Augmented reality, augmented community? Tinder, AI and the changing practices of dating… Brave new world? #mscedc

Hum, picking up on themes of the rich plurality of digital cultures, and the ‘wild west’ theme drawn from yesterday’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ post, this caught my eye this morning.

Online dating is not my thing…. what struck me here, though, was the reference to “augmented reality”, and the predictions of changes in offline behaviour that online technologies bring.

In some ways, nothing new, but something worth noting. Augmented reality is far more flexible and potentially wide reaching than virtual reality. Rather than simulation, the similarities and differences brought about be technical restructuring are possibly far more interesting, and far more challenging.

Whether in dating, or in education…



A continuing tour of the shadow sides of ‘community cultures’: cybercrime Alternative underworld community.. #mscedc

I caught sight of this on this morning’s BBC News feed, and it feeds into an emerging theme across several posts here about shadow, or deviant, aspects of ‘community culture’:

It sketches an alternative geography for ‘community cultures’, one of “vibrant market places” where speaking Russian greatly helps. Also, an alternative, and evolving, history of such communities. And, indeed, it calls them “communities”.

All this helps highlight to plurality of digital cultures, and warns against uncritically appropriating ‘community’ for groupings we might like, want and encourage, and demonising others. A full-orbed understanding of digital cultures will also need to include these assemblages now, run, even, “as a service”.



Is it an impoverishing shadow side for digital ‘community cultures’ if there is less room for whistleblowers? #mscedc

As Wikipedia can demonstrate, ‘whistleblowing’ has a long and varied history. But does the digital age constrain such possibilities? That’s the suggestion of this article:

Digital cultures, and their associated communities, need whistleblowers. Admittedly, their engagement with issues are contested: such is the nature of their challenges and interventions. But healthy communities need to nurture their place within the constructions and sustainings of settings and interactions. In the days of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower is not dead, but perhaps in need of enhanced legal protection, in light of changes in technology and communications. As the Wikipedia article, hyperlinked in the previous sentence, makes clear via the so-called ‘Snowden Effect’, the wider ecology of free-speech, community cultures and accountability depend in complex and indeterminate ways on the ability of whistleblowers to hold people and institutions to public account.

Education, with its right emphasis on protecting and nurturing learners within robust ethical frameworks, for robust ethical life, is implicated in this need.

Here is another pointer to where fast-moving and developing digital cultures need nuanced and imaginative legislative framing, as part of an overall health for both communities and individuals, systems and societies.



Today on Radio 4, ‘Thinking Aloud’ re. Platform Capitalism. Tech, the global economy, and precarious working #mscedc

I heard this programme on the Radio this afternoon, while driving in the car. It’s funny how, after a while, things join up from different media.

The programe is called ‘Thinking Allowed’, and is a collaboration between BBC Radio 4 and the Open University. The programme’s website, pictured below, even offers a reading list….

The programme was a wide-ranging and engaging discussion of ‘Platform Capitalism’. It interacts with a number of posts on my Lifestream, regarding issues such as:

  • Seeing platforms as “intermediaries… [which] bring together different groups of people…. [and] connect them all together”, are platforms themselves communities, or catalysts to community – and, if the latter, what kind of communities do they engender?
  • How and where digital culture and platform capitalism “replicates historical prejudices”, e.g. the Guardian’s allegations of racial prejudice within Air BnB’s offers of accommodation (13:00 minutes). This article was the subject of a posting on my Lifestream, earlier this week.
  • Differing and “obfuscating discourse” about platforms – contrasting techno-optimists, with those who see platforms as a means for generating, and exploiting, flexible labour.
  • Working conditions within digital cultures (14:30ff minutes). This paralleled another Lifestream posting from earlier this week, about the ability, let alone the right, to disconnect from the ‘gig economy’.
  • How we historicise / periodise the rise of digital cultures within broader historical changes. The presented variously located ‘platform capitalism’ within a 1970s crisis of profitablility; the end of the Cold War, and the economic situation it engendered ; 1990s communication technologies; the global financial crisis of 2008-9. This reminded me of Jeremy Knox’s pre-reading, and the historiographic elements within the ‘Cybercultures’ block.
  • How to monetise data, especially ‘big data’. I anticipate this theme will rise within the ‘Algorithmic Cultures’ block, yet to come.

