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Socio-Tech Futures Lab (STuF Lab)

Researching the futures of technology use
Examining the ways in which social, cultural and political dynamics influence the integration of technologies into everyday life, and how these forces are shaping and designing our futures.

We are exploring the challenges and opportunities of technologies for creating new and alternative futures.

Contemporary developments associated with automation, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, data, next-generation internet, and social and mobile media networks raise profound questions about the relationship between technology and society, and how these technologies are becoming integrated into everyday life in Australia and elsewhere. Yet the invention, design, implementation, and use of technology proceeds without such knowledge.

Addressing this gap requires bringing the humanities and social sciences to the table with other disciplines, community, industry, and policymakers researching and shaping technology.

The STuF Lab is an outcome of our earlier initiative, Our Machine, Our Selves. Through cutting-edge research that integrates critical perspectives on new practices and interventions, we aim to address the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies.

Our projects

Algorithms are powerful forces in the mediation of everyday life. In concert with social dynamics and information logics, algorithms determine what we see and read, what we come to know about the world, and how we make decisions that affect our social and political life. The algorithmic systems that mediate our access to news and information on the internet are, however, largely obscured from public view – either because they are proprietary or because their effects in the world are determined by the complex social and economic forces to which they are indelibly linked. This makes critical analysis difficult, albeit impossible, using traditional research methods. This project continues to pilot research projects that investigate the algorithmic mediation of online news flows through the development of new digital methods inspired by human-computer interaction.

  • Project Team: Dr Jonathon Hutchinson, The University of Sydney; Dr Heather Ford, UNSW
  • Partner: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

This research analyses the uses of algorithms, or “bots”, for public lobbying campaigns, including for controversial policies and projects that militate against clear public interests. Industries selling risk-related commodities often suffer from a “legitimacy gap” that emerges from a divergence between what an organisation does and what the public expects of their activities. In response, organisations can turn to a rhetorical approach to issues management that seeks to defend them by attacking critical voices or by winning specific arguments in the marketplace of ideas. Over the past few years, such campaigns have increasingly moved from the mass media to social media in the pursuit of organisational goals. This research seeks to identify and analyse the alleged armies of bots campaigning for controversial industries, especially those associated with large-scale carbon pollution and tobacco commodities.

This project addresses three interlinked questions:

  • What constitutes hate speech in different jurisdictions in the Asia-Pacific region?
  • How well are Facebook’s policies and procedures positioned to identify and regulate this
    type of content?
  • How can we understand the spread of hate speech in this region, with a view to formulating better policies to address it?

This study will audit the forms of online hate speech regulation in the Asian region, and map
these against the definitions, policy and procedures used by Facebook to identify and
moderate this harmful content, as well as alternative processes suggested by recent
literature on content moderation to investigate the adequacy of Facebook’s hate speech
definitions, examples and content regulation procedures. The researchers will then map
examples of hate speech networks in Asia-Pacific countries, in order to understand how
Facebook may adjust its policies and procedures to better respond to this problem.

The project will help Facebook to identify linguistically and culturally specific forms of hate
speech in the Asian region, and improve its policy globally by suggesting improvements to definitions of, and responses to, hate speech. We will also produce maps of hate speech networks and factors in message spread, enabling faster action to remove hate speech and suspend perpetrating accounts.

Project team: Kath Gelber, The University of Queensland; Dr Fiona Martin, The University of Sydney; Dr Aim Sinpeng, The University of Sydney; Kirril Shields, The University of Queensland.

Fashion and design have always embraced new technologies. This has historically included enhancing the production process with new machines that speed up and enable greater possibilities for mass consumption, as well as recent innovations in fibres and other smart technologies that enable contemporary values such as sustainable fashion to take hold. However, the act of creativity and defining ‘style’ has largely remained the domain of ‘the human’ who imagines, inspires and is inspired by people, ideas, places and other realms. This project focuses upon the ways in which artificial intelligence and new forms of automation that draw upon large data sets are intersecting with decisions (automated decision making) in the realms of fashion and design. Drawing upon qualitative research with designers and consumers, we'll focus upon perceptions and practices of creating style and fashion through, among other technologies, a comparative study of the use of a new fashion technology with women in four national settings. Through its focus on the role of technologies in determining what to (or what not to) wear, we'll explore how emerging technologies are shaping notions such as fashion, style and design for producers and consumers of fashion and clothing.

This project provides insights on automated media and the creation of so-called informed publics across social media. We aim to generate new knowledge about platforms such as YouTube and Instagram that privilege influential user content which can sway important public-issue conversations. Expected outcomes include new insights into social-media influencers, knowledge of automated media driven by algorithms, and an operational framework for media organisations engaging with automated media (especially public service media). Drawing on human-computer interactions and the social sciences, we aim to develop digital media tools to assess the social value of automated media beyond vanity metrics (likes and followers) to facilitate informed conversations between citizens.

