February 26th, 2016 No comments

SEAT member Ray Corrigan took part in a panel on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill at Cambridge University in February. Follow the link below for more information and to view the presentations.

Oversight or Theatre? Surveillance and Democratic Accountability – Panel 2: Internet Connection Records

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OU represented at JSEET 2015

June 22nd, 2015 No comments

In sunny Florence last May, ICSE 2015 saw the birth of JSEET 2015 (http://2015.icse-conferences.org/call-dates/call-for-contributions/jseet), a new Joint Program merging the ICSE Software Engineering Education and Training Track (SEET) and the Conference on Software Engineering Education and Training (CSEE&T) communities. The OU was well represented with two publications from the Computing and Communications department outlining recent innovations in our Software Engineering (SE) offering both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels:

  • Michel Wermelinger, Jon Hall, Lucia Rapanotti, Leonor Barroca, Magnus Ramage, and Arosha Bandara. Teaching software systems thinking at the Open University. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Software Engineering (Joint Software Engineering Education and Training track), Florence, Italy, May 2015. IEEE Press.


  • Jon Hall and Lucia Rapanotti. Masters-level software engineering education and the enriched student context. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Software Engineering (Joint Software Engineering Education and Training track), Florence, Italy, May 2015. IEEE Press.

Among the things which caught my interest was Barry Boehm and Supannika K. Mobasser’s work on “System Thinking: Educating T-Shaped Software Engineers,” which very much echoed our ethos of educating software engineers to be both technically competent and “prepared to participate in the increasing numbers of projects involving multi-discipline system thinking, and in strong need of software skills.” In fact, there was a distinctive systems flavour across the whole of ICSE, which, I must admit, was a lot less “nerdy” than I remembered from previous editions.

Another highlight was the panel discussion on Industry/University Collaboration in Software Engineering Education led by Nancy R. Mead (CMU), with much comparing of notes and reflecting on our strategies.

Also, for those among us with an interest in coding skills, Judith Bishop (Microsoft Research) presented Code Hunt (https://www.codehunt.com), a gaming platform which “enables players to program against the computer with clues provided as unit tests” and how it has been used to run coding context at scale, something the OU may well have an interest in.

Overall, it was great to see SE education on an equal footing with SE research and practice at ICSE this year and to be able to mingle with people who were equally passionated about both. I can also see so much more of our work being represented at this premier SE conference in the years to come.

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CfP: The Difference That Makes a Difference 2015, Vienna

January 6th, 2015 No comments

Members of the group (David Chapman, Magnus Ramage and Mustafa Ali, along with colleagues from Engineering & Innovation and Religious Studies) are organising an international conference in June 2015. The conference, The Difference That Makes a Difference 2015, is the third in a series of biennial conferences on the nature of information. The theme of this event is Information and values: ethics, spirituality and religion. As well as leading to new insights into ethics, spirituality and religion, this work also acts as a further lens through which to explore the nature of information. It forms part of a larger summit on information organised by the International Society for Information Studies, held on the 3rd-7th June in Vienna. The call for papers is now open.

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Interpreting the Information Age Report

December 4th, 2014 No comments

A report of the Science Museum’s Interpreting the Information Age conference, where Chris Bissell and Allan Jones, presented papers can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/kpge34k

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Interpreting the Information Age, Science Museum, 3-5 Nov. 2014

November 1st, 2014 No comments

Allan Jones and Chris Bissell, of SEAT, will be talking at the Interpreting the Information Age conference at the Science Museum, London, 3-5 November 2014.


Allan’s presentation is

‘”A robot caught in the act of performing a goose-step”: early coverage of computers, artificial intelligence and information theory on BBC radio’

The title quotes from a BBC broadcast given by the philosopher Wolfe Mays in 1956.

Chris’s presentation is:

‘Interpreting the Information Age: Can We Avoid Anglocentrism’.

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Engaging Research seminar: Allan Jones’s presentation

September 16th, 2014 No comments

I was flattered a couple of months ago to be invited by Richard Holliman to speak in the ‘Engaging Research’ seminar series, hosted in the Science Faculty of the Open University. My presentation, on 8 September 2014, was recorded and can be viewed via the link below. It concerns a series of science broadcasts called ‘Science in the Making’ given on the BBC in the early 1930s. This presentation a longer version of the one I gave a few days earlier at the Sixth Conference of the European Society for the History of Science. (See blog post lower down this page.)