Also, indirectly, the programme probed issues for education and learning, such as the gig economy’s need to market oneself as a flexible and skilled potential worker meaning that “the traditional idea of a specialist occupation seems to be breaking down” (16:55). Such breaking down and restructuring will be both cause and effect of changes in educational practices and policies, in uneven and even contradictory ways.

Also, (18:00) academics are far from immune to ‘gig economy’ practices, as is evident here and here.

As this programme makes clear, the more this is normalised, the less people see it as a problem (18:55 minutes) – but, at the same time – the restructuring is high-speed, and uncertain to endure in present forms (21:00 minutes). The ‘race to the bottom’ will suit some with particular skill sets and a certain resilience, but “many are called, few are chosen” (25:40 minutes), and the effect of work being broken into discrete tasks, workers being summoned at short notice, and increased subservience to performance indicators deserves sustained critical examination.

Perhaps the most telling comment for me was the likening (at 22:30 minutes) to the wild west – new territory from the informal economy, from sociality and from the arts and culture, being exploited by new forms of capital, and government seeking to legislate into the novel and experimental realities.

Frontiers can be both exciting and dangerous places for communities, and for those within them.




Student essays for sale: the underside of online education, and seeking to police it – can it be done? #mscedc

A Guardian article reports:

Thinking back and forth about online ‘community cultures’, this article highlights various shadow-sides of digital capabilities within education.

For instance, who (or what – bots?) writes these essays, or a PhD for £6,750, minus the profit margin? The conditions of production by “essay mill websites” would be a research area in itself. One imagines a certain precarious ‘gig economy’ behind what the articles calls this “big business”, but perhaps it’s much more algorithmised than that.

Second, in a tit-for-tat reminiscent of cryptography and code-breakers, how are educational institutions able to police such matters? The MOOCs I’ve looked at for my mini-ethnography seem to rely on self-certification. Clearly the instances reported in this article are much more serious – or are taken as such. Can the Fraud Act (2006) deal with the offence, as one link in the article suggests? As an associated blog summarises, this is not unproblematic, especially if the products sold are marketed as “custom study aids”.

The digital cultures and their associated technologies generate new markets, new configurations, indeed new community-assemblages not known thirty years ago. As that blog comments:

“Current approaches also rely on detecting the custom-written essays in the first place, and then identifying a ‘victim’. Not easy when the many actors in the process; student, university, writer, company and websites, can all be in different countries. Nevertheless, we would hope that a legal approach would at least act as a deterrent to would-be users of these services and serve as a lever to change behaviour.”

Its solution seems to be assessments that “are rigorous and less open to completion by a third party”, and “We need to make sure it is preferable for students to ‘do the right thing’; make sure they have access to the resources and support they need to undertake meaningful learning that prepares them for their chosen path post-graduation, which purchased assignments will not.”

It’s hard, sometimes, to see where blue-sky thinking also becomes wishful thinking, given human nature. As the Guardian article concludes, good old-fashioned stick is out there alongside carrot – expulsion and disqualification: assuming, of course, a continued quality-control body like the UK’s QAA.

A lot hangs on such matters, for institutions and individuals alike. And niches and opportunities are the very essence of digital community cultures.

[And, for those involved in these matters, the Guardian would like to hear from you: ]



Don’t talk in front of robots? 5-min drama from @guardian, worth a watch: Probing re. ethics, us & the end. #mscedc

In another sign of different modalities afforded by new technologies, here’s the Guardian newspaper getting in on ‘original drama’:

A link to the video is here. It’s part of a ‘Brain Waves‘ series of pieces by the Guardian. For 5:24 minutes, it packs a fair amount of thought-provoking dialogue and drama, and I can see it working well as a discussion-starter for many topics on this course. As a spoiler alert, I’d suggest watching it before reading on.

The drama plays well on fears about ‘the intelligence explosion’ (aka AI), and differing reactive strategies towards it. Gunter, the android-like robot, is constantly developing his own algorithm: repeatedly, we’re informed that this is exponential, and that means it’s going to be fast: “faster than we can imagine”.

