Kate Eichhorn on her book, The End of Forgetting

Interview by Shuting Li

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674976696

Shuting Li: In this book, you follow image-making technology’s trajectory, from Kodak film camera, home videos, to smartphone. I find that your previous works (The Archival Turn in Feminism and Adjusted Margin) focus on archives, xerography, feminism, and activist movements. Are there any connections between your previous works and this project? What did inspire you to start this project?

Kate Eichhorn: My books always look back, in some way or another, to explore questions about new and emerging media technologies. This methodology is something I adopted many years ago–back when research on digital culture was still, somewhat falsely, described as Internet research. In the mid to late 1990s, it was challenging to research digital culture because one’s research subject was in constant flux. Even our understanding of what we were researching was shifting. It now seems ridiculous that at one point I was asking myself whether I should approach my research of Geocities communities as a textual researcher or ethnographer, but here, one must remember that in 1997, much of what was happening online was text-based and rather static. These spaces held some but not all of the obvious markers of an active and dynamic community.  

To find a way to investigate these emerging spaces, I started to look back to early periods of technological change, specifically to the early years of print culture. At one point, I abandoned my research on new media altogether and tried to reimagine myself as a serious book historian. Clearly, I didn’t end up pursuing that path, but in the process, I did develop a methodology that is very historically grounded. Some people describe my methodology as media archaeology, and while I appreciate media archaeology, I don’t think that is an accurate label for my work. I’m more influenced by media historians like Carolyn Marvin than I am by media archeologists, especially those associated with the German media studies tradition. This likely reflects the fact that I come to media studies through cultural studies, so I can’t easily sideline questions concerning social practices and power. 

Shuting Li: Your work demonstrates how entering a digital era shapes people’s forgetting of childhood and raises concerns and questions about the erosion of the line between childhood and adulthood. Can you elaborate your argument on forgetting and why does it matter in people’s memory of childhood? 

Kate Eichhorn: As I discuss in my last book, there has long been a false assumption that new media technologies threaten childhood. I’m thinking here about claims made by people like Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was writing about television culture, but the assumption that new media pose a threat to childhood is a very pervasive myth, one that has shaped practices and public policy for decades. Henry Jenkins makes this argument in much of his work on children, youth, and media.  

In The End of Forgetting, I suggest that we may be witnessing something remarkably different. It’s not that childhood is threatened by digital culture, but rather than it now plays on an endless loop. Worse yet, social networks formed in childhood—for example, on social media platforms—now follow one into their adult life. A very concrete way to understand this shift is to think about the experience of leaving home to attend college. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one still had the option to make a clean break with the past. You left for college with a few phone numbers of close friends, but you didn’t carry with you online networks going back to your elementary school years. My students now arrive in college with their social networks, some dating back to elementary school, still in place. They carry these social networks with them on various social media accounts. I wanted to explore what was at stake in this shift? What does it mean never to have the opportunity to start anew–to leave the past behind? What are the implications for one’s social identity development?  Certainly, not everyone feels a burning desire to start anew, but some people do. In fact, some people’s social mobility or even survival depends on this possibility. 

Shuting Li: As social media blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, users are turned into data subjects and subsumed into communicative capitalism. Can you say more on these concepts? When claiming their controls of memory, what challenges will people encounter in the digital era? 

Kate Eichhorn: In The End of Forgetting, I make the argument that we can’t lose sight of the fact that young people finally have access to the media tools needed to record and broadcast images of their lives but that this isn’t necessarily because the world suddenly cares about what young people have to say. These tools are now available to children and youth because these demographics have the capacity to generate a lot of data, including the content needed to make social media sites profitable.

It’s difficult to imagine a platform like TikTok existing at all without the contributions of young people. From a capitalist perspective, this is rather brilliant—for decades, in developed economies at least, we had an entire segment of the population who weren’t producing anything at all. Social media platforms essentially found a way to exploit this untapped segment of the labor market, and to do so legally. In most developed nations, after all, there are rules about when and how many hours children can work. Social media platforms circumvent existing child labor laws. Now, all children and adolescents are legally able to be producers—that is, content producers—but they do this work for free. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we can or should compare a thirteen-year-old girl turning out content on TikTok to a child working in a factory during the industrial revolution. But I do think that the success—and by success, I mean profits—of many social media companies has rested on the capacity to turn a previously untapped segment of the labor market into producers.

Of course, long before children and teens start to produce content for a platform like TikTok, they are already generating data. Here, I would recommend another book, which I recently reviewed—Veronica Barassi’s Child Data Citizen. Barassi does a great job laying out how children, from birth, are turned into data. 

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Shuting Li: My last question is broad and related to the current circumstance. Owing to the pandemic, people have become much more dependent on digital technology. The use of digital technology inevitably produces more data or memory that lie beyond people’s control. Would you like to share your reflections on this shift or any thoughts on people’s forgetting in the future?

