Steve Walker

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Archive for the ‘technology use’ Category

Algorithmic flattery and slander

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I have a terrific research record.At the time of writing, my 424 publications have been cited a shade under 5,000 times. I’ve worked with over 700 co-authors, who I know will be pleased to have worked with me in the fields of information retrieval, statistics and sociology.


In case you are surprised, or even suspicious that I’ve been using photoshop in this picture, you can check  at: (viewed 17/1/14).

Of course, this is a nonsense. A small fraction of these publications are mine; I haven’t checked them all, but for example, papers in child protection written by a colleague who used to work at the OU, also called Steve Walker, are attributed to me. He might be a little less impressed with this account of my research than I hope you were. So far, so amusing (for me, at least). But perhaps not: measures and metrics of research impact are becoming increasingly important in the allocation of research funding, academic promotion and so on. Were research funders to automate their trawling of impact, this could have quite a positive impact for me, though not necessarily for other Steve Walkers.Microsoft’s automated aggregation is clearly wildly inaccurate. Of course, at one level this is a simple data problem – researchers’ names and affiliations don’t provide unique keys for databases. There are initiatives (e.g. ORCID) which aim to provide unique, persistent identifiers for researches (to go along with those for our publications) that allow us to be identified, monitored and measured more accurately. I won’t take that line of thought any further here.

Really what I want to do is point out the risks of algorithmic attribution of data to people. The reliability is currently very poor, even in the relatively structured field of academic publishing. When we look at facial recognition in devices like Google glass through various hacked and ‘unauthorised’ apps (see for e.g.

The concern here is usually cited as ‘privacy’. This is a legitimate and serious concern, of course, but it’s usually premised on the assumption that the facial recognition actually works and can attach a face reliably to data about the person. At least as worrying is the concern that in reality we can’t assume that this is the case (for example, look at the reliability of facial recognition in Picasa, if you’ve tried). The possible problems caused by mis-identification are very worrying . The inflation of my publication record is more amusing than annoying, but imagine being publicly mis-idenitified as a serial criminal or Man Utd supporter.

Written by Steve

January 17, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Solutionism in action

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Solutionism in action

Evgeny Morozov has used the term ‘solutionism’ to describe the phenomenon of technologists framing problems in terms that the technology they’re promoting can ‘solve’. These solutions typically operate at the level of the individual, and while appearing to offer individual choice often serve to remove choice in the longer term. In a recent podcast of a talk at the RSA in London he gave the example of New York landlords advertising apartments via Craigslist. They insist on seeing potential tenants’ profiles on a well known social media site, presumably to satisfy themselves that they’re not about to let an apartment to a psychopath or a bankrupt. This has the effect of making it very difficult to exercise the ‘choice’ to remove oneself from the site while trying to find an apartment. There are plenty of other example (for example BT’s removal of payphones on the grounds that almost everyone now has a mobile, making it harder to choose not to have a self-tracking device).

This article by Bill Gates about the potential of ‘personal assistants’ in reducing the internationally high drop-out rates of US college students is a cracking example of solutionism. We can build an app that will nag students to attend lectures or tutorials, but this won’t address issues such as highly wealth-dependent variations in the quality of secondary education, the nature of HE funding or the structure of courses and pedagogy… Gates’ solutionism removes educational attainment from a social or political setting and makes it a technocratic, individualist problem and is a fine example of the style.

Written by Steve

July 21, 2013 at 3:03 pm

EGOV4U and a history of the world in 100 sociotechnical networks

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Discussions of technologies frequently consider the impacts and present certain technologies as leading directly to particular outcomes. Hence, we get stories about how social networks lead to riots (or the post-riot clean-ups) or the Arab spring. These stories are recent examples of the wider story about the internet being an inherently democratic technology (and, before that, TV, radio, telegraphy and printing). Visions of technologies as fixing things are very attractive to policymakers who can present themselves as technocratic fixers (and, of course, their opponents either as Luddites or in some way ‘not getting it’).

Recently, Shailey Minocha and I gave a presentation at the Regional Studies Association Winter Conference in London entitled ‘A sociotechnical network perspective on e-government technologies’, elaborating some of our thinking as part of the EGOV4U project impact evaluation work. (The other members of the OU team also presented – Mike Grimsley and Anthony Meehan ‘Impact evaluation of multi-channel eGovernment services tackling disadvantage and social exclusion’, and Leslie Budd and Ivan Horrocks ‘Multi-channel governance and electronic democracy’.

