Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Student Sci-Art

Some examples of the interpretive practical group project we set our MSc students every year. They work in groups or three or four to produce something (and it can be about anything...) which reflects on some of the history, philosophy and social studies of science they study in the first term.

Four Scientists 2 Mendel's peas
Science Comic - inside Enlightenment Edward - close up

From the top-left clockwise, four scientists of the televisual age argue over how they see "the public", Mendel's pea (part of a knitted history of genetics), a philosophy of science influenced comic book, and "Enlightenment Edward" (part of a collection of history of science action men).

Each of the photos are links to flickr, where you can find more notes. You'll also see further examples of this year's group projects, including: bottles of cider which they actually brewed (or rather sci-der), some clever photography, an experiment in Romantic Scientific painting, and a mashup of the Large Hadron Collider with Cologne Cathedral.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Public Service Media in the Digital Age

EDIT (7/4): Videos of the event now up at OpenDemocracy.

I spent the bulk of Thursday at the University of Westminster, learning all about Public Service Media in the Digital Age. A few people asked if I'd liveblog the event on twitter. For various reasons, I decided not to. Instead, this post starts and ends with a few tweet-ish points and gets a bit more reflective/ descriptive in the middle. It's reasonably long. Have a scroll down and see if anything catches your eye.

The photo is from a lunchtime activity, where we were asked to reflect on the issues involved through Lego. It's a link to flickr: click on it if you want more notes.

Media Theory in Lego

10:20. Wow the main building at the University of Westminster is GORGEOUS, I'd forgotten it's the old Royal Polytechnic Institution.

10:30. Not even started yet, and I'm already finding myself pulled into an argument on the nature of expertise (re: swine flu).

David Gauntlett kicked off by drawing our attention to the difference between the more traditional "public service broadcasting" and the "public service media" of their title, suggesting the shift from one to the other reflected a shift to a broader media landscape, and one that was possibly more interactive. A notion of "public service", perhaps denotes a rather Reithian "top-down" style of media. David suggested that in the digital age, perhaps public service media institutions should be providing platforms rather than content. There are corners of Youtube which are, arguably, more "public service" than the bulk of BBC or Channel Four output. Yet, YouTube runs at a humongous loss. Maybe the solution then would be a BBC-Tube, or a British-Library-Tube? I'm inclined to think the very idea of a BBC-Tube boarders on tautology, but the explicit contradiction of such an idea is also what makes it a powerful point.

Appropriately enough, next up was Richard Deverell from the BBC. He underlined the shift in language, noting that the new "Media City" (Salford) reflects a more open and interactive media landscape than "Broadcasting House" or "Television Centre". He provided a nice anecdote about writing a report in 1995 for John Birt on "the information superhighway". Birt promptly flew to the US, spent three days chatting in Bill Gates' garden and came back a zealot for "online". He also provided a neat analogy for the difference between on-demand and "linear" broadcasting: it's like a supermarket saying you can only buy chocolate digestives at 7pm on a Thursday. He finished with a seven point manifesto for media in the digital age. Some highlights of which were: embrace the technology and technologists because software engineers are the new creatives; be as audience focused as possible (including loads of audience research); and do less, but do it better (including exploiting the archive).

Someone asked if Deverell felt there was a tension between "quality" and an uptake of user-generated content; that he worried about losing the BBC's editorial control? The answer was simple: yes, a huge tension. This is why he felt there will never be a BBC-Tube, but it's a tension we have to deal with. Another interesting question focused on news: one of the features of the web is that it is a post-modern medium, that it challenges the idea of a single truth narrative, how can you therefore say online news is more impartial? Deverell's answer was that online news could bring more diverse sources (so, he would agree it fractures truth narrative, but maybe provides closer to truth? Gave me flashbacks to reading Karl Popper and/ or Jay David Bolter)

