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The X in Text

The X in Text

Putting the X in text: warm wishes or a kiss-off?

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lanych via Shutterstock
Andy Miah, University of Salford

Do you sign off texts and emails with an x? Have you ever thought what that x – shorthand for a kiss – means to you or the person who has sent it to you? It’s said that the liberal use of x in electronic correspondence, whether personal or professional, is feminising the workplace – and Labour MP Jess Phillips was told off for being unprofessional by a judge a couple of years ago for signing off an email to a constituent with an x. So how did we arrive at a situation where everybody gets one at the end of nearly every sentence we type?

Part of our answer is really simple – the x in correspondence conveys a special kind of empathy for the recipient. In a world where uppercase letters read like SHOUTING and where emojis are ambiguous, every element of a text message is easily misunderstood. The x serves as a catch-all device, telling your reader that all is well in your relationship.

The ubiquitous x can be applied to friendship, romantic, or even professional relationships when messaging. It is so versatile, revealing interest, affection and a general kind of togetherness which, if face to face, would be equivalent to some kind of non-verbal body language – a head tilt, or a sympathetic nod to show agreement and understanding. The x shows that you are in this together and that you seek to continue the conversation in a spirit of mutual and even jovial appreciation.

However, this still doesn’t fully explain why it is an x that has come to wield such power, or why it feels so essential to include one. After all, it could be – and sometimes is – a different symbol: an emoji perhaps, or a simple smiley face like this: :). Nor does it tell us about the journey taken by the x in becoming this multifaceted symbol.

Are you free with your emojis? Mego studio via Shutterstock

Making your mark

History tells us that the x has a long pedigree. In the middle ages, handwritten letters would end with an + to signify the Christian symbol of Christ. With most people being illiterate, a cross was deemed to be sufficiently accessible to verify identity. What’s more, there is evidence of such rituals of signing documentation to be accompanied by a physical kiss being given to the paper, as one might kiss a cross if of certain religious persuasions.

But, this still leaves a big gap between then and now. What happened at the beginnings of the digital revolution that explains this progressive encroachment into all of our correspondence, turning every message into its own letter? Equally, why did the x remain, while other elements of letter writing disappeared, such as writing: “Dear [name]”, or “from [name]” at the start and end of correspondence. We nearly never do this now when sending texts, because messaging has become an endless letter, a conversation that is always left open, to be picked up again at a later stage. It isn’t difficult to imagine that the cross at the end of letters evolved into the x just as words like “goodbye”, evolved out of “God be with you”.

Kissing culture

Yet, for today’s generation, the connection behind the x is likely to be completely lost – it is simply some kind of kiss and, just like a cross, using it could land you in big trouble. After all, the kiss is remarkably culturally specific and an x can mean something very different – or nothing at all in a different language. For instance, in Spanish, x is short for “por”, meaning “for”. Equally, a kiss in one culture means something different in another and, in some cultures, there is no kissing at all. There is also a gendered politics to a kiss, which can make it a highly risky undertaking to send, especially in professional settings.

Forgotten your phone? Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock

At the same time, the x can be a way of allowing somebody to express themselves physically without the pressure of actually having to touch somebody. Indeed, this is one of the web’s most amazing features; it can liberate us from the constraints of social conventions and provide a space for relating to others differently – a perspective that researchers have outlined since its inception.

There may be many people who sign off with an x who would not think of kissing the person when face to face, but feel comfortable expressing such affection through a symbol. At a time when the world wide web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners Lee, has called for more love online, this is surely a good thing.

So, while seemingly one of the most uncomplicated things we do when messaging, the x in texts has far wider implications than perhaps we first thought. A good rule may be to only send an x to people who would be comfortable with you kissing them face to face. Would you actually kiss that person, if they were in front of you? If not, then perhaps drop the x.The Conversation

Andy Miah, Chair in Science Communication & Future Media, University of Salford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sarajevo 1984, 33 years later

Today marks the 33 years since the Opening Ceremony of the Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games and so I dedicated my afternoon to capturing some of its history. The most remarkable location is the Bob Sled track, which was built in concrete and survives to this day. It remains now as a living monument to the Games, although for the locals, it feels also like a forgotten place.

Draped in overgrown foliage and graffiti, I learned that it has become a popular place to come walking and, while the snow was too deep to walk its length today, I had the chance to see a few of its turns.

It's hard to know how to place this as an Olympic legacy. It has become a tourist attraction, that much is clear. Yet, it does not resonate with conventional legacy language. After all, it has become a line of desire, rather than a purposeful sports facility. However, I think it is all the richer for this, and there is something truly authentic about it, as a manifestation of cultural heritage, re-worked by the local community.

Clearly, the 1990s war broke continuity for the city, in terms of many things, but also that Olympic legacy. The cable car running from the city to the mountain venue was lost - but is being re-built I am told. Also, many Olympic buildings were destroyed. So, there is something also compelling about the robustness of this unusually permanent concrete bob sled run. So, I am comfortable with talking about this monument as a feature of Sarajevo's Olympic legacy. Like the most effective legacies, they have to arise from a process of re-negotiation, re-ownership, and be sites of active value creation for a community. This area enjoys each of these features and, for this reason, i'm sure it will continue to be of historical significance and worthy of protection. And if that wasn't enough, you can also mountain bike down the run, which has to be completely awesome!

My trip here has been all the richer for venturing out to see this amazing site and I hope you will agree that there is a beauty to this Olympic heritage, even if it was not the one intended when it was imagined.

Draped in overgrown foliage and graffiti, I learned that it has become a popular place to come walking and, while the snow was too deep to walk its length today, I had the chance to see a few of its turns.

It's hard to know how to place this as an Olympic legacy. It has become a tourist attraction, that much is clear. But it does not resonate with conventional legacy language. After all, it has become a line of desire rather than a purposeful sports facility. Yet, I think it is all the richer for this, and there is something truly authentic about it, as a manifestation of cultural heritage, re-worked by the local community. 

Clearly, the 1990s war broke continuity for the city, in terms of many things, but also that Olympic legacy. The cable car running from the city to the mountain venue was lost - but is being re-built I am told. Also, many Olympic buildings were destroyed. So, there is something also compelling about the robustness of this unusually permanent concrete bob sled run.  

My trip here has been all the richer for venturing out to see this amazing site and I hope you will agree that there is a beauty to this Olympic heritage, even if it was not the one intended when it was imagined.

How artificial intelligence could provide some respite for the NHS

How artificial intelligence could provide some respite for the NHS

How artificial intelligence could provide some respite for the NHS

Emma Rich, University of Bath and Andy Miah, University of Salford

The NHS recently announced plans to trial an artificially intelligent mobile health app to a million people in London. The aim is to help diagnose and treat patients by engaging them in a real time text message conversation which will complement the NHS 111 phone based service (which was criticised by the Care Quality Commission watchdog). The app’s designers, Babylon Healthcare Ltd, use algorithms to make initial diagnoses which are then followed up with human consultations. It has already received a glowing CQC evaluation.

The app is likely to provoke a mixed response, with enthusiastic technophiles up against those concerned that more technology means a less human healthcare service. Yet, with the NHS being described as suffering from a humanitarian crisis, and with a growing healthcare burden and limited resources, some smart solutions are needed. It is hard to deny that problems of limited funding are enduring features of this unique public service. Perhaps AI has the answer.

