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.

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.

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.

I’m utterly gripped by Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland and its account of the meta-country being built through the ability of global elites to escape national jurisdictions, facilitated by an army of lawyers, accountants and wealth managers. One of the most incisive themes concerns the acceleration of this corruption and the difficulty which it creates for public or private investigators seeking to reconstruct events. Not only do investigators move more slowly than those they are investigating, they do so in a game which is rigged against them as it is much easier to hide wealth through global dealings than it is to find it from the vantage point of a particularly national jurisdiction. From pg 20:

The physicist Richard Feynman supposedly once said: ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’ I feel the same way about the way offshore structures have warped the fabric of the world. But if this dizzying realisation sends me out of the house and away from my screen, there’s no escaping it. The building where I buy my morning coffee is owned in the Bahamas. The place I get my hair cut is owned in Gibraltar. A building site on my way to the train station is owned in the Isle of Man. If we spent all of our time trying to puzzle out what is really happening, we’d have no time to do anything else. It’s no wonder most sensible people ignore what the super-rich get up to. You follow a white rabbit down a hole, the tunnel dips suddenly and, before you know it, you find yourself falling down a very deep well into a new world. It’s a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, you can only glimpse it through doors you lack the keys for.

The vertigo this induces can only be solved by recognising the inadequacy of methodological nationalism to make sense of the scale of this corruption, hence his notion of moneyland as something akin to a meta-country being built within the crumbling ruins of the Westphalian order. From pg 25.

Moneyland induces vertigo to such an extent that, once the idea had occurred to me, I felt dizzy because it explained so much. Why do so many ships fly the flags of foreign countries? Moneyland allows their owners to undercut their home nations’ labour regulations. Why do Russian officials prefer to build billion-dollar bridges rather than schools and hospitals? Moneyland lets them steal 10 per cent of the construction costs, and stash it abroad. Why do billionaires live in London? Moneyland lets them dodge taxes there. Why do so many corrupt foreigners want to invest their money in New York? Moneyland protects their assets against confiscation.

I found this comparison by Robin Wilton extremely thought-provoking. It’s correct as a statement about why we should treat these skills as fundamental to education. However it glosses over a number of differences and we should be cautious about the comparison:

  1. While there are corporate interests involved in reading, writing and arithmetic they exercise less power in society at large than big tech
  2. Connected to this is the fact that these corporate interests in no way control the infrastructure of reading, writing and arithmetic whereas big tech does, at least in a collective sense
  3. The harms children face in their future use of reading, writing and arithmetic have no connection to the firms who produce instruments for these purposes, as opposed to big tech which is itself a source of the privacy harms it seeks to educate children about

I’ve always been ambivalent about Slavoj Žižek, not least of all with the alt-right turn seemingly underway in his new book. Nonetheless, I think he gets to the point in his analysis of how Trump has been elevated into a fetish object within the liberal establishment, his garish buffoonery standing in the way of an engagement with the social antagonism that brought about the situation under which Trump could assume power. He is a symptom of a dying order and our fixation on him obscures the new order being born, including the role of a much broader radical right coalescing under his sign. There are characteristics of Trump himself which make him conducive to being fixated on in this way. As Žižek suggests on pg 185-186 on Like A Thief in Broad Daylight:

Imagine that, a couple of years ago, a comedian performed on stage Trump’s statements, tweets and decisions –it would have been experienced as a non-realist, exaggerated joke. So Trump is already his own parody, with the uncanny effect that the reality of his behaviour is more outrageously funny than most parodies of it.

An already strange man was made even stranger through his elevation, constituting himself as an assembly of tweets, clips and statements optimised to win in the attention economy. The fact he constructed this, learned tactics to entrench it and has built his life around it pursuit is something which can be seen the in biographies of Trump or even just examining his trajectory as a Twitter user. For all his absurdity, the man has gamed the attention economy on a unprecedented scale and ridden fortuitous circumstances to power in a manner that only becomes thinkable retroactively. It’s a cliche but one worth dwelling on that President Trump was literally unthinkable only two years ago. The power of his representations are given ever more force by this ontological weirdness, the forceful awareness of his ascent as something which should not have happened.

