Climate and the Working Academic

Part of the (re)growing night train network in Europe

I’ve been a environmental activist since I was in my teens. I stood for the Green Party as a student, I was a direct action activist against road-building, illegal logging on Indigenous lands, and much more. I’ve never learned to drive a car, and that was entirely deliberate. We built a Passive House, and are aiming at a net-zero life (you can read more about that here).

But there is one aspect of my life as a working academic that is difficult to reconcile with this, and that is flying. Air travel is one of the worst sources of greenhouse gasses and it’s even worse because the emissions occur higher in the atmosphere. And yet, academics fly a lot. Partly this is about conferences – scholarly associations do love to have their events scattered all over the world – but partly it’s about research – we have to go to places to do observation, interviews etc. etc. – don’t we?

Well, perhaps not. Or perhaps we are not being imaginative enough. The pandemic has shown that many smaller seminars and workshops can happens perfectly well via the internet, and with VR, that’s only going to improve. I don’t think our Surveillance Studies Centre seminars, which have been entirely virtual this year, have been worse, indeed we’ve been able to invite people from further afield than we would normally do. I’d also argue that a lot of more distant research visits could be replaced by a combination of internet connection and on-the-ground work carried out via partnerships with local researchers.

I don’t think we can replace the magic of face-to-face interaction and chance meeting and discussion entirely. But we can minimise the environmental damage we do. A lot of this is strcutural and therefore it is a matter for funding agencies, scholarly associations and universities. We should be seeing research funding taking into account excessive travel proposals when evaluating grant applications etc.

But I think it is also necessary that we take personal action, especially those of us who in the most priviledged academic positions. My personal climate pledge is this: I will take no more than one long-haul return flight a year from now on –– forever. I’m not going to be doing lots of short-haul flights either –generally speaking, I will take none– but I do leave open the possibility that I would take one very occasionally.

This is ‘inconvenient’ but it just means I have to take decisions about what I do, when, and where I go. For example, I know the Surveillance & Society / Surveillance Studies Network Conference is every two years, in Europe. This means I can plan for a month-long conference / research and friends and family visit trip in 2022: I’ll be doing 4 conferences (ICA – Paris, SSN – Rotterdam, EuroS&P – Genoa, Beyond Smart Cities – Malmo), a mountain marathon in Leichenstein, and visiting family & friends in the UK, all by train (mainly night trains) and ferry. 2023 will have to be a family trip to Japan, but could also involve a significant research visit.

If I’m invited anywhere else overseas outside of this, I will either insist on virtual presentation or if that is not possible, I will just turn it down. I’ve been working out how to get to places I might need to go in Canada and the USA. It’s possible to get to most major cities by train. You just have to accept it’s going to to take longer, but since you can work on trains, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the worst part of it is generally the Canadian elements: Canada desperately needs to invest in its railways and espcially in frequency and speed. It’s ridiculous that you can’t get to Montreal or Ottawa from Kingston much before midday. Anyway, we’ll find out how well this is going to work when I go to New York by train via Montreal, in April next year.

Now, who’s going to join me?

The Big News

Well, the big news is that 2021-22, will be my last year at Queen’s University. I’m grateful to all my colleagues and students here from 2009 onwards. But just as it was in 2009, it’s time to move on!

I’m going to be 50 years old next year and I still don’t feel that I have achieved what I want to achieve and having been away from Queen’s since mid-2019 because of sabbatical and then the pandemic, I had the space and time to think, and I realised that I needed a new challenge, a new incentive to force myself to do those things I really want to do. But I didn’t want to leave the island where we live, so my options were pretty limited. I was starting to think of leaving academic, cashing in everything I had and buying a local bookshop.

But then, during that time, I happened across a job that was being advertised at the University of Ottawa. It was in the Department of Criminology, which is not my discipline at all, but then neither was Sociology, or Architecture and Planning, or Rural Economics, or anywhere else I have ever been. What was important was the title, Critical Surveillance and Security Studies, and what they wanted, someone at my level who was ready to step up to full professor and could apply for a Tier 1 CRC. But I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself, so I called someone I knew in the department, one of my favourite people in the world, as it happens, and asked them if I had any chance of getting this job, and they literally screamed down the phone. So maybe I did have a chance! I applied.

Time went by.

Then I was asked to interview. The timing was perfect because I had just realised where my research was going in more concrete ways, and was able to put together a presentation that was really exciting (even to me!). And the interview went about as well as any interview could go.

More time went by. So much time that I had actually started to forget how the presentation and interview went and started to imagine that I had no chance, again.

And then, in the middle of the summer, I came back from a week entirely offline, a week of trail running and swimming up in Algonquin, to find that I had been offered the job.

We don’t need to talk about my negotiating skills, suffice it to say that when I suggested a salary figure they laughed at me and offered me substantially more. I’ll have a suite of offices (or a lab) and I’ll be able to assemble a team to work on the big projects I have in mind, and I’ll actually be able to offer them decent RA-ships, in other words all the things I was told I would be able to do when I got to Queen’s but it turned out that none of that was in writing. It’s in writing this time.

At my age, I don’t have any illusions. There is no academic paradise, especially not in this neoliberal age. But I am excited about the work I want to do again. There will be more about that in future. Hell, I may even start blogging again after a decade…

Maybe you can see my new office from here? The Social Sciences complex at UOttawa

The Data Revolution

10309475_556761331111976_7897627149443974030_nI’m far from the only academic studying smart cities and big data-driven urbanism. One of the people who’s most inspired my work (in many ways) over the years, is Rob Kitchin – sometimes I even spell his name right! Rob has this fantastic new book, The Data Revolution, coming out in September from Sage, and very helpfully he has put the bibliography, and a lot of other stuff, online. This is the way scholarship should be. Too many of us still guard our ‘secret’ sources and keep our work-in-progress close to our chests. But if we want people to read what we do, think and take action, then more open scholarship is the way to go.

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada

The New Transparency project is coming to an end, and we are launching our major final report, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: La surveillance au Canada, in Ottawa on Thursday 8th May (which is also my birthday!). The report is being published as a book by Athabasca University Press, so it is available in all formats including a free-t0-download PDF. We want as many people in Canada (and elsewhere) to read it as possible.

The launch will be covered by the Canadian press and was already blogged in the Ottawa Citizen a few days ago.

A website with resources and summaries will be here very soon, and there is also a promotional video / trailer here in Youtube.


SSN 2014 Barcelona



Thursday 24th – Saturday 26th April 2014

Contemporary surveillance is characterised by ambiguities and asymmetries. Surveillance results from different desires and rationales: control, governance, security, profit, efficiency but also care, empowerment, resistance and play.

Furthermore it can have both positive and negative outcomes for individuals and these may lead to intended or unintended consequences. Surveillance is never neutral. Surveillance is always about power and that power is increasingly asymmetric. Surveillance practices are also changing and as ‘smart’ surveillance systems proliferate utilising and generating ‘Big Data’ new forms of ambiguity and asymmetry arise. In this context the conference wishes to explore the key themes.

Check our registration guidelines and fees.

Please contact the conference organisers with any questions: