A Kracking Time

Myself and a friend are just back from visiting Krakow, Southern Poland – my first proper trip to Eastern Europe! Well, I have been to Vilnius (in Lithuania) but by post-Cold War definitions that’s actually Northern Europe and to say otherwise would be lazy journalism. Still, my initial impressions were that there is a similarity […]

The New Groves of Academe

Researching the ways in which new media and digital technologies are positioned in modern universities means reading about the changing models of governance, management and administration that shape how research and teaching are conducted. This proves very revealing in unexpected ways and—appropriate to my focus on discipline characteristics—there are clear differences in work from different fields. In the Humanities, and to a lesser extent, the Social Sciences, authors (even when offering some critique) discuss the ‘essence’ of digital media, often imbuing them with a quasi-magical quality. In these largely techno-determinist narratives, new media and digital technologies directly enact a “paradigm shift” that is inevitable because they innately (so it appears) alter our social relations, and relations of space-time. In fact, these technologies are agents or instruments of a shift with origins located elsewhere. Authors writing about what might be called ‘digitalism’ and science tend to be more prosaic. They acknowledge quite coolly that the increasing dominance of digital technologies on campus and in research ‘workflows’ is directly linked to the priorities of the market economy. This is obvious when we think about the emphasis on “innovation” (developing commodifiable products of interest to commercial private sector companies, who may in turn outsource their R&D activities) and on training students to adopt this same mind-set while charging them ever-increasing fees. University infrastructure becomes the final service-platform of a top-down government agenda. This agenda is reinforced by managers and normalised (through various means) in the minds of those working at lower levels—i.e. research and teaching staff.

Clearly digital technologies offer many exciting opportunities, regardless of debates on their nature. They are fascinating to explore, which is why I have chosen them as my topic of research. But we must remain aware of the wider systems which they are a part of, and this is why I am interested to consider them in relation to the academic “habitus”. Krull (2000) reminds us that nowadays, most Western governments view the funding of Higher Education as a “strategic investment” and that with limited finances available to support that investment, a focus on “public-private partnerships” and inter-disciplinarity are the logical outcomes of current political logic, focused as it is on “knowledge economies”1 . At the same time, “market populism” and “consumer democracy” have become “ideological lodestones against which all new policies [in the public sector] must be evaluated”, as Deem, Hillyard and Reed (2007) explain. The formation and dominance of neo-liberal New Managerialism (NM) and New Public Management (NPM) theories are part of a “cultural revolution” with a series of inter-linked effects upon “the discursive strategies, organizational forms and control technologies”  embedded within and used to legitimate public services. Networks, personalisation and customisation are among the concepts it privileges. Universities are “by no means exempt from these underlying structural pressures and the ideological momentum that they generate”, having become more like “workplaces” than “communities of scholars”. The restructuring inspired by NM and NPM have significant and long-term consequences for academic communities. I would argue, uncontroversially (?), that the promotion of digital media is one of those consequences.

This leads me to some more general thoughts about academia which are only loosely relevant to my work but which are certainly relevant to my status as a junior member of the academic community. Whether the changing management models mentioned above are good or bad is dependent on the position of the observer. Specifically, in relation to what the observer and his/her community have to gain or lose. Naturally, it can be hard to criticise a system on which you rely for employment, especially when the changes you are critical of seem utterly inevitable and “just the way things are now”. It is hard to know what the effects of changing technologies will be. It is easier for a journalist or other commentator to descry what is happening to HE (for instance, the current funding cuts) than it is for a low-grade academic on a temporary contract or in a department facing an uncertain future. Clearly, if attitudes based on a combination of fear and the desire for self-preservation (if not whole-hearted subscription to the new ideals) become endemic, there are likely to be depressing consequences. I’m sure we can all imagine those. The nightmare scenario is a group of ‘yes men’ and women unquestioningly serving highly paid superiors who do not necessarily possess or appreciate the core intellectual and social values of the average academic. Rather than scholars choosing the methods and tools that best fit a particular course, or project, they will be enforced. More positively, it may be possible for those in all fields of enquiry to adapt to the new market-centred regime without totally compromising. Despite inevitable concessions, traditional values and ideals might quietly be defended and promoted from within. This enterprise is a difficult one—a little like brokering for peace when outside the negotiating room there are bodies and ‘collateral damage’.

1Krull, W. (2010). Beyond the Ivory Tower: Some Observations on External Funding of Interdisciplinary Research in Universities. In Nico Stehr and Peter Weingart eds. Practising Intderdisciplinarity. University of Toronto Press, pp.260-270.
2Deem, R., Hillyard S., and Reed, M. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford University Press, pp.4-6; page 26.

