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Month: February 2019

Final Report

The Final Report to the British Academy was sent in February 2019.  Highlights were as follows:

Overall Summary:

This project introduces an events-based approach to understanding digital experience. Focusing on the event-ontologies of Bergson and Whitehead’s process metaphysics, it explores subjective experience and objective reality as unified ‘events’ in the form of concrete slabs of existence. Such slabs are temporally defined by a term or period, in which all physical-chemical processes and personal subjective experience are included. Bringing together insights from a range of different specialisms, it urges us to consider a science of nature that includes both physical and non-physical realities and, from this ontological position, draws on philosophy, media, and user experience practice to provide a new account of the technological or virtual world of today. An examination of the manner in which process philosophy may be applied to contemporary digital experience, the publications from this project will appeal to scholars of philosophy, science and technology studies and information systems.

Non-Academic Audiences

Malcolm Garrett, Creative Director at Images&Co, is a Royal Designer for Industry, and – as well as contributing a chapter to the collected edition produced by this project – is a speaker on design, and knowledge exchange. As something of a legend in British graphic design (responsible for the album covers of the Buzzcocks, Simple Minds and DuranDuran in the 1980s) his reach into design audiences is wide and highly respected.

The Digital User Experience community in the world of web development and design, furthermore, will not only find this work of interest, but were represented and included in the project, by Sigma Consulting Solutions, UK, Ltd. Chris Bush – Head of User Experience at Sigma – as well as contributing a chapter to the collected edition produced by this project – is a speaker on design, usability, and inclusion at local, national and international business events and conferences, and he supports a number of grass-roots community groups including Northern UX and UXmentors.

Research Results

The project has been a success, and it has been a very productive year. All the original aims have either been met or are in progress. In detail:

  • A close study of the philosophies of Bergson and Whitehead was undertaken, and a document created summarising their approaches, complementarities and dissonances between them, and a unified approach combining them. [This document formed a Masters Dissertation which gained the Award Holder an MA Philosophy from the Open University at the end of the year, and an expanded version of this will become part one of a monograph.]
  • A web-based diary application was created for the fieldwork element of the project. Twenty-three participants (twelve over 65s and thirteen 18-25yr olds) were recruited to undertake four-week diary studies, and 6 interviews undertaken. These have been entered into nVivo and coded.
  • A Colloquium was convened in June including three philosophers, an information systems scholar, a designer and two private sector web specialists. All were highly regarded in their fields. Chapters developed from these talks – referring to each other – with an introduction and concluding chapter by the award holder, have been completed and the final manuscript of this collected edition is now in production at Routledge, due for publication in May 2019.
  • Two conference papers on the project have been presented: at EASST in Lancaster in July, and at ICIS in San Francisco in December.
  • Analysis of the nVivo data continues towards a book chapter for a collected edition being produced by the Association for Information Systems Special Interest Group on Philosophy in I.S. (SIGPHIL) for publication in 2020
  • A third conference paper for HICSS (January 2020) is preparation
  • A journal paper for JAIS or EJIS is in development, due to be submitted in early 2020.
  • A contract for a monograph has been signed with Routledge, comprising the unique synthesis of Bergson and Whitehead described above, a thorough write-up of the fieldwork (developed from the conference papers, book chapter and journal paper) and a concluding summary of where the philosophies sit today and what this all means for our understanding of the digital. Manuscript due at Routledge end of 2020.
  • A website detailing the various milestones of the project has been kept throughout the year, at www.concrescence.org.uk and continues to be updated from time to time
  • The two key ‘takeaways’ from this excursion into metaphysical philosophy for the analysis of diary studies and interviews concerning digital experience are: (i) mindfulness, and (ii) co-direction.

Advances in Knowledge

Firstly, if, as the philosophy of Henri Bergson stresses, free will is in fact quite so key to the nature of consciousness, to the nature of reality no less, then our digital experience can be regarded as positive inasmuch as it enhances, or makes or allows space for us to be sufficiently mindful and reflective to reach decision points that instantiate and enact free will. Conversely, our digital experience can be regarded as negative inasmuch as we are rushed or pressured into accepting or acquiescing to situations that, given sufficient time, we would not have chosen, or are in effect tricked by hidden processes into activities and situations we would not have chosen had we been aware of all the facts.
Secondly, in a related manner, the relationality of a world understood from a process philosophy approach, in which the multiple interrelationships of a shifting universe become the focus, in contrast to the distinctiveness of ‘fixed things,’ is not only redolent of a world understood in terms of actor-network-theory, but at the root of that theory itself. Actor Network Theory is an important theoretical tool in the Information Systems (IS) field. As sociologists Halewood and Michael (2008, p.33) point out, “Latour uses the work of Whitehead to support and develop his arguments (Latour, 1999; 2004)” – mainly in his book, Pandora, but also in a number of journal papers (e.g. Latour, 2007), lectures (Latour, 2008) and a review he wrote of Isabella Stengers’ book on Whitehead (Latour, 2005). Thus, process philosophy understandings can be read as underpinning the notion that ‘objects’ can be understood as ‘actants.’ In this sense, then, it is clear that technological artefacts in our lives need to be seen, to continue the theatrical metaphor inherent in the term, ‘actant,’ as co-directors of our lives (Coeckelbergh, 2019). The choices, in other words, that we make, when exercising our free will, are constrained and circumscribed not merely by the fundamentals of gravity, body shape, atmosphere, etc, but by the tools we ourselves have made.

The implications of these two ‘takeaways’ from the philosophy, then, for analysing the diary studies and interviews described in this paper, are that there is a good deal of ‘co-direction’ going on in our relationship with online services – not least Facebook. Most of our participants are in fact largely aware of this, in a sometimes cynical, sometimes acquiescent, and sometimes angry and frustrated manner. Crucially, it is their ability to exercise their own free will that such co-direction impinges upon, and threatens, to varying degrees. Nor – fascinatingly – does there seem to be much evidence, at least in our data, for any kind of ‘divide’ on these crucial issues of autonomy, between the two different age-groups of our participants. Consciousness is not as age-related as technological dexterity.

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