Next was a presentation from William H Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute. This largely presented data on UK internet use trends. You can read more on their website, but it's worth repeating the odd top-line result here. It's thought-provoking if nothing else. (apologies if I've got any of the stats wrong in attempting to transcribe my shockingly bad handwriting).
  • 70% of British population is online.
  • The internet profile of a rich, old person is strikingly similar to that of a young, poor person.
  • 38% of us have met someone online (I was a bit surprised this was so low).
  • The internet is fast becoming the first place we go to for information. In 2005, 38% of people would go to the internet first for medical/ health information. In 2007, this was 68%.
  • We trust the internet. We trust it as much as broadcast media, and less than newspapers.
  • Our trust in the internet is increasing whilst our trust in the government is decreasing. At the same time we are more inclined to want the government to regulate the internet (people are inconsistent shocker).
  • People who use the internet are more sociable than people who do not.
  • We think we are getting better at searches, but actually the search engines are getting cleverer (which includes cleverer at sending us to brands, though this might be seen as a good thing if the brand is the BMJ or NHS).
  • When we find information online, we go via search engines or social media.
On that final point, Dutton also noted that we don't go to a "place" anymore, as much as we seek out specific content. We are less likely to hang out at the Guardian, FT, BBC, or Times. Rather, we seek out a story and end up at one of them. This reflects the oft-repeated line that homepages are pretty redundant these days (really, when was the last time you went to the BBC homepage?) and a point made by Deverell; that it is the low-cost of searches which have allowed us all to become media producers in the digital age. This was challenged by the floor though, as it was pointed out that we often google specific places, if only because it's as quick/ quicker than sorting through personal bookmarks. (I can't be the only one who googles themself every time they are asked for their work phone number?). I also asked about how he thought about the "digital divide", and if he had any demographics on who comments and contributes online. If all the "public media" benefits of the digital age are to be found in user-generated content, surely this is, at least, a secondary form of a digital divide? Dutton pointed me to their research papers online for more information, but couldn't provide much detail there and then.

Finally, there was a short presentation from Jude England, Head of Social Science at the British Library. She talked quite broadly about the ways in which the British Library was trying to deal with digital. She painted a picture of the library as an institution still quite stuck to an idea of collecting for future generations (rather than necessarily being used, today). Although they are opening up the collections a lot more now, on the whole, you do still need to visit the building. She made some fascinating points about the issues involved in collecting digital culture. For example, the library asks permission to archive blogs, and so generally will only get 25% of the ones they want (you have to sign a form saying you own the copyright for all the content, you can see bloggers jumping at that). She emphasised how important the collecting of digital culture is: what's going to happen to all those pictures of snow people send the BBC?

In questions, I picked up on a point England had made about digital collections perhaps helping improve the "public understanding of research". I suggested that we were perhaps better served buy concepts such as "public engagement" or "public participation" rather than "public understanding" (I know, cliches and jargon at that, but it's my job to say stuff like that). It's all very well using the internet to explain to the public what researchers do and/ or let a larger number of people have access to primary and secondary sources. However, I think one of the great things about people like the BL archiving blogs is that it shows the importance of blogs alongside more traditional forms of publishing. For example, Literary researchers should be paying attention to the sorts of literary criticism done by lit-bloggers and fan-fiction communities. Academics should let themselves be challenged and informed by publics as much as they should do challenging and informing work themselves. In response England made the good (but ever-so-easy) point that the public need to turn up to such engagement work. Still, I'm not sure ideas of "public understanding" should be structuring our thoughts about "public service media", in an digital age, or at any other time.

12:15. Jude England: How Karl Marx managed to get a readers' pass to the British Library, I don't know (Ha! True! It is a good point).

12:45. Do British Library archives reflect the original long tail? (or at least long tail analysis is v. applicable?)

12:55. William Dutton: People used to send hate email on campus in the late 1970s. It's nothing new.

I then missed a chunk of the event after lunch - bunked off for a meeting about curriculum reform. I did catch a bit of the end of this and the panel discussion, and it sounded like it included some really amazing projects. Much more "grass-rooty", at least in contrast to the big brands of the BBC or BL featured in the morning. Look them up: the projects were Dogs Trust, the School of Everything, and the Social Innovation Camp.

15:15. Dan McQuillan: words like "engagement" and "participation" tend to be used as platitudes (I have a lot of sympathy with this...)