In fact, providing effective healthcare is always a combination of systematised technological efficiency combined with patient centred human care. Polarised views on technology are often not helpful. It’s also necessary to recognise how this approach to healthcare is part of a wider technical revolution in which connected objects in the Internet of Things will change everything from healthcare to traffic maintenance.

The NHS app is really simple to use and has been likened to using the social messaging service WhatsApp – but with one crucial difference: you are chatting with a computer, not a person. Once the app is downloaded, you log your basic health information, and then start explaining your symptoms. The robotic “responder” will say things like: “I just need a few details from you before we get started,” and “nearly there” to keep the conversation going. After a more detailed exchange, it might come to a conclusion along these lines:

Ok so your symptoms don’t sound urgent, but I think they require further investigation. Make sure you arrange a consultation with a GP within the next two weeks. If left, symptoms like yours can become more serious, so book now while you remember and I’ll remind you closer to the time. If things change in the meantime and you become more unwell, speak to a doctor as soon as you can.

This digital diagnosis service intends to provide an additional communication tool between the NHS and patients. It it part of a broader ecosystem of digital health services which include online health tracking. Also, the app takes advantage of the fact that some people these days are likely to be more comfortable chatting by text than they are with talking on the phone.

This digital phenomenon is driven by the promise of a wider technological fix to social problems. Applications within healthcare could bring about big wins for society, where the functionality of the device is made all the more efficient by the aggregation of “big data” that it generates. Tech firm Babylon is joined by other big players seeking to do similar things, such as Google’s Deep Mind, which wants to mine NHS data to to enable earlier diagnoses for example, or to achieve more effective monitoring of treatments.

At the world’s largest tech expo in Las Vegas at the start of 2017, home AI systems have been one of the biggest hits. So perhaps the NHS has found an intelligent solution at just the right time. People may now be far more willing to have a “relationship” with an attentive machine than a call centre drone.

Digital doctor

Driving these developments is the assumption that, within a digital knowledge economy, these forms of communication can offer more neutral and accurate responses, circumventing human error. Yet, scholars within the emerging field of critical digital health studies suggest that algorithms must be understood as part of a complex network of interconnections between human and non-human actors. A recent study comparing physician and computer diagnostic accuracy revealed that doctors “vastly outperformed” algorithms

So we need to ask some key questions about the assimilation of AI into healthcare. How do people make sense of the list of possible diagnoses they receive from the machine? Will people follow the advice, or trust it? How will AI need to be tailored to accommodate human variation, by geography, capacity, or cultural identity. Another important aspect of this trial will be the consideration given to the backgrounds of the users. Given enduring concerns about inequalities of digital access and digital literacy, trials for future digital health tech need to be conducted amongst those populations with limited resources, experiences, and technological infrastructure.

Perhaps the biggest question we face in a world where ever more of our data is locked up in the mobile app environment, is over the proprietary and privacy of our data. How can we ensure that we have the freedom to move our health data around, over time, and ensure that it is safe and secure? We may need a new Bill of Health Data Rights to underpin and limit their exploitation of our data, and work on this must start now.

The Conversation

Emma Rich, Reader, Department for Health, University of Bath and Andy Miah, Chair in Science Communication & Future Media, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Photographers of Rio 206

The Photographers of Rio 206

New article out with The Conversation, focuses on the amazing community of photographers at the Games. Here it is...

Incredible images from Rio 2016, as photographers rise to meet social media challenges

Andy Miah, University of Salford

More than 1,500 of the world’s best photographers flocked to Rio for the Olympic Games, capturing inspiring and surprising images of the world’s biggest sporting event. From Reuters to National Geographic, the games draw professional photographers of all stripes – not just ones that cover sport.

Mario Tama (mariotama), Getty Images photographer. Currently based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by way of New York City.

Everyone’s a pro

But with the rise of digital and mobile photography, capturing the landmark moments of the Olympics is a much harder gig today than it used to be. Countless people inside the venues have their own high-quality cameras – and what they don’t manage to capture, they can find online from someone else in the audience, simply by following a hashtag on Twitter or Instagram.

This army of amateurs – which includes the athletes themselves – can even publish their photographs online without worrying about getting in trouble from the International Olympic Committee – provided they don’t use the images for commercial purposes.

Jessica Ennis-Hill (jessicaennishill) takes a selfie with Usain Bolt.

Getting creative

As a result, today’s professional photographers have to be more creative and more innovative than their predecessors. They have to develop a unique sense of what makes a photograph historically important. And even then, there’s a chance that someone will have the same idea; remember that iconic photograph of Usain Bolt smiling over his shoulder during the 100 metre heat? Well, there are actually two of these.

Cameron Spencer (cjspencois), Sydney based Getty Images staff photographer.

High tech

So, to set themselves apart from the crowd, professional photographers are having to use technology more creatively. There are some remarkable gadgets on show at Rio; from cameras which can go in the water and fly through the air, to rigs which can take 360° footage.

Bob Martin (bubblesontour), photographer and grandfather.

Working for free

Photographers are also having to share more of their work for free, in the hope that this exposure will help them to secure new commissions. Platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Flickr are key destinations for photographers to showcase their latest snaps.

Gary Hershorn (garyhershorn), NYC based photographer and photo editor. Former Reuters, now contributing to SilverHub Media and Getty Images.

Maintaining control

The challenge here is that controlling one’s images online is not so easy, as people repost, copy, and distribute often without seeking permission, paying royalties, or even attributing properly. One of the leading photo agencies, Getty, dealt with this recently by allowing people to use a certain number of photos online for free, using a simple embed code, which links the image back to their website.

Adam Pretty (adampretty).

Going mainstream

Newspapers still want to illustrate their front pages with the iconic image of any given sports event: the photo that everyone expects to see. New platforms attract millions of users, with reports already indicating that most social traffic comes from the photo and video sharing platform Instagram. Social media also creates a simple way of measuring images' popularity through “likes” or “favourites”. So the mainstream media has good cause to sit up and pay attention.

Fun social media stories are also a big hit at the games, as was true of US athlete Ben Kanute, who staged his own opening ceremony, when he couldn’t make the official one.

Mark Reis (mark.reis).

Avant garde artists

With the rise of citizen generated media, the photographer’s future may be in jeopardy: Instagram likes don’t always pay the bills. But challenges like these are often a catalyst for major shifts in how avant garde artists make new work. Consider Gerald Andel – one of the first Olympic Artists in Residence – who is using Twitter’s six-second video app Vine to make unusual work.

A new age

Photography is no exception and to get a glimpse of this transformation in the sports genre, take a look at the work of these extraordinary artists whose work may prove to be indicative of sport photography’s new golden age, where photographers have now become videographers, animators, and much more.

Nick Didlick Nikon Ambassador, professional photographer/videographer and digital imaging pioneer. Exploring and loving the intensely visual world we live in.

Donald Miralle (donaldmiralle), Photographer, Waterman, Husband, Father.“

David Burnett (davidburnettfoto), freelance photographer for National Geographic.

David Ramos (davidramosgetty) staff photographer with Getty Images in Barcelona.