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Hanwool Choe takes the page 99 test

My dissertation is about instant messages among Korean family(-in-law) members. I particularly focus on how families make strategic use of everyday photo-/video-sharing to construct and perform their familial identities, in relation to power and solidarity dynamics, while virtually interacting with each other. My study illuminates how technological affordances and multi-modalities contribute to making meanings and creating family via instant messages.

Page 99 of my dissertation is a part of Chapter 4 — it is the first data analysis chapter — where I examine how people use language and visuals to make meanings, especially when they share everyday photos and videos with or without captions. After introducing my analytical focus of Chapter 4 (Section 4.1), on page 99, I introduce the very first example of Section 4.2. When photos and videos are sent with captions: I first describe what is happening in an example that follows, as seen below.

4.2.1. Kihong at his great-grandfather’s birthday

In Sara’s family-in-law chatroom, Sara, her husband (Insung), his younger brother (Inseok), and his mother are present. One day, Sara sends two videos of her son, Kihong, that she recorded at her grandfather’s birthday party (that is, Kihong’s maternal great grandfather’s birthday). In the videos, Kihong was sitting next to his maternal great grandparents. While family members were singing the birthday song, Kihong was clapping and trying to sing along. Then, he blew out the birthday candles on his great grandfather’s cake, and the family was laughing. In the following interaction, Sara and her mother-in-law (that is., mother of Insung and Inseok) interact with each other.

After the description above, the excerpted instant messages begin. Two out of four instant messages are displayed in page 99. Those two messages are sent by Sara. She posts two videos (line 1) and then gives detailed captions of the videos (line 2). The rest of the messages, appearing in page 100, are sent by her mother-in-law and her brother-in-law, respectively, in response to the videos.

I would say page 99 of my dissertation is not representative of my dissertation because it merely shows a part of the example, which is one of many examples of my dissertation. If someone only reads page 99, I think it would be very hard for them to tell something about my dissertation. Possibly, they may not be able to know whether page 99 is a part of someone’s dissertation (!). My analysis starts in the next page. There, I show how 1) Sara’s captions provide focused attention and 2) the video receivers use her captions as guideposts to follow for meaning-making. I note the sender’s focused attention directs receiver participation toward a certain frame (following Goffman’s 1974 sense of frame, a definition of what is going on), from which meanings are gradually developed. This example presents how mutual participation between a sender and receivers accomplish making meanings.

Choe, H. (2020). Instant messaging in Korean families: Creating family through the interplay of photos, videos, and text. PhD Dissertation. Georgetown University.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press.

Hanwool Choe received her PhD in Linguistics at Georgetown University in May 2020. As a discourse analyst, she is primarily interested in digital communication, language & food, multimodal interaction, and life stories. Her publications have appeared in journals such as Language in Society, Discourse Studies, and Journal of Pragmatics.

Roxana Moroşanu on her new book, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK

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Interview by Ilana Gershon

http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137593405

I was sitting in a coffee shop reading your book, and it sounds like I live in a town that allows for as many unplanned social encounters as Middleborough.   A law professor I hadn’t seen all summer came over to chat, looked at what I was reading, and raised his eyebrow in response to your title, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK.  “Oh, this is so much more interesting than the title,” I hastened to reassure him.  “It is truly astonishing what you can learn by asking intelligent and imaginative questions about what seems to be banal.”  Could you talk a little bit about how wide a net you were able to cast in your ethnography by beginning with British households’ uses of electronic devices?

Thank you very much for such a kind defense! Studies of consumption in the Global North might often elicit reluctance at first. One might feel they already know about this – from the media, or their peers. However, when there’s an anthropologist conducting the study, the outcome will rarely address consumption alone. In this case, energy demand was a very useful entry point indeed, especially methodologically. It is such a taken for granted aspect of everyday life that in order to reach it you have to inquire about the organizing principles of everydayness. And once you are there, every detail that your interlocutors share about their routines becomes relevant, whether the first thing they do when they get home is to put the kettle on, or the fact that they wait for a specific TV program to have desert. Energy is implied in all these unobserved moments, but it’s more often a facilitator than an agent. So I widened my net to look at some other roles of energy-consuming devices, for example in supporting forms of domestic sociality, and in enacting values of togetherness and independence. It was exciting to work with families because they brought multiple perspectives on their shared domesticities, and the extra challenge for me to account for all of them in my analysis. In the end, the story that the book is telling is about human action and time, which are quite a long way away from consumption, conceptually. With regards to energy demand, I am really glad to have produced a set of suggestions for interventions that account for current configurations of values in the home, and which might be of use to policy-makers and other practitioners.

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