‘Technologies are accommodated by our everyday practices’: Interview with Dr. Robin Smith
Q: What is your background?
Robin: My background is in Sociology, broadly defined. I was trained as an ethnographer at Cardiff University, where I am now a Reader in Sociology. I am increasingly working in Ethnomethodology as I was talking about today, and specifically in membership categorisation studies.
Q: What got you interested in Sociology in the first place, and what motivates you to do research now?
Robin: In the first place? Wow! I have always been fascinated by the way in which people organise their everyday activities. And probably before I was even doing sociology, to be honest. I got very into the idea that you could take the seemingly trivial things that people do seriously. That is why I have always been attracted to the areas of Social Science and Sociology, and Anthropology. When those disciplines work well, they are respectful – I think – of people’s practices and perspectives and do their best to stay faithful to what it is that people themselves are up to.
So, curiosity is the shorter answer. I have always just been curious to study people and what they are up to and, especially, how they make sense of where they are. This is a question that most of my work has looked at in one way or another. Which again seems trivial, but making sense of where they are – is seemingly trivial but massively important. A thing that we do all the time.
The main projects that I have done are again about that kind of interest in place and how people make sense of where they are, through navigation for example. I did a project with outreach workers who work with street homeless in Cardiff, UK. It is that interest in movement, space and making sense of space that led me to do research on mountain rescue later. I was initially interested in their search and navigation practices.
Q: What is the connection between your research and the GenZ programme?
Robin: It is that word ‘accommodation.’ How technologies are accommodated in particular scenes through particular practices is, I guess, the core part of my work. I have always been very taken with this idea –which I think I owe to Professor Paul McIlvenny from Aalborg University. A long time ago, he was talking about how human practices would not just accommodate but also reflect AI technologies. For instance, when automated cars become more common, will people start crossing the road differently, in such a way that it makes it clearer to the automated car? How will people take turns in conversations with later versions of ChatGPT and so on? There are various kinds of everyday practices that might develop around AI, and it will be very interesting to keep an eye on that.
What I am learning and hoping to explore more during my visit is the breadth of the interdisciplinary character involved in the GenZ programme. It seems to be a fantastic collection of people coming at the same problem from lots of different angles. That is exciting and perhaps also necessary when we are talking about digital technologies and AI – we need those voices around.
Q: What is your impression of the University of Oulu and the Oulu region?
Robin: You seem to have employed just nice people! Very smart and open to different ways of working, collaborating and different ideas. I have always enjoyed coming here. The only thing is that I like Mountains and here it is really flat!
Q: What is a challenge that people encounter in the digital age?
Robin: I am not an expert, but I would say that part of the challenge has to do with participation which, again, you can maybe think about in relation to categories. People will say things like ‘oh I am too old for this technology’ or ‘this technology is not for me.’ It is this separation that people make, which is largely unnecessary. I do it myself too when I am working with younger colleagues who are using apps for writing while I prefer to use Word, for example! So, putting people in situations where they get to experience the benefits of new technologies is a challenge, I think.
Q: What would you like to research in the future?
Robin: That is a great question! One thing which I have always wanted to do is to operate in a kind of disruption observatory type mode on public space, where you would be able to have a rapid response to unpredictable things that disrupt everyday life. So, if we could have a team of researchers that would be ‘on call’ almost and ready to respond to natural disasters, civil unrest, pandemics, and so on. Those first days of pandemic were so visceral and real for people, but it was hard to capture because of the standard ways of going about research.
Q: Where do you see the world going?
Robin: What a question! I will talk about this sociologically and politically, I guess. It is interesting to look back a hundred years. When the Chicago school Sociologists were writing about social change, they were saying the same things about radio and mass media as people are saying nowadays about the Internet and TikTok, for instance. Everything seems to play out in remarkably similar kinds of organisational forms. There is a concern with social change. That is what I meant by quoting George Orwell in my talk: social life has the capacity to change beyond all recognition whilst remaining fundamentally the same. I think that this principle is worth remembering because it stops us academics from getting caught up in the hype of new technologies. What is going on to accommodate those new technologies is what we need to pay attention to, and that can look fairly stable.
Politically, it is difficult to say. I think we need to be very cautious about the ways in which we think about technology as a fix or panacea for social inequalities and divisions. The evidence points to the fact that some forms of technology enhance, rather than diminish, difficult and trenchant social problems.
But that is a pessimistic way to finish – you should always try to counter the pessimistic with the hopeful, somehow. I am a big believer in the sociology of hope. We will have to look on the flip side of that – social media is a powerful force with which people can come together and mobilise for causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, of course, but a more kind of mundane togetherness too. Just being able to interact more often and more openly with people from different backgrounds and cultures can be very positive. So, I think retaining something of the sociology of hope when we think about digital futures is a good thing to do.