Research Note 8
I’m spending a lot of time listening. One of the real advantages of PhD life is that your time is, more or less, your own. I can go or not go to basically anything. I usually go to my probationary research student seminar, the digital ethnography group and the graduate seminar. These are spaces for work in progress and part of the chat is about bringing different theoretical frameworks in to people’s work and subtly steal their frameworks for your own stuff.
The past couple of weeks I’ve gone to two really interesting talks that intersected with different parts of what I’m looking at. The first was on progressive Muslim groups in London which really struck a chord because the discussion about what is “civic society” and how you define “progressive” were really pertinent to the ideas I’ve been thinking about with civic tech (what is a civic, what is a tech?). The talk was called “we are Muslims too” and made me think a lot about the self definition aspect of a group, how policing boundaries leads to a particular set of symbolic violence and how that dynamic can play out in almost every group aspect of our lives.
The other was on groups trying to work on their different interpretations of what a smart city is and all completely failing to be mutually intelligible. This felt really close to home from a work perspective (I mean, what the fuck is a smart city? So far it seems to be somewhere where your phone can give you special public transport information) but also, the presenter came from a branch of my department that does science and technology studies, which isn’t science and isn’t really anthropology, but has a lot to say to both, but usually on a postcard from a long distance. It made me think about other ways of approaching my field, about mutual intelligibility of “civic tech” projects. I spoke to Richard Pope about this a few weeks ago, where I got the benefit of his experience looking at the different definitions of civic tech in the US and how that slight difference in meaning has implications for how we conceptualise the border line between what is government, what is private and what is in the grey area.
I’ve started having small 40 minute interviews with people and that’s helping me define some of the questions a bit better. It’s a slow process, but I’m also getting my tooling into shape to help, and getting to grips with academic software and trying to wrestle digital development software to support the work as well.
My college library is tiny and geared for scientists. Many books in the social science library are not borrowable. Many books in the Bodleian are not borrowable. I cannot borrow a book from another college if it exists somewhere else in the university (and only then if I apply in advance in writing). Many ebooks are only readable on university equipment. Oxford and Cambridge do not participate in SCONUL so I can’t borrow from the UL (which often does have the books that I want and they’re borrowable for Cambridge students) at home. Oxford not participating in SCONUL means that I can’t borrow from Senate House (although I can buy alumni access for two-hundred-and-fucking-ten pounds per year). The anthropology library is tiny and geared for taught courses. The Oxford Internet Institute library is twice the size of my downstairs loo and full of the sort of books that thinkfluencers write.
This is making my access to useful books quite difficult.
I keep hearing of (UK) people wanting to do podcasts about tech-for-good, internet democracy, civic tech, govtech etc. and I think someone needs to run and unconference to help us composite them into one podcast with many listeners.
The work at the ODI is really challenging. We’re looking at data trusts, which may or may not be a thing. It’s really great working with the team there, and I’m constantly interested in the wrangling of practical qualitative research as it is hard to do, and our public conversations and decisions would probably be better if we’d tried some of the ideas out in small pilots before vociferously advocating for them. So I’m hopeful that the trial work we’re doing will actually provide the start of that evidence base. But at the same time, I’m trying in my academic work to problematise this idea that if you just provide more data that people magically make better decisions as that does not appear to be an actual thing.
I’m finding the news really, really hard to deal with. I feel like I’m in one of those nightmares where you can’t make any noise and your suffocating to death. I don’t want to die from lack of insulin because of some arseholes’ inability to back down or lose face.