What Žižek’s book has left me thinking about is Trump as spectacle: “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”. What is at work when we are preoccupied by this spectacle? How are we connected and what are the consequences of these connections? How does our attention constitute President Trump and where is this going? I can’t recall reading anything which really gets to grips with these questions since the last election. It’s so immediate, accelerated and climactic that ontology gets subsumed under outrage, fear or strategy. But it’s important to step back and reflect on the constitution of Trump as Trump. It’s easy to imagine an alternative figure acting as a political fetish at a time of epochal unwinding e.g. an American equivalent to Macron who rose to power by uniting a divided country. But what makes the fetishism of Trump so dangerous is the spectacle of Trump which makes it impossible to look away.

The first edition of my newsletter. You can subscribe here for very occasional rambling reflections like the one below.  

Archives have always seemed romantic to me. It’s only recently I’ve discovered that they’re less romantic yet far more fascinating than I realised. I’ve spent some time in two archives, The Foundations of British Sociology archive at Keele University and the Stafford Beer archive at Liverpool John Moores University. The first contains the papers of a whole range of organisations and individuals who were instrumental in the early history of sociology. It’s blown my mind slightly to see how things we are doing now which have felt so original (forming a legal entity for The Sociological Review, experimenting with new modes of publication, exploring the boundaries of disciplinarity) were things the journal’s founders were doing a century ago. In many ways, it was more advanced with a vast apparatus for sociological tours involving in the public in citizen social science amongst many of the activities I’ve found records of in there. What’s really preoccupied me has been the resonance their activity provokes in me. I feel I get what they were about, in some ways more so than I get what many of the contemporary academics I know are about. Furthermore, it’s arresting to see how the character of publish interest in their activity, though of course the explanation for this is complex. Nonetheless, this was a real headline from a national newspaper:

I’ve been writing about the archives here and I suspect it will gradually build up into a more extensive piece of writing. I have some vague sense this is significant for the book on public sociology which myself and Lambros Fatsis are writing but I’m not sure what this entails beyond observing that the public character of sociology is seemingly assumed in the minutes and internal documents I’ve read in the archives, rather than being something that has to be explicitly stated and argued for. It’s been at the back of my mind when reading the Stating the Sociological feature which Emma Jackson and I have organised on The Sociological Review’s blog, as a (belated) response to the atrocious Times Higher Education article on the State of Sociology. As Des Fitzgerald responds to the tone of polite disdain THE’s reflections offer for contemporary ‘grievance studies’:

‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ What can we possibly say to such counsel? Don’t worry. You didn’t.

It’s easy to lionise past figures but past sociologists had a huge part to play in the present day state of the discipline. Which makes prognostication about its pathologies infuriating when undertaken by people who (a) take no responsibility for the direction of travel (b) show little awareness of the institutional or intellectual reality of contemporary sociology. There’s a nostalgia to my fixation on this archive, underpinning I think by a sense we might be moving back to a sociology that exists to a larger extent outside the university. Immersing myself in an intellectual world where this was a given is oddly soothing, even if goes hand-in-hand with a concerned recognition that the ‘sociological movement’ sought to get into the university. Nonetheless, I’ve found the vibrancy of these early British sociologists intoxicating, as they ran around the globe experimenting and organising, setting up many things which failed while constantly writing about the process.

