The digital technologies and the body

In the beginning of the STAY HOME project, we continually returned to a discussion of phenomenology. Recurring questions arose concerning the understanding of phenomena and experiences related to home, body, digital technologies, boundaries, social relations etc. in our different research fields. In this blogpost, I take my point of departure in articles we have discussed in the STAY HOME research group for a brief pondering of the phenomenology of the body and technology. Furthermore, I reflect upon the relationship between human beings, technology and the home during the corona crisis.   

The body and the corona crisis as disturbance

In the philosophical concern with the structures of experience and consciousness, known as phenomenology, human beings are viewed as something different from other objects in the world. A human being is understood as a “being-in-the-world” constituted by its relationship to the very world that it inhabits (Zahavi 2018: 73, 79). It is a phenomenological viewpoint that disturbance makes us notice the objects and space around us in a different way. For example, we notice our body when we experience physical pain (Zahavi 2018: 75-84). The disturbance, which enables us to view our surroundings and ourselves in a different way, is important when examining how we behave within our homes during the corona crisis. We have found that the phenomenological understanding of the role of disturbances is illuminating in this context. One of the questions that grew out of our discussions on phenomenology concerned the effects of the disturbance of the corona crisis on the relationship between technology and the body in the home.

The body and the digital technology

Lars Botin, an associate professor in techno-anthropology and participation at Aalborg University, argues that digital technology is more than a mere object. He understands digital technology as something that “adopts” the human body. It becomes a part of the body and has an impact on how we can gain a perspective on the world. He argues that we do not need to slow down and hold back the evolution of technology and instead proposes a new path,

“…in which human-technology relations and evolutions lead toward a “eutopia” (eutopia = good-place) where our bodies reside and operate with technology on a meaningful and beneficial level. In this eutopia we are embraced by and embrace technology, in this case media and we evolve new identities and bodies that might be cyborgs, goddesses, and/or monsters.”

Botin 2017: 168

Botin argues that technology should be understood as an integrated part of the body (Botin 2017: 168). He avers that humans are constantly moved and shaped by technology and cannot maintain a static and controlling poise and that the media become flesh in this meeting (Botin 2017: 175). “…we are in a position to co-create, co-constitute, co-construct, co-design, and co-shape the way we are in co-relations with media, because we are  through and with the media” (Botin 2017: 176). In short, he understands the body as being always and already in the media and vice versa (Botin 2017: 177). The media as such becomes flesh and body (Botin 2017: 179). In this way, we have new ecstatic bodies, which are variants of the “thick” body, in the phenomenological sense of the physical body. He argues that the human and the digital technology should not be considered as conflicting, but that digital technology brings possibilities and a new bodily understanding (Botin 2017: 181). Botins understading of body and technology have been especially interesting due to the increased use of zoom-meetings, facetime and online activities at home.

The body, the media and the corona crisis

During the corona crisis, the digital technologies have come to play a larger role in education, business meetings, social events, counseling and private relationships because of the restrictions that require us to stay home and keep social distance. An Australian study made during the corona crisis in 2020 by Jess Hardley and Ingrid Richardson, showed that the mobile phone as digital technology was no longer experienced as part of the body because other devices were used more often, and thus the body and the phone can be said to have undergone an uncoupling. Hardley and Richardson investigated how mobile media are “situated” in the domestic environment and suggest that the covid-19 pandemic has altered our experience of “networked corporeality”. They discuss the ambiguity of digital intimacy in the uncoupling of mobile media and the body as a result of a rapid increase in both screen time and time spent at home (Hardley and Richardson 2020: 1). Further, participants experienced some form of detachment from their mobile phone, both physically and affectively, as other interfaces, desktop computers, laptops, tablets and iPads, became the preferred, predominant or required modalities of networked interactions (Hardley and Richardson 2020: 8).

According to Hardley and Richardson’s research, it seems that the participants were removing themselves from an understanding of certain technologies as part of their body. Does it mean that the corona crisis disturbed them in a way that made them view their surroundings anew? Did the changed perspective result in being more aware of their own bodies and their relation to digital technology as the mobile phone, because of the disturbance in their digital? It is interesting if the crisis could cause a disturbance in the relation between body and the mobile phone, and interesting to ponder what this means for the understanding of digital technology as part of our bodies as Botin argues.

