fully human mode of being-with each other. It is a possibility we are forced to confront, however inchoately, because “opportunities to enjoy the community of awkwardness are always there, always available, always ready to erupt, because awkwardness is undefeatable”. Under such conditions it becomes imperative for us to cultivate “the peculiar kind of grace that allows us to break down and admit that we are finally nothing more or less than human beings who will always be stuck with each other and, more importantly, to admit that we are glad of it” (Kotsko 2010: 89).

It’s in these terms that we can begin to argue for the incipient universality underpinning some of the most ephemeral and seemingly trivial examples of internet culture. Whatever we think of the humour or its enactment, the evident virality of these cultural products is susceptible to explanation. Why are they so popular? Why are people so prone to sharing them? In asking questions like this we shouldn’t lose sight of the brutally hierarchical ecosystem governing the dissemination of ‘viral content’:

He describes an Internet food chain, a series of tiers of websites that disseminate viral content. The highest-performing, most visible websites — BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Gawker, Reddit — often graze on content discovered by lower-visibility sites. The lower-tier sites are often the ones to lift TV news bloopers or funny Facebook photos from obscurity. But they depend on their mainstream predators/enablers to elevate something to meme status.

However we should also avoid the temptation to reduce it to this ecosystem, dismissing it as ephemera leveraged for the strategic advantage of these major players. This ecosystem has created an opening for viral content factories, as well as those intuitive curators particular able to locate many items and successfully gauge their potential virality, but it doesn’t seem tenable to suggest it has created the receptiveness to such content. Furthermore, there’s obviously much more to memes than awkwardness. But my claim is that this constitutes a clearly identifiable genre or category of web meme and, in so far as this is true, has obvious implications for how we see the kind of argument being made by Kotsko.

What explains the evident receptiveness of internet users to web memes concerning awkwardness? It is the cultural order leveraged to promote and circulate its own gaps and failings. We recognise ourselves in the dramatisation and staging of awkwardness. There’s something deeply human about some of this ephemera in spite of it being, well, ephemera… perhaps it points to an emerging democratisation of the instances of cultural awkwardness Kotsko identifies in TV and film. Or perhaps it’s just a way of wasting time on the internet. Either way I found myself oddly drawn to it and it’s this feeling of being drawn in, the appetite for content of this sort which can be so readily written off as mindless compulsion, which interests me as a qualitative sociologist.

Over the holidays I stumbled across Suits and found myself weirdly hooked by it. It tells the story of Mike Ross, a gifted stoner whose life has been going nowhere, bumbling into an interview for new associates at a prestigious law firm while trying to escape the police after a drug deal gone wrong. He is taken on by Harvey Specter, the firm’s top lawyer, who has found himself frustrated by his company’s policy of only hiring Harvard Law graduates. Seeing something special in Mike, he contrives to bring him to the firm and helps cover up his lack of a law degree.

Upon arriving at the firm, Mike finds himself mired in awkwardness, as his photographic memory often falls short of indicating what he should do and say when presented with the rules of legal institutions and the cultural norms found in a firm entirely populated by alumni of the law school he claims to have attended. Harvey presses upon him that this is his ‘chance’ and that to take it he must cast off the old friendships which have weighed him down, reconstructing himself for the new life he has stumbled into. It’s this biographical aspect of the show which intrigued me. Nonetheless, it also has a lot of weaknesses:

If Dallas grapples with the question of how to remain contemporary,Suits seems to be on a mission to convince viewers it was made in the 80s, sealed in a time-capsule and only recently excavated.

Even amid the sunny escapist output of the USA network, the series is a baffling anachronism. It proudly resides in an alternate universe where oily, overcompensated attorneys are hailed as heroes. Where their Italian sports cars, designer apparel and addiction to winning at all costs are seen as enviable character traits.

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/jun/27/jonathan-bernstein-us-tv-dallas-suits

It’s hard to argue with this criticism. I don’t even think the show is good in any straight foward sense. But I found it oddly compelling. My aim here is to explain the reasons for this, which all stem from the figure of Harvey Specter. In contrast to the bumbling charm of Mike, Harvey always knows what to do, always knows what to say and is admired and reviled in equal measure. Harvey Specter is a socipath and, furthermore, he has worked to become this way. He is a man who is “against having emotions, not against using them” and he seeks to help Mike come to share this trait.

