Call for abstracts – Digital Food Cultures symposium

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I am convening a one-day symposium on Digital Food Cultures, to be held at the University of Canberra on Friday 20 October 2017. If you are interested in presenting at this symposium, the call for abstracts is now out.

This symposium is directed at the social, cultural, political and ethical dimensions of representations and practices related to using digital technologies for food production, consumption, preparation, eating out, promoting healthy diets or weight loss, marketing, ethical consumption, food activism and environmental and sustainability politics.

Topics may include, but are not limited to food-related apps, online videos, GIFs and memes, other platforms, digital food-related games, wearable devices, digital food data and 3D printed food technologies.

I plan to edit a special journal issue from selected symposium papers.

Please send abstracts (with your name, university affiliation and title of paper) of 150-200 words to me by 1 June 2017 at deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au.

3D printing technologies: social perspectives

I have mused before on this blog about the need for sociocultural and critical perspectives on 3D printing technologies (see here). I recently submitted an entry on 3D printing for the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. This entry needed to be very short, and in writing it I worked from a longer working paper that includes more detail and references. This working paper can be found here – the abstract is below.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing is a process of fabricating objects using computer-aided design software and hardware that responds to instructions from the software. In this working paper, I provide an overview of 3D printing technologies, including their current and proposed uses. It has been suggested that these technologies offer a way of contributing to the reduction of environmental pollution by reducing the need for transporting goods and minimising waste and energy use in production and may lead to third industrial revolution, including in developing countries. The technologies have also been heralded as promoting open knowledge sharing and creative coding and as potentially contributing to participatory design opportunities and the democratisation of invention, as well as education and cultural heritage. The paper addresses the social, cultural, political and ethical issues concerning 3D printing and outlines directions for future sociological research on these technologies.

The emergence of digital sociology

An excerpt from the Introduction chapter of my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (to be published by Routledge later this year).

While there certainly have been a number of sociologists who have been interested in researching computer technologies since they attracted popular use, in general sociologists have devoted less significant and sustained attention to this topic compared to their colleagues in communication and media and cultural studies. In the context of the US, Farrell and Petersen (2010), in remarking upon what they term ‘the reluctant sociologist’ in relation to internet-based research, express their surprise at this lack of interest, particularly given that sociologists have traditionally been in the forefront of adopting and testing new research methods and sources of data for social research studies. While the occasional argument has appeared in journals that American sociologists should be researching online media technologies (DiMaggio et al. 2001), it would appear that sociologists in that country tended to abandon communication and media research in general when it moved to journalism schools and an accompanying focus on the social psychology of persuasion in the middle of last century. As a consequence, although the sociology of culture has flourished in the US, for quite some time American sociologists tended to leave research into the mass media alone (Farrell and Petersen 2010, Nichols 2009, Pooley and Katz 2008).

In the UK, the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies (often conjoined with media studies) emerging in the 1970s dominated research and theorising related to the mass media, and subsequently, of computer technologies. Cultural studies scholars were particularly interested in cyberculture rather than the rather more banal term ‘information society’ or ‘sociology of information technologies’ that tended to be employed in sociology (Webster 2005). Indeed the choice of terms is telling. The ‘cyber’ focus of cultural studies emphasises the futuristic, science-fiction dimensions of computerised technologies, while terms referring to ‘information technologies’ direct attention at the grounded, factual and utilitarian use of such devices for accessing information (Webster 2005).

For a long time, when cultural studies scholars were writing about cyberculture and other aspects of media and popular culture, British sociologists remained focused on such topics as work, crime and social class. Researchers in cultural studies were more interested in the uses people made of popular culture, while sociologists of culture tended towards examining the constraints to their freedoms posed by social structures such as social class, gender and ethnicity (Webster 2005). Few connections were made between these bodies of literature. Thus, for example, the influential and wide-ranging volume The Cybercultures Reader (Bell and Kennedy 2000) was edited by Britons David Bell, a critical geographer, and Barbara Kennedy, an academic in film, media and cultural studies. While the work of a few sociologists (including myself) was included in this reader, most other contributions were from academics affiliated with communication, media and cultural studies, literary studies, critical theory or technoscience.

