Creative Digifest #SXSC2 Speaker Profile: Kieron O’Hara

Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. His interests are in the philosophy, sociology and politics of technology, particularly the World Wide Web and the Semantic Web; key themes are trust, transparency, privacy and the use of technology to support human memory. He has had a central involvement in the development of the discipline of Web Science. He is the author of several books, including: ‘Plato and the Internet’ (2002); ‘Trust: From Socrates to Spin’ (2004); ‘ Power, Poverty and the Digital Divide’ (2006, with David Stevens); and ‘The Spy in the Coffee Machine: The End of Privacy As We Know It’ (2008, with Nigel Shadbolt), as well as ‘A Framework for Web Science’ (2006, with Tim Berners-Lee et al), for the journal ‘Foundations and Trends in Web Science’.

He has also written extensively on British politics and political theory, and is a research fellow for the Centre for Policy Studies, and a research fellow with CONCEPT: the Nottingham Centre for Normative Political Theory. He writes frequently for popular journals and newspapers, has appeared several times on radio and television, and regularly blogs for  the Centre for Policy Studies. His latest book is ‘Huxley: A Beginner’s Guide’ (2012), and he is currently engaged in writing about online religious extremism. He chairs the transparency sector panel for crime and criminal justice for the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. His report on privacy in the context of the UK government’s transparency programme, ‘Transparent Government, Not Transparent Citizens’, was published in September 2011.

How are digital technologies transforming our lives?

I think it’s pretty obvious how life (and reality) are being transformed – more information more easily available, more access to people, more traces of our activities left behind. Reality, for many people at least, is encompassing digital aspects. It seems clear, as a number of far-sighted thinkers always maintained, that a good many people can feel as warmly for, and interact as deeply with, digital artefacts or digitally-mediated traces of friends, colleagues and family as with the analogue versions.

Is that surprising? Not really, when you consider how easily people have always moved between the symbolic realm and the symbolised. From the medieval days of minstrelsy, people have fallen in love with images of pop stars they have never met (and nowadays, people will pay good money to see a Robbie Williams imitator, who is aping Robbie Williams’ on-stage persona, which is presumably very different from the chap himself). People used to hoard things, then gold, then paper money, and now they get excited when a number which represents a stock market index or a growing bank balance increases on their computer screen. Sexual fetishism is the transfer of desire from a person to a representative, be it an article of clothing or the acting out of a type of scene. Art was one of the earliest human impulses – we don’t know the significance of cave paintings, but even if they were just Neanderthal wallpaper it’s remarkable that our ancestors were able to create and relate to arrangements of pigment that represented the animals they hunted (and, by the way, remarkable that they look like animals to us, too).

Even some of the deepest, most treasured and valued feelings we have irrevocably involve symbols. The Host, when consecrated in the Eucharist, becomes something that people of many religions can relate to very powerfully – yet it is after all a piece of bread. Symbols live and sometimes they die when the social conditions that make them happen disappear – presumably the Greek gods were very meaningful at one time, yet now they have become myths, stories – culturally important but no longer moving or persuasive.

So I don’t find it surprising that people can form or conduct relationships with remote people, or live in Second Life. Humans are meaning-makers – we create significance in our environment, and in the objects we engineer.

What can the latest technologies do for you?

Me personally, or an abstract person? Technology can bore people or excite them, make them more efficient, or distract them from their work, keep them in touch or lock them in a world of their own creation. I think the positive possibilities of new technologies are massive, and as usual after a period of reflection we’ll discover (a) that much of the potential we anticipated has not been realised, and (b) that we will count many unanticipated effects as positive outcomes. But I know from my own work as an academic how far access to information has completely transformed my work. If I were to focus on that aspect of life, I’d have to say that it is extremely exciting to be within reach of the work of so many knowledge creators. If Newton was standing on the shoulders of giants, heaven knows where that puts me.

But of course technology can’t make you wiser or more reflective (or turn me into Newton, worse luck). If technology takes away from us the ability to sit back and gauge the significance of what we have discovered, then so much the worse. We need to use technology and make sure it does not use us (sorry for the cliche, but it’s true).

If you’re not online, are you out of the game?

Not sure what game that might be – but whatever it is, this had better not be true. If we make it impossible for people to pursue their own conception of the good life without Facebook or Google or an iPhone, then we will be diminishing our society by diminishing its scope.

In any type of pursuit, there is usually a default mode of existence where most people are comfortable and which requires certain skills, commitments and technologies. Without those skills, etc, then you can’t join in. But that general consensus very rarely exhausts all the possibilities, and there are usually alternative ways of getting value out of life.

Trying to close those alternatives down would involve an unacceptable level of coercion – but in any case we should support anyone trying to live life as they wish to, and not try to clone ourselves or our machines.