What we learned at the Digital Societies sandpit

Yesterday I was in London, invited by City University to participate in a brainstorming around the idea to establish a new research centre on the issue of, loosely, digital societies. The link is that City is the coordinating partner in the PANPOP proposal, currently under evaluation, in which Edgeryders is also a partner. The PI is called Dan Mercea, and I was impressed by his dedication and general solidity, so I accepted the invitation.

The centre issues from the School of Social Sciences. Most people in the room (about 10 researchers) are sociologists, like Dan himself; there were also at least one computer scientist, one criminologist, and one person representing the university’s administration. Three external people, including myself (the others were London-based: Privacy International and DEMOS), were asked to deliver short presentations on potentially relevant trends in research. It was an opportunity for me to think about the big picture on social research in a digital age. My slides are here (you need access to the RezNet’s shared drive).

What I learned is:

  • Research funder demand increasing interdisciplinarity.
  • City researchers feel a strong need for critical thinking about “digital”. They are part of a process of sobering up after the techno-optimism of the 2000s.
  • These two ideas combine into a possible identity for the center: building social science aspect front and center into computer science projects (the interdisciplinarity) is needed as a shield from the unitended consequences of tech adoption. This is also the Cassandra role that I find myself playing, but now it has an embryonic marketing strategy instead of being just a liability.
  • Tip: submit to CompSci calls, because they have money and need sociologists (this is based on the UK’s funding landscape, but probably applies to the EU too).
  • Unrelated, but interesting: an important part of the future research center is that it should have a culture of care and mutualization. Good on them!

In general, this center and the people in it make potentially good partners for Edgeryders.

In specific:

  • Dan informed me that an upcoming horizon Europe call (for now still in the Workprogramme, hopefully to be published in the summer) is an even better fit for PANPOP than the one we submitted to. So, in case of rejection we could think about resubmitting PANPOP with a not-so-large effort. The call in question is HORIZON-CL2-2023-DEMOCRACY-01-04: Protest politics in democracy.

  • Dan has a meeting with the European Climate Foundation to discuss an analysis of social media and the role they play in spreading climate awareness (or negationism).

  • On November 30th, another project of his will run an event at the European Parliament. We (by which I mean EDGE research, so in practice probably @ivan and myself) are invited. Also, we could try and use that opportunity to schedule a coffee with Dan and some project officer involved in the “Protest politics” call, to get a better sense of what the Commission’s priorities and vision are.

  • In our brainstorming (we divided into groups, I was in the same one as Dan), we came up with a nice vision: a project on social learning online (how do people learn behavior, for example to “do your own research” rather than “listen to experts”?). This could be done with a complex systems approach, looking for cross-disciplinary intuitions and patterns. For example, if you look at the use of information online as a political weapon, leading to polarization, you could deploy psychologists and neuroscientists to hang your findings on theories of learning; STS scholars to so and contextualize empirical research; economists to “follow the money” (like in the business interests of the Disinformation Dozen); historians to look for precedents (back on the 16th century, the printing press also provided for a democratization of the production of knowledge that must have led to a lot of crazy people suddenly communiticating outlandish, heretical ideas. Society became so divisive that we got the Protestant Reformation and the 100 Years War). You would need a very special principal investigator (I miss David Lane…), but it’s a lovely idea.

Here is the link to the latest workprogramme I can find. Among other things, there is a call that @markomanka might lead on: HORIZON-CL2-2023-TRANSFORMATIONS-01-09: Integrated care solutions for better quality, person-centred long-term care and territorial inequalities in their provision.

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