My own country, Australia, like the US has experienced the introduction of schools of journalism and mass media studies and a resultant withdrawal to some extent of sociologists from mass and digital media research. The British cultural studies tradition is also strong in Australia. Cultural studies in Australia as an academic discipline tends to be very separate from both media and communication studies and sociology. Each one – media and communication, sociology and cultural studies – has its own individual association and annual conferences, and there tends to be little communication between researchers associated with each discipline. Media studies and communication studies in Australia have oriented themselves towards the US tradition, while sociology and cultural studies are more influenced by British scholarship. Here again the bulk of Australian research on digital technologies have been published by researchers located within media and communication or cultural studies departments and in journals devoted to these disciplines, rather than by sociologists.

The situation is quickly changing, however. In recent years interest in digital society finally appears to be growing in sociology, and the term ‘digital sociology’ has recently become used more frequently. The first journal article published to use the term ‘digital sociology’ of which I am aware was by an American sociologist in an American journal (Wynn 2009). In this piece Wynn outlined various ways in which digital technologies can be used both for research purposes (using digital devices to conduct ethnographic research, for example) and in teaching.

Digital sociology as a term and an endeavour is most commonly found in the British context. At the end of 2012 the British Sociological Association approved a new study group in digital sociology which held its first event in July 2013. Goldsmiths, University of London, offers the first masters degree in digital sociology. The first book with this title was published in 2013 (Orton-Johnson and Prior 2013), a collection edited by two British sociologists featuring contributions predominantly from other sociologists located in the UK and continental Europe While digital sociology is still not a term that is used to any obvious extent by American sociologists, the American Sociological Association now has a thriving section entitled ‘Communication and Information Technologies’ that incorporates research on all things digital. In Australia as well digital sociology has not been used very commonly until very recently. A breakthrough was achieved when two sessions under the title digital sociology were held for the first time at The Australian Sociological Association’s annual conference in November 2013.

… What is notable about digital sociology as it has recently emerged as a sub-discipline, particularly in the UK, is not only the focus on the new technologies that have developed since the turn of the 21st century, but also the development of a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach that incorporates this reflexive critique. Digital sociology is not only about sociologists researching and theorising about how other people use digital technologies or focusing on the digital data produced via this use. Digital sociology has much broader implications than simply studying digital technologies, raising questions about the practice of sociology and social research itself. It also includes research on how sociologists themselves are using social and other digital media as part of their work. The same types of concerns and theoretical approaches tend to be shared by sociologists writing on digital media and others commenting on related issues such as the future of sociology as a discipline, which types of research methods should be employed and how they should be conceptualised, the ways in which issues of measure and value have become prominent in contemporary societies, the emergence of a knowledge economy and the new political formations and relations of power that are evident. While not all of these scholars may categorise themselves as specifically digital sociologists, their work has contributed significantly to the distinctive direction of the sub-discipline as it has recently emerged.

References

Bell, D. and Kennedy, B., eds. (2000) The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge.

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R. and Robinson, J. (2001) Social implications of the internet. Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (1), 307-336.

Farrell, D. and Petersen, J.C. (2010) The growth of internet research methods and the reluctant sociologist. Sociological Inquiry, 80 (1), 114-125.

Nichols, L. (2009) Toward a renewed sociology of mass media and popular culture. The American Sociologist, 40 147-148.

Orton-Johnson, K. and Prior, N., eds. (2013) Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pooley, J. and Katz, E. (2008) Further notes on why American sociology abandoned mass communication research. Journal of Communication, 58 (4), 767-786.

Webster, F. (2005) Making sense of the information age. Information, Communication & Society, 8 (4), 439-458.

Wynn, J. (2009) Digital sociology: emergent technologies in the field and the classroom. Sociological Forum, 24 (2), 448-456.

