Digital Intermediation: Towards transparent public automated media – Jonathon Hutchinson

‘Algorithm’ Image courtesy of Dimitris Ladopoulos 

Friday 8 November, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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The contemporary media ecosystem operates on digital intermediation: it is one that consists of the cultural, economic and expertise capital exchange of cultural intermediation that would otherwise be associated with traditional media, combined with social influencers and large-scale automation. That is, contemporary media is most successful in reaching its desired audience when it engages in digital intermediation that utilises the content production expertise of social influencers who engage the affordances of algorithmic calculations of social media platforms. Youtubers and Instagrammers, for example Zoella, DanTDM, Gigi Hadid or PewDiePie, have all expertly designed their content production around platform characteristics that expose their creative expertise to a large specialist and engaged audience. Bärtl (2018) notes that 85% of all consumed YouTube content is produced by 3% of the top channels, suggesting there is an increasing homogenisation of content diversity across these platforms. It is in this environment where single media producers experience high exposure and impact for their content, while public interest media are struggling to remain relevant. How then, might our public institutions engage digital intermediation to increase the exposure of public interest media?

This presentation will first highlight how successful YouTube and Instagram social influencers operate by defining the function of the Digital First Personality. It will then unpack how automation operates, namely recommender systems, on digital platforms by focussing on the YouTube algorithm through what I argue as digital intermediation. Third it will look at the current state of public institutions engaging digital first personalities and digital intermediation by focussing on the German case study of Funk. Finally this presentation will provide a number of recommendations on how our public institutions can and should be adopting strategies to remain relevant in the contemporary media ecosystem.

Dr Jonathon Hutchinson is a lecturer in Online Communication and Media at the University of Sydney. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow on the Algorithmed Public Sphere project at the Hans Bredow Institute, Hamburg Germany. His research explores Public Service Media, cultural intermediation, everyday social media, automated media, and algorithms in media. He is the NSW Representative on the Executive Committee for the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA), the Secretary for the International Public Service Media Association, RIPE, and is the current Program Chair for the Association of Internet Research (AoIR). Hutchinson is an award-winning author and his latest book is Cultural Intermediaries: Audience Participation and Media Organisations (2017), published through Palgrave Macmillan.

Tom McDonald and Tommy Tse – Hong Kong University

Friday 25 October, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

“Pulling the sheep’s wool”: Online thriftiness, labour relations and domesticity in a Chinese factory

This paper draws on data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in a factory in southeast China to describe the significance of a group of activities colloquially known as “pulling the sheep’s wool” (haoyangmao). This wide-ranging set of thrift-oriented practices involves gaining rewards and discounts by collecting various credits and points, most often through online shopping, news and payment platforms. This paper shows how these activities are reshaping the rhythms and structures of everyday factory life, bringing into sharp focus competing demands between online and offline, work and leisure, while also challenging the distinctions between these domains. Although recent studies have sought to reposition thrift as a consumptive practice through which the concept of the house is enacted, we demonstrate how thrift acts in a factory environment largely unmoored from notions of domesticity, instead delineating social boundaries between production line workers and managers while also fostering communal behaviours amongst labourers. This leads us to argue that there is a need to acknowledge how thrift can operate independently of the home and family.

Tom McDonald is a media anthropologist dedicated to using ethnographic engagement to achieve a richer understanding of how digital technologies, media and material culture come to mediate ongoing transformations in the communicative practices, economic behaviours, social relationships and human subjectivities of people in China and beyond. Tom joined the HKU Department of Sociology in August 2015. Prior to this, he was a Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology, University College London.

Tom’s first solely-authored monograph, Social Media in Rural China: Social Networks and Moral Frameworks (2016, UCL Press), details the findings of 15-months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Chinese countryside, examining how social media use reconfigures social relations and morality. A separate co-authored volume, How the World Changed Social Media (2016, UCL Press) expands on the wider findings of the larger comparative UCL Why We Post study, to which my ethnography formed a central contribution.

Tom’s research increasingly focuses on economic concerns, reflecting the rapid convergence between digital money and media in China. His current project examines the adoption of digital money platforms amongst migrant factory workers in China and documents the effects such platforms on a range of everyday exchange practices and infrastructures, with a particular focus on consumption, savings, investment, and remittances.