15:20. Fascinating example of some women who set up their own peer-to-peer learning project instead of doing MA's in media/ arts (think they are called MzTek)

After coffee, there was a "reflections" panel. First up was Charles Brown, a lecturer in Media Management at Westminster. He started on a deliberately optimistic note: that we are living in the most exciting phase of public service media, that change is good and we should not fear digital technologies. His presentation was mainly about "OTT technologies". I'm not entirely sure what they are, but sound cool. They are OTT because they work "over the top" of content dissemination platforms, his example was largely Project Canvas (a sort of extension of iplayer, outside of just the BBC, see this blogpost from the BBC for some notes). His discussion seemed to center around how well organisations such as Sky, Virgin, Google or the major museums might be able to work alongside the BBC. I thought this raised some interesting points, but I still wondered where more "grassroots" work would stand. Maybe these issues needed to be brought back to the tensions endemic to the idea of a BBC-tube?

Next up was the always interesting Bill Thompson. He put the whole issue in a historical context, taking us back to the early 1920s and the creation of the BBC, when (as he put it) six radio companies started producing media content in order to sell their boxes of technology off the back of. The upshot of this image being the nicely provocative question: do we think of the BBC as a technology company, or media producer? Which made for an interesting reflection of Deverell's contention that the software engineers are the new creatives and, if nothing else, puts the annual complaints about Christmas adverts for digital radio boxes into some perspective. Enacting the rule that the first person to cite Clay Shirky wins, Bill went on to note that "the printing press made monks [seem] slow". Similarly, he suggested, YouTube has made television dull, the internet in general has made public service broadcasting patronising, unappealing and irrelevant.

Bill also highlighted some of the work done by Channel Four, such as diverting budget from daytime educational programming to amazing youth-oriented projects like Smokescreen. With these examples, he also made the point that there are different types and different styles of public service media in a digital age. I really liked this point, and would like to underline that there this relates to different audiences, at different times, for different purposes too. Something I think is especially important in the context of a Channel Four example, considering the aspect of their public service remit which refers to serving diverse and marginal audiences.

Finally, we heard from Roland Harwood, from NESTA/ 100% Open. He started with the warning that public service media wasn't really his area, but that he could talk about the opening up of large organisations, and the ways in which this relates (positively) to innovation. He started off by joking that the web had killed careers first in music industry, then publishing, and so now he was an advocate for "open innovation". This, broadly, is a desire that industries should share the risks and rewards of innovation, that their default should be "open". Moreover, that increasingly there is no escape from open, that innovation industries must be so. He had some nice examples, Mozilla being a classic one, but also some research done into the 25-39 male demographic by the Discovery Channel, which was shared with other brands. He also referred to work between Great Ormond Street Hospital and McLaren F1 pit-stop crews. Some intensive care staff were joking about the similarity between patient handover and what the pit-stop crews do, and then thought they might be able to learn from them (Sun article, if you're interested). I loved this example, though it did strike me that this was more a matter of listening to the expertise within the hospital as much as reaching out (part of why I liked it).

I wanted to pick up on one of the things Harwood said, that "big didn't necessarily mean bad", and link this to Deverell's point that public service media in a digital age should do less, but better. I also wanted to highlight the fact that we'd been talking about "the public" all day rather than "publics" or "audiences" (Again, cliche, I know. Again: my job). I think this is really significant in terms of the digital age opportunities for public service broadcasting: that there is a greater possibility to serve niche markets (in some respects, this is the long tail argument). So I asked the panel if they thought there was a tension between serving everyone high quality content through Big Broadcasting, or people able to serve lots of people ok with cheaper niche content that appeals to more specific interests. Bill made the very fair point that niche content can serve people a lot better than just "ok", even at a low cost. He also emphasised that there will still be moments where we come together (Obama inauguration, anyone) and, I think more importantly, that facebook serves a lot of people in lots of different ways: we don't necessarily have to put broad- and narrow-casting in opposition to each other.

On Big-Bad, Harwood also drew an interesting comparison in terms of the relative possibilities for openness of media companies vs. "Big Pharma". Lots of people can make their own video and put it up against BBC content on YouTube; it's harder to make your own drugs. I thought this was a salient comparison, although it reflects some complex and very controversial issues (google "open source drugs" or slightly less heavyweight reading, there's this Guardian piece on garage genetics).

16:30. From floor: We wouldn't invent the BBC today. Roland Harwood: We wouldn't invent the NHS (but #welovetheNHS). We wouldn't build St Paul's (something in the architectural metaphor...).

16:45. Example of Chinese restaurants as "open franchise" - because they are all roughly the same, but with no central HQ/ brand.

