Digital societies - Bruno Latour and Richard Rogers event at Goldsmiths

Last Wednesday I attended a talk by Richard Rogers and Bruno Latour organised by Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process.

The talk, Digital Societies: Between Ontology and Methods (a recording is available here) dealt with issue of studying through digital methods, but also how the digital can resolve longstanding tensions about scale in social research.

Judging by the number of designers in attendance, I thought perhaps some of my readers would appreciate this summary and links by Phd student David Moat, who is studying Wikipedia at Goldsmiths. David and I stood way in the back row of a packed lecture hall as it seemed almost all of Goldsmiths turned out for the event.

To very briefly summarise, Richard Rogers runs the Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam and spoke about his efforts to develop ‘digitally native’ methods of talking about society - in other words, studying the offline through the traces it leaves online. He contrasts this approach with previous perspectives that either studied the online as a potentially new ‘cyberspace’ or studied online activity through offline efforts. These are things like Google Flu Trends that are now able to predict flu epidemics well in advance of traditional survey methods by monitoring search terms.

Google Flu Trends predicts flu epidemics through search terms

Bruno Latour is a very well known, and often controversial, sociologist. He’s famous for his work on theories of networks involving humans and non-humans, which is partially why he has been so influential in design circles.

He presented a fairly dense discussion that neatly complemented Rogers’. Latour argued that the digital, and primarily the hyperlink, has given us the ability to move conceptually from profiles, what he called CV’s, to collectives. In other words, we are now able to achieve a relationship between the individual and the group, with big implications for the divide between qualitative and quantitative research.

Despite objections from the audience that such a divide has largely been moved past in the social sciences, I think this is a subject that is just shy of becoming a major factor for research with the growth of Big Data, and issues like the end of the Census in the UK.

Whilst no research tool that I currently know of is able to seamlessly move between individuals and large scale groups, the concept is intriguing enough to pay close attention to what these two researchers are saying.

I’ll leave it to David to give you a more detailed walk-through of the event, or if you’re really interested, fire up the recording and listen for yourself.