Concluding remarks

The question whether digital technologies are a part of the body as an ecstatic body or if they are an extension of the body is interesting in the STAY HOME project for several reasons. In the STAY HOME research group, we have discussed the following questions: 1. what does it mean for the understanding and experience of privacy during the corona crisis if the digital technologies are our body and not something we can remove from ourselves? 2. If the bodily experience in the home can be perceived through digital devices, how does this affect our understanding of zones and boundaries in the home? 3. How can the digital technologies be used to control others and how can they be used to hide the reality, and show only a curated or a digital body in online meetings? 4. How can the understanding and experience of the digital technologies as part of our body or as an extension effect our existential experience of ourselves and effect our everyday being?

The questions raised in the research group will influence or be integrated into our future work. My own theological project will especially include the question of how the understanding and experience of the digital technologies affect us as human beings. Furthermore, with an increased presence of digital technologies in the home, questions of how we as bodies live in the home during times of crisis are crucial.

References

Botin, Lars. 2017. Sublime Embodiment of the Media. Postphenomenology and media: Essays on human-media-world relations. London: Lexington Books.

Hardley J, Richardson I. 2020. Digital placemaking and networked corporeality: Embodied mobile media practices in domestic space during Covid-19. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. December 2020. doi:10.1177/1354856520979963

Zahavi, Dan. 2018. Spatiality and embodiment. Phenomenology The Basics. Routledge: Taylor & Francis

The notion of home as a gateway for conversation across disciplines

In this blog post, PhD Fellow Katja de Neergaard reflects on a series of readings and discussions on the notion of home between the core researchers of the STAY HOME project.

Challenges when working across disciplines

Much work has been done to delineate the meaning of home, and many terms exist to characterise it: house, household, domestic space, dwelling etc. How a home is described differs across academic fields, and many definitions exist. The multiplicity of the notion of home was apparent in our first meetings on the STAY HOME research project; in the core working-group comprised of a postdoc and three PhDs, we quickly realised that we all brought different notions of the home with us. Maybe not surprisingly, the home is one thing to the architect, another to the theologian and a third to a historian. This poses a challenge in interdisciplinary research. Different notions of home place emphasis on different aspects of the home, influence what we focus on empirically and what we determine as significant for our analysis. Therefore, having different ideas of the home on an interdisciplinary research team can make it difficult to establish a shared vocabulary and direction.

In this blog post I first present some of the many approaches to studying the home, particularly related to my own field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). These are used to briefly illustrate how different notions of home hold different potentials for research because they foster different empirical and analytical paths. Finally, I show how the home served as a gateway into different disciplines of an interdisciplinary research team. By discussing different notions of home, we experienced a greater understanding of the perspectives we each represent. In his way, the notion of home became a (conceptual) place for us to meet as researchers, from which we were able to venture into each other’s fields.

The notion of home in STS

STS is concerned with the mutual relationship between science, technologies and society. Studies within STS focus on understanding how these realms interact and have effects. But even within this discipline, there can be many approaches to studying the home, some of which I will present below.

In some areas of STS, the home is considered in relation to the larger political structures and economies that it is part of. For example, Handel notes that houses are part of larger regimes “in which the home/house is a feature in a wide system of planning, political economies, and state policies” (Handel 2019, 1046). At the same time, others like Madigan et al (1990) note, that house and home are conflated in the term ‘home ownership’ and brings attention to how the physical house is also tied to individual economic resources, personal identity and security.

Other STS scholars examine the home as influenced by “cultural norms and individual fantasies” (Rapport 1998, 8). This includes exploring the relationship between the home and ideas of family, gendered aspects of the home, as well as idealised notions of home. For example, some examine how the distinctions of public and private sphere have produced a notion of home as a place of refuge from the surveillance and expectations of the ‘outside’, while others argue that a sense of security is not a given in all homes.