Lucy Nicholson (lucynic) Reuters senior staff photographer. Born in London; based in LA, covering news, sport and features.

Jed Jacobsohn (jedjacobsohn).

Anthony Edgar (anthonyedgar888).

Al Bello (albello55), Sports photographer at Getty Images”

Christophe Simon (christophesimonafp).

John Lehmann (johnlehmann), staff photojournalist with the Globe and Mail based in Vancouver, Canada.

The Conversation

Andy Miah, Chair in Science Communication & Future Media, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can a six-second movie be considered art?

Can a six-second movie be considered art?

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In my first article for @ConversationUK I focus on the hypershort video format as an art work. This paper was stimulated by a talk I gave for the Encounters Short Film Festival in Bristol. Take a peek Here's one I made earlier (from China)...

 

Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games

Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games

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Next week, I head to Nanjing, where I will be the social media mentor for the IOC's Young Reporters programme at the Youth Olympic Games. 35 amazing young reporters from around the world will come together to learn how to report the Games, hearing from some of the world's best, including the current Press Chief of Rio 2016. It's going to be a lot of work, but a real blast I am sure. Here's a little montage selfie video I made of them all...

Being Gay at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games (2014)

Being Gay at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games (2014)

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Piece published in the Huffington Post:

 

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about Russian law and homosexuality. Much of it has centered on international outrage at a change in legislation which, for many countries, would be a return to a very dark and depressing era in humanity's history, where non-heterosexual lifestyles were seen as something to hide or feel ashamed about.

Some political leaders are not attending the Sochi 2014 Olympics, it is thought, because of these anxieties about human rights. Yet, the time for debate is now over. As the Games begin, the only question remaining is what will happen to an athlete if they do anything to express their sexuality while at the Games.

The IOC's position on political manifestation at the Games is pretty unambiguous: the Games are apolitical and any action to politicize the Games is likely to be met with disciplinary action by the athlete's National Olympic Committee. This happened in 1968 when Smith and Carlos each raised a black gloves fist on the podium on behalf of African-American civil rights. They were subsequently removed from the team.

Sochi's equivalent to Mexico 1968 is sexuality and the IOC would prefer that athletes just focused on their competition. I have some sympathy for the IOC, which, all along, explains itself as essentially the guardians of a multi-sport mega event, and that the issues around belief systems is not within their purview. It is not realistic to expect the IOC to make a significant intervention in long-term domestic law, beyond what is required to logistically deliver the Games.

Yet, over the years the IOC has nurtured an identity that has made more central its contribution to advancing society in crucial ways and this is actually part of what Coubertin dreamed of when setting up the modern Olympics. For example, the IOC has built close relationships with the United Nations on a range of issues, such as creating global peace and environmental concern. In this sense, it has become a powerful advocacy organization, the value of which is born out of its response to and action around important global concerns.

Furthermore, it is hard to understand how sexual identity should be construed as a political manner, rather than a fundamental human right that the IOC should support. After all, the Olympic Charter compels its members to support non-discrimination. To this end, support for sexual freedom is more adequately understood as a condition of membership to the Olympic movement, not a political choice. Being the host of an Olympic Games should make these commitments even more necessary to uphold.

The IOC's only defence is found in the difference between a fundamental freedom and the advocacy of this freedom in public fora, the latter of which is what authorities seek to avoid. This may be the only way that the IOC can justify its stance. In any case, the IOC should guarantee that GLBT athletes will not face action for taking a stand at the Sochi Olympics. This would be an important message to send the world and the only way that these can really be great Games for everybody and avoid being labelled in history as the homophobic Games.

As the Google doodle today states in its rainbow colours, quoting the Olympic Charter:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Oscar Pistorius granted bail

Oscar Pistorius granted bail

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Piece published in the Huffington Post

Listening to the Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair’s ruling was a drawn out process with tweets indicating that Oscar Pistorius could have taken a flight around the world and arrive back in time to hear the verdict.  But after a little under 2 hours, Nair granted Pistorius bail, which was immediately followed by an audible ‘Yes!’ from members of his entourage.

Granting Pistorius bail was no easy verdict to reach and at times it sounded as though Nair would have to just toss a coin, as there seemed compelling gaps in both side of the argument as to what really happened. Why had Reeva Steenkamp locked the door to the bathroom? Why didn’t Oscar Pistorius say anything before taking a shot? How could he have passed by the bed and not noticed she was out of it?

Equally, the lead police officer on the scene was given a telling off for having bungled a number of elements on the scene and for offering inconsistent stories, such as the nature of the steroids found or the distance of the witnesses who heard shouting were from the house.

Just over half way through the lengthy lecture on South African law and its history of granting bail that preceded the ruling, it became clear that the Magistrate considered that the prosecution had done enough to jeopardise the legitimacy of Pistorius’ bail appeal. However, it was the fact that Pistorius was not deemed to be a flight risk that seemed to clinch it for him.

When they started the hearing, I really wasn’t sure what to think still, but as it went through, I found Pistorius’ case increasingly credible and felt myself leaning towards the eventual outcome. There did not seem to be a sufficiently strong enough case against him at this point, even if there were serious peculiarities in his testimony, as reported by the Chief Magistrate.

At best, it looked like this was going to a case of someone behaving terribly wrecklessly, which may be a disposition born out of a life with a disability in a nation with a terrible criminal history and a predilection for gun ownership. These explanations were not given of course, but I expect they will come out in the trial. Chief Magistrate Nair mentioned that Pistorius offered an unusual amount of detail in his testimony for a pre-mediated murder case and that this was to his credit.

It is still hard to believe that Oscar Pistorius could be convicted for pre-mediated murder. All of the testimonies are generous to his personality, which is consistent with the status he has enjoyed over the years. In part, this is why the case is so fascinating, as it threatens to completely destroy our impressions of a person. Such public betrayal is always going to be big news. This is likely to be the trial of the decade.

Oscar Pistorius is more than just a fallen hero

Oscar Pistorius is more than just a fallen hero

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This entry was initially published as a blog piece, but later in the Huffington Post

It was only a few days ago that the world of sport was talking about nothing but Lance Armstrong. However, the case surrounding Oscar Pistorius dwarfs any kind of doping scandal, past or present.

A lot has been written about how the tragedy will mean the loss of a hero for the sports world and for people with disabilities. But, Pistorius isn’t just any old sporting hero. He is the most important athlete of the 21st Century and this fallen idol will mean that our social world will suffer a little longer from prejudice than it would otherwise have. Unlike most athlete superstars, Pistorius transcended what happens on the field. Debates about him were of significance for society at large.

His capacity to rival the speeds of so-called able-bodied athletes brought into question the use of that term at all and made us believe that a bionic Games that was faster and better than today’s was just around the corner.

In this world, it would be the technologically modified athlete we celebrate and it would be a world where disability no longer mattered. Everybody could compete on a level playing field and sponsors would fund Paralympic sport as much as Olympic. There may even no longer be a division between the two. There would be only one Olympic Games and only the best athletes competing.

This is now all jeopardized by the fact that Oscar was the only Paralympian campaigning to bridge the two Games. No other athletes have made this case and so the issue may simply disappear from the headlines. The IAAF may have an easier time because of these events and the world of sport may generally breathe a silent sigh of relief that there is nobody else pursuing the same campaign.

