A new special issue of Nordicom Review collects research related to the double sides of everyday media technologies, presenting twelve articles by Nordic authors. Two of the special-issue editors, Stine Liv Johansen and Martina Skrubbeltrang Mahnke, pinpoint that it is almost possible to opt out, but people can decide the extension and role that technologies play in their everyday lives.
Johannes Bjerling: I’d like to start by asking you to say a few words about the issue title: “Struggling with technology”. It can be understood in two different ways: on the one hand, media technology may cause frustration and conflicts of various kinds; on the other hand, it may help us to find comfort and fellowship in difficult times. Am I right in this interpretation?
Stine Liv Johansen: Yes, and it was actually you, Martina, who – together with Sander Schwartz – came up with the idea of letting “struggle” be a key term to have in mind. Having previously studied media use in a broad sense, focusing upon the struggles brought about by media technology enabled us to put a different lens on what we were doing. While media technology “getting in the way” is something that we all experience every now and then, Maja Sonne Damkjær and Ane Kathrine Gammelby had, in their research, been studying how people in troublesome life situations use technology to cope with difficulties. So this “double-sidedness” that you mention, Johannes, was an aspect that we all found quite interesting.
Martina Skrubbeltrang Mahnke: And relating it back to what you, Stine, said about the concept offering a somewhat different lens, technology has long been conceived of as something that we communicate through. In that way – and as long as technology works the way we think it should – it’s something that we don’t really “see”; unless it comes in the way, technology remains in the background – unseen, so to speak. While this was long the case, our experiences in everyday life is now that technology often gets in the way. In contrast, technology is then no longer in the background, but in the foreground: it causes challenges, problems and conflicts, and increasingly it is not something we communicate through – but something we communicate with. A good example is the Zoom meeting that many have now become familiar with: we become aware of the fact that technology is used when your own face appears on the screen. Technology, in this way, is nothing that is “just there”; seeing our own faces means that the technology enabling our communication becomes visible.
JB: Being a slow adopter myself, I can very much relate to the notion of technology “getting in the way”, but some of the articles approach “struggling with technology” from the other side – when technology is used to find ease and comfort?
SLJ: Yes, there are many different ways to relate to the concept. It can, for instance, also be related to bodily senses or well-being in general, and approaching it from this side, technology is, in a way, more of a companion; rather than being something that’s experienced or “seen” when it doesn’t work, it is a way to find relief. Many of the articles, however, are not focused solely on one side of the coin; as it turned out, the double meaning of the concept can be found in many of the articles.
Difficult to opt out of digital technologies
JB: So, the issue deals with all sorts of struggles with media technology, and although we haven’t talked about it, it’s essentially digital technologies that are in focus. This makes me think about how people conceive of the digital technologies they are surrounded with. The Nordic region is a place where digitalisation, in an international comparison, has come very far. Is there a development where people in the Nordics are increasingly fed up with all these technologies? Where more and more people choose to – or try to – opt out?
MSM: From a Danish perspective, I would say that it is almost impossible to opt out. With regard to the Internet, there’s a penetration rate of more than 90 per cent, and much of the Danish healthcare sector has – as we address in the issue – been digitalised. But to some extent, the answer depends on what you have in mind when suggesting that people try to “opt out”: while I can choose to do it on a personal level – or at least I can try to do it on a personal level – it’s much more difficult, I would even say impossible, to do it on the societal level.
“From a Danish perspective, I would say it is almost impossible to opt out of digital technologies”.
JB: What you’re saying is, basically, that I can stop using Facebook, but I can’t go to the doctor and knock on the door, saying, “hey, I’ve got this problem, could I come in?”
MSM: Right, and I’ve got a personal example of this: My son was recently riding his bicycle and someone on another bicycle ran into him. My son got a bloody nose and since the doctor was just around the corner, I thought I’d just stop by and make sure that everything was fine. While this was my idea – to pass by and quickly get to know if there was something that needed to be done – I was sent home and told to book a video consultation. And I think this is a good example of where we are today: a rather simple consultation – really just a quick look at his nose – was to be arranged with technology.
