In my dissertation work, I brought a multi-sited ethnographic approach to an examination of connection and disconnection. I examined their resonances across discourse, practice, and lived experience in multiple scenes of American life: the busy suburban household, the “24/7” workplace, unplugging retreats, popular media think-pieces, and the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail.
My analysis began with the identification of an apparent disconnect:
Although many participants described an experience of “constant connection” and expressed desires to disconnect, the patterns of technology use that I observed in homes and workplaces would be better characterized in terms of punctuation – moments of use were patchy, not constant.
By interrogating this apparent paradox, I develop new insights about the ways that the ‘user’ experience of mobile computing far exceeds any isolated moment of direct interaction. Rather than discounting the simultaneous experience of a feeling of constant connection with a practice of punctuated tool use, I argue that HCI and UX research needs a new perspective on the relationship between human activity, human experience, and computing technology.
Challenging the old foundations of HCI, I argue that today’s forms of computing are not tools that people use, but contextual features of everyday life. Mobility is less about the ability for a tool to move through space, and more about how a person moves through spaces that are characterized by multiple opportunities for connection (or not) through multiple forms of computing technology. Experience is less about computer interaction and use more about the arrangement of computing within these bigger spaces of human activity.
By applying this perspective to the phenomenon of ‘disconnection,’ I also show how an analysis centered on technology ‘non-use’ is wholly beside the point. I show how the act of ‘disconnecting’ actually results in a larger context shift for the individual. It instigates a social reconfiguration, and might better be understood as a proxy for short-circuiting the habits and patterns of a social life that is excessive in other ways. That is, contemporary life is not defined by technological over-use, but by imperatives to be accountable and responsive to specific people and organizations to an excessive degree. Likewise, a similar experience of “disconnection” can be achieved without actually giving up technology use, but by finding other ways of reconfiguring the expectations and imperatives that others impose.
In related projects, I have shown how social values are produced through the use of computing and the stories that we tell about technologies. This challenges accepted notions that values might be somewhat neatly embedded in technological objects as per the intentions of a designer.
In the case of mobile phones, for example, opposite actions–use and non-use–are both simultaneously compelled in service of enacting the same values. Both connection and disconnection promise to allow one to better care for others. Both connection and disconnection threaten one’s ability to be productive.
Parts of this research were conducted in collaboration with Melissa Mazmanian and Christine Beckman.
 Ellie Harmon. “Personal digital taxidermy: imagining the future-past” at Society for the social studies of science (4S 2011) in Cleveland, OH.
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