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not another ewnd of year review

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Hello all,

I’ve gotten far too many awful ‘here’s our 2020 highlights’ corporate newsletters this week to inflict a similar one on all of you. So as this terrible year closes I’m just going to leave you with two passages from my recent work. The first is from the Introduction to the book and the second is a Twitter thread from the end of last month. (yes, Twitter threads count as work!).

The irony is that we are now being asked to place our trust in technology to at least partially get us out of this mess. As I mentioned in The Psychology of Social Media (Mc Mahon, 2019) an essential truth about social media services is that they encourage users to commodify themselves – their personal information, their emotions their sociality – and put it online. This is a reality that most of us feel uncomfortable about on the rare occasion when we pause to examine it. But now in 2020, we are being asked to share our location and interaction history with contact tracing apps, where the personal information is gathered for the purpose of saving lives. Will this feel less unpleasant, because we’re not generating private profit but attempting to help the greater good? Or will it feel more like the consolidation of this unease, a normalisation of this model of commodification and surveillance? 

Despite the fact that “tech-based solutions being pursued and deployed are far from ideal and have a number of issues that suggest they may not be fit-for-purpose” (Kitchin, 2020, p. 7), such smartphone applications are being pushed out by governments all across the world in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus. In that light, the failure of many advanced nations, including the United Kingdom, to build such an app without the involvement help of Google and Apple (Sabbagh & Hern, 2020) is remarkable. What does that say about state capacity to protect its citizens in the technology sphere? As one scholar has queried, even if these tech giants get everything right about the privacy aspects of these apps, is there still something fundamentally wrong (Sharon, 2020)? We are now at a point where tech corporations’ involvement in modern life has moved from the useful to the essential: it is difficult to see how societies can now function without them.

From ‘Introduction’ (p. 3), Psychological Insights for Understanding COVID-19 and Media and Technology 

I guess the lingering sense of discomfort I’m feeling these days is that whatever potential the 2020 COVID19 pandemic had to radically transform our societies for the better will be lost, just like it was after the 2008 financial crisis. The pandemic could have been controlled with more socialised, public health measures, but now the vaccine is going to arrive and save the day. There won’t need to be any reform there, the same bloated systems will limp on. All this craic about pedestrianisation of streets so more people could sit outside and eat – that won’t happen either. There will be no pressing need to, the urgency will fade away. All this talk of the ‘new normal’ – well, we never really left normality, did we? much of the semiotics of change we see around us are really very temporary. If you can enter any retail outlet these days, you will see perspex screens that look very flimsy, behind which staff are wearing their own masks (not branded) and struggling to communicate with customers and each other over piped muzak. I have yet to see a commercial environment which looks fundamentally changed. It all looks like it will revert to normal in an instant. Plus the fact that many Western governments seem to be relying on data interpreted by professional services firms – rather than publicly funded academics and scientists – well, this is all very 2009, isn’t it? So I guess to conclude I wonder what the 2021 terminology for ‘austerity’ will be.


Yes, you can get the cheery upbeat #content somewhere else! I promise to have more uplifting thoughts in the new year!

Seasons greetings and take care,


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