  • Project Team: Dr Jonathon Hutchinson, The University of Sydney; Dr Cornelius Puschmann, Hans Bredow Institute; Dr Jan Schmidt, Hans Bredow Institute; Dr Jannick Sørrensen, Aalborg University

Data has become a key part of our everyday social, material and technological environments. It is implicated in how we interpret our environments and our bodies, and in how we conduct our relationships with others. This raises a fundamental question about what it means to live in such a world. The Living with Data project looks at the ways in which we live with data, the ways in which we experience data, and the contested forms of value that data might have in the world, for individuals, families, institutions and organisations. Through fine-grained attention to the ways in which households live with digital materials, this project considers the consequences of data in our everyday lives.

This project charts dramatic developments in the way news is produced and consumed online and to account for this in public policy designed to promote media pluralism. We aim to advance knowledge by testing European approaches regarded in the literature as "world’s best" against a series of innovative news practices, including through a big-data approach to collecting media content. Expected outcomes include a shift in public policy reliance on ownership and control to a more nuanced understanding of diversity based on the role of news and comment. Significant social and economic benefits could result from more targeted regulatory interventions and from greater access to news content and wider engagement with public affairs.

  • Project team: Associate Professor Timothy Dwyer The University of Sydney; Professor Derek Wilding, UTS; Dr Saba Bebabwi, UTS; Dr Jonathon Hutchinson, The University of Sydney; Dr Kari Kappinen, University of Helsinki
  • Partner: European Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom
  • Funding: ARC Discovery Project

Australian zoos are conservation organisations: they seek to connect visitors to animals in captivity to motivate them to care more about that animal, and what can be achieved to protect it in the wild. Emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) offer exciting opportunities to deliver powerful and persuasive experiences, connecting people in new ways to complex ideas, but little is known about their design, experience and use in this context. In this project, we are developing and evaluating novel 3D videos, VR experiences, and AR applications to better understand the opportunities for mixed reality technologies in conservation education. We are collaborating closely with Zoos Victoria and PHORIA, an immersive technologies company. The project aims to demonstrate the potential for these new technologies and develop guidelines for mixed reality conservation experiences.

The increasing integration of robotic technologies into everyday life has recently received attention by scholars in anthropology, media studies, cultural studies, social robotics and cultural robotics. Approaches in these disciplines examine the relationships between the fantastic representations of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) in popular culture, the everyday experiences of robotic technologies, and the institutionalised contexts of robot design, engineering and marketing. This project, based on a collaboration with the University's Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, brings together researchers in science and technology studies, robotics, business and digital cultures at the University of Sydney to consider emerging meanings, associations and practices within the social construction of robotic and AI technologies in the context of everyday adoption and adaptation.

This project investigates the regulatory and policy implications of understanding global digital communication platforms as media companies. Responding to ongoing public concern about how these companies manage online networking and social media, this project will explore regulatory approaches to mediating abusive, offensive, defamatory and potentially illegal digital content. It will develop detailed recommendations for reform based on international case studies, enabling media policymakers to more effectively regulate digital media platforms to better align with contemporary public interest rationales.

  • Project Team: Terry Flew, Project Leader, QUT; Dr Fiona Martin, Chief Investigator, The University of Sydney; Associate Professor Tim Dwyer, Chief Investigor, The University of Sydney; Nic Suzor, QUT; Philip Napoli, Duke University; Josef Trappel, Salzburg (based at QUT)
  • Research Partner: Australian Community Managers Network
  • Funding: ARC Discovery Project

Smart cities are starting to materialise in urban environments, unevenly and in various forms. The placement of sensors, chargers, digital screens and wi-fi points in streetscapes and objects interacts with people’s relationships to the urban environment, to one another and to services accessed in daily life. Part media, part furniture – these hybrids are thoroughly interconnected with the city itself. This project builds on preliminary research investigating the social, design and governance implications of smart street furniture. Through a series of cross-institution and multidisciplinary workshops and research case studies (smart benches in London and InLinks in Glasgow), we will scope, research and historically contextualise smart street furniture to understand whether and how these depart from and challenge values, uses and governance frameworks of pre-existing urban forms, remaking publics and cities in the process.

Read more about this project.

  • Project Team: Justine Humphry, Chief Investigator, The University of Sydney; Bridgette Wessels, Chief Investigator, University of Glasgow; Dr Sophia Maalsen, Collaborator, The University of Sydney; Dr Chris Chesher, Collaborator, The University of Sydney; Professor Robyn Dowling, Adviser, The University of Sydney; Professor Heather Horst, Adviser, The Univesrity of Sydney; Professor Gerard Goggin, Adviser and Collaborator, The University of Sydney; Peter Merrington, Collaborator, University of Glasgow; Justine Gangneux, Collaborator; Simon Joss, Collaborator; Matthew Hanchard, Collaborator

The increasing online abuse of women journalists not only causes them psychological and physical harms, but can result in loss of income and employment, loss of speech freedoms and reduced participation in society. Women often don’t report digital threats or abuse for fear of public shaming, professional backlash or loss of work, or due to distrust of judicial processes. Most media organisations are not equipped to deal with gendered digital attacks and lack policies to address them. This project seeks to understand and counter online abuse of women journalists across various countries in the Asian region by tracking, documenting and analysing the gendered violence women journalists experience; explore the political, social and cultural origins of this abuse and the platform affordances that make it possible; and develop culturally relevant strategies to address it.

