Technologies are spreading into all aspects of our lives via smart devices, internet of things, augmented reality and data profiling. Children’s lives have become digital by default, with digital technologies the taken-for-granted means of playing, seeing family, doing schoolwork, hanging out with friends in a post-COVID world. But where does the digital begin and end, what does it include? Is it really the case that we can no longer distinguish between the offline and online? Should we talk of digital technologies, or the digital environment, or the digital era, or the digital world? Or, just, the digital?
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recently adopted a General Comment on “the digital environment,” as the drafting team finally called it. In trying to future-proof the text for at least the next 5-10 years, we came up with this definition:
“The digital environment is constantly evolving and expanding, encompassing information and communications technologies, including digital networks, content, services and applications, connected devices and environments, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, automated systems, algorithms and data analytics, biometrics and implant technology.”
As a definition, it is primarily a list of digital technologies to be included, prefaced by a caution that the items on the list keep changing. The definition implies that, since they increasingly work together, these technologies constitute an “environment.” So “the digital” is not as simple as digital means noughts and ones, nor as all-encompassing as to include every technology or technique by which humans are governed or by which power is mediated. Nor, by comparison with the news headlines that focus predominantly on social media platforms, does it leave out the many crucial digital technologies that are not user-facing, but arguably are now part of the societal infrastructure.
Still, there is an unease in how the digital is discussed, and a reluctance among researchers to define it that can seem obfuscating to the wider public. We recently selected “the digital” as one of the keywords to be interrogated in our CO:RE webinars because it is central to the work of many of us. But perhaps we use the term differently, depending on our disciplinary training or research purpose or theoretical preferences? Let’s discover how our webinar speakers illuminated our thinking.
The digital is best conceptualised through its affordances
“The walls of the digital environment are much stickier, much more responsive and expansive. They attend to the person moving through the digital space, they take note and ultimately contribute to changing that very space in a very performative manner.” (Taina Bucher)
Taina Bucher, Associate Professor in Screen Cultures at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo, argued for a conceptualisation of “the digital” through an analysis of its various apps, platforms, devices and networks. We too often construct it in an opposition to “the analogue,” creating an artificial differentiation between an online and an offline environment. In such distinctions, “the digital” connotes futurity, innovation, cultural transformation, the new risks and opportunities. Instead, sidestepping such polarised thinking, it’s helpful to think about the digital through the parameters of what it offers to us – its affordances.
Originally developed by Gibson (1979), the concept of affordances allows us to “furnish” the (natural, material, digital) environment and think of the activities it enables (or impedes) and how these might be different for different users including children. As with the design of material environments, which govern our ways of moving through them, the architecture of digital spaces is also environmental, albeit that data, algorithms and infrastructure are used to construct these affordances and produce these possibilities for engagement. Arguably, in comparison to the physical environment, the digital environment is ever more expansive.
The digital is embedded, embodied and everyday
“We move through complex and unpredictable social landscapes that span face-to-face and the digital, where people are continuously repurposing digital technologies in unexpected ways… These digital spaces vary in how much they are accessible to both children and adults.” (Christine Hine)
Christine Hine, Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey, called on us to understand the digital through its embedding in specific contexts – technologies are rooted in our institutions, identities, and our ways of being accountable. Digital technologies are also embodied – they relate to our ways of being in the world, how we go about our lives. Thirdly, technologies are soaked into the texture of our everyday experience, normalised and often used without reflection.
Fundamentally, we need to focus on lived social experiences and what spaces people make significant within their own lives. At the same time, we can deploy other methods which allow us to hover above these spaces and study experiences, for example, though large-scale data analysis.
Digital infrastructures become visible through their failures
“When we keep focusing on contingent expression of technology, then there is a problem with temporality. If we ground our concepts in contingent technologies, then the life of our concepts will be pretty short… There is also a special aspect present. What we describe as technology reflects the standpoint of where we are in the world… We might describe it as universal but in doing so we shut off other expressions of this technology.” (Jean-Christophe Plantin)
Jean-Christophe Plantin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, observed that during the pandemic we became much more reliant on digital technologies. Their very evident failures newly sensitised us to the numerous actors involved in building and supporting these services.
It is helpful, therefore, to think about “the digital” not only in terms of platforms or devices or contexts but as socio-technical infrastructures. This encompasses several levels – the network artefacts, such as routers, service providers and data centres; the invisible forms of often global labour that support these infrastructures, such as the engineers and call centre staff; and the data that are created and circulated through these networks. These digital infrastructures are not infinite. For example, our digital consumption is limited by bandwidth capacities within which digital services “compete.”
The mutual constitution of the digital, user practices and context
“When we talk about the blended nature of media, it is very hard to say: here starts the analogue, the real or the physical, and here starts the digital. The digital is present even in our most intimate zones, like our bodies. When we talk about the digital it is also very hard to have future-proof language because we don’t know what will be coming next” (Bieke Zaman)
Bieke Zaman, Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction, KU Leuven, criticised current approaches to media and technologies that adopt a social constructivist and culturalist line of enquiry, paying attention primarily to processes of meaning-making and cultural appropriation. Lievrouw (2014), on the other hand, offers a more comprehensive framework to conceptualise “the digital” which points also to the materiality of media and communication technologies.