I use the term ‘sociopathy’ in the admittedly slightly glib sense employed by Adam Kotsko in his Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. His interest is in a class of characters who have increasingly come to dominate television and film in recent years. Though there are undoubtedly differences between Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Gregory House, Stringer Bell, Dexter et al (a list which seems a little incomplete without Vic Mackey) Kotsko argues that they share an indifference towards the moral order, manifested in a capacity to live outside social norms and yet also instrumentalize those norms to pursue their own agenda. While these characters might also share a degree of psychological complexity relative to their more shallowly characterised forebearers, he suggests that,

It is hard to believe, however, that the exploration of the dark side of the human psyche for its own sake is behind the appeal of these sociopathic characters. What, then, is going on in this trend? My hypothesis is that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free.” (pg 4)

Kotsko sees sociopathy, understood as a cultural type embodied in such characters, as constituting a form of ‘reverse awkwardness’. In contrast to sociopathy, where lack of social connection engenders a capacity to masterfully manipulate social norms, awkwardness obtains in being drawn in and “rendered powerless by the intensity of their social connection” (pg 5). The appeal of the former rests on the experience of the latter, as our familiarity with the acute force of social pressure yields a vicarious thrill when we are presented with the lives of those immune to such pressure. These are people who always know exactly what to do. They are unbound by social pressure. They masterfully manipulate those interactions, which in reality exist as geysers of awkwardness, in a way which runs so contrary to our everyday experience. Their indifference to the social order translates as power and freedom. This is a figure who “transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool”. Against the backdrop of a “social order that is breaking down, making impossible demands while failing to deliver on its promises” such characters become immensely compelling (pg 9-10).

The fascination with individuals ‘who make their own rules’ cannot be understood in isolation from the social changes which are rendering ‘the rules’ paradoxically more transparent and yet also opaque. The preoccupation with mastery, the capacity to glide through life while always knowing what to do and say, stems from the broader conditions under which this is becoming ever less possible. I think Margaret Archer’s notion of the ‘reflexive imperative’ is useful here, as a way of understanding how the intensification of social and cultural change renders individual reflexivity (reflecting on one’s self in relation to one’s circumstances) ever more imperative in daily live. As she argues, “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it”. Variety and novelty can fuel awkwardness, much as they can also open up the possibility of a depth of connection and human understanding which might formerly have been crushed by the stultifying weight of tradition and routine. These are two sides of the same coin. The dilemma in everyday life consists in the difficulty of knowing if we are doing things ‘right’, if such a notion even makes sense and how others who are similarly confused respond to what we are doing, whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The sociopath fascinates because they embody a fantasistic solution to this dilemma. However in reality, we are faced with the ‘awkward abyss’,

Threatened by the awkward abyss, we cling to our declining social norms and ask them to be more than they are or can be. We let them rule over us all the more as they fail to serve us, either by providing clear expectations or approximating some form of justice or fairness. (pg 15)

But what would it be like to avoid this? What would it be like to just be? As Kotsko puts it, “if only I didn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything, we think — then I would be powerful and free” (pg 7). But we do, so we are not. Even if we truly did want to be this way, it is an option that is foreclosed by the weight of commitment. Or is it? What intrigues me about Suits is how much of the narrative arc of the two main protagonists revolves around Harvey Specter socialising Mike Ross into sociopathy. In seeking to ‘mentor’ Mike, Harvey is also teaching how he can be emulated by him. What stops this being obnoxious is the gradual revelation of the extent to which Harvey has had to cultivate his sociopathy, much as Mike must now do himself.

When we meet Harvey, he is pure presence. He controls every situation, always ready with a witty retort or a strategic reaction. This also leaves him paradoxically absent. In the first half of the show’s initial season, we see little of Harvey qua person beyond occasional allusions to his longstanding friendship with his boss. In one scene Mike attempts to come over to Harvey’s apartment to share news of a breakthrough on a case. Having sternly ordered him not to come round, he opens the door and we see Harvey in casual clothes for the first time in the show. However the door is immediately closed on Mike (and on us). There’s a sense in which Harvey seems almost unrecognisable as a person, as his preoccupation with his own social mastery leaves his inner life entirely opaque. At one point he boasts to Mike about having Michael Jordan on his speed dial, proving this to an initially sceptical Mike who then turns and asks “who are you?”.

