Speakers: Taina Bucher (University of Oslo), Christine Hine (University of Surrey), Jean-Christophe Plantin (LSE), Bieke Zaman (KU Leuven) | Chair: Sonia Livingstone (LSE) | Discussant: Mariya Stoilova (LSE) | 07 May 2021
Key takeaways from the webinar
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, 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, 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, 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, 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.
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Taina Bucher is an Associate Professor in Screen Cultures at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo. She studies the relationships and entanglements between algorithms, social and political concerns – examining how users experience and make sense of algorithmic power and politics. Her first book, IF…THEN: Algorithmic power and politics (Oxford University Press, 2018) details the ontological politics at stake in the algorithmic media landscape. Her most recent book, Facebook (Polity Press, May 2021) provides an invitation to think Facebook anew.
Christine Hine is a Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. He work offers a sociology perspective on science and technology with a particular focus on the role played by new technologies in the knowledge construction process. Christine Hine has a major interest in the development of ethnography in technical settings and in “virtual methods” (the use of the Internet in social research). In particular, she has developed mobile and connective approaches to ethnography that combine online and offline social contexts.
Sonia Livingstone FBA, OBE is a Professor of Social Psychology at the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published 20 books including “The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age.” She directs the projects “Children’s Data and Privacy Online,” “Global Kids Online” (with UNICEF) and “Parenting for a Digital Future”, and she is Deputy Director of the UKRI-funded “Nurture Network.” Since founding the 33 country EU Kids Online network, Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe, OECD and UNICEF.
Jean-Christophe Plantin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. His research investigates the politics of digital platforms, the evolution of knowledge infrastructures, and the rise of digital sovereignty. His research investigates the increasing infrastructural role that digital platforms play in society. In his first book, Participatory Mapping: New Data, New Cartography, (Wiley, 2014) details the use of web-based mapping platforms (exemplified by Google Maps) by non-experts to participate in socio-technical debates, focusing on radiation mapping initiatives after March 11th 2011 in Fukushima, Japan.
Dr Mariya Stoilova is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her area of expertise is at the intersection of child rights and digital technology with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people, data and privacy online, digital skills, and pathways to harm and wellbeing.
Bieke Zaman is an Associate Professor in Human-Computer Interaction and research group leader of the Meaningful Interactions Lab (Mintlab) at the Institute for Media Studies, KU Leuven, Belgium. Her work lies primarily at the intersection of human computer interaction research and communication sciences and focuses on children, digital media and design; media convergence in a digital society; progressive research and dissemination methods. Some of her most recent projects include ySKILLS, Gam(e)(a)ble: Interdisciplinary research into the blurring of boundaries between gaming and gambling in teenagers, and PARCOS – Participatory Communication of Science.
Further CO:RE resources on theory
- Understanding children’s wellbeing in a digital world Understanding children’s wellbeing in a digital world
- Digital skills, literacies and citizenship Digital skills, literacies and citizenship
- Digital technologies in the lives of children and young people Digital technologies in the lives of children and young people
- Understanding online risks for children Understanding online risks for children