 

Quantifying the sexual and reproductive self

I have just had an article accepted for publication in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality, to be published in a special issue on medical and health technologies. The article looks at mobile smartphone apps for self-tracking and quantifying sexual and reproductive functions and activities. A pre-print version is available here.

This is the abstract for the article:

Digital health technologies are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare, health education and voluntary self-surveillance, self-quantification and self-care practices. This article presents a critical analysis of one form of these technologies: mobile apps used to self-track features of users’ sexual and reproductive activities and functions. After a review of the content of such apps available in the Apple App Store and Google Play store, some of their sociocultural, ethical and political implications are discussed. These include the role played by these apps in participatory surveillance, their configuration of sexuality and reproduction, the valorising of the quantification of the body in the context of neoliberalism and self-responsibility and issues concerning privacy, data security and the use of the data collected by these apps. It is contended that the apps represent sexuality and reproduction in certain defined and limited ways that work to perpetuate normative stereotypes and assumptions about women and men as sexual and reproductive subjects. Furthermore there are significant ethical and privacy implications emerging from the use of these apps and the data they produce. The article ends with suggestions concerning ‘queering’ such technologies in response to these issues.

Update : This article has now been published – details here.

Types of veillance relevant to digital sociology

A 'nest' of surveillance cameras at the Gillet...

A ‘nest’ of surveillance cameras at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been working on a chapter of my new book Digital Sociology that outlines major theoretical perspectives that I consider are relevant to a sociology of digital society. One section of the chapter reviews the different types of veillance (watching) that have been discussed in sociology, media and cultural studies. Here they are, with a brief definition of each one:

Surveillance: watching from above (the powerful watching the less powerful)
Sousveillance: watching from below (the less powerful watching the more powerful)
Panoptic veillance: the few watching the many, leading to self-watching
Synoptic veillance: the many watching the few
Uberveillance: watching from all directions, particularly with the use of tracking devices worn on or embedded into the human body
Liquid surveillance: watching that is dynamic, moving restlessly from site to site and using various types of technologies
Banoptic surveillance: exclusion of individuals or social groups via surveillance techniques
Participatory veillance: voluntary participation as a subject of veillance
Social veillance: watching each other via social media
Dataveillance/panspectric veillance: watching that involves the use of digital data technologies rather than human senses alone
Algorithmic veillance: watching using computer algorithms and digital data

* Revised on 9 January 2014 – thanks to David Armstrong for his helpful comments.

Google Glass: a sociological perspective

Google Glass, the mobile computer device worn on the head in the form of spectacles and currently being tested by ‘explorers’ hand-picked by Google, has aroused a multitude of comments and responses. Glass works with voice commands and head movements, and the display is projected onto the glass lens of the spectacles so that it can be read by looking straight ahead. A tiny digital camera is mounted on the side of the device, facing outwards from the wearer’s face. It can therefore be used hands-free and unobtrusively for video, audio or still image capture as the user moves around carrying out everyday activities. These images can be instantaneously streamed to one’s social media platforms to share with others. Users can walk around and interact with other people as they simultaneously give Glass commands and read the screen on their lens. Glass therefore has the potential to meld more seamlessly into everyday life than the other mobile digital devices that are currently available.

Before it has even reached the mass market (it is currently predicted that the device will be available to consumers in early 2014), many discussions have emerged on the web concerning such aspects as how Glass wearers are perceived by others, how those who have been entrusted with the new technology are experiencing its use, and the privacy and ethical issues of Glass. As a sociologist interested in digital media technologies, I have been fascinated by these discussions for what they reveal about responses to and experiences of new technologies. I am also interested in thinking about how Glass may be used for sociological research, as part of new ways of using digital technologies in the quest to develop ‘live sociology’ (creative and innovative approaches to sociological research). Here are some of the sociocultural aspects of Glass that have so far emerged in accounts of this device in its very early stages.

There has been much discussion of how Glass wearers appear to others, with some comments about how these devices mark out their users as ‘nerdy geeks’ or alternatively as ‘cool’, attracting attention from others because the device is so new and interesting. This raises issues of the ways in which new technologies – both their form and their function – are incorporated into everyday routines (‘domesticated’) by their users. As material objects interacting with human actors, any new digital devices must be worked upon by their adopters, and in turn work upon those who use them, altering their bodies and selves.