From Shanzhai chic to Gangnam style: Seven practices of cultural-economic mediation in China and Korea

Constantly readapting to the asymmetrical global flows of fashion, the economically soaring Korean and Chinese fashion industries have demonstrated non-linear development and differential co-creation of fashion as cultural value through new forms of cultural mediation. This presentation examines the social construction of ‘fashionability’ – namely, what is ‘desirable’ and ‘fashionable’ – with reference to the concept ‘cultural mediators’ that foregrounds agency, negotiation, and the contested practices of market actors in cultural production. It zeroes in on the cultural mediators’ attitudes and positions in the two markets by drawing on 25 in-depth interviews with industry veterans. It shows that the mediators in South Korea and China increasingly occupy hybrid occupational roles and social positions across industries and sectors yet achieve limited success in countering the status quo of Western fashion through mediation. The analysis contributes to the literature with a categorisation of seven mediation practices that shape the valuation of fashion products (i.e. ‘fashionability’) in two ways. Empirically, this categorisation illuminates how cultural mediators make reference habitually to the broader social and cultural contexts to co-construct cultural-aesthetic objects. Theoretically, it advances a “cultural-economic approach” to the understanding of cultural mediation and challenges the reductionist viewpoint of actor-network theory through the notion of a matrix of cultural-economic agency.

Tommy Tse is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong. He specialises in East Asia’s media and cultural industries, creative labour and sociology of fashion. His work has appeared in Information, Communication and Society, Journal of Consumer Culture, Journal of Business Anthropology, International Journal of Fashion Studies among others. In 2015, Tse was the visiting scholar at the Communication University of China, Beijing, and at the Fashion Institute of Design, Donghua University, Shanghai. In 2018, he was a Research Associate at London College Fashion and a Visiting Scholar at UCL Anthropology Department.

Anthropocenic Global Capitalism: Conflicts, Crises and Ruptures of Time – Wayne Hope

Wednesday 23 October, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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Evidence from geology, climatology, atmospheric chemistry, geochemistry and oceanography suggest that the earth has experienced a historic step-change in the relationship between human species and the natural world. In anthropocenic terms, human action and earth dynamics have converged; they can no longer be seen as disparate entities. Human inhabitants of the planet have perpetrated, and are facing, unprecedented environmental shifts. They include biodiversity loss, anthropogenic climate change and disruptions to the carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle. In a warmer world and a depleted biosphere, multiple risks emerge: melting ice flows, rising ocean acidity, extreme weather events, damage to agricultural systems and unequal social suffering. Most centrally, it is now evident, in retrospect, that the switch from organic surface energy to underground fossil energy has intertwined the time of earth with the time of human history.

Understanding the capitalist relations of power involved here requires that we rethink industrial capitalism in the historical context of a world system built upon unequal socio-ecological exchange between core and periphery. From a contemporary perspective, the formation of global capitalism has intensified the anthropocenic feedback loops associated with CO2 emissions /climate change and the universalised organisational frameworks of profit extraction and socio-ecological destruction. I will argue that an epochal conjuncture between the Anthropocene and global capitalism generates a cluster of time conflicts centred around time reckoning, temporality and the denial of coevalness. These time conflicts materialise in regard to the earth system and fossil fuel extraction, carbon-based commodity fetishism and global warming/greenhouse tipping point scenarios. Taken together, these materialisations of time conflict are generating a three-fold crisis within and across the earth system, global capitalism and human species being. Extrapolations of these crises will, in my view, rupture the dual epoch of anthropocenic global capitalism. I conclude by assessing the ramifications of this scenario.

Professor Wayne Hope Wayne Hope is a Professor in the School of Communication Studies at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. His specific areas of research include: New Zealand media history and public sphere analysis, the political economy of communication, sport-media relationships and globalisation and time. He is the author of Time, Communication and Global Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). The book was described by one reviewer as follows: “a virtuoso work of synthesis, provocative and pathbreaking. It needs to be read by anyone interested in the ways we live now, where we might be headed and how we might arrive at destinations not at the neoliberal route map.” Wayne’s research has also been published in a range of journals including Media, Culture & Society, the International Journal of Communication, Time & Society and tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. He is founding co-editor of the international online journal Political Economy of Communication ( Within New Zealand, Wayne has appeared regularly as a media commentator on television and radio when not writing pieces against neoliberalism in The Daily Blog.

What can the playful voice teach us about media literacy? – Jacqueline Vickery

Friday 18 October, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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Media education is often built upon democratic ideals of empowering young people to creatively express themselves and “find their voice.” However, youth do not always share these same values, or rather, they may not express them in the same ways as adults. Drawing from experiences leading media workshops for teens in foster care, this talk explores assumptions that both adults and youth make about the value of youth-produced media. At a time when young people are just as likely to learn media codes and conventions from professionally-produced commercial media as they are from memes and amateur digital culture, how does their playful resistance and appropriation of media challenge frameworks of media literacy?