Our paper discussed some of the project partners’ initiatives viewed as sociotechnical networks. This is one way discussing technology such that the artefacts are not seen in isolation from the social contexts in which they are both designed and used. We also drew on ideas of various ‘capitals’ (of which financial, human, and social capitals are the best known) articulated in the EGOV4U Impact Evaluation Framework.

While we were preparing the presentation, I was listening to the BBC’s podcasts of ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ based on objects in the British Museum’s collection. I missed most of the programmes when they were originally broadcast, but they are excellent listening on the motorway to Milton Keynes. They are great examples of how to think sociotechnically. The material objects are described physically, but this is just a starting point for some fascinating accounts of the networks of relationships, ideas and resources that went in to creating them, how these are reflected in the artefacts, and the functions that they served in the societies which produced them.

I couldn’t resist including an example from the series in our presentation and chose the head of Caesar Augustus. To me, it is an irresistible story of projecting reputation of a ruler, in ways quite familiar to us. The bust was created by skilled sculptors in a society which had the human and financial resources to support them. It reflected a particular image of Augustus as a youthful and virile ruler, and the British Museum’s particular bust was sent to what is now southernEgypt, on the borders of the Roman Empire. The clincher for me, though, is that the BM’s bust is pitted with sand from being decapitated, buried and walked on by Kushite rebels against Roman rule. Ultimately, this bust and its message proved eminently resistable.

Written by Steve

January 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Posted in EGOV4U, technology use

IBZL Blog now up

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Rather belatedly, we’ve created a blog for the IBZL project at At the moment, I’ve started to post some of the materials we’ve developed over the last year, but I and others from the IBZL project, will be contributing to it in ‘news’ mode over the coming months.

Written by Steve

October 27, 2011 at 9:16 am

Posted in IBZL, technology use

A rule of thumb for thinking about the consequences of technological innovation

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In a recent discussion about the efficacy/shortcomings of ‘Haystack’ tool for safeguarding communications in contexts of state interference with the net, on the Liberation Tech mailing list, Jerome Ravetz offered the following, which I think deserves wider circulation at least as a rule of thumb when thinking about the outcomes of technological innovations.

“As my offering, here is a useful principle. Every new device has:

Intended use
Creative new use
Incompetent misuse
Malevolent abuse.

If we always run through that checklist every time we are considering an innovation, we might have some protection. It does represent a big shift, since for a very long time it was assumed that innovation is essentially benign, and ‘unexpected consequences’ could be managed as they occurred. In some IT development it seems to have become recognised; but it’s still a long way from being universal.”

Added: 19/9/10: On reflection, there should be ‘unintended consequences’ for at least three of these categories as well. That is, unintended by either the designer(s) or the (ab)users…. that’s the trouble with rules of thumb, I suppose…

Written by Steve

September 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Posted in technology use

Thought experiment – my answers to a 1472 MORI pollster

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Last weekend, John Naughton (a colleague in my dept. at the OU) wrote an interesting and thought-provoking article in the Observer ‘Everything you need to know about the internet‘. His first recommendation is to take the long view and suggests a thought experiment in which someone from 1472 is polled by MORI about some effects of the new-fangled printing. I’ve thought about these questions, from the perspective of the 21st century and can’t help concluding that the answers are still more difficult to attribute than John suggests. So, below is my attempt at answering, on a 1 to 5 scale, our MORI pollster’s questions, with explanations.

“On a scale of one to five, where one indicates “Not at all likely” and five indicates “Very likely”, how likely do you think it is that Herr Gutenberg’s invention will:

Undermine the authority of the Catholic Church?

The extent to which this has happened clearly depends on where our interviewee is. In England the attribution of the declining authority of Catholicism to the advent of print may have appeared highly plausible by the first half of the 16th century. A Spanish respondent where the Inquisition was underway during this period, and which by some accounts didn’t end until the late C18th , would not have been able to make this attribution for 300-350 years, and it’s quite clear from recent news that the Catholic church remains a powerful institution in countries such as Italy. Indeed, someone living in what we now know as Latin America might be able to argue quite convincingly that the converse is true – printing, and the printed Bible, increased the power of Catholic Church over their lives quite substantially over the same period as it declined in N. Europe. So, whatever the relationship between print and the power of the Catholic church, it certainly hasn’t been a simple one of cause and effect. It’s rather more about how print was used by different people in different places. So that’s a ‘4 – to some extent’ and a ‘2 – not much’ from me, depending on where you’re looking.

Power the reformation?