Just before the London 2012 Olympics, I wrote an article saying that Pistorius would be the most remembered athlete of the entire Games. I think this is even more likely now, but obviously for very different reasons

This is the second most tragic element of the circumstance, after the loss of a human life. An athlete whose entire future was still yet to be written, but which promises so much, seems like it is now etched in stone.

Unless Pistorius finds a way to redeem himself through the trial, then we may never know how much the world has lost by his absence in public life. It wouldn’t be the first time that a celebrity has later found sympathy from the public and managed to recover their place as a role model.

Oscar Pistorius is so young, with so much still ahead of him -  as an athlete, an advocate, and an ambassador - the entire world will be made worse of by this recent, horrific event, if no recovery is possible.

Why the doping problem is here to stay

Why the doping problem is here to stay

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Yesterday’s doping news from the Australian Crime Commission raises three crucial questions for the world of sport.

First, why do athletes dope? Second, how prevalent is doping in elite and recreational sport. Finally, how far beyond sport does performance enhancement extend? You might have noticed a new acronym in their report – PIED – Performance and Imaging Enhancing Drugs. This is not the first time it has been used in anti-doping jargon, but it is a crucial signal to the broader culture of performance enhancement that confronts elite sport. Back in 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics made clear that to just pursue elite athletes is not going to address the wider culture of doping in society and it is this part that the sport’s world still does not understand.

 

People dope because they want to win. They want to win because it brings rewards. Rewards increase one’s social status and capacity to live a good life. This is one version of what’s happening. Another is that athletes dope because they want to push their bodies even further and reach new limits. In this version, the reward is having transcended what others have achieved before, going beyond what we thought to have been humanly possible, and securing one’s place in history as a result.

 

One of the crucial omissions to yesterday’s news was precisely how prevalent doping is in elite sports. Admittedly, nobody knows, but they did say the report revealed it is more common than we were led to believe. Some figures on that claim are crucial, as is a better way of figuring out what’s really going on. It’s not easy to do, but the answer would dramatically shape the policy response, and so it should.

 

However, the really big problem facing elite sports is that they don’t operate in isolation from the rest of society, no matter what they might like to think. Certainly, in sports you can commit acts of violence that would be criminal outside of it, but I’m talking about the broader culture of performance enhancement that surrounds us in daily life. Whether it is a cup of coffee in the morning – or a few cups – or steroids, the so-called problem of performance enhancement in sport will never be solved without a shift in our values. However, I’m not sure that we need to change. We just need to protect people more effectively from taking excessive risks. Anti-doping goes well beyond this.

 

Being the best that has ever been is an aspiration that underpins people’s lives, especially when they are young and this can drive the desire to win at all costs.  This may be an argument to get rid of elite competitive sport specifically or to remove competition from society more generally, but WADA won’t do that all on its own. In any case, it would distinguish this kind of dangerous competition from healthy competition. I suspect you cannot have one without the other.

 

 

It's not the end of the world, yet

It's not the end of the world, yet

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It should be pretty well-known by now that the Mayan's never predicted the end of the world this Friday, but they have a reputation for doing so because the last day of their calendar had the 21st December 2012, or thereabouts, as the last one.

However, that doesn't stop us from speculating over what it might mean, if it really was the end of the world in a couple of days. After all, we will be confronted with this at some point in the future, whether it is the Mayan predictions, global warming or some other global catastrophe.

So, what would you do, if you had complete certainty about the world ending on Friday? Imagine further that you only learned this right now, upon reading my essay. This article is the equivalent of Orson Welles' radio broadcast announcing aliens had landed. Your reading it was the moment when everything changed. What would you do?

The first thing you might want to figure out is the conditions of our predicament. Just what do we mean by 'the end'? Does the end of the world mean the end of humanity, the end of planet earth, or maybe just the end of all other living species, for instance? Is it a bit like a nuclear attack that we could, technically, survive, if only we insulated ourselves from the damage? In each instance, things are pretty damn serious, but each demands quite different reactions. If it were the end of planet Earth - as in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia - then we might want to figure out an exit strategy.

How could we get off this planet and into some other kind of planetary environment? This is a pretty common scenario in science fiction stories on, not least because they often rely on an exit strategy to have meaningful end for characters. This is why Von Trier's film is so novel. Everyone dies and there is a resignation to a more powerful force, which is an unavoidable, pending, tragic, but beautiful reality.

Now, to be frank, there is not a lot you can do to get off planet earth within 48 hours. Even if you could physically get off the planet, you won't get very far before you run out of fuel and need to land somewhere. So, escape is not really an option for most of us. Our Prime Ministers and Presidents might have some escape route we don't know about - they always seem to in films like this - but they're also in a pretty tricky situation, unless escaping to the international space station or some other outer stellar environment is an option. Some desert in the Midwest just won't do the job for Barack Obama, even if it is deep under ground. In any case, the fact that we've all died mean there's not much of a case for them going at all, since the people they govern will no longer exist. If failed policies don't cut the mustard, surely the annihilation of the entire electorate invalidates an administration's right to govern. So, it might be better to choose a rocket full of people who have the range of skills necessary to rebuild the population, even if that possibility is remote.

But let's suppose that our 'end of the world' is one where everything, as we know it - and as it has ever been known - disappears, a literal collapse of everything compressing into nothing, just a complete absence of life, existence, space, and matter. A state of being where we can not knowingly conceive of any possible return. All gone. Forever. What would you do right now? There is nobody who can help you, no device, technology, or strategy that could avoid this pending certainty from coming about. How would you spend your last 3 days?

The first thing I'd want to know is what time exactly will it all come to an end - and what time zone! Let's say it is 7:13pm on Friday in the United Kingdom. I'd then want to know exactly where everyone I love is presently located and, if they are away from home, figure out whether they could get there. After all, being together with my loved ones seems like the most likely thing we'll try to achieve. Unless of course, my loved ones are like the family in Thomas Vinterberg's film Festen, where a family gathering turns into a raucous exposure of family child abuse, bringing about the rapid demise of the gathering and familial bonds. This kind of scenario might actually be quite common at end of world family parties where the most heartbreaking truths about each other could surface to ensure we go out with least some degree of knowledge about what our lives really meant to one another.

Yet, even getting people together is going to be tricky. The reality is that most people who require some form of transportation to get somewhere will not make it, as there would be chaos in the transport system. Pilots will stop flying. Train drivers will stop driving. Traffic control workers, signal guards, road maintenance and emergency service staff, will all face the same question as us - why spend time at work, when you only have 3 days left to live? In any case, the entire energy distribution system would grind to a halt, leaving most vehicles stranded with a tank's wroth of gas left to get them to their destination. Furthermore, drivers would be insanely reckless, making most major roads unusable, so driving is likely to be out. It might be worth figuring out how to hot wire cars, in case you find one with fuel in it, but it's going to be a long shot.

Once I've dealt with the possibility of not seeing some people ever again, I want to round up the few people I have near whom I care about. Now, unavoidably, you might find that this is going to be impossible. If you are that guy who happens to be in some random hotel in some random country doing business, you're pretty much on your own. You can realistically face the end of your days sharing it with a mini bar - if you were lucky enough to have had it restocked before the news broke, as that person has definitely quit their job by now.

