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Things and words: a critical discursive approach to new technologies

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In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor reviews an interesting new book and presents a view of new technologies that is informed by critical discursive psychology.

In a season when people are acquiring lots of things, as gifts and in New Year sales, I have enjoyed reading a new book on 'The Internet of Things' by Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle (Polity, 2018). The authors are particularly interested in things that have sensors (like the location device on a smartphone) and can be connected together in networks. The book is therefore about new technologies, but ones which are becoming increasingly common.

'The Internet of Things' is not a psychological text but it includes research using Critical Discourse Analysis, an approach which of course has parallels with discursive and discourse analytic approaches in social psychology. In addition, the book interested me because it presents some examples of how people's engagement with the material world is shaped by the kind of social knowledge that discursive researchers might discuss as 'discourses' or 'repertoires' or 'resources', and also examples of how that knowledge changes

Discursive research is often criticised for just being about words, that is, for not taking account of the material world, or bodies, or emotion, or other aspects of our lives and contexts which are supposedly extra-discursive. The counter-argument is that by analysing words and language discursive researchers can explore the social knowledge and meanings which structure our experience, including our engagement with the 'things' of the material world: 'there is no neat separation between the meanings in language and in the social world more generally' (Taylor, 2013, p.78). However, discursive researchers are also interested in other evidence of social meanings, such as what people do and how they interact. Bunz and Meikle offer a number of entertaining, and disturbing, examples of how we interact with technological 'things', and how new interactions are shaped by older meanings.

It seems clear that when approaching wholly new things and situations, people draw on existing ideas or resources. For instance, when they (we) receive spoken instructions from a thing, like a car satnav system, they respond as if they are hearing the voice of a person. In some cases, the satnav becomes an authority who must be obeyed, like an army officer or an old-style school teacher. Bunz and Meikle describe situations in which drivers followed (faulty) satnav instructions to drive hundreds of miles away from their route, or off the road, up a mountainside, into the side of a house or even the sea. (Why is it always so cheering to read about technology that goes wrong?)

In other cases, people's social knowledge prompts them to challenge or resist what the voice is telling them. The voice of a supermarket's self-scanning checkout device apparently annoyed some customers so much that they reverted to shoplifting, presumably to get back at the device. Moreover, the gender of a device voice invokes social prejudices so that a male voice giving instructions is heard as authoritative but a female voice is 'irritating', unless its messages 'signal a lower status in the relationship with the speaker' (p.65). In short, we cannot escape our (sexist) social knowledge, however sophisticated the new technology.

However, 'The Internet of Things' also indicates that social knowledge changes. New technologies eventually give rise to different meanings and ways of acting in the world. For example, many people now use health-tracking devices to monitor their own physical activity and food intake and sleep patterns. The devices also produce user data which has a commercial value, yet people seem unworried by the implications for their privacy. The new social knowledge involved is, first, the way of thinking about ourselves that the devices promote -  in Bunz and Meikle's words, as 'a competitive individual engaged in a continuous series of struggles and challenges' (p.103) – and second, the view of self-monitoring and recording, as 'natural' rather than, say, as intrusive surveillance.

Like everyone else, I will probably step up my self-monitoring in January as part of a New Year resolution, possibly with the help of a monitoring device. 'The Internet of Things' is a useful reminder that we are all social beings and nothing, however technologically sophisticated, is so new that it supersedes its social context.

Some of the content of this blog has links to our new OU module DD317 Advancing social psychology. You can find more information about the module on OU websites and you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

References

Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle (2018) The Internet of Things Cambridge: Polity

Stephanie Taylor (2013) What is Discourse Analysis? London: Bloomsbury.

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