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Sixth Conference of the European Society for the History of Science (ESHS), Lisbon, 4-6 September 2014

September 16th, 2014 No comments

Allan Jones writes:

I was fortunate to be able to attend and present a paper at the Sixth Conference of the ESHS in Lisbon (4-6 September 2014), where the conference theme was ‘Communicating Science, Technology and Medicine’. Academic work on this topic has shifted in the last couple of decades from relatively straightforward story-telling about who said what to whom, when, and how’ to the more intriguing (and contentious) elucidation of how this form of social interaction serves sociological ends, in addition to its ostensible ends. To give just one example, debates about smoking and health in the 1950s and 1960s were not just about smoking and health, but were also part of a larger ethical controversy. Not that the papers at the ESHS conference (of which there were around 400) routinely touched on such incendiary topics.

One of the most interesting papers I heard was Jaume Navarro’s on the demise of the ether. Conventional histories of physics tell how the Michelson-Morley experiments of the 1870s and then Einstein’s theory of special relativity consigned the ether to the dustbin of science, along with phlogiston and vitalism. As always, the reality was more complex. Respectable physicists were still using the term ‘ether’ well into the twentieth century, and radio gave it a new lease of life. Marilena di Bucchianico’s paper in the same session on debates around high-temperature superconductivity fascinatingly showed how leading scientists in the field have completely different conceptions of what an explanation should consist of how it can be arrived at.

My own presentation was more prosaically concerned with a series of BBC radio broadcasts in the early 1930s entitled ‘Science in the Making,’ in which listeners were invited to report their own observations to the broadcasters. My next posting on this blog contains a link to a video of a longer version of the same presentation given at the Open University on 8 September.

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And another paper at ISSEI 2014

September 4th, 2014 No comments

As well as the presentation on ‘Measuring Information’ in the Information Workshop run by Chris Bissell, I gave a presentation on ‘Information and Religion’ in a workshop entitled Religion and Reason Facing Law and Science at ISSEI. (My presentation was originally accepted for a Workshop on ‘Science and Religion’ but that workshop was cancelled.)


Increasing numbers of workers in an ever-widening range of disciplines have been discovering that a theory of information provides new insights into their field.  Hans Christian von Baeyer, for example, argued in his 2003 book that information is the new language of science. Wolfgang Hofkirchner argues that our understanding of information is undergoing a paradigm shift with far-reaching consequences, and the philosopher of Information Luciano Floridi has put forward the thesis that information underpins a fourth revolution (following the three due to Copernicus, Darwin and Freud) which repositions our sense of identity. After the fourth revolution (which actually started the moment our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves) we are informational agents – inforgs – dispersed in an infosphere.

Albert Borgmann identified three roles for information: information about reality; information for reality and information as reality.  This presentation explores  information about, for and as religion.

Information about religion concerns the use of information-thinking to describe and understand religion. Gregory Bateson’s widely-cited definition of information as ‘a difference which makes a difference’ might itself be a description of religion. To be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew…  is to be different from people who are not that:  and it makes a difference to your life. To an extent this is just saying that religion is about identity and identity is an informational concept, but understanding religious identity in terms of information brings with it new insights which potentially provide different ways of thinking about religion. I have argued elsewhere, for example, that information is inherently provisional: that it cannot ever be anything else but provisional. So religious identity, too, from an informational perspective, cannot be anything other than provisional.

Information for religion concerns information as a tool of religion. Borgmann discusses information for reality as specification: defining and shaping reality, and so, similarly, information defines and shapes religion.  Religious texts might be interpreted as the specification manuals of religions, but the unwritten traditions are information as well, and by understanding the nature of information we can look for insights into how religions are maintained and passed on from generation to generation.

Information is core to many religious formulations.  Creations stories, for example, recognise the role of the informational concepts of difference and identity, as in the Genesis description of God separating night from day and land from sea, and the first man, Adam, naming the animals.

