“Its my baby! I can’t live without it”

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As academics we have a responsibility to communicate our ideas and findings to a broader audience. Posters are a great way to do this by making us capture key aspects of our research in a visually accessible format. I’ve just created one for the Postgraduate Conference for the Centre for Research in Computing at the Open University where I am based.

The quote “Its my baby! I can’t live without it” was a response from one young woman when I asked her how she felt about her phone. We both laughed when she said this – knowing that she was only half joking.

In my fieldwork I’m discovering a lot about our feelings of love, fear, resentment and addiction to our mobile devices and the central role they play in young women’s lives. For some women they are their sole means to access the internet: for homeless women they are invaluable for staying connected with friends, family and support agencies.

Whilst my research draws on ideas such as the capability approach, the ‘big question’ is  whether mobile devices are a good or a bad thing in the lives of socially excluded young women. I hope this graphic shows something of how I’m going about answering this question.

ResearchPosterJune2014

How mobile devices might be engineered for addiction

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I’ve been wondering why the women I’ve been interviewing are still using Facebook so much. Research on 16-18 year olds in London found that it is basically dead to them. Yet most of the women I’m interviewing (who are between 18-24) are still looking at Facebook a lot: often the first app they’re looking at after they wake up. This doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it – on the contrary they talk a lot about how its become boring, a routine. They’re also using a lot of other platforms – WhatsApp, SMS, Instagram – so its not a question of being loyal to a particular platform.

Reading a brilliant article about Addictive Technologies illuminated this issue for me in that it talks about how the platform is engineered to get you addicted to the ‘serotonin’ it emulates.

“Facebook doesn’t just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings–the positive ones at least–that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person. The company shorthand for this is “serotonin,” the neurotransmitter that sparks feelings of happiness.”

There’s lots of theory to help us understand what’s going on here – the technical codes in the design of the software and devices that reflect the cultural horizon of our society, the network effects that pulled the women onto Facebook in the first place – but this is an opportunity for a reflexive moment. I need to look more deeply at what we’re doing when we choose to look at a particular app, fiddle about with something on our phones, check Twitter again for a little serotonin buzz. I want to understand how these urges and ‘addictions’ then impact on decisions we make about what else we are doing with our phones; how much we spend on them and why we choose particular devices over others.

Social exclusion and smartphone poverty

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The women I’ve been interviewing for my fieldwork are between the ages of 16-24 and if they are in receipt of benefits they might get job seekers allowance of around £250 a month. Many of them are on smartphone contracts of anything up to £36 a month; approximately 15% of their income. Lots of factors can add to these costs: when a relationship ends women might find themselves paying off contracts for ex-partners in addition to their own contract.

Many women report unexpected debts related to smartphone use: going over their minutes limits on their contracts because they need to make a lot of calls to find work, or going over their data limits when they’re using a phone as a hotspot.  Smartphone contracts can be very complex and the way that information is provided by operators can feel opaque: women complain of not being able to access basic information on what they are paying per minute when they go over their talk allowance. Even the apps designed to help manage costs on a phone can be problematic; failing to update frequently enough for people who need to micromanage their call costs.

When I started my fieldwork I had no idea of how big a role money was going to play in the story of young women and mobile devices but it keeps on coming up as an important theme: broken contracts, smartphone related debt and expensive devices. Unlike our engagement with the energy companies, where public opinion and the work of consumer champions has made some impact, mobile operators don’t seem to be under the same sort of scrutiny. Although mobile phones (and in the case of 16-24 year olds this usually means a smartphone) are a necessary utility they seem to be placing an enormous financial burden on some of our most vulnerable young people.

I’m going to carry on talking to women about money and smartphones as I think this is an important issue, in the meantime it would be great to see more public debate and scrutiny about how some of the most vulnerable members of society are impacted by smartphone debt.

Code Red, Aunt Irma visiting and apps for women?

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I’ve not been blogging recently as I’m deep in fieldwork but I couldn’t resist this.

