This Digital Life: Mums, Dogs, and Inmates (1 of 3)

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It’s always, ultimately, been about writing your own story.

Modern information science and technology – the knowledge and practices that underpin the ways we entertain and inform ourselves, store knowledge, contact public representatives, commit crime or enforce the law, manage our finances or our health – have been wildly transformed since the heyday of the Dewey Decimal System, but at heart it’s always been about that freedom: to write the story of your life as you see fit.

Once you went into the library, chose a book from its shelves, read it and made sense of it as you wished. Librarians were never teachers or preachers, inflicting a curriculum or credo on you. Even before the digital revolution, pioneers like Aby Warburg, founder of the library that bears his name, experimented with slide projectors and other technologies to allow advanced forms of serendipitous browsing & intellectual connection. A New Yorker piece on the Warburg Institute, “the world’s weirdest library”, described it as a forerunner of Google Images.

Digital technology, permeating everyday existence, increasingly shows its capacity to constrain and surveil us or to distort our perceptions of the truth. Yet its abilities to liberate and empower users are also developing.

Twenty years ago, the father of ubiquitous computing Mark Weiser wrote, “Machines that fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs, will make using a computer as refreshing as taking a walk in the woods.”

Today, we recognise that when we take a “walk in the woods”, we are moving through a complex social environment shaped by inequalities and injustice, by our relationships with animals and nature, and by the basic bonds of parenthood and family.

Out on Australia’s Darling Downs, a team at the University of Southern Queensland have founded the Digital Life Lab – a unit exploring the ways in which Australians and others experience life shaped by the impact of information technology.

Over three installments, we’ll be looking at their research and how it intersects with The Writing Platform’s focus on authorship and literature in the digital age. This week, we’re joined by social scientist Kate Davis.

Kate’s research is in the field of information experience – using qualitative approaches to get to the heart of how people encounter, make sense and use of information – especially via social media.

“We’re increasingly immersed in social media and in the streams of information that form there,” she says. “Whatever your preferred social media platforms, whichever social media spaces you inhabit, you encounter vast amounts of information every time you open an app to see what’s happening online. I’m interested in understanding how we experience that information: how we create it, how we share it, how we use it, what impact it has on our lives, how we feel about it.”

Kate’s doctoral thesis looked at how mums use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

“Watching my friends’ use of social media change as they became parents, I became intrigued with how they shared advice, health information, recipes, and even the occasional roar of frustration online.” Kate used in-person interviews to talk to new mums about their experiences and backed that up by observing their social media activity.

The age of smartphones and social media has put vast computing and communication power in the hands of ordinary people, with an enormous impact on both Kate’s field of information studies and our capacity as individuals to write an account of our own lives across various media.

“On blogs, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,” Kate says, “mothers write out their stories as a way to normalise their experiences, to help others, and to make sense of their new identity as mothers.”

“Some post to social media with the express aim of contributing to the discourse on what it means to be a mother. Others are simply enacting and documenting their lives online. But regardless of what motivates them to post, they are writing a narrative about what it means to mother today.”

Social media allows us to blend word, sound, and image to account for the past, chronicle the present, or even express hopes, fears, and plans for the future. Becoming a parent is a dramatic transition in the lives of many, and therefore ripe for exploration in these terms.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” says Kate. “We make parenting decisions amid a flow of shared stories, hints, tips, and parenting woes – but these days the village has become a digital metropolis.”

“You have mummy bloggers, ‘parenting experts’, friends, relatives, and health professionals all producing and sharing information across social platforms. That’s not just knowledge consumption, it’s creation: the writing and telling of new folk wisdom for the digital age.”

The changes creating this new culture are not just technological, but demographic. Women are having children later in life and returning to work sooner after birth; a declining fertility rate in Australia means that there are fewer “peer mothers” in any given neighbourhood as mixed-age families transform our suburbs, with a potential for physical social isolation.

“Becoming a mum can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences,” says Kate, “but also one of the loneliest. Your baby doesn’t come with a manual and the emotional connections you develop with fellow ‘virtual villagers’ can supplement or even replace the connections you make offline.”

The information mothers create, share, and consume on social media might range from recipes, cat videos, and funny memes to opinion pieces and informative articles on parenting, healthcare, and other issues that might inform the choices you make about raising your child.

Just as the words of a recipe transform foodstuffs into a meal, the words and information consumed online contribute to the material decisions which shape your child’s own life story.

Some of this information might be problematic or pernicious: Kate’s next project focuses on social media content related to immunisation, and how mothers navigate vaccination decisions as part of their online knowledge experience.

“Immunisation is a hot topic right now and over and over again I see information about immunisation – both for and against – popping up in my social media feeds, often triggering heated debates. Some of that information is evidence-based, considered and trustworthy, but some of it isn’t.”

“I think there are opportunities for health information providers to disseminate information about immunisation via social media. But to do that, we need to understand how mothers interact with information they’re exposed to in social media, and how that impacts on decision making about immunisation.”

So much of the fight against fake news currently focus on elections and the political sphere, but the phenomenon arguably has roots in earlier forms of misinformation. Economist Tim Harford’s piece “The Problem With Facts” describes one antecedent of today’s fake news: the deliberate work by 20th-century tobacco firms to produce ignorance about the real health consequences of smoking.

“The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day,” Harford writes. “The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.”

Kate’s research into anti-vax and social media leads us to question how online information shapes the intimate spaces of parenthood and the choices we make for our children’s well-being today. Rather than take a paternalistic view and focus simply on ways to endorse and support official sources of information, Kate’s study of information experience allows for interventions which support and empower users to make informed decisions on their own terms.

If asserting the facts has not been enough to win the historical battle against “fake news”, it will take the diligent, empathetic work of Kate and her peers to fully understand the spread of pernicious information online – and how best to equip people to manage it.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll continue to explore the digital world we live and write in, asking who is allowed access to the creative potential of digital technology. In an age when a selfie taken by an ape can become part of a court battle, and intelligent machines grow increasingly autonomous, how can we best explore who has authority and agency to create in the digital age?

Dr Matt Finch works with communities, companies, and institutions to help them do useful and surprising new things. Currently developing community engagement projects for the University of Southern Queensland and serving as Creative/Researcher for British Library Labs, Matt has devised everything from a season of burlesque in New Zealand’s biggest city to live zombie battles in rural Australia. He has spoken in the British & Australian Parliaments and is a regular keynote speaker at national and state events in Australia, the UK, and beyond.