“Design is a power-laden process” – Helen Kennedy on her forthcoming keynote at the DCC workshop in Salzburg

Helen KennedyHelen Kennedy (Professor of Digital Society at the University of Sheffield) has been researching digital media for almost 20 years. With her background in Cultural Studies and Science and Technology studies she is dedicated to a critical perspective on digital and social media – for example in her research on digital inequalities. Currently she is working on big data, visualizations and social media data mining. As part of our DCC interview series, we took the opportunity to talk to Helen about her keynote on “Standards, values and (better thinking about) power in creative digital work” at our upcoming workshop in Salzburg.

What field of research are you currently most interested in?

I’m interested in data in society, what might also be called data power. I’ve recently been researching the use of data mining in what I call ‘ordinary’ organisations, or those organisations that form the pillars of everyday life – local councils, museums, educational institutions, media organisations. At the same time, on another project, I’ve been researching how ordinary people engage with data through visualisations. There’s currently a lot of research and debate about the role and power of data, but one thing that I think is missing is attending to ordinary people’s relationships with data and what might make data matter to ordinary people.

Can you name some authors, concepts or theories that you regard as important for researching digital culture?

I think the concept ‘ordinary’ is really important, given what I said above, and this has its roots in cultural studies, from the work of Raymond Williams onwards. Another writer who I think is really helpful in addressing the questions I raise above is social theorist Andrew Sayer. His book Why Things Matter to People is really useful here. I think it’s productive to bring social and cultural theory together like this – to help us think about digital matters. Some current work, which I think is important, specifically in the field of digital culture, is that which seeks to unveil the operations of datafication – so writers like José van Dijck, Joseph Turow, David Beer. And I think that there’s some fantastic critical thinking going on about the performativity of digital methods – both sides of the pond – for example at the Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam, and at the Microsoft Social Media Research Collective in the US. In research I’ve done about digital creative work, I’ve been influenced by writers like Ros Gill, Andrew Ross, Mark Banks, and by folks developing the notion of a moral economy – Andrew Sayer again, Russell Keats, David Hesmondhalgh. So, an eclectic mix, not all of them digital cultures theorists, but all of them developing concepts and ideas that are relevant to studying them.

What methods, software, or tools do you use in your research?

All of them! Though I am more of a qualitative than a quantitative researcher. I’m interested in the questions, problems and possibilities that digital methods raise – my forthcoming book, Post, Mine, Repeat: what happens when social media data mining becomes ordinary addresses this issue. In terms of digital methods, I think more work needs to be done to unveil the ways in which they make and shape the data and the worlds that they produce – although there is some of that underway. And I think that qualitative researchers who are thinking of experimenting with digital methods, need guiding through the array of tools that are available – not just in terms of what they do, but also their specific operations and how these produce data in particular ways. There are real challenges for digital cultures scholars in keeping up with methodological developments – yesterday digital methods, today data visualisation – and I think we should talk openly and frankly about this challenge, not simply shoulder the burden individually of endlessly keeping up. Finally, with colleagues (Giorgia Aiello and Rosey Hill) I’m currently using social semiotics as an approach to understanding specific aspects of digital culture and finding this really stimulating and effective. So, various ramblings on methods!

What is the most interesting question at the moment concerning the role of digital technologies in interaction and communication?

OK, of the many that there are, I’m going to choose just one: ‘do data matter to people’?

Relating to our upcoming workshop in Salzburg (November 2015): What can the study of standards and norms contribute to an analysis of digital culture and communication?

I think focusing on standards and norms can help us to understand the operations of power in digital times. Standards embody commonly held views about what’s considered good practice. But they also generate these views, and in doing so, they reflect and reproduce the views of groups who are able to participate in standards-generating processes – that is, groups in power. So they are entangled with inequalities, exclusions and power. I think examining standards and norms – how they come into being and the ideological work that they do – can help to unveil how the operations of power in digital design work. I don’t think we’ve been particularly good at thinking about the role of designers in relation to design and power. I think that focusing on the power of standards can help us see that the operations of power in design is more complex than it might seem at first glance. This focus on design might seem trivial, but increasingly our knowledge of the world comes into being through the choices made about how to arrange data, present information, communicate knowledge – that is, through design, which is a power-laden process. (I’m influenced by my colleague Giorgia Aiello in saying this.) I’ll say lots more about this in my keynote!

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