Digital Data 2019, Introduction

Week 01: Star Trek and Feedback Loops

I’m Ryan Brazell, my pronouns are he or they, and I grew up outside Jacksonville FL. Now, I live near Forest Hill Park in Richmond and work full-time at the University of Richmond on the west end. My primary focus is supporting faculty in the social sciences, but in reality I help educators across all five schools make better decisions about technology. When I’m not working or in school, I like to play Dungeons & Dragons (we currently have a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed campaign going) and hang out with my three cats, who are all named after characters from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (aka the best Trek).

via GIPHY. Everybody knows Worf is a big softy on the inside.

This is my fourth semester in the Digital Sociology concentration here at VCU, and I’m interested in how higher education’s collection of digital data (i.e. surveillance, although some contest that labelling) disproportionately impacts transgender students. For example, submitting one’s photograph for a student ID may not pose an issue for most students, but it does potentially create a situation for trans students where their ID may no longer appear to be a valid form of identification. Submitting an updated photograph is equally problematic, however, as the bureaucratic process creates a data trail that might be used to identify transgender students en masse.

I envision sociology, psychology, and technology as a feedback loop or a spiral, where each of those three aspects interconnect and interrelate to create and maintain social media networks as they have come to be. Technology does not exist in a vacuum, certainly; many of us have high-powered computing devices in our pockets in part because some people have excess time in which they can be creative and take risks, usually at the expense of workers who are underpaid for their labor and countries whose natural resources have been stolen. Those are sociological and psychological issues, to be sure.

However, the particular way in which social media platforms are created is also determined in part by technology. Take, for example, this blog post written by a colleague of mine. It discusses (in great detail, far too much for my taste, consider yourself warned) about the technical wizardry that results in single text message being sent, but may as well be about how a tweet or Instagram post. It’s easy to dismiss the breadth and importance of the technological systems we interact with, because those details are by design largely hidden from us. As a result, I think it’s a unfair assessment to say that sociology or psychology are more relevant to the discussion of social media than technology, because I believe we cannot separate the three in order to judge their individual impact. It may be correct to say that, in the context of this program, we’re more interested in the sociological or psychological aspects of social media that the technological ones. That is certainly true for me personally, and it’s why I’m in this program.