Back to basics - What is the Networked Society?

In the latest episode of our podcast Networked Society Stories, we have gone back to basics to ask - what is the networked society?

Adam Lodders and Ken Clarke join podcast host Kate Murray to discuss this sometimes nebulous term. They venture into virtual reality and touch on governance of emerging digital technologies.

Hit play to learn about the fundamental concept underlying the interdisciplinary research of the University of Melbourne's Networked Society Institute. The podcast can also be found on iTunes, Stitcher, Castbox, and other good podcast outlets.

Episode released: 14 June 2018

Recorded and Produced by: Kate Murray

Audio effects and music by: Setuniman, luffy, sagetyrtle, klankbleed, vumseplutten1709, Cabeeno Rossley, Robinhood76, Duckers Duckerson, volkornbrot, Romariogrande, and scream studio.

  • Full Transcript

    KATE MURRAY: Welcome to Networked Society Stories, where we explore and uncover how our increasingly connected world is changing, well, everything. From our daily routines, to how we run our cities. The rise of robots, and 3D printed body parts. We'll be exploring all of those topics and so much more in upcoming episodes. But today we're starting at square one and asking, what is the Networked Society?

    ADAM LODDERS: If you look at historically you know society has actually been marked by its technology. What we're seeing here is actually a transition from industrial sort of based technologies, where machines were sort of more prevalent, through to actually computing and information-based technologies. Hence, this is where the Networked Society comes from, basically, it's a move from the mechanical through to the digital kind of representations.

    KATE MURRAY: This is Adam Lodders, he's the Executive Officer at the University of Melbourne's Networked Society Institute, where he has supervised research in this area for over five years. I asked Adam, so what? Why should we care about the Networked Society?

    ADAM LODDERS: Well I think it's important to be familiar with the concept of the Networked Society, given how the ever-increasing amount of objects that are being connected to the internet are having an increasing role in shaping and controlling our daily existence.

    KATE MURRAY: Say what? Adam might be playing it cool here but what he just said was epic. Let's hear it again.

    ADAM LODDERS: An increasing role in shaping and controlling our daily existence.

    KATE MURRAY: Connected objects, shaping and controlling our daily existence. It sounds like a dystopian future until you feel a buzz on your wrist and realise your smartwatch is prompting you to take a short walk or make an appointment. When you think about the smartphone in your pocket, which is probably putting this audio in your ears, already has computing capabilities beyond the mainframes that sent the first people to the moon.

    If it's anything like my phone it probably directs you through traffic, keeps you entertained, tells you when appointments are, what to eat, where to shop, has all your family photos, your social connections and ... objects shaping and controlling our daily existence. It's already here.

    KEN CLARKE: The other important thing around the Networked Society concept is allowing people to realise the scale of the Networked Society and what the ramifications might be.

    KATE MURRAY: This is Ken Clarke, he is Deputy Director at the NSI Lab at the Institute.

    KEN CLARKE: On the positive side you know new services being delivered in new areas in new ways. But the downside is potential privacy and security breaches. So again, we've seen around the security angle in recent times, there's been a massive hit. Particularly in the UK and Europe, the National Health Service Hospitals being offline for days on end because their systems were encrypted by a virus.

    So people have to understand that this connectivity has downsides, you have to be able to control your privacy, look after your own security in many situations. So it actually gives us a way of actually making people more aware of positives, but also potential negatives.

    ADAM LODDERS: In agreeance with Ken, the role for government in actually mandating these things is problematic. I think you know, what we actually need to see and what we try and focus on is how some of these sorts of technologies can be used to deliver positive social benefits, which is one aspect, which is generally a voluntary kind of thing. But also these things have a negative kind of side, the increased capture of data, the increase use of that in surveillance by states and corporations, actually poses a very fundamental risk. In that sort of you know, it's a decision that has not really been made, it happened by stealth, where actually all this data is actually being captured and processed by governments and private corporations. There's never been really any conversation about whether or not this is the right thing to do, or whether or not there are certain policy kinds of things.

    I think these are some of the issues as these technologies and tools become more part of our daily existence, we're actually going to have to sit down as a society and address, well which paths do we want these to take? If we're happy for the benefits, how do we manage those in an appropriate way?

    KATE MURRAY: Okay, so the Networked Society is what emerges through the increasing connectivity of objects and people via the internet. It's the digital world that we take for granted now, but it's grown so quickly we don't always have the legal structures in place to govern it effectively. So what does the Networked Society Institute do?

    ADAM LODDERS: So we're an interdisciplinary research institute at the University of Melbourne. We're one of five interdisciplinary research institutes. Our main mission is actually to drive collaborations across campus. So what we do is actually facilitate the interactions between researchers from their disciplines, to actually come together and work on a variety of projects. The key for that is...the key organizing principle of that is connectivity. So we pretty much play in anything that has to do with the internet, or can be connected to the internet, that's our scope. 'Cause it's quite a wide area to actually play and exist in.

    KATE MURRAY: What does that look like on the ground? Can you give me an example of the Institute's research?

    KEN CLARKE: The thing for me that's provided the most delight from the Networked Society has been our Music Therapy project, where we're using virtual reality to provide the music therapy for quadriplegic patients. Their reaction to being in that virtual environment was just amazing, they were really stunned to be out in space, or around a campfire by night. The particular worlds that we put them into. For a lot of the quadriplegics of course, they've been limited mobility, they haven't been able to experience the great outdoors. One guy when he took the VR headset off he said, "that's the first time I've been camping in about 10 or 12 years". He actually thought he'd been out camping in the bush. So that was a fantastic reaction.

    KATE MURRAY: So just for those who aren't familiar with virtual reality technology, can you explain a bit more about it?

    KEN CLARKE: Virtual reality is for us as an Institute, the Networked Society Institute, is actually very important from a health and therapy point of view. With virtual reality you actually literally go into an alternative world, and you do not see the real world in front of you, you're actually embedded in another scene of another world. These things can be used for a range of scenarios. So we have a few projects in that space looking at youth mental health for example, and music therapy for quadriplegia. Using the virtual environment as a way to reach out to these people and provide some therapeutic benefit to them.

    Actually the virtual reality experience provides a bit of privacy, they can appear as an avatar, and so they actually lose their inhibitions, and in particularly when it comes to singing, as you can imagine. Most people actually have a hangup about singing in public, but when you're in that virtual environment you don't have that feeling that people are watching or listening to you. So it's a bit like being in the shower, you're suddenly able to sing your heart out, and actually enjoy the experience.

    Similarly, for mental health, you can provide alternative environments but in a safe way, a controlled way. A clinician can actually drive the creation of that virtual environment to provide some therapeutic effect.

    KATE MURRAY: Thanks Ken, and thank you Adam. So let's recap on what we've learned. The Networked Society is the increasing amount of connected objects, from your humble smartphone to a whole smart city. It's all about how they are shaping and controlling our daily existence. There is potential for mismanagement, as the Networked Society has grown faster than the governance structures around it can adapt. But there are also the positive potentials.

    University of Melbourne's Networked Society Institute are trying to harness the power of this connectivity, to create positive social change. How do they do this? Well through things like using VR for health applications, and we heard about the Music Therapy in Virtual Environments. That's a project I'm sure you'll hear about in later episodes. Keep tuning in to learn more about the research going on at the Networked Society Institute and how we are helping to understand and create the connected future.

    For more information you can visit our website, networkedsociety.unimelb.edu.au

    Or find us on Twitter, we're @MelbNSI

    My name is Kate Murray, thanks for listening.

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