Digital Media & Culture: Collaborative Essay Collection 2018/Always-on Culture/Research Question 2:/To what extent can we agree with dana boyd’s argument that we are always connected to the network?

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danah boyd, Writers on Writing about Technology roundtable, 2009-09-30 [1]


To what extent can we agree with dana boyd’s argument that we are always connected to the network?[edit | edit source]


“It’s no longer about on or off really. It’s about living in a world where being networked to people and information wherever and whenever you need is just assumed. I may not be always-on the Internet as we think of it colloquially, but I am always connected to the network. And that’s what it means to be always-on.” dana boyd, 2012, pp. 71-72.[2] To what extent do you agree with dana boyd’s argument that we are always connected to the network?


Introduction[edit | edit source]

“[We are] living in a world where [we are] networked to people and information wherever and whenever” (boyd, 2012, pp. 71-72). [2] boyd is referring to the contemporary ubiquitous Always-on Culture. This essay shall explore to what extent being always-on is a reality and what advantages and disadvantages a pervasive connectedness might bring. To begin with the relevant terminology will be defined. Then the positive features of the Always-on Culture shall be explored through the Internet of Things and Connectivity. To challenge this, the potential drawbacks that being never off might entail will be examined through Disconnectivity and Dataveillance. Lastly, a conclusion shall be drawn that highlights the links between each analysed aspect.

Main Concepts[edit | edit source]

General Definitions [edit | edit source]

People and information are networked together, whenever, and wherever (boyd, 2012, p.71). [2] This is referred to as Always-on Culture, a society in which citizens communicate and share information online constantly through communications devices such as mobile phones. Turkle (2006, p.3) [3] discusses public spaces, stating that the “train station is no longer a communal space (…) each person is more likely to be having an encounter with someone miles away rather than the person in the next chair”. Online advances have begun infiltrating our lives, as communication through online media becomes more common; decreasing physical interaction. boyd (2012, p.71)[2] argues that “the online is always just around the corner”, showing that our society is always connected to the network.

Due to the constant desire to be always connected to the network, this leads to advances in technology such as The Internet of Things. Technology is enhanced by fitting devices with sensors which give them new capabilities (Bunz & Meikle, 2018, p.10). [4] One example is conversational technology such as Siri or Alexa. They have the ability to turn on lights, track movement and respond to discussion. Sensors and cameras are increasingly used for identification and can monitor certain aspects such as health (Bunz & Meikle, 2018, p.11). [4] The Internet of Things has become more than simple internet, it is now one connected device. These advances in technology are created to ‘enhance’ our lives, relating to the Always-On culture as these devices mean we are never disconnected from the network.

The Internet of Things demonstrates modern desire for constant Connectivity. James and Steger (2016, p.23) [5] argue that “for a new generation, mediated connectivity is basic to their identity”. Through online communication, many are constantly connected to each other, not just physically but digitally. Papacharissi (2010) [6] describes how mobiles are used at events to share information as news platforms like CNN were found to be an insufficient supplier of updates, which creates “digitally enabled citizens” (p.3). Citizens feel the need to belong and to be constantly tethered to the network, meaning that the need to connect with others is rapidly becoming a basic need of survival (Hermann & Walker, 2005, p.81).

On the contrast to Connectivity, Disconnectivity is the conscious disavowal and non-consumption (Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p.1042),[7] to remove or not use media platforms, distinguishing between media abstention, rejection and refusal. Media abstention refers to the activity of not using or removing one’s presence from a media platform (Light & Cassidy, 2014, p. 1171). [8] Rejection, which is part of media refusal, is the denunciation of one aspect of media such as one particular service, whereas refusal can often encompass media beyond digital and is the conscious decision to not consume a media type (Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 1042). [7] However, it is important that all these forms of disconnectivity are deliberate. Non-use can sometimes simply be the result of the lack of knowledge of the media type (Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p.1042).[7] Henceforth, when talking about disconnectivity this essay will only consider the conscious disavowal of media when discussing this element.

