Letter to the University of Galway Management Team (UMT) about our growing concern with the situation in Gaza

The following is the text of a letter signed by numerous academics and staff from the University of Galway – myself included – and forwarded to the University’s Management Team (UMT) about our growing concern with the situation in Gaza.

Dear UMT, 

Like many others in Ireland and further afield, we have been deeply affected by the intolerable suffering of the people of Gaza over the past three months. The University made a statement on the conflict on the 18th of October, rightly acknowledging the suffering of both the people of Gaza and Israel. Since then, however, it has been reported that over 25,000 Palestinians have now been killed in Gaza, with thousands more missing or still buried under rubble. This figure of 25,000 includes more than 10,000 children. Countless more children and babies have been maimed or orphaned, leading to the coining of a new abbreviation used by humanitarian organisations, WCNSF, or ‘wounded child, no surviving family’, and to UNICEF spokesperson James Elder declaring it a ‘war on children’. Millions of Palestinians have been displaced from their homes, and several international humanitarian organisations such as the United Nations have warned of the escalating risks of starvation and death by disease due to the conditions that have been created. Taking into account statements of Israeli leaders and the relentless bombardment of civilians and civilian infrastructure which appears intended to create conditions that are incompatible with human life, the South African government has brought a case to the International Court of Justice alleging that the attacks by Israel against Gaza amount to a campaign of genocide. This is a claim supported by many international human rights scholars.

Of particular relevance to the University of Galway is the fact that all of the universities in Gaza have now been destroyed and many leading academics in Gaza appear to have been killed deliberately in targeted strikes. Attacking civilian infrastructure is a war crime unless the infrastructure is in active use by combatants, which has clearly not been the case, given that controlled explosions have been used to destroy university buildings. As we know, a university is more than just a building, it is a place that symbolises growth, creativity and nurturing of life and learning within a community. As a national SDG champion and a member of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), the University has committed itself to the promotion and protection of human rights, access to education, sustainability, and conflict resolution. These attacks on Gazan universities and academics place particular demands of solidarity on us as a university community and entreat us to uphold our responsibilities as an SDG champion and UNAI member, and to embody those principles. Indeed, the ceaseless attacks on healthcare facilities and healthcare staff also demand particular solidarity from those of us who work in the health sciences, as does the destruction of Gazan museums, culture, and artefacts of cultural significance to our colleagues within the arts. We also have a duty of care to our Palestinian students and a responsibility to offer recognition and support consistent with the recognition and support rightly offered to Ukrainian students, in particular. For clarity, we also categorically condemn the abduction and killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas on October 7th and wish for an immediate safe release of all remaining hostages; however, these atrocities do not justify the appalling actions of the Israeli government. We also echo the concerns of our University of Galway Students Union and wholeheartedly support their recent statement condemning antisemitism and highlighting the importance of support for our Jewish community at this time. We, the undersigned, therefore request that the University make a strong statement condemning unequivocally the destruction of universities in Gaza and the apparent targeting of academics as well as attacks directed at healthcare facilities and healthcare workers, calling for the release of all hostages and demanding an immediate ceasefire.


Submission to An Coimisiún Toghcháin on its Research Programme and Research Priorities

As a Lecturer and Researcher at the School of Political Science & Sociology, the University of Galway, I am strongly supportive of the need for new and significant research on electoral policy and procedures to help bolster and support democracy in Ireland and add to our overall body understanding in these domains. While the Irish public is evidently optimistic about our democracy and the democratic process, this should not be taken for granted, and, as evident from across Europe and elsewhere, conditions can change swiftly and markedly to impearl our democratic system and undermine our institutions. We must seek to collect as much data and information as possible on the electoral trends in attitudes in Ireland, which will provide deeper insight into how social and political processes have changed over the recent past and whether these have been positive or negative in terms of our democracy. Such research and analysis will help policymakers and civil society better understand what conditions lead to positive political and societal changes and perceptions of fairness, political efficacy, and trust in such political and societal systems.