So, it's a reasonable assumption that everything would grind to a halt, making most forms of travel impossible for a lot of people. We would very quickly descend in to the kind of chaos that is found only in films like The Day After tomorrow, where not much beyond human energy drives the planet forward. However, if you are lucky enough to herd up the key people - not withstanding the fact that you might not be in their list of people they want to herd up - then what do you do next, once you are all together? Well, since it is nearing Christmas, maybe some games, a film, opening presents that presently sit under the tree (bad luck for those who have family members who are last minute shoppers). This may sound trivial, but what else do you expect?

The pursuit of normality in moments of finitude is likely to be highly prized by people who are beginning a journey of nostalgia into an already lost future. Why shouldn't we just calm down and carry on? When all is said and done, I'd probably want to just sit with my wife and play with our son, watch him do things that amaze us, maybe do some drawing or painting, go to bed together and hold each other the entire time without a break. Eat some food from time to time. Go for a walk. Play with his teddy bears. Not talk about the end of the world and just enjoy every minute left with him. An appreciation of intimacy is not unique to our species, nor possible to enjoy only with members of our species. You might even choose the final sunset as your companion. But, whatever form we can get it, intimacy is likely to be the one thing we seek out in moments of certain, collective doom. There will be no grand statements; no dramatic moments. Just sharing the same space, going through it together, understanding we are lucky to have each other. That will probably do.

On the other hand, I might try to get up some high mountain and jump off the edge a few seconds before it all comes to an end. I've always wondered what that would be like. Got to time it right though.

Watching the Hashtags

Watching the Hashtags

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This month, I have an article published in The Walkley magazine, an insiders magazine for Australia and New Zealand media. The edition arrived in the post today and it's a really nice publication with a whole section on the Olympics. I learned a lot from reading it. Rod Savage and Toni Hetherington from News Limited write about delivering their Games across 'five screens', when talk of a 'second screen' focused people's attention for years earlier on the approach to Beijing. I'll let you try to guess which are the five screens. Karen Barlow from ABC also proclaims that social media brought us together, noting Twitter's role as a story source. My article considers the lasting changes to the Games, resulting from how it was delivered via social media during London 2012, focusing largely on how social media stories became part of the news cycle within main stream press.

 

Happy birthday to you? When sentiment becomes automated

Happy birthday to you? When sentiment becomes automated

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Yesterday, I published a piece in the Huffington Post about the increased use of automated technology within social media.

Photo of "LoveLetters_1.0”' by David Link 

Happy birthday to you?

by Andy Miah, for Huffington Post

Today is my birthday. It began in the typical fashion - checking my mobile for Facebook birthday wishes. Afterwards, everyone got up and we opened presents, had breakfast, and so on. Later came text messages, then telephone calls and, eventually, the post. This seems to be the communication hierarchy today. But, it was really Facebook who occupied prime position today.

I say ‘who’, as if Facebook is a living person, which of course, it is not. Yet, we do imbue our computers and devices with identity and intention. Computer programmer Alan Turing imagined a world where computers did exhibit the same kind of intelligence as humans and automating intimate birthday greetings may be one step closer to that.

Just this month, the Computer Conversation Society awarded a prize to an artistic installation by David Link, who recreated a programme from one of Turing’s contemporaries, Christopher Strachey, who created an automated ‘love letters’ programme, which would spew out messages designed to stimulate feelings and emotion.

After having read a few of my lovely greetings from lovely people, I started to feel whether something similar was going on. Could there be an app that is allowing my ‘friends’ to create automated birthday greetings? After all, some of the people who were sending messages were not really close friends, not even people within whom I interact once in a blue moon.

So, a quick search and yes, there is an app that does this. You can even personalize the automated message by introducing a name or creating a selection of possible greetings that it will select randomly, so it doesn’t seem suspicious. Before you ask, no, I am not sharing the link to this application! In fact, I think such an app is both an indication of what is great about web 2.0 and what may bring about its demise.

Transforming such an intimate communication as a birthday wish into an automated message, betrays the value of social media and the human relationships it is supposed to foster. But, people do need help. Most of us far exceed Robin Dunbar’s counsel that the human brain has space for only around 150 meaningful relationships and ‘add friends’ like they are going out of fashion.

Like many, I am someone who forgets birthdays and tries hard to put birthday dates into my digital calendars to ease the burden. However, with calendar migration, new devices, etc, things have got lost and I’ve missed birthdays. Furthermore, my trusty kitchen wall calendar doesn’t have much ink on it these days. Facebook has become our most reliable place for anniversaries, because the person – or thing - whose birthday it is reminds us, since they who imputed the date into the global calendar.

The problem is that this service has become so good that Facebook is getting dangerously close to being a ‘who’ rather than a ‘it’. Facebook is starting to take more credit for my birthday greetings than my friends and the entire process of expressing sentiment between people is becoming automated.

Being forgetful is one thing – even if it is forgetting someone special on their birthday. Removing the entire human agent from the communication process because of this forgetfulness is quite another.

The problem is that, whichever way we turn, we are in trouble. If we don’t write a message that could make Alan Turing’s computer fail, then our friendship is in jeopardy. Yet, tailoring every message to the recipient would be a full time job. At the same time, if we don’t have time to write the message, then I’m not even sure it’s reasonable to expect the recipient to click ‘like’ in respond

For my birthday, I’m determined to reply to every greeting. Even a conversation that starts with an automatic message may lead somewhere fruitful. Although, I do wonder whether there is an automated ‘birthday greeting reply’ app out there.

Inside the Paralympics

Inside the Paralympics

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Interview with Gareth Mitchell for BBC World Service (radio), we cover Oscar Pistorius, new technology and the ethics of sport.

Occupying the Olympics

Occupying the Olympics

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Last month, I had a photo essay published in the Dutch architecture journal S+RO. Their special Olympic Cities edition covers a range of subjects, mine presents an overview of ways of seeing the Olympic city, framed by the following proposition:

 

Occupying the Olympics: Spectacle, Subversion, Surveillance, Sponsorship

Sponsorship, surveillance, spectacle and subversion are not discrete categories within the Olympic city. Everyone attempts to hijack each others' message or get around the other's guidelines.

The International Olympic Committee limits the sponsors' privilege by forbidding their presence within Olympic venues.  The sponsors limits the host city's privilege by securing all billboard space for their own campaigns and erecting their own meta-event within the mega-event with vast temporary buildings and by staging their own Olympic programme. The Host City draws people away from the sports towards experiencing their culture and heritage, in order to recover some of their financial loss. Spectators roam the streets searching for scalpers' tickets, finding that the only scalpers are executives from top sponsors who have wads of free tickets they will sell at face value. Even the athletes try to get around the rules by doping.

The Olympic park is a new kind of theme park – 'a theme park without a theme' as writer Iain Sinclair put it in his latest book Ghost Milk. However, the park is no longer enclosed; the city has become the park.  For London 2012, there is already a big wheel installed for tourists to ride.

This world is not hyper-real like a Disneyland, but an Uberland where consumption even relies on its own global currency – VISA, the exclusive card of all Olympic activity.  All 204 visiting nations are able to access the Olympic experience by this simple chip and pin transaction, while London 2012 banks on providing its second Austerity Olympics anxious that the city may be burning with unrest, as it was in the summer of 2011.