Dr. Jacqueline Ryan Vickery is Associate Professor of Media Arts at the University of North Texas and Director of Research for the Youth Media Lab, a unique collaboration between media researchers and media creators that helps young people use media to create more inclusive and just communities. Drawing from qualitative, feminist, and ethnographic methods, she researches the media practices and representations of marginalized youth, with a particular focus on informal learning, equity, and media literacy. She is the author of “Worried About the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk, and Opportunity in the Digital World” and co-author of “The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality.” In the summers she facilitates a storytelling and media workshop for teens in foster care.

Darwin’s Animoji: Histories of Animation and Racism in Facial Recognition – Luke Stark, Microsoft Research

Thursday 10 October, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

New Law School Annexe SR 440, University of Sydney

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Facial recognition systems are increasingly common components of smartphones and other consumer digital devices. These technologies enable animated video-sharing applications, such as Apple’s animoji and memoji, Facebook Messenger’s masks and filters and Samsung’s AR Emoji. Such animations serve as technical phenomena translating moments of affective and emotional expression into mediated, trackable, and socially legible forms across a variety of social media platforms.

Through technical and historical analysis of these digital artifacts, the talk will explore the ways facial recognition systems classify and categorize racial identities in human faces in relation to emotional expression. Drawing on the longer history of discredited pseudosciences such as phrenology, the paper considers the dangers of both racializing logics as part of these systems of classification, and of how social media data regarding emotional expression gathered through these systems can be used to reinforce systems of oppression and discrimination.

Luke Stark is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Fairness, Accountability, Transparency and Ethics (FATE) Group at Microsoft Research Montreal. His scholarship examines the history and contemporary societal impacts of AI and other digital media facilitating for social and emotional interaction. His work has been published in venues including Social Studies of Science, Media Culture and Society, History of the Human Sciences, and The International Journal of Communication. He has previously been a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Dartmouth College, a Fellow and Affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and an inaugural Fellow with the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Technology, Society, and Policy. He holds a PhD from the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and an Honours BA and MA in History from the University of Toronto.

Worlds of Journalism – Beate Josephi

Friday 13 September, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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Worlds of Journalism, based on survey data from 67 countries, offers a truly global picture of journalists, their demographics, role orientations, perceptions of freedom, ethical considerations, and trust in public institutions. Based on her authorship of the demographic profiles of journalists, this talk will highlight some of the surprising results with regard to gender, age and education of journalists, and take up the findings of other chapters to convey an understanding of journalistic culture as it manifests itself in a politically diverse world.

Dr. Beate Josephi, Honorary Associate at the Department of Media and Communications at Sydney University, has been on the Advisory Board of the Worlds of Journalism Study project since its inception. She is the lead author of the chapter on ‘Profiles of Journalists: Demographic and Employment Patterns’, and contributing author to ‘Journalistic Culture in a Global Context’.

About Worlds of Journalism

Colonising the public? Smart street furniture and the techno-politics of urban media

Image courtesy of Antoine Hubert, Creative Commons

Friday 6 September, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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This seminar introduces the Smart Publics research collaboration between the University of Sydney and the University of Glasgow on the social, design, and governance implications of smart street furniture, drawing on fieldwork in Glasgow, London and New York. We situate this research in a critical account of the privatisation of public space in cities and the role of smart urbanism as a trend accelerator. We explore these issues in the context of smart upgrades to street furniture like kiosks and benches, which are hybrid urban media objects purportedly installed to address barriers of access to information-communication networks. Yet we argue that these emerging forms of street furniture raise serious risks related to surveillance, data harvesting, and targeted advertising—which are unevenly distributed among users. We also outline how their installation changes city flows and social interactions, and how their ownership challenges the role of local government in overseeing public objects and spaces. We conclude by considering the historical development of (smart) street furniture as translations from earlier objects in public space such as phone booths and benches which mediate urban life, craft urban publics, and are adapted and resisted by users.

Justine Humphry is a Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and co-lead of theSmart publics University of Sydney-University of Glasgow research partnership. Her research is on the cultures and politics of mobile media and smart technology in everyday life with a focus on digital inequalities, mediated publics and marginalised media use. Justine has studied mobile communication and homelessness extensively and has conducted collaborative research on mobile antiracism apps in Australia, France and the United Kingdom. Her current projects involve researching smart street furniture in New York, Glasgow and London.