Filming Locations

The venues used for some of the Leeds Film Festival’s screenings this year were just about as memorable as the films themselves. For those of you who didn’t make it along (tomorrow is the final day), here are some photos of the grand Baroque-stylings of Leeds Town Hall, described by Architecture Today as “the epitome of northern civic bombast” and, slightly further out of town, the hidden gem that is the Hyde Park Picture House, built in 1908 as a hotel, converted to a cinema in 1914, and saved from closure by Leeds City Council who have lovingly maintained it since 1989. It’s Grade II listed, lit by gas, and still has a piano and organ. What more could you ask for? Ultra-comfy seats, a bar and a balcony? Well, you’re in luck because it has those too.

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Oh! The films we went to see? Jean-Pierre Melville’s muted and entrancing classic “policier“, Le Cercle Rouge, which has one of the best casts of any French crime movie you care to name (Alain Deloin AND Yves Montand!) and one of the most masterful jewel heist scenes since Rififi. The second film was also understated but was perhaps more inconsequential than existential. A low-budget Romanian drama from 2001, Marfa si banii (Stuff and Dough as in, goods and money) was directed by Cristi Puiu, who you might know better for The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). Combining elements of road-movie, chase-movie, and social realist critique, three twenty-somethings take a trip to Bucharest with what a family ‘friend’ has told them is “medicine”, hoping the promised $2,000 might get them quickly and easily out of aimless and difficult lifestyles. Of course, it’s not so straightforward. Both films remind us in very different ways that a life of crime can be more trouble than it’s worth. Melville suggests that nonetheless, it can be done carefully, with honour, and with style. The thief can be a hero of sorts or at least, a gentleman even if he is ultimately doomed. For Puiu’s less well-heeled protagonists, there is only naiveté, disagreement and exploitation. All of which makes for very good cinema!

Citizen Journalism

Today I gave a guest lecture through at Liverpool John Moores University on ‘Citizen Journalism’ – an extremely fascinating and more or less recent phenomenon that can be linked to the rise of mobile/digital technologies, the internet, and multimedia content, as well as to disillusionment with, or disengagement from the ‘traditional’ press. Even if you’re not familiar with theories or debates around Citizen Journalism, you’ve doubtless seen countless examples of it in practise already; including the most mainstream news broadcasters and online publishers. Citizen Journalism is, in essence, unprofessional journalism, conducted by ‘ordinary’ members of the public. Naturally there is a lot to debate about what the potentials of Citizen Journalism are, how it contrasts with or complements professional journalism, and how it might develop in future. What insights can we gain if we analyse it in terms of style, content, politics, economics? I’m making my slides available here so please feel free to download them and let me know what your own views are. The embedded version below might have a few formatting glitches – apologies! Click the options button for notes.



Many thanks to Dr Iqbal Akthar and his lovely students for their input and enthusiasm, and for making me feel extremely welcome. Despite the cold and the rain, it was really nice to be in Liverpool again. :-)

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

Going to the theatre is a special event for me, so two trips in as many weeks is a definite rarity – not least because I see so many movies that it can be easy to forget about the altogether different joys and techniques of live stage performance. Last weekend I was through at the Lowry in Salford for a production of Willy Russell’s 80s classic Educating Rita, while last night’s performance of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (this time at the Manchester Opera House) couldn’t have been more different. The first, I was familiar with, having seen the Julie Walters/Michael Caine film adaptation; the second, I know mainly by reputation and due to the devoted cult following it attracts among its fans. But while Douglas Adams was clearly an extremely smart guy, making wry and intelligent points about physics, metaphysics and humanity, Hitchhiker’s tongue remains firmly in its cheek, being in essence a ludicrous and comical affair. Educating Rita, although often extremely witty, presents us with a more problematic and clearly political seam of social critique. I’m not going to review the performances or the productions here.1 Instead, I want to muse a little on some of the issues around class, education, and stereotype that these two shows (primarily Russell’s) stirred up in my mind.