Dataveillance is a further angle on this debate. Is it to do with privacy and information collection using digital media. Clarke (1998, p. 499) [9] defines it as the “systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications”. Automated data systems like these result in an increase of individuals and larger populations that are being monitored. Location is no longer an issue for data collection due to the network, no matter where users are their information is readily accessible for accumulation (Clarke, 1998, p.499). [9] There will be a never-ending supply of data to collect through constantly being connected to the network; always-on and always sharing.


Internet of Things [edit | edit source]

Cartoon of the Internet of Things by Wilgengebroe [10]

This essay will begin by looking at the positive aspects of Always-on Culture through the Internet of Things. In the current day and age, with objects that are internet connected surpassing the human population since 2008 (Evans, 2011, p.3), [11] it is increasingly difficult to disconnect, but is this unfavourable? Currently, almost anything can be connected and the number of connected devices is continuously rising, this means that everyday items from salt shakers to egg trays are being connected (Reynolds, 2017). [12] In seconds plentiful lists of internet enabled products can be found, anything from products designed to make the everyday easier to slightly more peculiar connected objects, for example, herb gardens or smart portable fish finders (Iotlist, n.d.). [13] of Things This surge in connected things raises the question of whether or not the products are being produced to line the pockets of global companies or for the benefits of the consumer, through usefulness or entertainment.

Bunz and Meikle have argued that the Internet of Things is not just about networked sensors, but about how these objects gain new skills, shown through new types of communication, for instance, conversational technology like Siri or Alexa (2018, p.10). [4] This technology has both positive and negative aspects to it, ranging from assisting people in their everyday life to being hackable or other glitches. In recent times there was an issue with Alexa which caused unprompted laughter or laughter at the wrong time, it was solved by changing the command through programming. This also changed the supposed creepiness of the Alexa laugh (Liao, 2018). [14] Thus showing that although a lot of connected produces are not always reliable they can be fixed and improved upon.

There are also bigger things like cars being connected, the production of new car that are internet enabled has increased from 35% in 2015 to a predicted rate of 98% by 2020 (Accenture, n.d.). [15] This means that it is increasingly difficult to disconnect from the internet. With the increase of connected car there is also an increase of data being collected, it is believed that new connected cars will create 25GB of data every hour (Akarshita, 2015). [16] This raises concern on safety, as there have been multiple incidences of driverless cars crashing, killing or injuring. However, there are positives too as in accidents the car can automatically contact the emergency services with your location.

Another idea proposed for using the technology of the Internet of Thing is to connect whole cities, Dustdar, Nastić and Šćekić believe that this would have a positive effect on society as it puts citizens first and promotes active involvement (2017, p.14). [17] They also argues that smart cities would allow for citizen to be involved through decision making, for example, traffic, educational or political. They think that these citizens would have “empowerment through technology”, due to the smart city (2017, p.5). [17] In terms of Always-on culture this would mean being constantly connected to your city, which does have many social, economical and environmental positives. In a society with an ever increasing abundance of internet connected devices the dependency to be digitally connected is growing into an entity of its own, this results in connectivity thriving, as staying connected is faster, cheaper and easier.


Connectivity [edit | edit source]

There are numerous types of connectivity we could talk about within Digital Media. As we have seen through the Internet of Things, more and more technologies are joining this online network to keep connected. Communication and the exchange of information are major factors in what drives connectivity in this modern age (James and Steger, 2016, p.22). [5] In order to remain focused on Always-On Culture, this section will expand upon the definition of connectivity, and will be discussing the positives of connectivity as it has been adapted it into our everyday culture.

To begin with, we can look at how connectivity is used as a way of bringing people together. Constant connection via Always-On culture gives us the opportunity to keep in touch with those we care about, no matter how far away they might be. This has the practical benefit that whenever there is an emergency, we know they can reach out for help. The knowledge that your loved one has a phone, and therefore a method of getting in touch in times of need, can be a huge relief. Another benefit comes from the emotional connection that can come from being able to talk to someone who is far away. In Alone Together [...], Turkle describes how she is comforted in the knowledge that, although her daughter is studying in another country, she can still remain connected with her in some way (2011, p.153). [18] In a way, connectivity is about the ability to share information with others around the world, but this is not purely in a personal sense.

When talking about connectivity, we are also referring to the ability to keep up to date with events happening around the world. There is a new phenomenon in which we are being almost immediately updated with news as stories happen. This is not only due to news media being available online and accessible whenever we need it, but also owing to the spread of social media. Anyone can create a social media account and start posting to an audience that would have been previously unreachable of. Because of this, there have been cases in which news stories were first broken not by mainstream media, but by members of the public who were at the event (Meikle & Young, 2012, p.55). [19] An example of this is the November 2015 attacks in Paris, in which the first reports of the attack came from Twitter mere minutes after the first explosion (BBC News, 2015). [20] Connectivity not only aids in keeping people informed of world events, but actively plays a role in helping when there is a bad situation. After the Paris attacks, people were taking to Twitter and other social media accounts to offer up their homes to citizens and tourists who had nowhere else to go. This is just one example of the numerous times connectivity has had a positive effect.

In the quote in question, boyd speaks of always being connected to the network, and this is what becomes evident through the notion of connectivity. People now have the option to talk to others halfway across the world instantly, something that not so long ago would have seemed impossible. We are constantly seeking updates, taking in any and all information that interests us. Connectivity not only suggests that what boyd says about this constant connection to the network is true, but also that the connection can have a positive effect. Always-On culture encourages connectivity, giving people the opportunity to add to and take from this network of information in a way that benefits them.


Disconnectivity [edit | edit source]

Despite all the advantages that online connectivity brings, many people make the conscious decision to disconnect. These non-participants, therefore, actively go against boyd’s hypothesis that we are always networked together (boyd, 2012, pp. 71-72).[2] This essay shall now discuss at the reasons for media abstention or refusal and break each one down to understand how disconnectivity might be understood as a counterpoint to the networked always-on self. Most people are motivated by social, cultural, economic or political factors (Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 1042,[7] Hesselberth, 2017, p. 10, [21] Lovink, 2011, p.24 [22]). Yet, it is also to argue that the difference in behaviour online compared to real life interactions might be a driving force behind media refusal.

Analysing the psychological aspects of behaviour, Suler (2005) [23] identified the disinhibition effect. He is describing activities online that could be perceived as toxic. The Internet creates a great opportunity for anonymity (Suler, 2005, p. 184), [23] which can often have the effect of unkindness (James, 2014, p.2). [24] Another aspect of disinhibition is asynchronous interactions (Suler, 20058, p. 185).[23] This creates the difficulties in having more advanced conversations (Turkle in James, 2014, p. 14). [24] Thus, people might disconnect as online interactions can be cruel and feel not personal.

The notion of less fulfilling online connections is the major motive for socially driven disconnection (Turkle, 2011, p. 155). [18] Many feel, that especially when knowing the person from their offline lives, that web-based interactions let relationships deteriorate (Light & Cassidy, 2014, p. 1177). [8] This is further enhanced by the difficulties of full attention on one action when being online (Turkle, 2011, p. 280) [18] and a less focused engagement (Lovink, 2011, p. 12). [22] Thus, people disconnect to concentrate on offline relationships (Light & Cassidy, 2014, p. 1173), [8] without interference from the online network.

The always-on environment has caused many concerns about cultural shifts and developments in society. Many are more concerned about issues such as privacy (see dataveillance) (Light & Cassidy, 2014, p. 1175)[8] and choose to disconnect to be less visible. With the possibility to have information always at hand, a trend of dumb users has been described (Carr in Lovink, 2011 p. 9). [22] Jenkins has also noted that there is the tendency of abandonment of (core) values highly important in the offline world but insignificant online (2014, p. xxiii). [25] Such principles might be the care for others that shifts to a “favo[uring] of our own self-interest at the expense of […] others” (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel in James, 2014, p.9). [24] To disconnect, henceforth, means to hold on to traditional values.

When looking at economics many disconnect due to the hours of free and unpaid labour that their own online connectivity creates, as well as the exploitation of others labour (Fuchs, 2017, p. 145). [26] The enjoyment of the digital standard in the minority world interrelates internationally with and at the expense of workers in the majority world (Fuchs, 2017, pp. 148-9). [26] McChesney (2013, pp. xii-xiii), [27] thus, describes how capitalism is one of the main factors that brought digital appliances into everyone’s homes. Disconnection can therefore be utilised as a form of activism against majority world exploitation.

