A lot of my research focuses on internet technology and how it shapes our conversations and our world.
This would, by all accounts, appear to be a rich time for such a research focus. The trouble with this sort of in-situ research, however, is that is always feels a bit dodgy. There is no way for me to truly determine the longer term practicality or even accuracy of my research especially when things are changing so fast. Rather, the best I can hope to do is place this moment within an historical and theoretical context while acknowledging the limited factor that even that entails.
In some sense, the story today is not so different save for the pace of transition. Technology is our hero and our bogeyman. It has been that way for a very long time as any number of texts would suggest. Technology co-evolves with society - it is a driver of societal change and, in turn, it is driven by that change. Technology, then, is inherently political. More than just an enabling tool, technology often becomes a form of social communication and expression (shades of Mcluhan here, I know). It tells stories, builds narratives, and acts to resist or drive the constructs within the publics that enagage with it. Because technology acts upon the society underneath and shifts and changes in response to how the society reacts, it rapidly slips away from its creators’ intent (which is why Mary Shelley is a damn genius). Technological control is always a bit of smoke and mirrors and deep down we realize that1. Once built, there is no way to fully control the technology we create. We can only evolve with it and refine it as we go but always with the not-so-subtle awareness that there is a distance between our intent and our impact. It is no surprise then, that technology is both loved and feared sometimes in the same breath.
What, then, does that mean for research in this space if the only option is a choice between historical contextuality or random prognostication? It means that, if you are like me (and you probably aren’t), you pivot. Well, first you flail for a bit. Then, you wonder if the world is just going to dissolve for not-so-entirely different reasons; until finally, you realize it is time to pivot. You begin to look at technological inequity outside of the tech good/tech bad dialectic (ooo, an academic-y word to mean–in this sense–binary ) which extends into types of tech as well (electric cars, cell phones, social media and even–though it pains me to say–the blockchain2). My interest then is in technology that is developed within a context of considerable distrust and fear while aimed at resisting dominant technological narratives (including many of our most used technologies) that promote exploitation and marginalization. Some of that technology will be subsumed within the dominant narrative–bad tech devouring good3. That story and its players are interesting, though. Maybe, if you don’t want to prognosticate (and I don’t), you just help people find their way. If my work is nothing more than a giant “YOU ARE HERE” in the map of our current technological zeitgiest[^notthat], I am okay with that.
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s 2005 book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics was quite prescient on the relationship of control and power at least in regard to the concept of the Internet. ↩︎
Just because a technology currently has a limited use (at best) and is primarily a part of tech-bro ponzi schemes doesn’t mean that there may not be a practical use case, somewhere, eventually. ↩︎