Scoping review @ESRC : Ways of being in a digital age ~ anyone applying?

A kind colleague sent this to me just now and it made me both sit up in interest and slightly slump in my chair… I would love to be involved in this but just can’t see how…

This looks like a really interesting opportunity for an interdisciplinary team to provide a valuable and incisive push to the ESRC to think about what an earth “ways of being in a digital age” might mean. I do hope someone cam drive this forward in a positive way, the boosterism of “big data” etc. or the dystopian malaise of “algorithmic governance” are simply not sufficient for this task1.

Invitation to submit Expressions of Interest

We are delighted to invite Expressions of Interest (EoI) for a scoping review to inform a future ESRC initiative on ‘Ways of being in a digital age’.This is an exciting opportunity to inform ESRC’s possible future strategic investment and provide a more holistic view of how digital technology mediates our lives, and the way technological and social change co-evolve and impact each other.

This is a broad and much researched area, so the purpose of the scoping review is to undertake a systematic literature review and synthesis; to identify gaps in current research and determine where the ESRC should focus any initiative to add most value. Through this process the aim of the scoping review is also to build new networks and extend existing ones across the academic community, amongst other stakeholders and potential funding partners.

The scoping review is for a maximum duration of eight months and must commence no later than 1 August 2016. The maximum budget for the scoping review is £300,000 at 100 per cent in full economic costs. In accordance with RCUK policy, the ESRC will contribute up to 80 per cent of the full economic costs.

The call makes a brilliant plea for qualitative work (bottom of p. 3), which is very much needed. I hope this is something we can all build upon.

The initial questions offered in the invitation are interesting, but really need to be pushed a bit further For example, talking about “impacts” on society and forms of community that emerge “as a result” of technology are far too technologically determinist, and there isn’t “the digital” as some kind of amorphous separate domain,  where’s the conceptual nuance here?!

  • How we define and authenticate ourselves in a digital age

  • How do we construct the digital to be open to all, sustainable and secure

  • How digital technology impacts on our autonomy, agency and privacy – illustrated by the paradox of emancipation and control

  • What are the challenges of ethics, trust and consent in the digital age

  • How we live with and trust the algorithms and data analysis used to shape key features of our lives

  • How our relationships are being shaped and sustained in and between various domains, including family and work

  • What new forms of communities and work emerge as a result of digital technologies – for example new forms of coordination including large scale and remote collaboration Whether and how our understanding of citizenship is evolving in the digital age – for example whether technology helps or hinders us in participating at individual and community levels

  • How we define responsibility and accountability in the digital age Whether technology makes us healthier, better educated and more productive.

None of the disciplinary silos is sufficient in addressing this. It would be really, really depressing to see just a “digital sociology”, “digital geography”, or “digital anthropology” type review made here.

I hope someone is bold and imaginative and really pushes at the questions we should be asking. I would welcome conversations about how I could contribute in some small way…

1. I am not seeking to denigrate those who work on such things, merely pointing out that no fashionable trope is sufficient. Just as those that led the “Virtual Society?” theme for the ESRC back in didn’t bang on about “cyberspace”, although the use of the term “virtual” is/was possibly problematic…

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