These images tell stories of alternative Olympic experiences the protests that go unnoticed by the 20,000 journalists who shuffle form one sports venue to the next blinkered from what happens in the city.

Here is an indication of the layout: Occupying the Olympics

The Olympics and Higher Education

The Olympics and Higher Education

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Today, I published an article in the Guardian about how HE has been affected by the Olympic process leading up to London 2012 and what we can expect next. Heres' the post in full

The Olympics and Higher Education: What just happened?

With less than 6 months to go until the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games, do we know what will be its legacy for higher education?

A conference taking place at the DCMS today aims to reveal what just happened, but also how we might capture what is about to happen during the Games. However, there is more to the impact of the Olympic and Paralympic Games on HE than just how academics have researched and evaluated them.

Back in 2005, I attended a pre-win event about how education would be affected by the London 2012 Games. Some of the speakers - many of who held high power roles within British education - spoke with lofty ambition about how the Olympic period was an opportunity for reform in British education. Inspired by the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, who was himself inspired by the British education system and a reformist, there was everything to play for back then. But have these aspirations been realized? Did the Olympics transform education in the UK?

Certainly, a lot within higher education has changed since Britain won the bid. A lot has changed in the world. Earlier this month, the historic site of Ancient Olympia - where the ancient Games began - was in the news due to thefts at its Olympic museum. Seen as a direct consequence of Greece’s current economic woes, it is worth remembering that this is a nation that hosted the Athens 2004 Games and which has contributed more to Olympic education than any other. Its International Olympic Academy, which is located nearby the museum where the thefts took place, has been providing higher education students from around the world with Olympic education for over 50 years. If Greece can hold together a summer programme of Olympic education in such times as these, then the bar has been set very high indeed for the UK and its future contribution to Olympism.

Even without a similar length of history, the UK has a strong commitment to supporting higher education endeavours around the Games. The British Olympic Association has hosted an annual National Olympic Academy for many years, where students, teachers and HE professionals gather to consider the state of the art for the Olympics.  As well, the UK has a well-populated register of Olympic scholars, as evidenced by the recently launched ‘Games experts’ website (http://www.games-experts.com).  This portal will have particular value during the Games period, when some 30,000 journalists will be seeking expert commentary on all aspects of the Games.

It was set up by PODIUM (http://www.podium.ac.uk), the London 2012 HE & FE Unit, which itself is a unique and pioneering agency in Olympic history, providing a crucial catalyst for collaborations across the sector and necessary liaison across various stakeholders. A quick glance at PODIUM’s websites offers a snapshot of how the Olympic & Paralympic programme has informed the strategy of numerous universities around the UK – not just in London. From setting up undergraduate modules on media training in order to staff Olympic venues to building links with hospitality courses or security, there is hardly one dimension of the higher education sector that has not been reached by the Olympic programme in some way. Research from last year showed that over 90% of all HE and FE institutions expected to be involved with the Games in some capacity.

This does not mean that all HE professionals or institutions have placed themselves firmly behind the bid, or the Olympic programme. Many academics have devoted their careers to criticizing the overblown commercial projects of mega-events, the exemplar of which is the Olympic Games. The day following the DCMS conference is a Political Studies Association meeting at Southampton Solent University, which will cover such topics as ‘Occupying the Olympics’ and the rise of new media activism as community of critical debate.

Examining the bid commitments made by London 2012 back in 2005, educational is located within the very final paragraph of the final chapter titled ‘Olympism and Culture’. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘Olympism’ a study of the philosophy of sport literature and Coubertin’s own writings reveals how he devised the modern Games as a philosophical framework. To this end, one may see the Olympics as, first and foremost, an intellectual project – a desire to promote a higher education.

As with many aspects of London 2012 – indeed, with all Games from bid to delivery - there are educational promises that have not been kept since 2005 – the creation of an London Olympic Institute and a literal ‘Friend-ship’, which would house a range of projects during the Games. Their absence does not negate the fact that the higher education work that has taken place during this pre-Olympic period has been substantial. Research Councils have worked together on funding programmes, Funding Councils have developed extensive programmes of activity, and the Games have given rise to cross-sector collaborations, particularly between education and the arts sector.

What happens next is the crucial question for me. What will be the HE legacy beyond the Games? Will HE institutions continue to pursue an Olympic mission in their work or will they move on to the next political agenda?

The next Olympics take place in Russia with the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Russia has created the world’s first ‘Olympic University’ as the framework for its HE contribution, concerned with teaching and researching mega-events, along with their management and administration. This institution has global ambitions to become a centre for training after the 2014 Games.

While it is unlikely that a London Olympic University is anywhere on the horizon, if educators are truly sold by the idea that the Olympic & Paralympic Games can bring about some kind of positive re-think of how education should take place, then this conviction should not end in 2012.

Professor Andy Miah (@andymiah) directs the Creative Futures Research Centre at the University of the West of Scotland. http://creativefutur.es  He is author of ‘The Olympics’ (Routledge, 2012) http://Olympicsbasics.eu

 

 

Is it time to boycott books?

Is it time to boycott books?

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Today, I published an article with the Guardian Higher Educaton network, which discusses strategic decisions for researchers in preparation for REF2014 - the UK's governmental research evaluation in universities. The piece draws together many conversations I've had with colleagues in the last few years about what matters when publishing. I've always been a staunch supporter of book chapters and edited volumes, but evidence from RAE2008 makes it hard to sustain a commitment to such titles. On balance, I'd advise people to focus on journal articles, unless they are too impatient to publish something.

Anyway, here's the article in full and on the guardian website.

 

With Ref2014 deadlines approaching, where should researchers invest their time over the next year, if they are in need of one or two extra outputs before the cut off? Should you write for journals, edited books, or perhaps even attempt to complete that overdue monograph? More importantly, what should we be doing in the future? For many units of assessment, the results from RAE2008 show clear weightings in terms of what universities consider to be worth submitting in any given unit of assessment. So what should academics do in targeting their work for publication?

Much of this debate is subject specific. In RAE2008 the law submission showed little interest in edited books constituting less than 1% of the total submission and focusing much more on journal articles. Books are similarly ill considered for the life sciences, for which much of this debate is, for want of a better word, academic. In this case, authored books are mostly seen as textbooks, intended principally for student bodies to purchase, not for peers to read. The progress of science runs too quickly for an author to wait for their cutting edge contribution to come out in a book. Writing a textbook can have value, but not for theresearch assessment. All that matters are journals and the higher the impact factor, the better.

For the non-Stem subjects, there is much more variation. Impact factors are generally low – rarely getting over three – making comparisons across journals more difficult. As well, the submissions to RAE reflect ambiguity over which kinds of outlet matters most. In history, a whopping 29% of all submissions from RAE2008 were authored or co-authored books, while 34% where book chapters.

However, in sociology, only 17% were authored or co-authored books while 63% were journal articles. A similar tendency towards journal articles is apparent in education, while for media and communications 42% were journal articles and 27% were book chapters. This may also suggest that media subjects place more value on book chapters than sociologists.