I am strongly supportive of the guiding principles for such research: independence and impartiality; inclusivity and fairness; the advancement of scholarship and debate; and peer review and scrutiny. Of particular interest is the advancement of scholarship and debate as Ireland lags behind other nations in our understanding of the distinctive attitudes, motivations, and practices underpinning electoral policy and procedures in the country. There is a need for much more research, public debate, and scrutiny on what makes our democracy thrive and the potential challenges and pressures that undermine our democratic processes. The five proposed thematic research strands will require substantive data and research to be realised and such research will need to be appropriately funded and resourced. Longitudinal studies will allow for a more accurate analysis of attitudes, motivations, and electoral practices over time, and these are to be welcomed as empirical evidence will be needed to underpin any electoral reform that may be deemed necessary over the coming years.

While strongly supportive of the Commission and the need for such research, I do wish to add the following supportive recommendations and remarks:

  1. All commissioned research should have a clear and transparent application process in which all organisations, groups, and individuals across society have a reasonable chance of applying for and successfully competing for
  2. All commissioned research must be properly and sufficiently funded and resourced, and the Commission must fully support the dissemination of results through its communication channels and mechanisms
  3. Of particular concern at this moment in time is the rise in online dis/misinformation amplifying bad actors and allowing manipulative individuals and groups, both internal and external, to have oversized influence and sway over our democracy. Therefore, the Commission should strive to understand how such dis/misinformation emerges, the actors involved in creating and disseminating such dis/misinformation, and its impact on democracy in Ireland through a series of robust research calls
  4. All collected data from all research projects funded by the Commission should be freely available to academics, organisations, groups, and interested individuals to allow for the production of new analyses and understandings through secondary data analysis
  5. The Commission should provide a central online repository to house the updated Electoral Register, past electoral and referendum results from all constituencies, and all conducted research, results, and associated data
  6. The Commission should facilitate communicative processes on the state of democracy in Ireland through a series of public events, conferences, and community engagements throughout the country
  7. The Commission should strive to promote its work and associated research through bespoke and audience-specific communicative processes to all sections of society in Ireland: school children, teenagers, young adults, mid-life adults, and elderly citizens.

Friday 12th January 2024

Submission to the Galway City Development Plan 2023-2029

It is important that the Galway City Development Plan 2023-2029 include the provision of – and support for – residential housing for all socioeconomic groups and diverse family units to be developed throughout the city centre. Providing such multipurpose and varied residential housing and accommodation within the city centre areas is extremely important for Galway’s future viability and sustainability. Proper planning practice encourages the development of residential housing for different types of people of various ages, incomes and backgrounds, and not just single-purpose use such as student accommodation. Providing city centre residential housing encourages families to once again live in the city and to work, shop, and enjoy all that Galway City Centre has to offer. Diverse housing options are a cornerstone for the redevelopment and regeneration of neighbourhoods, and it has been proven that housing investment and development of this nature have a powerful and positive effect on a neighbourhood’s vitality.

First Principle of City Planning: Get people to live in the city

There is a clear consensus among those who plan, maintain and study cities that it is essential they find ways to enable and encourage people to live in them. Cities that use planning and public policy to enable people to live in the city centre, and near city centre neighbourhoods, are more economically and culturally viable, and more sustainable. We know this because in the 1960s and 1970s cities made a variety of planning and public policy mistakes that ended up hollowing out the city centres of many across the world. The problems were multifaceted but at their core city leaders failed to focus on enabling people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, family sizes, ages and incomes, to live in their cities and provide the kind of amenities and policing that made urban living attractive and safe. One of the biggest mistakes made was to think of the city as a place to be commuted to for work and left again at night. This kind of thinking left large parts of many cities bereft of life after working hours. Another mistake was to concentrate social housing in only certain areas. Viable and sustainable approaches to city centre regeneration require that we integrate where people live with where they work and socialise. This integration and meshing of residential uses and people of all backgrounds has always been at the core of urban living and thankfully it is once again being embraced in many cities across the globe. Making the city viable requires enabling people to live in the city again, encouraging a mixture of residential uses, and improving its public realm. Galway needs to be mindful of this as it chooses its pathway to develop and grow as a vibrant city over the next two decades.