It was international women’s day recently, so what better time to learn about an incredible new app. Yes. Code Red. “A survival guide to her monthly cycle. Period.” This app is designed not to empower women to take control of their fertility, but instead to provide men with a day by day indication of their partner’s likely mood based on their menstrual  cycle: “Code Red Alert – Warns you that the Her-ricane is coming”. Maybe there are some women out there would would be deeply touched by the consideration demonstrated by their partner installing this app. But you know, I just wouldn’t.  Even though it does offer “Links to local vendors for presents, groceries and goods (via Google Maps)”. (Worrying side thought: Are we now going to see Google harvesting our menstrual cycle data, offering us targeted ads at particular times of the month?)

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Screenshot from Code Red app

The app creators say that ““Every month, women go through the same ups and downs, but the men in our lives never seem to catch on” and I can see that it might be helpful for some couples. I’m interviewing young women about what they are doing with their smartphones at the moment, and accessing health information in a confidential way is a very positive aspect of the role these devices are playing in their lives.

But getting their boyfriends to track their period? Not so much. Via the fascinating Menstruation Research blog  I was reminded of the hilarious IT crowd episode where Jen is forced to euphemise her PMT symptoms “I’ve fallen to the Communists”. I think I’d rather stick with the old crimson tide.

In light of International Women’s Day a lot of other issues are raised around gender and technology by this app: what does it mean when men are tracking women’s biology on their smartphones? How are these intimate relationships being mediated by technology? But I’ll leave those for another day.

Opening up to debates: capabilities, affordances and consequentialism

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Last week I presented some thoughts on capability theory and digital inclusion at the Open University’s Society and Information Research Group.

There was a great discussion afterwards and I’d like to thank the individuals involved for their contribution. Some issues raised include the following:

  • What do we know about the way in which smartphones might be making young people vulnerable to crime?
  • Are ‘walled gardens’ like Facebook appealing environments to young people with limited ‘digital capabilities’?
  • In our gradations of digital inclusion, in future years will we be seeing more and more refuseniks who are sophisticated manipulators of their online persona’s – individuals who are politically opposed to the increasing encroachment of surveillance technologies into everyday life?
  • How might we use the theories of Foucault and Latour to understand the power dynamics experienced by marginalised young women in their interactions with the state?

All of these will feed into my research at a later date. A couple of issues were raised which I want to share some brief thoughts on here.

How do we understand the relationship between affordances and capabilities?
This last question feels very cogent for me right now as I feel that both terms provide a means to articulate the dynamics between a technology, individual agency and the state. It was suggested during the discussion that affordances (“functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby 2001) 444) might be a means to directly interrogate a technology’s use, and that capabilities might complement this by enabling us to understand the socio-technical framework – the imbrications of society and technology, and the structures (network operators, software designers etc) which shape our uses of technology.

How does capability theory handle people’s ‘competing’ rights?
A further discussion looked at the ethical underpinnings of capability theory: the challenges of ‘ranking rights’. Alexander (2008) describes Sen’s theory as ‘broad consequentialism: a way of looking at the consequences of exercising rights. This ‘pluralistic consequentialism’ suggests that a a variety of fundamental principles can be taken into account when assessing a situation or a policy. This is set against the monistic model of utilitarian philosophy which suggests that only utility can be taken into account. Alexander shows how rights and capabilities are not equivalent – but are interdependent so without capabilities you cannot exercise rights.

All in all this discussion showed me the value of opening up work for debate and discussion at an early stage, and reminded me how lucky I am to be part of such a vibrant and challenging intellectual environment at the Open University.

Bibliography of works cited

Alexander, John M. 2008. Capabilities and social justice : the political philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate Pub. Ltd.

Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009. Equality Measurement Framework: 13. Participation, influence and voice, London, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Eynon, R. & Geniets, A. 2012. On the Periphery? Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain, Nominet Trust

Hutchby, I. 2001. Technologies, texts and affordances. Sociology, 35, 441-456.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice': steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Johnstone, Justine 2007. Technology as empowerment: a capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Sen, A.K. 1999. Development as freedom, Oxford University Press.

Universal credit, assisted digital and some unanswered questions

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I’ve been trying to pull some threads together in reaction to some recent reports reflecting changes in the structure and delivery of benefits and also a new report on the challenges faced by young people seeking work. How are the digital channels involved in the systems supporting young people on benefits and into work playing out against our stereotype of the young person as digital native? How might this play out differently for young men and women?