It’s a good question and one which is eventually addressed. As the first season approaches its end, we come to see more of Harvey and how he came to be the person that he is. The meaningful relationship with his boss which was intermittently hinted at (she supported him through law school and their relationship existed prior to this) finds more direct reflection in the figure of his stated mentor, the New York District Attorney. In the first half of the season, we see a Harvey who is already fully formed and self-subsistent. But later we begin to see how he came to be this way. He was not born “the best closer in New York city”. He had to become him. He had to make himself into who he wanted to be. We begin to see something of his inner life. We see that he hates to lose. We even see him lose his temper. He reminds us that sociopaths, in Kotsko’s sense, are people too. They are admired people, as a search through youtube for videos of Harvey will make clear.

The final session is kicking off with Ben Williamson (University of Edinburgh) talking about how digital data is transforming the university. These institutions are increasingly imagined as ‘smart’ organisations built around data infrastructure, with a whole range of innovations being pushed by a diverse array of actors. This has included the Department for Education commissioning developers to produce apps to provide students with data-driven ways to navigate the application process. The problem from a sociological perspective is that the data involved is being treated as an objective window onto the reality of higher education. Data is produced through a range of activities and expresses prior interests, obscured by platforms and services which present it in naive way. Data visualisations distance our attention from the organisational process which produce them. A narrow qualitative representation of a university comes to replace the messy organisational reality, leading to profound limitations for policy and practice. Williamson discusses how we can respond to this through developing new methodologies which better represent the complexity of the university, while replicating some of the advantages which the aforementioned data-driven methods are seen to have.

The second speaker is Helen Kennedy from the University of Sheffield, reflecting on why understanding people’s perceptions and experience of data matters for data futures. While it’s true that we won’t get data policy and practice right unless we listen to expert views on them, unfortunately there’s not a lot of evidence about how data practices are perceived by non-experts.

Our next session starts with Phil Brown from Cardiff University talking about the reality underlying the rhetoric of automation. Claims about the impending reality of mass unemployment driven by automation circulate widely, with a significant risk of exaggeration. Nonetheless, the general direction of travel is clear and there will be a declining demand for labour, posing problems of how we divide up the fruits of that labour in terms of productivity and wealth.The real problem we have today is not skill scarcity, explains Brown. It is a jobs mismatch rather than a skills mismatch which will create social problems as automation proceeds. The decision made (or not) today already shape the future and there is a real risk they will concentrate diminishing rewards from labour in the hands of the few. Rather than the digital economy being a bounded phenomenon, it represents a transformation in the whole policy process. The only way we can address this by being clear about what our institutions are for and what they stand for. If we can’t address these fundamental questions then we will inevitably address these problems in a piecemeal way. He ends with a fascinating argument about the potential of analytics for an active industrial policy, no longer reliant on asking employers what they want. It is a powerful idea with some exciting consequences.

The second speaker is Jacqueline O’Reilly from the University of Sussex Business School. She recently completed a major work, Work in the Digital Age, offering a comparative outlook of digital development across Europe. O’Reilly went on to do discuss the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) ranking that “summarises relevant indicators on Europe’s digital performance and tracks the evolution of EU member states in digital competitiveness”. On this measure, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands have the most advanced digital economies in the Europe. Looking to these and other measures through a comparative framework helps open up a range of crucial policy questions, cutting through the clutter which usually gets in the way of our conversations  about about practical responses. For instance the UK does well on digital skills but evidence suggests that employers are not taking up these skills, inviting analysis of why this is the case. O’Reilly ended with a discussion of how to produce something akin to a DESI ranking that extended beyond Europe and what this would mean for our capacity to address the global challenges which digitalisation is producing.

The final speaker is Xander Mahoney who is a Policy Advisor at Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport talking about the longer term challenge of automation. While it is unlikely that we are seeing the ‘end of work’ and we need to be realistic about how advanced technology is going to become. Nonetheless, the rate of development of technology is ever-increasing and this means we are going to be left with different jobs but the same workers. What support should be offered to the workers who have been made technologically redundant in the workforce? They will need training and welfare, directed towards opportunities which are difficult to predict in advance.

The first speaker is Sonia Livingstone from the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Reflecting Phil Howard’s claim that sociology is bridging the quantitative/qualitative divide, Livingstone’s work draws on qualitative and quantitative data to elucidate what digital technology means for parents and childhoods. Parents seek to equip their children for what they imagine will be a digital future, often framed in terms of exaggerated risks which digital technology is assumed to carry for children. Media and policy debates make extreme claims with weak groundings in research, exasperating the problems found in families over issues such as how much screen time is suitable for children each week. Underlying these challenges is the question of who is meant to guide parents in negotiating the challenges and opportunities of digital parenting? Parents don’t know how to offer positive messages to their children about technology and the overwhelming message of her research is that parents are on their own when it comes to the potential of digital technology to enrich their futures. This gap has created a huge market for tools and services which aim to help parents, but it’s extremely difficult for them to assess these offers and know which might be beneficial to their children.

