Archive | August 2012

Majestic Skagen

One of the best parts of being involved in academia is getting the chance to travel, meet new people, and hear about research in areas you might never learn about in your daily work environment. Getting feedback and being challenged on your research by people not specialist in your particular field can be just as useful as hearing what those closely interested in it have to say. Add in the chance to experience some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful scenery while staying in a former royal residence, and it’s pretty hard not to be happy! Skagen, famous for its fish, its boating opportunities, and for a crystal clear natural light that has historically attracted the best of the nation’s painters, was the venue for CMI’s PhD Summer School. This year’s topic was “The Future of the Internet” and we focused on two areas in particular: Internet and the Media and the RFID/smart device-centred Internet of Things (IoT).

The students and researchers attending came from Finland, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and um, Scotland – some of us via Thailand, Norway, China, Italy, or the US. Our backgrounds, methods, and our own research topics were almost as diverse as our nationalities, some people being based firmly in political economy, others in technology development, others in policy formation and some in media and cultural studies, with varying degrees of specificity. This type of group is definitely a good reflection of the key role which “convergence” (a keyword at the event) and interdisciplinary understandings now play in socio-technical research and development – and by extension in the businesses and market-places which drive or are driven by their results.

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Bill Melody, one of our lecturers, was keen to emphasise and challenge us to think about the inter-relations and interactions between theory, practise, applications, markets, and infrastructure configurations – as well as the increasingly vital role played by policies and regulation (whether at EU or national level). What determines how society makes use of its ICTs and media? What leads and what follows? To a complex “ecology” of path dependencies and paradigm shifts, those of us outwith Political Economics would of course add human nature, imagination, epistemology and pedagogy. Wherever you locate your specific research, it’s important to be aware of all of these overlaps. Diagramming is helpful for that. So too is disagreement. Everyone was given the chance to ask, answer, and debate.

As well as lectures on topics such as Standardisation, Business Models, Copyright Economics, and Hybrid and Over-the-top television services, we worked in small thematic groups on our own PhD topics, presenting, discussing and giving critical feedback. I got a lot of inspiration and many useful ideas from the other members of my group (our common link being a socio-cultural and new media focus) and am already thinking about how to reflect that in my thesis; in particular, the theories I want to draw upon and the scope of my questions. Many thanks to Martina, Atle, Alkim and Professor Ruth Towse! πŸ™‚ As you can see from the photographs, there was a very good social schedule as well as work one, with a trek across moving sand dunes, cycling, and trips to the beach (as well as the local pubs) all included in an intellectually refreshing event which was excellently organised by Aalborg University Professors Reza Tadayoni and Anders Henten.

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Pleasant pastures

On Saturday I went by train to a little town called Mossley which, being on the Easterly side of Greater Manchester and on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, is almost in Yorkshire. Nestled into the Tame valley at the base of the Pennines, it’s a scenic little place that feels a world away from Manchester city’s urbanity. Well, almost. The sense of English industrial history is vivid, with a handful of “dark Satanic mills” prominent in the immediate landscape and suggesting a somehow ever-encroaching modernity; as well as Mossley’s centrality to the region’s development. Externally, many of the factories (once used for wool and cotton production) appear to be in decent condition. With the passage of time, and with the inevitable evolution of social contexts, meanings, and values, they have even taken on a certain soulfulness. For me, the juxtapositions and the looming brick chimneys make a canal side walk more evocative; for the Romantics and Radicals of the Industrial Revolution, they signified something immediately alarming.

One mill – Woodend – has been redeveloped, serving as an increasingly popular combined space for community groups and artists, who can rent studios there. Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine ghosts. The locals of a hundred and fifty years ago hurry out through a misty dawn, ready (or not) to play essential parts in the transition to a new English (British, global) economy; with all of its social discontent and its “astronomical prospects“. A few Weavers’ Cottages remain in Mossley, many high up on the town’s steep hills. Higher still sit the remains of a 12th century Norman castle, recently excavated by students from Manchester University.

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As with anywhere, there is no doubt a rough edge to Mossley if you hang around long enough – but on a daytrip, it feels like it’s earned its place as a green and pleasant space for commuters, retirees, and the holidaymakers who pass through by boat, stopping next to the locks to enjoy some good food, some lovely beer gardens, and a friendly atmosphere. Many thanks to my friend Anne, Mossley born and bred, who happily acted as my local tour (and pub) guide! πŸ™‚

Tales of Two Cities

En route to see the new Batman movie, myself and a friend took a slightly circuitous route as part of an effort to remind ourselves that yes, there is an amazing city out there beyond our cosy home in Chorlton – even if it’s not quite so darkly evocative as Gotham. πŸ˜‰ We stopped to admire some of the old mills, factories and locks between and around Oxford Road and Deansgate, which have mostly now been (or are being) repurposed to become galleries, studios, commercial spaces and flats as part of a continuing redevelopment plan. Visually retaining a sense of social history amidst patchwork modernity, many of the exteriors are as yet unchanged – spiky green weeds protrude from chipped and broken windowpanes amidst beautiful red brickwork covered in flyposters and colourful grafittied chipboard. The names of defunct-factories imprint themselves in giant letters on the area’s memory while underneath, delicate gold might signify the entrance to private apartments and graphic design firms; secure entry only. Even the most compelling of visions can’t escape the contrasts and contexts of transition.

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As for The Dark Knight Rises. Well, aesthetically speaking, Christopher Nolan and his crew have created a predictably excellent atmosphere of electrifying gloom. Performances alternate between strong and muted, keeping us generally interested in a twisting and turning narrative full of politics and references to previous film The Dark Knight. J.G. Levitt as new character John Blake is particularly memorable although I’m not sure Marion Cotillard’s Miranda really works (or shocks) as intended. Now and then, everything threatens to become laborious, almost collapsing (appropriately enough) under a crushingly heavy but unevenly balanced symbolic critique that plays out over nearly 3 hours.

The Batman movies always (and increasingly with Nolan) combine socio-political metanarratives and allegories with moments of kitschly sexy cartoonishness. Here, I think that combination goes wrong, forced towards a conclusion that might be heroic or might be ambivalent and contradictory. Being asked to consider economic injustice; 9/11 and the War on Terror; the trade-off between nuclear weapons and environmental responsibility; the culpability of the stock exchange in financial disaster, AND the effects of torture, false prophecy and violent revolution is a lot for any mainstream movie. Doing so at the same time as we follow the gymnastics, jewel-thieving and repartee of Anne Hathaway’s well-played but confused Catwoman is just a little bit too much. Certainly nothing comes close to the perfectly pitched genius of Heath Ledger’s Joker. All that aside, it’s definitely worth seeing!