Technology is never neutral, it has the potential and capacity to be used socially and politically for quite different purposes, argued Raymond Williams in 1983. Indeed, recently we both watched Her, the latest film from Spike Jonze, and realised that this hyper-connected future is already not either as neutral or as far away from our current human interactions. Are we already living at present in such hyper-connected societies and cities as Jonze describes in his film? It sounds surprisingly contradictory how a film that makes you feel anxious about the self-deterministic way technology is dominating our lives can at the same time tele-transport us to the future of the technologies and their impact on our human emotions.
The real truth seems to be that the impact in our lives is occurring without us being aware of it. Shall Mr Jonze provoke a reflection on the consequences of the quick, risky and liquid real-time cities? This notion brings us to the so-called debate on the suitability of the so-called 'smart cities' and their applicability. Are we altering our social relationship because of the new technologies? Another example of the trend on the techno-determinism consequences is the book The Circle by Dave Eggerswho reflects on questions about privacy, democracy, and human fragility in the technological broad realm. What happens to us if we “must” be online all the time? To live entirely in the public realm can be a form of solitary confinement. Is there any added value in the possibility of remaining voluntarily #unplugged?
Being conscious of this novel trend and subtle notion for the 21st century societal challenges and their research in societies and cities, we organised a workshop for 20 June 2014, supported by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). This event aims to gather scholars from different disciplines to openly and critically debate the notion of #Unplugging, to better understand the social and cultural implications of hyper-connected societies and the possible related research agendas.
For instance: Will unplugging be a right or a privilege of a few? Will being constantly plugged in improve our wellbeing and happiness as a society? In addition to the digital divide’s effect on the information society structure, is hyper-connectivity creating another social divide, between a few privileged unplugged people and a large plugged crowd, online almost 24/7? Are we heading towards an individualistic society? Who designs the technology that we consume? Will devices serve citizens more than the citizens serve the devices? Therefore, are there real alternatives to the technocratic business-led dominant top-down governance model in the smart cities? Or, in contrast, is this still wishful progressive thinking? We should also look at whether technological devices be designed based on peoples needs more than on corporate or infrastructure interests, and whether the socio-political establishment will suffer any shift towards free and community-driven processes?
To sum up, what are the societal challenges in the current hyper-connected societies? How to explore new policy strategies as well as new research agenda by focusing on the implications of hyper-connectivity? If you are interested in discussing these issues come along and join us in the #Unplugging workshop.
Dr Cristobal is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.