Digital platforms are building neural networks and letting them loose on our culture.
A picture does more than paint a thousand words these days. It captures granular data about moments in time, places we visit and people we meet.
And that data, according to Associate Professor Nicholas Carah, allows machines to make sense of our world and influence decision-making like no other technology since television took over Australian living rooms 65 years ago.
As Deputy Head of UQ’s School of Communication and Arts, Dr Carah wants his students to understand how 21st century digital media is transforming our cultural life.
Every time we take a photo and post it on Instagram, Facebook or another digital platform we are not simply recording and preserving our memories – we are also creating content for marketers to reflect back to us as cultural norms and preferences.
“They rely on highly sophisticated, automated data collection to predict our behaviour and make us feel good about repeating the behaviours that serve their commercial interests.
“We are being interpreted while we are interpreting each other’s posts.
“Being aware of how this happens, and making deliberate choices about what we post, gives us control back over what we want our culture to be.
“Understanding how it works through our research and teaching means we can re-imagine how digital platforms can serve us better, how we can co-produce culture rather than leave the shaping of our perceptions to powerful media machines,” Dr Carah said.
Co-production is also at the core of Dr Carah's approach to course design and delivery. His innovative teaching comprises student partnerships, digital technologies, collaborative seminars and using creative learning experiences to test students' skills and knowledge in realistic situations.
Developing UQ’s latest Digital Media major, for example, involved combining critical scholarship, media production and digital analytics.
Teaching and research are integrated responsibilities for Dr Carah. He is determined to make his exploration of the effects of media on the human experience relevant for students. A long-held interest in alcohol marketing, well-known for its targeting of young people via digital media, is one common factor.
A 2020-2022 ARC Linkage Grant, ‘Examining alcohol and nightlife marketing on digital media platforms’, enabled Dr Carah to work with the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education on a study about how young Australians interact with alcohol promotion on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
He says alcohol marketers are at the forefront, in many cases working alongside platforms, in figuring out new ways of building participatory, algorithmic, data-driven forms of branding and promotion.
“I first became interested in alcohol brands because I saw them showing up and making themselves a part of the cultural events that I was interested in, like music festivals and gigs.
“They sponsor club nights, build elaborate themed bars and activations, hand out alcohol-branded apparel like coasters, shirts, hats, sunglasses, and have promo staff taking photos.
“We’re using computational, big social data approaches and youth informants to assess the pervasiveness of branding on social media and how it shapes youth cultures.
“This research will help develop effective monitoring and regulation of online marketing in general, with a particular focus on alcohol.”
Dr Carah is collaborating with colleagues at Monash University, Curtin University and VicHealth on similar studies. He was also part of a Deakin University-led project that investigated alcohol-related violence and nightlife economies, providing input about Queensland.
But his interest in algorithmic and participatory advertising goes beyond the impacts of alcohol marketing.
‘Using machine vision to explore Instagram’s everyday promotional cultures’ is an ARC Discovery Project Dr Carah is working on with QUT colleagues.
Machine vision automates visual inspection tasks by substituting human eyes and judgement with cameras, processing hardware and software algorithms. Analysing images in this way collects data for controlling or evaluating an activity.
With various computational and cultural research methods the researchers are exploring everyday practices on Instagram, talking to producers and users, and tracking the strategies of marketers and platforms to gauge the broader effects of increasing reliance on automation.
The computational tools collecting and analysing the Instagram posts include Instaexplorer (a data visualisation tool) and Instamancer, a publicly available digital scraper that collects posts and their metadata. The School of Communication and Arts first presented Instamancer in late 2019, as part of the Platform Media strategic research initiative. This project explores how machine vision systems ‘make sense’ of the images we post to Instagram.
Dr Carah is also an Associate Investigator at the Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, which generates knowledge and strategies for better automated decision-making technology.
For Dr Carah, questioning what it means to live in a world where machines are learning the patterns of our culture and shaping its future is often like “jumping on a random train with no idea where it’s going.”
“Digital platforms are building neural networks and letting them loose on our culture. That’s why it’s critical to study their development through a humanities lens and not just a technological one or a commercial one."
“I was drawn to the intellectual culture at UQ, where a tradition of humanities and social sciences supports the integrated work I want to do, as a teacher and as a researcher," Dr Carah said.
“We’re watching the biggest historically consequential shift since the arrival of television and this is the best vantage point.”
Communication at UQ: Meet the expert
Creative communication specialists are increasingly in demand in our fast-paced, ever-changing digital landscape.
Get to know Associate Professor Nicholas Carah, Deputy Head of School for Communication and Arts at UQ.
The key to being an engaging teacher is having genuine passion for your area of study – and Dr Carah is the perfect example of this.
“I hope my students go on to create media institutions and cultures that build a shared social world that enables our mutual flourishing.”