Ryan  Burns, phd
July 23, 2013

OII SDP wrapup

I just got back last night from my 2 weeks at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Summer Doctoral Programme in Toronto. Even though I’m still recovering (in the best sense of the word!), I’m compelled to update everyone who helped me get there via my FundRazr campaign. Spoiler alert: I’m about to rave about how awesome the trip was, so be prepared!

But first let me give a few details on the program. Our two weeks were spent in a combination of faculty and student presentations with a hefty amount of time for discussion of each. There were a few workshops on practical skills (digital social research, job hunting, etc.) and a weekend group canoe trip to the Toronto Islands. And somehow, lots of Justin Bieber.

I noticed pretty quickly, in the student introductions and the initial presentations, that this was an extraordinary group of researchers. I’d estimate that most hadn’t begun their doctoral research fieldwork (i.e., ‘data collection’), but they already had solid theoretical frameworks with obvious connections to their specific project interests. This group wasn’t there just to show off their nifty new visualizations (which is great for some disciplines and research projects, but I personally find them intellectually vacuous), but to make a significant contribution to the conversations surrounding internet and society relations. These aren’t research projects that will go into obscure unread journal articles, but instead will go beyond prestigious influential articles to op-eds influencing public policy and the like. In other words, our group will become the leaders in our respective fields over the next several decades!

Topically speaking, the most overlap was around Occupy Wall Street, and data sources seemed to rely pretty heavily on Twitter. However, for those of us - including myself - not touching on either of these, we could find lots of resonance with others’ theoretical frameworks. My own interest in Science & Technology Studies (which looks at how technology and society produce each other) was reflected in many others’ approaches, with some notable updates since the core materials from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. In fact, judging solely from the SDP, it seems the overarching frameworks laid out during this time are still largely relevant to internet and society studies research today.

One of the highlights for me was a talk given by Jason Nolan, who discussed autism, social constructions of ‘normalcy’, and web-based behavior. For Nolan, the discourse of the ‘typical’ adult is normalizing on a number of levels: it constructs an imagined individual that is far from ‘average’, associates particular behaviors with ‘deviance’, and positions the adult as the norm against which all other age groups are compared. For my own interest in how knowledge is constructed through digital technologies, this post-structuralist-inspired take on normativity was quite illuminating.

I was also fortunate to meet Eric Meyer, who had wonderful insights into ethnography and Big Data. For his PhD Meyer studied how scientists produce knowledge through photographic ‘evidence’ in the context of technological shift from analog to digital photography. He takes a cautious approach to Big Data, understanding that the knowledge we produce is limited by the questions we ask of the data.

The program was immensely intellectually stimulating. I left having the most inspiration I’ve had in a long, long time, and I’m motivated right now to just bust out my dissertation. It’s a good feeling!

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