Rita changes drastically throughout the course of the play, enrolling in an Open University course that leads to weekly tuition sessions with grumpy but likeable English literature lecturer Frank. The play being much inspired by Pygmalion, she undergoes a transformation comparable to that of George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle. Beginning as a frustrated and rather lonely – but undeniably smart, determined and insightful – professional hairdresser, Rita is defined (or actually, self-defined) as the product of working class conventions that don’t chime with her true personality or her aspirations. Learning about herself and the middle-classes along with the disciplined conventions of literary analysis, she becomes a knowledgable, popular and semi-bohemian University graduate, dressing differently, thinking more clearly and leaving behind hairdressing, pub sing-a-longs, a book-burning ex-husband, and “talking about irrelevant rubbish”. Frank meanwhile is sent on sabbatical to Australia, not having given up drinking, but having been dumped by his girlfriend. Whether he will return to writing poetry remains ambiguous, as indeed, does Rita’s own future, but both are aware of new possibilities.

The Hitchhiker's Guide Radio Show

The Hitchhiker’s Guide Radio Show

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

In many ways, Rita’s story resonates as much now as it did in the 1980s, although undeniably the contexts and conditions of the working class, women, the higher education system, and notions of social “betterment” are a little bit different now than they were under Margaret Thatcher.2 As we cheer Rita along on her journey of discovery and smile at the lessons she seems to teach the equally frustrated but far less determined Frank, it’s worth wondering whether Rita would nowadays be able to save enough of her wages to cope with even the less-than-average tuition fees of the OU. We might also wonder about the extent to which Frank’s already shaky position in academia would be valued at all in 2013, given the ‘ivory tower’ quality of his knowledge and his lack of enthusiasm for most of his students. Alcoholism aside, would Frank’s influence on Rita count as “impact” given that it merely enriches her sense of self and possibly her earning potential, rather than the budget of the institution? What would her gratitude, and his, count for?

Of course, the whole play revolves around an examination of class stereotypes, at the same time as we can detect them in it. Undeniably, Rita achieves what she sets out to. For her, the intellectual opportunities offered by access to a previously more exclusive education system, are a liberation. Yet while she is hardly a stock agitprop-style ‘everywoman’, and although Russell gives her a personality and subjectivity all of her own that makes the audience actively like her, it’s hard to deny that there are elements of cliché about both her and the working class world she describes. Back home, it seems, she is the only person in existence who values learning, education, or going against the grain. Unless she settles for marriage and motherhood, literally no-one will support her. Further, she believes that Frank’s suggestion of a “working class culture” is just a risible middle class invention. Of course, she may paint in broad, harsh strokes through anger; her stance seems to soften by the end as she realises that not all is as she once imagined in the University environment. But isn’t it worth being cautious of her conviction that she must leave one group so fully behind in order to embrace the ‘best’ aspects of another? Equally, it doesn’t seem certain that Frank was ‘born to’ his position. He is not really Henry Higgins.

Having gone back to school at a time when there was barely such a thing as a ‘Mature student’ and after a period working as – you’ve guessed it – a hairdresser – Russell himself effectively was Rita; or a male version of her. He was no doubt aware of the potential issues with his ‘girl-done-good’ narrative and probably they are deliberate; still, I’d say they are not the most obvious so they’re worth flagging up. Do Rita and Russell, to some extent, unintentionally parody and patronise working class ambition? For me, slightly, yes. Watching Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its geeky sub-textual jokes about the cosmos, relativity, and the perfect cup of tea, we also find stereotypes being played with. But these are of a different sort – cheeky, apolitical and uninterrogated. What else would an Englishman do in space after all, but worry about his tea? Nonetheless, Hitchhiker’s humour works on multiple registers and, presented as a colourful multimedia “adventure” in this production, there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Here, I thought about the very different types of experience and knowledge that must have influenced the works of Adams, educated at a paid-for prep-school before he went on to Cambridge; the very kind of trajectory in fact, that Rita initially envies. As Willy Russell explained in an interview with Jim Mulligan:

Both my parents were passionately opposed to mob culture or mob thought. They could never stand unquestioning groups of people and I was brought up to see both sides of the question.

In a British culture too often obsessed with the supposed as well as the real divisions between those who come from different “classes”, and in which those are used negatively, that resistance is what we should remember.

1All I’ll say about that here is that Gillian Kearney was absolutely captivating and spot on as Rita, while Shappi Khorsandi, who clearly hadn’t bothered to rehearse her script, spoiled the combined efforts of an otherwise great cast at Hitchhiker’s.
2I’ll let others debate just how different and to what effect!

Damned Lies and Statistics?

