Data, probes and sensors: Professor Mark Andrejevic explains the Sensor Society
While we might be enjoying our smart homes, faster check-outs thanks to ‘tap and go' technology, and the exciting prospects of future new developments which will make our everyday lives easier and more enriched, there are various ethical implications that might impact us in ways we don’t like or agree with, and a big part of this has to do with the collection of our personal data.
This is the area of research for Professor Mark Andrejevic, who is Associate Director at the Culture Media Economy (CME) Research Focus Program in the School of Media, Film and Journalism), and an incoming Professor for the newly launched Bachelor of Media Communication.
One research theme currently being explored by Professor Andrejevic at CME is ‘The Sensor Society’ which focuses on the rise of ubiquitous computing and smart spaces and cities. Professor Andrejevic is exploring the cultural and economic aspects of these new forms of mediated interactivity, and asking questions about how these interfaces will reconfigure important aspects of social life, and what it will mean to rely on increasingly automated forms of information collection and processing.
While we see connectivity between things like cars, refrigerators, lights and entertainment systems, very soon this connectivity could expand to our walls, floors and even streets that will also become probes able to keep track of users and to respond to them.
Professor Andrejevic said that although these developments promise great convenience, they also introduce new forms of monitoring and control. He used the example of Amazon's “Just Walk Out” technology at Amazon Go stores which makes shopping more convenient by keeping track of shoppers' every move, and where customers don't have to stop at the cashier to pay because they are automatically charged for the items they put in their shopping bags. The stores also gather increasingly detailed information about consumers that can be used to sort, target, and categorize them in increasingly detailed ways.
These kinds of improved convenience or service experience also mean that a lot of our personal data is captured to be used by companies for a range of purposes, and Professor Andrejevic explained that this not only includes marketing, but also healthcare, security and more. Automated system are used to decide what information we see in our customized news feeds and to determine details about all aspects of our lives. It is from here that our interactive media devices “serve as probes, or sensors” that capture detailed information about our various habits, interests and communication patterns, and approaching these devices as sensors invites us “to think about the infrastructures to which they are connected, to consider who has access to the information they generate and how it is put to use.”
“It also reminds us that in many cases the information is captured passively – we may not be thinking about the types of information that is gathered about us as we use interactive devices,” he said.
More of Professor Andrejevic's recent work has focused on the cultural impact of data mining and predictive analytics. For instance some of his research has involved surveying and interviewing for public attitudes regarding the collection and use of personal information online, revealing strong support for greater consumer education and control over how personal information is used and collected.
His research has also explored the disconnects between how consumers think about their data and how it is actually put to use by data miners.
In theoretical terms, it has examined the ways in which large scale data collection and information processing change the ways we think about what “knowledge” is and how it can be put to use.
These issues and more will be explored with students that will enrol in the Bachelor of Media Communication.
Of his move to Monash to lecture in Communications and Media Studies, he said he is excited.
“The School is at the forefront of media education for the 21st century, combining skills training with the broader social, political, and historical knowledge that will be crucial for ensuring that media industries thrive and benefit the society they serve,” he said.