Extending her earlier work on new media technologies, Lievrouw’s mediation framework articulates the intersection and mutual influence of artefacts (technological infrastructures), arrangements (social, cultural, regulatory contexts) and practices (uses and appropriation). It recognises that content and materiality mutually shape each other in specific contexts and helps us move beyond the dual silos of technological determinism and cultural appropriation.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the collaborative element in the design, production and consumption of media, as described by Löwgren and Reimer (2013). Here digital technologies are the enabling factor which mediates the cultural forms designed, produced and consumed by users.
The insights from our speakers point us in the direction of understanding the digital in its relational context, as a mediator and enabling factor for the expression of agency. This transcends sharp distinctions between offline/online, analogue/digital, structure/agency and prompts us to consider the digital as “blended”, embodied, dynamic and co-constructed. This emerging analysis of the digital draws on ecological thinking and demand that we understand it in all its expanding and evolving socio-technological and contextually-embedded forms.
More webinars from this series on our YouTube channel
You can view the series as continuously updated YouTube playlist here.
Further resources on theories
Amoore, L. (2020). Cloud ethics: Algorithms and the attributes of ourselves and others. Duke University Press.
Baumer, E. P. S., and Brubaker, J. R. (2017). Post-Userism. Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 6291–6303).
Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Ecco.
Bollmer, G. D. (2018). Theorizing digital cultures. London: Sage.
boyd, D. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics. In Papacharissi, Z (ed.) A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites, pp 39-57.
Bucher, T. (2020). The right-time web: Theorizing the kairologic of algorithmic media. New Media and Society. 22(9): 1699-1714.
Bucher, T. (2018). IF…THEN: Algorithmic power and politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bucher, T. (2021) Data and algorithms, In Leah Lievrouw and Brian Loader (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Digital Media and Communication in Society. London: Routledge.
Bucher, T., and Helmond, A. (2017). The affordances of social media platforms. The SAGE Handbook of Social Media, London: Sage.
Burlington, I. (2016). Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. Ill edition. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing.
Fuchsberger, V. (2019). The Future’s Hybrid Nature. Interactions, 26 (4), 26–31.
Gibson, J. J. (2015). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Classic Edition: 1979). Routledge.
Gray, J., Gerlitz, C. and Bounegru, L (2018). ‘Data Infrastructure Literacy’: Big Data and Society, 10, July 2018.
Hine, C. (2015) Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. Bloomsbury.
Hine, C. (2019) The evolution and diversification of Twitter as a cultural artefact in the British press 2007 – 2014. Journalism Studies, 21(5):678-696.
Hine, C. (2020) Strategies for reflexive ethnography in the smart home: autoethnography of silence and emotion, Sociology, 54(1):22-36.
Larkin, B. (2013) ‘The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure’. Annual Review of Anthropology 42(1): 327–43.
Le Dantec, C. A., and DiSalvo, C. (2013). Infrastructuring and the formation of publics in participatory design. Social Studies of Science, 43(2), 241–264.
Lievrouw, L. (2014). Materiality and media in communication and technology studies: An unfinished project. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot (Eds.) Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality and society (pp. 21–52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Löwgren, J and Reimer, B (2013) Collaborative Media. Production, consumption, and design interventions. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
Mansell, R. and Plantin, J.C. (2020). ‘Urban Futures with 5G: British Press Reporting’. Media@LSE.
Plantin, J.C (2021). COVID-19, Broadband Disruption, and Infrastructure Literacy. Media@LSE Blog
Plantin, J.C. (2021). The data archive as factory: alienation and resistance of data processors. Big Data and Society. ISSN 2053-9517
Plantin, J.C. (2021). The political hijacking of open networking. The case of open radio access network. European Journal of Communication. ISSN 0267-3231
Plantin, J.C., Lagoze, C., Edwards, P.N. and Sandvig, C. (2018). Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook. New Media and Society, 20 (1). 293 – 310.
Schepers, S., Schoffelen, J., Zaman, B. and Dreessen, K. (2021) ‘I’m the boss of the Stiemerbeek valley!’ Reconsidering children’s empowerment in participatory design from the perspective of infrastructuring, CoDesign.
Star, S.L. (1999) ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3:11): 377–91.
Sterne, J. (2016). Analog. In Digital Keywords (pp. 31-44). Princeton University Press.
Van Mechelen, M., Zaman, B., Laenen, A., Vanden Abeele, V. (2015). Challenging group dynamics in participatory design with children: lessons from social interdependence theory. In: IDC ’15 Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (219-228). June, 2015, New York.
Vanden Abeele, V., Zaman, B. (2008). The Extended Likeability Framework: A Theoretical Framework for and a Practical Case of Designing Likeable Media Applications for Preschoolers. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, Art.No. ARTN 719291.
Zaman, B. (2020). Designing Technologies with and for Youth: Traps of Privacy by Design. Media and Communication, 8 (4), 229-238.
Zaman, B., Nouwen, M., Van Leeuwen, K. (2020). Challenging Adolescents’ Autonomy: An Affordances Perspective on Parental Tools. In: L. Green, D. Holloway, K. Stevenson, T. Leaver (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children, Chapt. 18, (195-203). Routledge.
Zaman, B., Van Mechelen, M., Bleumers, L. (2018). When toys come to life: considering the internet of toys from an animistic design perspective. In: IDC ’18 Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (170-180). June 2018: Trondheim.
Zaman, B., Vanden Abeele, V. (2010). Laddering with young children in User eXperience evaluations: theoretical groundings and a practical case. In: IDC ’10 Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, (156-165). June 2010: Barcelona.
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