See above. Printing didn’t power a reformation where there wasn’t one. And whether our N. European respondent would see print as powering a reformation around them would depend to some extent on what is meant by ‘power’. If the analogy is to power in the sense that petrol powers a car, then there are two ways of answering the question. Did the availability of print (petrol) help the reformation (the car) to move forward then probably yes, it did, since many reformers used print extensively and deliberately. Did the petrol (print) cause the car (reformation) to come into existence, no it didn’t since the car may well exist independently of whether it has any petrol in its tank. Would the reformation (car) have happened without print (petrol)? Well, since cars can be fuelled in other ways, it may well be possible to move the car without petrol (power the reformation without print). So it’s either a split vote or a ‘don’t know’ from me.

Note 9/9/12: as Braudel notes in passing in ‘A History of Civilisation’ the geography of the reformation in northern Europe largely  coincides with the borders of the Roman Empire. This implies that at the very least some social/historical factors were important in powering the Reformation in some places and not others. He doesn’t mention print at all in this context (though see below) which suggests a possible Anglo(phonic)-centredness in accounts of print.

Enable the rise of modern science?

Probably yes, not least because ‘enable’ is a rather weaker verb than ‘undermine’ and ‘power’ and hence is rather easier to demonstrate. ‘Enable’ doesn’t mean that science was inevitable (as some contemporary religious cultures demonstrate), but it’s certainly arguable that modern science would at least have been much harder, if not impossible without print. It has been argued quite convincingly the most powerful research tool of the early scientist was the library, since much of the progress in early science was a matter of accounting differently for things that had long been observed (e.g. falling apples and the motion of the stars) rather than discovering new things with new tools (such as Galileo’s telescope, which clearly also had a role to play). A stronger form of this argument is that the advent of print makes a better starting point for thinking about the history of science than rather woolly notions of the Enlightenment. This requires a major rewrite of history to fit the technological story. It may be possible to demonstrate this, but it’s not a trivial point. So ‘4 – to some extent’ from me.

Note 8/10/12: Braudel also mentions printing, along with economic growth, as ‘helping’ scientific progress by allowing the widespread distribution of ancient Greek texts.

Create entirely new social classes and professions?

While a contemporary actor network theorist may have no problem in attributing this sort of agency to a thing, I’m not sure that ‘print’ created anything. In the first instance, printers did, so the direction of causality is at least debateable. The specific social structure and division of labour between printers, publishers, authors etc that emerged around printing are at least as closely associated with the emergence of early capitalist modes of production as with specifically print technology. As for ‘entirely new social classes’, I’m not sure what is meant by ‘class’ here. I suspect that it’s something rather wider than occupation but I’m not sure what, unless the claim is that the whole of capitalist development was due specifically to print, which is quite a claim. So for this respondent in the early C21st it would have to be at best a ‘don’t know’ but more likely ‘to a very limited extent’.

Change our conceptions of ‘childhood’ as a protected early period in a person’s life?

I haven’t heard this claim before. At first glance it doesn’t look plausible to me: my father’s research into our family history has found a ten year-old miner’s apprentice in the family in (I think) the 1840s. His childhood doesn’t look that protected by an invention that had been around for almost four hundred years. The actions of Victorian social reformers seem a rather more plausible and immediate cause for this in this country, and there are still campaigns running to end child labour in some parts of the world where, I believe, they’ve had print for quite some time too. So, this one probably gets a ‘1 – not at all’ from me.

One response to some of these points, put to me recently by another friend, is that I’m looking the wrong timescales, that we need to look at the ‘longue duree’. Maybe, but how long is long enough? Playing this card is akin to saying that invisible fairies come out at the bottom of the garden when nobody’s looking – it’s impossible to falsify. And of course, if the argument is allowed then a sceptic is equally entitled to argue that these observations only appear to be caused by print, as will become clear in the fullness of time. Which immediately leads to stalemate.

I’m not actually trying to argue that print has no consequences and that it’s all socially constructed. I’m arguing that print is one causal factor among many interacting ones in an open system, and that it’s actually quite hard work to tease out precisely what its relationship to particular outcomes is (to the extent it’s even possible to do this). Consequently, there’s little if anything inevitable about the outcomes which would probably be different under different social systems as demonstrated by looking at the world around us.

This is not just an obscure academic debate since the logic, of course, applies to technologies like the internet as well. We need to be very careful about arguments that the internet (or next generation access, or iPads or whatever) leads necessarily to x or y. X or y are often at least as much the outcome of political and commercial conflict, as in the current capture of regulation by the copyright holders. We can, as we are trying to do in Infinite Bandwidth, Zero Latency (IBZL) project, try to make some difference in the technologies we end up with.

Written by Steve

June 24, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Posted in technology use