Pause for Thought: Media Literacy in an Age of Incessant Change

As the new academic year is about to start, it is difficult to ignore the anxious uncertainty looming over universities, staff and students. Even the lovely mid-September weather felt uneasy, like a warning. What will this year bring? What we know already is that 2020–21 is an academic year we will not forget and probably not for the best reasons. As CIM prepares to welcome new students and resume term activities we share many of these troubles and concerns with colleagues and communities all over the UK and beyond.

But in spite and because of these troubled times and worrying futures, and to power up the enormous energy they are going to require from everyone! celebrations of things to which we look forward, however fragile they might be, are something we are going to need more than ever.

This is why we are starting the year with a post celebrating our enthusiasm to continue nurturing CIM as an interdisciplinary space for research that is as exploratory and experimental as it is connected to these complex times and conditions. The projects and ongoing research that we are undertaking or initiating this autumn are a demonstration of this commitment as well as a manifestation of interdisciplinarity in action — reflected not only in the varied topics and types of methodologies at play, the range of partnerships and collaborations, but also by a variety of funders of a range of recent awards obtained this summer by CIM staff, unusually found together in one small department — AHRC, NERC, ESRC, EPSRC, the Alan Turing Institute, UKRI, Wellcome and ERC.

Maybe the most time-appropriate is to start highlighting research that relates to the upheaval brought by the COVID-19 pandemic — funded by this summer’s UKRI Covid-19 Emergency call. Michael Dieter and Nate Tkacz are currently co-investigating with colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, the emergence of apps as a key response to COVID-19. They draw on an interdisciplinary set of ‘multi-situated’ app methods to investigate these apps as media ecological artefacts, that is, not as isolated tech devices but as part of an interrelated ecology of data and infrastructures. They aim to provide an assessment of the governance risks and ethical challenges posed to the public by these new apps. At the same time, Cagatay Turkay is co-leading a project with colleagues at Swansea University and the Zeeman Institute at Warwick, investigating the temporal, spatial and social aspects of contact networks. Developed through a human-centred approach, the resulting visual analytics methods will aim to inform public health policies and be vehicles for informing the public on policy decisions in informative and transparent ways.

Many of our projects demonstrate the continuous efforts of CIM researchers to track and analyse rapid technological change. Scott Wark, in collaboration with Tom Sutherland at the University of Lincoln has obtained funding for an AHRC network calling to “Pause for Thought” to collectively explore ways of reconceiving media literacy. They ask “how we as individuals can navigate the fluctuations of our hyper-mediated world” as a broader public concern that media studies can help understand and challenge. Together with colleagues in the Internet and Society Institute in Berlin and Sciences Po in Paris, Noortje Marres, Michael Castelle and James Tripp have also obtained funding to analyse and challenge technological determinist accroaches to the current “AI tsunami” and explore AI as a socio-technical phenomenon that is underpinned by fundamental constructions not least that of the “problem-solving capacity” of technology. The project will create a baseline of sociological data to contextualize the initial proliferation of 21st-century AI and conduct experiments in participation in AI with design researchers. As AI technologies permeate every aspect of everyday life it becomes urgent to demonstrate that multiple integrations of AI into society are possible!

Meanwhile Matt Spencer enters the second year of an UKRI Leadership fellowship, dedicated to tackle another issue that will not go away, cyber security and the challenges that it poses to our trust on digital infrastructures. Shifting the problem of trust from the user to the sociotechnical context, and using of ethnographic and participatory methods, this project explores how professional cyber security practices work to win and maintain trust, to question it and manage it across scales. Also timely as ever in an era where data science is increasing used for the capture of multiple and complex temporalities is Turing Fellow Emma Uprichard’s research in this area, currently testing and developing ways in which linked data can be used to capture the multiple “momenta” and multi-dimensional ‘rates of change’ within a system, in order to improve the modelling of future trends for policy purposes. Also trying to help us navigate the data age, is UKRI funded WAYS of seeing project, led by Greg McInerny and James Tripp, with the goal to develop tools which enhance people’s capacity to visualise data, by letting them see what can and can’t be seen in the visualisation, leading to greater capacity to understand the properties of those visualisations. Finally, Celia Lury and Scott Wark continue their Wellcome funded interdisciplinary research project People Like You with colleagues at Goldsmiths and Imperial college on how taken-for-granted concepts of the person are being challenged by data science, medicine and digital culture with consequences for individual and collective health and well-being.

Current ecological concerns are also at the heart of a number of projects in CIM. Nerea Calvillo continues looking to transform the ways we engage with our changing environment through data-driven environmental mediations, a unique combination of creative and theoretical research. Invited by LAZNIA Centre for Contemporary Art and with support of Warwick’s Centre for Digital Inquiry, her piece Sensors Feeling in Lockdown will be presented at the international “Sensory Orders” exhibition this fall. Transformations of ecological relations are also at the heart of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s research on conceptual, aesthetic and practical dimensions of relations with soils which she will continue this year with support of an AHRC Leadership Fellowship for a project aimed at exploring more than human re-inventions of ecological belonging across scientific, artistic and eco-activist practices. In a time where biodiversity is under increasing pressure, Greg McInerny and Cagatay Turkay advance visualisation research in a NERC funded project to enhance existing biodiversity information by enabling citizen scientists understand where their recording efforts would be most valuable. This collaborative project will produce fine-resolution distribution models for about 1000 insect species of moths, butterflies and grasshoppers across the UK using earth observation sensor data. The models help inform ’adaptive sampling’, which proposes individualised areas and species for recording to citizen scientists. Finally, WIRL-COFUND/CIM Research Fellow, Alexander Stingl, continues critically analysing the emergence of the Bioeconomy at the interstices of biotechnological development, policy-making, and legal adjudications focusing on the co-constitutive intertwinement of the bioeconomy discourses with legal practices.

Finally, other pressing contemporary issues, brought to the fore by an atmosphere heavy with political unrest and protest voicing injustices and demands, are at the heart of Naomi Waltham-Smith’s research and her new monograph entitled Shattering Biopolitics: Militant Listening and the Sound of Life out in 2021. She also continues her research on listening and democracy with a project funded by Warwick’s Faculty of Social Sciences Research Development Fund that seeks new ways to think the relations between aurality, participation, and society by combining philosophical approaches with sound studies, as well practice-based sound methods — which are also core to her project soundmapping urban political economies funded by Warwick’s Productivity and Futures of Work Global Research Priority. David Stark, meanwhile, is continuing his ERC funded research on Diversity and Performance and together with colleagues is now embarking on new projects of large-scale data analysis working with Mechanical Turk and Wikipedia data sets.

The variety of intersecting disciplines, approaches reflected in these and between these projects shows how CIM acts as an incubator for atypical combinations — including environmental, computer social and data science, media studies, philosophy, architecture, design, sound studies, sociology, anthropology, data visualisation, history of science and cultural theory. And while this lively cohabitation is far from straightforward, most of the time these collaborations, synergies, and exciting experimentations keep us looking forward and excited about the worth of research, for itself and as a way to participate in tackling the social, political and ecological challenges our worlds are facing.

Wishing you all the best for the start of this academic year. We hope you will be in touch.

Take care,

CIM

(To know more about all these projects and more, you can browse our Research Projects page).

https://warwick.ac.uk/cim was established at the University of Warwick in 2012 to foster innovative and experimental forms of knowledge production.