The Local, Historical and Cultural in Web Science: Reflections on WebSci19

I emerged from Boston Logan International airport for WebSci19 in search of transport to find taxis, but no people on one end of the taxi rank. On the other end, there were a lot of people waiting for a taxi; but there were no taxis. They were all waiting for an Uber or a Lyft. When I go to a new city, I love to take a moment to just sit and gaze as people go by. The lovely hot Boston weather offered up the chance at the end of one conference day. Many people were wearing airpods, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. Maybe they were talking to someone far away, or maybe the person they were talking to was just around the corner. Maybe that woman was listening to a podcast, or was it music? I wondered what would happen if I stopped them to find out … for research purposes … to find out not just what, but why. 

Boston appeared a clean city, organised, but also quiet, as students were away for summer. I also found it somewhat sombre, with not too many smiles on offer, but where, as with all places some people can be so very kind. One man went searching for a receipt that fell out of my bag and blew away in the wind. After a thorough search, he brought it back to me where I sat, a reminder of human unpredictably, in our data-driven world. The web is disruptive, yes, but the uniqueness of Boston would no doubt influence how this disruption would evidence itself in this city, versus Calcutta in India, Southampton in the UK, Beijing in China, Nairobi in Kenya or a local community in one of these cities.

This was my second Web Science conference and I was again struck by how much research was specific to Twitter. My research found that wary of ‘fake’ many people reserve their most precious interaction and information for the offline world. Additionally, much of the data that could benefit academic research is not inclusive or not freely available.  So, what does this mean for the results derived from the data? Data that social and economic services seem to be increasingly dependent upon. I came to this conference to present my Ph.D. Research on technology affordances and constraints of digital platforms on entrepreneurs in Trinidad and Tobago, which looked at platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, YouTube, Amazon, PayPal and Uber. I found that while using digital platforms speed up communication and globally, limitations are evident as they usually don’t cater for local nuances, culture, and social norms, which remain relatively stable even as digital technology and services continually and rapidly change and disrupt.

I was encouraged by some presentations emphasising just how interdisciplinary Web Science needs to be. The keynote by Fabien Gandon was one that stood out to me as it gave helpful explanations of why not only social but historical context is important by illustrating how understanding such context could potentially help us to understand the future of automated cars (electric cars existed in 1942) and job loss with developments in Artifical Intelligence.

Key Note presention (Web Sci19): Fabien Gandon

I clearly understand that local, social and cultural understanding, historical context and philosophical insight, can help provide clues about unintended consequences and outcomes, needed for problem-solving and problem prevention globally. It’s one reason I am delighted to be doing research for SHAPE-ID, a project focused on developing this kind of interdisciplinary research in Europe, within arts, humanities and social sciences (ASHSS) as well as with science, technology engineering and math (STEM) disciplines at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute. Techilosophy is also an attempt to illustrate those connections. Even if we don’t always acknowledge it, each one of us is intricately interconnected with each other in an increasingly tangled web, a web which needs all perspectives to untangle.