The Social Ontology of Digital Data & Digital Technology #CSO15

The Social Ontology of Digital Data & Digital Technology Conference took place on 8 July 2015 at The Shard in London.

This conference set out to explore the meaning of technology and data and its place in the world. It touched upon many ideas which are debated in learning technology circles all the time.  As far as we know though, there were only two learning technologists there and by chance we ended up sitting next to each other – maybe ALT members have a gravitational aura!

The six speakers all addressed different aspects of digital – from ownership and control of the spaces where social activity occurs, to the materiality of digital objects, 3D printing and a really fascinating debate about big data and the complexity of disentangling the use of the device from the intentions of the user.

Noortje Marres challenged us with a discussion about the use of apps, the transformation that happens through human interaction with the app and how data collected can’t be taken in isolation without thinking about the impact of the interactivity.

Jochen Runde looked at the materiality and non-materiality of digital objects, exploring a model for understanding the ties between a digital text and the “bearer” objects that give it material existence.

Emma Uprichard talked about the ontology of big data, the limits to its objectivity and the difficulties surrounding the conclusions we draw from it. These problems in relation to data were also highlighted by Alistair Mutch, who identified a tendency to focus on how data is used rather than how it is collected. He challenged the assumed neutrality of “raw” data, pointing out that some data has acquired a greater status (“charismatic” data), impacting on the diversity of data we use in constructing our understandings of events, behaviours and interactions and thereby risking limiting these.

Photograph of speaker Emma Uprichard
Emma Uprichard by Susan Oman (Twitter: @Suoman)

Susan Halford took us in a different direction, confronting different disciplinary uses of the word “ontology” and the tensions this can cause for interdisciplinary work. She explored ontology as building systems rather than building philosophies and how algorithms are getting more complex in the sematic web, not simply matching search words but incorporating an interpretation of the search and the reason behind it to return appropriate content.

Nick Couldry looked back to Norbert Elias and his approach to complexity, exploring how interwoven structures are formed by the behaviour of many separate people. His discussion of the relevance of Elias’s concept to digital sociality covered the idea that the “spaces in which we interact are now themselves the result of a deep social construction” and the juxtaposition between this and the corporate ambition to own the space where social activity naturally occurs. This was echoed in Alistair Mutch’s discussion of the deep web which has a ‘public’ face and the impact of the commercial relation to the data collected.

This was a thought-provoking and question-raising conference that was thoroughly enjoyable. Whilst the topics covered clearly resonate with the debates of learning technology, for us there was an equal value in the experience of how a particular disciplinary area (in this case sociology) thinks through and approaches the issues that concern it. Since much of a learning technologist’s work is necessarily an interdisciplinary endeavour, this may be an underestimated benefit from participation in such disciplinary-focussed events.

Speakers and presentation titles:

All presentations will be available at:


Rachel Challen, eLearning Manager, Loughborough College.  Twitter: @RKChallen
Antony Coombs, Academic Adviser in Technology Enhanced Learning, University of Greenwich. Twitter: @telgreenwich

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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