All of these aspects feed into the political counterpoint that many take to constant connectivity by disconnecting as a form of activism through non-participation (Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 1043). [7] The conscious disavowal, driven by moral principles, is to be perceived as a political statement against the drawbacks of the always-on landscape (Portwood-Stacer, 2013, p. 1052).[7] As policies are highly influential over media systems, non-use demonstrates people’s concerns and desire for governmental shift (McChesney, 2013, p. 64). [27] Lastly, many fear surveillance functionalities put in place by institutions that goes hand in hand with mass connectivity (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 10). [21] To retain a more private and less observed life people, thus, disconnect (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 10).[21] This surveillance is called dataveillance.


Dataveillance [edit | edit source]

Surveillance cameras [28]

Dataveillance is a cost-effective way for companies in the internet age to monitor information that relates to their customers online activity and usage. The way this information is then used is where an issue could potentially lie. There is a sense of anonymity when engaging with the internet (Suler, 2005, p. 185). [23] However, when you begin to become identifiable by the information that is gathered from you, then one realises that this sense of anonymity is false, and one is entirely traceable by all of one’s online activities (Bunz & Meikle, 2018, p. 26). [4] An issue with Dataveillance comes to light if we consider the ethics behind the way the information can be used to manipulate people’s behaviour (Bunz & Meikle, 2018, p. 31). [4] Degli Eposti states that “the term manipulation is used intentionally” because it connotes actions that have been have been influenced by an outside source without them realising. (Degli Eposti, 2014, p. 220). [29] The gathered information could be used as an influencer in both positive or negative ways. The potential for the information to be used to target different people based on their online activity is where the question of morality comes into the picture (Andrejevic, 2013, p. 5). [30] Clark identifies that privacy is primarily considered a moral right and a legal right, so there is little legal jurisdiction protecting people’s information online (Clark, 1998). [9] However, in light of the recent news stories about Facebook (Cellan-Jones, 2018), [31] there have been huge concerns over the safety of our information which could possibly lead going forward to have some new legislation built around data protection and the data that we share on our social media platforms.

Another of the biggest concerns regarding Dataveillance is that people often do not know about it. It is done discreetly and in the background. People will agree via a clause in terms and conditions that they won’t necessarily will have read. The issue here then becomes that people aren’t aware of where and how their data is being used by companies. The recent controversy with Facebook having sold personal information about its users to governments and companies is a perfect example of how much we don’t know is going on (Wakefield, 2018). [32] Your data can be monitored by the digital footprint that is left behind from every activity that you complete online. Kuhn had quoted in an article about Dataveillance that “[m]ost individuals don’t realise they are leaving behind a data trail that amounts to a psychographic self-portrait” (Kuhn, 2007, p. 4). [33] Despite the fact that this article was written 10 years ago, this quote is still incredibly relevant in today’s society and possibly now even more so as the time and ways we engage with the internet increase (Turkle, 2011, p. 152). [18] Thus, we can relate this back to boyd’s idea of being always-on. Although we have the ability to go offline, there is a data trail that is a reflection of us still online.


Conclusion [edit | edit source]

Having analysed the advantages of the Always-on Culture through the helpful Internet of Things and rising Connectivity as well as the drawbacks of being always-on that creates the need to disconnect and the pervasive monitoring of our information through Dataveillance, the difficulty of the debate around Always-On Culture has become apparent. Furthermore, the interconnectedness of devices equipped with sensors increasingly take up tasks that humans do not need to anymore. We connect to the devices and at the same time the Internet of Things helps us to connect to others. Connectivity condenses time and space, which means that we can reach anyone and anything at any time and from any place. However, many find the Always-on Culture too intrusive and consciously disconnect from the network for social or political reasons. Additionally, Dataveillance becomes increasingly a privacy issue as more and more devices of the Internet of Things connect and gather information. All these aspects are interconnected and one cannot be understood without the other. Henceforth it is difficult to determine whether the Always-on Culture is a positive or negative development. However, it has become evident that only the conscious act of going offline, disconnects people from the network.


Word count: 3,178


References[edit | edit source]

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