JB: So how did it end? What happened with his nose?
MSM: Oh, I didn’t have my Nem-ID (a secure login on the Internet that is being used in Denmark) with me, and since the bleeding had stopped I simply thought “well, it must be fine!”
The democratic perspective
JB: Good, no need to worry about that then! But since there are differences in how competent we are with digital tools – one could perhaps say that we are digitally literate to different degrees – do you think our reliance on digital technologies, on the societal level, is problematic from a democratic perspective? If much of the societal infrastructure is digital, and there are differences in how digitally affluent we are, a consequence should be that our abilities to participate and engage in society aren’t equal?
SLJ: It may be a democratic problem, yes. And if we, for instance, look back at the last year and a half, technology has played new roles in our everyday lives. In Denmark, online schooling was certainly not unproblematic – much had to be rearranged – but there was this basic readiness for an all-digital set-up, and different educational programmes could be streamed – and seen – from quite early on. In Germany – and I mention Germany since Martina is originally from Germany – the situation was quite different: compared to Denmark, fewer people – children, in particular – have access to computers, and computers are not as built in to teaching and the educational system. As a consequence, the concept of “online schooling” played out in a very different way, and not as smoothly as in Denmark.
JB: I think the example of online schooling during the pandemic is quite interesting, not least since many studies seem to show that online schooling has worked best for those coming from stable and “digitally literate” homes. In this way, those who were lagging behind before the pandemic seem to have fallen even more behind during the pandemic?
“Another important thing to consider is the extent to which traditional media platforms were able to adapt to the situation and provide young people with relevant content”.
SLJ: That’s right, and in this sense, it becomes a democratic problem. As a matter of fact, what you mention is an issue that I’ve been studying during the last year and a half, and what we can see is that there are other aspects that are also of importance: yes, background and family situation are important, but there is also the question of how hard the country as a whole was hit by the pandemic. Another important thing to consider is the extent to which traditional media platforms were able to adapt to the situation and provide young people with relevant content. In Denmark, for instance, we had special news shows for younger people, and these were available on all sorts of platforms, whereas in southern Europe there may have been as little as one hour of educational programming during an entire week.
A four-part special issue
JB: Looking at the issue at hand, Struggling with Technology: Perspectives on Everyday Life, an ambition of yours has been to bring together scholars from many different fields, and the overall project stretches a few years back in time?
SLJ: Yes, the origin of it can actually be traced back to the NordMedia conference in Copenhagen in 2015, where we launched a temporary working group called “Media Across the Life Course”. Our discussions then continued at the 2017 NordMedia conference in Tampere, and in relation to the conference in Malmö, in 2019, the Call for papers was finally online. So, yes, it’s been going on for quite some time, and the four parts that now make up the issue were not decided beforehand but emerged along the way.
JB: Tell me about these four groups of papers!
SLJ: First, we’ve got three articles about eHealth and doctor–patient relationships, how technology mediates that communication. After this follows four articles about family life: the conflicts and dilemmas that emerge in relation to children’s and parents’ use of digital technologies. Then there’s the part about personal well-being and bodily sensations; there are four articles within this section, some of which could be called autoethnographic studies. And finally, there’s a study on media technology in an organisational setting – Christoffer Bagger’s study of how enterprise social media – “Workplace from Facebook”, that is – are perceived by the employees at a number of Danish companies.
MSM: One thing that surprised me when we received the abstracts was the creative ways in which many authors dealt with the concept of “struggle”. I had thought the discussions about how to understand the concept would be rather academic, but many of the authors took it further than I expected, and that’s one thing that I appreciate – how there’s an academic discussion that is marked by creativity.
One thing that surprised me when we received the abstracts was the creative ways in which many authors dealt with the concept of struggle”
JB: Alright, thank you both very much! I learnt a lot from reading the issue; not least was I glad to read about the positive side of it – how technology can unite and connect people faced with different kinds of difficulties. Well done, I’m happy the issue has now been published!
MSM: So are we! And thanks to you, too!
New Special Issue
Struggling with Technology: Perspectives on Everyday Life
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Photo: Maud Lervik / Norden.org