More recently some writers have been exploring how ideas which subvert materialism/physicalism and emphasise the primacy of information might open doors to a world-view that aligns with religious formulations.

Information as religion, is information replacing religion or delivering a religion itself. For some writers information thinking provides the basis for something close to a grand narrative.  Hofkirchner, for example, seeks from an information science paradigm a new Weltanschauung: a new world-view; a new philosophy; a new way of thinking, and sees in this a route to addressing the global problems that arise from technological development, enabling a global, sustainable, information society. Information has been proposed as an alternative to religion as the basis of ethics, too. Floridi has spoken of an information ethics which “holds that every entity, as an expression of being, has a dignity, constituted by its mode of existence and essence” and that “there is something even more elemental than life, namely being […] and something even more fundamental than suffering, namely entropy”.

The potential scope of an exploration of the value of information ideas to religion is vast. This presentation suggests a framework for thinking about the field and points to a few specific examples.

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More on ISSEI2014

August 24th, 2014 No comments

I gave a second paper in another Workshop, entitled “The Celtic Languages in the Age of Globalisation”. Not a research paper, more of a hobbyhorse. Anyone interested can get a full draft paper from me.


What I wish to concentrate on in this short paper – after a brief historical introduction – is the effect in the insular Celtic languages of recent changes in the UK Celtic areas, particularly the influence of devolution and modern communications. This is something which should be seen – in particular in the context of a potentially independent Scotland – in a wider international context, informed not only by globalization issues but also by socio-political developments in the national / regional areas. Interestingly, Welsh gained by far the most from UK devolution, even though the Welsh Assembly has significantly weaker powers than the Scottish Parliament. In a nation with around 19% Welsh speakers, the recent laws on language equality (which enforce bilingualism on many public facing functions) have radically changed the status and the acceptance of the Welsh language. Similar, but less intense, pressures have come to bear both in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The latter is a particularly interesting case, since the Irish language there has strong political and ideological connotations. But in all the insular Celtic regions over the last few decades there have been extraordinary pressures to recognise the Celtic languages in schools, regional parliaments and assemblies, and the media. The latter element is particularly important, since only recently have Celtic language news channels reported on global, rather than very local – even parochial – events. The introduction of the Welsh language channel S4C in 1982 was particularly important: for the first time, international news was presented daily in Welsh, and the profile of the Welsh language benefited enormously. Modern information technologies have also enabled an increasing presence of the Celtic languages in an international arena.

Chris Bissell

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‘Information’. A workshop at the 14th ISSEI

August 20th, 2014 No comments

SEAT’s Chris Bissell organised and chaired a one day workshop ‘Information’ at the 14th International Conference of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas (4th-8th AugChris & patriciaust) at Catholic University of Portugal in Porto. The fascinating, deeply interdisciplinary, workshop contained 9 papers ranging from medieval Irish documents, to metadata systems for film production; early Modern news networks to the informational content of Kandinsky’s Cossacks; Paul Otlet and the Mundaneum to networks and the social imaginary . Chris presented on aspects of the history of systems,  and SEAT members David Chapman on measuring information, and Steve Walker on information and social contention. By general agreement the workshop was both very enjoyable and interesting (Ed: the most enjoyable workshop I’ve been to in a long while). The full list of presentations is below (the abstracts are available here).


Chair: Chris Bissell

The Information Turn in Modelling People and Society: Early German Work – Chris Bissell, The Open University, UK

Measuring Information – David Chapman, The Open University, UK

Scholarly Networks and Information in Medieval Ireland: The Evidence of Legal Tradition – Deborah Hayden, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland

The Mundaneum in Belgium: Where Technology Meets IT’s Story – Delphine Jenart, Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium

Information Networks and the Social Imaginary – Graeme Kirkpatrick, University of Manchester, UK

The Age of Exchange: Translation, News, and the European Public Sphere in the 16th and 17th Centuries – Jose Maria Pérez Fernández, University of Granada, Spain

Painting as Information? – Patricia Simpson, University of Hertfordshire, UK

Trends in Semantic and Digital Media Technologies: Opportunities for Digital Artists – Luís Texeira, Catholic University of Portugal in Porto, Portugal

Information and Social Contention – Steve Walker, The Open University, UK

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