Recently, I’ve started to analyse data gathered via the online questionnaire which is central to my thesis. This means having to get acquainted with a little bit more statistical analysis than I am comfortable with – i.e. pushing beyond the basics of mean, median, mode, and standard deviation, although naturally I first had to refresh my memory of those as well. Along with a copy of IBM’s excellent SPSS program (essentially, software for undertaking both basic and complex statistical analyses) and a copy of Julie Pallant’s SPSS Survival Manual, the complicated cycle of deriving numbers from text, recoding existing numbers into other numbers ➞ extrapolating from those numbers other, more illuminating numbers ➞ interpreting and then turning these new numbers back into narrative and prose, begins! Let’s just say that adjusting my research questions into something that will conform with the mystical world of dependent and independent variables is an intriguing process. Initial tests have led me to make a number of observations, some of which I think are worth sharing, especially with other humanities/social science researchers:

  • Contrary to popular misconceptions about the coolly objective operating manual-style of science, there are, if you care to look beyond basics, almost as many disagreements about method, applicability and interpretation when it comes to statistics as there are about whether or not god exists. Well, okay, maybe not quite as many. But you get my point.
  • The reassuring tone of a beginner’s textbook is wonderful but also dangerous. Particular authors will recommend making certain assumptions and using certain techniques that other authors argue just as convincingly against. Using one over the other may appear a trivial decision, if you are even aware (as a novice) of the debate to begin with. In reality, the decision you make about which author to trust can make a huge difference to the output you end up with. An output that cuts (or seems to) right to the heart of your research.
  • Debates flagged up in various books are troubling and usually glossed over – can we really charge ahead with parametric tests when data does not look very normal? To what extent is it justifiable to manipulate (i.e. alter) data so that different more “robust” tests can be used? If I will never in a million years understand the maths behind a given procedure, how confident can I ever really be about using it?

Question: What is the probability of a lifebelt being nearby when you fall into the water?

What is the probability of a lifebelt being nearby?

As a result of all of this, statistics are often sloppily applied or deliberately misused; researchers proceed from all the wrong assumptions because they don’t really know what they are dealing with, or they already know what result they want. Knowing that nobody will really dig very deeply anyway, it can be assumed that most readers skip ahead to the conclusions. Naturally, there will be differences according to academic field (very relevant for my work!) in how statistics are perceived, used and justified. Young Min Baek writes of statistics in communication studies:

Like most social scientific terms, statistical terms and their findings are academically and/or socially (re)constructed facts. Statistical methods are not given, but created and (re)constructed for specific reasons in various disciplines before the birth of the communication field. Methodological myths, such as subjectivity or neutrality, are reinforced by learning of statistics as something given, not as something constructed. Learning something established does not demand critical minds that statistics can be changed for more appropriate understanding of communication. Communication students simply learn statistics from a communication methodology course, or an introductory statistics course. Most, if not all, students rarely have an interest in how statistical terms or concepts are born and (re)constructed throughout intellectual history in diverse academics. They just learn the basic logic and its applications to the understanding of social worlds.1

A friend who knows just a little bit more about all this than me suggested:

If you want to get some excitement out of statistics, ignore classical probability theory and use quantum probabilities. Statistics could be more fun than the usual Kolmogorovian bore, if only statisticians would not be so boring themselves…

Hmm. Right. I think maybe what he means by that is that standard statistical methods do not capture the subtlety at the heart of chaotic “reality”. But I can’t be sure. Software helps us but also flatters us, letting us click buttons and tick boxes to pretend that we are in some ways mathematicians. For that, I am grateful but also (as a “truth-seeker”) a little concerned. How far I can do any more than learn the basic logic, is unclear, but at least  I am aware of some of these issues. I have plenty more analysis ahead of me, and I’m sure it’s going to continue being challenging, infuriating, fun, and informative. Right now though, I feel like Mulder in the X Files – the truth is out there, but I’m not sure if I will ever be able to prove it, or even if proof is the most relevant concept…watch this space!

1Baek, Y. M. (2008). The role of social statistics in communication research. Paper presented to the Rhetoric of Science and Technology Division for the 2008 National Communication Association; San Diego, November.

