Experiencing the internet in Ireland: An interview with media scholar Deirdre Hynes

I recently presented a paper at the International Conference on Technology, Knowledge and Society in Berlin, Germany. Elected as a graduate scholar to moderate the stream on ‘Technology in Community’, I had the privilege of meeting academics from around the world (some favorites included Christine Hine, Victoria Armstrong, Kathryn S. Coleman, and Jocelynne Scutt) working on research projects surrounding the use and impact of technologies on a local and global level. One of the presenters whose work I found most interesting was Deirdre Hynes. Originally from Ireland, Ms. Hynes is a senior lecturer in the Department of Information and Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. She teaches courses on digital media production, technology and communication, and the network society; her research interests focus more on the social shaping of technology. I asked her to tell me more about some of her previous research about the domestication of technologies in everyday life.

What got you interested in studying the domestication of technologies?

The Centre for Society, Technology and Media in Dublin City University provided an opportunity for me to obtain funding for a postgraduate research project into new media technologies in everyday life in Ireland. Professor Paschal Preston supervised my studies.

New media technologies were quickly becoming a significant feature of many people’s daily lives — not only in the work place — but in the home and other social institutions. These important changes in daily routines and the increasing role technology played in people’s life were scarcely being studied.

Little research existed outside of the traditional deterministic human-techno relationships where end-users were given little or no agency in making sense of technologies in their own individualised space. These processes by which technologies become part of everyday life, used and valued in our routines, habits and patterns of work, home and our leisure time always seemed to be overlooked or assumed or taken for granted.

My research sought to document, in a qualitative way, the experiences of Irish people to understand the role and meaning of new media technologies in everyday life.

What was the process you went through in studying internet use in Irish households?

The main challenge was to find a suitable theoretical and methodological framework. I came across the Domestication of Technologies approach whilst reading into how more traditional media technologies become part of the household. The work of Silverstone, Hirsch, Haddon and Morley in the field of television and early computers provided an appropriate theoretical framework which could be appropriated to deal with new media technologies. This approach represented a relatively new wave of research, which addresses the significance of communication technologies as objects of domestic consumption. Like sounds and images, which constitute the ‘software’ of mass communication, ‘hardware’ might equally be seen as a collection of signs that have multi-accentual social meanings, which audiences are capable of decoding and appropriating in a plurality of ways within the context of household cultures. This approach was developed to pay attention to the work individuals have to do in order to shape technologies to fit their everyday lives. It is a mutually shaping process (i.e. the user and the technology are changed) and is in perpetual flux – meanings and functions of technologies are constructed, modified and reconstructed over time.

In order to obtain access to the rich lived experiences and histories of people’s relationship to technologies in their everyday life — a research methodology sensitive to the private spaces — physical and emotional — was necessary. This meant I needed to formulate a methodology that borrowed heavily from anthropology – a sort of techno-human ethnography. I wanted to allow my respondents the opportunity to reflect on their own individual experiences starting from the time before the technology entered their private domestic spaces to their current relationship with the artefact.

Prior to my research, traditional studies of Irish internet and new media users were general, quantitative and wide-scale — focusing on uses and functions rather than meanings and values. I wanted my research to go beyond mere percentages and tell the narrative biography of the technological artefact.

What’s unique about the Irish context?

I began my research in late 1999 just as Ireland turned a corner — economically, socially and culturally. Those transformations, known more generally as the Celtic Tiger, signalled an upward swing in the economic fortunes of Ireland and brought in its wake a whole host of social and cultural changes. The decades preceding the Celtic Tiger were marked by high levels of emigration, unemployment, and a stagnant economy. It was into this socio-economic maelstrom that new media technologies became available to all sectors of Irish society — from working class single mothers to retired university lecturers.

The population of the Republic of Ireland is comparable to that of many large cities around the world. I located my study in Dublin where a varied sample (by age, gender, class and household configuration) was available. My research presented an opportunity to contribute to a growing international body of research focusing on technology and everyday life from an Irish perspective.

Was there anything surprising about the results?

Education emerged as a significant shaping factor in the majority of cases. My respondents stated that new media technologies were becoming a critical feature of their children’s education, their own education and participation in lifelong learning. Education was also presented as the key justifying and motivating factor for acquiring a computer. I found that the verbal and symbolic expression of the meaning of the artefact was bound up in what I called the ‘official narratives of ICT use’ — (acceptable, positive uses of the internet and computer – for education rather than gaming/downloading). {Hynes, D. Tiainen, T. Koivunen, E-R. and Paakki, M-K (2008) Articulating ICT Use Narratives in Everyday Life in Van Slyke, C. (2008) Information Communication Technologies: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications Vol.4 Ideas Publishing Group and Hynes, D. Tiainen, T. Koivunen, E-R. (2006) Narratives of ICT use in Trauth, E. (2006) Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology Ideas Publishing Group} I also analysed my respondents’ early experiences with computers. I found that those experiences were crucial in defining the perceptions, aspirations and future relationships with computers.

The role of IT courses in promoting successful domestication of the computer and internet in the home was significant {Hynes, D & Rommes, E. (2005a) “Fitting the internet into our lives: what IT courses have to do with It” in Berker, T. Hartmann, M. Punie, Y. Ward. K (2005) Rethinking Domestication, Open University Press.}.

The media environment in the home was quickly becoming a contested space with more media technologies demanding a slice of attention {Hynes, D. (2006) Consumption Convergence in V.Partha. Sarathy (2006) Media Convergence ICFAI University Press} The meanings of internet technologies are rarely fixed and clearly defined. I found that many factors can restart the domestication process in which new meanings and values are assigned throughout the lifecycle of the technology. {Hynes, D. (2009) [End] Users as Designers: The Internet in Everyday Life in Irish Households in Anthropology in Action Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 2009 , pp. 18-29(12)} Domestication experiences were different by household and by individual. No two stories were the same.

Were participants willing to speak with you and be observed?

Yes! It required very little effort to persuade people to take part in the study. This includes those who had successfully integrated the computer and internet into their daily routines and habits and those who actively disengaged and resisted.

What are currently working on, and why?

I’m now busy working on a small project exploring the relationship between femininity and football. The study is focused on how gender identities are constructed and maintained in football forums.

I want to explore how female fans negotiate their identity as a football fan and their relationship to their club via online community/fan-sites. Essentially, the key focus of this research is to explore how gender is constructed and ‘performed’ and mediated through ICTs. I’m using a conceptual framework based on Butler’s theory of Performativity (1999 & 2004) and Goffman’s presentation of self in everyday life (1990) to analyse how identity and gender are constructed and mediated through the exchange of information through computers.

For more information about Deirdre Hynes or her research: http://www.deirdrehynes.co.uk