Digital bubbles, networked publics and sonic bridges

I spent a really interesting day at a University of Sussex event in the ESRC funded Digital Bubbles series exploring interdisciplinary perspectives on autism and technology enhanced learning. I was invited as a sociologist to say something about how research into young people’s digital culture can shed light on the wider question and I presented a draft version from our forthcoming book based on the Face to Face and Curating Childhoods project looking at how ‘research’ itself has become an integral part of young people’s digital cultures: be that obsessing, stalking and fan-girling a band or showing off skills in homework projects. I was given the final slot of the programme which is always a bit gruelling but meant that I had the pleasure of listening to the other contributions of the day.

First up was Yvonne Rogers, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL. Whose research involves making things that might disrupt or change the individualising attention economy which she illustrated with a picture of a line of teenagers all staring into smart phones. These are the ‘digital bubbles’ that Yvonne wants to disrupt, encouraging us to ‘look up and out’ from our devices and pay attention to co-presence and face to face interaction. Her amazing projects include wiring up a forest and creating collaborative devices that incite pair collaboration in order to probe and measure the environment, collecting data that can be aggregated and reflect on by the group, revealing new ways of thinking about spaces. Her latest invention are smart cubes that can be coded to respond to movement, heat, moisture and to express sound and colour and to do so relationally via blue tooth. So for example, children could use the cubes as different instruments creating music in real time.

I loved her focus on attention (we are working with Alice Marwick’s idea of the attention economy) and her commitment to use technology deliberately to intervene, enhance and I’d say ‘re-enchant’ face to face interactions. But I did worry about the insularity of the metaphor of the digital bubble. In our research we have become interested in the ways in which technology can enable young people to access new kinds of ‘public’ which may be mediated and ephemeral but can also be networked (boyd) and live (for more see Nolas 2015). Think for example of the groups of friends playing online games together in real time aided by Skype, practicing their wit and repartee.

The intersection of fans, celebrities and ‘professional fans’ in the form of YouTubers (who begin as ordinary fan and turn into celebrities themselves) can be seen as a dynamic cultural circuit that depends on practices of search as well as the production and circulation of content and value by users. It is clearly a great deal of fun, as well as providing opportunities to travel (camping out with fellow fans to see the celebrity and to get a selfie) and to make friends with those beyond your neighbourhood. The question of whether such practices are ‘progressive or reactionary has come to dominate much academic discussion of the phenomena. Some like Jodi Dean suggest that ‘communicative capitalism’ relies on fantasies of participation, contribution and circulation. For Dean these networks are apolitical in that they are contained and literally privatised and their economic value is harvested by advertisers and corporations. Yet there is another tradition of seeing fandom in much more positive terms as a set of social practices, that may well change the world in subtle but profound ways. Synchronicity seems to be an important part of the picture (doing things in unison and in real time) as does co-presence, although whether we need to be in the same room to be co-present is another matter. One of the ideas that we have been playing with is that of ‘sonic bridges’ – the notion that sound has a privileged relationship with togetherness and with synchronicity. Building on Kate Lacey’s ideas of ‘listening’ in and ‘listening out’ perhaps we can play with musical metaphors to think through some of the affordances of the digital for live communications.

To find out more about the seminar and series see http://digitalbubbles.org.uk/?page_id=24

Our book: Researching Everyday Childhoods: Time, Technology and Documentation is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2017.

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