Tag Archives: technology

The Myth of the ‘Skills Gap’ and the Attack on (Higher) Education

By movie studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In January, President Obama became the latest in a long list of politicians and high profile public figures in taking a shot at academic disciplines perceived to be ‘useless’ from a labor market perspective. Talking about manufacturing and job training, Obama (who has since apologized for his remarks) said: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” This attack on disciplines, fields and degrees that do not tie in directly to what is perceived to be the workplace of today and tomorrow are nothing new. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory made similar, albeit much more explicit and vicious, remarks about higher education just last year, lashing out against the (inter)discipline of women’s and gender studies: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” These and similar remarks point to two related notions that dominate in the debate about (higher) education: 1. The idea of a “skills gap” – that is the idea that workers and college graduates do not possess the right skills to fill vacant jobs in growing economic sectors. And 2. The idea that some academic disciplines are simply useless pursuits, as they do not help graduates secure employment. But do these ideas have empirical ground?


Autocompletes of Sexism and Inequality

Source: Adweek

Source: Adweek

Yesterday, I read a disturbing article in Adweek. “Powerful Ads Use Real Google Searches to Show the Scope of Sexism Worldwide Simple: Visual For Inequality” by David Griner explores a new campaign idea from UN Women, which used real suggested search terms from Google’s autocomplete feature. The ads, which were designed by art director and graphic designer Christopher Hunt, were designed to illustrate how gender inequality continues to be so problematic that even Google has come to expect it.

Being a sociologist, I was interested in the reliability of the Google experiment. So, I conducted my own Google search of the phrases used in the project. My findings were not exactly the same as the UN Women campaign but I was saddened to see so many misogynistic phrases pop up on my screen. I found “women shouldn’t…” work, be in combat, or be cops. In contrast, “women should…” know their place, not preach, not speak in church, and not be in combat. Google autocomplete told me that “women need to…” shut up, grow up, feel wanted, and feel safe. And finally, “women cannot…” be trusted, be pastors, have it all, or teach men.


Is THAT Cheating?

Source: Above the Law

Source: Above the Law

Last week, a survey of 1,300 incoming freshman at Harvard University found that 42 percent of respondents had cheated on a homework assignment or problem set before starting at Harvard. This study lead to countless editorial pieces with provocative titles such as “Welcome to Harvard, Cheaters of 2017” and “More Incoming Harvard Students Have Cheated On Their Homework Than Had Sex.” However, what the study and related articles did not discuss was how “cheating” was defined both for those conducting the survey and those responding; how technology has complicated the definition of “cheating;” and if academic institutions as well as the larger social structure needs to rethink academic ethics in today’s changing and advancing digital society.


American Public Libraries: A Forgotten Social Institution?

Last week, NPR ran a series on American public libraries.  The series immediately filled me with a sentimental wave of nostalgia.  One of my earliest memories is packing up my teddy bear and a sack lunch and driving to the Lincoln Township Public Library for their annual Teddy Bear Picnic.  I also remember taking a writing workshop at the library in second or third grade, which lead to my first publication, “Friends of the Sea.”  As an undergraduate, I spent countless hours at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago studying or perusing the library’s extensive collection of foreign films.  And a staff member at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square helped me navigate the IRS website when income tax forms first transitioned from a paper to online format.

The NPR series was more than just interesting.  It led me to start to think about the ways the public library has been important in my life.  In addition, I started to consider what libraries teach all of us about functioning in society.  Are public libraries a hidden social institution?


Young people, technology and the ‘problem’ of sexting.

source: http://wmuv.org/

source: http://wmuv.org/

There is much discussion in Sociology currently about the impact of technology on people’s lives; in particular on their relationships and sexuality. One specific phenomenon that emerged with the increase of smart phones and personal technology is the issue of ‘sexting’; the sharing or exchange of sexual messages or images. Cases such as those of Hope Witsell or Jessica Logan, both of whom committed suicide after nude pictures they had sent to boyfriends were publicly circulated, have received a great deal of media attention. These and numerous other accounts portray the impact of these technologies solely in a negative light (Drouin and Landgraff 2012) and emphasize the danger young people are putting themselves in when participating in this behavior. Whilst it is of course important to highlight these problems, the rhetoric is so often starkly gendered, re-emphasising a double standard and failing to engage with notions of pleasure or agency in young peoples sexuality. It also tends to place great importance on the role technology plays, without looking at the way other social pressures are played out in these behaviours. (more…)

Big Data: The new frontier or a methodological nightmare?