16:55. David flags up Connection Factory website, especially as a space to ask for help and/ or ideas from other members (e.g. this on studying BBC audiences)

All in all, it was a good day. Thanks to Anna and David for organising it. I don't feel I changed my mind about anything big, or learnt a huge amount of detail. But that isn't necessarily a criticism. I thought through some ideas and I met some interesting people. Both of which are important. It was, on reflection, a little like spending the day stuck inside a really geeky episode of Media Talk, or perhaps a media-themed Digital Planet (n.b. in my opinion, that's a good thing).

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Science Hoaxes

Cross-posted from The Science Project.

A week or so ago I asked my students and the wonderful world of twitter for examples of websites showing some sort of science-themed hoax, or at least a bit of artistic play with credulity and/ or realism in talk about science. I promised I'd compile a short blogpost with some of the best ones, so here it is.

Several people mentioned Dihydrogen Monoxide, a hoax which played with public fear over "chemicals" by using the unfamiliar name for water (see more background on the wikipedia entry). There were sites developed by artists interested in issues of belief and attitudes to new technologies: malepregnancy.com, now slightly dated perhaps, and the rather spooky GenPets. It was especially interesting to see a spoof sites set up as publicity for health information campaigns. For example, the site advertising a downloadable tan (see also Nursing Times article about it). Also, the Sense About Science/ Office for Fair Trading "miracle cure" sites for Fat Melting Pads and an "all-natural" diabetes breakthrough (see also SAS press release).

There is arguably a big difference between these sites and satire done for a more straightforward laugh, although there are also overlaps. A lot of the humour on satirical sites such as the Onion stem from the fact they are a mix of the believable and the unbelievable: they depend on an ability to reproduce and twist the real. Projects like malepregnancy.org or the Sense About Science spoofs are also different from sites which we might happen to simply disagree with, have accidentally got things wrong, haven't bothered to check their sources, or even deliberately aim to deceive in order to, for example, dupe people into buying things. Although, again, if such sites didn't exist, many of the spoof ones wouldn't either. In some respects, the diversity of wikipedia-alikes is illustrative of this. Uncyclopedia, Scholarpedia, CreationWiki, Conservapedia, Wikipedia itself, and Britannica for that matter: all very different entities, and yet also (self-consiously) similar.

To give a little background as to why I was looking for such sites: it was for a class on realism, science and the web. An awful lot of traffic on the web, especially science-themed traffic, is a matter of shifting information around, often shifting it quite far from its material points of origin. What's more, we use visualisations and mashups and embedded media and metaphors to communicate. This can make the information easier to understand, but sometimes decontextualises it too. It can be easy to loose a sense of where, who and how it came about, which in turn can make its validity hard to assess. Arguably, lot of modern life is about (a) symbols (b) trust and (c) shifting quite immaterial information along giant production lines. Social theoriests have been banging on about these issues for years. People seem to get especially worried about it online though, perhaps because there is so much information there, or simply because of fears of the immaterial 'virtuality' of the web. People can get especially worried when it comes to science-themed information too, again perhaps because there is a lot of it, perhaps because it's seen as especially important, or perhaps because of the history of associations between science and truth, openness and honesty (or perhaps all these reasons).

To boil bookloads of social theory into something simple: We do not have time to learn how to build a computer, programme it and do brain surgery. Instead, we do one of these skills (or another entirely), trading our own specialisation for the products of other people’s. In some respects this is very efficient; we get to utilise a lot of very specialist knowledge and skills this way. Many of the key advantages of modern life are built on such a model. However, it does mean we end up spending the bulk of our lives in ignorance. We are all very stupid most of the time. Personally, I think we should accept, even embrace, this. Ask questions: wear our ignorance and curiosity on our sleeves. This means we shouldn't be put off by other people's questioning either and, in accepting ignorance, hold off from too much pointing and laughing when people get something wrong and/ or are quicker to trust than they necessarily should.

If you are interested, but would rather avoid too much pomo theory, I can recommend Howard Rheingold's short essay on online 'crap' detection, and this week's Guardian Science podcast includes some thoughtful chat about trust and incredulity around scientific expertise. If you are really keen on science-themed fake sites, you might like this compendium, and, just to underline that crisis over public trust of the promises of science and technology isn't exactly a new issue, one of my students sensibly added this story of an 18th century chess-playing machine to the mix.