Being reflexively ethnographic in the face of an opaque Internet of Things
Christine Hine (University of Surrey)
Paper short abstract:
STS ethnography of the Internet of Things in use faces the tendency of "users" to forget the technologies until it goes wrong, and uncertainty on all sides on what the technology actually does. This paper explores strategies for reflexive ethnography in the face of this silence and ambiguity.
Paper long abstract:
The Internet of Things and the proliferation of smart technologies pose some interesting challenges for an STS ethnographer. Many aspects of these technologies remain opaque in operation and "users" can only guess at what algorithmic processes and data flows are going on behind the scenes. In fact the term "user" becomes somewhat problematic, since those affected by a technology such as a smart home may largely forget on an everyday basis that their environment is being mediated in this way. In such circumstances the ethnographer may be tempted to educate and reveal, setting themselves up in a position of knowing more and better than those whose lives they observe - but to do so transgresses the traditional ethnographic commitment to studying beliefs as we find them. The ethnographer seeking to collect data may find themselves having to take a troublingly active role in bringing discussions to the surface, as the experience from a user perspective comprises an ethnographically opaque silence, passivity and and lack of engagement punctuated by moments of activity largely occasioned by something going notably wrong (but often nobody knows quite what). In such circumstances a range of reflexive strategies come into play: symmetrical scepticism to all claims to know what the technologies does, including the ethnographer's own beliefs; autoethnographic engagement with how the technology feels both in times of notability and times of being ignored; embrace of uncertainties surrounding the technology as an inherent part of what the technology is, rather than a deficit to be overcome.
Methodography of data practices in STS's ethnographic collaboration and participant observation