Source: greenbookblog.org

Big Data refers to the enormous amount of information now possessed by companies, that we offer up in our day-to-day lives. In Google searches, Facebook wall posts, or any purchase we are contributing to the vast amount of data, and allowing companies to make predictions about how we will behave. The use of patterning, statistical analysis and algorithms give these companies a perceived ability to ‘predict the future’; ranging from suggesting future purchases to tracking the flu virus through Internet searches. Cheerleaders of this phenomenon (for example Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier 2013) see it is an extremely useful tool that will revolutionise our lives, unequivocally for the better. An opposing view comes from Evgeny Morozov (amongst others) who criticises ‘technological solutionism’ (Morozov 2013) arguing that these benefits are over-stated, and blind us to imbedded structural issues that cannot be solved by ‘more’ data. Whilst there is not space in this blog post to explore these views in full, the debate raises a consideration for Sociology: are there methodological issues with using Big Data, and what are the implications for the social sciences? (more…)

I See the Target: Social Media and the Accountability of Military Technology

An image from Bridle’s Dronestagram

In a recent article, Brad Allenby and Carolyn Mattick argue that the ‘rule book’ of international warfare needs to be rewritten to include of the use of new technologies, in particular drones.[1] Drones sit in an ambiguous legal space because they are unmanned aerial vehicles that are often used to fly in a restricted airspace. Compounding this problem is that the use of drones is largely undocumented as a matter of national secrecy. Nevertheless another layer of technology, social media, is now providing a battleground for visual accountability. On the one hand, I want to draw attention to the use of Instagram to highlight the use of social media to inform – and critique – the use of drones through layered representations of their targets. On the other, and competing with this critique, we must look at the use of drone target visuals released by governments to communicate the drones precision and safety. These examples are a way of demonstrating how social media produces a visual politics that can be used to highlight the use of these new military technologies. This contestation for visual accountability may be the social inroads to in fact see the target. The target I am alluding to here is not what the drones see but the frameworks that that legitimatize the actions of these drones.


Kansas City Getting Wired: Google Fiber and the Digital Divide

Google is a behemoth of an organization. Most everyone is familiar with its search engine (to the point where “Google” is a now a verb), and of the top 25 most-visited web sites in the world 6 are Google-branded, including YouTube. The company makes much of its money by selling targeted advertisements through its AdWords service, and has been wildly successful doing so. But Google has been busy with some interesting projects that fall outside its traditional role as search engine. One in particular should be of interest to sociologists: Google Fiber, a fiber-optic based Internet service very different from current offerings.

By some measures, the United States is an incredibly wired nation. One way to discern this is the number of devices connected to the internet. Since each device connected to the internet gets a unique address, called an IP (internet protocol) address, the number of IP addresses assigned within an area, say the United States, is a measure of how many devices are connected to the internet. The tech savvy among you will note this measure is far from perfect since multiple devices can share an IP address (e.g., two computers sharing the same wireless router), and you would be right. Nevertheless, the United States accounts for 146 million of 666 million total IP addresses worldwide – nearly 22%.


Progressing from game theory to agent based modelling to simulate social emergence

This article discusses some of the fundamental flaws in game theory and discusses agent based modelling as a successor to model social emergence.

Axelrod (1984) made a major contribution to Game Theory in his book “Evolution of Cooperation” but thirteen years later he, dissatisfied with game theory, moves onto agent based modelling to rework his view of cooperation in his book in 1997 “The complexity of Cooperation: Agent-based Models of Competition and Collaboration”.  In a similar move, the Santa Fe Institute in the US was established in 1984 to grapple with complex social issues and used agent based modelling amongst other techniques to “collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world”.  Additionally, the EU acknowledges the failure of traditional economics so adopts agent based modelling.

Agent based modelling captures the interaction between agents to simulate emergence whether at the physical or social level. NetLogo  provides an extensive library of simulations of both physical and social emergence that shows the diversity of application of agent based modelling.  These sample simulations can be readily tailored to meet the needs of social scientists.  The software is free and there is a thriving enthusiastic community support group.

Why is there a move by a prominent game theorist, the Santa Fe Institute and the EU to agent based modelling?  The article Game Theory as Dogma by Professor Kay (2005) discusses ample reasons to search for alternative techniques to model competition and collaboration  and emergence in general.  For instance.

The trouble with game theory is that it can explain everything. If a bank president was standing in the street and lighting his pants on fire, some game theorist would explain it as rational. (Kay 2005, p. 12) (more…)

Sustainability, social progress, environmental protection, economic growth and energy

Sustainability, social progress, environmental protection, economic growth and energy are discussed using the sustainability framework in Figure 1, where sustainability is at the confluence of social progress, environmental protection and economic growth.

Figure 1 Sustainability framework

(Source: IUCN 2006)

There are designs being made toward Ecological Civilization and welcome moves to address the shortcomings of GDP in Completing the picture – environmental accounting in practice by the Australian Bureau of Statistics .  Extending the national accounts to include degradation of natural resources makes a measurable target for politicians to focus on rather than purely GDP.    However, there are problems when social progress is overlooked in the move toward more environmental protection. (more…)