Benefits of Living in Galway’s City Centre for People and the Environment

By encouraging people and families of all socioeconomic backgrounds and sizes to live in the city, Galway will benefit by having:

  • Less Traffic: Urban residents can walk to attain their daily needs for exercise, to socialise or for community activism. They can also easily make use of the public transport system. Galway has a severe traffic problem; providing housing in places where people do not need to drive cars daily is a key part of solving our traffic problem
  • Having families living in the city centre will regenerate the life of the city and add to the sporting, cultural and economic vibrancy and sustainability of Galway
  • More residential apartments, flats and housing: Galway is in serious need of more housing units of various types and as of this writing the lack of available housing in Galway is severe. There are significant tracks of land available within the city centre to build more residential apartments, flats and housing
  • More eyes on the street reduces crime and anti-social behaviour: ‘Eyes on the street’ provides informal surveillance of the urban environment. For residents and visitors to move safely through the streets, other people need to be present, contributing to a general atmosphere of safety and welcome
  • More business for local shops, restaurants, and pubs: This is important especially when tourist numbers are low in the winter and during economic downturns. Having people living in the city sustains local businesses on all levels
  • A Lower carbon footprint for the city: Less driving and the economies of scale associated with urban living will reduce Galway’s overall carbon emissions
  • More walking, cycling, and public transport use enable increased physical activity and reduce general healthcare costs and air pollution.

Considering these benefits, it is imperative that the Galway City Development Plan 2023-2029 include the need, and support for, the development of multipurpose residential accommodation for people of various ages, family compositions, incomes and backgrounds, particularly in the city centres area.

Submitted to Stage 1 ‘Pre-Draft’ the first phase of public consultation on Friday 5th March 2021

The Battle for the ‘Heart’ of Galway

As the new year begins it’s time to reflect on two major recent planning decisions in Galway that have the potential for long-term adverse impacts on the sustainable development of the city and its hinterlands. Although separate schemes both are very much interconnected to a wider vision of how, and in what way, Galway should grow and develop for the betterment of people who live, work and travel into and out of the city. The first of these is located within the city centre, the other is set to traverse the city but allow the expansion of the city in an unplanned ad-hoc manner.

The €104 million Bonham Quay scheme has recently been given approval by An Bord Pleanála. The development has an adjacent separate €25 million accommodation scheme for 345 student resident units, which has also received planning permission. The Bonham Quay development was granted permission by An Bord Pleanála after the developers successfully argued that the student accommodation fulfilled the residential component of their application. In October 2018 the Cabinet approved the €600 million proposal for a bypass project in Galway City. The proposed 18km route runs from the east side of the city to a location close to the village of Barna and will mean about 40 properties along the preferred corridor will be subject to compulsory purchase orders and demolished to accommodate the road. Advocates for this new road argue the scheme will reduce traffic congestion and improve journey times in and around Galway.

It is envisaged that the construction of the seven-story building at Bonham Quay will employ some 500 people construction workers and on completion, the site will accommodate some 2,600 office workers. But how many of these will live adjacent to their workplace? And yet, it was argued that this particular development will have minimal impacts on traffic in and around the city centre. The conflicting signals given with regard to automobility in the city are stark. Part solution to Galway’s sporadic but chronic traffic congestion is to reduce or eliminate the use of private cars from the city centre. Yet, at the same time and with one single development, several thousand workers will seek to travel directly to the city centre without any alternative sustainable ways of doing so other than driving a private car. No reasonable attempt has been made to provide additional living accommodation for these workers close to their work who, based on evidence from previous CSO figures, will largely come from outside the city; and there are little or no attempts to provide and promote active or sustainable modes of transport such as cycling or public transport for these workers. But a number of enlightened solutions to tackling traffic gridlock and regenerating the city already have been fleshed out and are available in the progressive Galway City Development Plan document, which seeks to span from 2017-2023.

The need for diversity and mix-use development is incredibly important for city (re)development and regeneration. This was first suggested by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s and still retains its potency and relevance today. To truly understand cities we need to acknowledge and embrace the notion that combinations and mixtures of use and residential diversity are essential components to improved urban liveability and quality of life. Moreover, the contemporary trend in the US, for example, is for large employers and corporations, particularly in the tech industry, to relocate to city centres when local environments merit such moves.

The Housing Strategy seeks to ensure that a mixture of house types and sizes is provided to satisfy the requirements of various categories of households, including the special requirements of elderly persons and persons with disabilities and to counteract undue segregation in housing between persons of different social backgrounds.