The second speaker is Huw Davies from the Oxford Internet Institute who is also co-convenor of the BSA’s Digital Sociology forum. He identifies two reasons why it’s important to study how children and young people use social media. Firstly, researching young people can help us anticipate the future of media consumption. Secondly, teens often use media in a way which subvert attempts to control and regulate them, in the process offering strategies from which all of us can learn. His research into how young people understand the internet has found that many inhabit a profoundly appified web, with little sense of how the internet works beyond the particular apps they use. However there is also evidence of a remarkable literacy amongst at least some of this cohort, with a well developed capacity to use the functionality which tends to be subsumed into the unhelpful category of the ‘dark web’. Nonetheless, teens are often not as savvy as they assume they are and their capacity to enter these semi-legal online spaces can leave them vulnerable to some of the ill-motivated actors which can be found within them.

The third speaker is Josie Frasier from Department of Media, Culture and Sport. She began by talking about the digital charter and the importance of supporting people to participate in digital spaces. There are huge benefits to digital participant but as the speakers thus far have stressed, it can also exasperate social inequalities in ways which are immensely important to recognise. Her talk covered a range of initiatives currently underway within government which seek to recognise this duality, informed by a growing awareness that ‘online’ problems inevitably have ‘offline’ manifestations. For this and other reasons, the problems posed by digitalisation are interconnected. As Frasier put in response to a question, “These are not internet problems, these are social problems which are acted out in the space fo the internet”. Frasier stressed how DCMS is building on the work of digital humanities and is looking to the sociological community for further conversations. The upcoming white paper offers an immediate means through which we can do this.

I’m writing this blog from the remarkably grand Churchill Room in the Department for Media, Culture and Sport where the first session of the British Sociological Association’s President Event Digital Futures is due to start, co-organised with the
Open Innovations Team in government. I’ll be doing my best to live blog throughout the day, updating a post for each session as I go along. I’ll be doing this in real time so please excuse any typos or mistakes which I’ll handle more thoroughly after the day has finished. As BSA President Susan Halford is explaining in her introduction, the event is intended to pool the expertise of (digital) sociologists and bring this into dialogue with officials. It’s important to have these conversations because digitalisation is a much more open process than conversations about it tend to assume:

There is nothing inevitable about digital society and there is nothing inevitable about digital future. Technologies on their own do nothing. The combination of people and technology changes worlds.

The event is co-chaired by Phil Howard (Oxford Internet Institute) and David De Roure (Turing Institute) who each explained their sense of sociology’s importance. Howard described sociology as among the most agile disciplines, well suited to working with new domains of data which didn’t exist only a decade ago. He describes sociology as being at the leading edge of crafting new forms of data and well suited to produce action-orientated research. He reflected on the rewards and risks of sending out research without peer-review, filtered through internal review but with the advantage of getting findings out to policy makers and others at speed. De Roure stressed how computer science is insufficient for building contemporary systems, involving a combination of computers and people. These ‘social machines’ require an understanding of the social. Hopefully the day will go some way to showing what this looks like in practice.

On the subject of the collapse of the tech mythology, a wonderful Slate headline succinctly conveys the significance of what is taking place: Facebook is a normal sleazy company now.  As Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it, “Facebook is now just another normal sleazy American company run by normal sleazy executives, engaged in normal sleazy lobbying and corporate propaganda”. He lists the controversies which have surrounded Facebook in the last few years and the founder’s response to them:

Over the past three years, Facebook has been outed for abusing the trust of its users, sharing personal data with third parties like Cambridge Analytica, unwittingly hosting Russian-backed propaganda intended to undermine American democracy, amplifying calls for religious and ethnic violence in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and promoting violent authoritarian and nationalist leaders like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India. As these stories piled up and public trust eroded, the Times reports, Zuckerberg consistently exempted himself from crucial discussions with the Facebook security team and acted generally baffled that anyone would question his baby. After all, didn’t he just want, in his words, to “bring the world closer together?”

