digital scholarship

Existential angst for a digital scholar

I’m at ALT-C and Jonathan Worth gave a keynote this morning that brought to mind something I’ve been pondering for a while, particularly in relation to some of Audrey Watters writing. Jonathan was talking about the positive experience of Phonar, but then how he had considered the issues around privacy, and consent. He was suggesting that we need to discuss with students all the implications of going online, and also raise their awareness of how much information they are leaking.

As an advocate of digital scholarship I have been having similar anxieties regarding academics. When all this was new I spent much of my time encouraging people to blog, get on twitter, etc. And I still feel that the benefits of establishing an online identity for academic purposes are considerable. Plus it’s also very rewarding, I have developed great friendships, been pushed intellectually, established productive collaborations, and been inspired from my online network. I wouldn’t want to give that up. But increasingly, now that we are past the first flush of enthusiasm and this enters the mainstream, we have to be aware of a ‘dark’ side.

This can be the pressure to build such an identity as it becomes more important; the possibility of getting trolled and being involved in unpleasant (or even downright threatening) online discussions; increased monitoring by institutions through data; loss of control and privacy. And so on.

The reaction to this can still be “don’t go online” but I wouldn’t advocate that, partly because of all the positives I’ve mentioned and also because it becomes increasingly difficult to function. Doing the digital equivalent of hiding in a cave in Utah is not a realistic proposition, and I would argue it is a disservice to new researchers to discourage them from developing online identities.

Which means we have to develop an understanding of all these issues, and ways of dealing with them. And here’s the problem: when I used to encourage people to go online, they would often protest that they don’t have time. If they know need to be experts in privacy then there is even less time. I don’t really have an answer to this, I’m caught between the belief that developing that online identity is key, and feeling that increasingly we shouldn’t engage in that process without a better understanding of what it entails. Hence, my angst of the title.

Anyway, I was reminded of this Mitchell and Webb clip. PS – I don’t think I am one of the baddies, yet.


  • Jonathan Worth (@Jonathan_Worth)

    Great to see you Martin and thanks for taking the time to write. You know I also don’t advocate unplugging, but I worry that in the rush to catch up with what tech does (I hear this from people asking me to give tech demos on how to teach with the web all the time) people either deny that post-digital learning is an issue, or pretend to have answers that they don’t.

    Both of these risk abusing the trust that learners (subjects/sources for photographers/journalists) HAVE to put in us (statutory vulnerability), in order to take part in the learning process, and the thing is , the feedback loop is an obfuscated one.

    We won’t know what the consequences of shared inconsequential data will be because the algorithmic obfuscation is opaque. We don’t know how it works. And if you don’t know how it works then its hard to be empowered by it – it becomes magical “I wasn’t granted that mortgage because it wasn’t meant to be…” – no, you weren’t awarded that mortgage because data brokers sold your web searches, your store card info said you stopped buying contraceptives and started buying folic and the algorithm mapped your Facebook relations to see that your sister had a history of pre-eclampsia, which means you have a statistically higher chance of a troublesome pregnancy and will likely have to take more time work and so therefore are an undesirable borrower.

    There is though an opportunity for us to make those same algorithms work for us and that’s what I’m suggesting we co-learn.

    • admin

      Thanks Jonathan for the reply. This does make a stronger argument for closed systems (VLEs etc) where students can feel safe and we can guarantee what happens to their data. But at the same time I think helping them to become online citizens, create identity, be effective networkers, etc are the type of key skills that should be part of ‘graduateness’ now. As you mentioned, developments like reclaim hosting are part of this solution, there’s just a lot more to it that I don’t know enough about yet.

      • Jonathan Worth (@Jonathan_Worth)

        No I’m not making the case for VLE’s , quite the opposite, I don’t think we can promise to operate [digitally] closed systems at all, nor can we guarantee what happens to their data (do you really want to be the one to make that promise?) – they appear to be two of the key points I find myself making. Being open about this I am seeing as step one in us being better digital citizens, but I’m working this stuff through too and reflecting on what I’ve not done and what I don’t know – a known unknown at least 🙂

  • francesbell

    I loved Jonathan’s keynote that I watched on stream and I applaud questioning of algorithms and attention to privacy but could I put in a plea for the discussion of these issues to be put in a cultural contextual setting, as Jonathan did so graciously when he acknowledge the limits of his knowledge of the details (mine are much greater limits)? If we think of ourselves as potential (accidental) wrongdoers, it can work towards a more relational approach to understanding where we are and where we might be. I don’t think we will (or ever have) completely understand these algorithms that exert so much power over our lives but we can try, and demand to know more, and chivvy to make them change.

    • admin

      Yes Frances, I think that’s the way to approach it. I’m aware that often I don’t care enough about these issues, or know enough. I also don’t want it to be too negative, it’s more a case of “yes, but” re online presence not “no, no, no”

      • Frances Bell

        Please don’t think I am against expertimental uncertain use of tech and services. 1 did it myself. I just think that we need to accompany it with support for a questioning approach and (my hobby horse) an education that helps students become agents of change.

    • admin

      Thanks Simon, very interesting (wow, that app!). And we also do it ourselves to an extent, eg I post a daily pic, so my employer could use that, or twitter to monitor some of what I do. Luckily I’m a good boy, and my employer is nice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *