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A picture of Vili Lehdonvirta

Vili Lehdonvirta

Economic sociologist

in developer, game, mac, professor, social

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Vili Lehdonvirta, economic sociologist and one-time game developer. I research and teach at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, where I'm a faculty member (Research Fellow, comparable to Assistant Professor in the U.S.). I also direct the institute's doctoral programme, the DPhil in Information, Communication, and the Social Sciences. I'm originally from Finland.

My research deals with digital markets, especially markets for virtual goods, virtual currencies, and digital labour. My book Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis (with Edward Castronova) was published by MIT Press last year. This year I'm doing a lot of research on online freelancing. In my research, I use a mix of conventional social research methods like interviews and surveys and more novel data science methods like scraping online data.

I previously worked at the London School of Economics, University of Tokyo, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT), and a long-defunct Helsinki-based web and mobile game studio called Jippii Mobile Entertainment. I've advised various startups, game companies, and public sector organizations, including CCP Games (EVE Online), Mojang, and the World Bank. I edit an academic journal called Policy & Internet, published by Wiley.

As a sociologist, I'm sensitive to how consumption choices can be read as signals about social position and identity, and how technology consumption choices in particular are often overinterpreted. As a programmer, I'm wondering whether sharing details about my harware and software will make me an easier target for malicious behaviours. These considerations are probably going to moderate my answers!

What hardware do you use?

My main tool is a 13" MacBook Air (currently a Mid-2012 128GB SSD). I also use an iPad (currently a white 4th gen WiFi 32GB) for reading, gaming, and recently also for recording face-to-face interviews. I use a Time Capsule (currently a 5th gen 2TB) for over-the-air incremental backup. I have an external monitor at the office, but I've never used it. I don't have an external mouse or keyboard. I like to move around and often work from Oxford's various libraries, reading rooms, and quads.

My main phone is a white iPhone 4 from 2011. I'm very unhappy with how it has become increasingly unresponsive over the years as Apple has updated the operating system, and am reluctant to get a new one. I have a Google Nexus One as a backup phone. I have a pair of gold and brown Audio-Technica ATH-CKM50A earbuds and Sennheiser HD 210 earphones that I use with my phone and laptop.

I get to travel more than I'd like to, but two pieces of kit help to make it better. One is a Micro 3in1 Luggage Scooter. It holds everything I need for a short trip and gets me from security to gate in a couple of minutes. It's also guaranteed to start conversations with airline staff. The other piece of kit is an adaptor that allows me to plug my own earbuds to aircrafts' increasingly quaint entertainment systems. I like watching whatever films they've curated from the destination country as a means of rudimentary cultural acclimatization.

And what software?

My MacBook Air runs OS X, which is set to Japanese to help to maintain my language skills. I use Mail for mail and iCal for calendars. I use Chrome for browsing, though I'm unhappy with how it has started to bloat and duplicate operating system features. My most frequently used browser extensions are AdBlock, rikaikun, and Website Blocker.

Most of the time I simply use TextEdit for taking notes and drafting papers, proposals, and book chapters. I zoom in and out of its little text windows with OS X's gesture zoom. When I need focus, I draft with WriteRoom. I wrote my first journal article and some later collaborations with TeXShop, using CVS for version control. But LaTeX-based solutions missed a good visual editor and change tracking features essential to collaborative writing and editing, so for most of my career I've used Word for collaborative writing, passing files back and forth via email or shared storage.

Sometimes collaborators want to use Google Docs, because it allows multiple people to work simultaneously. But in practice it also allows multiple people to shirk simultaneously. Playing email ping-pong with Word documents is terrible from a version control perspective, but from a workflow perspective it helps to keep the ball rolling, as the onus is on the recipient.

I use OS X's built-in New Oxford American Dictionary and Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus to find the words that best convey my meaning. The way Spotlight allows me to invoke them rapidly is just wonderful and I make very heavy use of it. I use JEDict to look up Japanese words. I use Zotero for reference management. Very occasionally I produce diagrams with OmniGraffle.

I use R for data analysis and IDLE to develop simple scripts in Python for data collection and cleaning. I've been using Dedoose for qualitative analysis. Dedoose is like the Google Docs of qualitative analysis, cloud based and built for collaboration. The Word equivalent in this market is NVivo, a feature-rich desktop application that's difficult to use well. But since Dedoose lost some of my data last year and NVivo released a Mac version, I'm planning to use NVivo in future projects.

I used to use LimeSurvey as my online survey engine, but have just moved to Qualtrics. LimeSurvey is open source and used to run on our own server. Qualtrics is closed source and provided as a cloud service, but I wanted it because of the superior features, usability, and convenience it offers. Here's hoping it doesn't pull a Dedoose.

I use oDesk to recruit temporary help for simple data input and web design tasks, and CrowdFlower to recruit a larger number of people, to pilot a survey, for example.

I use Twitter and LinkedIn for work-related communications and Facebook for more personal communications. I use WhatsApp to keep in touch with those closest to me in Finland, and LINE to keep in touch with the same in Japan. I use TripIt to organize and share flight information and Expensify to track expenses. I use DOSBox and Steam for games.

What would be your dream setup?

I like moving around, zooming in and out, drawing on whiteboards, and making notes in book margins. These acts make use of our capacity for spatial cognition, which helps with problem solving, focus, and recollection. Digital user interfaces are not very good at making use of this yet. People like my former HIIT colleagues who founded MultiTaction are working on it, though. My dream UX will allow me to think with my whole body, not just with my brain.

I have an ambiguous relationship with cloud computing. I don't benefit much from cloud storage in personal data management, thanks to my one-computer setup with automatic backups. I'm also aware that cloud services can lose my data and leak it to third parties. But I could benefit from better collaboration enabled by cloud apps, so long as the workflows are thought out. Moreover, I'd love never having to install and update software on my computer again. My dream cloud solution might thus be a sort of reverse of the usual design: apps in the cloud, but with local data.