Notes on the 3rd digital ethnography reading (Kennedy 2003)
by Will Balmford
RMIT University, Melbourne
See other posts on the digital ethnography reading group (DERG)
This session we discussed Helen Kennedy’s 2003 article Technobiography: Researching lives, online and off. As has become practice for DERG, we had a wide variety of voices from different areas, including all the regulars but also adding Lucy Chen (who is studying life changes through social media), Nicholas Hansen (exploring interactive documentary) and Julian Waters-Lynch (an expert in the arena of education and support for social entrepreneurship).
The great part about this session was the clarity of hindsight reading an older article gave us. Writing in 2003, this article is visionary in some respects, and rather off the mark in others. This is no real criticism against Kennedy, simply a recognition of what we all felt – the digital space shifts, moves and changes incredibly fast. Predating widespread social media, blogging and their integration into everyday life, Kennedy explores the interesting idea of studying empowerment through identity, discussing anonymity right at the forefront of digital research. We noted the fascinating dualism between concepts such as material/social or digital/real to explore experiences (perhaps dual experiences) that are everyday based and how this perhaps sits in contrast to today, where the ‘everyday’ is increasingly including interactions between the two previously separate spaces and their associated ideas.
Another area of interest to Kennedy in the article is the idea of ‘Digital elites’. Referencing Tim Jordan’s Cyberpower, she unpacks and problematises the binary relationship between ‘ordinary’ and ‘elite’ users of the digital medium (124). This was fascinating to us. The idea of ‘digital elites’ has changed drastically over the years. Where once being techno-savvy meant using a computer, even people with little or no knowledge of the algorithms, code and connections have ‘everyday’ skills in using digital programs, social media and web browsers. John (Postill) recalled a rather amusing anecdote; upon being shown a Netscape browser in 1994, he remembers thinking that this thing call the World Wide Web would never catch on – it would remain the domain of the digital elites, removed from the lives of the ordinary other.
So what spaces do the digital elites occupy now? We explored this idea in a few directions, maybe they are the coders writing the programs we use, or the marketers tweaking ads based off complex algorithms assessing our behaviour. We also discussed the Deep Web in relation to what Kennedy explores – small networks of digital elites finding new spaces. However now people are far, far more away of the public relations side of things, and these are heavily taken into account when navigating digital spaces, regardless of your techno-ability. This led us to ask: does a digital divide still exist? (Admittedly a rather complex question, but it is these questions that make reading groups so fruitful!).
Although Kennedy’s article was excellent for discussion, we had several problems with it. Despite all of us reading it, we were still hard pressed to explain what ‘technobiography’ actual is. When we asked ourselves ‘What is technobiography?’ we could only really elucidate that it:
- entails a playful exploration of technological experiences
- includes accounts of everyday lives and the relationship to technology
- speaks to theory, hoping to open up a space where the relationship between theory and experience might be explored
This however, did not help us understand how exactly we might go about conducting technobiography. So when John asked the question: ‘Can technobiography be combined with a theory of practice?’ we couldn’t reconcile the key tensions between everydayness/life history, where the present becomes the normal, and the past/future are ignored. We felt that these temporal dimensions need to be clarified in the text, also acknowledging the importance of time and its relationship to authenticity in our own research.
The concept of time and authenticity side-tracked us somewhat into a discussion around surveillance, both as a researcher and the parallels between digital and non digital surveillance, authenticity and identity. Moved into a discussion of surveillance and the future of techno history, the notion of deleting history as we become technocentric and how we have issues with some types of surveillance and not others, as made very clear in the recent book The Wiki Leaks Files.
Unfortunately, we quickly ran out of time, and were left with several questions still burning in our brains. Perhaps you can help shed some light on them, or maybe they will just make you think a bit differently for the next few hours.
- Is the scale of surveillance changing?
- Is ‘techno’ (or ‘digital’) just a genre of experience?
- How important is authenticity to the narratives people tell?
- Henwood, F. , Kennedy, H. and Miller, N. (2001). Cyborg Lives? Women’s Technobiographies.
- Kennedy, H. (2003). Technobiography: Researching lives, online and off. Biograpy, 26(1), 120-140.
- Jordan, T. (1999). Cyberpower: The culture and politics of cyberspace and the internet. London: Routledge.
- Wikileaks (2015). The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire. United States: Verso Books.