Information’s Future

Presenting a paper at Sheffield University’s inaugural iFutures conference, Thursday saw me taking my first trip to the Steel City. Having been a student again for 2 years now, the 5am start was a bit of a shock to the system, so I was very happy to find a lovely little on-campus cafe selling amazingly fluffy two-egg omelettes and a decent Fairtrade coffee (extra strong, naturally). Wolfing these down and wondering why, in 30 years, I’d never before heard of Yorkshire’s “famous” Henderson’s Relish (have you?) I perused the day’s programme and gave my slides a final once-over. The conference – tagline: “the next 50 years”, since Sheffield’s iSchool is currently celebrating its 50th birthday – was run entirely by Postgrads and aimed to provide a “forum for students to present forward-thinking and challenging research” in an “encouraging environment”. The organisers had accordingly “blocked” (in tongue-in-cheek fashion) their iSchool seniors from attending, focussing instead on attracting an audience of young/early-career academics. This worked out well; the event was no less intellectual, stimulating or professional, but for the students presenting, the day was made less intimidating in that ideas could be exchanged and space carved out more freely without fear of overtly supervisory objections.

Topics included the impact of ICTs on informal scientific communication, Institutional Repositories in Thailand, Chemoinformatics, telehealth project management, the ways in which public libraries can pro-actively support and respond to their communities, and a “radical” new approach to the analysis of classification schemes. A post-lunch Pecha Kucha session saw us voting via an “audience participation device” for the best and most engaging presenter. Pecha Kucha, if you haven’t come across it, is a trendy but very fun method of rapid-fire presentation – 20 slides are pre-programmed to be on screen for only 20 seconds each, meaning that the presenter ends up “pitching” a vision as much as opening up a debate and therefore has to be more creative. Facing stiff competition, Simon Wakeling’s take on the Future of the Filter Bubble was decided most worthy of a prize. My own full-length paper, which was also well received, was more traditional, describing a methodology for assessing academics’ attitudes toward new media and why that matters.

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So what is the future of our field, which might broadly be called “Information Science”? Predicting the future is a dubious enterprise, and in an age of almost maniacal technological development, it becomes even harder to know what is scientifically probable and what is just science-fiction. Still, disclaimers aside, we can make some informed speculations based on current socio-technical trends. Two impressive keynote speakers – Professor Diane Sonnenwald (University College Dublin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Vanessa Murdock (Principal Applied Researcher at Microsoft Research) – were on hand to share their views. Coming from quite different perspectives, both shared thoughts about where information science should, or might, concentrate its energies. As a group, we possess much expertise that could help solve pressing social and environmental problems; failing health, climate change, inequality, global insecurity. While remedies for these might be figured out by analysts of the “big data” coming from scientific sensors and digitally mediated environments, disaster prevention initiatives and “crisis informatics” will only be successful if those creating systems, strategies and technologies are supported by experts able to assess their impacts on work patterns, task performance, and their wider (often unconsidered) socio-cultural effects.

Describing her own research into 3D medical Telepresence devices, Professor Sonnenwald emphasised that information professionals must make sure we are “at the table” when research projects and funding priorities are discussed institutionally and internationally. The kind of analyses that we undertake may lead to short-term headaches for those developing products – for example, one of her studies showed a particular device to be more flawed than its initial backers supposed – however in the long run, this is a good thing not just for them but for all of us. It’s cheaper to address design issues pre- rather than post-production, and, economics aside, we must make sure that the groups whose problems we try to solve are not inadvertently given more of them by shimmering but naively designed solutions. In an age of algorithms and automation, information science is far from redundant.

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Vanessa Murdock focussed on how we can map the world and its preoccupations through the harvesting and analysis of social media data. Location-aware and location-based services on smartphones and web-browsers are one obvious example; Microsoft and others are working hard to build the “hyper local” as well as the personalised into their products. If you’re in Oslo and you fancy a pizza, wouldn’t it be nice to see at a click which restaurant near you has a menu to match your dietary requirements, what other customers thought about it, and where, based on your tastes, you might go afterwards? Less trivially, it would be valuable for sociologists, political economists and others to discover with reliability precisely where most tweets about Revolution X are coming from in order to ascertain the demographics of those tweeting them and what percentage of the population they actually represent. Naturally such applications are not without their issues. We need to think deeply about privacy, data protection, regulation and – at a technical level – the reliability of services based on data which are often difficult to interpret syntactically and semantically. Further, aren’t companies really just servicing the “Technorati”, treating them as typical of the needs and preferences of humanity when in fact, they are only a small and (it might be argued, insubstantial) minority? Reminding us of a need to understand the difference between solutions that work on “toy data” or simplified abstract models, and those which work when applied to reality, Murdock also pointed out that while “you should take the noble path and build things which are useful when possible, there is also a role for building things which are cool!”

Sheffield has about 60 PhD Students working in the two main research groups of their Information School, and it seems that the culture there is as lively as it is cutting edge. All of the presenters were really impressive and I’d like to thank the committee for putting together such a fun event. :-)

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