(Galway City Development Plan, page 24)

This provides us with a tremendous opportunity for the proper development of the Galway dockland brownfield sites (the Ceannt Station site is the next major development to be decided upon in this particular locality). But the best and brightest talents that major companies and corporations must attract and retain are no longer interested in suburban living, with its associated long daily commute. They want to live close to their work and enjoy the vibrancy of city community living, with its rich and varied quality of life. These workers are not seeking unaffordable housing with long commutes to a job where they work in isolation. They prefer the accessibility, infrastructure and cultural vibrancy that cities provide and where innovation thrives.

New residential development in particular has contributed to the vibrancy of the city centre. The Council will continue to encourage residential development by requiring a residential content of at least 20% of new development in the city centre. Exceptions may be made on small scale redevelopment sites. On certain key sites in the city centre namely the Ceannt Station lands, Inner Harbour and the Headford Road LAP areas, a higher residential content of 30% will be required.

(Galway City Development Plan, page 36)

The aim of any city (re)development and regeneration plan should be to create attractive and balanced residential neighbourhoods; transforming the prospects of a place depends on creating environments in which people would choose to live in and which provide benefits for existing residents. What point is a city in which no one wants to live? The Galway City Development Plan specifically focuses on this and – although I don’t agree with every facet of the plan -thus is a considered strategy for the future planning and development of Galway in a sustainable manner. But on their first test of credibility city planners, decision-makers and, indeed, An Bord Pleanála have all failed to satisfy conditions they themselves support for the better (re)development and regeneration of the city. Even if you were to argue that student accommodation alone is appropriate as a residential component – it isn’t – do 345 units make up the 30% as set out in the Plan? And what about transport in and out of the city centre? How does the construction of an expensive ring road around the city fit into this particular overall planning approach? On the one hand, we are asking motorists to avoid coming into the city centre, and at the same time planning for approximately 3,000 workers to do just that on a daily basis.

The objective of the strategy is to help address the transportation issues experienced in the city and the environs. It recognises the need to do so in an integrated, sustainable manner that aligns transport investment with settlement patterns, travel movements and also supports a sustainable use of land as promoted in the Core Strategy. This implies an approach that supports opportunities that will reduce congestion and car dependency through increased capacity of reliable public transport and the promotion and facilitation of cycling and walking, which in turn promotes the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

(Galway City Development Plan, page 15)

The City Development Plan clearly outlines the strategy objectives with regard to reducing car dependency in the urban environment but, in the case of the Bonham Quay development and proposed ring road, does not have any plan or approach to dealing with the potentially significant increase in commuting into and out of the city centre. Why make progressive and forward-thinking plans if we don’t even attempt to stick with them? I don’t feel obliged to be a cheerleader for economic development over and above the other pillars of sustainability – the social and environmental – (many of our politicians and decision-makers do that often enough) so I can be forgiven for not joining in with the chorus of approval for the new Bonham Quay development or the proposed ring road as its currently envisaged. Of course, it’s crucial for such large brownfield sites in the city to be redeveloped – I grew up, raised a family, and continue to live in the city centre; who doesn’t want a future for their children close to their family home – but such schemes must be accomplished in a holistic and sustainable manner. Galway City Council commissioned a way forward in this respect with the City Development Plan so why then, at this first opportunity, is this progressive strategy for the (re)development and regeneration of the city cast aside in favour of developer-led planning? And why do we continue to send out conflicting and confusing signals to motorists that we want them to avoid coming into the city centre but would like them to work, but certainly not live, there?

Towards a better digital technology criticism

I frequently begin discussions regarding my position on new digital communication technologies by saying something like; ‘I’m really a technology guy, I love technology and use it all the time but…’ Very much like the phrase ‘some of my best friends are…’ it’s probably not the best way to begin such conversations but the issue of these technologies, particularly digital technologies, and they’re societal and environmental impacts and consequences have given me the reason for considerable pause and reflection of late. I’ve recently read Sarah M. Watson’s thoughtful meta-critique Towards a Constructive Technology Criticism and this has afforded me even more space and time to consider and rationalise my own viewpoint. Having had a paper published earlier this year in the Irish Journal of Sociology where I called for much more sociological (re)engagement with digital technology design, development and adoption processes given its significant and numerous impacts on contemporary society, my position needs more clarity on some levels. That said, as I engage and recognise the views of others in this field of inquiry I anticipate further thought and reflection over the coming months and years. So what is my position?

Firstly, in Watson’s report (and indeed title) she refers to ‘technology’ in a generic sense, but there is a rich expansive history of engagement and analysis of society-technology interactions from within the social sciences. The history of technology and its development is the history of the invention of tools and techniques and is as old as humankind itself, and philosophers and social thinkers have always challenged technological artefact orthodoxies. I suggest that what now needs much more attention and scrutiny is this new era and proliferation of digital technologies which are allowing, for example, novel and innovative means of communication to emerge at a rapid pace. Such digital technologies, enthused by Moore’s Law, are also stimulating rapid developments and advancements in automation and AI, disrupting many societal norms and conventions (my understanding of disruptive is neither negative nor positive, in a general sense; each digital technology requires to be analysed and assessed on its own merits). One particular concern that Watson expresses is the dominance of ‘Silicon Valley’s white, male, hetero engineers who are building and testing technology for themselves, potentially missing the needs and concerns of underrepresented populations. To this list, I would add Western (specifically American) culture, and I echo C.A. Bower’s concerns about many of these culturally transforming digital technologies contributing to a Western form of consciousness that is now being globalised. These are ‘making a virtue of ignoring the form of intergenerational knowledge and skills essential to the world’s diversity and cultural commons that enable people to live less consumer-driven lives [and] makes a virtue of being rootless; that is, not being long-term inhabitants of place’. This abandonment of place, I suggest, implies that this new digital world makes a virtue of mobility and not really being from any place thus encouraging people to forgo commitment to where they live, their community and society; all of which flies in the face of sustainability and our climate change obligations.

My key focus with regard to the design, development and adoption of digital technologies is determinedly on their societal and environmental effects, impacts and consequences. There are many who vouch for and speak to the economic utility of these technologies and do so in an elegant and persuasive manner. In that sense, the limited deliberations of societal consequences and challenges, and narrow consideration of environmental impacts in comparison to the economic value, troubles me. Much more attention and focus should be on digital technology’s ability to improve the quality of life for all people while being cognisant of ecological limits and the sustainability of local communities and cultures. After all, technology should exclusively be a tool for human flourishing and never impede the ability of future generations to live and sustain a good life. There are some interesting moves in this direction with projects like Tristin Harris’s The Center for Humane Technology and Anil Dash’s Humane Tech. Hence, an enhanced and expanded technological criticism is needed rather than just a purely constructive one (we can not be simply cheerleaders for the impulses and whims of whatever comes out of Silicon Valley; we should be much more reticent of what technologies are actually good for everyone in society and not just a small elite). I don’t feel the need to talk or write only in positive ways about digital technologies just for the sake of it; all disruptive technologies require the full vigour of investigation and analysis in the pursuit of creating tools that promote only the good and best of what makes us uniquely human while seeking to protect our fragile environment. In any business or industry, for any new product, you must establish a need, a purpose, and a vision. But so often new digital technologies are unconsciously tossed into society without any due diligence to their social and environmental utility. Why not, with regards to digital technologies, have a primary overarching mission of only contributing to human well-being while being aware of the limits of our ecological gift, anything else is worthless and destructive, surely!

Visit the (Café) Temple to Lift the Soul!

I’ve been trying to get better. While I’m convinced and committed to the concept of, and need for, local sustainability – economically, socially and environmentally – my actions have not always mirrored these firmly held views and beliefs. The value-action gap is the space that occurs when the personal and cultural values or attitudes of an individual do not correlate to their actions. More generally, it is the difference between what people say and what people do. I’ve been trying to narrow this gap in the recent past, and I’m slowly getting better. So to make amends for my failings I’m seeking to promote some innovative and inspiring local enterprises that are focussed on sustainability and social good.

I like my coffee. In fact, I often find it difficult to function properly in the morning before I’ve had one or two cups of ‘Joe’. In pursuit of my fix outside the confines of my home and workspace, I seek out coffee shops that offer a somewhat different experience; where the coffee is good, the staff are pleasant and long-term (reflecting a good relationship with the business), and where the food is sourced locally and prepared onsite. One such enterprise that I’m a recent fan of and is well worth checking out is Café Temple in the Cornstore on Middle Street, with another entrance directly from Augustine Street.

Café Temple prides itself on being a social business inspired by the work of Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The business model is founded on the idea of donating all profits to local charities and in this sense they work with organisations such as COPE, SERVE, and other such local charitable organisations. Their ethos is also to focus on local, organic, ecologically sound and homemade produced foods, as far as reasonably possible, and they work with local artisan producers in this respect. This ethos is reflected on their menu where they state:

We want our customers to see the value of food, to see how what we eat affects how we feel, while also eating and drinking good food made with care and passion. Both Seb and Steve truly believe that the only way to see change in the world is to be the change that you want to see, oh and as Mammy always said ‘eat your vegetables’

They also promote the notion of a ‘suspended coffee’. Patrons are asked to consider, if they have some surplus monies to spend, purchasing an additional coffee, taking a slip, signing it with a message, and placing it on the ‘Karma Coffee’ board. These can then be claimed by anyone who is in need of a cuppa and for whatever reason doesn’t have the money to pay for it at that given time. This is done in a non-judgemental manner and can bring a small element of happiness to someone at a particular moment in time. Great idea; giving far outweighs receiving, in my opinion. So give Café Temple a try if you’re looking for something a little different and, as they state on their menus; ‘Feed your mind, Fuel your Body, and Free your Soul!’

Society and the Environment: Another Snapshot of the Student Perspective | 2017

As part of the Joint-Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree from the College of Arts at the National University of Ireland Galway, students in the first year undertake a series of lectures on Society and the Environment, part of the module SP159 taught by the School of Political Science and Sociology. Similar to last year, at the first of nine lectures this semester covering broad aspects of the topic including climate change, (over)consumption, environmental harm, policy initiatives and responses, and environmentalism, a brief unscientific experiment was carried out in class. At the beginning of the lecture, students were asked to reflect on the theme of Society and the Environment and to come up with a word that echoes their current thoughts on the issues. These were then correlated and a Wordle was produced, which is provided below:

After the series of nine lectures, students were again asked to reflect carefully on the nature of Society and the Environment and, once again, verbalise their thoughts on the subject with fellow students and record these as concisely as possible in a single word or phrase. These were again processed and a Wordle was produced, which is provided below. Although not scientific in nature, this was an interesting ‘snapshot’ of how students thought about the subject before and after the series of lectures.

The False Promise of the Digital Revolution

C.A. Bowers (2014) The False Promise of the Digital Revolution: How computers transform education, work, and international development in ways that are ecologically unsustainable. Peter Lang: New York, NY, USA. 119 pp. ISBN 978-1-4331-2612-3 (paperback). €30.30

The persistent narrative of the effects of technological development in contemporary societies is uncritically accepted by policy designers, decision-makers and individuals as inevitable and determinedly positive in nature. The agenda for technology development, and in turn (re)shaping much of Western society, is primarily driven by computer scientists and strongly promoted by numerous futurist thinkers in the field. In the absence of critical awareness and dissent, many now equate any and all technological innovation and development with the rhetoric of progress. For the past 200 years or so this has been a dominant driving force in Western cultures. In The False Promise of the Digital Revolution: How computers transform education, work, and international development in ways that are ecologically unsustainable, C.A. Bowers seeks to challenge the myth that technologies, and in particular print and digital technologies, are culturally neutral and fundamental to modern advancement. Expanding upon his previous work in this area, he argues that the Darwinian/market liberal ideology that is frequently used to justify a colonising agenda is leading to a world monoculture where data and print either ignore or replace the global cultural commons. What is being lost, he suggests, in this process is the intergenerational knowledge and experience that has provided alternatives to a cash and consumer-driven existence resulting in a transformation in the viability of the natural world and heaps growing pressures on scarce natural resources.

He focuses much of his attention on the way digital technologies gather, store and have become the prevailing mode of communication in contemporary societies reinforcing abstract thinking that is unable to grasp the complexities of local cultural and environmental contexts. Such cyber-mediated consciousness is unable to comprehend differences between ecologically sustainable and unsustainable beliefs and practices and the importance of such social interactions as face-to-face communications, personal memory and sensory awareness – a given of human existence – are essentially ignored. The connections between digital technologies and corporate capitalism, which is turning the vocabulary of environmentalists into media clichés, is considered, as is the uneven scale of influence and imbalance of power between community-centred and corporate capitalism. He argues for innovative ethnographic studies and empirical research into how the introduction of digital technologies is transforming the beliefs and intergenerational support systems in cultures right across the globe, studies which should focus more robustly on patterns of moral reciprocity and on people living more ecologically sustainable lives. Bowers also argues that a history of regarding technologies as culturally neutral and an expression of progress has led to a condition where few teachers or university lecturers possess the conceptual background necessary for engaging students in debates about the culturally transforming, and sometimes ecologically damaging, nature of various new and existing technologies.

It is crucial not to lose sight of the important improvements that technologies have brought to communities and people’s lives; such as contributing to medical advances, the provision of information on a wide range of activities including changes occurring in the natural systems, and relief from the exhausting nature of some physical labour. More recently, digital technologies have had a powerful influence in shaping consciousness in the West but much of this is based on abstraction rooted in ideologies frequently at odds with preserving the cultural commons and environmental awareness. So how did this perception take shape and become dominant over time? Implicit in Bower’s criticism that scientists and technology engineers don’t take the time away from their high degree of specialisation to inform themselves about the traditions of community self-sufficiency their inventions are undermining is the notion that social scientists are also neglecting this domain of research and appear unwilling, or indeed unable, to engage and debate with technologists at their level. Developers and engineers tend to present new technologies only in a positive light and social scientists should shoulder a portion of the blame for allowing this to occur unchallenged. Social scientists must, therefore, confront the self-serving idea that engineers and developers are purely focused on the well-being of the public and must interfere in the realities of technology innovation and development to provide a more balanced, and perhaps realistic, assessment of its impacts and consequences.

The False Promise of the Digital Revolution is a concise piece of text that challenges many assumed conventions about the new digital age. Bowers’s writing is thought-provoking and his hypothesis will not find favour with many internet utopians but it is an important, infrequently heard, critique of how digital technologies are transforming societies, not always for good. Particular attention is given to the potentially harmful ‘blind’ acceptance of online higher education and the suggested cultural and ecological weakness inherent in such courses. But I don’t share the author’s broad pessimism in this regard as online educational strategies can contribute to more critical and informed citizens, and increased public debates around the uses and risks of digital technologies can form part of many of these courses. A measured and thoughtful online educational environment affords significant benefits in terms of advancement for many disadvantaged people worldwide providing universal access to education and personal development, but such interactions should not be seen as the only or most important form of communication available.

Bower’s work complements the recent works of Carr (The Glass Cage) who explores the hidden costs of granting digital technologies dominion over our work and our leisure, Morozov (To Save Everything Click Here) who calls for more humane and democratic technological solutions, and Huesemann (Techno-Fix) who argues that technology perpetuates the same consumer-dependent and ecologically destructive practices and behaviours leading to ever-increasing resource depletion and environmental harm. There is a pressing need to debate and discuss the diffusion of technology across societies in a manner that is cognisance of environmental limits and cultural considerations. Moreover, as Bower suggests; we need to recognise that scientists and engineers frequently don’t fully appreciate, or tend to ignore, the interconnections between cultural and natural ecologies. This process is aided by the globalisation of digital technologies which reinforce Western patterns of thinking and justifies a form of cultural colonising of non-Western cultures leading to the promotion of individual autonomy, corporate capitalism and its dependence upon a money economy, and lifestyles that are increasingly based on consumerism and resource depletion. Bowers’s work needs to be more widely considered if only to provoke all the sciences into reassessing their knowledge and position on technology development and diffusion, in particular digital technologies.

Society and the Environment: A Snapshot of the Student Perspective | 2016

As part of the Joint-Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree from the College of Arts at the National University of Ireland Galway, students in the first year undertake a stream of lectures on Society and the Environment, part of the module SP159 from the School of Political Science and Sociology. At the first of nine lectures this semester covering broad aspects of the topic including (over)consumption, policy initiatives and responses, and environmentalism, a brief unscientific experiment was carried out in class. At the beginning of the lecture, students were asked to reflect on the theme of Society and the Environment and to come up with a word that echoes their current thoughts on the issues. These were then correlated and a Wordle was produced, which is provided below:

After the series of nine lectures, students were again asked to reflect carefully on the nature of Society and the Environment and, once again, verbalise their thoughts on the subject with fellow students and record these as concisely as possible in a single word or phrase. These were again processed and a Wordle was produced, which is provided below. Although not scientific in nature, this was an interesting ‘snapshot’ of how students thought about the subject before and after the series of lectures.

