Originally trained as a sociologist, I am a scientist, academic and public engagement researcher who studies how new technologies shape us and how we in turn shape our technologies.
I have written 18 books and published nearly 200 scientific articles on topics ranging from the social impact and design of mobile phones, the future of search engines, the latest incarnation of artificial intelligence, and the role of video-mediated domestic life. I have even written on the use of Wittgenstein in technology design. (My H-index is about 56).
I have led research teams at Xerox and Microsoft, and became the UK’s first professor of socio-digital systems when I was the director of The Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey. I am currently Director of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University. I am also a professor of computer science at the same Institution.
As an academic, I am Principal Investigator on a Leverhulme Trust doctoral training centre on Material Social Futures. This entails looking at the relationship between new material forms of computing and energy production and the social arrangements they enable. Key to this research is seeking a balance between material possibility and environmental impact. I am also lead the Future Places Centre, which is looking at how digital tools can enable us to better understand the way we shape our landscapes. When not researching for these, I also consult through Social Shaping Research, Ltd.
As well as being an academic and corporate researcher, I have founded and jointly led start-up companies with clients that have included Hewlett Packard, Vodafone, the Navigator Company and StoraEnso. Alongside this I continue to consult for many of the world’s most ambitious companies.
I invent as well as do research, and have filed dozens of patents on a variety of new concepts including, for example, mobile communication apps, wearable security systems and family life appliances. I regularly speak to the public, and to the research and business communities on all aspects of the Digital Society.
I am a Fellow of the IEEE and of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 2014 the ACM elected me a Fellow of its Academy in honour of leadership in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. I am a Visiting Professor in the College of Science at the University of Swansea, Wales.
Though engaged with making the world through technology, my activities have always been driven in the first instance by a deep interest in the diversity of human affairs.
I have studied air traffic controllers at London, the police in Lancashire, and economists at the International Monetary Fund, in Washington, DC. I have looked at the life of the homeless young in Cambridge and how programmers in Seattle motivate themselves towards producing the latest AI applications. I have looked at family life and the use of ‘smart home’ technologies in England and North America and, by way of contrast, how people with much lower incomes keep in touch in the Townships of South Africa. I am currently looking at how digital tools can help residents in the Morecambe Bay area of England re-imagine how they live.
Of the many books that have derived from these studies is the IEEE award winning “The Myth of the Paperless Office”. The Financial Times said this was the “only book worth reading on office technology that year” (2003). My book “Texture” looked at how the technologies of communication shapes how we express. Texture was the Association of Internet Researcher’s ‘book of the year’ 2011. “Choice”, examined everyday choice-making activities and considers these in light of scientific theories about the mechanics of the ‘mind’. My most recent book is “Skyping the Family”, an edited collection looking at how video connections are shaping the experience of domestic life. Essays on this and other topics can be found in my blog.
The technologies I have worked with and invented have been equally varied. I have, for example, explored how to re-imagine the basic user experience of search engines. Such systems are designed to take users to websites while the ‘gathering engine’ I conceived of and patented brings content to the user in the form of ‘cards’. These entities can be kept or shared and radically transform information gathering from the Web. Versions of my concept are commonly used by both of the major search engines today - by millions of people.
I have also devised and patented family messaging devices that the CEO of Hallmark said ‘showed her their future’, while for new data infrastructures, I helped invent the “cloud mouse”. On the infrastructure side, I have devised techniques that re-specify the elemental abstraction of user content, the digital “file” in light of social networking systems and cloud based storage.
My public engagements reflect this diversity. I have addressed the Scottish Parliament on culture and technology; lectured at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, on philosophy and society, and explored the social impact of mobile phones at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. I have spoken alongside the Second Sea Lord on how to design for ‘digital warriors’ at RUSSI, Whitehall, and ‘conversed’ on the subject of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. As we move into an era of AI, the relationship between our technologies and our sense of self is something I have spoken on in the unlikely setting of Disneyworld, Florida.
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