It’s the same worldly intellectualism which grips me about Stafford Beer. For those unfamiliar with him, I should start by pointing out how Beer was a fascinating and contradictory figure. He was a management guru before gurus. A consultant and a scholar. A scientist and an artist. A man who lived in abstractions yet was immensely practical. A cybernetician and a yoga teacher. He was polymathic in a way which is hard to imagine from our contemporary vantage point, traversing an immense range of fields in which he made significant intellectual and practical contributions. Therefore the range of the materials contained in the archive wasn’t a surprise. What did shock me was the variety of his outputs. He wrote books, papers, essays, reports and letters. He produced endless diagrams which have been as much a source of inspiration for artists as they have for systems analysts. He produced artefacts to convey his ideas and to serve practical purposes in his consultancy. He painted and his work was exhibited in a ground breaking exhibition at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He published two books of poetry. He wrote a number of children’s books which he tried to publish. He produced a book of aphorisms which I suspect could have been published if he had tried. His astonishing repertoire of  communication blew me away. Can we point to any contemporary figure with the same range? He wasn’t just prolific, he was prolific in so many ways it is hard to conceive of how he structured his time to facilitate this outpouring of work. Furthermore, he did so while deeply engaged in the world, travelling regularly and tied up with all manner of diverse commitments. His scholarship didn’t involve a withdrawal from the world but rather an energetic embrace of it and the creative possibilities it opened up. His was a profoundly worldly intellectualism and I find it enormously inspiring. Here’s one of the objects I looked at in the archive when I visited on Monday:

Perhaps I’m looking backwards more because looking forward feels grim. What space exists between post-democratic decay and rising fascism seems narrow and precarious. There is large scale destruction of public records on the horizon. The possibility of preparing a democratic culture adequate to social media looks as if it can be. The neurosis of elites is a political factor which (often overlooked) makes me worry about medium term trends as social conflict increases. Against this background, there’s a comfort in looking back, even if the recognition of familiar pathologies in past decades (such as ‘post-truth’ goes hand-in-hand with a recognition that perhaps these pathologies were not quite so developed then, even though they were present. I find myself pining for a return to the archives and wondering how I could arrange my life in a way that would allow to spend significant amounts of time there.

P.S. If you want to know something depressing:

Till next time…

I spent this afternoon at the Cambridge film festival, watching two films which couldn’t seem more different yet spoke to our current moment in oddly similar ways. All the President’s Men was released in 1976, telling the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal. The Waldheim Waltz was released this year yet deals with events from not long after the other film was made, specifically former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s run for Austrian President in 1986 and the scandal which erupted when his service as an intelligence officer for the Nazi SA was made public.

Both films featured elements familiar from our current political scene. Accusations of fake news, manufactured scandals and disingenuous accusations figured heavily. Consensual politics had broken down, replaced with claim and counter-claim as previously trusted adjudicators found their motivations questioned. Dark forces bubble to the surface and discursive order is revealed to be a precarious achievement. Seen in this light, both films embody continuities with our present moment and provide an engaging riposte to shrill invocations of the ‘post-truth’ crisis. The weaponisation of epistemology long predates Donald Trump and his ilk.

However there was a difference which I’ve found myself dwelling upon. In both films, the powerful weaponised epistemology in a reactive way. They sought to dig themselves out of holes, shore up their defences and turn the tide of public opinion in their favour. It was all tactics and no strategy. This might be a function of the format, as the strategising I’m talking about would not translate easily into either narrative, even assuming there is a historical record which confirms its existence. It’s nonetheless intriguing to consider the prospect that the strategic weaponisation of epistemology has expanded recently, even if its tactical weaponisation is long standing.

What I found particularly striking was the lack of preparation. Kurt Waldheim had engaged in impression management through his autobiography yet his war record sat in national archives, waiting for someone to bother to look. The Watergate conspirators left a trail which they only began to obfuscate once investigative reporters from a national newspaper were on the case. If this is the whole story, something which I’m not sure is true, it raises the interesting question of when preemptive spin and crisis communications began to transform the political landscape of epistemology. I suspect that once the expectation of weaponisation takes hold, in the sense of it being prudent to assume something will be used against you, it becomes a self-fulling prophecy as strategic thought becomes synonyms with prudent planning.