Researcher Profile - Murray Goulden
The role of new digital technologies in everyday life
Murray Goulden is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy.
We have a vital contribution to make in ensuring that novel developments work for the benefit of all in society, and not just for a narrow interest group who control them.
How would you explain your research?
I’m a digital sociologist – my research explores the role of new digital technologies in everyday life, particularly in the home and in the workplace. I specifically focus on the mundane stuff we do day-in day-out, and how those practices are remade by – and how they remake – the technologies that we come into contact with. This world of the mundane is often overlooked in technology research and policy, and whilst its often not glamorous or sexy, its importance is reflected in the fact that it is where and how we live the great majority of our lives.
The digital technologies I’m most interested in are those grouped under the label of the ‘Internet of things’ (IoT), everyday physical objects made “smart” by Internet connectivity and algorithms – stuff like Amazon’s Alexa and Ring doorbell. I study how these technologies and the platforms they are a part of change the way we relate to and with those we are closest to – our families and loved ones.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
Growing up as the Internet emerged, I’ve always been interested in the intersection of the digital and the social. It was some specific experiences of IoT, and the ways they transgressed social norms, that got me interested in this particular class of technology. One example I often cite is the time I accidentally took control of a neighbour’s TV whilst sitting in my own home. I inadvertently streamed a Youtube video of a violent video game whilst their daughter was in the middle of watching cartoons! All it took was an accidental button press to bypass the otherwise very solid physical, social and legal boundaries of their home. If ‘smart’ technologies were capable of being so socially stupid, I reasoned, there was much to be explored in their implications for our lives.
How will your research affect the average person?
In various ways. Some of my work concerns smart energy technologies, which are held out as offering a means of helping us achieve environmental sustainability. Other work concerns the kinds of tech mentioned above, which is becoming commonplace in our lives. In both cases, technologies which fail to account for existing social forms and norms will be liable to have negative repercussions for all of us.
How does your research influence your teaching?
My work has always been at the interface of social science and computer science, and I’m a strong believer that its vitally important that sociologists appreciate the importance of including technology, and materials more broadly, in our work. Many of my lectures – on the #Sociology and Science, Health, Technology and Environment modules for example – take this belief as their starting point. It's easy as social scientists to view technologies as a matter for other disciplines like engineering, but we have a vital contribution to make in ensuring that novel developments work for the benefit of all in society, and not just for a narrow interest group who control them.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
Winning a three-year Nottingham Research Fellowship was certainly a huge thing for me, both for allowing me to take control of my own research trajectory, and for giving me a route into teaching, which had long been an interest whilst I was purely in research.
What's the biggest challenge in your field?
I would like to get to the point where we ask the question of whether it makes any sense to talk of a ‘digital sociology’ because all sociology is engaged with the digital to some degree or other. There is today no aspect of life on Earth that is not touched by such technologies, and so I hope over time that the disciplines and subdisciplines that I make my way through become increasingly intertwined.
What advice would you give to someone considering an undergraduate degree in sociology?
Do it. Not only will it give you a hugely valuable set of practical skills for navigating the world of work and workplaces, it will also give you sight of the fundamentals by which we unthinkingly order and reorder our existence. To have the opportunity to develop such a view in a world that constantly strives to anchor our focus to this moment in time, and the glass screen six inches in front of us, is a wonderful thing.