In contrast Sandberg initiated a lobbying operation with a particularly unseemly propaganda exercise attached to it, obviously at odds with the lofty rhetoric accompanying Facebook’s public pronouncements in the face of mounting scandal. Vaidhyanathan’s case is that the transition to sleaze is a recent phenomenon, reflecting the growing panic of a company which had formerly “made too much money to care about money and had too strong a reputation to care about its reputation”. Nonetheless, the mounting controversies are created by the platform working in the way it was designed to. As Vaidhyanathan says, “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”

However my suggestion is that we have to recognise the collapse of the tech mythology as a distinct factor, beyond the current crisis in Facebook. There is an increasing  politicisation of Big Tech, as firms which positioned themselves as outside the normal rules of capitalism are increasingly recognised as what is driving a shift in capitalism itself. Their epochal rhetoric of disruptive innovation, bringing the world together through the power of their platforms, decreasingly obscures the material interests they embody. Without this broader collapse of the tech mythology, it would be easier for Facebook to make it through their present storm.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between digital technology and contemporary finance, including the vast off-shore facets of its existence and the shadow markets which (as I understand them) traverse onshore and offshore, even breaking down the distinction between the two. An interesting example of this concerns the logistical challenge involved in creating the byzantine corporate structures upon which these mechanisms depend, with ever more sophisticated methods made available to ever less sophisticated companies as one of Oliver Bullough’s interviewees puts its on pg 87 of Moneyland. As Bullough goes on to write on pg 88, “the speed and cheapness of modern communications have made creating these companies ever easier, with devastating results for the law enforcement agencies trying to investigate them”. Only a couple of decades ago, “if a crook wanted a Pacific shell company, they had to go to the Pacific to get it. Now, they can get it online from their living room” (pg 87). It’s easy to pass over this quickly as a contingent detail but I think there’s something extremely significant to dwell on here.

From Moneyland by Oliver Bullough pg 101. As he points out, the logical end result of this is the creation of dynasties so that privilege persists and grows, as opposed to slowly diminishing over generations.

Wealth-X, a consulting company that maps the movements of the super-rich as if they are wildebeest, calculates that in 2016 there were 226,450 people in the world with assets worth more than $ 30 million (it calls them ultra-high-net worth people, or UHNWs), a 3.5 per cent increase on the year before. Collectively, their wealth had increased over the previous twelve months by 1.5 per cent to $ 27 trillion, which is roughly equivalent to the entire output of China and the United States added together. And the outlook for further increases is good: ‘SOLID GROWTH EXPECTED ACROSS THE ULTRA WEALTHY SECTOR,’ proclaims the company’s World Ultra Wealth Report 2017. ‘The global ultra-wealthy population is forecast to rise to 299,000 people by 2021, an increase of 72,550 compared with 2016 levels. UHNW wealth is projected to rise to $ 35.7 trillion, which implies an additional $ 8.7 trillion of newly created wealth over the next five years.’

If this prediction comes true, the planet’s UHNWs will have added the equivalent of the GDPs of Japan and Germany to their stock of wealth, in half a decade. Wealth-X sells its insights to the global class of lawyers, bankers and professionals that manages this wealth. The more wealth there is, the more they get paid. They have moved on from simply de-embarrassing assets, and now husband them, protect them, multiply them, and make them available to anyone who needs them anywhere in the world. The world has come a long way since that first elaborately organised eurobond drilled holes in the tanks of the great oil tanker of the world economy, and allowed tax dodgers and kleptocrats to make a fortune.

I’m so excited about this event I’m organising with Gary Hall on November 29th. Register here if you’d like to attend. Everyone is welcome and the Faculty of Education is really easy to get to. It’s a short walk from Cambridge train station and there are regular trains from London Kings Cross and London Liverpool Street which take around an hour.

Faculty of Education Masterclasses are public talks that engage critically with some of the key concepts that inform thinking and policy in education and knowledge production today – from rankings, to assessment, to identities and equality. All Masterclasses are recorded and videos are made publicly available online, reflecting the commitment of the cluster and the Faculty to making conversations at Cambridge accessible to communities beyond the University.

What does open access mean for academic publishing? How are the options available to academics changing as digital technology transforms scholarly communication? How can we find new models for the creation, publication, and dissemination of knowledge, challenging the received ideas of originality, authorship, and the book? In this masterclass, Gary Hall(Director of the Centre for Postdigital Cultures at the University of Coventry) provides an introduction to pirate philosophy, leading participants through a range of innovative publishing projects which illustrate the full range of possibilities available to us beyond the confines of the marketised academy.