Jathan Sadowski is a postdoctoral research fellow in smart cities in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. His work critically analyses the political economy of digital technologies that are data-driven, networked, and automated. His current projects include an ethnography with a city government on the process and politics of planning smart initiatives. Jathan’s book – Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World – will be published in 2020 by The MIT Press.

Chris Chesher is a Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on the interplay between smart home and smart city technologies: the role of voice in smart speakers and voice assistants; the digitisation of real estate advertising; the global introduction of smart street furniture; and smart technologies at the interface of private and public spaces. He is also working on a collaboration with the Sydney Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems, and on a book called Invocational Media.

Sophia Maalsen is a lecturer in urbanism and former IB Fell postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney. Her research addresses the increasing digital mediation of housing and alternative forms of housing, including the increase in tenure forms such as share housing across all age groups. Maalsen also researches practices of smart urbanism and is currently on two grants that look at how smart urban practices and governance materialises in different contexts. Prior to joining the University of Sydney, Sophia was a postdoctoral researcher on the EU funded Programmable City Project where she investigated the digital transformation of cities and urban governance. Her particular expertise is in understanding the intersection of the material, digital and the human and how this effects lived experience. She is the author of The Social Life of Sound (2019, Palgrave MacMillan).

AI and ethics: Why all the fuss? Toby Walsh (University of New South Wales)

Wednesday 28 August, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

John Woolley Common Room, N480, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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There’s a lot of discussion in many different fora about AI and Ethics. In this talk, Toby Walsh will attempt to identify what new issues AI brings to the table, as well as where AI requires us to address otherwise old issues. He will cover topics from driverless cars to Cambridge Analytica.

Toby Walsh is Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales and Data61. He was named by the Australian newspaper as one of the “rock stars” of Australia’s digital revolution. Professor Walsh is a strong advocate for limits to ensure AI is used to improve our lives. He has been a leading voice in the discussion about autonomous weapons (aka “killer robots”), speaking at the UN in New York and Geneva on the topic. He is a Fellow of the Australia Academy of Science and recipient of the NSW Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Engineering and ICT. He appears regularly on TV and radio, and has authored two books on AI for a general audience, the most recent entitled 2062: The World that AI Made.

#Everest: Mobile media and mobile livelihoods in the Mt Everest tourism industry – Project launch

Friday 2 August, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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In the wake of the Mount Everest avalanches of 2014 and again in 2015 due to the Nepal earthquake, the Nepali state government and private telecommunications corporations have made a committed effort to increase digital connectivity in the largely remote and underdeveloped Khumbu region. This recently improved mobile infrastructure has coincided with an increase in the number of tourists arriving in the region between 2016 and 2018 and the increase in tourists has influenced the demand for workers in the region’s tourist industry. This paper discusses a research agenda for a wider ethnographic study that brings together research in transnational migration, lifestyle mobilities and travel to investigate the relationship between mobile media in shaping the meanings of Everest and its impact on the routine practices of minority workers. The wider project explores emerging digital practices as they are unfolding in these initial years of the growth of telecommunications infrastructure in the Everest region.

Jolynna Sinanan is Research Fellow in Digital Media and Ethnography at the University of Sydney. She has an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and development and her research focusses on digital media practices in relation to regionally comparative mobilities, family relationships, work and gender. Her books include Social Media in Trinidad (UCL Press, 2017), Visualising Facebook (Miller and Sinanan, UCL Press, 2017) and Webcam (Miller and Sinanan, Polity, 2014).

How Pet Scenarios Can Disrupt Energy Futures

Friday 14 June, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world and is part of the trend towards humanising pet care, which is making keeping pets more energy intensive. In this talk, Yolande Strengers will approach speculation about future energy demand through the lens of changing household practices using the example of pet care and entertainment. Developing the concept of a ‘social practice imaginary’ as a variation of the ‘sociotechnical imaginary’, she will outline how energy forecasting methodologies for anticipating futures such as those involving energy can and should be informed by ethnographic insights about changing household practices.

Yolande Strengers is Associate Professor of Digital Society and Technology at Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology, where she leads the energy futures theme in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab. Yolande is a digital sociologist specialising in the interactions between people and emerging  technologies, particularly in the home. Her research is mostly applied, and delivered in collaboration with research partners include electricity distribution businesses, consumer advocacy organisations, peak bodies such as Energy Consumers Australia. She has recently completed an ARC DECRA project on the smart home, and is lead CI on the ARC Linkage project ‘Digital Energy Futures’. She is author of Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life (2013),  and has published widely on energy consumption and emerging technologies in households and other contexts.