Professor Mike Arnold: A Vote of Thanks

Professor Michael (Mike) Arnold recently retired as head of SHAPS’s History & Philosophy of Science Program. His longtime colleague, Emeritus Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, Janet McCalman, AC, reflects here on Mike’s career and legacy.

Mike Arnold has retired from History & Philosophy of Science, leaving it, the social sciences, the university and, indeed, the world, in better intellectual shape. He has been an exemplary academic: a gifted lifelong teacher, an academic collaborator par excellence, and a social scientist of unrelenting originality.

Mike was not merely at the cutting edge; he was one of the sharpest cutters, building the new field of the social study of science and information technology, from the clunky desktop to the mobile phone and the internet. Always he was asking about the relationships between humans and technology, and the technology-mediated relationships between humans and society.

He has an intensely curious mind, puzzling away at the everyday and the big questions around the impact of information technology on the way we live and work, on family life, on the life stages, in particular death, and on the utilisation of IT in healthcare. He is a gifted theoriser, with a knack for unforgettable titles. Cybersociety was his landmark undergraduate subject, but he branched out into the impact of disasters and techno failure on people and their social organisations.

Mike came up the hard way. The son of Ten-Pound Poms; a Geelong suburban high school and then a teacher training Secondary Studentship. He did a Diploma of Teaching, before discovering information technology with a graduate diploma in computer education. He didn’t enrol in a university as such until he commenced his PhD studies at Deakin University, completing his thesis, ‘Educational Cybernetics: Communication and Control With and of Logo’, in 1992.

Young Michael, 1970s
Young Jen, 1970s
Graduation, 1990s
Young Michael, 1970s

With this interdisciplinary interest, Mike came to the University of Melbourne as a teacher of IT for Arts Students and, from that platform in HPS, he took off. By the late 1990s he began his stellar research career and went on to hold Australian Research Council grants for every year of his university career. He was reluctant to seek promotion and needed some persuasion to go for a Chair after two decades of leading publications and grant success.

He wasn’t a loner. His work has been marked by his wide, interdisciplinary collaboration with social scientists, computer engineers, artists and medical professionals. He has significantly advanced the practice and theory of cross-disciplinary research.

Mike, during COVID lockdown, c2021-2022

His curiosity was not dulled by a dire medical diagnosis, but supercharged into filming and analysing his surgery. He goes where most of us fear to tread, into the afterlife of the dead, where we are now immortalised by our digital footprints and our funerals become fodder for social media. And he has contributed to solving the problems associated with disposing of our mortal remains in a space-starved society.

He was a wonderful Head of Program, supervisor and colleague. His rich family life has supported and informed his curiosity and insight into our everyday which is now pervaded with screens, metadata, connectivity and ‘instantness’. HPS and the University of Melbourne have been blessed to have him.

Janet McCalman

Forum also spoke to some of Mike’s previous PhD students, who told us what impact he had on them:

I feel fortunate to have had such a collegial and supportive supervisor, and someone whose intellectual rigour shaped not only my PhD research but how I approach my work now as an academic.

Kate Mannell
(PhD in HPS, 2020. Research Fellow, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence
for the Digital Child, Deakin University)

I’m forever grateful for Mike’s unwavering trust and support in taking me on as a research student. He gave me the freedom to think, and to complete my PhD project on my own terms. Mike has taught me to slow down my thinking, to think with variety, and to thoroughly examine thinking itself. He has transformed me as a researcher, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

Dang Nguyen
(PhD in HPS, 2022. Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence
for Automated Decision Making & Society)

Professor Arnold has retired from teaching and administration in the History & Philosophy of Science program but continues his research with the DeathTech Network.