Scitech | The World Social Science Forum

The 2013 World Social Science Forum took place from October 13 to 15 at the Palais des congrès de Montréal. The event was organized by the International Social Science Council and sponsored through multiple sources, which included the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Concordia University.

The theme of this year’s forum was the social impacts of technology. While the forum itself may have been sparsely attended – mainly due to insufficient marketing or not targeting diverse groups of people – the panels were thought-provoking. They featured talks from researchers all around the world, and covered a wide range of topics relevant to our modern lives. Below, we provide reviews of some of the most notable panels.

“Social Transformations and the Digital Age”  

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The internet has become a channel for the flow of huge amounts of information. This panel explored the need for a change in self-governance and a push for collaboration between the public and the government to meet the needs of a digitized society.

“What we’re moving to is a digital society that is fundamentally different to what we’ve seen before,” said John Verdon, a member at Defense Research and Development Canada.
Social computing and the digitization of society have given rise to democratization of services such as journalism and science.

Since the beginning of civilization, humans have formed communities that allowed individuals in a society to generate collective benefits through the diverse contributions of its people. According to Christopher Wilson, a professor at the University of Ottawa, for communities to prosper, there must also be strategies in place to prevent conflicts.

“While the government has traditionally performed both of these functions, the government today is being transformed as conversation is being enabled through the internet,” Wilson told the audience. The internet has enabled wider discourse around today’s major problems – such as climate change, global access to resources, and the aging population – putting increased pressures on today’s governments.

Thom Kearney, a part-time professor at Algonquin College and a change agent at management consultation website Strategy Guy, described the current government’s fail-safe structure is inherently oppressive. He explained that the fail-safe mechanisms put in place in today’s government try to design for every possible contingency, limiting people’s freedoms.

A general consensus among the panelists was that the existing government infrastucture is insufficient to meet the demands of a digital society. “What leadership has become is a romanticized myth, an avenue for obtaining perks and benefits,” said Wilson, citing the recent construction industry investigation into Montreal’s municipal government. “Leadership is an opportunity for [people] to service themselves […] An increasing number of studies are showing that the population no longer has confidence in their leaders,” Wilson asserted.

Wilson went on to explain that current governments have put mechanisms in place to limit the free and open exchange of information – providing the example of intellectual property regimes. However, the internet is reducing the government’s monopoly on goods and services by allowing greater public access to resources.

“We have asymmetry. [The internet] is not open and transparent for anyone,” Wilson described. While anonymity has provided a means for people to more openly express themselves on the internet, it has also opened avenues through which new threats to society’s well-being could emerge – cyberterrorism being one example. The current governments are not properly prepared for these types of issues.

Steps are being made by the Canadian government to try and catch up to the changes of the digital society. GCpedia is an internal wiki made to increase collaboration and sharing of information between government staff. However, this is not enough. Wider access to the public is necessary in a society where information can be easily shared.

In some ways, the internet is forcing governments to become more transparent. Organizations such as Wikileaks have leaked secret government documents, making information available to the public.

Whether they like it or not, governments will eventually need to change to meet the standards of a digital society.

“Knowledge as Commons”

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An academic paper goes through a whole series of obstacles before being published in an online journal. The problem with online journals is that they’re usually looking to publish ‘hot topic’ papers in order to increase their readability. Often, journals in the West look for papers that may only concern their part of the world. Furthermore, a user has to pay to access these journals – usually an exorbitant fee. Ongoing competition among journals means that budding online journals from developing countries cannot compete with those from the West. The solution? “Creating platforms which incorporate putting symbolic value on the journal articles: their level of quality, legitimacy, and visibility,” said one of the lecturers.

Two of these platforms were presented at the panel: Redalyc, a system made up by the leading journals of all the knowledge areas edited in and about Latin America, and Social Science Research Network (SSRN), a platform dedicated to the dissemination of academic articles in the social sciences and humanities. These open access platforms help archive and preserve data by taking into account the relations of production and the geopolitical sphere within which academic articles are written. Furthermore, they guarantee transparency on behalf of the producer, and protection of intellectual property for the author. On SSRN, for example, a user can download any article for free with the click of a button.

While open access websites like SSRN and Redalyc seem to be on the right track with making academic articles – whether from the developing world or otherwise, – accessible for everyone to read, open access is not without its faults. Most open access content is subject to a system of hierarchy when it comes to the structuring of knowledge. This comes in many forms: inequality in the process of distribution of academic articles, the nature and topic of one’s work, journal bias, and one’s position in the academic system and the world. Peer review, a largely successful system, can still be highly subjective.

Unfortunately, there is a long way to go in the social sciences, where academics witness a marginalization of their alternative and radical views from the mainstream journal publishing process.

“Minority Languages”

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Most of the roughly 8,000 languages of the world are endangered. 97 per cent of the world’s population speaks 4 per cent of the its languages.

Sarah McMonagle, a European minority language scholar at the University of Hamburg, asserted that “Indigenous languages of states have been actively marginalized,” either by a harsh, dominant school system, or by marginalization of the Indigenous community.

This is where, for her, language sustainability comes in. In the same vein, for the world’s endangered languages, the interactive internet – or “Web 2.0” – is a key player in trying to keep linguistic diversity alive, asserted McMonagle.

Most Europeans speak languages that are not the official language of the state. The emergence of blogs in local or minority languages, local government websites (such as one in Welsh and English for Wales), and Wikis (which are available in over 300 languages), all play a part in promoting local languages. Facebook and Twitter pages in local languages also exist, with Facebook in the lead in terms of application of local languages.

Grassroots organizations that promote the use and education of minority languages, along with digital technology, can help revive some of these local languages that are threatened with extinction, especially in the West. Niamh Ní Bhroin, the second speaker, emphasized the role of homogeneous minority groups in promoting their own languages within and outside of their group. “Birds of a feather flock together,” she said – the slogan for a phenomenon called Homophily, where relatives, friends, or acquaintances write to each other in minority languages on social networking websites such as Facebook or Twitter.

“Privacy & Surveillance”

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The issues of privacy, surveillance, and control over our personal information are worse than we believe. This panel sought to address the threats concerning privacy in the digital age, rethinking privacy in the 21st century, and the ways in which people can work their way around the top-down surveillance methods actively employed by government and conglomerates. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) – tech that enables users to access, store, send, and interact with information – are a huge issue regarding this topic, as they allow for easy breach of privacy. The legal framework governing their use is very weak. Governments and conglomerates store all our daily activities from these ICTs, “but most people don’t care,” said Panayotis Antoniadis, a lecturer and senior researcher at ETH Zurich, because we willingly give up our personal information in exchange for self-promotion or other services. One of the ways around this issue is to establish local neighbourhood networks, similar to Facebook, but that are not internet-based. Antoniadis’ aim is to create a simple software that anyone can configure, allowing users to connect privately with the people around them, whether familiar or strangers.

Another issue that was brought up at the panel was shaping privacy in Facebook. Professor María Belén Albornoz, a professor and researcher at FLACSO Ecuador, asserted that Facebook’s technical code (the code programmers use within Facebook) “makes users do what Facebook [wants them] to do.” This code creates an illusion of freedom and privacy within the social networking website. Facebook then turns users’ information into profit through advertising revenue. According to Albornoz, “Control of the content shared can fade away without notice.” People will simply forget that their private information is being controlled because of the seemingly ‘free’ framework of the site.

The talk then moved to the fact that, as full-time users, we cannot switch off our connection to the web. Furthermore, there is no idea of consent when our personal information comes into play, because our relationship with the entities utilizing our privacy is unequal. The panel closed with a lecture on rethinking transparency, focusing on creating internet infrastructure that certain countries cannot shut off or censor, and demanding access to information about private data and internet habits from government and businesses. According one of the lecturers, Christopher Leslie, Co-director of the Science and Technology Studies at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, the transparent society works and is revealed when blockage or censorship is a blatant practice of the regime. In Antoniadis’ words, “Everything we do is recorded.”

“Higher Education and Research”  

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As information moves online, education is slowing following suit. This panel explored how technology is changing and impacting the educational institution.

Imtiaz Ahmed, a researcher at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, described technology as “post-nationalist” because of its ability to go past borders and allow discussion across different countries. According to Ahmed, future universities won’t be “land-based,” but will instead become virtual. Ahmed has been involved with developing technology to connect students in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka through the virtual space. He believes that virtual universities will have the ability to overcome conflict and foster better international relations through broader discourse across countries.

Ahmed’s ideas were met with some criticism from other panel members for being too idealistic. Jennifer Jenson, a professor at York University, pointed out that “Current models of online universities were far from being perfect.” Massive open online courses (MOOCs) has been a buzzword as of late, but these courses have yet to go beyond the traditional university lecture structure and make themselves more compelling for students.

Jenson asserted that we need to change existing frameworks before we make them into virtual structures. The problem with online education is that we have huge educational institutions that are very slow to change, or adapt to it. Though a hopeful picture, education that transcends borders and virtual schools still have a long way to go.

“From Technostress to Online Intimacy”

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This panel explored how the use of social media is changing human connections. As online social networks are easy platforms for people to make connections, they have also become avenues for researchers to look at human behaviour.

With a study assessing the different ways people use the social media sites Facebook, Badoo, and Couchsurfing, Cristina Miguel ñ a researcher at the University of Leeds, found that there are three main functions of social media websites: making new friends, dating or hooking up, and maintaining relationships.

The way that people view intimacy is also changing in a society where relationships are increasingly moving online. For some people, the level of intimacy that can be achieved online is greater than what they can achieve offline, but for others, online relationships are believed to be more superficial compared to those made offline.

Social networking also has a large impact on adolescents. Jennifer Lavoie and Daniel Vallée, researchers at McGill, spoke about how technology has affected adolescent sleep patterns. As late-night cellphone use and multitasking with technologies increase, sleep deprivation is becoming a harder problem for teenagers. Technology is largely an identity-building platform, and is valued more than sleep by many adolescents.

Psychotherapy is another area in which technology is creating change. The hope is that technology can used to enhance psychotherapy. According to Terra Kowalyk, a researcher at McGill, traditional methods are not always effective for all individuals.

Kowalyk explained that studies have found that the majority of clinicians thought they were doing much better than they were in terms of client assessment. Technology will help mitigate this issues as well as barriers such as access to information, time, and cost.

From romantic relationships to physician-patient interactions, the impact of social media has been found in various modes of human relationships around the world.


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