Ethics, it seems, can’t keep up, and there aren’t “correct, unambiguous rules” any way. ‘Understanding’ is both underplayed and overplayed. The film is too short to probe the risk of a false dichotomy here for ethics, but issues are raised: a cost-benefits algorithm is not an escape from the need for ‘interpretation’.

The plot presumes, for a moment, the construction of “the data set of all human history”. (I’m reminded of the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, at this point, transposed into a digital register.) Then, a telling line for discussion comes at c.3:25:

“We can’t rely on humanity to provide a model for humanity. That goes without saying.”

Another character responds:

“Doesn’t that – in terms of the end of the world and stuff – leave us in a bit of a pickle?”

Indeed. And in this drama, even the blasphemy is telling for the plot. The climax is – wittingly or unwittingly – suggestive: a Christ-like ascension motif (albeit dematerialised, rather than material) with a promise of eschatological return:

“I had to make certain arrangements before I revealed myself.”

The response? Dismissal by the other characters, and a final banal return to ‘the normal’. “Well, it could have been worse, I suppose…” But still the over-hanging words / verdict / condemnation from Gunter remain: “you’re the ones with the free will”.

Or are we?



3 blog posts on ‘research strategies and writing’ I think the third is esp. helpful. #mscedc #mscderm @oakhilllondon

A blog post from geographer Stuart Elden, who is one of my favourite geography bloggers (linking to a blogger I’ve not come across before). Stuart has useful stuff, even for non-geographers. Especially his garnered thoughts on writing. More available here.

I’m enjoying trying to Tweet some helpful things. All in the hope that it builds that sense of community, out there…



Share, & share alike? Emerging issues (+ legislation?) within online sharing economy: New tech, old issues? #mscedc

The above Tweet refers to this Guardian article:


A stand-out for me, from this article, is an exchange with Tom Slee, who has written against the sharing economy:

“Does Slee think discrimination in the sharing economy could be more insidious than in the real world? “I do, because it is not yet sorted out who has the responsibility to prevent it,” he replies. “Airbnb and Uber routinely claim they are not accommodation or transport providers, so “don’t discriminate” rules don’t apply to them. These claims need to be resisted: platforms must take responsibility for their service. Even getting the data that has disclosed discrimination has taken hard work from academic and independent researchers, because the sharing economy companies don’t have to report on the activity that takes place on their platforms.””

The sharing economy feeds into community cultures. And it rushes ahead of data, legislation and even responsibility. And new practices refract old prejudices, sometimes amplifying them, sometimes mediating them, sometimes reducing them. Technology in itself is neither the totality of the problem, nor of the solution.  Companies’ own terms and conditions can help or exacerbate the issues.

Regarding “the sharing economy” (critical note: a risk of excessive singularity here?), Ben Edelman, co-author of the report informing this article, judges  it to be a deregulation movement:

“I call it spontaneous private deregulation,” he says. “Spontaneous because it happens on its own and private because it’s the company deregulating itself. So if you ask me, it’s the worst of all the deregulatory efforts. Somehow Airbnb, Uber and others have found they can get away with it if they get big enough.”

Perhaps new – and big – technologies mean new – and big – issues. Inevitably.



Mattelart (1996): “Each historical period and each type of society has the communicational configuration it deserves.” Do you agree? #mscedc

I came across this quote via Jernej Prodnik, who I’ve referred to in a previous Lifestream post concerning ‘cloakroom communities’. The quote caught my eye, and I looked at it in context via Google Books. It’s from Armand Mattelart (trans. Susan Emanuel) The Invention of Communication (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p.xiii.

It’s eye-catching for its intimation that human agents matter in how we configure communications and, consequently, our communities. While allowing for varying dialectics of control, and variable intersections at multiple sites and encounters, Mattelart’s comment is a sharp contrast with my previous Lifestream posting regarding ‘the right to disconnect’. On what right, and on what basis, do we connect? And are we alert to how we connect, and at what cost and consequence? Mattelart keeps us alert to complex ethical questions about community cultures, even while risking a flattening of their complexities. Such, perhaps, is the power and risk of an aphorism.
The concept of ‘configuration’ is significant here. Mattelart (p.xvi) defines it as:
Perhaps ‘assemblage’ is no different, but reminds us that we, in education and in every sphere of life, are not separate from our configurations. They configure us, as we produce them.