From April 2013 the government is introducing a new system of ‘universal credit‘: replacing income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance or housing benefit. The DWP claims the new Universal Credit system will: “improve work incentives, supporting a dynamic labour market simplify the system, making it easier for people to understand, and easier and cheaper for staff to administer, reduce in-work poverty and cut back on fraud and error”. Yet these proposed changes have come under attack from various angles.

The Women’s Budget Group suggests that the method by which the universal credit is paid to one member of a household may  exacerbate existing gender inequalities by concentrating financial resources and power into the hands of one person.

The union Unison is has warned “ Many people who will move to Universal Credit are socially excluded, and are on the wrong side of the digital divide.” The Government’s response to the challenge  challenge is Assisted Digital – a ” range of developments, strategies, and actions aimed at ensuring that no one is left behind” in the shift to ‘Digital by Default’ government.

The government is also considering the use of social media sites to allow people to access public services – including benefits – which could be seen as benefitting young people who are heavy users of these sites.  However in my role as Mobiles Specialist at Tactical Tech I’m lucky enough to be part of a critical response to the opaque and confusing security settings on these sites. There are multiple reasons to be concerned about the privacy issues of this process: most people do not use particularly robust security for their social media accounts and we can’t be sure that there won’t be data leakage given that Facebook is scanning users email for links.

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released this month highlights the multiple challenges facing young people looking for work and shifts to digital channels are impacting on jobseekers: “The recession has affected job supply in all areas. intense competition means advertised jobs can be filled within days or even hours…. even well-qualified candidates can face repeated rejection…. jobseekers without constant access to the internet are at a disadvantage”. The report highlights how employers are increasingly using the internet for recruitment and how young jobseekers need to be able to search daily and respond to vacancies quickly.

Lets not forget that gender matters too in internet use – Hargittai’s study of digital inequality in the US 18- to 26-year-old American adults, shows that “women are less likely to claim knowledge about online terminology and features, and those who use the Web infrequently also report lower levels of know-how about it.” (Hargittai, E. & Hinnant, A. 2008. Digital Inequality Differences in Young Adults’ Use of the Internet. Communication Research, 35, 602-621.)

So to bring the threads together – there are major shifts not only in the channels used to help young people find work and get support whilst out of work, but also in the types of benefits they will be receiving. Again – young people who are online at home, and have the cognitive skills to use the internet effectively to search for work and respond quickly to vacancies are at a clear advantage.

I’m reminded again of the “..significant minority of young people who are not able to navigate or connect properly with the online world” cited in the recent report by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Nominet Trust. I’m thinking about the people who fall in between the gaps – like the young people using the library for internet access quoted in this reportOne day I was doing that assignment; there was a deadline; (…) and then suddenly the library closed and they told me to log off. And I was just—I told her, but she was like, “No, it is closing time, I cannot give you more time.

I can’t bring these threads together because I’m just left with more questions: What is the long term future for assisted digital? Does the government really going to trust Facebook to be part of benefit provision in the UK? Where is the Smartphone in all of this? Are men and women experiencing this inequality differently?

Using mobiles in participatory research

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I just spent a great week at the Participatory Technologies Camp in Hungary – working with one of my supervisors, Chris High, and a group of academics involved in action research and participatory research from Hungary, the UK, Ireland and Kenya, exploring how we might use different kinds of technology in participatory research. I ran two workshops to explore how we might use mobile technologies in research.

It was a great week – most notably for the amount of doing, rather than talking that was involved. We made films, we created short dramas, we made maps and finally we made horror films with mobile phones. Each process had its’ own reflective element – allowing us to capture the affordances and requirements of each technology.

In thinking about the methodology I’m going to use for my research I hadn’t fully considered up until this week the potential of co-creation and participatory techniques to tell stories and be a source of data for ‘serious’ research.

Piloting some ideas at this workshop made me realise how much potential there is to use mobile phones themselves as a tool in research – exploiting the multimedia and file sharing capabilities of even the most basic phones to allow people to tell stories and share experiences. I’m excited to expand and develop these methods more as I pilot my research in more depth over the coming months.

You can read a full  account of the workshops on the camp blog.