It seems clear from all non-Stem subjects that edited books – as opposed to book chapters in edited books – are the biggest loser with only very few submitted. This will come as no surprise to many researchers, since it is generally the contents rather than the act of editing that is typically seen to have intellectual worth. However, this need not mean that edited books lack value, since they could be a very good way of contributing to the discipline, rather like being a journal editor. Yet, given the amount of time it takes to edit a book, some very careful thought is needed before entering into a contract.

The relative lack of book chapters in most of the non-Stem submissions also raises question about their perceived value. One reason for this may be the ambiguity over the peer review process that surrounds edited books. While a good publishing house and a strong editorial team may suggest integrity, their efforts will still stop short of a blind peer review process. Another problem with book chapters may be citations. Books are not entered into the same indices as journal articles, nor have the same kind of flexibility of journal articles. For instance, it is difficult for buyers to purchase just one chapter from a book, should they wish.

Yet, writing book chapters can be a great entry point for many early career researchers and for the advanced scholar, the appeal of the potential quick turn around may outweigh the frustration of sometimes tiresome peer review process of journals. After all, reviewing papers is another part of the economic black hole within HE, a volunteer labour force with little accountability.

Publishing in edited volumes generally involves a more flexible and supportive peer review process, while also more generous time scales. That said, many books can take forever to be published, so it might hinder progress to publish if the editors suddenly slack off. The worst I have encountered is six years from submission to publication. This is less likely to happen with journals, but some do have a remarkably long publication lead-time.

As for all our research, the importance of the contribution rather than its medium should matter most. There's still a lot we don't know about the relative quality profile of the output weightings. It also matters what one's peers are doing, so identifying that peer community matters.

However, if seeking to advise scholars, then targeting journals rather than books may be smarter. On the other hand, writing one's own book can be an important step towards establishing ones reputation beyond journal articles.

Of course, there is nothing like receiving a beautifully printed book that can sit on one's shelf alongside its peers. Journal articles rarely offer the satisfaction of having completed something that also has an attractive, tactile quality. Some clever publishers are republishing collections of journal articles as edited volumes and this may be a very sensible way to go.

Personally, I would mourn the demise of the edited collection, but would certainly welcome the rise of the special journal edition that is republished as a paperback, especially if I can choose the cover. Whether there is a market for such publications remains to be seen, but new markets do seem to be emerging.

Just the other day, I searched my name in Amazon, just in case there was something I had published without my knowledge (it has happened). I noticed that there is a publisher – which will remain unnamed – creating new books drawing content from freely available content online, from such sources as Wikipedia. If this is the future of book publishing, I'm out!

Bioart is changing the world

latest article for the Huffington Post focuses on the politics, philosophy and potential of bioart.

IN RECENT YEARS, a new breed of artists named bioartists have begun to infiltrate gallery spaces and scientific laboratories in pursuit of creative expression and new knowledge. Their number includes some of the world's most adventurous avant-garde artists, whose core currency is the playful and sometimes political exploration of new media through which to create art that will change our way of seeing the world. One such artist in this field, Gina Czarnecki, is having her first UK retrospective opening on December 8th at The Bluecoat in Liverpool. Yet, there is a great deal more at stake with this new form of creative practice.

In the past, the medium of such artists might have been oil paint, water colours, or in more recent years, film, video, or digital technology. Today, their medium is biology – our biology to be more precise, and that of other species. However, their work does not simply derive from our present, post-genomic era; it also foregrounds what comes next. They conduct sociologies of the future, shaping the ideas of science fiction writers, film makers, and the work of scientists. By envisioning new forms of biological transformation and utilization, their ideas become constitutive of our era, in the way that artists before them did.

To this end, bioartists also scrutinize contemporary bioethical issues and scientific practice, such as the utilization of embryonic stem cells, or the development of transgenic species. However, it is far from clear that the intention of such artists is to resist such processes. Indeed, some are seeking their development in order to make their art possible, such as Stelarc, the long-standing performance artist who regularly alters his body for his art.

Beginning with live body hook suspensions in the 1970s, Stelarc’s most recent enterprise involves creating an ear on his forearm, grown from a cell culture and sculptured over a period of six years. The next stage for this work is the utilization of stem cells to create the precise ridges of the ear that only nature has been capable of perfecting, so far.

If this were not evidence enough of how artists celebrate the transformative aesthetic potential of biotechnology, then consider the subsequent stage of Stelarc’s Extra Ear. The end goal of the project is to implant an auditory device within the ear and for it to be remotely connected to the Internet, so web browsers can hear what the ear hears creating a distributed auditory system.

Other artists, such as Ionat Zurr & Oron Catts from Australia are scrutinizing the need for us to farm animals, at a time when environmental activists point out the amount of energy needed to sustain one animal life – and indeed, the harmful gases generated by such life forms! As an alternative, they have developed something called victimless meat, grown from cell cultures, which has the neat consequence of also attending to animal rights concerns, since there is no sentient life to speak of that is harmed by the consumption of such products.

Biology has been a medium for artists for some time. Everything from saliva to human excrement has entered the play space of artists over the years. The difference in these new works is their experimentation with cutting edge scientific applications, such as stem cells, cosmetic surgery and biotechnology generally – technologies that are at the margins of human experience and about which there is considerable controversy.

The resulting works vary considerably and they range from the weird and wonderful, such as Eduardo Kac’s fluorescent, transgenic bunny, to the sublimely curious such as Julia Reodica’s designer hymens, a collection of synthetic hymens, which invite questions into the role of virginity and its loss in the 21st century. Alternatively, Yann Marussich’s whole-body secretion of a blue dye in a piece of live art called ‘blue remix’ heralds a new era of performance..

These artists have varied intentions and, like all good work, their art invites numerous and sometimes contradictory responses. It would be a mistake to suggest that they are pursuing anti-scientific ideologies, since this would radically limit the willingness of scientists to open their doors to such practice. Instead, the emphasis is on collaboration and shared vision, about nurturing new ways of interrogating the end goals of science as the utopian visions of humanity.

However, one can read a deeper politics into such desires. Their gentle tip toeing into labs raises important questions about how we organize society and understand our own humanity. For instance, why do we privilege scientific knowledge over, say, aesthetic, as evidenced by the way in which funding is skewed in favour of the former? In short, the efforts of bioartists is doing nothing less than attempting to disrupt the global knowledge economy by reinstating art as the primary medium of developing insights on the, as yet, unstudied future.

In so doing, the work of bioartists also raises difficult ethical questions. For instance, it requires us to consider by what codes of ethics such work should be governed? This is often the initial response of critics who find such work disturbing, offensive or potentially illegal: how could one play with transgenic science simply to create a new aesthetic artifact? However, there are good reasons for refraining from such judgements and this is because the aesthetic content of such works is only one way of evaluating their worth.

The more relevant ethical view to take reveals itself when inquiring into some of the challenges that such artists have faced in the pursuit of their work. For instance, in 2004, US bioartist Steve Kurtz was pursued by the FBI under suspicion of bioterrorism, after petri dishes with biological matter inside them were found in his home.

Such artists would want us to see them as acting on our behalf to make science more accountable to a broader public and for their work to engage us more fully on its long term goals and aspirations.