While cultural norms influence the home, the materiality of the home, including the lay-out, technologies, size etc., also “constrain or facilitate cultural and historical modes of relating between the people who share these spaces” (Mallett 2004, 66). To account for the dialectic relationship between social practices and the physical space, some conceptualise the home as a socio-spatial system. To Saunders and Williams (1988) the home is the fusion of the physical and social unit, and it is in this setting that social relations and institutions come into action and are re-produced. Similarly, Massey argues that place “is constituted by the particular social relations that occur in a specific location, the social effects that arise in this interaction and its ‘positive interrelations with elsewhere’ or outside (1992: 13). By its very nature then the identity of a place is ‘provisional’” (Massey in Mallett 2004, 70). From this perspective then, the physical attributes of the home are deeply intertwined with the relational aspects of the home, as well as the societies they interact with. Furthermore, casting the home as something also always in flux brings attention to processual and practice-oriented perspectives on the home. In this regard, Dourish and Bell argue that we should refrain from assuming that the category of home and domestic are “pregiven and stable, [and that] we need to look at the ways in which it is actively produced” (Dourish and Bell 2011, 6).

A final example of a perspective on the home found within STS, is to approach the home as an experience or a localisable idea (Douglas 1991, 289). Considering the home this way brings attention to notions such as homeland, community, a city, a set of relations or a sense of belonging. In this stream of thought, often propelled by feminist thinkers, the boundaries of home are impermeable. For example, some focus on the relationship between home and journeying, conceptualising the home as a “relational realm from which people venture into the world and to which they generally hope to return” (Case in Mallett 2004, 77). Such ventures out of the home are part of the constitution of home itself, because the movement occurs in relation to the home (Ahmed 1999). In much of this work, the home is examined as phenomenological experiences and states of being, rather than a fixed and stable unit.

The perspectives on home I have described above illustrate the multiplicity of the notion and show that there are many possible approaches, even within my own field. Furthermore, the examples make apparent how various notions of home place emphasis on different aspects of the home, and as such, influence what type of examination of the home is relevant. For example, examining the home as a unit in a larger political system requires a different mode of inquiry than examining the home as phenomenological states of being. Thus, making particular notions of home explicit is important because they influence the research-process by shaping our empirical focus and hold different analytical potentials.

The notion of home as a gateway

With all of these approaches available within one field, bringing together perspectives on an interdisciplinary research team can seem daunting. In fact, coming up with a shared definition on the project would likely prove impossible. However, in the process of grabbling with this and seeking to clarify our respective ideas of home, we realised that we achieved a greater understanding of each other’s disciplines. This became apparent when discussing a perspective that considers the relationship between technologies and societal development, and the effects onto the home. Through Dourish and Bell’s account of how bringing a technology like the vacuum cleaner into homes changed gendered ideas about carpet cleaning and introduced new standards of cleanliness, my fellow researchers were able to better engage with the role of technology from an STS perspective. Likewise, my own understanding was informed by accounts of how the home has been influenced by historic events such as the industrial revolution, which resulted in major changes to patterns of employment and re-configured the distribution of wealth, thereby changing the way domestic life was organised and imagined. Furthermore, I gained a deeper knowledge of how developments in relation to work-life, ideas of comfort and intimacy, become organising principles for the design of domestic spaces.

It became clear to us that the complexity of the notion of home presents us with an opportunity – it is a point of entry into our respective disciplines. Therefore, our aim is not to strive for one common definition of the home. Instead, we seek to inhabit the tension between these different perspectives and allow the notion of home to be a gateway from which we can venture into multiple disciplines. We see this a way of confronting ourselves with any preconceived notions of the home, while achieving a deeper understanding of other perspectives. In doing so, we hope to follow Mallet, who urges conversations about the home between disciplines “that both reflect[] and accommodate[] people’s complex and diverse lived experience of home” (Mallett 2004, 64).

References

Ahmed, Sara. 1999. ‘Home and Away: Narratives of Migration and Estrangement’. International Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (3): 329–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/136787799900200303.

Douglas, Mary. 1991. ‘The Idea of a Home: A Kind of Space’. Social Research 58 (1): 287–307.

Dourish, Paul, and Genevieve Bell. 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Handel, Ariel. 2019. ‘What’s in a Home? Toward a Critical Theory of Housing/Dwelling’. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 37 (6): 1045–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654418819104.

Madigan, Ruth, Moira Munro, and Susan J. Smith. 1990. ‘Gender and the Meaning of the Home’. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 14 (4): 625–47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2427.1990.tb00160.x.

Mallett, Shelley. 2004. ‘Understanding Home: A Critical Review of the Literature’. The Sociological Review 52 (1): 62–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2004.00442.x.