I watched this incredible documentary last night and I can’t get it out of my head. It tells the story of four Syrian families going through a resettlement program in suburban Baltimore. At one point some of the children are playing on the first day at their new school and using a war plane to drop bombs on some toy houses. “They ruined the world!” exclaims one of the children as the imagined bombs fall. In another scene, one friend remarks to another that “we are at the mercy of reality” as they reflect on a home city they can never return to. This is a powerful and haunting film which I hope as many people as possible see.

From Moneyland by Oliver Bullough pg 51:

Nevis prospers by renting its sovereignty to rich people who believe America is over-litigious, that women get too much money in divorce settlements, and that lawyers lie in wait for the successful. These beliefs are widespread among the rich, and Moneyland has given them the power to do something about it. Once upon a time, if wealthy Americans felt their country was over-litigious, they would seek to influence a political party to change the laws. If they felt their spouses’ divorce settlements were too generous, they could argue for legislation to be passed to change that. It might have taken a while, and it might have been imperfect, but that’s democracy for you. That process of messy compromise, of back-and-forth, has been replaced by asset protection. Instead of campaigning to change the laws, they have opted out of them altogether. If you’re an ordinary person, you still face the risk of litigation and divorce settlements, as American law demands. But if you’re rich enough, you can avoid US jurisdiction and tunnel into Moneyland, where your money is hidden from the rest of us.

There’s a wonderful piece in the Atlantic talking about the accumulating scandals through which “the tech industry has gone from bright young star to death star”, with increasing public knowledge leading to a recognition that “Silicon Valley companies turned out to be roughly as dirty in their corporate maneuvering as any old oil company or military contractor”. It raises a crucial question: what happens if the controversies continue to accumulate while people remain inclined to use products upon which they have become profoundly dependent? How will these firms come to be seen if widespread rejection of their business practices co-exists with widespread use of their services? As Alex Madrigal puts it, “what if the news stays bad, but the people using their products can’t extract themselves from the platforms tech has built?” It’s a fascinating question for anyone interested in the politics of Silicon Valley and we could see this collapse of the tech mythology as facilitating a repoliticisation of (big) tech: things which were successfully framed as unalloyed social goods, so obviously beneficial to society as to be outside dispute, come to be contested and debated, as well as (we hope) subject to legal intervention and the construction of regulatory regimes.

Madrigal draws a fascinating parallel with the railroad network, using the work of the historian Richard White. The hyperbole with which the internet was greeted was once matched by a transcontinental rail network which opened up a seemingly infinite vista of possibilities to Americans, expanding the scope of social life and coming to define many people’s sense of the age in which they lived. However as controversies accumulated in the face of their novel practices (particularly the formation of their monopolies and the political lobbying operations used to defend them), they came to be widely recognised as detrimental to social life and this once lauded system was increasingly despised. The collapse of the mythology surrounding them “helped create an entire political ideology: the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. Much as the railroads generated the richest men of the time while being the object of vast political opposition, big tech increasingly finds itself the object of resistance while its founders enjoy the fruits of the “world-historic empires” they have built. The question this leaves is how we can ensure the collapse of the tech mythology goes hand-in-hand with a reining in of the apparatus that has been built and the defensive elites who have made their fortunes from it.

This short article by Bent Flyvbjerg and Alexander Budzier makes a powerful case that “IT projects are now so big, and they touch so many aspects of an organization, that they pose a singular new risk”. It reports on a project they undertook analysing 1,471 projects,  comparing their expected budget and performance benefits to the eventual reality. While the average cost of these projects was $167 million, the largest project $33 billion. They found an average cost overrun of 27% but a much smaller subset of huge overruns, suggesting a potential for existential risks which are obscured if one merely looks at the averages:

Graphing the projects’ budget overruns reveals a “fat tail”—a large number of gigantic overages. Fully one in six of the projects we studied was a black swan, with a cost overrun of 200%, on average, and a schedule over- run of almost 70%. This highlights the true pitfall of IT change initiatives: It’s not that they’re particularly prone to high cost over- runs on average, as management consul- tants and academic studies have previously suggested. It’s that an unusually large pro- portion of them incur massive overages— that is, there are a disproportionate number of black swans. By focusing on averages in- stead of the more damaging outliers, most managers and consultants have been miss- ing the real problem.

They find that the biggest problems tend to arise when a spiralling IT project compounds the existing difficulties (e.g. “eroding margins, rising cost pressures, demanding debt servicing”) which an organisation is facing, What fascinates me here is the possibility that the IT projects may have been conceived wholly or partially to address these difficulties, instead making them even worse when the implementation of the technology fails.