Retracing (some) of the steps from ‘The View from Errisbeg’

As part of the completion process for the module on Environment and Society (SP420) for final year Arts students at the National University of Ireland Galway, a fieldtrip to Roundstone – at the foot of Errisbeg in Connemara – and its surrounds was undertaken by the class on Saturday 20th February 2016. Eleven students made the trip on what was a typical wet February morning but, nevertheless, an enjoyable day out was had by all to a location many students had not visited in the past.

The class smiling through the wet conditions at Gurteen Bay outside Roundstone Village

The location was chosen after we had covered in class Tim Robinson’s 1987 piece ‘The View from Errisbeg’ in the Frank Mitchell edited The Book of the Irish Countryside. We had chosen this particular article as an attempt to better understand the many interactions between landscape/nature and human inhabitants of such sites as geological history can provide certain clues about its potential appeal to human inhabitants. In Robinson’s writing he provides a detailed description of the landscape around Errisbeg in North-West Connemara using many place names as reference points and aids to understanding interactive patterns of land use:

As elsewhere, it is human activity that determines the texture of what appears at first glance to be untouched wilderness, a fact that complicates the conservationist case somewhat. However, the core of this area, which is becoming known as Roundstone bog, having been spared by forestry and turf-cutting so far, most certainly should be preserved as it is; apart from it ecological uniqueness, it harbours one of the rarest of resources, solitude (Robinson, 1987: 42).

And at Dogs Bay at the foot of Errisbeg

The hill is Errisbeg, which shelters the little fishing village of Roundstone from the west wind, in Connemara; the portion of the world’s surface visible from its summit comprises the suite of landscapes grouped around Galway Bay which it has been my wonderful and wearying privilege to explore in detail over the last fifteen years, the Burren uplands in County Clare, the Aran Islands, and Connemara itself (Robinson, 1987: 42)

The ‘Reception Committee’ just outside Roundstone Village

After a really pleasant (although wet) ramble from Roundstone village to the beaches some twenty minutes walk away, we returned to a somewhat deserted village deep in the slumber of ‘off season’. So we made our way to Ballynahinch Castle for some well-deserved warm soup and tea/coffee. Set in a private 450-acre estate of woodland, rivers and walks in Connemara, this Castle Hotel stands overlooking its famous salmon fishery, with a backdrop of the Twelve Bens Mountain range. The Castle was built in the 17th century for the Martyn family, one of whose better-known members was ‘Humanity Dick’ founder of the RSPCA, and was also home at one time to the Maharajah Ranjitsinhji. In 1924, the cricket legend Prince Ranjitsinhji, Maharajah of Nawanager, made a trip to Ireland and forged a link between India and Ireland that survives today.

An ‘inviting’ Ballinhinch Castle and stop for weary explorers

Student Reflection…

“Once you look past the beauty of the landscape you start to notice the effects humans have had on it. There was a noticeable amount of trash as well as coastal erosion on the dunes nearby. The encroach of holiday homes was clear as the trailers seemed to settle as close as they could. In people’s efforts to experience and appreciate the landscape, they often end up causing some damage along the way” (Rachele Carbutt)

“It was clear how big of an impact tourism has on the Roundstone area. I was surprised to see how dead the town was, it made me wonder how far the local residents have to travel for work and shopping/other needs when it isn’t tourist season” (Katherine Anderson)

“The field trip to Roundstone was an enlightening trip to see how the town and the two bays were affected by tourism” (Ashley Westbee)

“I found the fieldtrip very enjoyable. I found looking at man’s impact on the natural landscape particularly interesting. It was fascinating to see the construction of famine walls and cottages, and to observe how the area has transitioned from a small fishing community to one based on the income from tourism” (Kyle Moore)

“One thing I noticed during the visit to Roundstone was that there was a lot of trash around the town and the beaches. Almost as though the tourists don’t care about their surroundings” (Sarah Bryson)

“The fieldtrip was a great experience. It very much highlighted what we had been studying in class, the question of sustainable tourism and household planning. Is this a landscape worth preserving? Or does the household landscape ruin it or improve it? In terms of Dog’s Bay, I found the holiday homes could’ve used more planning and thought as to where the houses were built and what type of houses they could’ve used” (Bob Groome)

Some wild red berries struggle to survive the winter


Robinson, T. (1987) ‘The View from Errisbeg’, in Frank Mitchell (editor) The Book of the Irish Countryside. Belfast: Blackstaff, pp.42–52.