  • Project Team: Dr Fiona Martin, Chief Investigaor, The University of Sydney; Colleen Murrell, Swinburne University; Andrea Baker, Monash University; Cait McMahon, DART Asia Pacific; Lynda Garcia, Miriam College
  • Research partners: International Association of Women in Radio and Television, Asian Broadcasting Union

Upcoming events

Explore a comprehensive list of Media@Sydney seminars, register for events and subscribe to our mailing list.

Tuesday 20 August 2019
Law Lounge, New Law building
The University of Sydney

Building cohesive, productive online communities depends on good governance relationships – particularly with the platforms that host our conversations and content. But increasingly transnational communications platform providers are being portrayed as reluctant to control the violence and misinformation they host, and slow to provide moderation tools that help community managers minimise harmful content and deal with bad behaviour. In light of the Christchurch call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online, this year's symposium will investigate how we can govern online communities more effectively.

Find out more and register.

Featuring: Toby Walsh, University of New South Wales

Wednesday 28 August
3pm – 4.30pm
John Woolley Common Room, N480 
John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

Find out more and register.

Featuring: Justine Humphry, Jathan Sadowski, Chris Chesher, Sophia Maalsen, The University of Sydney

Friday 6 September
3pm – 4.30pm
MECO Seminar Room, S226,
John Woolley Building A20,
The University of Sydney

Find out more and register.

Co-hosted by: STuF Lab at the University of Sydney; Media Futures Lab at UNSW 

Moday 30 September
9am – 5pm
UNSW, Sydney

Find out more and register.

Featuring: Professor Heather Horst and Kazjon Grace, The University of Sydney

Friday 1 November
3pm – 4.30pm
MECO Seminar Room S226,
John Woolley Building A20
The University of Sydney

Previous events

  • Friday 2 August 2019: #Everest: Mobile media and mobile livelihoods in the Mt Everest tourism industry, featuring Dr Jolynna Sinanan, The University of Sydney. Find out more.
  • Friday 14 June 2019: How pet scenarios can disrupt energy futures, featuring Yolande Strengers, Monash University. Find out more.
  • Tues 11 June – Weds 12 June 2019: Beyond anthropomorphism: Rethinking human-machine relations in robotics and AI. Find out more.
  • Friday 10 May 2019: Automation and social and disability services. Featuring: Professor Gerard Goggin, The University of Sydney
  • Friday 29 March 2019: De/Reconstructing home: Notions of home and homelessness in times of mobile media, featuring Professor Maren Hartmann, University of Arts, Berlin
  • Friday 15 March 2019: Automated decision making in society, Professor Julian Thomas, RMIT University
  • Thursday 7 March 2019: Digital rights in an age of surveillance AI, panel with Professor Melvin Chen, Nanyang Technological University; Dr Theresa Züger, Humboldt University; and Karaitiana Tairu, Christchurch
  • Monday 22 October 2018: Design ethics and the age of conversational AI, panel with Professor Nick Enfield; Professor Rafael Calvo; Professor Jean-Claude Martin; and Professor Virginia Dignum
  • Tuesday 13 July 2018: Custodians of the internet: Platforms, content moderation, and the hidden decisions that shape social media, Dr Tarleton Gillespie, Microsoft Research
  • Friday 5 October 2018: Digital housekeeping: Living with data, Professor Heather Horst, The University of Sydney; and Jolynna Sinanan, The University of Sydney (part of the Gender and Cultural Studies Seminar Series)
  • Friday 12 October 2018: Political participation on social, civic and computer networks, Francesco Bailo, The University of Sydney

Postgraduate opportunities

The Socio-Tech Futures Lab is coordinating an interdisciplinary higher degree research discussion group. Open to University of Sydney honours and postgraduate students, the group discusses works in progress on related topics and connects students with vising scholars for masterclasses, mentorship and research collaborations.

If you would like to be added to the STuF Discussion Group mailing list, please contact:

We are currently recruiting PhD students interested in conducting projects on:

The specific nature of these projects will be developed in consultation with the prospective student and identified supervisor(s). Prospective candidates are not required to have advanced technical literacy in their chosen topic area, although – depending upon the project – an openness to learning these is always welcome.

Publications and press

Digitally altered closeups ageing a man's face

Feature: Is FaceApp hoarding our data?

Privacy concerns and questions are mounting around how FaceApp processes facial images, and whether the app is amassing a database of user-submitted images for political purposes – while presenting itself as a light-hearted game. Lecturer in Digital Cultures Dr Fiona Andreallo and other experts from throughout the University explore the implications.

Read the full article.

Contact us

  • Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences The Quadrangle A14, the University of Sydney NSW 2006, AUSTRALIA


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Professor Heather Horst
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