The capacity for technologies to change the ways in which we interact with others and feel about our selves and our bodies have been remarked upon by several commentators. In his piece entitled  ‘O.K. Glass: confessions of a Google Glass explorer’, for example, writer Gary Shteyngart notes that when wearing Glass he is approached by many people wanting to learn about the experience of the device. His bodily demeanour changes when he wears the Glass: he jerks his head, slides his finger along the device, raises his right eyebrow, squints his right eye and mouths words to active the device. To onlookers his bodily movements appear rather strange. Friends tell him that he looks as if he has a nervous tick, a lazy eye, a faraway, distracted gaze as he scans the readouts on his lens; his wife thinks he acts like a robot when using Glass. But Shteyngart feels a sense of power from wearing Glass. Writing in the third person of his experiences he observes: ‘It’s as if the man with the glasses has some form of mastery of the world around him, and maybe even within himself’.

The potential for Glass to change the way in which memory operates has been suggested. It has been argued, for example, that Glass takes images so readily that ‘It doesn’t feel like taking a picture. It feels like making a mental note to remember what you’re looking at.’ It can therefore act as a ‘life-logging’ device, taking constant images to preserve memories and even automatically making gifs of images taken close together. Wearing Glass and taking frequent images, therefore, ‘is less cell phone and more neural augmentation’ (observations by Glass Explorer Mykola Bilokonsky). Another commentator is less sanguine, warning that this is akin to outsourcing our memories to a device, thus ‘hindering our ability to experience the moments those memories attach to’ (John Warner).

Some writers, inevitably, have commented on the surveillance features afforded by Glass. The device’s unobtrusive nature and its form as mimicking spectacles, it is argued, will mean that those people who are observed by Glass users may be unaware that they are being filmed or photographed. Although when the device is filming the LED display glows as a signal, this may not always be easily noticed by those who are being filmed or audio-recorded, particularly if they are some distance away or have their backs turned to the device.

It has been speculated that as Glass becomes more commonly used, the ultimate surveillance society will result. Users will become both observed and observers: they will monitor others at the same time as they themselves are being surveilled (Joe Brodie). Many commentators have noted that constant surveillance of people by others around them will result in multitudes of data about individuals being stored in the cloud that may potentially be accessed by government or other agencies (Jason Perlow), a particular concern in the light of the recent American government’s PRISM surveillance scandal. It has been also asserted that Glass may be used to further stigmatise and marginalise minority groups by contributing to the surveillance technologies that are already disproportionately directed towards them and to the humiliation and stalking of women via such digital recording strategies as ‘creepshots’ and  ‘revenge porn’ (Whitney Erin Boesel).

What of the potential for Glass to be used as part of ‘live sociology’? Many possibilities spring to mind. Quite apart from the important issue of investigating features of the lived experience of using Glass (how does it feel to use it, how do people respond to users, how does use affect social relations and moving around in space, what are the implications for education, healthcare, journalism and other occupations?), the device can be used as a tool itself for social research. With its powerful observing eye, Glass could be employed productively for ethnographic research as the ultimate tool for recording people’s social behaviours in real time. Participant observation research can be undertaken easily by using the recording features as the researcher moves around in specific social spaces and interacts with others.

Alternatively, research participants can be asked to wear Glass as they go about their everyday lives and the consequent data uploaded to the researcher’s device.  The device allows their users to record what they themselves are looking at directly, so these data can provide a unique opportunity to ‘look through the eyes’ of other people. Once these visual data are recorded and uploaded, the researcher could then sit down with the research participant and look at the material together, asking questions about the participant’s thoughts and experiences as they engaged in the activities and moved through the spaces depicted in the recordings. All this, of course, will need to be thought through in relation to the kind of ethical and privacy issues identified above.

See my Bundlr ‘Google Glass: social and ethical implications’ for a collection of the articles referred to above and more.