In a serendipitous week the Economist magazine's leader and briefing was on digital data with a cover headline of "The world's most valuable resource".
In their leader the Economist describe data as the oil of the digital era. They point out that with Alphabet (Google's parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft's dominance those companies use their vast pools of data to protect their dominant market positions. In part the data they have means they can ID potential competitors quickly which they then acquire via "shoot-out acquisitions", (think Facebook and What's App) before they become a threat.
The article goes on to describe how the enormous amount of data collected - on what we buy (Amazon), what we share & like (Facebook), what we search for (Google), how we drive (Tesla), where we take taxis to (Uber) - allows these tech companies to identify and develop new services (or improve existing ones) in ways users want - so serving needs and attracting new users. And because their competitors can't see the data they don't even know about some of the opportunities.
Given such analysis the Economist suggests antitrust authorities need to loosen the big companies grip on the data and open up Government's data to encourage competition (both with user's consent). Towards the end of the article the Economist covers the the tension between data portability and privacy and how people need help in understanding that their data has value and they are due some form of compensation when others use it.
And slightly unusually for a tech/soc media conference it didn't have a #
The main themes I heard during the various sessions I attended are set out below.
The full programme for the day is to the left of this text and the text below.
The twitter (or other) IDs I could find for the people who talked at the sessions I attended are -
@jwajcman1 @paologerbaudo @girlslike_us @Caliviral @ianmtucker1 @tainab @RachaelCKent @mjgw
@TupsTweets @susannapaasonen samuel forsythe tanya kent pinelopi troullinou
and the institutions that organised the conference @kingsdh @DigiCultureKCL
Is our experience of time shaped by digital technology?
In the Opening keynote Judy Wajcman talked about how we describe and perceive the effect of technology on time so for example:
- Accelerating the pace at which things happen
- Changing our very perception of time (as did the second hand on clocks when first introduced)
- Reinforcing speed as being best - technological determinism or as much culturally driven?
- Reality check - earlier technologies were also “blamed” for speeding up & too much data
- Not all of us are affected in the same way (e.g. taxi drivers wait to speed others to places)
- Time as an individual resource or as a collective accomplishment
- Information overload (e.g. email inbox) – equally due to collective norms on how we expect others to deal with emails
- Concept of time as a limited resource and so of value & so to be used productively.
So the idea of the digital affecting our experience and/or perception of time is something several have looked at ....
Our approach to digital technology
Judy's opening keynote, and Zeena Feldman's response touched on this issue. Some of the issues mentioned that struck me are headlined below.
- Need to be more discriminating about when we use digital tecnology and be more demanding of it when we do
- Are we helpless victims or willing consumers?
- Should we be questioning more closely those who provide the devices and services in terms of their their bias and motivations?
- Is the technology a help in using “our” time productively by multi-tasking or is the practice of multi-tasking inherently less productive?
- In one of the slots in the 1st session after lunch Alessandro Caliandro talked about some research which tracked students use of smartphones and how they were always dipping in and out of using them - sometimes to kill time and sometimes to avoid stressful situations.
When asked about misuse of smartphones some cited others hogging a digital environment with too much intellectual context. When questioned about themselves people - of course - thought they got the balance of using smartphones for serious/silly/funny/heavy/light topics just right.
What do we actually want?
- In her response to the opening keynote Zeena Feldman pointed out that we are still figuring out how to live with these pocket computers.
- Its almost as though we're adolescents again - experimenting and trying things out as we begin to figure out who we are.
- All of which begs the question of what sort of life we want and how can digital technology help us achieve that. Is the productive use of a time the morality that underpins the choices we want to make?
How nuanced is the information we receive that we consider to be factual (eg the filter bubble that means my google search on a word will bring up different results from your search on the same word). Is happiness what we pursue? Are we human beings or human doings?
How much we share digitally and why
Self tracking devices - Rachel Kent talked about her research on self tracking devices/apps and people's use of them. Some of the use appeared to be motivated by a form of self policing where people used the app and the community to motivate themselves towards better exercise/eating/whatever regimes.
Indeed the very use of such apps made people feel more healthy even if they were having a "lazy" day or the device had over reported their activity levels. Equally when the app produced results that under reported activity there was genuine angst.
Digital Mental Health - Ian Tucker talked about the use of apps to help those with mental health issues and in particular an online supportive community app called Elefriends.
He described from his research
- the initial disruption participants faced when 1st using the community,
- the quite profound level of sharing that occurred,
- the concern if regular participants dipped out or deleted their accounts,
- and the relief some participants felt in dipping out of using the site
Filling the Void - Social Media as depressive hedonia - Marcus Gilroy-Ware riffed on his reflections on our use of sites like facebook and how far it was compulsive or some form of escape or distraction from our unhappiness.
In doing so he also highlighted the relentlessly positive language social media companies use to describe their products features - for example newsfeed - and suggested we should challenge that language - perhaps triviafeed instead?
Digital Data Funerals - Audrey Samson talked about how difficult it is to delete data that is in the digital world and about Digital Data Funerals as rituals representing what data we wish could be - but can't be - deleted.
In workshops or via other means participants gathered together onto usb memory sticks the data they wished could be deleted so it could be embalmed or ritually destroyed.
Quieting the Niche - Sam Forsythe discussed the effects on knowledge sharing and participation of surveillance - and counter measures against such and the way in which data was used to predict the patterns of people's lives.
Fertile Space - Tanya Kant talked about the Clear Blue Ads (pregnancy/fertility) on You Tube and the algorithmic anticipation - of gender, age, wish to conceive - to target such ads tp particular audiences.
Set against this was the reactions of users against such categorisations and the doubly oppressive anticipation that females of a certain age would be interested in their fertility.
In commenting on such she observed that how although such targeting was based on various correlations of data sets = the way such data sets were described to users used more old fashioned marketing demographics language.
Digital learning - Pinelopi Troullinou talked about the data gathered from students during their study to help them analyse their learning and performance. She described this "seductive surveillance" as offering quantification to students whilst being unclear about the risks of such data gathering.
Datification of student life. Claire Tupling described the type of data now typically gathered in higher education "for the student's own good" and how discussion was less evident about ownership, consent, storage and application of such data. She also remarked on all this data displacing the individuals as the subject of the analysis.
The closing plenary session was on Algorithms
Algorithmic Orientations - Taina Bucher talked about how we describe different platforms algorithms - how we ponder whether such have changed or are new or are frozen - and how we react when we think the algorithim is not working in the way it serves stuff up to us that is "wrong".
Distraction - Susanna Paasonen reflected on how our attention is diverted - our our boredom diverted - by what is served up to us - and while she talke on this subject in the background she had projected a non-repeating sequence of interesting/amusing/diverting gifs.
In /doing so Susanna touched on a number of issues ...
- our loss of focus/shortening of attention spans
- but our increased capacity to handle information
- distraction not necessarily being the opposite of focus/attention