Rapport, Nigel Julian. 1998. ‘“Home and Movement: A Polemic”.’ In Migrants of Identity. Perceptions of Home in a World of Movement., edited by N J Rapport and A. Dawson, 3–38. United Kingdom: Berg.

Saunders, Peter, and Peter Williams. 1988. ‘The Constitution of the Home: Towards a Research Agenda’. Housing Studies 3 (2): 81–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/02673038808720618.

STAY HOME: an interdisciplinary research project

The corona crisis has demanded of individuals, families and societies a complete re-assessment of the functions and boundaries of the home. The lockdown has required that private spaces accommodate typically public activities such as work, school, day-care, exercise, concerts, and religious congregations. Meanwhile, the everyday life of the household has become more segregated and hermetic. These shifts have made visible social, architectural, digital, and existential structures of the home, bringing to the fore risks and potential of relevance for future homes. 

Through an interdisciplinary approach, the STAY HOME project documents experiences and initiatives and identifies new insights and practices regarding the home during the corona crisis. It will trawl ethnographic archives and data generously shared by other corona projects, including The Digitalisation of Everyday Lives during the Corona-crisis (ITU/AAU) and the corona diary project at the National Museum of Copenhagen as well as data gathered by the STAY HOME scholars.

STAY HOME is directed by Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun, and the main research team consists of three PhD students and one assistant professor from four different disciplines at the Faculties of Theology and Humanities (UCPH), the IT University of Copenhagen (ITU) and The Royal Danish Academy, School of Architecture: 

Anne-Milla Wichmann Kristensen’s  work is anchored in Systematic Theology. This PhD project is concerned with existential experiences in the home during the corona crisis, especially experiences of courage and anxiety. It examines the corona crisis through the theological concept of kairos (the right moment), analysing it as an existential crisis, which enables a new perception of time and a new understanding of history and life. Anne-Milla will study an ethnographic archive through the theology of Paul Tillich, asking what the corona crisis means for the experience of courage and anxiety in the home during the 2020s lockdown. 

Katrine Rønsig Larsen’s work is anchored in Family History. This PhD project is concerned with the significance of the corona crisis for experiences with family violence. Employing a history of experience approach, Katrine will analyse the historically and culturally contingent experiences of family violence in the context of societal transformation. Rather than establishing a stable notion of what family violence is and how it is experienced, her dissertation aims to uncover the unstable cultural understandings of violence in the family and to historicise the experience of violence itself.  

Katja de Neergaard’s work is anchored in Science and Technology Studies. This PhD project is concerned with the effects of the lockdown and increased digitalisation on how privacy is understood and enacted. It examines how digital technologies influence individuals’ ability to control and negotiate the thresholds of privacy by asking the following question: How is privacy enacted and transformed as a consequence of an increased digitalisation of the home during the lockdown? By analysing an ethnographic archive collected during the first lockdown from March-June in 2020, and by collecting additional material through digital methods, Katja will interrogate the effects of a welfare state in a state of exception and the consequences on privacy, specifically. 

Nicholas Thomas Lee’s work is anchored in Interior and Spatial Design. His project entitled, Dwelling in a Time of Social Distancing examines the unprecedented demands that the current corona crisis has placed on the private home interior and its architectural arrangement. With a focus on forms of dwelling and how we design and inhabit the domestic built-environment the following question is posited: In the midst of a ‘crisis’ in domestic architecture that has been amplified by the current corona crisis and its associated lockdowns, how might the architect reconceptualise the spatial organisation of the contemporary dwelling interior to better accommodate the needs of its inhabitants? Through ‘research by design’ experiments, the project explores the potential of threshold spaces and polyvalent places in a series of prospective dwellings, in the form of physical scale models and 1:1 spatial probes. 

The interdisciplinary approach of the STAY HOME project is developed in an ongoing exchange between the four researchers and with historical research into the home and its social, spatial, technological and existential implications conducted at the Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Privacy Studies.

This research blog will be concerned with the STAY HOME researchers’ collaborative work with concepts, theories and methods. Taking our point of departure in interdisciplinary discussions and academic exchange within the research team, we will present thoughts and reflections on concepts such as homeexperience, archive etc., which prove to be relevant for our work. We look forward to engaging in and contributing to the dialogues and discussions about The Home and the influence of the corona crisis on the social, digital, architectural and existential characteristics of present and future homes.