So, the transgenic art of Eduardo Kac invites us to consider the limits of ‘Playing God’ and he is quick to point out that scientists have already undertaken such experiments, we just don’t hear very much about it, or it is cloaked in some remote chance that the experiment will lead to knowledge that will assist humanity in some specific way. In any case, if one wanted to read Kac's fluorescent bunny as the next era of personalised pets, what should be our objection? Doesn’t our desire for pets necessarily commit us to their objectification and servitude, even though we might claim they are our companions?

In the end, if we are to experiment with creating new forms of life with synthetic biology, cloning and genetic modification, shouldn’t we just admit that it is for little more than our own amusement, whether that is the amusement of our own existence, or that which we find in witnessing great art?

Media Ethics: Is the sky falling?

Media Ethics: Is the sky falling?

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Tomorrow - or later today if I find my password - I will publish this article on the Huffington Post, but here's a sneak preview: Professor Andy Miah considers why the UK Leveson Inquiry into Press Ethics should lead us to conclude that, while journalists shouldn't be hacking our phones, we should be hacking theirs.

The UK's Leveson Inquiry this week brings into focus the many debates that have taken place over the last two months about whether the British media's ethical foundation needs a radical overhaul after the apparent transgressions that have occurred through the News of the World phone hacking controversy. Many of these debates have global implications, given the nature of news syndication today; News International being among the most obvious example.

Much of the moral debate on this subject has focused on the case of Milly Dowler's family who are perhaps the most worthy victims in this situation. The knowledge of their daughter's voicemail being hacked at such a crucial time in the investigation of their daughter's disappearance amplified the trauma they experienced around Milly's death.

However, among the most crucial aspects of this debate is the way that celebrities – notably Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan – have intervened to speak on behalf of a community for which many people are unlikely to find much sympathy – the rich and famous.

One of the challenges with celebrity witnesses in any legal environment is that their creative personas often intertwine with the public's opinion about the merit of their concerns. Who didn't watch Steve Coogan's testimony and expert to hear a joke? And we got one or two. Upon noting that he saw journalists rummaging through his bins he noted that they did not look like tramps, adding “well almost”.

Equally, the reporting of celebrity testimonies occurs via the people who are the subjects of their criticisms – journalists. So, it is always risky when appealing to people with public profiles to establish the facts, especially when attempting to aid the public understanding of legal debates. In part, this is why many courts maintain a distance from media reporting, so as not to pollute the hearing with media opinion.

This isn't the first time that celebrities have questioned the intrusion of the press – the Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones wedding photos debacle between Hello and Ok! Magazines or Earl Spencer's pursuit of a European ruling on privacy are two of many more instances that have occurred over the years. Yet, the difference here is that the debate about the phone hacking case has focused more on the ethical rather than the legal changes that may be necessary to make. But, what ethical principles have been broken or which of them should more adequately be upheld?

One of the challenges in this case is that the difference between morality and ethics have been conflated. To be clear, journalists are governed by ethical codes but, in this case, it is the absence of a moral conscience that has caused more outrage, rather than just a transgression from an ethical framework. Codes of ethics compel rather than determine how people will act within a professional context. In contrast, moral convictions tend to prevail without the need for professional coercion.

This difference between morality and ethics is crucial when deciding what should be done. Journalists often operate by their own sense of morality when investigating stories and, at times, this may challenge their Editor's own sense of morality. Sometimes, this is a good thing, especially when Editors become too powerful and a newspaper loses sight of its public obligation, as may be said of News of the World. However, when the Editors and the journalists lose any degree of commonality in their sense of what is in the public interest and worthy of reporting, then we find a situation like the present case.

The public interest and respect for privacy is the standard moral tensions within debates such as this one. Journalists have claimed that there is no better way to find the truth than to listen to somebody's private messages, while the victims of hacking claim that privacy must still ensue despite their celebrity lifestyle.

There are a number of bad arguments that surround this case. It is inaccurate to claim that a person's phone messages are any great insight into truth; they are fragments of conversations at best. Even if they were helpful in determining facts, embracing such modes of practice within journalism would lead to the end of all privacy claims for all kinds of people - perhaps everyone. This would include permitting access to how journalists obtain their stories through coercion or entrapment. We would find ourselves in a situation where homes are wire tapped at will and by a range of institutions on the basis of public interest. The absence of all privacy is unlikely to create a very trusting society, as previous countries that have taken government surveillance too far have found.

Yet, the public interest argument is also disingenuous. To claim public interest over the justification for publishing stories about the sex lives of celebrities is a huge stretch of the concept. In these cases, it is commercial interests rather than public that are served, where the primary beneficiaries are media organizations, not the general public. At most, a member of the public may choose to consume a different form of leisure experience upon learning of any perceived moral transgression of the key actors, but this is hardly a greater good than the harm that may ensue for the individuals concerned, not to mention their families.

Both Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan are right that their being celebrities does not, in itself, legitimate intrusion into their private lives. There is no 'faustian pact' - as Coogan puts it - even for the celebrities who court the media. There must always be a point at which they – indeed, we – can say no to journalists and expect our privacy to be respected. An obvious example of this is reporting on the children of celebrities. Were the concept of privacy completely dead, then we would tolerate many more intrusions than is presently the case. We don't, because privacy still matters.

A second problem concerns whether or not the kind of journalists that are the focus of this conversation should be called journalists at all, as opposed to some other kind of media professional with a different code of ethics and different public expectations. Such a change in status would lead to a situation where the coverage of celebrities would occur via some form of contractual agreement, rather than free press. Importantly, this would not mean the demise of a free press, only that many of the periodicals whose work is primarily entertainment than news would lose these freedoms. I see no great loss in this regard, especially as most so-called news content derives from the work press officers and agents anyway.

There is one other further dimension to this debate that is rarely discussed, which is people's reliance on the media in an era when content is open and available. Most of us don't have time to follow proceedings in full, but today we have the opportunity to watch the full, unedited testimonies of the Leveson Inquiry witnesses without having to rely on a mediated interpretation. Today, public institutions have become news providers and our reliance on traditional media should be reduced considerably. In an era of pervasive media, we have also recreated an unmediated world.

So what is the answer to the question about how the press should be regulated? A number of ideas have been discussed from licenses for journalists to leaving things just as they are and making the present regulatory systems more effective. Some have argued that the system is perfectly fine – the journalists were caught by the system - and that any regulatory system will always be imperfect. As such, the possible loss of a free press that may ensue from tighter regulation would outweigh the possible infractions that evidently do occur within the present system.

The loss of a free press has such great implications for society that the anxieties of celebrity's losing control of their private lives is unlikely to be of any great significance in the grand scale of things. However, public laws are put in place for all kinds of people and we are asked to imagine how they would affect not just celebrities but people from any walk of life who may find themselves in a position of vulnerability, as is true of the Dowler family.

 

On this basis, change is necessary. Self-regulation with independent auditing is a much better way to monitor ethical practice – it works quite well in hospitals with Institutional Review Boards, for example. The press needs a much stronger internal ethical structure than is presently in place. Such boards should benefit from independent consultation from media ethicists and lawyers, whom are able to critically scrutinize day-to-day practice.

Such a system may also include, for instance, journalists having their own communications recorded in the course of their work, so as to later scrutinize their methods. If call centres monitor the calls with clients, why shouldn't journalists have their calls monitored 'for training purposes'? Journalists shouldn't be hacking our phones, we should be hacking theirs.